To serve the present age

Well, term has well and truly begun. While university lectures have not yet started up again those of us at the Theological Federation have been engaged last week and this (well not this week for me, since there was an administrative error) in what are known as January Intensives. These are short, 2½ day courses covering a range of topics from race awareness, through story-telling, to inter-faith relationships. They allow everyone an opportunity to undertake training required by their denomination or institution, develop skills felt necessary for future ministry, or to be involved in academically interesting and challenging conversations that may be useful in the future.

As well as undertaking my compulsory training in Race Awareness last week (all Methodist Student Ministers, certainly in Cambridge, are required to undertake Race/Diversity training – having undertaken a great deal of this in previous roles I was a little wary of doing more but I actually found the course very helpful and informative) I also found myself watching the first two episodes of ‘Michel Roux’s Service‘ on BBC2. For those who don’t know, Michel Roux is a Michellin Star chef and owner of Le Gavroche, one of London’s top restaurants. ‘Service’ is a documentary following the progress of 8 young people, from late teens to early 20s, that Michel is taking through a series of experiences before choosing 2 of them to receive scholarships in order to train as front of house professionals.

You’re possibly thinking “Front of house professionals? What is there about waiting tables that’s professional? It’s just a job for students and out of work actors.” If so then you’re possibly one of the causes of the reason this programme is being made. At Gavroche, so Roux says in the programme intro, there is a 25-strong front of house team which includes just one British maître d’. While I’m not as scathing of British restaurant/hotel service as some, it is true that very few people in the UK see working front of house as a genuine career option. I know from experience that when young people show interest in hospitality courses it’s usually the catering ones that are key in marketing terms because, with the rise of superstar chefs from Marco Pierre White and Keith Floyd to Heston Blumenthal and Gordon Ramsey, that is where people see the career as being. Yet I also know from (admittedly limited) experience that you can’t make a catering & hospitality experience work just from good kitchen staff – great service out front is also vital. And if you’re good at it you can go a long way – I have an old school friend who works on cruise ships, clearly loves his job, and gets to see so much of the world that I can only dream of seeing. It’s also more diverse than one might imagine – for example, a top-class sommelier (wine-waiter) won’t just be the restaurant’s go-to-person on wine, they’ll spend their whole time with wine: sampling it, recommending it for restaurant purchase and possibly being in charge of buying, working out which one goes with which dish (one of our local restaurants lists on its menu a recommended wine for each dish – that’ll be the work of their sommelier, or one of them at least), and speaking to customers about possible choices – in other words, they won’t carry a single plate.

Roux seems like a pleasant guy (we admittedly don’t get to see him in chef mode, at least not yet) and his friend/colleague/former front-of-house protegé Fred Sirieix seems genuinely concerned to pass on some of his vast knowledge and encourage the students into this particular career choice (even if he occasionally miss-handles situations – his attempt to encourage a teenage single mum by questioning whether she was giving her young child the right message was, quite honestly, cringe-worthy). And it’s good to see people willing to give something of themselves to help others find something of themself – and it isn’t just Roux and Sirieix – so far we’ve seen a major chain and two family-run establishments risk some of their reputation to hand over the entire front-0f-house operation to a team of young, very inexperienced waiting-staff for a morning or evening.

But the whole show, for me, has raised further questions about what I, what we Student Ministers and Ordinands, indeed what all of us who call ourselves Christian, are called to do. Part of our vocation is to serve and, certainly those of us called to ordination of some kind (as well as others), part of it is to lead. And if you think the two are incompatible re-read the gospels, or consider the role of maître d’ – who is responsible for leading the whole front-of-house team, for assigning roles and responsibilities to staff as well as tables to customers, but on whose shoulders also rests final responsibility for all the service provided, including stepping in and helping clear tables, carry plates or whatever it takes to ensure a good experience for the customer. Of course, in the church, we don’t have customers, but nonetheless we are called to serve. In this country we have a difficulty understanding that service is something we can aspire to, rather than something we do when other options are not available. And it is something that requires skills and talents, some of which may come naturally, others of which need training and development.

That is why I am where I am, it is why all of us who are here at the Federation to train are here – we are called to serve God, our brothers and sisters in the church, and the world. It is a high and valuable calling, and one which is not easy but challenging. I don’t know yet what the final outcome of Roux’s programme is, but I wish all the participants joy in whatever they are doing now. Serving others, in whatever context, is something worth appreciating, encouraging, and developing.

Travel, and serve, well,

The Nomad

NB (27/01/11) My stats show that there are a fair number of new visitors coming to this particular page from the BBC website. Welcome! If you’ve got this far I invite you to have a look around the rest of my blog – you never know, you may find something of interest. If you don’t wish to then that’s fine, I hope something on this post made you think and I wish you every blessing in your own continuing journey.

The Nomad


About MendipNomad

I'm a nomad both physically and denominationally, but I'll always call the Mendips home. Currently a Methodist Presbyter (Minister) in Cornwall. I love sport, film, tv, socialising, politics (both US and British), and, yes, being part of the church.
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