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Are you being served?

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So, its Danielle, James and especially Ashley. Michel Roux, a chef of some fame, took eight youngsters off the streets and on prime-time television trained them to be front-of-house waiters and sommeliers equipped to serve, to pour and to wait upon the best tables of the land. The prize: scholarships to his own ‘academy'; the argument: to prove that raw material, ordinary guys who do not know one end of a napkin from another, can make it in the world of fine dining. Only one trainee, Jarel, was too much for Michel. For the others, this was a journey of discovery which is becoming second nature for TV reality programmes. But this time there was a difference - it was not stardom that was offered or recording contracts, it was serving, it was invisibility, it was being a waiter. Perhaps the miracle is not that these young hopefuls achieved their goal, but that they wanted it in the first place.

 In the end, it was Ashley's journey that justified Michel Roux's argument. Ashley had had an ASBO at the age of 14; he had, in his own words, never achieved anything. He had been rejected for over 150 jobs. Yet in his disarming way ("this truffle has come from Manchester"), he showed Michel Roux and his other mentors that he was determined to make something of his life. One day I hope to be served by Ashley. It's not where you come from that matters, I will remind him; it's where you are going. For Ashley, that is a journey from a housing estate in Leeds to a top hotel in Mayfair. Danielle, another winning trainee, is even now sipping wines in France. Lucky sod.

 I trained in two schools of theology. The more obvious one was New College, Edinburgh, where I was taught by some of the great theologians of the twentieth century. But in the holidays, I worked as a waiter and as "front-of-house" in hotels. My mentor in term-time was a practical theologian who has published widely; in the holidays, it was a drag artist who has dressed widely. The latter owned a hotel - honestly, I could not make this up if I tried - on the shores of Loch Ness. In the days before student loans and desperate for cash, I volunteered for a holiday job as "front of house", for (I recall) about 0.0003p per week before tax and rent. When I arrived at the hotel, which amazingly had earned two AA stars presumably from stranded hotel inspectors who could not find Inverness on the map and had lost the will to live whilst driving through Drumnadrochit, I discovered my Danny La Rue hotel owner was about to go on holiday. His last words as he packed his bras and tights: "This is the bar; this is the bookings diary; these are the keys. I will be back next Wednesday. Good luck."

 I am not sure which person I learned more from, though I have long since lost touch with the drag artist hotel owner. From him, not from my church tutors, I learned how to run a bar, make eggs Benedict, feed hens and lie to Americans about when I last saw the Loch Ness Monster. But then, as in the Christian life, it's all about service and invisibility and meeting the customer's demands: an art that many Christians have lost as surely as Jarel lost it in Episode 2 of Michel Roux's Service. Of the eight initial candidates, he was the only one who did not make it. Apparently he still wants to own a restaurant. Yeh, and I still want to play football for Liverpool.

 Now imagine if reality TV had been invented in Jesus' time. Again, the same issues would arise: "I want to run the show, not be a servant or waiter!" (Thank you, Peter.) The foot-washing piece in particular would have tested the commitment of most wannabee celebrity disciples. Service is not, well, fashionable: never has been, never will. For every Ashley, there will be ten thousand more young men and women wanting a short cut to applause and fame through The X Factor. The disciples would never have made it past the auditions of a programme about being a waiter or maitre d'.  But remember these words - "I must decrease, you must increase." (John the Waiter, sorry, The Baptist.)

 And me? Don't ask me where I belong. Not in the pulpit, for sure. That wonderful hotel taught me real theology: how to boil an egg, smile at a rude customer, vanish into the kitchen and ensure everyone, even on the shores of Loch Ness in the height of the Scottish midge season, is happy. There is no greater reward, or invisibility, than that.

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