back Row: Peter Doyle ( est. Restaurant); Simon Denton (Izakaya Den, Hihou, Kappo); Peter Gilmore (Quay, Bennelong); Mark Best (Marque, Pei Modern Melbourne & Sydney) Christine Manfield; Lisa van Haandel (Longrain Melbourne, Byron Bay Beach Hotel); Duncan Welgemoed (Africola); Lyndey Milan; Lucy Allon (co-founder)

front Row: Sam Christie (Longrain Sydney, Cho Cho San, The Apollo); Guy Grossi (Grossi Florentino, Merchant, Ombra); Danielle Gjestland (Wasabi); Marilyn Annecchini (Pilu Freshwater, Pilu at Akuna Bay); Peter Sullivan; Luke Mangan; Troy Rhoades-Brown (Muse Restaurant, Muse Kitchen) David Thompson (Nahm, Long Chim Singapore & Perth)


With over 40 restaurants between them that include; 27 Hatted; 2 listed on the Worlds 100 Best Restaurants; 2 ranked Asia’s 50 Best; and a grand total of 490 years of combined hospitality experience it’s easy to see why our judging panels are so revered. Here we tap into some of the knowledge of one of our judges, Simon Denton, owner of 3 restaurants in Melbourne


Written by Dominic Rolfe

There are some things you can forgive in a restaurant. The odd garish tablecloth, lights dimmed almost too low to read the menu and even a slightly awry entree. But, for Simon Denton, one thing is death to return customers, “People don’t like people being rude to them,” he says. “If, say, their steak isn’t cooked well then people will give the restaurant a second look as long as the service is good. But if you get bad service then people won’t go back there.”

Simon is co-owner and managing director of Izakaya Den, Kappo and Hihou in Melbourne. He has been in the hospitality industry for close to 32 years, has managed restaurants since his late teens and has been an Electrolux Australian young waiter judge for six years. He knows exactly what makes a restaurant sing and nothing is more important to him than the front of house. “In a sense, the service side seems like the third rank behind the chefs who get all the stardom and the restaurateurs who get a lot of media,” he says, “But front of house can be more important to the restaurant than the food. If we do great food [at Izakaya Den] and it’s not served properly, then there’s no point.”

Serving properly, however, isn’t just plonking the plate down with curt efficiency and topping up an amply water glass. He needs his team of wait staff to be as passionate about the food as the pan-rattlers creating it. “You want people with great attitude who are committed and want to learn about the food,” says Denton, “Because they are selling the food, they’re selling the product.”

Denton admits that he chooses staff as much as for their professional abilities as those who fit with the personality and attitude of the restaurant. “We look for people who have character, who say ‘That’s the sort of place I want to work’,” he says. “Skills are great but we can train people. You really want a champion team not a team of champions. If you have a place full of waiters with big egos it doesn’t work.”

Keeping a close eye on the finalists at the Australian Young Waiter program as they serve, pour and clear the tables at the Apprentice Restaurant in Ultimo, Sydney, Denton says that pride in their work is one of the biggest things they can show. It’s also something that he tries to instill in staff at his restaurant. “It’s important that people want to be part of a good restaurant,” he says, “that they want to see it do well and they’re proud of good reviews and people talking about it. The judges are looking for someone who they’d have in their team.”

Over the past seven years, Denton has been encouraged by the increasing skills level of the entrants to the Young Waiter program. He’s also noticed that the average age is dropping. “Five years ago most of the entrants were in their mid-twenties,” he says, “now they’re a bit younger, around 20 or 21 years of age. It shows they’ve got a plan in their head already and that’s probably the biggest difference.”

But for young front of house staff in an atomised industry that can often be tribal and lacking collegiality, Denton believes that fostering an understanding that you’re part of a wider hospitality community is vital. And building a strong network of like-minded service staff, as he has seen happen with the groups of past finalists, is almost as good as being named the best young waiter of the year. “We have to understand that it’s one big hospitality family and it’s crucial to be talking to other people,” he says. “Yes, we’re out on our own, we’re small businesses and we’re all fighting for the same thing but learning and working with others is really important.”

Applications for young chefs, waiters and restaurateurs are open

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