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

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

In a new book, Your Table Is Ready, Cecchi-Azzolina takes readers behind the scenes of the restaurant world, where we learn not just who gets choice tables and who doesn't, but how restaurant staff in the 1980s and '90s worked, fought and loved in an adrenaline-fueled workplace where booze and cocaine were plentiful.

Historically, the maître d' was "the most learned, experienced person in the dining room," Cecchi-Azzolina explains. "He rose up through the ranks. He got to the point where he knew wine, he knew food, he knew service – and he ran the dining room. He was in charge, the master of the dining room."

In addition to working as a server, maître d' and manager in several exclusive restaurants, Cecchi-Azzolina pursued an acting career while working in the business and earned a Masters of Fine Arts from Harvard. He'll soon be opening his own restaurant, Cecchi's, scheduled to open its doors in February.

Interview Highlights

On the stress of working in a high-end restaurant

It's a very, very, extremely stressful job. The demands, especially in fine dining, with a very high caliber clientele, it's incredibly stressful. ... You're held to a standard. ... Restaurants were run – and in some cases they still are run – like the military. This had to be done precisely this way. The food order had to be taken within 5 minutes. Drinks had to arrive at the table 2 minutes after they were ordered. Your entrees had to be served 10 minutes after the appetizers were cleared. Then dessert menus. It was a very strict protocol.

When you have a restaurant, where each table is booked to the maximum from 5:00 to 12:00 at night, you need to keep this thing moving straight through the night. Plus, dealing with people that want to talk to you. They have questions. They expect you to be pleasant. Customers you know want to hear about your family and what you did that day — and you need to balance all of this.

On being patient with rude patrons

Sometimes it is the most difficult thing in the world when this person that you're dealing with is truly obnoxious and hateful. We're in the hospitality business. We're there to make everyone feel welcome and you do your best. ... You just summon up this inner hospitable gene that we all have ... and you try and make the best of it. Though I have thrown people out, I just will not take their crap, for lack of a better word.

/ St. Martin's Press
St. Martin's Press

On doing shots during shifts to deal with the stress

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

Through the years, I have had to fire people who were on the floor absolutely drunk. I've had situations where servers would go down to their locker or out back and have a flask and come up and by 10:00 or 11:00 at night they were slurring their words.

On the restaurant industry culture in New York in the '80s

The '80s was like the Wild West in New York City. People were partying. You had Studio 54 that glamorized cocaine and alcohol and sex. ... People drank in places that I worked and other restaurants that I know of, many through the whole shift. We had a bartender that was a New York City policeman and we had to call him "Dr. Dewars" because he'd polish off a bottle of Dewars during a shift. It was standard practice back then. ...

You had customers coming in and handing you $100 bills with a gram of cocaine in them. They expected you to party with them. ... Did the owners know? I can't imagine that they didn't know. ... And you have alcohol, you have drugs, well, the next logical thing is sex to happen — and it happened quite frequently in very different establishments.

On the dreaded city health inspector visit

It's a nightmare. That is the worst day of the year for you, because now in New York City, there are letter grades, so you get A, B, C, D ... and who doesn't want an A and their window? You have to post these in the window. ... Look, I've worked in a lot of restaurants and many of these restaurants are in very old New York City buildings where it's very difficult to comply with health standards as they are written. It's almost impossible, actually. You know you're not going to hit every point that needs to be hit. So when the health inspector comes in, what you want to do is be as prepared as possible so that the fine you get — and you will get fines, always — is as little as possible. So you're not spending that night's revenue on your health inspector fines.

As soon as the inspector comes in the maître d' will stall him as much as possible and the host will go through the dining room whispering your code word.

So what I've done in many restaurants is you have a drill. Once the health inspector's spotted, and they come wearing a uniform and they have to show their badge, the word goes out through the dining room — and we use different words in different restaurants, "tsunami," "soufflé," different terms — to alert the rest of the staff that the inspector's there. ... As soon as the inspector comes in the maître d' will stall him as much as possible and the host will go through the dining room whispering your code word.

On what happens behind the scenes when the health inspector arrives

Bussers will go to the bread station, swipe away all the bread crumbs, throw out all the cut bread because you can't have cut bread there. There can't be a crumb in the station. ...

You run down to the basement. We've had managers run down, pick up a vacuum cleaner and get on their hands and knees vacuuming up mouse poop, because there are always mice in restaurants in New York City, it's impossible to keep them out. The cleanest restaurant with exterminators and all cannot stop mice. ...

Bartenders throw out all the cut fruit at the bar. It just gets thrown out because it's illegal. It'll never be up to the temperature that it needs to be. You go into the dairy refrigerator and you dump out all the milk, because in the refrigerator, when you're making coffee, say, cappuccino, the milk is coming in and out. It's not going to be at the temperature that it's supposed to be for your health inspector. ...

Every position in the restaurant has a job of basically throwing out a lot of food.

On whether he thinks diners care more about food or service

Through my career, it has always been service. ... If your server is rude, if he screws up the order, if your appetizer comes after your entrée, is slovenly and not paying attention, it ruins the experience. On the other hand, if you have a wonderful server and there's a wonderful maître d' ... if your steak comes out and that steak's overcooked, you know what? We'll re-cook it for you. We can rectify that in 5 minutes and save your evening. ...

If you're there and you like those people and you get a good feeling for them and the experience is dead on, you'll forgive an overcooked steak or an undercooked piece of fish. ... At the end of the day, it's all about the experience and the front of house really delivers that experience.

On his own restaurant, Cecchi's, which he expects to open in February

You only get one shot. And if you don't do it right, [guests will] thank me and they're not going to come back. So the pressure's on, once again, but I kind of love it. It's an addiction.

Sam Briger and Thea Chaloner produced and edited the audio of this interview. Molly Seavy-Nesper and Beth Novey adapted it for the web.

Copyright 2022 Fresh Air. To see more, visit Fresh Air.

Dave Davies is a guest host for NPR's Fresh Air with Terry Gross.