Jul 7, 2010

The Last Maitre d' in America

Denis Cerezo decanting a wine on my
birthday last year

When I started my career in the late 80's, the maitre d' ruled the dining room floor of every fine dining restaurant in America. The maitre d' was more than just a manager, the maitre d' was the brand. A good one can bring new customers and keep the regulars very happy. Back then, the customers followed the maitre d' wherever he worked. The loyalty was to the maitre d' and not the restaurant. They commanded
good pay and were known to take home hundreds of dollars each evening. I know. I was a maitre d'. I rose quickly to become the maitre d' of the famed Le Ciel Bleu restaurant at the Mayfair Regent Hotel in Chicago after a quick stint as a busboy and a server. For one year, I was the head honcho. The highly trained and lifetime captains, servers, busboys and bartenders reported to yours truly. I kept my "red book" of detailed information about our regulars- from the famous personalities like Placido Domingo, Sir Georg Solti, Meg Ryan, Robert De Niro to the corporate CEO's with their martini lunches and first generation briefcase cell phones. Christy Hefner was my favorite. She ran Playboy enterprises and she always took the check. Remember, this was in the 80's.

But my life as a maitre d' was short lived because I used that stint to move on with my hotel career in food and beverage, rooms, marketing and eventually to general manager. As America's appetite for formality gave way to the business casual restaurant, so did the status of the maitre d'. Owners took over the door. Younger managers in dark suits replaced the tuxedo clad maitre d'. 

So when I heard that the ten-year maitre d' of The 1913 Room, Denis Cerezo, announced his retirement last month, a big part of the tradition of the classic fine dining restaurant was swiftly taken away. Mr. Cerezo is the last of his breed. He belongs to the fraternity of gentlemen more comfortable in a crisp, black tuxedo than a suit. Guys who perfected how to decant a first growth Margaux and flambe table side without sweating a drop. Denis immigrated to the US from France to pursue his lifetime calling servicing guests. In his ten years at The 1913 Room at the Amway Grand Plaza, he delivered the coveted AAA 5-Diamond award for eight consecutive years. A feat only a handful of restaurants in the US can claim. He has trained hundreds of servers, hostesses, server assistants. Denis has tasted every wine in the 1855 classification and has sauteed table side every seafood dish imaginable. He has double kissed thousand of birthday celebrants, and during the glory days, have lit thousands of cigarettes and cigars for customers. Somehow, I believe that Denis' retirement signals not just the end of his fruitful career, but also the careers of those like him, who were lifetime servants of fine dining rooms around the country. It was one heck of a dinner service - and certainly one that we will always cherish. Congratulations Denis Cerezo. It's your turn to be served the champagne.

My wife and I paid tribute to Denis during his last week 
at The 1913 Room last month

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