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Jean Pierre Foucart

Le Bernardinís captain recounts a lifetime of restaurant experience

Twenty years ago this coming January, Gilbert and Maguy Le Coze arrived in New York City after receiving two Michelin stars for their Paris restaurant, Le Bernardin. Their plan was to open a second establishment on 51st street, a stones throw from the eternal lights and ceaseless human rivers of Times Square. During the process of building their New York team for this new restaurant, Jean Pierre Foucart was called in to interview for a job as captain, and the resume he presented was long and distinguished. Nine years at La Caravelle with Chef Roger Fessaguet, five years as captain at Lutece with André Soltner, and shorter turns at several other acclaimed restaurants such as La Petite Marmite and Windows of the World. Owner Gilbert Le Coze was impressed with Foucart’s hotel school background and his twenty-plus years of service experience in a wide array of respected New York City restaurants, and he hired Jean Pierre on the spot. This January 28th, Jean Pierre Foucart will retire at the top of his profession after 20 years of uninterrupted service at Le Bernardin.

Mr. Foucart is far from the American public’s stereotypical perception of the haughty, condescending French waiter. His tall stature provides him with a commanding presence in the dining room, yet he seems to use this advantage sparingly. His agility on the floor puts waiters half his age to shame, as each carpeted step navigates carefully among the obstacle course of chairs, plants, staff members, and other props that combine to create his stage. Yet for all his energy, it is his delicate balance of grace and modesty that has made him a favorite among returning customers, many of whom ask for him at the door, or when they make a reservation.

While much fuss is made over the great chefs and restaurateurs of New York, and deservedly so, a restaurant without excellent service is almost always a short-lived business endeavor. Whether one pays $20 or $250 for a meal, the customer wants to be treated well, with respect and with promptness, and with just the right amount of pampering. If this level of service is delivered, then there is an above-average chance the customer will return, even if the meal was less than perfect. But what constitutes a great waiter, and what can we learn from Jean Pierre Foucart’s experience working the front of the house at some of New York’s finest restaurants over the course of the past forty years?

First and foremost, we can learn that a great waiter must have the capacity to read minds. When you think you’ve become thirsty, he has already refilled your glass. When the conversation at your table needs a subtle lift, he appears to interject a witty opening line, and leaves just in time for you to collect all of the credit. If you prefer to be left alone, he seems to vanish from the room like a phantom. The ability to discern a customer’s innermost thoughts is more than likely the talent of reading a face from 100 feet. It is also the ability to welcome a party of four that you have never met before, and immediately ascertain their desires before the customers even realize they are hungry. Like a magician’s card trick, these gifts can be learned by anyone who is prepared to practice this art, and to learn to read the people they attend to as smartly as a deck of cards.

Michelangelo said “Genius is eternal patience.” A great waiter must continually exhibit patience far beyond what most of us are required to possess on an average day. Even then, an extra ounce of this precious commodity must be kept in reserve for those occasions when the last customer of the day suddenly turns into a terrible troll. Or when someone like Truman Capote walks in, and the staff at La Petite Marmite collectively sighs; Foucart smiles, welcomes him in, and treats him like the great man that he was, even though he often was a very difficult customer.

A great waiter must also be a good actor, but not in the literal sense. Nothing frightens the heart of a dedicated food lover more than sitting down at the beginning of a long evening at a fine restaurant and realizing that you’re being served by an aspiring actor impersonating a waiter. If we must have an actor, we’d really rather have the cool, roguish charm of a George Clooney type, one whose kind words and unspoken charisma assure us that we’re dining at the most important table in the city. A great waiter doesn’t make us feel that he is reciting lines, but rather that they are there for us and us alone, to be our personal ambassador of taste, our gracious host, and our friend.

Finally, the most essential skill is to possess a genuine fondness for people. Without this basic human trait, all the patience, acting skills, and psychic abilities will be drowned out by the roar of their indifference.

Mind reading. Patience. Magic. Acting. Culinary knowledge. If it sounds like a great waiter must be the combined reincarnation of Pope John Paul, Houdini, and James Beard, then you’re close to appreciating the juggling act that waiters must perform to achieve excellence in their field. And while a great waiter usually exists only in our imagination, if anyone comes close to achieving this level of excellence, it is Jean Pierre Foucart. And this is his story.

