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The butler

The butler business is booming.

Thanks to Downton Abbey there has been a recent surge in the number of households requesting the services of their very own Mr Carson. But in Cambridge it’s not a new phenomenon – butlers have always held a central position within the colleges. Here Pembroke’s butler, Savino Cafagna, talks about his role:

Beneath the College’s main kitchen runs a maze of corridors connecting the various pastry kitchens, fridges, store cupboards and changing rooms. Nestled amongst it all is the office of the College Butler. Savino – know to everyone in College as Savio – is not always to be found at his desk, although he is almost always ‘in the middle of something’. Today he is working hard on a spreadsheet, but still kindly offers me a cup of coffee before leading me to a quiet spot where we can chat.

We walk along a series of corridors that leave me entirely disoriented, up a dark staircase, and then emerge at the Christopher Smart Room, one of the College’s most traditional spaces. Savio, attired as usual in a smart three-piece suit, cannot resist scanning the room and straightening a picture before taking a seat.

So, apart from completing spreadsheets and straightening paintings, what does a college butler do? Savio explains: ‘The role of the butler in basically to take care of the fellows. Every morning we check the main rooms that they use to make sure that everything is ready to go. We’re not just looking for major problems but also paying attention to the small details. Then we prepare their lunch, we prepare their dinner and we take care of any functions that they are involved in.’

When Savio says ‘we’, he refers to the catering team, of which he is an important part. Along with the Catering Manager, he works with a team of serving staff and chefs who help to ensure that both the fellows and the rest of the community receive the highest standards of food service possible. ‘We only have one dining hall at Pembroke,’ explains Savio. ‘We have to use it for everything, so it is used for daily cafeteria meals as well as for formal halls. This keeps us very busy!’ At the far end of the hall is the high table, where the fellows dine. This is Savio’s domain; along with the catering team, he is responsible for making sure that everything is in place.

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Butlers’ guide books (yes, such things exist) claim that the secret of success is really getting to know the preferences of the people you work for. Savio agrees: ‘I started working here about eight years ago and it becomes much easier once you get to know the fellows and how they are, what they like and what they don’t like. I know all of the fellows’ specific needs by heart. I see that as part of my duty.’

He continues: ‘The most important thing is that the fellows learn to trust you. The whole relationship is built on that. I’m very lucky because the fellowship here is very good. I have fellows that I talk with all the time, fellows that I play tennis with and even fellows I can go out for dinner with. Everyone is very open and friendly. I think that’s something special about Pembroke.’

Nonetheless, he confesses that it can be difficult to keep all 80 fellows happy. ‘Part of the relationship of trust is that the fellows will tell me if something is wrong,’ he says. ‘If a glass is put in the wrong place, the fish doesn’t taste good or there is not enough fruit salad, they’ll let me know. I just thank them for their comment and promise that we’ll work to make it better. I’d much prefer them to tell me so that we can try to improve. We always want to be flexible and make tweaks and changes to allow things to get better, even when we are also working to maintain some of the College’s historic traditions.’

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Savio comes from Italy, where he worked in hotel catering. It was only when he came for a two week holiday to England, visiting London and Cambridge, that he fell in love with ‘the way English people think’. After moving here, his first job was at Clare College. He says: ‘I was just trying to do my best. I learnt a lot from the butler there and got lots of practice at offering silver service.’ From there he moved on to other colleges, always taking any opportunity to learn from the butlers. ‘They gave me a good training and good tips how to make sure everything is in place,’ he says.

He does spend a fair amount of time performing the traditional tasks of a butler, such as setting tables, laying out cutlery, polishing the silver and decanting the wine. When the College is holding a particularly large dinner, referred to as a ‘feast’, there can be over a week’s worth of preparation. ‘It is a very elaborate job,’ he explains. ‘In order to succeed you really need to be organised and think about what could go wrong.’

The most rewarding part of his job, Savio says, is receiving feedback after these large events. ‘People I don’t know will come to me after an event to shake my hand and thank me. After a wedding we might receive a photo with a little note. That makes me feel that all the hard work has been worth it. It is very important to me that people feel at home when they come here and receiving their praise makes me feel part of something that is important.’

Savio’s job doesn’t just come down to his own capacity for Jeevesian ingenuity. He is keen to explain the importance of the community of staff at Pembroke: ‘Everyone tries to help each other and that’s why it works well I think. I can just call our housekeeper and ask her to help me out on something and I know that she will. She can do the same with me. It’s the same with the Head Porter, the IT Department, HR, the Finance Office, everyone. So you do have a lot of support and in return you give support to those people if they need it. Working here you really feel part of a big family.’

He looks at his watch. In under an hour there is lunch as usual at high table. The curator’s committee is meeting over sandwiches. One of the fellows has a group of experts on the Chinese property market coming for a two-course meal. Refreshments need to be delivered to the room in which prospective candidates for the mastership are being interviewed. So, with a brisk smile, he heads off – back into the middle of things.

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