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Maitre d'matters

Consistently great food has created a need for a new point of differentiation among restaurants. Thus the (next) age of service has arrived. The front of the house is polishing up its image and putting forth a new level of professionalism and a true focus on the guest. Leading the charge in a growing number of establishments is the maitre d'hotel... or maitre d'.

This centuries-old position of a thousand graces and talents all wrapped up in a bundle of cool is giving itself a modern-day makeover. While some of the nuances of the position have changed, the core of the job remains the same.

Maitres d' oversee front-of-the-house operations, are the first line with regard to guest relations, facilitate a smooth and seamless dining experience — from correctly placed orders to perfect timing — and cater to the special needs of long-time guests while making first-time customers feel like old friends.

The majority of the skills possessed by a maitre d' cannot be trained. They are learned through experience. You might even say one needs to be born with the inherent ability to remain cool in crises, stay up on the latest "who's who" and "what's what", be the ultimate public relations expert, act as a natural and graceful host, be intensely yet casually attentive to even the smallest of details (thousands at a time), maintain the memory of an elephant, and be a leader to the rest of the restaurant team.

Sounds easy, right? Now throw in the necessity to change with the times. Gone are the days when maitres d' floated through the dining room with the air of royalty, impeccably clad in tuxedo or three-piece suit. Today they are impeccably clad in trousers and turtlenecks for the more casual-chic atmosphere, and smile (even laugh!) with a more laid-back (but no less discriminating) clientele.

Bottom line — the maitre d's challenge is to do whatever it takes, and I mean whatever, to make the guest happy, sometimes even before the guest has fully realized that they are unhappy. And this means even when the guest is wrong, or a jerk, or it's going to cost an entire comped meal. The only company policy is "guest first". If you want to be a legend, better it's due to the heroics of your maitre d' than the apathy of your staff.

Do you have to be a four-star restaurant or be named the Ritz-Carlton to warrant your own maitre d'? Absolutely not. But you must have a four-star attitude about superior service and putting the guest above all else.

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