The Book of the Week is “Sirio, The Story of My Life and Le Cirque” by Sirio Maccioni and Peter Elliot, published in 2004.
Sirio, born in spring 1932, came from a poor family in the resort city of Montecatini in Tuscany. His immediate family members could read, unlike most other people his family knew. His father had been a multi-lingual concierge who worked long hours at a hotel. His uncles worked long hours on the farm. Since he was orphaned at an early age, and was short on education, he felt his career options were limited. He therefore fell into the role of waiter at a hotel restaurant. In the 1930’s, waiters were required to dress elegantly, be multilingual and actually prepare food in front of diners at the table.
In the 1950’s, Sirio was receiving training the traditional French way as a hotel chef. But he was part of a trend later labeled “nouvelle cuisine”– meaning preparing food creatively– putting a regional, personal touch on the food. “…And they [the chefs] refused to treat people badly… Paris was still ruled by the hotel mentality.”
The French had an elitist system whereby the trainees slaved away long hours and were bullied unmercifully so only the most dedicated ones survived. If they were courageous, they started their own restaurants and repeated the cycle with their underlings. As was common for aspiring chefs of his generation, Sirio paid his dues in a few different European cities. In the 1960’s, he basically played the role of greeter at an upscale hotel restaurant in New York. He was skillful at this job, given his diplomatic temperament with the rich and famous diners.
Sirio has these words of wisdom for the reader: “There’s a saying, ‘The customer is always right.’ Not true. Not always. The customer always gets what he wants. Very different. All I do is try to understand what they want.” and “You know, if you talk to a real man, not a phony, they tell you where and how they learn things… So many chefs I know just pretend to know things… Many times in the kitchen they don’t want to learn anything at all, especially not from an owner…”
Read the book to learn how Sirio finally got to run a restaurant of his own; of the chefs he employed (including his falling-out with Daniel Boulud who behaved unprofessionally at the end); his adventures in the business; and how Sirio’s co-author gets a bit full of Sirio when he boldly proclaims, “By 1981 Le Cirque was the most famous restaurant in the world.”