A Head Waiter
I take a deep breath while running up the back stairs and I’m on the restaurant floor. The buzz of London’s busiest restaurant is incredible - from now I am at the beck and call of the reason we exist – our customers. I clock into our computer system to be able to access table information and place orders, turn around, and I’m in. My service face is on, my mind shifts up a gear (or two or three…) and my shift truly begins.
I make it through the turmoil of the tube system and after dodging traffic (and puddles) enter the imposing building through the almost miss-able black doors of our staff entrance. I pop upstairs to Head Office and check the Head Waiter’s emails and print out some copies of the ‘profile’ booked for lunch today before rushing downstairs, fetching a clean shirt from laundry and getting dressed in the men’s changing room. I dodge a trolley, rush through the passages greeting back of house staff as I pass and hastily write down the fish and the juice of the day from the notice boards.
I take a deep breath while running up the back stairs and I’m on the restaurant floor.
I check which of our customers could need special attention because of unusual dietary requirements or allergies, perhaps dining using a voucher, possibly known to us through numerous visits (some numbering in the high hundreds!) or even be a celebrity. Whatever the reason, we need to know, and getting their allocated table numbers from the duty manager will be one of my first tasks. I find the manager and get those all important numbers, writing them down for the other headwaiters and greeting them and all the senior waiters, baristas, still-room staff, barmen and maitre d’s en route to my station.
I’m in charge of the ‘middle’ today – the ‘horseshoe’, the ‘20’s and 30’s’. My two waiters are finishing off the breakfast service. Mise-en-place for lunch needs to be prepared – relay trays for setting tables, fancy cutlery for oysters, ice-creams and snails, not to mention steaks. Checking that the cutlery and glasses used during the morning are being sent for cleaning is vital now; otherwise we won’t have equipment later when we need it. The longer I work here the more I realise that preparation is everything!
Now to brief my staff; I check that they know the fish and the plat du jour – no reading off the pad here – and confirm that all the menu items are available. We discuss the importance of communication with each other, briefly catch up on important news, personal and professional, and after a mint all round, lunch service is upon us.
The tables that our lead Maitre d’hôtel has allocated first are ready, and others follow as the last breakfast guests leave. Getting early orders in will allow us to be on top of the second sitting later – there is a true art to enticing an order out of a customer without them feeling rushed, and knowing your menu is paramount. One lady has a gluten intolerance, and needs reassurance that the jus with our calves liver is not thickened with flour – it isn’t. Another loves the sound of the fish of the day but asks if a different garnish is possible, with some fresh horseradish on the side; a quick phone call and chef gives the go-ahead - the customer is overjoyed. Cooking degrees, garnishes, side dishes, wine recommendations, which oysters are sweeter, which steak more flavoursome, which dish is my favourite, all with a smile, a bit of carefully judged banter, a little flattery, lots of putting at ease. And all with the correct level of familiarity balanced with reserve that is “The Wolseley Standard”, the ideal we strive for, using the best phraseology, offering the best service, and never compromising our very high standards.
One waiter is chatting to a barman – a quick reminder about some mise-en-place for oysters on table 35 gets him re-focused. Another table is ready to pay, so our floater, the waitress supporting our lunch service, is warned that the table will need an extra chair for the next booking; she checks that there is enough equipment for the relay as I take the payment, and after the customers leave the table is cleared, re-clothed, reset and ready for six in three minutes flat. The next customers arrived early and have been waiting in the bar. They’ll be ready to order immediately. My job is to get them settled at their table and feeling cared-for as soon as possible. Bread, butter, menus, drinks, order in, mise-en-place done, check that the starters are not too long in coming, then the mains, then the desserts, cheese and coffees. 14 tables in this section, 52 in the restaurant, and today’s lunch sees 320 covers. There is hardly time to breathe, and then it is over and the last customers watch the next wave arrive for afternoon tea.
Closing the bills off, checking that the credit card payments match the open dockets, processing discounts for the occasional miss-ordered item, the glass of wine the customer just didn’t like, the cake offered as a gesture to celebrate a birthday; little tasks, all vital. The sum of “a day at The Wolseley” is much more than its parts. From the tourier arriving at two in the morning to prepare the patisserie, the chefs prepping through the night, the cleaning staff and maintenance team, the polishers, the chefs, the waiters, all of us rely on each other. If one link is loose, unwell, late, not concentrating, we all feel it – there are services that feel like wading through mud, and others that just take off and soar, resounding between the arches, filling the magnificent room with quivering excitement.
And then, there are our customers. Our raison d’être, always welcomed, mostly liked, sometimes adored. They need consistently high levels of service, high standards of food and drinks, and to have the feeling that they are special. High expectations are there for us to meet and exceed, which we mostly do. When we don’t, the Head Waiter team needs to be ruthlessly efficient, analysing the problem, making split second decisions to claw back the magic, that ethereal, sprite-like spirit that energises the room.
My time on the floor is done. Up to head office for administration; messages to check, emails to respond to, Private Room information packs to send to the people who have made enquiries via our reception. Drawing breath, I slow down for a minute or two. A cup of tea, one sugar. Back to my desk. Phone calls, more emails, menus to proof and print, a last check of the inbox, and shut down.
A quick visit to the Private Room on my way out – the function is going really well. The host is overjoyed with the arrangements, the Head Waiter running the function is happy with my planning and the right food is arriving at the right time. It looks simple on paper, but it isn’t. I leave happy because they’re happy. It’s a luxury to catch a tube and not rely on a night bus. Little things mean a lot at the end of a long day, but I wouldn’t have it any other way. I love it!
By Adam Kirkaldy