Welcome Conference hosts Will Guidara (Eleven Madison Park, The Nomad) and Anthony Rudolf (formerly of Thomas Keller Restaurant Group) have discussed in the past the inspiration behind the conference, and they kicked off the day-long event by elaborating on the idea, saying they felt it was something that was truly missing in the hospitality world. The central question being posed at this year's gathering is what it means to be right in the hospitality industry. Similar to last year, several big names in the restaurant world took the stage and shared inspirational words — some emotional, others humorous, but all thought-provoking.
Here is a roundup of the most poignant moments of the hospitality symposium.
Steve Ells, founder of Chipotle and the first speaker, centered his talk around changing the fast-food industry and going beyond the quality of the ingredients, to their source. He went on to talk about visiting Niman Ranch and then comparing it to industrial pig farms in the area and being disgusted with the reality of it. He elaborates on this concept, "Along the way, I started questioning where the ingredients were coming from. Certainly we were buying fresh ingredients and preparing them there, but it occurred to me that fresh wasn't enough anymore. You really needed to understand what was going on on the farm and the ranches."
Ells goes on to talk about the team behind Chipotle and the idea that doing things the right way is complicated and not foolproof. He adds a bit of humor when telling an anecdote about a time a person said his new venture, Pizzeria Locale, should have a dough that is foolproof. He quips, "So any old fool can make it? We don't have fools at Chipotle, Pizzeria Locale, or Chop House, so we don't need to make it foolproof."
Next up was Sarah Robbins, Senior Vice President of 21c Museum Hotels, speaking on the importance of saying "yes." After a short video that featured employees of 21c explaining how and why they say "yes" to almost any question posed by a guest, Robbins went on to describe how creating a culture of yes can have a revolutionary impact on the world of hospitality. She says, "I think the sweetest sound in the world is 'Yes.' Being right at 21c is saying 'Yes,' saying 'Yes' to the guest and saying 'Yes' to each other." She goes on, "It seems so much easier to say 'No.' It ends the conversation, but it is also a response that is really full of fear, a fear of failure, of giving the wrong direction, of doing the wrong thing. If you're never prepared to be wrong, you're never going to do anything original."
Right before lunch, musician and educator Jon Batiste entertained the crowd with an enthusiastic talk about music, particularly the musical culture of Louisiana, and how it relates to hospitality. His first order of business was to play "If You're Happy and You Know It (Clap Your Hands)" and get the crowd involved with some impromptu clapping and stomping. He talks about music being a part of life and not something to be heard at a specific time or place, "I didn't really think about music as being something that was supposed to just stay in a venue or as something that was separate like different genres."
At one point, Batiste went out into the crowd saying he didn't like being on stage and relating it to playing concerts and shows, "They come to the venue and the stage is over there and we're up here and they love us and they have this deep connection to the music that we're making, but there's this wall between us." The musician made sure to break down that wall between him and the audience, even bringing out some fellow musicians for a short, and unexpected, musical performance that left the crowd upbeat before breaking for lunch.
After the lunch break, Will Guidara admits to the crowd that at last year's Welcome Conference he hopped off the stage and tore his meniscus. It didn't take long for the Twittersphere to blow up the funny moment.
When General Manager of famed London hotel Claridges Thomas Kochs took to the stage, he spoke eloquently about bridging the gap between the historic and the contemporary. He says about Claridges, "We respect our heritage, but we don't live in it. It's still there because that hotel has always been at the forefront of its time. It never stood still. We are very conscious that we are building on the past, not living in it."
The Executive Chef of Eleven Madison Park, Daniel Humm, was one of the more comical speakers, often causing the crowd to burst into laughter. However, the humor of his speech did not take away from his important message of breaking down the wall between front and back-of-house. He says, "EMP is not a chef-driven restaurant. It is not a dining room-driven restaurant. Will and I are fifty-fifty partners, we make all the decisions together. We run the restaurant from both sides." When talking about the magic that makes Eleven Madison Park, Humm notes that trust plays an important part in their success, but gives credit to another factor that he says he has learned about in working with Giudara for the past ten years. He explains, "It takes different people to do different jobs. The person who is a great candidate for a chef, we want them to be focused, organized, head down. The person we want in the dining room, we want them to be outgoing, open, smiling, charming — two very different people."
GQ critic Alan Richman, perhaps more than anyone else at the conference, has experience in firmly believing he is right, all thanks to the value of opinion. He explains, "The thing you have to know about being right if you're a critic, even if you're a restaurant critic, is that you don't have to be right. That's what's so stunning about this. And I insist on being right and I hope I'm right, but you don't have to be." Richman went on to relay the story of a lawsuit based on one man's opinion of another, noting that it was thrown out and relating it to his own life: "That, by the way, is why I cannot sue Anthony Bourdain for calling me a douchebag." Richman also took on the subject's of a critic's authority, and shot down the idea that an account on Yelp or OpenTable gives a person that authority. He says, "Do I think everybody who calls them self a critic is then automatically right? No, I do not. ... The people who you see on OpenTable and on Yelp, giving their opinions of what they've eaten. And they write like this, as though they're famous critics: 'I'm sorry, two days have passed since I last reviewed this restaurant, but now I'll give you an opinion of the flambe.' They sound like critics, as pretentious as we are, but do I think they're critics? No, because they have no authority. You have to have a certain knowledge and authority to be a critic."
Legendary New York restaurateur Danny Meyer, the man behind Shake Shack, Gramercy Tavern, and several other iconic restaurants, closed out the conference. Flipping the entire event's theme on its head, Meyer chose to discuss why being right isn't always right. With anecdotes from various points in time during his restaurant career, he made the point that "being right" often precludes "doing the right thing." Meyer says, "If there's one thing that frustrates me more than anything about the notion of being right, it's that being right too often gets in the way of being generous. Because being right is too often used as a way to protect us from doing the thing that will actually most serve us. And if I can leave you with one thought, it's that being right is completely fucking irrelevant."