As he marks his 50th year working at Antoine's Restaurant, Sterling Constant is its longest-serving waiter. Constant began as a prep cook when he was 16. At 66, he's the dean of the restaurant's wait staff. He spoke with Gambit about his experiences at the restaurant.
What was it like working at Antoine's in the 1970s?
Constant: I started in the kitchen in 1967, and I was a prep cook before I started working the grill. My cousin was the chef at the time, and he got me into the kitchen. You'd have three different stocks on the stove: a fish stock, chicken stock and beef stock, so you could flavor the different dishes with whatever you needed. I didn't like cleaning up after people at night when they made a mess in the kitchen, so I came out (to the floor) and waited on the proprietor for a while. You had to do that for a while before they let you into the dining room. I started as an apprentice. We used to have busboys in the back private dining rooms — that's where I started.
When I started here, there weren't any computers. We did everything by hand. It was all sight and memory — taking people's orders and telling the kitchen — sometimes we didn't even write it down.
It used to be the menu was all in French, so you had to perfectly explain everything to the guests — not too much for the locals — and break down what was in the dishes.
What changes have you observed over the years?
C: In the olden days, the waiters didn't really help the young people. They'd show you, and then you'd have to learn by yourself. Nowadays we come in and help the apprentices. We tell them what they need, what type of dishes and what kind of silverware you need for what. You used to have to work 10 years before you became a waiter. It took me about five years. Now, they make waiters a lot quicker.
Back then, there weren't as many hotels in the area, or they were still being built, and so there weren't as many restaurants. We'd sometimes have lines out the door all the way to Royal Street. You could come to work at 5:30 and immediately turn the tables four or five times.
Some of the young people now don't want to work as much. I work maybe 10 or 12 hours a day, and I'm cutting down to five days a week; I used to work six days a week, 14 hours a day. Years ago all the waiters worked 14 hours a day, but nowadays they're happy with two or three days.
Nowadays, a lot more people ask for gluten-free (dishes), but at Antoine's they have a lot of flour in the sauces if it has a butter-flour roux in it, so you have to explain to them what they can and can't have. There are a lot more people with dietary restrictions.
What's the key to great hospitality?
C: I learned how to read people throughout the years. You have to feel your customers out and let them get acquainted with you. We don't work stations here; we work from the front of the house to the back of the house, wherever the customer wants to sit. Around the holidays, everyone wants their own waiters — the (customers), they're more like adopted family members. You know their ways and how they want it.
The main thing to remember during Mardi Gras — just give the people their drinks. If they've got their drinks, they're all right. If they don't, they start hollering at you. I know what they drink every year. What I do with all of my customers now is just bring the Champagne and orange juice over to the table and make the mimosas myself. Then I don't have to deal with fighting my way through all the people at the bar.
People always ask me, "Who was the most famous person you've ever served?" I tell them, "At the time, now, it's always you."