Lessons in Leadership: What I Learned from an Evening Spent Dining at the Chef’s Table
I would strongly recommend this restaurant to anyone who happens to be traveling to Tallinn, Estonia. But for as much as I loved the food, I obsessed over an entirely different part of the experience — their restaurant operations. Let me explain.
At the chef’s table, you’re one of only a few diners who is seated in plain view of the kitchen, just across from where the head chef prepares and finalizes each course. This means you see everything happening in real time. You feel part of each decision, conversation, and mistake made along the way.
I’m not going to lie — I had no idea what I was getting myself into. I only learned about this restaurant two days earlier when a colleague from the USV network (who works there on the weekends) booked me a reservation. While I have watched master sushi chefs prepare omakase tasting menus from a front-row seat at the sushi bar, this was next level. A seat at the chef’s table is like getting an invitation into somebody else’s brain. Suffice it to say: It’s pretty crazy.
Throughout dinner, head chef Orm Oja personally explained the makeup of every course to me, while adding the final flourishes of a sauce or garnish. I watched the team of chefs prepare and plate each dish for all of the other diners in the restaurant. I sat close enough to their open oven that my skin was warm to the touch from the hot coals. I intuitively felt the shifting vibe as the restaurant grew from calm to crowded to closing time. I saw a plate break. I learned a ton about the restaurant industry.
I don’t think I actually have the words to explain how much I geeked out over this. I’ll put it this way: As the kind of person who’s seriously fascinated by operational processes and organizational structures, it felt like I had been handed the keys to Disney’s Magic Kingdom.
Every night, NOA welcomes 45 diners into the chef’s room and greets then with 11 unique courses inspired from Estonian cuisine. Chef Orm uses an orange highlighter to keep track of each table’s progress through the completion of their meal. He shouts verbal cues to the 4-person chef team to trigger the start of a new table beginning their tasting menu. Throughout the process, everyone on staff knows exactly what he or she should be doing. Each task is handled with elegance and purpose. There is little conversation or banter among colleagues. And it runs beautifully.
As a diner, however, there is plenty of time for questions to ask the chef. Naturally, this was endlessly entertaining for me (and hopefully not too annoying for him).
- How long does each course take?
- What’s the most difficult to prepare?
- How do you know when a dish is complete?
- How often do you change the menu?
- Why did you decide to become a chef?
- How did you get into this industry?
- How do you know when somebody doesn’t like their food?
“They don’t say anything,” Orm said to that last question, with a slight nod to the third patron at the three-person chef’s table. He had joined about 90 minutes after my arrival but barely said two words to his fellow diners or the chef team. (Another chef himself, my guess was that he was here on business.)
By the end of the evening, I had gotten to know Orm, his team, my neighbor at the chef’s table, and the cadence of how each course is prepared and served. I stopped using my phone to check the time and started instead counting the number of remaining tomatoes on the cooling rack for an indication of how many of the 45 diners still needed to progress through one of the most coveted courses.
At only 25 years old, Orm has the same cool confidence of many startup founders I have gotten to know through my work at Union Square Ventures. The fact that he has cultivated a menu of this caliber and commanded such respect and professionalism from his staff at such a young age is seriously inspiring to watch. I don’t know how he does it.
To top it off, with a chef’s table dining experience, you aren’t just exposing the finished product to your customers. You’re letting them in on the process itself. That would be like pulling back the curtains during a Broadway show to let the audience watch the backstage crew throughout scene and costume changes. Or if I were to publish, in addition to this post, a video of myself going through the harrowing process of writing and rewriting and editing and deleting each sentence over and over again. (Trust me: Nobody wants to see that.)
To open up not only your menu but your kitchen operational processes as well is about the bravest thing I can think about doing. By doing so, you invite more people into your head and allow for a much more reactive cycle of feedback between your customer to your chefs.
I imagine this is simultaneously both exhilarating and terrifying.
The Real-Time Feedback Loop
One of the things I love so much about occupations that happen in real time (such a live stage acting) is that the feedback loop cycle is incredibly short. You get up on stage, you make a joke, and you get to see right then and there if you made people laugh. The options are pretty black and white: They either liked the joke, or it flopped.
