On The Job: Maître d’Hôtel

It’s a tradition as old as Broadway itself. A singer sets off for New York, aiming for the spotlight, and along the way snags a restaurant job to pay the rent.

Meredith Rakel, armed with a fresh music degree from Ohio’s Miami University, zeroed in on the bright lights. On the practical side, she took her mixologist certificate to upscale Double Eagle Steakhouse in the heart of Manhattan. On the artistic side, she auditioned across town and eventually starred in two one-woman cabaret shows, “Type A” and “Growing Up Princess.”

Then, Rakel upended the cliché: she chose a career in hospitality over her spot in the limelight. She earned her Certified Level II Sommelier certificate, helped open a spin-off grill for the steakhouse group, and moved up as its sommelier. “As much as I loved performing and singing,” Rakel recalls back in her native Cincinnati, “bartending and wine became more a passion for me.”

Rakel’s two-lane trajectory began in her hometown, performing in theater and show choirs at Princeton High School. For pocket money “past the babysitting phase,” she bused tables and worked as a hostess at neighborhood restaurants. Rakel met her future husband, Tom Hershner, on Princeton’s stage, and they headed off to Miami and Indiana University, respectively, to study music.

Then, after more than a decade in New York, the couple made a trip home to see their old high school before it was torn down and rebuilt. On the stage they shared as teenagers, Tom proposed and Meredith accepted: “We’re very sentimental,” she says.

Tom upped the magic that night with an evening at the Hilton Cincinnati Netherland Plaza, the city’s Art Deco landmark, and its Orchids at Palm Court. Under Executive Chef Todd Kelly, Orchids is Ohio’s only AAA Five Diamond restaurant, earning the honor from 2015 to 2017. Orchids also holds four stars from Forbes Travel Guide.

A suburbanite, Rakel had never seen the gilt, marble and Rookwood tile that overwhelm mere mortals in the cathedral-size restaurant. “Tom did his research and found out this was the place to go,” Rakel says. “It was an amazing dining experience and left quite an impression.”

Chef Kelly’s menu glitters against a masterwork that many say is the world’s best exemplar of French Art Deco. The main dining room, paneled in marble and Brazilian rosewood, sweeps the globe with Cincinnati’s Rookwood Pottery seahorses, French allegorical paintings and stylized trims in German nickel. The Hilton is part of the 1931 Carew Tower complex, a National Historic Landmark that rose on the Cincinnati skyline as New York was building Rockefeller Plaza. Presidents Truman and Eisenhower, Eleanor Roosevelt and Queen Juliana of the Netherlands all stayed at the Netherland, as did Winston Churchill, who asked for the plans of the yellow-tiled bathroom in his suite so he could reproduce the room at home.

But Meredith and Tom have created their own Netherland legend: in a romantic full circle, the newlyweds returned to Cincinnati and since June, Meredith has been Orchids’ floor manager and maître d’.

As grand as the Hilton is, Rakel and her team work hard to “make the atmosphere fun and make sure the guests feel comfortable,” Rakel says. “The more high-end you go, it might feel a bit stuffy. We try to fight that all the time.” The tone comes from Chef Kelly and resonates throughout a cadre of female leaders: Pastry Chef Megan Ketover, Sommelier Jenny Hicks, Palm Court Bar Manager Lauren Hancock Gibb, and Rakel herself. “I learn so much from Chef Kelly and Megan,” Rakel says. “This job remains challenging.”

While her colleague Jenny Hicks studies for her Certified Level III Sommelier, Rakel knows she wants to pursue that next, advanced distinction, too – one day. Her memories of studying for her Level II are still so fresh: hours cramming to memorize wine region maps during her subway commute, and stopping weekly for blind-tasting happy hour at Corkbuzz wine bar in New York’s Union Square.

But for now, it’s all Orchids, all the time: “My focus now is getting that fifth star from Forbes.”

Still adjusting to her new responsibilities, Rakel sometimes misses the pace and energy of food service in New York, and could do without having to re-learn to drive on ice. But as for singing and performing?

“Performance helps in hospitality. You have to be ‘on’ all the time, and think on your feet. Hospitality is all about personality.”

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