Interview Front of House: Silvano Giraldin (October 2017)

In 1971 Silvano Giraldin arrived at Le Gavroche in London as a commis waiter, his extraordinary career blossomed, becoming restaurant manager by 1975. The following decades have witnessed Silvano lead generations of front of house talent both on the floor of the restaurant and also through education and training bodies such as The Royal Academy of Culinary Arts (RACA) and more recently The Gold Service Scholarship (GSS). This interview provides by far the most in depth insight currently found on the web, offering a fascinating, educational and at times heart warming look at the life of this legendary industry figure.  Interview took place at Claude Bosi at Bibendum, London, October 2017.   

silvano giraldin

Tell us some background about yourself including what inspired you to a life in restaurant service…

I was born in Padua, Italy, near Venice. Twelve kilometres from where I lived there was a spa Abano Terme, which became very popular in summer and I did some casual work there in my mid-teens. A turning point was a talk given at my school by the head of a catering school, I was so impressed with his presentation that I signed up and started college. It proved a real privilege to be educated there, some great Maitre d’ were part teacher and part working, indeed one of them was butler to Juan Peron of Argentina and he could speak five or six languages and he instilled in me two things; catering was the oyster to enable the travelling of the world and second that learning languages was an asset to achieve the very best in the top end of the business. Over the three years at Catering school I was sent on placements, one I remember was to Grand Hotel des Bains where they were filming Death in Venice with Dirk Bogarde. The season at The Lido finished early and the Festival of Venice started that September. I was asked to carry a tray selling cigarettes, Frank Sinatra arrived and gave me 10,000 Lire and said keep the change, that’s like 500 Euro today! My father didn’t believe me, he thought I stole the money (laughing)! The whole early experience was dazzling to a young man!

The next year I was sent to Hotel Negresco in Nice, which was another phenomenal experience! I shared accommodations with the drivers; in the 1960s virtually every guest had a driver who stayed when they came to the hotel, one highlight was a floor being cordoned off for the Beatles. These experiences leave you wanting more, especially when enjoying your youth!

After leaving catering school I spent the next five years – from 18 to 23 – working in the industry in France; from Aix-Les-Bains to Paris then onto a restaurant where a young Maitre d’ had come from England and he spoke highly of the Roux family expanding in Le Gavroche in London. I got my green card based on three years references and began working as a commis waiter at Le Gavroche on 21 January 1971. I had no English and at that time the restaurant was only open at dinner time, so during the day I went to school to learn English, within a year I had good grasp of the language which helped my development on the floor of the restaurant.   I became Sommelier and reported to Michel Roux Snr on wine, both Le Poulbot restaurant and Le Gavroche had one Michelin star when Michelin first started in Great Britain in 1974 so the brothers were doing very well.

The Waterside Inn opened in mid- 1972 and a number of colleagues left Le Gavroche to join Michel (Roux Snr’s) team in Bray, this provided me with the immediate opportunity of advancement at Le Gavroche. At the end of 1974, Pierre Koffmann was leaving his head chef role at The Waterside Inn and planning on opening a restaurant in France. I was the assistant manager at the Le Gavroche at the time when the then restaurant manager left to join Pierre Koffmann, so from the beginning of 1975 I was promoted to restaurant manager.

Tell us about your relationship with the Roux family

Having started at Le Gavroche at the beginning of 1971, Michel Roux Jnr was a 10 ½ year old young boy and throughout those early years Albert (Roux) gave his son the freedom to decide what he wanted to do for a career, he never discouraged nor encouraged Michel Jnr to follow in the family footsteps as a chef but when he decided it was what he wanted to do he gave his full support. Now Michel Jnr has experienced exactly the same with his daughter, coming through as a chef and wanting to continue the family tradition. If you look at The Waterside Inn, the family is the same with Alain picking up from Michel Snr and the restaurant continuing to flourish into the next generation.

Le Gavroche is in my heart, in fact as are the whole of the extended Roux family. Indeed, I am made to feel like part of that family, the affection we share is enormous, they look after their own very well and it is a great privilege to not only be part of the company but also in one with the genuine warmth of a family company.

Tell us about the history of the Sommelier role under your tenure at Le Gavroche.

The Roux’s always allowed me to run the floor as I saw fit, if people under my orders made mistakes it was my responsibility and I understood that situation. So I would expect a telling off from the boss if something went wrong and we all understood that it is only human to make mistakes but then understand and do not repeat those mistakes. I always believed in supporting the sommelier in service, when I hired them I explained that buying wine is not a science but selling wine is a science! What it is not about is up-selling, a customer who is upsold is upset, period. It is better to go £10 under budget and sell two bottles of wine than go £10 over budget and the customer never come back! So the Sommelier is in a trusted and important position with the customer for the restaurant.

