Maître d’s: Masters in the art of dining
For the 38 years Alain Creton has owned and operated downtown’s landmark Chez Alexandre restaurant on Peel St., he has greeted his customers with the same words: “Bonjour et bienvenue Chez Alexandre,” followed by a reassuring, “pas de soucis (no worries), je m’en occupe de tout (I will take care of everything).” Cynical diners might see these words as a line, but to Creton, they are his mantra. “I love the word ‘soucis,’ ” he says. “I never use ‘problem’ and I don’t greet people with a, ‘Hello, how are you?’ You never become intimate that way with a diner. And ‘client’ is a word I hate, too. I refer to the people who eat here as ‘our guests’ or ‘our friends.’ The words you use, the attitude, the respect … in this business, it is everything.”
On the restaurant scene, chefs get the lion’s share of attention. But the next time you dine out, look around and watch how the dining room rolls. If you’re in a great restaurant, a serious restaurant with legs that has been open a decade or two, chances are there is someone up front who doesn’t get as much attention as the chef yet who is equally — if not more — responsible for the establishment’s success.
Call them maître d’s or dining room managers. Despite the lack of accolades, these men and women are often the soul of their restaurants. They have to manage staff, keep an eye on the competition, deal with the chef, handle difficult customers, keep a sharp eye out for detail, hire and fire staff, and work long hours, often including holidays. It’s a tough life, but when speaking to some of the city’s best restaurateurs, you quickly understand why they love what they do.
A few blocks away from Chez Alexandre, at de Maisonneuve Blvd. and Drummond St., is the bistro Le Pois Penché. Owner Imad Nabwani, a 31-year veteran of the hospitality industry, bought the restaurant four years ago when it was, as he says, at the low curve of its life. Though Nabwani worked for years as a dining room manager in other restaurants, Le Pois Penché was his first venture as owner. Since then, business has more than doubled. “Everyone knows bistro food, which makes things more difficult,” says the Damascus native who has called Montreal home for the past 25 years. “My priorities have always been food, wine and quality of service, the three fundamentals of a restaurant, and you have to deliver on them all. I didn’t reinvent the wheel. I just stayed there on top of everything. I don’t have a big ego, and I’m a good listener. I never took criticism personally. I listened!”
So much so, in fact, that after being called out (by yours truly) for having an overpriced wine list, Nabwani overhauled his entire cellar and now has one of the best and most fairly priced lists in the city. The days of pulling a fast one on the customer are finished, Nabwani says. You have to be honest and offer a fair price. “You can’t fool the client,” he says. “People are savvy.”
Though surrounded by restaurants, Nabwani sees competition as positive. “I’m happy these places like Alexandre and Thursdays are around me. Keeps me on my toes.” But the financial risk he took was huge. “I mortgaged my house to pay for all this,” he says, looking around the dining room. “I gambled everything. I didn’t know if I would lose my shirt. But it worked because I believed in myself, my staff and my city.”
Few restaurants better represent our city than Moishes and Buonanotte, which not only happen to be on the same street, The Main, but also boast two of the top dining room managers in Montreal: Lenny Lighter at Moishes and Lino Lozza at Buonanotte.
For Lighter, the restaurant life wasn’t so much a calling as a given, as he took over his father’s business as owner/operator with his brother about 41 years ago. Watching the sharply dressed Lighter in action on a busy night at Moishes, you see him directing waiters, greeting customers by name, going in and out of the kitchen and eventually sitting down for dinner (usually with his wife, Stephanie Watson) well after 9 p.m. at his regular corner table from where he can keep an eye on the action.
Lighter is at his restaurant six days, and three to four nights, a week. His staff of 70 counts many career waiters. One, Franco Bastone, has worked in the 200-seat dining room for 53 years, and several have been here even longer than their boss. “We’re probably skewed 40 per cent veterans and 60 per cent newbies,” Lighter says. And what are the qualities of his best waiters? “Personality, empathy, a giving spirit, and being organized. That’s really what it’s all about. And energy. Lots of energy.”
Lozza has been Buonanotte’s manager for 21 years of the 23 he has worked at this hugely popular Italian restaurant. He started in the business at the age of 13 in his uncle’s reception hall, and in 1995 he was made partner at the city’s most happening eating establishment. “We’re known as a trendy and cool restaurant,” Lozza says. “But we’re also going to make you feel at home. A person walked in the other day and said to me, ‘You look like the man in charge, please take care of us.’ We did, and at the end of the night he walked up to me, and I was worried he might be disappointed. But he gave me a hug.
In a field dominated by men, both in front and back of house, a female dining room manager faces many obstacles. When Christine Lamarche launched Toqué! in 1993 alongside her friend, chef Normand Laprise, this former professional cook chose the dining room over the kitchen. “When I began,” she said, “the tough part was not only being a woman, but being a young woman. People would call me over and ask to speak to the restaurant manager, and I would tell them they were speaking to her.”
