Most every restaurant has some restaurant-critic protocol. This is the procedure that’s followed when a critic is spotted in the house.

There’s a lot at stake here. Some reviewers have the power to potentially kill a new restaurant. When they do come, you want to make sure you are on the top of your game.

The protocol begins with a code word. This is important so the word can be spread as quickly as possible to every employee in the restaurant, while not allowing the critics to know they were spotted. What you don’t want are a bunch of servers and managers shouting “Critic!” throughout the dining room.

Let’s call our word soufflé. Once a critic is spotted, someone goes through the restaurant as quickly and surreptitiously as possible, letting every staff person know that a soufflé is in the room.

You want everyone on his or her A game. Staff in the best houses can at times be careless and slovenly. I once had a sommelier enter a full dining room sucking on a bottle of Evian. If not for all the H.R. bullshit, I’d have fired him on the spot.

Duck and foie gras at Le Coucou.

The critic protocol at Le Coucou, chef Daniel Rose’s French restaurant that opened on New York’s Lafayette Street in 2016 with me as maître d’, was the most intense I had ever experienced.

We held a “critic’s table” every evening. The table, considered the best in the house, was never seated until we were certain a critic wasn’t coming that evening, and it would only be released about 30 minutes before the kitchen closed. In the event we did seat it, usually to a V.I.P., we always had a backup in case some critic made an eleventh-hour appearance.

The protocol begins with a code word. What you don’t want are a bunch of servers and managers shouting “Critic!” throughout the dining room. Let’s call our word soufflé.

Besides losing the revenue that table could generate each evening, it was always the elephant in the room. When we were packed—which was every night, with waits upward of 30 minutes, and guests glaring at you each second as they waited for a table—to see this empty beauty parked in the middle of the room made them want to kill us.

In addition to holding the table, we also kept a brand-new set of menus and a brand-new wine list to give the celebrated guests. No smudges or wrinkles on these babies—fresh, clean, and untouched.

The best team of the evening was always put in that table’s station, and only the head sommelier would do the wine service. Other than the immediate staff that attended that table, all others were instructed to stay as far away from it as possible. No staring, fawning, stealing glances—nothing.

You never, ever let on that you know a critic is in the house, and you never let the critics know you know they are sitting there. They want to see you as you are and want no special attention. They want to be served exactly as every other person in the room. If the chef is not in the kitchen that evening, he better damn well get back to the restaurant as quickly as possible. You want only him at the stove, no one else.

Once the critic’s order was put in the kitchen, the chefs would then prepare two of each dish ordered. They taste one to make sure it was exactly right and then send the other.

After each course, the plates were then brought back to the kitchen for the chefs to inspect before being sent to the dishwasher. The chefs want to see what was and wasn’t eaten. If something was left on the plate, that was a danger sign. Did he not like it? Was it the guest’s plate or the critic’s? Did she taste it and put it back? Was the critic too full?

While you aren’t supposed to stare or fawn, you are required to observe the critic’s every little gesture or innuendo so as to enlighten the chefs.

Dinnertime at Le Coucou, which New York Times critic Pete Wells named his favorite New York restaurant in 2016.

The pressure is enormous. Stephen Starr, like most restaurant owners, was so paranoid of bad reviews that his team did everything possible to make sure we spotted every single reviewer who entered the restaurant.

Ryan Sutton’s Eater review of Buddakan certainly put the fear of God in him. Sutton destroyed Buddakan:

In case you didn’t pick up the Lonely Planet guide to Buddakan, the larger half of Stephen Starr’s Vatican-sized restaurant complex in New York’s Chelsea Market, here’s a brief tour of what you’ll witness around the Chinese-esque mess hall: four hostesses, only one of whom will take your coat, the type of inoffensive club music one might encounter at a duty-free airport shop, a red vase room (Siberia), a blue Buddha room (as inviting as a cargo plane), a chandelier room that my real estate buddy got a prime seat in after greasing the right person, a VIP library room with fake books, staircases steep enough to keep your drinking in check, cocktails average enough to make you quit drinking $16 potables forever, an odiferous ashtray inches away from the Shaq-sized entrance, and a Renaissance-style painting of a naked guy outside the men’s room, whose visible penis, if you’re “Tom Cruise height” like me, is at face level …

Mapo tofu, normally a showcase for the numbing qualities of Sichuan cuisine, sports an out-of-left-field sweetness that makes it taste like it was prepared by Chef Boyardee. Dan Dan, a classic pairing of egg noodles, pork sausage, chile oil, and scallions, smacks of bitter hand soap. What’s advertised as soft-shell crab bao buns turns out to be understeamed sliders. And black-pepper beef, a stomach-warming dish from China’s Guangdong Province, is a mess of overcooked rib eye in a KC Masterpiece–like sauce. The beef arrives in a stale “bird’s nest,” packing the taste and texture of a paper doily. If you closed your eyes and successfully identified the Chinese names of all four dishes, I’d buy you dinner at Meadowood.

Stephen wasn’t about to let this happen here. We had a critics’ notebook with photos of all of them. We had posters on all the walls with pictures of every food writer, editor, blogger, and critic that might possibly write something about the restaurant, and there were dozens of them. The staff was asked to look at the photos every day to help spot one.

Waiting, Waiting …

The wait following the opening of Le Coucou was interminable. Days and then weeks went by with no critics. Table 34 sat empty night after night. Finally, our first critic of note, Steve Cuozzo of the New York Post, made a reservation.

