We were enjoying an excellent dinner at Fallow in St James’s Market, London, when my eye was caught by a man who was apparently rolling around the tables. He looked like he was in his mid-sixties, well dressed and completely at ease while he let the customers sit and signaled for the waiters to bring menus and wine lists.
Since I last saw him for a long time, it took me an hour to realize that it was John Davey, a man who had played such front-house roles for almost 40 years. His approach is one that combines an appreciation for the restaurant environment, doing something fun for the customers and making sure he and his team have “fun”. Inspired by both the man and his life in restaurants, I invited him for lunch to discover more.
Davey was born in Bristol, but his family is from Ireland. He lovingly remembers the warmth of the hospitality he and his sister enjoyed when they visited relationships there. “Useless” at school and excited just by appearing in a production of A Midsummer Night’s Dream, Davey started a City and Guilds course in catering, which he passed with distinction. But his career changed when he was seconded to the kitchens of Avonmouth Docks near Bristol. There he graduated from bread frying to breakfast cooking for the dock workers, and he was addicted. A job at a Trust House Forte hotel further nurtured his fascination with hospitality. So when a lecturer called volunteers for a period of nine months in a large Swiss hotel, Davey raised his hand.
He started as a clerk at the five-star Hotel des Trois Couronnes, which carries trays of food from the kitchen to the waiters for them to serve. After that, he worked at the proud Lausanne Palace Hotel, where he quickly learned what has since become a fundamental principle. “Any restaurant, whether it has a view of Mont Blanc or a rainy London street,” he said, “provides the most fantastic environment. And it’s up to you, from the moment you step into that area, “It’s your challenge, twice a day, to make that room look as attractive as it can.”
In 1977, Davey lived with his Swiss wife Huguette in Switzerland. She heard a restaurant was going to open in Crissier, near where they lived, and encouraged him to apply for a job. He was successful and soon found himself the manager of l’Hôtel de Ville, which at the time, and still is considered by many to be the best restaurant in the world. It was Frédy Girardet’s restaurant, where Davey’s charm and ease, as well as his English, made him invaluable. Among the guests he welcomed there were President Richard Nixon, Prince Philip and Bjorn Borg.
Davey’s decade with Girardet taught him a lot about the principles of good restaurant management. It costs nothing in the first place to be polite and attentive. And while celebrities expect to be treated as if they were special, it’s just as important to treat those who do not expect it in the same way. At The Ledbury one evening, later in his career, Davey remembers a company of three who arrived before the restaurant opened. He ignored the receptionist’s protests and brought them in and took them on a tour of the kitchens before leaving. they sit.)
Davey returned to London at the invitation of Terence Conran to open Bibendum, before moving on to Mossiman’s, The Lanesborough, The Square and Cecconi’s, and later establishing his own consultancy in 2008. He admits with some regret that he never opened his own restaurant, but, he says, “I’m not much of a businessman.”
“As a restaurant manager, when you walk into a room, you are in control, and you have to use every faculty to make yourself like this: your ears, your eyes, your hands. . . “he says.” At the same time, remember to be the mentor for your staff that you would have wanted when you learned. “
He lovingly recalls his own mentor, Maurizio Santambrogio at the Lausanne Palace Hotel, but wonders if there is now a growing trend in the UK to overlook the importance of hospitality as the emphasis shifts to the kitchen.
Davey’s pet hatred is shared by all restaurateurs: waiting too long for the menu or the bill, a lack of knowledge among the waiters, and a general lack of attention. “Hospitality is easy,” was his refrain throughout our lunch.
He has no plans to retire soon. He smiled as he recalled a remark he had recently heard from a colleague as he walked into work: “Look, Grandpa is in tonight.”
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