This blog post was intended to be something quite different. It started off as a simple food review but as you are about to read, sometimes it’s not always about the food. Another person or experience might come along and unceremoniously derail your intentions of actually reviewing the food. While reviewing restaurants across the globe, I’ve met some interesting people cooking for or serving me — Celebrity chefs, Michelin-star chefs with their nose in the air, politically incorrect kitchen devils, discerning sommeliers and, as I discovered at Sofitel Wentworth Sydney, superbly interesting service staff.
I’ve been frequenting, staying and dining at Sofitel hotels across the globe for years now. I would like to think of myself as a ‘friend’ of the hotel, having worked closely with them in my home base, Mumbai, and, of course, during my travels as a journalist-blogger. When the guys at Sofitel Wentworth Sydney knew that I was coming, they were kind enough to extend an invitation to try out their fabulous French fine dining restaurant Garden Court. And it was something quite out of the ordinary.
Let me start by saying that the hotel is so fabulously situated. A few minutes away from Circular Quay and Sydney Opera House, yet far from the throngs of photo-happy tourists. The Garden Court restaurant was indeed EXCEPTIONAL. Unmistakably French, I say! The meal began with an aperitif of champagne, and proceeded to the spectacular show that is a French multi-course meal. Fine cuts of meat, truffle oil, impeccably seasoned fish, and potatoes with a texture to die for…all plated like veritable works of art. I shall save my blog post on the food for later now that there’s something else I’d like to talk about.
While the warm and friendly restaurant team was serving me, I was instantly impressed by one particular gentleman who came to our table and introduced himself to us as Claude. His grey hair and spectacles lent a very dignified aura to his appearance. He had a certain presence and commanded respect from the others in his team. It was pretty clear that he was the senior-most waiter there. I was quick to pick up his French accent and we instantly broke out into French. I was thrilled for having found a French speaker in the midst of a sea of beautifully diverse Aussies and he was amazed to see an Indian diner speak to him in fluent French. I must say that it was an absolute delight being served by him —right down rom his manner of pouring champagne, to holding the plates and then explaining the names of dishes placed before us with almost dramatic gusto.
The fact that he was the most experienced there was evident in a jiffy. The service finesse that comes with years of working in fine dining speaks for itself. I got talking with Claude and his story was fascinating. The 66-year-old was born in Alsace in France and has been living in Australia for almost 40 years now. (He spoke impeccable Aussie English with slight hints of a French accent). It was particularly interesting for me to see a French immigrant to Australia, especially since the country has always seen waves of immigrants from Italy, Lebanon, China, and India. He told me that 40 years ago, just a handful of families from France moved to Australia. He was one of them.
Claude did a four-year hospitality course specialising in fine dining and luxury hotels, which permitted to take on this career, which has spanned 49 years in Europe and Australia. 34 of these years he spent at Sofitel Wentworth Sydney making him the longest serving waiter and (probably) one of the longest serving staff at the hotel.
During his career, he has served Queen Elizabeth II not once but TWICE, former Australian Prime Ministers John Howard and Paul Keating, as well as Neil Armstrong, the first man on the moon. He has also had the privilege of serving the world’s most beautiful women like Sophia Loren, Princess Diana and Jennifer Hawkins. And at these times, Claude whips out his white cotton gloves. It signals that a VIP is within range and not so much as a fingerprint on a glass or a piece of cutlery will escape his gaze. The gloves, he says, heightens the sense of occasion.
I asked him about his profession and he said that he loved every minute of it and would not have wanted any other job. Being a waiter is not a profession in Australia, he tells me; it is just something that people do while doing something else, like studying. Claude chose to dedicate his life to his noble profession.
And from my end, I can tell when any service professional (waiter, chef, sommelier, flight attendant) is passionate about his job or when they’re just doing it for the sake of a job. I could tell Claude was passionate. He is part of a dying breed of old-school French people who still uphold the sanctity of the fine dining experience. I am delighted that he fits right into the stereotype of the exacting French gourmet. He part of the dying breed of tireless waiters who provide a consistent level of service, knowledgeable conversation, and finesse and dignity in carrying oneself. I don’t see it in the new generation these days! Here’s an example for all the young service professionals…
(So as you can see, this began as a food review but this was not what I expected it to be – but my foodie readers need not worry, I shall post my Garden Court experience soon)