Philippe Brainos sits at a table at Chez Philippe – yes, he jokes about guests who say, “So this is your restaurant!” – making notes about the wine list. When a reporter approaches for an interview, Brainos stands and slips on his black jacket before extending his hand in greeting. That’s the Old School sort of gentleman, Frenchman and restaurant maitre d’hotel that he is; service is his life.
Philippe Brainos is the new manager Maitre D'Hotel and sommelier of Chez Philippe in The Peabody hotel. (Photo: Lance Murphey)
Because his parents were divorced, Brainos grew up in Paris and Cannes – “I know,” he said, “poor little boy!” He owned a restaurant in Paris with a partner, but came to the United States in 1969 to attend Northwestern University in Chicago, studying international marketing. That didn’t feel like a good fit, so he got back into the restaurant business. Preferring restaurant settings in fine hotels, Brainos, 66, has worked at, among other places, the Helmsley hotels in New York, the Watergate in Washington and the Siena in Chapel Hill, N.C.
Brainos is courtly and charming, and part of his charm is his voice, deep and silky, and his accent, which reminds one of “classic” Frenchmen – to Americans, anyway – like Maurice Chevalier. He has been at Chez Philippe about five months. The restaurant’s chef de cuisine, Ryan Spruhan, took over the kitchen late in January, replacing Jason Dallas.
The Restaurant Insider spoke with Brainos about the latest chapter in his life.
Q: You insist on the French term maitre d’hotel rather than the Americanized maitre d’. Why is that?
A: Because a maitre d’ as the term is understood in this country is a host. The maitre d’hotel specializes in wine and tableside cooking. You learn 15 or 18 tableside dishes, really like a chef in the dining room. So, for Chez Philippe, I am manager, sommelier (wine steward) and tableside chef.
Q: As the Peabody’s flagship restaurant, Chez Philippe is a luxury establishment, opulent in décor and expensive. How would you describe its ambiance?
A: I tell you, Chez Philippe is like an old lady that has to be courted and maintained beautifully every day. When you walk into a good hotel or restaurant, you should cross yourself, because it’s that kind of experience, I mean, when the food and service and everything is up to the beauty and the grandiosity. I’m crazy about service!
Q: How do you define good service?
A: That’s to deliver the positive and the unexpected, and what I mean by that is to have the intuition to know what people need or want before they ask. A guest should never have to ask for anything. When you see someone set a pen on the table, you bring a pad. I teach my wait staff to learn the difference in the sound of a knife or fork or spoon falling off the table, so it can be replaced before a guest has to lean down and pick it up. When I have a rookie here I give him my philosophy of the dining room. I say if you had the choice between helping your best friend dying of a heart attack at your feet or serving soup to a guest, serve the soup first.
Q: Isn’t it difficult to maintain that kind of high standard in a world that’s increasingly casual and familiar?
A: Well, you see, I come from a continent where not long ago there were the princes and the servants and nothing in the middle. A prince could become a servant by necessity, but a servant could not become a prince. What I’m saying is that people know their place, even guests. In the dining room there is what I call The Big D Problem, and D means democracy. In the dining room, there is no democracy. There is the servant and there is the guest. It’s difficult for American servers to understand this, to bow and say thank you. I want my servers to be discreet and quiet and to retire but also to foster a sense of happiness and joy.
Q: You sound pretty rigorous, part butler, part football coach. Were you brought in to whip things into shape?
A: No, I wouldn’t say that, more to bring things back to normal for a fine restaurant.
Q: What’s something that needs to be done?
A: I want the staff to know more about wine. I like to control the wine, but that needs to change a little so they know more and can make recommendations, so we’re going to have some seminars and tastings. When I came wine costs were too high, and that needed to change, first, by control of purchasing and serving and then by control of inventory. That was a problem.
Q: In what way?
A: Staff taking wine home.
Q: When it’s six o’clock, and all the tables are set and the lights and the candles lit, and the first guests are about to arrive, what’s the expectation, how do you feel?
A: Ah, at that moment, I feel like an actor on a stage. There’s a story about the great Sarah Bernhardt, that a young actor said to her, “I never feel stage fright,” and she said, “You will. It comes with talent.” So after all these years, there’s a bit of stage fright, because everything must be consistent, everything must work. The doors open. The guests arrive. The play begins once more.