NEW YORK — He stands as the essence of elegance, graft or both, parceling out tables that shape the fate of tabloid romances and high-level corporate life while pocketing more than $100,000 a year for his favors.
He is the maitre d', a fixture in virtually every posh restaurant in the United States and, of course, in Europe. He is a living representation from the Old World of everything rank, money and privilege have to offer.
Yet his is a profession in the midst of change. Little by little, the weight of European intrigue and sheer clout is being edged aside by the well-scrubbed American efficiency of the professional manager.
The evolution is so pervasive and so powerful, in fact, that few maitre d's can avoid filling both traditional and new roles every working day. This means increased demands in a job that has seldom been anything less than high-stakes.
Good Memory Is Needed
"An excellent memory is very important," said Benito Sevarin of Cafe Pierre on the posh Upper East Side of New York. "You must remember faces and names, even voices on the telephone. And you must remember what people like to eat and drink and where they like to sit.
"A maitre d' has to know everybody."
In a sense, Sevarin offers the classical job description--and he represents the traditional rise to prominence. A grueling apprenticeship in Italy landed him on cruise ships, and cruise ships deposited him in the United States. The rest was care, luck and plenty of hard work.
There is a new sort of maitre d' in the United States, however. Young men (and sometimes young women) are attracted to the field not only by its surprisingly lofty earning power but by the chance to break into restaurant management.
"The toughest thing is getting people seated where they want to be seated," said Michael Cox of the trendy Routh St. Cafe in Dallas. "And that includes separating the smoking and nonsmoking sections, with nice border tables in between.
"It's hard to 'build' the dining room sometimes, with the proper number of tables for two and tables for four. This table shift can be really tough. There's a true finesse to it."
Intriguingly, though the two types of maitre d' travel different routes to their positions, both admit the job increasingly blends two quite different skills.
At one level, maitre d's in the fanciest restaurants along the East Coast find themselves called upon to serve as the ultimate Social Register in their cities.
Knowing who's in, who's out, who made a killing, who lost his shirt, who became a father and who got caught with a mistress could set the tone for the maitre d's approach. Correct and current information can prove crucial--lack of it can prove disastrous.
With this in mind, it should not be surprising maitre d's are often self-described "media junkies," at least as far as current events affect their business. They read any newspaper or magazine that keeps track of their clientele.
Increasingly, though, the emphasis in the United States is on management skills rather than smooth sailing through every conceivable social situation. In the nation's heartland and on the West Coast, in fact, the European concept of maitre d' is being replaced with "house manager" or "dining room manager."
This is more than late 1980s word play. It communicates a shift that requires the person holding the title to hire and fire personnel, devise and administer training programs, even supervise activities from serving food at the proper temperature to making sure credit card imprints are properly taken.
The change in duties and image is what is finally opening the doors of this lucrative career to women. European tradition has long been more than enough to close out or scare off most female aspirants. Now, however, women's increasingly recognized managerial and personnel skills are slowly propelling them into a job long dominated by sheer masculine presence.
With so much knowledge essential to his duties, the maitre d' has picked up a certain clout simply by knowing all the dirt. Whether it is which show business celebrity is on a diet or which promising politician is dining with someone other than his wife, the maitre d' is often among the first to know.
For the most part, though, he isn't letting on.
"There are many things that happen here, secrets customers confide in me," said Oreste Carnevali, who runs the Pool Room in Manhattan's power-packed Four Seasons. "But I will never unveil them."
According to Carnevali, the Four Seasons is built on such a tangled pecking order--and such a make-or-break configuration of dining--the toughest part of his job is making sure no one is seated next to anyone he or she should not be.