For Lamarche, building up the service side of Toqué! has been an education, especially 13 years ago when the restaurant moved from its former cozy location on St-Denis St. to the expansive digs it occupies in Old Montreal today. “I would say the equation for us of importance allotted to the kitchen and the dining room is fifty-fifty,” Lamarche says. “When we relocated, we made the mistake of emphasizing the cuisine and quality service to the detriment of the ambience, which people said was cold. So now we’re warming it up, diminishing the number of seats, painting the ceiling black to bring it down. We understand that even if it’s high-end service, it has to be warm.”
Creton believes the dining room manager is primarily responsible for the ambience in a restaurant. “I understood this by watching Georges Vincenti of Chez Georges back in the ’80s,” he says, “that I, as the owner, had an important role to play.” Indeed Vincenti appeared to be the quintessential restaurateur in this paragraph from a Helen Rochester review back in 1989:
“The secret to Chez George’s success is very much Georges himself, always present, always smiling, always able to greet most customers by name and welcome them like the old friends they probably are. For Chez Georges is more a club than a restaurant, a home away from home for most of its very dedicated clientele.”
One tactic Creton relied on to build his restaurant’s buzz was to encourage interesting customers to return. He names several politicians like Pierre Trudeau, Jean Chrétien, Pauline Marois and Denis Coderre as favourites, and even has a locker filled with personalized steak knives for regulars. In the restaurant’s early days, he was always happy to welcome the people from the CKAC radio station as well as journalists and the public relations crowd. “I stuck to them like a groupie,” Creton says. “They didn’t spend much, but they added so much ambience to the restaurant. It was a party every night at table 9! In the end, if I created this bistro, it’s because I’m interested in people.”
And that relationship between restaurateur and customer can become very close. Every night Lazzo has notes as well as a floor plan. He knows who is a tourist, the VIPs, the first-time visitor, and if you’re celebrating something special, the gelato is on the house. “When tourists leave Montreal, he says, “we want to make sure they go, Wow!”
Customers sometimes ask Lazzo to their chalet, a hockey game, even a family wedding. Lozza says: “They mean well, so nine times out of 10, I’ll go. If a client has been coming here for 10 years, he or she is a friend.” Do some customers, for instance female customers, get too close? “Wearing a wedding ring helps with that,” says Lozza with a laugh. “So does social media. I paste a lot of pictures of my wife and kids on Facebook.”
Lamarche has also become friendly with many of Toqué!’s regulars, yet says the French use of the word “vous” is essential when addressing customers to maintain that respectful distance. The same goes for staff: “I’m their boss not their friend. We made that very clear to everyone when we went from a small restaurant to two restaurants with a staff of 110,” Lamarche says.
For Lighter, that kind of close relationship is rare. “I don’t get too chummy with the clients,” he says. “I’m not a real warm and fuzzy kind of guy. My manager is friendlier than I am, and I’m fine with him going to a hockey game or to play golf with customers. There are a lot of people I like and respect. But the relationship ends there.”
That said, his personal investment in his restaurant is huge: “If something goes wrong, it really bothers me. I feel people are coming into my place and it’s my responsibility to make sure everything is the best. If not, it’s troubling. That’s what’s hard for me about this life. I’m always a bit nervous. If someone looks unhappy, I go see the waiter and ask him to find out what’s wrong. I have a level of discomfort until I know everything is perfect.”
Lazzo is another stickler for perfection: “I went nuts when saw a waitress bring customers their wine without a tray.”
Creton takes his responsibility toward staff and customers so seriously that he has plastic cards with directions on how to address customers and fellow staff members pasted around the bar and in the kitchen. And as for correcting employees, he says the secret that he learned when he was the manager of the Playboy Club in the ’70s, was to always start a criticism with a compliment, a method put into play when he asked a waitress to make sure to tie up her hair after telling her how nice she looked. “The flowers first,” he says with a smile.
Lamarche considers firing people the only unpleasant aspect of her job. “It’s never easy,” she says, “but if it’s not working out now, it won’t work well in five years.” Nabwani is even more sad to see good staff leave to find a better job. “It hurts me even,” he says. “I get down. But the biggest validation is when they come back.” The secret to holding on to employees, according to Nabwani, is to treat your staff well. “This is the hospitality industry. If there’s no human touch toward the clients or your personnel, you lose everything.”
For Lazzo, it’s also a matter of keeping up to date. “You gotta be out there and learn every day,” he says. “Being a trendy restaurant is even more of a challenge. I have to be even more on top of things. We travel to New York three or four times a year. I’m travelling to Italy soon to see about wine. And that’s what’s great about this job, we’re always learning.”
