There's a subtle interplay happening when you eat in a restaurant, one that – if all runs smoothly – you probably won't even notice: the chefs in the kitchen and the front-of-house team have to work together to bring you the best dining experience possible. Their experiences of an evening's work will differ hugely, and they'll see different things.
When you speak to the waiters, you'll often get a whole new perspective, one that's more focused on the diner's physical experience as opposed to the creativity happening in the kitchen. That's why we were so interested to speak with Paolo de Tarso and Nicolas Jaouën, who've both racked up experience as maitre d's before opening their first restaurant, Margot, in Covent Garden. Here they tell us what makes a restaurant great, how working front-of-house is different to being in the kitchen, and why – no matter how experienced you are – it's so important to think like a customer.
When did you first realise you wanted to work in restaurants?
Nicolas Jaouën: The first time I went to a restaurant I was blown away, I thought it was magical. The confidence of the waiter, then the whole theatre of the food arriving, the clearing of the plates, the precision and speed this guys where doing this at while also managing their section – I couldn't believe one second I would ever be able to do it but I then got sucked in.
Paulo de Tarso: I was quite young when I took a side job in a restaurant but soon fell in love with the energy and realised it could become a career.
Which chefs and restaurateurs have had the most impact on your career?
NJ: For nearly five years, Scott’s in Mayfair shaped my technique, but Keith McNally [the iconic New York restaurant owner] really changed me and made me realise what a restaurateur is – he’s an incredibly genuine and kind man.
PT: Daniel Boulud is my mentor, he’s done so much for me. I love him. As both a personal and professional role model, his impact on me has been massive. Danny Meyer [of Union Square Hospitality Group] has inspired me dramatically over the years, and he has changed the industry globally, too. I admire him very much.
Which chefs/restaurateurs in London are doing things that inspire you?
NJ: Several, I really like Pascal Aussignac [of Club Gascon] for his passion and humbleness. I like what Arjun Waney [a restaurateur who’s opened sites all over the world] does in terms of business and Jamie Oliver for his charity work.
PT: Michel Roux Jr is an amazing human being and the Roux Scholarship Foundation is doing incredible things for upcoming chefs. I love that Michel is always looking for ways to reach out. One of my dearest friends, Monica Galetti, has spent much of her career with him, and I'm excited to see her next steps as she opens her own restaurant.
How do you think your experiences as front-of-house are shaping the restaurant differently to one that’s been set up by a chef?
NJ: We are facing the guests, we can see and feel their reaction; we can greet them, seat them and look after them the way a chef can’t. We can feel the buzz in the room, control the tempo and act accordingly. It would be difficult for me to be a chef and work without seeing it.
PT: Chefs are brilliant in what they do and bring a particular focus to their projects, of course. I have tremendous respect for them. While they are running the show behind the curtain, we we are the performers, and when the curtains go up we need to perform. But we need each other to create the greatest theatre for our audience.
For me, I feel I have such a respect and appreciation for both sides of the curtain that I can bring the full experience. From knowledge to guest interaction to choosing the highest quality ingredients at every level. We are creating an experience and a setting in which we hope our clients will feel at ease and looked after. So I suppose if you're looking for a difference it would be that we put ourselves in the client's seat and look at everything from that perspective first.
Who’s going to be doing the cooking?
PT: Our executive chef Maurizio Morelli, originally from Latina near Rome. He's classically trained and I'm really excited about the menu.
Can you tell us three secrets to running a great restaurant in London?
NJ: Working hard but also having the strength of stepping back, looking at it from an angle where you take yourself and everything you know about the trade out of the equation. It’s difficult to think like a customer after so many years.
PT: Knowledge, training and passion.
Are you keen chefs in your spare time?
NJ: My masterpiece is scrambled egg and crispy bacon in a brioche bun... I’m not a good chef.
PT: I love cooking. I have three boys, and my wife Heidi and I believe that families that eat together stay together, plus I love cooking for them. Obviously with restaurant hours, I don't always get to be home for dinner with the boys, so I cherish the days I get to cook and eat with my family.
What do you think your restaurant will offer in comparison to other Italian restaurants?
NJ: We want to bring something new to the table something that feel simple for the guest but where everything that's done has been carefully selected and thought through.
PT: Great humble food with thoughtful customer service delivered with knowledge and a friendly smile.
Margot's food – in pictures:
Did you think there was a gap for this style of restaurant in London?
PT: I love Italian food. It's amazing and so full of flavour, so much more to it than just pasta. I love all types of food, but good, proper Italian is my favourite so maybe I'm just being greedy and felt no one was quite doing what I wanted. There are a handful of very nice Italian restaurants and a lot of mama and papa styles locally, but I hadn't really found my Italian.
Where do you eat in London and why?
NJ: I'm a creature of habit: I go often to Hereford Road near my house which I love. Barrafina is probably the reason I don't own my flat – I generally love informal places.
PT: Le Caprice because Jesus Adorno is brilliant and the service is fantastic; Murano because Angela Hartnett is fantastic; and Frenchie I like what Greg Marchand has done with the place and the food is delicious, plus we're neighbours here in Covent Garden.
45 Great Queen St, WC2B 5AA; margotrestaurant.com