Peter Avis -
Manager of the Year 09
Masterchef, Hell’s Kitchen, Kitchen Secrets; the endless chef-focussed TV programmes belie the reality that restaurants do in fact comprise considerably more than a kingpin chef around whom dispensable staff scurry in a bid to keep his metaphorical hair on. EC had the pleasure of meeting Peter Avis of Babylon Restaurant, The Roof Gardens, London – UK Restaurant Manager of the Year 2009 – who is on a mission to raise the profile of front of house staff everywhere
Before you meet the inaugural and current UK Restaurant Manager of the Year you know you are in for a treat. Any front of house staff worth their salt (let alone the UK champ) will make you feel welcome, special and well-looked after without appearing obsequious, overstepping the mark or, to put it bluntly, getting in your face. Without even knowing through which extraordinary hoops* Peter had to jump before triumphing in last year’s competition, it was not hard to see why he wears this prestigious crown, ticking, as he does, all the above boxes and more.
UK Restaurant Manager of the Year Competition
The competition was launched last year by the Academy of Food & Wine, supported by the National Skills Academy for Hospitality and sponsored by OpenTable.com.
“Several Academy members approached us about running a competition that recognised and showcased the skills of restaurant managers,” comments Sophie Roberts-Brown, the Academy’s executive director. “The role of restaurant manager is often overlooked as a career. With this competition we are seeking to raise the profile of the restaurant manager and demonstrate the skills needed to be one of the best; skills that are the same in a Michelin-starred establishment as they are in a high street brasserie – great business sense, knowledge of the trade and fantastic people skills.”
The man behind the crown
We all love a rags to riches story and Peter’s tale does not disappoint. Having left school in Liverpool at the age of 16 with fewer than a handful of GCSEs to his name, he was unclear which direction his career was going to take until, aged 18, he joined his sister for a two-week holiday in Miami – he stayed for four years.
Peter’s first job in Miami was as a dishwasher. “I loved the job,” says Peter. “I went in every day knowing that each and every dish I washed was going to be done to the best of my ability.” With such an attitude it was hardly surprising that within a couple of months he had been spotted by the owner and was asked to help out as a commis waiter.
Extraordinarily, after just one service on the floor, Peter never returned to the kitchen. His boss Nick had been so impressed with the way he handled the customers that he decided to rid Peter of his aprons for ever. “Your people skills are fantastic,” praised Nick. “Keep at it and you will get to the top of your game.” The rest, as they say, is history.
In the intervening years Peter has been head waiter at the MGM Grand Hotel in Las Vegas – where the importance of training, communication, service, consistency and grooming were instilled in him; a waiter at the Royal Garden Hotel, London – where his general manager spotted his burning ambition and put him on a trainee manager course; and assistant manager at a private restaurant/club in Knightsbridge, London.
In 2001 Peter was approached to join the opening team of Babylon Restaurant at The Roof Gardens in Kensington as restaurant supervisor. He became restaurant manager in 2006. In 2008 Babylon scooped the Best London Restaurant award at the Visit London Awards. They say that a ship is as good as its captain and it would appear that the man at the helm of the Babylon is one of the best, although Peter would insist that it is the team – not he as an individual – that has taken the restaurant to the respected position it enjoys today.
“Never be complacent,” insists Peter. “Always be ahead of the game and never lose your passion for whatever it is you choose to do.” Peter also believes that it is a manager’s responsibility to instil passion into his or her team to get everyone working to the very best of their ability.
“Over the years I have observed many times how not to manage people,” says Peter with a wry smile. Every day the staff not only all come together for two half-hour “chat” sessions, but they also have daily “family meals together,” as Peter puts it. Not only does this ensure that everyone is well fed and consequently able to do their jobs better, but everyone knows each other, cares about their colleagues and works enthusiastically as a team. It also means, of course, that front of house knows about the food on the menu and can discuss it knowledgeably with customers.
“Having won the Restaurant Manager of the Year, I feel it is my responsibility to raise people’s awareness of the importance of front of house staff in our industry,” says Peter. “I also want to inspire people in the industry and, of course, keep developing Babylon. I’m always on the lookout for new concepts.”
What Peter does not shout about are his involvements with charity, in particular London-based Kids Company for whom he ran the London Marathon in April. He also runs fundraising initiatives in the restaurant and invites inner city youth to Babylon to see for themselves that, while it may be “posh” it need not be frightening and that everyone should have the confidence to aspire to whatever level they may choose. “Look at me,” grins Peter. “I come from one of the poorest areas in Liverpool and I now work in one of the capital’s best restaurants. Never say never!”
Academy of Food and Wine
* Founded in 1988, the Academy of Food and Wine is the industry’s professional training body dedicated to the skills of wine and food service. The Academy’s purpose is to identify, promote and maintain the highest professional standards for the education and training of food and wine waiting staff and bar assistants in the UK hotel, restaurant, catering and bar industry. www.afws.co.uk