In Pursuit of Perfection — Kinda

"I think you can go down a dark road if you're trying to be the best or perfect at everything. I think it's a trap." — Brian Canlis

Photo: DreamPictures via Getty Images

Unless you're a surgeon, a pilot, an astronaut, or working in a precious few other professions, perfection doesn't matter all that much. Yes, it's important to strive for excellence, but in a place like a restaurant, it all comes down to what human hearts and hands are capable of, and what the guests actually want. At the recent Welcome Conference in New York City, some of the country's top hospitality professionals — and the diners who love them — contemplated how the notion of "perfect" has evolved for them over the years.

Anthony Rudolf, Welcome Conference co-founder

I am a perfectionist through and through. I've found it to be more destructive than productive. I'm a recovering alcoholic, 12 years sober now. Perfectionism fueled the voice of my addictive behaviors in that if something wasn't perfect I couldn't deal with that and I needed to hide. I hid behind a glass or a drink — or 30 drinks. Letting go of drinking 12 years ago opened up the door of: Is perfectionism actually beneficial? Why quest for something that is impossible?

For me, letting go and going with the flow is incredibly hard. We have multiple businesses, and we want everything to be "perfect" — big air quotes around that — what does that even mean? If we're welcoming people into our space and if our role is to engage with humans, we all have a different perspective. There are really seven billion perfects, and none of them matter.

Alpana Singh, sommelier

I don't think about perfect. There are so many things that can happen in a restaurant. It's like theater, can you have a flawless performance every single day? It's impossible. There's going to be lines that you flub, and maybe somebody trips. It's all in the recovery. It's more about progress over perfection, and having resiliency to keep trudging forward. Restaurants — things happen. Plumbing, things get set on fire. Sometimes you have to call the ambulance. You strive for a perfect night, but also when you start a shift, you're like, "What does the universe have in store for us today?"

Steve Palmer, restaurateur

I came up in the fine dining era of the '90s? Very stiff, very formal, perfection was much more technically driven. I think for me now, as I've gotten older and I wear blue jeans to work instead of a suit and tie, perfection is just more about a feeling. Hospitality is a feeling. If I say, "I went to Kat's house for dinner. It was so great, she's so hospitable." What you feel with that word is a feeling, warm, happy, welcome. That's perfect for me now.

Rick Bayless, chef

Because I didn't come up through fine dining, for a while I was really obsessed with perfection being the right service steps at every juncture. I studied it and respected it and thought that somehow that was creating a better experience for the guests. Now my definition of perfection can encompass all the steps of service but it goes way beyond that, because it really means to me making a direct connection with the guests so I can understand what makes them tick and how the experience in our restaurants can really engage with that so that we can create a memorable experience.

Patrick O'Connell, chef

People are always accusing me of being a perfectionist, but I prefer to think of it as just being able to see a vision in advance. I liken it to a film that I have gotten a preview of, and I would like the reality to be just like that preview. I'm crystal clear visually of what I anticipate, and when it doesn't come out that way I'm naturally frustrated. Of course we all know that perfect doesn't really exist. We can always do better. There's always something beyond the current definition of perfect. But I don't think it's a handicap. I think it's a necessity.

Drew Nieporent, restaurateur

If you set out to try to attain a certain perfection, it'll never happen. When we were younger, I think we felt that we could keep refining and keep making our restaurants that much better. Even today, now, I'll read a comment that they had the Caesar salad, and it was dry. It really comes down to the last meal that you serve. You're literally as good as our last plate of food, and it's constant vigilance. I don't strive so much for perfection as I do for consistency.

Brian Canlis, restaurateur

I think it's a dangerous word. We talk a lot in our restaurant about the word "best," which is similar. There are a lot of lists with the word best in it, and we make no secret of the fact among our own staff that we are striving to be the best restaurant in America. It's not our mission statement, it's not like why we exist, but it's part of our strategy to achieve our mission statement, which is to change the world, to make it a better place. If we can become the best restaurant in America then our megaphone matters, people will want to listen.

But what does it mean to be the best or perfect? They're such subjective words. What I love about the words is as the guy running the company alongside my brother, is that we get to choose what best means. If we can have guests leaving our restaurant happier than any other restaurant in America, we're the best restaurant in America. Does that mean we have the best food or the best service or the best tableware or the best view or the best, I don't know, uniforms? Maybe one or two of those things we do really well, but it's not about achieving perfection or being the best at all those individual things, it's about the whole product being something that restores the guest into this place of joy that they've never experienced before. I think you can go down a dark road if you're trying to be the best or perfect at everything. I think it's a trap.

Gary Obligacion, general manager

Perfect is unattainable. I'm a huge sports fan. Vince Lombardi had a quote where he basically said, "We will never achieve perfection, but if we chase perfection, we will achieve excellence." In hospitality, that's kind of a thing. We do want to be excellent. We want to do our very best job, but it's not a matter of being perfect. It's doing what we want, to provide the product that you're looking for.

