How The Maitre d' Is Significant In Today's Modern Restaurants
“Don’t let the suit and tie fool you,”
exclaims Louis Kaplan, who’s served as maître d’ at Shaw’s Crab House in Chicago for 12 years. He can be as laid back and casual as the next guy. He’s also determined to set the record straight in honor of his profession, which most people envision as uptight and intimidating.
“A lot of people have a misconception that we’re stuffy, mean guys who can be a little bit rough at times and the only way you’re going to get a table in our restaurants is by ‘greasing our palms,’” he says. “I can tell you right now that’s a big misconception. When I have guests come into the restaurant who don’t have reservations and they’re looking to impress a date or have a good time, I’m very laid back. I love it when I can accommodate guests.”
The maître d’hôtel’s job goes far beyond seating guests and looking cool at the host stand. In Kaplan’s case, he manages the nightly cashouts for all the bartenders and servers, relieving the general manager of those duties.
He is also in charge of the reservation system, so that everything goes smoothly—and that is particularly important in a restaurant that’s as busy as Shaw’s. Finally, it doesn’t hurt that he goes out of his way to make every guest feel at ease, whether he seats them or stops by their tables to assure they’re enjoying their experience.
But today it is rare to find a maître d’ behind the host stand. Especially in contemporary restaurants. Shaw’s has been around for more than 30 years, and it’s also in a busy section of downtown Chicago that’s overflowing with hotels and businesses. The restaurant also boasts loyal diners who have been patronizing it since it opened. They expect a certain level of service, and Kaplan believes an experienced maître d’ goes beyond the call of duty when dealing with more discerning customers.
“It is a system that works really well at a place like Shaw’s because it’s that personal touch of talking to the guests, shaking their hands and asking them how their day was,” describes Kaplan. “I’m treating them as though they’re guests in my home. Certainly not to take anything from the newer restaurants, but the old-school restaurants on a true maître d’ system have a little bit of an edge because we maintain that real personal connection.”
Kaplan adds that while the true maître d’ system is a rare find at newer restaurants, some establishments have changed the terminology. For example, they’re calling them “controllers,” he says, as this person’s duties is to “control” the seating of the room.
In San Antonio, there are a few maître d’s at notable restaurants, but the position is mostly combined with the general manager’s duties. In the case at Southerleigh Fine Food and Brewery, Philippe Place acts as both. And Place’s storied experience from his hospitality days in Europe demonstrate that if anyone can make the position work, it’s him.
During his heyday, he hosted the likes of Princess Diana, Prince Charles, Queen Elizabeth II and Meryl Streep at various French and English hotels. “(The experiences I had in Europe) I carry with me to this day.
“It’s really something starting with a high level of attention to detail and what taking care of guests should look like.”
At Southerleigh, which specializes in modern Southern cuisine and local microbrews, his job is to elevate guests’ experience. That personal touch is something he always appreciates when he’s out on the town. “I love it when I go out and there is someone there who greets me, gives me a handshake and remembers the last time I visited,” says Place.
He admits, however, that with all the advancements in technology, many restaurants don’t value the significance of the maître d’. “It used to really mean something when a maître d’ would hold a hard-to-get 7 o’clock reservation on a Friday evening,” he says. But business has changed a lot, and with online services and apps like OpenTable, Reserve and Tock, the definition of the title was forced to change. But there is something that will never change for the maître d’ and positions like it.
“I see the position of maître d’ being important to forge relationships,” says Place. “A handshake, a question about how your kids are doing in school will never be replaced (by technology). I hope that we don’t lose the human touch and get distracted from what our business is all about: hospitality.
“We’re serving food and wine. We’re at the peak time of (customers’) lives. We’re feeding them. It’s a beautiful act of sitting them. That’s why we’re in the business we’re in because human touch is still extremely important.”