Service isn’t servitude: the skill of hosting

20 December, 2022

La’Mel Clarke, front of house at London’s Seed Library, looks at the forgotten art of hosting and why it deserves the same respect as bartending.

The last time I wrote for Drinks International the world was grinding to a halt. It was 2020. Bars and restaurants were attempting to navigate the new Covid-19 landscape, and nobody had a clue what was going to happen. Throughout the various lockdowns and reopenings, we’ve seen a lot of shifting perspectives – from the way venues operate to the working conditions that members of the industry are willing to accept.

With these changes, there has been a clear delineation of what the industry has accepted as the status quo. As a result, I want to know why there hasn’t been the same rise in the celebration of floor managers, waiters or hosts as there has with bartenders.

It feels necessary to unpack the role of the maître d’hôtel. The term literally translates to “master of the hotel” and the role originally incorporated greeting guests, being head waiter and managing the central dining room. It was a position of great prestige and required lots of training, yet today it’s often the less-experienced members of staff, at the start of their hospitality careers, being given the role of ‘host’. 

This feels backward because, as the face of a venue, which a maître d’ normally is, there is a large amount of responsibility that needs to be accounted for – welfare of the guests, welfare of the staff and ensuring service runs smoothly. A significant skill we need is to be able to read our guests and anticipate what they want. This goes beyond just taking orders – it’s understanding a guest’s mood and the stage of their night to successfully curate the best drinks for them. Even beyond your own venue there’s a responsibility to suggest the right bars for your guests to move on to because it reflects on us as their host.

Need for change

If we look at the old-school structure of a bar, there would regularly have been a male behind the stick, slinging drinks, while the host/floor staff would often be female. For me, the reason there is a lack of ‘star FOH’ outside of one award ceremony (Class Bar Awards) is that we are stuck in a behaviour wheel of heteronormative binaries. As different people take on different roles within the industry, we find ourselves still falling back on old tropes regarding gendered behaviour and jobs and the lack of opportunities are pretty apparent. If you work FOH, you do not get the same opportunities as the other male-coded roles in the industry. 

We need to look at why the physical aspect of making drinks overrides the knowledge of the person touching the table. I have had many tables ask me to get the bartender to recommend a drink, when in actual fact, I’m an experienced bartender myself and I am the one deciding the guests’ drinks. Even then, who cares about the drink if they haven’t enjoyed all the moments leading up to it?

For me, there is a lack of understanding about the emotional nuance and intelligence that goes into the position of being front of house and I think the more platforms we have dissecting what we do, the more opportunities we can expect.

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La'Mel Clarke

Service isn’t servitude: the skill of hosting

La’Mel Clarke, front of house at London’s Seed Library, looks at the forgotten art of hosting and why it deserves the same respect as bartending.