China and the US lead the demand for a rare community: the perfect butler. But the rich family’s ultimate luxury doesn’t come cheap. We visit the Dutch school that turns out the best in class.
Lorenzo Zannoni is visibly stressed. As student head butler, the 23-year-old Italian is in charge of ensuring that tonight’s formal dinner goes perfectly. Using a right-angle laser level, a tape measure and a ruler, his team has already painstakingly laid several places with three plates, three knives, two forks, a soup spoon, two types of wine glass and a water tumbler. But to accommodate 10 guests they would have to violate the exacting spacing rules that they’ve been taught and overlap the cutlery – a major no-no.
Eventually, they decide to add another table. Other students start polishing yet more silverware, folding more napkins and rethinking their choice of candelabra.
This is The International Butler Academy, a Dutch school offering a 10-week intensive course in buttling (yes, that’s a verb) that attracts people of all ages, nationalities, backgrounds and genders. If the only time you’ve ever seen a butler is in historical dramas, you’d be forgiven for thinking that it’s a dying breed. Not so among the global elite.
“Never before have there been as many wealthy people as today,” says founder and director Robert Wennekes. “Many have very large households that simply don’t function without people looking after them.”
Wennekes worked as a butler for several such families before moving into recruitment in the 1990s. He realised that there was demand but no supply so, in 1999, he set up his academy. It began in a room, graduated to a building then, in fittingly old-world fashion, a castle. Today it is in a vast former monastery in southerly Simpelveld. Huize Damiaan’s 135 rooms include spaces dedicated to porcelain, candles and flower-arranging, as well as four pantries, three bars and two libraries. The latter are stocked with titles such as Mrs Beeton’s Book of Household Management and, naturally, books from PG Wodehouse’s Jeeves series.
Students are taught all the obvious stuff: how to lay tables, select wine for a dinner and help their employer – known as their “principal” – get dressed. But they also learn how to clean a toilet, cook, hire and fire staff, and, in a task that Jeeves himself might find baffling, manage a smart home using an iPad.
“Today’s butlers are managers for a family,” says Wennekes. “He or she is responsible for all events that take place, the security of the house, the schedules of all family and staff, accounting and so on.” Potential jobs could range from being a personal assistant to a low-profile employer to working in full garb for a royal family.
“The modern butler has to adapt to their principal,” says Marcel Brussee, a 52-year-old Dutchman and former businessman. “If they’re into gadgets, for example, you need to be aware of how all of it works. You might have to fly their drone in the future.” It’s a demanding few months and not everyone is able to stay the course.
At one point all 14 students are lined up and given four minutes to go to their bedrooms and return dressed in their formal attire: black tails, grey-striped trousers, a white wing-collar shirt, black tie, suspenders and a light grey waistcoat. Everyone immediately sprints off and, 240 seconds later, all but one are lined up and standing to attention, white gloves in hand.
The discipline required for the job is part of the appeal for some. Elliette Macloud, a 19-year-old Canadian, is the youngest in the class and comes from a military family. “I didn’t think I could handle the army,” she says while busily polishing stacks of plates with a pungent vinegar solution. “But I still wanted something where I would learn etiquette and protocol.”
Others are following their heart. “This is a passion for me,” says Zi-Xiang Tsai, a 21-year-old from Taiwan, carefully ironing pleats into a tablecloth. “I used to work in a hotel but the guests were always coming and going, it was unsatisfying. Eventually I want to work for one family.”
Money is another factor. New graduates might only earn about €24,000 a year (the fee is €14,500), according to butler and household-management instructor Paul Huizinga, but that climbs quickly. Some earn as much as €180,000 a year.
The demand is greater than ever, especially in China. To capitalise on this, the academy set up a school in Chengdu in 2014. “If you gave me 100,000 butlers today I could send them all to China,” says Huizinga, who worked in banking before switching to his “dream job”. “There’s a new multimillionaire almost every day in China and guess what: they all want a butler.”
With a whole room dedicated to this delicate art, you’ll be taught how to create the perfect floral centrepiece for any event or room.
From picking something to suit the occasion to knowing which humidor to buy, the school’s field trip to Amsterdam’s La Casa del Habano is an opportunity to learn all about cigars.
These small personal touches may seem old-fashioned but Wennekes thinks they’re important: “I don’t want to let those things die out.”
Chucking some bleach down there will not suffice. Students are taught to get on their hands and knees to attain a spotless finish – using a toothbrush if need be.
Whether it’s bathing Rover, clipping Felix’s claws or giving Polly her medicine, animal care is often a big part of the butler’s job description.
British butlers may be a Hollywood mainstay but they’re not in demand at the International Butler Academy. The US, France, Italy, the Netherlands and China are the most represented nationalities here. Most graduates go on to find work in the US, China, Germany, Saudi Arabia and France.