If you have seen me speak at a conference or have read this blog for any length of time you know that I am motivated by my fellow designers but I am truly inspired by chefs and avant garde cuisine. I have sought out conversations with modern day culinary visionaries like Ferran Adria and Heston Blumenthal to discuss their food but mostly find out about their creative process. So this year when I had the chance to speak at FUSE I was excited for the opportunity to talk to an audience of that caliber but also because I would finally have me the time to fulfill a dream and visit two of the counties most progressive restaurants on two consecutive nights – Alinea and Moto. Of the two restaurants I had a lot more knowledge of Alinea after having a conversation with the chef Grant Achatz at an AdAge event last year and I have cooked a number of recipes from his cookbook. I wasn’t sure what to expect from Moto because I had only seen one episode of their new show Future Food and had read a few articles about chefs Homaro Cantu and Ben Roche. All of that aside I went into it knowing no matter what happened it was going to be a lot of fun and a great experience.
So last Friday after I was done speaking at FUSE we ran back to the hotel to change and then headed over to Moto. The restaurant is located in a slightly industrial area north west of downtown with an unassuming facade and simple sign. We had originally planned on getting their smaller 10 course tasting menu but once the waiter presented us with the menu that was served with artichokes and s sauce because it is actually edible, my wife and I looked at each other and then simultaneously informed the waiter we had changed our minds and would be having the full tasting menu. We started with a candle bring brought to the table to help with the dim lighting and we were off and running. A few courses in a bowl of re-imagined loaded french fries was brought to the table and the waiter extinguished the aforementioned candle and poured over the potatoes. Like an great and memorable experience it is about surprise and delight. In this case I was surprised that they poured the candle on our food and delighted that it was actually a beef fat candle. From there the meal went on to dishes like a cuban cigar served in a real ash tray that was actually pulled pork wrapped in collard greens with an edible cigar band and powered sesame seeds for the ash. The cigar was inspired by the chef sharing a cigar with his Father when he was only 17. He had bought a fake ID to purchase one only for his father to discover it! He expected an extremely angry reaction from his father. However, to his surprise he let them share it. Believe me, you couldn’t just search fake id usa back in those days. It was much harder to get age-restricted goods like a cigar! I love seeing precious memories come to life on a plate of food. I guess that is what separates a great chef from a visionary one. A cherry bomb dessert that is brought to the table and lit on fire only to find out that it was a chocolate shell filled a graham cracker liquid and a marshmallow fuse to make a re-imagined smore. And the 20+ courses just kept coming finally ending after around 3 1/2 hours. At the end of the meal I could only think of one meal I had in my life that tasted better and I couldn’t remember any meal where the creativity and fun made smile and laugh more than this one.
After any great dinner I always ask the waiter if it would be possible to get a tour of the kitchen because my creative and curious nature kicks back in and I want to see how it is set up and how the team works. In this case they were happy to oblige me and we were taken down a stairway at the front of the restaurant to the small private dining room and lab where the team concepts their amazing dishes. We then went through two sets of doors and into the kitchen. Executive Sous Chef Darrell Nemeth immediately jumped out from behind the line to high-fived both of us with a huge smile on his face. It was by far the most unique and exuberant reception I have ever had in any kitchen . Then sous chef Richard Farina introduced us to the whole team, talked about how the kitchen is run and after mentioning how much I loved their version of a Funion from their french onion soup course I found myself with a of them to take home. Then it was up the stairs for a demonstration of their liquid Nitrogen tank and a speech from my wife about how I don’t need one for my kitchen at home.
The reason why this meal was so transcendent for me wasn’t simply because of the food. It was because after having that meal and seeing that kitchen in action I could clearly see that when it comes to creativity and creating a culture where original ideas can flourish these guys have it down cold. I could see that because I watched a kitchen that brought to life every one of the concepts I had talked about earlier that same day for running a world class design studio. They have hired incredibly passionate artists and had the confidence and culture that gave them all, from the chef who and been there 2 days to one of the founders, an equal say in the creative process. That trust inspires confidence and has created created that critical culture of failure where everyone knows it’s a safe environment where taking risks, questioning conventions and having ideas completely fail is a critical part of the creative process you have to go through to create big new ideas. If you pay attention you can see that culture and those concepts expressed through something as simple as the celebratory exuberance of the high five from Darrell Nemeth who knew we loved the food to the conversations we had with the other chefs who wanted to know what we loved and what we hated. They have embraced the fact that some ideas are home runs, some are on the road to greatness and some need to be completely re-worked and they are fine with all of it. So if you are challenged with running any type of creative and/or idea driven group get to Moto as fast as you can to have this experience, to talk to this these chefs and see how a team with that type of focus should be run. I am already booked to speak at another conference in Chicago in the end of September and I’ll give you two guesses where I will be that night with a big smile on my face.