Articles

VICTOR of the NORMANDIE

KEN JOHNSTONE June 1 1952
Articles

VICTOR of the NORMANDIE

KEN JOHNSTONE June 1 1952

VICTOR of the NORMANDIE

If you dine in Montreal’s Normandie Room, Victor the headwaiter will fde your name and your food fancies in his amazing memory along with Wilfrid Laurier, Anna Held, Harry Lauder, Diamond Jim Brady and a few assorted murderers

KEN JOHNSTONE

WHEN AN old patron brings guests to the Normandie Room of the Mount Royal Hotel in Montreal a pleasant little ceremony usually takes place as he introduces them to Victor, the gravely smiling and dignified maître d'hôtel who has presided over that stylish room for the lastthirty years. So, one recent evening when a Mr. Boynton walked in with five mate guests, the usual ceremony took place and Victor escorted the party to Mr. Boynton’s usual table. The next day about six o’clock, as Victor came on duty, the reservations phone rang. Victor lifted the receiver. “Is Victor ihere?” a voice enquired. “It is Victor speaking, Mr. Rankin,” the maître ¿'hôtel replied. “How are you, sir?”

In the next hour, among dozens of calls, the other four guests of Mr. Boynton were just as promptly identified as they called. That evening Boynton returned with his friends. He handed Victor a hundred-dollar bill. “That is your share of the winnings, Victor,” he said. “I bet five hundred dollars you would recognize three out of the five voices. You named them all correctly.”

“It is part of our usual service, sir,” Victor replied as he escorted the group to their table of the previous evening.

This was the only occasion, however, on which Victor participated directly in the winnings that have been made by similar astute Normandie Room patrons upon the fabulous memory for names and voices that is part of Victor’s equipment.

There was Mr. Martin, of Sault Ste. Marie, who stayed for three weeks at the Mount Royal Hotel early in the Thirties. He dined at the Normandie each night, and each night he always had a cup of coffee before he ordered his meal Eight years later he returned to the hotel. Victor saw him stepping out of the elevator and gave a quick order to a waiter. “Good evening, Mr. Martin,” he greeted the surprised guest. “How have you been, sir?” They exchanged the usual amenities as Victor turned the guest over to a captain who conducted him to the table he had occupied eight years before. The waiter was just placing coffee at. the table.

“What is this?” Martin demanded.

“Coffee, sir,” the waiter replied.

“Who ordered it?” the mystified guest enquired.

“Mr Victor, sir,” the waiter explained impassively.

Manin later congratulated Victor.

“It is just part of our usual service, sir,” came the disclaimer. “I hope you enjoyed your meal.”

But something considerably more than “usual service” is provided by Victor Prévost. The phenomenal memory for names and voices which embraces, according to Victor’s own estimate, the full names and some knowledge about more than eight thousand patrons, is accompanied by a great urbanity of manner and no less phenomenal tact. With a discreet question or two he can discover unobtrusively the kind of meal the guest would best enjoy and place him near the floor show or in a quiet corner according to the mood and nature of the occasion. He possesses a chef’s knowledge of food yet he never intimidates a guest with that knowledge, using it only when he thinks it is required to make a good meal better.

Thus, he will discreetly suggest that the broccoli with potatoes au gratin may prove too starchy, and he will never plan dessert for a gathering of businessmen because he knows that men rarely eat a dessert and hate to see wasted food. Similarly he knows women usually avoid soups in the erroneous belief they are fattening. On the other hand he warns his waiters never to ask a woman while serving her: “Is that enough?” She will invariably say yes, no matter how small the quantity, whereas if she is silently served a generous portion she will usually eat it.

Victor, in his dinner jacket with the turn-down collar which he favors, is the first person you are likely to see on approaching the Normandie Room any time between six in the evening and two the next morning. In all his years at the Normandie or in the eighteen years before that when he worked in other restaurants Victor has never been off the job a day, except during the three weeks in the early fall when he takes advantage of a lull in business to go on his annual holiday.

This remarkable devotion to duty is no devotion in Victor’s eyes for the simple reason that he has never considered any other activity more interesting. He says: “The moment I walk through the hotel entrance I feel my senses becoming more acute. My memory comes alive.”

