At your service: A restaurant maître d' tells all in 'Your Table Is Ready'
Michael Cecchi-Azzolina talks about what it's like to be a Maitre D' at the fanciest restaurants in New York City. He has worked in the business for three decades telling wealthy diners, celebrities and even the mafia whether or not they can have the table by the window. His memoir is called Your Table is Ready.
DAVE DAVIES, HOST:
This is FRESH AIR. I'm Dave Davies, in for Terry Gross. So what's the most interesting job you've ever had? Well, in his chosen career, our guest today, Michael Cecchi-Azzolina says he's been threatened, cursed at, punched and called every ugly name imaginable. He's also had people press a hundred dollar bill into his hand, sometimes more than one of them. That's because for years he controlled a very valuable commodity - a table at a high-end Manhattan restaurant. Cecchi-Azzolina has worked as maitre d' in several of New York's hottest restaurants, where he's encountered celebrities, captains of finance, plenty of nice, regular folks, and one bona fide mobster who repeatedly threatened him for a perceived slight, a story that has an interesting conclusion.
In a new book, Cecchi-Azzolina takes us behind the scenes of the restaurant world, where we learn not just who gets choice tables and who doesn't, but how restaurant staff in the 1980s and '90s worked, fought and loved in an adrenaline-fueled workplace where booze and cocaine were plentiful. Michael Cecchi-Azzolina has worked as a server, maitre d' and manager in several exclusive restaurants. He also pursued an acting career while working in the business and earned a master's in fine arts from Harvard. And he'll soon be opening his own restaurant, Cecchi's. It's scheduled to open its doors in February. His new book is "Your Table Is Ready: Tales Of A New York City Maitre D'."
Well, Michael Cecchi-Azzolina, welcome to FRESH AIR.
MICHAEL CECCHI-AZZOLINA: Thank you so much. It's great to be here, Dave.
DAVIES: Let me start with a naive question. You know, we all know about going to restaurants and being greeted by a host. That's a job my daughter had in high school at a couple of places. What's the difference between being a host and the duties of a maitre d' at a high-end place?
CECCHI-AZZOLINA: It's very different. And in fact, there were very few hosts when I started doing this. There was someone at the door that was the maitre d' always and had hosts as an assistant. So the maitre d', if you look at the - historically was basically the most learned, experienced person in the dining room. He would - he rose up through the ranks. He got to the point where he knew wine, he knew food, he knew service, and he ran the dining room. He was in charge - the master of the dining room.
Back in the '90s, I believe it was, the IRS cracked down on tipping. Before that, waiters basically never declared their tips. And the maitre d' was part of the tip pool. And so you didn't really get paid very much from the ownership or the house, but what you did was make tips in your part of the pool. That became illegal. And when that became illegal, no one wanted to pay a maitre d' six-figure salaries. So instead of hiring a maitre d', they put a host at the door. And this person did not have the experience of a true maitre d'. And that's how it sort of evolved.
DAVIES: Now, the last time that I tried to book a restaurant at a well-known, expensive place, it was for an occasion - my wife's birthday. I called a month ahead of time to get a reservation on a Thursday night and was told I could eat at 5:30 or after 9 o'clock, which is like, what? You write in this book, that's always going to be true at a hot place. Why? What's going on here?
CECCHI-AZZOLINA: Yes, it is. So you have demand. Demand exceeds what you can offer the public - the general public. And hot restaurants, especially in places like New York City, LA, Chicago, everyone wants to go, especially when they get first opened, especially if they get a great review. So tables are very limited. So who gets these tables at 7 o'clock and 8 o'clock and 8:30? Well, it's regulars. It's people - celebrities. It's politicians. It's friends of the owner, friends of the chef and people that you've known for years that want to come to the restaurant.
With a certain number of tables, what's available? Well, who wants to eat at 5:30? Not very many people. Who wants to eat at 10, 11 o'clock? Not very many people. So these - this number of tables is very, very extremely limited. And so your choice, if you don't know anyone at the restaurant or don't have, you know, the swag that some people get for sitting at the front row of a New York Knicks game, you're not going to get a table. It's really very difficult.
DAVIES: So when you were a maitre d' at a lot of pretty exclusive place - there was one called The River Cafe, which had this - was on a barge in the East River - had this spectacular view of Manhattan. And people would come in and ask for a window table - you know, normal folks who are there on a special occasion - and they would see all the window tables are empty. And you would be steering them to the middle of the room, and they would say, hey, hey, can't you help me here? Don't we - we'd love to do this. What would you do?
CECCHI-AZZOLINA: You know, it was one of the hardest things in the world to do. There were nine window tables, and generally, every evening, each table was spoken for. Now, were they spoken for when we opened at 5:30? No. Would people start coming 6:30, at 7? Absolutely. So you have a guest that's waited a month for a reservation. It's the wife's anniversary or birthday or the husband's anniversary or birthday. And they see these incredible tables staring at probably the most incredible view of any restaurant in the world, and they're not allowed to sit there. Well, people get really, really angry. And what do you do?
