The butler is back
Stade, Germany (dpa) - You can tell immediately from David Betker's black tailcoat, white gloves and silver tray that he's a cut or three above your average domestic service employee.
Courteously introducing himself as "just David", his bearing makes it clear: he's pursuing the time-honoured profession of butler, a seemingly unusual choice of career for a 29-year-old from northern Germany.
Far from being a quaint anachronism, butlers are in growing demand as the world's wealthy seek to inject extra quality and discernment into their daily lives, social gatherings and vacations.
"Demand has risen everywhere," says Robert Wennekes, chairman of the International Butler Academy, which trains butlers all over the world to attend to well-heeled clients, especially in the emerging markets of India, Brazil and China.
"More than 100,000 additional butlers are being sought in China alone, 10 times more than a decade ago," he adds.
Germany is another hotspot for learning the butler trade these days, with competitive salaries to match, drawing a wide range of people.
In Betke's case, he spent eight years in the German army, including a posting in the Afghan capital, Kabul, before taking the plunge into butler service after reading a newspaper article about training in England.
"I've some experience in active service," he says with dry humour, a trait that is likely an asset in his new capacity.
Traditionally, Britain is the seat of the profession. Many people train at the Royal School for Butlers located at Oxfordshire's Blenheim Palace.
Betke, however, took an intensive eight-week butler course at the Edumondi vocational school in the northern German city of Stade, for 13,450 euros (14,280 dollars).
Everything that a butler needs to know about top-notch service, from valeting to housekeeping, is in instructor Joerg Schmidt's 640-hour curriculum. Schmidt, 49, knows the trade inside out, having cut his teeth as a hotel page before moving to concierge services, then working in wealthy private households, and finally for the family of a prince.
"Today, the butler is an all-rounder, a personal assistant, a man for just about everything," he says.
A butler should create a solid ambience with all the right frills, and master skills like napkin-folding (varieties include a pyramid, a bishop's hat or "Boat Paradise). He knows to move the chairs slightly to the right so guests can take their seat more easily from the left. Cutlery and glasses are all impeccably arranged.
If working in private service you'll get to know your employer very well, "Maybe better than your wife," he warns. "You have to anticipate their wishes in advance. But it's important to keep things on an even keel, you are not there to get buddy-buddy."
For butler's academy head, Wennekes, flexibility, honesty and integrity are the cornerstones, the Holy Trinity of the butler's profession. You also have to be willing to work in the shadow of your employer, as they can be rock stars or even royals.
"Generally, they are very rich people. Confidentiality is essential. And for the most part, a loyal butler is more important to them than a flashy car," says Wennekes.
So where is the line between employer and servant in these post-Downton Abbey times? Can a butler say "no" when the client's wishes become a tad too extravagant?
"I'd say something different," says Betke, with a tactful, friendly smile. That something else might be: "I'll look into that."
The modern age has also given rise to what might be called freelance butler work, as practised by German Marco Neuberth. Now 51, Neuberth started his training at the age of 26 in a mansion in Stuttgart. He became self-employed in 1993 and launched his company "Rent a Butler", and takes bookings for all kinds of events.
"This can be trade fair appearances or company events. Or it might be individuals going on vacation, and I accompany them on their yacht or to a private property, for example to Cannes," says Neuberth.
If the landed aristocracy have largely disappeared, the traditions haven't. "We butlers have moved with the times," says Neuberth. "But the service and the culture of the butler are consciously 'old school'. The ABC of royal rules, the perfection, professional clothing, it's all still the same."
Unlike newcomers like Betke, Neuberth feels he always had a call for work as a butler.
"This goes back to the cradle. Soccer stars such as Cristiano Ronaldo probably went to bed with a football. As a child I used to get up early every weekend and lay the breakfast table without being asked. Making sure things work and people have a successful day brings me deep satisfaction. And to do that you have to be resilient and not put much emphasis on leisure time."