Elena Salvoni, one of London's most admired maitre d's, passed away yesterday following a short illness. She was 95.
Salvoni, who won the Lifetime Achievement Award at the Cateys in 2011 and the Manager of the Year Catey in 1996, worked well into her 90s at Elena's L'Etoile in London's Charlotte Street. She dedicated her life to restaurant service, and was regarded as a beacon by the great and the good of the hospitality industry.
Born in 1920 in Clerkenwell to parents from Northern Italy, she said her childhood contributed to her sense of hospitality: "Our house was full of visitors," she told The Caterer in 2011. "People were always coming and going but were always made to feel welcome. I think Italians have that warmth. My mum used to ask everyone who walked through the door if they'd eaten."
Her career spanned nine decades. She started out aged 14 at Café Bleu in London's Soho before following restaurant manager Joseph Paccino to Bianchi's where she worked for 30 years. Aged 65, Salvoni tried to retire, but her talents were so in demand that she continued to work for more than 20 years, first at L'Escargot and then at L'Etoile.
Although she retired in 1980, she was persuaded to return in to the renovated L'Escargot in June 1981, where she was made maitre d' until it went into receivership in the early 1990s.
When Roy Ackerman's the Restaurant Partnership took over the 90-year-old building of the renowned L'Etoile restaurant in Charlotte Street, the company chose Elena Salvoni to front it as manager. The restaurant was even renamed Elena's L'Etoile.
Often referred to as "an institution" and the "Queen of Soho", Salvoni was devoted to caring for her customers. She formed relationships with many stars of the big and small screens. On her 90th birthday in April 2010, while working at Elena's L'Etoile, she told the London Evening Standard:
Chef Chris Galvin told The Caterer: "I first met Elena when I went to work at L'Escargot with Martin Lam in 1988 with my brother Jeff. She was running the restaurant upstairs, doing double shifts and getting home in her split to prepare dinner! Martin and Elena would insist on us having lunch at the end of service to discuss the service - good and bad - so I got to learn a lot that most chefs would never get to hear, yet it was all conducted in a family way which I adored.
"Elena continued to give us support throughout our career and was in the Bistrot just a couple of weeks ago.
"She was a huge part of our lives, giving us so much encouragement, belief, kindness and hope. People talk about perfect role models - Elena Salvoni stands out as the most remarkable example to us all."
Louie Salvoni, Elena's son, said: "She was all about people, whether that was friends and family, or the guests at her restaurants - she considered her customers her friends. She was in her element when she had a room full of people, and that's what made her such a great restaurateur. She still had the gift of being able to light up the room at the monthly lunches she hosted, more recently, at Quo Vadis in her old Soho stomping ground. I think Soho's going to miss her as much as our family will."