The Secrets of the Last Great Butler
We are using identical napkins, I and Rick Fink, the last great butler. White cotton rectangles. He is trying to show me how to fold them into different shapes: a bishop’s hat, a rose. Fink’s hands extend from the cufflinked sleeves of his pink dress shirt, his adroit fingers folding each side into increasingly smaller triangles. He flips it over, puffs it up, and…voilà! A pyramid.
It looks easy, the way he does it—quickly, with a pleased little smile. It’s not. Fink stands next to me as I try, walking me through every fold. I do exactly what he says, yet mine repeatedly, without fail, come out…not like his.
"It’s all very well having money, but new money doesn’t know what to do themselves, and they rely on their staff to know."
This is the Butler Valet School at Ditchley Park, in Oxfordshire, England. In this room, future butlers learn an art that is not so much lost as evolving. There aren’t many Downton Abbeys today, but there are luxury resorts, cruise ships, and Dubai apartments where the staff has to know where to put the bread knife. There are old rules, and there are new rules, and Fink, director and sole employee of this school, teaches them all—including how to serve different types of wealth. “It’s all very well having money, but new money doesn’t know what to do themselves, and they rely on their staff to know,” he says.
And old money? “The old gentry knows the rules because they learned at home. They are brought up with this—and if you don’t do something right, they will know.”
Presently, Fink sits in a chair against the wall in the mock formal dining room he uses for training. His student this week, a man in his late thirties, has traveled from Belgium for a two-week course that will set him back about $6,300, including accommodations and some meals. Fink gives classes throughout the year, depending on demand; there is only one pupil in this session, but another course with four students starts in a few weeks.
Rick's Rules of Butlering: Fish forks and soup spoons were invented by the middle class. Avoid them.
The student is silently placing the drinking glasses for a six-course meal that will never be cooked. His lips are pursed. He looks worried. Rightly so. Fink is 84. He has been a butler for 66 of those years. He can spot an out-of-place port glass from across the room with one eye closed.
Setting up for a six-course meal can take three hours, not counting polishing the silver. The student frequently refers to the palm-sized brown spiral notepad in which he has written his instructor’s lessons. After completing the first setting, he steps back, hand on hip. “The glasses,” he says with a sigh. “I think I’m doing this all wrong.”
Fink rises, smooths his green apron, and walks over. The six glasses—for sherry, white wine, red wine, dessert wine, water, and port—should form a perfect circle above the knives and spoon on the right side. They must also be in line with the other settings up and down the table.
The student squats so he’s eye level with the stemware. After a few frozen moments, Fink gently pushes the white wine glass two inches to the right, then returns to his seat in the corner, where he begins folding napkins into the shape of elves’ shoes.
The classroom is on the ground floor of Ditchley Park, a grand stone house built in 1722 in the countryside 75 miles west of London. It served as Winston Churchill’s country retreat during World War II and is now a foundation and conference center. Fink worked as head butler here before he retired from full-time work 17 years ago, and he keeps his practice room tidy, to simulate the grand rooms in which butlers serve. But it’s still a classroom; a plastic bag from Tesco, evidence of a supermarket run, sits on the floor.
Fink learned his skills as a Royal Navy steward and went on to work in palaces and private homes. He has served Queen Elizabeth II, the Duke of Edinburgh, and Princess Margaret. “I’ve seen so much that I know what people want, but it was only after I’d been in the business for 50 years that I felt I could start to teach others,” he says. His school is one of only a handful in the UK, and there are even fewer in the U.S.—just two or three.
Rick's Rules of Butlering: No white gloves unless you're carrying silver.
Even in past generations, when butlers were more common, there weren’t many schools; this was a job you learned by doing it. The schools have become necessary as the number of butlers has declined. Fink runs an agency in addition to his school, to place graduates in homes and on yachts. “Butler wanted” ads are often posted on sites like LinkedIn. (Even the royal family finds its butlers by placing ads. They don’t recruit from a particular school, and listings are open to the public, but they usually entail a year of on-the-job training.)
