Haresh Mohinani's steely glare bores through me. I rack my brains frantically wondering what is wrong with the tray of drinks before me. Ice - check. Straws - check. Jaunty sliver of pineapple atop the glass - check, check and check. "See how you handled the glass," he hisses. "Never pick it up from the top, always from the bottom." Then, with the weariness of someone who has said this many, many times before: "Start again." Without a hint of apology, he adds: "We have very strict standards."
Standards is a term heard often at the Emirates Academy of Hospitality Management in Dubai, a breeding ground for the future managers and executives of the UAE's top-ranking hotels. It is the mantra of the academy's managing director, Ron Hilvert, and his team of lecturers, uttered frequently by staff running the in-house kitchen and restaurant and the holy grail of most of the school's 280 pupils.
The institute was opened in October 2001, becoming the first of its kind in the UAE to offer a vocational, Ministry of Higher Education-accredited degree in international hospitality management. Its three courses - a bachelors degree with honours lasting four years, a shorter degree programme running for less than three and a masters degree - consist of up to 40 modules each in subjects such as business finance, law and revenue management, as well as the more practical aspects of working in hospitality.
The academy is internationally recognised, thanks to its affiliation with the world's oldest established hotel school, the École Hôtelière de Lausanne in Switzerland. Two-thirds of its students come from overseas and the same number again choose to stay on in the UAE to find work after completing their studies. Traditionally, hotel managers might have been expected to work their way up from being bellboys or kitchen hands - a cheaper, if more time-consuming, option. With the academy's considerable tuition cost of US$72,000 (Dh264,600) for people living in the UAE and $108,900 (Dh400,000) for overseas students, it seems surprising that students would be prepared to fund their way through four years of studies only to go into an industry with a reputation for long, thankless hours and ungrateful customers.
But according to Hilvert, a Lausanne graduate himself, a vocational degree is now seen as the way to fast-track into a managerial role, which, unlike service staff, (who he refers to as "generals") can attract a lucrative salary package. "We are not here to develop captain waiters," booms Hilvert, who runs the academy with the kind of discipline normally seen in military school. "Our objective is to develop the managers and executives of the future."
"We are regarded as one of the top hotel schools in the world," Hilvert says. "We are here to develop future executives and management is not underpaid, far from it. I think it would be difficult to name another industry where, from the age of 20, you can travel around the world. That is one of the industry's great attractions." The academy's role is to teach uniformly high standards so its graduates can work anywhere. Hilvert denies that service levels in the UAE are poor, but says there is a need for the academy because "there is always room for improvement as the industry is growing".
Others do not share the same opinion. A survey commissioned by The National and carried out by the research organisation YouGov four months ago found more than two-thirds of UAE residents had experienced bad service in the previous six months and nearly one third of those who complained did not get a satisfactory resolution. Of those whose complaints were dealt with satisfactorily, nearly half said it took considerable effort and time. While hotels, airlines and restaurants were ranked highest for service, standards overall were deemed to be lower than in Europe or North America.
There are mixed views on why customers often feel let down. The diverse mix of more than 200 nationalities in the UAE means language can sometimes be a barrier. Poor training and varying standards of service in the home countries of workers have also been blamed. It is a problem recognised by the government, which recently announced consumer arbitration courts to deal with disputes swiftly. Hilvert, who grew up in the UK after his Hungarian parents moved there when he was a child and has worked in the industry for four decades, says his own personal bugbear is a lack of courtesy and product knowledge.
But he adds he cannot think of a single example of bad service in the UAE, adding: "I think standards here are as high as anywhere in the world. Maybe people are spoiled here." To put his theory to the test, I was set the challenge of undergoing a day in the classroom alongside first-year students on the BSc degree course and serving in the academy's in-house restaurant, where students wait upon their parents and staff.
How hard could it really be? Carrying a few plates, pouring drinks and remembering to smile every now and then couldn't be too difficult, surely? If I thought I was in for an easy ride, Mohaini, the Sri Lankan director of food and beverages, has other ideas. He reels off a list of quick-fire instructions that have to be observed by the students waiting on tables at all times. "It is basically what you see in a hotel. Serve silver service from the left, otherwise from the right. Remember to serve the bread, refill the basket on the table, watch drinks going down, wait until everyone finishes before you take away the plates, never interrupt people when they are talking. They will let you know when they require service but equally, do not ignore them."
