Zagat: You now have two restaurants, how many people do you have your service team?
Will Guidara: Approximately 200, between the two restaurants.
Z: Out of those people, what are some of the key positions or jumping off points for future success that you can hold in one of your restaurants?
WG: Well, things are evolving. Nomad is so fresh that the systems are in progress. At Eleven Madison Park, everyone that gets hired, with maybe three exceptions in the last five years, as a kitchen server which is a bottom of the ladder, entry-level dining room position. Every manager on our team, every bartender, captain all start out as food runners. And then everyone slowly works their way up from there.
Z: What’s the thought process behind this system?
WG: One - the power of an entire organization that’s built on upward mobility, I think, is a really powerful and strong thing. Two - when one is expected to know as much as a captain on the floor...it takes years to know that much. By guiding someone slowly through the team they have a chance to really absorb all of that information in palatable bites. And then three, once they get to the manager level. I don’t believe it’s possible to be a great manager unless you truly have walked in the shoes of the people you’re managing. And so our managers can manage their team in a truly empathetic way. And I’m able to hold them to a very high standard because they have not only done but excelled in the positions that their team is fulfilling.
Z: What was your personal path towards where you are now?
WG: I grew up in this business, my dad was a restaurateur. So everything I’ve done my entire life... When I was fourteen, I worked in Baskin Robbins. Fifteen I was a busboy at Ruth’s Chris Steakhouse. And then on and on from there. I was a busboy at Spago in Beverly Hills, I was a server at Tribeca Grill. I was a cook at one of Wolfgang Puck’s restaurants out in California. Went to Cornell, the hotel school there. Spent some time at culinary school in the north of Spain. I was a maitre ‘d with Danny Meyer at Tabla. I was a controller and purchaser for a bunch of the restaurants within Restaurant Associates. An assistant general manager and then ultimately the manager who opened all the cafes at the Museum of Modern Art. Then I was brought down to Eleven Madison Park as the general manager in 2006.
Z: What piece of advice would you give to an up-and-comer who wants you in a few years?
WG: I think that a lot of the time people who come into the restaurant business are so focused on what they want to do in the future. They want to own their own restaurant or they want to run their own restaurant. And through their path they’re only thinking about where they’re trying to go as opposed to focusing on the job that they have at the moment. The people that have been successful within our organization are the ones that, even though they wanted to be a manager, when they get hired as a kitchen server they focus on being the best kitchen server they possibly can be. And then they do an unbelievable job. And then they get promoted...and I think that really what it’s all about is just having the ability to want to excel. To bloom where you’re planted. To do a good a job as you can and have faith that you’ll get to where you want to go.
Z: You just opened a brand-new restaurant, what skills does someone need to take that on?
WG: I think it’s about having experience...I think you need to work in the kitchen, I think you need to have worked the front door. I think you need to have been a reservationist. You need to know the financials in the back office and the accounting. You need to work through all of those roles.
Z: Do you ever have people who start, go home on the first or second day and never come back?
WG: We don’t have people start, go home and never come back. We do have people start and a couple months in they realize that maybe the job is a bit more than they can handle.
Z: What is your interview process like?
WG: People do trail in the restaurant. Both in the dining room and in the kitchen. For me, there’s only so much that we can see regarding someone’s capacity when they’re trailing. It’s more for them to see what they’re getting themselves into.
Z: Do you ever do a weekend retreat for employee training? In my mind I see Eleven Madison Park employees cooking food over a fire and talking about table settings...
WG: [Laughs] We don’t do weekend retreats, although we are firm believers in the idea of team building. And that happens in a variety of ways. Probably the most significant is on an annual basis we take a couple days at the beginning of the year and our entire team gets together to do strategic planning for the year where Daniel [Humm] and I lay-out the strategies that we’ll employ to lay out that mission. And then the entire staff as a collective brainstorms specific actionable tasks we can execute to improve the dining experience. In addition, we do field trips to farms or breweries or wineries.
Z: There’s a lot of controversy regarding culinary school vs. no culinary school, people just jumping into the kitchen. In this vein what are your thoughts re: hospitality school?
WG: I don’t think it’s necessary but I believe that, like in any business, no matter what you’re doing there’s a language. A vernacular. In our business it’s the language of food and ingredients and wines and some language that applies to the financials of what we do. For me, when I graduated Cornell, did I remember everything that I learned? No. But what it gave me was two things: A) A foundation of that language so that when I began working in the restaurant environment I could understand the flow and the way people communicated with one another. I was able to focus my energies on learning what that restaurant specifically was about instead of what the industry in general was all about. B) The other thing is the knowledge of how to learn. When I became a financial controller, with Restaurant Associates, did I know how to do any of that? No. But I learned it all at one point years earlier and it made it a whole lot easier for me to learn again. So I do believe it’s a leg up, I don’t believe it’s essential.