Charles Condy Interview

THE MAN BEHIND THE STARS:
Jean-Claude Persais and Service at AQUA

Seated at a table in the center of AQUA's dining room, Charles Condy is enjoying lunch on a Friday afternoon. His vantage point allows a full view of the place's swirling activity, when a break in the conversation draws his eye to the front door. Vice-President of Restaurant Operations Jean-Claude Persais is greeting incoming customers, and the impact is impossible to ignore. "Just as there's a recipe for good food, there's one for service," says Mr. Condy, watching the effect of Persais' charm, "and Jean-Claude knows that recipe." The moment is notable; while Mr. Condy respects all of his staff, he speaks almost reverently about this man.

His admiration is understandable. Overseeing a team of exemplary staff, Persais has maintained AQUA's reputation as one of the best restaurants in the country for service. The recent four-star rating from the San Francisco Chronicle contributes to a stellar track record of service awards that stretches over several years, underscoring that Persais' classic approach does not go unnoticed. "Great service is when you know you can expect the unexpected," says Persais, who joined AQUA in 1995 following stints at L'Hermitage, the Sky Room, and the Pierre Hotel. It was during his time at the Sky Room that he "really saw how things could come together; where you could create something incredible with the right combination of people and effort." Summing it up with a modest shrug, he considers his work "like creating a painting. You start with individual colors, you put them together and they melt into a beautiful piece of art."

Renowned nationwide for an ability to combine impeccable, old-world standards with a gracious, compassionate style, Persais could include himself in the lineup of celebrities that frequent AQUA, were he so inclined. His ubiquitous presence in the dining room has endeared him so much to customers through the years that it is not at all uncommon to hear, "Is Jean-Claude here tonight? We want to make sure to say hello." Nor is this effect lost on the staff since Persais' mark on AQUA's high level of service is clearly evident in each member's courteous professionalism. His unpretentious, unassuming manner leads him to eschew any individual recognition for the distinguished results the restaurant has earned, however. "It's always a team effort - it's not just one person who makes this work so well," he says matter-of-factly.

Persais views the extra steps taken by AQUA's staff as essential in making each meal exceptional. "If service is good, that's fine. But if it goes beyond that," he continues, "the guest's experience becomes something unforgettable. Then it is really something to see." Naturally, an establishment of this caliber relies upon a blending of elements that make up its magic, and Executive Chef Laurent Manrique identifies the intimate relationship that exists between cuisine and service. "The impact that these two forces create when they combine is undeniable," he says. "Their union is what contributes to the ultimate moment of satisfaction for each customer."

Clearly, AQUA's elegant food is a main attraction, but many customers cite first-class service - and Jean-Claude Persais -- as a major part of what makes dining at AQUA so incredible. Persais would agree with this, but only to a point. When he recalls why he was drawn to AQUA nearly a decade ago, he focuses exclusively on the restaurant. "It's an amazing spot - the way it envelops you, it's hip while understated, lively but elegant, progressive but old world - it's a total mix of everything." Persais' touches here and there may seem delicate, refined, operating behind the scenes of the buzz of AQUA's activity, but they create such a smooth, silky element to the overall dining experience that their impact make it impossible to forget the high level of quality of this place. Still, he sees himself as small piece of the whole picture, just a hue in the many colors of the painting. "Very often I slip out at night to just watch the restaurant from the outside and I love it. It's a magical place."