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Eliza Stevenson Hunter Valley Margan Restaurant

The nation has crowned its best maître d’.

Customer service. It’s a component of any dining experience that often comes under as intense scrutiny as the cuisine. But what separates the good from the great when it comes to service?

Eliza Stevenson should know. The Margan Restaurant Restaurant Manager is a past winner of The First Creek Wines Front of House Scholarship, which saw her land a job at The Ledbury, working alongside famed chef Brett Graham. 

delicious. recently spoke to the service superstar, now back in her native Hunter Valley, about her Michelin experience, and why the maître d’ can make or break a restaurant.

How did the First Creek Wines Front of House Scholarship change your life?

The First Creek Front of House Scholarship pushed me to strive for more and gave me a boost of confidence. I wouldn’t have challenged myself with The Ledbury had I not of been the successful applicant for the Scholarship.

It opened up my career to a whole new level of dining that I didn’t realise I was capable of. It has made me very proud to be apart of a region that has such fantastic initiatives that support the role of Front of House and the hospitality industry as a whole. Of course, I couldn’t forget to mention that I wouldn’t have met Thom (Margan head chef and Eliza’s fiancé) without the scholarship – he is a bit of a life changer!

Can you tell us the process of what the scholarship involved?
The scholarship involved a written application asking the applicant about work history and what they would do with the prize winnings. I had decided to put money towards flights to the UK and organise work experience at Brett Graham’s The Ledbury. Finalists were invited to Hunter TAFE in Hamilton for an interview followed by a simulated restaurant service where we were asked to match wines and serve the food prepared by the Brett Graham Scholarship applicants.

What did you learn from the experience?

I learnt to back myself and my service style. I was up against some great, confident women who had been in the industry for a long time and I was definitely intimidated by that. I kept true to my service style and it paid off!

How was working at The Ledbury?
The Ledbury is an incredibly fast-paced, high-intensity restaurant. I arrived in London with my heart set on getting a job in one of London’s 5-star hotels. All my previous employment was hotel based and I loved its dynamic nature. When I was offered a position at The Ledbury on my second day I was blown away and completely petrified!

Every service there were challenges; new elements on dishes, ingredients I’d never heard of, language barriers (there was a strong contingency of Northern English employees), keeping up with the growing list of regulars, “this hand not that” and of course the physical challenge of restaurant open for 12 services over the week which often meant dinner guests arriving as lunch guests leaving. The service offered is quite unique but one I felt I could relate to – approachable and relaxed yet perfectly synchronised and classy. Tableside conversation and a little bit of freestyling is encouraged.

Once I found my groove as Chef Da Rong, I started working towards Head Waitress. I was studying in my lunch breaks and on my days off followed by a series of written and verbal tests. I was quite proud to be the first Head Waitress at The Ledbury from the Hunter, Brett’s home region.  It was incredible to be apart of the best restaurant team in the UK and representing the Hunter region.

Why did you decide to return to the Hunter Valley?
My visa had expired and although I was offered the opportunity to stay I decided it was time to come home. London is an expensive city and I was keen to save some money and get my career started back in Australia. Thom and I had decided that we would like to stick together on a professional basis and test our working relationship. We had talked about making the move to Melbourne but once we were back in the Hunter Valley it was difficult to leave again!

What does your role at Margan entail?
My role as Restaurant Manager at Margan covers a broad range of things. We are quite a small Front of House team so we tend to share tasks. I enjoy spending time with Pat, the gardener, and Thom to know what produce is coming from the onsite garden but my daily tasks include running a section during service, reservation confirmations, event coordinating and staff recruiting and training.

Why is the role of Front of House so important?
The role of Front of House is just as important as that of a chef and the two must be in cohesion. The whole concept of a restaurant or a dish can be completely missed if the service is lacking and falls below guest expectations. The role requires skill, finesse and a spark of personality and is incredibly rewarding.

What do you think you bring to the role?
I always endeavour to find a connection with the guest, taking the time to find out about them, their story, be approachable. Always reading the body language, responding appropriately and delivering service with a level of professionalism.

Any crazy stories from your career so far?
To be honest, we encountered such a large diversity of people that nothing really seems strange anymore. Most guest or diners have little idiosyncrasies and specific ways they enjoy things. It was challenging to deal with different dietary requests at The Ledbury especially when trying to coordinate an 8-course tasting menu. I think I saw all sorts of dietary requirements imaginable – vegan, allergy to fungi, allergy to nuts, intolerance to dairy; and it was most challenging when all these guests were on the same table! We often started a service with several different counts on menu items, sometimes changing the menu nine times during a service.

The First Creek Wines Front of House Scholarship is an ongoing collaboration between First Creek Wines, Hunter Culinary Association and TAFE NSW – Hunter Institute. More information for the scholarships can be found online.

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