Soignée Service: A Day in the Life of a Maître D’ at The Modern, New York City

The Museum of Modern Art is filled with over 150,000 individual pieces of art and is often said to have the most outstanding collection of modern Western art in the world. To hospitalitarians, one of the more special works within the museum isn’t hanging on the wall or enclosed in glass. At The Modern, art is brought to life through a dining experience that is nothing short of extraordinary.

Since opening in 2005, The Modern has received two Michelin stars, four James Beard Awards, and a handful of beaming reviews from renowned restaurant critics across the world. Executive Chef Abram Bissell helms his spotless kitchen and General Manager Tony Carson oversees the choreography of the front of the house team. Together, along with a knockout staff, The Modern exceeds expectations and continues to be one of the most quintessential fine dining restaurants in Manhattan.

Nicole Schumann, Aspire Lifestyles’ New York Partnership Development Manager, was given exclusive access to see dinner service at The Modern through the eyes of the head Maître D’ Hôtel, Michele Molier. Michele has been on the team for almost four years, and through her experience, knows the ins and outs of the sacred glass podium that greets guests as they enter the dining room.

Later, we spoke with Ms. Molier to learn more about her position and how her team works together to provide a memorable dining experience for every guest that steps foot into the dining room.

Aspire Lifestyles: What is your definition of a great customer?

Michele Molier: A great customer is reliable and loyal, but also mainly transactional. Our guests, as we like to call them, have a much more important role at The Modern. A great guest comes to The Modern with an open mind and really shares in the experience. A great guest makes the experience more like a conversation instead of a monologue.

AL: What characteristics are vital to being a great Maître D’?

MM: A great Maître D’ has to be like rubber – things can bounce off of them and they bounce right back. This has to do with everything from finding solutions quickly to having conversations with guests when things are going well. Sometimes it also has to do with having a thick skin and a brave face for when things aren’t going so well. Your ability to bounce back from situations will always make you a better Maître D’ – and person!

AL: As a Maître D’ at a Two-Michelin star restaurant, what are the keys to a successful and smooth service?

MM: A really important key to a successful service is investment and commitment. You have to be fully invested in the success of the evening ahead of you and truly want the best for everyone involved – your guests, your team, and yourself. You also have to stay organized. If the books are not laid out well or if the podium is a mess you are more likely to get tripped up.

AL: Tell us about a time where you went above and beyond for a guest.

MM: Any time we go above and beyond for a guest, it takes a small village to pull it off. A special instance was when we were hosting a private dinner in our event space for a fun guest that had ties to Shake Shack (no longer part of us, but still relevant). Our pastry chef had designed dessert hot dogs as a surprise at the end. Our team and I got together and my colleague suggested we don Shake Shack t-shirts and hats to serve them. Minutes later, I was in a cab on the way to the Grand Central Shake Shack to pick up a bag of t-shirts they were ready to offer us. Back at The Modern, we pulled on the shirts and hats and surprised the dining group. The look of surprise, humour, and all around “wow factor” spoke for itself.

AL: Tell us about your take on VIP guests. What defines VIP, and how do you handle a VIP guest?

MM: At The Modern, we don’t typically refer to guests at VIPs. Essentially, every guest in the building is already a Very Important Person, just by being here. However, we do have a term that refers to guests who are expecting a certain experience and they are flagged as “soignée.” This is a French term meaning elegant or finessed, and we use it to refer to how the table should be treated.

AL: Before service, what are some of your rituals or steps that you complete to ensure a smooth shift?

MM: There’s a lot of preparation that goes into being 100% ready for a service. There’s the technical part of things – making sure the books have been combed through and the first seating set up, discussing noteworthy guests with management, etc… – and there is also a personal part to it as well. I like to make sure my appearance is squared away because you can’t completely focus on your service if the back of your mind keeps wondering “is there spinach in my teeth?”

AL: How do you decide seating for service? If you are a guest dining at The Modern, where is the ideal table and why?

MM: Seating for service has to happen in the most natural way possible – which sounds effortless but is quite the opposite. You have to seat the room in a way so that guests are evenly distributed throughout the space and at tables they would find pleasant. You also have to accommodate requests and take your team members into mind. You have to adjust to the pacing of the kitchen and service staff. We have guidelines, but we also need to be athletic and reactive in our seatings. Our guests typically gravitate towards the window tables for 2 and the booths for 4. Luckily at The Modern, 99% of our tables are actually great tables (and not just because I’m supposed to say that). When I’m seating The Modern and I have to seat a less than ideal table, I always make sure it’s not the last table available, just so we can offer the option to move.

AL: During a busy service, what are some of the best ways to stay calm and organized?

MM: Preparation and Positivity. Sometimes you really have to do your homework and make sure you’ve considered all possible curveballs and back up plans before service starts. You would be surprised how many potentially rough services we’ve gotten through with not as much sweat because we saw a storm on the horizon before service even started. The positivity comes through when you are in those situations and you have to rely on the support of your team, whether it’s your hosts or your managers. We are more likely to have a successful push if we’re all working towards the same goal together.

AL: Have you and your team experienced a crisis at the restaurant and how did you get through it?

MM: At The Modern we are lucky to not have had many crises *knocks on wood*. The most likable thing to happen is that there will be a last minute menu change that no one has ever heard of and we need to get a full re-print of menus and service has already started; who’s going to watch the Front Door and where is the paper? Then everything is back to normal. One thing we hold to high importance at The Modern is the concept of athleticism. You have to be able adapt, change tact, and shift gears.

AL: How crucial is the cohesiveness between the front and back of the house, and how do you work together to ensure a stellar experience for your guests?

MM: Before our main pre-shift meeting, Management, the Kitchen, and the Maître D’ will meet at the pass to discuss the oncoming night. We talk covers (number of guests), pacing, notable guests, our Kitchen Table seatings, and any other information that we feel needs to be shared. Throughout the night, the Maître D’ and Management will mostly communicate and Management will take that information back to the Kitchen. We also communicate when we’re expecting a big seating or when things are lightening up.

AL: What would people be surprised to learn about working in a restaurant?

MM: People would be surprised to know that your Servers, Bartenders, Hosts, etc… are some of the most empathic people you can cross paths with. These are individuals who spend the entire night asking a room full of strangers “is there anything else I can do for you?” This takes a lot of trust and bravery.

AL: We want to hear about the journey that led you to The Modern! Have you always been involved in the hospitality industry? How have your past positions at restaurants prepared you to be a Maître D’?

MM: I haven’t always been in Hospitality but I started at a young age in a pizza shop. I then went on to retail and then back into restaurants. All those experiences combined have taught me valuable things. I learned to be natural in a pizza shop – ask people what they want and give it to them. I learned how to use my personality in retail – be helpful and enjoy yourself. I learned about French cheeses from my time working as a cheesemonger. Sometimes you have no idea what puzzle pieces you’re gathering along the way, but at this point in my career I can see a full picture and be proud of it.

We would like to personally thank Michele Molier, Tony Carson, and the entire team at The Modern for showing us a special glimpse into their restaurant.