You walk into a room and he’s the first one to immediately catch your eye. The man in the beautifully tailored suit has been waiting to meet you – and might have even Googled you.
“Whatever you need done, I’m definitely going to know – and I’m definitely going to know who you are before you walk in the door most of the time,” says Carl Fernandes. Fernandes is the maître d’ of the New Orleans landmark Commander’s Palace, a legendary restaurant that’s been serving the Big Easy since 1880.
The maître d’, more formally known as the maître d'hôtel, translates from French as “master of the hotel” or more loosely, “master of the house.” In the restaurant business, it refers to the position at the helm of the dining room staff.
While the term was first coined in 1538, the art of what maître d’s actually do still isn’t exactly layman knowledge. They’re the Van Goghs of the dining room: often misunderstood and the full potential and breadth of their work is realized posthumously, or in this case, post-dessert.
"You give them a little bit of a personal touch, you give them a name and reason to come back," says John Winterman, the maître d’ of Daniel, the flagship restaurant of famed French chef Daniel Boulud – one of six restaurants in Manhattan with a New York Times four-star review and one of five with three Michelin stars.
“We’re here to connect. First, you make a friend, then you make a customer,” says Fernandes.
If dinner service at a well-organized restaurant is often compared to a night at the theatre, the maître d’ is the stage manager feeding lines and notes into ears of servers, and making sure entry and exit points of guest roles are timed with military precision.
Despite all this, it’s easy to associate maître d’s with their glitzy Hollywood representation - hobnobbing with the swells - the curmudgeonly man with the stink eye in the tuxedo jacket who summons his garçon to usher you out if you aren't worth knowing.
Though today’s maître d’s – who are both male and female - prove this is hardly the norm, just as the sommelier is no longer the portly man with the tastevin sampling cup chained around his neck, sneering like he's just eaten a bad frog leg.
“You’re at the point now where that stereotype of being a maître d' is dying. It’s a different art of hospitality, it’s a different clientele over the past 15 years, they’re definitely more savvy about food and restaurants and dining. The options are out there. If you can’t get into one restaurant or there’s an attitude at one restaurant, there are 2000 other restaurants in Manhattan so why put people through that? Why play the game?” says Winterman.
Sure, there are still VIP curveballs to deal with: whether a friend of the chef, a visiting diplomat, a neighborhood regular or an A-list (or D-list, for that matter) star who just happens to want to pop in for a cheese plate. For both Fernandes and Winterman, they usually keep an empty table – or Plan B - in their back pocket for that reason.
Though Winterman says the regulars and the VIPs are actually easy. They know how to handle them – it’s the unknown people who are the challenge.
“It’s no secret that you take care of the big fish to take care of the little fish,” says Winterman. “What we don’t want to do is make somebody’s one shot at coming to the restaurant for a special occasion feel bad for that. What we want to do is calibrate their experience.”
“I grew up in this business being intimidated by the process myself, and I’ve learned how to break that down and not be intimidated at all - so I know how to break people down and let them know it’s not a church. It’s not a hushed reverence environment. Smile, make a joke, explain things in a very basic way if need be - without being condescending,” he adds.
And of course, there’s the legend of the palm, the handshake, the handoff, the bribe, the gratuity grip.
"It is acceptable to discreetly palm the tip on entering the restaurant or upon leaving. But never offer a 'bribe' to any maître d' in order to procure a table," former New York Times food editor Craig Claiborne wrote of the mysterious ritual in his book Elements of Etiquette.
“I do get ‘handshakes.’ It is what it is,” says Fernandes. “We’re in this business, but it’s after you’re done getting the experience that I’m going to get a handshake. ...The people that say give me the best table in the house and they’ve got $500 in their hand, I refuse. I tell them absolutely not - if you have a good time, see me at the end. It’s a different generation, I think, from where I am today to the previous years.”
While the handshake might be losing its grip - the position of the maître d’ is certainly not.
What are your own perceptions of and experiences with maître d's? Serve up your thoughts and stories below.