In a restaurant, it really means getting as close as we can to your ideal, whatever that means. It's communicating effectively. It's asking the right questions. It's assessing in the first 20 seconds what you want, what kind of mood you're in. We have four people at a table. They have very different expectations of what dinner is supposed to be. I'm not going to be producing any of that product. I'm going to go and I'm going to talk to a kitchen or a bartender, or somebody else to do that. But my job as a server, my job as a hospitality person, is to connect those two. Perfection is making that connection.

Jen Pelka, bar owner

I staged at Daniel when I was 22 years old. It was my first night working in a restaurant, I had never cooked in a restaurant before, somebody had called out so they threw me onto the canape station. I couldn't possibly make any sort of mistake that would really impact the guest. It was like putting dots of chive oil on a canape plate. It was no life or death situation.

We were putting these three-tiered silver trays of canapes through the pass. The chef that I was working under grabbed my arm, "What are you doing?" I said, "Oh my gosh, I'm so sorry." He said, "There are fingerprints on the platter. You don't get four stars if there are fingerprints on the platter." I was like, "Oh my god." At the time, Daniel was three or star New York Times, one of the top, top, top restaurants in the world. That pursuit for perfection is what got them to that place. But now, when I think about a lot of my perfect meals, a lot of times, they're dinners at home, or a really wonderful night at one of our favorite wine bars.

A perfect night of service at the Riddler is a night where all of our guests feel really taken care of and we've surprised a bunch of people with things that are new and interesting. We've had great interactions with our team members. The kitchen's been firing well and it just feels like a good night. In Japan, there's a tradition of wabi-sabi. I don't know what the direct translation is, but I think it's essentially like imperfect and perfect, the idea that things that are slightly broken have beauty in them. That's what makes things really special or memorable — those tiny little cracks or imperfections. Wabi-sabi's okay. It feels good. You don't want to be in a place where you feel like you're on your tiptoes.

Ti Martin, restaurateur

I have to tell you, and he's not sitting here with us but our darling chef Tory McPhail, I once told him that excellence was good enough, that perfection will [completely stress us out]. I had that talk with him very early on. He was driving himself — and me — a little bit, [to be completely stressed]. We had that chat because it really can make you [worn out]. We're all trying too hard. So we're just shooting for excellence.

Andrew Zimmern, TV host

That word has a toxicity to it that I learned long ago fed into what I believe is the most dangerous of human emotions: shame. My pursuit of perfection triggered a lot of my shame issues, and caused me to act out in irrational and hurtful ways to the people around me. And then I was surprised that they were hurt or offended or ran away. And when I forget about the word, "perfect," and when I let go of outcomes and just try to stay in today — outcomes and expectations are about tomorrow, shame and guilt is about the past — and let go of the word "perfection," things work out.

Andrew Friedman, writer

I think it's evolving. I recently talked to Kelly Fields about what she thought was her most signature dish, and it was a chocolate chip cookie. She spent two and a half years developing it. She did a different version of it daily. I interviewed her before the James Beard Awards, and she ended up winning Best Pastry Chef. Oftentimes people whose style is like hers — and this is mostly women, who tend to cook today in a much more rustic style, who are much less interested in the molecular, or modernist, or avant garde or show-offy — are overlooked for awards and attention in favor of people who cook in a more show-offy style. And I think the show-offy style is what seems perfect.

I think people are now understanding that there is value in stuff that doesn't jump up and down and scream "Look at me, look at me!" If it makes you happy, it can be perfect.

Brian Koppelman, showrunner

The pork bun at the original Momofuku Noodle Bar was a perfect thing. I told a million people, "You have to go eat this thing. It's the best thing I've ever eaten in my life." I knew it was going to change food in New York, and all that stuff, but the immediate questions it raised for me were, "How? Why? Who?"

The process to create something that we receive as perfect is mind boggling to me. When Dave Chang — who I love, and is my friend — found a way to create something that just existed on a plane that nothing else in the city existed on at that time. It was, we now know, through this incredible rigor, and discipline, and this notion that he wanted to find something perfectly delicious. So to me, the way Chang uses the word "delicious," not only in his show Ugly Delicious, as a better replacement than perfect in the food world for me has more impact. It's because the more specific it is, the better it is.

Hunter Lewis, editor-in chief

Perfect is bullshit. Perfect is the enemy of good. We strive for perfection, and we strive for "mind blowing restaurant experiences." What does it mean to have your mind blown? What does it mean to be perfect? In this day and age, we need to celebrate what's really good. It's comfort, consistency, durability. In the restaurant space, it's a place that is classic, and that has endured.

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