When I started Houston Food Adventures, I initially thought that I’d be doing mostly restaurant reviews. Sometimes I do, but along the way I discovered that the people who push Houston’s food culture forward fascinate me. Almost uniformly, people in the industry are caring and intelligent. They work hard and play hard, and I simply enjoy talking with them.
Sometimes people make suggestions as to what to write about or whom I should talk with. Over and over again, one person’s name kept getting mentioned to me. “This guy,” multiple industry pros said. “You need to ask him how he does what he does, and how can we get more people like him.”
“This guy” is a server at one of Houston’s most prestigious restaurants and he wanted to stay anonymous for this interview. “I’m a conduit for my chef, my restaurant and our product, so I don’t want to draw attention to myself,” he said. I will simply refer to this modest man as The Gentleman, a term that suits him well.
I met The Gentleman at a reputable, busy place for breakfast. Ironically, our server wasn’t particularly knowledgeable or attentive. The Gentleman, of course, was far too classy to make much of a comment on the matter. This is why he’s a gentleman, and at the top of his profession. He knows when to comment and when it is best to not make disparaging remarks.
Our interview ended up being combination primer and off-the-cuff analysis of dining culture in Houston.
Someone asked me to ask you this question: what’s the difference between you and someone who’s waiting tables to get through college?
I applaud anyone who’s waiting tables to get through college. I don’t have “one foot out the door,” though, and I’m committed to experiencing what is in front of me. I want to cultivate regulars. If people enjoy my service, I tell them to ask for me.
What do you call yourself? A server? A waiter?
Front of the house staff, et cetera. These are all just monikers, but I’m a server. I subscribe to Danny Meyer’s philosophy. He has several successful restaurants in New York. (For a taste of Danny Meyer’s thoughts on hospitality, click here, or check out his book Setting the Table.)
Speaking of New York, why do some people insist that the restaurant scene is so much stronger there than in Houston?
First of all, there’s a much stronger labor pool to draw from. It’s a numbers game. There are 10 million people. They have a greater expanse of restaurants and it’s not as spread out as Houston. When you think about upper end restaurants in this area, there’s Chez Roux, Mark’s, Da Marco, etc. We don’t have a Daniel, Le Bernardin, Per Se… There are several very professional waiters in New York and they tend to stay in the same spots. Some of the best here in Houston are at Mark’s. Evan Turner at Branch Water Tavern used to work in New York and brought that experience here.
I wonder if people don’t expect to spend much money dining in Houston because we have such a low cost of living here?
On the other hand, you could say that since there’s more expendable income that people would have more money for dining out. I think it’s because we don’t like a huge amount of formality. I could give great service, but if you don’t extend yourself, your tip will suck. It’s like people are looking for a friend. In New York, it’s rare you’d have a meaningful conversation; you just take the order.
Is reaching out and trying to connect appreciated?
This is where you need to handle yourself properly. Never insert yourself into a conversation. Stay away from religion and politics. Never denigrate your competition or another establishment. It’s unprofessional and nothing good comes from it. As a matter of fact, I don’t have a problem praising the competition.
Have you had any guidance and support from your workplace?
My general manager deserves some credit here. He specified what was expected of us. Either you step up or you fall flat, which means you need to be educated and know what you’re doing. He doesn’t micromanage and is generally solution-oriented. Giving employees an environment where they can flourish and feel valuable is extremely important.
How does a server “get educated”?
The more expansive the menu, the more it behooves the server to move beyond the bare requirements. You never know it all. The more I learn about food and wine, the more I realize how little I really know, but I‘ve got a better understanding of my domain of ignorance. I always ask new servers “How’s your wine knowledge?” Everyone always say “7.” I’m not even a “7”! The key to learning is being able to say, “I don’t know.” Every week, I identify a few wines that I know nothing about, and I’ll ask our sommelier, “What do you know about this?”
How does management make you feel valuable?
It’s a sense of support. It’s a fallacy to take a job and expect your employer to care about you, but when they do, it helps me have a good attitude. Being optimistic goes a long way to providing good service to others. I care about my customers’ experiences. Part of what I do is manage expectations and anticipating needs. What I do precludes them from having to ask for something; thus, the seamless experience. I also try to not be redundant with my rhetoric. For example, the customer orders a drink and I say “I’m going to go get your drink now.” Really? Really?