First, you tell them I'm so sorry, but those tables are already reserved. What do you mean they're reserved? There's no one in the restaurant. Well, they've been spoken for by a number of people. Well, who? Well, you can't tell who the tables are for. You're not allowed to do that. It's bad policy. So you can't say who they're for. You can't say - especially at The River Cafe, the owner never wanted us to say it was held by the owner. So you just have to really deal with irate people quite a bit. And so, you know, you try to get them a nicer table. I'm so sorry. I can't do this - which leads to a lot of anger. Hence me being punched, cursed at, yelled at, screamed at. Most people are very nice about it. And when you can, you'll give them that window table.
Now, someone walks in, and they want a window table, hands me a hundred dollar bill. What do I do here? Can I give a table up? Sometimes, yes, you can do that because you know that they're there at 5:30 or 6 o'clock and you need a table at 8 o'clock for, oh, let's say Barbra Streisand. You'll say, look, I can do this for you. I'll need the table back at a certain time. Or you just go for it and say, hopefully somebody's going to be late. So, yeah, so tipping absolutely always helps. Being nice always helps. I've given a window table and gotten myself into trouble because this lovely couple was there for their 30th or 40th anniversary, and there's no way I wasn't going to give them the best table in the restaurant. That's where you take the risks, and it comes back and haunts you sometimes.
DAVIES: So you've got some discretion here. What should we know about whether to tip the maitre d' or not? Should you always do it? Should you do it when you're looking for a special favor? How much should you tip?
CECCHI-AZZOLINA: If you are not known and you're walking into the restaurant for the first time and you really want to eat there and you're told very nicely and very politely by the maitre d' that, I'm so sorry, there's nothing available, I would absolutely tip that person. I do it. If I go out and I need a table, I will do it all the time. And I'll tip on the way in. That pretty much guarantees you either the answer that, yes, you're going to get the table or I'm sorry, I cannot do this at all. I've been handed - at Le Coucou, someone handed me five brand-new hundred dollar bills for a table for the next night, and I turned them down. I didn't have it. And nor was I going to be bought for a table. That I won't do.
DAVIES: And in that circumstance, you hand them the money back?
CECCHI-AZZOLINA: I handed it right back to them, yeah. My host next to me, their jaws dropped. They couldn't believe I did that. But, you know, I don't want to be bought for one. I don't want to be indebted for not great reasons. It just never sat well with me. But have I taken these tips? Of course I have. People are showing gratitude, and I'm in the hospitality business and that's what you do - the basis of the business.
DAVIES: How do you hand someone the bill? Do you - is it the handshake with the bill in the palm? I mean...
CECCHI-AZZOLINA: Yes. It's usually - it's folded. Yeah, it's folded and it goes in your hand. Though there are those people that walk in the door with swag and they put the hundred dollar bill right down on the stand. That's for you, sir. If you can help me, I'd truly appreciate it. So but the best way to do it is to - just to put it into someone's hand and shake them. See, if you can help me, I'd appreciate it.
DAVIES: You said you can actually tell the - how much the currency is by the feel of it. Seriously?
CECCHI-AZZOLINA: Yeah. You know (laughter), you talk to other maitre d's about this, and they'll all say the same thing. You know, I mean, no one gets a $5 bill anymore. But you can tell the difference between a 20, a 50 and a hundred. It's just the wear. And the hundreds are always brand-new. They're crisp. You know it's a hundred. You also know who's handing it to you. You know that this person is not going to give you a $20 bill though I have had a customer, whose name I will not say, who's incredibly well-known, for maybe 40 years. And the guy's given me 20 bucks for 40 years. (Laughter) And so inflation has not caught up with his tipping. But he's a wonderful man, and that's what he's done.
DAVIES: You've got to be a diplomat here because, you know, people make absurd demands at times. I mean - you know, about the food, about the seating, about the noise, about the temperature or whatever. You describe one person that you nicknamed the Shah, I guess, because he's so imperious. How do you summon, you know, the gracious kind of voice that you need to deal with that?
CECCHI-AZZOLINA: It can sometimes be the most difficult thing in the world, when this person that you're dealing with is truly obnoxious and hateful. We're in the hospitality business, you know? We're there to make everyone feel welcome. And you do your best. You try. This particular person was egregiously awful. And I probably - and I don't know why I let this person stay in the restaurant and took his reservations beyond that. I have no idea why I did it, but I did it. And you just summon up this inner hospitable gene that we all have, those - these lifers in the business, who we are. And you try and make the best of it - though I have thrown people out. I just will not take their crap, for lack of a better word.
DAVIES: Well, I thought maybe I - we do a little mini-role-play here where you show me the voice that you use when the answer is no. And this is kind of from something that is in the book. I'm arriving. I'm the assistant of a very important person who I haven't named and had asked when we called for the reservation for a private room. This is at Le Coucou, where there are no private tables. And we arrive early. And so I'm arriving, and I say, well, you know, as you know, the person I'm with is extremely important. He can't be in a public place. So I assume you have a private room or a private table for us.
CECCHI-AZZOLINA: We don't. This is a public restaurant. We have no private rooms. I'm so sorry.
DAVIES: Now, you can't - you don't understand her. This person is dating a member of the British royal family. He simply can't be - she simply can't be out among the public. There's - there are partitions. There must be some way you can accommodate us sir, right?
