Q&A with Auckland's restaurant stars

To celebrate Auckland Restaurant Month, which kicks off today, we ask four industry experts the key to their success.

Food stars: Soul Bar's Judith Tabron, Vivace's Steven Mckenzie, O'Connell St Bistro's Chris Upton and Tyler St Garage and Ebisu's Brendan Turner. Photos / Steven McNicholl/Babiche Martens/Supplied
Food stars: Soul Bar's Judith Tabron, Vivace's Steven Mckenzie, O'Connell St Bistro's Chris Upton and Tyler St Garage and Ebisu's Brendan Turner. Photos / Steven McNicholl/Babiche Martens/Supplied

JUDITH TABRON
Owner, Soul Bar & Bistro

What are the most important skills you need to do your job?
You must like people and want to deliver an experience that meets their expectations.

Describe the ideal customer?
The one who keeps coming back.

Describe the worst customer?
I really quite like all our customers. In the 20 years of owning hospitality businesses I can only recall two occasions when I've requested customers to leave and not return. One was a group pretending to be food writers and the other was three women behaving badly. I might make it three occasions if the "Tuna Lady" decides to dine with us again. If you read this Tuna Lady, we can't seem to make you happy, so try another restaurant.

How do you cope when diners arrive expecting a table without booking?
At Soul we expect "casuals" and in fact encourage them.

It is not unusual for us to accommodate 50 casual diners each service. Occasionally we get caught out, but we like a busy, fun restaurant, and flexibility is key.

What's the best thing about your line of work?
Hospo is fun and working with young teams keeps you young.

The worst thing?
Killing crayfish. It makes me cry.

How do you handle it when a customer complains?
Refer to complaints rule book 1 to 10 and if this doesn't work, move on and be more flexible until the customer leaves happy and says they will come back. Smile.

How does your job affect how you deal with wait staff when you eat out?
I generally go out to enjoy myself but arrogance is a deal-breaker. Don't try to bullshit me.

Ever spilt food on a customer? Ever wanted to?
Of course. Ever wanted to? Yes, the ex-husband.

Career highlight?
The Rugby World Cup. Can we run it again next year?

* Soul Bar & Bistro, Viaduct Harbour, ph (09) 356 7249

STEVE MCKENZIE
Maitre d', Vivace

What are the most important skills and attributes you need to do your job?
Communication is absolutely key to running any type of business, not just hospitality. Sometimes I think this skill isn't emphasised enough.

Describe the ideal customer?
A happy one. Someone who makes the decision to go out and enjoy the company they are with in the surroundings you offer.

Describe the worst customer?
A person who comes to your restaurant wanting a completely different style of menu, wine list and experience from the one you provide.

How do you cope when diners arrive expecting a table without booking?
My managers make this look like an art form. We have such a great space to utilise, that makes it very flexible. On the nights when we are jam-packed, it means that you can use your skills manoeuvring bookings, starting people in the bar for drinks and tapas first and staggering tables into sections and dockets into the kitchen. We are happy to create space if people are willing to wait.

What's the most outrageous snippet of conversation you've ever overheard at a table?
"I wonder if we were the first people to do it in their bathroom" and this was only a couple of days after opening so the answer was "yes, congratulations". Ha ha.

What's the most outrageous behaviour you have had to deal with?
I asked a guy to leave due to his behaviour and he turned around to me and said "catch me if you can", then proceeded to play hide and seek with me around the restaurant and bar area. Hilarious now but not so much then, because I have never been that good at hide and seek.

What's the best thing about your line of work?
People. The staff, suppliers, customers and everyone else you bump into on any random day in hospo.

The worst thing?
Everyone has good days and bad days in hospo but I don't think there is any part I consider to be the worst thing.

How do you handle it when a customer complains?
I don't take it personally, mistakes happen.

I just listen, get specifics, find a solution and rectify it as quickly as possible.

How does your job affect how you deal with wait staff when you eat out?
Exactly the same as I expect people to treat my staff, and that is with respect.

Ever spilt food on a customer? Ever wanted too?
A couple's 10th wedding anniversary, fine dining restaurant, the lady's hair is a foot high and looks amazing. In walks a newbie waiter with two glasses of champagne, he leans to put down the lady's glass and the man's glass on the tray falls and shoots its contents into her hairdo, forcing it to collapse. It got a little tense after that, to say the least.

Career highlights?
Opening La Zeppa and Ragu from scratch while still being able to be a part of Vivace.

Anything else you'd like to add?
The key to reducing stress levels is to share a good meal, a great bottle of wine and a laugh with friends and family.

* Vivace, 50 High St, City, ph (09) 302 2303

CHRIS UPTON
Proprietor, O'Connell St Bistro

What are the most important skills and attributes you need to do your job?
Patience, tolerance and a good understanding of human psychology, along with a good food and beverage knowledge.

