The Michelin Guide describes its three-star restaurants as those that are "[w]orth a special journey," and, indeed, diners from all over the world make the pilgrimmage to California's Napa Valley for a meal at the three-starred The Restaurant at Meadowood. The main draw, of course, is chef Christopher Kostow's tasting menu. But the hospitality of restaurant director Nathaniel Dorn and his front of the house staff is also what makes Meadowood worth that special journey.
In the following interview, Dorn talks to Eater about how he hires and trains a team whose sole goal is to help guests feel comfortable and connected during their meals. After all, years down the road, he explains, "You remember what you felt, not exactly what you had." Dorn also shares his philosophy about empowering his staff, the challenges of conceptualizing Meadowood's year-old bar space, as well as the best trick for scoring one of these coveted tables.
I was at The Bar at Meadowood a few weeks ago, and none of us wanted to leave at the end of the night. I've talked to some others who have been and they say the same thing. What kind of wizardry are you guys up to?
You know, I'll tell you what. A lot of it is about the product, but a lot of it's just about the people that are here.
I read that you hire more based on personality rather than experience?
I have a belief in the idea of service, the idea of hospitality.
Yeah. That's something I've always believed in. I have a belief in the idea of service, the idea of hospitality and being sincere and finding people that have a passion for what we do, versus someone who's in it for it to be a job. For me, it's about creating a sense of ownership for the staff and teaching them to look at a dining room, at a 20,000-foot level and not ground level, and bringing that philosophy to them.
What does it mean to you to look at it from a 20,000-foot level?
It's like playing chess. It's being able to just take a breath, take a step back and look at the whole picture and see the intricate movements. Look at one's eating habits. Don't just be at the table serving something, take a step back and take a look at what they're doing. Look at their pace, look at their enjoyment. Are they eating with their left hand or right hand? Are they going up to the bathroom three or four times?
I hire staff that wants to be educated. They need to want to have personal growth. I very much believe in personal growth, because it will then ultimately affect the restaurant in a positive way. The staff have a home position. You're either a food runner, a back leader, or a captain. On the flip side of things, everyone has a home, a project. What that is, is maybe you're in charge of flowers, you're the florist. So not only are you going to the flower mart, but you're arranging the flowers, you're learning about the flowers. But you are then educating the staff. You go from being the student to being the educator, and by doing so you create leadership or management, and it gives you a sense of pride over the project. That's what this restaurant is. It's not mine, it's not Chef's, it's the staff's, because of the energy and effort that they've put in to create such projects.
How do you suss that out when you're hiring?
This may sound weird … A resume gets the attention, gets you in the door. It's not necessarily what's on the resume, but it could be how it's written. Oftentimes, I look at the cover letter more than I do the actual resume, because one's ability — whether or not they have the proper etiquette, whether or not they are educated or [whether they] want to be educated even more — you can kind of get that passion through a cover letter. Do they want to be here, or are they applying for a job? That's the difference.
The basics are essential, but basics can be taught. Having sincerity and passion, these can't be taught.
And when they get here, I don't pull out the resume or ask them questions. We get out of the office setting, and we walk around the restaurant, and I talk about what they do in their personal life. It's a conversation. It's a walk and a talk, and you get a sense whether or not they're going to connect with me, with their to-be colleagues, are they going to connect with the dining room. It's so much more than whether or not they know how to serve something. The basics are essential, but basics can be taught. Having sincerity and passion, these can't be taught. You know that philosophy about a guest is never wrong, and you never say no? That's not right. It's about how you say no. To find someone that can say no in a positive way and can create solutions and opportunities, it's a unique thing to find, and it's great when you do.
Do you run through scenarios with them, like how would you say no to a customer?
I don't. I ask them questions about their life, and I ask them if they have questions. Were they listening? I'll give them tidbits to see if they catch on and ask more questions about certain projects, or certain concepts or our service culture. I'll ask them questions and see if they continue the conversation, or is it a one-word answer.
