For the last twenty years, wherever I’ve been – for pleasure or business – I’ve sought out the best restaurant in the area. Some would say an expensive affliction but to me there is no greater natural high than the experience of a top quality restaurant. And having returned to The Waterside around 8 times a year for the last 10 years I can honestly say that no greater high is to be found.
After nearly two decades Diego Masciaga and the Waterside Inn have become synonymous. His winning blend of awareness, instinct, charm, honesty and humility is like a Roux trademark. He has the ability to make a person – whatever their mood, whoever they are – feel good about themselves. It is something you cannot teach or learn. It is worth its weight in gold. He has taught butlers for The Royal Family, served at Windsor, the Kremlin and the Palace of King Hussein but from the moment he shakes your hand with that twinkle in his eye, you are the most important person to him – and he means it – he will remember details about you (and not just your dining preferences) that make you feel special.
Diego was born in Oleggio, a small viallage near Stresa in Italy and by the age of 17 was working in Alain Chapel’s Michelin Three Star restaurant. Two years later, in 1983, he joined Le Gavroche where he was almost immediately promoted to Chef de Rang. By 1985 Diego was managing Le Mazarin for the Roux brothers which received a Michelin Star within four months of opening. In 1988 he started at The Waterside as assistant restaurant manager before being promoted to restaurant manager five months later.
As with any business the customer facing perception defines the brand and the Roux brand has been in safe hands with Diego. We sat with him in one of the beautiful summer houses and asked a few questions over coffee, this is what he had to say:-
How would you define the style of front of house at The Waterside?
It is more relaxed than the strict French, wholly-plated style. We aim to provide our customers with a sense of occasion, an experience which balances relaxed formality with warmth. We have what I call ‘big service’ here in that there is a large team that is well drilled and utterly professional but make the guest feel at ease. When people come to the Waterside they are typically not in a hurry and many regulars are maintaining on going relationships with the staff, it is important that we are comfortable talking and interacting with guests in an appropriate way. Service in Paris or London may move a little quicker or be more arms length which works too in that environment. My idea of perfect service is when the customer doesn’t see (or need to see) the waiter but what they need is provided before they ask. If they have to ask we have failed. At the same time we respect conversations, the art of service is not to be considered an interruption.
Have you noticed any changes in the type of customer over the years?
I have been here for 17 years and we’ve always had our share of high spending customer – those from the Middle East and Far East in the 80’s through the dot com boom millionaires and now the occasional Russian businessman. We’ve always had our share of customers on business, a sprinkling of celebrities and our regulars too. My philosophy is that everyone deserves their own square metre of red carpet. The service will be the same whoever you are and wherever you sit in the restaurant. If it’s someone’s first visit we want them to feel special and that they belong. We know that our customers are our best form of advertising and refer new guests here all the time.
How important is staff continuity at The Waterside?
Very important. We have a policy to promote from within as continuity of staff helps with continuity of customer: When you have been going to a restaurant every six weeks for a year and each time you go the staff ask “may I have your name” it is not good enough, so staff stability is very important. We recently had to replace two key members of the team so we promoted from within to retain continuity of experience. In fact when we need to recruit (this is one of the toughest aspects my job at the moment) the first thing I look for on a CV is how long they have spent at other places, where they have worked is of course important but if I know they will stay for at least two years then I can train and mould them to our way of working.
How does the Waterside manage to retain staff so well?
Well I like to think it is a happy place to work. We have a very good team spirit where everyone is motivated to do their best and better themselves. You have to treat people properly as well, with respect for their feelings, and recognize them when they do well. For example, we recently had a Commis who I noticed had potential to work more interactively with customers so I gave her the opportunity to work on reception – reception at The Waterside is a very important role – and I am delighted that she’s blossomed into the job. Seeing people succeed and fulfill their potential gives me great pride and satisfaction. We all work very long hours; an average of around 68 hours per week (compared to 45 hours per week in France), but in spite of that I know that should I ask for a little bit more from someone they will give it without question and that comes back to good attitude and team spirit. With these long hours you also need strong support at home. I’ve been with my wife Kerry for 16 years and we have two children, some days I get up to leave at 8am and do not get in until 2am, but she has always been completely supportive and understanding of my passion for the profession. I am very lucky because without that support from my family I would not have had this career.
