Newsletter Steven Ferry

The Modern Butlers’ Journal, December 2019, The Butlers Speak

Steven FerryThe Butlers Speak

by Steven Ferry


This month’s subject examines the butler and the chef, or having to be the chef, too.One third of the butlers surveyed have never had to cook, but the majority had the skill and were required to use it. All had had to work with chefs and manage them delicately.

One butler had three chefs to prepare all meals for the employer, the staff, events, and for the employer’s aircrafts. This butler did, however, provide fruit preparation and an egg every now and then when serving breakfast. Another, while working as head steward on board of one of the employer’s vessels, would cook for a crew of 9 whenever the chef was on leave. «Although I am not a trained chef, everyone survived and as far as I know no extra sick leave had to be taken, so, I guess my qualities were sufficient!»

One butler worked on one position with three different chefs over a four-year period but found it necessary to take culinary classes and a bartenders course, because each of the chefs flaked out and the butler became the de-facto chef. The first chef lost her job because she was intentionally injuring people. The second had a substance abuse problem and wasn’t asked back after his contract was completed. The last one walked off the job without telling anyone, leaving several-hundred-dollars-worth of groceries in his vehicle. «We became concerned when our guests were arriving in an hour and the chef was nowhere to be found. The Principal and I whipped up Chicken Milanese and served it over a bed of greens. Plus a fresh fruit crisp for dessert. Consequently, I have been doing some basic food service for about two years for the employer and an occasional luncheon for 3-4 people.»

Duties expected depended on the time of year for one butler and which residence was being occupied. In one, it was necessary to do the grocery shopping and cooking four-or-five light meals a week for six months. The other six months required simply purchasing breakfast foods and a variety of cheese and crackers for the week.

Dealing with the chef can be tough, as the chef has a huge responsibility, so staying calm and not reacting to the intensity of the moment is a must, according to one butler. «You must cooperate and be an asset in the kitchen, listen closely and follow directions. It is best to communicate before the cooking begins. I notice chefs are focused, so learning to read cues and having items staged for service increases the success of the evening. Helpful, thoughtful, careful and calm. As you become more knowledgeable of the routine and of the chef’s behaviors, it is easier to navigate the kitchen. Stay out of the way, too. The chef has to have access to the stove, oven, sink, pots and pans, cutting surfaces to do preparation and cooking. I think the chef has an enormous responsibility and communication and teamwork is extremely important to have an exceptional and memorable event.»

«As a big team,» adds another butler, «we provide the meals for our employer. I bring my thoughts about the menu, the way it is served or presented. I always hope the chefs use this information, which is usually the case. But in the end, the chefs are responsible for the items served, and I like to trust them in that. Of course, I can overrule decisions when necessary, but this is almost never the case.»

«Chefs are high functioning and can be demanding, since so much of cooking is about timing. The food service needs to run smoothly, it is time consuming to plan and execute, they are artisans. Skilled, precise and professional. Perfectionists. Having a chef is a luxury and food is meant to be nutritious, visually appealing and delicious. Being thick-skinned as a butler helps, too!»

«We currently have a chef who works three days a week at the residence. We meet and talk weekly (or more often if necessary) to discuss the principal’s schedules. There are many lunch and dinner meetings on the schedule, as well as family and extended-family meals. The chef searches for recipes that fit the dietary needs of the family members, keeping a list of their allergies and food sensitivities as well as those of frequent guests. She does the grocery shopping, maintains the pantry, refrigerator and freezer staples, prepares any number of meals a week as well as preparing food for the principal to take with her for lunch at work. The chef maintains the kitchen equipment in good working order and cleans and sanitizes the kitchen before she leaves for the day.  She also has a kitchen garden in the summer where she grows a variety of herbs, peppers, tomatoes and lettuces.

«Her duties over the 11+ years she has worked here have changed. The principals’ dietary wants and needs have fluctuated and the chef has been expected to make the necessary adjustments—and done so very well. The principals actually prefer eating at home because they know the quality of the food is excellent, it’s exactly what they like, the portions are controlled, and frankly they just love her cooking!»

Looking for any challenges and recommendations for dealing with chefs successfully, one butler suggested, «I found that chefs often can be very stubborn—and they should be, as should anyone who believes in his or her qualities as a professional, whatever role they play in the team. Therefore, it is very important to establish a good working relationship within the team where there is liberty for discussion to ensure a perfect result for the employer.»

«Respect, and if you ever watched a cooking show on TV with Gordon Ramsey, you know you don’t argue with the chef. You are in someone’s private home, so you cannot create a commotion or be combative. There is a hefty budget for chefs to purchase food, so you need to let them concentrate and do their job. They can be testy, since so much responsibility is placed on their performance in the kitchen and presentation of food.»

«Time management can be an issue, especially when our chef needs to go shopping on a Monday morning before lunch is prepared. The principals request mainly fresh foods —organic fruits and vegetables, grass-fed beef, etc. Because of that, it takes a little longer shopping and preparing the dishes they like because everything is so fresh.

«Another area we have had to work on was the amount of food prepared. In the beginning, the chef was making too much food and it was going to waste (or I was eating it ?).  We had to work on paring down the purchases and then using all of the food purchased before it spoiled. Our chef became very creative out of necessity.»

Asked for amusing anecdotes, one butler demurred, saying that while he had many, most of them were not suitable to share in the MBJ and he would rather keep them for a shared moment in the pantry!

Another offered, «I am trying to be tactful, but for me, chefs are the most challenging to work with. They’re very focused. Since their job is like a theatrical performance of sorts, and a time-consuming venture. This quote from Epictetu is a good one to remember for following directions. “We have two ears and one mouth so that we can listen twice as much as we speak.”

«There have been many times where family members have stopped by around dinner time. Of course, our principal invites them to stay for dinner. I remember one time where there were four planned for dinner and at least 4-5 others showed up and were invited to stay. While our chef was surprised at the number of people now dining, she was able to accommodate everyone, even those with food allergies! By the time she had finished cooking and serving, the food in the freezer was noticeably lower and she had used virtually everything that was in the refrigerator! That was amazing to me, that she pulled it off so remarkably well, was praised by the principals and visitors and finished with a smile. Well done! I’m not a chef and a situation like that would have had me calling a local restaurant for urgent delivery!»

The Institute is dedicated to raising service standards by broadly disseminating the mindset and superior service expertise of that time-honored, quintessential service provider, the British Butler, updated with modern people skills, and adapted to the needs of modern employers and guests in staffed homes, luxury hotels, resorts, spas, retirement communities, jets, yachts & cruise ships around the world.