Oh Paris

I’ve never felt so connected with food as I did walking around Paris.  Snapshot yes.  Have I been to the countryside, no.  Have I worked in a French restaurant, with a company that excels in a French steakhouse, bistro, and diner, yes.

It all starts with care.  Don’t tell me it’s cliché.  That’s what matters.  The cook doesn’t care about their dish, the food is garbage.  The server doesn’t care about their guests, the service is garbage.  You can taste love.  You can feel love.  I promise that. 

My take on French restaurants:  Sauces, sauces, sauces, product handled with care from farmer to plate, technique is tasted on the dish, and a lot of butter.  I worked in a French Diner from a chef that clearly loved French food.  Thank you God for that opportunity.  I didn’t realize what he was doing with his restaurants until getting to Paris and seeing how they do it.  It’s a lifestyle over there.  I would get around Chicago, San Francisco, and Montreal, picking at restaurants seeing what everything was all about.  Still couldn’t get a grasp on what specific themes restaurants were going for.  Tiki bars are easy.  Whatever.  Ramen shops, got it (love’em).  New American concepts, you can kind of just wing it, and do whatever you want (which sounds like so much fun). It wasn’t until I went to Bar Tartine out in San Francisco that got me thinking something special was going on there.  And from then on, I had an inkling of what hard work and a vision can create.  But I needed more time.  More information.  More experience.   

Now looking back at Hogsalt restaurants and seeing their French influence (Maude’s Liquor Bar, Bavettes, Au Cheval), I wouldn’t want it any other way…So I can have rich, delicate, complex dishes, while getting fresh shell fish, and an unbelievable steak?  It wasn’t just the food where Brendan excelled.  The interior is something that easily transports you.  It makes it so easy to forget whatever was going on in your life outside of those restaurant doors.  Whatever bus, taxi, bike, office you just came out of, you’re now on a planet of delicious food, plush furniture, outstanding service, and the backdrop of music that carries your conversation along instead of interrupting it. 

I learned so much from Brendan and his Hogsalt restaurants.  It was a beautiful family to be a part of.  A little of what I learned if you’re interested…

I used to cook in a retirement home out in Iowa City.  They took me in with only the experience my mom gave me cooking with her (thanks mom!).  I prepped, cooked, and broke down by myself for 60+ people.  Dream job.  God it was fun.  Other than that, never had experience in a restaurant, or the “industry” until Au Cheval. 

For restaurants, the spider web of perfection touches anyone and everything that enters into the restaurant.  Like straight up painstaking perfection.  That’s including the guest.  It’s soo much fun as front of house manager to depict how to handle specific situations to inject hospitality pending the individual and situation to allow for the flow of the evening to continue perfectly.  Seriously, perfectly.  It can happen. 

For back of the house (from my understanding), it all starts at the prep table.  How they’re handling the product, whether or not they accept the product as fresh enough, taking care NOT to take shortcuts, and make the food at the proper temp, time, and technique.  Product has been checked, prepped, and ready for the cooks to sling away a perfect dish.  If it’s not perfect, then why did you put it up in the pass?  You’ve been given every opportunity to succeed.  No excuse at this point to put something less than standard up in the window.  Let’s go! 

For front of the house, it starts by ensuring anyone coming in to work (porters, servers, hosts, food runners) are coming in to an environment that is pleasant, calming, and confident.  That’s achieved by having thorough knowledge of new menu items, being prepared for answers about menu changes, ensuring the restaurant looks and feels good.  And right before the door opens, a quick pep talk, pump up song (usually heavy rap), a burst of energy, and hey, this is going to be a great day!  A great day.  Working in a restaurant is a very prideful job.  Think about working in a live performance of customer service, where the guest can watch you throughout the entire experience.  And then judge whether or not the server deserves a tip.  It’s so stressful!  Also, the art of serving is such a cool dance to watch.  A lot of people take it for granted, but they can do so many little things to brighten the experience for guests. 

