2014 James Beard Foundation Lifetime Achievement Award Recipient Sirio MaccioniAndrea Lynn
May 05, 2014
The Lifetime Achievement Award is given to an individual whose lifetime body of work has had a positive and long-lasting impact on the way we eat, cook, and/or think about food in America.
Sirio Maccioni’s father once said that the only reason to go into a restaurant was to show off the beautiful woman on your arm. But if his father could have peeked into the future to see his son become the top restaurateur in New York City, he might have changed his stance.
The owner of the legendary Le Cirque, which won JBF’s Outstanding Restaurant Award in 1995 and is approaching its 40th anniversary, Maccioni is a fixture of Manhattan fine dining, having introduced a benchmark for hospitality and launched the careers of many celebrated chefs. “Le Cirque was the first buoyant, fun, four-star restaurant we have ever known,” notes JBF trustee Michael Lomonaco, who says that the greatest highlight of his career was nabbing a spot on the line at Le Cirque working under chefs Alain Sailhac and Daniel Boulud. Maccioni, Lomonaco says, “has taught a generation of restaurateurs the value of high standards and warm welcomes, all the while remembering his roots and his passion.”
Born in the Tuscan town of Montecatini Terme, Maccioni went from high school to restaurant and hotel training programs in Paris and Hamburg, positions in European restaurants, adventures cooking on the high seas, and then on to New York. “I am the only stupid one in the family—born in Tuscany and moved to New York City,” Maccioni says, with his hearty laugh. Once in New York, he began as a waiter at Delmonico’s before working his way up its ranks, amassing a loyal following of admirers. From there, he became a maître d’ at the Colony, where it soon became clear that his charm and talent for connecting people was unparalleled.
After 13 years of building contacts, Maccioni opened Le Cirque in 1974 in the Mayfair Hotel, the first privately owned hotel restaurant in the city. At the opulent establishment, exotic ingredients (for those days) abounded wild game, foie gras, roast baby lamb, suckling pig; for a chef, Geoffrey Zakarian says, it was a “culinary fantasy land.” Maccioni also earned renown as the genius who brought crème brûlée and pasta primavera—an Italian dish prepared with French technique—to the restaurant masses.
By the mid-1980s, particularly after earning a four-star review from the New York Times, the restaurant had assured its status as an icon of fine dining. “Le Cirque was the most important restaurant in the country , and that was largely through Sirio’s efforts,” says Lomonaco. The pampering of guests didn’t end with extravagant ingredients and innovative dishes, but was reinforced with Maccioni’s eagle-eyed attention. “Sirio was always carrying his book with a list of names and phone numbers and would constantly reach out to a myriad of people, customers from the President of the United States to the neighbor next door,” says Daniel Boulud, who cooked at Le Cirque for six years and has fond memories of Maccioni stealing just-crisped bacon from the kitchen before service.
Maccioni's relationships with his customers have always been central to how he runs his business. "Sirio isn't an owner-entreprenur, he's an owner-operator. His restaurants are his living room," explains chef Paul Bartolotta, a longtime friend. "Sirio has an uncanny ability to make somebody feel important even when at the next table he's got the Pope or an Academy award–winning actor. Sirio makes everyone feel like a big deal." Boulud concurs, noting that “a meal at Le Cirque never leaves anyone indifferent. There is always something to remember, from the food to the ambience, but mostly from Sirio.”
Of course there was another factor at play: the inspired plucking of culinary protégés like Boulud, Jacques Torres, David Bouley, Bill Telepan, and Andrew Carmellini. Maccioni has a sharp eye for talent, and time spent in the kitchen of Le Cirque proved to be an invaluable training ground for so many of today’s culinary masters. “To this very day, I often refer to how we cooked and presented dishes at Le Cirque, how we focused on the pleasure and happiness of the diner,” says Lomonaco. Geoffrey Zakarian feels similarly indebted to his former mentor. “Simply stated, I would not have the success I enjoy now if it were not for the attention to detail I learned from Sirio,” he says.
Today, with restaurant expansions as far away as India, Maccioni has spawned a culinary empire that includes his three sons, all of whom followed him into the business. He chalks up his restaurant success to a strong work ethic. “I believe when you do something, try to do better than others,” Maccioni says. “If you can’t do that, don’t even try.”
As far as Maccioni's diners, colleagues, and peers are concerned, there’s no question that the renowned restaurateur has indelibly set the bar for hospitality. “Sirio defined what an owner should be: a daily fixture on the floor, schmoozing customers. That’s what our business is all about,” says Zakarian. “There is no one like him and probably never will be.”