CECCHI-AZZOLINA: There absolutely is not. Like I said, it's a public restaurant, and people come here to dine and to be seen. If your guest doesn't want to be seen, I suggest perhaps this is not the best place for you. But I have no private space, nor do I have a partition. I can seat you at a corner table, but there'll only be one other person next to you. But you're still in the middle of a very public dining room.
DAVIES: All right. And in this case, that was eventually accepted?
CECCHI-AZZOLINA: Eventually, yes, with great indignation, I have to say. But they wound up taking it. And, you know, they - these people came in early, a half an hour early for a reservation. And this is Le Coucou, and it was the hottest ticket in town. And we booked out weeks in advance. And it was - people waited a year for a reservation. And they came early, wanted to be seated early. Well, I'm obviously not going to have the table. You try and seat tables as close together as possible to maximize revenue. You know, you're - it's business. You need to pay the bills.
They came half an hour early and were very angry that the table wasn't ready. And I apologized, I'm so sorry. Why don't you just wait at the bar? Well, we can't wait at the bar. We'll be seen. Well, you can go - Le Coucou's in a hotel, the 11 Howard Hotel, downtown New York. And I said, well, they have a lovely library upstairs or a bar. You can go up there. Well, we can't do that. We came here to have dinner. OK, I'm very sorry then. You need to just stay at the bar. And as soon as the table's ready, I'll be glad to seat you.
Well, they went to the bar. And you know what happened? No one knew who they were. Nor did anyone care. So they stood there for half an hour. I don't even think they had a drink. And then, eventually, the table was ready, and I seated them at the table.
DAVIES: Let's take a break here. Let me reintroduce you. We are speaking with Michael Cecchi-Azzolina. His new book is "Your Table Is Ready: Tales Of A New York City Maitre D'." He'll be back to talk more in just a moment. This is FRESH AIR.
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DAVIES: This is FRESH AIR, and our guest today is Michael Cecchi-Azzolina. He spent years in New York as a maitre d' of some high-end restaurants. He has a new book. It's called "Your Table Is Ready: Tales Of A New York City Maitre D'."
This book is full of fascinating, really fun tales of restaurant life. And you did a lot of this in the '80s, when, as you said, you know, Studio 54 had closed at some point and people started going to high-end restaurants to have a lot of their fun. And it was amazing to me how much drinking was done, you know, by the staff during their shifts - bartenders, servers, others. I mean, did owners know and tolerate this?
CECCHI-AZZOLINA: Good question. You know, I think it's an old standard in the business that you know your bartenders are going to steal and drink. And so it depends how much you want to lose...
CECCHI-AZZOLINA: ...And what you're willing to put up with. Now, do they all do that? No, not at all. But people do drink. The '80s was like the Wild West in New York City. People were partying. You know, you had Studio 54 that glamorized cocaine and alcohol and sex. And it was the lead-in to the restaurant world. And if you knew the bartender, you got a drink. Even if you didn't know the bartender, you got a drink. People drank in places that I worked and other restaurants that I know of, many through the whole shift. We had a bartender that was an ex-New York City policeman, and we used to call him Dr. Dewar's 'cause he'd polish off a bottle of Dewar's during a shift. It was standard practice back then.
DAVIES: Well, you know, we're talking about this in general terms. I mean, you talk about doing it yourself. Even when you were at Le Coucou where - you know, it's stressful to have to be managing people who want all these exclusive tables and telling people no and trying to get tables cleared in time for the next celebrity to come in. And you say, like, there are times I needed a shot of vodka to keep going. Wow. Can you stay mentally sharp when you're doing that?
CECCHI-AZZOLINA: Well, you're not getting drunk (laughter), for sure. But sometimes, to steady the nerves, about 8:30, 9 o'clock, when you've got 50 people waiting at the bar, waiting for a table. And you're behind. And everyone's looking at you with the death stare and about to stab you, I would run behind there, get a chilled shot of vodka and go smile, take a deep breath and get right back into it.
CECCHI-AZZOLINA: And were other people drinking? Yeah, of course. People find a way to do it. Through the years, I've had to fire people who were on the floor absolutely drunk. I've had situations where service would go down to their locker or out back and have a flask and come up. And by 10, 11 o'clock at night, they were slurring their words. People - it's a very, very, extremely stressful job. The demands, especially in fine dining with a very high caliber clientele, it's incredibly stressful. People are demanding. Even ones that aren't demanding, you're held to a standard. And that standard must be abided by.
Restaurants were run, and most - some cases, they still are run like the military. This had to be done precisely this way. Food had to - order had to be taken within 5 minutes. Drinks had to arrive at the table 2 minutes after they were ordered. Your entrees had to be served 10 minutes after the appetizers were cleared. Then dessert menus. It was a very strict protocol. Now, when you have a restaurant, when each table is booked to the maximum from 5 to 12 o'clock at night, you need to keep this thing moving straight through the night - plus, dealing with people that want to talk to you.
They have questions. They expect you to be pleasant. Customers that you know, they want to hear about your family and what you did that day. And you need to balance all of this. You're juggling this. You're juggling a kitchen that's very stressed out because they're trying to put the food out, a maitre d' at the door who needs tables, customers who are demanding. It is incredibly stressful. And people do go to alcohol and drugs to get through it. Historically, my 40 years in the business, it's always been that way. Not everyone.
