Elli Jafari helped open Spago in San Francisco, the Bellagio in Vegas, and Pearl and Nikki Beach in Miami before eventually moving to New York to help open Aer in the meatpacking district. Six months ago she landed the job of GM at Le Cirque. She was at first intimidated by “Sirio’s people,” as the 30-year regulars are called, but they took kindly to her during her first month on the job. And who wouldn’t? We asked her how she navigates the world of VIPs and “Super Super VIPs.”
Next time you’re at Tortilla Flats and you find yourself wondering aloud to your dinner companion, “What ever happened to the guy who did the ‘Dude, you’re getting a Dell’ commercials?” don’t be surprised when Ben Curtis, the man himself, approaches your table and explains the tequila list. While guest-starring on Law & Order and acting in films like the upcoming Proud Iva, Curtis has been a waiter and bartender at the Tex-Mex spot for the past year and a half, and though he dressed up as the Dell Dude for the Halloween party, he’s not about to repeat the slogan for you. He might, however, give you a free shot. “All you have to do,” he says, “is come and have a good time.”
Not long ago, the owner of newcomer Pinche taqueria accused La Esquina of having less-than-authentic tacos. We were interested to hear the thoughts of Helena Elko, a server at La Esquina since its buzzy opening about two years ago (“It’s the only place where we can sell you a bottle of $700 tequila and then we’ll dance in front of you and tell jokes”). But Pinche’s got nothing on La Esquina, according to Elko. “Of course you’re going to start a war to get attention if you talk shit on La Esquina,” she says, “because everybody goes there.” And just why does everyone go there? We asked the waitress.
Brianne McDowell played the part of the Little Mermaid at Tokyo Disneyland before she came to New York. When she’s not trying to make it as a dancer, she’s a nimble server at STK, navigating its packed front lounge. Since the place celebrates its first anniversary with a party tomorrow, we thought we’d ask her whether that “chick-friendly-steakhouse” thing ever took off.
Thomas Meaney spent three years as a traveling actor before moving to New York this summer and becoming a waiter at Bar Martignetti, the wannabistro that for the past year has been the locus of the preppy pickup scene. Apparently the nightly balance of 60 percent women (by his estimate) has worked out for him so well he met his current girlfriend on the job. “We got to talking about the mac-and-cheese,” he recounts. “Later her friend said, ‘Here’s my friend’s number. She thinks you’re cute.’” We asked Thomas what else goes on amid the sea of pink shirts.
A couple of years after he started working at Tao in 2003, Winston Gitonga and two colleagues founded Shiftdrink, a Website with insider information on restaurant working conditions written by and for industry professionals. When he’s not running his Website (now up to 2,800 members), Gitonga is flashing his wedding ring and keeping customers from climbing the Buddha at Tao.
Jennifer Fitzgerald’s name isn’t exactly German, but that didn’t stop her from springing for a handmade dirndl on eBay after she took a job at Killmeyer’s Old Bavaria Inn two years ago. Since then she has supplemented her grad-school training in English with an education in wursts and weisses and is putting it to good use this week as Oktoberfest kicks into high gear.
As a waiter in Brooklyn, Phoebe Damrosch had the opportunity to serve one of her heroes, Thomas Keller. She parlayed that encounter into a job helping to open Per Se where, after a crash course in Gewurztraminer jelly (and even dancing lessons to improve her moves on the floor), she eventually became a captain. The result is her memoir, Service Included: Four-Star Secrets of an Eavesdropping Waiter, out today. We asked her about vomiting patrons, fancy pens, and recent speculation that Chef Keller is spreading himself too thin.
Under chef Christopher Lee, Chris Wilgos worked his way up from a runner to a captain at Philadelphia’s premier restaurant, the Striped Bass. When Lee replaced chef Paul Liebrandt at Gilt about a year ago, Wilgos followed. He’s been waiting tables and acting here ever since. We asked him about his wealthy clientele and those who yearn for Le Cirque.
Arkansas native Allison McDaniel felt right at home when she started work at Justin Timberlake’s buzzy barbecue joint Southern Hospitality. Not only did she join a wait staff of fellow southern belles, but she was right across the street from Brother Jimmy’s, where she waited tables for three years. “There was a vibe of rivalry when we first opened,” McDaniel tells us in her southern drawl, but these days her former co-workers at Jimmy’s happily spill in to gawk at celebrities like Tommy Lee. We asked McDaniel about serving the man himself, and how to thwart the haters.
Chris Stein was a server at La Esquina before he started work at the equally atmospheric if much smaller Smith and Mills, where he’s the only man on the floor. Does he miss working at a larger spot? “Other jobs there have been managers saying the same shit to you over and over, and trying to get you to sell certain things,” he says. “Here, there aren’t any of the gross vibes. A lot of the times the owner is having a drink also, or we’re all having a drink.” Sadly we weren’t having a drink when we chatted with Stein, but that didn’t make our conversation any less spirited.
