Beyond mere rules and codes of behaviour: how to improve the dining experience
Luigi Cremona has been a food journalist and critic for some thirty years, and before that an engineer with a love of travel and cuisine, so he knows a thing or two about catering. He has written guide books and devised events for Espresso magazine and the Italian Touring Club. Together with his wife, journalist Lorenza Vitali, he organises events and publishes guide books and websites on gastronomic topics.
We asked him what “makes” a star-rated restaurant, quite apart from the creativity and skill of the chef. “First of all I don’t think that any fixed codes of behaviour exist. Catering is wonderful for its variety, there’s no rule book, no recipes that make you a star-rated chef. If there were, anyone could be one. Everything needs to be top-notch, but excellence has to be interpreted and adapted to the context. Diners judge in different ways.”
What’s the most important thing for those serving in the dining room?
You have to know your dishes and the way they’re cooked. That’s important, but it’s not everything. Diners are usually more bothered about the way they are greeted and looked after, and there are many different ways of doing that.
The moment customers walk in is extremely important for their dining experience. It’s the moment you begin to establish a relationship. You have to be precise about everything, whether it’s about saying where the restrooms are, turning down the lighting or answering questions about where to go afterwards or how to get round a new city. It’s not just service, it’s customer management.
Then there’s the actual business of serving food...
These are the aspects more directly linked to the savoir faire of being a waiter. You need to know how to explain the dishes, how to bring them to the table and then how to follow the meal.
It’s a demanding job, but where do you learn how to do it?
Unfortunately, although they’ve improved a lot, hotel schools aren’t enough, because most students go on to do cookery courses. The result is that the quality in the dining room goes down. Often, people go into waiting at table as a last resort; seldom is it someone’s first choice. In Italy, paradoxically, you’re more likely to find a good chef than a good waiter.
How can things be changed?
A proper training process needs to be set up. We at Witaly have been moving in that direction, and after 15 years of giving awards to the best newcomer chefs under 30, for the last three years we have also been singling out the best waiters under the age of 30. The two top waiter service training schools, Alma and Intrecci, sometimes award licences to twenty students at a time: a drop in the ocean in comparison with the real needs in the sector.
What’s the situation abroad?
First of all they are paid better, thanks also to the tipping system, for example in the United States. In general there is a more positive attitude towards the profession, and greater gratification about this kind of job, which youngsters don’t see as a last resort, but as a good way of earning money.
Is technology important in a restaurant?
Again, there are no set rules. It’s about the kind of style you’re establishing, but it’s not very big in the star-rated restaurants: there are for example apps for comparing or even buying wines. Once I was in a restaurant abroad and I saw one table that had the right kind of lighting for photographing dishes. The message there seems to be, if you’re going to post my work on social media at least make sure it’s a decent photo. These are small things, but we will be seeing more and more of them in the future.