Customer Experience, Helium, Innovation, Passion

What Michelin Restaurants Can Teach Experience Professionals

Every experience-focused professional should eat at a 3-Michelin star restaurant at least once in their life. At first I didn't get it. I had just started dating a girl (who has since become my wife) and she spoke about her love of fine dining. To me, fine dining just meant a long, uptight experience where mucky-mucks spent exorbitant amounts of money for food that probably wouldn't even fill me up. I was fervently against the idea of spending an evening in that kind of a setting. Then she said to me "please, this is my Super Bowl." That really got me. My football team the Seahawks were on a legit playoff run, and I figured that if I went with her to her 'dinner' I could negotiate a similar arrangement to go to a real Super Bowl.

Now in retrospect, I can appreciate her usage of the Super Bowl metaphor. Just like the Super Bowl, 3-michelin star restaurants have reached the top level of their profession, in both examples, the world's elite are putting on a performance that can only be described as world-class. Also, like the Super Bowl, 3-star Michelin restaurants are a once in a lifetime opportunity. Restaurants are volatile, very few can maintain an elite level for several years in a row, and the menus are constantly changing so eating at a 3-star Michelin restaurant is truly a unique and fleeting experience.

For those that don't know the history of Michelin stars, it started in 1900 when Michelin (yes, the tire company) decided to build a guide for French travelers to know where local amenities such as restaurants and mechanics were available. They called it the Michelin Guide and its purpose to recommend local amenities remains intact today.

Michelin rates restaurants on a 3-star scale. Michelin defines the stars as follows:
⭐: one-star rating as ‘a very good restaurant in its category,’
⭐⭐: two stars as ‘excellent cuisine, worth a detour,’
⭐⭐⭐:three stars as ‘exceptional cuisine, worth a special journey’.

Needless to say, we went on that dinner. The experience left me speechless. As an experience designer, I couldn't believe this had not been on my radar. Quite simply put, fine dining restaurants have perfected the art of thoughtful experiences. The only commercial experiences I know of in this caliber would be Disney theme parks and luxury hotels. Since then we've been to over 30 Michelin star restaurants all across the globe. My wife goes for the food, I go for the experience, but we love it the same. Over that time, I've taken notes on what makes the great ones standout; here are a few of those anecdotes:

1. Know Your Customer
Nobu, New York, NY (One Star) ⭐

This goes way beyond knowing your name when you walk in. Nobu keeps detailed notes on each customer, as well as favorite/unique dishes they typically order. When Jay-Z walks into Nobu his custom order of 50 Black-Cod Lettuce Wraps have already been assembled by the kitchen before he has even sat down.

2. Every Single Customer Deserves Your 'A' Game
Daniel, New York, NY (Two Star) ⭐⭐

In the kitchen at Daniel you will find a photo wall of notable food critics. The entire staff commits these faces to memory and upon sighting they are trained to let it be known that the critic is in the house. The maître d' will ensure that they get a preferable seat, but the perks end there. While there is a special eye on the critic's experience, the staff does not do anything differently because they are already giving every single customer their perfect and full attention to detail.

3. Add Creativity to Traditional Experiences
yam'Tcha, Paris, FR (Two Star) ⭐⭐

Extensive wine menus are synonymous with Michelin rated restaurants. At these restaurants you can find wines of all varietals from nearly every corner of the globe. Every sommelier's goal is to achieve that perfect pairing where the wine and food play off each other like a symphony. At yam'Tcha, they embrace their cantonese-french fusion and put a spin on the traditional wine pairing. In addition to wine, meals are optionally paired with a curated tea tasting. Wine and tea are more similar than you might think especially when it comes to their wide range of flavor notes they offer. In an authentic way, yam'Tcha innovated an age old tradition, leaving the customer with a new experience even for fine dining veterans.

4. Connection to the Product
Guido, Serralunga D'Alba, IT (Two Star) ⭐⭐

Some bites are more special than others. Guido is a family owned restaurant whose deep Northern Italian roots can be tasted in every single bite. And while their menu is constantly changing, there is one dish that will always have a star role on the menu, the Agnolotti del Plin. Words won’t do it justice, but imagine little ravioli’s from heaven. The waitress will tell you of its history and how it’s been passed down from the family’s matriarch Lidia Alciati. Lidia’s sons Piero or Ugo will greet you at your table, and make sure you know you’re a welcome guest. You leave that meal feeling like you are a part of the family and with an appreciation for their family’s important role in food and food culture. The food can undoubtedly stand on its own, but you will want to come back because of the connections you’ve made to it.