Describe the ideal customer?
Someone who comes in open to being educated and wanting to enjoy their experience.

Describe the worst customer?
Someone who is rude and arrogant towards my staff.

How do you cope when diners arrive expecting a table without booking?
We like to be able to accommodate everyone who comes through the door. Generally those without a booking are more flexible and we ask them to enjoy our bar area while waiting for an available table.

What's the most outrageous snippet of conversation you've ever overheard at a table?
Usually it involves sex/ex partners/wives ....

What's the most outrageous behaviour you have had to deal with?
We once were seating a customer and on the way to the table he picked up a clean linen napkin from a neighbouring vacant table, blew his nose in it, put it back down on the vacant table and took his seat at his allocated table.

What's the best thing about your line of work?
All our lovely regular diners. Also we get to meet a lot of different types of people.

The worst thing?
Dealing with people who don't have respect for what we do.

At what point did you realise that this was the career for you?
When I was given an ultimatum from my father - the army, life on a building site or further education. I picked Catering College and haven't looked back.

How do you handle it when a customer complains?
We listen to their complaint, act on the information and try to resolve it.

How does your job affect how you deal with wait staff when you eat out?
We are generous with our gratuities.

Ever spilt food on a customer? Ever wanted too?
When I was 19 I worked in a 4-star hotel in Wales during the miners' strike of the early 80s. The Prime Minister at the time, Margaret Thatcher, visited Cardiff for talks with the Miners' Union and was staying at the hotel. I was silver-serving her dinner in her private suite with her husband and four others. Due to nerves I dropped her chicken breast on to her lap, complete with sauce and asparagus. She picked up the four corners of the napkin from her lap, handed it to me and said "shall we try that again?"

Career highlights?
My time working on the Queen Elizabeth 2 ship. Being the proprietor of a successful bistro for 16 years, and being awarded the Wine Spectator Award of Excellence for the last 12 years for our wine list.

Anything else you'd like to add?
I always tell my staff that you open up the door at the start of the day and you don't know who will walk through it ... every day is different.

* O'Connell St Bistro, 3 O'Connell St, City, ph (09) 377 1884

BRENDAN TURNER
General Manager, Tyler St Garage, Precinct and Ebisu

What are the most important skills you need to do your job?
The ability to talk yourself out of a paper bag! A little charm never hurts either.

Describe the ideal customer?
A heavy tipper.

Describe the worst customer?
Ungrateful, ungracious and under-dressed. I'm very happy to say we don't tend to get this type of diner at Tyler St, Ebisu or Precinct.

How do you cope when diners arrive without a booking?
No problem, we operate a walk-in policy. Auckland diners are very spontaneous so the best establishments can cope with the unpredictability.

What's the most outrageous snippet of conversation you've ever overheard at a table?
In my game, discretion is key. Our loyal customers know nothing they say will leave the table.

What's the most outrageous behaviour you have had to deal with?
I have seen and dealt with it all - I've been in the hospo game for more than 28 years.

What's the best thing about your line of work?
Helping to shape the culture of the Auckland dining scene in some small way. I love this city and its dining landscape just keeps getting better. I see the city moving towards the type of casual dining in urban precincts reminiscent of other global hubs such as New York and Melbourne.

The worst thing?
Anti-social hours. I'm always the last to arrive at social gatherings, but my nearest and dearest have come to expect it from me.

When did you realise this was the career for you?
I love the challenge, the diversity but most importantly - the food. That's where it all started for me. As a result of being in the hospitality industry I can truly appreciate what good food and wine is. It means I'm more discerning when it comes to eating out, but is that a bad thing? New Zealand has beautiful food and wine to offer and we should all be able to enjoy it.

How do you handle it when a customer complains?
I love feedback, as long as it is constructive.

How does your job affect how you deal with wait staff when you eat out?
I know how hard they are working. But I also tend to observe the finer details.

Ever spilt food on a customer? Ever wanted too?
Neither.

Career highlight?
Being involved with the start-up of Tyler St Garage, Ebisu and Precinct, creating not one but three very different venues, from nothing. Opening three eateries in one hit wasn't an easy task but I loved the challenge. All three have contributed to what Britomart is today. It's the best place to be any night of the week, you really feel part of something special.

* Tyler St Garage, 120 Quay St, Britomart, ph (09) 300 5279; Ebisu, 116-118 Quay St, Britomart, ph (09) 300 5271; Precinct, 48 Tyler St, Britomart, ph (09) 300 5275

VIP Viva

To celebrate Auckland Restaurant Month, Viva is delighted to give one lucky reader two vouchers to dine out in the inner city this week - $100 to spend at Snapdragon and $100 to spend at Sale St. To enter go to nzherald.co.nz/vivagiveaways and enter the keyword "Auckland Restaurant Month" on the VIP Viva page along with details. Entries close at 11.59pm on Sunday, August 5. For terms and conditions see the website.

- NZ Herald

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