Morgan’s in The Desert: What Makes a Leading Waldorf Astoria Restaurant Tick?

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In his 341-page coffee table book, “Bouchon,” America’s most famous chef and one of the nation’s most successful restaurant owners, Thomas Keller, describes why he opened a rustic bistro next door to his legendary ultra high-end dinning restaurant called the French Laundry in California’s Napa Valley.

Keller used to joke that the bistro, named Bouchon, was meant as a place for him to eat after he cooked all night at the French Laundry. “The truth of it is that bistro cooking is my favorite food to eat,” he writes in his 2004 book. “Roast chicken and a salad of fresh lettuces with a simple vinaigrette. Friesée salad with crisp, chewy lardons and a poached egg. A dense steak with lemon-herb butter and fruits. Ask chefs what their notion of a perfect meal is and nine out of ten will name dishes such as these.”

John Healy has been associated with restaurants such as Bouchon since he was 12 years old. A native of Detroit, Michigan, he is the general manager of Morgan’s in the Desert, a restaurant in the legendary La Quinta Resort & Club in the heart of Coachella Valley near Palm Springs, California. Owned by the Waldorf Astoria, the 40-acre property dates back to 1929 and has been a magnet for celebrities over the decades.

Healy stands out as a restaurant manager because he has a history of working with a trusted team of chefs—and sommeliers and bartenders. He is a longtime friend and associate of Jimmy Schmidt, Morgan’s executive chef and the only person ever in the whole of America to win the prestigious James Beard Award thrice (Wolfgang Puck has won the award once). Schmidt is one of the original board members of The James Beard Foundation, which is devoted to nurturing, honoring and celebrating America’s diverse culinary heritage. A pioneer of sustainable cooking and farm-to-fork dining long before these became buzzwords, Schmidt founded Chefs Collaborative in 1991, the leading nonprofit organization of chefs in the United States devoted to fostering a sustainable food system.

Schmidt is known for his imaginative, healthful recipes that trick diners into thinking they’re eating dishes made with butter, cream and pasta when they’re actually eating nothing of the sort. What the master chef does is take flavorful and nutritional ingredients such as scallops, celeriac and apples and shape them to look like ravioli. How? “Giant sea scallops are pounded paper thin, topped with a lobster medley, then sealed with a final sheet of scallop to look exactly like a ravioli,” explains Julie Ann Fineman in a 2012 Huffington Post blog. “Tart apples sliced thin and flash-caramelized encase roasted cauliflower to form a ‘creamy’ nugget. Celeriac is sliced thin, blanched al dente, then filled with a wild mushroom ragout to deliver a rich woodsy flavor.”

Healy and Schmidt started out as a team in Detroit, moved to Denver and Washington D.C., and now work in the deserts of Southern California. What drives such restaurant professionals? What are the advantages of sticking with a team? What, in short, are the ingredients of success in the restaurant business? Healy opens his heart out in a wide-ranging interview. Excerpts:

How did you get into the restaurant business?

My first day in a restaurant was in a place called Andy’s Town Lounge outside Detroit, Michigan. It was Mother’s Day, which is notoriously busy, and I think I was 12 years old. I was a dishwasher, and the stack of dishes in front of me was taller than I was. The dishes kept coming and coming—I never thought it would end. It was like a scene from I Love Lucy.

Was it a summer job?

No. My father died when I was four years old. I never knew my dad. My mother worked a lot, and I had to bring in some extra money for the family.

So back in the day you had to do dishes before you did anything else in a restaurant, right?

Yup. I did that for a year and then became a bus boy. I loved being a bus boy because I got tips. The waitresses always tipped the bus boys—they never tipped the dishwashers.

Is that how it is these days, too—the bus boys get tips but not the dishwashers?

Oh yes. The dishwashers never get tips.

What was the next stage in your restaurant career?

