D' mystifying the maître d'
September 2nd, 2011
12:00 PM ET
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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.

They not only oversee the front-of-the-house staff and the seating of diners, they’re also the ones who arranged to have your table ready at 7:40 p.m. in case you show up early for your 8 o’clock reservation. They have Champagne flutes at an arm’s length for a birthday toast, and know you prefer the corner booth. Or they even made sure the engagement ring tucked away in the nervous young man’s pocket seamlessly and surprisingly replaces the chocolate cake on his date’s dessert plate.

"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.



soundoff (50 Responses)
  1. Susan

    I am very proud to say that I'm a senior matre d' in a fine catering est. on Long Island, N.Y. I earn my money every time I walk into the restaurant. I do all the timings, menu, set up for bridal suite, speak with Chef and make arrangmts for the wedding or event; and that is just what I do before the staff punches in! I conduct a meeting EVERY party with the whole staff prior to setting the ballroom and then the party starts. etc etc etc...the matre d' that is competent, quick, knowledgable and patient is a WINNER!!! This is not a dying position as guests will always need a dependable matre d' to take care of everything.

    September 30, 2014 at 10:09 pm | Reply
  2. Jim Billings

    When recently I was a guest of a woman at a private club the maitre 'd acted, as if I didn't exist" "Hello Mrs. L_" , "where would you like to sit Mrs._", "Enjoy your dinner Mrs. L_" etc. We are about the same age 72 and 80 respectively, and were both well-dressed. Shouldn't the greeting also be followed by "Hello Sir", or am I too sensitive?

    September 26, 2013 at 3:03 am | Reply
  3. swc

    I hope she won't mind me telling this story. Back in the mid 80's, I was the maitre d' at an elegant rooftop ballroom in a hotel in Beverly Hills, with a live band and a packed house every Friday and Saturday night. One Saturday night at around 10:00 pm with the music pounding and couples swirling around the dance floor Shirley Maclaine walked up to me and asked if I had a nice quiet place where she could sit and review some notes. Since I knew she would not take me seriously I said " Yes, in your room". She laughed, thankfully. Which made the next move easy. We had a storage area that was partitioned from the dining room with a folding screen with extra chairs and cocktail tables. A minute later it was set with fresh linen, flowers , a lamp and candle. I think she had earplugs. Smiles all around.

    August 27, 2013 at 4:07 pm | Reply
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    August 5, 2013 at 1:58 am | Reply
  5. Carlos Guerra

    Han pasado dos años después de esta publicación. Muy afortunado y atinado es el que se tome en cuenta al Maitre D´o Capitán. es una estirpe en extinsión y a mi juicio no ha sido justo el reconocimiento que recibe en la actualidad. Servir es un arte tan preciso como cocinar. Solo que los Chef tienen ahora los reflectores encima y en la penumbra van solitarios con el peso de los años de silencio. Después de 25 años de servicio puedo decir que sin un buen capitán ninguno sería buen Chef. He escrito en mi lengua natal, a pesar que hablo perfectamente inglés por cultura. Un cordial saludo a Sara Le Trent. Thanks Sara for posting this excelent note. I´m very glad to know that Maitre D´is not a forgotten kind of race. It´s an Honor

    July 17, 2013 at 6:24 pm | Reply
  6. Eboni Staffon

    Flowers speak the language of love. It also speaks your concern and condolence on specific occasions of grief and sorrow. One of the best ways of expressing your love and affection to your beloved ones is through flowers – The flowers, colorful, fragrant and fresh from the gardens. ":

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    May 7, 2013 at 1:59 am | Reply
  7. teamom