What brought you to the USA and New York?

Jean Pierre: I was in the French Navy as the Maitre d’ Officer of the mess in Algiers. I was receiving alumni bulletins every month about job openings from the student association at the hotel school. They were offering a Bermuda experience, where the trip was paid for by the hotel and you would work for nine months to pay back your trip. Your pay was the tips that you received in the hotel. I had no money in my pocket so I signed up for the trip. When my nine months in Bermuda expired, I renewed the contract for another year. I stayed for two years and learned to appreciate the American way of life. The customers there were much different from the French, more easygoing, nicer and more open-minded. After that I applied for my visa and came to the U.S., where I worked at the Waldorf Astoria part time, because at the time it was hard to get a full time job. I also worked in a small French bistro called La Popotte on 58th street, which doesn’t exist anymore. I have been in New York since 1964.

Was it difficult breaking into some of the higher quality restaurants back then?

Jean Pierre: At the high class French restaurants at that time, most of the employees were from Brittany, and if you didn’t know one or if you are not a Brittan yourself, it was very hard to get in. By the time I learned there was an opening, it was already taken by a family member or another Brittan, so it was a little tough.

You spent many years at La Caravelle, what was it like working there?

Jean Pierre: La Caravelle was a classic French restaurant at that time. The chef was not deviating one ounce from the book, everything was classical 100%. His cooking was like a symphony. You would go into the kitchen and you had your menu of the day, and they would say, “This is a Tornados Racini” for example, and that was it. You had to know what Tornados Racini was at that time, because the chef was making it according to the book and he was not going to explain to you. The owner was tough, it was very hard, but you’d learn to let the storm pass, and keep working.

Any there any fond memories from your time there?

Jean Pierre: One time during the dessert service we had a long rolling cart with all the desserts on it, and one dessert was the “floating island”, a big bowl of vanilla sauce with the egg white floating in the middle. The waiter selected the floating island and presented it to the table. The dish started sliding off the plate and he tried to catch it before it dropped on the table. By doing that, he poured it all over the customer next to him. Big moment of silence; the poor guy was dripping with this vanilla sauce and a lot of people started laughing, and so we started laughing also. Of course we cleaned up everything right away and gave him a card for dry cleaning, but that was a funny, embarrassing moment for the waiter involved.

What was it like working at Lutece with André Soltner?

Jean Pierre: Lutece was a little easier to work at than La Caravelle. I had a great respect for André, he was a great, great chef and it was a well-run operation. I think that André impressed me because he was the chef and the owner together. He was a friend before I joined his operation because we used to ski together up at Hunter Mountain and I knew him already before I began working for him.

Have you had any funny or embarrassing moments at Le Bernardin?

Jean Pierre: At Le Bernardin we had sea urchins in their shell that were cooked in butter, and there were three shells per customer. We had a customer by himself who ordered the urchins, and when we came to clean up the table there was only one shell left. He had eaten the two other shells of the urchins! That went around the dining room and everybody was laughing about the guy eating the sea urchin shell. You know, it’s like having poached eggs and eating the shell as well as the egg.

He must have really liked it.

Jean Pierre: I don’t know because he didn’t comment or anything, he didn’t say it was tough, he didn’t complain. He just ate two shells out of three and we never knew why. I think that was quite funny.

Did you say anything to him?

Jean Pierre: You don’t say anything even when you think it’s funny or it’s wrong, you don’t go and say, “Hey, why did you eat the shell?” You cannot really interfere unless you are asked. Sometimes you can interfere when you see that it will help without offending the customer. For example, where we have the sauce spoon on the table for the sauce and the customer is trying to get some sauce out of his fork, you can come along and say, “You know, I think it’d be easier if you use the sauce spoon for that purpose”. “Wow, that’s a great idea!” But you have to decide whether you can do it or not.

How do you decide how each customer should be treated, whether they need more attention than others, or less attention?

