The Maccioni brothers of the legendary Le Cirque may as well be The Ringling Brothers of Ringling Brothers Circus. Their Father — the iconic Sirio Maccioni — used to be referred to as a ringmaster of sorts, reigning over the original world-renowned restaurant Le Cirque. Now, his three sons are at the helm of the new Le Cirque (somewhat) in his stead. While Sirio is still very involved, he’s brought on Mauro, Mario, and Marco Maccioni to divvy up the job of running his empire. They do a great job, but like any business (especially a family one), there’s definitely blood, sweat, and tears involved. Trying to keep the timelessness of Le Cirque alive while also making sure it stays relevant is no easy task.
We decided to spend some time getting to know Mauro Maccioni, who not only gave us an inside look into his empire, but who also cooked his famous risotto for us in the Le Cirque kitchen while doing so. He’s definitely one of the most dapper restaurateurs we’ve met, and we loved traveling back with him into the golden age of restaurants — when Warhol was at the next table, when Downtown didn't exist, and where the Upper East Side and Midtown were the only New York food Meccas.
The New Potato: What’s it like trying to keep Le Cirque timeless (and keep its legacy) while also trying to stay relevant and modern?
Mauro Macciono: "It is a very, very difficult job. My father [Sirio] did it as a struggle for many, many years. He had his sons come up to help him. And we’d always joke around and he would be the first to say: “You all did in three what I did in one!”"
TNP: I think it’s a father thing.
"Yeah, he’s very humble, right?! (laughs) It is difficult. There’s always a need in society to be out with the old and in with the new. So it was most definitely a difficulty. We try to maintain our identity. We don’t pretend to be a modern-styled restaurant or anything like that. Our strengths are based in our classic principles of cooking. But that said, we understand the importance of having to be a little fresh, so we try to freshen things up in certain areas. We’ve devised a method of allocating our historic items to one section of the menu, and then allowing the chef to do the other half of the menu in a more contemporary way. So that’s the balance we try to keep.
Right now, we’re still in the process of looking for an executive chef, which is an exciting, yet daunting task. It’s comforting to know that there are still journalists out there who are like, “When you make a decision, let us know. We want to be able to break the news!” I’ve even had networks saying, “I know you’re in the process of selecting a chef and are doing tastings. Why don’t you let us base a TV show around it?” But, being the serious professionals we are, we sort of shy away from that and really focus. So hopefully we can find someone, and they’ll walk out onto the balcony like the Pope did yesterday!"
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TNP: Speaking of TV, I wanted to ask how accurate that HBO documentary portrayal was and what that was like. Did you enjoy it?
"No, it was very painful. Painful in the sense that, even when I look at myself in the movie, I cringe! Everyone says “Oh you’re really funny, you did a good job.” I don’t like to see myself on a movie screen or a TV screen. And I know how crazy our family is. The person who filmed it, and whose movie it is was — Andrew Rossi — is an old friend of mine from elementary school. We didn’t think much of it when back in ’98 he was like “You know what? I’m gonna start filming you guys. I may put some footage together to do something.” We’d have meetings and he’d ask to film the meeting and I’d think, ‘Wow, we’re crazy to let this guy film one of our meetings, because we’re pretty crazy.’ He still filmed them, and then he filmed everything. And sure enough, in about 2005, he approached us and said, “I’m putting it all together and editing it.” And we were like “Really? This guy actually made a documentary out of this?” I was afraid to see it; I was thinking of all the crazy stuff — the screaming, the yelling, the crying, the throwing stuff at each other. He edited pretty well; he still was able to make us look good, but pretty passionate about what we did. So there was a sigh of relief when it came out. Like most families and a lot of businesses, it did capture the reality that things get very discombobulated, but the passion resonated with the people who saw the movie. There was a good level of humor. For people in the business, immigrants from Italy and people with a passion for food, it was a pretty intriguing documentary."
TNP: What’s it like working with family? You work with your two brothers. What’s it like channeling those three separate visions? Do you have very defined roles?
"We have distinctly very different visions, all three of us. When we were younger it was much more antagonistic. We’ve now developed an ability to step back and respect a little bit of the others’ opinion. We understand that — like a relationship — you’re not always going to see eye to eye, but respecting the other person’s opinion is important. We’ve separated a lot of the jobs and things like that. If it comes to more food-oriented decisions, it may be myself. If it is more managerial, service or wine issues, it’s my brother Marco. My brother Mario purposely moved 3,000 miles away to get away from the craziness so he could be his own boss in Las Vegas. He’s out there, and he’s involved in a lot of the decision making. He’s more of the businessman. We definitely all love each other; we definitely all want to kill each other occasionally. But I think for the most part, we make it work."
TNP: And how big of a role is Sirio still playing?
"Sirio is very, very much involved and we’re happy about that. He gave us a very good education, and you know, we get out a little more; we see certain things. So, we feel that on occasion we’d like for him to let us make some more decisions. Right now, let’s just say decisions are made by a committee. He, my mother and my brothers and I each get one vote. It’s kind of democratic. But still, his instincts are very sharp. And as much as it is an equal vote, his vote is the most deterministic."
