This feature is part of a regular series called “How I Got Promoted,” spotlighting the stories of how top hospitality professionals took their careers to the next level. Today we hear from John Winterman of Bâtard, a managing partner at the renowned French restaurant in Manhattan.
The first inclination that I wanted to work in this business was when I was waiting tables in college. I loved the hours of the restaurant business. I enjoyed the camaraderie and being able to learn about food and wine. I moved to Colorado to work for a great couple in Breckenridge that had a solid restaurant in town, and that’s when I started thinking about making this a real career. But I didn’t want to be a career waiter in a ski town. If I wanted to do this, I would do it at the highest level possible: I decided I would apply to work at Charlie Trotter’s in Chicago.
I showed up at the back door of Charlie Trotter’s and asked for an interview. I had done my research about the restaurant and that showed. I was honest about how I was totally unprepared and said that I didn’t care what they paid me. I just wanted to get my foot in the door. I got a job as a food runner, and I quickly learned a few things: First, there are a lot of people working at these fine dining spots who are competitive, and if you want to get ahead, you really do have to work a little harder, show up a little earlier, and know a little more. There were ups and downs to the job, but I learned quickly. The next lesson was learning that no job was beneath me. I always tell people: if doing dishes is beneath you, then moving up in the restaurant is beneath you. You have to be able to understand all aspects of jobs in a restaurant.
Because I was willing to work that much harder, someone from the restaurant asked if I wanted to learn to bartend, and I jumped at the opportunity. That job soon morphed into helping the Maître d’ and working the front door, and then eventually, I became a dining room manager.
I stayed at Trotter’s until I moved to San Francisco in 2001 — a lot of the people I had worked with at Trotter’s were moving on to other projects, and I felt like I should, too. I had become friendly with Gary Danko through a friend I had worked with in Chicago, and so instead of sending out fifty resumes, I called up Gary and he said, “Let’s figure out a start date.” Personal references help! It’s a small industry, and the people you know will help open doors for you. When I was at Charlie Trotter’s, I tried to be a friend to everybody. Like there was this guy who worked there for a year and didn’t talk much — that turned out to be Grant Achatz. You can’t move through these positions and alienate people because when you have a staff in their mid-twenties, you don’t know where all of them will end up. Those connections and treating everyone with respect are what got me ahead.
At Gary Danko, I was hired as captain, and then I was quickly promoted to floor Maître d’. It was because I had really taken the lead on our cheese program — I was doing the ordering, I was the one managing the cheeses we had on the carts. So because I was already doing the cheese, it was easy for them to make the decision to promote me to floor Maître d’. People are always waiting for opportunities to knock, and when one comes knocking, they say they are waiting for something else. You have to be willing to make a move and take a chance when an opportunity presents itself. That’s what I did.
In this new position, I made it a point to make myself stand out. Whenever there were high-profile guests like Bill Clinton at the restaurant, I would say, “Put them in my station!” And when we did events with chefs and there was the opportunity to go out with them afterward, I would always say yes. Tired as I was, I knew that spending quality time with people like Gordon Ramsay and Ferran Adrià was really valuable. I can’t emphasize enough how many people work hard but don’t necessarily go anywhere — what matters is creating that personal touch with people.
So when Daniel Boulud showed up at Gary Danko, I made such an impression taking care of his table that Daniel asked me if I was ever going to move to New York. I ended up moving 18 months later to be a captain at Daniel. I made it clear to everyone at Daniel that I wanted to get to a management role, but they told me that I was new, and there were a lot of people who want to move up. So I figured the only way to distinguish myself was to make sure everyone knew my name. I inserted myself into situations where Daniel was — if there was filming happening in the private dining room I would stay late and work that, or if there were after parties for the James Beard Awards, I would make sure I was in the car on the way there with Daniel. And whenever I had tables that were excited about the restaurant, I made sure they knew my name. At one point, my name was in four letters that were posted on our restaurant bulletin board talking about the great service at Daniel. So because my name was being circulated, I ended up jumping ahead and becoming Maître d’. I worked with Daniel Boulud for nine years.
In 2013, my business partner Marcus and I had been floating a business idea around for a new restaurant for a while and we were trying to find investors and a space. We found the space we are in now, and it turned out that the restaurateur who had the space before we did knew a bunch of people who had nothing but good things to say about me. Again, connections really help.
I am still friendly with people I worked with twenty-five years ago. I have never burned a bridge. In this business, all things that go around come around. There have been people who have left my life and gone to a different city, and now we are working together again. If you don’t have that kind of foresight about maintaining connections, you will never be successful.
Photo credit: Thomas Schauer.