Archive for January, 2012

Six Degrees of Debbie Gibson

Debbie Gibson is stalking me. Seriously.

We first met in the ‘80’s, when her brand of Bubble-Gum pop climbed to the Top-Five of the music charts. Three of the then-teenage chanteuse’s songs- “Out of the Blue”, “Foolish Heart”, and “Only in My Dreams”- blared regularly from the tinny speakers of the secondhand ghetto-blaster that lie to the left of my bedroom door. Next, we saw each other in the ‘90’s, albeit briefly. We were playing in the same theater venue in Florida, when she and a gaggle of children from her production of Joseph and the Amazing Technicolor Dreamcoat peeked in on our interpretation of House on Pooh Corner in time to see me come bounding onstage as “Tigger”. Finally, we re-met in 2009, when not even the black tuxedo I wore could fend off the Broadway singer’s flirtations. She caught my gaze while I headed down a narrow walkway lined with red booths, carrying a brown service tray topped with two Diet Cokes, a Sprite, and a glass of Prosecco. She practically willed me to stop, as she seductively pressed her core against a narrow strip of wall next to the coat room.

“Hi,” I stammered uncomfortably, surprised to see her ten years later.

“Hi, “she gasped.

I walked away, deciding to focus on my work. After all, I had met another, more modern pop singer over the past decade who taught me more than Deborah could (Thanks, Gwen).

Still, I found myself near Deborah later during her lunch, when, oops!, an accident occurred. The singer dropped her white-framed sunglasses to the tile in front of Booth 21. The classic “Victorian Hankie Drop”! Being a gentleman, I stopped, leaned over, grasped them at the eye joint, and handed them back.

“Here,” I said,” I think these are yours.”

“Thank you. That wasn’t necessary,” she smiled, her lips starting to pout.


This is the last time I saw Deborah. I am sure she has performed in a few Broadway shows since and has even recorded a new CD. But, still, I cannot help but look forward to the one day this decade when our paths cross again, reviving the beat of my Foolish Heart.




French Aristocracy and the Art of Dining

Pascal Berthoumieux, Bistro Bordeaux owner and American Maitre D’’s first published interview, taught me a lesson about dining that I did not know before we met. It did not fit into the final copy, though, since it interrupted the story. Still, I want to share it, because it is so cool. It is adapted, of course, to put “a bit of fat on its bones”.

When Pascal attended trade school in Bordeaux, he learned multitudinous lessons, one of which concerned the French aristocracy’s contribution to the art of dining. Stating that “[it] was born with the French monarchy”, he elaborated by explaining why a table is set with the bread plate to the left, the dinner plate au centre, and the wine glass at 2 o’clock.

There is an invisible line connecting heat to chill that runs left to right. The plate of bread sits on the left. It was piping hot from being pulled from the oven, more than likely, emitting steam when pulled apart by royal hands. The meat dish to its right was not nearly as hot, since muscle tissue does not retain warmth nearly as well because of its tighter fibers. Last, the wine was in the right-uppermost corner of the setting, since serfs would pour the blowsy-making beverage over the emperor’s right shoulder.

Why the order, then? Its logic is perfect. If the wine were to be poured into a goblet to the left of the bread plate, the chance of spilling it on the bread and ruining it would be ever-present. Similarly, if it were above the meat plate, one gambled on accidentally marinating the dish, cooling it further, and getting a regal rap on the noggin.

As for the “salad plate”, it generally did not appear at a table set for a king. Vegetables were reserved for the peasant class. In the feudal era, meat was considered a “luxury item”, obtainable by the ruling class, who alone were free to hunt for it on noble land.

The Secretary of State of Laughter

Thirteen-year Illinois Secretary of State Jesse White is known for many accomplishments. In 2012, he initiated a crackdown on illegally parking in spaces intended for the handicapped that resulted in 187 citations. He has created an Adult Literacy program, providing services to Illinois residents to help them to participate in family and community endeavors. And he also initiated the Jesse White Tumblers in 1959 to provide a positive place for Chicago children to challenge themselves. He can add another feather to his cap, too, one which I am very privileged to have experienced firsthand. The man can make me laugh, even when I am a little overwhelmed.

