They say necessity is the mother of invention—at least it is for one chef. The Royal Sonesta Boston Hotel in Cambridge, Massachusetts, was short a food and beverage manager and needed someone who thoroughly understood the property’s menus and could also engage with diners.
“The general manager asked me if I’d thought about combining both positions,” says Brian Dandro, executive chef and F&B manager for the property. The result: Dandro now spends one shift a week in the dining room, trading his chef coat for a suit and tie, introducing himself to diners, and managing the dining room.
In most restaurants there’s a hard line of demarcation between the front and back of house—one the workers in those two areas rarely cross. By adding a guest-facing shift to his position, Chef Dandro has not only built relationships with his guests but also provided an example for teams on both sides of the restaurant to learn how they can create a superior dining experience by working together.
“At first I was hesitant because I’d never really worked in the front of the house,” Dandro says. “I started poking my head out a little more and observing the diners.” His front-of-house shift takes place in ArtBar, one of the properties within the Royal Sonesta that specializes in contemporary American fare. It was a challenge for Chef Dandro to switch gears and still manage the volume in the kitchen, but he soon realized he had to delegate back-of-house tasks and trust his kitchen staff to execute.
Working in the dining room has given Dandro the opportunity to solicit guest feedback in real time that has produced real menu innovations. For example, one guest asked why peanut butter wasn’t a part of the breakfast buffet, and the chef realized it was an easy fix and added it to the selection. Face time with guests also inspired Dandro to create new dishes. “I used to create menus more for myself, and now it’s different. I felt a shift in how I view my responsibilities to the guest, and I think about what they’re coming in for,” he says. “Just being able to see how guests experience the food helps you develop empathy for your guest.”
Moving to the front of the restaurant also helped Chef Dandro better sympathize with the waitstaff and appreciate how pivotal the relationship between the front and back of house was. Now, he says, the two are more unified. “My mindset was that servers are mercenaries and cooks do it for the passion. That mindset has shifted,” Chef Dandro says. “Now that I’m out in the front, I’m one of them. The conversations that I have are much better now because people understand each other a bit more.”
Dandro thinks other chefs can broaden their perspective by working a few front-of-house shifts as long as they are willing to learn. He wouldn’t advise chefs to “jump” into the dining room, but rather take baby steps, such as starting at the host stand. Making workers in both the front and back of the house comfortable is the goal. “Be involved with servers don’t make them come to the kitchen. Go to them,” he says.