Born Victor Romeo Prévost at St. Vincent de Paul, on the outskirts of Montreal, he started his commercial life delivering parcels for a store at $1.25 a week. When he had saved a bare minimum of money he set out for New York City to carve a career in catering. He was sixteen. He quickly landed his first job, at the newly opened Astor Hotel, as a busboy. After six months he became a waiter in room service and fifteen months after that was promoted to scrub captain, who supervises dining-room settings.

While he was a waiter in room service Victor looked after a luncheon for ten people in the suite of James Jeffries, the former world’s heavyweight boxing champion. The check came to eighty dollars and Jeffries gave Victor a hundred-dollar bill and said: “Keep the change.”

Victor walked out of the room with the bill and then came back and spoke to Jeffries, “The check was only eighty dollars, sir.”

I know, said Jeffries, “but I’ve had good service. \

It’s for you.”

Victor knew he had chosen the right career.

The brokerage firm of Post and Flagg was then on the mezzanine floor of the Astor, and Victor often served lunches there for Florenz Ziegfeld, Diamond Jim Brady, theatrical manager Charles Frohman, musical-comedy star Richard Carle, names which, in the first decade of this century, gave New York so much of its glitter.

You’re a nice boy.

He also remembers serving a quiet-spoken woman who alw'ays had her meals in her room and always left a dollar tip. She was a Mrs. Lambert, who was being widely sought by the police for a series of murders involving husbands and insurance. But Victor didn’t realize that until after she was arrested. “There was a big reward out for her, too,” he says sadly.

He served Harry Lauder, his wife and his brother-in-law for three seasons. “He was very Scottish,” Victor recalls. He remembers David Belasco as an austere silent man with an immense bow tie and a black hat. George M. Cohan was always happy, always with a big grin. Elsie Janis, Anna Held, Maude Adams were often at the Frohman parties.

When his day was finished at midnight Victor and other young waiters used to go across to the fashionable restaurant of the day, Rectors, at 44th and Broadway, and look for Diamond Jim Brady who always had his supper there around two. Brady liked the company of young people and, though he never smoked or drank, he entertained them and bought them cigarettes. He was often there with Lillian Russell.

“He had diamond vest buttons, diamonds in his cane, in his tie, and in his pockets. He carried money in every pocket, a different denomination in each,” Victor recalls.

Victor mustered up courage one day to ask Diamond Jim about this.

“People are always asking me for money,” Brady explained. “On Second Avenue I reach into the pocket with the one-dollar bills. On Fifth Avenue they rate a five.”

Victor was considered quite a Beau Brummell by the other waiters. “My main extravagance was clothes,” he admits. “But never flashy. Even today I like to spend money on clothes.”

Victor’s wardrobe today includes eighteen pairs of black shoes, sixteen suits (he never wears the same one more than twice in a month), fifteen sports jackets with slacks to match and one hundred and fifty black silk knitted ties, knit especially for him. He never wears any other type or color of tie.

When he was a waiter in New York Victor smoked American Beauties cigarettes at five cents a pack. He now smokes a dozen cigars a day and a pipe.

In 1909 he went back to Montreal to marry Alice Delorme, his childhood sweetheart, and the couple returned to New York. But the trip had made him homesick. In 1912 he returned to Montreal as a captain in the Windsor Hotel dining room.

There Victor remained for ten years, serving Continued on page 61

Victor of the Normandie

Continued from page 13

a host of celebrities. Two particular occasions stand out vividly in his memory.

Late one evening Victor was in the lobby when he saw Sir Wilfrid Laurier enter with his secretary. Sir Wilfrid saluted Victor by name and Victor asked him if he would care to have a snack before retiring. Sir Wilfrid assented and Victor led him to the grill where the orchestra was playing. When the prime minister entered the orchestra stopped playing and, in the silence, the two hundred guests in the room rose to their feet and bowed to him.

