By Ron Bechtol
It's been at least a week since Rudy Souberbielle returned from Manhattan, and he's still flush with excitement. At least as flush as the polite and proper manager and maitre d' at Francesca's at Sunset seems to get in public. Souberbielle traveled to New York on a sort of busboy's holiday "to learn from the best," and, he says, "I can tell you this: Francesca's still needs some tweaking to get to New York level, but we are not that far."
The consummate professional, Souberbielle could hardly be expected to say otherwise, but it's clear that his quest for that elusive fourth star from the Mobil Travel Guide has assumed Holy Grail-like proportions.
Politeness is one of the prime criteria Souberbielle looks for when he hires staff for Francesca's in the Westin La Cantera. "One of the things I pride myself on is the creation of a very professional staff ... I think I have the best in the city," he says. With good manners, he contends, "50 percent of good service is already in your pocket."
Additional skills have to be learned on the job, including how to "read" a customer. "Some people respond to a friendly, sharing-of-stories approach, others just want the food on the table," he says. It's obvious that the former is his favorite type of customer when he says he aspires to operate a restaurant "like giving a party in my house with other friends as servers." But manners cut both ways. "At least 50 percent of the people who make reservations `at Francesca's` don't show up on time."
His résumé - which includes a half-dozen of the city's best-loved eateries - might suggest otherwise, but "I'm pretty steady," he says. Service is not only a profession for the 48-year-old Souberbielle, it's a sacred calling, so it may come as a surprise that he once aspired to be an architect. Half-Spanish and half-French, Souberbielle was born in Mexico City and raised by his grandparents. He took his mother's name "because it was a rare one." Although he was interested in painting, his family didn't approve, and instead he entered architecture school at the Universidad Nacional Autónoma de México. Two years later, he won a grant to study in Barcelona, but a funny thing happened on the way to the Catalonian classroom: He met some people involved with an avant-garde design school, immediately dumped architecture for graphic design, and spent two years rubbing elbows with Iberian luminaries such as Salvador Dali.
Souberbielle eventually returned to Mexico and opened a photography studio in Mexico City's Zona Rosa. When a robbery ruined his business, he took a job as art director for a magazine, which folded a year later, whereupon he decided "to quit everything and come to the U.S.
"In the beginning it was hard to adapt to the slow pace," he recalls, "but I soon realized it was a good thing."
When he arrived in 1986, it was probably also difficult for him to adapt to his first job, as a busboy at Little Italy. The work was "just to make a living while getting back into design and photography," but when he realized that "after six months I was making `better` money as a busboy," the die was cast. He spent seven years off-and-on at Little Italy, moving to waiter and then to manager. "Angelo `Visocaro` kind of adopted me and treated me as a son," he says. Considering that, in Souberbielle's words, "Working for Italians is just like it is in the movies," it's not surprising he left regularly, or that he returned just as regularly - even with the F.B.I. "arresting the boss in handcuffs" at one point.
His interim gigs weren't without their Godfather/Goodfellas aspects, either. "David is David," he says in a characteristically understated description of the talented chef David James, with whom he re-opened Zinfandeli's on the Park in 1990.
"It was quirky, there was good food ... and Bruce Auden and Mark Bliss were regulars." But David was indeed David, and inevitably Souberbielle moved from that chaotic kitchen into the artsy arena of Café Camille, which he opened with Scott Becker, a former insurance agent.
Following that venture, Souberbielle worked briefly with another talented and footloose chef, Jay McCarthy, at Cascabel in the then-Sheraton on Loop 410, a gig that gave him a taste for the stability of corporate funding. Even so, a move to the Stetson at the Hilton Palacio del Rio might not have seemed obvious. He began as a waiter at the upscale steakhouse, and eventually was promoted to manager - though almost reluctantly since, he points out, waiters often earn more than management. When the Stetson closed as the result of "a bottom-line mentality," he was moved to the new Ibiza on the River Walk. There he received the call to transfer to La Mansion.
Souberbielle was already at La Mansion's Las Canarias when Executive Chef Scott Cohen arrived, and between the two, he says, abandoning his habitual understatement, "we put it on the map." He looks back fondly on his four years at Las Canarias, but was nevertheless seduced by Andrew Weissman. "People were telling me that Le Rêve was going to be the place to be ... and I learned things about having a dream and trying to create something special and unique." He also learned that in such an intimate environment, chemistry and communication with the dreamer are paramount, and in six months he was back in the corporate world at Francesca's.
Even someone as focused on that fourth star as Souberbielle finds time for other activities, and the once-aspiring architect is currently building a home for his parents in the backyard of a house he "rescued" while working at Zinfandeli's. He also spends a little time dreaming about the restaurant he might own and run himself one day. "Just good, basic food, open 24 hours," he says. "You can have great service in humble places." •