Opinionista Michael Fridjhon 6 November 2013

RIP service

In South Africa, we seem to view service as a luxury, not a necessary part of the deal. And it’s a real pity.

Restaurant service in South Africa has made some progress since the days of Nigel Bruce’s un-PC description of it as “truculent tribesmen with an eye on the clock and a thumb in the soup.” Still, there’s anecdotal evidence of enough going wrong in even the finest establishments to suggest that complacency is an inappropriate emotion. No one wants the job, for a start. We do not – as a country – have a tradition where service is seen as an honourable profession and people seek out training in their chosen field.

This is not a uniquely South African problem, though it is complicated by the master-slave history of the nation. When I was traveling in Australia in the late 1980s I had occasion to dine at a Relais & Chateaux establishment in the Hunter Valley. When I asked the ‘sommelier’ for a suggestion of a half bottle of wine to accompany my meal, he looked at me blankly and explained that he couldn’t help because he didn’t drink. I was a little surprised, and said as much to the maitre d’ (who was a young Frenchman) when he asked if I was happy with my order. He explained apologetically how his pool of service staff comprised students between university courses and on gap years. His family, on the other hand, owned a 2 star Michelin near Perpignan and he has making the most of several such postings ahead of returning to work in the family restaurant.

Notwithstanding the questionable legality of such arrangements, many restaurants in South Africa pay their staff only a nominal amount, and leave them to harvest the service charge. When times are good, some of them do quite well. In the heyday of the Butcher Shop in Sandton several years ago, Alan Pick told me his top earners were taking home over R20k per month. That was good money then and certainly encouraged enthusiastic attention: the level of wine in a glass never fell below a third before someone appeared ready to fill it to the brim and suggest another bottle.

Service, of course, is more than a matter of driving turnover for the establishment. It’s about managing the general environment of the diner, anticipating and meeting his/ her expectations in terms of the quality of the food and drink, understanding what is on offer and delivering accordingly.

Based on these criteria, most South African hostelries fall dismally short. Waiters are not properly informed about the culinary components so they cannot answer questions (for those diners who want to understand more about the dish before ordering it, or who have food allergies.) But equally many of the top places (or at least those which aspire to be thought of as such) lack the essential hardware to live up to their pricing expectation. Eetrite cutlery, clumsy caterware plates, wine glasses which could double as murder weapons are often to be found in establishments which price into the very apex of the pyramid.

While I am the first to tilt at the windmills of the great North-South (I’m as rude as any born-in-Jozi Gautenger when it comes to the Cape) it’s impossible not to note the difference between the best outlets of Cape Town/the winelands and those of our bustling financial capital. It is clear that the exposure to the expectations of international visitors has contributed immeasurably to quality of the service environment as well as the performance of the staff in the Western Cape.

There have been attempts to develop a restaurant wine culture in South Africa, with Champagne Bollinger sponsoring a sommelier awards programme for several years. While there has been an uptick in the number of entrants, and the organisers are happy they are seeing more and more candidates with the requisite competences, the bulk of the numbers is still coming from the Cape. This does raise the question of why our wine service culture has not kept pace with the overall improvement in the quality of our wines.

There are several probable explanations – starting with the fact that, in Gauteng at least, the mining town mentality still prevails and many diners don’t seem concerned enough to complain. The Butcher Shop (whose wine mark-ups are the stuff of legend and which once justified its margins by serving its best wines in appropriate stemware) now uses thick-lipped heavy-stemmed Dema tankards. This suggests that its customers do not expect better. They are happy to know that Mr Pick was yet again the biggest buyer at the Cape Winemakers’ Guild auction and do not see the anomaly between the quality of the wine on offer and the actual wine service.

The culture of sponsored wine lists is also to blame: the big distributors pay to have their products listed, in return for which the outlets narrow down the choice of what is available. This is hardly the kind of environment in which a sommelier would be required. In fact, you can take this a step forward: most restaurateurs won’t pay for trained staff because they cannot see how they can recover this expenditure. Sadly, they may be correct: if much of their wine list revenue is coming from supplier kick-backs, why should they pay anything at all for wine service expertise?

The movie “Somm” – which details the efforts of four candidates attempting to pass the Master Sommelier exams – has become something of an unlikely international niche hit. Dustin Wilson, a real-life aspirant from the documentary who has since passed the gruelling exam and become the wine director of Eleven Madison Park, explained to The Wall Street Journal’s Lettie Teague that one of the reasons he put in the time and effort to get the qualification is “I don’t think I could have scored this job without it.”

A Japanese Manga series in cartoon format – in which the hero is a sommelier – has sold over 3.5m copies domestically alone. It’s hard to imagine a less likely success story even as we stare at the ratings of SA Masterchef.

It’s easy to get precious about this, and there’s no doubt that much of the hype around wine – its attributes, nuances, and food compatibility – are little more than an attempt to build a Taj Mahal over a glass of wine (to borrow from Lawrence Durrell). But there is another side to fine wine which – as a nation – we seemed to have ignored, and the absence of sommeliers in our restaurants highlights this. Despite all the progress made on the quality side of the industry, and all that producers do to refine their offering, wine is still treated the way bread rolls and coffee were presented in restaurants 10 years ago. It is something diners expect rather than something the establishment takes pride in – an accompaniment, not part of the main idea. The fact that, unlike the bread rolls, it’s a vital revenue source, is conveniently forgotten: after all, it’s going to be consumed anyway, so the least investment = the greatest the profit.

Until we – who live in places where the expectations of sophisticated international visitors don’t reach – refuse to be fobbed off by a waiter wrestling with a corkscrew and a bottle of part-sponsored industrial plonk, we will get the wine service we deserve. DM

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