Food Arts presents its September 1993 Silver Spoon Award for sterling performance to Sirio Maccioni, restaurateur extraordinaire.
Proprietor of New York City's 20-year old Le Cirque, often hailed as the best restaurant in America, Maccioni is both businessman and diplomat, courtier to the rich and famous, and field marshal to the kitchen staff of 35. He has been described as a ringmaster, Italy's answer to John Wayne and an eagle flying over the room because of his acute and unerring attention to detail.
Above all, he tirelessly struggles to be the best, which means upholding the Golden Age standards in an era when the challenge is even more difficult. His menu remains encyclopedic: 52 main courses at a time when many restaurants find half a dozen sufficient. An important restaurant, Maccioni says, "has to be sparkling and have the right people." He believes his customers—many of whom come three to five times a week—are doing him a favor, not vice versa, and sees it as his duty to offer him impeccable service. "You have to have the courage to admit a mistake. If you solve the problem before he walks out the door, you have a steady customer." Maccioni also believes that change should be exciting but not shocking. "You have to offer innovation in food, china glassware. But if you change too much, it's not the restaurant they like."
Day and night, Maccioni's polished dining room plays host to movie stars and mayors, politicos and presidents, moguls and media mavens, literary lions and ladies who lunch. Henry Kissinger and Richard Nixon had their official lunch at Le Cirque after the days at Watergate. Ivana trump and Marla Maples made lunch reservations on the same day, and Maccioni coped by seating them on opposite sides if the room, Barbara Walters lunched there with Jean Harris after Harris's release from prison.
Today, the self-made Maccioni is as celebrated as the boldface names who beseech him for tables. He was orphaned at 12 when his parents were killed in World War II, went to hotel school and worked his way up in the best hotels and restaurants in Europe, then New York. From his days as a busboy at Montecatini's Grand Hotel La Pace to his reign as maitre d' at the legendary Colony in New York City, Maccioni always strove "to do better tomorrow." Asked what drives him, he says, "Necessity. I had no choice, But my sons will have a choice."
With Maccioni's blue-blood following, Le Cirque could have been just another place for pampered palates. Instead the four-starred restaurant (one of only four in New York City) is as well known for its fare as for its famous faces. Maccioni combed two continents before he recruited his executive chef, Sylvain Portay, former sous chef under Alain Ducasse at the Michelin three-star Louis XV in the Hotel de Paris in Monte Carlo, when Daniel Boulud, Le Cirque's celebrated chef of six years left last year to open his own restaurant. It will take time to see if Sylvan is able to become a great chef, but I have been able to do it with all the others," says Maccioni who has indeed been a kingmaker of chefs. He calms the doubting Thomases with a reminder that doomsayers predicted the demise of Le Cirque when Boulud replaced Alain Sailhac back in 1986.
As he gets ready to celebrate the 20th anniversary of the culinary bastion he founded in 1974, Maccioni reflects on the past with pride but loses no time in rattling off his plans for the future. "Le Cirque has reached only 75 percent of its potential. It still has 25 percent to go," Maccioni says. Now 28, his oldest son, Mario and his brother Marco, 25, are scouting for a location to open another place, and Papa is helping them. "And I have a dream to open a restaurant in Paris," says Maccioni.