Welcome to Lifers, an Eater series focusing on the men and women that have spent most of their professional lives behind in the restaurant and bar industry. Up now: Frenchy, an irrepressibly charming world-class flirt with a killer accent who's been working the floor at Joe Fortes for more than two decades.
When did you start working at Joe Fortes?
Since November 1991 and if there is a God, I will finish my career here. I'll sit at the bar and run it from there. I can have a chair, they'll build a ramp for me. I started as a server and then I worked my way up, head server and then Maitre d'.
Have you always worked in the hospitality business?
It's what I was born to do; I grew up in the business, my mother had a restaurant for 45 years. But I wanted to be an actor, so I went to school, did a few plays, toured Quebec and then I realised that I had to make a living - starving is not for me- already I had a few habits that I had to take care of, so I did a hotel apprenticeship in Montreal and that's when it all connected for me; the performance side and the technical side.
It's like being on stage in a restaurant?
It is! Every night it's a new show, with new players. The magic of Joe Fortes is that you never know who's going to walk in. We have a remarkable set up, it's unique - we're right across all demographics because we combine luxury with value, judges with blue collar workers. We're not a fad here, it'll be 30 years next year - people call us a dinosaur and that's compliment, it's a certain guarantee, you know you're gonna get the best food, cooked with love and served with personality.
What do you enjoy about being out on the floor?
Every day I hit the floor and I.. become... (Frenchy straightens up and smiles broadly at me). It's my element; I love people, I like the food and wine world. It's all about delivering an experience, six months later, you maybe won't remember how the steak or wine was, at the end of the day, madam, we are in the emotion business. Food is food and wine is wine, but when the guest leaves Joe Fortes we want them to feel good about having spent a couple of hours with us.
What are the most important things for a Maitre d?
You've got to like the whole process - it's rinse and repeat. Right now, we're hiring for summer and we're back to square one; it's about finding the right people who want to take care of people and make them happy. The basics are important - the technical side, the wine knowledge but if one does not have the hospitality in-bred it won't work. we'll hire someone because in the interview they shine and I feel that warmth. You can train and teach wine and food knowledge but I can't teach how to want to make someone happy. This industry to me is like nurses and teachers; if you don't much like people to begin with it's gonna be miserable for everyone. You go to places and you can feel from miles away that this server, this bartender, they don't like people. You wonder why they are there - what a waste! You spend two thirds of your life at work, you need to love what you do or at least appreciate it enough to enjoy it somewhat.
Do you have any stories you'll share?
Usually the best show of the year is Valentines. Every year we have entertainment; one year, there was a lady who poured a bottle of Dom Pérignon over a man's head; whatever he said, it did not work.
That would have been such a slow pour.
Oh no, madam, it came out pretty fast for him!
And what about all the famous actors who've dined here? (The walls upstairs which lead to the washrooms are full of celeb portraits).
Well, Vancouver being Hollywood North, Jeff Bridges came here for a few flicks and we connected and hung out fishing. I was Chuck Liddell's private butler when he came here for a week before a fight. I originally trained as a butler, room service was my speciality in hotels, taking care of people like the Queen, but I need volume; my juice is chaos, organised as much as we can, but Downton Abey would not work for me, that's sure.
What do you most enjoy working here?
I love laughter, I like to make people laugh. The noise, it's about the noise on a busy night, when it's crazy I love the speed of it, the interaction, I learn so much every day from the people on my staff. You start with a fresh sheet every day. A challenge I like is when someone comes in and they had a hard day and I like to change their mood and have them leave happy. That's not always possible, but I kill them with kindness.
Does it always work?
Some people, you cannot please no matter what you do you cannot possibly make them happy. Those, we bless and forgive.
Do you have any favourite customers?
I love them all. I can't start to choose. It's about energy; obviously there are some that I spend more time with when the energy connects - it's about reading people. For some, it's just business. for them they just eat to live. It's fuel. Others you read right away, it's about the experience - they want the interaction and they want the story.
You know people are charmed by your accent too, right?
(A long, pause and then a slow sideways smile.) The accent has been good to us.
I have this theory that you don't have an accent. I think it's like your waistcoat -something you maybe put on for work.
Well. (Long pause) Maybe it comes back more after a glass of wine. The accent never left and it never will. When I pay attention and slow down it becomes less.
You have a reputation as a flirt.
You have to share the energy. (A long, absurdly flirty smile.) We all need the energy, we all need to feel good and you read that easily enough. We feed on that, it lights me up. If I can bring something to someone to light up their day, I love it.
Have there been changes over the years?
We're getting younger people all the time through the doors. They don't get this anywhere. Especially the young ladies, they love to be treated like ladies! Pull out the chair, help her with her coat, right? Show some class! These new restaurants and lounges are all very cool, but it's about people, the feelings. Surely there is nothing as nice than being treated well? From 5% to 30% in the past few years our business is 18-25 year olds. For them it's a new wold, yeah, we're old school, we're retro, for people who've never experienced that they love it. They think it's amazing. People want to be treated like VIPS and that will always happen at Joe Fortes. We're a one off and I understand that people might think we are somewhat dinosaur, but we do it with passion and style and we've been here 29 years.
· Joe Fortes [Official Site]
· All Previous Joe Fortes Coverage [EVAN]
· All Previous Lifers [EVAN]