From setting the perfect table to flambeing a pineapple, an international group of contestants battled it out in Tokyo last week for the title of top maitre d’ as the profession looks to boost its profile.
Hailing from 14 countries, the two dozen hopefuls were grilled by a panel of judges who expected nothing less than top-shelf service and a display of impressive culinary knowledge, with little patience for the unprepared.
“Which part of France does the cognac come from? Is it a liqueur, how is it distilled?” they demanded.
Slovenian Aljaz Toplak was among the under-pressure head waiters and waitresses who fielded rapid-fire questions as he prepared a champagne cocktail topped with a cherry delicately balanced on the edge of the glass.
“Technically, they are all very good. The difference is that extra bit of dexterity, language skill and the ability to relate to the judges,” said Franck Languille, president of the Georges Baptiste Cup.
The Cup was established in France in 1961 in honour of the chef and butler of the same name and later expanded to include entrants from other European countries three decades later.
In 2000 it went global when it was held in Canada with subsequent editions in France, Mexico and Vietnam.
The latest edition, held at a Tokyo hotel, saw contestants put through nine events including preparing salad dressing, floral decoration and table setting as well as making Irish coffee and salmon tartare.
Shin Miyazaki, 35, who works at Chateau Restaurant Joel Robuchon in Tokyo, was this year’s winner, outdoing rivals at cooking lamb and identifying which wine works well with certain flavours — all in elegantly spoken French.
“I practised every day for years, I’m hooked, and now I get this award,” an emotional Miyazaki said after receiving the top honour on Friday.
“But this is only the beginning, tomorrow I go back to work to do my best.”
Earlier, jurors posing as a party of four scolded Estonian contestant Tiiu Parm for politely asking if they would like wine with their meal during perhaps the most nerve-wracking segment.
“Of course we’ll have wine — this is for a birthday!” responded juror Frederic Kaiser, a previous winner of the Cup’s European trophy.
Parm’s question about which wines the group preferred was met with an equally curt: “What do you think, you’re the professional, right?”
All the events were timed, with Marc Moris from Luxembourg unlucky enough to face criticism from the prickly judges over the slow pace of his pineapple flambe preparation.
Whether it is culinary knowledge or social skills, maitre d’s must constantly strive to exceed expectations.
“Clients always want to know more about the products,” said Regis Marcon, a three Michelin-starred chef from France.
“The future of this business is good product knowledge, but friendliness and the quality of customer service are, of course, indispensable,” he added.
In France, customers tend to remember food first with service and ambiance second, a situation that is reversed in English-speaking countries and Asia, said Patrick Henriroux, a two Michelin-starred chef, also from France.
“People come to restaurants for a range of emotions. We try to provide an overall experience.”