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  • Perfection

    No matter what you purchase or sell, no matter how hard you work, you can almost never reach perfection.  Perfection is the holy grail of your business. Until recently I don’t believe that I had ever experienced perfection in a product or service.

    I am proud to say that I witnessed and dare I say, participated in perfection in a small business.  The venue was Charlie Trotter’s restaurant in Chicago.  As part of a silent auction benefiting SuperSibs, I was the big winner of a Chef for a Day experience.  What that meant was that for 6 hours, I would be working (alas at no salary) as a sous chef for the restaurant.  After my Chef for a Day experience was completed, I had the opportunity to enjoy a meal with my wife and several friends at the kitchen table, a table for four elegantly set right in the working kitchen.

    After arriving at 2pm and getting fitted for a chef’s jacket, apron and chef’s hat, I was set to work cleaning and dehulling fava beans.  Some of these fava beans were to be used for a decorative puree for a plate and others were to be used whole as part of the garnish for several plates for dinner.  Other jobs awaiting me were breaking down cilantro, lemons, chives and other herbs. The other chefs working all were friendly and helpful, directing me to the rudiments of the tasks at hand.

    The kitchen was small and very busy, yet totally under control.  No screaming; everybody had a job to do and managed it well.  The kitchen had several master chefs, but also a large number of young chefs working their own stations. Charlie believes in supporting up and coming students, so there were several interns from Kendall College and Culinary Institute of America working their hearts out.  The experienced chefs were always around to lend a helping hand, whether it was shucking oysters or teaching an intern how to use a cherry pitter for the first time.

    At about 4:30, they had a family dinner.  Food was plated and the front of house staff (waiters, hosts and maitre de) met in the studio kitchen for a meal.  While the food was good, it wasn’t that different from what we might have in my house on a typical evening.  Salad, a beef stew over rice, vegetables sauteed in a tomato sauce and (different from my house), homemade ice cream sundaes.  The front of house was very friendly, asking about what I did for a living and why I was interested in this opportunity.  They were also open to my many questions about their work background, how this restaurant is different from others and what they liked best about working there.  These kids, most of them were in their early 20′s, worked at least 12 hour shifts 5 and 6 days a week.  What impressed me most was the level of confidence they had in their abilities to deliver first class service to all their guests.  I deal with young people in their 20′s all the time and these were a special crew.

    After family dinner, back to the kitchen for more prep work.  The kitchen was buzzing as the first service was about to start.  Charlie does work with the Chicago Public Schools and on that night was hosting a group of high school kids from CPS to a 10 course dinner. They were able to take a tour of the kitchen and, I’m sure, wonder what the balding guy was doing in the kitchen. The purpose of Charlie’s work is to show the kids what can be accomplished in the hospitality industry.  Many of the staff talked with the students and explained how things worked and took questions.

    All of the ingredients were of the highest quality. There were special ingredients that were used just in Charlie Trotter’s kitchen. A special olive oil from a certain farm in Australia or the chocolate that comes from one estate in Africa and is used in 6 different ways.  But more than that was the confidence of the chefs in working with those ingredients.  There weren’t many recipes floating around, but there were a lot of tasting spoons.  This is how expert artists cook.  They have an idea and build it with the use of ingredients rather than paints or mosaic tiles.  But the creativity did not just extend to the building of the dishes.  It went to the unusual pairings of flavors, the plating of the dishes and even the physical dishes themselves (more about that later).

    After my work was complete, I was able to change into dress clothes and join our group back in the kitchen for our dinner.  Alex, our waiter for the evening, was that perfect combination of total knowledge of the food and kitchen and openness to work with the guests to make them feel totally comfortable asking questions and learning.  Alex told us at the start that we would not get a menu, but would be served whatever the chefs felt was best on that night. Would we like to choose a wine?  Not so simple; Charlie’s wine cellars hold 20,000 bottles of wine. Alex was right there to give guidance on how the menu might proceed, to make the wine selection easier.

    But, Al, you have written 900 words and haven’t even talked about the food that you were served.  How could that be?  Well, over the 4 hours (yes, 4 hours) that we enjoyed our dinner, we were served 20 separate courses. Each was served in the French style with small portions (thank god for small favors), yet each dish was a work of art. Each dish was a complicated and creative mix of flavors that engaged your palate without a single note that became overwhelming.  There were 3 amuse (appetizers), 5 fish dishes, 2 vegetable focused dishes, 2 poultry, 2 meat, 1 cheese, 5 desserts.  Each dish was cooked without butter; so much for the French style.  But there were always surprises.  Freshwater eel with banana.  Duck breast with licorice jelly. Onion sorbet. Matsuzaka beef (Kobe style) with a plum vinegar broth that cut the richness of the beef. Frozen key lime meringue with cilantro and green peppercorn.  Unbelievable flavors and gorgeous presentation.  Each dish was presented in a unique serving plate.  We only had a duplicate plate once during the dinner.  Even the plates were chosen for the applicability to the specific course we were being served.  Some were small, some were large, some had wells for broths, some were shaped like boats, some were Asian in design.  Each was perfect for the course that presented.

