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The butler did it with plenty of style and grace

Jamaica resident Nikolaus Christmann recently published a book sharing stories about his life as a butler in New York City Photo by Kevin Zimmerman
TimesLedger Newspapers

After more than three decades running the show in Wall Street executive dining rooms and Fifth Avenue penthouses, Nikolaus Christmann knows a successful social evening begins with a drink.

“It is a wonderful feeling for the guests to see the host in a festive mood,” Christmann said over coffee and croissants on the balcony of his Jamaica apartment. “The host should have a glass of something already when the guest arrive. The host really needs to be a role model for a good time.”

Part Miss Manners, Emily Post and Martha Stewart, Christmann recently published “The Butler’s Dinner Stories,” in which he offers advice and anecdotes to help any host or hostess sally forth through any gathering’s hiccup.

In the book, Christmann describes real-life scenarios of misplaced salad dressing lids, cherry sauce spilled on white linen tablecloths and up-dos lit afire by candles.

On Sunday, Christmann will appear at King Manor Museum for a book signing and to share some of the stories in the book.

“I explain the situation, set up a scene, then give a comment at the end,” said Christmann. “I want to take the fear out of entertaining. You look at those entertainment books and the photos are picture-perfect. Of course, they’re picture-perfect. You have a crew of people working hours on them.”

Christmann has been working on his hosting skills since his first jobs in restaurants in his hometown on the Mosel River in Germany. Before long, he found himself at the Ritz Hotel in Paris where he worked as a commis d’etage — basically a room service waiter on the hotel’s most exclusive floor. During his time at the Ritz, he met dozens of influential and famous New Yorkers, who encouraged him to ditch Europe and come to the Big Apple.

“I had a really difficult time in New York at first,” said Christmann. “There was really big culture shock, especially with the food.”

In the days before the influx of Korean grocery stores, city residents had few choices for fresh fruits and vegetables, said Christmann.

“Most people don’t remember the grocery stores,” he said. “The quality was really, really bad.”

He had better luck landing a job as driver, cook and housekeeper for a Huntington, L.I. family. It was a friendly environment, said Christmann, and he learned a lot. But more importantly, the position allowed him to earn a green card.

The Huntington gig also introduced him to the world of service jobs at the financial giants in lower Manhattan.

“At one of the larger dinner parties there, the Misses had hired an extra waiter and he introduced me to Wall Street executive dining rooms,” said Christmann.

Christmann found his way to Lehman Brothers and eventually worked up to maître d’, overseeing a staff of 20 and serving dinner to 140 people a day. Along the way, he said, he learned about proper etiquette from watching the senior executives eat.

“They were all gentlemen. I picked up tips about how to eat and what to do,” said Christmann. “They also acknowledged you, we weren’t just workers.”

Eventually Christmann decided to freelance in other dining rooms while he obtained a bachelor’s degree in business from York College with plans to run his own executive spot.

But as the times changed so did executive dining rooms. The three-martini lunches were no longer de rigueur and the opulence of the rooms began to ebb.

“The scene had changed. They were not as glamorous,” said Christmann. “I’m in the business of well-being and satisfaction and not in the business of counting capers.”

Instead he turned his attention back to school and earned a master’s in education from Hunter College. He taught social studies for a year at a Catholic school in Queens, but realized his heart wasn’t in it and he longed to get back to overseeing social events and parties.

“It’s a great feeling to do a job that is appreciated,” said Christmann. “I like the fact that the guest is having a good time and part of that is me providing good service.”

Although he plans on writing a book that deals with the mechanics of serving others, for now he is focused on “The Butler’s Dinner Stories” and helping would-be hosts and hostess see there is no crisis that they can’t overcome during the course of an evening. Not even if one of their guests catches on fire.

“I know where the fire extinguishers are,” said Christmann. “There is nothing you can’t recover from. I want people to see things do happen. You solve them without calling attention to them.”

If you go

The Butler’s Dinner Stories

When: Sunday, Sept. 15, from 3 pm- 5 pm

Where: King Manor Museum, 150-03 Jamaica Ave., Jamaica

Cost: Free

Contact: (718) 206-0545


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Reader Feedback

Judy Keaney from Los Angeles, California says:
Great Interview. Much success with your book. Quiet an accomplishment.
Sept. 15, 2013, 10:18 am

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