"Well he’s still quite involved, like I said. He’s still in the dining room. In his younger days — when we were in the original Le Cirque location — it was a small location and really was a concentration of the ‘who’s who’ of New York, be it the financial world, movie stars, artists or politicians. It was really one of — if not the place — the places to be. Now in this day and age, we’re competing with a lot of other people and they’re spread out. Like I say, Le Cirque still has great success, but it doesn’t have the concentration of power that it used to have back in the 80’s and 90’s. My father was a ringmaster in the sense that it was a small space, and there were so many egos to satisfy. This person wanted to sit next to this person; two famous people would want the same table. It really was a juggling act between service and accommodating all these difficult-to-please-guests."
TNP: Do you think it’s less of a focused group because of how many options there are now in the New York restaurant world? It was such a golden age of restaurants back then, but almost because there were fewer options.
"Yes, back then there were fewer options. Back then, it was a handful of places — the whole downtown scene didn’t exist. Like I said, whether you were in the political world, media or finance, there were small little fancy French places on the Upper East Side or Midtown to go to. And you’d know them. The Four Seasons was one of course. La Caravelle and Le Perigord. Places like this really were the attraction. Now there are a billion options. We still attract our fair share of important people, but Le Cirque isn’t solely based on that anymore. We want to return our focus back to food and service, and a grand experience for the guest. We want people to come in here and feel elegant and pampered. Be it the most important person in New York or not."
TNP: When you were younger and you would be in the restaurant, is there one memorable person you remember coming in that was a big deal?
"I remember Ronald Reagan coming in, in 1980. I was about eight. There were so many people that were regulars. Jackie Onassis was there all the time. I remember Richard Nixon. On Saturday morning I had to work, and he’d come in for Saturday lunches and I would serve him coffee."
TNP: Were you here a lot as a kid?
"Yes, my father was always happy to have my mom bring the kids to run around in the restaurant. I do the same thing now; I have a seven-year-old daughter named Stella. And I try (to the dismay of some guests who are like, “Oh my god! Who is this child!”) to bring my daughter and she has an affection for the pastry department. She spends a lot of time making chocolates and helping them out cleaning the pastry area. She loves the girls that are back there."
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TNP: What were some of the problems you addressed when you reopened? What were some of the things you thought, ‘We must do this, we must do that,’ about?
"Well, this idea had circulated that we were not very democratic with our guests. In the old Le Cirque for example, it was a space issue. We had a lot of regulars and a lot of important people. People misunderstood and thought it was about being important or not important. For us, sitting people in a certain area wasn’t about their importance but about regularity — from a famous person like Jackie Onassis to regular guests like the Schnieders, who were an older couple. They were such regular customers; they always wanted a certain table in the front. And because of their regularity, we catered to them. We knew them. Why should I not give preference for an area or table to someone who comes in four to five times a week over a person who comes once in their lifetime?
The lineation that occurred was that certain regulars sat in the front area, and the back was for people who — for us — weren’t the regulars. We tried to mix it up, but they called the back Siberia. So the whole thing was, if you go to Le Cirque, you don’t want to be seated in Siberia. My father used to spend most of his time in that back area and would put some of the better waiters in that area, because we understood that people in that area already felt like they were being mistreated. It was just a very difficult thing to get away from. So, it became that Le Cirque was misunderstood as a place that only catered to rich and famous people, and didn’t cater to the regular Joe who comes in off the streets. That’s categorically not true. So, when we opened up here (a larger restaurant) we made it a point that there were no such politics."
TNP: What was Sirio’s response when things like this were first coming up?
"His response was to say something like, “I spent just as much time in that certain area than the other.’ He was trying to be diplomatic but it’s hard."
TNP: Because its such a change from before, right?
"Yeah it’s a change. And there was no denying that there were certain tables regulars wanted and that they would get. My father used to say this to people, but it was that reality that rubbed certain people the wrong way."
TNP: If you were going to eat in other spots in New York, besides your own, what are some of your favorites?
"As Italians, we have a passion for Italian food. I’m a big fan of SD26. We’re also dear friends of the family. Tony May’s daughter Marissa and I practically grew up together. So that may make that pretty subjective. I’m a big fan of all the restaurants Daniel Boulud does. I love — for Italian on the Upper East Side — Antonucci’s. It’s a great place. I love Shun Lee for Chinese. But mostly when I have free time, I like to cook for myself or have my mom cook."
TNP: I like that. The last question I had was, lets say Le Cirque is still open in fifty years? What do you think the cuisine and the setting would be like?
"Oh boy…I hope the menu makes a complete return to what it was in 1974. That would be interesting right? As you know — with fashion for instance — many things tend to be cyclical. I wouldn’t be surprised if in fifty years they’re eating exactly the same thing as they are now. There are plenty of up and coming places doing dynamic, cool, impressionable food, but we base ourselves mostly in the classics."
On a quest for the next big thing in the food industry, sisters Danielle and Laura Kosann have begun the journey with The New Potato. Profiling chefs, restauranteurs, and celebrities alike with cuisine questionnaires, the world of dining has reached a whole new level of delish.