The Lost Art of Maître D’s

What happened to fine dining’s first face?
Marilou Lind of Le Bar a Boeuf is one of the last maître d’s remaining in the city. // Photograph by Jeremy Kramer

If you’re a longtime foodie, you may have noticed a change in restaurants over the last few years. Often, you are greeted by a smiling host or perhaps even the restaurant’s owner. But you are almost certainly not greeted by a maître d’.

Just on the underside of 40, I’d like to think I’m too young to wax wistful about the glory days of restaurant service. But I can’t help feeling a tinge of nostalgia for the maître d’ era. A good maître d’hotel is the dining room’s jack-of-all-trades: taking reservations and finessing the seating chart like a good host while managing the dining room and service staff like an efficient general manager. Maître d’s set up the room, establishing its layout and atmosphere. They know the menu inside and out, and can make recommendations as they lead you to your table. Perhaps most importantly, they cultivate relationships with regulars. At least, that’s how it was.

To confirm that the maître d’ wasn’t just disappearing in my imagination, I talked to Scott Holubetz of Cincinnati State’s Midwest Culinary Institute. As the Hospitality Management program’s co-op coordinator, Holubetz has a firsthand look at staffing trends in the industry.

According to him, two major shifts happened within the last two decades, the effects of which would trickle down to several front-of-house positions. One occurred 14 years ago when the American Culinary Federation (the organization that sets the standards for schools like the Midwest Culinary Institute) lowered its emphasis on front-of-house exposure for students. And in 2008, the State of Ohio put a ceiling on credit hours for associate’s degrees. In response, most culinary arts schools in the state cut service-related courses, focusing almost exclusively on food preparation.

Holubetz says the decisions from the ACF and culinary schools were partly a response to the sweeping technological changes we’ve come to know and (usually) love: check-in kiosks, online reservations, and digitized wine lists. These types of changes had already begun to disrupt the service side of the industry, and it could well be that the maître d’s fate was sealed as soon as the first online reservation was accepted. However, in my opinion, by shifting focus, the ACF exacerbated the maître d’s downfall. In restaurants, at least.

Marilou Lind of Le Bar a Boeuf

Photograph by Jeremy Kramer

Holubetz notes that the position is still flourishing in the private dining world of clubs and senior centers. This makes sense in a sector that’s more old-school by nature, and where regulars are the norm. So if you miss the old-school service that a maître d’ provides, well, join the club.

Or head over to Le Bar a Boeuf. That’s where Marilou Lind holds court from behind the maître d’ stand. A native of the Philippines, she’s built a storied career in our local restaurant industry. In 1978, she was a server at a downtown Japanese restaurant called Kabuki. After leaving her shift, she was stopped by Michael Comisar, owner of Maisonette, who offered her a job at the legendary restaurant on the spot. She worked her way up the ranks before heading to Orlando in 2004 to serve as maître d’ for the Ritz Carlton.

Luckily for us, Maisonette’s former chef, the late Jean-Robert de Cavel, convinced her to come back. He wanted her to help run Table, where she began working in 2010. He stressed the importance of getting to know customers, of cultivating personal relationships. He knew all the regulars’ likes and dislikes and kept a list of birthdays and anniversaries (a practice that Lind continues at Le Bar).

That uniquely personal service is what you get with a classic maître d’ of Lind’s caliber, and her workday is devoted to those relationships. If she knows you, she’ll make the perfect recommendation from one of the restaurant’s many specials as soon as you walk in. She’ll know what server you want, where you like to sit, and what wine you need ASAP. And on weekends, she cuts the beef wellington tableside, an experience that has quickly made its way to the top of my fine dining bucket list. That level of service doesn’t always stop when the workday is done.

“I’ve taken calls from regulars on my off days,” she says. “I’ve even had people come up to me at the symphony or ballet, asking for a table.”

Part of the reason for the disappearance of the maître d’, she explains, is that owners have become more active in the front of house. In an era where successful chefs and restaurateurs can reach star status, owners want to work the room. Ironically, the biggest star chef/owner our city has ever seen brought Lind on because he wanted to stay in the kitchen. “Jean-Robert was more old school,” she recalls. “He felt that his restaurants needed a maître d’.”

De Cavel was often praised for honoring the roots of classic French cooking. I would like to praise people like Lind for doing the same for classic service. And if you’ve ever been wished “happy birthday” as soon as you’ve walked into a restaurant, I’m sure you know what I mean.

Marilou Lind

Photograph by Jeremy Kramer

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