New Orleans native Nicoye Banks has been a captain at A Voce ever since its buzzy opening last year (he was at the Tribeca Grand before that). In addition, he’s acted in movies such as Invincible and the upcoming Colin Farrell and Ed Norton drama Pride and Glory. Though he’s not one to “do the Hollywood thing” on the job, he’s had opportunity not only to serve but also to sit down with heroes like Denzel Washington and Laurence Fishburne, and his acting background has proven more than handy in selling duck meatballs to just about everyone who walks in.
How much have reviews of the restaurant helped?
I have seen people with the magazine article in hand. They look at the menu and the article. When some of those items aren't there, you can sense the disappointment.
You must get a lot of demanding foodies.
You have to be on your P’s and Q’s — 60 percent of the time, they’ll let you know, “I've followed Mr. Carmellini, so you can’t pull the wool over our eyes by giving us half an explanation.” Because they know. Real foodies can detect ingredients. Sometimes they ask a question and they already know the answer.
Are people disappointed when they discover that Carmellini’s cooking is different than when he was with Boulud?
I haven't encountered that. Maybe three tables have mentioned, “This dish is similar to what he did at Café Boulud.” Two of the three times they mentioned the sweet-corn ravioli.
Andrew has many chef admirers; do they come through and stir up trouble?
Everyone who’s come through, they’ve been very — boom! — laid-back. Marc [Murphy] from Landmarc has come through a few times. He orders a lot of food. There could be four people; he orders for six. He does it up!
Have you had a chance to serve fellow actors that you admire?
Denzel, Laurence Fishburne, Angela Bassett, Wynton Marsalis, Meryl Streep. A guy who was sitting with Denzel remembered me from auditioning or acting. Denzel and I actually talked after. We sat down and chopped it up about New Orleans, acting, about stuff. Lenny Kravitz ended up coming over and meeting with Denzel.
A Times piece said there weren’t a lot of African-American diners in fine-dining restaurants. Is that the case at A Voce?
To be honest, there haven’t been a lot to come through. I often wonder why — these places are just as approachable as your Houston’s or your bistro-type restaurants. Maybe even more, because there’s more to offer.
You have a background in public speaking. Has it helped you on the job?
That plays a huge part. You have to be able to read your tables. My approach, delivery, and phrasing with [a table of] businessmen is sharp and to the point. I call it my “two-minute drill.” My guests celebrating an anniversary, I want to elongate their experience with us. My approach to them is going to be a bit more casual. I can’t be very verbose. I have to be a lot softer in my description of things. I can’t say too much, because that one ingredient I may mention may turn them off.
How many people order the duck meatballs?
Oh, brother, that’s 90th percentile. I had a guest at a table who ordered the duck meatballs, didn’t like it. They thought it was a bit chewy. I was like, “You’re kidding me. There must be some mistake.” I ran back into the kitchen, put a hold on the second course, asked if they could put in another order of meatballs and — boom. When they came, they said, “Nic, you stink. I’ll never take your advice again.” That was my one experience where the duck meatballs let me down. We lean on the meatballs!