Des Dillon originally wanted to be a vet, but a gap year had other plans for him. He took a year off and spent it in hospitality, then did a carpentry apprenticeship while working part-time as a waiter at the local hotel – the same hotel that he was helping to renovate.

Sticking with the service industry was a good move, with Dillon winning Crombie Lockwood Outstanding Waiter at the 2017 Lewisham Awards – following on from his win in the same category in 2015. Having worked at SOUL Bar & Bistro in Auckland’s Viaduct for the last 13 years, Dillon was quietly chuffed.

“Winning the Lewisham twice was quite humbling,” he told Restaurant & Café. “I was proud to be recognised by my peers, to be acknowledged that I can still do it with the young ones! You need passion and you need knowledge, and it’s very flattering to be recognised for that by other people in the industry.”

While quite a private person away from work, when it comes to service, Dillon keeps the energy up. “I treat every day like it’s a New Year’s celebration,” he said. “That’s the kind of energy I try to bring. It has to be a festive occasion, and the waiter needs to make sure he has enough energy to make everything happen. He’s a facilitator.”

Things have changed since his days at the hotel, but what hasn’t changed is what makes a good customer. “Politeness is key,” he explained. “If a customer is polite then they’re a delight to serve.” Often while serving water Dillon will try to get a feel for the customer – “What they like, what they do, what they eat” –and then take them on what he calls a ‘food journey,’ where he essentially orders to them and chooses wines to match. “It’s special but also quite scary, and they need to make sure that they can trust you. I can get away with it because of the grey hair!”

Also important is the team. “If you drop a glass you can keep on walking because you know that someone will be around to clean it up for you – you’re embarrassed enough without having to hang around and clean it up yourself,” he said.

Thirteen years is a long time in the service industry, but SOUL’s commitment to change is what keeps the job fresh for Dillon. “We’re always improving and fine-tuning, being proactive in what we do but also remaining consistent.”