This week, Geraldine had her eyes opened to the reality of working in one of Dublin's most iconic abodes; The Shelbourne Hotel. Read on to get the inside scoop on what she saw and the stories she heard...
One experience that never fails to send a thrill through my body? It has to be walking through the revolving doors of the Shelbourne Hotel. A Dublin institution steeped in more history, tradition and stories than you’d believe, it’s also a place that displays such opulence and grandiosity that I can’t help but ogle whenever I walk past.
With this in mind, I can’t quite believe that I’ve been given the chance to see how it all works from behind the scenes; what keeps the cogs in motion in one of Dublin’s most iconic residences? Who makes its renowned afternoon tea? And how exactly does one get to join the payroll here? Well scroll on reader, because I'm about to find out all of the above.
Once through those revolving doors, it takes a few minutes before anyone approaches me, and I use the time to take in the goings-on around the foyer. It’s 11 am and there is a gentle humming throughout the hotel; the sound of tiny silver spoons clinking against tea cups in the lounge, a tray of glasses being shelved in the bar, a staff member giving directions to a couple looking to get to The National Gallery...
The Lord Mayor Lounge
Every staff member I see is impeccably presented and I can’t help but notice how they all seem to be smiling – or at the very least smizing (smiling with their eyes) – as they go about their business. This makes me suspicious. Having worked in the hospitality industry myself, I know how difficult it can be to stay on top form at all times, especially when you’re not aware that someone is watching.
Are they made to put Vaseline on their teeth to ensure they never stop smiling? Is that it? I think to myself, but before I have time to expand my conspiracies any further, Róisín O’Malley, The Shelbourne's Marketing Manager, greets me with a warm welcome and kicks off my whistle stop tour of “life behind the scenes at The Shelbourne”.
"Presented to absolute perfection"
From the get-go, I remark to Róisín about how well-presented and happy all the staff look, hoping that she’ll give me some juicy details on how this is actually a hell hole and if will I please set her free. In actuality, she just explains that this is genuinely a great place to work. She highlights the slow turnover of staff here, with people staying years, not months, and makes the point that it’s a testament to the positive working environment they enjoy, which would explain the happy faces, too.
She adds that there is also a woman whose job it is to go around making sure that all staff members (and generally everything on the premises) are presented to absolute perfection. “If she sees even so much as a stray thread flowing from your uniform, you will be advised to sort it out right away – although she puts it in a much nicer way than that!”
Catching my reflection in the mirror, I note that I look like a bedraggled child in comparison to Róisín and her clean-cut comrades and I suspect that this woman would definitely have words with me if I worked here.
I assumed that some kind of accredited qualification in tea-pouring excellence would be expected, but not so.
After being shown around the entire hotel (and yes, the rooms are even nicer than I imagined), Róisín brings me back downstairs to meet Eimear Beaddie, Manager of The Lord Mayor Lounge; the front room where the renowned afternoon tea is served. Eimear tells me about the hiring process of “Associates” (that’s Shelbourne speak for “wait staff”) and goes into the various details of the job; the two weeks of training that is required; the ten-step tea-pouring process...
For anyone who dreams of serving afternoon tea in The Shelbourne, you’ll be happy to know that extensive experience is not required for the job. I assumed that some kind of accredited qualification in tea-pouring excellence would be expected, but not so. Eimear is more concerned with a person’s personality than she is with a choc-a-block resume, and she often hires people who have no experience but are passionate about upholding The Shelbourne’s reputation of excellence, and who have a warm personality – that’s a must.
I imagine “lots of patience” is a major requirement for this role too, although Eimear doesn’t say it.
Eimear tells me that she wants Associates to be able to report at least some details about the table they are looking after by the time the service comes to an end. We’re not talking home addresses or blood types, but things like whether the group is celebrating a birthday or an anniversary; where they’ve travelled from, etc. She wants to provide silver service "but with an Irish, homegrown feel", and that means she likes to see staff and customers chatting comfortably and enjoying a laugh throughout the service.