Jean Pierre: You’ve got to judge and evaluate how to act. You have to judge the way we talk to the people, in the way we greet them, and in the way we interact with them. We joke with them because they want us to, or we just explain the menu and move away because they don’t want to interact. You have to respect all those different moods when you’re in contact with the customer. When you get 20 or 25 customers at a time, you have to evaluate each of their moods, the table’s mood or the individual’s mood, and act accordingly. You don’t want to end up at the end of the meal, and have somebody saying, “oh, you are being too familiar”, or, “you have been too rude” or you have been this and that. Unless it’s a regular customer that comes once a week or once a month, every table is a new person and you have to learn very fast how to adjust to him or her. You know who your fellow worker is and how to act with them, but the customer that comes once a year or once in his lifetime to Le Bernardin, you have to adapt to them whether they are a Rockefeller or whether they are a taxi driver from New York.

What tips do you have to deal with people’s tempers and dissatisfaction?

Jean Pierre: Well, I think there are two ways of dealing with people’s temper. You can override their temper by immediately imposing yourself, without being aggressive, in such a way that they are going to calm down. Just letting them know that you are in charge and that’s the way it is run. The other way is to just say “okay, let’s work things out, what do you want?” You know, it’s kind of a touchy situation when someone is aggressive because sometimes you cannot be aggressive back to them. Either they woke up on the wrong foot or they are aggressive by nature, and no matter what you say and no matter what you do, you will still be wrong. Fortunately this happens once in a thousand times.

Any difficult customers stand out in your mind over the years?

Jean Pierre: Truman Capote was quite a character; he was very hard to please. I always took care of him at La Petite Marmite because at that point he was in bad shape - it was toward the end of his life. I felt sorry for him, and no matter what he said, I would always say Mr. Capote, do this or do that, working him more than he was working me. But a lot of people at the restaurant, when he was seen they would say “not him again”, and I would say, “It’s okay, I’ll take care of him”. Many times I would help him out of the restaurant and across the street to his home at the Millennium Plaza.

Did you ever get into trouble at any of the restaurants for doing something wrong?

Jean Pierre: Once with Maguy. We had three people involved, the waiter, myself and the sommelier. We were involved with a table with Florence Fabricant from the New York Times, and of course she was expecting us to deliver our best. And a couple of things went wrong, a miscommunication between the sommelier and I, and the wine came a little bit after the food. It was not exactly in the right order and Maguy noticed everything, she sees everything. I know she has an eye behind her head; for that she is great. And we end up in the office, the three of us, and we got five minutes of “it”.

Have you noticed manners change over the years since you began your career?

Jean Pierre: Yes, the way people dress mainly. As an old folk, I would say that’s my biggest complaint, the way people are coming into the restaurant nowadays. The way they’re dressed to go out in a four-star restaurant. They go to a four-star restaurant nowadays like they go to the coffee shop or to the beach for that matter. When we opened Le Bernardin, a jacket and a tie were required. We had a dozen ties in the coatroom for those that had forgotten them inadvertently. We used them once in a while and little by little, we used them more and more up to the point where the dozen were not enough any more. After a time, we gave up enforcing the tie rule, and lately people are not wearing jackets any more. I would say 10-15% of the people in the dining room come in without a jacket, so during the summer we said we would loosen up the rules. If we refuse too many people without a jacket, then we might lose too many customers.

What role did Eric Ripert play in your time at Le Bernardin?

Jean Pierre: I consider him not only as a boss, but as a friend. I think from the beginning we had mutual respect; he has his moments of humor, I have mine also. We’ve had arguments a couple of times, but I knew when to back off and say I am sorry I goofed, and I think he really appreciates that. We have a very good relationship - if there had not been a good relationship between us, I don’t think I would have stayed here for so long, in spite of the money or anything else. He is one of the few chefs I know who really thinks of the dining room as a team that works together as well as the kitchen, and I think that’s very important.

You are retiring in a few months. Any good byes, good luck’s to anyone in particular?

Jean Pierre: Well I wish Le Bernardin continued success, of course. I will definitely miss Le Bernardin and the contact with the customers and the whole experience. I was going to say that if I am too bored after six months I might come back! I will miss it, but I need to take some rest. As for the future generations coming, they have got to learn to how to be diplomatic, how to be smooth, how to be agreeable with the customer, how to deal with the people. That’s something that you’ve got to learn by experience - you just don’t come in and say, oh I am going to be a waiter. It’s just not dropping a plate on the table and saying, “here’s your food, bon appetite”. It’s more than that, it’s all philosophy and it’s all acting. You have to learn how to act and how to do it by experience, by learning from others, and by looking around you.

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