Mohaini is very particular about the interruption issue. "You need to be very observant. If you really want to get a message across, you need to wait, make eye contact, then say: 'I am sorry to interrupt you'." Even the decor of the restaurant is designed to resemble a fine dining venue and the waiters are watched like hawks, and not just by their tutors. Harris Papalas's parents Themos, 52, and Sophia, 48, who run their own property management firm, are videoing their 18-year-old son as he self-consciously waits on tables. "He is better than I expected," remarks Mrs Papalas. "It's nice to be waited on after years of waiting on our children."
All the students have to spend nine days in the kitchen during their first term; they then work 20 days in the restaurant. "They might not all end up working as chefs or in restaurants but there is nothing worse than having a 21-year-old food and beverage manager coming up to you and telling you your job," says Michael Kitts, the British-born head chef. "This way, they have an idea what goes on in the kitchen. They do everything from scratch, from braising to poaching. They learn what marbling is and what makes a nice fillet of beef. They should have a good basic understanding of how to cook."
After my glass faux pas, I am issued with chef whites and consigned behind the scenes to the kitchen. Or so I think. Given the simple task of sautéing potatoes, I can barely lift the heavy iron skillet off the griddle and my attempt to toss them leaves more vegetables on the floor than in the pan. If Mohinani was strict, Kitts, a former chef at Claridges in London with more than 30 years' experience, is terrifying and it is little wonder his class is called Culinary 101. The look of disgust on his face says it all as he moves me on instead to the foolproof tasks of stirring the shallot and thyme sauce for the lamb and slicing a vegetable terrine.
While the three-course meal is restaurant-standard, none of the invited diners have to pay and are instead asked to give constructive comments. Raveena Manghnani, 18, from Mumbai, learnt the hard way. When she ruined the desserts by making them too soggy, she and her fellow pupils had to eat them instead of inflicting them on their customers. "Some days, it is really hard but it is important to know what goes on in a kitchen, even if I don't end up working in one," she says. "If you are a hotel manager and have no idea, you cannot instruct your staff properly."
Callum Bird, 21, from Scotland, could have studied closer to home but decided to travel some 4,800km for the academy's training programme. "I eventually want to be manager of my own hotel in Europe and this is one of the best schools in the world. You learn everything here, from how to run a kitchen to running a hotel like a business. I could have studied in Europe but what is the point when you might have 8,000 students in the school? Here the teaching takes place in much smaller classes."
Hannah Falko, 18, from Belarus, agrees. "The kitchen work is more challenging and practical. You have to remember to smile, be friendly, make sure you satisfy your customer's needs, never say 'no' and remember the technique and sequence of plates. It comes with practice." Helen Morris, a chef and lecturer on the restaurant industry, is equally passionate and says the training students receive is essential. "People always remember bad service - things like not being attentive, not clearing dirty plates or waiters being too informal. One thing going wrong can ruin the whole experience. Hospitality is universal but is let down in the UAE when the right people are not working in the right areas. Language is a big factor. It is about giving people enough time to do the right training and companies investing in teaching their staff English."
Job prospects are a strong focus of the institute, which is owned by the Jumeirah Group, whose executives pay attention to the stars of the class for their own recruitment and occasionally send their middle management to study on a part-time basis to upgrade their skills and improve their promotion prospects. Ninety-four per cent of students, who hail from more than 60 countries, end up getting a job and another three per cent go on to study for a masters.
The practical aspect of the course began this week, as first-year students were dispatched to five-star hotels across Dubai to put their grounding into practice over four weeks, their first stint in the real workplace. After another two terms at the academy, where they are lectured on subjects ranging from hospitality law to revenue and business management, they are sent over the summer for the first of two six-month placements in an international hotel, such as Jumeirah's Essex House in New York. Students also have the option of spending a year at the Lausanne hotel. A staggering 350,000 people work in the hospitality industry in the UAE, with 13,000 of them employed by the Jumeirah Group.
Of those, only 1,000 Emiratis are employed in the industry and just 18 are studying at the academy, despite being entitled to a 50 per cent reduction in fees. The Jumeirah Group funds a handful of those 18 students and is planning to launch a scholarship programme to recruit more. "It has taken time for Emiratis to appreciate hospitality as an interesting profession," says Hilvert. "Ten years ago, not one Emirati was working in hospitality. Our target is to increase that number." And that's an even harder task than sautéing potatoes.