Growing up in restaurants and in cooking school, you always hear that very few restaurants make it to five years old.
A lot of restaurants fail within the first three or four years. We just hit the five-year mark at my restaurant, Manhattan Beach Post. It is a benchmark and I feel like the luckiest guy in the world. Ultimately, I feel that this has a lot to do with having a consistent product and having the people who work at your restaurant care about the guests and making their lives better.
To this day, every person that works at our restaurants goes through an interview process that I'm involved with. The impact of surrounding yourself with great individuals in this industry is crucial to your happiness. The level of satisfaction that you get when the people around you really care and have the same values—including having a ton of integrity, respect, and humility—is a game changer as you grow in this industry.
Five years sounds like a long, long time, but we still have a lot more to go. A restaurant is never perfect. It is important to me that every day that goes by we get better and better. Sometimes we do that by the service we provide, sometimes we do that by ordering better, or getting comfier chairs, and sometimes we do that by revamping the menu with edgier items to keep up with the times. Chicken oyster yakitori! Duck wings! Sweetbreads!
By going through all of these processes, I am trying to make sure that we are still growing.
This meant hiring an executive pastry chef this year. I love our pastries and I love our bread program but I thought it was important that we brought in someone to lend a more creative side to those things. Realizing this allowed me to grow personally as it challenged me to learn a lot more about bread.
Growing can also mean choosing to make your own dumpling skins because your restaurant is located in one of the dumpling capitals of America—instead of just buying them pre-made, and taking them for granted. It is all about putting yourself in uncomfortable situations where you can continue to learn, especially after five years. A lot of times, that may mean something food-related, but it can also mean learning how to work with others, or learning how to motivate and inspire other people as leaders. A lot of my time is now spent thinking about how I can make the lives of the people around me better—my crew, my management, and the rest of my team.
Accolades are great, but what keeps me excited and keeps us moving is constantly being self-reflective: What do we need to do to be better than we were yesterday? This mindset can be exhausting to everybody involved but I think this is the right and humble way to think. Five years of running things this way is extremely hard and you may hear people say things like, "Wow, Chef David is never satisfied." Or, "Things are never really good enough for him." This is true—I am not, and it is not—but this is a lifelong pursuit.
This doesn't mean that you shouldn't recognize the hard work that people put in, because it is really important to do that, too.
However, everyone in my leadership team knows that we are only as good as we are going to be during the next service. It is important to focus on this and realize that the people who come in today will be just as happy as the ones who came in a year ago or five years ago.
I think one of the mistakes that I might have made is to have the expectation that everybody would have the same talent or drive that I have when it comes to cooking. This is just not reasonable. It doesn't mean that you can't teach it. It just means that everybody has a different skillset. Looking back, ten to 15 years ago, if I were to focus more on knowing how to teach better instead of just cooking better, it could have been really beneficial to me.
The only things that I regret are just some of my own shortcomings of patience and my temper. It really is about understanding that the people around me are incredible people and that they are most likely giving me their best effort with nothing but the best intentions.
The times that I've been the happiest in restaurants have been when I really felt, Wow, these people really care about making me happy. This is the main difference between having a memorable experience and a not-so-memorable experience at restaurants, in my opinion. As a restaurant owner, it means a lot to me to know that someone took the time out of their busy schedule to come into my restaurant. When is the last time that someone ever wrote you a thank you note after dining? Sometimes, it's as simple as that, and taking it back to other hospitality basics.
We were busy right off the bat and we've grown every year since we've opened. But to keep everything going the way you want to with more and more people is sometimes a little scary. To this day, there is never a day that goes by when I think, Oh, we are going to be just fine! I feel like if you ask a lot of great chefs, they will tell you they think the same. You just have to make sure to not be stagnant. The public changes its palate and like them, we always have to keep evolving.
As told to Javier Cabral
David LeFevre is the Michelin-rated chef and the co-owner of Manhattan Beach Post, Fishing With Dynamite, and The Arthur J. To read more about him, check out our other story concerning his philosophy towards seafood.