Didier is a delight to know and I always enjoy seeing him and we had many laughter filled gab sessions.He leaves a trail of friends and admirers wherever he travels. I was recently in France and heard great stories about his visits with Quique Dacosta from his fellow maitre’ds about how they all look up to to him. In Germany last fall it was the same and of course in Spain when he received his award in San Sebastián the thunderous applause said it all.
Didier Fertilatti: Essence of Hospitality
by Geeta Bansal
In Germany at Chef Sache last year while watching Chef Quique Dacosta demonstrate a dish on stage, a random tweet from me about not being able to taste the spectacular dish got an unexpected response. To my consternation Didier Fertilatti with the very same dish in hand appeared beside me in the darkened auditorium. Deftly handing me a fork and a napkin Enjoy! He said and went back on stage. That is the essence of hospitality the Didier Fertilatti way and sadly there are not many professionals like him in the restaurant industry.
Appropriately the SS Gastronomika held in San Sebastián, Spain awarded the 2014 Gold Gueridon International Award for outstanding work in the dining room to Didier Fertilatti of the three Michelin starred Quique Dacosta Restaurant in Denia, Spain. Didier Fertilatti’s career began in his hometown of Nice, France and took him to UK for a five year stint at the well-known Fat Duck in Bray before he arrived in Denia in 2007. His work has not only earned him the respect of his peers but also set a standard for Maître ‘Ds around the world. Numerous other awards have been bestowed on him during his career such as “Best of Gastronomy”, “Best Restaurant Manager 2009” and by the Royal Academy of Valencia Gastronomy, the “Best Restaurant Manager of Valencia 2011” and Best Maître’s for the Magazine Club de Gourmets 2014.
Silvano Geraldin the now retired general manager of La Gavroche in London and a legend in the restaurant industry expounded at MAD4 last year about the most overlooked area in the hospitality business- the front of the house. A diners restaurant experience begins with the welcome at the door and sets the tone of their subsequent experience in a restaurant well before the food and drink arrive on the table. Service according to Geraldin is what you notice only when it is missing and with Fertilatti playing the role of host, Maitre ‘D, master of ceremonies and restaurant manager it exists like a tasteful background melody present from the moment one steps in the door of this restaurant in the small seaside town of Denia. The impeccable service during the ensuing dining experience at Quique Dacosta is further enhanced by the warm hospitality of the team with no evidence of stiff patronizing attitude at this three Michelin starred restaurant as incredible food is served by the friendly brigade led by Didier.
Fertilatti’s professionalism and experience are an important component in the recognition of the restaurant in Dénia as amongst the best in the world. Three Michelin stars, two consecutive years as Best Restaurant in Europe by Opinionated About Dining and its place on the “The 50 Best Restaurants of the world” by The Restaurant magazine are to some extent a result of the support and hard work of Fertilatti and his team. It was during his tenure at the Fat Duck that the restaurant earned the distinction of being the Best Restaurant of the year according to Restaurant magazine. During the early years of his career he has been part of teams in restaurants such as La Chèvre d’Or, Le Roussillon, La Belle and Le Moulin de Mougins in his native France.
It is evident that there is a close bond between Dacosta and his right hand Didier and an easy camaraderie exists between the two as I have discovered when I see them both in Spain or in other parts of the world. Didier is at Dacosta’s side as a friend and confidant on their travels around the globe when the restaurant is closed for the winter season or when they travel to international food events and congresses. Fertilatti met his wife who hails from the Costa Brava while they both worked for Heston Blumenthal with Didier in the front and his future bride at the pastry station. They now live in her hometown on the Costa Brava with their two young children Leo and Laia.
Fertilatti is multilingual speaking French, Spanish, English and Italian but more importantly the language of hospitality. He charmingly puts guests at ease and spares no effort to ensure guests enjoy the dining experience no matter what it takes. I experienced this on my last visit to Denia when my rental car had mechanical problems on the drive from Barcelona, my phone died, the navigation didn’t cooperate and somehow I finally made it to the restaurant in a really unhappy state. Fertilatti led me to the lounge and took over and I sipped champagne while my phone was sent to be charged, the car to the nearby garage, the navigation was reset and I quickly forgot the past few hours while I enjoyed the delectable food. Didier’s passion for people, cigars, wines and motorcycles in that order is an advantage in assisting and communicating the intricacies of the cuisine of the house to guests from all over the world.
Didier and I have had many conversations since I have known him but recently we spoke specifically about his time in the industry and why he does what he does and so well.
How did you choose this career path?
When I was in the culinary school in Nice and when I saw the “ambience” in the kitchen and decided it is not for me. During my first class about service the professor was a well-known professional and listening to him speak so passionately about service it struck me instantly that this is what I want to do.
What was so inspiring about his lecture?
The professor was the director of all the restaurants in Monaco and the Societe des Bains de Mer. The way he was communicating with the guests and putting them at ease was an eye opening experience. I realized that I wanted to do that and that was the beginning of my career.
Where have your travels and your work taken you since you began?
I began at Moulin de Mougins with Roger Verge in 1994. Then I had to go for my military service which is required in France and after finishing I spent a year in Paris. Then I returned to Nice and a year at La Belle in Cannes, then the Carlton which was a two star. Then I went to London for the first time and spent a year and half as a Maitre ‘D in a one star. Then I worked for a period for Alain Ducasse after which I returned to Nice and spent two and a half year in Chèvre d’Or in Eze. From there I went to the Fat Duck in Bray and spent five years there before coming to work with Quique and I have been here for over seven years.
