On the frontline: meeting the stars of restaurant service

by Lauren Fitchett8 March 2023

You no doubt know the names of top chefs, but we’d be willing to bet you’re less familiar with their front of house teams. We delve into the vital role of service, what it takes and why it has never been more important.

Lauren is a food writer at Great British Chefs. She joined the team in 2022, having previously been a food editor at regional newspapers and trade magazines.

Lauren is a food writer at Great British Chefs. She joined the team in 2022, having previously been a food editor at regional newspapers and trade magazines. She is based in Norfolk and spends most of her time trying new recipes at home or enjoying the culinary gems of the east of England.

Lauren is a food writer at Great British Chefs. She joined the team in 2022, having previously been a food editor at regional newspapers and trade magazines.

Lauren is a food writer at Great British Chefs. She joined the team in 2022, having previously been a food editor at regional newspapers and trade magazines. She is based in Norfolk and spends most of her time trying new recipes at home or enjoying the culinary gems of the east of England.

When restaurant buzz takes hold, the spotlight tends to shine most brightly on its head chef and their culinary genius. That is, you might say, pretty reasonable – after all, it’s usually the food that influences where we book, particularly when we try somewhere new. But focusing solely on what we eat risks doing two things: firstly, forgetting the huge team effort which makes a restaurant a success and, secondly, boiling down a great meal to the menu. We know food will always take centre stage, but our experience is shaped by much more, from the service to the setting, much of which begins before we even sit down.

It was a holiday to Greece and a charming hotel manager that first inspired Siân Buchan to embark on a career in hospitality. She set off to college and landed her first job, aged sixteen, in an Italian restaurant in Newcastle, before joining Malmaison Newcastle. ‘I liked that I could be creative and be myself,’ she smiles. ‘The best buzz for me is meeting people.’ Today, she runs Michelin-starred restaurant Pine in Northumberland with partner and chef patron Cal Byerley, and knows the importance of excellent service. ‘The customers’ first experience is often the front of house team,' she says. 'We are the messenger that runs between them and the kitchen, we’re responsible for making their experience what it is – we start that relationship before they even arrive and keep it after they’ve left. Front of house can be overlooked, but we work tirelessly to make sure the customers’ experience is the best it can be.’

Siân Buchan, of Pine

Though Siân may have found her niche early, Charlie Lee had been studying for his chef’s diploma before he switched focus in his third year, intrigued by the people-focused nature of service. ‘I had always loved cooking so I just wanted to be cooking,’ he says. ‘I didn’t even think of front of house as an option. I don’t think it’s until you start working that you actually see it as a big role and a very needed one, with so much skill to it.’ He has since worked in some of the country’s most renowned restaurants, including The Fat Duck, Koffmann’s and Fera at Claridges, and in 2019 opened Da Terra in London’s Bethnal Green with now-husband and head chef Rafael Cagali, who he met at The Fat Duck. Their menus may be Michelin-starred, but the service aims to make people feel at home, he says: ‘People remember the experience in the restaurant. They might go for the food but if the service is not good they won’t go back. We are two-starred but the front of house is very casual – we don’t want that strict, military way, we soften it for guests and make them feel relaxed and comfortable.’

Teamwork, as they say, makes the dream work, and a tetchy relationship between front and back of house will eventually become obvious. While such a fast-paced, pressured environment is rife for tensions, Rachael Peng, general manager at Theo Clench’s Shoreditch restaurant Cycene by Blue Mountain School, says the relationship has improved across the industry, with more of a shared understanding of each team’s challenges. ‘In the past, the dynamic never used to be that good,’ she says. ‘It was always like two separate teams. We are a full army now – you really learn how important it is and how much you pick up on each other’s strengths and weaknesses.'