I try to notice if someone is left-handed. Turning the cup handle the right direction… not putting the sugar and creamer down before the cup when it’s the last thing they’ll use… it’s the subtleties that make it a seamless experience.
How does the restaurant management and the chef facilitate training?
There are guidelines, manuals and set schedules, but that is different from menu education. It’s important to know your menu. Also, the whole beer thing has taken off and that’s a new area for us to learn.
Someone wanted me to ask you this: what interview questions would you ask a potential server?
What are the best dining experiences you’ve ever had, and why?
So, if they say McDonald’s, they’re out?
No, it’s fine if they say McDonalds! But tell me why.
I have two friends that went to Noma, which was recently named as the best restaurant in the world. I heard that the week they were named that, they got 100,000 reservations. When my friends arrived, the chef opened the door, extended his hand and said, “Welcome to Noma. Would you like to see our kitchen?” My friends were blown away. It’s not just about managing expectations; it’s about exceeding them.
One of my best experiences was at The Inn at Little Washington. I felt like I’d been invited to their home. There was sheer graciousness that did not have the veneer of false friendliness.
I also ask potential servers about customer service. Have you ever heard the story of Nordstrom and the tires?
About the tires?? No.
An old lady comes into Nordstrom and says she wanted to return the tires she bought there. The clerk explained that Nordstrom did not sell tires. The lady insisted that she got the tires there and asked to see the manager. The manager realized that the Nordstrom had opened in a former Sears location. They refunded her money, and of course, she became a Nordstrom customer.
Here’s another story: a person goes to the airport and security makes him take the innards out of his Zippo lighter and throw them away. He gets to keep the shell. A few days later, he emails Zippo and asks about a replacement. Two days later, several new innards showed up at no charge. Now they have a customer for life.
When people come to my restaurant to celebrate their birthday or anniversary, it’s an honor. They didn’t come for a free dessert. Most of the time, they don’t know they get one (or even necessarily want one). Out of all the places they could choose, they picked us. It’s a big deal.
[On lack of insurance benefits in the industry]
Something that would be helpful for retention in the industry are benefits. It’s really hard in Texas. It’s a “right to work” state; employers don’t have to [provide benefits] so they don’t. The benefit package at Del Frisco’s is insane: health insurance, 401k… [Interviewer’s Note: Del Frisco Double Eagle Steakhouse is a small chain with various locations that originated in Dallas, Texas and has a Houston location.]
That must help with retention, as well as drawing in talent in the first place.
You know what? At Flemings, they still have the majority of their staff from when they opened! People don’t leave there unless they’re moving on to bigger and better things.
What’s been your best experience as a server?
I’ll give you a time when things worked out well. An elderly gentleman and his wife came in for lunch. It was towards the end of lunch and they were my last table. The gentleman ordered a strip steak and they just wanted a half-bottle of wine. We had a very limited selection of half-bottles and it came down between two wines. They were both great wines, but based on what he was having, one of them, Opus One, was the best choice. Well, my boss walked by later and asked, “Why didn’t you tell me Robert Mondavi was in the restaurant?” The wine I had recommended to the gentleman was, in fact, his wine, and he never let on. He was incredibly gracious, congenial and affable.
Let’s go to the other side: what was your worst experience?
We’ve all had bad nights. I’ve had nights where I’ve gotten stiffed. Basically, any time when a guest leaves upset keeps me up at night. We all make mistakes and that’s when you really see the mettle of the individual and the establishment. How do they handle those mistakes? I don’t believe the customer is always right. They’re not. No one is always right. You can’t just throw money at someone if they complain. There are some people you just can’t make happy, but most people just want some respect. They want to be heard. That’s what it’s all about.
Is there any “golden rule” or one last piece of advice you want other servers to know?
Treating other people the way you want to be treated goes a long way.
More attention has been focused on chefs, rather than service, over the last 15 years. The “celebrity chef” explosion has led to a foodie culture that has its own local heroes. However, there are so many places to get excellent food in Houston now that the importance of quality service cannot be overstated. The Gentleman may not be in the back cooking, but he has much to teach and more to add to the dining experience. I hope his peers are listening and watching. His customers sure are.
Postscript: My apologies to The Gentleman for taking so long to get this written and posted. The Gentleman, of course, has been far too kind to complain.
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