Editor’s Note: This story is part of “Masters of Experience,” a series exploring the world’s most original experiences, as told by the visionaries who crafted them.
Restaurateur Will Guidara is the co-owner of Make It Nice, a hospitality group that currently includes Eleven Madison Park, NoMad New York, NoMad Los Angeles, The NoMad Bar, and Made Nice, alongside his business partner Chef Daniel Humm. Over the course of his tenure, Eleven Madison Park has received numerous accolades, including three Michelin stars. It currently holds the top spot on the World’s 50 Best Restaurants list.
Over the course of my career I’ve devoted myself to the pursuit of a perfect dining experience. There is a nobility in serving other people, knowing they have entrusted you with their time and money.
Daniel Humm and I feel strongly that dining out is about people connecting. The food, the service and the room are simply ingredients that, when combined in the proper doses, can facilitate genuine human connection in an increasingly digital world.
We want to craft a truly personal experience for every diner and create singular moments with a sense of magic, whether that’s with an unexpected flourish or simply by serving them delicious food.
Dining as dialogue
When you walk into Eleven Madison Park, there’s always someone there to greet you. But they’re not standing behind a podium – we don’t want the first interaction to feel transactional.
We serve an eight course tasting menu, but there are choices within it. We want it to be a dialogue where, together with the guest, we’re crafting their experience.
There’s always a mix of dishes. Some dishes are placed in front of an individual so they can have their own experience. But then other dishes are set in the middle so that customers aren’t looking down, but at the person they’re with. We want to bring hands into the middle of the table, to introduce elements that bring a touch of theatricality or excitement into the meal.
Dreamweavers and magic moments
We talk about our presence at the table a lot, meaning that every single table’s experience should be different. This might simply manifest in the way that we engage with them: some people are looking for a more familiar relationship, others less so. But we also try to pick up on visual or verbal cues, where people give us a little piece of information that we can use to try to make the experience that much more memorable.
We first adopted this approach years ago, when we overheard a guest, who was heading to the airport after their meal, saying that, while they enjoyed their meal, they regretted that they hadn’t tried a New York hotdog. So we went out, bought a hotdog from a street vendor and brought it back so that Daniel could present it beautifully. When we brought it out to them, it felt like magic.
Today, we have specific people in place to create these moments. We call them the “Dreamweavers.” So if, for example, we overhear a guest say that they forgot to buy their daughter a stuffed teddy bear and won’t have time to do so, the Dreamweaver will take a kitchen towel and make a stuffed bear out of it.
When this kind of moment happens, people are elated. Just imagine: during dinner you mention a stuffed animal and, 30 minutes later, a custom stuffed animal arrives at the table! Getting to create those experiences for people and see the looks on their faces is addictive.
I don’t think we’re the only people that do this. I also don’t think that one approach should define fine dining. The lovely thing about restaurants in general, whether they’re fine dining or not, is that there are so many different ways to enrich the dining experience. I don’t think any one route is more profoundly noble. There are just different genres and this is the one we like to inhabit.
Design catches up with experience
Last year we shut the restaurant for four months for renovation. Over the previous 12 years, we’d reinvented the dining experience many times, but we never really changed the room where guests were served, or the kitchen where their food was prepared. So this renovation was about allowing the restaurant to catch up with the experience.
We reorganized the space so that it’s more efficient for us to move through, which allows us to spend more time with our guests. We looked at everything from the number and type of tables we use and the fabric on our banquets, to the look and functionality of the kitchen and the orientation of the bar.
We didn’t approach it in an overly scientific way. I believe in an approach that is more from the gut. We designed a room that we would want to have dinner in, and we hope that other people will feel the same way.
For example, at Eleven Madison Park we want you to hear the music when you sit down because you should never feel a compulsion to whisper. But when the room is full and buzzy, the music should almost fade away so there’s never the need to shout. It’s about finding the best way to make people comfortable.
I think symmetry in design is important because, whether people notice it or not, it has an impact on the way they feel. In terms of materials, it’s about creating something that’s soft, welcoming and not too precious. But it’s not like we’ve done research; it’s just the knowledge and intuition our team has picked up over the years.
When you have a restaurant driven by the restaurateur you make decisions based on what’s best for the service. When it’s driven by the chef, he makes decisions based on what’s best for the food. When it’s driven by both sides of the wall, you truly make your decisions based on what’s best for the experience as a whole.
Ultimately we want a customer to go away feeling like it was a worthwhile investment of both time and money. I want them to think that the food was delicious, that the service was gracious and that they had a lot of fun.
This feature is from an interview with Will Guidara, as told to CNN’s Angelica Pursley