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Dining with a five-star Frenchman 

Close your eyes and relax. Now, if you can, think back to an exquisite dining experience -- one where the tastes that touched your palate immediately filled your senses; to the waiter who kindly answered your questions, never lingering too long or checking on you too often; to the linen-draped table where you softly conversed with your date. That night was an event. One you're unlikely to forget.

Such is the aim of Claude Guillaume, maître d' and general manager of the Dining Room at the Ritz-Carlton Buckhead, one of 13 Mobil-rated five-star restaurants in North America.

Guillaume himself might be worthy of 10 stars, having started at the Ritz-Carlton downtown, and then opening Atlanta's other five-star restaurant, Seeger's, in 1997. His move to Buckhead's Ritz-Carlton in 2002 was a welcome one, much like the reception his guests can expect.

Creative Loafing: How did you, a Frenchman, end up in Atlanta?

Guillaume: I was working about in the French West Indies and met my wife. She's from upstate New York and when we decided to relocate, we came to Atlanta, where the Ritz-Carlton headquarters was.

What's your vision of a five-star dining experience, and how do you make that happen at the Ritz?

I don't make it happen myself. You need to gather the right crew members. You play orchestra conductor, but you need to have the right members with you to make it happen. It's commitment, it's discipline. Even if you think you're the best, there's so much to do and improve over time. It's just like a great recipe. If you have the right ingredients, it's a success story.

Front of the house vs. back of the house -- how do you achieve the right balance that results in a successful restaurant?

Fortunately, chef Bruno [Menard] was born in the business. He understands that the chef is not always right, it's about the customer. It's not about me, it's not about the chef. Chef Bruno understands that. We work as a team, and not against each other. It used to be against each other. When I used to do my summer training, you could see it -- the manager was always fighting with the chef, the chef taking out a knife, and so on.

How much personality is too much for a maître d' or server?

It's a profession, it's not like being a student. They need to able to understand the table, they need to be able to read the table. Some guests like to be entertained a little bit, and explained to a little bit. A CEO or a CFO doesn't want to be disturbed at all. Servers need to read the table and interact with the guests and know when to stop. As a manager, you need to know servers' strengths and weaknesses -- a lot of psychology. It's different every night. If it were a perfect science, it'd be boring.

What kind of food personality does Atlanta have?

I don't think Atlanta has a food personality. I think it offers a tremendous amount of different concepts. And just like anywhere in this country, it's all about concept.

What are three rules of fine dining that no person should forget?

Be excited about it, don't be nervous about it. Take your time at the table. Don't be afraid to ask anything because we want you to be comfortable. The guest is not in the spotlight; we are not there to judge the customer, we are there to make you comfortable.

The Dining Room at the Ritz-Carlton Buckhead, 3434 Peachtree Road. 404-237-2700. www.ritzcarlton.com/hotels/atlanta_buckhead/dining.

chefstable@creativeloafing.com

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