So the gentleman – very senior but you’ll understand I can’t mention names – arrives an hour late. He’s pretty ticked off because his car wasn’t there to pick him up, so by the time he gets to the house I can see what needs to be done. `Good morning Sir,’ I say, `terrible journey I hear, most annoying for you. Perhaps a cup of tea would help, or if that fails, a whisky.’ And all of a sudden he’s won over. He knows you’re on his side so he’ll be on your side for the week.”
So says Rick Fink for whom, with 52 years of exemplary butling behind him during which he has had to deal with heads of state and the aristocracy in all their moods, the key to a successful butler/employee relationship is what he terms “a certain cosiness”. Not chumminess or lack of respect, just a reassuring manner born of knowing exactly what has to be done when. “Your life is governed around your employer’s. You do the thinking for them,” he says.
While old money and the aristocracy have never ceased to have servants, following two world wars there was a sharp decline in the number of butlers worldwide. Now, with the rise in the number of cash-rich, time-poor gentlemen in need of sartorial guidance, an expert drinks mixer, trip-planner, cook and all-round life support, butlers are witnessing a professional renaissance. Add to the tally of suavely penguinsuited gentlemen’s gentlemen the numbers required to oversee the smooth running of embassies, hotels, clubs and country houses and butler schools are brimful of trainees.
The British butler has, perhaps, an unfair advantage over his colleagues. The classic image of a butler will forever be Jeeves, ministering with tight-lipped patience to his affable, helpless employer, Bertie Wooster. Americans, in particular, have a penchant for the cool reserve and perfect etiquette of the British butler, while they are also in demand in Saudia Arabia, Hong Kong and Europe, with China emerging as a strong new market.
Butlers were, historically, in charge of the cellar (the name is said to derive from the Middle English bottler, meaning someone who took care of the household’s wine). As a perk, they were given one bottle for every six they opened at table. They were also responsible for brewing the servants’ beer. As household staff grew in numbers and complexity of rank, peaking in Victorian England when the great country houses had a grade of domestic for every chore, the butler became the leader of a small army of domestic servants, ably assisted by the housekeeper.
While the instances of arranging shooting weekends, vast banquets or months spent in foreign climes may be fewer, the modern butler is required to fill a more vital day-to day position in his master’s life. That can mean anything from practical tasks such as paying the bills, booking flights, even gardening, to offering advice on matters of social nicety.
Self-made millionaires, while they can afford the best of everything, might still need a few discreet pointers on correct etiquette. Having your suitcase packed with the appropriate outfits and accessories for a golfing weekend, royal wedding or week on a yacht offers priceless reassurance for those unable to match a pair of socks under their own steam.
As well as training butler-valets to his own exacting standards, Fink finds part of his role involves tutoring clients in what exactly a butler/valet does. “I was asked to find a butler for a couple, new money, so I went to see them,” says Fink. “The man was saying how wonderful the last butler they had was as he’d known just how many peas he liked with dinner. I realised he was talking about silver service. That’s hotel training, portion control. A butler lets you help yourself while he holds the dish. The man didn’t know the difference.” A butler is in charge of the other servants, with responsibility for orchestrating meals, taking care of the wines and ensuring the smooth running of daily household business.
A valet is a manservant who attends to the personal needs of his employer (Jeeves was more valet than butler). So Fink provides a comprehensive service in one person.
Kazuo Ishiguro’s painfully restrained butler, Stevens, felt his emotional reserve was the defining quality of an English butler. Modern employers are unlikely to expect the same level of deference, with butlers regarded less as an upper-crust accoutrement than as essential agents in the smooth running of their lives. But Fink deplores what he sees as a relaxing of some standards, principally in matters of appearance. “White gloves and yellow waistcoats, what’s that all about’ Some of these new butlers look like hotel porters,” he says. “Back when I started in the 1950s I was sent to Moss Bros and Lobb by my first employer, and they knew how to kit you out.”
When it comes to training new butler/valets or hosting refresher courses at his school, which is set within a 300-year-old honeystoned manor house near Oxford, Fink keeps to the traditional way of doing things. “I just say, `This is the right way to do it. This is how the Queen would expect it to be done.’ Once they’ve learnt that, they can adapt to how their employer wants things done, but they’ll never have that niggling feeling that they’re not doing things perfectly.”
One discipline that you won’t learn from Fink is hotel butling, simply as he’s never done it himself. While the International Butler Academy in the Netherlands provides private butlers for clients around the world, many of its students become butlers in five-star hotels and resorts. Occasionally, a hotel will train its own butlers, as is the case at Burj Al Arab. “We do all our training in house from scratch,” says training manager Shereen Adwaney. “The butler managers oversee this by shadowing trainees and checking on them on a regular basis.” Adwaney refers to the butlers as “mobile call centres”, the first point of assistance for hotel guests. “Our 120 butlers regularly attend chef presentations and get briefings on menu changes or new spa novelties so that they can provide guests with up-to-the-minute information,” she says.
Increasing numbers of professionally trained butlers are finding employment on luxury yachts. “Essentially, that involves the same work as in a house,” says Fink, “but in a confined space like that people don’t want you to introduce yourself too much. This is where you have to be verycareful of the butler/employee relationship crucial to establish control of the day to dayrunning of things. “Don’t ever wait for your employer to ask if lunch is ready. You run the meal times. You just quietly let him know when everything is ready,” advises Fink.
The average domestic butler will start on around $30,000 – with free board and lodging – and this can rise to around $150,000 depending on how many homes and staff he has in his care. Money comes into the equation in other ways, of course. The kiss and tell autobiography a la Paul Burred might a lot of money, but once gone, trust being the sacred element of the butler/employer pact is lost forever. “Trust is essential it if you are going to do well,” says Fink. “Plus you have to have certain style and dignity ” What ‘finer qualities could anyone have on their CV?
Last Updated: March 9, 2013