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?