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premeal panelists Bret Thorn
Will Guidara, Ashley Christensen, moderator Curtis Stone, Gary Obligacion and Alon Shaya

The art of the pre-meal meeting

Operators share tips for making the most out of pre-shift meetings

“I think pre-meal is the most important 30 minutes of the entire day in a restaurant,” said Will Guidara, co-owner of Eleven Madison Park, The NoMad and Made Nice in New York City. “It’s when there are 30 or 40 people who are individuals, and it’s during that time that they cease being individuals, and they start to become a team.”

He was answering a question during a panel discussion at the American Express Trade Program during the Food & Wine Magazine Classic in Aspen last weekend.

An audience member had asked for advice on how best to use the meetings that are normally held before each shift or meal service, and it turned out that the expert panel had given a lot of thought to those meetings, saying they were a way to inspire your staff as well as to gauge their mood.

“It depends on the day,” said Gary Obligacion, director of service operations for The Alinea Group in Chicago. “So much of it is actually knowing your team, and having a pulse on what that team needs with that day.

“We go in [to each meeting] with a plan, but sometimes you look around the room, and the worst thing you could do is go through the list of reservations and dietary restrictions like you always do. Sometimes that’s the moment to stop and make a statement about why we do what we do, do something inspiring.”

At other times, if the mood’s “a little too loose — people are not focused, so then it is time to talk about dietary restrictions and bring them back into focus. More so, it’s giving ourselves as leaders the ability to step back just enough so we can see what’s going on and understand where people are that day, for that shift,” Obligacion said.

Ashley Christensen, chef and owner of seven restaurants in Raleigh, N.C., including Poole’s Downtown Diner and Death & Taxes, said pre-meal meetings are opportunities for sharing information and “creating opportunities for learning experience in that time before the shift, and giving the team a different perspective.” She said it was also a time to share more information about the food or wine being served, including anecdotes about people or moments that inspired a dish.

She added that it was important to share information about food and wine equally with both the front-of-house and back-of-house staff.

“So explaining the ingredients and also explaining how and why, sharing the opportunity for people to feel the food and beverage and to be very thoughtful about hospitality.”

Alon Shaya, executive chef and partner in Domenica, Pizza Domenica and Shaya in New Orleans, said he had been in pre-meal meetings with Christensen and was impressed by how she had a story to tell about a dish at each meeting.

Shaya said he uses props at his meetings: “They’re going to be tasting or drinking something every time,” he said.

Guidara said he took the meetings very seriously.

“Make sure you prepare for them,” he said. “It happens all the time in our business where pre-meal’s about to start and you’re like, ‘What am I going to talk about today?’ You just wasted that moment.”

He also said it’s a time to talk about what inspires him.

“We are constantly inspired by things every single day, and yet so few of us take the things that inspire us and share them with the other people,” he said. “The beauty of taking outside perspective and bringing it into the walls of your restaurant is saintly and powerful.”

Guidara said he was inspired by Mount Rushmore, which he visited on his honeymoon.

“So we talked about Mount Rushmore in pre-meal at Eleven Madison Park,” he said. “I went to see ‘Rocky the Musical’, and halfway through the musical they moved the audience onto the stage and the stage into the audience. So we talked about ‘Rocky the Musical’ for a week. I think it’s just about bringing fresh perspective. If you see something that gets you fired up, write it down and make sure you talk about it with your team.”

Contact Bret Thorn at [email protected]

Follow him on twitter: @foodwriterdiary

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