So it’s been a journey between French, Spanish and British cuisine, but which one do you feel more comfortable around?
Actually I don’t think it really matters which country the cuisine is from. What really matters are the people who sit at the table. When people have a desire to have an exchange or communicate then my job becomes easy. Sometimes people don’t want to engage and then it’s my job to respect that.
What are the important attributes for working in the front of the house?
Patience, and passion for people and your work. You have to really like and enjoy interacting with different kinds of people. It is easy to engage with other people when we want to but in our job you have to do that even when you don’t want to. Some amount of psychology is involved too to be able to engage people and understand their needs.
Do you have a strategy to deal with difficult people?
I love using humor to break the ice. It helps to relax people and put them at ease so they are comfortable and enjoy their experience. Over time and with experience you learn to read people fairly quickly.
Your job requires you to connect the kitchen and the chef to the dining room and the guests. How do you do that?
The way I look at it is that first it is a restaurant and not two separate areas. If you want to be good at this you have to know a little bit about everything. Every time I have started in a high position like for example Chèvre d’Or in Eze I asked to start first for one month in the kitchen. This is the best way to learn about the cooking, the mentality and what the thinking behind each dish is. This also creates a good atmosphere between the room and the kitchen. When the staff sees the restaurant manager mopping the floor or peeling potatoes they feel inspired and it is the best way to build a team. These days in our industry there is sadly a separation between the front and back of house and interaction between the two is discouraged.
What about many restaurants these days where the cooks come out to the table with their dish and serve the guest?
I don’t really care for that as I feel you have to be trained to be able to provide all the information to the diner. Just because you know how to make it is not enough for good professional service. Maybe that person you are serving is a chef and wants more information and maybe they don’t care for any information. Of course I respect what another restaurant chooses to do but it’s not my way.
With casual service these days, is proper dining room service dying away?
I am old fashioned and, for example, many restaurants don’t serve women first because its inequality according to them but for me it is just respect for women and etiquette. You can be less formal but service must be as it should be and done properly and professionally. We must keep in mind that these days the biggest evolution has not been made in the kitchen but in the customer. Twenty years ago people didn’t travel for food as they do know. Now anyone with an interest in food can go anywhere for a dining experience. Good service is essential to give them a memorable experience.
When people come in have they already researched and know a lot about the food and the restaurant?
The interest varies from person to person. We could have a young couple who saved for six months to make the trip or someone who comes often just to eat and have a good meal. My job is to make all of them comfortable and put them at ease. It doesn’t matter if we have three stars or one we are still a restaurant and our job is to serve and feed people.
How much information does your kitchen want you to transmit to the guests?
They leave it to us to decide and luckily Quique has confidence in what I am doing so we take care of the service aspect. He knows I will give all the information that the customer can receive. It’s a judgment call on my part.
So people skills come into play here?
Yes, the psychology aspect of my job.
What do you look for in new employees?
It’s not easy to find people who are a good fit for the dining room. These days everyone wants to be a celebrity chef and very few aspire to be a waiter. Now for the past few years I hire ‘good ‘ people. I can train them to be good professionals and invest time to prepare them, explain what I want to achieve and it’s better that way as I cannot turn someone into a good person. People who come from a culinary school have an advantage of course. I have spent 25 years in this line and it’s not for everyone.
Is there any part of your job that you don’t care for?
Is there glamour in this profession you wear a suit and work in a beautiful atmosphere and rub shoulders with celebrities?
Yeah right! There is first a lot of hard work and glamour comes along with it.
Any interesting story of your time with Heston Blumenthal at Fat Duck?
We were closed Sunday nights and all day on Mondays and one Sunday night Heston asked me what I was doing the next day. I said nothing much so he said how about you come over and we make the perfect coffee. I said sounds great see you tomorrow. The next day we arrived at the restaurant at 8:30 in the morning and we made like four hundred or so coffees. The so called morning finished at 1:30 and by then we were all shaking with all that coffee. The whole process was very interesting as we got to touch and feel the difference between grains, we tested variations in weight 6.5 grams, 6.7 no let’s do 6.5 and so on. The same for the water temperature and the pressure, time of extraction of the coffee. Let’s try the sugar on top of the cream , oh no the other way around.
What was the end result?
The final verdict was its impossible! With the machine at Fat Duck the water temp, pressure all varied, someone opened the door and the breeze came in. Too many variables. He decided we cannot make the perfect cup each time but at least we realized that at the end of the day. For me working with Heston has been one of the best experiences of my life and he is a remarkable man.
What was the important thing you learned from him other than the coffee?
I learned to say Yes to things I said No to. One day he wanted to make a change in the service and I said but we cannot do that and he said but did you try it this way and I said no. He said first you try and then tell me why we cannot do it and I did try his way. Then I learned an invaluable lesson that if you try, you usually succeed.
What about Quique?
Now for me he is first a friend and then my chef and in the seven years together we have been through a lot of bad moments and good ones . We know each other so well that we are uncannily like a couple. We can read each other very well and I love his ability to be ahead of the pack and forward thinking in everything. He has the passion on his face and it’s easy to like him.