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Anticipation: your best weapon

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in Leaders & Managers,Workplace Communication

Ludwig Bemelmans is remembered for many things, chiefly his children’s books about a spunky French girl named Madeline. But Bemelmans also had plenty to say about commerce in America, and of all his stories on that subject, none beats the tale of Gabriel, the world’s greatest maitre d’, who runs the dining rooms at “the hotel of hotels” in New York.

The most important of Gabriel’s abilities is anticipation, “an astral clairvoyance with which to sense catastrophe anywhere in the wide realm of his authority,” and not only to sense impending disaster but to prepare for it and minimize it.

On Feb. 25, 1937, Gabriel reviewed the plans of Mrs. George Washington Kelly for her husband’s birthday party that night. The maitre d’ had hired architects, stage designers and florists to build a replica of her Miami retreat, “O Sole Mio,” complete with palm trees and other tropical vegetation. A lagoon, floating a gondola shipped over from Venice, cuts through the ballroom to a magnificent flight of stairs. From a balcony atop the staircase, an enormous birthday cake is to be carried down, placed on the gondola and rowed across to Mr. Kelly.

Gabriel supervises the preparations, and the guests soon arrive.

As dinner winds down, the maitre d’ and his trusty assistant take their places by the third palm. The lights dim, two heralds sound the Aida theme and a heavy magenta curtain sails back. The 10-foot cake that took weeks of labor appears at the head of the stairs, carried by five lady midgets. They carry the cake down as a Hawaiian orchestra plays “Happy Birthday” and everyone sings. The gondolier starts punting down the lagoon. Suddenly, one of the midgets steps on an olive pit and turns her ankle. The cake sways and falls into the lagoon, taking the midgets with it.

At the sight of what otherwise might spell impending disaster, Gabriel simply nods. His assistant lifts a finger and looks up at the man with the spotlight, which races backup the stairs. Out come the heralds. The curtain swings open. The Hawaiians play “Happy Birthday.” As if nothing had happened, another cake appears, made with equal devotion. A new set of lady midgets appears, as the first set scrambles out of the water and leaves under cover of darkness. The new cake is rowed across, carried to the table and served.

Not until then does the maitre d’ walk quietly to his room … because, in addition to possessing every talent plus the gift of anticipation, he is a modest man.

— Adapted from Hotel Bemelmans, Ludwig Bemelmans, Viking Press.

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