My mother, who enjoyed reading the jobs pages in the Manchester Evening News better than any other part of the paper, spotted an advertisement for a commis waiter who was required at the Stanneylands Hotel in Wilmslow. She quickly realised that as I had three nights a week when I was doing nothing and not considering how I was going to get back and forward to Wilmslow she urged me to apply. I did not know what a commis waiter was and I had never been in a restaurant in my life were the two things that told me the job was mine. I went down one evening had an interview with the manager and the job was sealed. Little did I know but I was about to enter the most dazzling period of my life so far.
The Stanneylands Hotel was a large establishment, set in its own grounds, down a road of the same name, on the Manchester side of Wilmslow. It catered for the wealthy set that even then inhabited the south side of Manchester. In the early to middle 60s people were throwing off the shackles of rationing and the shadow of war. There was money to be had and jobs galore. The Prime Minister, Harold McMillan’s catch phrase “You’ve never had it so good” sums up the mood of the time and the Stanneyland’s customers lived up to it.
The hotel was owned by a Salford family who had big ties with Rugby League football and also owned a chain of Stanneyland Steak Houses scattered around Wilmslow, Altrincham and Manchester, which were very popular with the next rung down on the social ladder and where I worked the odd time when a waiter was absent.
A commis waiter was basically a waiter’s labourer, bringing the food from the pass in the kitchen to the station’s side table and collecting and returning the dirty dishes to the wash. Before I get too technical, the pass was where the chef handed the cooked food to the Head Waiter for inspection, before he then gave it to the commis. The station was a series of tables that was the sole charge of a particular waiter. The commis could supply any number of stations but the appointed waiter was the only one to serve the food at his station. Sometimes when busy the commis would serve vegetables but only on the bidding of the waiter.
The waiters were all Italian and used to waltz round the tables with zest and panache, actually doing very little but catching the eye of all the single and some, I am ashamed to say, not so single ladies. They viewed their jobs as very important and in no way menial and considered their services to be as important as the standard of cuisine and certainly an important part of the experience for the customer.
The kitchen staff consisted of a brigade of five chefs and one chef de patissiere, led by the foulest mouthed head chef that I have ever had the privilige of knowing. The man Ramsey, on television these days, is nothing in comparison. For its time the kitchen churned out a high standard of cooking, based in the main on classic French cuisine with a few modern American creations; Chicken Maryland comes to mind, breaded chicken fried at the table with bananas, sweetcorn and a liberal dash of cream. The diners loved this dish and another, Steak Diane, also cooked at the table. This consisted of fillet steak, shallots and mushrooms fried in olive oil and cognac and again lifted with the cream jug. These dishes brought the best out of waiter and customer alike. It enabled the waiter to show all his finesse whilst engaging the ladies in a Mediterranean love dance. These slim hipped waiters had the time of their lives. Most lived on the premises in an adjacent staff block, a different lady every night. It was good to know that the bar staff kept their husbands and fiances happy while the beds in the staff quarters got a pounding.
However there was a serious side to all this; The waiters were well paid and sending money home to families in Italy, just as the Irish lads were doing but within a totally different environment.
The work was hard but there were benefits. Wages were good and the Banc which was the kitty where all the tips went was large and well supervised by Dino the Head Waiter. As a commis I used to get a half share. For three nights I used to make about £13, not bad when you think I was only drawing £5 a week in my proper job, but with the £1 or £2 I used to make at weekends with Jim Connor I was one of the richest youngsters in Manchester but somehow or other my penniless student friends helped me spend it.
We used to have a meal cooked by the chefs every night before work started and we were given two free pints of Lowenbrau beer each night. Any further drinks were at a knockdown price and there was plenty of further. The chef’s thirst was phenomenal: we commis spent considerable time between our regular duties ferrying in trays of pints for them, yet I never saw any signs of drunkeness.
Coronation Street had been screened on television for a couple of years and was capturing the people’s imagination. Members of the cast often came for a meal. I remember serving Violet Carson one night; she played Ena Sharples in thr programme. However in the flesh she was nothing like her screen persona. She was an extremely cultured and very friendly middle-aged lady who had great respect for us lowly workers
I remember serving a large table at a wedding. I was working very hard and the sweat on my brow was beginning to show. One of the guests turned to me and said “if you worked as hard as this in the office you would be soon one of the partners” It was Phil Seaston, a partner in the firm of consulting engineers I worked for and the man who had initially interviewed me. Never was there such embarrassment and mumbled apologies, but nothing was ever said.
The visiting football teams used to stay at the hotel before and after their games with Manchester United and City. Best of all were the touring cricket teams, especially during their games at Old Trafford. The Aussies in particular used to stay up most of the night, drinking and playing cards for money. When women customers were scarce the Italians played cards as well.
I remember one night there were several of us round the table playing poker. One of the Australian cricketers was the celebrated Norman O’Neill, who I found out had the same birthday as me. Anyway towards dawn he and I finished up battling for the pot. I won but he ran out of cash with the last play, probably owing me £4 or£5. He offered me one of his green Australian caps. I snatched his hand off and wore this cap for a couple of years in all the games I played. Unfortunately it was stolen when I was foolish enough to leave it lying around in some clubhouse.
I became so good at my commis waitering that on big occasions like weddings or during holiday periods I would be given my own station. On a normal night this could consist of a large table of up to 20 and then three or four small tables. I was expected to carry out the same tasks as the waiters but in terms of cash I was still classed as a commis. Plenty of kudos but no reward and try as I might no bonus when it came to the lady. Longsight languor was no match for a charasmatic Calabrian.
The language used by the waiters when in the kitchen was coarsened with the vilest of phrases repeated in three or four tongues. The washing up women came in for some awful treatment but it did not deter them from turning up for work. Even in the Wilmslow area there were some very needy families. The Italians had egos like prima donnas and could be easily upset by something very ordinary. Dino, the maitre domo,was forever smoothing ruffled feathers. Mario, the sommelier, had the dirtiest mind. Salvatore, the oldest, was the friendliest. Bruno, the youngest, was the hardest worker but always ready for a fight. Guido, the biggest and the quietist, used to make the minestrone soup every night before work began; standing next to a big pot in the kitchen, smiling and singing to himself as he threw in vegetables and pasta to his developing brew. The English chefs were never allowed to interfere with this little tradition. Looking back at them now they were like a pack of animals, with the leaders, fighters and docile ones.
The highlight of the year was the Christmas dinner. After the last of the customers had gone on Christmas Day, a large table was set in the dining room. The waiters then served the Christmas dinner to the chefs and the management and then the chefs and management waited on the waiters. Copious bottles of Asti Spumante were drunk, tears were shed for loved ones far away and the party continued into the early hours. The whole experience was more of a celebration than work and it taught me such an awful lot.