At the front of the room, Pierre Siue calls roll. The rest of the room stands in their uniforms quietly, attentively, collectively with pens and pads out ready to jot down the notes from today.
A man with slicked-back silver hair approaches the front of the room carrying a wooden tray - part of today's lesson. "This is from Connecticut," he says pointing to the object on the right of the tray. "And this, is from Provence," pointing to his left. "Both are washed rind and will be new cheese selections on the menu this evening."
This is DANIEL, the flagship restaurant of famed French chef Daniel Boulud - one of seven restaurants in Manhattan with a New York Times four-star review and one of five with three Michelin stars. And this is the meeting held every day before dinner service, where the maître d' goes over the reservation book details, executive chef Jean François Brue explains any addendum to the menu and the general manager Pierre Siue oversees the calm before the dinner rush storm.
There are no models or aspiring actors in the room. It's an education, a continuing education at that - but it's also a career where the word "part-time" doesn't exist in a world where the profession of serving tables is typically viewed as a transient one.
From the bottom up, there are benefits offered - dental, medical - 401K plans, and paid vacation just like those "real jobs" they're asked about. There is also room for growth; everyone on the management level started as front-of-the-house.
“… My salary was three times that at which most people started in publishing,” former Per Se captain Phoebe Damrosch wrote in her book, Service Included: Four-Star Secrets of an Eavesdropping Waiter.
For these folks in the high-end restaurant realm, serving food is a conscious, calculated career choice. It's a craft rooted in long hours, aching legs and a passion for food and wine. "At your service" is not a tagline, but a way of life.
Just as investment banks and hedge funds come to college campuses, so do these fine dining restaurants. Recruiting is a big part of the process, including advertising on Craigslist (which is standard practice in the hospitality industry) and in the New York Times, through culinary school networks, word-of-mouth or displays of downright passion - even from the likes of graduates from top tier universities like Stanford and Georgetown.
At both Per Se and Daniel, as well as other restaurants of their caliber, it’s typical for 80 to 100 résumés to come in a day for serving positions. Of those applications received, about five are called for a phone interview; of those five, two are called in for a face-to-face and one is asked to trail, or shadow, the actual position.
Just as any applicant to any other competitive job would, it’s as much about the candidate qualifying as a fit in the space as it is for the space qualifying fit to the candidate.
"We recruit very heavily and not because we’re looking to fill positions," said Rudolf. "You just never know when the right person is looking, so we look continuously. We’re never replacing a person, we’re just constantly grooming and fulfilling the roster."
"Candidates are like milk - when it’s boiling, it’s hot, but then it’s over," said Cynthia Billeaud, Human Resources Director for The Dinex Group, Chef Boulud’s restaurant management company.
Then once a server is actually hired, it's off to basic training before they’re thrown into the fray of dinner service.
With things to remember - the peekytoe crab has a coriander tuile or that the Medjool dates that accompany the butter poached lobster (from Nova Scotia, no less) came from Hadley Orchards in Cabazon, Californian - it’s easy to see why. Remembering the elements is one aspect, but understanding the philosophy of the product they're serving is the ultimate goal.
At Per Se, it’s an average of two to three weeks of one-on-one training with another kitchen server and a 125-page manual just for the entry-level position – and that’s not including a separate beverage manual.
"The training program is like sipping water through a fire hose," says Rudolf.
Over at Daniel, training camp is in full swing too. Along with hours of on-site training, there is an educational seminar everyday - whether on wines by the in-house sommeliers, cheese by cheese steward and captain Pascal Vittu or even, going over body language or the art that consistently rotates on the restaurant's walls.
"We look for the finesse of a ballet dancer, because it’s like choreography what we do; discipline of a military person because there are 65 people on the floor in the front of the house; and team spirit of a football team," said Pierre Siue. The young Frenchman started as a runner in 2001 and has since become DANIEL's general manager, the top management position, in what is considered one of the country’s best restaurants – again, he approaches his work from a career, as opposed to just a job perspective.
At this caliber, they all do.
“We always say it’s like you’re Derek Jeter and you’re playing for the New York Yankees,” says former Per Se captain, and now maître d’ Antonio Begonja.
Instead of pinstripes, they're wearing tailored suits, and instead of bats, they're playing with bottles of Châteauneuf-du-Pape.
“The grace, the art of the service - it’s up to us to keep it alive.”
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