I have always been convinced that if a waiter can smile, he can get away with anything. It doesn't matter if he serves from the right or the left, or into someone's lap. If he is polite and charming and smiles all the time the customers will love him.
About once a year, at no particular time, we receive a card from Frédéric, or Freddie as he was to us. Freddie was from Orléans and had come late into catering. He had a degree in psychology and had come to England to learn the language. He chose catering because he knew that, to begin with, he could get away without speaking much English.
Within a few days he had memorised all the table names and most of the dishes on the menu. Someone must have told him that the most common greeting in English was "Have a nice day" and that the most common subject was the weather. As soon as the doors opened he would go around all the tables saying, with a huge grin, "It is raining, but do not mind, have a nice day," in the broadest French accent you have ever heard.
If food was slow coming from the kitchen, he would approach the customer before they could complain and say: "Do not worry. Your food, it come soon. I cook it myself!"
Before long Freddie was a celebrity. Customers requested to be served by Freddie and to know whether he would be working before booking for the evening. He did everything with a great smile and a wonderful, over-the-top French accent. I tried to train him, to mould him, to teach him to do things the right way. But in the end I realised it did not matter because the customers loved Freddie exactly as he was and he was very good for the Angel Inn.
I am sure sometimes he overdid the accent on purpose, as when I heard him describe "the special vegetarian dish the chef 'e cook for you today - it is a Rat A Chewy." I knew he was having the customers on because he said it with a straight face, not with his usual big smile.
He was a handsome young man and was well aware when he was attracting attention for the wrong reasons. One day a very attractive, blonde young lady, obviously bored with the much older company at her table, asked him what kind of alternative sauce she could have with her fish. "Ah, for you," he said, pausing for effect, "I do a very good blur bonk." I had to leave the room.
Sometimes, with too much training we can stifle the flair, and the restaurant business is about entertaining. We all need the odd star out front as well as in the kitchen. I find, these days, that the restaurants I enjoy most are those where the staff are less formal and the atmosphere is relaxed and more friendly.
Freddie was, of course, a trained psychologist, which I suppose gave him a head start.
Next diary from Denis Watkins will be on 16 April