The Specials is an ongoing series of interviews with the unsung heroes of hospitality — from managers, waiters and sommeliers to dishwashers, farmers and foragers.
Tamara Vega is a team leader at Alice, an acclaimed café, bakery and ice-cream parlour in Copenhagen. Originally from Australia, she spent a decade working in the restaurant industry in London before joining Noma’s front-of-house team in 2014.
My older sister taught me the ropes. We grew up in Queensland and she had a little Italian restaurant with her husband. I was 17 and she had me doing a bit of everything. After university, I moved to London on a two-year visa and realised that working in restaurants was what I was passionate about. I’m much more comfortable being with people and taking care of them — and I think that was something I didn’t recognise when I was younger and choosing my career path.
A Kiwi gave me my first job in London. I started working at Peter Gordon’s restaurant, The Providores. Coming from Australia, I was so comfortable with it all — the food, the style of service, the vision. I was the only Aussie in a team of mostly Kiwis, so there was some good banter. I stayed for a year and went to work for another Antipodean chef, David Thompson, at his Thai restaurant Naam. I started as a chef de rang and finished as manager until they closed in 2012.
Noma changed everything. In 2014 I had a mind-blowing evening there. It made me think about what I was eating, what I was doing, and how I looked at service. It wasn't the traditional, subservient way of looking after people. It was more like going for lunch at someone's house — a little cheeky, relaxed. I just thought there was something really special going on and I couldn’t get it out of my head. So I decided to send Noma a message and see what came of it. The response was almost immediate. I was invited to do week-long stage, which developed into a full-time role.
My head was spinning for the first couple of days at Noma. It wasn’t so much a physical challenge as a mental one. In this calm and relaxed way, service at Noma is very fast and almost on the verge of being chaotic, but in fact it’s totally under control. In a way, that was part of the appeal — the real energy and dynamism.
I love it when a team comes together and the service is electric. The closing night of Noma Tokyo was spectacular. It was textbook perfect service and everyone felt so much elation. At a restaurant, we’re all cogs in the wheel and no one is the star of the show. You’re only as good as the last person on the line — and unless the team is unified and working with mutual respect for one another, no service is going to go well. But when it does, it’s one of the most amazing things about the industry.
Working in restaurants still isn’t compatible with having children. I was at Noma for five years and after I had my first child, I went back to work at the new location. But after about 18 months it was time for something new. I had to make a decision about what was working for me and what wasn't — and it was working too many nights. I couldn't function without sleep — and that was when the rubber hit the road. Generally speaking, I don't think the industry is prepared for women to be pregnant and for there to be a career for them after they’ve had children.
Once you've trained at the top, you can go anywhere. I now lead the team at Alice — a coffee shop, bakery and ice cream parlour in Copenhagen — and I feel that the same value I have for service can be applied to anything. It’s about anticipating people's needs and wants and treating them as though they're your own. There isn’t a day that I don't come to work and care about each coffee that's served and each guest as if it were my own place. Once you’ve got that feeling of wanting to take care of people, I don’t think you ever lose it.
Being part of a community is what I want to create now. That has even hit home even harder because of COVID-19. I see the same people at Alice almost every day and some of the regulars have developed friendships from coming here. There's just a beautiful community spirit and that means a lot to me.
Good leadership is about showing compassion for each of your team members and the way in which they like to learn. Some people are motivated by stress and others need calm, so it’s important to understand that there isn’t one way to do things. Giving people the power to make mistakes and being forgiving is important too, even though mistakes can sometimes be very inconvenient — especially in an industry in which situations are dynamic and timing can be critical.
The industry is less hierarchical today. Management styles have changed a lot in the last 10 years or so. Rather than a few people telling others what to do and how to do it, front-of-house operations tend to be more team-run. Obviously, there needs to be leadership — but it’s maybe not as aggressive and is more open to learning now.
My advice for people entering the service industry is to be mindful. It can be very easy to go into robot mode, but try to open your eyes and look at what you're doing, even if it's something as simple as picking herbs or washing pots. If you’re mindful of what you're doing, you’ll learn so much more.
As told to Superb. The transcript has been lightly edited for clarity and concision.