An NYC Maître d' Explains How He Knows His Diners Better Than Google
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.
Essentials include "an eagle eye" and "intangible graciousness”
Hospitality means paying attention to details and having the discipline to be consistent. Winterman says his staff Googles guests to find out who is coming in each night. “We keep notes on preferences,” he explains. “The goal is that when you greet a table, you already know them inside and out.”
A great maître d’ remains alert throughout the night: “If you’re talking to one table and you hear someone at a table nearby wish their friend happy birthday, there’s an opportunity there. You have to be like Larry Bird, with eyes in the back of your head. You have to anticipate guests’ needs -- know what the guest wants before they even realize they want it.”
It's a dying profession
Winterman says that 20 years ago, “it was important for the door to have a big name.” Gradually, as chefs became bigger celebrities, they overshadowed the role of front-of-house staff. Winterman points out a pivotal moment when this really changed -- in 2008, when Momofuku Ko got a rave review in The New York Times, without any front-of-house service at all. The only way to book was to keep calling until you got a table. “It didn’t matter if you knew anyone or not,” Winterman says. “Even David Chang’s mother couldn’t get into the restaurant.”
By way of illustration, Winterman asks me, “How many maître d’s can you name?” My answer is none. “Maybe it’s best if we don’t use a French term anymore,” he suggests. Plenty of great front-of-house people don’t identify as “maître d’s,” but still bring a sense of personal, professional hospitality. “We need a new word to describe what they do,” Winterman argues, “which is not just standing there with a book full of customers’ names.”
Greasing palms isn't really a thing
Think of a maître d’ and you probably picture a guy (they’re nearly always men) in a tux, taking a bribe for giving someone the best table. But those clichés are a thing of the past. Firstly, diners rarely try slipping the maître d’ a discreet Benjamin anymore. “That stereotypical idea of the snooty, judgmental maître d’ is dead,” Winterman says. “The screaming chef is dead. People don’t want to be treated as second-class.”
But nor does high class play the same role. “Dress codes have sadly gone the way of the dinosaurs,” he says. The modern-day maître d’ doesn’t “have to spend $500 for a bespoke suit, but it matters if you make an effort,” advises Winterman. “You can pick up something decent at H&M.”
If there are no tables online, all is not lost
When Winterman began his career, he hand-wrote all his reservations in the book. If a guest liked Tanqueray up, he made notecards to keep track of that information. “You had to remember the tidbits: who wanted a corner table, who wanted olive oil instead of butter, who wanted a real martini glass,” Winterman says.
There used to be two ways you could get in touch with a restaurant: 1) Give them a call, or 2) Stop by in person. Now there are apps, OpenTable, Facebook, Google, Tripadvisor, Priceline, Resy. “There are hundreds of points of contact,” says Winterman. “People DM me for bookings on Instagram. But I hope you know one secret: If you don’t see a reservation online, call and ask.”
Nothing will ever make hospitality obsolete
It’s an incredibly exciting time for restaurants. Excellent food is much more accessible now -- you can get great food at all price points. “As restaurants become more democratic,” Winterman says, “more people become accustomed to a certain level of food and service. Expectations rise.”
“I still have faith in some formality,” he says. “I absolutely believe in graciousness. As people isolate themselves on their mobile devices, they actually value human contact more and more. I have not yet encountered an app that can greet someone at the door, smile, and shake a hand.
“I was at the House of Como, a restaurant in Indiana, many years ago. A couple walked in and wanted to have dinner. All the tables were taken. The maître d’ carried a two-top [table] into the dining room, and put it down right there so these guys could eat. Now that’s hospitality.”
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