Nineteen-year-old Louis McCullagh started working at the Grill Room at The Four Seasons Restaurant in May 1983. Thirty-two years later, he's still serving an elite crowd of New York power-lunchers, now as the captain of a team of three. Trained as a pastry chef in Northern Ireland before realizing he preferred front-of-house operations, Louis (Louie) has a knack for keeping calm in the face of demanding customers and demanding gluten restraints. Here's Louie on his regulars, Pool Room etiquette, and how plebs like us can eat a business meal The Four Seasons without a reservation.
How did you get started at The Four Seasons?
I knew one of the managers who worked here from another restaurant. He told me there was a position going and I went for interview and got the job.
Did you start out as a server?
I spent about a year and a half in the Grill Room and then as a waiter for about six years [in the Pool Room] and the rest as a captain. I started the twenty-third of May, 1983.
Are you one of the people who have been working here the longest?
There's another captain here, Italo Peresutti: He's been here since 1973.
Is there a standard process at The Four Seasons in becoming promoted as a fine dining captain?
Dedication, doing a good job, and trying to please the customer.The whole restaurant is run by seniority. As years go on, you move up when people leave. But unfortunately for some, people don't leave. There are dinosaurs here. But people typically start as servers, and then they're promoted to captain.
Did you learn your craft through school or on the job?
I went to school to become a chef. But I always liked front-of-house and that's what happened. Back in Ireland, I went to hotel catering college called Omagh Technical College for a three-year catering course. In Ireland, I worked as a pastry chef.
What does a typical day look like for you?
On a normal day, there are six captains and we break up in teams. There are two waiters per team. The captain is responsible for taking the orders, opening the wines, doing the tableside work like carving. There's a front waiter who gets the cocktails and assists the captain, and the back waiter brings the food out. Lunch starts 11 a.m.-3:30 p.m. Dinner start 4:45 p.m. to the end of the night, 11:30 or 12:00 pm. It's a long day.
What are your rituals to prepare for a long day on your feet serving people?
I go with my daughter to a boot camp three days a week. Urban Jungle – it's like CrossFit. I've been going for over a year. It really motivates you. It's tough getting out there, I have to be there at seven in the morning. It helps you with a lot of stress. There's a lot of stress here sometimes.
What are your daily stressors like?
Some people are very demanding. Most people are very nice, but some want it the way they want it, not the way you think they want it.
Do customers often make trouble for you when they don't get exactly what they want?
Not a lot, but it does happen. A lot of people are allergic or have severe allergies: no nuts, no shellfish. Once, one person said she was allergic to nuts, and everything was fine. The appetizer was fine, the main course was fine, but for dessert the pastry was served on a shell with nuts. You have to be very careful.
Have you found in your 32 years working here that food allergies have become more extreme?
Yes, there was no "mostly vegetarian" or gluten-free restrictions. That began to surface more in the ‘80s and '90s.
People do sometimes jump in the pool. Not a lot, usually twice a year.
What was one of your most interesting interaction with a diner?
Years ago, there was a table of four young girls from Florida and another customer was buying them champagne. Someone bought them four bottles of Dom Perignon, and they got a little bit tipsy and jumped right in the pool. The Maitre d' got a table cloth and hushed them out. It was busy season too, the holidays. But people do sometimes jump in the pool. Not a lot, usually twice a year.
Is it usually because they're drunk?
Drunk or on a dare.
How does the rest of the dining room react when that happens?
Lot of glares. Some people enjoy it, I guess, but it's not the place to do it.
What stands out to you as your most exciting interaction with a guest?
I took care of Jackie Onassis in 1987. She is Irish-American, as you know, the Kennedys are Irish, so she was real nice and had a real down-to-earth conversation with me. We talked about Ireland and her ancestors. She was a really warm person.
Has there be anyone else that stands out to you more recently?
Diane Sawyer. She's a beautiful lady and I understand she used to be a waitress in college. She's a regular.
Have you always been a people person, or is that something you had to learn on this job?
It's just my nature to be kind.
Is there a group of regular customers who have been coming here as long as you've been here?
What is your rapport with them like?
When my children were small, customers were always asking about how they were, and now they're in college, both of them.
Do regulars still check in with your kids?
