Margot and the future of British service

Margot and the future of British service

by Isaac Parham 28 March 2017

Isaac Parham talks to Paulo de Tarso and Nicolas Jaouën – the founders of celebrated Covent Garden restaurant Margot – to find out how they’re trying to change British attitudes to waiters and the service industry.

Isaac Parham is a freelance food writer and editor from South London. When not browsing Borough market or watching his beloved Portsmouth FC, you'll find him travelling the country to find the nation's best food.

Isaac Parham is a freelance food writer and editor from South London. When not browsing Borough market or watching his beloved Portsmouth FC, you'll find him travelling the country to find the nation's best food.

Every new member of the service team at Margot, Covent Garden’s covetable Italian restaurant, is given a handbook. Except, to describe it as a book doesn’t quite do it justice; this is a tome, a 150-page document outlining exactly what bosses Paulo de Tarso and Nicolas Jaouën expect of their staff. The training is just as rigorous – two weeks long with homework every night. This is what it takes to work at one of London’s finest restaurants, under the aegis of two of its most ambitious restaurateurs.

‘Our training is really, really tough,’ agrees Nicolas in the restaurant, as business partner and former front-of-house colleague Paulo sits alongside. ‘But after a while they get used to it – it's almost like breathing. They embrace it. Then it's no longer about the script, it's about understanding the needs of the table; it becomes instinctive.’

If this all sounds a little cultish then perhaps that is because in Britain we don’t tend to view service with such reverence. While most natives have pulled the odd shift in a pub, or worked the floor of a local restaurant while studying, few take it on as a career; fewer still stick it out past their twenties. Earlier this month a director of Pret a Manger revealed the company’s struggle to attract British workers to their service roles, estimating that applications from immigrant workers outnumber those from locals 49:1.

Maurizio Morelli is the head chef at Margot, and has worked in Italian restaurants since the age of fourteen
Margot's traditional approach to good food and good service has won the restaurant praise from diners and critics alike

For Paulo — Brazil-born and New York-raised — and Frenchman Nicolas, this is hard to fathom. Both started out as lowly waiters and committed their youth to the profession, with all the late nights, long hours and difficult customers that entails, before opening Margot. They make a compelling case for why service should be respected and cherished in the same way cooking has come to be.

‘It’s about details,’ Paulo explains. ‘For us it's important that you drop off the coffee in front of the customer with the spoon at three o'clock because most likely they have a right hand. And if you notice that they're left-handed we're going to switch that very quickly around.’

‘It is something that's motherly,’ adds Nicolas. ‘You have it or you don't. When I was a waiter all I cared about was that my customers left happy. That's all we want. Paulo and I are very intense with this. We never stop.’

While the pair are quick to point out the rude health of the capital’s restaurant scene in general, they believe London still lags behind the likes of New York and Paris when it comes to service. Catching up, Paulo argues, will require a cultural shift; an adjustment of values.

‘I walk in California, the mailman says ‘Good morning!’, but in London you get the mailman with his headset… they don't even talk to you,’ he says. ‘If you were to fall down on the tube, people would walk over you!’

‘We want to make a difference,’ adds Nicolas. ‘We want to create catering schools in this country — where it’s not looked at as a career. This country has given us everything we have. Now is the time to give a little back.’

The way tables are set and the attention to detail when it comes to service are integral to the experience at Margot
The food is just as important, however, with fresh pasta and other Italian classics on offer

Perhaps the revolution is already underway. Since opening last autumn, Margot has won plaudits not only for the generous, instinctive cooking of head chef Maurizio Morelli but also for the precision and care of its staff. ‘What we sell is good quality food,’ Paulo says, ‘but we make you feel like you're home.’

For this, the pair rely on a front-of-house team comprising talent from around the world; locals, too. And, crucially, they pay them fairly. Because, for as much as the culture needs to change, the pair believes that the industry requires a shake-up, too. Especially if it wants to encourage more Brits into a career in hospitality, which — with Brexit likely to cut off or at least limit the steady influx of European talent — is a real concern.

There are some major companies in London operating as we speak where they have you on a contract for thirty-nine hours. You work eighty hours. You don't get paid extra. Then they're taking thirty-five percent of your service charge on top of it for their profit,’ says Paulo, before Nicolas picks up the baton.

The worst part is it's legal. It's legal to not pay staff what they work. This is Britain! It's just mind-blowing. How do you expect people to perform if they're working doubles every day? It's difficult in this industry to keep staff working forty-five hours a week, but we're trying as hard as possible. And let's be very honest here, it's not great for business. Your staff costs increase a huge amount. But this is what we want to do. It starts with us.’

Will their lead be enough for others to follow and to enact the service revolution they seek? Time will tell. But in an age of drone delivery, self-service machines and iPad ordering, Margot’s old-school, service-centric approach feels strangely forward-thinking.