Ch'ng Poh Tiong

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  • Friday 18 February 2011

'It is tragic that we now have to teach manners in hotel training schools'

‘If you dislike serving people, or regard service as being subservient, then you should seriously consider changing jobs. Otherwise, if you continue doing what you do, it won’t be fair on your employer, noryour guests and, perhaps most of all, on yourself.’

That is one of the first things I tell people when giving wine training. It has nothing to do with wine and everything to do with service. As I step into the new decade, I will stick to this approach as wine trainer for all Sofitel Luxury Hotels in China.

The blunt message delivered, I remind participants that, ‘if you enjoy your work and display dedication, there will be many opportunities to advance your career’.

I impress on my charges that, ‘providing a good wine service is worthy of respect, and you should carry out your duties with pride and professionalism.’

Truth be told, teaching people about types of wine and their various characteristics is probably the easiest part of the job. After all, even without the trainer, there is, floating out there, oceans of horizon-less information that a sommelier, wine lover, even wine writer, can trawl from the internet.

I tell my trainees that being knowledgeable in wine cannot be more important than providing a good service. This realisation on their part will help them recognise that, at the end of the day, a sommelier’s work is to provide service rather than just to display wine knowhow. The latter, while very important, cannot be an end in itself except for wine geeks. Offering service before and above sommellerie ensures that a customer’s needs for wine are always met first, before feeding the ego of a peacock sommelier.

At the time of writing, I was entertained to such a prima donna display from a French sommelier at the Michelin-starred EVO restaurant in Barcelona – more of which later.

I shall tell my Chinese trainees that a good sommelier is part of the teamwork of a restaurant, not a separate entity outside or beyond the identity of the whole. He/she is married to the restaurant, not divorced from it.

As such, everyone working there – whether waiter, sommelier or restaurant manager – should always regard their workplace as if it were their home. That way, when they see someone walking into their ‘home’ it would be most natural to greet the stranger (or returning customer) warmly.

When this idea of one’s workplace being likened to one’s home becomes embedded in the collective imagination, guests are assured of a warm environment and a memorable dining experience.

It is symptomatic (and tragic) of the lack of common courtesy in most of today’s modern homes, that we now have to teach good manners in hotel training schools.

In Thailand, it’s hardly necessary, as children and the young are taught to respect their elders from the time they can talk. The remarkable thing about such a pervasive passion is that when the juniors become seniors themselves, the circle continues its inevitable, endless cycle.

In Catalonia, however, just before the conservatives wrestled back power from the socialist government in the dying days of 2010, another kind of politics was taking place in a Barcelona restaurant.

After being seated and handed the menu, the service staff asked, ‘Would you like an aperitif?’

‘May I see the wine list?’ I wondered. Fifteen minutes passed (I tend to be infuriatingly patient), and as nothing approaching a scrap of paper had materialised, I mentioned in passing that, ‘I still have not got the wine list’.

The breaking news was given something of a shared pained look. I should mention that there were only five or six tables in the restaurant. And two or four people on each of them.

But patience must have its limits. Another five minutes passed, and I blurted to the member of staff who had shown me to my table, ‘How long will it take to be shown the wine list?’

‘I’m sorry but I am not the sommelier. Only he can bring you the wine list.’ The mystery is solved.
When I was finally shown the lost text by the sommelier, and had ordered the delicious Champagne Moncuit Grand Cru Blanc de Blancs Vieilles Vignes 1998, it was nearly 30 minutes since I had arrived. Aperitif? It was closer to digestif.

All that waiting was down to the territorial and monopolistic claims the sommelier exercised over the restaurant’s wine list, wines and wine service.

To complete the surreal experience, His Royal Highness in Wine was volunteering observations and information when no such talkativeness was encouraged by the customer. Skin as thick as Nebbiolo – why should he care?

As far as Baby Bacchus was concerned, customers visiting the restaurant were there to worship and pay service to his wine ego. It was not providing a service to satisfy our thirst for wine. If that had been more forthcoming, I could have ordered another bubbly.

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