Kenny Rogers’ famed musical advice was to know when to fold ’em. Tyrone Howard doesn’t just know when, but how.
And we’re not talking about cards.
Having made a name for himself — more specifically, a nickname — in roughly a half-century at some of New Orleans’ finest dining establishments, Howard is doing the same in Baton Rouge at Le Creolé, where he has been head waiter since September.
“I’m known as the napkin king,” Howard said.
If he wanted to, no one doubts Howard could take cloth napkins and make himself a crown.
Among his skills as a server, Howard says he has created 722 different designs out of napkins. Most designs involve a single napkin, but he can use 16 or 18 cloth squares to make an ornate peacock, once creating the NBC television symbol on a live broadcast in New York. Birds, symbols, candlesticks, all varieties of hats — Howard only needs a few seconds to turn a simple napkin into an imaginative table ornament.
He got introduced to the concept while working at New Orleans’ Fairmont Hotel at age 15, by which time Howard was already a restaurant veteran. Howard’s father worked at Morrison’s Cafeteria and brought his 8-year-old son to work so he could learn an occupation. Raymond Riviere, banquet manager at the Fairmont, taught Howard the napkin-folding basics.
“I took a liking to it, so he started teaching me some more, and I started creating things on my own,” Howard said. “People started entering me in contests around the city, state, country and other parts of the world, and I started winning championships.”
Howard, who declined to give his age, has studied origami — the Japanese art of decorative paper folding — to inspire some of his ideas, putting them to use for 37 years at the Fairmont and for many of the Crescent City’s hotels, restaurants and clubs. When Pope John Paul II visited New Orleans in 1987, Howard folded 5,000 napkins to mimic the Pope’s miter.
He also made napkins look like Army garrison caps for a function at the National World War II Museum.
Sometimes, necessity has been the mother of invention.
When the Hilton New Orleans Riverside opened in 1977, it had prepared for a function with 2,500 diners, only to learn the day of the event that the number was double that. In addition to turning every available dishwasher, housekeeper and manager into a waiter, there was the matter of setting the tables.
“Ten minutes before we were supposed to open the doors, the client came in the room and said, ‘Are y’all going to be ready?’ I said, ‘Yes, ma’am. I’ve just got to fold the napkins,’” Howard said.
“All eyes were on me. So, I pinched a napkin in the middle, put it between my index finger and thumb, put it in a coffee cup, and the blossom was born. Three seconds. We had to do 5,000 of them. I’m very proud of that.”
Howard moved to Baton Rouge in 2006 to escape New Orleans’ crime but commuted to work there until seeing an opening at Le Creolé last year. Laila Britos, the restaurant’s director of operations, knew Howard and insisted he be hired.
He still supervises events at other facilities when not working at Le Creolé.
“They don’t make them like him anymore,” said Jeremy Sullivan, Le Creolé’s general manager. “It’s amazing how passionate he is for what he does. He has a passion for taking care of people, helping people.”
Since 2011, Howard has run a program in New Orleans called “Serving Up” that trains underemployed people the skills to be a waiter. The students won’t, however, learn all 722 folded napkin designs. Most hotels and fine restaurants have their own standard napkin folds.
“If they want something unique,” Howard said, “they call me.”