Why Hospitality Evangelism Is Harmful

When Danny Meyer’s book on the power of hospitality came out in October of 2006, it became the seminal text for restaurant industry insiders and entrepreneurs. Before Setting the Table, no one had given much serious thought to the notion that a restaurateur’s wisdom could provide a framework for success in other businesses. When Meyer opened Union Square Café, his first NYC restaurant, in 1985, his signature brand of “enlightened hospitality” became the gold standard by which many restaurateurs measure themselves.

Meyer’s impact on the restaurant industry has been profound, but adherence to his hospitality ideology has also contributed to a myopic service culture in fine dining that glorifies self-sacrifice. His company, Union Square Hospitality Group (USHG), spawned an entire generation of overachieving service industry professionals who’ve helped spread the gospel of enlightened hospitality far beyond his restaurants. To Meyer’s credit, his organization helped to legitimize restaurant work as a viable and attractive career path. However, when his apostles—former servers, bartenders, managers, and chefs—migrate elsewhere, they often parrot his teachings without giving proper thought to how these philosophies should evolve over time or adjust to different climates.

I thought about Meyer’s inheritance while reading Will Guidara’s new book, Unreasonable Hospitalitya well-intentioned but boilerplate regifting of Setting the Table published by Optimism Press last fall. Guidara openly acknowledges the debt he owes to Meyer for helping shape his own hospitality purview. He apprenticed under Meyer early in his career at various USHG venues (most notably Eleven Madison Park while Meyer still owned it). Many consider Guidara to be Meyer’s prodigal son and heir apparent.

The conceit of Guidara’s book doesn’t stray too far from Setting the Table. Unreasonable Hospitality implies a relentless pursuit of exceeding guests’ expectations, with a fanatical desire to go above and beyond even the highest standards of what constitutes great service. The book cleverly re-arranges the table setting from Setting the Table without compromising Meyer’s philosophies. Guidara presents a more rigorous, less reasonable, vision for hospitality excellence with the bravado of a self-proclaimed perfectionist. Spoiler: The secret sauce is never being satisfied.

It’s impossible to dissect the inherent flaws in what I call hospitality evangelism (the preachy kind) without acknowledging that, as its most visible gurus, Guidara and Meyer have largely built their careers catering to a privileged class of people. Not to detract from their achievements, but they’ve cornered the market for hospitality ideology mainly through their commitment to showering privileges on the privileged.

Unreasonable Hospitality
Will Guidara’s new book was published by Optimism Press last fall.

In Unreasonable Hospitality, Guidara describes a scenario involving a family from Spain spending their last night in NYC dining at EMP with two young children who are awestruck when it begins snowing outside during their meal. The children, who’ve never seen snow before, are fascinated. Guidara dispatches a “dreamweaver” (a staff member whose sole responsibility is helping execute unreasonably hospitable moments) to buy sleds for the kids and arranges for a limousine to chauffeur the family to Central Park after dinner so the kids can enjoy the snow up close. The gesture is touching, but I couldn’t help thinking about the fact that these affluent guests—dining at one of the most expensive restaurants in the world—had likely just spent over $2,000 on one meal, more than most families spend in a month on groceries.

Guidara insists that these “unreasonable” gestures need not be so grandiose. He surprises one table of four gastrotourists with a street cart hot dog cut into bite-sized pieces after overhearing them lament missing out on that part of their NYC culinary tour. But the impact of this humble gesture is heightened because of the stark contrast of a “dirty water dog” against the backdrop of a tweezered tasting menu. It’s patronizing for Guidara to behave as though a $2 hot dog can make everyone a hospitality hero.

Whether intended or not, the unicorn scenarios in Guidara’s book perpetuate a mythology around hospitality that feels untethered from reality. Guidara appears to live in a Steve Jobs-esque reality distortion field at EMP—a bubble that reminds me of Willy Wonka’s Chocolate Factory. Inside the restaurant, Guidara keeps all his Oompa Loompas dancing in unison to maintain the façade that everyone’s dreams are coming true. But just because the Oompa Loompas are all dancing and smiling doesn’t mean they all love their jobs or subscribe to Wonka’s mission. (A cynical reading would suggest that the Oompa Loompas are actually imprisoned by Wonka, but I digress.)