Despite Lazzo’s overwhelming enthusiasm for his career, he also feels the pressure. He trains three days a week, never smokes, and makes sure to make family time with his wife and two children. “Restaurant life wears you down,” he says. “If you don’t find that balance, it’s game over.”
And as for the positive? “I like working with young people,” Lamarche says. “It’s stimulating. It keeps me young. They push us to keep up to date. How many people get the opportunity to have a beer with a 20-year-old who isn’t their kid?”
Another high point is simply the thrill of giving people pleasure. “If someone is at Toqué! to celebrate an occasion, after dinner we’ll bring them into the kitchen, where Normand says hello and wishes them a happy anniversary or birthday. That spark in their eye that says ‘wow,’ we made their night, is part of my salary.”
For Creton, his restaurant is more than work, it’s his life. Every Friday night he heads up north for the weekend. “After four days away, I miss being at my restaurant,” Creton says. Any retirement plans for the 68-year-old who runs marathons in his spare time? “When people ask me if I want to sell, if I want out, I say, never! What else am I going to do, go on Facebook?”
Understandably, for Lighter, the attachment is even more personal. “One of my fantasies is that my father comes back, and that I take him to the restaurant, and after all these years, he sees that it’s still packed. I think he would be so pleased. Being in that room, watching people having a good time … it’s very uplifting. The buzz, the energy and the laughter are so gratifying because it’s the result of all your hard work, all those long days and nights.”
Is the customer always right?
We ask the restaurateurs to find out:
Christine Lamarche, Toqué: “No. If they say the wine isn’t good and it is, we say so and tell them that maybe they just don’t like it and we can change it. I recently had a customer tell me a bottle of $600 wine wasn’t good and that he didn’t want to pay for it. But the bottle was empty. We charged them the cost of the bottle, but we didn’t concede.”
Lenny Lighter, Moishes: “Yes. We have quite difficult customers. We keep our cool and always give them the benefit of the doubt. As long as they aren’t abusive, we try to figure it out.”
Imad Nabwani, Le Pois Penché: “Yes, but sometimes you have to draw the line, and you always have to respect the integrity of your place.”
Alain Creton, Chez Alexandre: “Yes and no. We’ve had mobsters show up who want to have a presence at the bar. When I see a client like that who does not belong in my restaurant, I just ignore them and eventually they go somewhere where people pay attention to them.”
Most memorable moments over the years
They have served gangsters, famous chefs, movie stars, comedians, politicians and some great Montrealers. Here are a few restaurateur memories from such choice encounters:
Alain Creton: “I knew (French stage and film actor) Fabrice Luchini was going to be in town for the comedy festival, so I called a mutual friend to invite him to the restaurant. He showed up with Bernard Landry and Gilles Vigneault. They had a great time and at the end of the night, they all started reciting Les Fables de La Fontaine. I respect them so much. It was one of the highlights of my career. And then there was the time (boxing promoter) Don King showed up in a long stretch limousine at 1 a.m. He asked me what was my best Champagne and I told him Dom Pérignon rosé at $1,000 a bottle. He was here until 6 a.m. and at one point they were dancing on the table. At the end of the night, King was asleep in his chair. Their final bill with tip was $18,000.”
Lenny Lighter: “When I started at Moishes 40 years ago, I had lived for a few years in India and wasn’t up on things. Back then people didn’t have cellphones and customers received calls in the restaurant. One day a leading mobster at the time got a call and I didn’t recognize the name so I paged him over the loudspeaker. Everyone went quiet and then a man slowly walked through the dining room toward me to take the call. I still remember the icy look in his eye when he took the phone from me. Another great memory was the night when Marlon Brando came to dinner while he was filming The Score here in 2000. Many customers approached him for an autograph, but he told them all to get lost. And then at the end of the night, he called over a little girl from the next table and made a drawing for her. It was actually kind of sweet.”
Lino Lozza: “Just this year on Father’s Day I got a call from a driver I knew saying, ‘I’m bringing you Bono.’ Bono is my idol! When I got there he was with his managers. He said they would just be having a quick dinner but they stayed for four hours. At the end of the night he said, ‘Are you going to keep standing there and talk, or are you going to sit down with me?’ He loved the city and stayed here for 10 days. I also had a great time with Nicolas Cage, who came here often. I sold him one of my best bottles of wine, a 1989 Barolo from Gaja. It killed me to part with that wine, but he gave me two glasses. And as for the most beautiful woman who came into Buonanotte? Easy: Gisele Bündchen, who came in with Leonardo DiCaprio. And the fact that she spoke Italian was icing on the cake!”
Christine Lamarche: “There is one couple who met at Toqué!. The next time they returned, she was pregnant. And then they came with the baby, and then kids. And then one day those kids were no longer kids but drinking wine along with their parents. Seeing two people become a family … that’s life.”