Some of us look back with fondness at those individuals who inspired us and became our role models. Often, those same people were held at that level of esteem because their beliefs and work were somehow parallel to our own. Looking up to these role models made us feel comfortable and connected at a level…
So here is the dilemma – I can’t turn it off! I can’t stop designing the next great restaurant concept in my head. Is this a problem? A good friend of mine, in a totally different field, suffers from the same disease: always thinking about the next great concept. His spouse told me once: “he has 100 ideas a week, and one of them is brilliant”. Are we all living under the delusion that the next great idea is just hiding under the surface and with a little nudge we can build the next Microsoft?
Here is an example of how relentless the process can be:
* I am oftentimes unable to sleep because I am planning a concept that came to me while I was having that last cup of tea before bed.
* I finally bought a pocket digital recorder so that when ideas came to me while driving, I could store them for later planning.
* I plan my part of family vacations around the restaurants I want to visit, not just to enjoy the food but rather to stimulate more ideas.
* I have more cookbooks than I will ever read, but they are there primarily to stoke the fires of creative thought: “how could I tweak this idea and make it unique to me”.
* I read quite a bit, but the majority of my books are written by chefs and restaurateurs about their daily routine. I am constantly using a highlighter throughout these books to point to ideas I might use later on.
* I walk through stores, not to purchase, but to look for ideas on restaurant decor, systems for delivery, service tips, etc.
* I have framed pictures in my office, not of scenery, but of restaurants, kitchens and chefs.
* When dining out, I always frustrate my wife when I am taking pictures with my cell phone.
* I walk 2-3 miles every morning and oftentimes find myself lost in thought about an idea. If only I could remember to bring that digital recorder with me.
* Even in the shower, I find myself drifting off with an idea about a restaurant concept.
* Empty buildings and stores are always fuel for the concept planning fire. “Just think what could be done with this space”!
* When in a restaurant with friends I need to work hard at keeping my focus on them and not spinning around looking at how they execute their system and how I might make it better.
* Although I am coming to the later part of my career and rarely cook in restaurants anymore, I still make my daily prep lists and market orders for meals at home.
* I even take pictures of my own food at home and post them on Facebook!
The whole process is like that annoying ringing I used to get in my ears after attending a rock concert in the 60’s. No matter how hard you try, it just won’t go away. How many ideas have come and gone? How many of them were brilliant or will the next one be the real winner? Fortunately, or unfortunately, I have never invested my bank account in one of these ideas. Then again, what if I had and it really was brilliant? I guess I will never know, but it is still fun thinking about and developing a cool idea.
Does anyone else suffer from perpetual idea overload? By the way, the photo is from “The Big Night”, a movie that I consider as great as Casablanca.
What ever happened to creativity and the fun associated with developing something new, exciting, delicious and trend defining in restaurants. Certainly you could cite those handful of unique restaurants that grace the cover stories in trade magazines, win James Beard Awards and Michelin stars, and are home to chefs with names that are present on the tip of everyone’s tongue, but what about the other 950,000 restaurants in the United States along with business cafeterias, college cafes, and health care facilities? Are there exceptions to the rule, you bet, but they are few and far between.
Playing it safe is the rule of thumb, until someone creates that “ah ha” moment in restaurant dining that reinvents a segment. Do we really need another shop that serves Pizza Margherita, Ameri/Mexican restaurants with burritos and Chimichangas, white tablecloth operations with Shrimp Scampi or Veal Piccata? I have found myself many times referring to how important the classic dishes are and that they are always great to fall back on because after all – they sell! The problem is not their acceptability or the taste profile; the problem is that the industry is too boring. Did I really say that? Yes, the restaurant business is boring.
Customers play it safe, just like restaurants do, and thus the cycle continues. Those chefs and restaurateurs who try to break the mold gain notoriety among journalists, young chefs looking for excitement and that 2% of the population referred to as innovators, but walk down the street and you will find dozens of restaurants who are content (or stuck) with doing the same thing that everyone else does.
I am not a fan of what has been referred to as “molecular cuisine”; however, I am fascinated by those chefs who are head-over-heals committed to pushing that envelope. Grant Achatz, Ferran Adria, Wylie Dufresne are part of the pack of rebels who (forget what you think about the food) are trying hard to pull us out of our shells and learn to “think different”.
Steve Jobs was a genius. Some loved him and others despised him. Say what you will, but as the soul of Apple Computer he embraced creative thought above everything else. He had the uncanny ability to go beyond what people wanted or needed, he anticipated what they were going to need before they ever thought of it. So too is the case with a few contemporary chefs and restaurant owners/operators.
If Achatz, Adria and Dufresne are too radical for you, consider some who have been with us for a long time, treasure the classics, but who interpret those items in a way that breaks the barriers of “playing it safe”. Eric Ripert, Thomas Keller, Charlie Trotter, Alice Waters, Charles Carroll, Daniel Boulud, Gavin Kaysen, Marcus Samuelsson and Cat Cora all continue to move their creative ideas to the forefront of restaurants that carry their signature while 950,000 others continue to ignore the need to be just a little unique.
Part of our job as chefs is to educate the staff members who work with us and the guests who choose to grace us with their presence. Of course, I am fully aware of the fiduciary responsibilities that go along with taking the helm of a restaurant and the fragile nature of restaurant economics. It is also our responsibility, however, to grow our business, attract new customers, and most importantly: exceed guest expectations with a food experience that is far greater than the sum of its parts.
To quote a culinary friend of mine from the past: “There is little talent in cooking a steak. Certainly there is a skill that goes along with timing and organization of a char-grill, but the talent is in preparing a chicken leg or inexpensive cut of meat in such a way, and presented with such unique grace, that its value far exceeds that of even the best steak.”
Please do not misinterpret what I am saying: I love classic Italian, French, Asian, German, Polish, Irish, Norwegian and every other traditional ethnic food. I sometimes salivate just thinking about that perfectly cooked steak, but how often is it that a restaurant experience truly excites and builds unforgettable memories?
Creativity is not exclusive to high-end restaurants. Starbucks was a real “wow” when they first began. The quality, the variety, the atmosphere were game changers. When was the last time that this type of change has taken our breath away in the coffee business? I would dare say that there is little difference between the Starbucks of 1990 and the one of today. Remember the first time you experienced an Au Bon Pain or Panera Bread and how it was fun to take it all in? Where is the next game changer hiding?
Playing it safe has a price. The price is complacency and transition of unique concepts into commodity restaurants. I am waiting for the next Steve Jobs in the restaurant business to catch everyone else off guard. Every once and a while we need to paint outside the lines.