Doors open.  Guest first Hears the space.  Then Sight.  Smell.  Engaged with the host.  Soon comes Feel.  Then Comfort.  Respect.  And Taste.  This was the fun part of my job.  Achieving the best guest experience possible with each individual that walks through the door.  I will fight, literally fight, tooth and nail to ensure this all goes perfectly.  Time runs so much of the subconscious of the guest experience.  Timing is what interrupts your evening, when you’re upset but you don’t know why, or everything went so smoothly you can’t stop smiling, and you don’t know why…Check in with the host, clear communication on what will happen next.  If not seated promptly, there will be someone by to offer drinks.  Once seated, water hits the table immediately.  Faster than fast.  Someone is greeting you within two minutes to say, “Goodevening.  How are you?  Welcome to our restaurant.”  Or a simple touch saying, “I’ll be with you shortly,” and a smile.  If you can get the timing down perfectly, the food, server, and feel of the room are the constants that should take care of the rest for a perfect experience. 

Your dining experience is completely up to you.  You want to start with drinks and wait for food, awesome.  Ready to order everything right now, sweet.  Want things coursed out, gotchya.  Dessert and champagne first, sounds fun.  You want to put this, instead of that, and change our menu item into something else, nah.  But I can figure something out for you.  From there, it’s up to the kitchen (or bartender) to deliver your order in a timely manner. 

A good example when front and back of house work together, is an intense period when a dish is sent back to be remade.  This could be due to coldness, too early for the table, wrong modification, allergy concerns (HUGE), or over seasoned.  The boh expo works very quickly to bring that dish back up as quickly as possible.  The foh manager is activated and goes through a series of checks until the dish gets to the guest.  Check with expo, the computer, server on what’s been going on so far:

Have they had an appetizer?  Is the dad upset?  Are they celebrating something?  Why was he pushy with you when you checked in with him after he got his drink?  The bartender messed up his drink too?  The host went over their wait time?  “Hi guys.  How’s everything going so far?  I came over to let you know your dish will be out as quickly as possible.  We had to remake it, due to not being up to our standard.  I assure you, when you do get it, it will be perfect.  Do you guys need anything right now?  Are we doing ok?  I’ll be back to check in with you shortly, and I’ll head to the chef right now to check on your meal.  Thank you so much.”

Wheels start churning from here.  What can the restaurant do to not necessarily blow the customer away with gratitude, because they waited longer than everyone else for their food, but to seamlessly inject the right kind of hospitality that sends their night along smoothly.  Could be a dessert after dinner.  A simple comp of the dish ordered, (which usually happens regardless), or a round of drinks, dessert, and single dish comp’d if we really messed up and the guest is really upset.  The guest usually let’s the manager know how they want things played out through a series of interactions, temperament, and body language.  It’s always fun to make the right decision, and everyone leaves happy.  And that’s the point.  To leave happy. 

What about when a guest comes in and just wants to be a complete jerk?  We have to take on a lot.  I’ve been through it all.  Especially at an already overhyped restaurant that stays opens until 2AM.  It may look like I’m doing whatever the jerk wants (and sometimes I have to), but mostly I’m doing it for the people around the jerk.  I’m their leader.  I’m their defender from having a bad night, and their savior for having a good night.  Clear, quick, concise hospitality to deal with situations will save the day.  

When you walk into a restaurant, have fun.  Every little thing that happens from the time you walk in and walk out, will determine whether or not you will come back.  It’s no sweat off your back.  Have fun with the experience.  If the restaurant doesn’t care about you, you’ll know it.  Paris was a fun trip for me to see what I worked so hard for in a pseudo-French restaurant back in Chicago.  The care with the product and guest is really there.  Same with the interior (feels 60s pop artish and cozy).  If you don’t like a restaurant, it’s not the end of the world.  You’ll leave, take a deep breath of fresh air, and wonder where the next place you’ll try will be.  Or maybe you’ll just head back to your same old favorite spot you always head to, and it’ll be perfect : )