    A Mai^tre d' is a term used in fine dining establishments. There is a difference between "fine dining" and "expensive". An "expensive" restaurant may rely merely on publicity and the talents of the kitchen to entice customers (I can think of four such establishments in the local area), but a fine dining establishment is just that – fine dining. Fresh flowers on the table – better yet, a fresh flower presented on a pillow to each woman at the table (young ladies included), as well as an explanation of the language of the flower. Chairs pulled out as the ladies are seated. Harp music in the background for dinner. Service staff who are trained to every aspect of the menu (including the bar menu). Orders are taken, and when the food arrives, no one asks "Who has ***?" One's food is automatically presented to the proper diner.
    When a guest rises from the table (for any reason), their napkin is automatically folded and placed over the side of the chair (oh yes, linen nakins).
    The entrees are domed. A well-trained staff will lift them in unison, in synchronization, almost musically.
    Who oversees this? Who teaches the service staff to dance with food? Who works with the kitchen, when the broiler cook doesn't show up for work, or the dishwasher finds himself in jail, and the chef (or sous chef, for that shift) is having a meltdown? The Mai^tre d'. This is the magic director who walks onto the diningroom floor, and exudes a zen demeanour. Yes, they remember people's birthdays. And other superficial things. They too are important. Yet, a good Mait^re d' is totally calm under pressure. For some it is a gift, for others, a learned discipline.
    A good Mai^tre d', who is in charge of the front of the house, will work with the Chef, in charge of the back of the house, in a positive direction. If the Chef gets a good deal on, say, fish, the Mai^tre d' will work with the Chef by educating the staff on how to sell the fish special. Point: education.
    Often, there are conflicts between the servers and the kitchen. Though a fact of life, this is not a good situation. If a kitchen person is having a conflict with a server, often the Mai^re d' will step in and, with the help of the Chef, try to remedy the situation. I've had Cambodians in a kitchen chase the Vietnamese around the kitchen with knives. There are other conflicts, but the point is that someone has to catch the damage before it hits the dining room floor, and make the situation so smooth that no one dining has an inkling.
    To do this well can be an art. Hopefully, though, not a lost art.
    In the 1980s I worked for a private dining club in Houston. I was their first female Mai^tre d'. I wore a tuxedo with black tie at lunch, with white tie and gloves in the evening. We catered to a business clientele, who were highly valued, especially in the day when the word was "contacts" vs. "networking".
    My very first present from a customer? A simple keychain, which she brought from Egypt. The token on the chain is of Nefertiti. Very simple. My 23 year old son carries it on his keychain today.
    "Dining" is very different than just "eating out and paying lots of money".
    There is a saying in German "Der Kunden is Koenig, aber der Stammkunden ist Gott". The customer is king, but the repeat customer is God.
    This may be the essence of fine dining.
    I wish you a happy week.

    September 5, 2011 at 2:50 pm | Reply
    • Maiter'D

      Then came BBQ restaurants and you lost your ass. MOOOOOO!

      September 5, 2011 at 3:46 pm | Reply
  8. Rafael

    I love how these articles always end up attracting the most idiotic and comments and idiotic people. Grow up.

    September 4, 2011 at 1:31 pm | Reply
    • Righteous is as righteous does

      Step to the head of the "Idiot Line" oh self-righteous one.

      September 5, 2011 at 3:37 am | Reply
  9. youthful grandma

    It's all about customer service and being a valuable employee.People who are good at seeing what works and making sure the customer has an enjoyable and first class service no matter how much money you have .A person who is good at their job know who their employers favor and who will come back due to them.It's all about how you present the business.When you treat people the same whether they are counting their pennies to go there and the people who can afford to go there every night,making it a wonderful experience and wanting to go back because it was the bomb.Management will reward those who keep people coming back when times are tough.Snobby places are a thing of the past.Good customer service should be rewarded.Tips should reflect hhow you are treated no matter who you are

    September 3, 2011 at 11:52 pm | Reply
  10. R

    And sometimes the maitre d' is a little dweeb.

    September 3, 2011 at 1:44 pm | Reply
  11. Jeann

    Most Americans would not even recognize what a Maitre'D is unless they started appearing at Denny's. Americans have such undeveloped tastes.

    September 3, 2011 at 9:02 am | Reply
    • JeffinIL

      You must have really nice shoes. There is very little else to see when looking down your nose.

      September 3, 2011 at 12:57 pm | Reply
    • Kevin

      You're trolling the Eatocracy pages *again*??? (or is it "still"?)
      That's rather sad and pathetic, actually...
      Don't you have a life?

      September 4, 2011 at 12:53 pm | Reply
      • Kevin

        oh, and this is a different 'Kevin' then the one with the rather blunt and colorful response above...

        September 4, 2011 at 12:56 pm | Reply
    • Tasters Choice

      You're a regular at Denny's? That speaks volumes about your own taste(s) you trailer-trash idiot.

      September 5, 2011 at 3:40 am | Reply
    • pat

      Is that the extent of your vocabulary?

      September 5, 2011 at 12:31 pm | Reply
  12. Richard

    I was once told a story by the Maitre'd in the original Le Cirque. Frank Sinatra called on a Saturday night and wanted the "house table" for 8PM that evening. The "house table" was right in the front of the restaurant and considered the most coveted table because it was reserved for the highest profile guests. The Maitre'D graciously responded that he would see Mr. Sinatra promptly at eight. Within ten minutes Richard Nixon called requesting the same table and time that Sinatra had booked. Without missing a beat, he also told told Nixon that he would see the former President promptly at 8PM. The Maitre'D knew that Sinatra was always late for his reservations. He also knew that the only person that Sinatra would not be offended by sitting at "his" table would be an ex-president. When Sinatra arrived at 8:30, he never said a word to the Maitre'D. Sinatra was seated at the table right next to Nixon. Within minutes the tables had been pushed together and both parties enjoyed both a memorable meal and lively conversation.