    And yet, what comes back is that we were able to have an elegant dinner sitting in the middle of a kitchen that was serving the second round of diners in the rest of the restaurant. Periodically, some guests from the restaurant were able to take a quick tour of the kitchen led by the same front of house staff that I had met at the family dinner. The activity around us did not abate, but there was no interruption to our dinner.

    After dinner, Alex took us on a grand tour of the restaurant.  We were able to see the types of equipment used in the kitchen and how the ingredients were stored. We saw the Studio Kitchen, where Charlie Trotter films his TV show.  We saw the herb garden at the rear of the property.  We were able to tour some of the wine cellars.

    All in all it was an unbelievable day (and night).  I had anticipated having fun seeing how a world class restaurant operates behind the scenes. I had anticipated a great dinner.  What I got was so much more.  It was the complete mix of people, processes, product, environment and training that made for a perfect experience.

    My question to you is what would you have to do to get people to write about your business this way?  How can you make your business perfect?

    Behind the Scenes, Entrepreneurship and Thought

    Behind the Scenes: Sometimes the government does it right.  A couple of stories from the past several weeks have shown that our government does not necessarily have a tin ear when it comes to public opinion.  First the story about President Obama writing a note to excuse a student, who was attending a Presidential speech, from class.  Some of the people that I have talked to think that President Obama was being a smartass, but I believe that he took the time to talk one-on-one with a student in a very real and meaningful way.  Another story was the US Navy allowing a group of top bloggers, including Robert Scoble and Guy Kawasaki to spend 24 hours on the USS Nimitz, an aircraft carrier.  These bloggers were able to tell a story of the servicemen and servicewomen who work on our behalf and provide a very interesting group of reports including photos, podcasts and videos.

    Entrepreneurship: Inc. Magazine wrote a nice piece on Paul Graham, founder of Y Combinator.  When I grow up, I want to be like Paul.

    Thought for the Day:

    My life is not adrift.  There is no road map, but there is a horizon that I am moving towards. That horizon is broad, but it is informed by what I believe… The keel to your boat needs to be to your values, your principles, your beliefs and some sense of purpose, but that needs to be aimed at a horizon, not a point of latitude and longitude, because that point may turn out to be irrevelant.

    – Randy Komisar

    Behind the Scenes, Economics and Big Picture

    Behind the Scenes: The cloud in cloud computing requires extensive data centers.  Most of us don’t think about the infrastructure of  how Google can get search results to your desktop in 0.15 seconds multiplied by millions of users every minute.

    Economics: Alex discusses idiot taxes and the price of HDMI cables.  I have been surprised by the same phenomenon with regard to Apple iPod chargers and headphones.  Deals can be found online sometimes, but almost never in retail stores.  Why is that?

    Big Picture: Innovation is a hot topic in business circles for a while now. Jeff Jarvis writes thoughtfully about how the innovations of the last few years have acted differently from innovations in prior years.  Previously, business innovations created increases in GDP, things like the Personal Computer and the ShamWow that consumers bought and companies derived income from.  Lately, some of the most important innovations, Craigslist and Google included, reduced corporate income (macro), but increased personal wealth (micro).  This is critical because reporting on our economic progress have been focused on macro trends for many years.  We need to develop alternative measures to accurately report on our progress.

    Big Picture, Behavior and Behind the Scenes

    Big Picture: There is no more pressing issue in our financial lives than Health Care.  If we continue on the current path, we will be spending more than 40% of our GDP on health care issues with no better outcomes than the average country. An indepth article in the New Yorker by Atul Gawande talks about the medical services provided in a high cost county and a low cost county.  The differences may surprise you.

    Behavior: Micah muses about the greatest time of your life.  It is interesting to think that you might live your life one way if you think that you have already had your greatest time of your life and another entirely if you are waiting for it.

    Behind the Scenes: Here is a story of the New York Times Economics reporter who is on track for foreclosure on his house and the story of how he got there.  An eye-opening view of the loan practices (and unwise spending habits) of our times.

    Data Edition: Behind the Scenes, Strategy, Behavior

    Lots of talk lately about data.

    Behind the Scenes: The credit card industry has changed a lot in the past 25 years. The amount of data that the credit card companies know about you and use to predict the future is astonishing. The psychology of getting late payers to get current based on that data bank is also amazing.

    Strategy: How do we keep track of the right metrics when determining future plans?  Eric Reis says scientific methods can help determine the best ways to dig deeper into the metrics that we collect.  Simple things like using a split A/B test will provide you with more data to make better decisions.  Eric goes into a lot more detail about tests in his article on the FourHourWorkWeek blog.

