A thing done well
John Updike, when referring to baseball great Ted Williams, once wrote: “Williams is the classic ballplayer of the game on a hot August weekday, before a small crowd, when the only thing at stake is the tissue-thin difference between a thing done well and a thing done ill. Baseball is a game of the long season, of relentless and gradual averaging-out.”
I think that the same could be said of restaurant greats. The restaurant business is one of a relentlessly long, often unending season. The difference between being pretty good and being great usually happens on those slow Tuesday nites when the covers are few and there is a “tissue-thin difference between a thing done well and a thing done ill.”
During my years in the business, the operator that I’m most impressed with is Jonathan Alikakos, the retired owner of Jonathan’s of Oakville. Oakville is a suburb of Toronto, Canada. Jonathan’s son, Jason, now runs the restaurant and bistro.
Jonathan created magic there. I’m not sure how he did it, but I am sure that it didn’t happen by accident.
Yes, Jonathan has some God-given gifts that are difficult to duplicate. He is “savoir faire” personified and his culinary skills can’t be questioned. Jonathan fine-tuned his skills and maintained an incredible passion that set him apart. He started humbly in downtown Toronto, always made improvements, and more improvements on original improvements. He moved to Oakville, continued the progression, and his restaurant evolved into a very special place.
In his later years, after success came, he operated like a symphony conductor. There is a discernable pride, from the kitchen staff, for the food is always unimaginably and consistently good, -to the cleaning crew, the place is always spotless: - and I do mean spotless. (One night, a fellow diner and I went on a hunt for a spot, a smudge, a trace of dust, of spilled food, of dirt – we couldn’t find any: not a smudge on a shiny object, no dust, mirrors so sharp they seemed to be three dimensional.)
Ditto for the service staff: they are obviously proud to be part of the team. They ask for your name once and seem to know it six months from now, six years from now. How do they do it? I can’t remember names for six minutes.
The words that come to mind when leaving are: quality, cleanliness, sincerity, genuineness, and of course, delicious. There is magic in the way this complicated machine, known as a restaurant, runs in sync, -smoothly.
I can’t put my finger on one outstanding thing that they do there, but all the little things, all the i’s dotted and t’s crossed, they all add up to a magic that makes everyone not only welcome, but important and appreciated. Maybe it’s the Greek charm, maybe it’s the perfect blend of science, art, elbow grease and good common sense. Whatever it is, it creates a magic, and it works.
They do it constantly and consistently, day-in, day-out, week after week, year after year: and yes they find that tissue-thin difference between a thing done well and so-so.
It’s obvious that Jonathan, over the years, has built a rock solid foundation: one stone at a time. The foundation was firm and solid before the super-structure went into place. When one stone is removed, there is another fit to size. Jonathan has retired and Jason takes up where dad left off. Good stuff.
I’m not telling you about anything you don’t know, you know this stuff. Now smile, even if you have to fake it, and get back into the kitchen and cook some more frigg’n peas.
Creativity is merely a plus name for regular activity. Any activity becomes creative when the doer cares about doing it right, or better.- John Updike