Statue outside of The Shelbourne Hotel / Image via Ardfern
I imagine “lots of patience” is a major requirement for this role too, although Eimear doesn’t say it. In truth, it must be, when you consider the almighty notions that some well-to-do customers surely have, and the annoying requests that they bring along with them. I try to get the juicy details on this subject, but Eimear just laughs and insists that everyone who graces the doors of The Shelbourne is “lovely!”.
The fussy customers
I’m not buying this, and I tell her so. “Well, of course like anywhere in life you get the good with the bad, so we would sometimes get a difficult customer here and there, but they would be very rare”, says Eimear, before finally indulging me in a story about a customer who complained that she didn’t like the cutlery (the ornate, pure silver Shelbourne Hotel cutlery, might I add) on her table, and demanded that it be changed. “That was a bit of a challenge to deal with, but we don’t like to ever say ‘no’ to customers here, so we set another table especially for her using the dining room cutlery, which was thankfully more to her liking!”.
It’s at this moment that I accept I will never become an Associate at The Shelbourne. In truth, the temptation to grab a handful of tiny cakes from a nearby table and lampoon them at a customer who dared make such a complaint would be all too great to resist.
Caoimhe is all about the finer details, and seems to wield a strict “no cake left behind” attitude
I get further confirmation of my unsuitability for the role when I am invited to try carry one of the silver trays that the staff whizz about with all day. I balk at how heavy they are, and this is without the addition of teapots full of boiling hot water. “You certainly don’t need to lift weights in the gym when you work here” laughs Imelda Fernandee, who has been serving afternoon tea in the Shelbourne for ten years.
Afternoon tea in The Lord Mayor Lounge
The pastry chef with a Chemistry degree
The attention to detail that goes into every element of the afternoon tea presentation is extraordinary, and I get to see exactly how this is executed when I’m brought back into the kitchen to meet head pastry chef Caoimhe Hanifan.
With a degree in Chemistry on top of her qualifications from DIT’s School of Culinary Arts and Food Technology, Caoimhe has acquired a reputation for “not making things easy for herself” in her job. See, Caoimhe is all about the finer details, and seems to wield a strict “no cake left behind” attitude, giving every creation equal love and attention.
Standing in the kitchen, I get to see her intricate magic being conjured up on an industrial scale, as Caoimhe and her small team make metre-long loaves of brown bread, and pipe chocolate ganache onto endless trays of eclairs with Tasmanian Devil speed. And yes, the smells are nothing short of heavenly.
The last person I meet on my tour is Denis O’Brien; an icon and establishment in himself
The Shelbourne Hotel / Image via William Murphy
The much-beloved concierge
The last person I meet on my tour is the concierge Denis O’Brien; an icon and establishment in himself, he’s been serving The Shelbourne as its much-beloved concierge (and in-house story-teller) for the last 16 years. Denis tells me a slew of incredible Shelbourne tales; from Michael Bublé performing an ad-hoc piano recital in the lounge after a sell-out concert in Dublin, to the time the Queen of Tonga came to visit in 1953. The story goes that she was an incredibly large woman; so huge, in fact, that a turbo-sized bed had to be created especially for her stay in the hotel (and said bed had to then be airlifted through the window as it couldn’t fit up the stairs).
Stories like these, whilst amazing, really just serve to highlight how serious the staff have taken the “there is no customer request that cannot be accommodated” rule over the years, and how hell-bent they continue to be on ensuring customers enjoy their Shelbourne experience.
Could I ever work there? Absolutely not (I have neither the patience nor the upper arm strength, plus I'm simply far too unkempt), but do I want to come back for tiny cakes and a stay in that ginormous bed created for the Queen of Tonga? Oh, you betcha.
You can see Geraldine's video footage from the above experience in the highlights reel of her InstaStories here. Big thanks to The Shelbourne staff for showing Geraldine around and for being so generous with their time. This year's new Festive Afternoon Tea will be starting from the 24th of November and looks set to delight adults and children alike!
Some of The Shelbourne's Festive Afternoon Tea offering, which starts Nov 24th
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