Step Aside, Chef. Seattle's Service Industry Stars Aren't Always in the Kitchen

Front-of-house staff make our restaurant experiences equally as memorable as the food.
FROM THE PRINT EDITION |
 
 
From left: Adam Fortuna, April Pogue, Jason Coult, Kathryn Olson, Maik Tow, Rebecca Olson

We hold food—and its chefs—in the highest regard. But when we talk about a restaurant experience, what we’re largely talking about is how the front-of-house staff has helped make our meal a lovely one. Here, we introduce you to a few exemplary characters in the local service industry.

King of the Bar
Bar manager Adam Fortuna admits that his lifelong gift of gab is an asset in the industry. But it’s his refreshingly retro dedication to customer service—not his charming chatter, or even his stellar take on a Singapore sling—that makes a visit to Foreign National, the Capitol Hill sister bar to Stateside restaurant, such a delight. “I think the whole craft bartender thing has taken away from what, historically, the role of a bartender is,” Fortuna says. “Your food doesn’t have to be perfect. Your drink doesn’t even have to be perfect. But what has to be perfect is this feeling of ‘I love being here.’” And that, he says, is all in paying attention to the smallest of details. foreignnationalbar.com

Service Sensei 
April Pogue, Loulay’s general manager, has more than 20 years of front-of-house experience, from Beverly Hills’ Spago to our own Wild Ginger. Every day it shows. At Loulay, Pogue says, their goal is to emulate chef Thierry Rautureau’s “ability to make anyone feel special and important when they walk in.” It’s her job to ensure the team is in sync, and to train new staff—her favorite part of the job. “I love bringing in young people and developing them in the restaurant,” she says. “Often, we are giving them their first job, and it’s rewarding when we see them grow in discipline, skills and sometimes even a passion for this rewarding industry.” thechefinthehat.com/loulay

 

Piano Man
At age 3, Jason Coult was plinking out lullabies on the family piano. Now, the Canlis pianist’s mental repertoire includes an impressive 350-plus songs—and not a one of them classical, as one might expect. In fact, a Friday or Saturday set (he took over the popular slots for the legendary Walt Wagner when he retired last year) might include everything from Phil Collins to rapper Fetty Wap. The Ph.D. bioengineering student says his job involves more than just playing requests: “We are driving the energy of the restaurant,” Coult says. “Flowy music is appropriate sometimes, but [for the most part] they need a percussive, rhythmic style, whether slow or fast, in order to drive the rhythm in the room.” Just don’t ask for “Piano Man.” canlis.com

Wine Scribe
Wine director Kathryn Olson’s lighthearted approach to wine and service is on display at L’Oursin, the Central District’s French-Northwest seafood bistro, even when she’s not around. Formerly of Bar Ferdinand, she pens abstract, playful wine descriptions that make customers laugh, relax about their wine choices and intrigue them into trying something new, which is necessary for the restaurant’s quirky menu of natural wines. “It feels like letting everybody read my journal,” Olson says of the menu descriptions, which she hopes “invite people to have a conversation with the wine.” loursinseattle.com

Servers with a Smile
Longtime El Gaucho servers Maik Tow and Rebecca Olson are such integral members of the team that they were recently painted into one of the restaurant’s iconic oil paintings, a commission for the restaurant’s 20th anniversary. Despite the acknowledgement of their contributions, the two don’t get too precious about stellar service, because, as they note, it’s not about them. For Olson, who was hired in the late summer of 1996 when the new locations of the popular steakhouse was still under construction, it all comes down to remembering how special it really is to have someone at your table. “It’s a big deal for people to come here and spend this kind of money; you can’t take it for granted.” Tow, who joined the team in August 2001, agrees with his colleague, saying, “It’s about celebrating.” elgaucho.com

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