When I was 17 or 18 I became a bartender at the same place. I trained for six months under a guy by the name of Old Henry. He was a gentleman’s pro—the best. I worked there on and off while I was going to college. And then my big break came when I was 20 or 21 and got hired at the London Chop House in Detroit. It was a world-famous restaurant. And that’s where I first met Chef Jimmy Schmidt.

Where was the London Chop House located?

In the financial district. 155 Congress was the address in downtown Detroit.

People don’t typically think of Detroit when they think of good food. Do you?

No—a lot of people don’t. But that’s a shame because there are a lot of good restaurants in Detroit.

Why’s that? Because of the Big Five?

Yes. People don’t understand. They all think of Detroit proper, especially in these days of the bankruptcy of the auto companies. But Detroit has some of the wealthiest suburbs in the nation.

Where did you go after the London Chop House?

Jimmy opened a restaurant called the Rattlesnake Grill in Detroit. It served American food—everything from rack of lamb to salmon. I followed him and worked there as a server for 10-12 years.

And what happened to the Rattlesnake?

Jimmy sold it about five years ago to the Stroh family, from the Stroh Brewery. But before that, in 2003, he was approached by Spotlight 29, a casino in Indio, California, to start a restaurant there. Donald Trump had the marketing rights to the casino for a couple of years. We did a five-year stint there, Jimmy and I. I was a server and head trainer at Spotlight. And I was going back and forth between the Rattlesnake and Detroit quite a bit.

Why did you leave the casino?

The casino was tough. It just wasn’t a good match with us. The atmosphere was very different. People were there to win money. And a lot of them didn’t. And even though we built our own clientele of foodies who came just to eat at the restaurant and not necessarily go to the casino, the place was a different animal. It was very noisy—just not what we were used to.

After we left the casino, the Classic Club was building a brand new clubhouse and golf course at the Bob Hope in Palm Desert. And Jimmy and I were there—at a restaurant called the Rattlesnake Classic Club—for approximately a year and a half. We were on a contract there. They built the course in the clubhouse specifically to be one of the host courses for the Bob Hope Classic Golf Tournament. And they held the tournament there for a couple of years. But my understanding is that the golfers didn’t quite like the course—the windy conditions—so they took the Classic Club out of the rotation during the tournament. And that was a big piece of their business.

What was the next stage of your relationship with Jimmy?

Jimmy was approached by the Hilton Corporation, which owns the Waldorf Astoria. Hilton has eight or nine brands of hotels and the Waldorf hotels are their flagship. They asked him if he was interested in looking at the Morgan’s project at La Quinta, which is located in the original dining room of the hotel in 1929 and named after the hotel’s original owner. Jimmy came to an agreement with Hilton in 2008. He’s the executive chef. He still lives in Detroit but comes out about 14 times a year, four days at a time. He still designs all the menu items and has full control of the kitchen. The head chef when Jimmy is not there is Brian Recour, who also started with us at the Rattlesnake in Detroit. So is the bartender. Our whole crew has pretty much stayed together out here since 2003. And most of us also worked together back in Detroit also. It’s a family.

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What has the performance of Morgan’s been like?

We have a lot of local fans who don’t come to us through the resort. That’s what makes us unique. We’ve done very well. Every year, we’ve matched if not doubled the volume that Hilton asked us to meet when we started. The restaurant started very successfully and still is going strong. They set some pretty lofty goals and we knocked them out of the park.

What’s the secret to your success?

Quality product, quality people, quality atmosphere. Service, atmosphere and food are the three biggies. You have to have great food, a great ambience and you have to have great service. All three are equally important. You can have the best of any of the two, and if the third is lacking, the two that are the best can’t make up for it. All three have to be right.

How do you create great service?

We thought this out very seriously when we started, and we have a set of standards that we call Morgan’s service standards. There are things that we will not budge on. Did you notice that when you had your soup we French-served it at the table. That’s table-side service. The soup wasn’t pre-poured and brought out of the kitchen. There are certain things that we do and we do them right every day.

