Be a thief, not a con.
My initial reading of “Dinner and Deception” in the New York Times upset me. After all, I’ve built my entire life around fine dining and hospitality and this piece did not represent my experience. But then I was reminded that this article came from one person’s perspective, one person’s truth. Not any one else’s, or an entire industry for that matter. So with that being said, I’m writing this piece to share mine. I’m entering this conversation from a very specific angle—with a very specific audience in mind—the restaurant professional.
It’s no secret that the article was written about Edward (Ned) Frame’s experience at Eleven Madison Park, and it’s also no secret that Will Guidara and I have a close personal relationship along with being partners in the Welcome Conference. We started the conference because we both believe that hospitality is a noble craft and a means to connect more deeply with other people—quite the opposite of the counterfeit empathy described in the article.
A restaurant at its core is a place where two things happen: the culinary team nourishes through food and the dining room team nurtures through human interaction. This can be as simple as a sandwich and a thank you, or as profound as a memory that lasts a lifetime. In either case, the heart of hospitality boils down to understanding and authenticity. Where you stand in relationship to others is a culmination of your life experiences and emotional intelligence. (Danny Meyer refers to this as an individual’s “Hospitality Quotient.”) While I agree that it can’t be taught, I believe it can be learned. Being authentic in the world of hospitality isn’t about playing a role, it’s about being the best version of yourself. It’s not about indoctrination, it’s about a person’s willingness to be a student—to truly learn rather than memorize.
I learned the art of hospitality by stealing. “Good artists borrow. Great artists steal.” The difference lies in accountability. When you steal, you make something your own. When you borrow, you don’t take ownership over your actions—you play a mere imitation game. Over the years, I’ve been quite the thief. I’ve stolen the manner in which Jean-Georges Vongerichten notices the smallest of details and humbly corrects them himself—whether it’s dimming the lights to create the perfect ambiance or picking debris off a carpet. I’ve stolen Thomas Keller’s ability to comfort and support his employees with a simple hand on the shoulder and question of, “Is there anything you need?” I’ve stolen from some of the best. But you have to remember that this process takes time and experience. Great hospitality happens after you amass a multitude of skills and make them your own. I can empathize with those who haven’t fully developed their professional or emotional skill set and are learning publicly—it can be unnerving. But there is a difference between “faking it until you make it” and deception. I’ve been fortunate enough to spend many hours with Charles Masson, one of the greats of our craft, who embodies humility, authenticity, and genuine desire to care for others. He dedicated 40 years of his life to one dining room, one group of patrons, one idea. In his presence, you have no choice but to feel the pride and confidence he has in all of the people he’s served and cared for over the years. As I continue to build Journee, I strive to steal his commitment and fortitude, and to embody it in a way that is true to me. If you intend to build a career in this industry, you have to possess a genuine desire to be authentic and care for others. Otherwise, you’ll never last.
Ned is absolutely right about his time at Eleven Madison Park. It was deception. I commend him for recognizing that and getting out when he did, but I do feel the finger was pointed in the wrong direction. Too often, people enter this profession as a career because they believe it to be more than what it is. They forget that a restaurant should be about nurturing and nourishment. I speak from personal experience. For me, it was easy to get wrapped up in the gritty and sexy aspects of the industry. Fifteen years ago, I was a young, ambitious waiter and was drawn to the extravagant way I believed the people I served lived. I led a lifestyle of excess, well beyond my means, but it wasn’t the industry that left me feeling empty, it was my own choices. Once I sobered up and realized I was only deceiving myself, I was able to get back to why I entered the industry in the first place, which was, quite simply, to make people happy. If making people happy doesn’t resonate with you, then this isn’t the career for you. And if your role in this field is more transient, if you’re working in a restaurant purely to make ends meet, wouldn’t you rather spend your energy actually spreading joy instead of pretending to?
I hold no illusions. I recognize that this conversation is messy. It’s tangled with larger topics like privilege and entitlement. I recognize that what we do is sometimes made more difficult by outside influences. But what job isn’t? The thrill of our work is not intellectual, it’s emotional. The dining room functions differently than other workplaces in that we are held accountable and compensated for making people happy. You can take a sinister view of this responsibility, or you can choose to see the tremendous power in it. I experience a special rush when I provide real warmth and hospitality—and that’s it. There is no underlying motive. And that’s why I’ve stayed in this industry.
My advice to young professionals is to make sure you understand where the accountability lies when you steal. What you take will help you write your own story. Do you actually care or are you a con? The responsibility to choose is yours, not anyone else’s. Be true to yourself but have the awareness that your craft requires improvement and evolution, which only happen over time.
We’re in a really exciting moment right now because people are truly interested in the work we do on a daily basis. But this attention, with all the potential for celebrity and interest in exposé, brings new challenges. If you can stay humble and focused on our real purpose: to nurture and nourish, then, at the end of the day, if none of the fame or fortune or new trappings of the industry find their way to you, you can take great pride in knowing that you cared for your work and led your life with personal integrity.