“I was thinking about when I talked to a lot of different young people at different stages, and they say something along the lines of ‘I just want somebody that I can learn from.’ And I’ll think ‘I don’t know how to tell you, it’s you. Or so do I, but get over it.’ I don’t think we’ve equipped ourselves to realize it’s on us. We’re looking for these opportunities to be taught but, what are we doing about it?”
Jackson says this to me as we sit at a booth in Eastern Standard, soft jazz and the sound of a cocktail shaker in the background, just before another year’s trip to Tales of the Cocktail (where the Spirited Awards turned out very favorable for the ESKD team). This was his response when I asked what effect the letter to a young bartender he read at the event last year has had, which – on top of a slew of requests for interviews – was the desire for mentorship from people in and outside of the restaurant and beverage industries. This isn’t new at all for Jackson however, a veteran of the industry and someone that probably hundreds of us in Boston and beyond look to as a mentor and friend.
That’s exactly what I came to talk to him about. What is it like to be the person on the receiving end of all these requests for enlightenment? What do you say to them? And for those of us who are desperate to be told what the right answer is and for guidance down the right path (it’s not just me, right?), how can we start to get down that path ourselves? And not just be better mentees, but be better peers and colleagues. The world is moving a zillion miles an hour, and we’re all just trying our best to keep up. Being told what is right and exactly how to do something is the fastest means to an end, and speed to knowledge is something so many of us crave. There are some problems in the desire to speed up learning and leads many people to ask too much of their leaders and mentors and to lose sight of longer term goals.
Below, I speak more with Jackson about being a good learner and becoming great at your craft. And leave with a better understanding of one of Jackson’s key points… so many things worth knowing take time.
So I think I’m still guilty of this- when you go to a mentor or you’re sitting down with someone without a clear goal of what you’re asking for, you’re kind of just looking right into their eyes and hoping that they’re going to give you all of the right answers. Do you experience that with people?
I do, yeah. And they can’t even articulate it to that point. For instance, I was set up for an interview with an applicant who was very interested in The Hawthorne. He actually had gotten a full time job, already left his other job, took the new job, came into the interview anyway. I kind of had to prop the whole thing up and get to a point where I validated his choice of place to work. The conversation went a little like this: “Well you’ve got me for a few minutes, do you have any questions?” He didn’t say no, but he said, “Well, what should I ask you?” And I said, “I don’t know you enough to know that. What kinds of things do you have to ask? What are you inquisitive about? What are you desperate to learn about?” He holds up his phone and points to it and says, “What can you not find the answer to?” And I think that’s why the letter to a young bartender blows across industry lines. Because it’s answering what you can’t Google search. It has a quest for emotional truth woven into it. There’s not a single cocktail recipe you can’t find out there, so it’s not that. How do you prep a bar? It’s not that. You know books are out there for that. So what do people want to learn? You can’t sit down in a conversation and get out of it what takes a long time of being in a place to learn. It’s what’s built into its institutional memory. And the best restaurants have all these very real relationships with their regulars. That can’t be Googled. I mean we use tools like reservation and guest notes, but you have to have some discipline to commit. I don’t know how to teach that. It takes time to be that.
So, what are some of the ways that you can be always learning instead of always looking to be taught or told the answers?
Besides choose your parents carefully? We can flip this around for a minute and talk about trying to hire this person, the person who’s always learning. And then people can understand what we’re looking for. For example, I’m more interested in your notebook of regulars than your notebook of recipes. Thats the best homework assignment I ever gave anybody. I gave Kevin that [Kevin Martin, long time bartender and bar manager at ES, now VP of Sales at Privateer.] I asked him, ‘what’s in that book?’ and he said, ‘every recipe.’ And I’m like, ‘great – get another book.’ He says ‘what?!’ And I said ‘I want you to write down every regular. You’re not connecting.’ And that was it. He has books filled with who came in, what they had, what happened in their life.
