In December, Morgan Hughes transitioned from her role as dining captain to Orchids at Palm Court’s newest maître d’hôtel. After a crash course in choreographed fine dining service during the restaurant’s busiest season, she’s found her footing and looks forward each day to welcoming guests to her “home.”
What was your path to becoming maître d’ of Orchids?
I’ve been working in the restaurant industry for the past 10 years or so, since an entry-level job at age 18. I’ve been with Hilton for about four years. I started at the airport Hilton in Florence. Then I moved into a server position here at Orchids in about 2017, 2018. And I just kind of worked my way up through the ranks, so I went from a back server to a front server to a dining captain to the position I’m in now.
What does your job entail on any given night?
Essentially, I’m the general manager, so I’m responsible for the day-to-day functions of the restaurant. The term maître d’ translates essentially to “host of the restaurant,” or “host of the hotel,” so in a lot of ways [I think of it as though] the restaurant is my home and I’m allowing people to come in. In the day to day, it’s so much more than waiting tables. It’s creating an experience, as cliché as that sounds. This building has been here since the ’30s, and if these walls could talk, the memories are unreal. It’s always flattering to see how many people choose to celebrate in this room. Aside from the logistics of being a GM and managing a staff and a service, it’s really the experience we’re providing.
Why is front-of-house service so essential to shaping that experience?
We’re lucky. Our experience is different than any other dining experience I’ve ever encountered. It’s team service. It’s all choreographed to an extent because it is all up to Forbes standards, as well as being synchronized service. For example, if you have a table of seven, you need at least four servers to drop and clear food from that table. So the guest is enjoying their primary server, but they’re also getting to know the entirety of the team through their service.
It’s almost a theatrical experience dining at Orchids. How does it go off without a hitch?
A lot of repetition. For me, I learn through repetition. When people are in training and learning the steps of service we give, they have to jump in and get their feet wet. When you get it wrong, you feel it, because there are several people moving in the same direction. Imagine if you’re line dancing and everyone’s moving to the left and you’re moving to the right, you’re going to know you’re in the wrong. [Laughs.] There are basic standards: clearing from the right, drop in from the left, drop in with your left hand, moving clockwise. Initially, I remember starting and finding it incredibly intimidating. You’re telling me I have to think of what side of the guest I’m on, what hand I’m moving, what direction I’m moving, and who I’m serving first? But eventually it becomes secondhand. It’s amazing.
With casual dining being so popular, do you feel that in some respects the art of fine dining is being lost?
I do. I think this restaurant is a bit of a time capsule. You’re not going to encounter this experience anywhere else in Cincinnati. There’s a level of formality we’re able to provide that I think gets lost nowadays, and I think it’s a beautiful thing. It’s really encouraging when you’re seeing a relatively young staff upholding standards that are so timeless.
What do you do to better yourself in your role?
I started December 1, , which naturally is the busiest time of the year [at Orchids]. I told myself if I could make it through the holidays, I could make it at this job no problem. It’s now past Valentine’s Day. It’s a lifestyle. It’s consuming. It’s the last thing I think about at the end of the day and the first thing I think about when I wake up. But it’s a privilege, not a burden. I’m just happy to represent it.
Orchids at Palm Court, 35 W. Fifth St., downtown, (513) 564-6465