This is The Gatekeepers, in which Eater roams the city meeting the fine ladies and gentlemen that stand between you and some of the restaurant world's hottest tables.
[Photo: Proof On Main]
Rachel Cutler is the general manager of Proof on Main, the celebrated Louisville, Kentucky restaurant that is ground zero for Derby revelers from around the country. That means that she's currently in the thick of it, and it won't let up until Monday. She'll be dealing with celebs, regulars, bold-faced locals, serving up endless amounts of bourbon, magically accommodating guests who want to add fifteen to a reservation, and having a whole lot of fun in the process. In the following interview, she talks about why she loves the job and why this is the liveliest time of the year.
It's 8 PM on a Saturday night. What's the wait for two?
On a regular Saturday night, it's about 45 minutes. It can be longer depending on whether there's other stuff going on like events and shows. But Derby is a whole different story.
How bad can the waits get?
What I love is that we have a museum here, so it's never really a bad experience, no matter how long the wait. You can grab a cocktail and walk through, and it's quite nice. Saturdays are usually the most hectic days, though.
Is there anything a guest can do to speed along the process?
No! We will seat as many people as possible, but again, we have the entire museum to make it so that the waits never seem long at all.
Do people try to tip you to get ahead?
Absolutely. A lot of them are the traditional tricks: name drops, calling to check on a reservation that there isn't a name for. It's good fun, though.
How do you deal with it?
Patience and smiles. I'm in it because I like it, and ultimately we'll take care of everyone. It may not be on the ideal schedule for someone, but they will be taken care of. We will make it happen.
Tell me about your regulars.
We have some really good neighbors — people that literally live across the street. That's kind of fun, because you feel like the restaurant's dining room is their dining room. We've gotten to know them over time and feel like we're part of their family dinner conversation. That's great and makes everything feel like home.
We also get lots of regulars who come mainly when there's a show in town.
What are some of the most outlandish requests you've had to accommodate?
For example, on Derby, we'll have guests calling as they are on the way from the track and ask to add an additional twenty people to the reservation. There are certainly requests like that that push parameters.
And now, what's it like to be working during the Kentucky Derby?
Derby is around the clock on. On and go. It's like a five-day marathon, and it starts early, early with planning. There's a lot that goes into it. Wednesday night tends to be locals night, when they try to get the party started. It tends to be a more mellow night, but it's still energetic.
From Wednesday all the way through Sunday it's go, go, go.
What's so wild about it?
The phones are constant with guests wanting to get in, trying to get in, attempting to add people to the reservation. It does not stop. We'll get lots of requests to have bourbon and champagne set out on the table because their horse just won. The requests don't stop. Do we have even booze, do we have enough mint, do we have enough chairs, do we have enough flowers, do we have enough decorations?
The flow of traffic throughout the restaurant, the bar, and even the museum and gallery space is insane. And it is fun.
Do people misbehave?
No, everyone is having a good time. Maybe it gets a bit rambunctious and high energy, but we love that. There is little misbehaving. It's a good-spirited crowd, and it's amazing to see pretty much everyone having a good time.
Any wild stories that come to mind?
It goes back to the people who want to add a bunch to their reservation when they're on their way. We tend to make it happen, and the guests are really appreciative and won't care that there might be ten people at a table designed for six. They just want to be there.
You can stop in the middle of service and look at a dining room full of fabulous hats and seersucker and mint juleps and look at these groups of people surrounding the tables. It's funny, it's fun, it's wonderful. And that doesn't really die down until Monday. You'd think people would leave on Sunday, but it's hard to leave a party.
Do you get to have any fun?
We have a lot of fun. It is all business, but not no-nonsense business.
Is there any other time of year that comes to close to this level?
No. Definitely not. Even New Year's Eve and Breeder's Cup don't come close.
I moved here from Jackson Hole. It's times like these that also remind of Jackson Hole, in a sense that you have a huge group of guests coming in from out of town to have a good time. I absolutely love that component. It reminds me of being in Jackson. You're not going to see many business meetings going on during this time.
Any last words?
Bourbon. The amount of bourbon that we go through — there's this ingrained spirit here that this is the drink here. We have over fifty on our list and a whole range of ways to serve it. I always liked bourbon, but in the year and a half I've worked here I've fallen in love with it. I like to turn people onto it. It's special to try it here in the heart of it.