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Food & Drink

Working the room

A musing on chefs who press the flesh

MT Photo: Doug Coombe
Assagi co-owner Josie Rotando Knapp.
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Published 10/14/2009

Lately, we've been thinking a lot about a certain sort of chef or owner: the kind who personally comes by your table to greet you and inquire about your experience. A few weeks ago, we talked to Paul Grosz, the chef-owner of Cuisine in Detroit's New Center neighborhood, genuinely curious about what he hopes to accomplish by meeting with guests. What surprised us was his desire to avoid glad-handing and to instead hear the truth. As tastes change so quickly, owners like Grosz are ready to really listen in for the latest advice.

It makes sense: These owners abide by the old rule of putting all their eggs in one basket and watching that basket.

Then, last week, one of our sophisticated foodie friends said this was the exception. To paraphrase, they complained, "They only meet with certain customers, the ones that are important," implying that many of these folks used their celebrity as a way to impress only some of their guests. That made us think a bit. 

It seems there's a right way and a wrong way to do it. Once, when we dined at Josephine in Ferndale, the gracious Bob Zagar came to our table to ask after the meal. To our surprise, a perceptive co-diner praised the entrée, then suggested it needed a garnish to be complete. Zagar looked grateful, appreciating the advice. But such graciousness isn't universal. We've heard a horror story or two about owners or chefs who asked patrons about their meal only to react defensively to complaints! 

But when done right, not only does working the room help the kitchen stay up to the guests' tastes, it generates a certain word of mouth. Those who've dined at, say, El Barzón (3710 Junction St., Detroit; 313-894-2070) or Don Luciano's Place (237B Dalhousie St., Amherstburg; 519-736-2917), not only come away impressed, they often find themselves recognized when they return. It offers that little something extra, all while helping fine-tune the restaurant. 

To figure out how it's done right, we approached Josie Rotondo-Knapp at Ferndale's Assaggi (330 W. Nine Mile Rd., Ferndale; 248-584-3499). She and co-owner George Gize were among the first to bring fine dining to West Nine Mile Road, and their enterprise has held up well, as it'll mark 10 years in May. And she attributes their success, at least in part, to what she calls a "hands-on" approach.

"That's my job," she says. "That's what I do: hospitality, food and service. I do it all. … To make sure they have the best possible experience that I can offer them, from start to finish."

But aren't there different reasons to court your dining crowd like that? To give them your personal attention? This is like a riddle to Rotondo-Knapp.

"There is no motivation. It's what you do. It comes from inside. I like to think I extend that hospitality to everyone. For me, it's genuine. My first loyalty is to my customers. I value their input, their patronage. 

"And don't forget: We're in Michigan! In the Midwest, we only have a handful of people that patronize all the good restaurants. You gotta give 'em a reason for coming back. 'Cause most restaurants have good food. What's going to set you apart from the other one?"

Of course, Assaggi is adjusting a bit these days, with heartier appetizers or half-orders of entrées that take dish prices out of the 20s. Ultimately, though, it will be she and Gize supervising the quality that makes the difference.

"When they walk out that door," she says, "they should want to come back or tell someone else about it. Then I know I've done my job."

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