2/22/2013 05:59:00 PM

Q&A: Dinner and a Story Bring "Winter's Day" to Life at Sixteen


When presented with the menu at Sixteen, names of dishes appear on each side, but in the center is a story written by the table’s captain, who acts as a server and tour guide for the multicourse “Winter’s Day” meal to follow. The story can take the form of an anecdote, a childhood memory or a poem that alludes to different parts of the winter’s day embodied by the meal. Sure, the food is stunning and the ingredients are pristine, but it’s the service that steals the show. We spoke with one of the captains, Elliot Erickson, about the process of bringing the “Winter’s Day” menu to life with the poem he shares with each of his diners.

Zagat: How were the captains approached to tell the story for the “Winter’s Day” menu?
Erickson: They got the five captains together, and chef was there. And with this menu, and the menus going forward, he wanted to make sure the service is personal and its going to be different if you come back for the same menu and have a different captain. He wants us to be comfortable telling our story and injecting our personality into the dining experience, because that’s his number one way to ward off the ridged, boring environment that has plagued fine dining with faceless, nameless people serving you. I think it works well because it allows me to talk about how I feel and what I appreciate about the menu. Sam or Justin have something different to say while still being professionals and guiding people through this dining experience.

Zagat: What was your approach to creating the story?
Erickson: I didn’t want to block the diners experience into something I had done in my youth or how I feel about the menu. Which is why, for me, poetry was the best way to go. Unlike prose, poetry doesn’t have any ridged meaning necessarily. I can put my message on the page, but it allows the guest to take with them what they will. I think that’s key to the dining experience. Chef has given us he themes of each of the sections such as a sunrise, a frozen pond, the winter forest. Everybody had to have that - that was in the structure. I put the words on the paper with space in between and just started writing colors or words or feeling that it evoked. I submitted it to chef and originally some of the food was mentioned like venison or blood orange, and he struck that out. “I don’t want the food in.” So chef doesn’t want blood orange, so the color crimson goes in instead. That’s how it went, and the next challenge was how to go to a table and talk about it.

Zagat: What influence does the menu have on the captain’s story and vice versa?
Erickson: In terms of the food, that’s all chef. But the way I talk about the menu, I try to discuss the food in an open, descriptive way referring back to ideas in the poem. For instance the snow storm. The snow storm is a course with aerated cauliflower purée in a little bowl. Inside of that there is cauliflower, crab, nori, langoustine cut to be the same size. But you don’t know what they are because when you pull it out of the bowl with your spoon it’s covered in white cauliflower. You have to uncover, decide and figure out what it is through taste and texture. Rather than relaying a personal story about how I got stuck in the snow, I’ll mention how snow storms cover our world and blanket us so we can’t see what things are with our eyes, we have find them and touch them instead.

Zagat: What are diner’s reactions to the poem you wrote?
Erickson: There are a variety of things. Ideally they like it. I call myself a poetry enthusiast, I read it and I write it as a tool to understand it. I am a little nervous every time people open the menu. Sometimes they love it and think it's great. Sometime they laugh and think it's fun and offhand, very rarely they are put on edge and think it’s too serious. They wanted to come in just to eat and all of a sudden they are reading poetry. That speaks to how our restaurant is still in development. We still have guests coming in not knowing who we are and not knowing what were doing and expecting a menu with a list of food - salad, steak, molten chocolate cake etc. I like those restaurants too, everybody eats there. But upon reading the poem that’s when our guests will realize what they are in for. An overwhelming percentage of people appreciate it and is willing to go along for the ride.

Zagat: Can you win over the confused diners?
Erickson: Most of the time we win them over. We can’t win them all. If everyone likes what you are doing, you are doing something wrong and won’t have anyone loving what you are doing. At that point I’m like, take this poem for what it is, read it and enjoy it. And take this food for what it is; it’s real, it's delicious, try it. And you don’t have to like everything, but enjoy the experience of trying something for the first time. I speak very calmly and slowly and guide them through it. I usually drop any technical terminology and just tell them what it is. I remind them that I am from Prescott, Wisconsin. It’s a town of 3,000 people, there is no fine dining there. Our chef is from Battle Creek, Michigan where the most fine dining you can get is a Pop Tart from the Pop Tart plant. It’s not like were were born into this either. We decided to do this because we tried it and it stuck us as something special and worth doing.

Zagat: How does the diners’ experience vary from captain to captain?
Erickson: Some captains are more literal than me and will explain in terms of a childhood memory. One of our captains, Dustin, grew up on a dairy farm in Canada. His winter memories are going out and hunting or milking a cow in the morning. It takes him on a specific journey. Some captains try to be funnier are more apt to tell jokes. I think it's great because when you see each style, the five of us are very different people with different backgrounds and we ended up at this restaurant through very different pathways. All of us have valid explanations and for the first time in each of our careers we are encouraged to put ourselves into it. I think that way you really could come back and eat the same food and have a different experience.

Zagat: What do you think this personal touch adds to the Sixteen dining experience?
Erickson: On the service staff’s end, it forces us to be ourselves and to put ourselves into the dining experience. So many times, in other restaurants, we can hide behind the formality. We can put down the silverware correctly, pour the wine correctly and give you the correct information, and it allows us to shroud ourselves in this. We don’t have to put ourselves out there and it's more comfortable. But what this does is create a homogenous experience. You feel like the service is the same, but the food is different. The way that chef Lents envisioned our restaurant is that it’s human. So what the diner gets out of it is an individualized human experience from one person to another. While I’m sill expected to put the silverware down and pour the wine correctly, I can do it while being myself. It exposes us for being people. The biggest footfall for fine dining is that it’s cold. Hopefully we can, not reinvent, but revitalize fine dining and make it for everybody. Everyone can enjoy it because it’s one person serving another.

Read Erickson's poem below and see the meal paired with it here.

Nothing darker than winter white nights
sanguine sun decides to rise
citrus screams across the blank
dawn gives way to ice lake day
breaks through bygone posterities.

Water squalls parish lands above
worlds underneath unseen uncovered
forest walks feed imagination and wild
woodland sprites spill meditative songs.

Cold cheeks, heavy packs relieved
fragrant spices of the hearth fire
warm full tables make laughter lavish
eyes mark time as last coals cool.
Nothing sweeter than winter warmed dreams.

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