And what about for a cook? They’re not in the dining room, but what can they be doing?
If you want to enjoy what the front of the house has to offer you when you work in the back, as soon as you are able to, as soon as you are allowed to, run food. That’s the moment. That’s the connection. Thats what I love about Erbaluce [Italian restaurant and Bay Village gem]. Chuck runs a little dish to as many tables as he can throughout the course of the night. And he manages to set it down and tell you where he got the squash blossom, that the sausage was made with a reindeer by a guy that he once gambled with on a boat from here to the Baltics. I mean, he’s like Hemingway. But I would say that at any moment that you can take, you say ‘let me run the charcuterie board’ and like look back and say to yourself, ‘the line has got this for 10 minutes, I’m going to tell these cats who are into charcuterie, I’m going to tell them everything about it.’ And it could be for anyone, it doesn’t have to be for someone they know who works in a kitchen. It makes a huge impact even for the tables around that table. Give those other guests something to aspire to. Like maybe the chef will visit my table.
That’s such a great point to make because I think the best restaurants have figured out the balance and the blurring of the lines between front and back of house, maybe not overtly or they don’t even know that they’re doing it. But how can you be a little bit more conscientious about it?
There’s a restaurant in Denver that Jamie and Garrett and I all visited called Fruition. Chef Alex Seidel named it that because to realize his dream he had to kind of cobble it together and he opened the restaurant on a tiny budget. After the economic downturn in 2008 he bought a farm about an hour drive outside of Denver. And boy its really something. You feel like you’re kind of hanging on the edge of the rocky mountains. And there’s a sheep farm and they’re making cheese. And there was this place where they set up induction burners and they’ve done white linen dinners. You know, just one of these guys.
And the thing I liked about it that I thought we could try from the front to the back as well as the back to the front, was that the sous chefs worked 5 days a week; they worked 4 days at the restaurant and 1 day on the farm. And he lived nearby in town and had his truck and the truck went to the farm every morning and was near the restaurant and when that day was on your schedule, you went up and fed goats and made cheese and did all these things and brought product back to the restaurant around 2pm and your day was almost over because you started at 4am. They cooked with what you brought. And you understood when you were cooking what the farm was. And I had this sort of fantasy that at the moment you hire you say, ‘oh you want to be a server here? That’s four days serving and one day making pickles.’ And, ‘you want work the line here? Great, that’s 4 days on the line and 1 day answering the phone.’ You know, – do you think you could do that? I’m asking you as a manager. Do you think you can manage that?
I think that sounds lovely, but I also think fantasy is the right word because of the reality of the hiring situations for most restaurants. Especially for a restaurant that’s this big and this busy. What does that really look like? You really have to know when you can and cannot do it. But it could be a really great way to make a huge impact on an employee and in turn, the guest.
In general, I think we don’t do enough of that for ourselves and our employees. We do so much for our guests, we talk a lot about high impact and creating guest experiences and that’s what’s taken Boston, Cambridge, Somerville restaurants to this next level – is guest experience. And I think it might be time to kind of look inwards and say how do you have high impact moments for your staff? And yourself? No one works at Eastern Standard or The Hawthorne or wherever because they can’t get another job somewhere else. This is a hard place to get a job, and in many restaurants that’s true. They’re not working with you because they can’t find another job, they’re working with you because they want to work with you. And you have to be the one who gives them reasons to want to. How can you create ways beyond teaching people, but showing them that you’re taking care of them and giving them high impact moments of their own?
Thats kind of always been what thrills me and has been a natural part of my pleasure is putting people out there. You can share the length of the hours and you can lead by example and you can teach what you’re an expert on, but it’s more important to give them space. And that’s why it’s so funny when you hear “I just want to learn from somebody.” Dude, you have space to fill. Thats the first and lesson- fill the space. And I think I’ve taught other managers that to some degree. I get great pleasure out of guest relations, but I get more from watching somebody grow to excel at guest relations with a little coaching. I get so much from that, that’s what keeps bringing me back.
