At Commander’s Palace, Jazlin Armstrong breathes new life into fine dining hospitality


New Orleans native Jazlin Armstrong can pinpoint exactly how she knew she belonged in the restaurant industry: She’s loved mealtimes since she was a little girl watching her grandmother cook Creole cuisine. Today, Armstrong leads one of the city’s most iconic dining venues as lunchtime butler at Commander’s Palace.

The role of the maitre d’ – which has long been said to be in decline – might still be elusive for some. For customers, it’s the person they want to befriend, the guardian of coveted tables in popular gourmet restaurants. For restaurateurs, the maitre d’ is the maestro of the dining room. At Commander’s, which has won James Beard Awards for Outstanding Dining and Exceptional Service, Armstrong’s job is to make sure every guest gets that folksy Commander’s Palace experience every time.

“I think of it as hosting a dinner party,” Armstrong says. “You want to be the organizer and you want to know your guests – what they need, likes or dislikes, accommodations that need to be made.”

And that’s how she makes customers feel when they walk into the restaurant, like they’re attending a good friend’s dinner party. She is the first face diners see when they enter Commander’s, stepping down from her podium to offer a warm welcome. Like a good friend, she also already knows everything about her guests. “The butler is there to teach you and understand who you are, what you are looking for and what the occasion is,” Armstrong continued.

The typical butler in the other so-called “Grande Dames” of New Orleans is white, older, and masculine – likely because most have held their once-male-dominated position for decades, making it makes such a permanent item as the potato soufflé on the menu. Even the name itself, maître d’hôtel, which translates from French as “hotel master” or “master of the house”, is masculine by definition.

What sets Armstrong apart from other butlers in the city has become her strength, as evidenced by her commanding the title of one of the city’s most well-known restaurant dynasties. She describes joining Commander as pure luck. “I was driving down Washington Avenue one day in 2006 and decided to apply,” says Armstrong. “I’d been to Commander’s as a guest several times, but I thought, ‘If I have to do this, I might as well do it right. I might as well do it with the best. So I came on a whim and applied to be a waiter.

Commander’s Palace on Washington Avenue.
Shutterstock

She was hired immediately as a back server, eventually working her way up to host and captain positions. “Captain was my first leadership role at Commander’s,” says Armstrong. “I’ve done everything from banquets to chef’s tables,” and tried to learn dining as best I could, she says.

Armstrong’s trajectory within the organization also included leadership and server training positions at of short time Commander’s Palace Destiny, then back to New Orleans as assistant manager for the Brennan ladies’ next attempt, 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 the restaurant’s retirement by Lelia Lambert, her CEO and mentor at SoBou (now in a leadership role at Commander’s).

“The commander always kind of brings you back,” Armstrong says of his return. “I realized that this role was the culmination of all the lessons I learned over the years.”

From the restaurant’s founding mother to its current owners, women in leadership positions are not new to Commander’s. It’s this dynamic, says Armstrong, that brings so many customers back to the restaurant and that has kept her coming back. “I think representation is important — having other women to talk to, being able to bounce ideas off of, and being able to identify on more of a business level,” Armstrong says. “From Lelia, Ti and Chef Meg, I have found friends and family among the women I work with. I mean, it was a no-brainer.

As it turns out, she’s still running the demanding lunch service at one of the most established restaurants in New Orleans, a city where Friday lunch is a pastime (it can even be America’s Best Lunch Town). According to Armstrong, her role is one of those intricate pieces of the puzzle that connects the front of the house to the back of the house.

“This isn’t my first rodeo with Commander’s,” says Armstrong. “I’ve done a few roles here, so I’ve been 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 perspective of the manager, I had to learn how to communicate with the kitchen.

The work can seem overwhelming for some; however, Armstrong maintains that she has not yet felt this. She attributes this partly to the support and trust she feels from the management team, and partly to having found the right person. “I’m really enjoying what I’m doing right now,” says Armstrong. “My mom said I’ve never met a stranger before and that’s true because anyone who walks through that door can be a friend.”

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