Just as sociable as his famous father, Mario Maccioni is confident about bringing Le Cirque — a brand favoured by presidents, kings, movie stars and celebrity chefs
— to Bangalore. By Ruma Singh
THIS week, Le Cirque opened its third restaurant in India. After Delhi and Mumbai it was Bangalore’s turn to get Le Cirque Signature at the Leela Palace, the first of the big names in fine dining to come to town. With the launch came the buzz: Mario, one of legendary founder Sirio Maccioni’s three sons and entrusted with the Indian restaurants, came to town to oversee the launch, for which there were no big splashy parties, no fuss. The whisper smooth, almost seamless opening pleased Maccinoi — all the elements were now in place for the restaurant to take off.
With a name like Maccioni, associated around the world with good food and good times, there must be a legacy. And memories of good times in the decades gone by – movie stars dropping in for a meal, presidents and diplomats drinking cocktails and eating tuna tartare. Of chefs, now mega stars in the world’s culinary firmament, starting their careers in the kitchens of Le Cirque, New York. In a freewheeling interview with Indulge, Mario Maccioni speaks of good times past and present, his father Sirio, the Maccioni family, and India…
I was 10 when the restaurant opened. My memories of New York nightlife at the time was of wild, carefree times. Crazy days, when people dressed up to go out, and enjoyed eating and drinking without being uptight about it all. Life was about having a really good time.
I remember my father being at work all the time; he would leave in the morning and return late at night. In between, he would come home but it would be to rest before going back, so we all had to be very quiet at this time. I also remember travelling with him to France – my brothers and I were about nine or 10 years old. We would be taken to these famous French Michelin three-star restaurants and sit all dressed in our suits for over two hours, eating formal meals. Not quite what we wanted at that age!
My brothers and I would ask the Le Cirque chef to make hamburgers for us, to his horror. We were young. He’d refuse, so the sous chef would sneak around, get a beautiful fillet steak and grind it to make our hamburgers. Because the meat was so lean, it would be a little dry (laughs). He would also make French fries – only for us, not the restaurant. And they would be perfect. The Pasta Primavera also happened to be made at the table because the chef would refuse to make pasta – it became the job for the waiters to do, and that’s the way it has remained.
In 1974, the best Italian food was usually eaten at Italian homes! There were no fine dining Italian restaurants, only spaghetti and meatball places. Our family is Italian-American, and Italian food is generally casual, eaten around the table with the family. Our food at home was delicious comfort food – a giant piece of toasted Tuscan bread with olive oil, my mother’s homemade pasta, or pizza, always made from scratch. I remember my lunch box would have handmade tortellini, with the brodo in my flask instead of juice. There would be a side of prosciutto and melon. This was a disaster when all the other kids had peanut butter and jelly sandwiches in their boxes! No one wanted to trade food with us kids. I remember these days so well, in our school cafeteria.
Sirio, dreaming big
My father was working at the famous Colony restaurant as maitre d’. By the age of 40 he had understood how to run a restaurant perfectly and wanted his own place, so with the help of a rich and powerful friend, he opened Le Cirque at what was then the Mayfair Regent. I remember the day he came home and said, “It’s going to be our own show now.”
It’s a difficult business, restaurants, with long hours and hard work, but my father is almost OCD when it comes to decision-making. Even today, he gets dressed and goes to the restaurant for every lunch, every dinner. He would go on Sundays if he could – luckily we aren’t open on Sundays. We sometimes have to send him home, or keep him out of the loop on things like deciding on napkin colours (laughs) – he’s a micro manager – not the easiest person to work with. His drive is still obsessive. Even at age 82, he travels – he’s coming to India in February.
The Le Cirque legacy
Le Cirque was the first to do fine Italian- French cuisine. It was the era of carefree partying. Everyone came through our doors and dined with us – Diane von Furstenberg, Andy Warhol, Oscar de la Renta, Frank Zappa, Frank Sinatra, power brokers like Robert Cohen, Donald Trump, Aristotle Onassis. There were presidents and many ex-presidents too – Richard Nixon would come by often, post his term, and Ronald Reagan would visit regularly even during his presidential term – I even have a picture of myself with Reagan and Nixon.
