Words David Wrigley
A great restaurant isn’t just about the food.
Back when New Zealand was just coming out of lockdown and we were able to order takeaway food from all our favourite restaurants, as exciting as that was, there was still something missing, a personal touch, a sense of being looked after and cared for. It is, of course, the front of house team that brings a dining experience to life.
In the Waikato there are some extraordinarily bright, talented and knowledgeable people in our local restaurants greeting us, recommending wines and keeping the wheels of an excellent night out gently but expertly turning. We asked a few of them how they got into the business and what keeps them inspired.
Riccardo Carminati, the co-owner/operator and omnipresent face of Alpino in Cambridge, was born into a family of restaurateurs and bartenders. He started working in restaurants in his native Bergamo in Lombardy at twelve.
“I always worked in hospitality, but it was only when I came here to Alpino and got the chance to take the restaurant to the next level, that I thought ‘Wow, this is what I have to do’.”
Riccardo is a self-described people person and sharing his love of wine is the thing he loves most about the industry: “Working at Alpino, where we can get the best, top-quality products, and offer them to the guests. It’s amazing.”
Donna Ferguson, a passionate duty manager at Scott’s Epicurean in Hamilton, got her start in the industry under Simon Gault in Auckland. She was already studying hospitality at AUT and the opportunity to work with such an esteemed chef confirmed for her that front of house was where she wanted to be.
Donna takes this inspiration into her work at Scott’s, and, like Riccardo, she is a consummate people person. “I love the people. I love my customers here at Scott’s. I missed them over lockdown.”
Anyone who has dined at Hayes Common in Hamilton East will almost certainly recognise the ever-smiling Shona Lambert. Shona runs the front of house team while also having a hand in many aspects of the business.
Shona was always going to be in hospitality, having started throwing lavish dinner parties at the age of 15, but as an adult it was moving to Melbourne that really cemented her ambitions: “There was so much to do for someone who loved food and learning; workshops, symposiums, festivals, wine tastings, staff training sessions, farm visits and plenty of restaurants to dine at.”
At Hayes Common she puts all that knowledge and experience to good use in her work training the team and showing guests a great time.
Melbourne also opened the eyes of Hayes Common’s senior waiter Kieran Clarkin. He fell in love with wine working at a bottle shop in Wellington while at university before moving to Melbourne where he worked for the Lucas Group. He loved helping people find just the right wine for the right occasion.
Kieran, who earned a degree in Classics, naturally found his way to Greece and became so excited by the wines he found there that he started a small importing business called Cellar Days to bring Greek bottles to the people of New Zealand.
Larissa Gabriela Muller is a sommelier, restaurant manager and now a minor business partner at Hamilton’s Palate. After working for big hotel chains when she first arrived in New Zealand from Brazil, she moved to Hamilton for a change of pace. It was here she discovered her passion for wine.
Larissa loves the ever-changing nature of her work with no two days offering quite the same challenges: “People change all the time, and we have to adapt.” It’s people that make hospitality such an exciting and ever-changing career.
Dave Tourelle, the bearded, loquacious stalwart of Hamilton Central and owner operator of Cafe Kopi, got his start in the jazz clubs of Sydney as a chef.
“One day someone chucked me up the front. I wasn’t very good, but I just loved it.”
Kopi does great coffee but it’s Dave and his team that keep the punters coming back. “For me, it’s about people, the customers, the people I work with. That’s why I do it.”
It’s impossible to quantify exactly what makes a great front of house worker, but what the best have in common is a commitment to quality, a sense of joy in working in a team, and a genuine interest and affection for the people that come to eat at their restaurants. In the Waikato we are lucky enough to have so many excellent people pouring our drinks and making our evenings memorable.