Guidara ignores how subordinates can become alienated when management laments losses more than it celebrates wins. “Praise is affirmation,” Guidara writes, “but criticism is an investment.”  The subjects of his criticism are expected to withstand the constant headwinds resulting from his relentless pursuit of hospitality nirvana. Only in recent years have restaurant industry leaders become more sensitive to the toll that daily self-sacrifice takes on workers. Particularly in a post-pandemic world, it’s impossible to improve mental health in the service industry without rejecting the more dogmatic aspects of unreasonable hospitality ideology like Guidara’s.

At its core, Unreasonable Hospitality is a book about leadership. But unfortunately, it’s weighed down by superficial anecdotes about awards and accolades that depict Guidara as a restaurateur who is distracted by his quest to make EMP the best restaurant in the world. In his eyes, every prestigious award bestowed upon EMP—like inclusion on the World’s 50 Best Restaurants List—serves to validate his approach. But taking home trophies from highly politicized culinary pageants doesn’t feel like compelling evidence for the potency of his ideology.

It’s impossible to read Unreasonable Hospitality without wondering how many hard-working employees have felt oppressed by Guidara’s austere management style or how many well-intentioned people were exiled because they weren’t sufficiently devoted to his “unreasonable” habits. He assures us that his staff at EMP largely bought into his vision during his tenure, but only someone who’s never worked in a restaurant would believe it. The truth is that hospitality orthodoxy like Guidara’s can be outright hostile to those who refuse to drink the Kool-Aid. The quest for purity often leads to unhealthy competition among the staff, much the same way it does in educational environments populated by overachievers.

Among the many unreasonable extracurricular activities that EMP employees were expected to engage in under Guidara’s reign: eavesdropping on tables’ conversations to concoct unexpected surprises, Google-stalking photos of customers in advance so they can be identified by name without introducing themselves, and feeding parking meters on the street for guests while they dine. As a former server I can attest that it is certainly not reasonable to indenture staff to frivolous side hustles that encroach upon their ability to perform primary tasks.

Guidara admits that his dogmatic approach can come across cultish, but he insists that Unreasonable Hospitality isn’t a cult. “I have since come to realize,” he writes, “that a ‘cult’ is what people who work for companies that haven’t invested enough in their cultures tend to call the companies that have.” A closer look, however, suggests that it checks many of the boxes: a rigid belief system by which followers are expected to loyally abide, a hierarchy that prioritizes conformity, and a charismatic leader with a singular vision of how an insular community should function. As with cults, non-believers are ostracized. Guidara insists that he encourages staff to be themselves at work, but he only empowers them to be the version of themselves that he needs them to be for the restaurant.

In one passage, he describes transferring EMP staff over to his new restaurant project at the Nomad Hotel to serve as mentors for his new hires. “I thought of those transplants from EMP as sourdough starter,” Guidara writes, “not only would we have the benefit of their impeccable technical training, but they’d seed the new spot with our culture.” It’s revealing that he characterizes the staff’s purpose as being a simple vessel for transmitting hospitality culture and growing it like yeast, a brainless organism that spreads mindlessly. For someone who opines so reverentially about human resources, the analogy is reductive and dehumanizing.

It’s hard not to admire Guidara’s reckless optimism, though. “Hospitality is a selfish pleasure,” he writes, “It feels great to make other people feel good.” Of course, it does. But when guests’ expectations swell out of proportion—which happens quite often in elite restaurants—the onus is usually on the staff to fill in the gaps. Being a minion for leaders like Guidara often requires having to “turn people around” or “kill them with kindness” when they’re unhappy or underwhelmed. Pleasing unpleasant guests is viewed as a challenge by hospitality evangelists like Guidara, but it can be fraught, and, in environments with rigid culture like EMP, staff often goes to great lengths to satisfy people that don’t deserve or appreciate it.

Setting the Table
Danny Meyer’s Setting the Table was published in 2006

To account for this, Guidara quotes from the Book of Danny: “Make the charitable assumption,” a healthy reminder from Setting the Table that staff should assume guests’ best intentions whenever possible. Meyer and Guidara both agree that charitable assumptions don’t apply to cases where guests become belligerent or abusive. But in a restaurant setting, disrespectful or abusive guests are often skilled at concealing their nastiness. I’ve worked in countless restaurants that tolerated intolerable regulars, no matter how much grief they repeatedly caused the staff. Most managers would prefer servers to take it on the chin rather than confront an ungrateful or ornery guest. As restaurant workers, we never have the luxury of expecting guests to make charitable assumptions about us. I suspect that neither Meyer nor Guidara would ever dare burden their guests with that expectation either.

