A Conversation with Will Guidara
Broken Palate's John McDonald talks with the hospitality guru on why exceeding expectations is the key to success.
At the age of 26, Will Guidara took over a beautiful New York City brasserie that was more flash than substance. Under the guidance of the young restaurateur, Eleven Madison Park transformed into one of the world’s finest dining establishments.
Guidara’s key to success was due to his total commitment to hospitality in all forms. His new book, Unreasonable Hospitality: The Remarkable Power of Giving People More Than They Expect, is filled with stories of his journey at restaurants by Daniel Boulud and Danny Meyer to his current success.
The book also outlines Guidara’s philosophy that to succeed, you should exceed all expectations, and that everyone — no matter what we do for a living — can “transform ordinary transactions into extraordinary experiences”.
John McDonald: You had lunch today at Balthazar. What do you think about Keith (McNally) and the way he reports on [Instagram]– and publishes – recaps of evenings at Minetta, Balthazar, his places?
Will Guidara: He operates by his own set of rules. And I think it's refreshing actually. I don’t agree with everything he says, but I like that he says what he thinks and he's certainly not operating from a place of fear. And I think that that can be channeled in different ways.
John: Before, we all had those conversations. They were just conversations that did not get shared or passed around. He's just publishing it and I love it. Most people I know think its refreshing that he will call it like it is - and with tough customers too.
Will: The thing is, okay, for sure, the way that a lot of people in our industry behaved 20 years ago is unacceptable. But it feels like we're a little bit too far on the other side where people never even say what they think. And I don't think we're getting the fully realized version of many people.
[Posting on social media] just provides some accountability to behavior, which is kind of a global issue right now that people don't feel like there's any accountability for their own behavior. Hospitality is about relationships. Relationships are a two-way street. if people read my book I hope what they walk away with is that the people who work in a business, it's their responsibility to be really, really kind. And there's no obligation placed on the people on the receiving end.
John: I see you worked with Simon Sinek (The Optimism Company) on the book. I've always appreciated his perspective and his story telling skills.
Will: He's one of my favorite people to flesh out an idea with. I'll be on in the car on my way somewhere and I'll call him up and I'll be like, all right dude, I was just thinking about this and it's really fun to find people that you can have a conversation with where there's enough air around it where you can just talk about an idea for the sake of talking about it.
It's not dissimilar to going for a drive. If you know exactly where you're trying to go, you put it into your Google Maps, and you just follow the instructions, then you're not gonna discover anywhere new.
John: How do you feel about tech in restaurants? I'm glad that I experienced a time when you could plan dinner, sit at a table, and never be bothered by your phone, never be distracted. Everybody at the table was fully engaged and the power of four or five people at a table with everybody listening and looking at each other is something rare today.
Will: At Eleven Madison we put a box on guests’ tables. And we said this is an invitation: Sometimes even if you don't wanna look at your phone, it's hard to not when it's in your pocket. And so if you want to be freed from it for a few hours, put it in a box.
But we took it even further. It's a fun game and I'm gonna take the box away and I'm gonna bring it back to the table at the end of the night. And so the whole idea was to not make people feel shame if they didn't. But then once it was in there, you didn't need to even worry about being the person that reached in. It was gone for the evening.
John: And taking pictures of food in a restaurant, they're never good pictures, but people feel like they have to do it yet they are ruining their own experience by doing so in my opinion. No meal is made better by constantly snapping pictures and the people around you are negatively impacted as well.
Will: We took professional pictures of every single dish. And at the end of their meal, if they gave us the phone, we'd give them a little card with the link to a website where all the pictures were.
It’s the same with concerts. Look at me, I'm at a concert. I'm gonna take a really bad video, a bad picture. Even though I could just go online tomorrow and say Here's the picture of the Killer's concert professionally taken and tell my friends, I was there. But there's a weird behavior that, I mean I don't know how we break it. We have a Polaroid camera, and every few months I take a picture of my daughter and put it in an envelope. I guarantee you, in 20 years, the thousands of photos I've taken of my daughter on my phone are all going to be lost in the cloud somewhere. And I'll still be looking at those Polaroids.
John: I often find myself using sports analogies as it relates to my restaurants, you?
Will: I like using sports analogies in spite of the fact that I don't know that much about sports really.
