Friday, February 22, 2008

Maite Montenegro, Maître d’ of Restaurant Daniel

Maite Montenegro, Maître d’ of Restaurant Daniel.
Maite (pronounced ‘my-tay’) Montenegro, the recently appointed Maître d’ of Restaurant Daniel, is the consummate professional. She’s sweet, polite and doesn’t gossip. In fact, we tried really hard to get her to spill the beans but alas to no avail, she watched her words.

She comes from San Sebastian, Spain where her family was in the restaurant business, but she is still impressed with the professionalism of the New York restaurant world. So much so that when she gets the rare day off, Maite and her new husband venture out to other restaurants. She happily admits that she loves food — teased by other staff members at Daniel for it (‘You’re all the time eating!’) — but it’s clear that diplomatically dealing with people is her true forte.


What does it take to really do this job successfully? 

You have to be a good psychologist. You have to read people when they walk in. You probably know if they’re going to be happy whatever you do, or if they’re not going to be happy if you seat them at certain tables. You have to love this business in general ... there’s a lot of hours, a lot, lot of hours. My parents were in this business, and my grandfather. 

How do you think it’s different for the way you’re treated as a woman maître d’ than a man? Do people think of you as a maître d ... do we call you a maître d’ or are you a maîtresse d’?

I call myself a maître d’ ... in English my name is [such] that you cannot really say if it’s a woman or man ... I picked up the phone the other day and the person said ‘No, I’m waiting for Maite,’ and I said ‘It’s me.’ And she said [to someone else at the other end] ‘It’s a woman! It’s a woman!’  

What’s the time that everybody wants? 

I would say between seven-thirty and eight. 

So I’ve always heard if you’re not a regular customer, you get either six-thirty or nine-thirty. 

It really depends on what night of the week or on what moment of the year.  

What happens when people try to bully you about things? 

It happens sometimes, but I’m very patient  ... they know what they want ... it’s a challenge every night, but I love it. 

Do people lie about special occasions to get a better table? 

I hope not! 

When did you decide you wanted to be a maître d’? 

I came here about five years ago. I was working back in Spain in the movie industry. I worked for many years at the film festival in San Sebastian, where I come from. Then I wanted to do something different. I came here and my idea was to stay a couple of months. 

Was this your first job? How did you get the job? 

Yes. A very good friend of my family is a three-Michelin star chef in San Sebastian and I was having lunch with him. I told him I wanted to try this business … so he suggested New York ... he said ‘Let me make a few phone calls’ ... and then a few days later he says ‘I have a friend. His name is Daniel …’  

And the job was as an assistant to the position you have now? 

Yes, I went through all the departments of the restaurant including the kitchen. 

Were there any departments you absolutely hated? 

Um .. the kitchen … it’s not that I hated it, I don’t think I could ever work in a kitchen. It was too crazy for me. I admire them after spending the two weeks there, because it’s a really, really tough job. The pressure is really tough. 

It’s Valentine’s Day this month. Do mostly young couples reserve for Valentine’s Day? 

It’s everybody. If we could get everyone into the restaurant who called for Valentine’s Day, we would have about three or four thousand people. I’ve never seen so many phone calls. The other day we actually had somebody here celebrating their 68th [wedding] anniversary! 

What’s your favorite dish here? 

In general I’m more of an appetizer person, so I love any appetizer. Braised scallops is one of my favorite things. I love the Paupiette of Black Sea Bass. They always tease me here, they’re like ‘You’re all the time eating!’ 

Do you wear mainly black? 

I try not to. I think it’s very important for the customers to know [who is in charge] ... before, when it was a man, it was very easy to know who was in charge.  

Who are your regular celebrities? 

They’re not like what you would call ‘celebrities’ … but Puff Daddy comes here often.

Who else? 

Lance Armstrong … Bill Cosby comes fairly often, Al Roker comes from time to time, Woody Allen. 

Oh, he goes to every restaurant. But Daniel is a very high profile top-of-the-line restaurant, what kind of difficulties can you encounter or a customer encounter when coming to a restaurant like this? 

I think the expectations are always really, really high, whether it’s the first time or because they’re regular customers.  

So who are the biggest tippers? I know you’re not a waitress but I’m sure you hear. 

I would say Americans. 

Women or men? 

I have to say most men pay the bills. 

But women are generally not good tippers … 

No, no, they are! 

What, when you first came here, was most interesting or surprising about the American restaurant business? 

Um … I don’t know if I can generalize, this is Daniel, obviously, but considering that, I I don’t think any restaurant in Spain can even have half the level of detail that I have seen here.

Can you give us an example? 

Everything … from how to serve to the detail of taking care of the customers, service-wise. We have a meeting at five o’clock every day with the entire staff, where we talk about who is coming so that everybody knows about every reservation. And at four o’clock all the staff gets training for half an hour, one day it will be a sommelier talking about a certain wine region, some days it’s going to be about how we take reservations so they understand the logic of how the cover count is spread out and things like that. For me, when I arrived here I thought this detail was fascinating. 

What types of things do you discuss about the reservations? 

We will read out [the names] and say ‘Who is taking care of them? Last time they were not very happy with the wine.’ Or if they haven’t been here for a while, what we can do for them and so on. 

So you take into account the temperament of the customer? 

Yes. I wish in Spain it was like that. I hope they don’t read this in Spain, but I don’t think the service is very good … last year I was thinking about maybe going back to Spain, but then I rethought it. 

Why?

I think maybe I’ve found my place in the world.