The other night I got to eat dinner at Blue Hill at Stone Barns, easily one of the best restaurants around. Chef Dan Barber has radically shortened the time and distance food takes to get from the farm to the table, and the tastes that result are simply exquisite.
But more interesting than the tastes, to me, was the meal – and that’s something completely different from the food. The meal was the experience, the meal was a story about what food could be.
Just one example: near the end of dinner, to kick off desert, our server came to the table with a full honeycomb, covered with honey, that she placed on the table. It’s kind of a big, messy, natural thing – honeycomb within a wood frame. She explained that Blue Hill started harvesting its own honey last year; they started with six hives and are up to twelve. This was the last of the late fall honey, she said, and it is richer and deeper than the early spring honey. And it would be part of our next course.
Then she disappeared. A few minutes later, four waiters, with the precision of synchronized swimmers, simultaneously placed four white bowls in front of the diners. Each bowl had no more than two tablespoons of a concoction with “homemade tofu, bergamot, and honey.” Then, for the final flourish, each of the four servers simultaneously whipped out a stainless steel garlic press with a piece of honeycomb inside, and each squeezed the press to drizzle fresh honey over our dessert. Performance, panache, surprise, story, and a little bit of magic. And it was delicious. This was one of a hundred moments that made the meal exceptional and memorable.
After dinner we got to peek into the kitchen, filled with the cooks who make this spectacular food. No surprise, things feel different when you pull back the curtain…cooks and staff are busily washing dishes, or heads-down prepping and running food. They’re the engine that makes the magic possible, but the kitchen, of course, isn’t magical. It’s a shop floor.
The interactions at the “front of the house” (with the maitre d’, the waiters, the sommelier, the honey-squeezers) and the “back of the house” are distinct. The front of the house is populated by storytellers who are creating an experience. In the back of the house, amazing food is created. But the skills required of folks in the front and the back might have very little overlap. And you need them all to create an exceptional dining experience, and to deliver it night after night.
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So now, with the restaurant story as backdrop, fill in the blanks at your favorite nonprofit. Who’s who? You can do your own, magazine-quiz-style “match column 1 with column 2”:
1. Waiter A. Program staff
2. Line cook B. Head of Development
3. Chef/owner C. Fundraiser
4. Maitre d’ / General Manager D. CEO
Who creates the reality? Who is doing “the real work?” Without whom do you fail? (hint: it’s everyone).
To take the analogy a step further, if restaurants were run like much of the nonprofit sector:
- The only job anyone would ever want would be to work in the kitchen
- It would be impossible to hire waiters
- There’d be no set menu – diners would pick what they want; and over time the kitchen could end up serving tons of dishes that they don’t best know how to cook
- Before choosing a restaurant, diners would ask whether the restaurant spends more than 10% of its operating budget on waitstaff.