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Restaurant Ringmasters

It was 4:30 on a Wednesday afternoon--a half hour before the restaurant was to open for dinner, and a good two hours or more before, on any typical Wednesday, the bulk of the dining clientele might arrive.

But David Abey, maitre d' at Dan's on Main, had already been working for an hour and a half.

He had had his weekly meeting with Dan Slobodien, owner and chef of the Metuchen restaurant, and Maggy Cook, general manager. He had checked the reservations for the evening, made up the seating chart, reviewed the menu and looked over the table settings. Now he was about to sit down for a quick meal with the staff to discuss last-minute arrangements.

Much the same was happening at other upscale restaurants in the area, where maitre d's were getting ready for the dinner hour. They were, in the words of Bryan Mack of Stage Left in New Brunswick, "creating an atmosphere, a show, literally."

Abey, for whom this was not going to be a typical Wednesday, was looking forward to the evening. Although weekdays tend to be slower than weekends, the restaurant had just received a last-minute reservation for a party of 15.

"We're going to be busy," he said, obviously happy.

He also was expecting a pair of regulars for a early dinner. "The husband will probably have beef tenderloin," Abey said. "He likes it with butter."

At other times, Abey might recognize names of other customers--a woman who drinks only bottled water, for example, or a man who's on a low-sodium diet. Before they arrive, Abey will remind the servers assigned to their tables of their special needs and requirements.

It's all in a day's work for the British-born Abey, who recalled that, as a child, he wanted t be a cook.

He attended a catering college in his native Leeds for two years but after work experience in a hospital, "I decided it wasn't for me," he said. Instead, he transferred to the University of Leeds, where he opted for a management course.

After working as a deputy manager in a Leeds restaurant, Abey who had relatives in Piscataway and Metuchen, emigrated to the United States. His first job here was at Nordstrom's, first as assistant restaurant manager, then restaurant manager. He moved on to the Woodbridge Sheraton, where he was outlet manager, in charge of two restaurants.

A broken leg put him on a new career path. When he recuperated, he decided that the hotel business was no longer tempting. A year ago, he took the maitre d' post at Dan's, a restaurant only five minutes away from his home.

Like other maitre d's, he doesn't work standard hours. Four days a week, he's at Dan's from 3 p.m. to "whenever we close." On Sundays, it's 9:30 a.m. to anywhere from 5 to 7 p.m.

He doesn't mind working evenings and weekends, he said. "I'm so used to it, I find it easy," Abey said. "I have time during the day to go to the store or the post office or the bank. And there's not much to do at night other than watch TV.

"Sometimes I think what it would be like if I had to work regular hours," he added. "I do it Sundays, and that's enough."

Other maitre d's agreed they don't mind the offbeat hours common for a job in which, according to Bryan Mack, maitre d' at Stage Left, they can expect a salary that averages about $36,000 nationally, but much more in the metropolitan area.

"It's not quite twice that around here," Mack said, "but close to it."

But the maitre d's cited more than financial rewards in their jobs.

What Abey likes best is that "I'm in contact with a lot of people," he said. "My job is just to make people happy, to make sure they enjoy the food."

Toby Kennedy used virtually the same words as he described his job at Pierre's in Harding. "I enjoy being with people and making them happy," he said, adding that "at Pierre's, it's easy to make them happy."

One of two maitre d's at Pierre's--the other is Mary Beth Peters, wife of owner Michael Peters--Kennedy has spent much of his life in the business. Before joining Pierre's a little over a year ago, he ran a Thai restaurant.

"I've been in the business 26 years," Kennedy said. "My family owns a bed and breakfast (the Parrot Mill Inn) in Chatham," the town where he still resides.

At Pierre's, he arrives at work at 3:30 or 4 p.m., looks over the reservations for the evening and confers with general manager Jeff Dzoba about the number of waiters that will be needed. Then, he said, "the chef comes out and meets with the waiters and gives them a pre-show on what's on the menu tonight."

Once the restaurant opens for business, he becomes busy "greeting people and coordinating the floor," he said. The latter involves "who sits where," Kennedy explained.

"Some people want to sit in certain rooms. We try to make everyone happy."

Since he's also night manager, Kennedy is the last to leave. With the restaurant open until 9 p.m. on weekdays and 10 p.m. on weekends, he's sometimes there until midnight or later.

