“I have been working in restaurants all my life, but I hate this business. In the morning, I wake up, my wife put some ice on my head, I have an espresso, and she push me out of the door.” As rituals go, Sirio Maccioni’s is hardly oppressive. At the same time, his daily dread of performing — or more precisely, of failing to perform up to certain standards — is familiar at least in its broad outlines. What makes Maccioni’s situation particular is his employment: he’s the owner and public face of Le Cirque.
As Sirio tells his story for Le Cirque: A Table in Heaven, he is also enduring a profound shift in his routine. Since 1974, the restaurant has been renowned as a super-upscale site for fine dining and celebrity hobnobbing. Andrew Rossi’s documentary tracks the two year period in which Maccioni closes the original site in the Palace Hotel, in 2004, and reopens in the Bloomberg Tower in 2006. The old man actually has his sights on retirement — or so he says — and means to open the new location in order that his three sons can rethink the business formula to solicit a younger generation of rich, famous, and, as Sirio calls them, “so-called important,” people.
While the film takes its shape from the bookend events — the final New Year’s Eve at the Palace, the fresh start on 59th Street — it finds its interest in the family dynamic. The boys embody a piquant mix of gratitude, entitlement, and resentment, competing with one another even as they’re committed to a mutual legacy, trying to appease their father while looking forward to a future he hasn’t anticipated. Each has his place in the familial order: Mario, the oldest, runs Le Cirque in Las Vegas, a successful reinvention of the brand, an oasis of (faux) refinement amid the city’s crowd of (faux) gaudiness (his younger brothers joke that he is “Fredo,” sent to the desert). Marco and Mauro both work in New York, the latter describing himself as a “glorified waiter” as he drives site to site delivering Le Cirque treats to certain longtime customers (the Rockefellers, for instance, or Mayor Giuliani). Mauro appreciates his father’s efforts to bequeath his reputation and achievements; at the same time, he appreciates that his father is only at this point because he is so painstaking about every detail. “He worries for us,” Mauro smiles, “He’s worrisome in nature.”
He is that, in more than one sense. Not only does Sirio present a daunting model of success for his boys, but he also makes plain his displeasures. As they take meetings with designers, managers and promoters, and the chef (initially Pierre Schaedalin, and later, when the restaurant undergoes a second sea change, Christophe Bellanca), Sirio frequently sighs and shifts in his chair, resisting new directions and assessing new dishes (he favors the classics, he says: “People will come in, and ask for a salad and a prosciutto”). Sirio’s taste is discriminating, of course, and forged during an era now gone. The tension between then and now informs family arguments; as Sirio and the sons ponder their new and very expensive venture — both as a business and an identity — their different experiences come to the surface. Sirio, born on a farm in Montecatini, Italy, recalls his simple childhood and his father’s pride: “We had no money, but my father would say, ‘The Maccionis don’t wash other people ‘s dishes.” At least until his father was killed by a German bomb during World War II and the 13-year-old Sirio took a job as a busboy to support his family.
After emigrating the New York as a young man, he built his own version of an empire in Le Cirque, and was able to provide for his family magnificently. His clients include, as the film takes care to show in pans of the restaurant, Joan Collins, Henry Kissinger, Regis Philbin, Woody Allen, Nancy Reagan, Bill Cosby, Joan Rivers, and Martha Stewart, among many others. Impressive and wealthy, these folks are also, obviously, getting old. And so, the sons insist, the restaurant must accommodate a new generation of famous rich people, with an updated menu, less stodgy ambience, a new sense of style (“one brother calls Le Cirque a “culinary Mecca,” at which point another scoffs: “Nobody’s a culinary Mecca! Let’s be serious”), and — a major point of contention — a more flexible dress code.
While the movie observes these deliberations at some length, it also cuts away on occasion to Egidiana, Sirio’s wife of 40 years. Most often, she appears in their kitchen at home, making raviolis or laying out a lunch spread for her boys. She sees her role as peacemaker, with an awareness of what’s at issue for each one and for all. And that, no matter the location of the restaurant, the décor or the atmosphere, remains unchanged.