Yes, they do. My son's at the Air Force Academy and graduates this year. My daughter's a music teacher. She was on The Voice, you know the music competition? In Ireland. It was just a coincidence. My mom passed away and she was over there for the wake. There was an open audition and she just went in. She didn't get far, but it's good publicity, you know?
Do any people here in the dining room know about her success?
A few people, yes.
How has formal dining changed since you've been here?
When I started, it was all tie and jacket. Now it's a little more relaxed. Some people have no tie. Some people have no jacket, even though we offer them a jacket, but they refuse to wear it. Some customers get upset.
Besides dress code, have you seen dining attitudes become more casual, too?
Not really. There's been more cell phone use. Back in the ‘80s when I started, it was a big deal. We used to have plugs for telephones so that we could bring wires for phones to customers. When a customer needed a phone plug, we thought, "Oh, that guy must be really important."
The plugs are actually still in the pool room in the planters. You stick them in with a long extension cord to the old-time phone. Of course, that's changed. A lot of people are using cell phones and iPads now.
How does that make you feel as someone who's been here for so long?
Cell phone use is constant. Especially businessmen at lunchtime.
What do you think the future of formal dining will look like in ten years? Could dress become even more casual and cell phone use more flagrant?
If we want to maintain a good quality name, I think not.
Yes, especially since The Four Seasons hasn't really changed since it's been open.
Yes, the interior has remained unmodified. It's pretty modern. It was built in 1959 and nothing has been changed.
What is the relationship between the people in the front-of-house and back-of-house employees?
It has to be good to make things run smoothly. Of course there's going to be little clashes here and there, but it's better everyone get along. For example, if people want the dressing on the side and the waiter forgets and the customer sends it back. So, the chef gets upset that he has to throw the salad away.
But the chef keeps it cool. It's a huge place. When there are three hundred reservations there can be no [mistakes]. Tonight, there are 160 for reservations, which is pretty good, but we consider that slow.
How do you manage that influx of people?
The maitre d' assigns what customer goes where and their likes and dislikes. Like, especially at lunch time with people who come here as regulars. So if they usually order flat water, sparkling water, iced tea, we have it all ready for them. Regulars don't even have to ask.
As soon as the host seats the customer, we know everything.
Are these all things you have to memorize?
After being here for so many years, you remember. But on the reservation chart by the name, it has who's allergic to what, like nuts. We get a little card with the reservation name and all the details, like "Celebrating birthday this week." As soon as the host seats the customer, we know all everything.
Do you find that people are mostly appreciative of those details?
Definitely. 85 to 95 percent.
That five percent that doesn't– what are their attitudes like?
Snideness, or sarcasm, or nastiness if food comes out too slow. It could be many things. Nothing serious.
Do you have any secret dining tips for someone like me trying to get into The Four Seasons without a reservation?
It's all about connections. Call Julian [Niccolini, The Four Seasons' owner].
So I need to know who to call. Is it helpful to forge those connections with the kitchen and servers, too?
Know the maitre d', captains, and management. Alex [Von Bidder, owner], Julian, and Lorenz [Pretterhoffer, maitre d']. Julius [Mariano] is the reservations manager.
He must have a pretty tough job.
He assigns all people to tables. There are only eight poolside tables, and when people make reservations, they want to sit poolside. If someone made a reservation six months ago, they still will have to give that table up to the regular customer. So you try to explain and give the other people a table closer to the pool, but not poolside. You try and for lack of a better expression, give them...
Free stuff. Free dessert, free champagne. You have to make them welcome and warm them up because they're already upset. We'll usually give them a glass of champagne, or a bottle of champagne if there's a real big stir up.
Does your demeanor change when you put on your captain's suit?
Not at all. Reality sets in. You have go to work. Some people go on a powertrip and that just isn't me. Some of these young kids are managers and I could be their father. It's silly, you know? I've seen some come and go, and most of the managers are older than me, but some of the waiters are like kids in my eyes. They think they know the world, but they don't.
What makes it worth sticking around here?
It's one of the best restaurants in New York, definitely the top 10. It provides a good life, I have health insurance, benefits. It's a great place to work, the owners are nice, you meet a lot of interesting people, and it's nice to come to work in the morning when you come in and you like what you're doing. It's nice when people appreciate you. There are people who think you're just a waiter, but this is a little different, you know?
This interview has been condensed and edited for style.