Diego Masciaga is synonymous with service. Having spent more than 40 years in the industry (30 at with at the three-star Waterside Inn in Bray), he has welcomed the good and the great with his inimitable Italian warmth.
As one of the most vocal advocates of the profession, Diego was the first-ever speaker at the Gold Service Scholarship’s inaugural ‘Team Gold’ event. He shared his experience and advice with some of the industry’s most talented young front-of-house professionals at an exclusive event held at The Goring. Having recently secured the prestigious ‘Lifetime Achievement’ award at the Cateys, we caught up with him to capture some of his thoughts and observations on the industry.
How did you get into the industry?
My first ‘proper’ job was as a commis in Alain Chapel’s restaurant in Lyon. If I’m honest, I had never heard of Michelin at this point. It was a three-starred restaurant and I was shocked when I arrived as the standard of service was just beyond anything I had ever experienced. I started working at 13 when I had a weekend job in a restaurant in my village in Oleggio. I was too young to do any of the front-of-house work, but I used to help by sweeping the terraces and helping with odd jobs. This was quite different.
I learned so much from Alain Chapel. He was a chef but he taught me so many valuable skills such as carving, tasting wine, pouring wine, table setting. I was there for just over two years.
Where did you move to next?
I went to Germany to see how German service looked. After that, I had to complete my military service back in Italy, which taught me about respect on another level. Everyone is forced to be there, so you will see people from all walks of life. Whether you were the son of a millionaire or from a poor background, everybody had to polish their shoes. This was a valuable lesson.
After this I joined Le Gavroche.
Is this where you first met Silvano Giraldin, one of our Trustees?
While I obviously had some skills, Silvano taught me so much. He helped me understand what we call ‘the eye’ – seeing what the customer wants before they ask. He also taught me so much about speed of service and organisation. The pressure was huge at the time as it was the only three-star in England.
I later took these skills with me when I joined the Waterside Inn in 1988.
You’ve had quite a career. What has kept you in the industry?
I get pleasure from pleasing people. If you do this job and you don’t get pleasure from it, you should do something else.
A chef produces something you can eat, see, taste. A waiter provides personality and attitude. These things are so important and difficult to define.
The guests I look after have kept me in the profession. It’s a real privilege.
Why do you believe the Gold service scholarship important?
What the GSS has done has really raised the profile of the profession amongst British people. It has also helped to raise the bar in terms of skills and standards.
I’ve never seen anything like the GSS. We’ve never seen this network of waiters in the past – it has always just been the chefs. I’ve worked everywhere and this is special, and not just for the winner but also the finalists and all the entrants. They become a great group of friends.
What key attributes do front of house people need?
Skills come later but there are four key elements that are important from the very start: the right attitude; personality; honesty; and humility.
There is an Italian saying that translated reads: ‘People should make sure the step is longer than the leg’, which means you have to read the mind of the guest and know exactly what they need before they do.
It’s important to gauge why the guest is at your restaurant. Is it for business, is it for love, or is it for other reasons? Once you’ve determined this, you’ll know when to talk and when to stop.
What are the highlights of your career?
My goal was to become a manager of a three Michelin starred restaurant. I’ve had offers to be GM of large hotels but I always wanted to do this.
I was fortunate enough to achieve my goal at 25 but I never lost my hunger to continue. I was given carte blanche at the Waterside by my employers, which meant a lot. I had to work for it and earn their trust.
I’ve had so many fantastic experiences. I served A-list celebrities and sports stars, I served at a Kremlin reception hosted by [Boris] Yeltsin, which was quite something. I’ve served the Queen and other Royals on many occasions.
These are unique experiences, but just as meaningful to me is looking after an ordinary couple out for an anniversary meal.
What advice would you give a young manager looking to progress in the industry?
Firstly, it’s important they realise that they need their team to succeed. Without their team they are lonely and isolated. They can be king for a day but won’t be happy for long. It is important to look after each other. If my staff have failed, I have failed. It’s up to me to make sure they are prepared, trained and in the right environment.
Secondly, a manager should know how to do every job brilliantly. In the past, people would work their way up. Now, there are different routes into more senior roles. Those who miss out on the junior roles need to learn everything about the establishment they work in.
How have you approached your work? How do you see the restaurant and its purpose?
For me, when the curtain goes up, it’s showtime. We had two shows a day (lunch and dinner) so it’s important that people are ready to go.
An honest smile is important – it shouldn’t be forced. Our teams need to feel happy. You can change a customer’s mood in an instant. The food comes later. If the welcome is badly done, you can be sure that the customer will still be in a bad mood by the middle of the meal.
Giving people advice on what they should do is always important but what should professionals looking to progress look to avoid in their careers?
In our business, it’s important to avoid complacency. One should never cut corners and never be dishonest – it will catch up with you.
And it’s important to know your own ability and skills and don’t look to be something you are not. Sometimes it’s better to be an excellent number two than a bad number one. We are all different. Be honest with yourself. I know my limitations. Know yours.
What should front of house talent look for from a prospective employer?
People need to ask ‘what am I going to learn?’ This is crucial because all the money in the world cannot pay for the ability to learn.
How much has service changed over the last 30 years?
It has changed a lot. The customer has changed. The age group of guests has changed. It used to be very stiff because people wanted this. Now service is more relaxed and front-of-house people are able to spend more time talking to guests. Before, only the maître d was allowed to have this sort of relationship with guests.
How do you think service is perceived in the industry?
Between the 70s and mid 90s there was a gap in recognising the profession. As chefs became more high profile, it was at the expense of front of house people. Chefs became idols, waiters were just carriers. This has changed and initiatives like the Gold Service Scholarship really help.
This recent shift is down to the public going out more. They are more discerning. They pay for an experience and this experience is not just a chef, it’s the service too. The GSS has really tapped into this.
You headlined the first ever Team Gold event for Gold Service Alumni, how did you find it?
It was a great night and so good to see so many talented people in one room, getting on and networking. I really enjoyed talking to them.
The beauty of the Scholarship is that there are so many people from diverse establishments coming together. They can all learn together and from each other. This will help them for many years to come.
You’ve just left the Waterside Inn, what does the future hold for Diego?
After 30 years, it was a very difficult decision and I don’t think I slept for two weeks before I told Mr Roux back in September. I’ve been very fortunate to learn from some amazing people; I now want to help other people.
In our world, consistency is the most difficult thing. I want to help businesses reach excellence and maintain it.