Life at the Front – In Conversation with Declan Maxwell
For a lot of diners the entire experience of eating out can rely heavily on good service. Plenty of restaurants that produce great food are struggling to keep their doors open because front of house teams are dropping the ball on a regular basis.
One man who knows all too well the importance of a strong front of house team is Declan Maxwell. Having spent 16 years leading the team in Michelin Star restaurant Chapter One with fellow manager Martin Corbett, Declan is now the face of hip new eatery SMS Luna in Dublin’s Creative Quarter.
An instant hit with punters and critics alike, Declan insists that Luna’s success is down to a trifecta of excellence: atmosphere, food and service. He compares his front of house team to a PR squad as they are the ones representing the restaurant to the customers. He encourages his staff to engage with diners and let their personalities shine through so they can provide diners with a personalised service. “We’re not rocket scientists, you just have to have a passion for it; that is the thing. I mean I’ve had staff come in over the years and they just want to come in, wait a table and leave. We could all do that, that’s robots!”
This passion has to be present in every member of the team as Declan maintains that everyone has a part to play. While other restaurants might only be concerned with the head chef and the managers, Declan believes every role and position is a vital cog in the wheel. The food runner has the most important job because he fills the gap in between the chefs and the servers, “I’m not in the kitchen, he is the communication, and he is the link.”
As important as passion is to Declan, staff knowledge is just as integral to a successful service. He insists his team are present each day for a full briefing with Head Chef Karl Whelan where they learn about the specials and can ask any questions about that evening’s service. This means the team are able to answer customer enquiries efficiently and push whatever the chef needs sold that day.
They get to taste all the specials when we put them on, they have good communication with the kitchen, they have great menu knowledge and they get excited by that. I think that’s the big thing, communication between all the staff. A lot of places don’t do it now, they just think ‘well sure they’re only waiting’. But it’s not just about carrying plates. Everybody wants the whole dining experience.
The communication between the teams in Luna runs smoothly thanks to Declan’s relationship with Head Chef Karl, who he previously worked with in Chapter One. It is also easier due to the presence of a generation of younger chefs. Declan praises their changing attitudes and credits them with the creation of a nicer working environment. “I worked in kitchens in the 80s and 90s, with shouting and screaming. It was the kitchen against front of house, always blaming each other. We’re just cooking food and serving it, we’re not saving lives here, we haven’t invented a cure for cancer! I think younger chefs know now that there has to be a really good relationship with front of house.”
Declan maintains that you need experience to establish a good rapport between the teams. He has noticed a trend in the industry where young, inexperienced people are running large dining rooms and failing to impress.
The thing is with the younger managers, they could do rings around me doing spreadsheets and sitting at a computer and doing all that but if you don’t have any customers in your restaurant then you don’t have work to do in your office. I’ve gone to restaurants where, in three hours, they haven’t come near my table at all and when I leave they say goodbye, thanks very much and I go, I don’t know what you’re saying thanks for ‘cause you didn’t do anything.
Declan thinks this lack of experience is down to a discrepancy in the education system. A graduate of the CERT course, Declan is a supporter of bringing it back. He wants to see a balance between formal education and experience based learning because both are necessary for well rounded staff. He also believes the time it takes to complete gives managers time to get it right. “I’m not saying we should all be in our 40s but they’re not doing it properly and it does frustrate me. I go in to some of these places and it’s too cool for school.”
Declan believes we lost our edge in service due to Celtic Tiger greed but the recession ‘cleaned that out’ and good service is making a comeback as businesses are fighting to keep every customer coming back. As a result, Declan insists on being present in the restaurant until the very last customer has left, even if it is just to say goodbye or put their coat on them.
People now don’t care about spending 100 quid a head at dinner, as long as they feel they have had value for money and a great experience from the minute they walk in the door to the minute they leave. I mean I’m on the floor ‘til the last customer leaves. I do not go and sit in the office for the last half hour, even if there’s only two tables left. It’s like having somebody in your house, would you serve the coffee after dinner and then say ‘I’m going to go to bed, so see ya’. It is the exact same thing.
Another bug bear for Declan is the lack of uniforms in restaurants at the moment. While he maintains that you should be able to tell by the staff who is in charge regardless of what they are wearing, Declan reckons that when leadership on the floor is lacking, a uniform helps you to identify the person who is supposed to be in charge. “Customers say we know you are in charge. Because I’m working the floor, talking to waiters, I’m communicating with them all the time so people see me working the room. But when I go to other restaurants I don’t know who is in charge. You go to certain restaurants and they are doing very good food and the service is nice, I just don’t know who the manager is because there’s no uniforms, everybody’s just wearing jeans and t-shirts and their own clothes.”
Declan takes such pride in his work that he wants his team to take the same amount of pride in their own, and front of house staff everywhere. In order to encourage this, Declan fought for many years for recognition in the awards sector. It was a running joke in the industry for a long time, “I used to give out all the time to the Restaurant Association going, you do best restaurant, you do best chef, there is no best manager. Do we not exist?”
He kept fighting though as he fully believed that restaurant managers are just as important to the success of a restaurant as the kitchen and that should be recognised. The proudest moment of his career occurred in 2013 with the establishment of the Restaurant Manager of the Year award by the Restaurant Association.
Everyone said we had no choice but to give it to you! That was the running joke but now it’s there and Alain from Ox won it last year. We do as important a job as the chefs and people would ask, what do you do? Everything about food was always the chef and now restaurant managers are more out there, not in the celebrity sense but we are being asked and being appreciated.