The other occasion Victor identifies as the first and only time he ever fell off the wagon. It was during the first visit to Canada of the present Duke of Windsor, then Prince of Wales. A ball was given in his honor at the Windsor Hotel and later in the evening Victor also served at a private supper for about sixty guests. It was there that Victor determined upon a rash thing: to ask for the autograph of the Prince. He screwed up his courage with two ounces of brandy and, at a favorable opportunity, made the request. The Prince turned to his equerry for a pen. The latter had no pen. “Too bad, my friend,” said the Prince to Victor, “we’ll just have to do it in pencil.” So he wrote “Edward P” in pencil across a menu which Victor still cherishes.

Rut the combination of drink and tension was too much for Victor. He was sick for three hours and has never touched liquor since.

Victor had returned to Montreal just as that city was making its first tentative strides toward its role as an entertainment centre in America. In 1912 the first fine café, the St. Regis, had just opened on St. Catherine Street, introducing an orchestra for dancing. There was no entertainment but the place was open until two in the morning, while the hotel dining rooms closed at midnight. During World War One other cafés with orchestras opened.

In 1922 the Mount Royal Hotel opened with an aggressive young man, Vernon Cardy, as general manager. Victor had met Cardy casually and had been impressed with his drive. So he approached Cardy and was hired as headwaiter at the newly opened Piazza Room, later the Normandie. It was here that Victor watched a new development in the city’s night life. People began to dine out. In 1924 Cardy introduced entertainment with the occasional dance team to supplement the offerings of the name band, which was then Jack Denny’s.

In Victor’s long reign at the PiazzaNormandie he looks back at several separate stages in the history of catering. There was the golden age of 1922 to 1928 in which lavish parties were given every night and in which money was never a serious consideration. There was the lean period from 1929 to 1936 when even the Normandie was closed.

During 1937 Cardy opened the Normandie again to usher in another golden period from 1937 until his retirement in 1950. The present period Victor

regards as somewhat leaner than the two great spending periods.

But, through good times and bad, Victor’s reputation flourished among the great and the near-great.

He recalls an encounter with Stanley Baldwin, who was then prime minister of Britain. Victor, pipe in hand, was emerging from his room on the first floor of the hotel when he saw the prime minister stepping out of the elevator.

“Is there anything I can do for you, sir?” Victor enquired.

Baldwin, an inveterate pipe-smoker, spied Victor’s pipe. “I see you are an addict,” he observed.

“Yes, sir,” replied Victor. “Could you tell me what you consider to be the best tobacco?”

“The best tobacco is the tobacco you like.” answered Baldwin. “Would you like to try mine?”

Victor could not resist the invitation and, as he filled his pipe, he observed: “It smells good to me.”

“I’ll send you a pound,” Baldwin promptly offered.

The tobacco arrived two weeks later.

11 was Parson’s Mixture. Victor t hought the price—a guinea a tin—was a little too steep, but he kept the empty tin for years.

Just as his contact with Canada’s prime ministers extends from Sir Wilfrid Laurier to Louis St. Laurent, Victor has also served Canada’s governors-general from Lord Grey to Vincent Massey. The late Franklin D. Roosevelt he remembers for his big smile and fondness for red meat. On three occasions he has attended the Duke of Windsor, whom he admires greatly. The last visit in 1931 was entirely without warning and Victor had to ask the royal party of sixteen to wait while he fitted tables into a Normandie Room that was already full.

Victor thinks of the Thirties as the days of visiting diplomats, who stopped over on their way to and from Ottawa. Then, he says, he met his mnemonic match. Diplomats who had dined at the hotel years before recalled conversations with him as easily as Victor did. In the war years and since, he has met a great number of foreign diplomats on the Ottawa pilgrimage. During the periods of shortage, he remembers, they never asked for special favors, extra butter and so forth. “They observed the rules better than we did,” Victor comments.

In a special file in his amazing memory Victor keeps the recollection of the luncheon he served a quiet amiable young couple, and the dinner he served to an American woman visitor.

The young couple, Doris Palmer and Jack Irwin, went out right after and murdered a taxi driver for three hundred dollars. Irwin was hanged and Doris Palmer is still in Portsmouth Penitentiary.

The U. S. tourist felt ill during her meal and started for the ladies’ room. Victor observed her wavering across the floor and telephoned for the house doctor. He gathered together several waiters who formed a wall with tablecloths around the woman now on (he floor of the dining room. A few minutes later the hotel doctor safely delivered a baby boy.

