Will Guidara’s account of the night that changed EMP’s history

New York’s Eleven Madison Park first appeared in The World’s 50 Best Restaurants in 2010, and climbed the list all the way to be ranked No.1 in 2017. As co-owner, Will Guidara was a key architect of the restaurant’s extraordinary success, built on a radically different approach to looking after its guests. In this exclusive extract from his brand-new book, Unreasonable Hospitality, the restaurateur charts the origins of his philosophy back to a seminal evening in London

At home, we were on top of the world.

Our restaurant, Eleven Madison Park, had recently received four stars from The New York Times, and a couple of James Beard Awards, too. But when my chef-partner Daniel Humm and I arrived at the cocktail reception the night before the awards for The World’s 50 Best Restaurants in 2010, we understood: this was a whole different ball game.

Imagine every famous chef and restaurateur you’ve ever heard of milling around, drinking champagne and catching up with friends – and not one of them was talking to us. I’d never felt so much like a freshman at a new high school trying to figure out where to sit in the cafeteria, not even when I was a freshman. It was a huge honor to be invited. The 50 Best awards had begun in 2002, but they’d become immediately meaningful in the industry. First of all, they were decided by a jury of 1,000 well-regarded experts from around the world. And nobody had ever considered before how the best restaurants on the planet ranked against one another. By doing so, the awards gave these restaurants a push to become even better when they might have been content to rest on their laurels.

The awards ceremony itself was held at London’s Guildhall, so regal and imposing it might well have been a palace. As Daniel and I sat down, more than a little intimidated, we foolishly tried to gauge where we were going to land on the list based on where we were sitting relative to chefs like Heston Blumenthal of England’s The Fat Duck, or Thomas Keller of Per See, both of whom had been in the top 10 the year before.

I guessed 40. Daniel, always more optimistic, guessed No.35.

Will Guidara and Daniel Humm with Alinea’s head chef, Grant Achatz (middle), at The World’s 50 Best Restaurants 2010 in London

The lights went down, the music played. The emcee for the night was a handsome, debonair Brit. And while I’m sure there were all the usual formalities and introductions and “thank you for comings” before the bomb dropped, in my memory there was little preamble before the man said, “To kick it off, coming in at No.50 , a new entry from New York City: Eleven Madison Park!”

That knocked the wind right out of us. We slumped over and stared at our feet. Unfortunately, what we couldn’t have possibly known (because it was our first year at this event, and because we were the very first restaurant called) is that when they call your name, they’re also projecting your image onto a gigantic screen at the front of the auditorium, so that everyone can see you celebrating your win.

Except we weren’t celebrating. We were at the very bottom of the list! Mortified to see our dejected faces on the 30-foot-tall screen, I elbowed Daniel, and the two of us mustered a smile and a wave, but it was too little, too late: an auditorium filled with the most celebrated chefs and restaurateurs in the world – our heroes – had already borne witness to our devastation. The night was over for us before it had even begun.

At the reception afterwards, we ran into Massimo Bottura, the Italian chef of Osteria Francescana, a Michelin three-star based in Modena – and No.6 on the list (not that we were counting). He saw us, started laughing, and couldn’t stop: “You guys looked pretty happy up there!” Fair enough, but Daniel and I weren’t laughing. It was an honor to be recognized as one of the 50 best restaurants in the world; we knew that. Still – in that room, we had come in last place.

We left the party early and headed back to our hotel, where we grabbed a bottle of bourbon from the bar and sat, ready to drown our sorrows, on the steps outside. We spent the next couple of hours moving through the five stages of grief. We’d staggered out of the auditorium in denial – had that really happened? Then we got mad – who the hell did they think they were? We breezed through bargaining and spent the better part of the bottle on depression before settling into a state of acceptance.
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Eleven Madison Park was crowned The World’s Best Restaurant in 2017

On one level, it’s absolutely ridiculous to call any restaurant “the best restaurant in the world.” But the importance of the 50 Best list is that it names the places that are having the greatest impact on the world of food at a given moment in time.

The techniques that Spanish chef Ferran Adrià pioneered at El Bulli introduced molecular gastronomy to the world. René Redzepi championed foraged and wild-caught foods from the land and water surrounding his Copenhagen restaurant, Noma, and a local food movement was born. And if you’ve eaten out or walked down the aisles of your local grocery store in the last 10 years, you’ve felt the impact those innovations have had on my industry and beyond.

These chefs had the courage to make something no one had made before, and to introduce elements that changed the game for everyone. We hadn’t done that yet. We’d worked our butts off to earn a spot on that list, but what, really, had we done that was groundbreaking? The more we talked, the more it became clear: nothing.
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Will Guidara’s book, entitled Unreasonable Hospitalitypublished in October 2022

We had everything we needed: the work ethic, the experience, the talent, the team. But we’d been operating as glorified curators, picking the best features of all the great restaurants that had come before us and making them our own. Our restaurant was excellent and made a lot of people happy. But it hadn’t yet changed the conversation.

When I was young, my dad gave me a paperweight that read, “What would you attempt to do if you knew you could not fail?” That’s what I was thinking about when Daniel and I wrote, “We will be number one in the world,” on a cocktail napkin.

It was very late, and the bottle was mostly empty by the time we stumbled back to our respective rooms. I was exhausted, but my mind kept racing back to that napkin. Most of the chefs on the 50 Best list had made their impact by focusing on innovation, on what needed to change. But as I thought about the impact I wanted to make, I focused on the one thing that wouldn’t. Fads fade and cycle, but the human desire to be taken care of never goes away.

Daniel’s food was extraordinary; he was undeniably one of the best chefs in the world. So if we could become a restaurant focused passionately, intentionally, wholeheartedly on connection and graciousness – on giving both the people on our team and the people we served a sense of belonging – then we’d have a real shot at greatness. I wanted to be No.1, but that desire wasn’t just about the award; I wanted to be part of the team that made that impact.

Just before I drifted off to sleep, I smoothed out the napkin and added two more words: ‘Unreasonable Hospitality.’

Excerpted from Unreasonable Hospitality: The Remarkable Power of Giving People More Than They Expect by Will Guidara, published by Optimism Press, an imprint of the Penguin Publishing Group, a division of Penguin Random House, LLC. Copyright © 2022 by Will Guidara. Copies can be purchased online here.

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