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By Stuart Pallister

How does one of the top restaurants in the world approach teamwork in service? Two EHL lecturers have just spent several days at Alain Ducasse’s restaurant at the Plaza Athénée in Paris and came away with a number of insights which they will now pass on to their students, as they seek to make sure the education they provide is up-to-date and aligned with the latest trends in the industry. The two faculty members spoke to Hospitality Insights about their key takeaways.

Eric Iunker and Lionel Sauvère who teach on EHL’s practical arts (or AP program) have a challenge. How can they make sure what they teach at the school’s Berceau des Sens fine dining restaurant will still be valid once the students enter the workforce, especially as the two-week attachment to the BDS can be stressful for some of the students.

“Transferable skills is the real role of the AP program,” says senior lecturer Eric Iunker, who was the Maître d’Hôtel at a five-star hotel in Villars-sur-Ollon and then the director of a two-star (or macaron) restaurant in Cossonay. “It’s about how to manage my stress, my tiredness, how to keep consistent, stay myself and be natural and spontaneous in front of demanding guests.”

Iunker and his colleague AP lecturer Lionel Sauvère, who has worked in restaurants in Switzerland, France and the UK, believe their recent visit to Alain Ducasse au Plaza Athénée in Paris should pay dividends. 

While in Paris, restaurant director Denis Courtiarde shared his vision of fine dining service at the three Michelin star Ducasse restaurant. “His vision is very particular and original,” says Iunker. “To him, the service should not be as formal as it used to be some years ago. Also, the service should support the chef and cuisine. And the service should be as spontaneous and natural as possible.”

Iunker says the trip confirmed the school’s approach to teaching that restaurant service should be more relaxed than in the past. “Now we can prove that the top level of the industry is going the same way as well.”

Sauvère was impressed by what he witnessed at the restaurant. Even though the average age of the service staff is about 25, they demonstrated spontaneity and empathy. “It was not formal at all. It was an important contrast with the ambience and atmosphere in some fine dining restaurants that are very formal, closed and very cold.”

They observed that the staff are careful not to disturb the customers while providing guest comfort, they said. “It’s exactly what we used to implement at the BDS. Sometimes you have to be visible in front of the guests because it’s part of the show. But sometimes you have to be invisible,” Iunker adds.

They noted that the staff at the Ducasse restaurant were well trained and very efficient in terms of the pace of service and synchronization of their actions. “They demonstrated a very high level of rigor but without the formality. A balance between technical rigor and soft social skills.”

Those soft skills are extremely important, Iunker says, along with flexibility and consistency.

It doesn’t matter how many hours you worked yesterday, what you did during the night, or your level of tiredness. We want to see the same quality every day.

The food at the Ducasse restaurant is fresh and light, mainly vegetables and fish. There are no table cloths so the 200-year-old wood tables are part of the theatre. The staff are friendly and, the lecturers noted, ‘elegant’ in appearance. Communication and teamwork are critical. “They communicated [with each other] all the time: sommelier, head waiter, supervisor and so on. That’s the key,” says Sauvère. There were few words, some eye contact but everyone pulled together as a team.

Now back at the Berceau des Sens at EHL, the pair are planning to incorporate their insights into the program. “Maybe we can be less formal. We have to be organized, strict, precise, but we can let the students express themselves more, take more decisions,” Iunker says.

This would be in line with the findings of a survey of hoteliers carried out recently by EHL. It asked hotel managers and directors what key skills they expect from the school’s graduates. The responses were clear: teamwork, communication, presentation, flexibility. That’s now likely to be the direction of the AP program itself as it ensures students are well prepared for a future in hospitality.

“It’s not about techniques, organization, or even money,” Iunker says. “It’s more about the values of the fine dining industry.”

About Stuart Pallister

Stuart Pallister, Head of Academic Editorial Content.

After working as a television journalist in Asia and Europe for nearly 20 years, mainly at CNBC, Stuart switched to digital content development at INSEAD business school and the National University of Singapore.

He is currently the Head of Academic Editorial Content at Ecole hôtelière de Lausanne and Editor-in-Chief of Hospitality Insights by EHL.

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