Interview: John P Davey (January 2010)

Posted on: January 11th, 2010 by Simon Carter & Daniel Darwood
John P Davey

John P Davey

Having spent the last 25 years in front of house management positions, John P Davey is well placed to pass on hisknowledge, skills and experience to those in the trade. This is exactly what he plans to do, with the upcoming launch of a consultancy company. is a new venture about which John enthuses, in fact enthusiasm, warmth and generosity of nature were apparent in abundance when Simon Carter of fine-dining-guide caught up with John at The Lanesborough Hotel, London. Interview took place December 2009.

Tell us some background about yourself?

After school I started a three year chefs training course at Bristol Polytechnic. A year into the course, in 1970, I was invited down to The Imperial Hotel in Exmouth to do some commis front of house work. I really enjoyed the experience and it was at this time that I realised that my natural vocation would be looking after people in the front of house rather than the kitchen.

During the penultimate year of college I had the opportunity to go with a friend to Zurich and work at Hotel Baur au Lac. It was a very strict regime in those days and we worked almost exclusively in the basement polishing cutlery or cleaning glasses; we may have occasionally got to the door of the restaurant with a tray but never actually got in!

My romantic life took me back to Switzerland and my first hotel experience was in Vevey at Les Trois Couronnes. I learned so much of the fundamentals there, just by watching the staff at work – the importance of the initial meet and greet, the leading of the customer into the rest of their dining experience and so on. At the same time I starting learning French and as I was still young become fluent relatively quickly. Having the ability to keep my hand in with languages has helped a great deal throughout my career.

At my next adventure, The Lausanne Palace, I went right through the stations from fourth station chef de rang upwards and the day that I made first station was one of the proudest moments of my life. I thoroughly enjoyed every minute – from ‘dressing up to put on a daily performance’ to plating for customers at the table.

Maurizio Santambrogio the manager, was such an inspiration to me in every way and I still think of him today – how to be absolutely professional and have fun at the same time.

The last twenty five years plus have been a fun, roller-coaster adventure of front of house management – taking in hotels and restaurants of the highest order and meeting and enjoying the company of people from all walks of life!

What is your front of house philosophy?

The head chef and the restaurant manager are like two captains of the same ship and communication between them is absolutely vital. This ensures that from back to front and front to back everything runs smoothly and seamlessly to the customer. Daily team meetings are an integral part of this process, to get the eye for detail right for the upcoming clients.

It is a fundamental that the customer must never (or as infrequently as humanly possible) have to actually ask for something – be it bread, butter, water or wine – the staff must be acutely aware of these attentions to detail and almost instinctively (as a second nature) give the customer what they need before they ask for it.

As with any professional job, it is important to take pride in performance, in doing a first class job, but also to have some fun in the process. The better organised, prepared and disciplined the team unit – front and back – then the better operations work from kitchen through front of house.

There are the simple things, like having processes in place and following those processes – right from induction of a newcommis through to complex service arrangements. In a way I think of it as a kind of ‘advanced driving’ course, knowing how to drive properly is a given, the next step is taking in all the information from your peripheral vision all the time; this is a skill but is a skill that can be acquired nonetheless

The nuances of detail are so important, as one example, not interrupting the flow of a conversation between guests at the table, when a simple mutual nod will suffice.

There is also the concept of table maintenance – the table looks impeccable before the customer arrives and there’s no reason why that table can’t remain in that condition throughout the evening: Clearing crumbs, changing napkins, covering blemishes, removing plates and cups promptly and so on.

To a degree front of house must also be aware of the upselling opportunity – for instance, should the customer be considering having a main course and no starter, one could suggest it may take time to prepare the main course “how about sharing a starter” and then organise a starter on two separate small plates.

In similar regard, modern fine dining is possibly missing the digestif opportunity. In most cases you have to ask for the digestif menu, when its something I’m sure many customers would enjoy at the end of a meal. In a completely separate area, menu writing is generally a skill that has become something of a lost art – the perpetual use of the words ‘and’ and ‘with’ instead of illustrating adjectives appear to abound in restaurants at every level.

What is your plan for business ventures in the future?

Having gained so much experience over the last 30 years, I want to take the opportunity to give back to the industry – to give the sparkle in the eye, to engage with bright young people and just give them that little bit of guidance, to give restaurants that edge in providing customers with what they want.

There’s the opportunity for people to come into this wonderful industry and learn so much – about other people, about service, about the industry.

It would be great to share some channelled enthusiasm and hope that just some of it proves infectious!