But, to Victor, handling such an emergency is “just part of our usual service.” He confesses that he has modeled his ideas about the function of a maître d’hôtel upon the precepts of the late and famous Mr. Oscar of the Waldorf Astoria. “A person comes to a hotel dining room to relax from the worries of the day or to enjoy himself with his family,” says Victor. “It is the duty of the maître d’hôtel to help them to enjoy their evening

by providing good service and good food. He should have a few words with each patron before dinner. Then he should be able to size up the mood of the patron, whether he is looking for an elaborate party or a conservative dinner. After greeting a guest I always find out what they had for lunch. The answer tells me right away whether it should be just a small dinner or whet her it is a celebration.”

Victor has trained thousands of waiters. “A good waiter,” he says, “always starts as a busboy.” He requires busboys with some schooling, for they must be able to answer the questions of guests intelligently. They are taught to answer questions about the city and the province. They are also taught not to engage the guests in conversation. Victor estimates that it takes at least three years to develop a dependable waiter.

After two years as a busboy and another three years as a waiter, an ambitious and capable man is given a chance as captain Then he takes orders over the phone for dinner parties and supervises six waiters. He has to learn how to prepare such dishes as crêpes suzettes and he has to know how various dishes are cooked, their caloric content. In any first-class hotel, Victor contends, the captain or waiter learning his job will get the full cooperation of the chef. He is on excellent terms with chef Lucien Baraud of the Mount Royal, whose judgment and skill he respects.

What is the difference between a headwaiter and a maître d’hôtel?

None. Victor explains it this way. At one time the maître d'hôtel was the man mainly in charge of banquets. The headwaiter was in charge of one dining room. Today the former maître d'hôtel is known as the catering manager and is in charge of all food operations. The headwaiter is now known as the maître d'hôtel. The terms have shifted with the changing functions.

At the Mount Royal, Victor’s good friend and immediate superior is the catering manager, Pierre Borbey.

Victor has watched the careers of many Canadian businessmen grow and he has seen fortunes dissipated by the offspring of successful businessmen. He has seen money change people from genial, likeable personalities to worried and unhappy individuals. But he likes to think of those who have been unaffected by fortune. Lord Beaverbrook, he thinks is one. Another is

William Horsey, president of Dominion Stores, who, when he heard that Victor had sickness in the family, insisted that they take over one of his California cottages for a vacation.

Victor’s personal life is as well-run and as organized as his hotel dining room. He leaves work around 2.45 a.m., arriving at his duplex in the northeastern part of Montreal around four. He goes promptly to bed and sleeps until noon Then he has five or six cups of coffee and reads the morning paper. He arrives at the hotel just before six and has his first meal of the new day then. He has his lunch during the second floor show of the evening, around midnight. He eats only two meals.

The Prevosts’ eight-roomed apartment is busiest on Sundays—Victor’s day off. Then their three married children, Larry, Marcelle and Andrée, bring Victor’s five grandchildren to visit. The family attends St. Alphonse, the Roman Catholic Church just a block from the duplex. Victor reads magazines and smokes cigars after a big family dinner, then sleeps from 1 a.m. to noon on Monday.

Victor has several food specialties of his own creation. One is breast of chicken Albani, named after Madame Albani, the opera singer who came from Chambly, Que. Others are breast of duckling bigarade, eggs à la Victor, and loin of French lamb chops à la niçoise.

In spite of his urbanity Victor has had his embarrassments. He recalls vividly the most embarraasing moment of his life. It was just after he had aasumed his present post, and the president of United Hotels, William Dudley, had arrived with his board of directors to inspect their newly acquired property. Victor was on his toes to see that they were properly served in the dining room. A waiter, under his eye, hovered about the table to anticipate every wish.

At the end of the meal Victor, hovering anxiously within hearing distance, heard Dudley congratulate the waiter on the excellent service. Victor beamed. Then he heard Dudley enquire casually of the waiter: “Tell me, does everyone get this kind of service?”

“Oh, no sir,” the waiter assured him hastily. “You are very special.”

Victor’s face was burning as Dudley and his party came toward him.

“Never mind, Victor,” said Dudley. “We are glad to know that someone gets good service around here.” ★