Cal Byerley and Siân Buchan at Pine
Michelin-starred Pine's dining room

That's certainly the case for Siân and Charlie, who both work alongside their significant others, balancing the demands of daily life with running a restaurant. ‘It’s funny because our head chef and head sommelier are a couple as well,’ Siân laughs. ‘All four of us have different strengths and weaknesses. What’s really healthy between the kitchen and front of house is to have a balance, it’s very rare. It sends a message to the rest of the team that there’s no division.’ Charlie agrees, adding that in previous jobs the division between sections meant he would spend some shifts not even entering the kitchen. ‘You can lose that link as a group,’ he nods. ‘At Da Terra, we have an open kitchen but we also communicate with the kitchen and the chefs come out and talk about the food – it breaks down the formality and creates a nice atmosphere.’ While their set-up may present some challenges – ‘to be honest sometimes I don’t know how we do it,’ he laughs – he and Rafael are now very much used to it. ‘We do have our moments, obviously, but it creates a strong bond between the teams, it brings everyone together,’ Charlie says.

From true farm to fork to eating in the dark and multi-sensory menus, experiential dining is transforming how we eat out. At Cycene, Toronto-born Rachael and her team take diners through multiple spaces throughout their meal, starting downstairs at a chef-curated bar, before moving upstairs for the bulk of the meal and then into the kitchen to finish. ‘A lot of people underestimate how much of an impact service has on a dining experience,’ Rachael, who has worked at Dinner by Heston Blumenthal and Fitzrovia’s Portland, says. ‘When you think about going to a restaurant it’s usually based on food. It’s what you feel like eating. Service can get neglected, but it’s the face of the restaurant and we deliver the product the chefs create. How we deliver that affects the mood of the customer. We are the voice of the chefs. Over the years people have really learnt to value service as well. It’s all about experiential dining – how you make a restaurant stand out depends on the service as well.’

Charlie Lee at Da Terra
Inside Da Terra in London

A unique strand to working in front of house is its sheer variety – by and large, everything that happens beyond the kitchen falls into its remit, from complaints to concerns and unwell customers to, as Charlie faced, Extinction Rebellion activists protesting near the restaurant. ‘You aren’t trained to deal with that,’ he laughs. ‘It was a big shock, thinking how do we keep the service running? In the end we did manage it. It shows that in our role we don’t just put plates down – it’s much more. We have to read guests and understand what they are thinking and we have had people who have fainted or don’t feel well, for example – there’s a lot to think of.’

Working so closely with customers means it’s certainly a career poised to provide memorable moments. When we asked Siân about the memories which stood out most, two during her time aboard Seabourn Cruises sprang to mind as examples of the lengths hospitality teams go to. ‘We did Caviar in the Surf, where we would wear full tuxedo suits and go into the sea with a surfboard bar, serving caviar and champagne to people who were swimming in the sea,’ she laughs. ‘Also, five days before we were expecting a new charter group of 400 passengers on the cruise, we would be given a picture of each one, with their dietary requirements on, and there would be a quiz at the start of the cruise. It was tough but it did make the customer experience better – I was welcoming people by name.’

Cycene's dining room
An oyster, cucumber and oscietra caviar dish at Cycene

Though keeping customers happy is no doubt the most challenging part of their work, it is, all three agree, also the most rewarding. At Pine, Siân, who previously worked at House of Tides, says their regular customers will greet staff with a hug, and keep them up to date with their lives. ‘I knew from when I was very young that I wanted to work in hospitality,’ she says. ‘I don’t see that as much these days which worries me, because it’s a great industry. You can travel around the world, you get the opportunity to meet incredible people – I love it. You get some services when you leave and you are still pumped because the customers were so invested in the experience.’

‘It’s a tough job, but the best thing for me is that no matter how bad a day you have had at home, when you start serving and you have people who want to talk to you and want to get to know you, you forget everything that’s going on in your life,' Rachael agrees. 'When they tell us they have just had the best meal of their lives, it’s amazing. It’s not just one person, it’s a whole team. We are creating a dining experience.’ Charlie nods, adding that the team brightens up even the most difficult of days. ‘It makes the day so much fun,’ he says. ‘Rafael and I run this business, so we work eight days a week – seven isn’t enough. The team is uplifting and when guests give you good feedback all the hard work is worth it. That’s why we do this.'

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