On a cold February weeknight, Mr. White and four companions wanted to dine privately after a long day of politicking at City Hall. The maitre d’ asked if I would serve them, since there were only two of us manning the dining room at the time. Not knowing who I was being asked to serve, I began wondering how I would be able to split my responsibilities with the constant travel from area to area. But past experiences with regular customers are a great light when I think I may trip in the darkness of my job. When I saw Jesse White at the table, I knew it would be okay.

Once the company was in place and a friend had provided bread, I greeted them and asked for preferred beverages. Most requested iced teas and water, and there was a Diet Coke in Position Four. Jesse White, sitting in Position Five, was last to speak.

“I’d like a glass of merlot,” he said, which was odd to hear, when I was used to seeing him during the daytime hours with a congregation of tee-totalers.

I left the table to visit the soda fountain in the kitchen first, since it was near the fresh-brewed Pekoe tea. Next, Clink! went a shovel of half-moon shaped ice cubes into three tall soda glasses. Fixing one underneath the appropriately marked “Diet Coke” nozzle, I eyed the bubbly cola’s rise to the rim, while alternating the others under the tea spigot. Last, a quick walk to the bar service well, where I uncorked a French merlot, tipped the bottle, and allotted an amount into a Bordeaux glass.

The guests’ table was ten steps away, and I delivered each diner his appropriate drink upon arrival. Finally, I approached Mr. White’s side and leaned over, placing the glass at one o’clock, just east of his dinner setting.

Mr. White pointed at the glass, looked at me, and said something I will never forget.

“You realize that if I get drunk from this,” he dead-panned,” that I’ll take your license away. “

I erupted in laughter.

The Day When Everything ALMOST Came Up Roses

A Tony Award-winning composer met with a few Broadway producers to have a late lunch at Booth Seventy-three. Coinciding with the opening of a new show of his called “Bounce”- directed by another veteran of the Great White Way, Harold Prince, and starring the vivacious and uber-gracious actress, Jane Powell- the quartet were met to review needed changes to the script.

Now, I have mentioned knowing people by what they ordered in an earlier publication. But there was nothing noteworthy about this experience. There weren’t alterations made to a chopped salad to render it unrecognizable, nor was a single sliver of ham taken out of a turkey club. I cannot even remember the food order, since the experience was so brief and without incident. It is what happened afterward that makes it worthy of mention.

The processed check was returned to the table. It remained in place until it was picked up by the author-musician, who signed it before concluding the afternoon business. Next, hands were shaken, the businessmen slid out from their respective sides, and all disappeared like the Witch in another of the artist’s creations.

Only quarter-full water glasses remained on the table, and the signed check, which I retrieved. Folding it open to get the endorsed credit card slip inside, my jaw dropped, and a strangely titillating, even flattered, feeling grew like a rose in my heart. Immediately, I walked to the front of the restaurant where my flaxen-haired manager perused the evening’s reservations.

Standing in front of her, I cleared my throat.

“Um, could you do a favor for me?” I stammered, wiping the middle finger of my right hand across my brow. “Stephen Sondheim just left his credit card for me. Could you get that back to him?”

“Kissing the Stone”, and “The Fat Man No-Booth”

A renowned restaurateur whose establishment occupies an iconic space a block from Chicago’s famed Magnificent Mile was tending books one afternoon, when a female employee processing carryout orders asked him to speak with the concierge of a nearby hotel who was on the phone. He took the receiver, setting the books aside.

“What can I do for ya?” he asked.

The concierge, whose name was Todd, replied,” I got a carryout order from Sharon Stone.”

“What would she like?”

I’ll call you right back,” answered Todd before ending the call.

The businessman put the receiver back in its cradle and returned to his previous occupation. Ten minutes later, the phone rang again. At his employee’s request, he folded his books shut for the second time, wiped his left hand across one’s cover, and answered.

“Hi,” he said, opting for the short, familiar greeting reserved for those with whom he was acquainted.

“This is Sharon Stone,” purred a female voice.

He incredulously came back with,” Yeah. And I’m Gina Lollobrigida!”

