Abel Valverde shares his experience as maître d' in Santceloni restaurant in Madrid in a new book
Abel Valverde of Santceloni restaurant and his book about service in the dining room.
Planeta Gastro has published 'Host. La importancia de un buen servicio de sala' (the importance of good service in the dining room), the new book by venerated Spanish maître d' Abel Valverde, who has stewarded the front of the house at two-Michelin-star Madrid restaurant Santceloni for the past fifteen years.
People sometimes forget that what goes on in the kitchen of a restaurant is only part of the equation, especially when you're talking about top quality restaurants that seek to provide diners with an experience that transcends what they put in their mouths. In the simplest terms, this might include anything from a restaurant's decor to its waitstaff, cutlery, tableware; wine, cheese or cigar selection, food service and more – essentially making sure that everything that a customer comes into contact with while at a restaurant is designed to make their experience as special and as memorable as possible.
Even so, the influence of a restaurant's maître d' is sometimes overlooked when it comes time to dole out the fame and recognition that so easily falls on the great chefs of our day. Not so with Abel Valverde, the esteemed maître d' of iconic Madrid restaurant Santceloni. Having won just about every award there is in Spain for this profession, Valverde decided to share his experience with the rest of the world through his new book, Host. La importancia de un buen servicio de sala (Planeta Gastro, 2016).
As both a theoretical and practical guide to learning how to manage the front-of-the-house of a restaurant, Host takes readers through the fundamental elements of dining room service, with information about subjects including interaction with sommeliers, chefs and waiters, dealing with customers, managing stressful situations, financial management, receiving complaints, and much more.
On the occasion of the publication of Host, Valverde shared the following experiences and insights on this key restaurant industry profession with Foods and Wines from Spain.
How has working in the dining room of a top restaurant changed compared with what it was ten years ago?
The fundamentals continue and should continue to be the same: to make customers happy and ensure they have a memorable experience. But times have changed, and if the concept of service in the dining room was once linked to servility and the idea of a butler, customers today are seeking other types of experiences, a more intimate approach and different treatment.
Has the way that customers perceive the dining room service changed?
Nowadays, customers know more and more all the time. We have information in the palm of our hand. There is interest in wine, cheeses, breads, cocktails . . . Our clients are extremely knowledgeable and more demanding of us. I believe that the financial crisis has made clients place more value on where they're going to have their gastronomic experience than before – not only taking into account what's on a plate, but also the experience as a whole, including the service, wines, space, quality of tableware, and so forth. All of these things together comprise our understanding of a restaurant.
What qualities and values do you look for in your team?
Humility, passion, dedication, love for the profession and a desire to learn.
Does the power of suggestion play an important role in the dining room?
We are artists, salespeople, and actors filled with passion. Everything we do has to come from the heart, and we must know how to transmit this to our customers. I like to be authentic and not a braggart. It's about simplicity and elegance.
What do you think sets Santceloni's dining room apart from others?
I don't like to make comparisons. Our dining room is what it is and it has its own identity, and that is what I've always defended. We don't all have to be copies of successful formulas. Each style's identity must be present. Not everyone is Ferran Adrià, despite the fact that he's a reference point. Every business must have its own style, and we need the same in the dining room. From the very first day we opened 15 years ago, our challenge has been to give our very best and never stop trying to outdo ourselves.
How do you and chef Óscar Velasco work together and understand one another?
Under a premise that I think is the basis of our good relationship: to respect one another's sphere and share opinions with the maximum respect for what the other person develops.
Looking back, what were the most beautiful and the hardest things that have happened in the dining room at Santceloni?
The most difficult part was having to lead a team when I was only 24 – Santi Santamaría's first project outside of Can Fabes. It almost finished me off. The best is to see the incredibly professional people that are trained in our houses and, of course, see the satisfaction on the faces of our clients. There's no greater reward.
What images do foreign customers have of Spain? Do you ever get the opportunity to exchange ideas with them about Spanish gastronomy?
Of course. People think highly and well of us. There's a reason why we're the number one international destination [for tourists]. And thanks to them, restaurants like ours have survived during this enormous [financial] crisis.
Do you think that the level of dining room service in Spain is on par with other countries like France, Italy, or the United States?
We're not only at the same level, but we go above and beyond in many instances. What we need is to be more critical with professionals from this sector. Businesses should turn to qualified staff. At the end of the day, it is the image of the establishment and part of the success of the business itself.