It’s true, I came very, very close to having a great meal while out of town Sunday.  The restaurant in question is quite new and has received huge acclaim in a very short time.  Huge.  So I went there with high expectations and was not disappointed.  At first.

The space is very nice.  Somebody sank a chit ton of money into it, and it shows.  Outside, the garden, front porch and side building/bar showed lots of attention and good taste.  Inside, across from the hostess was a large slate tally board that showed where every main ingredient came from and who produced it.  Quite impressive.  The menu relied on the farm to table philosophy and showed me that great thought, time and talent went into writing it.  Best of all, there were a dozen dishes that appealed to me.  My juices were flowing.

Here we go.  The two managers walked the floor wearing ill fitting suits (one too long and the other far too tight) and shoes that could have been Emmett Kelly hand-me-downs.  If these gentlemen were indeed managers, they should stop the servers from wiping their brows and serving food.   They should teach the back waiters how to set a plate on the table without jarring the food and they should impart the importance of not running your hands through your hair and then handling silverware.  And they should show the staff how NOT to pick water glasses up by the rim to refill ‘em.  Yuck.

The chef/inspiration of this restaurant is very talented, but nowhere to be found.  When asked, the server said he may or may not show up on any given day.  So while the concept is great, the execution suffers from a lack of professionalism.  It ain’t easy.  Somebody with high standards, and experience doing it right, needs to mentor the staff.  Believe me, servers and cooks want nothing more than to do a great job, especially if the restaurant puts out great food.

Oh, on that note:  Again, the concepting of the food is great.  It’s the execution, stupid!  (Oops, sorry.  The Carville in me took over for a second.)  The assortment of heirloom tomatoes would have been awesome with a slight drizzle of great salt.  No drizzle on the tomatoes, no salt on the table.  Lucky us, I carry a container of RealSalt wherever I go.  And the shrimp and grits?  Great shrimp, I’m guessing.  And great grits, I’m also guessing.  And maybe great lardon.  Hard to tell ‘cause everything was swimming under a tidepool of cream and mixed together.  You could have put the whole mess into a Vita-Mix and it would have tasted the same.  Shame.  And my sous vide cooked farm eggs with spicy hollandaise?  Eggs, great.  Hollandaise, uninspired.  And the consistency wrong, causing the ‘sauce’ to slide off the eggs.  Should’ve been great.

What to do?  You would know the solution if you had read my book, which I’m going to write one day.  First you have to identify the problem.  And the problem is you’re treating the staff as if they were employees.  Bad move.  Think of them as members of a crew team that need to pull in unison in order to get to the goal: an awesome experience for all.  It’s the owner’s job to inspire them, make them want to be a part of a great restaurant.  Trust me; they all want that and if you give them high standards and the right environment to achieve them, they’ll work their hearts out.  That’s what will make your restaurant great.  This goes for the cooks as well as the servers, and managers, and everybody else.

The cooks are especially easy to inspire.  Why?  Because if you hired the right people, they want this to be their career and they’d like to be good at it.  During the hiring interview, ask them where they want to be in five years and each and every one will answer the same:  I want to be a chef; I want my own restaurant.  Only twice in 15 years has someone given me the right answer:  “I want to be the best cook I can be.”

Once they understand that, their goal for the next five years changes.  Now they’re focused on wanting to become great cooks.  Oh my god!  From now on every day, every dish, every bite needs to rock somebody’s world.  Believe it or not, very few cooks approach our art this way.  But once you set the standards and get them, um, aroused about their profession, they will make it their mission to learn. And that’s what you want.

But it can’t be done from afar. You have to be their muse, their inspiration.

This being about food, there’s a recipe.  Here it is: 90% respect, 10% fear.  Get it right and you’ll get 110% effort every day.  I worked for a chef, whom I won’t name (but he was French, duh) that got it backwards.  90% fear and 10% respect gets you erratic greatness and when you remove the fear, the place goes to shit.

And the respect?  It needs to be real and it needs to be a respect for our great profession, not for an individual.  And the fear?  It’s a fear of letting the team down, not a fear of being fired or screamed at.

Oh, the screaming?  Sometimes it can’t be helped.  There’s too much emotion, pride, reputation involved.  But it needs to be directed at a situation.  Do not make it personal!

There it is.  The holy freakin’ grail.



2 Responses to “WOW! I almost had a great meal last week!”

  1. KG writes:

    Chef Sneed,

    I love food, I love cooking, and I love giving people that incredible food experience and seeing their reaction to tasting something delicious. I eschewed cooking school because truthfully–I just don’t have the balls, instead I am a med student toiling away under books (very scott boswell huh?).

    I just wanted to let you know that if I had gone the other way and pursued my real passion of cooking. I would beg and plead outside one of your restaurants everyday until you let me be your monkey. Your dedication and view on food as an art form and passion are so incredibly inspiring. The whole fear thing, I get it–that’s what pushes you over mediocre into the stratosphere of amazing. How else can you do 200 covers a night getting every single dish right? I am proud to say I am from Richmond and have you as one our culinary ambassadors.
    Thank you for this awesome blog and the inspiration to work on my own skills and techniques, in whatever capacity.

    September 24, 2011 at 4:08 pm
  2. Judy Maurer writes:

    Happened to be watching an old Julia Child on TV. I am rather new to The Richmond area & Julia had a guest chef on, Jimmy Sneed. I google you & am quite pleased. love your rants! So true, on the food sanitation issues , I am a dietitian and have to put blinders on when eating out. More rants, PLEASE!

    February 16, 2013 at 3:29 pm