Retired Antoine Camenzuli Offered Service Fit For A King
During an enchanted French Quarter evening in the 1980s at the original Louis XVI restaurant at the Marie Antoinette Hotel, manager Antoine Camenzuli seated movie icon Richard Burton and his party for dinner. The jovial crowd ate, drank and sang.
“Richard Burton and one of our waiters, John Parry, started singing Welsh songs together after dinner,” Camenzuli reminisced. “One song after another, without any musical accompaniment, they just kept singing and singing until 3 or 4 in the morning.”
After 54 years serving in the food and beverage industry, in venues that span the globe, Camenzuli said that magical night still stands out as one of the most vivid memories of his charmed career.
As a culinary curator, Camenzuli’s first course started at the Waldorf Hotel in London in 1961. His nightcap came last Tuesday, at Irene’s Cuisine in New Orleans, when Camenzuli officially retired after more than an half century in the business.
“I was lucky to have worked with so many professionals and people who had their hearts in their jobs,” Camenzuli said.
Camenzuli’s lilting intercontinental vernacular, polished and polite manner and distinguished European flare make you feel like you should throw on an ascot and hop onto a yacht docked along the French Riviera.
In fact, Camenzuli’s resume reads like an old world Baedeker with a first stop in Tunisia, North Africa, where the Frenchman was born. He then journeyed to London to start a career in the hotel and restaurant business, and traveled across the pond to Montreal in 1968 where he worked at the city’s premier restaurant Chez Bardet, led by renowned chef André Bardet.
As an assistant maître d' at the Royal Sonesta hotel in Montreal, he was lured to the New Orleans Royal Sonesta on Bourbon Street.
“They were having problems in their dining room, and they wanted me to try and straighten it out for them for a year,” Camenzuli said.
That 1 year turned into 3, as Camenzuli helmed the hotel’s restaurant Begue’s until 1976.
After a stint as a food and beverage director up north in Pennsylvania, and back to Montreal as a banquet manager for the Hotel Champlain, Camenzuli got another call from the GM at the New Orleans Royal Sonesta who enticed him to return as the hotel’s new banquet sales director in 1979.
Throughout the 1980s, Camenzuli found a home as manager of Louis XVI in its original French Quarter location, as a banquet sales director and food and beverage director at Le Meridien Hotel on Canal Street, and back to Louis XVI, from 1987 through 2000, which had moved to the St. Louis Hotel on Bienville Street.
There, Camenzuli negotiated a proprietorship where he became partners with the chef and the owner. Not only was Camenzuli in charge of the dining room, he was also involved in purchasing, food quality, wine variety, hiring and firing.
The new millennium offered unique opportunities to Camenzuli who tried his hand as a B&B owner in Hattiesburg, MS, a manager at Brennan’s and a 10-year stint with the New Orleans Public Railroad where he lovingly rehabilitated and restored vintage train cars and provided them with the finest china, linens and glassware he could procure.
In 2011, he returned to the food and beverage world as a waiter at Irene’s.
“It’s a trade, an art,” he said. “It’s not just carrying food on a plate and delivering it to the table. “
Camenzuli said throughout his career he always sought out and worked for the best food and beverage managers and maître d’s. “I was lucky and choosy,” he said. “I always wanted to work with someone stronger that I was, and I learned from those people.”
Mentors included New Orleans Chefs Willy Coln and Gerard Crozier at the Royal Sonesta, and Chefs Daniel Bonnot, Philippe Dufau and Agnes Bellet at Louis XVI.
Camenzuli said he indulged his appetite for knowledge about all the facets of the service industry; managing room service, dining rooms, banquet halls and sales. “I wanted to learn it all and I feel I succeeded” he said. “The proof is in the pudding. People who I worked with would always call me back to offer me another job.”
“Antoine has truly perfected the old world art of service,” Irene’s Cuisine’s owner Irene diPietro said. “He is like a finely tuned violin.”
With the promise he would return, if needed, and often, as a customer, Camenzuli said his last job at Irene’s was a fantastic feast of an experience.
“I enjoyed working for Irene and the feeling you would get every time you walked into her busy kitchen and the feeling you’d get from all our happy guests,” Camenzuli said. “To do this job you have to feel it in your gut and in your heart. It’s a business you have to put your heart into. You need that fire in your belly to please your customers, to accommodate them and make them feel comfortable and at home. Just be prepared to put in long hours.”
