We eat in a lot of interesting restaurants when we travel for speaking engagements. During these experiences, we always toggle between pure enjoyment of the food and a larger meta-analysis of how the food experience unfolds. We’ve learned that great restaurants, whether they are expensive or bargains, sumptuous or bare bones, do what all great organizations do — they find a way to constantly renew and reinvent themselves while staying true to their core mission. They constantly learn, and their learning is on display each night.
Also, in a world where so many of our human interactions are filtered through digital channels, there’s something special about the fact that a restaurant experience is only possible because a group of people choose to convene face-to-face. The experience is shaped by the staff, who are hopefully passionate about their ingredients and what they are serving, and by the people who show up in the restaurant, the patrons. What the latter bring with them by way of curiosity, questions, energy, and conversation is nearly as important as the food and the ambiance.
In Denver for a leadership retreat last August, we ate at Rioja on Larimer street. We didn’t have a reservation at Rioja, but luckily there were two seats left . . . by a bar looking directly into the kitchen. So, we had the unique pleasure of being a foot away from a chef named Mason and having the chance to ask him questions throughout the night. Mason, while continuously preparing meals right in front of us, kept up a lively banter amidst the hundred details that keep a restaurant humming along.
At one point, he told us, “this next dish requires 75 touches.” And that’s when we really started paying attention to the moves and mechanics of this restaurant. For each course, a waiter checked in with us immediately after we took our first bites. First our appetizers, then our meals, then our desserts, as if to punctuate our experience with their attention. Everything seemed so thoughtful and deliberate.
We reached out to Rioja’s Chef de Cuisine Tim Kuklinski because we wanted to get under the hood a little bit. We were interested in his thoughts on training, on remaining creative and vibrant in a city that seems to be filled with creative and vibrant people, how one establishes metrics like the “75 touches,” and so on. Below is a synopsis, lightly edited for clarity, of what we learned.
~Reshan Richards & Stephen J. Valentine
A mix of family, memory, and a sense of purpose helped Tim to become the chef, leader, and learner that he is today.
“Cooking has always been a part of my life. It didn't start out in the forefront, but both my parents were good cooks. We had meals from scratch every day of the week, from the time I was little. My parents still cook for themselves in Nebraska. For my mom, cooking was a way to bring us all together, and when we were eating dinner every day at 5:30, we all came together. We talked about our days. We talked about what was going on. We talked about football practice or soccer practice or band or whatever we were doing. It was our time as a family. And throughout my career, the family aspect of cooking and the ability for restaurants to bring people together, has been something that is always there.
My dad grew up hunting and that's something that he passed on to us, as well. From a very early age, from about 10 years old on, I was very aware of where my food came from and the visceral nature of harvesting an animal like a deer or a pheasant or a rabbit or anything. It was very, very real for me.
Our family had a huge garden, too. And just like with hunting, we knew exactly where our food was coming from. To this day, I have a massive garden — a thousand square-foot garden. I grow everything I possibly can. I think it's cool — the science part of it, the being-in-touch-with-nature part of it.
Fast forward a couple of years, through high school and college. My focus wasn't always there. Education wasn't the most important thing to me. I just don't think I was ready for it on a maturity level. I kind of fell into cooking that way. I had to get away from my friends. I had to get away from my family, for one reason or another, just to prove to myself that I could make it on my own.
So I moved to Denver. I grew up in Omaha, and once I moved out to Denver, I went to culinary school and met the right people. I met Jen Jasinski a couple years after she opened Rioja and my education took off from there. I found passion and I found something that interests me all the time on every level, whether it's the physical or mental demands of it. The grind was really cool to me. The grit of the city and being downtown and in the middle of everything really appealed to me.
From there, once I found something I could possibly do for a career, it was reading; it was eating; it was falling into it and focusing on something for the first time. Then it came back full circle to that family thing, where the people I was cooking with were my family, like they were my brothers and my sisters. The people I worked for were surrogate parents and the whole Crafted Concepts Group has been just incredible. So that's how I fell into cooking.”
Like many of the best leaders we know, Chef Tim uses continuous learning as a way to fight against complacency and to help his restaurant continue to thrive
“I'm in the hospitality industry — I don't like letting people down. I never have. I like being the person that people rely on, and across the board, I don't want to let them down and I want to stay on top. It's a driving force for me.
