Talking To Vincent Gerbeau, Maitre D’ at Retro in Teddington

Although I could throw out a long list of great chefs in Richmond Borough (even one ‘celebrity chef’), it’s much harder to think of restaurants with great maitre d’s – someone who knows where you like to sit, your favourite drink, whether you like your coffee served with or after dessert.   It seems to be a lost art.

The maitre d’hôtel used to be the key figure in any self-respecting restaurant.  Oscar Tschirky, maitre d’ at the Waldorf-Astoria, found fame not only for creating the Waldorf salad but also for his ability to manage the rich and famous diners of early 1900’s New York.  Rick’s Café Américain in the iconic film ‘Casablanca’ would have been nothing without proprietor Rick Blaine.

Celebrity haunt The Ivy in London relied on maitre d’ Fernando Peire to juggle the demands of the stars, and he in turn now stars in his own TV show as The Restaurant Inspector – so maybe the tide is turning.

We caught up with one of the very few memorable maitre d’s in the area.  Vincent Gerbeau owns the award-winning Retro in Teddington, so we asked him why this is such an overlooked role, and the skills needed to excel.  Anyone who’s eaten at the restaurant will recognise him not just for his charm and attention to detail, but for his outrageous quiff…

Vincent, Retro, and the Quiff.

Vincent, Retro, and the Quiff.

TR: Why has the art of the maitre d’  faded into the background?

VG: Marco, Anthony Worrall Thompson, Gordon Ramsay – they’re all great chefs but the cult of the celebrity chef on TV has distracted people from the importance of those running the front of house.  There’s a real art to managing the dining experience and it’s vastly underestimated.

A maitre d’ needs to know everything about their customer; have an excellent memory, top diplomacy skills and an ability to manage both kitchen and restaurant.

TR: I imagine you need a great memory to be a great in this role?

VG:  It’s important to have a good memory  for faces and names, favourite tables and drinks and even allergies. In particular a maitre d’ must remember who has fallen out with whom and avoid seating warring divorcees next to each other!

Charm and diplomacy are also key – it is the job of the maitre d’ to put diners at their ease, and they need to be sensitive to moods. Some diners may want jokes and flirting, others may want peace and quiet and minimal interruption.

TR:  It’s hard to teach someone to be genuinely charming, I imagine people either have charm or they don’t – it’s their personality.  But behind the scenes the role must be far less romantic and more about being organised and demanding?

VG: Yes, the maitre d’ is is the face of the restaurant but also the manager of the staff; he needs to ensure the food gets out in the right order to the right people. This is not a job that should be underestimated!   Ensuring it all works smoothly is something I call ‘the swan effect’; while on the surface he moves with quiet grace, underneath he is paddling furiously. The maitre d’ presents an air of supreme confidence and calm whatever might be happening in the heated kitchen!

TR: And clearly you believe that bold is beautiful – your haircut is famed throughout Teddington.

VG: The maitre d’ is the host and that role includes providing the entertainment. It is not a job for shy, retiring wall-flowers.

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Vincent owns and works at Retro, an award winning restaurant in Teddington that was recently voted the ‘London Restaurant of the Year’ by the Good Food Guide.

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Do you agree with Vincent’s point of view on the importance of this position?  Who do you rate as a great maitre d’ in the area?  What makes them special?