Sirio Maccioni (1932-2020) – A Remembrance

Gloriously elitist Sirio Maccioni was the perfect restaurant host

Le Cirque changed everything.

Las Vegas had been upgrading its food and beverage options for several years when Le Cirque opened in late 1998, but when it showed up, our gastronomic ground shook and the whole world felt the shudder.

Le Cirque was big time, New York sophistication planted right in our backyard. There was nothing “Vegas” about it. The Las Vegas of Dean, Frank, and Elvis impersonators suddenly seemed pretty cheesy next to opera stars and real royalty. Almost overnight, we went from Rat Pack to Savile Row.

The snappy suits on the staff announced this, as did the eye-popping Adam Tihany designs of “The Circus” and its sister, Osteria del Circo next door. The food and wine were otherworldly as well, right from the jump. There was no “ramping up” with these operations — everything ran like a fine-tuned watch from day one. Las Vegas has never been more urbane, before or since.

Overseeing it all was the Maccioni family. Mario, the eldest, moved here and was put in charge. Brothers Mauro and Marco flew out from New York to spell him occasionally, and every month or so, there would be patriarch Sirio sitting at a front table, looking all the world like a man who knew the roof was going to cave in any minute.

If there was ever an Olympic medal for worrying, Sirio Maccioni would’ve retired it. He was the Michael Phelps of worryworts. Nothing escaped him; everything was a potential disaster — from a waiter’s crooked necktie to a woman waiting too long to have her water re-filled.

Even though he was technically not “running” the Las Vegas restaurants, his eagle eye and sharp tongue had everyone on high alert. In between, he would bend your ear about his businesses going to hell in a hand-basket: unions, landlords, waiters, casino executives, customers, suppliers — Sirio was convinced there was a cabal of incompetence lurking right around the corner, ready to destroy the wonderful world(s) he had created, one misplaced napkin at a time.

In other words, he was the perfect restaurateur.

He didn’t come by it easily. His mother died when he was a little boy; his father by a Nazi bomb. Working in restaurants was in his blood, though, and he quickly moved from local ristorante to posh hotels to haute cuisine palaces, before making his way to New York while working on a cruise ship in the 1950s. Being tall and movie star handsome didn’t hurt. Neither did speaking five languages and being able to flirt with women in all of them. Saying Sirio Maccioni had a way with people is like saying a fish has a way with swimming.

A Table at Le Cirque: Stories and Recipes from New York's Most ...

Le Cirque and Sirio were already New York institutions by the time I discovered them in the late 1980s. By my second visit, five years later, their elitist reputations for “playing favorites” and  “shunning unknowns” were well-established. But from where I sat, nothing could’ve been further from the truth. The allegations seemed like raw meat for the populists to me — dished up by writers who knew there was always a public appetite for casting high society as priggish swine — ignoring the magical food and service going on around them.

I went to his restaurants three times as a nobody before I went as a somebody, and the service never wavered. Long before the VIP treatment came, we always felt cosseted and cared for by the best service we had ever seen. Not for nothing was Le Cirque America’s most famous restaurant in the 1990s, and the care and feeding it gave all its customers, not just the famous ones, was the reason.

My second trip was the only anecdote needed to debunk this tedious cliche about regulars getting special treatment. It was getting late in the afternoon, well past 2:30 pm, when we stuck our heads in the front door of Le Cirque 2000, just to get a glimpse of the room. It was almost empty, and we knew it was too late to be seated. Sirio wasn’t there, but his number one lieutenant was, and he sensed, almost preternaturally, that we were hungry but too embarrassed to ask for a table. “If you are hungry, we are here for you,” were the words I remember to this day.

And with that, we were seated in at a beautiful table, and treated like kings. It would be two more years and another (anonymous, perfect) meal in New York before I would meet Sirio and start telling Las Vegans that our restaurants had taken a quantum leap in class.

EATING LAS VEGAS - The 50 Essential Restaurants - 18. LE CIRQUE ...(Le Cirque Las Vegas)

Once I started writing about his Las Vegas offshoots, my stock rose considerably, and that meant there would invariably be more food than I, or any six people, could eat. Once he smuggled a culatello ham from Italy back to New York and made sure we had a platter of this ethereal pork. There were chocolate sculptures and jewelry boxes of sweets and free champagne aplenty, but the real bonus was having Sirio stop by to chat.

Being known by Sirio was a treat unto itself. He wasn’t only a world-class worrier, he was a spell-binding conversationalist who could spin yarns like sugar, always sprinkled with a little acido to keep things interesting. He once spent so much time at our table in New York in the summer of 2000, a well-heeled gent on his way out of the restaurant leaned over and whispered in my ear, “Who are you?”

