What It Takes To Run a Michelin Star Chicago Restaurant
When two veterans of Les Nomades ventured out to open Temporis – a tasting-menu only, contemporary American restaurant in a small neighborhood – they were taking a leap of faith that their unique concept would win the affection of Chicago’s diners.
But what started as a little idea for co-chefs Sam Plotnick and Don Young has now led to one of the most prestigious culinary accolades in the world: their first Michelin star, which represents “high quality cooking, worth a stop” according to the guide’s website.
In the 2019 Michelin Star Chicago guide, Temporis was the only newcomer. While the specific criteria on which Michelin inspectors evaluate restaurants is kept under lock and key, their website lists the following five attributes:
Quality of the products
Mastery of flavor and cooking techniques
The personality of the chef in their cuisine
Value for money
Consistency between visits
So what does it take to run a Michelin star restaurant?
“It was difficult when we first opened. We didn’t have any ‘name’ behind us. We were nobodies, and I had never done this before (opening or managing a restaurant). It was scary in a lot of ways. You don’t know if the food will work (e.g.resonate). You feel honored if people come and commit money to your restaurant, not knowing who you were.”
– Sam Plotnick, co-chef at Temporis
The restaurant, located far from the downtown fine dining and Restaurant Row on Randolph Street, serves a $125 tasting-menu only offering. “It was risky,” says Sam. “But with a little conviction, we knew that if we could execute the vision the way we imagined and achieve the goals we wanted creatively and operationally, that it would work.”
Temporis also takes pride in its wine program. For $95, you can complete the tasting menu experience with a curated wine pairing.
“By having tasting menus and wine pairings, you’re simplifying the ordering and yield and waste of the product,” says Sam, on going the tasting menu-only route. “If you have 22 reservations in the books, you know exactly what you’re selling before you walk in the door that day, what you’re selling a week out. It allows you to order exactly what you need and prepare what you need and makes things a little more efficient in that sense.”
Of course, customers can also order bottles a la carte.
Temporis uses TouchBistro POS to carefully track its wine inventory and help identify best selling bottles, which also helps keep costs down by reducing overage.
When you run a tasting menu-only restaurant, the levers at your disposal for making incremental revenues or increasing margins are more limiting than the traditional a la carte route. Every penny counts – quite literally.
Passion: The Secret Ingredient
Whether it’s a passion for cooking, for building a legacy, or simply sharing a family recipe with the world, Sam’s advice is to remember where you started.
“I think on the inside, for me it’s the drive of hospitality.”
Having started off as a co-chef of Temporis, these days Sam serves as the General Manager and is in the kitchen less and less. “For me, at first it was a creative vehicle. But now the bigger picture that I realized is it’s hospitality and hosting I enjoy,” Sam says.
Customer Experience: Making a Personal Connection
“At the end of the night, you’ll often have a drink with some of the guests and get to connect on a human level – the smiles on their faces is really satisfying.”
Sam likens the overall dining experience at Temporis to a dinner party you throw for your friends. “You want it to be great, fun, memorable, and you want to make sure everything is right,” he says.
Because of the concept and price point, Temporis is very much a destination dining experience that is reserved for special occasions like anniversaries or birthdays, which makes the overall customer experience so key to success. Every detail has to be perfect.
Find Your Wow Factor
Delivering an experience with the freshest ingredients is one of Temporis’ core beliefs.
The restaurant grows their own herbs and produce in a basement hydroponic garden, which grows everything in water – with a mineral nutrient solution – instead of soil.
“When you’re in the midwest, you don’t always have access to the best produce,” says Sam.“We play into that a little bit by growing our produce ourselves. We can even grow things that are out of season. It brings things to a whole new level to what we do.”
In addition to their hydroponic garden that gives them most of their produce, each custom-made wood table in their 20-seat Chicago restaurant has its own miniature garden built right in, which servers use to garnish dishes tableside. How’s that for unique?
Culture Is Everything
One of the biggest lessons Sam learned as a first-time restaurateur is the importance of hiring good people: knowing what roles to put people in to enable them to succeed, how to support that, and how to delegate properly. Also, how to be responsive and attentive to what your employees are saying.
“You want to get the right people. The right mix and the right culture create a collaborative group where everyone’s working hard. But, at the same time, they can be openly critical of each other because they trust each other.”
When a team has enough trust to be brutally honest, it’s easier to keep them on their toes and keep them learning from each other.
“Everything we started with, we’ve improved on as a team – how to do service, how we do the food, the mood,” says Sam. “We didn’t open up this restaurant, have a guide book, and run with it. We weren’t working off a repertoire. We had to learn that the most important thing is having a team you can trust to help you grow and help define the restaurant.”
Sam stresses the importance of choosing the right people, then building trust and two-way dialogue. That trust and communication ensure they contribute to the growth of the overall business and, as happy employees, feel a sense of pride and ownership for their work – something your customers will notice.
When everyone is on the same page, the Michelin inspectors can check off that little box in consistency of visits and you’re one step closer to the star.
Written in the Stars
For Sam, being awarded a Michelin star is a “validation that we had an idea and that that idea was good enough.”
For chef Don, it’s validation of his hard work and recognition for what he’s done for the menu. “It feels good to see that we are now recognized as one of the relevant restaurants in Chicago,” he says.
Pretty good for two chefs who were relatively unknown from the start.
So What’s Next?
Within 12 hours of the Michelin star announcement, Temporis took enough reservations to break even for two months. “We’ve gone from 50 or so covers to 110 in a week, which is close to full capacity,” says Sam.
“We’re honored and grateful for our first Michelin star. But we want to operate and act like a two-Michelin Star restaurant,” says Sam. “You dress for the job you want, not the job you have.”
Sam says the mentality of operating like a two-star Michelin restaurant is what will define their next chapter.
“It’s not expected, but it’s the standard we’ve set for ourselves,” he says. “Besides, anyone who tells you they’re just going for one star is either being modest, or lying.”
If you’re aspiring to join the Michelin restaurant ranks, remember that choosing and defining your concept and then sticking to it through thick and thin, knowing why you’re in the restaurant game, creating a memorable customer experience, finding your “wow” factor and hiring the right people who believe in and support your vision are key. Of course, remembering to have a little fun in the process wouldn’t hurt either.
Yvonne lives to eat. She’s known to her friends as the “Ask Alexa” for the best restaurants in cities all over North America. When she’s not doing on-the-ground, scrappy PR for TouchBistro, she’s a freelance food and drink writer and tells the origin stories, struggles, and successes of restaurateurs – veteran and new.