There’s often an assumption that, as a founder of a restaurant rating system, I get a lot of free food and drinks. Nothing could be further from the truth! As opinionated as I am about restaurants, my preferences don’t factor into Renzell’s methodology so there’s no need for anyone to impress me.

The upside is that I can talk openly with owners, sommeliers, chefs, servers, bartenders, general managers, private dining directors, and everyone else in between, at restaurants around the country. Since launching our first list in New York City—and expanding to San Francisco and Chicago—and releasing our first set of official ratings in September, I’ve learned a lot about the restaurants Renzell covers and the people on the inside who make them so successful.

Over the past month I’ve hand-delivered each NYC restaurant’s personalized Renzell plaque of recognition. I try to stop by just before service begins, and always find the restaurants buzzing with pre-service energy; prep-work in the kitchen, final touches to the tables, bar re-stocking, uniform-primping, and family meals.

Not one person has been too busy to take a moment, say hello, shake my hand, talk about their restaurant and, in many cases, they’ve pulled back the curtain to show me a whole lot more. Michael White took me downstairs to the underground kitchens at Marea to show off his fresh fish selection and then proceeded to play a video on his phone of his own East River striped bass catch. Jean-Georges Vongerichten happily posed for a photograph in the Jean-Georges kitchen and even allowed a patron to photobomb our shoot. Eamon Rockey laughingly played frisbee with the plaque along with the entire Betony team while posing for a group shot on 57th Street. Cedric and Louise Vongerichten shared stories at Perry Street of their philanthropic efforts with Food Dreams while touring me around their kitchen. Daniel Boulud brought his team out front of Daniel and personally curated the Renzell photo shoot on 65th street while simultaneously greeting fans. I amiably chatted with Ronny Emborg, Matthew Abbick and Michael Stein at Atera about what really drives them—the soundtrack!

 

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Dan Barber let me sit in on the pre-dinner, front of house, meeting at Blue Hill as they discussed that night’s menu. The team at Carbone showed me around their sumptuous dining room while gracefully handling a guest who had showed up at 3:22pm for a 5pm reservation. At ZZ’s Clam Bar, Cody Loiselle made me a Bee’s Kiss; the Eleven Madison Park team insisted that I sit have a midday cocktail; and Christine Wright at Hearth poured me her latest favorite wine (ok, so every once in awhile I do get a free drink!). At Contra I witnessed Fabian von Hauske casually transporting a tray of uni between Wildair and Contra. Matt and Barbara Lambert, and the entire Musket Room team, piled out onto Elizabeth Street for an impromptu photo. At Craft we were given a royal tour even as we barged in on their family meal. Norihiro Ishizuka at Kura, Hirohisa Koyama at Hirohisa and Ju Yong Kim at Jungsik all happily posed for solo shots. Soulayphet Schwader at Khe-Yo claimed to be camera-shy before flashing the biggest smile around. At L’Artusi, the team showed off the 19th century self-published cookbook after whose author the restaurant is named. At Minetta Tavern, I was assured that the Renzell plaque was much better looking than their Michelin stars (we’ll take it!), and Simon Kim at Piora instantly installed our plaque right next to his own star. And at Upholstery Store, Kurt Gutenbrunner covered his boyish face with our plaque. At Momofuku Ko I spoke with Sean Gray, Chase Sinzer and Su Wong Ruiz about the perils of modern journalism and I got into a heavy conversation with Joel Steiger at Morimoto about the Renzell scoring system. At Pearl and Ash, Trae Basore astonishingly whipped up three dishes for us to photograph. On quiet Commerce Street a small crowd of tourists gathered to watch Daisuke Nakazawa, Garrett Smith and the entire Nakazawa team ham it up. Misha Mariani and Jonathan Benno graciously hosted me for dinner at Lincoln. And the Zenkichi team graciously posing for a photo right before throwing a Renzell experience for twenty Renzell members.

Everywhere I go, I’m met with eager kindness and a genuine interest in the Renzell project.

In the midst of all the activity that goes into running a restaurant, I’m grateful any member of the staff would give me the time of day, let alone shake my hand, talk with me, show me around, and pose for a picture. There’s a reason these people are in the hospitality business, and their passion is clear the moment you step in the door. It’s been amazing to talk about what Renzell does and hear that people in the restaurant business see a need for it. From the celebrity chefs to the runners, people who work in restaurants—especially the ones on our list—care deeply about feedback from their guests. And if they hear the guests are pleased, they’re pleased. And so am I.