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12 Chefs and Restaurateurs on the Biggest Sources of Conflict in the Industry

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David Chang, Patrick O’Connell, Jordyn Lexton, and others on the challenges they’re facing today

The Inn at Little Washington/Facebook

“Conflict and Change” was the topic of yesterday’s fourth-annual Welcome Conference, a hospitality summit created by restaurateur Will Guidara of Eleven Madison Park and Anthony Rudolf, founder of the educational community Journee. Its goal is to bring members of the restaurant world together; this year’s theme was chosen in light of challenges in the industry, though it nods at this country’s current political climate, as well.

Chefs and restaurateurs including Jordyn Lexton of Drive Change, David Chang of Momofuku, Rich Melman of Lettuce Entertain You, and Brian Canlis of Canlis in Seattle spoke to the crowd of 850 about their own personal challenges and conflicts — and the ever-changing industry. Here now, attendees and speakers on what they believe to be the most pressing conflicts facing the hospitality business today:

Patrick OConnell, the Inn at Little Washington, Washington, VA: “The greatest conflict in the industry today? How about the world? I think we need to have more empathy. The restaurant industry isn’t isolated... our collective anxiety level is extraordinarily high right now, and it’s affecting people’s concentration and their ability to perform. So much of what we’re about is taking people out of their reality and making them happy, putting them in a festive frame of mind.

The first thing you realize is that your own troops have got to feel that way in order to convey it... [the question is] how to get your people to feel that in spite of everything going on around them, that they can be upbeat, fresh-faced, charming, and happy for their guests. Because the guests aren’t going to come back if they don’t have a good time. We’re the last refuge of places that people can go to escape this terrible malaise that has come over us all. We’re the new churches, the new religion. There’s an opportunity, but we need to rise to the occasion.”

David Chang, Momofuku: “From a chef’s perspective, I think it’s about honestly staying alive financially and physically. For business owners, that translates into taking care of your team because I think their environment is really difficult right now. Things are moving so fast it’s hard to find your voice in terms of what you want to do. There’s so much criticism, so much need to stay relevant that it’s hard to even just keep your sanity. But so how do you keep everyone happy? And at the same time, how do you grow, how do you stay relevant? How do you grow in a meaningful way?”

Brian Canlis, Canlis, Seattle: “The inequality of pay between front-of-house and back-of-house... it’s been building for 20 years. I know different cities are working on legislation to address this, but they’re not writing it with restaurants in mind. We think about it all the time at Canlis.”

Rich Melman, Lettuce Entertain You Enterprises, Chicago: “The ability to find great people. I think people are pulled in a lot of different directions, there’s a lot of competition.”

George Mendes, Lupulo and Aldea, NYC: “The industry remains ever-so competitive; [you need to] listen to your employees and support them... not only making sure they’re happy financially, but making sure they’re working in a good work environment, they’re learning and being empowered, and that their voice is being heard. [Kitchens] remain a high-stress environment, so it’s up to us as leaders to give [our employees] the skills to learn how to deal with it.”

Meaghan Dorman, bar director Raines Law Room, Dear Irving, the Bennet, NYC: “How to retain talent and pay them enough that they can thrive here, especially in New York City. A lot of bartenders work in two or three places and forgoing that track of growing with one company — because the in-between, mid-management phase isn’t enough money.”

Jenny Yun, General Manager, Manresa, Los Gatos, CA: “The consistency of all of the people involved in the industry. The minor conflicts that occur in our day-to-day lives, which is just known as life, and understanding how to mitigate the effects of those on the service and guests.”

Georgette Farkas, Rotisserie Georgette, NYC: “Surviving. Taking care of your staff, ensuring their well-being, while keeping your business profitable. This is a result of competition for skilled labor and wage legislation.”

Maureen Cushing, VP of technology and processes, USHG, NYC: “Competition. There’s a lot of competition out there. My whole reason for being is to create efficiencies for back-of-house so our teams can spend more time creating experiences for our guests so we can... continue to do what we’re doing: prioritizing hospitality.”

Drew Nieporent, Myriad Restaurant Group, NYC: “For me, the biggest change is the cost of doing business. When I was a young man in 1985 and I opened Montrachet, my rent was $50 a day. That doesn’t exist anymore. I charged $16 for three courses. That doesn’t happen any more. It goes without saying, but costs are on the rise.”

Dick Cattani, CEO, Restaurant Associates: “The biggest challenge we’re facing is the labor market. It’s almost in a crisis. I’m sure my colleagues and competitors are facing the same thing. Fewer people are going into the industry at the same time that we’re experiencing great growth.”

Jordyn Lexton, Drive Change, NYC: “[A lack of] awareness... we have to be able to think of and have an awareness around what are the injustices that exist within the structures of society — not just mass incarceration, which is steeped in racism and classicism, but how those same implicit biases even effect an industry like hospitality, which is grounded in love and connection. How do we reconcile that? How do we think about our action in that?”

Guidara and Rudolf on Starting the Welcome Conference [E]