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Mark Canlis on Maturity, Generosity, and Cool

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In part two of our interview (see part one here), Mark Canlis describes in detail how to provide excellent service without being inauthentic or overwhelming, discusses whether the restaurant Canlis is cool or not, and — through an elBulli anecdote — argues that it's a cop-out for certain restaurants to say they're not for everybody.

Do you think the emphasis on service will return naturally?
Yeah. What'll happen is that food will get really, really good everywhere — it mostly has already. It'll just be an expectation. Look at the term "farm-to-table." I almost feel embarrassed saying that, because it's just an expectation. You don't know the provenance of your tomato? It's not a competitive advantage anymore.

And you don't look at it with any resentment?
No, thank God it happened. It needed to happen to me. We needed to pay attention to it because Canlis needed that boost. But service is king. It will always be dominant. I just think that the expectation will be superb food. I obviously think this is a bit restaurant-specific. If I'm going to a diner, I'm expecting to get a gum-smacking waitress who throws down an omelette.

Let's talk about providing excellent service without being creepy, fake, or overwhelming, which are criticisms often leveled at places of your caliber.
It can trespass on you and it can feel like a burden. Service is half Fred Astaire and half Mr. Miyagi. It's invisible but it's also confident and totally right when it is there. It's as brilliant as any art going on in any kitchen anywhere. Quote me on it. To be able to do that is lost in dining, and that's why I think we'll see it come back. People appreciate that, and it's a maturity thing. It is easy to be into food. That's like high school, but being into service is like college.

Do I want twenty-something hipsters coming into the restaurant looking for the next best thing? That's not who we are. I want people who get it. I want people who, when they get treated a certain way, value it. If you want the next best thing, cross the street where they just built a new, trendy restaurant. They used a great designer and there's a hip new chef who is trying to make a name for himself. I'll certainly go there on a night when I want to be in the scene, but that's not every night.

As far as service, we talk about prostitution a lot in our restaurant. That's the big enemy.

What does that mean?
Our values are trustworthy, generous, and other-centered. I'll explain the distinction between generous and other-centered: a server who is other-centered and not generous is someone who will come up to you and be fake and play you; they know what they need to do. They'll act like your buddy, congratulate you on your promotion, but there really is no focus on you. Does it make you feel good when that guy you've never met creepily comes to the table, shakes your hand, and congratulates you? No. It's done because he thinks it'll make him look good. It's like when someone gives you a gift that makes no sense and seems to be given more to make them look good.

How do you make someone feel welcomed and great and taken care of while avoiding crossing the line or acting like you know them?
Let's talk about this. You should never make them feel like you know them. The question is not, "How are we doing tonight?" There needs to always be that distance, and that's why "How are you doing tonight?" is a brilliant, perfect question. We're not supposed to act like we're buddy buddy.

I always say, you have to approach the table ready and emotionally available. For instance, a guy comes into a restaurant and pronounces it "foiez graz." The waiter there smiles, compliments him on the choice, and says it'll come right out. Then the waiter heads over to punch in the order and makes fun of him in the system. What has he done there? He's agreed to the exchange: I'll give you what you want if you give me what I want. I can say it another way: I'll give you what you want, you pay me. It sounds a little bit like prostitution, doesn't it? It's whoring yourself out for tip. There's no relationship. You don't even kiss.

I don't mean to make light of a very serious issue, but it's an effective example. That waiter didn't actually care that that guy was from the middle of nowhere, had never had foie gras before but really wanted to try it, was maybe uncomfortable dressing up for the meal, and was trying to show his wife a nice evening. That diner just wants someone to cut him some slack, to be there. That waiter wasn't.

What do you do when the guy comes in and orders the "foiez graz?"
What I say is that you have no business approaching that table if you are not generous with yourself and other-centered. You won't survive. The guests are way too sensitive and smart. But any waiter with the qualities I emphasize will just know and be able to handle it. They'll have the sensitivity to feel that out, and the guests will appreciate that. They'll know when to be there, they'll know when to not be there. They'll know when to interrupt and describe a dish, they'll know when to leave a dish on the table and bypass explaining the twenty technical steps that went into it.

Last night at dinner, we were in the middle of a great conversation, and the waiter comes by and takes two minutes to explain the whole bread basket — when it had already been explained to us minutes before. It's almost as if they're telling you that what you're doing isn't important. What they're doing is what's important. That's not service.

