The art of the welcome
In which we eat at Noma — the world’s best restaurant —and I do not write about the food.
One of the best restaurants in the world sits at the end of a stone jetty in a quiet waterfront district of Copenhagen, across the harbor from the heart of the city. The taxi takes you about halfway down the jetty, and then the road stops, and you walk the rest of the short way. It’s quiet and peaceful. The jetty is finished with round stones that make soft clacking noises underfoot. The water laps at the jetty’s edge, and there’s a single torch out front of the restaurant, and that’s how you know you’re there.
My wife and I arrived a few minutes early for our noon seating at Noma on a cold November day. The driver stopped where an old rusty chain marked the end of the road, and pointed up the jetty to where the torch flickered. As we settled up with the taxi and bundled out of the car, the door to the restaurant opened, and a server walked out, wearing a light blue shirt and a dark blue apron. He smiled down the jetty at us, and then walked back in.
It was a simple gesture, at once familiar and alluring. It was like spotting an old friend, someone you know well, across the street, going the opposite direction, and waving, and knowing with a warmth in your belly that you will both divert from your paths to say hello.
It was an invitation. Follow me, is what it said. So we did. And for the next four hours, we were treated to twenty-four courses of intensely local ingredients transformed into audacious culinary masterpieces.
But I’m not going to talk about the food.
What I want to talk about is something that came between that half-glimpsed smile on the jetty and the surprise and delight of the first course, something that had a profound effect on me and Jane both, something I think we will remember for the rest of our lives.
I want to talk about how we were welcomed to Noma.
Jane and I have had a few Michelin-star dinners. I’ve worked in a few nice restaurants. For a couple years, I was a Damn Good Server. So we’ve been greeted by some top-notch maitre’d’s. We’ve been joyously hailed by boisterous sushi artisans. I’ve welcomed hundreds of hungry diners myself.
Nothing in my dining experience, nothing in my professional career, nothing, really, in my entire life could have prepared me for the welcome that awaited us inside Noma’s front door.
At least a dozen servers, bussers, and chefs, had all left their posts. The kitchen was virtually empty. The service floor, already partially seated, was lightly staffed. The entire front- and back-of-house crew had assembled just inside the front door, each and every one of them looking us in the eye with broad, friendly smiles, warmly welcoming us — just us — to their restaurant.
If you’ve ever worked in a restaurant, you know that this is not supposed to happen. For one thing, the chefs do not leave the kitchen. They certainly do not leave the kitchen at the start of service for a full house. Maybe the head chef will step out, alone, once a night, to chat with a VIP. Maybe.
We are not VIPs. We are not royalty. When we go to a party hosted by good friends, we do not receive this kind of a welcome, nor would we expect to. My wife later described it as one of the warmest feelings she has ever felt. It was extraordinary and overwhelming, and I am not exaggerating when I say that in the presence of this assembly of complete strangers, it took a sustained effort on my part to keep from bursting into actual tears of gratitude right there at the host’s podium.
In my restaurant days, our goal as Damn Good Servers was to see that our guests were “taken care of,” the baseline of which is as follows: being polite, capable, and knowledgeable, and successfully anticipating and providing for all the needs of your guest. You can embellish on this however you want, but this is the baseline, and I believe you can apply this baseline to pretty much any industry where your goal is to make an audience happy and leave them satisfied.
What makes this one moment so remarkable and interesting to me is that it elevates that baseline. With a single unexpected gesture, the staff at Noma turned an ordinary, unremarkable social transaction (“Hello and welcome to Noma. May I please have the name on your reservation?”) into an emotional experience that neither Jane nor I will ever forget. And I think there’s something to be learned from that.
There is great power in the moment of welcome. There is a high bar, and sometimes all it takes to reach it is a small gesture. A small gesture that lets people know that you see them. That they are noticed. That they, they themselves, are appreciated. That you care about them, not as one of many, but as a unique person who came to you and your work on their own road.
I don’t mean to say that it’s easy to do this. I don’t mean to say that it’s easy to reach that high bar. I don’t mean to say that it doesn’t require creativity and ingenuity and vision to see an opportunity in a small, throwaway moment. But the opportunity exists.
I’m talking about this in the context of work because I think it’s valuable and important in that context. But it goes far beyond that. It’s really about how we relate to each other and the choices we make, maybe unconsciously, in our interactions — the casual, the professional, and the intimate alike. And all of that begins when we welcome each other into the various chambers of our lives.
That moment is important. It has power. It has power because we are all human beings, and we all want to be seen and noticed and appreciated, and maybe the real lesson is this:
Every time we stand at a threshold and welcome another person across it, we have an opportunity to make the world a better place.