Service exams can be incredibly challenging for the student in that they demand the polished skills of a top sommelier, great depth of knowledge of wines and spirits, and some real savvy when it comes to food and wine pairing. When coaching students in service I always tell them that it’s imperative to leave enough free disc space on their mental “hard drives” during service in order to be able to answer questions. Let’s face it, if you’re concerned about moving around the table in the right direction or wondering if you’ve set up the gueridon correctly, it’s too late—you’ll never be able to pay attention to the table much less answer any questions even if the host just wants to know what your name is. Ultimately the physical skills of service such as opening a bottle of Champagne have to be automatic, or “in the muscle,” in order for the student to be successful. But how to get there?
Not long ago I read an article describing how novice magicians learn a new card trick. The strategy involves the student making an internal movie of how his or her hands would move when the new trick worked perfectly. Then the student would mentally step around and insert their hands into the other hands that could do the trick flawlessly and try to mimic the same actions. Most importantly, the student would never try the new trick physically until they had mentally mastered it first; then, and only then, would they actually practice the new trick and often with quick success. Interestingly enough, whenever the student would make a mistake during the mental practice they wouldn’t get frustrated or irritated in any way, they would simply shrug it off and go back to practicing it mentally making the needed adjustments to be able to do the trick perfectly. In this way students did all the work up front keeping the actual practice time to a minimum.
This “magician’s practice” as it is often called is simply mental rehearsal. It has two phases: disassociated rehearsal and associated rehearsal. In this case disassociated rehearsal means seeing yourself in an image versus associated rehearsal where you view a scene as if looking out of your own eyes. The two are quite different from one another and associated rehearsal is usually more powerful in terms of overall intensity of feeling and memory. I often use the Magician’s Practice in working with students and not just for service. The process is very straight forward and takes a bit of time but frankly in the end is as good as physically practicing one’s service skills.
Using the Magician’s Practice for Improving Service Skills
First: review the Master Sommelier Service Standards so you know exactly what’s required for all aspects of service. Otherwise, you won’t have any reference for the standards of wine service much less the necessary details.
Second: the only other prerequisite for using this technique and really making it work is simple: you can’t screw around; you really have to GO for it or otherwise it won’t be effective. So when practicing with images make them incredibly bright, colorful, life-sized and in three dimensions so they have realistic depth. Make sure you’re also seeing everything in high definition sharpness and clarity. If there are sounds with your images terms turn them even a bit louder. Finally, create all the images with as much confidence as you can in the moment. After all, if anything isn’t right you can fix it immediately.
Here’s the technique mapped out for Champagne service. It can easily be done with decanting or any other facet of service. In fact, this technique can be used when acquiring and practicing any new skill.
Part I: Disassociated Rehearsal
First: get a picture of yourself as a polished, professional sommelier at the table. Really focus on seeing the image as clearly as possible. Start the visual sequence by seeing yourself greeting the host at the table, making eye contact, conversing easily, confidently and professionally. Move the sequence forward to presenting and opening the bottle of Champagne safely, silently and smoothly. Then pour a taste for the host and serve the bottle to the guests at the table in the proper order, filling the glasses evenly to the correct level. Go through the entire Champagne service finishing up with pouring for the host, placing the bottle in the bucket, and removing the cork. If you make a mistake at any point simply “rewind” the sequence to just before the problem moment and move it forward correcting the issue. Be sure to make the correction multiple times until it works smoothly and effectively. Once you can run the entire sequence from start to finish perfectly and it feels confident and familiar move on to the next step.
Second: make it more Challenging. Once you can see yourself going through Champagne service perfectly and comfortably add obstacles or challenges that will make your mental rehearsal more difficult. The obstacles can be realistic in form of a busy, crowded dining room with dangerously inattentive bussers or comically absurd such as a 60 mph gale blowing through the dining room or having to serve the bottle while a herd of livestock meanders through your station. Humor is actually a good thing here. The idea again is to make the mental task more difficult in order to prepare your brain and nervous system to handle potential challenges when in an actual service scenario.
Part II: Associated Rehearsal
Once you’ve mastered the disassociated sequence of service to the point of seeing yourself effortlessly dealing with the hurricane-force winds or a herd of menacing goats, step around and into the image of yourself as a polished, world-class sommelier. Really get a sense of actually being there as completely as possible in terms of what you would see, hear, and feel, both kinesthetically and emotionally. Once again, you really have to go for it in order for the technique to be as effective as possible. Proceed through the service sequence as if you were actually at the table interacting with the host, serving the wine using all the proper steps of Champagne service while answering questions and doing a heroic job taking care of the table.* Make sure the “movie” is bright, in color and life-size. If something isn’t quite right, back it up and rewind it to the point just before the problem and do it several times until perfect.
Second: make it more challenging as before. Add the gale force winds, meandering livestock or entire nursery of screaming kids. Go through all the steps of service perfectly despite the impediments. Practice this associated rehearsal until you again can do the entire service sequence perfectly, and most importantly, that it feels good, comfortable, and familiar.
Repeat all the steps of this exercise at least once a day for at least two weeks combining it with whatever real world service practice is necessary. If you encounter any mistakes while physically practicing service, be sure correct them internally before practicing physically.
*An editorial comment on the point about taking care of the table. Ultimately being an outstanding sommelier is all about taking care of the guest. That’s what we do and it very strongly implies that service is not about the sommelier, but all about the guest and taking care of the guest’s needs. And you’ll always keep that in mind, haven’t you?