A few nights ago, I had a guest who was interested in a certain chardonnay on our wine list. As I approached the table I noticed that he had that “deer in the headlights” look on his face. This happens all the time. The pressure of selecting a wine for a party that might include a boss or the future in-laws can be too much for some people. They will, after scanning page after page of unfamiliar names, move to the fallback position of ordering the one and only name on the list that they recognize. “Uh, uh, uh, we’ll have a bottle of the Grgich” they will blurt out, snapping the wine list closed and handing it back like it’s a live snake. Whew! Boy, am I glad that’s over!
In this case, I knew by his selection the style and flavor profile he was looking for. I also knew that this particular vintage from this particular producer was a very lean one, not at all typical of their house style (this was the very reason we had purchased it, as it was crisp, racy, and an excellent “food wine”). I shared this information with him and offered some alternate choices that I felt appropriate, all within the same basic price range. But this guy was the Boss Man, out with several of his boys and their wives, and as such was feeling pumped up like Popeye in the Macy’s parade. He insisted on his original choice. I brought it out, presented, poured a taste, and this look of “Oh crap, the suit was right” shot across his face just long enough for me to notice before he mentally ha-rumphed, straightened his tie and approved the bottle. He then had to re-enforce his choice by criticizing mine while I am still at the table. “The sommelier suggested the Blah-blah-blah Chard, but I chose this…” What a douche.
Our guests are mostly educated, sensible people when it comes to dealing with all the other professional service providers in their lives. They would never think of telling their Mercedes mechanic, “You know, Gunter, I don’t think it needs new brakes; let’s replace the water pump instead.” They would never contradict their doctor with “Look, Doc, I know the distended abdomen and acute lower intestinal pain is indicative of a ruptured appendix, but I think I’d rather have that gall bladder removal today…” So it is always amazing to me that seasoned professionals like us, whether we be server, manager, or sommelier, often have our advice ignored by guests because they think they must surely know more than some guy who just works in a restaurant.
Most all of us who are qualified to work in a Michelin-starred restaurant like ours have dedicated a great deal of our work and personal lives to the study and tasting of the food and beverage products we serve. Many of us are certified by very recognizable bodies like the Court of Master Sommeliers, culinary institutions like the CIA, the CCA, Johnson and Wales College, NECI, etc. We have taken courses to enrich and educate ourselves from highly qualified educators teaching courses on enology, food and wine education and service. Add to that the extensive training that is required by restaurants at our level: usually a week or more split between kitchen, door, and dining room; learning wine and spirits lists, menu ingredients and being tested before anyone of us goes anywhere near a guest’s table. Follow that with daily updates and training in standards, techniques, and product knowledge. This on-going training is a fact of life in restaurants such as ours. We know the items on our menus and wine lists inside out and backwards.
Every day of our professional lives we are immersed in food, wine, and service; we research it, taste it, talk about it; we practice describing it, serving it, etc. At our restaurant the main focus of both the menu and the wine program is the pairing of our Chef’s dishes with the wines the Sommeliers have purchased. This is not a process of simply decreeing, “Yeah, those are pretty good together…” The Chef adjusts dishes to agree with a wine, the Somms will open 5 or 6 different wines trying to find the match that will make our guests sit up and take notice. Even our “family meal” at work is an educational experience: we play “Mystery Wine” every day, blind-tasting a wine our Sommelier has selected to match with our Employee Meal, trying to determine varietal, vintage, country of origin; and we often nail it. On our days off, we cannot simply pop a bottle of wine. We have to sniff, swirl, and analyze it. We think about how it will agree with or contrast the dish with which we have paired it for our dinners at home. The point I am trying to make here is that this is our job. It’s what we do. And we do it well.
Perhaps because of past experiences with Old-School waiters in Old-School places that would fleece you like a spring lamb given the opportunity, there is a tendency for guests to regard their server as they would a cheap hooker they had brought back to their hotel room: “I am interested in what you have to offer, but I am keeping both eyes and one hand on my wallet at all times.” I worked with a guy at Chops/Lobster Bar in Atlanta that would recommend a magnum of cabernet to a party of two, and whose only suggestion when asked about a chardonnay was the Marcassin ($280 a bottle, but the price was never disclosed until the check arrived). Once, a guest told me he would give me $50 for the steel badge with the restaurant name that we wore as part of our uniform. This guy overheard the conversation and almost tore off his jacket trying to get his badge off.
The seasoned, professional server is truly interested in opening his guest’s eyes to new experiences, as it is always personally satisfying and most often profitable when tip time comes. My crew knows they don’t have to push our guests into overly expensive choices. With an average check of $120 per person, they know the guest has already made that choice when they picked up the phone to call for a reservation. While we never want to under-estimate our diners’ need or ability to spend money, we will always try to provide them with an experience they will think is a good value, enjoy, and want to repeat. If they let us.