The table of three next to ours is enjoying the moment. They’ve pressed pause on their earnest conversation at one of Melbourne’s most exclusive restaurants to do the ice-cream trolley ritual. It’s smartphones at the ready, folks, and smile, lick and click.
And now it’s our turn to be the centre of attention in this section of the dining room at Dinner by Heston. Cue white-on-white trolley wheeled by black-waistcoated young waiter, soon to be wreathed in liquid nitrogen as she makes organic vanilla ice-cream from custard and sour cream on the spot, briefly hand-churning the Sebastian Bergne-designed bespoke mixer before scooping a ball into a brik-pastry cone and offering it to one enchanted seven-year-old with a choice of four toppings (“popping candy and freeze-dried raspberries with white chocolate, please”).
It’s not new, but it’s perennially novel. No matter how many times the ice-cream trolley does the rounds at Dinner by Heston – in Melbourne, London and soon Dubai – heads turn, staff are politely quizzed and someone else finds an excuse to finish dinner with an interactive dessert.
The official name for this type of tableside service? Guéridon, a French term first popularised in the late 19th century (around the same time a certain British cook, Agnes Bertha Marshall, proposed using liquid nitrogen to make ice-cream, as it happens). The unofficial term? “We’ll have what they’re having.”
Maybe it’s because we really do eat with our eyes first. Maybe it’s because the theatre of guéridon service, stripped of the formalities of old, is irresistible. And maybe – just maybe – it’s because we’re all a bit over celebrity chefs and think it’s time we showed the front-of-house staff a little more love and respect.
Whatever the reasons, guéridon is on the way back.
Encouraged by diners’ response to the tableside ritual at Glass Brasserie, his restaurant at Hilton Sydney, Luke Mangan decided to take it a step further when he launched the casual Waterloo eatery Luke’s Kitchen earlier this year.
So now you can start your night with a cocktail of the day, shaken and served tableside, and finish with the rocky road dessert for two, also made from scratch right in front of you.
“Our customers are loving it,” says Mangan. “They’re all having their When Harry Met Sally moment. It’s all about the theatre and the experience for the diner.”
Back in the heyday of guéridon in Australia, the 1960s and ’70s, says Mangan, so much preparation was done at table you used to wonder if there were any chefs left in the kitchen.
Guéridon à la Glass Brasserie
“They’d be flambéing crêpes suzette, carving whole fish at the table … we don’t do that, but at Glass we do offer guests a salt-baked fish at the table, then cut its crust off and portion it.”
Somewhere that does carve a whole fish at the table is Icebergs in Sydney, where the affection for guéridon service runs deep. Among recent additions to the repertoire are Bomba Alaska – and yes, it is flambéed with Cointreau tableside, in dramatic retro style – and beef tartare, spiced to your liking by one of the waitstaff, working from a small table rather than a trolley for reasons of space.
Icebergs’ Maurice Terzini cites as inspirations his Italian childhood and the great American tradition of tableside service. “When I was growing up in Italy and going out to restaurants, most of the pastas and a lot of the desserts would come out on trolleys,” he says. “And now it’s become part of the Berg’s DNA.”
Guéridon dishes are prepared to 80 per cent completion in the kitchen and finished at the table by Icebergs’ front-of-house staff.
“It’s fun, there’s a bit of interaction tableside and it’s one of the great crafts for our waiters to learn,” Terzini says. “You can’t spend half an hour filleting a fish; you have to learn how to do it in 10 minutes or less.”
Over at nel. on the Surry Hills fringe, English chef Nelly Robinson has just launched a Land and Sea menu culminating in a fun take on “ice-creams at the beach”, a mobile shop dispensing cookie-dough ice-cream tableside.
Could it be just a coincidence that the revival of guéridon has come at a time when robots are threatening to take over the menial job of ferrying plates? For front-of-house staff, the need to make themselves indispensable has never been more urgent.
It’s a shift in focus Terzini fully supports. “There’s so much talk now about back-of-house staff, it’s nice to think that might be changing,” he says. “And you know, some chefs can get a bit precious.”
Guéridon is a global thing, and it’s popping up in both modern and retro versions. At Manhattan’s Eleven Madison Park – No. 4 on the World’s 50 Best Restaurants List – the summer menu boasts a corn soufflé with caviar and bonito bavarois, prepared tableside; at Jason Atherton’s modern British restaurant Berners Tavern in London, your deconstructed modern pork pie arrives tableside; while at three Michelin-starred St Hubertus in the Dolomites, it’s back to the future with crêpes suzette, part of chef Norbert Niederkofler’s strategy to give the service team more status through the extensive use of guéridon. (He also lists the names of all his staff on the menu.)
“I think we have to go back to the classics – in service as well as food – and rethink them,” says Niederkofler, a guest at this year’s Tasting Australia festival in Adelaide. “It’s not about turning the clock back.”
Drinks on the side
And of course we couldn’t overlook the drinks side of dinner, now such a crucial part of the hospitality business model.
At the Cliveden Bar & Dining at Pullman Melbourne on the Park, mixologist Adam Duca didn’t just launch a signature gin, created for the hotel by local distillers Bass & Flinders from a bunch of botanicals, he launched a signature guéridon ritual to go with it, centred on a newly acquired old-fashioned cocktail cart.
So successful has been the nightly parade of Negronis, G&Ts and the Cliveden’s take on the classic Clover Club, the Pullman recently called in a few more trolleys for its first gin-infused high tea, held earlier this month as part of the restaurant’s birthday celebrations.
We hear the scones with Negroni jam were a sellout.