The Post no longer does regular food reviews, but Cuozzo will stray out on occasion. The night he came, I seated him and let him be for most of the evening, only checking in after entrées were served. That was it. You can’t read him at all, and once he dashed out of the restaurant, we had absolutely no idea what he thought of us.

The review came out a week later. The headline read:

This New York City bistro is one of the best restaurants of the century.

We still needed the big three.

Adam Platt of New York magazine was the next to arrive. He’s easily spotted. It’s hard to miss the bald pate atop an over-six-foot frame. He went right to table 34.

Platt’s pretty amiable and writes a lot of food reviews. Maybe too many. He’s been doing it numerous years, and perhaps that’s the reason he only dined with us once, returning a second time to squeeze in with some friends who were already here and having some nibbles from their plates.

There’s a lot at stake here. Some reviewers have the power to potentially kill a new restaurant.

The review was lukewarm; he liked us but didn’t love us and gave us three out of five stars. We all found this disappointing, me especially, since nearly everyone I spoke to was absolutely blown away by the food, service, and ambience. One down, two to go.

Again we waited. It had been three months since we opened. Where the hell were Sutton and The New York Times’s Pete Wells?

Then the dreaded Sutton finally arrived. He tried to sneak in on a crowded Thursday evening. I had never encountered Sutton, but most of the staff had, and not one had a good word for him. He is reputed to be rude to servers and bartenders and impatient, and he can be cruel in his reviews.

The bar at Le Coucou.

The bartender recognized him and came to tell us he was here. We couldn’t sit him at table 34 since it was a four top and he was only two, which would have raised red flags, so we switched some things around and got him seated elsewhere. Once he was down, we put the soufflé protocol into action.

His behavior eventually softened and the service went flawlessly. Each time he came back he was spotted, and each time our team was on point.

The review that came out in Eater was good: we received three out of four stars. He liked most everything except for one dish, the oeuf norvégien.

Writes Sutton:

So let’s talk about a certain pre–El Bulli spherification: oeuf norvégien, a soft-boiled egg wrapped in chive cream and artichoke and covered by a sphere of smoked salmon. Call it brunch in a ball, a pescatarian Scotch egg designed to make a 1970s Better Homes & Gardens editor swoon. Let me describe how it tastes in four words: do not order it.

It was immediately removed from the menu.

Two Down, One to Go

As the opening weeks dragged into months, there was still no sign of Wells. We would come up with reasons why he hadn’t shown. Our reservation book was completely filled every night, and if there were openings, they were usually at 5:30 or 11, so perhaps he wasn’t able to get a reservation at a decent time and was holding out till he did. Or he was waiting for all the other reviews to come out—the king waiting for the minions.

It took till fucking November for Wells to finally show. Five long months we waited. The reservation popped up on OpenTable late on a Monday evening.

The reservation was for 10:30 P.M. We had pretty much completed our second seating, the room was three-quarters full, and we knew that by 10:30 half of these guests would be gone. We didn’t want him sitting in a half-empty restaurant.

It took till November for Pete Wells to finally show. The reservation popped up on OpenTable late on a Monday evening.

The Starr machine quickly jumped into action. The team called as many people as they possibly could to come and fill up the dining room. By 10 P.M. we had most of the room filled. We were ready.

Wells has a habit well-known in restaurant circles. He arrives neither with nor ahead of his party. The guests come first, get seated, and then he shows up late and surreptitiously slides himself in, hopefully unknown to the staff. He’s been the food critic for the Times for so long now, his picture so widely circulated among restaurants, you’d have to be dim-witted to miss him, hence the sneaking in.

The beef tartare at Le Coucou is topped with Kristal caviar.

True to form, an incomplete party showed up under the Wells alias. We sat them. Approximately 10 minutes later, he appeared in the doorway, head down, walked to the maître d’hôtel stand making no eye contact, and gave the name of the alias. Bam! Our biggest soufflé had finally arrived.

Fortuitously, two lovely women were in from Paris. We’d seated them right next to the table we assumed was going to be Wells. I walked Wells to the table. The group he was with was fun and were all in good spirits. When he went outside for a cigarette, I made my move to the table, checking in, asking how everything was. This great group was willing to talk, and we had some fun chatting about the restaurant.

When Wells returned, he had apparently shared a smoke outside with the French gals, who were already out there, and the next thing you know, when the next course arrived, the two tables were sharing dishes. I knew things were going well when I spotted Wells licking the sauce from the bottom of the pan that held the sweetbreads. The room was lively with friends and employees from the other restaurants. This was a good start. We felt we nailed his first visit.

He returned twice more and was spotted each time. Again we waited. We knew the review was imminent when someone from the Times called to fact-check the review. Each menu item the caller asked about was then parsed by the entire team. Which items did the person ask about? What was left out? Did the fact-checker ask about a lot of the dishes? We sought any inkling as to what was forthcoming, a common, futile practice in any restaurant that awaits a review.

Finally, the review came out. It was spectacular. We received three of four stars, which is exactly what we wanted. Four stars is way too difficult to maintain, and two stars would have been seen as a failure. The lovely review praised most everything about the restaurant.

Our two women even got a mention:

One night, I sat next to two Parisian women.... A French-speaking waiter appeared and engaged them in a long deliberation about the cheese course. They sent over their cheese, we shared our desserts, and then I slipped outside with them while they lit up their Gauloises.

Five long months and the wait was over.

Michael Cecchi-Azzolina has worked at several New York restaurants, including the River Café, Minetta Tavern, Raoul’s, and Le Coucou. His memoir, Your Table Is Ready: Tales of a New York City Maître D’, will be published on December 6