Over the course of my career, I’ve seen chefs go from being the rarely seen, bad-tempered ogres lurking in the bowels of restaurants and hotels, to being shoved to the fore blinking through our pass lights at our expecting audience. I believe this steady change is delivering a boost to the dining experience and quality of dishes being served.
Before I took over at Evelyn’s in Manchester, I’d worked in closed kitchens and ones that had an open pass. However, both tended to offer at best walled off windows to the outside world. You could put up your plates, ring the bell for service and duck out of the way again. If it was a bad service (which can happen to the best of us) there was a barrier between you and those tables that you just couldn’t please.
In this environment, the only connection you have with the audience – sorry, diners – is through the front of house team or websites like Tripadvisor (don’t get me started on that, whole blog for another day!). It’s so easy to feel disconnected; to simply plate up food following your own agenda, forgetting that someone is paying their cash to eat it. I believe this is evident all over the UK, and most definitely in the city I call home now. The constant churn of the Manchester restaurant machine can be boiled down to the fact that businesses and chefs are just not listening to their customers. They get too caught up in their own egos, start believing their hype and then deliver a product that has no sustainable customer base.
As a young chef I picked up a belief that I knew more than the customers I was serving – that my opinion mattered more, and that if they didn’t like a dish the problem was with their palates not my ability. These people needed to be educated! I’d prove them wrong.
With the blessing of many years’ experience I realised some time ago that this was complete bollocks. If a customer isn’t happy, I need to do everything I can there and then to change that! And how else do you do that if you’re not out there listening to them?
This idea was compounded even more when I took over a sleeping giant 12 months ago. Although at the time Superstore (as it was then called) had its fans, it wasn’t a successful business. It was a classic victim of the issues I mention above – it had been run with the best of intentions but just wasn’t working. I remember my first day feeling slightly unnerved by the fact that my face is one of the first things most people see as they ascend the stairs to dine with us. My first fear was “I can’t swear anymore?!” And even worse: what if I have a bad day or if something goes wrong?
Of course, one day that happened. Only this time I didn’t just hear about the disappointed customer through the filter of my service team, I could see the look on their face with my own eyes and feel the responsibility. It was a watershed moment for me. I could blame them for not knowing what they were talking about and hide in the office until they left, or, I could stand up to the situation, learn from them and find out what I could do to rectify it.
I was able to walk personally up to the disappointed customer, organise a solution and make sure they left happy. What this has given me is a great pride in pleasing everyone that dines in any of the restaurants I now oversee. I aim to anticipate problems before the service staff have even been to check back on the table. I have the confidence to come out from behind the pass, speak to customers and take praise and criticism.
I know that being on show in the middle of the restaurant has made me a much better chef. Not because I can cook any better but because I cook for the right reasons. I don’t cook for my own sense of what a menu should be, but because I want to see the faces of my customers light up. I want to see them smiling and laughing sharing the food I created with everyone around them and I want them to become what many of my customers are now: friends.
If you see me behind the pass come and say hello, it always makes my day to hear what you think – good or bad!