Reshan Richards and I eat in a lot of interesting restaurants when we travel for speaking engagements. During these experiences, we always toggle between pure enjoyment of the food and a larger meta-analysis of how the food experience unfolds. We’ve learned that great restaurants, whether they are expensive or bargains, sumptuous or bare bones, do what all great organizations do — they find a way to constantly renew and reinvent themselves while staying true to their core mission. They constantly learn, and their learning is on display each night.
Also, in a world where so many of our human interactions are filtered through digital channels, there’s something special about the fact that a restaurant experience is only possible because a group of people choose to convene face-to-face. The experience is shaped by the staff, who are hopefully passionate about their ingredients and what they are serving, and by the people who show up in the restaurant, the patrons. What the latter bring with them by way of curiosity, questions, energy, and conversation is nearly as important as the food and the ambiance.
In Denver for a leadership retreat last August, we ate at Rioja on Larimer street. We didn’t have a reservation at Rioja, but luckily there were two seats left . . . by a bar looking directly into the kitchen. So, we had the unique pleasure of being a foot away from a chef named Mason and having the chance to ask him questions throughout the night. Mason, while continuously preparing meals right in front of us, kept up a lively banter amidst the hundred details that keep a restaurant humming along.
At one point, he told us, “this next dish requires 75 touches.” And that’s when we really started paying attention to the moves and mechanics of this restaurant. For each course, a waiter checked in with us immediately after we took our first bites. First our appetizers, then our meals, then our desserts, as if to punctuate our experience with their attention. Everything seemed so thoughtful and deliberate.
We reached out to Rioja’s Chef de Cuisine Tim Kuklinski because we wanted to get under the hood a little bit. We were interested in his thoughts on training, on remaining creative and vibrant in a city that seems to be filled with creative and vibrant people, how one establishes metrics like the “75 touches,” and so on. Here’s a synopsis, lightly edited for clarity, of what we learned.
Photo credit: Jennifer Olson courtesy of the Imbergamo Group