“We are not in the food business,” Sirio always said, “we’re in the hospitality business.” Time and again his restaurants proved it. Making people feel good — making them feel like they were living life to its fullest — was his stock in trade. Night after night, decade after decade, he practiced sprezzatura: the Italian art of making the difficult look effortless. His was not the world of stuffy French pretension. He had suffered many a French chefs’ scorn as a young Italian, trying to make his way as a waiter. When his French restaurant became the talk of the town, it was because Italian warmth permeated the dining room as assuredly as truffles did the roast chicken.

Of course, Las Vegas will never have the celebrity social scene that first put Le Cirque on the map. High rollers and livin’ large conventioneers were never going to replace the King of Spain and Liz Taylor. But Sirio and his famiglia  slipped into our culture as surely as they did a pair of Ferragamos. What Le Cirque did then, what Sirio Maccioni always did, was make his customers feel special, no matter who they were.

In the end, I guess we’re all nobodies  — ashes to ashes and all that — but Le Cirque, whether in New York or in Las Vegas, helped you forget the truth that we are so fragile, so temporal, so much less the sum of our parts.

And now the parts that were Sirio are gone from this mortal vale, even if the style and the drive and the savoir faire that made him so special seem as dated as a society column. There will never be another Sirio Maccioni, not in our lifetimes. Because the forces that made him are no more. He was the last maestro. The end of a breed. The restaurateur as social arbiter. A purveyor of good taste, as well as of things that tasted good. By New York standards, Las Vegas only got a glimpse of Sirio Maccioni, but it was enough to make an impression on our entire hospitality industry.

Because he had a gift. Not just of gab. Not just being so suave, so successful, and such a devoted family man. Sirio also had the rarest of touches: something born of poverty, war, and strife. Something bred deep in his Tuscan soul, where food, family, community and kindness were all-important. Beneath that tall, twinkling, imperious, driven, difficult, elegant, moody/brooding charm there beat the heart of a true gentleman — someone who always made us nobodies feel like somebody.

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The Covid Diaries – Vol. 8 – The Shape of Things to Come

robot serving GIF by The Venture Brothers

Day 31, Wednesday, April 15, – What’s Next?

Assuming any are around a month from now, restaurants surviving this coronapocalypse will face a strange new world of less customers. freaked out diners, intense public health scrutiny, and a depleted workforce.

All this while trying to resurrect their economic lifelines and deal with supply chains in ruins.

When it comes to Las Vegas, there’s really two conversations to have here: one about off-Strip dining scene (You remember it don’t you? The scene that was starting to boom over the past three years?), and the Strip, with its hundreds of food outlets serving (primarily) our tourist economy.

For purpose of these predictions, let us concentrate (mostly) on trends which will affect both.

There are no crystal balls at work here, and some of these are beyond obvious, but they bear reminding to brace yourself for the brave new world in eating out that’s right around the corner.

And for the record, it would please us no end if we are proved totally wrong on all of them. Well, almost all of them.

Fewer Diners

Everything’s about to shrink: customer base, restaurant seating, booze consumption, and profits. Those people you see dancing in the streets? Bankruptcy lawyers.

Shorter Menus

Every menu in America that isn’t a Chick-Fil-A has just been cut in half. Many will stay that way. Shorter menus are great for many reasons, but mainly because you can spend less time ordering and more time worrying about that cough from four tables away.

Close tables

Cheek-by-jowl jostling with strangers over a plate of steak frites has gone from good to gauche. Huge Strip restaurants will reduce capacity (e.g. 300 seat places (like Mon Ami Gabi) will suddenly find themselves with a third less tables. Tiny neighborhood joints will feel the pressure too. Guess which ones will be hurt the most?  A fifty seat mom and pop cracker box can’t make a profit if it’s cut in half. No word yet from the epidemiologists on the disease-catching horrors lurking in back-to-back booths.

Buffets

MGM to temporarily close Vegas buffets as virus precaution

Put a fork in them, they’re done. Deader than Julius Caesar. Forget about sanitary masks and table-spacing — after this world-wide freakout, no one’s going to want to stand in line with hundreds of strangers while waiting to eat….much less handle a serving spoon that’s been touched by fifty filthy kids.

