The best at your service

By Nici Wickes

A maitre d' can be the making or breaking of a restaurant. Viva meets Auckland's best.

Hector Palmer of Cafe Hanoi won the 2011 maitre d' of the year award. Photo / Babiche Martens
Hector Palmer of Cafe Hanoi won the 2011 maitre d' of the year award. Photo / Babiche Martens

The annual Auckland industry restaurant awards took place on Monday night, with the cream of our city's eating establishments taking time out to recognise their fellow colleagues. The public was also invited to vote and the outcome was an evening of fun and celebration. Taking out the top prize for best Auckland establishment was SPQR; Cafe Hanoi won best new Auckland venue, while Des Harris at Clooney went home with the award for outstanding chef. Renee and Damaris Coulter of Coco's Cantina jointly won outstanding restaurateur and Federal & Wolfe took home the prize for best coffee establishment. Hector Palmer of Cafe Hanoi was awarded 2011's maitre d' of the year and here we talk to him and his fellow contestants about this all-important role as the face of a restaurant.

See the full list of Lewisham Award winners online.

HECTOR PALMER, CAFE HANOI

How long have you been a maitre d'?
Ten years as a maitre d', 20 years in the industry. I worked at SPQR for three years, moved to Sydney for five, and then back to Auckland to help open Cafe Hanoi.

What makes Cafe Hanoi so unique?
We're a 75-seater in the Britomart precinct specialising in northern Vietnamese food with slick western service. The dining room is reminiscent of the Old Quarter in Hanoi. The restaurant is the first of its kind in Auckland.

What are the three most important functions of your job?
Exceeding customer expectations, driving a professional team and providing the "Cafe Hanoi Experience".

What makes for a fabulous maitre d'?
Genuine affinity for people. Without it you cannot succeed. Nothing gives me greater pleasure than making someone's dining experience special. Understanding and reading people is vital. It is this understanding that can set apart a good and a great maitre d'.

What is one thing most customers don't know about your job?
It is my profession.

What is the worst thing about your job?
It is still perceived in New Zealand that hospitality is not a true profession.

Have you ever been offered a bribe by a diner?
Often. At Cafe Hanoi we have a no-booking policy. When the waiting list gets long, some customers try to pay their way in. This happens at least a couple of times a week.

How do you think the standard of service in New Zealand compares with overseas?
We strive to have great service here but it can be difficult to maintain due to our service professionals heading overseas to make a better living. Certainly during my time in Sydney I found myself surrounded with hospitality maestros, many from New Zealand. This was due to a few factors such as decent pay and respect as a profession. For those of us who choose to be in hospitality here it can be a little frustrating at times.

How would your workmates describe you?
Depends who you're asking. They will certainly say I am fair, supportive and have high expectations.

If you weren't a maitre d' what would you be?
I would love to be a restaurant reviewer. Ironic.

What will you do to celebrate if you win?
Well, I love champagne.

MAURICIO BRUNELI, PREGO

Where are you from?
Originally from Brazil. I have been in the industry since 1996 when I did a hospitality diploma before working for small hotels in Brazil. I moved to Sydney in 2000 and worked in venues such as the Opera House, the Olympic Stadium and the Powerhouse Museum. I then moved to California in 2004 to work for the Hyatt hotel chain in San Diego as a Food and Beverage intern for two years. I arrived in Auckland in 2006 where I worked for the Hyatt then The Langham's Partingtons Restaurant, and was hired by Prego in 2008 as part of the management team.

What makes Prego unique?
Consistently good food, smart service and the best ambience.

Three most important functions to your job?
Keep the customer happy, the staff motivated, and the money in the till.

What makes a fabulous maitre d'?
A sincere smile and a good sense of care for everybody and everything.

What do you like most about your job?
We get to eat Prego pizza every night! The interaction with people, food and the result of both put together.

After a busy service, what do you do to wind down?
Have a quick drink and a good talk.

Is it more important to have a sense of style or a sense of humour to do your job well?
Thankfully, a sense of humour. Otherwise I wouldn't stand a chance.

What's the most difficult customer complaint you've ever had to deal with?
Dealing with customers who complain about the food after "cleaning up the plate" can be a bit uncomfortable.

How do you think the standard of service in New Zealand compares with overseas?
New Zealand has this groovy balance between fine and casual. Just the right quantity of each. And you'll often see the guy in a suit eating next to a guy with sandals on ... Love that.

If you weren't a maitre d' what would you be?
A soccer player ... I am Brazilian after all.

Why do you think you were nominated?
When you do what you do with a smile on your face, sooner or later, people will notice.

