I've been a big fan of Meyer and his bevy of top notch restaurants for awhile now. As a fresh grad on the bottom of the corporate totem pole, while other pretty young things were shoe shopping, I added to my slush fund for dinner at Eleven Madison Park. When I discovered that my then-boyfriend-now-husband lived a few convenient blocks away from Blue Smoke and their killer mac & cheese, I knew it was a good omen. When I left New York for SF, I requested my friends bid me farewell at Shake Shack (still one of my ultimate happy places in life), with burgers and frozen custard shakes under the warm summer city night sky in Madison Square Park.
Later on, as my career has taken a turn into the food world, I've found renewed respect and admiration for the hospitality empire Danny Meyer has built. His book, Setting the Table, is probably the closest thing to a business book I'll ever read. It delves into Meyer's business philosophy of "enlightened hospitality" and how it is the corner stone of every decision made, from staffing and training to building up the community surrounding a restaurant. Here's one of my favorite passages that has stuck with me:
"People duck as a natural reflex when something is hurled at them. Similarly, the excellence reflex is a natural reaction to fix something that isn't right, or to improve something that could be better. The excellence reflex is rooted in instinct and upbringing, and then constantly honed through awareness, caring, and practice. The overarching concern to do the right thing well is something we can't train for. Either it's there or it isn't. So we need to train how to hire for it."
-- Danny Meyer, Setting the Table (pg. 142)
Setting the Table was written after Meyer had reached great success with eleven New York establishments under his belt. Filmed thirteen years ago, The Restaurateur follows Meyer through a more uncertain time, documenting the whirlwind of simultaneously opening Eleven Madison Park and Tabla in 1998. The film is a blast from the past, seeing a Meyer as a young entrepreneur taking his first steps into the scary territory of expansion. The stress is palpable as deadlines fly by and the paint is literally still drying two hours before opening. The anticipation and little joys are captured moments like chef Kerry Heffernan meticulously measuring the height of the pots hanging over his burners (can't risk getting a concussion during service), or chef Floyd Cardoz creating what would later become a signature dish at Tabla. It's also a trip to see Tom Colicchio (then executive chef of Gramercy Tavern) with hair.
Much has changed since the movie was made. Meyer has seen his first restaurant closing with Tabla shuttering in December 2010. Peruvian restaurateur Gastón Acurio, who opened La Mar Cebicheria on the Embarcadero, has plans to open a cevicheria in the space by August. Chef Floyd Cardoz will be keeping busy though as the chef of North End Grill, Meyer's new restaurant in Battery Park City set to open towards the end of the year. You can also catch Cardoz on the next season of Top Chef Masters. Eleven Madison Park still stands proudly with its four stars from The New York Times under the leadership of chef Daniel Humm.
Meanwhile, Danny Meyer's Union Square Hospitality Group continues to grow as we speak. Untitled recently opened at the Whitney, and the Shake Shack empire expands to DC (coming soon, Spring 2011), Westport, CT (Summer 2011), even the Middle East (Dubai just opened; Kuwait City coming in Summer 2011). There was a time when Meyer would only consider opening a new restaurant within walking distance of his existing restaurants. That rule has given away to one which allows him to continue promoting from within, creating growth opportunities for valued talent to keep rising within the company. Enlightened hospitality at its core. And great burgers for all.
The Restaurateur is available on DVD and soon to be released on Netflix.