Opposing view: Death by calories will not dissuade these eager over-eaters from their orgies of excess. Buffets and Covid19 have a lot in common: both are vaccine-proof and impervious to common sense — always ready to stealthily reinsert themselves into our defenseless body politic as soon as our sneeze guards are down. The same credulous fraidycats  who bought the coronavirus scare wholesale will be only too eager to resume shoveling AYCE into their pie holes, as soon as some authority figure says it’s “okay”. Catching a virus may have terrified them in the short-term, but government can stand only so long between a man and his third dessert.

Loud and Crowded Goes Kaput

A corollary to “close tables” above. Three-deep bars and people screaming to be heard will be seen as toxic. In well-spaced, too-quiet places, expect people to start yelling across tables just for old time’s sake. Baby Boomers, mostly.

Communal tables

No one will want to dine next to strangers anymore. From now on, people will let public health doctors tell them how they should sit and socialize —  in the same way we let dentists tell us what food to chew, and gynecologists dictate who we should sleep with.

Smaller Plates

Here’s one we’re on the fence about.  Will portions shrink to reflect tougher times? Or will the good old “blue plate special/meat and three” make a comeback? In other words, will gutsy food replace preciousness? One thing’s for sure though, there will no longer be restaurants centered around…

Share Plates

Shared plates (and/or everyone picking off a central platter) will NOT be a theme of most menus coming out of this. You might as well ask your friends, “Let’s go infect each other over dinner.” Even though it’s not true, you’ll get a lot of “Ewwww” at the very thought. If you want to eat communally, you’ll have to go Chinese. Possibly in a private room. Probably with a bureaucrat standing over your shoulder.

Tweezer Food

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Can’t die a moment too soon. As Julia Child once said (when looking at a nouvelle cuisine creation): “You can just tell someone’s fingers have been all over it.” The absurdity of molecular cuisine will also perish in a sea of silly foam.

Unfeasibly Long Tasting Menus

Once the dust settles, the 1% will start flocking back to destination restaurants. Or will they? Something tells us all the “chef’s vision” malarkey — which has powered the World’s 50 Best for the past decade — will henceforth be seen as decadent. Simple, local cooking with good ingredients will replace three hour slogs through some overpraised, hipster chef’s fever dream.

Linens? Sanitary or Un-?

Personally, many who dine out often long for the days of real cotton napery and tablecloths. We prefer them to wet, slimy, cold, hard surfaces where who-knows-what has been smeared on it. Unfortunately, it’s a cinch the health Gestapo will mandate the constant wiping down of tables, and human comfort and civilized dining will one of the casualties….at least in America. We can’t imagine the old-school, haute cuisine palaces of France serving dinner on bare-bones tables…although some already do. The smart set will bring their own cleaning supplies….because nothing says “night on the town” like handi-wipes and a personalized spray bottle.

Sommeliers

Sad to say, but somms will be an endangered species in this new economy. Wine lists will shrink; prices will come down; and choosing a bottle will be between you and your wine app. This will save you money (on tips), and gallons of self-esteem points by no longer being humiliated because you don’t know the difference between a Malagousia and a Moscofilero. Idiot.

Wine/Bars

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Expect wine in general to take a hit, especially the expensive stuff. Especially in America. The health nuts will try (and fail) to turn bars into fully automated spaces with all the charm of a DMV waiting room.

Celebrity Chefs

Their popularity has been shrinking for a while now. Is anyone dying to go to a Bobby Flay restaurant anymore? Even if Shark in The Palms is pretty good? El Gordo’s shtick will start (start?) looking stagey and superficial in the culture of asceticism to come. Not to mention the idiocy of $$$s being thrown at him/them by clueless casino accountants, just to see a famous name on a door. And because the cache of chefs has shrunk…

Bad Boy Chefs

…are probably a thing of the past, too. Ditto their tattoos…and tatts on waitstaff and barkeeps. In this hyper-hygienic, monochromatic, new world order, anything that smacks of personal expression and pirate rituals will not be a good look when it comes to selling vittles. Imagine a world where everyone looks like Barbie and Ken, right down to the lack of genitals, and you’ll get the idea. Sexy.

Asian food

Specifically Chinese food. Face it: America is racist, and many blame the Chinese government for this debacle. While the blame may be justified, this isn’t fair to Chinese-Americans or Chinese restaurants in America. But fairness has no place in post-Covid society. Once the tail starts wagging the dog, don’t expect the bull to go easy on the China shop.

More Plastic!

The world’s fear of viral infection will make clean freaks out of everyone. And this means more single-use plastic: gloves, Styrofoam, containers, take-home boxes, utensils, etc.. Germaphobes are going to have a field day “protecting” us from cooties….even if it means ruining our long term health and the environment. This is known in public health circles as saving your life by killing everything around you.

