The Ingredients of Great Service

My favorite breakfast in town is served on a simple diner-style plate, with paper napkins and no-fuss silverware. It comes with coffee served in a chunky white mug and ice water in a plastic cup. The green chile that smothers my eggs and the crispy potatoes served on the side are delicious, but that’s only part of why I keep returning. When I walk into the Pantry Restaurant, the servers and bussers and host smile and say hello—they know me by name. They know my eccentric order by heart (breakfast burrito with egg whites, vegetarian sausage, fresh vegetables, potatoes and an extra side of green) and what I want to drink. They ask about my family. I feel welcomed and appreciated and I’ll go back every week instead of choosing someplace new, just for this experience.

When it comes to choosing a restaurant, good food is important but good service is arguably just as imperative. Poor service can keep you from visiting a restaurant again, while great service and great servers will keep you coming back. But what are the critical ingredients for great service? As someone who’s worked on the other side of the table, from server to bartender to manager, I decided to ask colleagues from some of my favorite local restaurants to talk about what they think defines great service and what Santa Fe restaurant staff can do to foster great experiences for their guests.

During a busy Friday night or packed Sunday brunch at any restaurant in town, you’ve probably noticed the bussers and servers hustling through the dining room, on a sort of racetrack from the kitchen through the tables and back. A well-run restaurant is like a well-oiled machine and there’s a kind of dance between the employees as they work. This is what Luis Lozoya calls “the system.” Originally from Chihuahua, Mexico, Luis began working as a server at the Pantry 12 years ago and is one of the most recognizable faces of the restaurant.

At the Pantry, he says, everyone works as a team. The framework of service is a kind of cross training, where everyone knows how to do everything, so nothing falls through the cracks. “You have to have a good team,” he says, “and you have to know the system. We do everything here. If there’s food to run, you run the food, whether you’re a server or a busser. If you see a table that’s dirty, you clean the table.” He points out that Stan, the owner of the Pantry, and his son Michael, who currently runs the restaurant, are there working just as hard as the rest of the staff, wiping tables and running food and filling up drinks. “The food has to be good,” Luis emphasizes, “but the service has to be better.”

Owners and managers who aren’t afraid to get their hands dirty are huge contributors to a restaurant’s great service and success. When I arrived at the Plaza Cafe downtown to talk about service, Jared Garcia, the manager and son of owner Daniel Razatos, was crisscrossing the floor, darting from table to table to speak with customers and running credit cards. “We all roll up our sleeves,” he said as we sat at the counter. “My father still busses tables, runs food, serves tables, takes back the bus tubs. We’re a big team and we treat it like a big machine and we’re all working together. It’s very important to do that.” Ester Najarro has worked at the Plaza Cafe for 32 years, after coming to the U.S. from Guatemala. She points out that a good manager also knows how to communicate with customers and is always present on the floor. “A good manager walks around the tables, asking how customers are enjoying their meals,” she says. “They ask visitors where they’re from, what they’re doing in Santa Fe. A good server should also communicate well with customers in this way.”

Communicating well with customers, working as a team and even knowledge of the menu items and wine list are all important aspects of service. But great service goes beyond these technical aspects, as my colleague Jay Hayden pointed out while we discussed the concept of excellent service. Jay bartended for nearly 20 years before landing at Geronimo restaurant, where he’s worked for 16 years, and La Boca, where he’s worked for seven years. If anyone knows great service, it’s Jay. He reminded me of the difference between technical service and hospitality, a distinction made by Danny Meyer, founder of Union Square Cafe, Gramercy Tavern and Eleven Madison Park. Meyer says that service should be divided between the technical and the hospitable. Water glasses should remain full and food should arrive on time, but a server must also make the guest feel welcome and at home.

Jay believes the concept of hospitality applies no matter the style of service, whether it’s fine dining or a casual diner setting. “It doesn’t matter the level of service. The principles are the same. Even in different styles of dining, I’ve got to be spot on with service but I’ve also got to try to make that connection with customers.” Hospitality can be what separates an average dining experience from a fantastic one, and what makes you choose to go to one restaurant over another. Jay emphasizes that people have an endless number of choices when it comes to dining. “People can choose a multitude of restaurants. How do you get them to choose you?” Jared at the Plaza Cafe echoes this sentiment: “I explain to the staff that people choose us. They’re not only spending their money but they’re spending their time here and we want them to enjoy every minute.”

