At your service: A restaurant maître d’ tells all in ‘Your Table Is Ready’

Azzolina Cecchi-Michael has been called every imaginable ugly name, punched at, cursed, and threatened repeatedly by a bonafide mobster who perceived a slight for him. He’s encountered plenty of nice folks – regulars, finance captains, and celebrities – at several of New York’s hottest restaurants where he has worked as a maître d’ for years. Because that’s a very valuable commodity, he controlled a table at a high-end restaurant in Manhattan. He’s also had hundreds of dollars pressed into his hand.

Cecchi-Azzolina’s new book, “Is Your Table Ready?”, Takes readers behind the scenes of the restaurant world where staff in the 1980s and 1990s loved and fought, worked with workplace adrenaline, and had abundant alcohol and cocaine. However, not everyone gets to choose their tables in this captivating exploration.

Cecchi-Azzolina elucidates that traditionally, the headwaiter was “the most knowledgeable, seasoned individual in the dining area.” They ascended through the hierarchy, reached a level of expertise in wine, cuisine, and hospitality, and supervised the dining area. The headwaiter held authority, being the overseer of the dining room.

Set to commence operations in February, Cecchi’s, his personal eatery, will be launching shortly. Cecchi-Azzolina, who graduated from Harvard, achieved a Masters of Fine Arts while simultaneously engaging in the corporate world and pursuing an acting vocation. Furthermore, he gained experience serving, being a maître d’, and managing in various upscale dining establishments.

Interview Highlights

Regarding the pressure of working in an upscale eatery.

It was a very strict protocol. Then, the dessert menus were cleared. Your entrees were supposed to be served after 10 minutes of clearing the appetizers. Drinks had arrived at the table after 2 minutes of ordering them. The food order had to be taken within 5 minutes. The food order had to be done precisely this way. Some restaurants are still run like the military in some cases. You are held to a standard. It’s incredibly stressful. Especially in fine dining with a very high caliber clientele, the demands are very, very, extremely stressful.

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As a restaurant owner, it is crucial for you to maintain a smooth flow of operations throughout the night. Every table is fully reserved from 5:00 PM until midnight, so you must ensure a pleasant experience for all guests. It is expected that you are friendly and approachable, as customers often have inquiries. They are interested in hearing about your family and your daily activities, while you must also manage to juggle various tasks and conversations.

On displaying patience towards impolite customers.

I won’t just take their crap for a lack of better word, even though I have thrown out people. You should summon this inner hospitable gene that we all have, just to make the best of it and try. We’re all here to make everyone feel welcome. We’re in the business of hospitality. Dealing with this person who is truly hateful and obnoxious can be the most difficult thing in the world sometimes.

When facing stress, some people resort to taking shots during their shifts.

I would run behind you, take a deep breath and get a chilled shot of vodka, smile and take it back into the right place. I would be waiting at a table behind everyone, looking at you with a death stare, and waiting at the bar for about 50 people when you’ve got 9:00, around 8:30. Sometimes the nerves steady, but you’re not getting drunk.

Inebriated and speaking indistinctly, they would stumble into the night around 10:00 or 11:00, carrying a flask, and then retreat to their lockers where the servers had encountered various predicaments. I have had to remove intoxicated individuals from the floor countless times over the years.

Regarding the dining sector, the culture in New York during the 1980s was quite significant.

Back in those days, the norm was to engage in regular practice. There was a flask of Dewars that he would finish during his shift, earning him the nickname “Dr. Dewars,” and we had a bartender who happened to be a New York City policeman. At the various places I worked and other restaurants I am familiar with, many people would consume alcohol throughout their entire shifts. Studio 54 brought about the glamorization of sex, alcohol, and cocaine. Partygoers in the wild West Side of New York City, just like in the ’80s, were living it up.

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You had customers coming in, and you were handing them a gram of cocaine in $100 bills. You expected them to party with you. I can’t imagine that they didn’t know… Well, the logical next thing happened: you had sex, you had drugs, and you had alcohol. It happened quite frequently in very different establishments.

During the feared visit from the city health inspector.

It is always advisable to spend as little as possible on your health inspector’s fines, as you will always receive fines and it is important to be prepared for when the health inspector comes and needs to find any possible points of improvement. It is crucial to hit every point that the health inspector needs to address in order to avoid fines.

Once the inspector comes, the dining room will act as a whispering room, and the maître d’ will stall him as much as possible. The staff will be alert to different terms to alert the rest of the staff, such as “soufflé” or “tsunami.” They will show the word out as they go through the dining room, ensuring they are wearing a uniform. Once the health inspector is spotted, the staff will have done what I have done in many restaurants.

On the occurrences that take place behind the scenes when the health inspector shows up.

There must not be a single crumb present at the station. Discard all the sliced bread as it is not permissible to have sliced bread in that area. Remove all the scattered bread crumbs. Bussers will attend to the bread station.

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It is impossible to keep mice out of the cleanest restaurants in New York City, as there are always mice in restaurants. We constantly have to vacuum up mouse poop and pick up a vacuum cleaner with our hands and knees. We’ve had managers run down to the basement.

Your health inspector may find that the temperature of the milk used for making coffee, such as cappuccino, in the refrigerator is not as it should be. In order to comply with regulations, it is necessary to discard all the milk and adjust the temperature of the dairy refrigerator to a level that will always meet the requirements. Failure to do so is illegal and results in the disposal of the milk. Similarly, bartenders at the bar dispose of all the cut fruit.

Each position in the eatery has a duty of essentially discarding a considerable amount of food.

Regarding his thoughts on whether customers prioritize food or service,

We can rectify that in just five minutes and save your evening. Do you know what we’ll re-cook for you? If your steak comes out overcooked and your wonderful maître d’ and server are there to help, it ruins the experience when the other hand is not paying attention and the appetizer comes after your entrée. If your server is rude or screws up your order, it’s slovenly. Throughout my career, the service has always been exceptional.

The encounter and the customer service truly provides that sensation, ultimately. A overcooked beef or an undercooked portion of seafood, you’ll overlook, if you’re present and you appreciate those individuals and you obtain a positive impression of them and the encounter is spot on.

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