Hanging out with dear old TED
It’s a Saturday afternoon in Boston and I’m holed up in The Hawthorne, a trendy lounge inside the Hotel Commonwealth in Kenmore Square. Decorated with all original artwork and serving up some of the slickest craft cocktails around, it doesn’t normally open until after five pm. However, on this day in February, some of the staff from Garrett Harker’s Eastern Standard and their sister restaurant Island Creek Oyster Bar have congregated into the lounges’ stone room to watch a web simulcast of TEDx from Manhattan. Inside it’s quiet as the team waits for the afternoon session to start. Laptops are resting on their legs – people are texting and checking their e-mails. Scones are piled up on the bar, bottles of water and glasses are stacked on a cabinet and someone from the kitchen staff just brought in a mammoth-sized bowl of homemade sweet potato chips. Garrett calls out, “Does anyone want me to put in a lunch order? I can do that.” Last thing I remember before the video feed started again was this comment – Did anyone send out a memo to advise people to bring a sweater…it’s cold in here!
So what’s so important about this particular TEDx that prompted Harker to round up his troops to watch it? The topic was: Change The Way We Eat – quite fitting for his staff, anyone in the restaurant industry, people that pride themselves as being into organic or locally-grown foods, farmers, people into macrobiotics, and we can’t forget the foodies. I don’t fall into any of the aforementioned categories and I myself am not a foodie…I’m just an invited guest. But knowing Garrett, the topic wasn’t the only reason that he wanted his staff to see this: Garrett is big on learning, something that he incorporates wholeheartedly into the training sessions in his restaurants. You’re probably wondering how much training is involved. In his restaurants, his staff does research projects. “They have tackled regions of Italy – vicariously, although it inspired a few individuals to make the trip”, boasts Harker, “as well as extensive visits throughout the state of Maine, and most recently, they are researching counties throughout Massachusetts.”
Split into a few different teams that are made up of novice food runners to seasoned servers, management staff to veteran line cooks, they have been traveling to the different counties trying the food, meeting the people, visiting breweries, cheese factories and even museums. Each weekday afternoon a different team would present their findings – essentially educating the rest of the staff about what they had learned. Think of it as their own homemade version of a TED talk, happening on a weekly basis within the confines of the restaurant. “You can have all the ideas you like, but without buy in from the staff there’s little chance of a successful education initiative”, says Harker. “The research projects came out of a restlessness, a recognition that some of our best students had become excellent teachers, and we needed to give them a platform.”
The afternoon TEDx Manhattan session began. It started off with one of the speakers making a blunt and direct statement, “It’s easier to raise healthy children than to fix broken men.” Does this make sense to everyone? It should. I’m guessing that the speaker was directing this message to the millions of over-weight citizens in the United States who have a battle with the bulge every year. But let’s go back to the first key word in the quote: children. It starts with them. Guest speaker Anne Lappe took the stage to talk about the impacts of marketing junk food to children. One of the first statements that she presented was that ‘two billion dollars are spent each year on marketing junk food to children and teens’. That is a staggering number if you think of it. Lappe continued by discussing dieting concerns and facts such as ‘diet-related illnesses are on the rise’ and are at ‘downright dangerous’ levels. And it doesn’t help that some of these junk food companies with brands like Oreo are using marketing tactics like sponsoring curricula in schools to maintain its message.
On a positive note, I was happy to hear that ‘Maine was the first state to pass a law banning marketing junk food in schools.’ Bravo, Maine! My favorite quote of the day, one that might really help the younger generation, would be if McDonald’s would just ‘Retire Ronald’. It might be a fast and cheap food, but it’s highly unhealthy – where’s Oysterman or String Bean Boy when you need them?
I worked in the restaurant industry as a adolescent youth and from past experience, I was never educated about the foods that we cook and eat, where it comes from, how it’s grown and the true impact it has. I find it fascinating that Garrett goes out of his way to make sure his staff has this continuous learning experience – that he’s investing back into them in hopes that they learn something valuable. As a patron, it brings me pleasure in knowing that they are well educated about the food that is served. A happy server is a knowledgeable server. “There is the discovery and knowledge, the confidence that results, a respect for hospitality as a profession, and most importantly the magic that happens when you see your peers stretch themselves and grow right before your very eyes,” expresses Harker. “A thoroughly engaged and knowledgeable staff is one of the hallmarks of Eastern Standard. It’s important to continue to enrich the environment so that everyone feels the connection of a team committed to learning and growing. This knowledge is available to our guests, but at their pleasure. They may drink and dine as often as they like at Eastern Standard and enjoy it for pleasure’s sake.”
If you ever find yourself in one of these restaurants and someone from the staff is educating you about something on your plate that was either locally grown or harvested or caught or brewed, just know that what they are explaining to you wasn’t some quick pep talk they got from one of the chef’s during their staff meal – they quiet possibly had to research it themselves.
Harker concludes, “If we can impart some sort of knowledge or understanding, that certainly goes toward creating and making your whole dining experience memorable and come alive.”