Hospitality is making customers feel welcomed and appreciated, not just keeping their water glasses full and the table clear. Jay says, “I want to figure out how to make it special so their experience is memorable.” Hospitality is all about how the customer feels, but it’s directly linked to how the restaurant staff, from bussers to managers, feel about their jobs. Some of the most hospitable people in the business are those who choose to work in restaurants as a career and are passionate about the work they do. I ask Luis at the Pantry why he loves being a server. “When you’re a server you know lots of people,” he explains. “There are people who come back every year, they ask about my family and they remember me. If you do this just for the money, it doesn’t work. It’s got to be your passion.” Ester at the Plaza Cafe agrees. When I ask what her favorite part of the job is, she doesn’t hesitate. “My customers. I have customers from all over the U.S. I love my customers.”

Matt Reynolds has worked at La Casa Sena for 15 years. He’s been a busser, a food runner, a head server, a bartender and is currently managing the restaurant. He considers working in the restaurant business a career, but points out that these days, there are a lot of people in the business who are just there for a quick buck. “There used to be more full-time workers,” he says. “Now, a lot of people have second jobs or they’re going to school for something else. Being in the restaurant isn’t their major focus.” Finding a restaurant with servers like Luis or Ester, who have passion for what they do and show us the meaning of hospitality, is something special. “In a restaurant like the Plaza Cafe, you can be a career server,” Jared says. “It’s not just a cafe, it’s something bigger than that. People keep coming in from all over the world. That’s something you can have pride in.”

As a server at two successful restaurants, Jay says that a staff’s attitude definitely contributes to a guest’s sense of hospitality. “I’m happy to be there,” he says, “and that translates out onto the floor. If you’ve got a happy staff and people are glad to be there, they’ll bring that attitude to the table.” He explains that dining culture has changed. These days, servers and managers aren’t just there to make sure your meal is delivered on time. People like Jay, Luis and Ester are the heart and soul of a restaurant and they have the potential to deliver a warmth and sense of welcome that will bring you back again and again. “You’re not just a waiter or waitress anymore,” Jay says. “You’re the host or hostess of the party.”

Originally published in the April, 2015 issue of Local Flavor Magazine.

Taberna La Boca-The Best of Spain in Santa Fe

Do you like tapas? Spanish wine? Sherry?! Check out my latest article for Localflavor magazine and if you live in town, swing by Taberna La Boca for a glass of Fino–yum!

T A B E R N A  L A  B O C A

from LocalFlavor magazine November 2012

The amazing creativity and energy of Chef James Campbell Caruso brings another winner to the Santa Fe culinary scene.

If your idea of dinner consists of an appetizer, entrée and dessert served at a quiet corner table to something that sounds suspiciously like elevator music, you may be pleasantly surprised to discover a very different atmosphere at Chef James Campbell Caruso’s new restaurant, Taberna La Boca. The Spanish music’s handclaps and toque guitar are almost overtaken by the collective sounds of voices and laughter. People are gathered around a large community table just inside the entrance where the doors are flung open, blurring the lines between inside and outside. Some sit, some stand and everyone eats. Even your mother would have to admit that here, eating with your hands is proper etiquette.

“I hate the fine dining concept, and I don’t like entrées,” Chef James, who has been nominated for the James Beard Award five times, says when I ask him about the concept behind Taberna. “We wanted to have a traditional tapas bar like you find in every corner of Spain and bring that to our community. It’s almost like a travel experience—when you come here it’s like you’ve gone somewhere else.” In Spain, tapas evolved as a practical snack to accompany the drinks in taverns. Thin slices of bread or meat were used by sherry drinkers in Andalusia to cover their glasses and keep the fruit flies away. Eventually tapas became a way to increase alcohol sales, since the salty ham or chorizo snacks made tavern-goers thirstier.

The inspiration for Taberna came from Chef James’ travels to Spain. Here, the streets are lined with tapas bars, all with their own specialty. The idea is to hop from one to another, always with a group of friends—your tapeña—eating and drinking along the way. “Each house has their specialty. You go to one specifically for the fried fish, the next for the razor clams and the third has really good tortilla española,” Chef James explains. The hop starts late, around 10:00pm when the streets explode with people and groups of friends hang out together eating and drinking until 3:00 in the morning.

The community feel of the Spanish tapas bars is what Chef James loves best about the culinary scene in Spain and what he wants to share with Santa Fe. He says, “In Spain, they’re so passionate about the food and the ingredients and the history and the cooking style, but it’s almost secondary to the space and the social way to gather and eat and share food and wine with your friends.” Although Chef James’ other tapas restaurant, La Boca, is similar, Taberna presents a more casual, communal dining experience. The food is simpler than at La Boca and more focused on traditional style tapas.