I felt similarly about my job when I worked in sales. Every single time I hung up the phone after a customer call, I either closed a sale or I didn’t. The value of my work was measured in real dollars, and there was no hiding from months when I didn’t meet my goal. Jobs like this require bravery and courage.
Let’s be honest: It doesn’t feel great to admit that you’re bad at something. It doesn’t feel great to know people didn’t think you did well enough. For better or for worse, in these tight feedback cycles, you can’t hide from the truth. When you invite guests at your restaurant to watch the chefs and wait staff at work, you invite them to participate in the good, the bad, and the ugly right there with you. That is insanely hard to do. But, done correctly, it can be incredibly productive for self-improvement.
Not all jobs have as much of that “in your face” approach to real-time feedback. In the business world, we tend to be pretty good at hiding hard feedback from each other — or choosing to wait until the very end of the year to unleash months’ worth of feedback on each other in one go. (’Tis the season for performance reviews…)
Cooking seems like an interesting middle ground. Like acting or sales jobs, you do have direct exposure to your customer feedback — but the immediacy is often hidden behind a buffer person, such as the wait staff or the hostess. Many chefs make a point to “walk the floors” of their restaurants on a nightly basis, just like Walt Disney used to “walk the parks” at Magic Kingdom. But at some point, the chef tends to go back to the kitchen and manage operations hidden from sight from the rest of the diners.
But not Orm. Rather than stow away in the kitchen and let the wait staff receive the immediate feedback about his food, seats diners directly in front of him. He adds the final touches to his dishes, pushes the plate across the table, and watches you take that first bite.
If you like it, he’ll know. If you don’t, he’ll know. I imagine there are days when that must kill him.
Later on in the evening, while Orm was checking in on the other restaurant next door, there was a flurry of activity among the chefs and wait staff to prepare a corn dish for about a dozen people at once. By this point, I had already seen the chefs prepare this dish a handful of times. It starts by using a blowtorch on mini ears of corn, then continues by layering on a creamy sauce and topping it with cheese. Each ear is placed asymmetrically on a rectangular-shaped plate with a wiry stick poking out from one end of the corn. To eat this delicacy, you simply pick up the stick and take a bite.
As the final touches were being made to the plating, tragedy struck. A member of the wait staff dropped an ear of corn to the ground. While the rest of the plates were finished, one remained without. Not good.
Seeing as the process to prepare just one ear of corn is quite complicated and time-consuming, I imagine it’s pretty annoying for someone to have to start over again. Not to mention that the clock is ticking as the customers of the same table all need to be served together.
But something remarkable happened: Nobody yelled. Nobody pointed a finger at the individual who made the mistake, and nobody rolled their eyes or cursed under their breath. They each acknowledged the error and quickly set about to righting it. Within what must have been a mere three minutes, another ear of corn magically found its way back to the empty plate. And the courses were served to the diners, none the wiser. Talk about leadership.
Making mistakes is my favorite part of the high-feedback culture. It’s so gratifying to be able to acknowledge collectively, “That didn’t work” or “We have a problem.” In business, this can be hard. Was that the right strategy or the wrong one? Did we make the right hire or should we look for someone else? Are we taking too long to make certain decisions as a team? How do we know for sure?
But when you’re all staring at a piece of corn laying on the floor of the best restaurant in the Baltics, you can’t deny that there is a problem. And that you need to work together to make it right in a very short turnaround time.
My dinner ended by 9:30 p.m. But I enjoyed my seat so much that I hung around until midnight when the restaurant closed. Even in that short time, I picked up a lot of tiny tricks and operational ideas from Chef Orm and the team. Not all of them can be applied to the business world, but I’m sure some can.
Like the tomatoes. At around 11 p.m. I looked to my right and still saw a stack of six tomatoes sitting on one of the drying racks.
“Oh no,” I remarked. “It’s getting late. There are still six more diners who haven’t yet received this course?”
“No, we’re through. Each night we always have a few extra tomatoes prepared. Just in case.”
Just in case one falls to the floor, I thought. Always thinking ahead…