I would just like to make it clear that this blog article is a little different and much longer than my usual scribblings. Hence, I have split it up into nice, easy to digest, bite-sized chunks. Essentially, it is a ‘snapshot’ of a day in the life of a sommelier. This is the second part and follows on nicely from “Part One“. Bon appetit!
I opened the kitchen door – the one marked “in”, of course, keeping within restaurant standard protocol, and ventured inside. Kitchens can be overwhelming and are generally noisy and hot environments with plenty of activity and shenanigans, primarily due to chefs working hard in sweaty, pressure-cooker conditions. On this occasion, I noticed the sous chef was on the pass for service. His voice bellowed as he expedited the checks splurging out of the printer in a constant stream and co-ordinated every command to each of his stations within the kitchen. It takes great skill to run the pass. At times you are working under serious pressure and certainly test your leadership. Teamwork and timing are especially important, so that everything is co-ordinated effectively. On this occasion, everything ran smoothly and the chefs busied themselves with their various responsibilities.
The food flew out the kitchen. This task is done by the runner or commis. These mercurial people are perhaps the most underrated within the hospitality industry. They are the unsung heroes of our profession and vital links in the chain. It is extremely unglamorous and monotonous to polish cutlery and crockery all day, getting barked at by everyone and to carry trays from the kitchen to the station waiter in the restaurant and dirty stuff back to the plongeur. But when this is done with perfect efficiency, a wonderful customer service ensues. Well, that is the theory. At the restaurant, we had a right bunch of people from all walks of life who carried out this function. Many of them, who started out in life at the ‘bottom of the heap’ were trying hard to further their careers. However, some of them were students, actors, trainee lawyers and accountants and involved in completely different occupations, but their aim was to earn a living on the side. The common bond between us all was the buzz of working in a restaurant.
In fact, it is truly amazing the kind of people you may encounter within the hospitality industry. Owing to human nature, a team, whatever its creed, colour, nationality or background has to form. Normally, some cliques within the team form too. We had individuals from all over the world with varying levels of education and ability. There were the North Africans – very challenging, as anyone who has worked within hospitality will tell you many ’nightmare experiences’, especially during Ramadan and they are fasting. Then we had the Antipodeans or Anzac group (made up of Kiwis, Aussies and South Africans). The common theme which held this clique together was their fondness for rugby and their shared competitiveness. Actually, you could make the South Africans a group of their own, as they are so ‘unique’. Finally, there were the Eastern Europeans. There are plenty of Poles, Czechs, Slovaks and Hungarians working in restaurants, who have added plenty of spice to the melting pot. Overall the banter and ambience is energetic and fun.
During break times, it was truly interesting especially while sitting around the table together to observe our own little customs and etiquettes within the hierarchy and pecking order. Of course, you would normally find French, Italian, Spanish and German people within hospitality, as, from a young age, they were generally brought up to appreciate good food and wine. As a result, these nationalities traditionally ended up working in restaurants and hotels to further their gastronomic knowledge, education and experience. My father and I are perfect examples. However, the service industry is more than just a job. It has become part of a culture, your way of life, your position on the ladder and something on which you pride yourself. Whenever you visit a restaurant, just take a little bit of time out to actually observe people who work and dine there. People-watching in restaurants, hotels and bars can be interesting, and, at times, quite revealing too.
Each day is exciting and there is always something new and different to deal with. There are plenty of dramas, divas and personalities to keep you on your toes. Sometimes, I discovered that each restaurant had its own unique language or slang. For instance, there could be little code words that could only mean something unless you were part of the team. Over time, certain words and phrases have become part of our gastronomic vernacular too. Let us not get started on open-plan kitchens and loud, ranting chefs either! Moreover, why is it that when a menu or dish is written in French, it sounds much more appetising? Over the years, we have become a real culinary United Nations, which is all positively enriching, yet at times to be British feels like you are an ethnic minority. With this turmoil, there is unquestionably a need for mutual respect and understanding. But one universally-recognised unwritten rule that has kept us altogether and a command that should never be broken in the name of customer service is when your boss shouted “Service!” you loyally responded with “Yes Chef!”
Part three of “Service! Oui Chef!” will follow next week…
The roving sommelier is the facilitator of liquid enjoyment and by sharing my knowledge, passion and experiences, I will be your friendly tour guide on this gastronomic jaunt.
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I’m looking forward to hearing about your own food and wine stories and comments.
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The epicurean odyssey continues…