When I was offered the opportunity to have tea with an honest-to-goodness butler, I jumped at the chance. Charles MacPherson has buttled (yes, that is the verb) for the rich and famous; now he runs an internationally-acclaimed butler school that boasts a 98% employment rate among its graduates. He's also in demand as a corporate coach, providing tips on the finer points of service and etiquette to a wide range of industries. Currently embarked on a cross-country tour to provide expert training for Ford Canada employees, Charles sat down with a select group of local media members for afternoon tea at the Chateau Laurier.
Here are a few of the lessons I learned from ‘Charles the Butler' as he is commonly known:
1. What is the difference between Afternoon Tea and High Tea?
Both originate in the UK; Afternoon tea is the more elegant of the two (and what is typically served at the Chateau Laurier's Zoe's Lounge). High Tea is more like dinner in that it includes a hot food component.
2. Who invented afternoon tea?
Although many people think it was Queen Victoria, it was actually her lifelong friend, Anna Russell, the Duchess of Bedford. The Duchess found the gap between luncheon (typically served about 1 pm) and dinner (8 or 9 pm) a bit of a struggle so she came up with a light meal of tea, sandwiches and cakes, typically served between 3 and 5 pm, as the perfect solution. It quickly found favour among the middle and upper classes.
3. What are some of the finer points of enjoying afternoon tea?
If you are asked to "play mother", that simply means the host is offering you the honour of pouring the tea. One should not stick one's pinky finger out - that is a throwback to a time when cups were handle-less bowls; the extended pinky was part of a balancing act. Similarly, it's now acceptable to add milk after the tea is poured; those who insist on milk before tea are harkening back to the days when thin, delicate porcelain would crack if the tea was added first.
4. What is the role of a butler?
Aside from the obvious household management tasks, the butler's primary focus is to put people at ease, provide positive experiences and treat people with respect. "As a butler, one must always be interested, but not necessarily interesting. It's not about you," Charles explains. It is because of these qualities that many companies engage Charles to train their employees.
5. How does one become a butler?
The Charles MacPherson Academy for Butlers and Household Managers in Toronto is the only licensed school of its kind in North America. The school draws students from all over the globe; they can expect a starting salary of $50,000 - $60,000, with a $10,000 per year bonus if they have a British accent! If you don't want to go to butler school, you can learn a lot just by reading Charles' book, The Butler Speaks.
6. Many people today are more familiar with traditional service roles and responsibilities thanks to shows like Downton Abbey. How accurate are they?
"Mr. Carson is pretty good - he has it about 98% right," says Charles. He is a good example of one of the principles of service Charles teaches, which is, "stay professional and you'll never go wrong." A lesson for us all to live by, perhaps?