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Book Recommendation: Unreasonable Hospitality by Will Guidara


A Christmas 2022 note: It's been more than a few months since I've shared on this blog, and a lot has happened this year. I'm not the biggest fan of new year's resolutions but I will try to share more about what I learn via this medium in 2023. Happy Holidays and thanks for reading!


I love food: eating it, cooking it, and learning about it. One of my favourite podcasts is The Splendid Table - it gives me recipe ideas, answers questions I didn't even know I had and allows me to learn from influencers in the culinary world. A while back, I heard an episode featuring Will Guidara, where the podcast host Francis Lam interviews him about hosting guests during the holidays. They mentioned Guidara's new book Unreasonable Hospitality and I knew I had to read it!


Today, I finished the book. If you are a leader of volunteers- this is a must-read! Many of us think about practicing great customer service when practicing volunteer engagement. After reading this book, I have started thinking about how to practice unreasonable hospitality when practicing volunteer engagement.


As a whole, the book is primarily Guidara's reflection on his time as a leader at Eleven Maidson Park, which started as a high-end-ish bistro in New York City, then transformed into the world's number one restaurant. Guidara recounts lessons learned, moments of triumph, and how the conflicting goals of hospitality (exemplified by warmth and connection) and excellence (exemplified by precision and technical details) for Eleven Madison Park came up again and again as he and his partner navigated the business and relationships in fine dining.


In the first few chapters, Guidara breaks down what he means by unreasonable hospitality. First, he quotes someone he once interviewed but didn't hire, who said, "Service is black and white; hospitality is color." With this analogy, great customer service is doing the work competently and efficiently but great hospitality is doing all of that while making people feel authentically engaged. Then, Guidara notes that the word "unreasonable" is meant to shut down conversations, but saw the word as a "call to arms". He saw that "you need to be unreasonable to see a world that doesn't yet exist".


I'll be coming back to this book a few times and hope to blog about it again. Today, I want to share a few key ideas that resonated with me.


Idea 1: "It isn't the lavishness of the gift that counts, but its pricelessness"


At Eleven Madison Park, Guidara created a new job: Dreamweaver. Dreamweavers were there to make the guest experience extraordinary. An example of what the Dreamweavers did for a family of four: they noticed that the children at the table were delighted by the snowfall outside, and learned that it was the first time these out-of-towners had seen snow in person! So, at the end of the meal, the Dreamweavers led the family to a car containing four sleds inside. The car brought the guests to Central Park for post-meal sledding fun: a personalized and unforgettable experience. For the cost of an Uber ride and a few plastic sleds, these Dreamweavers provided a memory of a lifetime.


How did Guidara come up with the Dreamweaver job description? It started with him overhearing a table of Europeans who were on their way home, heading to the airport right after their meal. These visitors recounted all the delicious meals they enjoyed in New York at the hippest and fanciest restaurants. But, they also expressed disappointment that they didn't have the chance to try some street meat- the NYC dirty water hot dog. So, Guidara ran outside and bought a $2 hot dog from the nearest cart and asked the perplexed chef to cut it in four and plate it. He served it to the visitors and they were thrilled! The $2 hot dog made a way bigger impression than thousands of dollars of free champagne and caviar because it was deeply meaningful.


Guidara tells the reader that anyone in any business can give priceless gifts. He gives the example of a busy dad who just bought a new car for his growing family. This busy dad would likely appreciate a bag of goldfish crackers for his hangry toddler, rather than a branded tote. He gives another example with the real estate business, noting that most realtors give their clients and card and a bottle of bubbly. But if the realtor has been spending days or weeks with their clients, they would know about their hobbies and how they planned to do those hobbies in their new home. In this case, a new yoga mat in the sunny nook a client had noticed would bring a deeper emotional connection than that bottle of bubbly.


For me, these stories reminded me of an experience with a volunteer where I wasn't even thinking of gift-giving. It wasn't the holidays, it wasn't their volunteering anniversary or even their birthday. The volunteer mentioned that they enjoyed a speech that the organization's CEO gave a few years back, but had forgotten the exact contents. I tucked that info away and because I was just curious, typed in the CEO's name and the event that the speech was given at into Google. Lo and behold, a full transcript appeared, captured by the Globe and Mail. So, I printed out a copy of the speech and gave it to the volunteer the next time I saw him. He was shocked that I remembered his comment, and was so pleased with the opportunity to read the CEO's words that would re-inspire him.


The next time I am buying volunteer gifts or talking about volunteer recognition, I'll be thinking of this idea. I'm not sure exactly how I'll apply it. I welcome your thoughts (comment below or email me) and will keep you updated!


Idea 2: "There would be no menu at all, just a conversation about what you wanted to eat and what you didn't"


This idea came up a few times in the book. Near the beginning of Guidara's time with Eleven Madison Park, he and his business partner came up with a new idea that took the best of a tasting menu and combined it with the best of an a-la-carte menu. "We listed our dishes only by their principal ingredient... You controlled which of those you ordered but got to enjoy the surprise of how the ingredient was prepared and served and when it was delivered." They then took the idea further, not only asking diners about their allergies but also about the ingredients they didn't like, then curating dishes to suit those preferences.


The next time the idea came up in the book, was after Eleven Madison Park had earned four stars from the New York Times food critic. They were aiming to be named the best restaurant in the world by The World’s 50 Best Restaurants academy. In that process, they realized something was off: things were too complicated and convoluted. Diners were constantly interrupted by the refresh of plates, cutlery, wine, and spiels by the servers. This is in exact opposition to Guidara's dedication to hospitality, where "the service and good and the environment were mere ingredients in the recipe of human connection." So, they went back to basics: no menu, just a conversation. Diner experiences focused on relationships and connection.


I'd love to apply this to volunteer engagement, particularly as position descriptions are akin to menus; they describe what volunteers do as menus describe what diners will eat. I would not get rid of position descriptions- ever. Position descriptions are key to setting and managing expectations.


At the same time, could we have more and better conversations with volunteers about what they want to do? Could we work with volunteers to craft new position descriptions or alter position descriptions more often so that they co-create this aspect of engagement? What else could we learn from the fine dining world around presenting principle ingredients (or in our case, core tasks)?


I didn't expect to write this much today and hope that Guidara's ideas resonate with you as well. Share your thoughts and ideas in the comments, or reach out to me! Happy Holidays!


P.S. Guidara is also a judge on The Big Brunch alongside Sohla El-Waylly, a very binge-worth show that's perfect for the holiday season. Plus, it's hosted by Dan Levy.




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