Guidara certainly isn’t the first person to codify principles around a business ideology and sell it as universal to other industries. Many entrepreneurs have built massive fortunes peddling manufactured optimism and obsessive work ethics—like Anthony Robbins, Gary Vaynerchuk, Joel Osteen, and Simon Sinek (Guidara’s publisher). It’s worth nothing that, at least in the mainstream, marketing self-empowerment schemes and big-dick-energy manifestos on positive thinking has been primarily a white male pursuit. There’s inherent privilege in Guidara presenting himself as the purveyor of the highest hospitality ideals when his world view has been largely shaped by making affluent people feel like the 1% of the 1%.  

It’s possible to respect Guidara’s approach and his accomplishments without putting his ideology on a pedestal. The service industry, still reeling from the corrosive effects of the pandemic, can’t afford to glorify a pie-in-the-sky mentality about hospitality right now. There is no shame in cultivating more pragmatic models that work for us as much as they work for our guests.

I’ve argued before that continuing to define hospitality excellence according to the white male gaze and lionizing restaurateurs who are cut from the same white tablecloth only reinforces the industry’s diversity problems. By canonizing these white male figures, we exclude competing visions about hospitality excellence from marginalized communities and communities of color. When will influential publishers deliver a book that celebrates hospitality culture in Black or brown communities? Iconic restaurants like Sylvia’s in Harlem and Dooky Chase’s in New Orleans have had a much more profound impact on American culture than any Danny Meyer or Will Guidara restaurant ever will, but you won’t find any mainstream books that celebrate the unique style of hospitality found in them.

We deserve a new, more diverse and compassionate framework around hospitality that gives restaurant workers agency—that gives voice to the voiceless and expects guests to reciprocate the generosity they’re shown. Although it isn’t to blame in every case, hospitality orthodoxy fosters toxic environments where dysfunction has historically festered. Abuse, harassment, violence, and misogyny flourish in oppressive workplaces where perfectionism suffocates individuality and compassion. We can’t fix the cultural problems endemic to restaurants without reining in the zealots who subject their workers to unreasonable expectations.

“Start with what you want to achieve, instead of limiting yourself to what’s realistic or sustainable,” Guidara writes defiantly, “or as I like to say, don’t ruin a story with the facts.” I’m quite certain that Guidara would not like his book to be ruined by the fact that his utopian vision of hospitality has hidden costs. In its purest form, unreasonable hospitality can only exist when it comes at the expense of those who administer it. It’s incumbent on those people to be convinced that the self-sacrifice benefits them. But whether we believe that there’s salvation in serving others or not, ultimately, instead of canonizing overzealous manifestos like Setting the Table and Unreasonable Hospitality, the restaurant industry should embrace new paradigms that prioritize compassion and empower staff, where unreasonable expectations aren’t necessary to succeed.

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We Don’t Need Any More Best Restaurant Lists

We live in a world of arbitrary listicles. The 17 Best Trader Joe’s Vegan Party Snacks. The 21 Best Celebrity-Owned Tequilas For Non-Tequila Drinkers. The Top 30 Farm-to-Table Brunch Spots to Come Out to Your Parents. Of course, spirited debate over favorite movies, the most dominant athletes, or the best albums of all time can be a nice diversion. We need all the diversion we can get these days. But when we talk about ranking restaurants, the subjective nature of an individual’s taste makes the conversation considerably more complicated and, not gonna lie, a bit exhausting. The more that food media saturates the market with these frivolous best restaurant lists, the more I wonder: Why are we so obsessed with ranking restaurants?

Last week, Pete Wells, the New York Times’s venerable chief restaurant critic, broke with tradition by publishing a comprehensive list of NYC’s 100 Best Restaurants in the first half of the year. Distributing medals isn’t historically a springtime concern on the NYT Food desk; Wells typically waits until the holidays to hand out Christmas presents. I understand why his editors decided to do it. The Times and other legacy media outlets are lagging behind in attracting younger readers, a demographic conditioned to scrolling listicles on sites like Eater and Infatuation. “Best” lists are fodder for engagement, surefire clickbait, and driving traffic is seemingly all that matters in food media these days (perhaps, in all digital media).

