My first restaurant job was at the host stand of the now-defunct Picholine, and the fact that the old-fashioned breed of fine-dining restaurants is dying (see Le Cirque) fascinates and saddens me. If we’re all going to sit at counters and be served by chefs, who needs a maître d’?
But perhaps all those uncomfortable seats and the nonexistent service is making us hungry, if not for stodgy formality, then for a more genuine, modern hospitality. In a city teeming with restaurants, making a diner feel taken care of is still a rare and special feat.
To find out how it’s done, I spoke to someone who has made a career out of top-level hospitality -- John Winterman. Front-of-house resumes don’t get much more impressive: He worked at Charlie Trotter, Gary Danko, and for nine years as maître d’ of Daniel and Café Boulud. In 2014, he left to open Michelin-starred Bâtard in Tribeca, as managing partner.
Winterman grew up in Indiana, eating “well balanced meals of overcooked meats and canned vegetables.” His childhood was not spent savoring fancy cuisine. In his home, “food was not necessarily cooked but opened and heated.” So when he headed to college in Bloomington, Indiana, and tried kimchi and sushi for the first time, he was astonished -- and hooked.
Two things drew Winterman to a career in fine dining. First was his growing fascination with top-end food and wine. Second, he “never wanted to be anywhere at 9am. Restaurant life is conducive to that goal.”
He ended up at Charlie Trotter in 1994. Winterman showed drive but lacked experience. He got his start as a food runner, and worked his way up to maître d’, which they called “Dining Room Manager.” The man has forgotten more about fine dining than most Rockefellers ever know.