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Balthazar's Arnaud Jean-Baptiste on Taking Care of Diners

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This is The Gatekeepers, in which Eater roams the city meeting the fine ladies and gentlemen that work the host station at some of New York's most popular restaurants..

[Daniel Krieger]

It's Arnaud Jean-Baptiste's job to greet the hundreds of diners that walk through the doors of Keith McNally's Soho brasserie Balthazar each day. As the maître d' of what remains one of the most popular dining destinations in the city, Jean-Baptiste has to make sure that everyone — from the regulars who've been coming in since day one, to the tourists that want to finally take a seat in one of the storied dining room's red banquettes — is happy and cared for. That means being able to read people, to understand their wants and needs, and working with his team to make sure that no one feels forgotten or unimportant. In the following interview, Jean-Baptiste talks about getting the job at Balthazar, what's it like to work for Keith McNally, diners that try to grease their way into getting tables, and how he keeps his cool.

When was your first time eating at Balthazar?
I was probably 10 years old.

Ten? Who took you?
Yeah! Keith took me, actually. I kind of grew up with his son. We both went to the same middle school, the French Lycée.

What do you remember from that experience? When was this?
What I remember from that meal were the profiteroles. I loved the whole presentation of it — the dripping chocolate was a nice little spectacle for a kid. It was probably when it first opened, in like '97. There was basically no one in there. It was a friends and family kind of thing.

Can you describe what you remember the vibe being like back then?
Back then, it seemed very, very exclusive. Everything was glamorous for me, because I was a kid. I have a lot of fond memories. My mom took me and my brother there for one of our birthdays, and we have the picture of us sitting in one of the booths. You'd see the celebrities here and there, but it felt comfortable. Everyone was acting normal. You could feel the energy in the room.

How did you get involved in restaurants?
My first year of college, I kind of got kicked out. I went to SUNY New Paltz because I had a soccer scholarship. I had torn my ACL before getting there, so I never played a single day. I was useless to them. I was the sponsored guy that never played. I didn't really know what my next move was going to be, so one day I asked Keith if there was a spot for me. I started as a runner at Pastis in 2002, and just slowly worked my way up to host and then bar maître d' and then maître d'. I went all around and did all sorts of positions so I could figure it out.

I was there for four years, and then went to Schiller's to be a manager and maître d'. Then I left, because I wanted to see what other places were like. I wanted to see if other places were better or worse. I did the opening for Hotel Griffou and also went to Freemans. Then, I kind of came back, because I realized that people can really treat you like shit out there. There are only certain places that really take care of you, where if you need something, they'll actually try to hear you out and see if they can help you.

What's it like working in this restaurant group? Why do you feel they take care of you?
It's great. It can be a little scary, but that's more in the sense that you want to do a really good job. They want to make sure that everyone, from the person who wants to walk in and just use the bathroom to the celebrity, has a good time. At a lot of other places, it can be that it's about the bottom line only, and that can come at the sacrifice of service and people's sheer enjoyment of the restaurant — on both sides. It sounds silly, but Keith's places feel like a family. They listen to you. It's an exchange.

How did the Balthazar gig happen?
It happened out of sheer randomness. They asked me if I would train a few nights, but I was terrified. I didn't even own a suit. That was a little embarrassing. But I did it.

I only work the evenings, but I did do the brunches a few times. To quote Drake, "I started from the bottom." [laughs] That is the hardest shift. Everyone is there. It's like doing dinner three times faster. At dinner service, people wine and dine and do the oysters and the three-course meal. At brunch, it's a line out the door, you're not speaking English, and it can be really hectic.

How do you deal with the people you can't accommodate?
It's kind of saying "no" with a smile. I think the easiest way is to show people that you are genuine and care. You can't help everyone, but you need to know that there are people who come from out of town and may want to spend their last meal in the city here. Maybe you can't help them, but you have to make them know you want to. And you also can't turn your back on the people who have been eating here since day one.

What's the clientele like these days? Brunch, for instance, seems really popular with tourists.
It really goes by the seasons. When it's warm out, the people who live around here tend to travel. That's when the people from outside New York really fill the restaurant. These days, we're getting a lot of people from Nordic countries, people from London who have eaten at the new Balthazar there, and Brazilians, who tend to come in groups. It's funny, there are usually more than six people in parties that come from Brazil.

Do you ever feel completely overwhelmed and in the shit?
Oh, definitely. Definitely. My job is to make it look like I'm not.

How do you do that?
There's a lot of smiling and apologizing and promo Champagne involved. You just have to make it so it's clear you're not shunning people off to the bar and telling them, "I'll find you when I find you." I learned the 10-minute rule from the person who trained me: Whenever you're backed up on a reservation, you have to go check in with them every 10 minutes and explain what's going on. People appreciate that.

The restaurant has been around for 16 years now. Would you say it's still as glamorous, or more of a landmark?
It definitely hasn't lost that sparkle, but I'm leaning towards it being a landmark. I would say it's as present today as ever, though. I'm just always in awe that the place has been there so long, and that people still come from everywhere to try it. People still want it.

[Daniel Krieger]

How do you communicate with McNally?
It's typically through e-mail. I call him every now and again, and if he needs something, he definitely calls. Last night, he came in in-person to make sure a reservation he had made for somebody was all sorted. For as busy of a person that he is, he is extremely easy to get in touch with and extremely communicative.

How do you think the departure of chefs Riad Nasr and Lee Hanson will affect the restaurant?
I heard about it pretty late and don't know many details. They are amazing chefs who came up with a lot of amazing ideas, but I think the restaurant will continue to be the restaurant, because there are a lot of talented people in that kitchen.

Tell me about the people that work in the kitchen. They must be machines.
I see them do it every day, and I still don't understand how they do it. They have a really good setup. They work their asses off. And the worst part is that no one ever sees them. There's a ton of peeling, a ton of shucking, and all those things that may not come to mind when you eat here. Someone stamped the butter you eat. Every little piece has been cut and sliced individually, and then stamped.

What's the most important tool for working this room?
Being able to read people. I say that in the sense that you need to be able to see someone as they walk in and be able to judge, in a few seconds, whether they just want a table or whether they just want to be pampered.

I've got about two or three people that work directly with me, and they are my ears and eyes away from the door. I want to know what's going on in the whole room. For example, if someone doesn't like their table — whether they tell us or not — you need to know. So maybe one of my managers will tell, and then I'll go over and show them that we are aware and that we want to make them happy.

It's 8 p.m. on a Saturday night. What's the wait for a table for two?
One and a half to two hours. Definitely two hours for a party of four.

Do people try to tip you to make that go faster?
Always. Always. Always.

How do you react?
My line is, "Once I take care of you, you can take care of me." When you take that money right away, you are in the position where you owe someone something. There are people that have reservations, and I have to help them out. I'm not going to blow you off, either, if you don't have a table.

Any last words?
This restaurant isn't a fortress. I have a few guys — one who works at a hot dog stand and has never bought anything, another who might be homeless — and they come through and use the bathroom in the mornings. We're on a first name basis, and they're really nice. As long as you're a decent person, why not?

· All Coverage of Balthazar on Eater [~ENY~]
· All Gatekeepers on Eater [~ENY~]


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