Not a moment later, he leaned back in his chair and laughed, expecting the transformation into the Italian actress with her hourglass figure and wavy, chestnut-colored hair. For the voice on the other end of the phone was indeed Sharon Stone’s. It had just taken a second to recognize it. Recovering himself, he inquired as to what she would like for dinner, inscribed the order on the notepad on his desk, and then told her the dinner would be sent via taxi. Room Service could bring it up.

“No,” she countered, “you bring it to my room. I’m in Room 1402.”

To quote the restaurateur, he yelped,” WHAT?!” in his bones, but his veneer stayed calm and professional. Tearing the order from the notepad, he walked toward the kitchen, but not before pulling his business card from a top drawer. Handing the order to the chef, he halted production on all else til the meal was made and ready to bear to the hotel. Lastly, he taxied over.

Images of the actress sitting cross-legged wearing little but a low-cut shirt- the spotlighted image she popularized in the 1992 erotic thriller “Basic Instinct”- flooded his mind as he rode the elevator fourteen flights to her room. He rapped on 1402’s door and a man answered. Right behind him stood Sharon Stone, without makeup, wearing a t-shirt. She was gorgeous.

“Thank you so much for delivering this to us,” she smiled.

He produced the check that had her credit card information on it, but noticed the total before having her sign for it.

“It’s only fifty bucks, Ms. Stone. Dinner’s on us,” he offered,” We appreciate you thinking of us when you’re in Chicago.”

Sharon Stone stepped in front of the man at the door with a counteroffer: “Come over, big boy, and give me a kiss.”

She “slapped him one on the lips,” while he began to sweat profusely.

Chris Lister, whose stories will be shared later in the “American Maitre D’” series, shared a story from his days at Spiaggia that will not be included in the final copy. It is a rich story and should be shared, though, as it shines a spotlight on the difficulties faced by those who are overweight, regardless of status. This is adapted to protect the identity of the celebrity.


Many maitre d’s will tell you that “The Booth is ‘the thing’.” Tucked at the skirt-hems of a restaurant, each is a haven where a notable figure can seek shelter from the “performance area” of a dining room and yet remain anonymous, albeit with prestige.

Such an actor sought a booth at Spiaggia in the ‘80’s, shortly after the successful release of a film in which he starred. These booths could boast of 6’ high walls. They were “very private,” to quote Chris. On this particular evening, this performer, not only big in terms of film but also in physical size, was led to his booth by Chris Lister.

“This isn’t going to work, is it,” observed the thespian, standing at the lip of the table and peering in to the confined space.

Eyeing his guest without judgment, the maitre d’ reflected on the moment earlier that day when he set the requested booth aside.

“No,” he courteously answered.

“How long have you been thinking about this?”

“ALL DAY LONG,” he genuinely, but emphatically, replied.

Options were quickly discussed, and the actor was led to a semi-private table.


John Landis Starts a Food Fight

Table 52 serves as a fulcrum in an exciting establishment found in downtown Chicago’s beating heart. It can accommodate anywhere from six to eight people, and even nine on occasion, provided that people do not mind rubbing elbows while poking at forkfuls of chopped salad or whitefish.

It was set for eight on the day when John Landis, director of ‘70’s classic “Animal House”, parked in Position One, a number assigned to the first person to receive lunch upon delivery. It was a Wednesday, and the dining room was crowded with theatergoers leisurely lunching before their afternoon matinee.  Mr. Landis ordered whitefish. Lastly, I’ll briefly mention its garnish, a garlic-crusted tomato, which was a prop in the brief comedy in which Mr. Landis and I briefly starred.

The eatery was full, as I mentioned, and that was keeping me very occupied. Managing to top off the iced teas at a quartet of “two-tops” (small tables for two), greeting four recently seated diners, and delivering a drink order in a timely way was a balancing act that day. But lunch had arrived at Table 52 and my guests were nibbling at their items. It was time to check if they were content.

I approached the table and addressed the guests, Mr. Landis included.

“Is there anything you need at the moment?” I inquired.

“No,” said the precocious director,” but here’s an offer.”

He sized me up.

“I’ll pay you fifty bucks to take this tomato and throw it at the woman sitting in the corner.”

Looking in the direction of Table 64, I saw his victim sitting at a similarly round table, wearing wrap-around sunglasses over her spectacles. Her silver hair lay in curls around the nape of her neck.

