Running the floor of a busy, hatted restaurant is a balancing act. There's so much more to creating a memorable experience than merely delivering food. You must be a therapist, a mind reader, and even occasionally a master tailor.
Pt Leo Estate's Ainslie Lubbock recalls a guest tearing an expensive jacket on a curved timber wall while she was managing the floor at Mark Best's (now closed) Melbourne restaurant Pei Modern. "One of our team happened to be a great seamstress," says Lubbock. "By the time they left she had invisibly mended the jacket."
It's these frequent acts of heroism that most diners would never see or notice that set apart the good restaurant floor staff from the truly great.
Georgina Larsson, of Sydney restaurant Bea, says it's the practical and ridiculous moments that she's seen team members achieve that make working front of house something special. "[I've seen] them perform elaborate juggling moves to avoid things like olive oil spillage on Gucci suits or divert a red wine splash from an eye-wateringly expensive wedding dress. The management of busy services completed without electricity or gas … the heroic is all in a day's work."
Reading the room, the moods of the diners and being able to set a guest at ease is another part of the gig. Joanna Smith, co-owner of Igni in Geelong, has a knack for thinking two steps ahead. "Because we don't have a set menu and guests have no idea what they're getting beforehand, it can be a daunting experience. Some feel quite vulnerable. The team go to great lengths to make guests feel at ease and excited."
That sense of trust is something Larsson also cultivates. To her, it's paramount when delivering great service. "Guests can be so grateful and considerate of the time you spend with them nurturing their experience at your restaurant."
Lubbock says guests respond to genuine commitment from staff, and the most important part of running front of house is building this culture within the entire team. "We have great jobs and great guests. Hopefully this leads to an engagement with food, wine and service that runs throughout the whole dining experience."
Martijn de Boer (Bentley Restaurant and Bar in the Sydney CBD) says one of the most important parts of running front of house is being a good listener. "We deal with a lot of different personalities in our fast-paced industry and it's often difficult, but [it's important to] find the time to really listen to what's important to the person you are talking to. Something so small to us might be the single most important thing to our guest. For example, a hidden romantic table away from the hustle with limited interaction."
To be able to work seamlessly requires teamwork, and mutual respect. Ben Brown, manager at Surry Hills Italian restaurant Alberto's Lounge, believes it's all about empowering his staff with the knowledge, skills and confidence to serve customers with pride and personality. De Boer agrees. His passion is training the next generation and instilling the idea that front of house can be a lasting career with great potential. "I invest myself in training the next generation in the changing landscape of our industry and how to evolve with it."
For every triumph, though, there are times when it may have been smarter to stay at home. Benjamin Brown has received many lovely gifts from his guests over the years – wine, Portuguese tarts and even clothes for his new daughter – but some gifts are more welcome than others. "I once witnessed a customer vomit their entire chocolate dessert back on to their plate. That was pretty awful." Lubbock once watched a guest eat Mark Best's sauternes custard, served in an egg shell – including the shell. "By the time I realised it was happening the guest was three-quarters of the way through and was remarking on the delicious texture."
And the finalists for the Citi Service Excellence Award are...
Martijn de Boer, Bentley Restaurant and Bar, NSW
He's worked in some of the most progressive restaurants in Sydney from Gastro Park to the Bridge Room and now Bentley Restaurant and Bar. And while De Boer is one of the finest floor people around, his real passion is training the next generation.
Benjamin Brown, Alberto's Lounge, NSW
He was one of the sommeliers and second in command at the (now closed) three-hat restaurant Sepia in Sydney. These days he runs the show at newish Italian restaurant Alberto's Lounge on the old Berta site.
Georgina Larsson, Bea at Barangaroo, NSW
The head sommelier has worked in her fair share of heavy-hitters across the country, including Sydney's Aria, the Lake House in Daylesford, and Grossi Florentino in Melbourne. Her recent appointment at Bea at Barangaroo has injected a new sense of energy into the restaurant.
Ainslie Lubbock, Pt Leo Estate, Victoria
Between Laura and Pt Leo Estate, Lubbock runs a tight game. Her experience runs from Verge and Pei Modern, to the Royal Mail and Pt Leo. For Lubbock, the most important element of running a successful front of house team is trust, and getting the team dynamic right.
Joanna Smith, Igni, Victoria
When it comes to reading a room, few have quite the ninja powers of Joanna Smith. The Igni co-owner has the uncanny ability to read diners' moods from the moment they step into this fire-powered restaurant. She's proud of the team she leads, and has been fortunate to be surrounded by a group of people who love what they do.
The winner of the Citi Service Excellence Award will be revealed on Monday, September 30, at the launch of the Good Food Guide's third annual national edition, with our presenting partners Vittoria Coffee and Citi. The Good Food Guide 2020 will be on sale from October 1 in newsagencies and bookstores, and is also available to pre-order at thestore.com.au/gfg20, $29.99 with free shipping.