DAVIES: The other thing besides booze and cocaine we find is sex, a lot of it - among staff, among guests, between guests and staff, a lot of this on the premises. Was this everywhere? Did owners know about this stuff?
CECCHI-AZZOLINA: Did owners know? You know, it's really tough to say. Look; as we've gotten into the 2000s and the teens and all that, and all the incidents that have been documented and caught where owners were actually abusing staff - so obviously, they did know because they were doing it. This didn't happen back then.
DAVIES: You mean owners were sexually preying upon staff? Is that what you mean?
CECCHI-AZZOLINA: Yes, preying upon staff. Yeah.
CECCHI-AZZOLINA: I mean, they're documented cases, you know?
DAVIES: Yeah, not - yeah, that's not unheard of. Yeah.
CECCHI-AZZOLINA: The #MeToo movement highlighted many of these. And a couple of owners had to divest themselves from their restaurants because of it. But back then, it was - look; like I said, this is after Studio 54. And it was a party. You had customers coming in handing you hundred-dollar bills with a gram of cocaine in them. They expected you to party with them. And they did. Did the owners know? I can't imagine that they didn't know. But at the Water Club, the general manager was getting as wasted as everybody else and eventually got caught for embezzlement. So from the top down, it was happening. Not necessarily just the owners, but the managers were doing it, absolutely doing it. So it would happen. And you have alcohol. You have drugs. Well, the next logical thing is sex to happen. And it happened quite frequently in very different establishments.
DAVIES: You know, and there are some wild stories here, some involving you that I couldn't come within a mile of describing on this show. But they make for interesting coffee. And, you know, I know that as you kind of got a little older, you eventually married and had a daughter. Has your wife read this stuff? Is this going to be news to her (laughter)?
CECCHI-AZZOLINA: I have two daughters. And, yes, she has read this stuff.
CECCHI-AZZOLINA: I have the most wonderful wife in the world. And she's - you know, she's read the book in bits and pieces, you know, all the way through and actually helped, you know, do some good editing for me. But only recently has she read the entire - the book in its entirety, straight through. And I'd see her sitting on the couch just laughing through the whole thing. She loved it. And, no, she's not upset by these stories.
And, look; did I have to put all these stories in? And I thought about this. And I thought long and hard about it. And I had to because I wanted to document this exactly the way it was. It's not about braggadocio. I'm not the, you know, the high school football quarterback bragging about his exploits. I really wanted people to know what it was and what people went through and the detriment that it caused, not just, you know, the party that it was, because the party ended. It didn't last. Though, this is for me. But the restaurant, yeah, it's still ongoing. And there's cases now that things are still happening, which is crazy to me.
DAVIES: When you say the detriment, what do you mean?
CECCHI-AZZOLINA: Well, it - people just didn't last, I mean, from the alcohol and from the drugs and AIDs. AIDs hit, and the sex killed people. And I was with a bunch of my co-workers that died because of this. And it was a horrific time. So it had to stop at some point, you know? These things don't go - they stop until, then, people forget about it and start up again, which I think happened in the 2000s.
DAVIES: We need to take another break here. Let me reintroduce you. We are speaking with Michael Cecchi-Azzolina. His new book is "Your Table Is Ready: Tales Of A New York City Maitre D'." He'll be back to talk more after this short break. I'm Dave Davies, and this is FRESH AIR.
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DAVIES: This is FRESH AIR. I'm Dave Davies, in for Terry Gross. My guest Michael Cecchi-Azzolina spent decades in the New York restaurant world. And he has a new book about his experiences, particularly working as a maitre d' in some high-end restaurants where tables were much in demand and he was subject to threats, insults and also very generous tips from guests anxious for the perfect dining experience. His new book is "Your Table Is Ready: Tales Of A New York City Maitre D'." Tell us a little bit about your family.
CECCHI-AZZOLINA: I grew - Bensonhurst at the time was very Italian American, and I'm from an Italian American family. I was raised by my mother and didn't really know anything of my father till many, many, many, many years later. But things I heard about him were not the best in the world. And the - my uncles and cousins and their friends were - and it was a very tough neighborhood. And my uncles and cousins and their friends were all in some way connected to the mob on various different levels. One was a bookie. One would come home and would have jewelry there. I'm not sure what they were doing.
I never knew what they did, but I knew they drove Cadillacs and that they always dressed well, and everyone had a fedora, and it was of its time, you know. This is the days of Sinatra and the Rat Pack and Dean Martin, and my whole family looked up to these guys. They were the role models.
DAVIES: Yeah. Describe the Sunday afternoons after Mass at your house.
CECCHI-AZZOLINA: So I'd go to church and do my thing and come home. And my mother would be - or my aunts would come over, and they'd be making the sauce and, you know, roast beef, etc. And my uncles would come and they'd sit in the living room and they'd play poker. And this was the beginning of my service career - serving Mass was because when you - at church, you're - it's called serving as an altar boy, and you're laying out the linens for the altar, and you're polishing the gold plates for the communion and for the altar, and you're filling up the cruets for the wine and the water. And so it's basically setting up a restaurant.
And so that's - began my career. I'd come home, and my uncles would be there, and they'd be playing poker, and they'd be smoking up a storm. And I would go in there, and I'd clean ashtrays, and I would give them shots of their scotch and take it back to the kitchen, and I would clean the room. And they'd sit there playing poker while the ladies cooked.
