Chef Mike Smith has been involved in the restaurant business basically all of his life, beginning when he was just a toddler and his mother owned a restaurant in Louisiana. In his long career he's tended bar, balanced books and surely mopped a floor or two. His first real cooking stint was at the Green Room in Deep Ellum, which led to two very successful restaurant endeavors: the Thomas Avenue Beverage Company and its sister across the street, 2900.
Opting out of the time-consuming ownership role when fatherhood rolled around, Smith has more recently resurrected the menu at The Common Table. In part one of our three part interview -- with parts two and three coming Thursday and Friday -- he sheds a little light on how he runs his kitchen.
Is that a knife wound under that Band-Aid on your finger? I cut myself, but not with a knife. I was putting together patio furniture. Although I did poke a waiter on the hand with a paring knife one time for taking a plate before it was garnished, but that was a long time ago.
Do you also throw things? Maybe just once or twice in 20 years, but that was only because it deserved to be thrown. Really, I'm not one to yell or get mad. That just messes up the rhythm of things and in a busy kitchen, it's just not worth it.
If one were so inclined, what would be a sure-fire way to get a good tongue-lashing or knife wound in your kitchen? Well, my only rule is to do everything my way, basically. Sometimes when I'm not there, like if I've taken the night off, a cook will try to reinvent the wheel and I always seem to hear about it immediately through a text from a customer. That drives me insane. No matter what dish it is, it should be cooked the same way every time. If a customer comes in and has the scallops, on their next visit it should taste exactly the same. Another important thing in my kitchen is to treat every plate like a critic is eating it. Oh, and overcooking things. I hate that.
Customers text you? Can we get your number for instant feedback? Then, we'll tweet our opinions on the dinner experience immediately. That cool? I have a lot of friends that come in and they will text me. But the instant media phenomenon is just so strange. People are all over the place, texting and twittering and Facebook and all that. We're under the microscope constantly. People start food blogs who have no background in food at all and everybody follows them.
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Other than with paring knives, how do you train your service staff? We do a lot of training to make sure that everyone is very knowledgeable about all of our food. We have food books and beer books and they have to know everything. In the past, a new waiter would follow someone around for a few days, but now there is a lot more training. Basically, the restaurant is our little city. The wait staff is our sales force, and their section is their own territory, so they need to know how to treat people and know about what they're serving. The better they do, the better we all do.
When you went to work for The Common Table, you really turned things around in the kitchen. What was key in that transformation? Well, they had really good ideas for some of the plates, but the execution and recipes weren't good. A lot of the guys in the kitchen weren't taught the techniques in things, like how to properly cook risotto. It sounds easy, but there's technique involved. So bringing up the culinary skills in the kitchen and tweaking some of the menu items were big.
What has your previous experience in running and owning restaurants taught you? I'm one of the few chefs that thinks about the front of the house because I was an owner for so long. It's not always about the kitchen; it's about the people out there. Sometimes a bad experience may have nothing to do with the food. For instance, a while back we were getting complaints about our valet, so I went to the owners and said, "You realize the valets are the first and last impression people have of this place?" The next day they had on uniforms and weren't playing grab-ass anymore.
So, after 20 years in the restaurant biz, the key to success is no grab-ass in the parking lot? I look at it from my own personal perspective when I'm eating out. How I would want my service to be? I want the food to be good, but the service needs to be on it. Good food and good service consistently. That's a big pet-peeve of mine. If the service is bad at a place, there's no way I'll go back, so I try to operate from that perspective.