    The Maitre"D that night was consummate diplomat. Only in New York.

    September 3, 2011 at 1:50 am | Reply
    • You got it right my deer (sic)

      Only in New York? I think not. New York is a nice place to visit, but... (you know how the rest goes... don't you?)

      September 5, 2011 at 3:47 am | Reply
  13. Eric Francis

    I was trained in dining room skills by a maitre d' I worked for as a teenager. I loved him and his presence. He made every one work hard, and he was the one who decided what was right. This was not an especially fancy restaurant (it was in Sheepshead Bay, Brooklyn) but it was a well organized and busy one, and that dining room ran great. Today what many people don't realize is that nobody actually trains many servers in the right way to do things. Forget about etiquette; many servers lack basic manners. You might wait 10 minutes for attention after sitting down. Servers are taking your plate when you're not done. It is the maitre d' who makes sure you're greeted within one minute, that bread and water go down on the table immediately, that the chairs are clean, that the customer is actually being taken care of. There a right way and a wrong way to do things, and someone has to know that and teach that and insist that it be adhered to. All hail the maitre d'. I can still hear Gilbert's fingers snapping from across the dining room if I dare to touch my hair where customers can see me.

    - Eric Francis

    September 2, 2011 at 11:26 pm | Reply
  14. Joe, San Diego

    Trashy people that frequent the hometown buffet suddenly trying to criticize an upscale eatery and their employees while behaving like Joe Dirt hoarders when offered a free sample.
    Just stick with your fast food obesity, Big Lot perfume, Walmart blue jean shorts and Jerry Springer no class, cretins... obviously you can't advance up the evolutionary scale only descend like dyslexic monkeys.

    September 2, 2011 at 11:21 pm | Reply
    • justin

      like

      September 3, 2011 at 12:14 am | Reply
    • Marine5484

      Don't try to educate that group of people there to busy picking there noses, watching big brother, and eating there super-sized bigmac meals.

      September 3, 2011 at 1:49 am | Reply
      • Daisy

        Should we try to educate someone who made nine grammatical/spelling errors in one sentence?

        September 3, 2011 at 9:45 am | Reply
      • You got it right my deer (sic)

        ROFLMFAO. Spot on, Daisy.

        September 5, 2011 at 3:44 am | Reply
  15. zoundsman

    I worked with a Maitre'd in the 70's from Montreal who spoke 5-6 languages, was like a ring master in performance,
    rallied a bunch or otherwise clueless clods (wait help) on the importance of taking pride in your work.
    He affected my whole life with those words.

    September 2, 2011 at 11:18 pm | Reply
  16. buzz moore

    I am most familiar with matri d' on cruise ships. I have found them to be most helpful, especially in circumstances where it is necessary for a change in dinner seating arrangements. Friendly, competent, with excellent communication skills: these are some of the characteristics I have observed with matri d's on cruise ships!

    September 2, 2011 at 11:14 pm | Reply
  17. Mary Barbara

    It’s unfortunate to read such an article and further more to read the response. A Maître d', restaurant manager, front of the house manager, or general manager… what is the difference? When you work in a high end property whether it be a restaurant or hotel – your job is to provide the highest level of service, you want the guest to leave your property having experience that will bring them back again. There is more to being a maitre d’ than the 4 or 5 hours of services which this artical so wrongly protrays. Being a manager at a high end property takes a lot of detail and push. I think it’s important for all you reader to realize that things to do not happen out of thin air, things happen because there are people like Maitre’ d’s which spend a lot of time mastering the small details. People in hospitality want to provide SERVICE they are not servants!

    September 2, 2011 at 11:11 pm | Reply
    • Rea

      How is it the article wrongly portrays them? The comments, sure, but what I took away from the article itself is that there's an art to it that folks don't understand–it's understated, kind of like the Van Gogh reference. Not "hey everybody! Look at how much I do!"

      September 2, 2011 at 11:44 pm | Reply
  18. mamainNC

    My Uncle was a maître d' in Tempe Az about 30 years ago. Not only was he a favorite uncle, he was a role model to me in just how to manage people. He knew hospitality not just on the job but in all aspects of his life. He taught me so much that hass aided me through my life. He is deceased now several months. I like to think his spirit lives on in the business.

