Sharif Al-Amin is really, really into what he does as a manager, which is probably why he's so good at it. From his humble start waiting tables in college at a mom and pop restaurant to his rise to general manager in one of Houston's most buzzed about restaurants, Philippe, he remains gracious and always focused on serving guests exactly what it is they want.
Al-Amin talked to Eater about forcing bartenders to avoid turning on the LSU games in the bar so he can watch them in full via Tivo, treating staff like they're family and why a glass of wine and an ability to listen can go a long way in the front of the house.
How did you get into the restaurant industry and specifically, front of house?
When I was in college I was actually an economics major, and I started waiting tables at a little mom and pop shop and I kinda fell in love with the whole restaurant business. It was actually fun for me to go to work everyday and interact with people, and I thought that I had a knack for it. So I just started getting more interested and involved in it and then I got my first opportunity when I was 21 at this restaurant called Bonefish Grill in Baton Rouge, Louisiana. It was a lot of fun. It was exciting and new and I didn't know anything about the restaurant business. And I had a gentleman teach me a lot of things that I take to this day about a lot of things that I do.
Did you go to school at LSU?
Yes I did. When LSU plays on Saturdays here, I make the bartenders change the channels and not put on the game so I can Tivo it at home.
That sounds extreme.
You know, I was a server and a bartender years before management, so I can mess with them a lot and I take it to a personal level with them. It's a big family. A lot of restaurants say that, but I really mean that here. I want to get to know everybody that's in the restaurant. Front and back of the house. It's important for us as an organization to do that, because it means that when times are slow, we stick by them no matter what happens.
How did you end up at Philippe?
I was working at Tony's for a while and Chris Fannin, who is our director of operations, he joined the company in September and I heard about his reputation. So as soon as he came on board, I was vying for this job. I was calling him all the time, trying to get the job, because I really wanted to work for him. He has definitely made me grow as an individual in all parts of the business and he's my mentor in life. He took me, from all the experience I had, and made me see the restaurant in a completely different way, which I use to this day.
And what would that be?
He made me more hands-on, more service-oriented, really caring when it comes to our employees to the point where there's nothing that I won't do that I ask them to do. I would do everything that they do, no matter what it is. We don't have, "you have to do this because your this," it's nothing like that here. Everyone does everyone's job. Everyone is straight across the board.
Sounds like it is an aspect of mutual respect.
Absolutely. It's in our culture that we build that. Servers, food runners, if they get agitated, they'll just walk across the street and find another job, you know? That's unfortunate, but we want our employees to buy-in to us. Buying into the core and the management is very important because they're going to stay for a long time. We're here for them. Money and that stuff matters, but we like working who we work for, so we're here.
How do you go about hiring staff?
When it came to the interview process to hire our core, I wanted to get a group of individuals that wasn't your atypical server. I wanted a variety of servers; young, old, all different cultures. I just wanted a mixed group of servers and bartenders, and it worked out very well for us. I've been at places where you had to have tons of experience to work there, but if you have just some experience, you can mold them and show them the culture of your restaurant. It's awesome. You just have to find the right individual to do that.
Philippe is a place that's obviously about the food, but it's in the Galleria area, which means there's an element of see and be seen. What do you think about that?
It's a gorgeously built restaurant. I've never seen a restaurant like this. It's two levels, with a lounge area and a dining room upstairs, private dining rooms?It's very inviting. It's not stuffy, it's not pretentious. That's what I like about it. We're not just catering to high society, we're also catering to the everyday person. We feel privileged when someone comes in to celebrate their birthday with us, an anniversary, a celebration, a job promotion, because we feel like, "wow, out of all the thousands of restaurants in town, they came to our restaurant."
So, those are all the happy parts of it, but how do deal with prickly situations in the front of house?
With a smile and an open ear. It does wonders for a guest. Just listening or sympathizing with a guest or just a smile. We really haven't had to throw somebody out or anything like that. It really doesn't happen. I feel like if you just keep your composure and give an open ear to the guest; sometimes they just want to be heard.
Any celebrities coming in?
You know, here and there. Final four weekend. It's always a surprise. Actually, I take that back. It's just a normal day. Every guest is measured the same and equally. That's the absolute truth. My co-workers hold their composure when it comes to stuff like that because everyone's the same.
So you don't get star struck?
Oh no. Absolutely not. I mean (laughing), maybe if I see them I smile and am a little star struck, but that's about it. Not too much.
How do you placate people while they're waiting?
My hostesses are my lifeline. We have a two hostess system and they communicate with one another constantly. They make sure that everything is running smoothly. They are great at letting us know that a guest has been waiting X amount of time, and we try not to make them wait long at all. We approach them, make sure they're doing ok and buy them a glass of rosé, and they're good to go. Any guest just wants to be acknowledged. They are the most important person in the restaurant.