While helping me set the table recently, my granddaughter placed a towel over her forearm and exclaimed, "I'm the maitre d'." I smiled and asked, "Where's your bow tie?" After completing her task of silverware placement, my granddaughter returned and asked, "Grandma, whats a maitre d'?"
A maitre d'? Oh busboy. I laughed and thought, except for maybe cartoons, she probably has never really seen one. I explained that a maitre d' is the person in charge of the dining room in a restaurant.
"Like Josh's mom?" she asked. Josh's mom works as a hostess. Yes, I explained, like a hostess, only more in charge.
The term maitre d'hotel is a French term that literally means "master of the hotel or the hall." He or she is responsible for all things to do with the front of the house or the dining room. We traditionally picture a male as maitre d', but it certainly can be a female. The maitre d' delegates the work assignments to the service staff, designates which table groupings go to which wait staff, and is in charge of greeting the customers and determining where each party should sit.
The maitre d' might take the reservations and handle customer complaints. He or she might hire the dining room staff, train them and oversee their performance. Maitre d's are the managers of all guest relations, facilitating orders in the kitchen, ensuring that service runs smoothly - neither too fast nor too slow. In other words, the maitre d'hotel's primary duty is setting the standard for customer service.
This position dates back several centuries. Historically, one would have to die before another could move up to this coveted title. One needed many years of experience to become a maitre d'hotel, starting the position in their 40s or 50s.
The maitre d'hotels of old were renaissance men. They knew music, history, finance and politics. They had to be diplomats because they were dealing with royalty. The traditional image conjures up visions of European-born and trained gentlemen, dressed in tuxedos, fluent in several languages. The traditional maitre d'hotel carried himself like royalty, because he did work for royalty. The image continued.
Maitre d'hotels first appeared in America at the beginning of the 20th century to accommodate wealthy European visitors. One famous American maitre d'hotel was Oscar Tschirky, who studied under legendary French chef Auguste Escoffier and worked at The Waldorf-Astoria in New York City. "Oscar of the Waldorf" he came to be known, and "Oscar of the Waldorf" is now a buzz word for a server providing the highest service.
But the unwritten job of a classic maitre d' is to cater to the special needs of old guests and make new customers feel like old friends. The true Maitre d'hotel provides outstanding service to all guests, even when that means stepping outside their job descriptions.
To me, the maitre d' conjures up pictures of Carson on "Downton Abbey."
A maitre d':
Today, the difference between a hostess and a maitre d' primarily depends on the size, staffing and the success of the restaurant, or it just might depend on what the restaurant chooses to call the person in charge. The summers I worked at the Gideon Putnam, I was called a hostess, but I had the responsibilities of a maitre d.' There was no maitre d'.
Whereas a maitre d' might be associated with a five-star restaurant or large hotels such as the Ritz Carlton in New York, I have found them often associated with an older or traditional restaurant or establishment. At the Saratoga Thoroughbred track, the trackside dining has a maitre d'. Dating back many years, this maitre d' holds much power in the distribution of the track's extremely sought-after tables.
We might even associate the term with something outdated or stodgy. Visiting a small Italian restaurant in upper Manhattan, we were greeted by a gentleman in a tuxedo, complete with bow tie. He was in his early 60s, as were the rest of the male waitstaff. I did not hear what he was called, but I can guess.
Today, people want to eat world-class food in a little more casual environment. For many, this might seem to spell the end of the maitre d'.
In an era of heightened competition, providing flawless service can set a restaurant apart. Whether a restaurant has a maitre d' or or not, or calls the person in charge a maitre d' or not, the lessons that can be learned from these service superstars can help to take service to the next level. Over time, maitre d'hotels may change their clothes and demeanor to appeal to an ever-changing clientele, but what will not change is the desire for the personalized customer service, for which the position is known. There's nothing old-fashioned about fine service.
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