THE LADY OF THE HOUSE

Every establishment that relies on creating a great experience needs someone like Sophie Mucciarelli, the lady of the house at Restaurant JAN. She’s that caring, feminine presence that just adds that extra touch of refinement to the JAN experience, which also makes her role hard to define. But through Sophie, it all comes together beautifully.

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1. WHAT DOES YOUR AVERAGE DAY AT RESTAURANT JAN LOOK LIKE?

I’m the assistant maitre d’, so my main role is assisting Michaël Schmitt (the restaurant sommelier) to organise the services, and to manage the front of house before and during the service. Before service I’m part of the front-of-house mise en place (general preparation of ingredients and dishes), which involves cleaning and getting the dining room ready. During that time, I also make teas, get the beauty products in the bathroom ready, and seal our individual guest menus. During the service, I assist in managing the front-of-house team by taking orders, seeing that the guests are comfortable, and ensure that the communication link between the kitchen and front of house is strong.

I’ve felt a very deep connection to nature since I was a child. I love flowers and herbs - and most of my diet is plant based - so I grew into the green side of the restaurant very naturally. We have a herb tray in the dining room from which I make teas and tisanes, and that the kitchen also sources from, so every morning, I start by checking on all the plants’ health. I’ve built up relationships with a few of the flower shops around town, as well as at the market, so I get my fresh products from there. I’m also responsible for sourcing general items for the restaurant, like vintage coffee cups, toiletries, and general decorative objects.

2. What is a maitre d'hôtel?

The maitre d’hôtel is generally the main link between the guests and their culinary experience. In my opnion, he or she is first and foremost responsible for gaining the trust of our guests, even before they have their first course. You check with guests for allergies or if they have any special requirements. You are their first impression, and their comfort is key to a succesful experience. To put it another way, maitre d’ is the “oil” in this fantastic machine that is our service. Connecting the various departments of the restaurant together - the kitchen, hospitality, front-of-house - is vital to a restaurant’s success.

3. What is important to you when creating a good experience for the guests? What details matter to you most?

My favourite quote is, “having an iron hand in a velvet glove” (laughs). It’s easy to lose your feminity in a male-dominated world. I love making people happy and comfortable. It’s all about reading people. For some of them, it could mean the world if you bring them a cushion if they seem uncomfortable, it could be an eye contact, a smile, a cup of ginger in hot water if they’re feeling a bit queasy, or calling someone when the bathroom is free. Personally, it’s the main reason why I do this job - before my passion for food. I love helping people.

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4. Tell us about the tea at the restaurant!

Well, the teas were originally selected by Jan, but we’ve made a few changes and improvements. I select fresh, local herbs every week, like basil, thyme, rosemary, verbena, sage, etc. French people tend to drink tea in the afternoon, not after dinner, but we are huge fans of herbal teas (caffeine free, obviously). Drinking a green tea or herbal tea after dinner is much more an act of wellbeing for us, for digestion, relaxation and sleep.

At JAN, it’s quite interesting when we introduce our guests to South African products like Buchu and Rooibos. We also have a delicious blend created for the restaurant, which is very popular with rooibos, cinnamon, star anise, cardamom, and cloves. But again, it’s all about reading people. Our Asian guests love proper teas like white, green or jasmin tea, the British will look for black tea, the French are more drawn to herbal teas, and South Africans go for a good rooibos.

5. What inspires you about what you do?

My mother is a fantastic cook! She made a lot of Mediterranean, Italian cuisine. I must say, that’s why I love food. I know it’s not a coincidence that I work in this industry. I love learning about new products, foreign products, kitchen techniques… it’s just as inspiring as art. That and the people. I love people and getting to know them better.

6. How do you experience South Africans? How do they differ FROM the French?

Having South African people coming to the restaurant is always a pleasure. They are always so proud to see how their cuisine and culture is represented at JAN. It’s so touching! Jan is carrying some very strong emotions through each dish, and it’s the details that make people so proud to see their traditions being given a stage in a country like France .

French people come with different expectations; to live a new experience, to discover new food. And it’s mission accomplished! Our French guests always leave with a feeling that they have travelled after an evening at JAN. It’s actually a beautiful exchange: South Africans come to get in touch with their roots, and the French come to travel to South Africa through their meal.

7. What is the future of Front-of-house? Where do you see the industry 5 years from now?

In French, we make a distinction between a “carrier of the plate” and a waiter/front of house. Depending on your level of involvement in your job, you either carry plates or you are a part of the experience. For me, what I really loved and learned working at JAN, is that we are part of the “JAN family”. In the sense of learning about Jan’s family dishes and South African culture, we’re not just talking about random products to our guests, we’re sharing a cultural heritage. Maybe also the fact of having that combination of French/South African staff makes it real.

I definitely see myself in that industry in the future. I believe it’s a wonderful job. But I’m also very strongly attached to work in a sustainable way. We can’t ignore that we are big actors in the environment role. We need to take responsibility and educate people to change our way of working - respecting our products and being aware of what our planet allows while dong what we love.

Photographs by Daniela Zondagh