The physical space at Taberna is also different from La Boca. Chef James took a cue from La Boca’s tightly spaced tables, which encouraged conversation and sharing between tables, but added a long, 12-seat bar and big community table where people can gather and crowd in. Want to talk to someone at the other end of the table? Just get up, walk over and continue eating and drinking. There’s never a need to wait for food: there are cold tapas on the bar available to order as soon as you walk in. This is definitely a bit of Spain in Santa Fe, a call to the Pintxos (tapas speared with toothpicks) bars in Basque country where your bill is tabulated by how many toothpicks have collected on your plate. Chef James says, “My concept is: you’re here, let’s start eating!”

Taberna represents no less than a coup against the status quo of dining in Santa Fe. Our idea of a single big entrée is giving way to smaller portions that everyone shares. Chef James points out that those in Santa Fe’s innovative culinary scene have been quick to respond to the tapas concept. Our city now has four restaurants focusing on tapas including El Farol, where James was once executive chef. Since opening in September Taberna has been full almost every night. He says, “When I first started La Boca, I had some critics tell me I was just jumping on the trend of small plates. And I said it’s not a trend, it’s a revolution! It’s changing the way we really want to eat in the US.” The price point is low and the diner is in control—you can choose several tapas and a bottle of wine or just have a glass with a three-dollar tapa during happy hour.

This revolution extends to wine. While La Boca serves wine from France, Italy and Spain, Taberna focuses solely on Spanish wine with great emphasis placed on sherry. The only wine you’ll drink here is wine you’d find in a Spanish tapas bar. With the high quality but inexpensive price of most Spanish wines, this is music to a wine lover’s ears. And if you think sherry is an old lady’s sweet after dinner drink, Chef James will soon change your mind. One of his first trips to Spain took him to sherry country and the seaside town of Jerez, part of the sherry triangle and one of three towns where sherry can legally be made. “There’s something magical about that area. The sherries smell like they bottled the air in Jerez, this real salty, briny, fresh seafood and sea foam scent that you find in fino sherries, the real fresh, light sherries.”

Chef James Campbell Caruso

James was one of four chefs nominated to compete in the Sherry Council of America’s “Copa Jerez International Food and Sherry Pairing Competition,” and listening to him talk about sherry makes me long for his fantastic gambas a la plancha, shrimp with garlic, lemon and olive oil seared on the flat iron grill, or the mariscada verde—shellfish stew with garlic, Albariño, mussels and clams. Many of the tapas served at Taberna are prepared with Spanish wine, like the champiñones al Jerez, a plate of different mushrooms sautéed in fino sherry. This is, of course, the way to drink sherry—with tapas the fresh, salty, tangy wines shine.

Sherry comes in several styles meant for several different types of food, as Chef James will explain to you. There are four major styles, and all of sherry making comes down to trying to make a fino, that fresh, light sherry perfect for seafood. “The sherry has a layer of yeast growing on it that protects it from oxidation. Every other sherry down the line occurs because something went wrong with the fino and the yeast died. So they’re all happy accidents.” As the wine ages and oxidizes more, you are left with amontillados, olorosos and cream sherries, which are progressively richer and sweeter with dried fruit, raisin and nutty tones, better for pairing with dessert. At the end of the line is Pedro Ximénez, a super-sweet, super-rich sherry that’s so thick you can order it at Taberna poured over ice cream!

If you don’t immediately get addicted to sherry, there are some other amazing Spanish wines on the list, all reasonably priced. A friend and I ordered the 2011 Louro do Bolo from Valdeorras, a blend of Godello and Treixadura, two grapes from the Galicia region in northwest Spain. This wine is comparable to Chardonnay, with bright citrus fruit, buttery overtones and a toasty oak character.

All this adds to another of Taberna’s revolutionary qualities, which is its versatility. The restaurant transforms into a café at lunch, with coffee and delicious bocadillos, little sandwiches of rosemary ham, pork shoulder or Ahi tuna salad. Tapas are served until 11pm, which is great news for Santa Fe’s late-night diners whose options have been, to date, somewhat limited. Chef James also plans to hold educational classes about Spanish cuisine and sherry. In his opinion, added knowledge of food and wine serves to enhance your enjoyment. Of course it’s more fun to drink sherry at Taberna where you can look across the bar and see an Amontillado aging in cask, a gift from the folks at Bodegas Hidalgo, one of the most well respected Sherry producers in Spain.

For Chef James, food and the sense of community it brings to people are a way of life. Chef James says, “In Spain, everybody’s a chef. There’s a real camaraderie, fraternity. It’s not an obsession with food, it’s just so ingrained that they don’t even think of it. To them it’s like breathing, it’s like, why wouldn’t you enjoy every single meal?”  Viva Taberna La Boca!