Oftentimes in a restaurant they don't allow the staff to talk to guests. I want to build relationships. Dining is so much more. [Guests] come here to eat, but they come here to have an experience. They come here to have conversations with the people they come to dine with. They come here to have conversations with the staff [at a] restaurant that is approachable and sincere. When a guest leaves and says, "Tell Olan and Sam and Chris, 'Thank you,'" I know we've accomplished our goal. Because, again, it's about the food, but it's about the chairs, the aesthetics, the conversations, the people …
Right, that's all important.
For instance, when you left the restaurant, maybe there was a specific item you remember that you really enjoyed, but it's more or less the feeling you got when you left.
You remember what you felt, not exactly what you had.
And, 10 years from now, that's what you remember is the way you felt on your anniversary with your husband, or your babymoon. You remember what you felt, not exactly what you had.
Right, so you're looking to create that feeling above everything else.
Yeah, it's to create memories. So many people Google to find out interesting things about their guests. We Google to see if we can connect on different levels with guests. Maybe they have a baby, maybe they're from Scranton, PA. Maybe I'll put them with a waiter from Pennsylvania, too, so when they're here and they normally don't dine in restaurants like this, they have some type of a connection that will get them to relax and forget about the fanciness around them.
Is that what you're aiming for, to forget about the fanciness?
I'm aiming for people to feel connected, to feel comfortable, to feel like when Christopher comes to the table they can have a conversation with him. If they want to be educated, they can ask questions. If they don't want to be educated, my staff's not going to elaborate on the food. These guys, when they go to the table, they'll give you snippets of the food. They'll tell you what's on the plate, and if you ask, then they'll go on to detail, but they're not going to sit there and show off. It's not about our pride. It's about the individual guest experience.
The Bar at Meadowood. [Photo: Official]
How does Googling work for you? Are you able to turn up a lot of information on people?
Without it sounding creepy, yes. People's lives are accessible through social media and Google. We don't look for things that we don't need. I want to know where someone's from, because if someone's from the city, I might put them with a younger, more trendy, forward waiter. If they're from Oklahoma, I might put them with an older waiter, maybe someone who is a little more reserved in the way he talks to you. So we do a lot of playing chess with the people, the table and the staff to make sure that we create an experience.
We didn't know what to do with the bar, quite frankly.
For instance, the bar where you were at. It's a different style [from the restaurant]. The guys out in the bar are a little more playful, a little more relaxed, a little more like they're just hanging out with you. But [if] you keep walking toward the restaurant, the service refines itself, the food refines itself from the little bites and snacks to being plated, having silverware. As you move into the restaurant and get all the way to your white tablecloths, things start to refine itself, with the food, the service, the ambiance and the whole bit, not by accident. Yeah, you know, the bar took us a little while. We didn't know what to do with the bar, quite frankly.
What do you mean?
The area where you sat is new. It was added on. We had this small bar lounge with three tables in it, and it was somewhat awkward. You would open the front door, and you're right in the bar. So we decided we wanted to make that change. We're fortunate to have this beautiful, very large space now. Then the idea is what do you do with it.
At the beginning, we didn't have any food, and guests would come in and have drinks and cocktails. Then we had people inquiring about food, and we didn't want for it to be fussy. We didn't want to put napkins and silverware down, and we wanted it to be really easy, but we also wanted to give people a little taste of what they would have in the dining room to capture them later. So that's why we created these continuous snacks, these 10 to 14 bites. As you know, the longer you kind of sit and relax and enjoy, little bites keep coming, but it's not fussy, it's easy. But it took us a little while to figure what we wanted to do, and then to get the word out.
Why exactly was it a challenge?
Because you're in a hotel setting. The restaurant is independent, but you don't have the foot traffic, nor do you have someone who wants to drive onto a property that's somewhat outside of town to come drink. So we wanted to create something that would draw people in, keep them here for a little while, but something that wasn't going to eat at their pocket. The snacks are $20.00.
Totally worth it.
Right? It's not about the money, it's about getting people in here to have a good time and enjoy. What Sam, our bar manager, is doing with cocktails is just unbelievable right now, so we're super excited about him, and just wanted to make sure we did our due diligence by getting people in these seats to have his cocktails.