DAVIES: And there would be a line of Cadillacs double-parked on your street, you say. And you describe one moment when one of the neighbors made a mistake by complaining to one of these folks who - by the name of Mugsy, if I have this right - about, yeah, you're blocking me in. What happened then?
CECCHI-AZZOLINA: This was a cast of characters, and Mugsy - oh, man. I mean, these were young guys, and his car was double-parked, and he was drinking heavily this afternoon. He was losing at the poker game, and there's a knock at the door. And then my aunt says, oh, hey, Mugsy, you got to move your car. He was not in a good mood. And you can just see his face - just the expression on his face was like, what? And he goes outside, and this guy needed to get his car moved. And he got so angry and so pissed off. He went to his trunk, pulled out a lug wrench and smashed all the guy's windows on his car and said, this is what you want? You want to move? OK, fine. I'll move now. And so he backs his car up and lets the guy get out with his smashed windows going down the block.
DAVIES: Wow. And tells him, don't ever park here again.
CECCHI-AZZOLINA: Yeah, it was a very - you know, it was a very tribal environment, and it was a very violent neighborhood. Each block had different gangs, and you couldn't go down certain streets.
DAVIES: What did you make of this? What was your impact on you as a kid, seeing this kind of stuff? Was it appealing?
CECCHI-AZZOLINA: Was it appealing?
DAVIES: You know, I think about "Goodfellas," you know, and...
CECCHI-AZZOLINA: Yeah, yeah, I was always the smallest. And I was very lucky because my cousin Jimmy Leg - he was one of the last people to get polio and had a brace that was on his leg - was a legend of the neighborhood and a high bar champion and known as the - one of the toughest guys in the neighborhood. And my stepbrother was one of the toughest guys. So I was always protected. But these guys were always getting into trouble, into fights. And it wasn't me. It wasn't me. I was, of course, there because you had to be there. But I got into one fight my whole life, and the kid beat me up. So I got out as soon as I could. I left when I was 17 years old.
DAVIES: You know, you mentioned that your mom would work in an office. And there was this guy there who you knew as your Uncle Joe, and people would come for - and line up for a few quiet words with him to take care of some mysterious business. Who was your Uncle Joe? What did you eventually learn?
CECCHI-AZZOLINA: Well, my mother worked in a real estate office, and in summers she would bring me there. We - you know, we didn't have much money, so there was no summer camp or anything like that. And I'd just play on the street outside. And this guy, Uncle Joe - you called - you know, you grow up, you call a lot of people your uncle, your - and they're not. But so he was Uncle Joe. He would come in every Friday and sit at this desk at the front and people would come in and have a few words with him and leave. And he always came in, and he'd always - you know, he'd see me, go, Mickey, and he'd squeeze my cheek, and he'd hand me a dollar bill, and then it'd be time for lunch.
And he'd say, come on, Mikey, let's go and have lunch. And we go around to a bar around the corner where he'd walk in, and there'd be a bunch of guys in fedoras. And he walked in, they all kissed him, and I assumed that he was giving them dollar bills as well. I didn't know. And I'd get propped up on the bar and we'd eat - I'd have a pot roast sandwich that I could taste today. It was the most delicious thing in the world. And that's what I knew of this guy. Jump ahead maybe 15, 20 years later, I'm reading the newspaper, and I see on the front of the newspaper, Joe Colombo shot. And I look at it, and I realize that was my Uncle Joe - the head of the Colombo crime family, Joe Colombo. I had no idea.
DAVIES: Wow. You mention in passing in the book that there was a time where your mom was in the hospital for a long period and you were in the care - kind of a foster care situation with friends of friends, which was a pretty traumatic time.
DAVIES: I'm not sure how much you want to describe here, but what happened during that period?
CECCHI-AZZOLINA: Well, my mother had to go to the hospital. It wound up being for a year. And this was in the second grade, so I guess I was 7 years old. And none of my uncles or aunts stepped up and said, oh, they would take care of me. So she found a foster situation of people that she knew, and I stayed with them basically for a year. And it was pretty horrific. There was - I guess one of my introductions to it was - there was a son and a daughter, and they were caught stealing. And what she did - she grabbed them. She heated up the stove, one of the grates on the stove, and she put their fingers on it and she burnt their fingers, said this is what you get if you steal. So it was that - that sort of set the tone for a year there, which led to basically a year of pretty bad sexual abuse. And, you know, you - you're scarred by that.
And, look, I am not the only person that's been sexually abused, and there are millions of us out there. And it really impacted my life and I think a big reason why, at 12 years old, I was doing cocaine. You try to kill that part inside of you that you don't know what to do with - you know? - that you can't give voice to. And the restaurant business was sort of a natural evolution for me because the anesthetic was always there and for a lot of my coworkers. Whatever everyone's issues were, I'm not sure, but, you know, you're thrown into a place and you're there for a reason and you bond for a reason. This was one of my - this was my reason. And it went on for, you know, a number of years till I finally had to get sober.
DAVIES: Did you get therapy?