I was on a podcast with David Chang the other day and he was using a sports analogy with me and I was barely holding onto it. It was about the kind of offense that a football team uses. I love watching football, but I'm not like a football pro.
I think what I would asterisk is people that who are good can be exceptional. It's not an unrealistic expectation to find 80 or a hundred people who all aspire to be a rockstar. And that for me is more important. As long as everyone wants it, I can do something with that. In fact, I'd rather have a bunch of mediocre people who want to be amazing than a bunch of amazing people who think they're done growing.
John: If I was a young server, for example, I'd take just five minutes a night to better myself at home. And maybe I happen to learn a nugget about Bordeaux and I'm at a table and someone says something about Bordeaux and I just have this little bomb to drop. In weeks, months, and years you become exceptional at the job.
Will: It's about creating a process.
John: And you did it at the highest level, which is remarkable. The high-level chefs that were in your space, there really is a different business because you're operating as if you're a surgeon, there's no room for error.
Will: Education, self-improvement, all of that. I think everything, whether it's hospitality, education, excellence, or whatever, you only improve if you make it into a practice.
I did a TED Talk a couple of months ago and one of the other guys that spoke the same day that I did was talking about reflection as a practice. One of the most valuable things I ever did, I did because my dad told me to do it.
I would journal for a few minutes every night after work to reflect on the day. And it's when I often realized I needed to apologize to someone the next day. Or that there was something I didn't handle well, that I want to do better the next time.
My dad was like, You're gonna own your own company one day and you're gonna want to be able to empathize with the people that work for you across positions. But perspective has an expiration date. He told me that there's no way you're ever going to be able to see the world through the eyes of a server once you're no longer a server, maybe for a couple of months as a manager, you're the manager on the team that understands the perspective of the servers.
But then you move on, and your perspective shifts. And so I think actually the thing I've been thinking about is establishing a practice of reflection. Because I do think that we can grow through learning from external things, and reading books, but I think we grow the most if we actually just stop and reflect on what just happened and see where we could do it differently or better.
John: How about a few straightforward questions? What is the most memorable meal you have had?
Will: In the skybox at Daniel with my dad back in 2001. My dad and I went there during a difficult time: I had just lost my mother. But the sheer magic of the meal, and the abundance of Daniel’s hospitality and generosity (to a kid that had just graduated from college no less) gave us a few hours of joy during one of the saddest moments of my life. It was a pivotal moment for me in connecting to how powerful bestowing graciousness on others can be. I wrote about it in the book- see below.
I had already happily chosen a life in restaurants, but that night, I learned how important, how noble, working in service can be. During a terribly dark time, Daniel and his staff offered my dad and me a ray of light in the form of a meal neither one of us will ever forget. Our suffer- ing didn’t disappear by any means, but for a few hours, we were afforded real respite from it. That dinner provided an oasis of comfort and resto- ration, an island of delight and care in the sea of our grief.
When you work in hospitality—and I believe that whatever you do for a living, you can choose to be in the hospitality business—you have the privilege of joining people as they celebrate the most joyful moments in their lives and the chance to offer them a brief moment of consolation and relief in the midst of their most difficult ones.
John: Given you and your wife now live outside the city, what do you miss the most about New York City life?
Will: We still have our apartment in the city. I will never fully leave- though you are right I don’t spend as much time there as I once did. And the thing I miss the most is the restaurants. There are great restaurants in the Hudson valley as well, but the energy of a New York City dining room is singular in the world- the magic that happens around the table is hard to replicate anywhere else.
John: The best advice for a young restaurateur who is thinking about opening his own place?
Will: Don’t stress too much about all the things you don’t know- trust in your ability to figure it out, and spend the time finding the people (friends, mentors, or outside consultants) to help you learn. Too many people psych themselves out of opening a restaurant because there are so many things about being an owner that they haven’t done before- HR, accounting, etc. Nothing about our business is easy, but no single element of it is that hard either- so long as you bring passion and hard work to every facet of the operation.
John: If there was a Chef Hall of Fame, who would you nominate?
Will: Daniel Boulud. He is an amazing cook, of course. But of the many amazing chefs I have gotten to know over the course of my career, he embodies the spirit of hospitality more than anyone.
John: Thanks Will, appreciate your time, and best of luck with the book, and your future projects.