    Behavior: Google probably collects more data about us than we can imagine.  They are now using this data on their own employees to try to determine who will be the next to leave the company.

    DePaul, Business Strategy, Behind the Scenes and Fun

    DePaul: Thursday was a long day and thus no blog post.  DePaul University’s Coleman Entrepreneurship Center had their gala event and gave out several awards.  Congrats to Chris Campbell of Lakeshore Branding and Greenwerks, Jen Moran of Greenola and Ben Meader of CareerHook.  Also congratulations are in order to my friend Bruce Leech of evolve who was named the Coleman Foundation Catalyst Award Recipient.

    Business Strategy: Tim Ferriss talks about a book by his friend, Alan Webber, called Rules of Thumb: 52 Truths for Winning at Business Without Losing Your Self. In the article, he has an excerpt of the book, RULE #24 – If you want to change the game, change the economics of how the game is played. After reading this, I need to read the entire book.

    Behind the Scenes: We all remember the heroism of Captain Chesley Sullenberger in the saving of US Air Flight 1594 on the Hudson River.  What we have never seen until now are the pictures of the plane as it was recovered from the chilly waters of the Hudson.  Photographer Stephen Mallon was there and photographed the scenes for Wired.

    Fun: A fun new toy to play with, but one that has significant potential to be a solid research tool is Wolfram|Alpha.  Gina Trapani played with it and wrote a multi-faceted review.

    Economy, Behind the Scenes and Entrepreneurship

    Economy: James Surowiecki, writing in the New Yorker notes that for the first time in many years, the size of the financial industry has declined.  What does this mean for us?

    Behind the Scenes: Nicholas Felton makes me feel like a voyeur.  But I just can’t help myself.  He writes and designs an awesome annual report of his life every year (2008, 2o07).  Now he has made the software available for others to journal their life and chart what is important to them at Daytum.com.  Interesting…  Don’t think I am going to start charting myself, but I like the end result a lot.

    Entrepreneurship: April Lane, Associate Director of the Coleman Entrepreneurship Center at DePaul University wrote a good article today on the habits that owners of service companies need to practice to achieve success.  I might have mentioned one or two of them before, but it never hurts to have a reminder.

    Entreprenurship, Behind the Scenes, Behavior/Magic and Economics

    Entrepreneurship: Gina Trapani discusses all kinds of neat tools, applications and vendors that can help a new business get started.

    Behind the Scenes: Robert Scoble takes us inside of Zappos.com and how they can create a corporate environment that keeps their employees excited and their customers enthralled by their service.

    Behavior: An article on neuroscience probably would not have caught my eye, but bring Penn and Teller into the conversation and I am hooked.  This article talks about how magicians utilize flaws in our perception to amaze us.  I viewed the balls and cups clip 3 times and still I didn’t catch everything.

    Business Economics: The US Postal Service is one of those organizations that we take for granted.  6 days a week, we will have a red, white and blue truck drive up and deliver our mail, most of it “junk mail” or what the USPS calls standard mail.  What we don’t think about often is how fiscally responsible they are, what are their unfunded pension liabilities and how they make money in the age of the Internet.  This article sheds some light on how the USPS operates and offers some suggestions to make the service more effective.

    Tools, Behind the Scenes and Entrepreneurship

    Tools: Zamzar.com is an online file conversion tool. It will take almost any kind of document, spreadsheet, presentation, text file, compressed file, audio file or video file and convert it to another format.  One of the neat new tricks is to convert a document into an audio file.  It is not a professional reading the file, but it is serviceable.

    Behind the Scenes: Another in a series of posts that discuss the creation of something that you take for granted from a behind the scenes viewpoint.  Today’s topic: Magazine Subscriptions.

    Entrepreneurship: Tim Ferriss, author of The 4-Hour Workweek: Escape 9-5, Live Anywhere, and Join the New Rich is a polarizing guy.  Some people love him, others… not so much.  Today, he talks with leading venture capitalists about what they look for in new business pitches.  For all of you entrepreneurs looking for capital out there, this is required reading.

    Entrepreneurship, Netflix and Microbes

    Entrepreneurship: As an entrepreneur one thing that we all need to do is to network.  Now, I have gone on record as saying that I hate the kind of networking that seems like speed dating.  But some helpful tips on how to introduce people well is always helpful.  Marci Alboher writes about the Seven Deadly Sins.

    Behind the Scenes: Another behind the scenes article caught my eye.  If you have ever received the familiar red envelope from Netflix, here is a photo montage that shows you how they do it.

    The Big Picture: The germophobes among us who continually use Purell and Lysol have helped to create Antibiotic Resistant Microbes.  These microbes have become much more prevalent in our world and will continue to be a significant infectious disease problem.  Bonnie Bassler presented a talk at the TED conference this year on how microorganisms communicate which might prove to be useful as we look for therapies for these diseases.