Thursday, January 13, 2011

Growing up Restaurant January

Lets see where were we, y’all still there?
It seems that it was time to hightail it out of Aspen before we got to comfortable with the skullduggeries that permeated the lifestyle of the rich and famous. Its 1975 Kung Fu and Star Trek had become all the rage and was beginning to experience a bit of a cult following inAspen. The whole place was an addiction it didn’t matter what the genera, it was all about excess there in the seventies.
So I packed my car along with the lady I was after in the first place and her furry wonderful dog and we set out of Aspen after getting in one last day of incredible skiing. Little did I know, skiing that had been so important to me for so long would become a thing of the past? 
I made a brief stop in New York City, I moved into the then chic and shabby west Village of lower Manhattan and began working as a captain at one of the hottest restaurants in NYC, Maxwell’s Plum located at the corner of 1st and 64th. I remember there were 64 chefs that worked around the clock and the restaurant was grossing over 10 million a year, unbelievable sales for those days and pretty respectable for today as well. We were smack dab in the throes of the 3 martini lunch(how did they do it) and not only did we do a tremendous food business but it was the hot after work bar in the center of mid-town Manhattan’s social pick up scene, the bar was 6 deep day and night. 
My dear friend John Sutcliff (the brother in-law of Pierce Cullinton chef at Franks) was the front of the house manager there. We had worked together at the Fan Club in Maine a few years prior to my going to Aspen. Maxwell’s Plum was the brainchild of Warner Leroy and it was the epitome of opulence and gaudy-glitter but New Yorkers were eating it up in 1975. Warner’s family fortune was heavily impacted by the rights afforded him from his father’s production rights to the Wizard of Oz. The restaurant featured a million dollar (1975 dollars) tiffany stained glass ceiling in what was referred to as the back room. The place was total stain glass with 15 inch brass statues of naked characters adorning the railings around the bar and up and down the stair rails. It was something to see, I believe it was the start of restaurant design theatre.
The layout was interesting with a large square bar in the center, tables along the windows on first avenue and again down 64th, the much requested window tables framed the bar on two sides and the back room finished the job on the other two sides. I was intimidated as all get out by the whole setting and experience after all I was just a boy from the hills. Those feelings were only made more intense when John introduced me to my bus boy who didn’t speak any English. He looked quite weathered and it seemed as though life had thrown a curve ball or two his way. Turns out he had been the Mexican light weight champion in his day and I was cautioned to be careful how I spoke to him. Lord have mercy!
The money was off the charts there were guys making 60-70 thousand tax free in 1974. There was very little credit card use and tracking tips by the IRS was something they were just catching onto. There was a General Manager that reminded me of Mr. French he got weekly manicures and always looked as if his butler had just dressed him. He was as comfortable with his arrogance as any front of the house man I had ever met or have met since. I once saw him take offence to an outfit a woman was wearing because she had been seated at a table in the window on 1st avenue and under his strict order those tables could only be sat with customers that fit the profile of the Plum’s desired customers. I remember it as if it were yesterday and admit there have been times over the years where I might have whispered to one of my hosts not to sit a certain person at a certain highly visible location in the restaurant because of their attire. Ah yes, what was she wearing, one of those very expensive jean outfits from the mid-seventies that had the silver studs up the legs and then again on the jacket. She was asked to move to another table and not given a reason.
I saw him move a table of people so Frank Sinatra’s body guard could have the table next to him where he would sit alone. He picked up the tab for those he moved. Warner Leroy was responsible for the Russian Tea Room and Tavern on the Green he also opened another Maxwell’s Plum in Chicago that never reached the popularity of his New York restaurant. He opened Tavern while I was at Maxwell’s and his family just this year turned the property back to the City of New York the Landlord. The fate of Tavern on the Green seems a bit uncertain while Mr. Leroy operated Tavern it became the single largest grossing independent restaurant in the world. My friend John Sutcliff was its opening manager and Bove’s own Chef Ted was at the helm as the Executive Banquet Chef there in the early nineties just before he joined me again in the Carolinas.
Peter Sr.


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