This was a time of wanton consumption of alcohol and food – of three-Martini lunches, with lobster salad, followed by pasta and then main course of duck, steak or fish. People would spend hours at a time over food. Dinners at Le Cirque were a giant jam of people – but who cared when you were rubbing elbows with stars like Sophia Loren!
Enough has been said about the famous Le Cirque chefs. We opened in 1974 with Jean Verges as partner, and continued with many other chefs who became famous working with us. Daniel Boulud, Allain Sailac, Sottha Khunn, Sylvain Portay, Olivier Reginensi and so many more. They lasted three to four years with us and then moved on amicably to start their own show. It was exciting to have someone new every few years, with new ideas. Sottha, for example, was a tiny man, a powerhouse Cambodian chef who put deep fried ginger crab on the menu at a time when it was unheard of in fine dining places! Each chef left behind a legacy. Like Boulud’s Sea bass paupiette with red wine reduction, one of my favourites.
I spent 15 years in Las Vegas. Going there to open Le Cirque after its New York success was both an opportunity and a challenge. It worked. Today, people ask me, why India? It’s the challenge. We have it in our blood…and we also have to pay for our kids’ college fees! (laughs) Yet ours isn’t a huge far flung empire like so many other brands, because we like to be involved ourselves. India has been a success with the Leela Group. The first Le Cirque in Delhi is opulent and big, but the Le Cirque Signatures in Mumbai and now Bangalore are more appropriate for these cities.
India’s culture, warmth and people brought us here. Your love for family is similar to our Italian way of life. We skipped China, but are present in the UAE. We are in discussions with the Leela Group to add more locations, and Chennai is possibly next. The idea is not to create a religious experience at the table, but an experience that is fun and memorable. This is why the Le Cirque brand even today tests very high up the scale, right up there with the Fendis and Guccis.
The back story
Le Cirque, the fine dining restaurant, is noted for its style, food and service and was started 40 years ago in New York by the legendary Sirio Maccioni. Today, it is in many locations around the world, from Steve Wynn’s The Bellagio in Las Vegas to Casa de Campo in the Dominican Republic. Other restaurant brands owned by the family include Osteria del Circo, a Tuscan-style trattoria, Sirio Ristorante, Le Cirque Cafe and more. With its archetypical decor, colourful plates with circus motifs, and exclusively commissioned black wire circus-themed artwork by Tim Flynn, dining at Le Cirque is often likened to the spectacle of a circus: with colour, design and whimsical, playful food. Le Cirque Signature at the Leela Palace will serve many of the signature dishes (pictured right) the flagship Le Cirque is famous for: saffron risotto, tuna tartare of Ahí tuna with mango coulis, and Baked Alaska.
I cook myself, on occasion. (Maria, his wife, tells us he makes a wonderful pomodoro sauce). Maria and I do a lot of cooking at our country home on weekends. My mother oversees us, and we always follow her recipe book — it’s so simple, it’s fantastic. My mother is our patron saint. She arbitrates, keeps the whole thing together for us all. My kids are at university, so my wife and I travel extensively and we love it. It’s kind of a couple’s road show with us Maccionis — my father travels with my mother Egidiana.
By the way
What difference will a restaurant like Le Cirque make to the culinary landscape of Bangalore, where high expectations and a knowledgeable crowd of food enthusiasts spell the difference between success and failure? There is certainly excitement and a feeling of anticipation. The Bangalore chapter of the international gastronomic group, La Chaine des Rotisseurs, has been the first group to book their members for dinner.
Know your chef
Chef Matteo Boglione is the man entrusted with recreating culinary masterpieces that Le Cirque is famous for, at the newest Le Cirque Signature. His professional journey started as a precocious 14-year-old student at Aurelio Saffi, the prestigious five-year hospitality school in Florence. During his two-decade long career, chef Boglione has worked with contemporary Italian restaurants such as Falai and Gradisca. From awards to magazine covers, he has been a high profile star in the culinary world. His guests over years have included names like Leonardo Di Caprio, Victoria’s Secret models, Sarah Jessica Parker, Woody Allen, David Bowie, Gwyneth Paltrow and Joaquin Phoenix.