Camenzuli’s pursuit of his American Dream led him and his wife of 43 years Francine to buy their own home and send their 4 kids to college. One is a dentist, another earned a Masters in accounting, and 2 earned Bachelor degrees.
“You can make beaucoup money if you care for your customers and serve them the way they deserve to be served,” he said. “You need to know your foods and wines that you present and serve.”
Camenzuli said waiters in all different restaurants across the city can fare very well, earning up to $70,000 a year.
What placed him on top of the food chain, he said, is his training and expertise in “Service à la Russe,” or Russian service where courses are brought to the table sequentially, on silver platters and trays, and dishes are prepared tableside.
“Sometimes I feel like I’m the only one left,” he said. “The others I knew have passed away. Other maître d’s who were European trained, they’re no longer here.”
Whether it’s carving chateaubriand, a rack of lamb or a whole chicken at the table, dishing vegetables from silver platters to plates, preparing flaming Cherries Jubilee, Bananas Foster, Crepes Suzette and Strawberries Romanoff tableside or decanting wine, Camenzuli said he cornered the market in New Orleans with those steward skills.
“I have those credentials,” he said. “I led the way. I taught others to earn their credentials. I would tell them, ‘learn before you jump in.’”
“Going out, dining out, has lost some of its sparkle,” Camenzuli said. “The theatrical aspect of it. Few restaurants have it anymore. An excellent dinner experience is like going to the theater. A show goes on. It’s part of the entertainment of when you go out. Dinner is not just food. It’s what goes along with it.”
Camenzuli said the best dish he’s ever served was the Beef Wellington prepared for 2 at Louis XVI, with its sauce swimming in black truffles, an array of fresh cooked vegetables by its side and the silver platter carving presentation.
Camenzuli said he has served many great customers. Carquest owner Joe Greiner really enjoyed the atmosphere and dining experience he provided at Louis XVI, he said. And Lloyd C. Flatt, a retired aerospace executive who was one of the country's premier wine collectors with a 15,000-bottle wine cellar housed in the French Quarter, appreciated Camenzul’s knowledge of the vine and the grape. Flatt’s wine collection was eventually auctioned off by Sotheby’s in 2010 for $1.182 million.
At the oft celebrity frequented Irene’s, Camenzuli said rapper Jay-Z and his wife Beyoncé stopped in for a bite and loved his Italian wine selections. “They were fun to serve, and down to earth,” he said.
He remembers hosting Justin Bieber who was a “quiet, well-behaved young man.”
And Camenzuli said serving Robert De Niro ricotta and spinach ravioli was a treat. “He was so cool,” Camenzuli recalled.
“I may not be considered ‘Old School,’ but I was trained in the ‘Old School’ way,” Chris Nelson, a waiter who’s worked at Irene’s for 17 years, said. “You should be seen but not heard. You’re here to serve, but not be a servant. Antoine has discipline and is great with customers. He would get to know them on a personal level, but he knew his place. You have to know your place.”
Nelson said he’s sad to see Camenzuli go and laments good help is hard to find. Younger waiters around town treat the job as a stepping stone, he said, and a not as a lifetime career.
“We learned so much from Antoine,” Nelson said. “His patience and wisdom. I never saw him upset. He was always even-keeled. I admired that and learned from it.”
Nelson said Camenzuli taught him to be assertive but gentle, and as a waiter, to be in control of the table. The art, he said, was being in charge without letting your customers know. He also learned how to coordinate the dueling dynamics at the table and in the kitchen.
“Camenzuli is a waiter who raised a family,” Nelson said. “I really respect that about him. He saw the opportunity, and he succeeded. It’s tough dealing with all the egos and attitudes at a restaurant, but you never heard Antoine complain.”
“Being a good waiter takes a life time commitment, and it’s a respected profession, a humble profession,” Nelson said. “In Europe, there is so much respect for this job because it take a special person with patience and a love of people to do it. If you don’t have those things you won’t make it.”
As Camenzuli eases into retirement, he said his hunger for teaching is still fueling his fire. “I’d like to educate and share my service level with other people and one day have my own consulting business in New Orleans,” he said. “I like the idea of helping people who want to put their heart into it. I tell people don’t take this job if you’re just looking to make quick money and drink it away that same night at a bar. You need to treat it as a career. You can make a good living if you really want to serve.”