Haute practice on a Paris rooftop – April 30/2009

Last month I returned to one of my favourite places in Paris that I feel I ‘know’ in a particular way and that is to the Centre Pompidou, museum of modern art, and its rooftop restaurant, chez Georges. In keeping with the museum itself, the restaurant design is ultra-chic, neo-modern, white and spacious with an exterior terrace. White linen napkins and tall wine glasses sit on every table. The view towards the Eiffel tower is spectacular – unimpeded, the eye follows rooftops, picture windows and intensive gardens across the city towards the monuments on which France was founded – the Arc de Triomphe, the Eiffel Tower, the Champs Elysee and more. I had set aside this entire day before Mayday to hang out at the Pompidou, to wander and soak up the people, the place, art and interactions. Once through the queues, I found the escalator and went all the way to the top to begin my descent floor by floor, room by room. It was my first hot sunny day this spring and despite the prices, the restaurant terrace was simply too inviting. As I was early by Paris standards, there were still many tables waiting to be filled. After approaching a waiter to ask if I could sit at any one of the vacant tables, I was immediately and sharply corrected with notorious Parisian rudeness, as he pointed me to the hostesses’ desk. And thus began my observations of one of the many essential activities within the haute practice of French restaurants.

I inquired about a table “juste pour moi” in my accented but functional French, was scrutinized from head to toe by a 20-something woman, before being asked if I wanted “déjeuner” or just “café.” Knowing the correct response for my purpose, I replied brightly “déjeuner, svp” at which she smiled (only) politely and led me to a table in the sun closest to the back side of the hostess desk and farthest from that very expensive panorama of the city. But for me, this table was worth far more than the view. The hostess or ‘reception’ desk of any high-end restaurant is its own micro-practice of cuisine from the perspective of commerce, class and sociality. From one perspective, haute cuisine practice involves the interactions between the kitchen and their Michelin inspired food critics and is ultimately a practice about the immaterial value of ‘reputation’ or the material value of the star system. That’s the sociality part. However in the lesser ‘haute’ restaurants (not mentioned in the Michelin guides) the hostess desk women and the large field of servers have another piece of this practice; the greeters have been assigned a tiny piece of the restaurant’s ‘reputation’ to manage and generally they seem to know the power with which they have been charged.

As I sat and ate my smoked salmon, sipping a nice glass of white wine, soaking up sunshine and heat, I watched a documentary ‘short’ of “sociality” and “reputation” being enacted before my eyes. Initially there were only two women at the hostess desk – one (H1) dressed entirely in black skirt and top, clearly younger (perhaps barely 20), and the other (H2) an older brunette in a black and white dress, holding the mobile phone in her hand as if it were an artist’s rendering of a prosthetic extension. Soon other prospective guests were lining up for their interview with H2 while simultaneously casting their eyes beyond her into the field of tables, trying to will this beautiful gatekeeper into placing them at just the right angle to the view, the other guests, and to the sun. H1 mostly stayed behind the desk, watching her partner’s moves, and trying also to look just as confident, but not quite succeeding as she too often re-arranged her skirt and pulled her top up as it was clearly just a little too uncomfortably exposing. She greeted the next guests and looked at the table map but was somehow not permitted to assign a table without the permission or agreement of H2, who meanwhile, was both answering the phone and constantly moving from desk to table and back, herding guests. At one point an older man approached the counter, leaned across quickly and greeted H2 with three cheek kisses; without discussion or question or negotiation, he was seated at ‘le meilleur table’ as if it was already his, as if he was expected. Meanwhile, a woman dressed in completely in purple – baggy sweater, tight pants and very high matching stiletto heels – with badly dyed reddish hair and generally uncharacteristically un-chic, wondered among the still vacant tables, and oh-so-precisely moved chairs – centimetres only, but as if aligning them along an invisible grid, and as if this little action was also an essential feature of the restaurant’s reputation. She was clearly not in the H group, but was a quality control manager, perhaps.

As all types of guests approached the hostess desk, I was relieved to observe that everyone was subjected to the same ‘once-over’ inspection – looking perhaps for rips or flaws in the garments or vetting the store names on shopping bags in case there was sufficient evidence to reject someone. Only the brashest tourists desperate for the perfect Eiffel Tower photo ignored the signs, walked past hostesses and guests and sidled right up to the balcony’s edge camera in hand. And each time H2 directed her eyes immediately to H1 and not too subtly gestured – at which point H1 would walk over and tell the tourist in her sweetest voice, “Vous ne pouvez pas, Madame (always a Madame), désolé, c’est interdit dans le restaurant” – but of course every tourist simply ignored this junior H1, perhaps smelling her weakness. And with each unsuccessful interaction H1 then looked to H2 with some fear as if she wasn’t sure if she her next instruction would be to physically remove these interlopers single-handedly. Darwinian evolution is alive and well!

It all got a lot more interesting and nuanced when H3 arrived – the dynamics of the practice changed again. Taller, thinner and more angular than either H1 or H2, H3 exuded a supreme confidence and an overt control and territoriality. Rather than acknowledging her fellow-practitioners with the traditional two-cheek kiss, H3 stuck out her hand and gave her name to – first H2 and then H1 – and immediately took the pen to the table map, positioned herself in between the other women and started to address and then seat the next guests in line such that H1 moved even further off to the side, while H2 held her ground, also holding onto the mobile phone which continued to ring. It seems likely that this was an established routine already – where the senior greeter was unencumbered by the telephone and was free to check with the waiters on timing and tables, on responding to the personal requests for shade or sun or for this table and not that one. This hierarchy with three levels was clearly visible, with H1 as the junior observing and being instructed by both H2 and H3, simultaneously and occasionally with conflicting messages – “Juste ici, pas là-bas.”
That high-brow restaurants are good examples of practice and of varying degrees of I-mode and we-mode commitment is perhaps obvious – but for me, the surprise was to see the ‘greeting’ piece of this practice so clearly in action. Practices are performances and in this way they can be entertainment of a sort while also serving the goal of instruction – in this case on French cuisine ways of organizing, learning and knowing 😉 As I exited the stage of chez Georges finally, I felt myself relax – happy that I would never be required to perform such exaggerated (or highly skilled) reading, sensing and enacting of some of the finest Parisian rooftop dramas. I’m a highly skilled museum visitor however!

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