CECCHI-AZZOLINA: I did. I did. And - for five years. And after about five years - I did unbelievable amounts of therapy - body work and talk therapy and I worked with psychics. I worked with an array of people - Indian shaman. And I got through it. I got to the point where I realized I wasn't trying to kill myself anymore. And so as I write in the book, you know, I'm not averse to that shot of vodka at 9 o'clock, but I'm not trying to kill myself. And I don't get drunk and I don't have hangovers.
DAVIES: We need to take another break here. Let me reintroduce you. We are speaking with Michael Cecchi-Azzolina. His book is "Your Table Is Ready: Tales Of A New York City Maitre D'." We'll continue our conversation in just a moment. This is FRESH AIR.
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DAVIES: This is FRESH AIR, and we're speaking with Michael Cecchi-Azzolina. He spent decades in the New York City restaurant industry, many of them working as a maitre d' at high-end restaurants. His new book is "Your Table Is Ready: Tales Of A New York City Maitre D'." You left New York and went to Florida for a while. And you describe that you'd begun working in a candy store where there were opportunities for theft, which started with pastries and then grew to cigarettes and then go to selling drugs, and that you were headed in a pretty scary direction. So you went to Florida, where I guess you had some relatives, right?
CECCHI-AZZOLINA: Yes, down in Hollywood Beach.
DAVIES: Right. Graduated, got a degree - college degree down there, then got into a graduate program in English at NYU. So that brought you back to New York City and got you your first restaurant job. I just have to note that you - when you describe looking for an apartment in the East Village, you go to one building, and you realize that's where your cousin Eddie had died of an overdose and another street where your cousin Richie had been murdered. But you were back in New York and on your way to a new career, huh?
CECCHI-AZZOLINA: Yes. Yeah. I came back to New York and needed an apartment, and I looked for months. I'd stayed with my brother, and he wanted me out. I had to find the place. And so I found a place in the East Village. But looking around there, the East Village was the demilitarized zone basically. It was like the South Bronx at the time. It was burnt out. On the block where I eventually got an apartment, half the block was burnt out. And you'd leave in the morning and three doors down or three buildings down, the drug dealers would, in this vacant, burnt-out building, would take, like, the second or third floor and fortify it. And there'd be a line of people waiting to buy drugs - guys in suits and prostitutes and drug addicts and you name it - students. And they would lower a bucket from the window, put money in it, raise the bucket. Then the drugs came down.
And it was, you know, the regular thing there. Cab drivers wouldn't go east of Second Avenue. So I lived in - it's called Alphabet City, and the avenues go A, B, C and D. And they would drop you off about two avenues before your apartment. And I'd have to walk home, a lot of times in the middle of the street to avoid the muggings and drug dealers that were going on. And many times, I'd have to call the police from the payphone on the corner to come down the block so I can get into my building.
DAVIES: Before we completely leave the world of your family and mob connections, you tell a story of working as a maitre d' in one of the restaurants - this might have been The River Cafe, which was a really high-end place, where you ended up offending a wise guy. You want to tell us the story?
CECCHI-AZZOLINA: Yeah. It was a quiet night at the restaurant, and I'm sitting down at my table having dinner. And this gentleman comes into the bar, closely followed by a valet who comes up to me and says, Michael, this guy's drunk. He blocked the door with his car. He won't give me his keys. We've got to get him out of here. So I turn to the bartender. I give him our signal to cut him off, and he doesn't do it. He serves him a drink. And the next thing I know, the guy's sitting there drinking at the bar. Well, I go to the bar to get a glass of water, a glass of wine, and this guy comes over to me - and he's about 5'8'', 200 pounds - pushes me against the wall. He says, you tried to cut me off. I don't know who you are, I don't know what you do, but you disrespected me. And I'm going to take care of you. And at that point, I thought, they're going to break my legs or they're going to kill me. The detective comes back, says don't worry. You know, we'll get you out of here tonight. I spent the next couple of weeks in absolute fear of my life.
Turned out there had to be a sit-down through one of my regular customers who was in one family with another customer who's in another family. They had a talk, and they came back to me and said, Michael, next time he comes in, you've got to go up to him and say, Mr. Anthony, I'm sorry for having disrespected you. Let me buy you a drink, which is what I did. He came in about a week later to do that. And then he started getting phone calls at the restaurant and wanting special services. And I thought, I am going to be his lapdog for the next, you know, five years. Walk in the restaurant one night, same bartender's at the bar, smiling. He says, did you see this? He's holding up a copy of The New York Post and the headline, this guy - mobster was killed. They offed Fat Anthony in some nightclub he was trying to shakedown, and that ended it.
DAVIES: Wow. So that was the end of it all. One of the other things you describe is the two-minute drill that a restaurant would engage in when the food inspector comes. I mean, you're not particularly fond of food inspectors. You think that they are more interested in piling up fines than actually protecting the public from serious harm. But when a food inspector was spotted, what would happen in a restaurant?
CECCHI-AZZOLINA: It's a nightmare. It's - everything stops. That is the worst day of the year for you because - now in New York City, there are letter grades. So you get A, B, C, D, and - or failing. And who doesn't want an A in that window? You have to post these in the window. So the stress of having an A is incredibly difficult, especially when the system first started. Look, I've worked in a lot of restaurants, and many of these restaurants are in very old New York City buildings where it's very difficult to comply with health standards as they are written. It's almost impossible, actually. You know you're not going to hit every point that needs to be hit. So when the health inspector comes in, what you want to do is be as prepared as possible so that the fine you get - and you will get fines, always - is as little as possible so you're not paying - you know, spending that nice revenue on your health inspector fines.
