It sounds simple, even a little archaic, to sum up a front-of-house-staff’s role as ‘service with a smile’.

But Yelicia Yeo, 26, service captain of Restaurant Zén, shows that fulfilling an old adage with grace and aplomb is not as easy as it seems. And when done well, little efforts go a long way.

Perhaps the seeds of her path in F&B service were planted earlier on. Yelicia always enjoyed talking to people, and grew up in a Peranakan family where eating, cooking, and sharing recipes was always part of the environment. That sparked her interest in cooking, and she first thought of becoming a pastry chef. Short stints in a few cafes later, she realised it was too stressful and quite different from baking and cooking for leisure.

She still wanted to do something food-related, so she went on to pursue business management at Cordon Bleu Adelaide. An internship at Grand Hyatt, Melbourne left her convinced that she wanted a life in restaurants, where she could have personal interactions with people.

But it was returning to Singapore and working at Odette, where she was promoted to head waitress after two years, that changed the way she looked at service and the way she viewed her profession. Continuing on in Esora, and moving to Zén where she has been since the start of the year, she constantly challenges herself to take her skills to the next level.

Restaurant Zén at 41 Bukit Pasoh Road - Women's Day 2019

Restaurant Zén at 41 Bukit Pasoh Road

Why do you say your stint at Odette changed your perception of fine dining?

In school, you learn that everything has to be formal. At Odette, I learnt that fine dining need not be restrictive. Approaching tables, talking to the guests, making it personal, making them feel comfortable and not intimidated by the dining experience was an approach that they supported. It’s still the way I drive my service. I imagine if mum or dad, or a friend, aunt or an uncle is coming in and trying such a restaurant for the first time, I’d want to make them feel comfortable.

I also realised that we can create a change to the dining experience with the part we play, with the attention to details we pay. And that’s really looking at things beyond just putting food on the table, but observing whether the guest is left-handed, or did he leave the greens on the plate, for instance.

How was your experience enriched at Esora?

With Esora, a modern Japanese kappo-style restaurant, there was a lot of learning about different service norms based on cultural practices, such as serving those highest by designation and hierarchy first, followed by the ladies in the group and so on. I also got to help shape the flow and sequence of service and adapt it to suit counter-style dining. And I learnt a lot about tea-pairings.

Yelicia Yeo, Restaurant Zén - Women's Day 2019

Yelicia Yeo, Restaurant Zén

And now at Zén…

Where we’re serving Nordic-Swedish cuisine with a Japanese touch, my exposure to some Japanese ingredients comes in a little handy. I’m also learning a whole different style of service where it’s fun; diners do not have a formal dress code; and it’s very much like welcoming guests to a home where we move diners from the first floor to the third floor in the course of their meal, so that they experience a diffferent mood, setting and food at every stage.

In Stockholm’s Frantzén, it’s a chef’s counter-dining style where guests see everything. Here at Zén, we translate that by doing a lot of table-side service. I get to practice a lot of wine and juice pairing as there is a lot of cross-training with the kitchen, and we are pushing the boundaries of kitchen and service working as a unit.

Myself and Lisa, the other service captain, we ‘float’. We do the pairings, we’re at table-side, serving and talking to guests. We work with the back waiters who are really the engine of the restaurant, keeping the food coming and refreshing the cutleries quickly. But we don’t have a strong distinguishing line and all of us work together to serve 15-18 people a night at our restaurant.

Yelicia at work - Women's Day 2019

Yelicia at work

Could you walk us through the steps you take to get to know your guests?

Normally the experience starts right when they’re making a phone call. That’s when they start or have already started thinking about your restaurant. At Esora, I was doing the reservations, and would tell myself that everything needs to be perfect from the get-go. People will make requests; you set the boundaries at this stage for what you can deliver.

After that, you can call it a bit of a stalkerish behaviour. I would do research on the guests if I can. Did they dine at our other restaurants before? If they seem familiar, I would text my colleagues and ask them if its the people I’m thinking of.

Then when they arrive, in this case at Zén where they press the doorbell, I would gauge their body language. If they’re smiling, it’s a good sign that they’re comfortable being here. If they’re sweating a bit—this person needs a drink. If they step away or seem a little reserved, I’d let them settle down. I don’t want to overwhelm them. At their table, I’d be at eye-level with them, asking if they need anything. By the time they move to the second floor, we’re like friends and I’d continue observing details and working with the information I have until their night ends at the lounge upstairs. Every night is different, even with the same guests.

Yelicia at work - Women's Day 2019

Yelicia at work II

What has been the most challenging aspect of your job?

Not being able to control the different emotions in one dining room. A diner may come in and he’s already very angry and starts nitpicking on a lot of things. He could get in a better mood by the end of the meal, but sometimes, he does not. These are external factors affecting them rather than what happens in the restaurant. Or there would be times when you need to gauge when not to intrude on a guest’s personal life in the course of giving personal service, for instance, if a marriage proposal was on the cards, and didn’t materialise at the last minute.

Dishes at Zén - Women's Day 2019

Marron, crispy Koshihikari rice, yuzu pepper, clarified butter emulsion and sansho leaf

Does gender matter in your work?

I don’t think its much of a limitation in Singapore. There may be some who question why they’re working under a female, but that’s more of a personal issue if they feel that way. But I don’t think there’s much of that or gender discrimination in Singapore. We do see more females taking leadership positions in our industry, and More attention and support for them.

For service captains, I would say there are about equal numbers of male and female workers. I would say confidence and how you carry yourself makes the most difference, not gender. If it’s a female in the role, it shouldn’t be that we support her just because she is female, but because she is talented.

Certain perceived feminine traits possibly help in terms of having more empathy, or perhaps even a motherhood instinct which makes you want to take care of people, but I always tell the interns I train that the most important thing is to be yourself. It’s passion that will drive you through every day and help you do your work with purpose.

Third floor lounge Zén - Women's Day 2019

Third floor lounge where every Zén meal comes to a close

What do you love most about service?

I love what I’m doing. I think service staff are a bridge between the guest and kitchen. If something happens in the kitchen, it’s up to us to convey to the guests that it’s all good and to keep the show going. If the guests have certain requests, we follow up with the kitchen. It’s a connecting role that lets you have firsthand interaction with the guests.

We also get exposed to many different cultures. People are flying from all over the globe just to dine in Singapore. Just the other day, guests flew in from Egypt on a Michelin trip, and I spoke with them and got so much information that Google cannot provide. And I really feel the work that we do makes a difference in people’s lives. If you have a horrible day at work but a wonderful experience at restaurant, you can go home and sleep well at night. It sounds creepy, but I think it’s true.

I get goosebumps whenever I hear diners say food was great and the service was amazing. I go ‘yes!’, thank god the diners appreciate what we do, the way that we’re thinking five steps ahead to go the extra mile and really make a difference to their dining experience.

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Related: Winning Women in F&BArChan Chan, executive Chef, LeVel33; Priscilla Leong, head bartender, Long Bar, Raffles Hotel

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