Forget Riff Raff, the shambling gravelly-voiced Lurch, or any thriller where the killer is the butler; butlers from the Italian Butler's Association (IBA) are remarkably professional in caring for their employers at home in complete privacy. To understand more about their role, I met with IBA's president, Elisa dal Bosco, a young woman with ten years of experience in the luxury field, in both the United States and Milan. The association is growing quickly and aims to promote the butler profession around the world.
How would you describe the figure of the butler?
The role of the butler has changed a lot over the last decade. These days, a butler works with a smartphone and wears jeans and a blazer. They have uniforms and white gloves, but they're usually stashed away in the closet. The contemporary butler is a completely discreet personal assistant, and as a result, they don't necessarily reveal that they are working for someone. Butlers don't need a uniform as a symbol of identification anymore, but they may wear it during official ceremonies and on important occasions.
What is the academic background of IBA's butlers?
Many of our butlers come from hotel-management school, then they attend specialisation courses at our association or abroad. Others have completed university, had a professional career in a different field, then decided to take a shot at their old passion.
A manager whose hobby was cooking. He is a divorced man who loves housekeeping and taking care of his kids. He quit his job, attended our course and now works for one of the wealthiest Russian families in Italy. He now speaks Russian and has drastically changed his life at the age of 50.
Do you get requests from abroad for Italian butlers?
Yes we do. The world appreciates Italian taste, our savoir faire, our wine and food knowledge; these are winning characteristics that our country exports and that families and firms look for in a butler. In the United States, the Italian butler works for families who have a strong interest in learning our language and culture. We get many requests from Germany, Switzerland and Southern France. In general, women are the most requested. One hundred per cent of the women of the IBA have a job. For men, the number is about 75%.
How important is it to educate clients about the profession?
A woman joined our last course before enlisting her domestic staff in order to understand her mistakes and to plan a schedule for them. For example, what time does breakfast need to be ready for the kids to arrive at school on time? When should the laundry be done? Absolutely commendable. This kind of humility is necessary, because if one doesn't know what they want, it will be difficult to obtain it. The first thing we do when we get a request for a butler is to understand if the applicant knows what the role of the butler is all about. Often they need domestic help instead. A butler is like an orchestra leader, he/she manages a house and leads the domestic staff without being part of it.
My role is crucial in the process of matching requests with a particular butler because in Italy, the role of the butler isn't that clear. In other countries, there is a strong tradition, a history related to this role, that doesn't need any explanation.
Being a butler is multifaceted. They welcome you and your guests, for example, but they are also the one who organizes your entire event. They will take care of your guests completely. This is not the same as being a member of the domestic staff!
What are the characteristics of a good butler?
Number one: patience! Number two: to have an overall vision and a strong sense of the organisation. Then propriety, fairness, being able to work in team, and with people from other countries. Our butlers speak at least two or three languages.
What are the main subjects of your course for future butlers?
The general rules of etiquette, etiquette of the conversation, of the table, organising and managing events, managing budgets, everything concerning the HACCP (Hazard Analysis and Critical Control Points), handling food and beverages, basics of cooking, basics of law, international law, privacy, religion, flower design, personal shopping. Technical subjects such as Italian, English, Russian, mise en place, how to pack a suitcase, how to manage a house, the expenses. Butlers now work freelance and can be hired to organise a one-day event, so they need to be prepared to face different kinds of requests, in different environments.
Are there really people who call a butler for one day?
Yes, also as a gift. For example, a couple treated themselves to the service of one of our butlers to manage their wedding.
|(Photograph by Giampiero Briozzo;
We are used to thinking of a butler as a professional for a privileged few. Is it still like that?
Nowadays the real luxury isn't money but time. A butler can help manage time. They are affordable for almost everybody now; our butlers ask from 150 euros for half a day.
The average salary of a butler?
Entry level starts from 1,500 euros per month. In wealthy families with more than one house to manage and/or boats, the monthly salary runs up to 12,000 euros. In some situations, a butler is a director of the house and leads a team of butlers.
How many hours does a butler work?
Twenty-four hours a day! A family with a butler living in its house knows that they are always available, but of course limits are always necessary. It is not a 9-to-5 job and it takes a lot of energy.
In the collective imagination, butlers are completely committed to the family they take care of. Do they have a private life, a family themselves?
It is possible, but they need to be very well organised!
Does the IBA have criteria when selecting applicants for its courses?
The selection is severe and it has to be so. We admit no more than ten students per course and we meet them all. Qualities, merits, faults - we have to know everything about our applicants. Clients know what they need and a good match is very important for both the family and the professional. When I interview applicants, my first questions are about their expectations, the words they would use to describe the role of a butler. If they can't answer correctly, if they don't define it, our school isn't the right place for them.
The IBA also organises public courses for amateurs. Are you trying to bring back good manners to our progressively uncouth society?
We like the idea of teaching etiquette and bon ton to the public. We decided to start this project after many requests from clients interested in learning and giving their domestic staff the opportunity to grow and be more prepared. It quickly became a gift idea for friends and relatives; a chance to review rules related to the bon vivre that, unfortunately, many people ignore or are forgetting.
News for 2012?
In February we start a course in collaboration with Congusto, a cooking school and consulting service, called "Course for Young Ladies and Gentlemen." It may sound like a journey to the past, but our goal is to give our students some rules to survive by themselves when they leave the protective nest of the family home or when they decide to get married. We will teach young ladies to take care of their house, from cooking to the care of artwork, while the gentlemen will learn how to deal with a quick lunch, pack a suitcase for a short business trip, clean their shoes and manage their apartment properly. This program is surely also suitable for managers, career women and workaholics in general!
Italian Butler's Association: http://www.maggiordomi.org/
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