The Fantail Restaurant (now Chapter One) on Farnborough Common was the epitome of 1970’s sophistication. Tinkling music, padded armchair seating, burgundy velvet lampshades, dimmed lighting and long starched white linen table cloths. Sports cars and Rolls Royces filled the car park. Women were relieved of their furs at the door, their hair-do’s a work of art that would have taken their hairdressers all afternoon to create.
At 12, I lied about my age to get my first job there, serving coffee and plates of petit fours to replete guests on Friday and Saturday nights. Despite my lowly status (or perhaps partly because of it) it might be the best job I ever had.
So what was it that made serving coffee in this place so wonderful? The opulence of the place, the guests, the food were always a pleasure, of course. But that was by no means all. In reality, this was still a suburban restaurant serving mainly new-monied clientele. It wasn’t a hatted establishment in Soho.
But I loved that I was part of a grown-up team who always respected me and were kind to me, and that I had my own little area of authority. I honed my skills, learning to carry 5 cups and saucers with tinkling coffee spoons securely on the palm of one hand and to pour coffee and hot milk without spilling. I was made to feel I belonged in the place and to the team I was proud to work with. Our job was to pamper our guests and we did it well and with pride.
I grew up with restaurant folk – Italians and Spaniards who came over after the war working themselves up from waiting tables to maître d’ and eventually opening their own modest places. I watched them working all hours, constantly anxious, nursing ulcers. It looked glamorous but it was a tough life.
Like other waiting staff, my time was split between restaurant and kitchen. While the restaurant was calm and organised, the kitchen was a loud, hot, crazy place that raised feasts from the firmament. The heavy swinging double doors protected the peaceful restaurant from the insanity inside and it was just as well it did.
The banter in the kitchen was fantastic, with waiters speaking and swearing in combinations of their native Spanish, Italian and Portuguese, sledging the mainly English chefs, throwing ‘the last word’ over their shoulders as they burst back into the serenity of the restaurant and glided towards their tables, and the chefs coming back at them when they crashed back through the doors on their return. It was fiery, relentless, and always good humoured.
Not a drop of the bedlam of the kitchen escaped into the restaurant. The waiters never failed to be genuinely attentive, amusing and indulgent to guests while being dramatic, explosive and merciless in the kitchen. I loved it.
I got paid out of the tips and went home happy and exhausted, and looking forward to my next shift.
So what do I learn from this?