Legends in Hospitality: The Power in Front (of-the-house)

Twenty years ago, if you can recall, hardly anyone knew the name of a chef in a restaurant. Status and power belonged to the guy at the door (rarely was it a woman). That was who you needed to know and, more vitally, who you wanted to know you.

There was a moment-in-time when you could actually find Danny Meyer running Union Square Cafe, Joe Baum at the front door of Aurora, George Lang holding court near the iconic murals at Café des Artistes, Sheldon Haseltine nodding you in at the über-trendy Joanna’s, or Drew Nieporent opening the door for you at Montrachet (and now at Corton).  Elaine Kaufman ran her star-studded eponymous bistro on New York’s Upper East Side until she died at 81 last year.

But these days, few people know who’s standing at the check-in desk. Celebrity chefs may be off promoting themselves or their latest ghost-written cookbooks or endorsing some new line of cookware, but they’re still the go-to people for the best tables, the generous midcourse freebies, the second round of desserts – and in an age of texting and instant messaging, they’re instantly available.

I was reminded of this reversal of power when I took a dear friend to The Four Seasons for an impromptu birthday lunch last week, since she’d never been there. Now you may say, “The Four Seasons?  I haven’t been there in ten years, not since mother came to town.” Well, let me tell you:  You’ve been missing a level of refinement of both food and space that you hardly find anywhere these days.

Many restaurants drop off the media radar if they aren’t constantly screaming to the blogs about everyday trivialities, or if their celebrity chefs lack an itchy Twitter finger -- but at The Four Seasons, hardly anyone knows who’s in the kitchen. Instead, everyone knows the restaurant’s two managerial rock stars, Alex von Bidder and Julian Niccolini. They are the dedicated owners of New York’s fabled restaurant, located in the triumphant Seagram’s building.

Neither of them is a judge on Top Chef nor a headliner at South Beach Food & Wine Festival.  Instead, Julian and Alex, who bought the restaurant in 1995 from another revered pair of front guys – Paul Kovi and Tom Margittai -- move from table to table every day, ensuring that service glides unobtrusively, and recognizing their “regular” clients’ gastronomic foibles – and that means the entire room. They are the real “table hoppers” even though at least half the room knows the other half. They yaw when necessary, fawn when appropriate, and do whatever it takes to keep Henry Kissinger and Richard Gere coming to lunch.

We had our birthday celebration in the bar room, home of New York’s “power lunch”, and the place was hopping with confident, deep-pocketed sorts of people who pay little attention to the city’s PR machinations. The place is 52 years old and feels as fresh as a basket of just-picked herbs. Sunlight pours in from double-height windows; tables are large; the Brno chairs, by architect Mies van der Rohe that were controversial when the restaurant’s first impresario, Joe Baum installed them, are capacious and comfortable; multiple layers of cloth smother the clunk of dishes that afflict too many high priced bistros; and Alex and Julian know your name along with every last detail about every item on the menu.

For it is their food as much as it is the chef’s. Read the menu carefully and discover a study in tradition, restraint -- and somehow also a bit of magic. You want to order everything because in your mind it all tastes good and, simultaneously, comforting.

We ate real bay scallops as a special of the day; beef carpaccio with mustard greens and aged parmesan-like stravecchio from Wisconsin; soft polenta with wild mushrooms and an excess of truffles, striped bass (real striped bass, not some farmed half-breed) with autumn vegetables in a chorizo-mussel broth.

And that’s the way the menu goes:  “A Selection of Oysters and Clams; Scottish Smoked Salmon, Proper Garniture; Filet of Bison, Foie Gras, Perigord Black Truffle; Grilled Tuna, Roasted Fennel with Feta, Black Olive Tapenade; Filet Mignon, Cauliflower, Sherry-Mustard Sauce.” There’s not much in the way of linguistic fireworks here. There are no farmers names or anything about sustainability or grass fed or non-GMO or other ideological diatribes that clutter menus.  Instead, everything was utterly and quietly perfect. 

I recognized a continuity of style in menu language (American and self-assured), service (invisibly visible) and restaurant’s attitude toward its customers (“friendly, but not familiar,” was what Joe Baum dictated). After Baum left to create more magic elsewhere, the place got run down by its corporate owners, then revived by Tom and Paul, who after many years were succeeded by Alex and Julian.  It was this uncommon continuum – where the power lay in front of the house – that perhaps explains why the place feels fresh and new, but also as comfortable as your bedroom slippers.

Two tables away, some men were finishing their coffee when Alex and Julian appeared with a bottle of champagne, a 16-inch-high “toque” of pink cotton candy and a whispered “happy birthday.” Their business could wait; it was time to celebrate.

It is no surprise that they were feted with the 2011 “Legends in Hospitality Award” just the other night at a gala for the American Hospital in Paris Foundation. Their efforts in the world of food and the good life have been duly noted.

As for me, I may begin to ask upon entering a new restaurant, not the name of the chef in the back, but “Hey, what’s the name of the guy up front?”

My prediction for 2012? A generation of celebrity maitre d’s with a television show to call their own.