When I first met Kelly Whitaker, chef-owner of Boulder's Pizzeria Basta, we talked about my possibly helping in the front of the house at the new restaurant he was then planning for Boulder. While I pondered the move, I eventually decided against it: I'd recently started working at Frasca Food and Wine, and I was acutely aware that there were lessons I had yet to learn about the art of service -- and there were few people better to learn them from than Bobby Stuckey, the formidable Master Sommelier who's a co-owner of Frasca.
Stuckey terrified me. He was a veritable service machine who somehow saw absolutely everything that happened in his restaurant -- finishing up a conversation with a guest and then pulling me aside to say that he'd seen me serve from the right while I was on the patio. How did he KNOW that when he was in the dining room? Did he have eyes in the back of his head?
I could have spent a lifetime in the trenches at Frasca and would still not have soaked up everything there was to absorb at that restaurant (although I know I would have gotten more than enough gray hairs). But looking back, I couldn't be more grateful for my experience there. The lessons I learned at Frasca helped me immensely at my next restaurant job -- and gave me invaluable insight into how a fine-dining eatery really has to run.
Here are the top five things I learned:
A strong front-of-the-house presence is crucial to running a top-notch restaurant. Over the past several years, chef-driven restaurants have become the norm, as Food Network and our tastes propel the back of the house to star status. That's cause for celebration, because it means we're into food. But if you want your restaurant to rock hard, you've got to also have a really good front staff. A gracious host with a strong personality. A maitre d', if your restaurant is that type of place. Most of all, a leader who can direct the rest of the staff and set the tone for service in a restaurant. Because ultimately, a chef's job is to stay behind the swinging doors to cook one hell of a meal -- but a diner's impression of the restaurant is going to be formed by what goes on in the dining room, and that starts with the host, the server and the bartender. This is why good service can make bad food taste better -- but good food can very rarely redeem terrible service. Frasca has this balance down to a science.
The art of service is more like a complicated, well-choreographed ballet. The reason Frasca's service functions so smoothly is because every member of the staff has very specific, outlined duties. And when everyone performs those duties expediently and gracefully, service is like that moment when the ballerina leaps into the raised arms of her male counterpart, who spins her in a controlled circle, support dancers plie-ing in a ring around them, waving their arms in unison. Delicate, graceful, symmetrical -- practically defying the laws of physics. Choreography creates anticipation, and everyone is expected to perform their duties ahead of the need of the diner, to prevent the metaphorical ballerina from crashing to the floor when she leaps. But service enthusiasts aside, no one really wants to watch this dance -- which is why all members of Frasca's front-of-the-house staff are supposed to perform their parts without being noticed, fading into the background unless a table makes it clear that it wants more.
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SHOW ME HOW
Just when you thought special requests from guests couldn't get any weirder, they will -- and if you can, you accommodate them. Vegans, celiacs and finicky kids are nothing. We had regulars who came in and told the kitchen how to cook their entire meals. Picky adults asking for buttered noodles. A VIP who wanted a theme song played when the party entered the building. And Frasca accommodated every single request as best it could without ruining the experience of other guests. When you're clearing a plate, it is NEVER okay to ask, "Are you still working on this?" It's dinner. If a diner is "working" on it, the kitchen has done something wrong. Very wrong. "Are you still enjoying?" is a nicer way to ask if you can take a plate. Other things you never do: clear from the left, serve from the right or backhand a guest -- and I don't mean smacking a guest upside the head, though that's not advisable, either. Backhanding refers to, say, reaching in from the diner's left with your right hand, thus showing the diner the back of your hand, which is not a welcoming gesture. Instead, you want to present your wrist because it's friendly and vulnerable. Seems like a small thing -- but not at Frasca, and not at any top-end dining establishment.
Never let a guest leave angry, even if you have to comp part or all of his or her meal. Frasca is a special-occasion restaurant for a lot of people, but like any eatery, it relies on return business and good word-of-mouth to stay afloat. And that's most easily done by making sure that every single guest leaves unable to wipe the grin off of his or her face, thinking that the Frasca experience was magical enough to warrant the tab. Most of the time, this happens naturally -- thanks to the choreography, the points of service, the host and Stuckey himself. But on those rare occasions when that wasn't the case, Stuckey would send in the heavy artillery -- free rounds, free courses and sometimes, if something went horrendously wrong, free meals. It was a small investment in the future. People who have good meals might tell a couple of friends. People who have bad experiences tell everyone. Usually via public forums like Yelp. No bueno.
At Frasca, I also learned a few handy manual labor tricks, like how to scrub an oven and how to carry about ten wineglasses at once without using a tray. I learned about prosciutto producers and winemakers and Meletti, an Italian digestif. I learned invaluable cooking tips from the kitchen in slow moments, tasted some unbelievable food, had several "a-ha" moments while comparing wine varietals, and sussed out when to send the chefs a round because I'd screwed up. But I could have acquired those tricks anywhere. It was for the other lessons that I stayed when Whitaker asked me to come help at Pizzeria Basta.