Kevin Cribley is the man with all the access at Midtown's newest hotspot, Artisans, and he's earned it. Working his way through places like the Russian Tea Room in New York City and Rainbow Lodge here in town, Cribley has built a solid career and a name for himself in the world of hospitality.
He spoke to Eater Houston about his short stint behind the scenes in the kitchen, the fateful night that convinced him front of house was the way to go and how he went from majoring in pre-med at Columbia University to the Culinary Institute of America.
The term maître d' is sort of old school, can you describe what it means in terms of your duties?
Like a floor manager. Overseeing the hostess as well as overseeing the staff. Making sure the kitchen is moving in a timely manner.
Artisans did an Easter brunch - your first really big holiday since you opened 6 weeks ago - how did that go?
It went very well. I think we had everything spaced out well. We had three hostesses here. One at the front desk and the other two walking the people back. The staff here is very good together. Everybody knows teamwork here better than any other place I've worked.
Can you give us a little background on your industry experience?
I started off in the business about 25 years ago, working in New York. I was going to Columbia University, and I thought as long as I worked in a restaurant, at least I'd always eat. Then, after going there about two and half years, my dad said (I was pre-med) if I didn't want to continue in pre-med, I should go to culinary school. So I went upstate, and went to the CIA, but only for one year to take front of the house courses. The president of the school at the time told my father it would be a waste of time since I had just finished a four year internship with chef Bernard Norget in New York. He said there was very little I would learn in the kitchen that I did not already know, and wanted me to concentrate on more of the business aspects like dining room service and supervision, wine appreciation, etc.
After that, I moved back into the city and worked my way up in the business. I was the dining room floor manager at the Russian Tea Room for several years, director of catering for Southampton Caterers, restaurant manager/maitre d for La Folie and Quo Vadis., which eventually became Maxims, and then after several years, I'd had enough ice and snow to last me the rest of my life, and I decided to come home [to Houston]. My first job back in the business here was in Galveston. That's where I met Jacques [Fox, executive chef and one of Artisans' founders]. Then I came back up to Houston and worked at several places up here: assistant to the GM at Rainbow Lodge for a while, then I worked with McCormick & Schmick's as the banquet coordinator, and then I was kitchen and events operation manager at The Tasting Room for about two years. And then Jacques and I hooked up again and I've been with him ever since.
Have you ever opened a restaurant before (as a staff member)?
No, this and Moody Gardens. This is really the first, really startup, from scratch til finish.
What was the hardest part about that?
I probably would have said, "pulling the staff together," but I had such a team together at different places that had always said they wanted to work with me next place that I went, that I pretty much relied on them to pull it all together. That probably would have been the toughest, but I've really had a good crew. A lot of places, when you open the place, you lose half the people as time goes by. I think we've only lost three people.
Are most of your front of house people, "lifers?" People that do this for a career?
Most of them. I mean, I've got a couple going to school, I've got a couple going to culinary school, but most of them have been in the business for a while.
Even though you went to the CIA for front of house classes mainly, have you ever worked in a kitchen?
When I moved back in to the city and started working, I was working in the kitchen. Then after three weeks, the chef came in and asked me, "you know how to work the front of the house, right?" And I said, "yeah." He said, "I need a server on the floor tonight, I'm short handed." I said, "alright." And by the end of the night (I was probably about 22 years old), we're all sitting around this big table and they were passing out $100 bills. I said, "what's that?" They said, "your tips." And I said, "for one night?" And I said, goodbye kitchen and that was kinda the end of that.
Other than the money, what do you think it is that draws you into the restaurant business, especially front of house?
Dealing with people. I love being out in front. When I lived in New York, I was a musician. My best friend growing up was Patrick Swayze, and he and I played in clubs all over New York. And then he went off to Hollywood and got big and famous and I put the band together and traveled around for a while. But this is my stage, and I think everybody here just looks at this as our home and it's really like inviting people into our home, and that's how we treat everybody that comes in to the place.