So what I've done in many restaurants is you have a drill. Once the health inspector is spotted and they come in - because they're wearing a uniform, and they have to show their badge - the word goes out through the dining room. And we've used different words in different restaurants - tsunami, souffle, different terms - and to alert the rest of the staff that the inspector's there. So the maitre d' or the host - as soon as the inspector comes in, the maitre d' will stall him as much as possible, and the host will go through the dining room whispering your code word. Let's say it's tsunami. So go to the bar - tsunami. The service - tsunami. Go to the kitchen. And once everyone hears that, they know they have to go to their stations and take care of it.
So bussers will go to the bread station, swipe away all the bread crumbs, throw out all the cut bread 'cause you can't have cut bread there. There can't be a crumb in the station. You make sure that's neat. You run down to the basement. We've had managers run down, pick up a vacuum cleaner, and get on their hands and knees vacuuming up mouse poop because there are always mice in restaurants in New York City. It's impossible to keep them out. The most - the cleanest restaurant, the most - with exterminators and all - cannot stop mice. And there's always a little piece of poop that you miss. Look, we all try to keep it as clean as possible, but it's impossible. So once you see that one little piece - speck of poop in the corner, it's points that are leveled against you. And a certain amount of points mean you fail. So you're trying to pass your letter grades. So someone's doing that.
Bartenders throw out all the cut fruit at the bar. It just gets thrown out because it's illegal. It'll never be up to the temperature that it needs to be. You go into the dairy refrigerator, and you dump out all the milk. Because in the refrigerator, when you're making coffee, say cappuccino, the milk is coming in and out. It's not going to be at the temperature that it's supposed to be for your health inspector. So that gets thrown out.
In the kitchen, anything that's ready to cook, that - so you take a piece of fish out of the refrigerator, put it on the sizzle platter - it's sitting there for the - waiting for the rest of the order to be cooked. So say you've got some steaks waiting to be cooked, and then, the fish goes on last. So the fish sits there waiting to be cooked. By the time it left the refrigerator and sat on the counter and that sizzle plate, it's become illegal because it's too warm. So if the inspector comes in and puts his thermometer in the fish, you fail that, and it's more points against you. So every position in the restaurant has a job on basically throwing out a lot of food.
DAVIES: We are speaking with Michael Cecchi-Azzolina. His book is "Your Table Is Ready: Tales Of A New York City Maitre D'." We'll talk more in just a moment. This is FRESH AIR.
(SOUNDBITE OF JUSTIN HURWITZ'S "SURPRISE")
DAVIES: This is FRESH AIR, and we're speaking with Michael Cecchi-Azzolina. He spent decades in the New York City restaurant industry, many of them working as a maitre d' at high-end restaurants. His new book is "Your Table Is Ready: Tales Of A New York City Maitre D'."
One of the things you write in the book is that - I don't remember who it was. One of the restaurateurs said, you know, what's more important, food or service? And the answer was clearly the service, which, I think, would surprise a lot of people, right?
CECCHI-AZZOLINA: This was Danny Meyer, and it's a question that his restaurants ask. What is better, food or service? Now, what Danny Meyer thinks, I have no idea. I never asked him that. But through my career, it has always been service. Look, you walk into a restaurant, you're going to be there for two, two and a half hours, and this is your dining room for the next two and a half hours. And you want to have a great experience. You want good food. You want a pleasant atmosphere. You want to be treated well, hopefully recognized, or if not recognized, given all the pretenses of a wonderful meal.
Now, if your server's rude, if he screws up the order, if your appetizer comes after your entree, is slovenly and not paying attention, it ruins the experience. On the other hand, if you have a wonderful server and there's a wonderful maitre d' or the owner's in the dining room and the management's there and they're taking care of you and they're on point, if your steak comes out and that steak's overcooked, you know what? We'll recook it for you. We can rectify that in five minutes and save your evening.
But you can't save the evening when you walk in the door, you're not greeted well, you're not treated in a timely manner, the food is mediocre, and you left paying this expensive check and realizing, why did I come here? It's not worth it. But if you're there and you like those people and you get a good feeling from them and the experience is dead-on, you'll forgive an overcooked steak or an undercooked piece of fish. Look, chefs are the hardest-working people in the world. The guys who cook in the kitchen are amazing at what they do. But at the end of the day, it's all about the experience. And the front of house really delivers that experience.
DAVIES: You said one of the things that you would do as maitre d' is something you call touching the tables.
DAVIES: What is this?
CECCHI-AZZOLINA: It's - every single table in the restaurant, I would go to, and I would make sure that everything was good that evening. This way - look, if there's something wrong, tell me. We'll take care of it. Or you get to meet the guest. I love people. It's why I do this. I want to create an experience. I want to know who these people are, why they're there. If they don't want to be bothered, I walk away. But I just walk in - you touch the table and make sure everything's OK and move on.
I learned this from the great chef Andre Soltner, whose restaurant, Lutece, was the No. 1 restaurant in America for many, many years. And after every service, Soltner would leave in his starched whites and his toque and go to every single table to check on how things were. You felt as though the pope was there to - greeting you at the end of a meal. It was so wonderful. And I've done that my whole career now. I just want to be there and see that the experience is correct 'cause that's what we do in a restaurant. We provide an experience.