That growing appreciation becomes clear when Declan is asked to run important events such as the celebration dinner for the Euro-Toques Young Chef of the Year announcement late last year. While the event was held in The Shelbourne Hotel, Declan organised the service and led their team. “Chefs have realised they need someone to do the floor. For the table plans, I know who can sit beside whom and who can’t. Chefs don’t know that, they just go ‘ah let them just sit down’. You can’t do that with 200 people!”
The newly recognised importance of his role can’t ignite an ego however, as Declan’s work finds him mucking in continuously wherever he may be needed. Whether the team is short or there is a problem in the toilets, Declan believes in leading from the top and getting his hands dirty when necessary…
I won host of the year in October and I was straight into work afterwards. 20 minutes later, cubicle number two is blocked and the toilet roll holder is broken. I said grand, into the kitchen, I get the plunge, I get the gloves and I have to unblock a toilet and then we fix the thing. But I love that in a sense, because then I can say to Mary on Friday, Mary would you mind going in just to make sure cubicle three has been cleaned. And Mary will say not a problem because she’s seen me in there on Tuesday. I think you get more respect then because they go he’s not riding us, and he’ll do it.
Declan’s commitment to his team and his work can go a bit too far as he admits his greatest challenge is letting go of the bad days. His desire for perfection leaves him stewing over the smallest inconsistencies for days at a time. Like the time a large group didn’t get the best service on a Saturday night and after rectifying the situation with complimentary wine, he rang them up to apologise again the following Tuesday…
I really want everyone when they come in to Luna or any place I work to really enjoy the whole experience and to leave there really happy. That’s my challenge, sometimes it can be too much, over the years you might sit down with the staff and have a glass of wine, and I’d be like that was a shit night and they’d all be looking at me going no it wasn’t. But for me it was because one table left out of a hundred people that weren’t happy. And they go man you’re never going to get 100% and I know that but that’s still what I aim for every day.
Declan compares it to being an actor on stage, every customer has paid to come and see you in a performance. You can’t let down the evening audience just because you are tired from that afternoon’s matinee, in the same way service in a restaurant has to be on point even if you have served lunch for 200 that day. “Every single day when that door opens it has to be 100% performance. And that’s my challenge, that people leave and they really enjoyed the experience.”
He admits of course that some people bring so much baggage to the table it is nigh on impossible to meet their expectations or please them. Declan says it’s like being a counsellor, identifying the issue at hand and trying to resolve it whether it be a fight with a spouse or a family member who has had too much to drink. Expectations seem to be the underlying cause for a lot of issues in restaurants. “People not in the industry don’t understand, they come away from places going that’s shit. It’s not bad, it just didn’t suit you. ‘Luna is too loud’, well that’s what it is! ‘Your menu is too big’, that’s what we are. We had people in Chapter One saying they had been to Michelin stars in Paris and the service was a different way. We’re not all the same, this is just what we do.”
You would be forgiven for assuming that the most difficult customers are celebrities. Not so, says Declan who has served quite a few over the years. He excitedly tells the story of Bono and the Edge squished in to a little booth with eight of their friends on a busy Saturday night recently so they wouldn’t make a fuss. “Imagine the biggest rock band in the world at the moment and it was like you going in and seeing your mates in the pub. It was like ‘oh Jesus Edge I didn’t know you were here tonight’. It was one of the funniest nights. Of course nobody left Luna that night until the early hours of the morning.”
There is always a reputation that comes before a high profile guest and Declan admits his surprise at how well some celebrities treated the staff and customers in Chapter One. “You read all the stories about Barbra Streisand, don’t look her straight in the eye and don’t be this and don’t be that… The nicest woman, like so nice. When she came in the first thing she did to me and Martin, she shook our hands and said look I really appreciate this, I know you have opened specially for me tonight. And we’re going, I thought I wasn’t supposed to look you in the eye!”
It was the same when Al Pacino dined with them. His manager asked Declan to keep other diners from the table and after he had eaten he went up to everyone to say hi and have a chat. Declan believes the higher the celebrity, the nicer they are. It is the lesser known ones that expect the special treatment. “The higher up they are, I always find they’re the easiest and they’re always really friendly but then you have your C, D, E list who come in and they think we’ll get a drink on the house or we’ll get the best table or we’ll get this. The higher up they are, they just want to come in, eat, enjoy it and go. The others all want a fuss, more fuss.”
Declan believes in looking after his regular customers first to ensure they will come back so he is not in the habit of bumping reservations for anybody, even Bono. It is this dedication and level of care that has seen a lot of his customers from Chapter One follow him on to SMS Luna. Of course they also come for the food and the atmosphere and Declan is seeing a growth in a new, younger crowd.
Everyone is saying Luna is the coolest place to go, but you might as well finish the sentence with ‘at the moment’. To me, cool means in three months’ time you’re finished. They’ve all moved on. It’s a long term thing that’s going to be here. It feels like it’s been there for years. I’m hoping in Luna we have the trifecta, the atmosphere, the ambience and how it looks, really good food and really good service. That’s what I’m hoping we have and I think we have achieved it.
With his passion, drive and level of commitment, it comes as no surprise.
Declan Maxwell is the restaurant manager of SMS Luna, a busy fine dining restaurant in the heart of Dublin’s Creative Quarter. He came to Luna after spending 16 years in Michelin Star restaurant Chapter One.
SMS Luna was inspired by the Italian restaurants of 1950’s America. Open for dinner Tuesday to Saturday, SMS Luna is the latest venture of the Super Miss Sue group and is fast becoming one of Dublin’s most popular eateries.
Alison has been writing since she could hold a pen, which came in handy for her degree in English, Media and Cultural Studies. She has been working in media since graduating and is the latest features writer for TheTaste.
Writing for TheTaste allows her to combine her passion for the written word with her love of food and drink. Find her on Twitter @AliDalyo