Serving is a supreme art

A table for four persons with five chairs. An additional seat telling us the story of a whole world

With a green tie, Carlo Tofani, new restaurant man

With a green tie, Carlo Tofani, new restaurant manager at Hotel Cipriani in Venice, author of the tale below and for 10 years maître at Joia in Milan, the restaurant where this photo was taken. From left, German Zavaleta, Lorena Neri, in front of Tofani there's Marco Curcio (today sommelier at Trussardi alla Scala), chef Pietro Leemann and, right, by a gong, Stefano Carenzi (photo by Giovanni Panarotto for Italia Squisita)

You're serving but you're not a slave. Serving is a supreme art; God is the first of the servants. God serves men but is not a men's slave. Roberto Benigni 

Quoting one of my most noticeable contemporary compatriots seems to me the best way to begin with talking about a supreme art like being a maitre. This short sentence explains the value and the importance, the nobility and the role our professions stands for. This short sentence is also hiding a question: will those times, when the maitre was the amphitryon, come back? A role where welcoming, elegancy and professionalism were the minimum requests?

Dear colleagues I suggest we begin with this question. Let's ennoble our profession, let's explore and value the saying "Humble, servile but always walking tall"! On this premises I'd like to tell you a little story that occurred to me a short while ago when I was visiting the beautiful city of Trieste with my wife and few friends. It was lunchtime and, as you know, when you're visiting a new place it always comes the time where you have to find a restaurant because you're stomach is ruling.

Tofani assists Zalaveta at Identità Milano 2012 (photo by Promise Land)

Tofani assists Zalaveta at Identità Milano 2012 (photo by Promise Land)

Our research soon produced a typical trattoria owned by an old couple, with 25-30 seats, husband in the kitchen, wife is in the room - and you immediately notice it. The interiors' decorations, the courteousness were a clear sign of a woman's touch hence we felt at home the moment we walked in. But something weird caught my attention. Sitting at the rounded table set for four people, I noticed something unusual: five chairs for four people…I couldn't figure out why was that and when I looked at the rest of the room I was really intrigued since all the tables presented the same layout. That's not a mistake - I thought - there must be something related to the service.

Couple of minutes passed when the lady came back, smiling and excusing herself, took a seat on the additional chair at our table, and started a lovely conversation telling us stories about every single dish on the menù. We were suddenly hooked by her magnetism and the rest of the lunch was unique because of it. Eventually I noticed she used to do that sort of rite with every single table - she sat down on the additional chair creating conversations that evolved differently each time, talking and listening, questioning and interacting with the clients and offering a service that, without fancy tricks, gave a different and positive light to the whole place.

Joia, mise en place

Joia, mise en place

I saw heart in that attitude, I saw mastery and passion. And these are the things that you not only notice, but they stay with you - in fact here I am telling you a story about a lunch who could have been just another meal and became a memorable lunch in Trieste. I'd like to repeat the words I quoted at the beginning: our job is art! and is the reflection of an artist's soul. Our job must be the manifestation of our passions and in doing it makes all of us artists in our field. Let's commit to improve our "art of doing well" embracing the little spark of madness that makes us creative and think out of the box, exactly like that additional chair.

In sala

The public side of a restaurant seen by its protagonists: maître, restaurant managers, waiters


Carlo Tofani