Waiting tables is seen as a lowly profession by some, but a new campaign aims to change that. I went front of house at three top restaurants to see how difficult the job really is.
Shelley can't help it. Before she can control herself she has given me a light slap on the wrist. She's smiling, but clearly irritated that I am staring blankly at the beautiful display of rock oysters in my hand, having forgotten (again) which table they are for.
In my defence it is 20 years since I was last a waitress, and this time I haven't hit anyone over the head with a tray. But Shelley Barnfather, the manager of Michelin-starred pub and restaurant the Sportsman in Seasalter, Kent, has higher standards, it seems, than the penny farthing cafe, which was the height of my teenage career. Waitressing "is not just putting down a plate", she explains, patiently. The kitchen might send out wonderful food, but "if it's rubbish out front, the customers won't go away happy".
Her words will be music to the ears of service expert Fred Sirieix. The general manager at the Michelin-starred Galvin at Windows in London is on a mission to improve the standing, and standards, of the waiters, bar staff and maitre d's, who make up the UK's front-of-house staff. "Some people turn their noses up at waiters," says Sirieix. "They don't understand the value of the job." He is launching National Waiters Day this month to highlight it as a serious career choice.
It might not be easy. According to the British Hospitality Association's most recent figures, there were 254,200 waiters, 200,300 bar staff and 196,100 managers working in the hospitality industry in 2011, the majority under 30 years old and badly paid. According to the Office for National Statistics, bar staff and waiters were the lowest-paid occupations (pdf) in the UK economy that year, with an hourly pay of £6.25. But the BHA notes that wages vary widely and waiters say it's possible to earn £2,500 a month in top London establishments. One restaurateur tells me of experienced waiters earning £40-50,000 a year. Sirieix points out that people can rise swiftly, and restaurant managers earn from £30,000 to six-figure sums.
To get an idea of how rewarding and challenging waiting can be, I have been sent to try my hand at three restaurants with very different styles of service. Which is how I end up in Seasalter. Determinedly unpretentious, and even ramshackle, the Sportsman has won rave reviews for the "unapologetic brilliance" of its tasting menu. People travel from around the world to sample it, so the staff need in-depth knowledge of the dishes. "There are no rules, no uniforms," explains Barnfather. "But we are interested in food."
The biggest challenge for them, she says, is being adaptable. "You have a young couple who have saved up, or a loud family party," she explains. "You have to make everyone feel welcome." You also, I learn quickly, should know intuitively who wants to chat and who doesn't - oh, and not to hold bowls "like you think they are going to explode".
To Sirieix, "good service is about forming connections". He believes the low standing of waiting here is partly down to the British class system. Barnfather, from New Zealand, agrees. There, she says, "it is seen as a profession. Here the attitude is that you must be servile."
Russell Norman, founder of London's Polpo, Spuntino and Mishkin's, points to the New York restaurant scene that inspired him. "Tipping is such a guaranteed source of income that being a bartender in a cool bar is a matter of pride and this translates as brilliant service - and a viable career. It also means only those who are supremely competent, articulate and charming - and fast - will do well."
Chef Michel Roux Jr, too, thinks that waiters in the UK have "an image problem", but insists they are as important as kitchen staff because "a good meal can be ruined by bad service". It's hard to imagine this happening in Roux Jr's restaurant Le Gavroche in London. Here, the service - like the food - is classic French, with a strict hierarchy and a fearsome number of staff. "When I took over from my father [Albert Roux] it was the typical service you would expect from a Michelin-starred restaurant - uptight, and severe almost," he says, whereas today British service is better than in France because it is "more approachable, convivial and has a slightly quirky, relaxed edge".
When I was a customer at Le Gavroche a few years ago, I felt the waiters were involved in a complex, graceful dance around me; turning up at 9am to be given my smart black jacket and white shirt is like going backstage at a theatre. The young, mostly European, staff are busy cleaning. One maitre d' is scrubbing the light fittings with fierce concentration. General manager Emmanuel Landré tells me that waiters can move up the ranks quickly - his assistant managers took just six years to rise from the lowest rank of commis waiters.
I, however, am starting at the bottom. It may not sound like much responsibility, but prepping the butter almost defeats me. It is cubed, with a hot knife and rolled between two spatulas into perfect balls. One beleaguered waiter takes an hour to do them all; I take 15 minutes on one pat. The menu briefing is so fast I can't jot it all down. Next comes a sharp telling off for misdemeanours - rubbish down the drains, slouching, incorrect uniforms. Then praise for hard work.
I had harboured ambitions of pushing the vintage wood and silver ice-cream trolley around, but as a new waiter, I'm left to observe as cartoon-like silver cloches are simultaneously removed to display the dishes below. It's all seamless. "A good waiter should read your mind," Lander tells me. "If you drop your napkin, a waiter should have put a new, folded one by your side before you have noticed." The rewards, he insists, are immediate. "When a client comes back, it's priceless, because you are building a relationship."
At my final destination, José - Spanish chef José Pizarro's popular London tapas bar - the atmosphere couldn't be more different. The tiny bar is often so busy that customers eat standing up. So, despite having fewer than 20 seats, manager Gilberto De Souza tells me they serve up to 200 customers a day. The focus is on creating a friendly, lively atmosphere - regulars are greeted with jokes and even hugs, by the young, mostly Spanish staff.
But the laid-back demeanour is backed up by serious knowledge. The waiters arrive early to help the chefs and know exactly how the small plates of tortilla, prawns in garlic, and croquetas are cooked. Enthusiasm for food and drink is a must, says De Souza, who is slightly appalled that I don't drink. I find the chatty enthusiasm of the staff hard to emulate, and loiter behind the safety of the bar.
"Eating here should be a personal experience," explains De Souza. "Talk to the customers, find out whether they have been before, what they are doing here - just chat. When it gets really busy there is no time to talk football. But there is always time to ask whether they are enjoying their food and need anything."
The focus on friendliness means staff here work only 35-40 hours a week, to ensure they are on top of their game. "Here you must be smiling and friendly all the time - there is nowhere to hide," De Souza points out. "If you are tired, you won't give the best service. This is not a place you can stay in the background."
There's no doubt that being a waiter is exhausting. But to my surprise, after my crash course I have realised it's not the physical side that poses the greatest challenge. I lack the forensic eye for detail needed at Le Gavroche, the intuition to instantly gauge the mood of diners at the Sportsman, while the outgoing nature of José's staff made me wonder if I'm more of an introvert than I realised.
And as I slip to the other side of the bar at José's, it's testament to the atmosphere that I find myself in immediate conversation with my neighbouring diner. Scoffing the delicious tapas, I realise that while I may not have been offered a job anywhere, at least I can finally sit back and experience the pleasure of good service.
Looking for tips ... Homa Khaleeli is put through her paces as she is taught how to wait tables at the Sportsman in Seasalter, Kent. Photograph: Martin Godwin for the Guardian