Dining out is special. Rather than just picking up food on the run or ordering take-out, going to a restaurant, no matter how expensive, gives us an experience more than just putting food in our mouths. Simply concentrating on the food and drink of an establishment is impossible—the people who bring it to the customer from the kitchen are the face and voice of an eating establishment. Whether it is inexpensive food or fine dining, a diner wants to be welcomed, appreciated and taken care of.
“Front of the house” is a restaurant term referring to the team that works in the dining room as opposed to “back of the house” which refers to the kitchen staff. It is easy for the two teams to become disconnected when there is a lack of communication and a misunderstanding of the efforts and challenges associated with each area. At the Culinary Institute of America (otherwise known as “the CIA”), in Hyde Park, New York, the focus for most of the students is on the culinary curriculum, but not that many people know that before any culinary students can graduate, they must learn and execute dining room skills. Every once in a while, I am invited to visit the CIA—to tour the school, maybe conduct a cooking demo and interact with the students there. It is a beautiful facility and a place where classic techniques and education are taken very seriously. There is also a very fine dining room there called Escoffier Restaurant (named after the great French chef, Auguste Escoffier) where experienced students cook the food and also work in the “front of the house” for a real, working restaurant experience. On my most recent visit I had the pleasure of eating at the Escoffier Restaurant and was treated to a great meal and very fine service from the graduating students. I was very impressed and spoke with John Fischer who is an Associate Professor at the CIA and the Maitre d’ of Escoffier Restaurant about the importance of great service skills. John reinforced my belief that the connection between the kitchen and the dining room staff should be seamless. He told me that the students that graduate from there get a unique opportunity to see what work is life on both sides of the restaurant. Sometimes a culinary student will go through the hospitality programming and realize that perhaps they are better suited for dining room service than kitchen service. Also, those who have worked both positions truly understand the specific challenges of each station. I applaud the CIA for turning out such fine professionals into the culinary workforce.
Fine service is an honored profession that I have a lot of respect for and is required in our Manhattan restaurant, Le Bernardin. Ben Chekroun is the Maitre d’ at Le Bernardin and in this episode, I will introduce you to Ben and let you see what the dining room is like just before lunch or dinner service starts. Under Ben’s direction our dining room team works with great care to make sure that every little detail of the room itself, each table and place setting is perfect. Many of the people who work with us have been at Le Bernardin for many years and they are true professionals who care just as much about what our clients experience at their table as our chefs do about the food. Ben conducted a little experiment during service one week and he recorded that, on average, each client has an interaction with our front of the house staff 45 times! That means that for all 45 times, the guest must feel what we believe should be a beautiful and civilized experience that is calm and seamless. It is important that the communication and fluidity between the kitchen and service staff be flawless as well. My personal philosophy is that the work environment should be one where calm professionalism is observed. If members of the staff feel frantic or terrorized, there is no way that their performance will be good. A mutual respect among the staff is encouraged and we feel that in turn, the guests will also feel relaxed and respected. Our hope is for those who are dining with us to enjoy the experience at Le Bernardin without even noticing what is being done to make sure that happens. Ben and his team, including the Sommeliers, are just as vital to our organization as the kitchen staff and I am very proud of how they work together to complete the service we provide to our guests.
When I first started cooking professionally, it was very common for a waiter or dining room captain to present some dishes “tableside.” Presenting tableside requires a lot of confidence but is a wonderful way to add some drama to the dining experience. I learned how to present Crepes Suzette tableside many years ago and this week, I will demonstrate the recipe and technique to you so that you may see what it was like but also so that you can try it at home. Presenting the recipe at home and for guests is a great way to bring a little formality (that is also quite fun) to your home and it pays homage to all of the “back of the house” and “front of the house” workers that make dining out such a pleasure.