Brooklyn Heights

Your table is ready: Brooklyn Public Library hosts new events

March 17, 2023 Carolyn Bongiorno
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The Brooklyn Public Library has been hosting presentations and conversations with writers at its Brooklyn Heights branch, in a new series held downstairs in the Multipurpose Room. Though free, the events require registration, which can be done at the branch or online.

On Tuesday, March 14, the featured author was career maître d’ and Brooklyn author Michael Cecchi-Azzolina, whose pandemic project “Your Table is Ready” (St. Martin’s Press) gives an insider’s view into the workings of NYC’s top-tier restaurants. With over 30 years in the service industry, Mr. Cecchi-Azzolina decided to chronicle the scene because “I wanted to tell stories.” From the servers, chefs, and cooks to the salacious bits about sex and drugs, incontinence and gambling, the author said, “You gotta be honest, and you gotta be truthful.” And it doesn’t hurt when the writer Jay McInerney does the blurb for your first book.

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Joining the author in the conversation was fellow writer Andrew Friedman, who hosts the Andrew Talks to Chefs Podcast (available on Apple Podcasts, Spotify and Stitcher), and whose books include “Chefs, Drugs, and Rock & Roll” and the forthcoming “The Dish.” Both authors spoke in a breezy, familiar banter about the changing face of fine dining in NYC.

Author Michael Cecchi-Azzolina signs a book at the event.

Mr. Cecchi-Azzolina found himself at home with his wife and daughters during the height of the Covid crisis, and applied for and won a scholarship for unemployed restaurant workers who are writers, he told his audience. The book was born from this time at home, and when he did return to work he casually mentioned to a dining lawyer that , “If you know an agent, let me know.” Almost overnight, he had one. Soon this led to a National Public Radio (NPR) interview on Fresh Air, which really helped his work to blow up. “ I had no idea, the power of NPR,” he marveled.

What is it like to serve as a captain at a Michelin-starred restaurant? Is the customer always right? (An emphatic no.) It is witnessing a parade of humanity which includes the elites who can spend exorbitant prices, and the back-of-house staff, who were, in his rendering, poorly paid, mistreated, and abused. It is seeing “people running out in the middle of service to buy heroin,” or an unexpected situation when the chef leaves to place a bet on a horse (by flying into the  Santa Anita racetrack in California), or how best to discreetly handle removing the droppings of an incontinent client who left his, er, smelly calling cards upon the white-tiled floor.

The author reminisced about his eight years at The Water Club, where he became “pretty damn good at my job” under the tutelage of legendary NYC restaurateur Michael “Buzzy” O’Keeffe ( also known for The River Café). There was also Le Coucou, which was among “the les and the las” of haute dining. Mr. Cecchi-Azzolina named a trinity of famous chefs who helped make New York a fashionable dining capital: Chefs Larry Forgione, Charlie Palmer, and David Burke. He credits them with “transforming cooking in America,” even as many needed to work 12-18 hours a day, 6 days a week. But, he assured us, “change is happening,” and there is better appreciation now for the labors and the laborers.

Author Michael Cecchi-Azzolina.

The author also served at Minetta Tavern, one of the restaurants owned by Keith McNally, whom he credits with creating these scenes (Odeon, Lucky Strike, and, of course, Balthazar).  Mr. McNally hired actors and beautiful people as waitstaff, but also extended a hand to immigrants and women eager to learn the ropes. “He is a brilliant restaurateur,” he elaborated. “I think he’s a seminal figure.” Mr. McNally suffered a stroke in November 2016, suffering paralysis on one side, but now he blows up Instagram with his vinegar and dry British wit. But his legacy is secure: He created these scenes, and they worked.  And the beautiful people still come in droves.

The bankers and brokers, the Brooks Brothers suits, the doyennes, the mobsters and gangsters, and movie stars all helped change the face of dining in NYC in the ‘80s and ‘90s. Le Bernardin, Raoul’s Elaine’s, Mortimer’s, and the Union Square Cafe were all familiar haunts for Mr. Cecchi-Azzolina of Bensonhurst. So, how does one follow up after decades of service and humility? Our author was pleased to announce that he is opening his own restaurant, Cecchi’s, in Manhattan later this year. He then described the labyrinthine process of getting Con Edison to turn on the gas in an older building, and how difficult the city’s regulations are to follow.

It is definitely a rough-and-tumble world. Over the years, the author worked in a restaurant where the late Anthony Bourdain was the chef. They got to know one another, but it was apparent even than that, ”he had his demons.” But all in all, Mr. Cecchi-Azzolina found a place and a purpose, and a home. With “Your Table is Ready” and soon Cecchi’s, this author’s voice and imprint have been added to the history of this New York scene. It is far more lasting than those C notes folded up with cocaine inside that he used to be passed, back in the day.

The authors took questions from the audience, and then signed copies of their books, which were sold from Books Are Magic, the local Montague Street booksellers who attend these library events.

The Brooklyn Public Library will next host author Hernan Diaz ( author of “Trust”) on Tuesday, April 11, at 6 p.m. at the Brooklyn Heights Library. For more information call 718.623.7100.


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