Most people look back at their first job with an air of “been there, done that, good riddance”.

I am different.

Though I’m unlikely to go back to my first jobs, not unless I truly have to, I don’t look down my nose at the positions I held when I was a teen.

In fact, I look back with a twinge of wistful melancholy, and a knowledge that every single thing I know about working, I learnt when I was 15.

At age 15, I found myself at the Radisson SAS Hotel in St Julians, a very very green teen with no idea of working life, or indeed, 5 star catering level of service.

The lessons I learned there were huge and varied, from what wine ought to be served when, to more fundamental work life lessons. It’s these latter ones I’m covering today.

#1 – Clean As You Go

Lesson 1 in my catering jobs was “Yes I Can”, the oft repeated mantra, sometimes with sarcasm, of all staff at the Radisson.

The idea is that you always tell the guest that yes, you can help, and if you personally can’t, you take them to someone who can.

Lesson 2 was “Clean As You Go”.

Any chef worth his salt works this way, and it’s a life lesson to be reckoned with.

Find a process, hone it, and repeat it. Become efficient, neat, and tidy, in everything you do. Hard enough when serving breakfast to 500 people, harder still when your clutter is all digital bits and bytes and no two clients are the same.

To this day, I am a firm believer in templates, repetition, replicability, and best practice. Working this way has saved our hide on many an occasion.

#2 – How To Get Along With Your Boss

As a smart, mouthy, opinionated teen that went to a good school and spoke 4 languages, I thought I was the bee’s knees and the dog’s bollocks.

Sometimes I still do, to be honest, but I quickly had the arrogance knocked out of me by restaurant managers who were lucky if they could string a sentence in decent English together, but could run the hell out of a busy restaurant turning over hundreds of covers daily.

The lesson here was that authority, whether justified or not, whether ignorant or not, needs to be respected, and if you don’t pay it some degree of respect it will endeavour to crush you.

And you need the restaurant manager to like you, so that a) you actually do get shifts to work, and b) they’re not a line of 6 of the worst shifts you can imagine.

#3 – How To Sell

At first, I was a lowly commis waiter, not to be trusted with anything except clearing tables and heaving trays.

By time, I learnt the trade, and was allowed to handle orders.

This is when I learnt to sell.

It doesn’t take the smartest of teens to figure out that the more courteous and polite you are, the likelier you are to be heeded by the customer.

If you compliment their choice of wine, they may even take you half seriously when you recommend a nightcap.

Not that this meant any direct financial gain for me, mind you, though on many occasions, charming service also got me a nice tip at the end of service.

That was always nice, but to be honest, the pride of knowing you’ve recommended the right thing because you know your work was a far better feeling than any 5 Maltese Lira note I ever got.

#4 – How To Deal With Colleagues

Like I said, I was young, dumb, and arrogant.

My fellow staff members were a varied bunch. Some were like me, cruising through the catering world for a few years to help finance our studies; others were lifers, having started in catering very young, and now well into adulthood, somewhat jaded and facing the prospect of another 20 to 30 years of backbreaking labour at weekends and feast days.

Regardless, I needed to talk to all of them, all in a day’s work.

Here I was, a well read death metal nerd with nothing in common with my colleagues except a workplace, and yet, we needed to get along.

So I learned; I learned how to communicate in the rough, jocular way they were used to, and feign interest in topics which I couldn’t care about, like the yearlong preparations for the Żabbar festa.

#5 – The Value Of Hard Work

Catering is a hard business.

As a former colleague once told me, it’s not hard like nursing, where you deal with pain and tragedy every day; in fact, “we’re here for the guests’ every celebration” is how he put it.

However, that means that holidays do not exist for you, weekends off are a rare occurrence, and you’re on your feet for 12 hours at a stretch quite easily.

You do that for a few summers, and you quickly realise the value of money and hard work.

I’m not saying I saved all my money, though I should have, but this lesson played itself out once I got a well paid full time job and realised I was making many times over what I brought in from my catering days, and for comparatively much less physical strain and far fewer hours.

#6 – The Value Of Quality

From Day 1, I worked in quality establishments.

Here I learned not just about the niceties of life, fine ingredients and wines and all that, but about the pride of serving quality.

Where my friends were working at Pizza Hut or Mc Donalds, I was at the Radisson and learning silver service. I moved to the Hilton not long after, and my sense of pride in the team’s work continued to grow.

Looking back, I was probably a little naive too, but I was genuinely proud of the service we gave, the attention to detail, the knowledge that what we served and how we served was among the best you could get in Malta.

To this day, my hatred of mediocrity spurs me forward.

If there’s one thing I genuinely and humbly believe, it’s that our agency Systemato has a customer-centric something built into it, which comes from years of knowledge from the catering world, that the customer pays your wage when they pay their bill, so serve the best product in the best way possible, meet and exceed client expectations, and you will have justified what it is you’re getting paid.

Author Mark Debono

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