What sort of briefings do you give the team?
Well first thing in the morning I meet with my secretary and Benoit (Restaurant Manager) to discuss who is coming as guests and plans for the day. There are two briefings with the whole team. The first is at 11.45am and the second before dinner service. We go through the menu of the day and lessons from the previous service, the lessons will be matters of detail as the team is very well trained and drilled in what they should be doing. Today for example, there were a few little details: how and when to strike a match to light a cigarette, you must strike the match away from the guest and at an appropriate distance – it would also be no good if the customer wanted to light the cigarette for themselves or for their guest and the staff must be aware of this: Another detail was a reminder to never touch the napkin with your fingers as the napkin goes to the customer’s lips: A third was not to move the chair behind the customer with your foot but only with your arms, this is more difficult but correct. It is in the details that we reach satisfaction, this is what we strive for. And yes sometimes there is some tough talking, we are dealing with young people who sometimes have a fine line between work and play, they have to appreciate our professionalism and standards at all times.
And what is the structure of the team?
We have Benoit Radenne, the restaurant manager. Benoit took over from me when I was promoted to Director earlier in the year. Then there will be a first Maitre d’Hotel (Stephanie) with three Matire d’Hotel de Carre (station managers – Cico, Victor and Jean-Francois), two Chef de Rang, two Demi Chef de Rang, three Commis on the floor, two more Commis who carry the trays. There are five on wine headed by the Sommelier, Fabrizio. Of course we also have staff working on the rooms, reception and bar. We have a good balance of nationalities too – French, German and Italian – who all bring different qualities to service. Fortunately I can speak each of these languages which is not only important for communicating with the team but also with guests.
What sort of impact does Michelin (3 Star) have on the front of house?
I’m sure we’ve been inspected by Michelin several times this year. I never like to know when a guide inspector or a journalist is here. Why? Because when you know it naturally creates tension and that is no good. We know we have nothing to hide, I know if I lift this cushion there will be no crumbs and I know if I touch here there will be no dust. We have a regime where everything is done and checked several times every day. Three Stars to me is the whole package – the setting, the food and the service – I remember when Derek Brown (from Michelin) came here and I saw him looking under a service table, 5 or 6 bottles of water were stored there and it didn’t look right. I can tell you that that has not happened since. From the coffee to the toilets to the freshly squeezed orange juice we make sure everything is as it should be.
Have you had any feedback from Michelin about the transition from Michel to Alain?
This will be the first year, the transition has been very gradual and Alain has been here many years. The family continuation is important and Alain is developing relationships with our customers. He comes round at the end of every service and gets feedback from the customers and has established himself as the face of the Waterside. All I know is we have had our busiest year and there have been no complaints, we’re confident about our consistency and consistency comes from being prepared.
Tell us about the Academy of Culinary Arts?
It is important to keep les arts de la table alive. There is so much more to service than putting a plate down in front of a customer. The top accolade is the Master of Culinary Arts, the award is based upon the Meilleur Ouvrier de France. To be a Master of Culinary Arts in service you take Les Arts de la Tables examination which is held every four years – it’s like the Olympics and Oscars combined (laughing). I went through this process in 2000 and it was really tough. For the bar section I had to know the exact measures involved in making 60 different cocktails, you had to pick three out of a hat and have to make them there and then. The next part was blind wine tasting and then mix and match wine with food. A practical exam involved handling different customer situations. Then finally there was a written exam. I was really sweating, (laughing) in the end three of us got the award out of 62 entrants. The MCA members meet as a group every two months or so and discuss the issues of the day. We also organize the excellence programme for the up and coming. It is a body I am proud and honoured to be associated with and long may it continue.
And so it was time for us to leave, we had chatted right through to the start of evening service. I found Diego to be the most unassuming and charming man; totally self-effacing and at ease with speaking openly and candidly about his experiences.
There’s a saying in business that no-one is indispensable, but I sense there is an exception to every rule. Interview took place Friday 20th August 2004
Interview by Daniel Darwood, Simon Carter & Caroline Whittaker