Xavi Alba
Xavi Alba: “The room makes the difference between eating well and eating very well”

Aware that it is a fundamental element for the success of a restaurant, Gasma promotes restaurant room studies in all training programs, from the Degree in Gastronomy  to the masters and professional diplomas.

We talked about its importance with Xavi Alba, at the age of 35, Xavi Alba director of Operations of all the restaurants of the elBarri group  and professor of the Master’s Degree Re-evolution Gastronomic. Xavi Alba runs restaurants where each person’s ability to work hard and contribute to the group, regardless of qualifications and experience, is highly valued, in fact the average age of their waiters is 24 years! We talked to him about the repositioning of the room in the restaurant business, the priorities that define his work and his teams, and the post-COVID restuarant room.

In January 2020 you received the 2019 Hall of Excellence Chief of Excellence Award from Fitur

It is always a pride that the figure of the restaurant room leader is recognized, and more from a group like yours! In the world of gastronomy there is a lot of talk about evolution and growth, and I see that the room goes a little tow, without giving it the importance that I think it deserves today. On a personal level it is also a satisfaction that you value my work and the hours I put in it.

Now you are gradually coming back to the spotlight, having presence in these galleries of gastronomy that are the awards and recognitions. But it seems that the room has always been the great forgotten of gastronomy.

Not at all! In the past the room was very important, at the door of the restaurants it named the master and that was taking into account when choosing where to dine. Yes, it is true that, with the development of author cuisine, we were losing relevance. Gastronomy is now at a fantastic point, both of creativity and quality of its professionals as well as in terms of recognition and popularity; So much so that I even wonder if there can be anything else yet!

But we tend to focus it only on the chefs, no longer being aware that the kitchen and the restaurant room work have nothing to do with it, they are complementary that never have to be the same. Obviously the cook creates the dish, and people go to a restaurant to eat; even though we are now so involved in the experience gastronomy. I don’t want and can’t and should live up to the figure of a chef. I want, I can, and I must define and value my own figure, our figure in the room.

We are finally being recognized, among other reasons, for the support and collaboration of chefs. They are the ones who cook, but we are the ones who are in contact with the customer and we have the key to make the customer’s visit a unique experience. I believe that, right now, kitchen and restaurant room we are spreading the importance to 50/50.

But this is all theory. In his book Tickets Evolution, Albert Adria states that it is thanks to that place and you that he really understands the importance of the restaurant room. What is the relationship between room and kitchen inside a restaurant like?

Well, it depends on every restaurant, of course. I think in our case a BIG part of our success as a group is that Albert has always promoted that the good relationship between kitchen and room is vital. Traditionally, chef and waiter are almost enemies; but Albert has fought a lot around the room, understood us and defended us… And all his teams follow him, of course.

Is this perception of the Adria’s restaurant room shared by the rest of the haute cuisine cooks?

Yes, absolutely. I have a good relationship with almost all of them, we visit each other in our “homes”, and you can see that they are giving great importance in the world of the restaurant room: on their social networks, in their restaurants… and today the world of the room is vital! Someone has to convey the message that the cook creates with his dishes.

Speaking of the client. Is the food audience also catching up on the assessment of the restaurant room work?

Everyone values good service. We all like to be smiled at, looked at, treated with love.

¿Quizás se os da un poco por sentados?

Exactly. The restaurant room influences the feeling you get away with eating in a restaurant. It is what differentiates between eating well and eating VERY well; and many customers used to ignore our efforts and accomplishments and focus only on mistakes. Today I see change. At our five restaurants Albert implemented a service model in which, after approaching the table, the waiter is presented by name. Since then, many customers I speak to praise the restaurant room, and specifically the waiters who have taken care of them: we break the barrier away and cool with the room staff, make them remember us and look at us like an adventure partner in the restaurant.

Being a waiter is a very complex and complete profession: you work in front of the public 100% of the time. How do you manage the clientele?

We like to be prepared. Albert and Ferran Adria told me, when I walked in 11 years ago, that “information is power, and power information.” If I know who I have sitting at my table, I have a chance to succeed. We organize the service always in advance, checking with all teams who comes and who does not at what tables: journalists, vegans, regulars, business people… So we offer all of them an impeccable experience.

Choosing who is part of those teams seems vital. How do you approach selection processes?

I’m pretty tough on interviews, I think. What I put on paper doesn’t matter much to me, because I’m living proof that there’s more to it than the studies in the waiter profile. I’m looking for things to be passed on to me beyond a good resume. I care how they talk to me, how they look at me, the desire I see them and how they gesticulate; because I’m looking for qualities and potentials that fit into a specific room or team.

You talk about attitude, dynamism… what characteristics does the perfect waiter have for you?

Attitude is the first, the second, and the third most important thing in the restaurant room. Then comes the organization, key factor, and speed. But not just legs, but mind! It is a job in which there are three hours of service at noon and another three in the evening service; all with a very high intensity. A good waiter should be able to work in that environment, transmitting joy and affection to all his diners, understanding them and looking to always improve the experience for them… And all while transporting the dishes from one side to the other and recommend here a dish and there a dessert. When we choose a new member of our family, we seek to be passed on to that: skill, attitude, and affection.

Are these skills innate?

I don’t know! If you teach a monkey, he can go to the kitchen, pick up a plate, and deliver it to the right table, but being professional in the living room is much more than that. Although there are many aspects that can be polished, training, if you don’t carry it inside you won’t do your best. To be a good waiter you must have a vocation and passion, not be doing it as a temporary thing, and wear it with pride. I love being a waiter, and that’s why I’m going far into my work.

You’re talking about today’s restaurant room vs yesterday’s room. With the pandemic how do you foresee the room of the future?

It’s very hard to say. We at Tickets have a dynamic room, in which the waiter was a kind of party companion for each diner, and therefore attracted a specific type of customers; while other restaurants opted for impeccable traditional service and opened to another audience. Having seen this, I opted for a segmentation of gastronomy, in which each of us would focus on satisfying our customer market and they would choose what interests them. Now, with the pandemic… All the restaurants in the group are still closed, so what matters most to us is to stay, not have to lose team members. They’re family.

Author: Emilia Padín Sixto

Source: Excelencias Gourmet (number 75)