From zero to local food hero

From zero to local food hero

From knowing nothing about Singapore food a few years ago, this man is now proud to be one of its strongest advocates.

"Oh, the laksa at Hong Lim food court, just wow, you know? And chicken rice, I eat it three to four times a week," Mr Mauro Serrajotto tells this reporter.

For 10 minutes, he rattles off a never-ending list of favourite local food and the places to get them.

Listening to the 34-year-old talk about food today, you might think he has lived here all his life.

He says: "One thing I've learnt, long queues means good food. You'll see me at the back of the line."

But Mr Serrajotto confesses that just five years ago, he knew nothing about Singapore.

European economies had been hit hard by the downturn and the demand for fine dining had waned, says the Italian.

Singapore, on the other hand, was buzzing with a growing high-end dining scene.

So, he upped sticks and moved here.

CELEBRITY CUSTOMERS

His job as a waiter and a sommelier has seen him wait on showbiz personalities like Woody Allen, Madonna and Sean Connery, among others.

He has also travelled around the world, working in some of the best restaurants and hotels.

Now, he's the maitre d' - literally "master of" in French, denoting his captaincy - of Senso Ristorante & Bar in Club Street, an upscale restaurant that serves Italian cuisine paired with fine wines.

It's a job that requires him to work from 10am till past midnight, serving well-heeled customers and making sure his staff do the right thing.

Last year, Mr Serrajotto, who is an employment-pass holder here, was named Restaurant Manager of the Year at the World Gourmet Summit held in Singapore.

He sums up his job in a line: "We are the ones who deal with the chef's mistakes."

That means figuring out his customers' preferences; and if the food is not to their liking, he steps in. "I'm here to make the experience a pleasant one," he says.

PICKY CUSTOMERS

Surprisingly, he declares he "loves" picky customers.

But he wishes they'd tell him their issues directly instead of posting reviews online without giving him and the restaurant a chance to correct the mistakes they never even knew they made.

And when he does get a complaint, he withholds it from the kitchen until the day is over.

"Chefs are talented, and you don't want to affect them during the lunch or dinner rush," he says.

And the customer is not always right.

Once, in another restaurant here, he had to chase a rude customer out.

Says the maitre d': "She was extremely sarcastic. We offered her discounts and compromises, but she kept wanting more."

When she took out her phone and started filming him, Mr Serrajotto snapped and told her to leave.

"Even service staff has a limit, and that was the only time I hit it."

He has made many friends here over the course of his work.

The locals he befriends, some of whom are guests at the restaurant, take to teaching him about Singapore over meals - which he enjoys heartily.

In return, Mr Serrajotto offers them insights about Singapore from a different perspective - from someone who didn't grow up here, but who has come to appreciate the way of life in Singapore.

"Sometimes I hear complaints about public transport here, and I have to laugh. They should see Italy," he says.

Mr Serrajotto is now so at home here, he's perfectly happy ordering from zi char joints near his home.

He intends to settle down in Singapore because "it's a great city with a great food culture".

Sometimes, he takes a bottle of wine to food courts and hawker centres to accompany his meal, and gets his friends to join in.

When we ask which wine he would pair Singaporean food with, he shakes his head.

"The food here has such strong and spicy flavours, which means it's difficult to pair with wine," he says.

But after pondering, he delightedly tells us to try beer instead - more specifically, his favourite brand, Tiger beer.

SECRETS OF THE TRADE

1) Start from the bottom. The experience you gain watching others work while mopping floors and wiping plates is more valuable than the paper qualifications you get in school.

2) Familiarise yourself with every aspect of the food served. You must be prepared to answer any question about the food, and also teach customers a bit more about what they are having.

3) Know how to read your customers. If they are angry, react by staying quiet. If you treat a table of guests well, do the same for the whole floor, otherwise they might think you are being unfair.

ngjunsen@sph.com.sg


This article was first published on Dec 14, 2014.
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