Friday, 4 February 2011

Top Quality Service

Those of you who read my last blog (or have seen my waistline) will know that I'm passionate about food, and in particular fine dining. It was not always so. The flame was kindled in no small part by some of the recent food-related television programmes such as Ramsay's Kitchen Nightmares, Great British Menu and the excellent MasterChef.

These programmes all focus squarely on the food side of the experience. But, as anyone who's waited over half an hour for a starter will know, there's more to it than that. I'm talking about the service. So it was with great interest that - a few weeks ago - I spotted a trailer for a new BBC2 programme called 'Michel Roux's Service.'

The premise of the show was familiar: eight contestants going on a journey of training and self-discovery over a number of weeks, with a potentially life-changing prize on offer at the end. This prize was no recording contract though. It was the possibility of two sought-after scholarships to the Academy of Food and Wine Service (AFWS). One for a sommelier and one for front-of-house.

So far so reality TV you may think. But this was different. Firstly, the show focussed not on the cooking but on the serving, a side of the industry that is often overlooked, even looked down upon. We only usually remember bad service. Good waiting staff should be unobtrusive; always there if needed but barely visible if not, so as such even great service often goes unnoticed. Secondly, the trainees were a break from the norm. Not a bunch of self-indulgent wannabee Lady Gagas or Justin Timberlakes; these people were all lacking something in their lives: self-esteem, a career, a sense of direction. And they were young - ranging from 18 to 23.

Their journey was not always smooth, taking them from high-street chain Zizzi to Michel Roux's own two Michelin starred restaurant Le Gavroche. In the early episodes there was more spitting feathers than silver service, so-much-so that one of the trainees was removed from the process due to his attitude. This proved a turning point as the rest of the group bonded much better without him. Each week a new, more difficult challenge awaited, under the ever-watchful eyes of Chef Michel and his wonderfully charismatic right-hand-man, Fred Siriex, maitre'd of a top London restaurant.

The one thing that made this programme such compulsive viewing was watching the change in the trainees as the weeks went on. Nikkita - a single mother at 16 with little self-confidence - didn't know anything about wine or even like it. Yet she showed such an affinity for it that in one task she was mistaken for the real sommelier. Ashley - a young man from Yorkshire who left school and acquired an ASBO at 14 - blossomed in a five-star country house hotel. Each of the candidates had their own strengths and weaknesses, but the change and growth was visible, and astonishing.

So it came to the final decision and there was no telling who would win. What was clear though was that none of them would truly lose. The sommelier position went to Danielle, the youngest of the candidates but one who showed tenacity and charm all the way through. Michel couldn't decide who to give the front-of-house scholarship to from two outstanding candidates, so they both received one. James, the eldest trainee who seemed born to such a role, and the brilliant Ashley, who probably changed the most during the whole series. And in one final twist, maitre'd Fred offered another of the apprentices - Brooke - a position in the bar at his restaurant.

My wife was in tears at the end of the show, I was pretty choked myself. It was that kind of programme. Even if you're not interested in the industry it was difficult not to be touched at the reaction of the winners, of all the apprentices in fact. Service has been one of the best things on TV in a long while.

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