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L'Espalier's Maitre D' and Cheese Expert Louis Risoli

This is The Gatekeepers, in which Eater roams the city meeting the fine ladies and gentlemen that stand between you and some of your favorite hard-to-get tables.
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[Photo: Rachel Leah Blumenthal]

Louis Risoli has worked at L'Espalier for 30 of the restaurant's 35 years, from the old Gloucester Street townhouse to the sprawling newer space on Boylston. As maitre d', Risoli has overseen the perfect dining experiences of hundreds of guests who come back year after year, assisted on countless marriage proposals, and pointed Ringo Starr to the restroom. For the past two decades, he has also been L'Espalier's resident cheese expert, managing an ever-changing roster of 25-30 cheeses and even writing parody songs about cheese. (Read all the way to the end of the interview, and you will be rewarded with lyrics to "Don't Stop Blue Cheesing.")

What are the busiest times at L'Espalier? Are reservations always a must?Almost all of our guests reserve, and I highly recommend it, but I try to keep a few tables for walk-ins. Fridays and Saturdays are our busiest nights, but even then, it is possible to get lucky. An average wait at 7PM might be as little as 10 minutes, but it could be an hour, or sometimes an impossibility. Some people will reserve as much as a year in advance. We have an awful lot of birthdays and anniversaries celebrated at L'Espalier, and it's not uncommon for someone to say, I had such a wonderful time that I want to do this again next year.

Do people ever resort to bribery to get in without a reservation? Oh, I think it's pretty straightforward, but occasionally people pull tricks. The most common is to call at 7:30PM on a Saturday to "confirm" your 8PM reservation. Of course, we don't have it; in fact, we rarely take 8 o'clocks except to slip in someone special. Another trick is to look over the host's shoulder to pull a name off of the reservation list. I try to be gracious. I do not want to embarrass someone, and if I can fit them in, I will.

You have three dining rooms; how do they differ from one another? Is there a specific table that guests favor? The first room that you come into is the Corner Room, and it has beautiful views over Boylston Street, which makes it very special, I think. Then the Crystal Room is slightly larger, also with windows everywhere, and it has some very intimate corners that people enjoy. Finally we come to the Library, which is the most intimate room. The walls are lined with books, as the name implies, and it's very, very romantic. I suppose a lot of people would like a window table, and we do have a lot of window tables. And quiet corners are always requested. We also have a lounge area, the Salon, which is really comfortable with great alcove seating overlooking Boylston Street, and not only do we have a great Small Bites menu and an amazing selection of cheese, but it is possible to order a full meal there also.

Do you see many marriage proposals here? L'Espalier is a very romantic restaurant, with beautiful window seating as well as cozy intimate tables, perfect for side-by-side intimacies. Because of this, we have always been a favored spot for engagements. At least one couple a week becomes engaged, more around Valentine's Day and the holidays. I have helped hundreds of nervous men pull this off, with suggestions about timing - early in the meal is best, as you can then enjoy yourselves - champagne and roses. On many, many occasions, I've delivered the ring to the table in the guise of a special course. Actually, I've seen rings presented in all manners of ways. Way back in the days of Moonstruck, the Nicolas Cage on-your-knee approach was de rigor, although most men seem to be a bit less flashy about it these days. Having said that, just last week, someone had us videotape the proposal. The most fun proposal occurred with a man dressed in a full suit of armor, presenting himself to his beloved as her knight in shining armor. I've yet to see a woman propose to a man or a woman, but I hope that day comes soon.

Although the vast, vast number of these romance stories have happy endings, it is not always champagne and roses, and occasionally love goes awry. On one occasion, the woman slipped the ring on and off all through her meal, and finally asked her server if he thought she should marry the guy. On a cuter note, at a smallish wedding, while reciting his vows, the groom's rental trousers fell down around his knees. He pulled them up, everyone laughed and laughed, and the wedding went on.

I've seen a wedding cake go flying across a room, kicked off its stand when the bride swung her young niece through the air. On another, more horrifying occasion, I sent word to pastry that we were ready for the wedding cake. Not realizing that it had never been presented, someone started to cut and plate the cake. Luckily I discovered this before too much of the cake was cut up, and with the help of every fresh flower I could find and some extra pastry crème, it was soon as good as new, and no one was the wiser. (And if you had your wedding at L'Espalier and are reading this, I assure you it was not your cake.)

