This article was also published in the Financial Times.
For Marian Scrutton, who has spent 30 years at the coal-face of numerous successful restaurants, there is one particular reason why the customer must never leave disappointed. "Whenever you choose a restaurant and for whatever reason the host's reputation is on the line and the staff must understand this," she explained.
Happily, I hope, Scrutton did not think worse of me for my choice of the recently opened Tom's Kitchen in Chelsea where poor food and uncomfortable surroundings were overshadowed by inept service. Scrutton accurately described our waitress as 'sweet as pie but temperamentally unsuitable' for the job but saved her more pointed criticism for the management. "Who is in charge here? If it is that guy over there, why is he letting this obviously inexperienced waitress come over and try to take our order without his support? He should start by taking the order himself with her standing right behind him and then when she has some confidence and a little understanding of what the restaurant is about he should stand behind her. Then she will be OK."
These comments out of the way and our mineral water safely ordered, I asked Scrutton how much time she had. "Happily, plenty as I am not giving a training session this afternoon," she replied. What followed was a concise analysis of why poor service remains restaurant-goers' most consistent complaint.
"What is so sad," Scrutton continued, "is that waiting is still a Cinderella profession. People always apologise before they confess they have waitressed and the truth is that the better you are at this job the more invisible you become. The fundamental difference between working in the kitchen and working in the restaurant is that while the former is creative the latter is repetitive. That's why no-one has yet made a television programme about waiting staff."
Scrutton, 52 and an unlikely looking grandmother, was born in Denmark, subsequently married a chef with whom, for 20 years, she ran an acclaimed restaurant in Eastbourne where she combined the roles of manageress, pastry chef and mother to two daughters whose playpen was in the kitchen with a saucer and wooden spoon as toys. The recession of the early 1990's prompted her to write to five top London chefs looking for work and an encouraging response from Nico Ladenis saw her take charge initially of Nico Central before moving on to Fulham Road, L'Odeon and then as Operations Director for a group of five London restaurants which she left over two years ago having survived a brain haemorrhage.
But what, other than family and money, had kept her in this role so long, I wondered? "I have always loved my job and I always get a knot in my stomach as service starts. I feel that I have learnt something every day which has to be the main attraction of the job. But it is wonderful to look at an empty restaurant and the list of bookings and think of the restaurant as a blank canvas which you can paint a different colour every day."
One of the particular challenges for any restaurant manager is that they are the interface between the customer and the chef. Which, I wanted to know, is the more difficult? "Unquestionably chefs because dealing with them is non-negotiable. When I leave the restaurant and walk into a busy kitchen where the chef is confronted with a line of orders he wants to know quickly and accurately how each of the tables are progressing. Keeping your eye on 30 to 40 tables is not easy. To make my job possible a successful restaurant manager needs a chef who can deliver. When they do they are wonderful."
But Scrutton has witnessed a significant change in how waiters are trained. "Traditionally, young waiters were trained by the older staff who led by example. Today, the demand is so great for waiters, and there is such a lack of experience on the floor, that this process has been replaced by far too many thick training manuals which, however well intentioned, are not read properly by the staff and are invariably confined to the back of the waiter's locker. An extra problem is the constant pressure on management today to keep staff costs down."
Scrutton now spends her mornings writing up brief lists of all the important points any waiter needs to know about the restaurant they are working in and the afternoons, once the lunch service is finished, conducting training sessions, not just with the waiting staff but the restaurant's key management who then have to pass this information on.
"Anyone can do this job with so much more confidence if they know what they are talking about and most young waiters are slightly frightened, especially about wine. What I wrote initially was effectively a guide to coming to work, a series of 300 questions, a few of which I expect every manager to ask of their staff 15 minutes before service. These revolve around the food, the wine, the drinks lists, who owns the restaurant and frequently asked questions such as where is the nearest cash point, and what to do in case of an accident. This is to prevent situations like the one where a waiter came into the kitchen because a customer had asked him whether there was milk in the oysters when in fact he had been asked whether the oysters were milky."
Scrutton's analogy for her vision of staff training is the children's game where the staff can fall backwards into the arms of someone from the management waiting to catch them. She is prepared to set the training sessions in motion but only if the management are prepared to carry them on every day. "It can be hard but it can be fun, too, " she added, " and if before this lunch service had started the manager had shown all his staff what the slow cooked shoulder of lamb or the rhubarb fool looked like or got them to smell a glass of Riesling then it would have helped our waitress and us, in turn."
The language difficulties we encountered with our South American waitress prompted Scrutton to add that her next step is to add specific English terms to her manual to help the increasing number of overseas waiting staff. This language barrier prompted a rare rise in Scrutton's voice. "I had to tell a friend of mine off the other day because she sat down and through the curtain of her long hair tried to order a Bloody Mary. You cannot do that any more. Customers have to speak clearly today."
But while customers must always remain courteous – and Scrutton reserved her strongest criticism for men who snap their fingers and women who walk into a restaurant with their coat half on and half off and just drop it with the receptionist – she believes that the onus is firmly on the restaurateur. "Restaurants can be formidable places from the outside and someone walking in may not have had the best of days so the staff have got to get out from behind the desk and take the angst out of the individual. The staff must metaphorically open their arms to you. One of my pet hates is when I walk into a restaurant and the receptionist says that either she doesn't think she has a table or they couldn't take the order for 30 minutes. That's completely the wrong approach."
Yet, happily, Scrutton remains hugely optimistic about what restaurants can achieve. "Any customer should be able to go in racked with indecision and leave seduced, feeling loved and looked after. I see no reason why restaurateurs and their staff can't achieve this. It's one of the great joys of the job."