Nicolas Digard, General Manager, The Square, Mayfair

The  Staff Canteen

The Staff Canteen

Editor 9th January 2015

Nicolas Digard is General Manager at The Square in Mayfair, which previously held two stars in the Michelin Guide.

He started there at the age of 20 and after two years he left to work at the Cinnamon Club and Home House before returning to The Square two years ago as assistant restaurant manager. He has since moved up the ranks and now prides himself and his team on delivering the highest standard of customer service; alongside Michelin star food produced by chef Phil Howard and his kitchen team.

The Staff Canteen spoke to Nico about his time at The Square, dealing with difficult customers and why anyone entering the industry has to love what they do.

The Square Mayfair
The Square Mayfair

Did you always want to be a General Manager?

I went to catering school in France for five years as I wanted to become a chef in the beginning. But as part of catering school I did everything – floor, kitchen, reception. It was then up to me what I wanted to focus on. I decided the floor was more what I was looking for.

How did your career progress once you made that decision?

I worked in France for six months and then I came to London – I wanted to learn English and I actually started my career at The Square. I was 20 at the time and I spent two years here before moving on to the Cinnamon Club where I stayed for three years. I worked in all areas of the restaurant and I opened the restaurant in Soho – so I started as head waiter and finished as restaurant manager.

What made you head back to The Square?

After the Cinnamon Club I went to Home House (private member’s club at Portman Square) which was a difficult experience for me and I didn’t enjoy it fully – so I contacted Phil Howard and he said he had an assistant manager position available. I was 25 at the time.

Was The Square a good foundation? What did you learn?

Classic tableside services they do at the restaurant Everything is plated, we may pour on a velouté and the cheese board we do that ourselves. We go to every single table with the board and show it to the guest, something we’ve been doing for a year now, and it makes people aware. So when they see it going around they think ‘oh yeah, I want to have that actually’. Most difficult customer: I had someone who couldn’t eat shellfish. They wanted the sole main course but the sole was prepped with a langoustine mousse. I told her I could not do it and she said ‘I wasn’t aware that sole would be coming with a langoustine attached to it.’ I tried to explain that they were all prepared and the sole was stuffed already. She didn’t want to understand this and she insisted we find the sole for her – we managed to in the end and I served her myself for the entire meal – but she still complained at the end. I did everything I could, I tried my best and she was still not happy.

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It’s a bit different and chef is listening to what we have to say. The customers have different expectations to seven years ago so I think that has encouraged the kitchen to listen more to the front of house. We definitely now work together as one team, they ask my opinion on dishes and wine sometimes as they know I have knowledge and it’s nice to be involved. It’s important in my role to know what’s going on everywhere not just in my department. It is important for myself and my staff to also taste the food and read the description of the dish from the chef – we can’t advise customers without this knowledge.

Have relationships between front of house and the kitchen changed over the years?

When I first started there I was young and I learnt to have a lot of discipline. Skill wise I learnt a lot, I was still inexperienced when I arrived and I suppose that’s why I was happy to return again. To me, The Square was my school. It’s almost the same to be honest, different faces but The Square will always be The Square.

Do you feel the restaurant manager is often overshadowed by the chef?

Yes, I agree with that. The Square is not Nicolas Digard, The Square is Phil Howard and as much as we try to deliver fantastic service and I think we do, people do not come to the restaurant for me they come for Phil. It was known in the beginning for its good food and now it’s known for its good service as well.

What is Phil like to work with?

I love working for Phil, he is absolutely brilliant! As a chef he is very approachable and it’s good to a see a chef of his level still cooking in the kitchen – there are not that many who still do and I’m quite proud of that.

What advice would you give to people thinking of entering the hospitality industry?

They need to try it and find out if they like it, because if they don’t like it and are not passionate about it they can’t do it. You need to love it, I love my job and that’s why I do it – yes the hours are crazy sometimes and customers can sometimes be difficult, so you need to be patient and love what you are doing.

How do you promote that patience in your staff to make sure the customer receives the best experience?

The Square Mayfair
The Square Mayfair

Obviously we discuss it in briefings but for me I would rather employ someone with less skill and more patience. I like them to be very easy going and not shy to speak, over someone who has a lot of skill but has no personality. At the end of the day if they lack personality they will be quite difficult to work with - I can’t teach personality but I can always train them to have the skill level they need to deliver the experience our team is expected to give.

Are there any other restaurants that inspire you with the standard of service they deliver?

There are one or two, Le Gavroche is one, the service there is very good. I think though the people who have inspired me the most are those who worked at The Square when I first arrived. It was them who gave me the education and the skill which I have now.

You mentioned you do get difficult customers – is the customer always right?

The customer is always right, even if he is wrong he is always right. You just have to try your best to make it right and make the customer happy. What I say to the team is they need to know the

The Square Mayfair
The Square Mayfair

customer as soon as they arrive as you will have some who come and want the experience and you have others who don’t want to be bothered. They may be there on business and just coming to eat because they have to and although they want good service they want it to be discreet. It’s important to get it right for those people as they are a big part of our clientele as Mayfair is a business focused area. I try to see every guest and as I take all of the orders this is usually achievable.

Working in hospitality, how do you feel about social media and online reviews?

I have mixed feelings to be honest. I think in a way it is very good, it has raised the competition and that can only make us become better. But I do think sometimes it can be abused, I’ve had customers where there has been a small mistake and they’ve then said to me give me it free or I will put a bad review on TripAdvisor. I told him to do it but he never did. Taking photos of their meals is also very common now but that doesn’t bother me.

The Square Mayfair
The Square Mayfair

When you have a difficult customer is it hard to stay positive?

Sometimes it’s hard not to take it personally, but that’s my job and that’s what I get paid for. People can be very rude and use strong words against you and it does get you down, but for me I’ll sit down with a few staff after service, have a drink and speak about it. It’s important not to go home and think about it – each day is a new day.

>>> Read more of Are You Being Served here

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The  Staff Canteen

The Staff Canteen

Editor 9th January 2015

Nicolas Digard, General Manager, The Square, Mayfair