Brett David has moved from the back, to the front, to the back, to the front of the house…literally. An expert on all things hospitality, the new restaurateur (of new LES bar/restaurant Rochelle’s) has been a maitre d’, general manager, catering company owner, and personal waiter/butler to Anna Wintour. With a signature mustache and beard, and 130 hours of tattoo work, David’s dabbled in modeling and is just one of those purveyors of all things "cool." We hit up this tastemaker for advice to people on different levels of the restaurant totem pole, including the diners that come in. Apparently almond milk will draw in a fashion crowd, maitre d’s should dress the part, the customer is not always right, and GM’s should never sit down…
The New Potato: Three things the New York maitre d’ should know…
Brett David: "1. Dress the part. You are the face of the place. Peacock a bit. You won’t remember everyone’s name, but everyone will remember yours.
"2. You will get f**ked on a Saturday night. It’s inevitable. The owners will over book, people will be late to their reservations and incomplete parties will finally show up and will be double their size. Everyone will yell at you and you’re just there trying to help. Make sure you’re a people person to the core or else you’ll drown. Train your host team to be your biggest asset, and have that one manager on the floor to be your eyes and ears.
"3. Make connections. Take and hand out business cards and push your current career, as well as your dreams, on the side. The difference between a maitre d’ who wants to be an actor and a server who wants to be one is that the maitre d' has the ability to give the VIP director that just walked in the best seat in the house, complimentary champagne and make sure they are not rushed out when they are finishing up. The maitre d’ is the quarterback of the restaurant. The $500+ in handshakes a week (if you’re in a good place) doesn’t hurt either."
"1. Know how to get a table up that has paid its check and is continuing to sit during peak hours when new reservations need to be sat. I’ve been told I’m hands down the best at this. 'Hi folks, how was your night? I’m going to send my busser over to clear the rest of these glasses off your table so we can get it ready for the large group that has been waiting patiently at the bar. They are all here now so I’ll tell them to finish their drinks at the bar and I should have their table ready in five minutes or so. Please enjoy the rest of your drinks and take my card so you can let me know if I can be of any further assistance in the future.'
"2. Don’t. Ever. Sit. Down. The old owner I used to work for when I was his GM used to sit down at “the owners table” five nights a week with his baby giraffes and ignore his entire restaurant. What he — and you — should be doing, is touching all the tables, especially the ones you think may be an issue later that night when you will need to get them up. This will make it that much easier, since you now have an existing relationship with them.
"3. The way you treat your staff is the way they’ll treat your guests. You have a dishwasher that works really hard and always shows up on time? Buy him a new pair of Converses. Pull aside a new staff worker every few days that really works their ass off and give them a nice handwritten card, with maybe a $20 iTunes gift card in it. Say. “Thanks for the hard work. It doesn’t go unnoticed.” I remember I gave one of my line cooks a nice New Jersey Devil’s New Era snap back hat during one of his first weeks at Sons of Essex when he first started because I could see his passion. When I left a year later, he hugged me in tears and said I was the best boss he’s ever had."
Three things the New York diner should know…
"1. The customer is not always right. That notion is as outdated as flared jeans and scrunchies.
"2. You do not have the right to sit at your table for eight when only two of you have arrived. You do not have the right to split a check with 20 credit cards.
"3. You do not get to choose your table. Oh, you like that corner booth in the back by the candlelight? So does everyone else. And, tonight, just like every night, the VIPs sit there. Does that mean in the grand scheme of things those people are more important than you? No. But those people are the ones that get us in Page Six.
"Bonus — I get your point. Tipping is a gratuity, and for good service the standard is 20%. And, it’s true — in NY State you can legally ring up a $1000 bill and not leave a dime. But, it’s unethical. I always think about it this way — if they are serving me, they probably could use that extra $20 more than I could. Pay it forward. And, when you have that once-in-a-blue-moon server or bartender that just blows you away with their hospitality and personality — they shook your hand and made some cute and crass jokes all night, and really made a mark on your experience — leave him or her 50%. You’ll leave on cloud nine. And, that server will not forget you next time."
"They will bring in fabulous people and expect half the bill comped. Minimum. They will always be late. They are allergic to everything and if you don’t have almond milk they will make it seem like the current crises in Kiev is a non-issue. That said, if you want to bring them in, make sure that at least 35% of your menu is veggie/vegan friendly. Make sure you have a good maitre d’ that knows all the key players in town. Once at The General, I saw a host being “less than nice” to Mickey Boardman because she had no clue who he was. I brought him right to his table, even though incomplete, and gave him my card. Crisis adverted. Oh — don’t be tacky. If anything in your restaurant even gives a hint of Sex & the City or Ikea, they will never show again."
