The host with the most
Other than the promise of lusty cooking from chef Gabriele Paganelli, from Emilia-Romagna, the biggest thing the new Famoso, in Chevy Chase, has going for it is Ralph Fredericks, the maître d’ who presided over DC’s Coeur de Lion on and off for 15 years. He sat down to talk about his life and times as the most important man in the house.
A lot of people think “maître d’ ” and they think “stuffy.”
It can’t be stuffy or overly formal at all. Warm—the job of memory-making is warm. You must run these restaurants with the efficiency of a general but make the memories with the grace of a great artist. I see myself as the guy back in the day, like the ’30s or ’40s, at places like El Morocco. Or 1950s Las Vegas—without the shmarm.
You’re famous for getting caught up in your customers’ worlds.
I know what happens at every table. If I see the server pour wine an incorrect way, I fix it. If a table is here for business, I want to make sure they get that contract signed. If a couple is here for romance, it’s my job to make the wife feel beautiful and the husband feel like he’s the one who did it. See, food is very, very intimate. The most intimate thing you can do to a person is make love to them or feed them. And I’m not gonna do the first.
So how intimate does it get?
I have clientele who will bring their dress in before they actually dine, looking for advice. And since I’ve already seen them in formal, I know what looks good on them.
Does anything ever unnerve you when dealing with people?
I hate when restaurants make you feel like they’re doing you a favor. It should never be just okay. Before you even say anything, I can tell by your expression, and I’ll take your steak back. Even if you say, “It’s okay,” that’s not good enough. If I have one little cause, it’s the women getting strong on this. And if I’m at my podium and she walks in and says, “I’ll be just one,” I immediately tell her to stop. Walk back four steps. And come to me to try this again. It’s never “just one.” I train them to say, “Tonight I shall be enjoying my own company.” For the rest of their lives they will never walk into a restaurant and say, “Just one.”
You take charge.
Being the maître d’ is one skill, being a manager is entirely another. It’s my job to keep the party flowing. And there’s nothing more fun in the world. If it’s an anniversary, then I ask, “What color were the bridesmaids wearing? How many guests did you have? What did you serve?” Then I’ll ask, “What time was the ceremony?“ “Two.” “Okay,” I say, “at 2:03 pm, when she walked through those doors, had you ever seen anything more beautiful?”
Is there such a thing as getting too involved?
Absolutely. The “d” in maître d’ stands for discreet. You have to give those people just a touch of magic. A true, genuine welcome, without being overly involved. It’s an instinct you can’t develop—got it or you don’t.