"I wait for the dishwashers, I do the paperwork," he said.

Richard St. Pierre also puts in long hours--but then, maitre d' is only one of the jobs he does at Verve in Somerville. He's owner, manager "and dishwasher," he joked. "I'm the man with all the hats."

St. Pierre, who formerly worked at restaurants in New York City and Princeton, opened Verve six years ago.

When he's wearing his maitre d' hat, "I'm not exactly the ring leader," he said. "It's more like choreographer of a ballet or play. We have the main show (dinner) and the matinee. My role as maitre d' is to organize the flow from the kitchen to the service staff, from the customer to the service staff, and to be intermediary, to pull the pieces together."

It begins every evening with what he described as "the family meal," the meal and meeting with the staff.

Once the restaurant opens, the maitre d' is, among other things, "a trouble shooter," St. Pierre said.

"You have to be acclimated to every part of the restaurant experience in the front of the house. That means the presentation, the timing, how to place silverware, the proper accoutrements. At the kitchen end, you have to give them the things they can't see for themselves--whether the client needs something special, or if he has an hour and a half before a show instead of the usual 2 1/2hours."

Every day brings something new, he said. "People are individuals. It's a constant challenge."

St. Pierre, who lives above the restaurant, starts his day about 10 a.m. and doesn't finish until after midnight.

"There's not a lot of down time," he admitted. But "people in this profession want to fill themselves up with work. There's an incredible reward to it. What you're doing is humbly giving to people and watching them enjoy themselves. It's a wonderful process."

It's a process that, to Stage Left's Mack, is "magic."

He's acquainted with the opposite, too. A graduate of the Mason Gross School of the Arts at Rutgers University, he recalled his reaction to his first full-time job, designing collegiate baseball caps. "I hated it," he said.

Having worked in a delicatessen while he was in school, he decided to go back to the restaurant business, but this time in fine dining.

After working as a waiter at the now-closed Great Taste in East Brunswick and as a waiter and pastry chef at Stage Left, he opened his own restaurant, the Pumpernickel Pub, in Alpha. "I was chef there; I did everything," he said.

But five years ago, a fire that started from an overheated refrigerator compressor overheated caused extensive damage.

"I rebuilt, but in the meantime a Charlie Brown's and a Ruby Tuesday's had opened on either side," he said. "I didn't have enough money to withstand that."

Unable to make a go of it, he returned to Stage Left 2 1/2years ago and became maitre d', a position that had been shared until then by owners Mark Pascal and Francis Schott.

"It's the greatest job you can ever have," Mack said.

"You get to see so much of people's lives," he continued. "We're a restaurant where people propose to each other. They spend their anniversaries here. We just had a couple whose wedding we did last year. They came in for their anniversary this year. To see them and be part of their lives--it's very rewarding."

It does mean long hours, even compared to other maitre d's. Though Stage Left named a second maitre d', John Kafarski, who serves in the post Sundays and sometimes on Mondays, Mack is usually there too.

"I don't have set hours," he said, noting that he usually arrives for work between noon and 2 p.m. and often doesn't leave until midnight.

"In the last five weeks, I've had one day off," he said. On his rare days off, he's apt to cook an eight-course meal at his New Brunswick home for "whoever wants to come. I'm totally in love with food."

Since he also serves as special-party coordinator, his daily routine at Stage Left starts with organizing the parties. Then he goes over the menu, which changes daily, meets with the waiters and organizes the books, deciding when each of the restaurant's three dining rooms will open and who will be seated where.

"Right before we open, we all sit down for a staff meal," he said. "We go over who is coming in, if there's an anniversary ... what we need to work on in service, do role playing."

At Stage Left, located in the heart of New Brunswick, the peak hours are somewhat different from other restaurants, he said. "We do so much corporate business that we're really busy Tuesdays, Wednesdays and Thursdays," he said. "Friday is one of the slowest days."

But, he added, "we do get a lot of theater people" from the nearby State Theater, George Street Playhouse and, when it was open, the Crossroads Theater.

"We notice the difference when the theaters are dark," Mack said. "We do more 7 o'clock business than 5:30 pre-show business."

Whatever time diners arrive, "my job is to make them feel special, to feel important," Mack said.

The best part of being a maitre d' is being able "to be a part of their lives," he added. "shake their hands, I say hello, I ask how the kids are doing in school.

"It's not for everyone, but I love it."

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