Tom Robertson discovers that being a butler requires a never-ending quest for perfection that many would find difficult to attain
Within five minutes of meeting Freddie Hines, I immediately understand the quintessential characteristics of a butler. Immaculately presented, Hines speaks in a tone that is friendly, almost gentle, and immediately sets me at ease. He’s also exceedingly eloquent. But far from talking with a snobbish accent, he speaks with a precision that belies the very ethos of his trade.
“Butlering,” Hines explains, “is about providing the epitome of great service. It’s about the little touches.”
A former butler at the luxury five-star The Oberoi, New Delhi hotel, Hines has served everyone from movie stars such as Harrison Ford and Richard Gere to former UN secretary-generals Kofi Annan and Boutros Boutros-Ghali.
Although the role and responsibilities of a butler can vary considerably depending on the size and type of the place they’re working in, Hines says that a butler is the last stop in ensuring that everything’s perfect; from the way a dining table is laid through to the details of their guest’s or employer’s travel plans aboard their private jet.
“A good butler would even know the weather forecast once the individual reaches their destination,” says Hines.
Walking over to a neatly laid table at the National Hospitality Institute (NHI), where he’s now team leader of food and beverages and responsible for butler training, Hines turns to me and says: “And now it’s your turn to try getting the details right.
“Look at this table. Remember the way it’s laid and then we’ll come back to it. Everything will be gone and you’ll have to lay it as you see it now.”
“How hard can it be?” I chortle to myself, in what would turn out to an overly optimistic attitude.
Right now, though, we head into the kitchen, where I go back to basics to learn – of all things – how to make toast.
“Toast! I’m being taught how to make toast?” I seethe inwardly. I don’t know whether to cry in indignation and let Hines know that I banged out my first batch of profiteroles when I was nine years old.
But alas, the master is right. The colour of my Melba toast is slightly wrong, doesn’t have tidy edges and has unacceptable variations of thickness. To present it in the right way, fold after fold of a napkin is made until I’ve made a protective basket in which to place the toast.
“How’s that?” I ask, somewhat pleased with myself.
“Good” says Hines. “But you’ve got a crumb on the napkin there.”
And it is then that I realise what being a butler is all about. It’s not just about striving for perfection – it’s about attaining it. Hines can obviously see the realisation written on my face.
“Good isn’t good enough,” he nods in agreement.
And I see it in Hines himself as I head back to lay the table. Everything he does is done with accuracy and efficiency. Even his appearance is immaculate. It’s no wonder that I was ushered to a bathroom beforehand so I could change and shave and try to rescue my dishevelled journo appearance from the dustbin of aesthetics.
Back at the table, I think I’ve done a fairly good job of recreating a high tea, but once again I fall short of the mark; the teaspoon on the saucer is not perpendicular to the handle and the spout of the teapot is facing 45 degrees in the wrong direction.
By the time it comes to actually serving the tea, I’m shaking like a nervous wreck, risking Hines with first-degree burns.
At the end of the afternoon, I’ve merely scratched the tip of the iceberg in providing good service – and got most of it wrong.
And there’s a lot to provide, from knowing which beverage accompanies which food through to the economics of a household and the correct way to address dignitaries. Make no mistake about it, to be a butler is not to be subservient. It is to be the most erudite in the room when it comes to etiquette and all manner of other social graces.
The NHI offers a butler service course 40 hours (over either two weeks or four weeks)
Srivatsa Allampalli, a former butler in Dubai and current assistant front office manager at the Grand Hyatt Muscat hotel
I was a butler in a five-star hotel. It was a steady rise to the position, having worked in housekeeping. I then worked as a part-time butler in the same hotel before taking up a full-time post after a six-month internal training programme. I was one of a team of 80 butlers serving 100 rooms, which offered the service. I was just 23 when I started.
All the guests who I was serving, from the celebrities to members of royal families were incredibly respectful towards the butlers. I found that you could really make a connection with the guest because, as a butler, you’re allowed into their rooms, but virtually nobody else is.
They were always polite and friendly. It was actually the staff of the high-profile guests who were most difficult to please. They were very demanding, but once I showed that everything was under control, they started to trust me and let me get on with my job.
The hours were exceptionally long. Sometimes I would work for up to 23 hours at any one time. Luckily, the major hotels recognise this, so you would get that time back. Having a personal life is exceptionally hard, though. You work when the guest is up and needs things and get to rest when they’re asleep. It’s impossible to plan your time off.
I found that serving members of royal families was the most unpredictable and challenging – but also the most fun. Once a royal guest told me at midnight that they wanted to go dolphin watching the next morning at 6am. You can imagine how difficult that was to organise at that late hour, but we got it sorted. You can’t say no!
I found that the high-profile politicians were the easiest to work for because they were on a tight schedule. Their whole visit was strictly scheduled, so there was rarely a need to organise anything else for them.
But whoever the guest was, I always had to plan ahead. I had to research the guest, sometimes by contacting sister hotels, to see what their requirements were in advance. Then it became a team effort, liaising with all the different departments of the hotel to make sure everything was just right, the kitchens, reception, housekeeping, etc.
I enjoyed being a butler immensely, so it never really felt like hard work, even though it was a very demanding job.