Specifically, I read cookbooks, new cookbooks, and copy some of the things that they do. I take what they do and twist it and make it mine. I love Instagram. I'm a very, very visual person, so I love seeing what other people are doing, and thinking, ‘Oh that's really cool, the way they plated that, or the way they took a classic and twisted it, or deconstructed it and reconstructed it.’ I really like that.
Seasonality is big for me. It's a lot easier to cook delicious food when the food starts delicious, which means using apples in apple season and tomatoes in tomato season, and on down the line as far as fruits and veggies go.
We're also very big into what the impact of our restaurant is on a more grand scale. Thinking about the fish that we're using, whether they're sustainable, whether the growth of those fish is something that is positive for the environment or detrimental to the seafloor, as it is oftentimes, and then being very choosy.
We support local farmers and ranchers, and they definitely inspire me as well. When I get tired of a dish on the menu, I'll call up Clint from Boulder Lamb Farms and ask, ‘Hey man, what do you have a lot of? What are you long on?’ And he'll be like, ‘Oh, I'm long on this, what can you do with it?’ And I start with that, and build it from there.
I also enjoy talking about food with my chefs and with other chefs — not necessarily the chefs that work here at Rioja — and seeing how they do things. Taking part in that bigger community is definitely an inspiration. All of the classics are inspiring, things that have always been good are still gonna be good in perpetuity.”
As mentioned in our opening, two things in particular stuck out in our dining experience at Rioja. First, we were eating facing the kitchen and a gentleman named Mason was cooking. At one point, he looked up and he said, "You're gonna want to watch this next preparation, because it takes 75 touches." We immediately wanted to understand if the dishes in Rioja were all thought through on that level. Second, we noticed the interaction with the chefs and the people on the floor. They were great about popping in to the meal, almost right after we had tasted something great, as if to punctuate — with an exclamation point — the experience. When we pointed out these nuances to Chef Tim, he explained the ways in which they are deliberate but unplanned, coining one of our favorite new expressions in the process: “one-of-a-kind, one-at-a-time experiences.”
“Let’s start with the back of the house. I don't go into a dish and say it will be five touches, three touches, whatever. Regardless of how many touches are there, it's about getting my crew to buy into what they're doing, get them excited about it, and have them be part of the process. It's definitely important. A lot of these people have aspirations of being a chef as well, of owning a restaurant, of going to New York City and wherever life takes them.
Getting them to do it — that’s kind of complex. I try to be there with them, have their input, and let them put their own personal stamp on it. It's my food, whatever, but I try to think of it as ours. I want everybody to be invested in the guest experience. Not everybody can impact that as directly as Mason did that night for you and have a conversation with somebody and blow them away. But, I try to be there with them and show them the way and be consistent across the board.
If every cook is doing something a little bit different, but it's all beautiful and it's consistently beautiful, even if the means to the ends aren't exactly consistent, I'm okay with that. Working in a restaurant, there are just so many moving parts. The attitudes of everybody … everyday they change. The food changes everyday. Being okay with things changing and being organic is important because I would drive myself crazy without being accepting of other people and what they're doing.
As far as the front of the house, they're in the same boat. They are invested in making sure that everybody who comes into this restaurant has an outstanding meal and an outstanding experience. We go into it thinking that the service is going to make the food taste better, and the food is going to make the service better. They feed off each other, pardon the pun, but they do. There are certain steps that we go through, and we want to make sure that we're checking in with everybody and making sure it's a one-of-a-kind, one-at-a-time experience for each individual guest that comes in.
It's so important. You guys came in the other day and the experience that you had with the server that you had that specific night would be different if it was a different server, if it was a different night, but they're all going to be good. They're all one of a kind.”
Chef Tim also offered us some great insights about building and sustaining teams, culture, and individual performers.
“Chefs tend to be ego-driven and not very good people-people, but I think that's changing. I welcome people to question what I'm doing. I want them to think about it, and if they can, make it better. I don't think that happens in a lot of kitchens.
Humility is also a part of it. I think of myself as a humble person, and just having the humility to know that I'm not perfect, and that I'm not good enough to do it by myself. I'm not that guy, I don't see myself as that guy. I need people here to support the mission that we're pursuing, and I don't think a lot of people see it that way.
