Diego Masciaga is the critics’ consensus top maitre d’ in the world. Or rather, he was. He recently stepped down after no less than 30 years at Michel Roux Sr’s The Waterside Inn, itself the first UK restaurant to retain three Michelin stars for 25 years straight. Diego’s second career? Educating the hospitality trade in the fine art of customer service. Starting at the Independent Hotel Show 2018, where he’ll be interviewed live by Peter Hancock, Chief Executive, Pride of Britain.
Reviewing The Diego Masciaga Way by Chris Parker in The Caterer, Peter himself highlighted Heston Blumenthal’s observation that Diego will “make anyone feel like the most important person in the restaurant,” while the late, great broadcaster Terry Wogan once said, “Diego stands alone, worthy of not a mere three stars, but a constellation.” Chef Tom Kerridge has observed, “To watch Diego carve a duck for two at the table is a magical thing to see.”
Aged 56 and originally from near Lake Maggiore in northern Italy, in 2012 Diego was awarded the Cavaliere Ordine al Merito della Repubblica Italiana, the country’s equivalent of a knighthood, for services to the catering industry. He also took home the Lifetime Achievement Award at 2018’s Cateys. We spoke exclusively to Diego about how service has become the most important element of almost every sector, let alone hospitality or catering, and how we can emulate his own indisputable success in that area.
IHS: Diego, why did you quit The Waterside Inn, and what do you plan on doing instead exactly?
Diego Masciaga: “I decided to change my life because I really wanted to do this: to transmit my experiences to a wider audience, and for them to understand how important customer service is. When the student beats the master, it makes me so happy. Some of my former staff members are city workers, doctors, and managers of major hotel chains. Everything I do, it’s one hundred percent. So I thought if I was still there for two or three days a week, it wouldn’t work. Plus, well, my family have not seen me on Christmas Day for 30 years.”
What inspired your new role in consultancy?
“The world has changed now. In business you need the full package, and excellent customer service is part of that package. In a restaurant, I can have excellent food, wine, and setting. But if the customer service is not excellent, I will never go back there.
Whether it’s restaurants, or, for example, cars… we all offer a product. Without great customer service, gaining the trust of the client – or indeed the staff – you cannot sell anything. And you’ve failed. We all know from business that great customer service brings extra revenue and extra profit.”
So what will you be teaching?
“You can teach a chef how to cook… food you can taste, smell, see, even hear. Customer service, you cannot. You can teach skills but you cannot teach attitude.
It’s personality, it’s touch, leadership – and honesty. Honesty actually plays a fundamental role in customer service. Customers don’t want to be cheated by anyone, and competition is so high now. We have to bring the client back, because with no repeat business we will never survive.
It’s nothing to do with skill, it’s personality and attitude. So you have to find the right people with the right attitude. They think like you, and they believe in the company. But the competition for good staff is high, too. In fact, in hotels the main problem is consistency. Staff go up and down. And in hotels, no one knows the GM. They are owned by big corporations, pushing them to make up numbers. They walk around the hotel and don’t recognise the staff. It’s wrong for the GM, the hotel, the staff and the client.”
How does a manager establish the right culture to develop the traits you believe in, and retain staff too?
“There is one motto first, whether it is fine dining or a pizzeria – respect them. The day you do that, they respect you. Understand them as individuals, not a group of 20 or 30-somethings. As a leader you have to understand individuals. At any level, praise them. Leaders do not praise their team any more.
Whoever is the leader is the role model. He has to be honest; lead the esteem, and believe what they are doing. Make them believe what they’re doing is the right thing to do, and they will have a great future.”
Where did you realise this yourself?
“I have to be extremely honest… as a customer service country, I think Italy is near the top. Even if you buy a pizza or spaghetti, or a nice suit, you feel you are the only guest in the place. Plus, it’s unrehearsed, spontaneous.
France is wonderful too, but slightly different. They are perfectionists. Sometimes there is too much service, and that’s as bad as not enough. You go into Louis Vuitton, first they look at you by your shoes and your hair and decide if you are going to buy something. They jump on you, and they judge you on how you look. It’s wrong.”
How has Britain changed since you’ve been here?
“Years ago, my mum would give me food in my suitcase because she thought we all ate potatoes. And 25 years ago, maybe we did. The British talent has changed a lot. Now it’s actually better than Europe. Young people are very into food. Before, they had the hot potato with the skin and poached salmon. Now, young people love to cook and watch food programmes. Britain attracts a lot of tourists – and they are not coming here just for the Changing of the Guard. It’s because the UK offers a great variety of cooking.”
What effect do you think Brexit will have on hotel and restaurant staffing?
“The hard worker will stay. The UK, despite what is going on, is a safe country to be. It’s safe, wealthy, and there are a lot of jobs. It’s like America, you can come into this country without speaking a word of English and find a proper job. You cannot do that in Italy, or Poland.
You cannot only have chiefs, you need workers, and you must praise them too. I’m doing consultancy and the workers are Hungarian, Slovenian. And I make them feel important.”
Where do you like to eat yourself?
“I do like fine dining, three or four times a year. It could be French, Spanish or Italian. I do love French food, but my favourite food is Italian. I feel relaxed, I have an extra glass of wine. But the right one.
I’m a family man and, if I’m honest, I like the pub. It must be a proper pub. But they’ve lost their identity. You don’t know if it’s a pub or a restaurant. It’s the same with restaurants. They call it fusion, call it not fusion, they don’t know really.
Now, with social media, you already know what you’re going to eat. They go there and they know already what to have and not to have. A 56-year-old man wants to sit at the table, and open the menu, and dream of something.”
Don’t miss Diego Masciaga speaking at 2:30pm, Tuesday 16th October on the Innovation Stage at the Independent Hotel Show. Register for your complimentary pass here.