DAVIES: You've had so many encounters with celebrities in the restaurant. And then you say that most of them were perfectly wonderful...
DAVIES: ...And nice people. One of them that struck with me was one kind of (laughter) inadvertent contact. When - it was early in your days, maybe the first restaurant you were at - La Rousse, I think - where this very heavily made-up woman staggers in the door.
CECCHI-AZZOLINA: Yes (laughter).
DAVIES: ...And collapses. Share this with us.
CECCHI-AZZOLINA: Yeah, it was my first restaurant job, La Rousse on 42nd Street in Manhattan. And it's an August day. And there's - a hot August day. And there's traffic outside. And it's just - you know, it's just pollution and heat. And it's nasty outdoors, humid. I'm in the dining room, air-conditioned dining room, setting up, polishing a glass. And suddenly, this woman comes rushing in through the door, collapses right in the middle of the restaurant. I rush over to her. Can I help you? Can I help you? She needs water. I go get her a glass of water.
Next thing I know, about 15 people come rushing through the door. And I'm like, what the hell is going on here? It turns out that this woman was actually Dustin Hoffman in the film "Tootsie," dressed completely as a woman. And I had no idea. All of a sudden, the wig comes off. And they're taking his makeup off and lifting him up there. And I was absolutely, completely stunned.
DAVIES: Yeah. It was a really hot day. And it kind of became - was overcome. Did you ever have any contact with him after that?
CECCHI-AZZOLINA: He came back a week later with his wife, had dinner, was the most incredible gentleman in the world, left me a huge tip and, you know, had a great time and came to thank me, basically.
DAVIES: So after all these years in the business, after all the positions you've had, you've written this book. And your next gig is to open your own place. Tell us about this.
CECCHI-AZZOLINA: You know, again, the pandemic, it gives you time to think. And I thought I was completely finished. And my older daughter, we're having dinner one night and says, Dad, what are you going to do next? And I had no idea. I honestly didn't think I'd ever work in a restaurant again. And she said, Dad, there's only one thing you can do, and that's Cecchi's. You need to open Cecchi's. It's you. It's in your blood. It's what you have to do. And she was right.
And, you know, it was the middle of the pandemic. And I realized I wanted to do that. And I got on my bicycle and went down all the neighborhoods to see what was available and found a spot, the old Cafe Loup restaurant - L-O-U-P, French for wolf. That was an iconic spot that was big in the publishing world and the arts world and was there for 35 years, was vacant. And I was able to take it. And I'll be opening Cecchi's, hopefully, in February.
DAVIES: What kind of place is it going to be?
CECCHI-AZZOLINA: It's going to be a modern bar and grill. I want the classic West Village restaurant. I want our version of a bistro. Chef Daniel Rose, chef of Le Coucou, a Chicago boy who's made his name famous in Paris - I said, Chef, what's a bistro? What's a real bistro? He said, it's a guy or woman from, say, Alsace with his mother's recipes in his back pocket, gets on the train, takes it to Paris, gets the first spot that he can afford and opens up a restaurant. And that's the genesis of a bistro.
And I thought, well, what's that in America, you know, New York? And for me, it was these bars and grills that I grew up with. It would be a restaurant that was started by a neighborhood guy and his wife or a couple of friends. And they'd have a bar. And they would serve food. And the steins always harkened steaks, chops and seafood. And I would salivate. And I would love the food in there. So I want to create a modern bar and grill where we're giving typical comfort food. We'll have pot pies and steaks and simply prepared seafood and a great burger, great onion rings, great French fries and a really wonderful environment with great service.
DAVIES: And you got a long Rolodex of people you can call.
CECCHI-AZZOLINA: (Laughter) I do. But, you know, you only get one shot. And if you don't do it right, they'll thank me and they're not going to come back. So you know, the pressure's on once again. But I kind of love it. It's an addiction.
DAVIES: Well, good luck with it. Well, Michael Cecchi-Azzolina, thanks so much for speaking with us.
CECCHI-AZZOLINA: Thank you so much. This has been wonderful to be here.
DAVIES: Michael Cecchi-Azzolina's book is "Your Table Is Ready: Tales Of A New York City Maitre D'." He plans to open his own restaurant in New York in February called Cecchi's. On tomorrow's show, Terry speaks with Kumail Nanjiani, who's starring in the series "Welcome To Chippendales" as the founder of the first club to feature male strippers dancing for audiences of women. Nanjiani co-starred in the series "Silicon Valley," co-wrote and starred in the film "The Big Sick" and was the first South Asian to play a Marvel superhero. I hope you can join us.
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DAVIES: FRESH AIR's executive producer is Danny Miller. Our technical director and engineer is Audrey Bentham. Our interviews and reviews are produced and edited by Amy Salit, Phyllis Myers, Sam Briger, Lauren Krenzel, Heidi Saman, Therese Madden, Ann Marie Baldonado, Thea Chaloner, Seth Kelley and Susan Nyakundi. Our digital media producer is Molly Seavy-Nesper. Roberta Shorrock directs the show. For Terry Gross, I'm Dave Davies.
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