Yes, but going back to it, what do you do in that potentially awkward situation when the guest mispronounces?
It's going to be different every time. Let's use a more accurate one: what do I do with a four-top made up of two couples, and someone says, "I like Chardonnay that isn't too sweet." You and I know that that's not possible. We both know that what the person is probably saying is "fruit-forward" and is misidentifying sweet for a ton of fruit. I'm not going to train that person or educate them or teach them. It's not my place to correct them in front of three other people. My job is to serve that person.

What I'll say is, "I think I have the perfect thing for you." I'll pour them a sip and see what they think. If that person is ordering for the whole table and maybe the rest of table is more savvy, I'll say, "Most of ours are fairly dry but I have some fruit-forward Chardonnays, especially some that are local." That leads them to a place where they can say, "Yeah, that was what I was talking about!"

You can't be didactic or false. The server that keeps coming to the table and mispronouncing it the same way as the guest is lost. That's patronizing. You know, I'll pronounce the foie gras correctly every time, but I may not say it right after he says "foiez graz." We really work on all of this so that we can make the guest comfortable. Are we going to call it a soubise or a white onion purée? Your job is to put the spotlight on them, and if everyone who works at the restaurant understands that, it'll work.

Here's another one you can fun with: do you think Canlis is cool?
Yes. And no. When I was in high school, I did a lot of things that were uncool that at the time I found cool. When I was in college, I did things that were cool that I wouldn't have thought were cool in high school. There is a maturity to Canlis that a lot of people don't get. Is that cool or not cool? It depends. To me, that's badass. When you walk into Canlis and see that there's a pianist who isn't just a lounge player but a phenomenal musician, and there's a guy hand-crafting drinks, and you're sitting in a swanky 1950s lounge, that's pretty cool. To be served that way and be taken care of that way without it being pretentious or trying to be hip, that's cool.

If you want to walk into a club and throw down a bunch of money on shots because they're on the top shelf, then Canlis is not for you. You have to come and see and answer for yourself. It's different. But show me a "cool" restaurant and I will have a showdown with them on what I think cool is.

The fact that we want to open a museum instead of a second restaurant I think is cool. The way we engage with the community through social media, the way we have set up our brand and our website, I think that's cool. The fact that we give to charities is cool. This place is an expression of us.

Do the hipsters come in for dinner? How do they like it?
Yeah. They find it genuine, I think. It's relevant, but it's also historic and old. That's what's cool. The stuff that has happened in that restaurant will blow your mind. You might have a kid who's been saving up all year to eat dinner there, and he's sitting next to a billionaire. It has diversity, it's real, and it has sophistication. It's just not hipster, and that's probably because we suck at being hipsters and being cool.

Well, your point seems to be that there are different kinds of cool.
Yes. Just come in and check it out. Maybe you won't find it cool, but like I said, it's us and it's how we like to spend our time. I'd put it up against anything.

Finally, what do you think of restaurants that say they aren't for everybody?
I think that's both truth and cop-out. It's easy to say that. You don't like the orange juice? Well, it's not for everybody. How far do you take that?

But some places will say that they're not for everybody because they're purportedly pushing the envelope with their food.
I don't buy it. I think that restaurants that are pushing the edge are making a mistake if the food is not delicious. If you're supposedly a brilliant chef, but I don't want to keep eating a dish, there's a problem. You might understand chemistry or be a brilliant marketing guy or have great presence, but at the end of the day, people have to want to eat it. It's food for crying out loud! If the food is brilliant and delicious, the restaurant is for everybody. And I think that any front of house can make you feel comfortable. If they alienate, then it's usually a function of pride. People should definitely push the envelope, but it has to taste good.

I'll give you an example that I think makes my point: I was at elBulli with my grandfather, who has spent his whole life in Pensacola, Florida, and my family. We're way into the meal, and they bring out this far-out fish dish. Grandpa asks, totally seriously, for a couple of slices of lemon, and he has every intention to use his 39-year marine hands to decimate this thing; lemon is a 9 on the acidic scale. Meanwhile, we're all "Oh, jeez" and ready to backpedal him. After not really understanding what he wanted at first, since my grandpa asked in English, the server comes back with a couple of slices of lemon and says, "We are but learners here."

That means that the restaurant was open to the fact that my grandpa from Pensacola, Florida could maybe be right about improving something at elBulli. They could have kicked us out. We are nobodies. And I don't think it was lip service, either. I think the server would have picked up a fork and tried it with an open mind. That's the way he made us feel, and that's why I don't buy that some restaurants can't be for everybody.

· Mark Canlis on the Art, Science, and Value of Service [-E-]
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