Newsletter Steven Ferry

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

Steven FerryThe Butlers Speak

by Steven Ferry


This month’s subject covers formal entertainment, which most participants felt they had already covered in last month’s Journal. We therefore quote a typical response we received from a household manager who does a lot of formal entertaining for her principal:

What duties have you had over the years regarding formal entertainment for employers, family, and guests?

Since I have been in private service for decades, I have helped homeowners in many capacities. My current job uses the same caterer for non-family events to which are invited friends, acquaintances, business associates and/or celebrity guests. I work with the chef, his assistant and their service staff. We normally hire a butler as the bartender and he works with the dining room manager to execute the event. My job is to be the liaison for a successful event. The pre-event of setting up of the tables and chairs is done by our staff the day before. We have closets full of various china, linens, glassware and silver that is chosen after the meal has been decided. We usually have about 24 guests, tops. My client likes smaller, intimate gatherings in her home since she attends large galas on a regular basis.

The chef and owner of the catering company present a list of food options a couple weeks before the events. We normally have one every Sunday, 9 or 10 weeks in a row during the summer. So, the logistics are similar, depending on the number of guests attending. Then the other events are usually birthday/anniversaries, special celebrations or holidays. Occasionally she’ll have me order a variety of desserts to compliment what the chef is serving. We probably overdo with lots of extra choices: we have vegetarian or beef available, for instance, in case someone doesn’t eat the fish chosen for the menu. It is my job to order the wine, liquor, and mixers.

Once the guests arrive, I am the one who oversees and answers questions that might normally be directed to the principal. She and I discuss the details, such as the times she wants to begin the meal, when each course is served, how to assist guests with special requests, and answer questions that might arise.

I worked at another home where we hired an event planner, since we had three parties a week. We would rent tables, chairs, linens, tableware, silver and have a florist come in to do the centerpieces and flower arrangements. The chefs would vary according to the type of cuisine we were serving. If we had two chefs flown in from Italy for ten days, for instance, it was my responsibility to greet them at the estate when our chauffeur dropped them off, set them up in their rooms, purchase any specific items or products they needed and familiarize them with the kitchen. The regular chef we had on staff never liked being around to help, so as household manager, that would fall in my lap. The chef was married to the butler, so whenever we had guest chefs, the principals let the couple have time off—understandable that there would be a bit of professional jealousy.

What percentage of your duties did these comprise?

Maybe 20-25%. They seemed to increase as I learned the way principals liked things done. Additionally, we put on smaller events at the penthouse where the space is much smaller. It is always a special event when there is a visitor, each being treated like royalty—the staff being expected to treat the principal, family, and distinguished guests with the same formality.

Did any prove particularly challenging and/or satisfying?

It is always satisfying to have a happy employer and appreciation from the guests. It is my job to help make sure things go well and that everyone enjoys the event. The challenge is being calm under pressure. My employer tends to be a perfectionist, which makes me into one also. Making sure all the moving parts are working well together and reinforcing the team, (ensuring) that they are doing a wonderful job.

What general approaches have you found work best for ensuring a smooth occasion that brings a smile to employer and guest faces alike?

In the planning phase, I take notes, use my phone camera to photograph the guest list and the menu. We have seven different sets of China, so knowing how the table will be set and where the guests will be seated is important to establish. We have two informal dining rooms and a formal dining room. Plus, an outdoor dining area that can seat about 14. Again the logistics: Who’s coming, what are we serving, what drinks, cheese board, hors d’oeuvres, dinner, dessert, coffee, and after-dinner drinks will be served, when guests are arriving and estimated times for each course—my current employer likes guests gone by midnight unless they are overnighting in the guest house, so keeping the evening moving along without being intrusive.

Sometimes I need to bring the guest cars to the back of the house, where there is an easy way to exit without negotiating steps.

Finally, go with the flow and think on your feet, smile, be gracious and be extremely careful: The glassware might be $400 for each glass, the wine might be $3,000 a bottle (so watch that cork), that might be a special edition $1,500 plate, and you are handling dozens of these items. So keep up the good work, do your job and enjoy watching the festivities. Oh, and don’t drop that glass, and if you do, point it out so a replacement can be purchased. Because if you think it won’t be missed out of the inventory…think again. I would rather know; no one loses their job, no one faints and it is not life or death. It’s replaceable (cross your fingers) either way, bring any concerns to the management and continue doing a terrific job! If you love your job, do your best. Even if it might be a bit stressful at first, you learn the skills necessary and you’ll be successful.

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.