Meet the man who turns meals into memorable moments | NevadaAppeal.com
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Meet the man who turns meals into memorable moments

Andrew Pridgen
Appeal Staff Writer

Jacques Sender said one thing all diners can appreciate is the little “surprise” that comes with every memorable meal.

“It’s something unexpected that happens during a real meal – that is what we say we live for,” he said.

Sender, 74, prepared for his final shift as maitre d’ at Duke’s Steakhouse in the Casino Fandango like he’s prepared for mealtime for the last six decades.

Born on the Swiss border of France in a town called Belfort and raised in Paris – Sender graduated from hotel school at Thonon Les Bains in his early 20s, and “never thought of another career.”

“Restaurants, dining, service. Boom, that is what I do,” he said in a French accent that has, over the years, “caused some women to hug and kiss me while their husbands stand there. What can I do?”

Sender’s managed the food and beverage departments of some of the nation’s great hotels including the Hilton and Fairmont in New Orleans, where he personally helped presidents Reagan and George H.W. Bush.

He took the 900-person staff of Caesars Lake Tahoe and helped give them the reputation as the place to dine at the lake in the early ’80s. He revived Carson City’s own Ormsby House – twice.

And now, at the dusk of his career, the Gardnerville resident of 18 years is tucked neatly beyond the neon and second-hand smoke facade, inside Casino Fandango’s steakhouse, adding a sense of pride in his work with every slight gesture.

He arrives, starched white shirt, pressed print tie and a white shock of hair – each distinguished white follicle trained neatly in place. He is clean-shaven and smells like newly polished furniture. One gold bracelet and matching wedding band, no sign of 5 o’clock shadow and a sideways gap-toothed grin sneaks under a generous gaze.

“A customer is not a friend,” Sender said with a French sensibility. “A customer is a person you respect and make satisfied. Boom – that is it.”

Perhaps Carsonites who were never lucky enough to be greeted with Sender’s thoughtful and long handshake, or saved enough coins from the slots to let him pair a steak with a favorite Merlot, won’t ever understand what a meal means to a man who was raised in a culture of slow-down, not gridlock, grab-and-go.

“Yes, it is different here,” he shrugs. “What I can give, what I gave – for a moment – is what I know. People want to be in and out.

“In France, you have lunch and I mean you have lunch, with a nice bottle of wine or a glass of Cognac.

“Dinner, it is an expedition. You don’t eat in 15 minutes. You have a bottle of wine with this, another bottle of wine with that. You finish your dinner at 1 o’clock in the morning. That is eating.”

Sender’s style doesn’t go unnoticed, especially by Gov. Jim Gibbons.

“What does he like to eat? Whatever I recommend.”

From the aforementioned heads of state, including the current President – whom Sender did not want to name – or just a couple celebrating an anniversary, every customer, he said, “I would want to send away, hoping they’d want to come back.”

It is a philosophy the knowledgeable server espoused to the rest of the staff at Duke’s.

“I think he thinks very highly of his profession,” said Donna Nolan, who’s been a hostess at Duke’s for 10 months. “I believe he never asks us that we do more than he can himself.

“He expects the best.”

Paul Singh, a chef at Duke’s, followed Sender from his last stint at the Ormsby House. When asked if Sender let the crew of cooks know if something was off on a particular night, Singh showed Sender a knowing glance.

“Let’s just say if something’s not right – he’ll let us know,” Singh said.

On Saturday, everything seemed just right as the tables at Duke’s were being set for an expectant crowd of 50 diners -not a full house, but a crowd “big enough to serve well,” Sender said.

He noticed a wine glass with a spot on it while telling of his career, making a mental note for its replacement before the first customer sits down.

“Dining is an overall experience, the whole package,” Sender said gesturing widely as if pointing to a grid in the air. “It is the servers, the food, the decor, the atmosphere – it is all of these things.”

It is all of these things he is leaving behind to garden and travel with his wife of 40 years, Claudia.

“I tell people, when they ask me what I do, I say ‘I take care of people. I share with them the food and the wine and the dessert, and I leave them with a song.'”

As for that little surprise that comes at every meal, perhaps all who’ve been served by Sender know, it is the man himself.

Advice from the expert

Even though he’s retiring, legendary maitre d’ Jacques Sender shares his current favorite meal and wine pairing.

The meal: Pepper steak, “I love a well-prepared peppersteak, it is the very best of flavors.”

The wine: Duckhorn Paraduxx, “It is a maritage. The wine in Napa when I came to the states in ’81 was nothing. Now, this is very good. One of my favorites.”

• Contact reporter Andrew Pridgen at apridgen@nevadaappeal.com or 881-1219.