Every day, we have a pre-shift meeting with the staff. Everyone is brought up to date with the menu items of the day and about any kind of VIPs that are coming in. We call it the pre-shift lineup to make sure that everybody’s on the same page—dancing to the same fiddler—before we open the doors to the public.

Every day, the last thing I tell my staff at the pre-shift lineup is to go make friends—because that’s what we do. We make friends. That means, you’ll never hear a standard greetings such as, Hello, I’m your server, my name’s so-and-so. Every person brings their personality to the table. We interact with our guests. We know when they want to interact, and more importantly, we know when they don’t want to interact. We read the table to see how much involvement they want to have and we let the guests set the pace.

It’s a fine balance between giving good service and being a nuisance.

Exactly. Not everybody wants the same thing. Some people want to have a quite, romantic anniversary dinner and not be bothered. Other people want to be educated about the food or wine. Everybody wants something different. And good service is the art of knowing and reading the guest.

Are there any cues to watch out for?

Just following body language. You can tell if someone’s having a good day and you can tell if someone’s having a bad day.

How is good ambience created?

As far as Morgan’s is concerned, the ambience was mostly created when the hotel was built. That is, the wood ceiling and the wood floor and the stone floor—the different textures. The lighting in any restaurant is very important. The aromas are very important. To create a memory, you have to touch all five senses. If you do that, people remember things.

Regarding aromas, besides the smell of the food wafting into the restaurant from the kitchen, is there something else?

The orange grove on our back patio. When you’re sitting out on the patio and the orange blossoms are blooming, it’s incredible. In the winter, when the fireplaces are burning oak wood—people remember all those smells. The oil lamps on our tables are unscented. You would never want to light scented oils or candles on a table that would interfere with the aromas of the food.

What’s great about your food? If you had to pick one factor across the board what would it be?

Nothing’s one-dimensional. One-dimensional is just bland.

That’s got to be the pithiest spot-on answer to a culinary question. But how do you get food to not be one-dimensional?

First off, you use the freshest products you can find. We source most of our products from local farms. In fact, every single item on our menu, which changes daily, is sourced very carefully.

Okay, so fresh produce is really important in the success of any restaurant. What else is important?

Our Wagyu beef is single-sourced from the Joseph Decuis Farms in Indiana. We take our beef so seriously that we actually know which cow a particular batch of beef came from. We have gone to the farm and taught them how to improve the yield from their own cows. We’re now using some Wagyu fat to do our deep-frying with. And that gives a whole new flavor to things that no one has ever tried before.

We also use different seasonings and salt mixtures. They make a big difference. And we also use a lot of emulsions. We make our own sauces—and those you can tweak. You can play with the acidity levels and do some fun stuff.

Could you give some examples?

Sure. We’ll make a basil oil or a chive oil. Or we’ll mix the juices from a particular kind of meat with salt and then use that juice while cooking instead of directly sprinkling salt in the dish. We have a range of wonderful salts, including one that’s been infused with syrah wine.

You must get a lot of celebrities.

We have a ton. But we also have a huge discretionary policy regarding VIPs or celebrities or sports figures. We could never mention any names. These days people like to sound off on Facebook or post something on Instagram about who they saw at dinner. Anyone on my staff who does that is fired the next day.

Without mentioning any celebrity names, are there any anecdotes that stand out?

Oh, boy—you never know who’s going to be playing the piano when it rains during the Bob Hope tournament. As you know, the Bob Hope’s a celebrity golf tournament. And a lot of those celebrities are pretty famous musicians. The one year that it did rain, a lot of them decided to get on the piano and have a blast. You never know in Southern California who’s going to walk in your door. It could be anybody—a lot of celebrities.

Are celebrities’ palates pretty highly developed?

Yes. Because they’re spoiled—they can eat at any of the best places anywhere in the world.

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Have you ever thought of opening your own restaurant?

No. Statistically, it’s a very tough thing to do. Restaurants have about a 80 percent failure rate in the first two years. It takes a lot of money to open a restaurant and so it’s an extremely high-risk venture.

