If you’ve been to the West 4th Street institution Extra Virgin, then you know Jean Rene Mbeng. He’s the animated maître d’ who will take your name, tell you it’s going to be a 45 minute wait (it’s always packed), and then keep you so entertained that you forget your stomach is growling. By the time you sit down, you’ll have made a new friend in Jean Rene and forgotten that you waited long at all. Chef Joey Fortunato and co-owner Michele Gaton have a prime piece of West Village real estate with the French-influenced eatery, and depend on Mbeng (who grew up in Lille, France, but originally hails from Gabon and Senegal) to keep the neighbors happy and the clientele returning, which he always does with a smile and a tip of his ever-present hat. More on this neighborhood character after the jump.
On the route to New York: I started an internship in San Francisco. In French schools, you have to go abroad for an internship. I lived there and I worked at Bissap Baobab. After that, San Francisco became too small for me because I have such a big personality so I had to move. I came to New York on vacation for two weeks like five years ago. I was like, ‘Oh my god it’s so perfect. It’s so big, everybody’s so beautiful.’
First NYC post: I started working at Les Halles Downtown. I worked at Brasserie Ruhlmann at Rockefeller Center. I worked at Les Deux Gamins. And one day, I walked by Extra Virgin. It was like a dream scene. This neighborhood has always been such a beautiful place.
On his neighborhood nickname: They call me the mayor of the neighborhood, because I spend five days a week here. I’m always here, even though I live in Brooklyn. I know everybody. I go outside, I go to every bar, know every bartender. Even though this is New York City, the West Village is so different. As the ‘mayor,’ I get free drinks everywhere. In the business everybody knows everybody, so they treat me specially. I treat them specially, everybody who comes here, too.
On the first days of the West Village institution: It was busy. It was difficult. It was different because it was only one side before we expanded. There was a line outside right from the beginning. Now, it’s getting bigger and busier and busier and busier. It’s a neighborhood institution and it’s so open to residents and fits well in the neighborhood.
On his job description: I take care of communication. I see myself as an ambassador. I take care of customers and say hi to regulars walking by. At the same time I take care of the seating, turning the tables, who’s coming in. I give wait times. When it’s busy, I’m the peacemaker for the restaurant. I say hi to all the dogs and the babies.
Crazy customer demands: When I say that the wait is going to be 45 minutes, some people will say, “Oh no, my uncle owns the restaurant.” Those are usually like people that come from New Jersey who aren’t used to waiting 45 minutes. We don’t take reservations here, so I get a lot of that.
The best menu item: I love the Mushroom Crusted Virgin Chicken and I love the halibut, too. On Sunday nights we’ve got meatballs. People come just for the meatballs. It’s $20 for two meatballs, and you can’t even finish them, they’re so big. I always take some home and use it in my baguette the next day. Always better the next day. We can’t make enough of them. For brunch, people come for the French toast.
Idols: Oh definitely Joey and Michele. They’re perfect bosses. They let me be who I am and you see why I love it here. Everybody’s laid back, cool, relaxed. I worked for some people uptown that made me wear a suit and tie. That wasn’t me. I also look up to Jean-Claude Baker of Chez Josephine in the theater district because he’s got such a presence at the door and has been my mentor.
On turning into a New Yorker: I’m a New Yorker by heart. I have an accent and I still eat French cuisine, but NYC is the place to be. It’s like a puzzle. My parents are still in France. The last time I was there it was like five years ago but my mom still takes care of me. She calls me every week and is like, “Are you eating well? Are you feeling well?” She’s very mommy wise.
On his signature look: I always wear a hat. It’s my signature. When you work in a restaurant, it’s a show. You’re a character. It’s always easy to find me in the restaurant. I probably have like 60 or 70 hats, and I’ve never bought a single one. I get them as gifts from customers. One time a lady came in, and I didn’t even know her. She said, “I’ve been coming to your restaurant for a long time, and I want your name.” She sent me a bag with like 25 hats. She wrote, “I’ve been to your restaurant so many times and I saw that you always wore a hat. Enjoy these.” I felt terrible because I had made her wait for a table. She waited for like 45 minutes. I never say no to a hat.
Drama in the his quaint restaurant: One time a neighborhood guy came in with a girl who wasn’t his girlfriend, and the girlfriend later came in with her friends. He told her that he was sick and took out another girl. I had to play peacemaker. Guys come in here too and try to hook up with girls. They try to bribe me to give their number to girls, but I never do it, unless the girl actually wants to talk to them.