A warming trend in food service

AT GABRIEL STULMAN six cozy restaurants in Manhattan, servers, bartenders and hosts can drink on the job, play their own music on the sound system and wear just about anything they want. Happy staff makes for happy customers, it is believed. “How much fun can you have as a diner if everyone around you serving looks miserable? said Mr. Stulman. As a company policy, her entire team is encouraged to offer a drink or dish on the house every day, and lavish guests with such warmth that they might want to return it with a hug.

“We have launched a contest in all of our restaurants – who can get the most unsolicited hugs,” Mr Stulman, 33, said last month. He was describing his unorthodox policies at the first hospitality welcome conference — part TED Talk, part networking mixer — held in New York. “We have this mantra,” he continued, addressing an audience of his peers on the service side of the restaurant business. “Treat celebrities like locals, and locals like celebrities, because everyone likes to feel special.”

On stage that day were other dining room chefs — from restaurants in Chicago, Seattle and New York — who are redefining the role and raising the profile of restaurant dining room staff. “If more people aren’t very excited about pursuing a career in hospitality, elements of the business are going to die,” said conference co-organizer Will Guidara, 34, the waiter-turned-restaurateur owner of New York’s Eleven Madison Park. and the NoMad with chef Daniel Humm.

Like many next-generation impresarios who run some of the best restaurants in the country, Mr. Guidara has a wealth of data about his guests pulled from Google.,

Facebook and Yelp, and a knack for anticipating their needs and wants without scaring anyone. Mr. Guidara’s team can pull your chair and fold your towel, but while his places are chic, they’re never stuffy. The restaurants are almost as well known for their raucous parties — an annual tradition on Halloween and Kentucky Derby Day — as they are for their extreme personal touch. The new impresarios are buttoned up when needed, but also know when to let go.

Mr. Guidara bared his soul on stage during the conference, sharing the story of his mother’s battle with cancer. “She taught me how good it feels when the person you’re with is fully present with you and how good it feels to be fully present with them too,” he said. “And, as I’ve pursued this craft over the years since, I’ve tried to do just that, to block out all the noise and all the static and focus on the person I’m with. ”

“There are no more 10 silver coins on the table. Serving guests in a beautiful, graceful, creative, different way is what excites me.

This kind of emotional honesty informs the motivational management style that’s a common thread these days among the country’s most dynamic new dining room leaders: encouraging empathy in pursuit of genuine warmth. “Just as cooking is a muscle, so is hospitality and service,” Guidara said. While the new servers at his flagship restaurant study a 97-page manual when they start out and spend weeks practicing basic tasks before moving upstairs, it’s during the “happy hours” of Regular team building they cement a real sense of community. Despite the formality, there’s a loose, collaborative spirit inspired by the music of Miles Davis, the jazz god whose portrait hangs in the kitchen.

Service standards

The following restaurants receive as many accolades for their polished, professional and not too serious service as they do for their ambitious cuisine. Here are some of their front of house flourishes:

Meadowood’s Restaurant, St. Helena, CA // After a dinner with a tasting menu in this three-star Michelin restaurant, guests can linger over a drink and a board game in the lounge with fireplace. therestaurantatmeadowood.com

Eleven Madison Park, New York // During the New York-themed meal, waiters perform card tricks in the dining room and grind carrots steak tartare-style in meat grinders attached to diners’ tables – a playful take on serving at the old-fashioned table. elevenmadisonpark.com

Paragraph, Chicago // Expect to be greeted by name before you even give it at this cutting-edge restaurant, where the customer information database often includes personal photos as well as likes and dislikes lists. alinearestaurant.com

Canlis, Seattle // An update to the signature Canlis Salad, introduced when this restaurant opened in the 1950s, is prepared at the table by waiters on a handmade brass and wenge wood cart. The bravest customers can order a Café Diablo after dinner, also assembled and set on fire at the table. canlis.com

Melissa, Santa Monica, CA // At this foodie landmark, special occasions come with special treats, including chef’s birthday notes and birthday truffles delivered in ring boxes. melisse.com

Vetri, Philadelphia // Dinner starts with complimentary glasses of champagne at this famous upscale Italian restaurant and ends with gift bags filled with the next day’s coffee cakes and hand-painted menus. vetriristorante.com