But in the right hands, a restaurant can do incredibly well too, right?

Oh yes. But it’s more than just the cost of the dish. It’s also the land, the real estate—it’s all about how the deal is put together. There are a lot of caveats. To the learn the hard way, you go broke.

So the next best thing to owning a restaurant is to manage one. The safer way to go?

Yes, definitely. There’s no risk involved. Being part of a big company such as Hilton has the advantage of a great deal of support. They have an HR department, an accounting department, an engineering department, a trash and sanitation department. That’s a big part of the picture. That’s stuff I don’t have to worry about. Yet would I love doing my own place up one day? I don’t know. It has its pluses and its minuses.

What would the pluses be?

The pluses would be that I can make all the decisions myself and own them. And make more money. I’d be my own boss.

How many hours a day do you work on average?

Ten to 12. Twelve if there’s something big going on. Usually 10.

What advice would you give to people who want to open their own restaurant and have the funds to do so?

The first thing I’d tell them is to surround themselves with knowledgeable restaurant people. People who have actually worked in restaurant—not people who have eaten in a lot of restaurants and think they know how to run one. Does the guy who sits on a barstool know how to run a bar? He doesn’t.

Yes, you can know a lot about wine by drinking it, but that doesn’t mean you can successfully manage a vineyard.

Exactly.

Are there any other people that an aspiring restaurant owner should go to for advice?

A trusted accountant and a good lawyer, especially if you’re getting into any kind of leases or square-footage or percentage of sales agreements. Just because someone knows how to run a restaurant doesn’t mean they know the professional end of the business. But on the whole, it’s like anything else: You surround yourself with good people.

There are so many things to worry about while starting a restaurant. What are two or three of the toughest elements that are really important to get right?

Your concept: Make sure your concept is solid. For example, if you’re going to be a gluten-free pizza place, make sure you have the right market for it. Our concept at Morgan’s is rustic dining—rustic elegance. We don’t really consider ourselves fine dining. We consider ourselves desert casual because we’re part of a resort. So if we put our waiters in tuxedos, they would be out of place because our guests are casual—they’re at a resort, relaxing. So you’ve got to make sure your concept fits whatever you’re doing. And surround yourself with the best talent you can buy.

Any other tips?

Know what you’re getting into. It’s not an easy profession. It’s weekends, it’s holidays—you’re going to give up a lot of your personal life to run a restaurant.

So, given all that, why do people enter the restaurant business?

Because they have a passion for it.

What do you think drives that passion? Love of food? People?

For me, it’s knowing that I’m good at what I do. I look forward to going to work every single day. I’ve known people who work on an assembly line every monotonous day. I never have two days that are the same.

What is it about the restaurant business that you really love?

The people, plain and simple—the guests and the coworkers.

What do you think drives the kitchen staff—the chefs?

What drives them is being able to take pride in what they’re putting on a plate. Our chefs are extremely proud of every dish that leaves the kitchen. They would never send anything out that they don’t think is perfect.

And what about the waiters? What drives them?

Obviously, the people. They’re not recluses—they’re not shy. At the level we operate, we get waiters who are professionals—they’re not serving at tables while going through college. It’s not a temporary job—it’s what they do.

As you said, the restaurant business takes up a lot of a person’s time. I imagine it’s not a business for someone who doesn’t plan on being around regularly—an absentee landlord.

That’s right. Very few absentee owners make it. Every day, you have to have your hand on the pulse. You can’t run a restaurant and not be there.

But what if they hire an amazing manager such as you?

Yes, if restaurants are your hobby you can always hire someone who’s trusted. But I could never imagine owning a restaurant and running it by proxy.

What kind of personality is best suited to the restaurant business?

An outgoing personality. Shy doesn’t work in a restaurant. It’s an interesting business, but it’s not for everybody. For me, I love it. If I were to work in a cubicle from 9 to 5, I wouldn’t last a week.

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