So what is your training process like with the staff? Is it constant?
Oh, my god. It is constant. We do an everyday training, if you will. It's a very natural training. When you're hired, you go through a 72-hour training period which is hands on with every position. We don't overly train the first 72 hours. You're having conversations with staff, you're learning the movement and the flow and the organization of the restaurant by just being in it. I think you retain more once you have some type of footing.
We have a lineup at 4:00, which I would imagine is very similar to every restaurant that has a lineup where you discuss lessons learned from the night before, the food adjusts, the guests who are coming in, where they're going to be sitting, the details around each and every guest. You discuss the wine adjustments and changes, who's working where.
But the second meeting is what I'm most proud of. We call it our 5:10. The bar doors open up at five. The 5:10 meeting happens every day. It's 20 minutes, no less, no more, and it's a staff-driven meeting. Every day it changes. Every Monday, they talk about last week's lessons learned. One person may have made a mistake, or cut the corners, and they tell their colleagues. So they're educating the staff on a mistake so no one else does it. Or if they did something really unique and cool, they also bring it to everyone's attention.
Any restaurant that is strictly led by the GM and not the staff, you're not allowing yourself to grow.
Tuesday, we do product knowledge. Wednesday is service culture, then on Thursday we do role playing. Every Thursday we bring out table-side service and they show their colleagues how each one of them is doing. Maybe Federico found a better way do to it than Brandon, and they run it by me, and maybe we'll change and adapt. Any restaurant that is strictly led by the GM and not the staff, you're not allowing yourself to grow. Friday, we actually talk about current events and industry trends. It's an international restaurant, so we want to make sure that we know that the ferry in South Korea went down, what's going on with that. We kind of geek out on knowledge.
Do you have a lot of guests asking about industry trends?
You do. It's more conversation than guests asking. They might say, "Oh, when I was at EMP, they had little amuse bouches, or they did this at Per Se, or this …" and we just want to be able to have this conversation without feeling that we don't know.
Switching topics a little, I wanted to ask you about what reservations are like there, and how difficult they are to procure.
Reservations are taken up to four months in advance [by each month]. Mondays, Fridays and Saturdays are your first nights to start filling up. They're pretty detailed reservations. We don't do the Q&A. We talk to a guest, we try to create conversations, why a guest is coming, and then we listen to the background, what's going on, asking the appropriate questions: are you celebrating anything, do you have special dietary restrictions? The clientele is getting younger and younger, and so you tend to find that there's actually quite a few diets versus dietary restrictions.
I never tell anyone not to call if you want to get into the restaurant in a week.
I never tell anyone not to call if you want to get into the restaurant in a week because [of] cancellations. People make reservations four months in advance, but leading up to it, they decide not to get on the plane ride, they forgot to cancel the reservation, so we confirm one week out. So you either book four months out or you give it a little bit [of time]. There's a lot of movement within that [last] seven days.
Okay, so that's the time if you're not very good at planning ahead.
Then you want to hit that seven-day window. No restaurant wants to have an empty seat. It's not that there's only a first and second turn. It's that a lot of these restaurants are very small. We have 12 tables, and you want to be able to maximize the restaurant to create a better guest atmosphere. No one wants to be in a restaurant where there's only a few guests. We don't turn every table. We seat 5:30, 6:00, 6:30, 7:00, and then we start over at 8:00. All through the night there's people kind of coming and going versus everyone comes in and everyone leaves.
And how do reservations work for 12 Days of Christmas?
Once we solidify the list for the chefs and the vintners, we then send out an e-mail and we invite all of our past guests from the restaurant, from the hotel, 12 days of Christmas … anyone who's ever been in this restaurant for the last eight years or that's on our mailing list. One or two weeks later, we release it to a publication, and then we do social media.
And how quickly to they fill up? It just depends?
It depends on the chef and the vintner. Some guests are here for the chef, some are coming for the vintners. I would say in a manner of a couple weeks, four to five nights will be completely sold out, and then it takes a few months, because, I mean, who's thinking about Christmas in June? But by August or September we're 85% full.