Delving into his list, I noticed my former employer, The Grill, ranked #10 — a luxurious mid-century chophouse in the opulent former Four Seasons restaurant space in midtown Manhattan. Simply on the merits of its food and service, it’s well deserving of recognition. But it was a bit of a surprise to see The Grill ranked so highly, because Wells has been critical of Major Food Group (the parent company of The Grill and Carbone) in the past about its refusal to hire women in visible front of house roles. In his Top 100, Wells writes obsequiously about the trio of narcissistic owners: “Yeah, yeah, yeah. I’ve heard all the complaints about the arrogance of Major Food Group. I’ve made a few myself. But listen: The Grill is a perfect New York restaurant, despite this flaw and because of it.” This feels like the type of lazy observation Wells (or any other critic for that matter) might’ve made about Mario Batali or Ken Friedman years ago. The bravado is startling. Only a tenured, white, male critic could piss into the wind so confidently without worrying that it might blow back into his face.

When Wells bestowed a three-star review on Carbone in June 2013, he doted on the jokey all-male character actors that worked the dining room, with one major caveat. “I’m not ready to play along with all of Carbone’s casting decisions,” Wells wrote, “currently all the captains, typically the most highly tipped employees, are men.” Then again in his August 2017 review of The Grill, also three-stars, he referenced an off-color joke by his male captain that compared a side dish on the menu named for JFK to the former President’s famous sidepiece: “It would work even better if Major Food Group hired more women for the dining room; it’s hard to imagine many female captains who would be O.K. with calling Marilyn Monroe ‘Jack’s pie.’” He reiterated the criticism once more in (yes, you guessed it) his three-star review of Torrisi this February.

Wells admits that Major Food Group’s carefully curated nostalgia for old New York inconveniently harkens back to a time when women wouldn’t be trusted in key roles or, in the case of Carbone and The Grill, as proper ambassadors of its unrepentant machismo. Yet, apparently, the company’s misogynistic tendencies aren’t enough to keep Wells from recognizing not only one but two Major Food Group restaurants as among the best in the city (their recently-opened reincarnation of Torrisi came in at #33) . Should anyone challenge Pete on this, he’ll likely insist that restaurant critics should be agnostic — there to evaluate the food and the experience, not to evaluate the quality of the proprietors. I sympathize with critics who wish their jobs could be this simple, so they can focus on their plates. The problem is: the world isn’t so simple anymore.

Especially in the wake of #MeToo and Black Lives Matter, critics shouldn’t be writing about restaurants in a vacuum anymore. We’ve learned that an agnostic approach leaves the door open for celebrating the wrong people. (See: Charlie Hallowell, Blaine Wetzel, John Besh, Paul Qui, et al). In some way, every critic has contributed to celebrating these undeserving chefs. It may seem unavoidable, but it isn’t if critics make more of an effort to look beyond the menu. Every time a new exposé comes out (as one recently did about Boston chef Barbara Lynch), we hear the words “open secret” to describe the perpetrators of the abuse. If there are open secrets out there, Wells and other prominent food critics need to make it their responsibility for knowing them and calibrating their coverage accordingly.

It isn’t just MFG’s inclusion on this list that raises questions. According to detailed reporting on his former business partner Thomas Carter’s history of abusive behavior, Chef Ignacio Mattos, the owner of two restaurants that appear on Wells’s list (Estela and Lodi), allegedly tolerated Carter’s harassing subordinates while managing the dining room operations at Estela. Mattos himself was never directly accused of wrongdoing, but he was a party to serial misconduct by a cohort (sources describe having witnessed Mattos sitting next to Carter while he abused employees without taking corrective action). Could Wells not find enough chefs in the city worthy of this honor who didn’t actively (or passively) contribute to a hostile work environment? New York City is the home to thousands of talented chefs and restaurants who not only serve incredible, inspiring food but also contribute to their broader communities as a source for good.

Best Restaurant Lists

Soleil Ho was the closest we’ve had to a restaurant critic that dared to appraoch restaurant criticism with a wider lens. Sadly, after a four-year tenure covering restaurants for the San Francisco Chronicle, Ho moved on to focus on culture writing at the paper. They didn’t say it in so many worlds, but contextualizing restaurant reviews against the backdrop of social justice was likely exhausting. But that doesn’t mean we still shouldn’t expect more from food critics. The restaurants that powerful critics like Wells choose to celebrate shape the dining landscapes of our cities. When they make lists, the lists matter. But it’s harder to ascertain how they help. If it’s about calling more attention to under the radar greatness, Major Food Group doesn’t need the boost. It already has Drake and Rihanna.

