“There’s always going to be more recognition for chefs,” says James Audas, sommelier and assistant manager at The Star’s BLACK by ezard, pointing out a universal hospitality truth. “You go to a restaurant to eat their food, you don’t go to a restaurant solely to be served by someone.”
But the two main facets of the restaurant experience aren’t, of course, mutually exclusive. “I think that great service and great food go hand-in-hand. One enhances the other and recognition for the front of house is a fantastic thing.”
As the recent recipient of the title of Electrolux Young Waiter of the Year, Audas is still remarkably humble about both his chosen profession and this great accolade. But he’s worked hard for the recognition and chosen a career that, whilst gathering momentum in Australia, is still a long way from being the respected profession it is in Europe and the United States.
“I guess like a lot of people, I kind of fell into hospitality,” confesses Audas. “It’s one of those industries where people don’t necessarily see it as a career. I know originally I didn’t. I was doing it to help pay for university – working in bars and restaurants and polishing cutlery and doing anything to earn some money. But I just fell in love with it through working in some wonderful restaurants. It’s infectious when you have a really good team and great people around you.
“And you learn so much about people in this profession,” he continues. “I ended up giving up uni and concentrating on hospitality.”
His parents weren’t thrilled at the change of direction, but Audas suggests that there are certain similarities between psychology (the degree he abandoned) and his role in hospitality. “It’s about reading people, understanding what they want from their evening, and I think that is really important. You need to be able to assess whether they want to be left alone or whether they are looking for full-on service,” Audas smiles to himself, adding that in the early days he could sometime misread the situation.
“Sometimes it’s a fine line. You’ll get office workers that come in and want to be completely left alone as if they are in a board meeting, or people that are coming in for a special occasion and want to go all out for that. It’s just about judging each situation and helping them find what they want. That can be the hardest thing.”
He’s quietly spoken, neatly presented and has a gentleness and subtle sense of humour that sparkles in his eyes as we marvel at the view from BLACK’s private dining room.
The process that results in being named Young Waiter of the Year begins with passion, dedication to hospitality and filling in a lot of forms. The field is narrowed to 12 and then to seven by way of food and wine tests and interviews and finally a service exam and a produce tour. But despite the lengthy process, the win still took Audas by surprise. But apart from topping up water glasses and sweeping crumbs from the table between courses, exactly what is it that makes for excellent service, both as a sommelier and waiter? For Audas, despite varied areas of expertise, it still all comes back to the food.
“Wine is my passion, but working a restaurant you have to know the food better than anything else. You need to know every ingredient and cooking technique, and each detail of the dishes that are being served. We don’t let our section waiters onto the floor until they know every aspect of every dish. It’s just so important.”
This means regular tasting sessions and maintaining a good relationship with the kitchen and back of house, which can be contentious in the high-pressure world of fine dining. “We’re blessed with having a really great kitchen team,” says Audas. “I know a lot of people don’t like dealing with their kitchens or back of house, but we’ve got a really lovely kitchen to work with. It makes it easy to relate what’s happening with the food to our customers. And that is so important.”
But keeping contact with diners is also important. “I’m in a section every night. I know a lot of sommeliers don’t do that, but I really insist on having a section and getting to interact with customers. It helps you keep perspective and you get a good view of your wine staff that way too.”
And nothing keeps you on your toes like variable customers. “I think the challenge of dealing with new people every day is the most enjoyable part of the job. That’s what providing good hospitality is all about – to be able to change a person’s day. When people come in and they haven’t had the best day and to be able to help them relax completely and really have an enjoyable meal is something I really value.”
Apparently it’s something diners value too. He might be hoping to create his own wine in the future, but for now you’ll find Audas creating that hospitality magic on the floor at BLACK by Ezard.