Black Magazine Interviews Cafe Hanoi's Hector Palmer
The original French translation of maître d’ is literally ‘master of the house’ and as fans of eating out know, the role is one of the most important in any restaurant. When Tony McGeorge of Ponsonby Social Club and Krishna Botica of Prego decided to open Café Hanoi in Auckland’s Britomart they most certainly knew this. The pair made the decision to find someone special for the role and tracked down Hector Palmer, who was maître d’ at the prestigious Longrain restaurant in Sydney at the time and brought him home to Auckland to front Café Hanoi.
Palmer has restaurants in his blood. He studied as a chef at A.U.T but decided early on that he would rather host than cook and landed a job at Cin Cins under the tutelage of Geeling Ng, now maître d’ at Soul. So did he learn a lot from Geeling? “A shitload. In fact, I worked with her after that at Rameses too. Geeling, and Judith Tabron, they were probably my mentors.”
After a sojourn to London he returned and did a stint a SPQR in which he became one of the great restaurant’s most successful managers. Many was the time he would keep the kitchen open for us as we arrived late from a photo shoot, “Steaks? No problem. Kitchen, steaks for the regulars please! Medium for Grant and medium rare for Rachael” He remembers the SPQR period fondly but adds, “It has certainly changed a lot since then, although I think that is an evolution of how people dine now. SP is still a bit crazy, it has its niche in the market clearly but the market is not as alternative as it used to be back then.”
He left a few years back and landed the plumb job at Longrain in Sydney “It is a great restaurant, the owners, the staff are all consummate professionals. Everyone is really good at what they do there.” So why come back? “I was back here in April and Krishna and Tony approached me with a concept they were looking at, which was of course Café Hanoi. I was quite happy in Sydney at the time but they positioned it that it was going to be something new and exciting that Auckland had been lacking. It is my home, I love it here but the idea of the restaurant was quite exciting, it was an offer I couldn’t refuse so I came back.”
Palmer is highly impressed with the menu at Hanoi and rates chef Jason van Dorsten as one of the best chefs he has worked with, and loves the décor, “It’s full of colour, I love the distressed walls, the big glass windows and I also really like the area. It’s historical, one of the most interesting areas in Auckland. There is heritage here. But it’s not just that, it’s really fun to come to work here everyday.”
So Hector, what do you think are the most important attributes a good maître d’ can have? “I think, have a genuine affinity with your customers and you are a good host. I am Maori and we have a term “Manaaki” which basically means that if you possess mana then you can also be a good host and nothing goes further in Maori family life than being a good host. So I think, a genuine affinity toward being with people and making sure that they are having a good time.” Also, perhaps having a very good memory helps, for names and faces? “Yes, that definitely helps but as you get older you tend to lose a little bit of that skill (Laughs). You learn techniques to remember customers, not just their names or faces but also their idiosyncrasies and little details about them. It’s the small things…”Café Hanoi, Ground Floor, Excelsior Building, cnr Commerce and Galway St, Britomart, Auckland.
Story by Carlisle Cook
Created 17 January 2011