David O’Connor has managed the front-of-house in three of the Nigel Platts-Martin group of restaurants – Chez Bruce, The Square and most recently The Ledbury. The journey within the group has spanned a dozen years.
David found time to speak to Simon Carter of fine-dining-guide, interview took place outside The Ledbury in late October 2010.
My parents had a restaurant called The Coach House in the Wirral near Cheshire. It was a small restaurant, about thirty covers and I worked there as a young boy.
After leaving home at the age of seventeen, I took a summer job as a commis at a place called Alexander House in West Sussex, near Gatwick, and ended up staying there for three and a half years. In that time I gained a lot of experience across the board: commis waiter, chef de rang, head waiter, lounge supervisor, barman and so on. I also met my wife while working at Alexander House.
I moved to London at the turn of my twenties and got a role as chef de rang at a new opening – The Orrery – it was a pleasant kind of culture shock from the countryside to move to a high powered London restaurant. Chris Galvin was the head chef and they had strong ambitions of achieving a Michelin star. I still remember the experience gained during that year to this day and many of the values I learned have been engrained.
Then I moved to The Square, where I stayed for three and a half years, starting as a chef de rang and being promoted to head waiter. Then an opportunity came up in early 2002 to apply for the position of assistant manager at Chez Bruce. A relatively short time into the job I was promoted to Restaurant Manager and spent a very happy six years working with Bruce Poole and all the team.
The restaurant won a number of awards; London’s favourite restaurant in Harden’s; Observer Food Monthly restaurant of the year; Decanter Magazine restaurant of the year. A relatively small, compact but very busy restaurant – about 120 covers through the door each service.
At Chez Bruce, I started to take on board the different skill sets required to be a good manager as opposed to a good head waiter: There are the people skills – so many more people to interact with and ensure that you are communicating the right messages in an appropriate way – to motivate, develop, nurture and discipline.
There was also all the aspects of the restaurant – reception, the bar, the stations, the kitchen interaction as well as ensuring the right front-of-house strategy was in place to give the customer the best possible experience.
I applied for the job as general manager at The Square, which was a dream role come true. When I first arrived the previous restaurant Manager had been there twelve years, so there was an opportunity to take a fresh look at service – including thinking about the kind of tailored or bespoke service that the modern customer appreciates.
Adaptability and flexibility were therefore important, for example having order of service drilled down and written in stone was no longer enough. The knowledge, skill and experience to judge the customer and interact appropriately was required – delivering the right balance of service and hospitality to the customer.
I had the opportunity to set up my own business in June (2010) which fell through and came to The Ledbury as General Manager last month (September 2010)
So you’ve worked in the Nigel Platts-Martin group for a number of years!
Yes! I’ve now had the privilege of running front-of-house in three of the group’s restaurants. Nigel (Platts-Martin) doesn’t get too heavily involved in the front-of-house day to day but is very straightforward and if something isn’t right he tells you. After twelve years of service, you’d have to ask Nigel, but I hope I’ve earned his trust and respect.
What is the structure of the brigade at The Ledbury?
The Ledbury is a 60 cover restaurant. We split the restaurant in the half so there are two stations. Each station has a head waiter, a chef de rang (who is basically a junior waiter who does most of the running for the head waiter) and a Sommelier.
The head waiter will be in charge of the timing of the tables, the taking of the orders, organising menus and describing the food and so on.
The chef de rang will be backing up the head waiter – clearing the tables, offering bread, water, preparing tables between courses and so on.
There are two restaurant managers who are covering the whole restaurant, including reception, and providing additional assistance to the team where needed.
The hierarchical brigade system brings order and structure to service. To attract and keep staff, it is important to have clearly defined roles with specific job descriptions.
Having said that, in an ideal world it would be great to have all waiters at head waiter standard, with tasks rotated among the team. To an extent, at Chez Bruce, every waiter was required to be able to perform all tasks from A to Z. The brigade hierarchical structure worked better at The Square and likewise at The Ledbury.
What is your Front-of-House Philosophy?
Well I’ve invested time in reading around how businesses work and how that can be applied to front-of-house. Naturally, your first hand experience is the strongest influence but I’m a firm believer in study and hard work to self improve and have those around you do the same.
