Specials Education How well does your server know the menu?

Setting the Table: New servers at Clyde’s get their first tips from Shane Mannix.
Photograph by Darrow Montgomery

Bob Kinkead has agreed to play along. He has even suggested the place—Vidalia, which the veteran restaurateur says has the kind of professional wait staff that can stand up to scrutiny. We’re here on a January afternoon to see just how well our waitress knows the menu. Right now, she knows neither that she’s being quizzed nor that the man grading her is both a James Beard Award–winning chef and one tough mother of a critic.

Vidalia has roasted Amish shoat on the menu, and Kinkead suggests I ask the waitress about it. But he can’t resist turning the tables on me first. “Do you know what a shoat is?” he asks.

“I figure it’s a young pig,” I say, “but I couldn’t tell you exactly the age.”

“It’s like between 10 and 20 weeks old,” Kinkead says.

“What’s the difference between a suckling and a shoat?” I shoot back.

“A suckling pig is literally suckling, no solid food,” he says. A shoat “is a weaned pig.”

When the waitress arrives to take our order, I ask a number of questions, from the size of the shrimp in Vidalia’s signature shrimp-and-grits plate to the kind of stock used in the chanterelle–butternut squash risotto that accompanies the rabbit sausage entree. She doesn’t know the answer to either the stock or shrimp questions but says she’ll check with Chef R.J. Cooper. Then she turns to take Kinkead’s order for shoat.

“So, what is shoat?” I ask with as much innocence as I can muster.

“Suckling pig,” she says.

Waiters and waitresses, as we all know, are not chefs. But they are the chef’s emissaries, particularly in fine-dining restaurants; we expect them to know a lot about the food they serve. Frequently, they don’t. A waitress once suggested that I crack open a roasted oyster, still sealed as tight as a rear engine seal, with a flimsy little oyster fork. Another waitress once told me that her mussels were cooked, literally, on a wood-burning grill. I even had a vegetarian waitress, in an attempt to sell the item, praise a meat-heavy pasta dish.

But I’ve never had an experience to match Kinkead’s at Café Boulud in New York, where he ordered a dish with green and white asparagus at Daniel Boulud’s pricey little bistro. “When I got the dish, there wasn’t any white asparagus on it. It was only green,” Kinkead recalls. “I called the waiter over and said, ‘Excuse me, this is supposed to have white asparagus in it.’ He said, ‘That is white asparagus.’ ”

Talk to just about any chef or restaurateur, and they will emphasize the importance of menu knowledge, that their wait staff should not only be able to tell you how a dish is cooked but also tell you the ingredients in it. The people who now populate restaurants demand such information. They can’t eat gluten or peanuts. They have diet concerns. They have read every goddamn issue of Gourmet and Gastronomica, and they want their server to be as knowledgeable as they are.

“To be a good waiter, I’m convinced now that you need to know the food very well,” says Roberto Donna, whose Bebo Trattoria in Crystal City has been raked over the coals about its poor service. “To be able to…teach them, that is a different story. That’s very difficult.”

The difficulties are enormous for American restaurateurs. Training gobbles up time and money, and wait staffs are notoriously fickle. They are typically young, single, and maybe even working toward a degree in another field. Turnover is high, 70 percent or higher annually. Restaurateurs, in fact, may spend their own resources to train a server who ends up working for a competitor. “It’s the cost of doing business,” says Ashok Bajaj, the man behind Ardeo, 701, Rasika, and the Oval Room, among other restaurants.

America’s international palate also presents a challenge to restaurateurs and their wait staffs, Bajaj says. “In Italy, Italians cook Italian food, so they know the ingredients,” he says. “America has a global influence on its cuisine. We use so many ingredients.” Over at the Oval Room, for example, servers must not only grasp Chef Tony Conte’s elaborate cooking techniques, but they must also understand the Japanese ingredients he uses.

Despite the difficulties and gambles involved in thoroughly training servers, many restaurants make the investment. They do so because the cost of not doing so is high. “There’s an old adage [that] good service overcomes bad food, but good food can’t overcome bad service,” says Kinkead. “And it’s really true. The dining public pays much more attention to the service than the food.”

And food knowledge is a major part of the training equation. Most fine-dining restaurants have daily menu meetings before meal shifts. The chef, the pastry chef, and the sommelier may take part, describing the ingredients and cooking methods for the latest special or the characteristics of a new pinot noir on the wine list. The wait staff may even sample the items. Pop quizzes are routine.

What few of these restaurants have, however, are formal programs with employees dedicated to training servers. Training tends to be done right in the kitchen or on the dining room floor itself; it’s built into the job descriptions of chefs or front-of-the-house managers or even experienced servers. At Restaurant Nora near Dupont Circle, servers trade off days shadowing cooks in the kitchen; they then share their newfound knowledge with the rest of the wait staff. At Bebo, Donna places his new wait-staff hires at the “pick-up station first so they can see all the food for two or three days and see how we prepare it,” he says. “Sometimes if they are willing to do it, I let them come in the kitchen and work with us. Some of them, they do. Those are the ones who become good.”

