Antoine’s waiter Sterling Constant is a golden figure in the industry.
According to businessdictionary.com, social capital is defined as the “stock of a community’s good will and trust acquired over the years.” According to Harvard Business School, social capital has been on the decline since at least the 1970s.
I would argue that New Orleans is an exception. Here, waiters like Antoine’s Sterling Constant have invested a lifetime of service, stockpiling the social capital of hospitality on which the city runs.
In 1967, at the tender age of 16, Constant was offered a job working in the kitchen at Antoine’s. He learned the ropes from the old guard, training alongside cooks who kept the recipes in their heads in true apprentice fashion.
After five years, Constant asked if he could move into the dining room and was given the opportunity.
“I went out and bought a black suit and showed up the next day, ready for work,” he says.
After five more years as a dining room apprentice, Constant became a full-fledged waiter, a job he’s proudly held ever since.
When Constant started, many waiters couldn’t read or write, but displayed incredible mental acuity. The menus were memorized, and each order committed to memory before being called out into the busy kitchen.
“But first,” Constant says, “you have to be sure to get their drink orders delivered, then everyone will be happy.
“The customers adopt you as part of their family,” he says, adding that he’s watched generations grow up, and in some cases is the first to hear of a pending engagement.
“A young man will call and say, ‘I’m going to propose at dinner, Sterling, can you help me?’” Constant smiles as he describes delivering a special appetizer encased in a glass dome, garnished with a sparkling diamond ring.
Often, if a favorite waiter isn’t available when a reservation is made, patrons will choose another night to dine at the restaurant. To them the service is as essential to the experience as the food itself.
Aside from his work on the floor, Constant has had a hand in many of the administrative parts of making the dining room run smoothly. For years he’s ordered the linens every day, computing the astronomical number of napkins needed.
“You look at the number of reservations,” he says. “If there’s 800 reservations on the books, you multiply that by three, then take into account the extras used in service by the waiters, and of course the napkins for the bread baskets.” That’s a lot of napkins!
For many years, Constant also selected the apprentices who would be trained to carry on the service in Antoine’s dining rooms. The most important traits he sought in applicants were “neatness and personality.” Amazingly, many apprentices worked their way through college at Antoine’s only to return to work in the dining rooms upon graduation. Today, you’ll also find waiters like Ricky Laviolette serving alongside Constant. After a career on the New Orleans police force, Laviolette retired to work at Antoine’s.
Constant regards his job as “a business within a business.” He’s an entrepreneur who recognizes the value of the fine service and hospitality he provides — something for which he’s been richly rewarded.
“It’s a good career, an honorable career,” he reflects.
CEO Rick Blount, part of the fifth generation to carry on the Antoine’s family tradition, believes the most important element to the restaurant’s successful continuity is hospitality. Last summer, the Antoine’s family hosted a party to celebrate Constant’s 50 years of service.
“Over 300 people showed up on a rainy Sunday afternoon to thank Sterling for the lifetime of hospitality he has given them,” Blount says.
If the social capital that Sterling Constant has earned in those 50 years were to be measured, the value would certainly exceed his weight in gold.
Catch Poppy Tooker on her radio show, Louisiana Eats! Saturdays at 11 a.m. and Wednesdays at 1 p.m. on WWNO 89.9 FM.
A native New Orleanian, Poppy Tooker has spent her life devoted to the cultural essence that food brings to Louisiana, a topic she explores weekly on her NPR-affiliated radio show, Louisiana Eats! From farmers markets to the homes and restaurants where our culinary traditions are revered and renewed, Poppy lends the voice of an insider to interested readers everywhere.