How the butler did it

Publication: Sydney Morning Herald  
Published: 20-May-2011

For some the mark of true success in life is the enormous house on the harbour, or the flashy car in the drive.

For others it’s the five star international holidays or expensive jewellery.

But nothing says ‘I’ve made it’ more than having your own butler.

Peter fry should know – he’s been in the butler business since 1998 and has worked for some pretty heavyweight names.

‘I was working at the Park Hyatt Sydney – all the celebrities used to stay there and I wanted to meet them and the only way to meet them was to become a butler, so I did,’ Fry tells AAP.

‘Cindy Crawford was a favourite Bruce Willis was pretty good, Morgan Freeman was awesome.  The very first was Don Johnson – he was really cool.’

After four years looking after big names at the swanky hotel (‘There were a few weird requests: two in the morning to go and find a pharmacy or a shop that sold certain products, but nothing too outlandish’) Fry decided to branch out into private service.

‘I did a two week course at the Australian Butler School after reading about it in one of those women’s mags,’ he says.

‘We were taught things like food and beverage service, table setting; valeting – which is wardrobe organisation, folding and ironing clothes, packing suitcases and taking care of shoes; personal security; and car disembarking.’

The school – the only place in Australia where wannabe butlers can have face-to-face training – then found Fry’s first gig for him, as they do for about 80 per cent of their students.

Since then he has worked for five families at beautiful harbourside homes in Sydney – some with beach houses, others with country piles, all with a fancy boat and some flash cars.

There are some definite perks to being a butler, Fry admits.

‘You get to work in these fine establishments – the locations are just beautiful.  Most of the homes I’ve worked at have views towards the harbour and the Opera House,’ says Fry, who is currently working for a very high-profile client.

‘Generally, the family you work for has a boat.  Most of the time they have their own crew to take care of things, but there’s always a possibility to jump on board.

‘And it’s part of the butler’s job to drive the cars around when there’s no chauffeur – that’s definitely one of the perks.’

But it’s not all glamour, Fry warns.

The day-to-day running of a household can be exhausting work and make for some long hours.

And no matter what a great view you have of your family’s lifestyle, you are never part of the picture.

‘There are times when you can be working an 18-hour day, if you have a function or gathering,’ says Fry, adding he often has to work big holidays like Christmas and New Year’s Eve.

‘But that’s part-and-parcel of working in hospitality to a certain degree’.

On any given day, Fry might take on a variety of functions in the household.

‘You often cook for the family, so you obviously need to be relatively proficient in the kitchen and you drive so you need to be able to be a chauffeur as well,’ he says.

‘I’m a travel agent, a concierge, I iron and sew, I walk the dog and look after pets, water the garden, wash the car, even pick the kids up from school and take them to sports.’

Working for one family, Fry had to learn a whole different sort of skill set.

‘The guy I worked for was actually getting death threats made against him,’ he says.

‘He was frightened enough that there were weapons in the house.

‘Park of my job of looking after him was going out to do a security course and get my personal protection certificate as well’.

No attempts were made against the man, to Fry’s relief.

‘I certainly made him feel as if I would do whatever it took to look after him.  But I wasn’t going to be throwing myself in front of a bullet,’ he says.

A butler’s job is to make life easier for his employer, but also to be invisible, Fry says.

‘There is a line there that should not be crossed:  obviously you’re friendly to the people you work with, but you’re never friends.  You’re never part of the family and should never be.’

But that can be easier said than done at times, he admits.

‘A lot of these people become so reliant on the staff who work for them, sometimes that line can be a little bit blurred,’ he says.

‘I’ve heard of other people who’ve walked into arguments or been dragged into arguments.

‘Of couse, the butler should have no opinion about anything.  You have to learn over time how to get yourself out of those sticky situations.

‘But if you happen to accidentally cross that line you have to be able to come back over again as gracefully as you can.’

As well as working for his current family, Fry also helps train up-and-coming butlers through the Australian Butler School.

He passes on his insider tips like the best way to iron a shirt and teaches the students how to be ‘silent and seamless’ in their placements.

‘I love my job, I really do and I’m happy to share my skill set and knowledge,’ says Fry, adding flexibility, adaptability and a ‘thick skin’ are key.

‘The butler society is a fairly small community in Australia.  You’re probably only looking at about 100 to 150 in private service around the country, I’d say.

‘It’s certainly not for everybody, but if you get along with people well and have a service-oriented background, you can go a long way.’

Newly married, Fry jokes that it is as crucial to maintain his professional distance at home as it is with his employees.

‘The butler uniform stays at work.  When the butler leaves work, the butler is on holiday,’ he laughs.

But some habits die hard.

‘I do the ironing in the house, and I do cook when we have people around for dinner parties.  But that’s about it,’ Fry admits.

‘And I do have a pretty organised wardrobe, I suppose.

‘But my side of the bed’s a bit messy.’