Hey, gidday mates! You know a maître d’ is doing their job exceptionally well when they become as talked about — if not more so — than the restaurant itself, and Alireza Niroomand has achieved that status. The Iranian-born, French-bred, American-import runs front of house at Soho scene Sant Ambroeus — where, in a single seating, I’ve seen Joe Jonas eating with Richard Chai, while Jenna Lyons drank coffee a few tables over — and masterminds the dining room with grace and good humor; some say he’s the most charming man in New York City. I met Alireza through Kat Irlin, and she suggested I sit down with him to talk the chess game that is his job. Like a lot of Parisians, Alireza isn’t afraid to tell it like it is, and he’d just gotten into trouble for something he’d said in another interview, so we began the conversation like this:
Do you want me to send you the quotes before I publish this interview?
No, no, I just have to be careful. I did an interview with Leandra, I love her, but I said something on her blog and it came out wrong, and now I’m getting text messages from friends saying, “Why did you say France is a racist country?”
Maybe because France is a racist country.
France is a racist country. I’m sorry. It’s true.
You were born in Iran right?
Yes. In Tehran. I left Iran when I was four or five and moved to France. It was 1982 or 83, just after the revolution. Actually after the beginning of the Iran/Iraq war. I can say I experienced war. Among my friends I think I’m the only one who knows what war is.
How did your family fare during the revolution?
They were definitely not pro-revolution, but at the beginning of the revolution people thought it was a good idea. The Shah was a dictator; a very elegant dictator with not necessarily good intentions. But regardless, my parents liked the Shah better than what came after. We stayed for a few years, the war started, and my parents wanted a better life for their kids. They grew up with freedom, and they wanted us to experience the same thing.
And how did you get out?
A lot of my family left in hard ways; some of my cousins left hidden on donkeys’ backs and didn’t see their parents for 20 years. We left through the airport. We were very lucky. For many it was very much like the refugee crisis that we’re experiencing today.
I remember my Baha’i friends telling me stories like that when I was growing up. Terrifying. On a lighter note, let’s talk restaurants. How did you get into this field?
I was always passionate about this. But in Iranian culture, it’s not a job, it’s life. It’s what we do every day. And that’s what I always tell the staff here — people are coming to our house. We’re the hosts, they’re our guests.
It’s a mehmuni (Iranian dinner party)
Balleh (yes). It’s funny you say that, but that’s how I see my job; my Mom taught me my job. There were always people coming to our house. And coming from Iran and being in France, for a long time there was a lot of immigration so we would always have visitors staying for months in our house. My cousins stayed with us for a few years. So that was a part of my culture. Our door was always open. If there was food for three, there was food for 10.
New York is a big city, but Sant Ambroeus attracts a very particular type of crowd, so how do you balance the dining room and ensure that there are no awkward encounters between people who might be at odds with one another?
It’s a chess game. A lot of improv and a lot of humor. That’s what I do when people walk in, I’m always sarcastic and I always make a joke. I like to take people out of their comfort zone. First I say something that isn’t really funny, and I see how they react to it, then I leave them a minute of doubt… then I catch them. And then you make them laugh, and after that, people will forgive you anything. You can make any mistake, and people will forgive you. That’s what I love about hospitality.
Okay so hypothetically speaking: You go to the bathroom and one of your staff seats two people next to each other who are at war. What do you do?
Nobody seats anybody if I’m not in the room. And I have a personal relationship with a lot of the regular guests, so people let me know when they’re coming. We don’t take a lot of reservations, but my phone is the book. I wake up in the morning and I have texts saying, “Two for lunch, four for lunch, six for lunch,” and there are a lot of fashion people here, so if I know such and such a person is coming, I’ll try not to seat them near each other.
If people come into Sant Ambroeus what should they order?
Pasta. We do really good pasta. We’re an upscale neighborhood restaurant. It’s not over the top food, but it’s super well executed, and always consistent.
Much like you, my friend.
All photos courtesy of Kat Irlin.
I LIKE YOU!