New Orleans native Jazlin Armstrong can pinpoint exactly how she knew she belonged in the restaurant industry: she’s had a love of mealtime ever since she was a little girl watching her grandmother cook Creole cuisine. Today, Armstrong stands at the helm of one of the city’s most iconic dining rooms as the lunchtime maitre d’ at Commander’s Palace.
The role of the maitre d’ — long rumored to be on the decline — might still be an elusive one to some. To patrons, it’s the person they want to befriend, the gatekeeper to coveted tables at popular fine-dining restaurants. To those in the restaurant industry, the maitre d’ is the maestro of the dining room. At Commander’s, which has won James Beard Awards for outstanding restaurant and outstanding service, Armstrong’s job is to make sure each guest has that folkloric Commander’s Palace experience every single time.
“I look at it as hosting a dinner party,” says Armstrong. “You want to be the organizer and you want to know your guests — what they need, any likes or dislikes, any accommodations that need to be made.”
And that’s how she makes customers feel when they enter the restaurant — like they’re attending a good friend’s dinner party. She’s the first face diners see when entering Commander’s, stepping down from her podium to dole out warm welcomes. Like a good friend, she also already knows all about her guests. “The maitre d’ is there to learn you and to understand who you are, what you are looking for, and what the occasion is,” Armstrong continued.
The typical maitre d’ in the other so-called “Grand Dames” of New Orleans dining is white, older, and male — probably because most have held their once male-dominated position for decades, making them as permanent a fixture as the soufflé potatoes on the menu. Even the name itself, maitre d’hôtel, which translates from French to “master of the hotel” or “master of the house,” is masculine by definition.
What differentiates Armstrong from other maitre d’s around town has become her strength, evidenced by her commanding the title for one of the city’s best-known restaurant dynasties. She describes her entry into Commander’s as fully by chance. “I was driving down Washington Avenue one day in 2006 and decided to apply,” Armstrong says. “I had been to Commander’s several times as a guest, but I thought to myself,’ If I’m going to do it, I might as well do it right. I might as well do it with the best.’ So, I came in on a whim and applied as a server.”
She was hired immediately as a back waiter, eventually working her way up to front-of-house and captain positions. “Captain was my first leadership role at Commander’s,” Armstrong says. “I did everything from banquets to chef’s tables,” and tried to learn the dining room as well as possible, she says.
Armstrong’s trajectory within the organization also included stints leading and training servers at the short-lived Commander’s Palace Destin, then back to New Orleans as the assistant manager of the Brennan ladies’ next endeavor, SoBou. With a growing family and curiosity to explore other career options, Armstrong left the industry in 2017, but that was short-lived. She was lured out of restaurant retirement by Lelia Lambert, her SoBou general manager and mentor (now in an executive role at Commander’s).
“Commander’s always kind of brings you back,” Armstrong says of her return. “I realized that this role was the culmination of all of the lessons that I learned over the years.”
From the restaurant’s founding mother to its current proprietors, women in leadership positions are nothing new to Commander’s. It’s that dynamic, Armstrong says, that brings so many guests back to the restaurant and what enticed her to return. “I do think the representation matters — having other women to talk to, to be able to bounce ideas off of, and relate to on more than just a business level,” says Armstrong. “From Lelia, Ti, and chef Meg, I have found friends and family out of the women that I work with. I mean, it was a no-brainer.”
Ultimately, she still runs the demanding lunchtime service at one of the most established restaurants in New Orleans, a city where Friday lunch is a pastime (it may even be America’s finest lunch town). As Armstrong sees it, her role is one of those intricate pieces of the puzzle that connects the front of house to the back of house.
“It’s not my first rodeo with Commander’s,” says Armstrong. “I’ve gone through a couple of roles here, so I was able to get my feet wet. I understand what it’s like to be in the dining room from a server’s perspective, and from the manager’s perspective, I’ve had to learn how to communicate with the kitchen.
The job might sound overwhelming to some; however, Armstrong maintains that she has not felt that way yet. She attributes that in part to the support and confidence she feels from the leadership team, and in part to having found the right fit. “I really do love what I do right now,” Armstrong says. “My mom said I’ve never met a stranger before and it’s true because anyone that comes through that door can be a friend.”