For the past five years, actor Tom Harlan has played Mars 2112’s Dr. Mars, who works alongside Empress Glorianna, her right-hand man Orion, and QTP, a.k.a. Cutie Pie the Math Wiz. “Most of the Martian actors have gotten positive careers,” he says. “A lot of them go on tours.” Not him, though Carlin boasts that though he’s been on Chinese TV, he isn’t leaving his sweet gig anytime soon. We asked what’s keeping him at Times Square’s most famous (infamous?) theme restaurant.
Actor Cass Buggé found work at Freemans almost a year ago, shortly after the restaurant expanded and began serving brunch. Unbeknownst to her, Frank Bruni may have been one of her first customers. So does she agree with Bruni’s assessment of indifferent service? “Initially we got a bad rap for being rude,” she says. “I know that’s sometimes the rumor on the street, but if you go to Freemans, you’ll see the people are really nice. I’m really nice!” After asking her about her job, we couldn’t agree more.
We normally reserve our Ask a Waiter column for, well, waiters (and bartenders, maître d’s, sommeliers, and the like), but if you’ve got $7,500 a year to blow on a service like Four Hundred — started in March by Tony Abrams along with Eugene Remm and Mark Birnbaum of Tenjune— you can also call upon still another industry professional: the lifestylist. Assuming you have his unlisted office number, you can contact Michael Lerner and ask him to make your every wish and whim come true, whether it be scoring you a table at Per Se or flying Kobe beef to your derby party in Kentucky. We asked Lerner how he works his magic.
How does Ania Zawieja describe her job as a sommelier? “I drink a lot and try to remember.” Rather than attending sommelier school, Zaweija got her start at a Philadelphia wine bar that rotated its 120 glasses every week. She eventually went on to help open Café Gray, then the Modern, and finally — after the food-and-beverage director of Joël Robuchon’s then-soon-to-open New York outpost dined at the Modern and succeeded in luring her away — she ended up at L'Atelier de Joël Robuchon. Since female sommeliers have lately been a subject of some controversy, we asked her to uncork the particulars of her job.
Pavement fans know Mark Ibold as the seminal indie band’s bassist, but regulars of the Great Jones Cafe have known him as their affable bartender for the past seven years. We caught Mark after a stint touring Europe and the West Coast with another legendary outfit, Sonic Youth, and after we unloaded the obligatory “Will Pavement reunite?” question — “Our booking agent seems to think we’re going to be doing a reunion tour sometime in the next couple of years,” he says. “But it’s definitely not official” — we asked him about working at the Jones, where he’s been a customer for two decades.
Fourteen years ago, Frank Gluska was kicking back at Coney Island institution Ruby’s, our Best Throwback Bar of 2006, when the manager (whose sister Frank had been dating for twelve years) told him, “Can’t you see we’re busy? Get behind the bar.” “I got behind the bar,” says Gluska, “and that was the beginning of the end.” Since then, he has learned the truth of late owner Ruby Jacobs’s favorite saying, “Once you get the sand of Coney Island between your toes, you’ll never leave.” Because we’ll probably spend the Siren Festival at Ruby’s on Saturday, we asked Gluska to explain his self-described addiction to the place.
Fifty-four-year-old Ronny Webb worked at El Morocco and the Rainbow Room, eventually making $40,000 per year as a hotel-restaurant manager, before he decided to “take a step down” and pursue what he says is a less stressful existence. For the past five years, he’s been making cash money as a butler for billionaire Ron Perelman (something he’s not allowed to talk about) and as a captain at the city’s most profitable restaurant, Tavern on the Green. (Apparently, attempting to track-down 2 percent milk and off-the-menu spaghetti for Robert De Niro’s wife and kid is considered low stress.) We asked him more about this lark of a job.
With the annual battle for the Mustard Belt (well, the fake Mustard Belt, anyway) set for tomorrow, our thoughts turn once again to Coney Island, which poet Federico García Lorca called “The Landscape of the Vomiting Multitudes.” We hope there will be no urges contrary to swallowing (as the Major League Eating rulebook puts it) tomorrow, and you’ll want to hit the original Nathan’s Famous stand on Surf and Stillwell — in which case nursing student and trusty counterperson Tamica Gazson will be there to dog you.
Roman Deingruber was painting for the building super when he learned of a job at Cafe Gitane, the French-Moroccan restaurant that’s a refuge for Nolita hipsters when it’s not mobbed by Soho shoppers on weekends. We asked the video and installation artist to share some of his experiences from the six years spent working his way up from barista to manager.