Take-out food 

Every operator thinks this whole pick-up/delivery thing is here to stay.  Doesn’t matter that all food tastes better when eaten right after it’s prepared. (The only exceptions are cold sandwiches and burgers…and even fast food burgers suffer from remaining too long in the sack.) Good food doesn’t travel well. Good food needs to be eaten as soon as it’s done. Human beings have known this for thousands of years. But because of this shutdown, restaurants will try in vain to prove otherwise. Eating take-out from a good restaurant is like watching a blockbuster movie on an iPhone.

Automated food prep – robot chefs!

robots cook GIF

To those promoting AI cooking, conveyor belt sushi, automaton waiters, and  computerized everything, this Covid crisis has been manna from heaven. The only thing that will suffer from this automation will be your dignity and good taste.

Home Cooking….

…will NOT have a resurgence, Neither will bread baking. Why? Because cooking is hard and bread baking is even harder. Ain’t nobody got time for that.

Less late night/less bars/less luxury spending

Bottle service > dead. Ginormous nightclubs > toast. Dayclubs > history. Lounge acts and supper clubs (circa 1975) will be replacing them. You heard it here first: Once  Mel Tormé impersonators get rolling, Elvis imitators will seem cheesier than a Velveeta fondue.

Hygiene Obsession

MUCH GREATER EMPHASIS ON HYGIENE – of customers,  restaurants, and their staffs. Will everyone have to be tested before entering? Will your waiter be wearing a mask? Will all of these ruin your enjoyment of eating out by turning restaurants into the equivalent of hospital food being served by prison guards in a boarding school mess hall? Does the Pope wear a beanie?

Coffee and Cocktails Will Conquer

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The first businesses to revive after this nonsense subsides will be coffee houses and cocktail bars. They will be the easiest businesses to ramp back up, and will provide a quick, cheerful respite from the misery that has enveloped society. Restaurants, especially mid-tier, independently-owned restaurants will have the hardest time of it. The catchwords will be comfort over creativity. And nothing is more comforting in trying times than a good cocktail…or a cup of coffee.

Critics get Cashiered

Reports of critics’ demise have been greatly exaggerated for over a decade, but this could be the final nail. The last straw. The icing on the funeral potatoes, if you will.

Image(You got what you wanted, restaurants: no more critics! But just think of the cost. Cheers!)

 

The Covid Diaries – Vol. 7 – Taking Stock

Image(If coronavirus predictions were a stock, you’d sell)

Day 26, Thursday, April 9 – Emotion v. Logic

Most people have succumbed to numbness by now. Which is just the way the government likes it.

The days click by with nothing happening, nowhere to go. We are prisoners in jail cells of our own making.

Don’t expect the birth rates to be up in 9 months. Caged animals don’t have much sex.

The tide is beginning to turn. Slowly, inexorably, the news is focusing more on the economic impact of the shutdown than on the virus itself.

Soon enough, we will hear how much it cost the 99% to save the 1%.

Even now, the trigger words and action verbs  that have been used to describe the coronavirus — “crisis”, “ravaging”, “war”, “devastating”, “battle”, “overwhelming” – are being applied to its aftermath.

Facts and logic are stubborn things. Obdurate and unyielding no matter the torrents of emotion thrown at them.

The facts are, day-by-day, establishing that the threat of the Covid pandemic was blown out of proportion.

Undeniably, though,  extreme, unprecedented harm has been done to the American economy and the lives of the healthy people who make it run.

As Michael Burry puts it so succinctly:

This is a new form of coronavirus that emanated from a country, China, that unfortunately covered it up. That was the original sin. It transmits very easily, and within the first month it was likely all over the world. Very poor testing infrastructure created an information vacuum as cases ramped, ventilator shortages were projected. Politicians panicked and media filled the space with their own ignorance and greed. It was a toxic mix that led to the shutdown of the U.S., and hence much of the world economy.

Politicians weren’t the only ones who panicked. Within about a ten day period last month, the media went from inquisitiveness to healthy skepticism to full bore hysteria. Fanning the flames of fear. Using scoreboards to chart the infection/rate, and basically scaring every American shitless about a virus that was “ravaging” America. (Never forget that the justification for this shutdown claimed 60% of Americans would be infected, and that 3% of those infected would die. Figures that now seem beyond ridiculous.)

