As chief cook and bottle washer in our house for the past 40 years, I have come to appreciate that my tasks do not end when everybody else leaves the table. There is the clearing-up to do.
Over the past year, when there has rarely been anyone other than my wife and I at the table, I have found myself repeating the same phrases: after lunch it is an injunction to my wife to return to her website (her “fourth” child, as our three actual children refer to it); after dinner, a request that she find something for us to watch.
Left alone, my mind starts to wander. Back to restaurants and the far more numerous tasks that face any professional team at the end of every evening.
Here, there is a non-negotiable professional standard at stake: that the kitchen and front-of-house staff want to leave the restaurant as clean as possible so that those who come in the following morning will in turn leave it clean for them. There is always an opposite number to impress.
Today, on top of professional pride, there are the extra cleaning responsibilities required because of Covid-19.
While the end-of-evening chores may seem obvious and repetitive for the kitchen staff — to clean the section where they have been working, its walls and the inside of the ventilation hood — for the waiting staff these have grown more numerous and fiddly over the years. Tasting menus have become more complex — there are plates for salted and unsalted butter, for pre-desserts, desserts and petits fours. And the main course will invariably be served on an elaborate and expensive plate, alongside equally expensive cutlery — items that, necessarily and obviously, must be accounted for at the end of each evening.
Such items often “develop legs”. I recall a rather nifty ashtray with a spindle that allowed the ash to drop out of sight. I bought three dozen for my restaurant when it opened. “I’ll give them three weeks before they’ve all gone,” my far more savvy restaurant manager commented. She was right.
Today, all top restaurants will have a “closing down” document, listing the duties their staff must fulfil before the place can close for the night. To get some idea of what is involved, I turned to Johnny Smith, who opened The Clove Club with Daniel Willis and chef Isaac McHale in the former Shoreditch Town Hall in London in 2013.
He emailed me the restaurant’s front-of-house close-down checklist, which lists 72 separate tasks that must be completed before the waiting staff can head home. These include 18 relating to the dining room; 13 to cheese and bread; four to linen; 11 to the restaurant’s front room and bar; five to the bathrooms; and 10 to a “final check” that is presumably the responsibility of the general manager on duty.
Under each heading, certain items stand out. First, in the dining-room section, there is the instruction to “count the number of sharp knives”. These, the result of a co-operation between McHale and a knife designer, cost £80 each. Then there are the very specific instructions that the dining-room chairs are to be stacked three high, after wiping, and that the floor must be vacuumed — and “NOT JUST THE CARPET”.
Other tasks range from storing the bread crumber in its correct position to setting up a table for staff breakfast. Then follow the instructions for the outside area, including bringing in the cigarette bin and cleaning it and “having a look for rubbish in the flower pots”. It takes a team of five or six about an hour to complete the entire list.
Smith explains that “the end of service, although it is primarily composed of repetitive tasks, is really important for camaraderie. I happily remember as a young waiter at Croma in Manchester bidding farewell to our guests before having a beer and a laugh with my colleagues while counting the linen or cleaning the coffee machine.”
And, on checking with one of his head waiters, Anastasia Knowles, Smith discovered an unusual quirk: she endearingly described how, when cleaning the tables, she loves to draw pictures in the soapsuds before wiping them dry.
To be a good waiter requires many qualities: a sense of humour; energy; a pair of eyes that observe everything; and a willingness to please. Attributes that I ponder as I clear up my table for two.
More articles from Nicholas at ft.com/lander
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