Do you have a signature trait that you're famous for?
Open arms and open eyes.

MARIA COLOSIMO, SIDART

Tell us about yourself.
I grew up with both of my parents in the hospitality industry so have been in a restaurant since birth. My first formal position was at One Tree Grill when I was 15 - about eight years ago. I started as a food runner then became a section waiter.

I moved from there to The Grove and then to Australia to run two restaurants. I came back to The Grove, then on to Molten, Merediths, then Sidart when it opened in 2009.

Tell us about Sidart?
It is my dream-sized restaurant, we seat around 34 people. An intimate dining space of this size enables me to have attention to detail with every aspect of the dining room and service. We have only one team which means we have consistency every service we are open. Our regular guests get to know us and we get to know their likes, dislikes and preferences. Sid is a naturally inspired, amazing talent.

What are the three most important functions of your job?
Writing the wine list, including deciding on the wine matches. Ensuring the restaurant is running as a smooth and organised operation. Ensuring each of our guests are well looked after and each have a memorable dining experience with us.

What do you like most about your job?
The wine I have access to taste is something truly incredible about my job. I am lucky enough to taste wine from all over the world and from all different vintages.

The knowledge I sponge from people is also something to be very grateful for. I am constantly tasting with peoplewho have incredible knowledge and palates and enjoy the fact you can never stop learning or know enough about wine. I love the social aspect of my job. I get to come to work every day, talk about food and wine and essentially hang out with everybody in the dining room ... what's not to love?

After a busy service, what do you do to wind down?
I try to go to the gym on weeknights, it's a perfect time to go after a really busy service. Not on Saturdays though, it's a Sidart tradition we all stay for wine after service and always have a nightcap at Mea Culpa. It's the perfect place to go to for a nice glass of champagne, wine or a cocktail to relax, unwind from work and get ready for the weekend.

How do you think the standard of service in New Zealand is compared to overseas?
The biggest difference I noticed is while travelling through Italy. I found all service staff extremely knowledgeable with a genuine passion which you can't teach to anybody. They had nothing but total pride in what they were serving. There was certainly a much more serious and experienced feel to the formal dining rooms I visited over there. And even in the local, more casual, eateries I only came across front-of-house staff who loved being there and were quite obviously not just doing it for a job.

I think New Zealand struggles as we don't have enough people wanting to commit to the industry as a career, especially front-of-house.

JAMES BURGESS, SPQR

How long have you in the industry?
I started when I was about 18 in a couple of Italian restaurants in Mission Bay and Remuera, then I worked at Mink in Parnell and finally SPQR in Ponsonby.

At the moment I work as a flight attendant and at SPQR on my days off which works out perfectly for me, although I always wish I could do more.

Tell us about SPQR.
SPQR is dark and loud. The staff are amazing because they will go out of their way for just about anyone who treat them with a hint of kindness. The people who come in mostly come in a lot, so they know that.

We are constantly graced with stars, hangers-on and wannabes. The clientele are predominantly amazing people, and as a result hilarious s*** goes down on a nightly basis. The best part is that it's so dark most of it goes unnoticed, or unmentioned. We definitely encourage the staff to be themselves, in fact our Naynay has a favourite parking sign which he just loves to dance around and swing on purely for the entertainment of the footpath tables.

The first thing we tell our waiters when they join us is "SPQR can be a daunting place to enter ..." and I think that it is pretty unique in Auckland. But once our guests are inside it's like our living room, and that's how we all treat it.

What are the three most important functions of your job?
Trying to make people feel welcome, having the personal touch and trying to make each guest feel as if they have my undivided attention.

What do you like most about your job?
That the guests we are looking after are all there to have a good time. It makes it very rewarding.

What is the worst thing about your job?
People with bad manners.

After a busy service, what do you do to wind down?
Count tips with either a smile on my face, or a tear in my eye.

Is it more important to have a sense of style or a sense of humour to do your job well?
Definitely a sense of humour. Pretty much a job requirement. Once a lady, got too close to one of our candles and her hair caught fire. She only burned it a bit but she got quite agitated about it and demanded that we remove the candles from all the tables, as a safety precaution. I'm not sure if that was the first or second instance of customer combustion, but I remember having the conversation with her about the candles and thinking at the time "I've got to laugh, otherwise I'll cry".

How would your workmates describe you?
I hate to think.

If you weren't a maitre d' what would you be?
A flight attendant for the world's best premium airline.

Do you have a signature trait that you're famous for?
Being part of the furniture at SPQR for the past 10 years.

- NZ Herald

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