Advice you’d give restaurateurs trying to motivate their staff…
"Lead by example. Don’t be that owner/GM that stuffs his face, points his finger, and yells without actually fixing the problem. Let your staff know they can come to you for anything. Drop off a few boxes of Dunkin Donuts once every few weeks to encourage morale. During your pre-shift meetings, call someone out for his/her birthday or because he/she had a great sales night the night before. And then let that person coach the room on how to do it. Learn everyone’s names. When you see a fork on the floor, pick it up. When you see a napkin on the seat, fold it. Your staff will work incredibly hard when they see you do as well. And most importantly — make sure they know that they work with you, not for you."
Advice you’d give staff trying to move up on the totem pole…
"Ask, 'Is there anything else I can do for you before I clock out tonight?' When that porter is carrying a few cases of wine and you just clocked out, give him a hand carrying them to the second floor. Your GM will notice. When a restaurant gets a great Yelp review and they call out the server/bartender who helped them — that makes a world of difference. Remember — you never know who you’re serving. Treat everyone the same."
"Don’t show up at 9 p.m. Go with one other person and walk in at 7 p.m. Dress nice. Actually, dress better than nice. Be kind to the maitre d’ and let him/her know that you called to get a reservation but they were booked. Tell him/her that it’s your anniversary (make sure your partner is steps away) and you want to make this nice, as you completely forgot about it. They should seat you and let you know they need you up by 8:30 p.m. Respect that and leave a great tip for the server. Give the maitre d’ a handshake when you leave."
Who do diners think has all the power, and who actually has all the power at a typical night in a restaurant?
"Diners do not have all the power in the restaurant. I detest Yelp. It gives people the ability to post one side of the story, which is almost never the truth. Objective journalism went out the window with that site. The maitre d’ has more power than anyone. The GM can and should comp your meal if you had an atrocious time. You deserve to be treated with kindness and respect. But, we are not puppets, clowns or performers. Some people I know (these are my “friends”) seem to complain about everything, every time they go out. Look at the common denominator here — just stay home and cook some Cup-o-Soup."
"After working for Anna Wintour as her butler and personal waiter for five years, directly under her chef Hank Tomashevski, I learned a thing or two about what makes catering not cool, but classic. No chafing dishes with a Sterno. Ever. Leave that to the sweet sixteens in Bayonne. Get some model waiters. It’s the standard. I had my own company with pretty boys for seven years. No one wants to see pimply faced high school kids with blow out spiky haircuts serving Bruce Weber his crudités. I know for a fact that Bruce doesn’t. Think all white backdrops. Think clean. Think minimal. Think simple planters. Candles, candles, candles. Once again — think less Sex and the City and more American Psycho."
How to score a finance, fashion AND foodie customer base at a New York restaurant…
"Hire a top PR firm. You’ll pay for it. I assume you’re already good looking, in great shape and super connected, or why would you assume you can just hire someone to “give” you all of this? Location, location, location. Meaning, don’t open up in Sunnyside. These crowds spend money, so make sure the place not only looks nice, but it looks different enough from the other 5,000 restaurants in New York. Cool bathrooms. Warm bread. Fresh flowers. Beautiful back bar. Sexy music. Wonderful staff. That’s why they’re going to come back. Your $14 Grey Goose and soda is exactly the same drink they can buy everywhere else. Because hell — people are ordering Grey Goose not because they want to, but because a multi-million dollar marketing campaign told them to. When that guest orders a High West Rye Old Fashioned — now that’s someone you need to know better."
Your favorite NYC restaurants…
"Minetta Tavern. My parents had their first date here in its previous incarnation 44 years ago. Keith did wonders in his re-vamp. The Black Label burger is great, but the pork chop, when available, might as well be the only thing on the menu for me.
"Raoul’s. Steak Au Poive. A hidden gem that’s classic New York. I’ve been going with my father since I was 12.
"Parm. The Turkey sandwich will change your life.
And, of course, the whiskey wings at Rochelle’s. I worked as a line cook at Hooters on 56th when I was 19, so I’ve always had an affinity for wings (as well as breasts and thighs). I’ve been told ours are hands down the best in town. I owe it all to my chef Julia Gersuk. The true skill of a chef is making something so simple, and yet it’s so much better than everyone else."
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.