Front of House

The other night, we had a wonderful dinner made by chef Tien Ho, who’s best known as the founding chef of Má Pêche (I got to join Ed Levine when he had the meal that inspired him to write on Serious Eats that Tien was then “the best chef in New York that you’ve never heard of”). Though I fell in love with Tien’s food during his time at Momofuku Ssäm bar, it wasn’t until Má Pêche opened that I really understood why I was so enamored of this wonderful food.

Put simply, it was the discipline. The rigor and the process around not just creating this great food, but in ensuring that it was delivered with absolute consistency and a perfectly defined and designed level of service.

If you haven’t tasted Tien’s food yourself, or didn’t have the good fortune to be a regular at Ssäm half a decade ago or at Má Pêche a few years ago, then perhaps the best way to understand this kind of discipline and the impact it can have on a good experience is to understand the level of detail that was put into ensuring a good experience at these restaurants.

Fortunately, the front of house rules which governed service at Má Pêche when it opened are available for us to peruse. I don’t know for sure, but I’m fairly certain that the documentation of these rules were the work of my friend Cory Lane, and you can see what an amazing level of service is possible when approached with the discipline that Tien and Cory brought to such endeavors.

Some highlights, from the list of tableside rituals:

  • Stay on top of your mise! Runners shouldn’t have to wait for you to mise. Backwaiters should be anticipating. New sheet will be distributed Thursday.
  • When dropping a wet nap be sure to explain what it is
  • Always visually check in with guests within seconds of food dropping, but there’s no point in asking them how they are doing if you can see they haven’t even tried the food yet.
  • Do not say “enjoy” after everything. Also never say “are you done enjoying that”
  • Stay away from “signature” dish speak
  • Don’t automatically go into dish recommendations, ask questions, feel your table out they may already know what they want
  • Don’t be afraid to return to a table without their drinks if you have questions
  • No “how is everything” unless dish is not finished
  • MUST mention 86’d items when menu is dropped
  • Careful with the amount of space on the table, course, buss accordingly

Some of these things are obvious, of course. But the care and attention it takes to document them, to make sure that even minor incidental interactions aren’t left to chance — this is what distinguishes good from great. In the geek world, we talk a lot about “user experience”, but we can cite precious few examples of this sort of tableside behavior being documented for apps or websites or even retail stores.

It’s been years since these restaurants opened, and both Tien and Cory have moved on. I barely even get to visit these restaurants these days. But I remember very distinctly the impression that was created by this level of focus on detail and documentation. And whether it’s in a restaurant, in the operating rooms and construction sites documented in Atul Gawande’s Checklist Manifesto, or in the countless other routines that shape our daily lives, I’m trying to remember to record and document the thousand little choices that add up to making truly meaningful, memorable experiences.