To be fair, I believe that Wells has tried to be more mindful about diversity and isn’t ignorant of the way society’s views are changing toward restaurant culture. Wells deserves credit for putting together a more inclusive list that brings attention to many facets of New York City’s multi-cultural restaurant scene that have been ignored in the past. But zooming out for a moment, Wells recently celebrated his tenth year in the most influential position in the food world, a veritable monarchy without term limits. He’s a one-man Supreme Court of restaurant opinions. That’s simply too much power for one person in food media to have for that long.

I’ve argued in the past that Wells should consider abdicating his throne for that reason, to make room for new, more diverse voices. Whether you like his writing or not doesn’t change the fact that the New York Times has never had a person of color in the chief critic’s chair in the newspaper’s history. (Craig Claiborne began filing reviews for the paper in 1963.) Stepping down wouldn’t necessarily signal the end of his career at the Times. His predecessors like Frank Bruni and William Grimes both continued working in the newsroom for years in other capacities after they retired from the critic’s role.

I, for one, was thrilled when the NYT suspended their star review system during the pandemic. It was presented as a merciful act, but I think it was also a prudent one. Holding up a scorecard at the end of a thoughtful review makes it harder for readers to ascertain the nuances that made the experience special or disappointing. I can remember vividly working at new restaurants during the review period, where a Times critic would publish a review filled with glowing praise, then award a middling two stars. At the end of the day, the stars were all that mattered, especially to the future of the restaurant. It’s no different today.

Last year, I wrote for Bon Appetit about how the World’s 50 Best Restaurants List is like an obnoxious rich uncle. He jetsets around the world having expensive dinners in all the obvious places, primarily to brag to others that he’s dined in them. That piece was intentionally playful, but it didn’t capture how corrosive I think these lists really are. The outcome of the World’s 50 Best has a meaningful impact on the economic success of its awardees. It impacts the flow of investor dollars. Year after year, the 50 Best List ignores meaningful culinary achievements in Africa (save a few token white chefs in South Africa) and treats India — the most populous country in the world — like no one cooks professionally there.

Best Restaurant Lists

The methodology behind the 50 Best List lacks transparency. But that’s not exactly surprising. Gatekeepers protect the locks on their gates by limiting who has access to the combinations. With so many restaurants struggling to survive, the restaurant industry doesn’t need outside prestige organizations and horny food media acolytes to encourage unhealthy competition. It needs these organizations to celebrate cooperation, community, and integrity — not arrogance and merciless expansion.

But the overarching question is: What exactly do we accomplish when we say that one restaurant is better than the other? Who does it serve when we rank restaurants like this? What’s the point of comparing a humble lechonera operating out of an immobilized trailer to a three-star Michelin omakase that charges $500 per person? If you look at who gets to author these influential lists, you won’t find a terrible amount of diversity in the club. Name one major BIPOC restaurant critic of any major American periodical, newspaper of magazine. You probably can’t because there aren’t any. If these lists aren’t compiled with the input of a diverse committee, the results are always doomed to be as myopic as the process.

In my humble opinion, we desperately need a new paradigm for how we recognize excellence in the restaurant world that doesn’t involve numerical rankings, arbitrary star systems, or the need to declare one restaurant superior to another. But until then, the least we can ask is for critics like Pete Wells to think about the restaurants they celebrate as more than just a sum of the food and service they offer. A more mindful approach encourages readers to better appreciate how restaurants fit into their communities on a deeper level. The pandemic taught a very harsh lesson about how desolate our lives are without having restaurants to take refuge in. By championing restaurant organizations like Major Food Group, that dedicate themselves to nation-building in other cities — making money to make more money while lagging behind on equity and inclusion —media helps sustain a backward-facing narrative. By celebrating groups that put profit over people, and prestige over integrity, Wells allows chefs and restaurateurs that are impacting their communities and advancing social justice in more meaningful ways to be overshadowed. Sorry, Pete, but “Yeah, yeah, yeah” isn’t gonna cut the proverbial mustard anymore.

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