I think one of the keys to our longevity — we've been open for almost 13 years — is that everybody does have a voice, and we are active in getting that voice out of them. We take time. I don't know if either of you gentlemen have worked in a restaurant before, but it's busy. There's something happening all the time. And making the people that work in this restaurant a priority is much easier said than done.
We take time to sit down and give them a review, and not necessarily a review that's attached to a raise or to any sort of discipline or anything like that. It's simply, ‘Hey this is how you're doing. We want you to know how we think you're doing. We want to know how you think we are doing.’ And then we go from there. We take the input that they have and use it and don’t just sweep it under the table like it's better that nobody's talking about it. That's extremely important. There's a lot of hours in a day. When people say they're too busy to really listen and hear somebody, that’s a cop out. I think that you define your priorities, and you go from there.
I also think that I've kind of been in a unique situation, timeframe-wise. I'm essentially teaching kids. They're millennials. They're from a different generation, and they're different. When I was coming up in a kitchen, it was hard. It was kill or be killed. It was do well or leave. You can't treat people like that anymore — I wouldn't have a staff. I was forced to adapt the methods that I was taught with to make cooks into chefs. They need that feedback — they crave it. They get inside their heads when they don't have it, and that's never good.
I think we [at Rioja] are different. It comes from how we treat our employees, and that definitely reflects directly on our guests. The employees are treated well. They're listened to, they have a voice, and the guests get better experiences as a result. It's not really measurable, but it's definitely there.”
Finally, we asked Chef Tim about excellence — about how he moves from conception to execution and knows something is truly great.
“Sometimes I'll have a dish and I just think it's out-of-this-world good, and people don't agree. There’s that humility again. How do I know? I taste it. I think about it. Is it exciting to eat? There are elements that go into things tasting good and being interesting. Is the fat there? Is the acid there? Is the bitterness and the sweetness in balance? I think about those things ahead of time. I’m working on a dish for tonight, and I think it's gonna be really, really good, but I never know until I taste it, until I criticize it for myself.
Everybody here, like I said, has a voice. And if they don't like a dish, that's fine. It's okay. It doesn't hurt me. It's not personal . . . It's hard to explain. You taste it and you know, you know it's beautiful. You know it's something that excites your palate. It brings up thoughts from the past or is reminiscent of something you liked as a kid or didn't like as a kid. If it incites a memory, that's incredible, that's one of the best things. Take in everybody's input, and if everybody comes to a consensus that it's good, then yeah, it's good. It sells and everybody's happy. It's just one of those things. You gotta have faith and know that what you're doing is delicious.
But it’s a tough question. How do you know? Maybe another 40 years in the kitchen and I'll know for sure — just in time for me to retire.”
About Chef Tim Kuklinski
Tim’s foray into a civil engineering degree path at University of Nebraska proved disappointing when he realized he couldn’t bring passion to the craft. Culinary school beckoned and it was on Denver’s Johnson & Wales campus that Tim found his life’s work. He met and befriended chef Jorel Pierce, another JWU undergrad, and together they advanced through the job progression at Rioja to form the backbone of the kitchen.
Others characterize Tim’s food as feminine, a description that vexed him until he stepped back and realized that his culinary influences have been predominantly women beginning with his mom who worked full time but still found time to cook “from scratch” meals every night for Tim and his family. Working alongside Rioja Chef/Owner Jennifer Jasinski and now Work + Class Chef/Owner Dana Rodriguez gave Tim the basis for his style. Constant reading of menus, cookbooks, trade publications and simply scouring the web allow Tim to continue his education, learn new ingredients and acquire innovative techniques he can employ on the Rioja menu.
About the authors
Stephen J. Valentine (@sjvalentine) is an educator, school leader, writer, and serial collaborator. He serves as Director of Academic Leadership at Montclair Kimberley Academy and runs www.refreshingwednesday.com, a blog for strategists and learners.
Dr. Reshan Richards ( @reshanrichards) teaches and researches at Columbia University’s School for Professional Studies and Teachers College. He is also the Chief Learning Officer and co-founder of Explain Everything, a learning technology company.
Photo credit: Jennifer Olson courtesy of the Imbergamo Group