Michael Cecchi-Azzolina’s resume as a server, doorman, and front of house manager reads like a greatest hits list of the most consequential downtown New York Dining establishments of the last 40 years. He was there with the opening squad of the Water Club, followed by The River Café when Larry Forgione, Charlie Palmer, and David Burke were at the helm. He later did stints at Raouls, Minetta Tavern, and most recently helped open the New York Times three star French Bistro, Le Coucou, in Soho.
Cecchi-Azzolina is an industry lifer who’s seen it all. The bad old days. The celebrity bad behavior, the AIDS epidemic, low-level mobsters, the coked-out service staff antics on the clock, the notorious owner-tyrants, and the after-hours shenanigans of the uber rich taking place in mostly empty dining rooms during the wee hours. He details all of this for us in Your Table Is Ready, Tales of a New York City Maître D’, his memoir, recounting 35 some odd years spent working the floor in the restaurants that made waves as downtown emerged from its darker, Taxi Driver, crack epidemic and dope fiend years to the cradle of affluence that it is today.
Cecchi-Azzolina takes the reader along with him as he ascends from young waiter in the theater district, learning the trade from the previous generation, knowing nothing of Danny Meyer’s pillars of hospitality or Michelin stars, to finally breaking into the big leagues and learning from one of the industry giants, Michael “Buzzy” O’keeffe, as he opened the Water Club on 30th street in 1982.
To be sure, it’s a book about hospitality and it’s dotted with lessons learned from restaurateurs both famous and infamous as is the case with O’keeffe convicted of both embezzlement and wage theft. But it’s also a book about being in the industry and surviving the nightly crush of service, getting your kicks late-night, and doing it all over again the next day.
We as readers are drawn to stories of industry life because there’s energy there. The New York City of the service worker is the one of our collective imaginations. It’s the one of young people coming to the city waiting tables and sleeping in their car while they pursue literally anything else - acting, fashion, music or art openings.
You can see them every night, huddled together smoking Marlboro Reds outside of a dive bar at 3am, always the one that allows underagers to drink, hands still reeking of pancetta and caviar and oyster brine. It’s over cigarettes and dollar shot specials that sous and cooks, bussers and floor managers become equals and dissect the shit-show that was the night’s service. Who got fucked and who really took it in the ass and who deserves a free shot from the maitre d’ that sat the 5 walk-ins 10 minutes before close. Everyone laughs, drinks, rinses, and repeats.
As Cecchi-Azzolina’s tells the reader, "to edit what happened or to soften some of the details would not be true...This is the way it was for me and many of those I have worked with and for."
If you have the special fortune of working in the industry yourself, the book is an invaluable orientation tool for you. Large restaurant organizations can feel like layer cakes to work in, an impossibly complex set of cogs and subsystems all contributing to the dining experience. Each fiefdom within from the prep-team organization to the beverage apprentices to the pastry chefs to the group of investors watching over it all has its own idiosyncrasies. The perspective of the person working the door will be different from an owner, Danny Meyer (Setting The Table), will be different from a server, Stephanie Danler (Sweetbitter), will be different from the cook, Bill Buford (Heat), will be different from the chef, Tony Bourdain, whose Kitchen Confidential created the genre of New York City Restaurant narratives. All of these viewpoints give a slightly nuanced look at the same hulking effort that goes into putting on a party for the masses night in and night out. Your Table is Ready belongs prominently among those reads, that together form a mosaic of what it is to be a restaurant worker here in the city.
Through his many stories down the years, Cecchi-Azzolina’s breathes life into notable faces who loom large over the industry past and present including Keith McNally who gave us Balthazaar and Odeon, Stephen Starr, the force behind Starr Restaurant Group, and one of the city’s bright new culinary stars, Daniel Rose.
Cecchi-Azzolina was on hand to to help launch Le Coucou as the opening maître d’ and takes you through the very tightly managed chaos which gave birth to that absolute gem of a restaurant from agonizing over opening menu items to the nightly watch for critics.
Is it the next Kitchen Confidential? I can’t answer that. I work in the industry, and so I’m biased. I do know that there’s enough bad behavior, unbelievable storytelling, and celebrity name dropping that this book could, and I hope, will receive a huge welcome from the dining public at large. It’s another chance to pull back the veneer of fine dining and peer with facination at the seedy underbelly.
How do I snag one of those 7:30 time slots? What will a hundred bucks get me if I try to bribe the door guy? What was the unofficial inside story behind that photo of Paul Castellano lying dead in the street in front of Sparks? It’s all in there, and you’ll have to read it to find out.
I personally won’t be paying off a door guy with a bribe in this lifetime on my current salary, but my selfish hope for the book is that diners will start to see the magic of front of house organizations with the same love and affection they now hold for chefs. With our hyper focus on restaurants of the moment, and the waves and waves of James Beard Award winning chefs, each with their name attached to half a dozen plays across the usual set of cities, isn't it worth spending some energy reflecting on how those experiences make you feel as a diner?
Service matters. Maybe, just maybe, there’s magic to be had in turning up to the same place more than once. Maybe fostering a relationship with a somm who guides you one by one through the wines of Italy on successive visits can be a rewarding experience. Maybe a server who makes your anniversary special one week and then rekindles a conversation with you when you turn up with 5 friends a month later can make you feel like a big shot. It’s a special feeling to have the kitchen send you an off menu item because they genuinely want to know your take on whether Frutti di Mare with fried smelt is going to play well with their other regulars.
That New York City exists too. It’s been here all along. Setting the Table beckons you to come in and be a part of it.