5. The Product is Not Always What You Think It Is
Blue Hill at Stone Barns, (Two Star) ⭐⭐

I think of Dan Barber at Blue Hill a lot like I think of Elon Musk at Tesla. Yes they both create exceptionally innovative products, but both leaders represent so much more than their products. Like Elon is changing how people think about our environment, Dan is changing how people think of food. He didn’t start the farm-to-table revolution, but he is certainly leading the charge. He views the dining experience as an education on how to responsibly create food. Before I ate at Blue Hill, I saw Dan Barber’s TED talk on how farmers are creating environments where the livestock don’t want to leave. I then arrived early to tour the farm which created nearly all of the food we were about to eat. I also walked through a courtyard with buildings that most resemble the ones from Hogwarts; these buildings were not for dining, but rather for food exploration and science. In the middle of our meal, we were asked if we’d like to eat in their manure shed, where they use the heat produced from compost to slow cook the same vegetables that you are about to eat in that same room. Yes, the meal is incredible, but every one of these experiences made me understand the power of food, and gave me a deeper respect for each morsel that touched my lips.

7. Add Jazz - There's Such Thing as 'Too Perfect'
Eleven Madison Park, New York, NY (Three Star) ⭐⭐⭐

In the middle of our dinner, the waiter asked our table if we’d like a tour of the kitchen. It happens every so often and it’s always an incredible treat to be able to see the magic that occurs in the kitchen. The setting at Eleven Madison Park is high end, so it was particularly memorable when I went into the kitchen and saw large framed pictures of Miles Davis adorning every wall. I came to understand that early in the restaurant’s history a critic once told them that they were perfect - but too perfect, and that they could use a little Miles Davis improvisation. The Eleven Madison Park team took this to heart and asked everyone on their staff and in the kitchen to bring their own creativity to everything they do. It was partially this mentality of creative expression that led them to their three star Michelin rating and current (2017) rating as the best restaurant in the world.

8. Reinvent Yourself
Noma, Copenhagen, DN (Two Star) ⭐⭐

What do you do when you’ve become world-renowned and acclaimed as the number one restaurant in the world? You shut down of course. Purely out of a desire to push themselves and progress their craft, the team led by Rene Redzepi at Noma decided to close their restaurant and recreate Noma with a reconsidered vision. During their closing they created a pop-up restaurant in Australia foraging the local produce while gaining inspiration through their time there. Noma is not alone in its belief that reinvention is the path to progress, both Alinea and Eleven Madison Park have recently undergone similar transformations.

9. Anticipate Their Needs
Canlis, Seattle, WA

When you get up from your table to leave Canlis the hostess will grab your jacket and warm it over a fireplace so that it’s warm before you have to put it on. Your car is already waiting outside because they knew you were ready to leave. When you get in your car there is a box of chocolates because of course you still want something sweet to end what was already a perfect dinner. When you pay that much attention to detail and to the customer’s journey, you become their mind reader and you will surprise them over and over again with your thoughtfulness.

10. Scarcity Creates Demand
Piazza Duomo, IT (Three Star) ⭐⭐⭐

Here are the times I’ve camped out or woken up before 4am to purchase an item: Apple iPhone Gen 1, Jordan OVO 12 (still didn’t get it), ‘N Sync concert 1999, Tesla Model 3, Piazza Duomo. Both my wife and I set our alarms to 4am, the exact time in which we could go online and make a request for a reservation to dine at Piazza Duomo. The reservation would be over 4 months away, but there we were waiting for our chance to book a reservation. We got online, submitted our information and when we got the booking screen all the reservations were already taken for the dates we would be there! Devastated we went to Italy anyways and told our sob story to our AirBnB owners; to our surprise they said they might know of a way. A few phone calls and favors later we magically had a reservation. Not just any reservation, but one for Valentines Day. We were beyond elated and honored we could eat at this restaurant especially on such a special day. The scarcity and difficulty obtaining the reservation seems troublesome, but in the end it amplified our experience and made us appreciate the opportunity even more.

11. Performance Artists
Brooklyn Fare, Brooklyn, NY (Three Star) ⭐⭐⭐

My experience at Brooklyn Fare made me realize that fine dining is so much more than just food. It’s truly a performance of masters. Brooklyn Fare is unlike other restaurants in that you are seated in a U-shaped table with only 15 other patrons. Each diner has a clear view into the kitchen which is located in the middle of the U. You watch the chef and sous-chefs put together your food piece by piece in a way that can only be described as performance art. At the end of the dinner you want to give them a standing ovation.

12. Make it Personal
Eleven Madison Park, New York, NY (Three Star) ⭐⭐⭐

When you sit down at EMP, there is an envelope placed in front of every diner. You open the envelope, and reveal a ticket which has four symbols which can be punched out. Each symbol is an ingredient, such as Strawberry, Celery, Coffee, Cherry. It’s quite mysterious and exciting all at the same time. Your waiter will explain to you that your first task of the evening is to select one of the four symbols based on your preference. They don’t explain much more than that. During your meal your ingredient is showcased in several different ways, making your dining experience your own. For example, as a palate cleanser you were presented with your own soda infused with the ingredient you picked.

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Helium is a digital strategy and execution company focused on working with brands to create elevated experiences.