But Clyde’s Restaurant Group, which owns operations as diverse as the Tomato Palace and 1789, does things a little differently. Before any waiter or waitress steps onto a dining-room floor, each must spend three days at CRG’s service boot camp in Georgetown.

Service for Dummies: CRG servers must learn to talk up products like salespeople.Photograph by Darrow Montgomery

The night before I visit one of CRG’s server trainings, I eat at Clyde’s of Gallery Place, a clubby operation that exudes money and influence. My server, a tall man with glasses that rest low on his nose, sports a “Top Gun” pin on his tie, which is neatly tucked into his dress shirt. When I ask him about the pin, he says it means that he “knows what’s going on” at Clyde’s. What he doesn’t know is hoisin sauce. He compares the sweet fermented soy sauce to demi-glace, the highly reduced mixture of espagnole sauce and beef/veal stock.

The following evening CRG’s Shane Mannix tells me that Top Guns are “the best of the best [servers] in our restaurants.” They’re the ones who will take the rookie waiters and waitresses and show them how to do everything “by the book.” It is Mannix’s job to get those newbies ready for the Top Guns, whether the Top Guns are ready for them or not.

Mannix is the corporate trainer for CRG. His workplace is a narrow space high above the Georgetown Clyde’s. It looks like a poor man’s version of the restaurant. There are faded pictures and framed newspaper clippings on one wall, a tiny bar with a crisply dressed mannequin serving wine, and a row of worn dining tables on each side of the room. A sign is affixed to Mannix’s podium; it reads: there are no stupid questions.

More than 20 future waiters and waitresses—a multi-ethnic cast that leans toward the young and attractive—have crowded into Mannix’s March training. They all have a copy of the 162-page Clyde’s Server Manual. It’s a mix of company history, philosophy, and propaganda; seasonal food charts, seafood cheat sheets, and wine guides; and page after page about proper dress, proper etiquette, and proper service. “The intent…is not so much that they’ll remember everything,” says Mannix, “but that they’ve heard it.”

CRG’s food training begins on a commercial note. “The first thing we’re going to talk about is the three tactics of a successful salesperson,” Mannix tells the class. “Because that’s what you are in the restaurant is a salesperson. And as a salesperson, you need to be able to sell your product. If you want to be an order-taker, go work at some other restaurant.”

Perhaps that sounds crass, but it’s a philosophy shared by more than a few restaurants. It’s also practical. Servers are not Zen Buddhists, accumulating menu knowledge for their own enlightenment. This is knowledge gained for the purpose of cold, hard commercialism.

The first tactic for successful CRG salespeople/servers is to “know the product and be able to talk about it,” Mannix says. And with that, the instructor moves into faux-server mode, approaching a “table” of students with a rote recitation about “tonight’s” special of “cream of tomato soup.”

“How much soup am I moving?” he says following his description. “Not much. I’m lucky if I get a bowl. You know how much a bowl of soup is? About five bucks. I want to sell soup, let me tell you.”

Mannix then shifts into a description so detailed it borders on porn: “Our soup today is a cream of tomato soup. The chef starts with some fresh Roma tomatoes and beefsteak tomatoes. They’re puréed with some garlic, heavy whipping cream, and heated to temperature. Then it’s smoothed and topped off with spicy chipotle sauce and corn tortilla chips.”

“I just made that up. It sounds good, though,” he says. “You need to know the ingredients, how it’s prepared, what it tastes like, how it’s served, then make it sound delicious.”

The second and third tactics are really variations on the first: “Believe in the product”—which Mannix boils down to eating the product so you know how it tastes—and “Know and sell signature items and monthly specials.” The servers will spend a good chunk of one class learning about Clyde’s March special, a fillet of Chesapeake rockfish over red chili risotto cake with avocado purée. The lesson includes a video presentation on the dish, a confidential handout that breaks down the entree ingredient by ingredient, and an actual taste of the fish.

If his students feel any pressure to quickly absorb and regurgitate these lessons, then the teacher only increases the stress when he tells them how unforgiving diners really are. “You know how long you have to get [trust] from a customer at a table?” Mannix asks. “Four seconds. You sit down at a table in a restaurant and the server comes over, you can tell in the first four seconds how it’s going to be.”

Mannix’s comment reminds me of something that Kinkead said back at Vidalia in January—that a waiter’s accumulated menu knowledge serves only to make a diner comfortable. “If you know the stuff, then your comfort at the table is terrific,” he says, “and if your comfort level at the table is terrific, you’re going to be a much better server.”

But the comment also reminds me of the waiter’s line of BS about the hoisin sauce at Clyde’s the night before. I have to admit that Mannix is right. I didn’t trust my server for the rest of the evening, Top Gun or not.

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