What about, if you’re a cook or a bartender or a server, you have product you have to learn a lot about. You feel like there’s trends so everybody’s doing a lot of the same things – everybody has a charcuterie board, everybody has a daiquiri on the menu, and everybody’s pouring the same rose – what do you do when you feel like you’re hitting all the right marks, guests love your products, you have been doing it for years, but you just want to keep getting better?
So I’m picturing a server who had sort of mastered what’s afoot, right? Which we know takes a long time in these restaurants with broad programs but it happens with some phenoms in 8 months, but most people it takes a year and a half coming up on the 2 years, and we sit those high performing people down and say what are you interested in? And we offer some options like are you going to start to be a trainer, because you learn a lot from training, are you going be pursue the wine department and get closer to tasting and decision making and aesthetics?
And then I was thinking of that person coming up on that time, running out of sort of things to master, and I was just struck by how important it is to have outside interests. I mean it’s on every resume, it’s in every interview, it’s not bullshit. And if you want to be at the highest level with guest relations, you better have something else to talk about. We kind of of gear up on Wednesdays about the food section. Why? What else is there? Your ability to remember that your guest is a Buffalo Bills season ticket holder is going to be a little bit dependant on your ability to relate something about yourself other than your love of natural method wines. There are plenty of different things to geek out about in this world. Pick a few that have nothing to do with anything. That might take a little bit of your time and then give you some really weird things to talk about. And use it all.
What about someone who’s writing a menu? Even in 10 years, Eastern Standard’s cocktail program gets better all the time. So how do you think somebody who writes a menu gets better all the time? What is the evolution of that?
This was taught to me as a student of music. We used to sit around in music and write fictitious band names and song titles. A lot of that like names of songs and names of bands and things like that, that’s where I got my start writing menus. Have you ever seen Garrett do that?
No, I never would have guessed Garrett was a writer.
He can sit down and write a fictitious menu and it just sounds like something. He just combines something like sunchokes with certain things not using anything, not using the flavor bible, not using any experience having cooked, just using words, evoking things. So language is an interesting place for someone who writes a menu. And to that end, you don’t have a lot of time, but you probably ride a train. Write there. Read one fiction book a year. Set the bar low and attainable. Because I know for me, the first 4 years of ES the same 3 books sat half finished on the night table.
Do you think you can see on a menu or in a restaurant when people have gotten to a place where they are always learning and evolving and not always seeking to be taught? Can you feel it, do you see it?
You just asked like a lot of different things in one sentence.
I’m staring into your eyes asking you to tell me the answer.
This is your moment? When you ask for the answers?
So… When you learn songs, at a certain point you realize after you’ve learned to play say, 100 to 200 songs, you start to see patterns emerge. And then you learn to play 500 songs and you get pretty good at playing songs you don’t know. And when you get to learn 1000 songs, you’re kind of there. Now you can write songs of your own.
And there’s a bit of a myth to originality. Not to say that when it’s you originating it, it isn’t new and fresh and compelling, but it has probably been done before. It can all be recombined infinitely, however.
So, the more you learn restaurants and drinks and wines and food, the less revelatory certain experiences can be, but all the better when you see somebody take a piece of this and a piece of that and combine it and evoke something that feels really kind of wonderful. Yeah, when you’re a professional and you’ve worked at a lot of places and you’ve travelled around the world, you start to get your mind blown a little less. That’s the price you pay for developing your tastes. But blown again they will be.
And hopefully when you start to feel, without being overly critical, a little bit like oh I’ve seen that, I’ve seen that, I know this, I know that, hopefully in that little bit of boredom you’ll stop and not look in somebody else’s eyes for the answers, but you’ll look inside and say, ok, I guess its time for me to be saying something.
Follow Jackson: @cannonjacks
The Hawthorne: @Bar500A ; Eastern Standard: @ESKDboston