Gmo Rice isn't your ordinary dish jockey. An exquisitely skilled waiter who wears the crisp linen towel over his left arm like a Medal of Honor, Rice has served the queen of England, President Ford and dignitaries at nearly every embassy in town.
Along with his pride in "the art of service" comes a dissatisfaction with quality of American waiters. "We are charging the prices," says the Chilean-born maitre d'hotel for the Capital Hilton's banquet department, "but not giving the service.
"In Europe a waiter must go through several stages -- busboy, demi-assistant -- and pass an exam.In America all they have to do is carry dishes."
The problem is particularly bad in hotels, says Rice, where the attitude that "this guest will take his place" results "too often in ignoring the guest. tMaitres d' in the hotel industry are very concerned."
As a remedy, Rice began teaching a six-session course for his hotel's waiters and waitresses this week -- covering everything from the proper way to present a menu to how to empty an ashtray.
He also urges diners to do their part by complaining about poor service and complimenting good.
"American people are too nice," he says. "If a European finds something wrong they'll tell you right on the spot. But an American won't say a word and just doesn't come back.
"But notifying the host in charge when something is right or wrong is a must to upgrading service. The restaurant will probably be glad to try and solve the problem. If you're not satisfied, speak up."
A waiter's mistake often stems from poor instruction, says Rice, who learned his craft the traditional way -- by watching skilled waiters as he came up through the ranks. "But suppose he is watching the wrong man do the wrong thing?"
With his velvety black tuxedo, manicured fingernails, and spotless white gloves ready in his pocket, Rice was obviously the right man doing the right thing at this week's opening class.
"No matter how good the food is," he told assembled staffers, "if it isn't served properly the meal won't be a success. Timing is fundamental.
"You must be there when the guest requires service without interfering with the meal by being too friendly or interrupting their conversation. The mark of a good waiter is to be there without being noticed."
Like a gymnast, an expert waiter must make difficult -- often strenuous -- feats look effortless. It requires the grace of a dancer, the warmth of a den mother, the crisp cleanliness of a nurse and the manners of an Emily Post.
This skill pays off, he notes. "A good waiter in Washington can make $500 a week and up. If you give very good service you may get a 20 percent tip instead of the usual 15 percent.
"You must also learn to sell. Don't ask, 'Would you like a cocktail?' Say, 'What cocktail can I bring you today?' While the guests are finishing their meal, bring over the pastry tray as if you didn't do it on purpose.
"The same goes for wine. As soon as you take the order, present the wine list and make a recommendation. Keep an eye on the glasses and refill them. Maybe you can sell another bottle. The bigger the check, the more money you make."
When you're calculating a tip this weekend, you might consider how well your waiter or waitress met these goals Rice outlined:
Greeting the Guest:
Make a good first impression at the door. "A good maitre d' will call the guest by name and act like they've been there a thousand times."
"Speak some French, since Americans like an accent. A little s'il vous plait adds a certain flair."
Ask where they'd like to sit, if possible, "By the window? In a booth? Walk them through the crowded part of the restaurant. With so many people the restaurant must be very good."
Taking an Order:
Learn your menu inside out. Before the guests arrive, check with the chef for recommendations and specialities of the day.
Listen carefully and number each guest on your pad as you take an order. That way you'll avoid the sin of asking the guest to repeat their order, or saying, "Who has the fish and who has the duck?"
"Always, always, always serve from the left and pick up from the right."
Place a cloth under a soup tureen (the most difficult thing to serve) to keep from burning your hands. Stand next to the guest so they know you're there before you begin ladling hot soup.
Avoid making noise, touching the face of the plate or dripping anything on the tablecloth.
Use one steady motion to present each plate.
Ask if everything is all right or if you can serve something else when a guest is obviously not eating the meal.
Place the protective cap in your pocket -- not in the bucket or on the table.
Wipe off a chilled bottle and wrap with a towel, being sure not to cover the label.
Never let the bottle touch the glass.
Rice is one of several maitres d' who teach their art -- free -- to unskilled waiters through the Hospitality Industry Service Corporation, a subsidiary of the Hotel Association.