It’s a perennial problem for any of us that have chosen to relocate to Southeast Asia; why is the restaurant service, so often, just so bad? You know the drill, your partner fancies a nice night out and you decide that a romantic dinner would be just the job. You make your selections from the menu, open a bottle of wine, relax and wait for it all to go wrong. Your partner’s mains arrive before you have finished the starter. Then after your partner has finished eating the main course, your main course arrives, followed 20 minutes later by the rice that was meant to accompany your chosen dishes. As your partner chomps manfully on a plate of plain rice your dessert arrives accompanied by the bill. Alright, an exaggeration, maybe, but we’ve all had experiences that more than ring this particular bell.

I remember one particular night when four of us went for dinner and of the four main courses they got three wrong, whilst with the drinks they managed a fifty percent success rate. This was as bad as restaurant service gets, but at least we had a good laugh about it.

It is therefore a pleasant surprise when you go somewhere that gets restaurant service so perfectly right, that for a while you don’t notice it. It’s only with hindsight that you think, wow! That was really special. One such place that does get it right is La Villa; the superb French fine dining restaurant in District 2. Each time I’ve been to La Villa I have been impressed by the service staff. They fill your wine glass at just the right time; courses arrive together, even if you are part of a large group of diners; the wait staff are polite but confident; and plates arrive and disappear with consummate ease as professional people do a job that they both enjoy and are good at.

La Villa Staff

I was intrigued to find out why it is that some simply cannot manage to train restaurant service staff properly while others can. I sat down with Chef Thierry from La Villa. I was interested to learn if there are any unusual problems or advantages in the restaurant industry here in Ho Chi Minh City. Many restaurants recruit through HR websites, where you can advertise and get staff. Also of course, they get staff recommended to them, by other professionals or their own employees. They also use social network sites like Facebook.

Whilst staff age doesn’t matter there is a natural tendency for people between 18 and 40 to gravitate towards the position. Waiting tables is hard work, so this age group provides most of the candidates. Many are students paying their way through college. The industry and attitude towards hard graft here in Vietnam has always impressed me.

La Villa French Restaurant Staff serving food

For La Villa the first selection comes at the interview stage. Some people don’t seem to be a good fit, and even at this early stage the management can spot unsuitable candidates. If they have no experience then clearly a supervisory role is not the right choice. References are checked; it is common for people to simply say that they have experience, but upon further investigation, one finds that they haven’t. Some restaurants fall foul of this. There have been instances where, for example, an applicant for a bartender’s job has stated confidently that they can make over 100 different, cocktails, but when asked to make a few of the basics, they couldn’t.

Thierry believes that for candidates to start in a junior position it is mainly about attitude. If they look smart and presentable and show a willingness to learn, then they are generally good. The restaurant can train them to do the job. This is similar all over the world. However, in Asia avoiding loss of face is a major factor. It is better to tell them up front that they will be expected to do things correctly. They are told in advance that it will not be easy, restaurant service is hard work but they will earn a good salary. It can be scary for them at first, but they have to learn quickly. Never lie to them. Be straight right from the start.

Chef Thierry

They have to learn the culture of La Villa. They are told that it will not be a comfortable life, but they will learn skills that will serve them well for the rest of their lives. Service staff have to be in the public eye, there is nowhere to hide. Existing staff work very well, they have a good team spirit and they all pull together. Thierry tries to be a paternalistic figure to his staff. In Vietnam staff turnover is a bigger problem than in any other country he has worked. Not just at the Villa but other establishments in the country. There are so many vacancies in the restaurant business, there is a culture of people knowing they can walk into a job, somewhere else, with ease.

Interestingly all candidates know how to use a knife from the word go. They are brought up cooking at home. This is very different in the West where many people have to spend a long time getting used to the feeling of a knife in their hands.

Hygiene is something that La Villa really has had to fight for. There is a naturally sloppy attitude to hygiene here. People find it quite hard to adapt to Western standards at first. They are though, great at making do. If they have to improvise they are the best people ever at it. But of course with hygiene there can be no short cuts.

Give them a framework in which to work, and once they understand the limits, they work really well. Kitchen staff are craftsmen and women. Once they master the basics they can start to be experiment and express themselves, but without the basics this is impossible. Chain of command is important.

There are 40 members of staff in the La Villa team. This is about double what would be employed at a comparable restaurant in France. La Villa prides itself on their level of training. They help the supervisors to train the staff under them. It is a case of building a good team with a good chain of command and making sure that everyone knows what is expected of them. With experience La Villa has managed to iron out all the difficulties. Thierry tries to give them autonomy so the staff may work on their own. They have to learn to take responsibility for their own actions.

Management still has to keep an eye on things. You cannot let it slip for a minute. This of course can be frustrating. Leave them alone for a while and bad habits creep in straight away. One thing is patently obvious. The approach taken by Thierry and his staff is one that works. Eating here is one of the great Ho Chi Minh City dining experiences.