or ‘How Michel Roux-ined The Dining Experience’
The meal, at a local Italian restaurant, was splendid. Admittedly, the food seemed a little over-priced, but it tasted good and was certainly above the standard of regular pub fare. Not much of a pudding selection though, which, as a fan of that particular part of the menu, was something of a disappointment. Nobody was left unsatisfied, however, and that’s as much of a food review as you’re going to get here – I’m no Jay Rayner (more’s the pity, perhaps).
Getting up to leave, we asked our waitress for the coats taken from us at the start of the evening, and were a touch surprised when she replied, “They’re just behind the door at the bottom of the stairs there.” A few minutes of struggle ensued while we retrieved our outer layers, not only from behind a door that wouldn’t budge but also from underneath the garments of all the customers who’d come in to dine after us.
Now, you may choose to suggest that we only had ourselves to blame; that by saying, “Can we get our coats, please?” we were inviting the waitress to take us literally and make us do all the work ourselves. You might even ask why we adopted the attitude that collecting our coats was a job for the waitress, and to do so would be to hit the nail, as they say, on the head.
Thanks to watching three weeks of Michel Roux’s Service on BBC2 (the final episodes are tonight and tomorrow), our expectations for the sort of attention we might receive were through the roof. Indeed, it was possibly a blessing in disguise that the dessert menu didn’t capture our imaginations – it was obvious from the presents that we were celebrating a few birthdays, and we would have been most disappointed if nothing had come to the table with a surprise sparkler stuck in the top. My, how we’d have moaned! (Once we left the restaurant, of course…)
More seriously, if Service has achieved one thing, it is to show that barriers don’t need to exist between front of house staff and customers. At risk of sounding like I’ve been brainwashed by Fred Sirieix (surely the star of the show), suddenly you realise how the dining experience could be enriched with a simple and genuine, “So whose birthday are you celebrating a birthday tonight?” (using our night out as an example).
Instead, the customer/staff relationship more often than not feels awkward, particularly in busy high-street establishments. Not only does it not have to be that way, but surely we would actually enjoy a meal more if it was a little different. “Surly” and “slapdash” service might be at times, but “reserved” is probably a more appropriate term on a lot of occasions. If the programme has one fault, however, it is a lack of acknowledgement that many people working in restaurants aren’t doing so because it is a dream career. And however much it might try to encourage those sorts of aspirations, that sort of career seems rather unlikely if you don’t happen to have a few Michelin-star restaurants dotted about your neighbourhood.
At this juncture, it would be wrong not to give some mention to the trainees around whom the show is centred. As they have blossomed during the course of the programmes so far, so too has Service itself. From an incredibly unpromising start (asking people to leave their table in the middle of dessert; shouting “F**k off!” at each other in the middle of the restaurant), the upward trend has been remarkable. In fact, it is easier to ask questions of the diners and hotel guests who seem so eager to feature on camera (especially when it involves being woken up for delivery of their breakfast in bed) than it is to question the suitability of the trainees.
Mercifully, Michel Roux’s mood has improved at a corresponding rate. It was particularly easy to fear for his sanity in the first episode, as his mood gradually darkened throughout frequent taxi rides around London. But once the disruptive influence of Jarel was removed in the second episode, his demeanour lightened and he once again became the most watchable chef on television.
The only subsequent blip was the result of inviting his wife, mother and assorted other family members to a restaurant he remembered fondly from his childhood, but once that passed relatively smoothly everything got back on track. How he copes handing over ‘Le Gavroche’ (his very own restaurant) to the trainees will be answered this week, and doubtless it will be fascinating to watch. Whatever the outcome, and whoever wins the scholarships – because you can pretty much make a case for all seven of them at this point – Service has been a truly remarkable series.