In Seattle, Brian Canlis, 36—Mr. Guidara’s former Cornell Hotel School roommate has spent the past five years transforming his family’s 64-year-old eponymous fine-dining restaurant into a “four-star restaurant for the next generation.” Working with his older brother Mark, Mr. Canlis introduced a new style of service – still formal, but more relaxed – to match the new, cutting-edge dishes served by Jason Franey, the young chef they brought in (a former Executive Sous Chef of Eleven Madison Park). “There are no more 10 pieces of silver on the table,” he said, referring to the more formal serving style adopted by his parents’ generation. “Serving guests in a beautiful, graceful, creative, different way is what excites me.”

The Canlis brothers were also speakers at the welcome conference, sharing their thoughts on what it is to be truly hospitable. “It’s not about transactions,” said Mark Canlis, “it’s about relationships.” They told the story of five sisters who had come to Canlis for a last meal with their terminally ill mother. “They walk through the door fragile and soft,” Brian Canlis said, “and they hold [their vulnerability] come to you and they say, ‘Can you take care of this for us?’ His brother picks up the thread: “That’s what a customer does when he enters your establishment. That’s what they want, they want to be safe.” Between presentations that day, the brothers relished the rare opportunity to mingle with colleagues from across the country.

“Chefs have many natural ways to connect, to the green market, at collaborative dinners,” said Anthony Rudolf, 33, former general manager of New York restaurant Per Se, who worked with Mr Guidara to make take off the event. For frontline staff, Mr Rudolf continued, “there really is no natural mechanism, so we had to create something new”.

Mr. Guidara and Mr. Rudolf were once rivals at the top of the restaurant game. A few years ago, they realized it might make more sense to cooperate instead. Over casual drinks, the pair created a new business organization, the New York City Dining Room Collaborative. The 10 founding members – butlers, owners and managers – shared ideas and experiences over drinks when they first met two years ago at Eleven Madison Park (the group has grown to over 30 members) . The welcome conference was a natural extension of this.

The ultimate goal of both efforts is to create a sense of community that has long been lacking among professionals at the front of the house and, in doing so, to encourage ambitious young men and women to pursue real careers there. Fifteen years ago, when Mr. Rudolf was a student at the Culinary Institute of America, the nation’s top cooking school, in Hyde Park, New York, only 5% of graduates considered taking an indoor course. to eat. Today, that number exceeds 20%.

One man, veteran restaurateur Danny Meyer, has done more to inspire this new generation than anyone. Although notable for his absence from the hospitality conference – he was invited, but had to decline – his pioneering work informed just about every talk.

Nearly 30 years ago, when Mr. Meyer opened his first restaurant in New York, Union Square Cafe, it featured the friendliest servers in town, serving up ambitious cuisine on linenless tables and counters. “In the 1980s, I would go to all these trendy restaurants to learn about the craft,” he said. “The food was really exciting, but I started to realize people weren’t always so nice.”

Mr. Meyer set out to create a new kind of dining room culture centered not on service (the technical aspects of working in a room), but on hospitality (the way it feels). He researched people who “are truly happier when they make you happy” and then decided to create an environment they wanted to work in, a place that felt less like a job and more like a calling. The intuitive ingredients that made that first restaurant – and those that followed – sensational successes were finally codified in his seminal book, “Setting the Table,” published in 2006.

“This book changed the industry,” said Mr. Guidara, who worked for Mr. Meyer for many years. “The way I approach culture and hospitality is fully rooted in Danny’s philosophies.”

These days, even Mr. Meyer’s organization has new blood at the top. Late last year, the restaurateur picked rising star Sabato Sagaria, 38, a former catering manager at the Little Nell Hotel in Aspen, Colorado, to be its first-ever mate. As Mr. Meyer focuses on his growing Shake Shack burger chain (which just opened its 48th outpost), his new restaurant director will lead his 10 full-service locations, focusing, a- he said, on “pursuing the development of talent from within”. ”

Mr. Sagaria seemed to be applying for the job from the moment they met, when Mr. Meyer was a guest at the Little Nell one summer. Mr Meyer recalls: “He had laid out all the ingredients for my favorite cocktail and put a copy of my book above the bar in the room. You can’t teach that kind of thinking – putting heart and mind whole. “

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