I would train them to start with a relatively humble wine and wait for the customer to point out something they might be considering, then you have an idea of style and budget, which enables a proper conversation. Should you know the customer well then it is a different story, you can meet their needs very quickly. However, never assume anything with any customer, we had those that were regulars for years and years, some very big spending customers, with whom we had a great rapport. We would know even with these customers sometimes they would have a ‘Latour day’ but not every time and we had to be ready to meet exactly what they were wanting on each separate occasion and dealing with each individual situation in an appropriate way.

Up until 1986/87 The Waterside Inn and Le Gavroche was one company, after the split into two companies, Michel Roux Snr stepped away from wine buying for Le Gavroche and that became my responsibility. So there are still wines today that Michel (Roux Snr) negotiated on the Le Gavroche wine list, including the great first growths from 1982 and before…

John Jackson was twenty years older than me when he joined Le Gavroche, shall we say he had a relaxed manner, in taking the orders he was superb – worth his weight in gold – he could converse with customers and show assured and respected knowledge, so he would take the orders and then the team would serve the wine behind him. John went on to buy The Crown at Whitebrook in Wales with his brother as the chef. He was around six years at Le Gavroche then he has been followed by Peter Davis, Thierry Tomasin, Francois Bertrant, David Galetti and now Remi Cousin.

Le Gavroche has had relatively few sommeliers who stayed a long time but each have added value and made their mark

What advice would you give a new starter in the restaurant service profession and what key attributes do you look for in a young service professional?

Attitude, attitude and more good attitude. The right attitude is to serve the customer with dedication, passion and professionalism.   We are merchants of happiness, when the customer is pleased and comes back that is the best reward we can enjoy. The art of being professional. In terms of technique, the subtle way of making eye contact with customers as often as possible: if someone is looking at you it is because he needs something and over time you can instinctively see or anticipate exactly what the customer is about to want. That is the best form of service. People like to see service adding value and giving them value for money at the same time which is all part of setting, meeting and exceeding expectations of customers which invariably are set very high given the prices in top end restaurants.

As a leader of the restaurant I believe it is important to ensure that the team are well disciplined, this would include being corrected on mistakes as and when they happen. You would not do this in front of the customer but you cannot afford to wait until even the next day to correct a team member, as they will forget or deny that the error occurred and be likely to keep making the same mistakes. As you scan the room, your intuition will tell you where relationships between customer and waiting staff is working and where it is not, sometimes this will mean staff switching stations or tables during service. A new starter should understand and accept all of this as part and parcel of their professional development.

Tell us about The Royal Academy of The Culinary Arts and Master of the Culinary Arts (MCA) for Service.

This originally came from the French Un des Meilleurs Ouvriers de France (MOF), which literally means one of the best craftsmen of France. Created in 1924, it represents a third level degree across a number of crafts, including cooking and restaurants. The award is bestowed by the French President and recipients in the culinary world have included Joel Robuchon, Paul Bocuse and Michel Roux Snr.

Michel Bourdin (Connaught) was driving for a British equivalent recognition, which began as the concept Meilleurs Ouvriers de Grande-Bretange (MOGB) and then in 1980 officially became The Academy of Culinary Arts which later gained the Royal Patronage of Prince Charles. The Roux family have always been big supporters of the organisation and when they started the process in Great Britain, senior guest judges, such as Bocuse and Robuchon came over from France. Shortly before I had formed an alliance of Maitre d’ in London called Les Arts de la Table and put forward to the academy the idea of a competition to recognise service. By the beginning of the 1990s, this was not only taken forward in this country but also adopted officially in France as an MOF category for service and management. In its inception in France, three of the original six winners came from Le Gavroche. I was a very proud man.

The challenge we set for the MCA Service Section is very tough. At the semi-final stage you have to, for example, prepare a smoked salmon, carve a duck, prepare a steak tartare, make a Cesar salad. Also blind tasting three different white and red wines and identification of ten different cheeses. We are as interested in how candidates think through the process as much as the answer, technically they must execute tasks perfectly.

Tell us about the Gold Service Scholarship (GSS)

I have always been associated with the Award of Excellence and MCA for RACA. Willy Bauer started the process at a presentation evening with the Roux Scholars where he suggested the vision GSS. Alastair Storey put forward the capital and that was how it started. I really enjoy the role of a judging Trustee for the GSS in my (semi-) retirement. I can be involved on the inside in moulding and shaping the scholarship to reach people at every level of service to build their skills and recognise their talent.  

What keeps you busy in 2017 and beyond!

Working with youth, with the talent of tomorrow, which gives me great pleasure and pride. The Gold Service Scholarship and RACA Service Section Awards as well as the consultancy I do for Michel Jr & Albert Roux.

 Inspiring, motivating and educating the young professionals to ensure they understand that the industry is constantly changing and you have to constantly adapt and evolve to stay at the top of the game.

from Fine Dining Guide