Written by Dominic Rolfe
The eight Australian young waiter finalists in the Electrolux Appetite for Excellence Awards 2014 filter expertly – and little nervously – around The Apprentice Restaurant’s sun-drenched dining room. Each of them knows that front of house experts from some of Australia’s top restaurants are scrutinising all aspects of their performance, from menu knowledge to dealing with tricky allergy requests. But with Nick Hildebrandt, head sommelier at the acclaimed Bentley Bar as one of the judges, they should perhaps be grateful that gymnastic skills aren’t also on the scorecard. “At Bentley, we have wait staff who are a bit more corporate and professional, and others who are more fun and cheeky,” he says. “And we have one waitress in particular who is extremely cheeky and a customer told me that she’d done a cartwheel for him on the street for his birthday. They thought it was wonderful!”
Cartwheels aside, service is one of the most overlooked skills in the hospitality industry. “Front of house is the glue that holds everything together,” says Hildebrandt. The lauded sommelier believes that front of house drives the success of a restaurant. “Obviously food and the way it’s cooked is really important but the delivery is super important. The more successful restaurants are those driven by a strong fount of house team than restaurants that are solely driven by the chef.”
With the rise of dining culture and more awareness of food and wine, waitstaff are being asked to do much more than just take orders and deliver meals. They need to be able to answer questions of provenance, give considered wine recommendations and make a great coffee. And if that isn’t enough, Hildebrandt believes having an intuition for a person’s mood or personality is a critically important skill.
“You can have all the knowledge in the world,” he says, “but it’s all about reading customers and interacting with them. If customers want you to be part of their meal and experience then you need to be part of the meal. But if they don’t want to know about you then you need to treat them with that respect.”
Recently, Hildebrandt was forced to let a waiter go even though technically he was perfect. “At the end of the day he was just going through the motions and not interacting with his customers,” Hildebrandt explains, “We want staff to engage and to look after people and show them love.”
As he casts an eye across the room, Hildebrandt sees the class and skill of this crop of waiters, some of whom already work at top restaurants from Stokehouse and Quay to Momofuku Seiobo and Bistro Guillaume. “I think people who enter a program like this want to make a career of service and they take their profession seriously,” he says. “They don’t look at it as a job to earn money while you’re doing something else. And you can tell from their attitude that they want to do well, that they have the hunger to do well.”
Like one of Hildebrandt’s own staff who came runner up in the Young Waiter awards a few years ago, and is now managing the hatted Monopole eatery, it’s clear that working front of house is quickly becoming an exciting career option. “People are inspired by so many groups and individuals opening up their own places and it’s becoming quite an appealing career path,” he says. “You’re seeing more front of house and young people opening their own restaurants and that’s an inspiration to these guys.”