Last week, we hosted our first-ever OpenTable Innovation Summit in Los Angeles, gathering restaurant industry leaders to connect and consider hospitality, technology, and emerging trends. The day closed on a strong, inspirational note: a panel conversation between Chefs Michael Cimarusti, Suzanne Goin, and Michael Voltaggio, moderated by Los Angeles Magazine‘s Patric Kuh and appropriately titled “LA’s Bright Lights.”
Cimarusti is the chef and owner of Providence, an award-winning, fine-dining restaurant that focuses on seafood dishes, as well as the more casual Connie & Ted’s. As the executive chef and owner of The Lucques Group, Goin has a number of beloved concepts: Lucques, a.o.c., Tavern, and the Larder. Finally, Voltaggio is known for his restaurant ink. in addition to his sandwich spot ink.sack and Voltaggio Brothers Steak House in Maryland, which he co-owns with his brother.
Here, we share some of the chefs’ smartest (and funniest!) responses to Patric’s prompts.
The best advice you ever received…
Goin cut her teeth at Al Forno in Providence, where as a college student she knocked on the door and asked if she could make pastries for the restaurant. “Mortifying,” she laughed. She waited tables there for six months until a pastry position became available in the kitchen, and she went from making $400 a night to $40 a night. “But I loved it,” she said. “Their big thing was that the food should look like it was born on a plate, which I still believe. They did their own thing; they didn’t cook like other people. We cooked like we were cooking at home.”
Voltaggio was classically trained through an apprenticeship at the prestigious Greenbrier in West Virginia, where Chef Peter Timmins led the kitchen. “I was cleaning the oven door, and I hadn’t cleaned the top yet,” Voltaggio remembers. “He walks by and said to me, ‘Mr. Voltaggio, have you ever heard of a guy named Isaac Newton?’ I was like, ‘yeah.’ And he said: ‘the f*cking laws of gravity!’”
At the end of the program, Timmons passed along another piece of wisdom: Gold medals are lost in the last six seconds. “People make bad decisions in the end and second-guess themselves.”
Cimarusti cooked at Le Cirque under Chefs Sylvain Portay (“the epitome of a chef’s chef”) and Sottha Khun (“he taught me everything I know.”) Cimarusti remembered, “Every day before service we would make our sauces, and every day I would chase him down with all my sauces right before service, ‘Taste this, Chef!’ One day after about two years, he was like, ‘I don’t want to taste your sauces. You need to learn to rely on your own palate.’ That was one of the best favors he ever did for me.”
The hardest station you ever worked…
For Voltaggio, it was pastry. “We don’t have a pastry chef at ink., and it was important to me that you felt like you were in the same restaurant when you got to dessert. I wanted to learn, and I still make most of the desserts at the restaurant.”
Goin points to the pasta station at Todd English’s Olives. “It was like 200 seats, we did not take reservations, and it was the most popular place in the universe. It would be snowing and four o’clock and people would be lined up with umbrellas, and they would let them in all at the same time. We had 15 pastas and we offered everything as a half order.”
For Cimarusti? The grill station at Le Cirque. “That was the first station you worked on the hot line, and you had to make crew meal every day. I had no idea I would be cooking for 60 people every day, along with all the mise en place I had to do.”
On fine vs. casual dining…
Voltaggio has ink. and ink.sack, his sandwich spot. Goin has Lucques as well as the Larder for quick lunches and pick-up dinners. And along with Providence, Cimarusti has Connie & Ted’s, which does up to 3,000 covers a week. But all chefs agreed that their more casual locations required just as much thought and consideration as the upscale ones.
“I worked at a Ritz Carlton that had room service, and we were making foie gras and a turkey club off the same menu,” said Voltaggio. “It wasn’t like, it’s just a club sandwich — you had to have the same intensity or focus.” He compared different dining experiences to the fashion industry: you can have the same quality in Gucci or Lululemon, there are just different requirements for each. “You need something for exercise and something for celebrating.”
Cimarusti added, “We care just as much about the quality and execution at Connie & Ted’s as we do at Providence, it’s just a more relaxed setting. The check average is 20% of what it is at Providence, but I still want the fish to be just as fresh.” He added that opening Connie & Ted’s had influenced his food at Providence: “There’s something to be said for good food prepared simply.”
“I think of my restaurants as siblings,” Goin explained. “Are you going to go to Larder for your anniversary? Probably not, but you can get a really simple dinner there on your way home from work. It’s there for different applications, but the heart and soul are the same.”
On technology’s role in restaurants…
Goin was late to the OpenTable game because as the GM of Lucques, her sister Jessica had all the information she needed in her head. “She felt like OpenTable was cheating,” Goin laughed. “But how do you get everybody to know all of that?” Still, she said, today she wants any use of technology in the restaurant to aid engagement, human contact, and hospitality.
For Cimarusti, technology is paramount in collecting information about guests that can lead to better dining experiences. “Every lineup, we go through who’s coming and how many times they’ve been and when they were here last so we can try to avoid repeating things to certain guests. We know their preferences and what they want to drink.” At Providence that’s key because of the tasting menu format; at Connie & Ted’s it’s equally important because of the sheer volume of people who come in every week.
Voltaggio’s take was that it’s how we use technology that matters. He’s making an effort to dig into the information being distributed — what guests are celebrating, what foods they like best — rather than just how many reservations are booked on a given night. “That information is more important to me than how we maximize our largest table in the restaurant,” he said. “It’s how you use the things available to you — use it as a chance to slow yourself down and understand.”
Photo Credit: Andrew Herrold