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 third part and follows on nicely from “Part Two“. Bon appetit!
I took a bit of time out – a chance to sip on a glass of water and observed everything from behind the scenes. Everything was running smoothly. The kitchen is the engine room of any restaurant business. The commis were carefully polishing the cutlery and keeping the chefs efficiently perked up with cups of strong coffee or cooled down with refreshing bottles of cold water. The barista on the coffee machine had his meeez all set up and was turning out perfect espressos frothy cappuccinos time after time. Another commis was preparing baskets of fresh bread while his colleague created Dali-esque concoctions out of butter. With everything, attention to detail is key. For instance, you can make a great first impression by serving a lovely basket of fresh bread and good quality butter to your guests, which will also set a positive tone and provide them with a warm welcome. I could see that these guys took real pride in what they did. You may think it quite simple to make a cup of coffee, but it requires practice, precision-timing, co-ordination and a honed technique. For example, if you make the espresso too soon, you would lose that vital crema on top. If you make the teas and infusions too late, without sufficient boiling water, then it has not had the time to steep properly. These are all important details that tend to get overlooked. Equally, an excellent meal could be potentially disastrous when ruined by a poor cup of coffee and/or someone forgetting the petits fours. After all, this is the last thing you remember when you leave the table. Moreover, let us not get started on the ‘taboo’ subject of service charge and tips either! Why do restaurant staff think that they can get away with sloppy service during the meal and still add it onto your bill, as a matter of course and expect you to pay and put up with it? Surely, everyone and everything plays an important role in the whole experience.
Over in the corner, the big Nigerian kitchen porter was talking to himself again and humming to a tune playing on his walkman. I could just about see him through the nebulous amounts of hot steam while he loaded up the machine. Gosh, these guys work hard, I thought to myself. This is all part of the daily routine of life in a restaurant and at the end of your shift, all you want to do is sit down quietly and enjoy a beer with your colleagues before going home to your wife and kids or partner and/or cat, or dog, or whatever.
“Service!”. The pastry chef’s ‘signature’ souffle dessert was being taken out of the hot oven. It looked like a raspberry-coloured, inflated air bag and was quickly dusted in a cloud of icing sugar before expecting to be promptly escorted into the restaurant by the commis, who was standing by with his silver tray. A large scoop of homemade raspberry sorbet accompanied the dish. I saw the proud look on the commis’ face as he transported it through the dining room to the station waiter. As always, when the dish finally got to its destination (the table), it was suggested that the waiter carefully ‘chaperone’ the aforementioned sorbet into the delicate soufflé with the deft skill worthy of a champion table tennis player. I watched the guest look up at the waiter with a beaming smile, as it oozed into the piping-hot dessert. It was a picture-perfect moment of hedonisistic ‘food porn’ and tranquillity.
Then all of a sudden all hell broke loose. Back in the kitchen, the sous chef was going absolutely berserk. The printer on the pass that expedited the checks had suddenly stopped working. The roll of paper had run out and needed replacing and he also had to deal with a short-term lapse in electricity. The chef was ‘effing and blinding’ in his usual dramatic style. For a few moments, a spanner had been thrown into the works, which meant that the service had moved out of synch and the ensuing confusion played havoc with the chefs. During service, you are ‘in the zone’ and little things like this can be quite unsettling. For a short while, things ground to a halt, but then soon got back on track and service resumed to normal. Potentially, checks and orders could have been missed and the knock-on effect could have been a disaster. For instance, it is a similar situation to a temporary signal failure when travelling on the tube. It is even worse when you have to deal with complete power failure. On the front of house, think of a beautiful swan swimming through a lake with its feet flapping not so elegantly below water. One thing that you learn quickly in this business is to have your mise en place sorted out and to have a good ‘Plan B’ already prepared when you need to put it into action.
I left the kitchen to sort out its own minor drama and went over to another table to meet and greet a couple of regulars. “Would you care for your usual aperitfs – a Kir Royale for Madam and a Dry Martini, straight up with a twist for you, Mr Smith? It is so lovely to see you both again.” We exchanged the usual pleasantries and chit-chat for a couple of minutes. The restaurant had many regulars and I had become accustomed to know all of them. There were even plenty of famous people too, including actors, musicians, comedians, authors, painters, sports stars, as well as people from all walks of life, such as doctors, bankers, lawyers and just ‘ordinary’ folk like you and I who frequented this restaurant. This industry, and, when I say that I mean the hospitality industry, is all about people. Human resources can also be called a people business. At the end of the day, that is what it boils down to. However, are they a cost or an asset, or perhaps even, both?
Part four 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…