Now, I had nothing against The Woman Sitting at Position Five at Table Sixty Four. But I hated that style of sunglasses and do to this day.

I looked at the tomato, then at John Landis. Then I re-eyed the tomato.

Looking at him again, I asked,” Can you get me a job?”

This ended with the simultaneous cacophony of a congratulatory laugh from my challenger and an emphatic chorus of “NO!!”’s from his friends.

Outtakes, Part I

There is usually a plain-written tab on a DVD that reads,” Extras,” movie pieces that were not able  to scratch and claw their way off of a Hollywood floor and find a way into the finished product. Deleted scenes showing a squad car on its way to a crime scene, while the unharried cops inside discuss where their wives want to dine that night; a pregnant teen trying to tug a favorite t-shirt over her first baby-bump; and the outtakes where actors flub dialogue or stumble on their words never quite seem to make it.

The same goes for oral history. The life that an approved manuscript takes on does have a few good stories. Others get omitted, though, because they interrupt the flow of the piece. I have decided to include a few of these stories after obtaining permission from the noted sources. Both were told when the tape stopped rolling. But they are wonderful, and to not share them would be like throwing a Copper River Sockeye Salmon back because it was too big.


Virgil Zanders, Shaw’s Crab House

According to legend, a single maitre d’ had custody of the Pump Room for a seven-day stretch when Frank Sinatra performed in Chicago. This anonymous figure also lived in a unit in the Ambassador East, a minute’s walk from the Ambassador West on North Dearborn Street, making his commute home easy and brief.

On the seventh night of the singer’s Chicago tour, this employee apologized to Mr. Sinatra for the inconvenience, but said it was necessary to visit his room for a moment to retrieve an article of clothing. Mr. Sinatra, who had been surrounded friends at the Pump Room nearly every night over the week, sipped from his Jack Daniels on the Rocks and told him to hurry back.

The exhausted maitre d’ fell asleep just after arriving home, as he had planned. The late hours over the week had gotten the best of him, he just needed to catch up on some sleep, and he believed Mr. Sinatra would be too busy with friends across the way to notice his absence.

An hour later, there was a knock on the door and he rose to answer it after pulling on a robe slung over a corner chair.

Frank Sinatra’s bodyguard was there, saying,”“Mr. Sinatra requests your presence at the Pump Room.”

“Hold on a minute,” said the maitre d’, tugging at the pocket of his bathrobe.

He retrieved the single content that lie in a linty corner of it and held it out to the bodyguard, saying,” I’ll give you fifty bucks if you tell Mr. Sinatra I can’t make it down this evening.”

Then the bodyguard reached into the linty corner of his own denim pants pocket and pulled out an identical bill, saying,” Too late. Mr. Sinatra already did.”

Outdone, the fatigued maitre d’ managed to laugh at the irony of the situation. Then, he steeled himself, put his tuxedo back on, and headed back to the Pump Room for the rest of the night.


Paul Tuzi, Twin Anchors

Paul was working as a line chef in Twin Anchors’ kitchen in 1978, when his parents were the proprietors. This area is separated from the main dining room by a back wall decorated with a nautical theme, and is even further from the bar, where a row of red-leather booths line the northern wall.

One evening, a doubtable waitress returned from the dining room to expedite food to her table, and she approached Paul at his work station with an incredulous look on her face.

“You’re never going to believe this,” she averred, looking at him squarely while pulling a plate of barbecue ribs from beneath the warming lights. “The Blues Brothers are sitting in Booth Five.”

Paul’s curiosity began flower, while maintaining a struggle with the weeds of skepticism. This particular employee had made her own fair share of silly comments in the past and had not won him over completely. But the Lincoln Park restaurant had a life of its own dating back to 1910 and could brag of visits by Frank Sinatra in the ‘50’s.

He put his spatula down, took his apron off, left the cooking area, and entered the dining room.

He peered into the bar as he approached it. Glancing to the northern wall and sliding his eyes along the line of red-leather booths, he saw that she was right. For there, sitting in Booth Five were the Blues Brothers, “Elwood” and “Jake” (a.k.a. Dan Aykroyd and John Belushi), wearing black suits with ties, fedora hats, and black wayfarer sunglasses, their fingers wet with barbecue sauce.