My understanding is that businesses operate around process, workflow, rigour and detail. For example, MacDonalds or Pret a Manager have the product created by teenagers, this is true in restaurants of this type all around the world. Yet wherever you go the end product is the same and immaculately produced. This is because they have clearly defined processes, order of work, detail, rigour, and a reward structure. This is not to compare these kind of establishments to a top end restaurant but more to explain that structure, order and process are key to delivering the best end product to the customer in any business.
To that end I have started documenting a service manual for all front-of-house staff – a kind of code of business conduct – that starts from the top – a summary, the mission statement, the ten guiding principles of the service and so on. In this way people know where they stand, they have their position in the overall structure understood and what is expected of them to deliver and improve.
From a general manager’s perspective new skill sets are important and grasping an understanding of psychology as well as non-verbal communication can only help in communicating effectively with staff and customers alike.
In terms of ‘style’ of service, there remains a place for formality in restaurants – albeit a more relaxed formality than perhaps in the past but one that is a conscious style or conscious approach as opposed to simply being more “relaxed” – the word could imply ‘casual’ and service is far from casual.
What are your views on front-of-house and kitchen teamwork?
As I mentioned before, in this day and age of bespoke service and where timing is critical, it is more important than ever that front-of-house and kitchen work together.
At Chez Bruce we always worked together with the objective of adapting to please the customer and I genuinely believe that was a big part of it’s (Chez Bruce) success. The Square was more kitchen driven and a different type of restaurant but the focus changed with the change in the market toward bespoke service. Brett (Graham) at The Ledbury is the most passionate and enthusiastic chef – he’s always willing to adapt for the customers.
For example, a customer orders a fantastic bottle of wine, he’ll think about a menu for that table to work around the bottle of wine. Equally, there may be dishes that a table haven’t tried before and he’ll think about things they might like to try. This is fantastic for customer satisfaction.
What changes have you seen in front of house style/approach to customers?
There’s probably never been more restaurants in London and at the same time people are eating out more and more. So there are potential customers but there’s a lot of choice.
Following on from the discussion about teamwork with the kitchen; chefs are getting more and more involved in the interaction with the customer. This can only be a good thing – for the customer and the restaurant. As a team we have to do enough to make them come back rather than just try the restaurant once. I guess it’s a ‘whole restaurant philosophy’ as opposed to a ‘kitchen philosophy’ or ‘front-of-house philosophy.’ A subsidiary challenge is that what is exceptional today is expected tomorrow and managing expectations accordingly.
I suppose an important aspect is to always be improving and evolving. This includes having the all round flexibility to adapt to the changing times.
Has the profile of customer changed over the years?
People are a lot more knowledgeable, more people are eating out and the demographic has perhaps got slightly younger. I guess there’s been a lot of media coverage of restaurants on TV and that has certainly helped.
People also have a greater voice and more access to information than ever before. It doesn’t take an hour before you might get an email from a customer or see a review on an internet forum. Naturally this can be a double edged sword, but in general, the more awareness of the restaurant scene the better.
Describe a day in the life…
I get in about 9am. There’s usually some correspondence to deal with followed by checking who’s coming in during the day. We’ll set about the mise en place for the day, to make sure everything is cleaned and properly in place for service.
Then we’ll liaise with the chef on the day’s menu and get that typed up in-house. We have something to eat at about eleven followed by a staff briefing at 11.30am for the service. Then we open for lunch at 12pm and so it goes until about 2am (laughing).
Really, it’s hard to describe a day in the life at the moment…every day is different, when things settle down you can ask me that question again!
One thing we have introduced is a professional cleaning company to help prepare the restaurant. This has freed up time for staff training in the mornings. I think it is time better spent for a waiter to be taking on knowledge of how to be a better waiter than it is to spend time cleaning the restaurant.
What are your plans for the future?
I’ve witnessed what’s happening here at The Ledbury and seen a chef at the top of his game and am totally committed to helping, along with everyone else, in getting this restaurant to the very top.
And so it was time to leave, you couldn’t help but detect a quiet determination within David – a strength of purpose and a vision; a desire to self-improve and have those around him do the same; clearly, the characteristics that would lead to success in any business!