This week, I was lucky enough to interview Max Aronson, a recent Cornell graduate from 2019. Graduating from the School of Hotel Administration with a concentration in Beverage Management, he is now an assistant server at Eleven Madison Park — a fine dining restaurant located in the Flatiron District of Manhattan. Eleven Madison Park is ranked third among The World’s 50 Best Restaurants in 2016 and is known for their taste and presentation. Let’s take a look at how Max is doing today.
1. Where is 11 Madison Park located? How would you describe the ambiance?
Eleven Madison Park is located in Manhattan on the corner of 24th and Madison Avenue right next to Madison Square Park. It is a three Michelin star restaurant, so the service style is meant to be flawless. People travel from all over the world to experience a meal here, and I would describe the ambiance as grand, yet comfortable.
The dining room itself has high ceilings and white tablecloths, which can be intimidating at first, but the service style is gracious and bespoke, which helps to break the barrier between guests and employees, making a more interactive experience. I wish there was a simple way of describing an experience at Eleven Madison Park, but the thing I love about it is that each guest is meant to leave with an experience that was made just for them
2. How has Cornell prepared you for Eleven Madison Park?
Working at Eleven Madison Park is unlike any class I ever took at Cornell, but a lot of the core attributes that make someone successful in both places are the same. The Hotel School pushed me to be a better member of a team through group projects and in classes like Restaurant Management. At Eleven Madison Park, I need to study the menu, wine list and restaurant history so I can be prepared to answer any question with confidence, and I honestly feel like I am studying for a prelim every time the menu is about to change.
The most valuable thing Cornell taught me was to present myself with confidence because that is the best way to gain the trust of guests at a restaurant. I want to make sure everyone that eats at the restaurant has the best experience they can possibly have, which starts with letting them know that I know what I am doing, so all they need to focus on is enjoying their experience.
3. Walk me through a typical day at work. What are your main responsibilities?
Working as an Assistant Server at Eleven Madison Park starts with preparing the restaurant for that night’s service. Everyone has individual responsibilities that need to get done before we open our doors. Candles need to be cleaned, napkins folded, plate wipes rolled, floors vacuumed, tables ironed and set, and there is truly no time to waste. We eat family meals together before each service, put the finishing touches on the dining room and then open our doors for guests to start sitting at 5:30 p.m.
Assistant Servers are responsible for maintaining the tables of a section of the dining room, which boils down mostly to making sure each guest has water, empty plates are cleared and the tables are cleaned before silverware goes down to prepare for the next course. Working out the timing of each task pushes you to keep track of the needs of each guest with a quickly developing priority list that changes nearly every moment. It ends up being a lot to think about, but the job as a whole is fast-paced, exciting and fun.
When most of the guests have finished their meals, I move to the back to prepare the dining room for the next day: Fold napkins, organize linen closets, etc. I usually end up leaving around 1 to 1:30 a.m.
4. How did you get your position at Eleven Madison Park?
When I was a freshman, one of my classmates in Management Communication had interned at Eleven Madison Park, and she connected me with the management team. After a few emails, phone calls and interviews, I had a summer internship lined up. The hardest thing to do was to prove that, at 18 years old, I was capable of pushing as hard as my coworkers. I was treated like an employee, not an intern; by the time I finished my summer, I already proved that I could keep up, so they welcomed me back graciously. During my summer there, they actually (half jokingly) tried convincing me to drop out and stay at EMP.
5. When did you know you wanted to be a chef?
I have loved cooking and restaurants for as long as I can remember. When I was around ten years old, I would run plates at a sushi restaurant my family frequented, and by the time I was 13, all I watched on TV was the Food Network. By the time I went to high school, I knew that was my path, and I went to a high school that had a specialized program for culinary arts and hospitality.
6. How did you learn to cook so well?
I started out cooking at home with my mom. From there I taught myself some new techniques by watching the Food Network. I went to the Bergen County Academies for high school, which had a school for culinary arts and hospitality where I learned the fundamental skills of working in a kitchen. My most valuable learning experiences were working hands-on in restaurants. I feel like I didn’t know how to cook until I worked at Gramercy Tavern my senior year of high school.
7. What do you miss most about Cornell? Is there a class that you found particularly useful for the ‘real world’?
I miss the collaborative spirit of Cornell a lot. When you walk across campus or through Collegetown, you are always going to see friends or classmates that check in on you or talk about whatever is going on in life. New York definitely doesn’t have the small-town college vibe that you find in Ithaca. I also miss being a walk away from all of my friends.
There are a lot of classes I thought were useful, but I don’t think my world is the real world. Wines and Beverage Management prepared me best for keeping up in conversations with my coworkers. I think Persuasive Communication in the Hotel School is also incredibly helpful when presenting yourself to new people. You learn how to show your own strengths in a lot of different settings, and, ultimately, effective communication is the most universally needed skill.
8. What is your favorite thing to cook? Do you have a favorite quarantine recipe?
I love experimenting and don’t make the same thing often, but a dish my family loves that I make is eggplant parmesan. I love cooking vegetables in general because I feel like there is a lot more room for creativity.
My favorite quarantine meal so far was my coq au vin with a potato tart. The potatoes were actually inspired by a dish at EMP, and the coq au vin was pure comfort food. It was rich and packed with bright, intense flavor.
9. What is the best advice you could give someone who aspires to be walking in your shoes in the future as a successful chef themself?
I asked a lot of chefs for advice when I was growing up, and I was met with too many people encouraging me to find a better way to make money, which only made me want to become a chef more. So, my best advice is to keep pushing and follow your own path. Hospitality is a noble profession; there is so much value in dedicating your life to enhancing the experiences of others. Hospitality is a source of inspiration for others, and in restaurants you get to play a part in making the most important days of peoples’ lives possible. Nothing fills my gas tank more than seeing a guest at EMP cry tears of joy, facilitating a marriage proposal or wishing someone a happy 30th/40th/50th anniversary. The work will be hard and the days will be long, but the feeling of being a part of something this special is irreplaceable.
Along with Max’s success, he is a role model for aspiring students, especially those in the Hotel School. In addition, he has shown his followers how cooking can get you through major life stressors such as COVID-19. His newly made Instagram account @flavorstothemax provides his followers with daily updates and inspiration for what to cook next during quarantine. Personally, I highly recommend Max’s decadent banana bread recipe — I promise it will not disappoint! Full of potassium and sweet flavor, ripe bananas are the best fruit to stock up on to make the best desserts. So, go ahead and try this one out as you stay dedicated to flattening the curve and staying home!
Sofia Siciliani is a sophomore in the College of Human Ecology. She can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.