Chef Adam Weiner helps instructors teach basic service techniques from serving sides, to tips, to how to deal with hip flasks of alcohol.
By Adam Weiner, CFSE
Welcome to the holiday season. If you need help with teaching options for Thanksgiving, please take a look at my "Gold Medal Classroom" article from several years ago Teaching Thanksgiving Side Dishes in 50 Minutes.
Culinary teachers are often asked at this time of year to have their culinary students patriciate in school-related events. Events such as spaghetti fundraisers, teas, Thanksgiving events, holiday parties, teacher and staff appreciation gatherings and so on. This article is a brief introduction on how to teach serving skills to your students.
Like almost everything else in the hospitality field, serving is a combination of specific rules and art. Also like most things in the hospitality field, lack of knowledge and training can be overcome with a good attitude, a great smile, and by saying, "I will take care of that right away." With those three, almost any error can be overcome.
(Note: I did not say an apology is one of the requirements. The customer/guest isn’t always right, but they are still the customer or guest. Apologizing is difficult for almost every high school student to pull off well. It works much better to say in a friendly matter with a smile, "I will take care of that right away."
There are two basic types of service: buffet and table.
Buffet service is easier to teach and involves these elements:
- Keep the buffet line stocked. When a tray, chafing dish or basket gets down to about one-quarter full it should be removed and replaced. Don’t marry food on the line. For example, if you are serving Fettucine Alfredo, the hotel pan should be removed when it is about only one-quarter full and replaced with a fresh hotel pan ready to go. Do not then combine or marry the two pans on the buffet line.
Also, your students need have clean pot holders or clean side towels with them when restocking hot items. In restocking chafing dishes, make sure your students have something other than their fingers to lift the corner of the hotel pan so they don’t burn themselves. Also, before the event teach your students to lift the hotel pan at the end away from themselves and guests. We are out to serve food, not to give someone a steam bath.
- Make sure guests don’t double dip and use the correct serving pieces. This is particularly important if younger children are present.
- Keep the buffet line clean by removing dropped food.
- Provide clean plates for seconds to avoid cross contamination of serving pieces touching dirty plates.
- Remove dirty plates, etc. from the seating area. Plates should be cleared on the right side of the guest.
Table service is a bit trickier. But, keep in mind the smile and good attitude.
- Serve from the left, clear from the right. Students have a hard time remembering this so I give them a little trick. Left comes alphabetically first. You have to serve the food first before you can clear it. So, serve first from the left.
- Pour beverages from the right.
- Don’t try to imitate professional servers. Although your students need to carry more than one plate at a time, don’t have them try to stack them up their arms. A better/easier/faster way is to have a strong student carry a tray of plates (don’t stack the plates on top of each other—not sanitary) and have another student remove the plates from the guests.
- Remember clean uniforms/aprons and hair restraints.
- Work out ahead of time whether forks/knives/etc. are to be removed between courses or left for the next course. For example, should the guest keep her salad fork for the entrée?
- Try to serve everyone at one table at the same time or as close to the same time as possible. Serve one table fully before starting the next one, even if you need more than one student to do this. Be mindful that if the tables are large with one person serving it might mean the first person served is done eating before the last person is served.
- When the students are not serving plates as specified in six (above), make sure each table is assigned a person to monitor it. That way a guest doesn’t have to make a fuss to get more water, another napkin, etc.
- Generally, the dirty plates are cleared from one table at roughly the same time. Even if a person finishes way before everyone else, that person’s plate should not be removed until others have finished.
- Before you begin serving an event, decide how you want to handle tips. Although normally not an issue for in-school events, it can become one at fund raisers or events out of school.
The biggest problem develops when a server’s relative tips them very heavily and others feel slighted. You then get arguments developing about who worked harder, etc. I suggest one of two things: a no tip policy or a pooling of tips. If you pool tips you may have school issues about giving money to students. What I recommend in that case is you treat the students to a pizza or taco party with the funds. They feel appreciated for the work they did for the event and there are no hard feelings.
A caveat about alcohol: Hopefully, there is no alcohol allowed at the event. I have been involved with, and heard about, many events involving alcohol where things went badly for the students. Maybe I have been lucky, but I have never seen nor heard of a problem with the students drinking the alcohol. The problem has always been with the adults. I have seen and heard of adults making very inappropriate comments and even groping underage students. I have seen adults encourage students to do illegal things. I have even heard boorish comments made to students by adults who thought they were being funny. My advice, if you have to have your students on the floor where alcohol is being served is this:
- Brief your students on how to handle inappropriate behavior, specifically not to engage the adult guest and immediately get a school official to handle the problem.
- Have additional adult supervision. You may not believe this, but make sure your adult help does not drink. I have seen chaperons engage in some really bad behavior under the influence of alcohol. At one point, I saw adults nearly set fire to a local forest causing a near catastrophe.
- Get your students in and out as early as possible. For example, if it is a school fund raiser dinner and dance make sure your students leave right after dinner.
- Finally, even if alcohol is not on the menu, look out for people bringing their own. Make sure you know your school’s policy and you have an administrator to back you up. I have seen everything from hip flasks, to full blown cases of beer and wine, to everything one needs to make a Cosmopolitan. I wish I could say I was making this up.
Next month I will end the year with some culinary quotes that will make you laugh, make you think, and make you realize that teaching the next generation of culinarians is the right field for you.
Have a great Thanksgiving.
Chef Adam Weiner, CFSE, teaches a 20-week Introduction to Cooking program for JobTrain on the San Francisco Peninsula, and is a frequent presenter at CAFÉ events throughout the nation. He is also a recipient of the prestigious Antonin Carême Medal.