Since the James Beard Awards were announced last night, I thought I would share a story about the winner for "Outstanding Restaurant," Eleven Madison Park in New York City. It doesn't have anything to do with world-class talent, an extra-sophisticated dining community or huge operating budget. This story is about extra effort. And from what I have seen, the very best restaurants seem to try the hardest.
(Before I go on, we want to ask readers to tell us, in the comments box below, about their experiences with a restaurant that shows extra effort. Let us know what happened, and where.)
The food, of course, was outstanding during our visit in September. The design of the menu was compelling (you select a single ingredient for each course and you have no idea how it will be prepared) and the finished product on the plate was a work of art. That's not surprising for a world-class restaurant with a chef the caliber of Daniel Humm (who used to work in San Francisco).
But the story I am going to tell you has almost nothing to do with cooking. It's about doing the little things that connect with customers and have an impact that resonates.
This is the kind of thing that can be done anywhere. It doesn't matter what culinary school you went to, which Michelin-rated restaurants you staged at. No, the extra effort doesn't even require extra talent.
Our waiter during our visit to EMP (as folks call it) was a real pro. As the meal went on, we asked questions about the food and he had excellent answers. The pork belly I ordered, he informed me, had been cooked sous vide for 72 hours. The foie gras was one of the most extraordinary dishes I've seen or tasted.
Toward the end, our waiter approached us and said, "I've noticed that you two are really enjoying the cooking and asking lots of good questions. When you're finished, would you be interested in taking a tour of the kitchen?"
Of course, we were. When he walked away, my girlfriend looked stunned and said, "Why would they ask us that? Do they think we are someone else?" This, after all, was New York City - the big leagues. I said, maybe they noticed our other reservations on OpenTable.com, including Corton, WD-50, Daniel and Jean-Georges. Maybe, they want to show they are better than the competition, I suggested.
When our waiter returned, he led us to the back of the restaurant and into the huge kitchen. On the way in, he stopped at a large photograph of Miles Davis. As he explained it, when EMP was reviewed a while back (I think it was New York magazine), the critic said that although the restaurant is very good, it needed to be a bit more Miles Davis. In other words, it could loosen up a little, be cooler. Along with the photo were adjectives that the employees thought applied to Miles Davis. So every time they enter the kitchen, they are reminded.
That, right there, shows how they are always trying to get better. But that's not part of the story. After the New York Times gave EMP four stars (its highest rating), the chef and the manager decided they wanted to tear up their very successful concept and try this new menu that lists only the ingredients. It was a major risk for a restaurant already listed as one of the best in New York and (by S. Pellegrino) one of the 50 best in the world. The new menu prompted a story in the New York Times. It was that daring. But that's not the story either.
So, we get to the kitchen and we meet a pastry chef who says hello and thanks us for coming to the restaurant. She then said, "I'm going to make you a special dessert." They had set up a little station with two custom white bowls that looked like little pillows. I looked around. The kitchen was massive and there seemed to be at least 25 chefs, all in white, busily working on specific tasks.
The pastry chef explained that our dessert would be made by taking fruit and mixing it with liquid nitrogen. It was mesmerizing. She ladled the liquid nitrogen into a large bowl with the fruit and stirred, explaining the process as we went along. Soon, we were looking at a beautiful sorbet. She then topped it off with whipped cream made of champagne that had been forced through a pressurized canister. Daniel Humm stopped by and chatted. I asked him to sign the menu. He's very friendly and cool.
We ate the dessert and our waiter came and led us back to our table, where we had more treats waiting for us, along with a glass jar of the chef's custom blend of granola to take with us. By this time, we began to think this is what it must feel like to be the president of the United States - and we were simply two customers at an excellent restaurant. But we were not alone.
I mentioned this to a Facebook friend who was going to EMP a couple of days after us - and he got the same tour of the kitchen. Amazing. How much money does this cost? And what is the payoff when we share the story with our friends? It certainly seems to be worth the time to gain a customer for life and, by extension, many more customers drawn to the restaurant.
What can Sacramento's restaurants learn from this? For one, the best restaurants are always trying to get better, and the very best of the best are willing to take risks to get there. Beyond that, this story is about doing something extra, and that's what's most important. It doesn't have to involve a famous chef or liquid nitrogen. But if restaurants want to attract customers and keep them, they should consider following the lead of Eleven Madison Park. This restaurant is one of several owned by renowned restaurateur Danny Meyer. If you've read his excellent book, "Setting the Table," you'd realize that what happened to us is not surprising. His principals can be applied to practically any business.
We're already looking forward to our next trip to New York - and another visit to EMP.