L'Espalier has seen many celebrities over the years, I assume? Any favorites come to mind? Well, this is going way back in the past, but I suppose my favorite was Ringo Starr. This was back in a previous location for L'Espalier, in a beautiful townhouse on Gloucester Street, and he came in as part of party of six, I believe, with his beautiful wife, Barbara Bach. This big table was empty all night long, creating a little bit of anticipation in the room, and then when Ringo walked in of course everyone gasped and fell absolutely silent. Once he sat down, everyone started chattering excitedly. That was pretty fun. My one brush with fame with Ringo was when he walked up to me and said, "The toilet, please."

L'Espalier has always been a magnet for celebrities. Although I am showing my age when I say I have most enjoyed taking care of rockers like Ringo Starr, Mick Jagger, Roger Daltry, and Elvis Costello, more recently Lady Gaga - I am a huge fan - had lunch with us, and Ryan Reynolds and Blake Lively were very cozy in a corner of our Library Room. Table 45. We've seen our share of statesmen, such as Henry Kissinger, and plenty of Oscar winners and nominees starting with Sally Field and Terry Garr; more recently, we've seen Alan Alda and Robert De Niro. Tyra Banks has dined in the heart of our kitchen, at our Chef's Table. We see lots and lots of athletes, princes and princesses, the Fonz and Joan Collins and Monica Lewinsky.

The biggest commotion was caused by Ben Affleck and Jennifer Lopez. They arrived under a different name on a jammed up Saturday when I was running way behind, something more likely at our old location. I didn't have a bar back then and sent them to Charley's Saloon for a drink. They returned and had a lovely dinner. The other diners were all agog, and yes, People Magazine and all the tabloids called the next day to find out what they ate. "Halibut and lamb." Did they fight? "No." Did they seem to be happy? "Yes". How did Ben tip? "Very well." When they left the restaurant it was to the daylight-bright flashes of 100 paparazzi.

What's your favorite part of the job? I think it's fulfilling on a lot of different levels: the wonderful clientele, the relationships I've forged with our guests over the years. Just being able to make people really, really happy is a very nice thing to do. I've also been privileged to work with very talented and committed staff over the years, both in the kitchen and front of the house, true professionals who will go to all ends to make sure our guests are having a wonderful experience.

What's the most difficult part of the job? Oh, grace under pressure isn't always the easiest thing. On a busy night when it seems like a few things are going wrong or not quite as you'd hoped, keeping a calm veneer can be difficult. But the most important learning experience over the years is that dialogue with your guests and with your co-workers is the most important part of your job. If something's going a little bit wrong, just explaining what's happening will solve almost any situation. And you can't have too much training in anything you do. The more information you have, the better off you're going to be, whether it's about the food or the wine or the cheese or your guests.

When you say on your website that you are chasing perfection, the pressure is pretty intense to always perform at top level. It requires a very well-trained and passionate staff to do this. Teamwork is key, so that means always keeping an eye on what is happening behind the scenes, as well as on the floor and in the kitchen. To ascertain the right level of involvement with each guest to keep them pleased. To intuit the needs of a roomful, a restaurant full of unique people. That is my greatest challenge. And when I - when we - get it right, it feels like magic. That is why I love my job.

In addition to keeping everything running smoothly as maitre d', Risoli also takes his cheese duties very seriously, including providing entertainment for guests at his monthly Cheese Tuesday event. To that end, he writes a new cheese-themed parody song every month, and yes, everyone in the room sings. Eater is pleased to present the lyrics to one of Risoli's catchy numbers, "Don't Stop Blue Cheesing," which is, of course, based on Journey's "Don't Stop Believin'."

Don't Stop Blue Cheesing
Just a small farm girl, living in a Vermont world
She took the midnight train to Cheese Tuesday
Just a farmer's son, born and raised in Wisconsin
He took the midnight train to Cheese Tuesday

Glancing 'cross a cheese filled room
Recognize that country bloom
Making cheese they can share the night
It goes on and on and on and on

Milking curdling, making lovely curds and whey
Molding ripening in the night
Moo cows, big barn, milk machine and filled up udders
Farm girl, farm boy in the night

Working hard to get their fill
Making cheese is such a thrill
Doing anything to cut the curd
Just one more time

Some will win, some will lose
Some were born to make big blues
Oh the cheesing never ends
It goes on and on and on and on

Milking curdling, making lovely curds and whey
Molding ripening in the night
Moo cows, big barn, milk machine and filled up udders
Farm girl, farm boy in the night

Don't stop blue cheesing
Hold on to the feeling
Moo cows, big barn

Don't stop blue cheesing
Hold on
Moo cows, big barn

Don't stop blue cheesing
Hold on to the feeling
Moo cows, big barn

· All coverage of L'Espalier on Eater [~EBOS~]
· All coverage of The Gatekeepers on Eater [~EBOS~]

L'Espalier

774 Boylston Street, , MA 02199 (617) 262-3023 Visit Website

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