An Interview with Declan Maxwell, Maitre D Extraordinaire
The huddle that had formed in the corner of the perfectly set restaurant erupted into laughter as it dissolved. The man they had been listening to emerged and walked toward me. The pre-service briefing was complete, and the night was about to begin. But first, he would sit down at one of the soft black booths and chat with me about his recent nomination as Best Manager by the Restaurants Association of Ireland.
Declan Maxwell is neither a newcomer to the restaurant industry nor the awards ceremony. Yet, his affable and modest personality would have you doubting whether he’s actually spent half a lifetime working in fine dining establishments. Declan won the award in 2013, after complaining that there wasn’t a category for managers. “So they made it for you?” I ask. “Yeah, basically,” he chuckles, with his trademark I’m only half joking face. In hospitality, the maxim ‘you don’t get if you don’t ask’ is almost an across the board rule. And recognition is one of those things you rarely get.
When he won the award last he was working in Chapter One, a Michelin starred restaurant since 2007. This time around he’s in Luna, a modern Italian experience on Drury Street that sports a charcuterie station and a dessert trolley. Many in the industry were surprised by his exit from Chapter One, but Declan wanted a new challenge. When asked if being nominated this year feels like less of a big deal because the reputation factor isn’t on the line, he shook his head. “It actually means a lot more.16 years in Chapter One, which is an institution, you get nominated for things with that and you wonder of course, is this because of me or because of Chapter One? With Luna, its like my own personality is coming out.”
The atmosphere in Luna is, in a word: sexy. Dark wooden tables, black leather seats, and staff decked out in burgundy suits are just some of the things to expect. The music is louder than you would anticipate in a fine dining establishment, but Declan believes this caters to a new strata of Irish diners. “I think what people are looking for in the dining scene is where they can have fun. The market for extreme fine dining will always exist, but overall I think more people want to have a good time when they go out.
When asked about Catherine Cleary’s prediction last year that the dining boom is back, Declan is hesitant to agree. He worked through that boom and he saw the out of control spending. The menu in Luna indeed boasts some items that would break the bank for many diners, but Declan insists it is possible to eat there on a budget. “People are definitely going out more than they did, say five years ago, but they also want value. They are not spending 200 a head, they might spend 60 or 70 but they also expect greatness, which is fantastic.” Savvier customers raise the bar for restaurants to compete on a whole new level. It is not enough to cook a good steak.
The benefits of pushing for more front of house recognition has changed the way many Irish people look at the restaurant industry. The Head Chef used to be the mast head for the establishment, but now that person may be nowhere to be found for diners on a Friday night. The staff member you make a connection with is the person you leave remembering, and over the years Declan has made his fair share of connections. “I have some customers where I’ve seen them a few times a year for over a decade,” he says with a face of amazement. “You learn about them, their families, and in turn, they learn about you. These are the people who happily come back to celebrate special occasions. Or they invite me to their wedding, which is a plus.”
The other side of the managerial coin is dealing with customers who are not so happy, and Declan has his own set of rules for those encounters. His first is the not-so-secret, kill them with kindness. Instead of arguing, or letting the conversation run around in circles, Declan always suggests a next day phone call. Reason being, he says, is alcohol. “It is one of those things specific to our industry. Somebody might be the loveliest person Monday-Friday, but after 3 glasses of wine, they become a psycho-killer.” A good manager knows when to say no, but a great manager knows how.
He is gestured over to the door by a beautiful dark haired woman in a black dress. With a cheeky grin, he bounces up and grabs the reservation book. The Saturday night crowd is about to descend upon them, and Declan is already having all the fun.
The RAI awards ceremony will be held on May 16th at the DoubleTree by Hilton.