    September 2, 2011 at 11:09 pm | Reply
  19. intencities

    I really like what John Winterman had to say about his take on his role and how he executes it. Restaurants use to be in one of two camps – too stuffy and formal (read: expensive) and the rest of the polyglot of formats. It is nice to know that top end restaurants like Daniel (which I had a great experience) thinks in this fashion.

    Daniel Boulud sets that pace and hires people that conform to that thinking. I've seen him in interviews and, better yet, I've also seen that in his staffs at Daniel and DBGB which is the ultimate proof of the pudding (pun intended)

    Its nice to see that thinking and long may it live!!

    September 2, 2011 at 9:55 pm | Reply
  20. Scooter

    I was a Maitre d' for many years at a very high end and busy operation. Justin's comments are spot on. In addition to the dining room and front desk smoozing, I did a lot of staff training, hiring, wine service, daily pre-service Taste Panels and service instructions for different table-side preparations, mapping of seatings (based on server's abilities and kitchen flow, etc) and the occassional handling of difficult customers. Many times you butt heads with the Head Chef over needs and customer requests, keeping in mind that "you're on the same team".

    September 2, 2011 at 9:50 pm | Reply
  21. JeffinIL

    I guess the first thing they know about me is that I can't afford to eat at a place with a maître d'.

    September 2, 2011 at 9:37 pm | Reply
  22. Doug

    I go out to eat often.. But, I don't need anyone to kiss my azz or know all this crap about me.. And if you need all that, well, you are an arrogant pompous azz who needs to get a life.. Take care of your self, don't expect someone else to make you whole !

    September 2, 2011 at 9:16 pm | Reply
    • ClodionX

      You are obviously quite common and have no idea how to interact in a civilized environment. Your actions are MUCH more blue collar than blue blood I assure you.

      September 2, 2011 at 10:32 pm | Reply
      • @ClodionX

        And just because someone is "blue collar" doesnt mean that they are below Y-O-U. How high up in the ladder are you exactly? Thought so.

        September 2, 2011 at 10:41 pm | Reply
    • justin

      Why don't you "take care of yourself". Cook for yourself! Or do you think there is a magic microwave in the kitchen that doesn't require a real person?

      September 3, 2011 at 12:11 am | Reply
    • Doug

      You are the arrogant azz I speak of... And the to judge me by " how high up the ladder I am" get a real life loser...

      September 3, 2011 at 12:35 am | Reply
  23. berith

    ease up claire – it's actually a pretty tricky and high stress job! especially when people often have the same level of respect for it that you do... dotdotdot

    September 2, 2011 at 9:00 pm | Reply
  24. justin

    There are a lot of things they do that isn't mentioned. Hiring, training, marketing, and conducting shift meetings every day. It sounds like they just stand around rubbing elbows with rich people all day, but that is only five hours out of their day. They basically act as front of the house manager, only more refined.

    People like Clair comment on subjects they know nothing about, because the fanciest place they ever put their mu-mu's on for is McDonald's drive through.

    September 2, 2011 at 8:39 pm | Reply
  25. Mr. Belverdere

    The maitre d is nothing more than slave. This title should be retired just like the titles of King and Queen.

    September 2, 2011 at 8:37 pm | Reply
    • Scooter

      The Maitre d' is no more of a slave than any hired employee is to his Boss. I think a good Maitre d' is the Captain of his ship.

      September 2, 2011 at 10:00 pm | Reply
      • LOL

        Or, in a way that "Mr. Belverdere" could understand, THE DUDE IN CHARGE!

        September 2, 2011 at 10:43 pm | Reply
    • Thomas

      It's so painfully obvious you've never dined anywhere other than your local McDonalds or maybe an Olive Garden on some "special occasion". A true fine dining experience is not only the quality of the food, but the ambiance of the restaurant and the attention given to you by the staff. It's not something for everyday meals (unless you're embarrassingly rich), but it makes an event memorable.

      September 2, 2011 at 11:57 pm | Reply
  26. Claire

    "They not only oversee the front-of-the-house staff and the seating of diners, they’re also the ones who arranged to have your table ready at 7:40 p.m. in case you show up early for your 8 o’clock reservation. They have Champagne flutes at an arm’s length for a birthday toast, and know you prefer the corner booth."

    Wow. sounds like this job requires a lot of skill and intelligence........dotdotdot

    September 2, 2011 at 8:31 pm | Reply
    • Thomas

      You try it. Let us know how it goes.

      September 2, 2011 at 11:59 pm | Reply
  27. Name

    While the handshake might be losing its grip – the position of the maître d’ is certainly not.

    September 2, 2011 at 7:54 pm | Reply

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