This article was also published in the Financial Times.
Jesus Adorno's management style is one reason why London's Le Caprice receives so few complaints every year.
As soon as I navigated the revolving door at Le Caprice in London's St James's, I came face to face with Jesus Adorno (pictured here by Charlie Bibby of the FT), a permanent attraction of this restaurant since 1981.
Adorno, who began here as a waiter 27 years ago and is now its Director, was standing at the bar doing several things simultaneously with seemingly consummate ease. He was talking to a customer lunching on his own, keeping a watchful eye on the rest of the tables still busy at 3pm, and yet somehow he still had one eye on the door so that he greeted me immediately and warmly before escorting me to the bar.
I had come to join Adorno for a typically late restaurateur's lunch to discuss something that had happened when I last ate at Le Caprice, his professional response to that, and the single question that I had in my notebook for him. But before that I had time to watch Adorno in action.
He explained that they had just had 'a very, very, very busy service' before he went off to say goodbye to one couple, to wish them a good weekend and to kiss the woman enthusiastically on both cheeks. As he turned away, another customer asked for his bill but instead of summoning a waiter to do this he cleared their plates himself and then returned to the table with it. Smiling, he turned and led me off to table 16.
This was, coincidentally, right by where I had last eaten here. At the end of a friend's birthday lunch a month ago I had asked the waitress taking our dessert order for just a couple of scoops of the salted caramel ice cream that was being offered with a slice of tart. She said that this was no problem but returned five minutes later looking deeply embarrassed to explain that, regrettably, the Pastry Chef had said that this was not possible and would I like something else? I declined, as I had eaten well, but when she eventually returned with the rest of the desserts it was with a single scoop of the ice cream, having obviously won the battle.
I emailed Adorno the following day to let him know what had happened, as I am only too aware that Le Caprice's success has been based on the highest standards of customer service. His reply was prompt, courteous and text-book. 'I have spoken to the Head Chef and from now on we will always have an extra supply of all of the ice creams. I am somehow pleased for this to have happened to you because no-one else would have mentioned it to me.'
So, having decided on the same lunch dish as Adorno had - a couple of duck eggs on toast with chicken livers and morel mushrooms and a glass of Chilean red - I asked Adorno my question: how many complaints does he receive in a month? He smiled but seemed genuinely surprised before replying, 'We couldn't calculate it on that basis, I'm pleased to say. But I think it is no more than six or seven a year and most of those are from guests whom unfortunately we may have to be kept waiting too long for their table.'
As he sipped his wine, I did some speedy calculations. I knew that Le Caprice serves around 250 customers a day and is closed only three days a year, so this tiny number of complaints is out of a total of 90,000 otherwise happy customers annually, or no more than 2-300 out of an even more impressive 2.5 million customers since day one.
This record is only partly due to Adorno, his management style and his team. By almost every physical standard, Le Caprice's layout is ideal. 'We can seat 70 at 20 tables, although we lose one in the evening for the piano, including the bar. There are no pillars to interrupt the view of the customers and no tables too tucked away for anybody to feel neglected. Most importantly, it is all on one floor and the kitchens are just behind the swing door over there', he said with a nod of his head. 'Ideally, I would have liked five more tables and a small private dining room but otherwise this is a gem of a restaurant.'
Adorno has polished Le Caprice into such a jewel thanks to a combination of Latin charm, admiration for English courtesy and a couple of experiences as a waiter which, at the time were so embarrassing that he has not only never forgotten them but instead turned them into pillars of his management style.
Born in Santa Cruz, Bolivia, Adorno came to London in 1972 aged 19 and his first job in the canteen of Downside public school gave him an insight into the manners of the British upper classes. A subsequent job as a waiter was less enjoyable. 'I was told to wheel the multi-tiered dessert trolley out of the kitchen and into the restaurant but somehow a wheel caught the dance floor and it toppled over, ruining everything. Embarrassed, I fled and, looking back, I now realise that my future career was saved by the Spanish manager who found me and said, "All of us have done what you've done. Just come and help us clear it up."'
A decade later, a still inexperienced Adorno was standing by the reception desk at Le Caprice when the editor of a national newspaper walked in expecting to be taken to his table. There was, however, no reservation in his name and without checking on the status of the rest of the tables, Adorno felt he had no choice but to tell him so. The editor and his guest turned and stormed out vowing never to return. Ten minutes later, another couple finished their meal and a table became vacant.
The lessons from that experience 18 years ago are still applied today. 'I tell the receptionists that when someone walks in and we are full never to say so before they have gone into the room and had a good look round to see what may be shortly becoming available. I have very few pet hates in this business', Adorno added, 'but saying no to customers is definitely one of them.'
There are enough current and future challenges to keep Adorno at Le Caprice for another five years when he will be 60 and he will have been part of this English institution for over 30 years. 'Personally, I still enjoy working on Saturday nights when there are the most demanding Jewish customers in the restaurant and inculcating my staff with the hospitality that I want them to show so that we can maintain Le Caprice's aura. And we are finally opening another branch, Le Caprice in The Pierre in New York in September, so that will be fun', he added.
But just before he went away to brief his staff before the evening service, he let slip an ulterior motive as to why he will not let standards slip: 'Le Caprice has been my home for so many years', he confessed, 'that when I'm an old man I would like to come back and enjoy it as a customer.'
Le Caprice http://www.le-caprice.co.uk/