Creatives and hospitality pros tackle what it means to be present.

By Brianna Wippman
Updated May 24, 2017
© Sven Eselgroth

At this week's third annual Welcome Conference—hosted by restaurateur Will Guidara and Anthony Rudolf (formerly of Thomas Keller Group)—creatives and hospitality pros came together to answer the question, "What does it mean to be present?" Stories were told, magic tricks were performed and strangers introduced themselves to each other using only one-word adjectives. Here, five great things we learned about what it means to be present.

1. Food traditions can help you find calm in chaos.
Many of us have a favorite food memory, a dish that we dream about, can taste and feel. In a story about finding that one constant, Food & Wine's editor, Nilou Motamed, recalled an exquisite Persian Barley Soup she had on summer vacations as a child in Iran—before the 1979 revolution forced her family to flee to Paris. While her life was never the same, soup remained a constant, from the chicken noodle soup she ate with her first American friend as a teenager, to bonding with her future husband over soup dumplings in New York City or Pho in Vietnam. "Sometimes, to find your way home and be in the present, you have to remind yourself to slow down," explains Nilou. "And what takes more time than soup? Soup is the most unpretentious dish. Sure you can dress it up, but you can't rush it. It takes time." So every Sunday you can find Nilou in her kitchen, cooking delicious soup. Catch her full remarks in the video below starting at minute 55:45.

2. But other routines are meant to be changed.
Magician Dan White has performed over 200 shows at the NoMad, but changes every show. "Repetition is the roadblock to being present," says White. While he may perform the same feats every single night, he always looks for ways to incorporate small things that are different—whether it's the way he holds the deck of cards or the words he uses to introduce a trick. The audience will never know, but this ensures that White remains present during each show so that every time it's the best possible show he can give. The show has to create wonder. "Wonder forces you to ask questions" and gives people an experience that's interactive.

3. Bond bright.
Pastry genius Christina Tosi wears a lot of hats; on any given day she's tasting cake batter for Milk Bar, discussing ideas for Momofuku's new delivery service Ando, working on TV show MasterChef, or FaceTiming with her nieces. So how does she stay present? "I believe in the power of relationships and the bonds you build with people," says Tosi. To that end, she has an elaborate organizational system to nurture these bonds. "I think about each bond as a room in my head. There are eight main rooms: Milk bar where I'm a boss, Momofuku where I'm a partner, MasterChef room where I'm glammed up on TV as a mentor judging food, mom room where I'm a daughter, sister room where I'm a proud aunt, a room for my man (an important room) and my room, which is all about me." These rooms are governed by a golden rule, "You can't be in more than one room at a time." It's hard and you'll fail sometimes, but being present "is all about being a perpetual enthusiast, in the constant pursuit of having it all."

4. Start small to erase the static noise.
"There's a difference between service and hospitality," says Master Sommelier Bobby Stuckey. "Hospitality demands that you care." Stuckey is the first to admit that being present in the dining room is not easy. "There's a lot of static noise." But if you start small, just listening even if you don't have all of the answers, you're on the way to erasing static noise. "We have to bring small acts of kindness, not just to the customer but also to the employees, management, the business." That's the key to getting rid of static noise.

5. Creating a sense of place is about the people.
For star chef Marcus Samuelsson, being present is about fostering community. "When I opened [Harlem restaurant] Red Rooster, it was important to me that it be a neighborhood spot, really for the locals." To do that, Samuelsson wanted to shine the light on more than just local ingredients. "Local doesn't always mean what's in season, the most important ingredients are the people," he says. At Red Rooster, a majority of the employees live in Harlem, the art spotlights Harlem residents (such as Harlem native Lana Turner's beautiful costumes) and the bands that play gigs exemplify Harlem's soul.