Thursday, June 12, 2008
REALITY CHECK… As I sit here, hands holding a heavy head, visualizing our little corner of paradise, I’m trying to get a sense of what this whole crazy industry, this hospitality branch of the unarmed services, is up to. We in this life– and for some reason I still consider myself in it, of it and for it– deal in nebulous, fleeting commodities, where emotional, spiritual, psychological and physical realities all intertwine.
If you develop a factory that produces a product, any product, at the completion of the chain of production a finite, well-defined something exists– measurable, tangible, controllable. At the end of the production line of any given restaurant experience, too many incalculable variables have influenced that production to ever totally foresee a standard and repeatable outcome. Sure, some operations control the controllables better than others. But no one can manage all the variables all the time.
Let’s just take one small component of a restaurant experience, wine. Wine is a living organism that continually changes– in the bottle, in the glass, over time, after exposure to oxygen, affected by things like temperature, humidity, cork, vibration, light and other more ethereal phenomena. Talented winemaker Robert Keenan once illustrated this point to me with a barrel of Merlot he made. At first he reveled in his greatness as a winemaker. A few months later, he tasted it again and was shocked and disgusted with his inadequacies as a winemaker. Later still– you guessed it– he tasted it again and marveled at its deliciousness, etc.
Cooking food works in the same way. Assuming equal talent levels, somehow a piece of fish prepared by a loving person in a good mood will taste better than the same piece handled by someone with a dark cloud hovering above them. Add the fish’s experience along every step of its life and the handling to reach your folk, and the restaurateur has got one uncontrollable set of variables to juggle. It is quite a wonder at all that so many experiences come out as well as they do. Faced with the seemingly simple question of what makes a good restaurant experience, most people would give similarly simple explanations such as the food, the service, the ambiance, etc. If we peer beyond the veil of simplicity into the more complex universe of swirling circumstances that comprise the restaurant experience, we discover countless interconnected realities, each contributing to the totality of outcome.
FLUSH WITH FACTORS… Looking from the perspective of fundamental components first, as singularly profound a simple bit of importance as the cleanliness of the toilet bowl in a food-service operation can be the difference between success and failure. Neat and clean bathrooms, with some nice décor, pleasant, non-toxic scents and an overall sense of sanitary conditions go miles to place customers at ease.
Similarly, the overall cleanliness of a restaurant is important– its floors, windows, furniture, all its silverware and flatware and glassware and uniforms– and its kitchen, whether anyone can see it or not. At L’Auberge Carmel, the kitchen is not only scrubbed spotlessly at night, after service is complete, but in the afternoon, before service, after the day’s prepping takes place.
In our area, with the water as hard as it is, an oversight such as allowing glasses to dry without buffing or some type of softening agent yields glassware that may be technically clean, but looks filmy. Meanwhile, if the chemicals in the dishwasher aren’t balanced properly, glasses and dishes may contain an odor of chlorine that destroys the flavors of whatever is carried in them. One piece of baked-on something left in the tines of a fork can imply a lackadaisical attitude toward cleanliness. These basic tenets point to the dishwasher and members of the cleaning crew at all restaurants and hospitality operations as critically important staff members. But only the best treat them that way.
Assuming a clean, cared for physical plant with perfectly maintained utensils and tools of the trade, start adding in the other components of the operation. Begin with creating a food menu. What is the mindset and experience of the person doing so? Is he or she someone who omnivorously consumes anything broadly categorized as “food?” Does this person creating the menu discriminate between carefully raised and handled ingredients or simply source the cheapest, easiest to work with items? How are these foodstuffs handled, prepared and combined? What is the sophistication level of the primary creator of the restaurant’s menu– its lifeblood?
Extrapolate that basic concept to all other ingredients that go into forming a restaurant unit: The beverages to be consumed and the myriad of support elements related to them. The music, television and other entertainment– all key components of the operation. The quality of the staff– what do a restaurant’s employees demonstrate about that restaurant’s purpose? Average food and drink can be elevated by highly evolved and superior beings. The reverse is also true.
When we add the customers to the mix, it reinforces the mathematical improbability of melding every restaurant experience into a positive one. At the best places, under the best circumstances, with the best mix of people, serendipitously fortunate experiences sometimes bordering on profound can and often do occur. The formula for success can be too fraught with variables too delicately perched upon the precipice of calamity to allow for more than an average to above-average experience. Perhaps even too often, things are plainly abysmal. That’s why restaurants are not for the faint of heart, nor for simply average souls. Cheers to all the good ones.