Catering for the careerists

A job in the hospitality industry is no longer considered just a funding stop gap, it is an increasingly popular career choice abundant with potential, writes Rachel Buller.

We've all been there, a job waiting tables or pulling pints to earn some extra cash to fund studies or to help pay for a foreign adventure.

But how many people considered pursuing it as a more permanent career?

As other sectors struggle, the hospitality industry is offering not just jobs, but training, opportunity and longevity and it is increasingly being seen as an exciting and challenging career choice.

And as illustrated by the popular recent BBC series Service – with Michelin-starred chef Michel Roux Jr, if you think it is just carrying a few plates and polishing the glasses, think again.

Now, a career working front of house, whether in a top restaurants, a fancy bar or the multitude of eateries and bars which make up a hotel, is one of great precision and professionalism, where the smallest of details can create the biggest of impacts.

It is often a 24 hours a day, 365 days a year profession but the long and anti-social hours are not putting people off. It seems there is a new resurgence in interest in not only making the food but serving it and ensuring guests receive the highest possible standard of service.

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A day behind the scenes at Dunston Hall, near Norwich reveals just how interesting, challenging and rewarding a job in the service industry can be. Like many large hotels, it is a cauldron of constant pressure, with several restaurants and bars to run, weddings to host, conferences to look after and all the added extras such as room service and special requests.

'To work in hospitality you need to be someone special, I really believe that. You need to be a people person and you need to be incredibly self motivated,' says Paul Murfitt, director of food and beverages at Dunston Hall. We are sitting in the bar having a morning coffee. Staff are milling around and with the hectic breakfast service at an end there is a sense that this is simply a brief lull before the next wave of activity begins at lunch.

'We are not interested whether people have ever worked in a hotel or restaurant before, we are looking for good body language, and it might sound cliched, but a big smile.'

The morning meeting has just finished in which the heads of all the different departments and areas come together to discuss occupancy, restaurant bookings, whether there are any weddings, special requirements, any overnight issues and whether there are any VIPs in – and that might be a conference leader, a regular guest or a VIP in the traditional celebrity sense of the word.

'It is a big buzz working in a hotel of this size,' says Paul.

The hotel staff is huge and a mixture of experienced long-term staff, casual employees and those working as part of a training course.

But Paul believes it has a less transient make-up than a decade ago.

'We see a lot more people now wanting a career in hospitality.

'We have a lot of students who come here on a work placement from the college as part of formal training, who then go on to work in the industry. I can think of six people in the brassiere who are doing a degree in hospitality. You wouldn't have seen that 10 years ago.

'People are increasingly seeing it as more of a career.

'I like to think that it is a slow change in attitudes towards service as a career in general and maybe the other industries are drying up a little bit. We are very honest when someone comes to an interview. We know the ones who won't like it and very few find it isn't for them.

'It is hard work, but we don't hide that. When I was a commis chef in London I was working 95 hours a week for �90. Now my guys work a 45-hour week as per contract. I think conditions are far better.'

He believes part of the rejuvenation in interest in the sector has come from the growing exposure the trade is getting on television, through programmes like Service and The Restaurant and the multitude of cooking shows.

'Some celebrity chefs don't always paint the best picture though,' he says.

While the hospitality industry may have become more professional in terms of training and employment conditions, the key to success remains the same as it always has – good service.

'As soon as you get the customer service wrong, everything else that is wrong gets amplified.

'If you are in a good restaurant and the atmosphere is good and you are having a good time, if you have to wait a long time for your main course and it is dealt with professionally and in a friendly manner then you don't remember that small problem, you remember you had a good time.

'But if the service is not good and it isn't dealt with well, then you don't just remember that one problem, it clouds your whole opinion of your experience.'

My boss for the morning is Jane Hardingham, assistant restaurant manager for the past four years. As I vacuum the carpets and help clear tables, she laughs about some of the bizarre situations she has to deal with and the importance of working as a team.

'The hours can be a challenge and you see a lot of each other, so in some ways being here is like an extended family. I have seen lots of staff come in as teenagers and really grow in experience and ability which is fantastic.'

As she teaches a student how to use the floor polisher, I am seconded to help clear a room which hosted an early morning breakfast meeting, emptying and cleaning the coffee and hot water jugs, clearing the jam stands and generally tidying up.

Then it is in to wine training.

'The team are in the middle of an eight-week wine course. That is all part of good service and so important to add to their skills.

'The whole world is accessible and people want to drink wines they have had in France or Australia or wherever they have been on holiday,' says Jane.

'A lot of the team are very young and just don't drink wine and feel intimidated by it. So training like this is all about building confidence.

'Wine can be scary if you don't know anything about it and we want to break down these barriers. We don't expect staff to be experts overnight, but to be able to perhaps suggest a wine to go with a particular food is important.'

The training is surprisingly interesting and it is a reminder that the devil is most certainly in the detail.

'That is something echoed around the whole ethos of the hotel – and the service industry across the board – the significance of all those little things which you might not notice being done, but would notice if they weren't.

As the team are briefed for the lunch service, it becomes apparent that regulars are known by their names and one regular couple haven't been in for a few weeks, which is, apparently, unheard of.

'I have a number for them. I think I will give them a ring to make sure everything is okay,' says someone.

This isn't to hound them into coming in, it is genuine concern about their wellbeing.

One couple booked for lunch that day, come in every week at the same time and like the same table.

The team all know which drinks they will have, the fact they don't like the usual chocolates with their coffee, but some special ones they keep for them.

It is this sort of attention to detail which shows that this is not just a job, but a career about which you need to care passionately.