The F&B pro on the iconic restaurant and the future of fine dining
CM: What drew you to the front of the house in restaurants?
JA: When I first started busing tables and hosting while in high school in Key West, it was the flexibility. Once I moved to New York, I saw the professionalism in it and realized I could do this as a career. I enjoy working on my feet and the energy and interaction of meeting new people each day. I also love the cast of characters in the restaurant world. Every person who walks in is different, with their own needs, likes, and dislikes. It’s my job to tailor the experience for every single guest, and I love that challenge.
CM: Who has had the biggest influence on your career?
JA: My number one mentor has been Belinda Chang, the wine director of The Modern [at NYC’s Museum of Modern Art] when I worked there. She taught me everything I know about wine and most of what I know about managing people and guests. It’s a funny way of putting it, but managing expectations is a huge part of what I do.
CM: What’s the most important role of a restaurant GM?
JA: First and foremost, a general manager is a kind of concierge to the guests, making sure that every part of their experience is as perfect as possible—the reservation, the ambiance, the timing, the food. Secondly, you play that role for the staff, making sure they’re doing the job well in an environment that feels good. Sometimes you’re playing the cheerleader, sometimes you’re putting out fires, and sometimes you’re dancing around the restaurant and playing the ultimate host. I like to describe it as being a great conductor.
CM: What challenges have you faced while operating during a pandemic?
JA: We’re still at 50 percent occupancy, still distancing tables and bar seats. There are things people don’t expect from a fine dining restaurant—the space coverings and gloves and single-use paper menus, for example. The tables aren’t set when people sit down, and that feels odd. We’re reassuring guests that this is for their safety and that once dinner starts, it will still be that fine dining experience with all of the attention to detail.
CM: What does the future look like for fine dining?
JA: I truly believe that fine dining will survive, because regardless of what’s going on in the world, people want to celebrate special occasions, milestones, and holidays. The fine dining restaurants that are able to come back—and I hope more do than what is predicted—will be busier than ever.
CM: Does Charleston Grill have special plans for Valentine’s Day?
JA: We don’t do anything different with the dinner service, because this is already such a romantic dining room with a celebratory feel. I have helped plan lots of proposals, which is always a highlight.
CM: Former GM Mickey Bakst left a remarkable legacy when he retired last fall. What mark do you hope to make on the F&B community?
JA: If I can make any mark on this industry, it would be to pave the way for more women to get into these types of roles. There still aren’t a lot of females in top-level positions in the restaurant industry.
Photographs by (Hennigan) Andrew Cebulka & Courtesy of (pants) Yogalicious; (book) Little, Brown & Co.; & (shoes) Converse