When asked what distinguishes excellent service from the run-of-the-mill variety, Seamus Fogarty, the newly crowned best waiter in Maryland, mentioned the silverware.
A good waiter, he said, does not carry silverware in his bare hands. It is unbecoming. Years ago, when he learned his trade in Ireland, Fogarty was taught to carry silverware in a napkin.
These and other tips have served him well. This week Fogarty, **TC 57-year-old waiter at Berry & Elliot's restaurant in Baltimore's Hyatt Hotel, finished first in the Service Classic, an annual competition sponsored by the Restaurant Association of Maryland.
Drew Sinnott Sr. of Peerce's restaurant finished second and Bobby Sullivan of Cave's Valley Club finished third. Twenty waiters and waitresses from around the state made the finals of the contest, including last year's winner, Dana Dineen from Loew's Hotel in Annapolis. After taking a written exam that tested their knowledge of food and drink, the finalists were scored by a team of judges as they served a four-course lunch at the Hyatt.
What separated the winners from an also-ran were the fine points.
Like helping out a waiter at another table. During the competition Fogarty walked over to a distant table and removed the warming cover that had been placed over a customer's plate of food. From his post, Fogarty saw that the waiter assigned to that table was busy and that the diner, who had left his seat, was now back at the table anxious to eat. "You can't have tunnel vision," Fogarty said; you have to see the whole room.
While the fine points of silverware and team play are important to being a good waiter, Fogarty said, they are garnishment. The most important factor, the entree, he said, is training.
Fogarty started his career in Delahunty's bar and general store in his home town of Thurles in Ireland's Tipperary County.
"I scrubbed floors, then worked my way up to washing bottles and glassware. I was an apprentice, working for about $1.50 a week. I once broke a bottle of whiskey and it took me three weeks' work to pay for it," he said. "Back then, you paid for your breakage."
Once, Fogarty recounted, the proprietor's wife, Mrs. Delahunty, chided Mr. Delahunty for "being too hard on Seamus." The restaurant owner brushed his wife's complaint aside, Fogarty recounted, by saying that "the boy had to learn."
Years later Fogarty was a waiter on a cruise ship and was chosen to wait on the Roman Catholic Cardinal of Ireland as the clergyman traveled to a conference in Brazil. Delahunty read the news accounts of his former employee waiting on the cardinal and felt his taskmaster ways had been rewarded.
In addition to cruise ships, Fogarty worked in restaurants in Dublin and London. At each step of the way, he said, he learned serving techniques, like carrying silverware in the napkin, and human relations techniques, like getting a customer to call you by your name.
In London, for instance, he was tired of being called "Paddy" the nickname that English customers applied to Irishmen. A senior waiter told him to call such customers "George," the all-purpose name for an Englishman.
It worked. When a customer said "Give me a drink, Paddy," Fogarty replied, "Sure thing, George." After that, Fogarty said, the customer took the trouble to learn his name.
Fogarty got to the United States the old-fashioned way: He jumped ship. While he was a waiter on a cruise ship he had met a girl and thought he was in love. "I jumped from the Mauritania in 1961."
He landed in New York, where he worked at a variety of locations for Restaurant Associates, then for a country club in Forrest Gate, N.J., before coming to Baltimore in 1980 to work at the Cafe des Artistes, then located in downtown Baltimore. He has since worked at The Waterfront Hotel in Fells Point, Miller Brothers restaurant, the Center Club, Carolyn's Cafe and the John Eager Howard room in the Belvedere Hotel.
Slowed somewhat by heart trouble, Fogarty confines himself to working in restaurants like Berry & Elliot's that have few stairs.
By being declared the best waiter in Maryland, Fogarty wins a weeklong trip at the Dorado Beach resort in San Juan, Puerto Rico. It is a trip for two.
Fogarty says he plans to take his wife. She is not the girl he jumped ship for. That girl, an Irish lass, ended up marrying a Greek fellow.
Fogarty ended up marrying a Dutch girl, Angele Sweelssen, whom he met in New York. It all worked out for the best. They will have been married 28 years this February, which might, he said, be a nice time to go to Puerto Rico.