Starting from Seed: Crafting One-of-a-Kind, One-at-a-Time Experiences with Chef Tim Kuklinski

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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

At least a B-

I am in the middle of one of the most satisfying moments in my teaching career.

I’ll get to that in a moment, but first, some background.

I started teaching at Montclair Kimberley Academy in 2002.  Shortly thereafter, I met a student named Joe Lazauskas.  When I say met, I really mean dodged.  Joe was late for 9th grade English on the first day and moving a bit too quickly.  He didn’t want to be late to English, you see.  Math or science?  Sure.  But not English.  So he almost knocked me over on his way to his seat.

This breakneck pace became a motif in the life story of this young man, at least as I knew him in 9th grade English, and his first formal paper did not break the pattern.  Joe wrote about the world and ideas as if no barriers existed.  He may or may not have been under the influence of Vonnegut or Kerouac at the time.  The paper was longer than it should have been.  It had voice and texture, and when it reached too far, it reached with style. Six styles. It was awkward and overly reverential.  It made outrageous claims with phrases that barreled through periods and logic.  It didn’t have time for writerly conventions or readerly expectations.  This wasn’t an information transaction so much as pure discovery, pure exhalation of breath, wonder shot forward machine-gun style.

I loved it; I gave it a C; I hated myself.

I’ve graded thousands of papers, and this was the most painful C I have ever given.  In his writing, Joe made a sound loud enough for me to hear him from across the state, let alone from across Room 13.  His writing jumped from the pile.  It demanded attention.  But Joe had completely disregarded the assignment, and in so doing, had lost control of a medium that certainly mattered to him.

I gave him a C because, even then, I thought he might actually have a chance to be a real writer.  Not a five-paragraph essay writer.  Not a “I-can-come-up-with-a-great-thesis-in-my-sleep-and-put-you-to-sleep-in-the-process” writer.  Not a safe writer.  It’s a weird thing to acknowledge, but I had to call him to task, to hurt his chance of being conventionally successful in my class, because I believed in him so deeply at that moment.  I believed that he could be better than my class.  And I believed that giving him a typical reward at that moment might actually damage his chances of being what I knew he wanted to be.  A real writer.   So I couldn’t pat him on the back just then and say, “you tried really hard so I’m going to reward you with a good grade.”  I had to say, instead, more honestly, “you tried really hard, but that doesn’t mean you’re a good writer yet. It just proves that you’re capable of putting in more effort and energy than any of your peers.  And if you keep doing that, if you keep working hard, you’ll get somewhere.”

To be clear, I don’t take credit for what Joe’s become.  He has put in the time, the proverbial 10,000 hours of practice, written and edited and edited again the millions of words that it takes to become a legitimate working writer.  I’m just proud of him.  I’m just happy . . . as happy as I have ever been in my teaching career.  Because Joe published his first book recently. It’s called The Storytelling Edge, and it’s at least a B-.

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Humans Show Me Things I Don’t Know About

Today on his blog Fred Wilson talked about his “non system” for consuming content.  One quotation stood out for me:

Most importantly, I do not allow technology to drive what content I consume. I use Twitter but drop in and out of it occasionally to get a taste. I don’t drink from its fire hose. I let Google Now send me alerts but I understand they are filter bubbling me and mainly use it to make sure I see certain things. I have a Facebook account but have not actively used it since they went hostile on Twitter almost ten years ago.

Maybe some day technology will be able to do for me what humans can do, but today it is the exact opposite. Technology shows me things I already know about. Humans show me things I don’t know about.

For the past two years, Reshan Richards and I  have been researching / writing about / discussing the key differences between things that computers can do and things that (only) human beings can do.  Wilson’s assessment is spot-on with our findings thus far.

Operating Ranges

Today I listened to the Bob Metcalfe episode of the Tim Ferriss podcast.  It’s a nice, wide-ranging conversation that covers some essential history of the Internet and some  thoughts on the management of companies that, for me, are keepers.

For example, Metcalfe talks about how employees’ “operating ranges” can be exposed by the rapid growth of companies.  According to Metcalfe, “The company can grow more rapidly than the people, and so you have to pay attention to which people are being left behind by your accelerating company . . . and, in some cases, you need to shift gears.”

Shifting gears, in Metcalfe’s world, often means either removing someone from the company or reassigning them.  He brings an engineer’s logic to the matter:  “If you look at different sizes of companies, [you see that] people have skills related to size, scale.”  Some people are very good at working at the level of startup chaos, where much is uncertain.  Some people are better at working in an established company that is already generating millions of dollars per month.  It’s a manager’s job to fit skills to scales and to understand what is needed as positions level up.  Or, again in Metcalfe’s words, “When you’re an engineer, you build things.  When you’re an engineering manager, you manage people who build things.  And when you’re a manager of managers, that’s a different task.”

Can I Interview You?

I’ll be giving two keynote addresses (so far) this summer.  One is about leadership and one is about innovation.

For the one about innovation I’m hoping to interview people using a simple set of questions:

  • Who is the most innovative person you know?
  • What makes him/her innovative?  (What does he/she produce/do/create and why do you consider it innovative?)
  • What is this person’s innovation recipe? (I’ll be looking to dial in on behaviors / habits / hacks / secrets.)
  • How do you feel when you’re working with this person or around this person?

So start looking around in your daily life and in your networks — and use this inbound contact form if you’d be willing to be interviewed.

Thanks,

Steve