As the student lays 10 white cotton placemats edged in lace, Fink pulls out leather-bound photo albums that span decades. In one shot he holds an umbrella for Queen Elizabeth as she walks the grounds at Ditchley. He tells stories: of the years he spent teaching the staff of a Thai princess (they were required to walk on their knees when presenting something to the royal family); of the Kuwaiti princess who made a sizable donation upon her departure from Ditchley so he could add new dishes and silverware to his training collection.
“How do you define a butler? By looking at his shoes,” Fink says suddenly, nodding at his student. “I helped him shine his shoes yesterday. He’ll learn, and I think, be very good once he’s trained.”
Fink’s own shoes are so shiny they look like patent leather. Before wearing them for the first time he worked on them for more than an hour. Polish, spit, rub, repeat. Then he warmed the polish on the shoes with a candle and polished them again.
He is chatty, Fink. At one point he produces a silver salver, or tray. “For presenting cups of tea, or mobile phones, or newspapers, that sort of thing,” he says. He is showing it off. (The tray is stored in an orderly pantry containing all manner of toast holders, teaspoons—and a bar stocked with Gordon’s gin, Courvoisier, Famous Grouse, and Macallan single malt.)
Fink’s student sets a four-piece silver cruet for salt, white pepper, black pepper, and mustard above the forks. As he does, Fink deftly drops one of the most important but surprising tenets of butlering: Though there are strict conventions regarding what goes where, a butler must adapt to how people actually behave. For example: “The cruet should be removed after the main course, but I know that many people like mustard with their cheese or soufflé, which comes near the end of the meal. So I like to keep the cruet on the table until after that.”
It’s an interesting life, this life of service. It’s not really about the placement of glasses, and yet the careful placement of glasses signals that a butler understands what this work is truly about: freeing his employer to think about other things. “The main users of butlers are wealthy people who can buy everything except for one thing: time,” says Vincent Vermeulen, founder of the School for Butlers & Hospitality in Belgium. “That is what our butlers give back. It’s no longer royals and their families; it’s more the modern lawyer or dot-com billionaire. We even have an NBA basketball player as a client.” (The school also helps the player find staff for his household.)
The more perfect a butler makes everything for the people he serves, the more time those people will have to live their important lives and achieve important things. And, in that way, the servant will have played a role in those achievements.
Rick's Rules of Butlering: Red wine is served from a decanter, but white can be served from a bottle.
At long last, the table is complete. The student glances at Fink. The master rises. This is the moment. Fink sits in the head seat, scanning the table. He cocks his head so it’s level with the silver. The student stands very still, stifling a grin—he is proud, it seems, and just a little nervous. It’s funny, these two men standing in a room in the countryside studying table settings, the activity of all of mankind unfolding outside the windows. This is the genius of Fink’s work, the secret to his success (and to anyone’s, really): To be perfect, he must believe—must convince himself—that these table settings are all that matter in the world.
Though there are strict conventions regarding what goes where, a butler must adapt to how people act.
Then, finally: “You’ve done it well,” Fink says. “The glasses are in a straight line, the settings are equidistant, and everything is set at the right angles.”
The student smiles. Fink rises and lights the virgin white tapers in the candelabras. The student closes the shutters on each window and turns off the lights. The silver glitters; the glasses shine. In the room’s glow, Fink studies the table, as if inhaling it. “After setting a table I think, Would I like to sit at this table?” he says. “That’s how I know if it’s perfect.”
One of the goals of today’s lesson was to replicate the perfect, wonderful feeling of anticipation that immediately precedes a formal dinner. And somehow, in this little practice room where no noble-man ever eats, it does.
It feels perfect and wonderful.
This story appears in the October 2019 issue of Town & Country.
*This story originally appeared on Townandcountrymag.com
*Minor edits have been made by the Townandcountry.ph editors