Sports coverage and news media share one thing in common: they are all about appealing to emotions. You don’t have to go very far on the internet to see the media doing its greedy, sinister best to keep passions inflamed: “Deaths Soar”, Pandemic Catastrophe”, and “America’s coronacrisis has arrived” headlines are all over the place. Every famous person who dies “from Covid complications” is trumpeted to keep you riveted. No word, ever, of what other medical conditions they were suffering from.

The Atlantic, two weeks ago, predicted:

more than 1 million Americans would succumb to COVID-19 in the next few months. That is about as many people as the country lost in the Civil War, World War I, and World War II—combined.

As of today, the US has 385,449 confirmed cases of COVID-19 infection. There have been 12,216 deaths. The prediction (all of which have been wrong so far) is now that approximately 60,000 people will die of this by August. No word from the “experts” about how many of those were already at death’s door.

Making it a contest (a “war” on coronavirus) did the trick. Everyone was either numbed into submission or galvanized into camps — tribalism writ large if you will — with degrees of virulence far outstripping anything the infection could have wrought. On one end you had the hyper-aggressive health Gestapo (liberals, mainly, oh the irony) yelling at people for walking down the street; on the other, there are the homeless, the clueless, and the working poor who didn’t give a shit. (The working poor, BTW, can’t afford to give a shit.)

In between there are the legitimately fearful, the concerned, and the sympathetic. Counterbalancing them are the skeptics and the economists who, when they’re not being shouted down by shutdown defenders, are trying to make sense of  what we’re doing to ourselves.

And then, of course, there are those seeking to make political hay out of this mess, which doesn’t do anyone any good.

A rational, logical argument against the continuation of the shutdown begins with citing facts. Here’s the way the arguments usually go:

When you point out that the confirmed infection rate of 0.12%. Not 12%. 12/100 of 1% — you get told, “it could’ve been far worse.” This is an un-provable assertion. Of course if you lock everyone in a dungeon, lots of bad things won’t happen to them. Only when they’re out of the dungeon can you properly assess the level of danger. In this sense, Sweden is the world’s “control group”, and why it’s treatment model is being looked at so closely.

When you point out a fatality rate of 0.0037%, you are bombarded with, “You need to see the devastation in the hospitals!”. To be clear, that’s 37/10,000 of 1%, of the entire population of America,

And when the worst case figure of 1.7% death rate (of those seriously infected, most of whom were old and sick) is pointed out, you can expect a barrage of, “What if it was your grandpa who was dying?” — always the sucker punch thrown when the reasoning round has been lost.

Also, what you never hear from the public heath pundits is that they have yet to find a cure for the common cold. Good luck finding a vaccine.

Some more simple statistics:

As of today, Sweden has 7,857 confirmed cases of COVID-19 infection. There have been 687 deaths.

The population of Sweden is 10,230,000.

That’s a confirmed infection rate of 0.08%, or 8/100 of 1%.

That’s a fatality rate of 0.01%, or 1/100 of 1%.

Much lower infection rate, higher fatality rate.

Aside from banning meetings of more than 50 people, and the usual hand-washing and cleanliness guidelines/suggestions, Sweden appears to have left their economy untouched. Bars and restaurants continue to operate, as do most businesses.

It all really comes down to a simple debate: Is the cure worse than the disease? And like all good argument, both sides are right….or at least have a plausible case to make.

On the one hand you have the sacrificing of the mental, physical, and financial health of an entire country to forestall the spread of a virus that appears very contagious and fatal to old, sick people.

On the other, you have an appeal to emotion and humanity.  As logically fallacious as the resort to emotionalism is, it is understandable. Viral infections are cruel, invisible beasts who work in the stealthiest of ways. These deaths are tragic. The short term strain on health care systems and professionals (in some areas) has been immense. But Covid has a long way to go before it competes with the Bubonic Plague as a contagion.

There is no winning this argument. Some will argue that the “curve flattening” was worth it. And that being human means no means should be spared to save (or prolong) lives.

But in the end, what will it take to justify the destruction of the American economy? Perhaps nothing. What’s done is done.  Appeals to emotion and a string of speculative “what ifs” were all that counted when this car was being driven off a cliff. Now, it’s in free fall. All we’re doing is trying to figure out how to pick up the pieces of something we didn’t need to destroy in the first place.

When the recriminations come, they will be ugly but immaterial. No one will admit fault; everyone will circle the rationalization wagons.

Who will be accountable? Does it even matter? Once you’ve shot yourself in the foot, why you pulled the trigger becomes irrelevant. Perhaps you’ll learn not to carry a weapon of fear around any more. Probably not. It’s fear that’s keeping you alive, you think to yourself, even after it’s killed everything around you.