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Common Foodsense: How You Define Success Depends on Your Seat at Table

When I was a sprout, I once applied for a job at the Tadich Grill in San Francisco. I say “applied” deliberately; it was a San Francisco methodology—you walked in the back door at two in the afternoon and asked for the chef. When I first got to town, I made the mistake of going in the front door four or five times and filled out an application and gave references. Never heard from any of them. When I started going in kitchens, the chef would ask me where I’d cooked and what kind of places they were and casually glance at the burns on my arms (which I had equally casually left exposed) and write my name and number on a cocktail napkin. I got three calls in one day from those guys.

At the Tadich that day I found a kid cutting up vegetables. He told me the chef was making crêpes over on the sauté station, and pointed. I asked what the chef’s name was.

The kid looked at me like I was crazy. “Chef.”

Chef, it turned out, was impressed with me because I was working at Narsai’s, which he thought was an amazing place. (It was, but the pay was poop.) Unfortunately, I was about three days late; they had just hired a guy, and they didn’t do that often. Even now, the average cook at the Tadich has been there 17 years. My god, the guy who beat me to the job might still be there, if he’s managed to avoid cirrhosis. I might still be there, if I’d gotten it, with cirrhosis of my own. 

I am sometimes asked what, in my opinion, makes a successful restaurant. On such occasions, if I have one available, I let loose a loud belch and pretend not to have heard. If I have somehow depleted my supply of soda water and am forced to answer civilly, I simply ask how much time the questioner has got.

It isn’t an easy answer. The first problem is to define the criteria for “success.” Profits? Longevity? Michelin stars? Sneaker endorsements?

Staying in business is a given, of course, but beyond that the goals become subjective. My own goal has always been to get ermine mudflaps for my Maserati (an ambition inspired by National Lampoon in my youth), but this has little to do with hospitality and is more reasonably achieved through a lottery win or tax fraud. Or would be, if the Maserati weren’t imaginary. 

If you needed to point to an example of restaurant success, you could do worse than to look at the Tadich.  Good food, nice atmosphere, consistently profitable—oh, yeah, and it’s been in operation for 170 years. The only problem is that they don’t take reservations, so after you wait for an hour in the rain with your date, you’ll be seated with two strangers at a four-top, and this is not New York, where a stranger could be seated on your lap and you’d both ignore each other and have your dinners quietly pretending the second person in the chair didn’t exist. This is California, where the New York exile you have been seated with will introduce himself as a California native, since he’s been here 10 years, and tell you how he makes a living doing the Bach flowers, whatever they are, and completely ruin the amazing sand dabs you have on your plate. If you go alone or as a deuce, go at three in the afternoon and sit on a stool at the counter.

But the sand dabs (it’s a kind of flounder; never seen it anywhere but the West Coast) were indeed amazing, the service was quick and precise, and the restaurant does not screen for personality. I would go back in a second, but I’d be sure to get a stool. The point is that they understand who they are, and how they do things, which is part of who they are, and they don’t apologize for the rain or the weirdos; that comes with the territory. Come back next Tuesday afternoon; we don’t charge that much and you can afford it. You might sit next to Tony Bennett next time, and he’ll have to listen politely while you tell him your own inane stories. Fair’s fair.

So beyond the requisite good food, good service, good ambiance, and (we hope) good margins, there is a certain je-ne-sais-quoi that you’d have to define as good culture. I’ve been lucky enough to work in a few places that had it, and once you’re there, you never want to leave. Even for cirrhosis. 

Jonathan Locke has more than four decades of experience in the foodservice industry (yes, he’s old). He is the founding chef of FoodSense restaurant consultants, and is a chef-instructor at St. Paul College. He can be reached at foodsense@hotmail.com or 612-236-6463.

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