Let’s get this out of the way. I almost surely won’t ever open a restaurant. It’s stunning to those who know me that I open anything other than a Hamburger Helper box for dinner. But, I do (rather often) talk to people who start, operate, and thrive in this industry.
I always tell people that I’m an expert at nothing. So when I speak with restaurateurs, whether they’re a single-unit operator chasing a dream or an executive with millions in capital and thousands of units at their disposal, I zip and listen.
The majority of times I can’t jot down notes fast enough. Other times, if I’m being honest, I wonder how the padlock isn’t already latched to the front door. And then, there are those moments when the planets align. Do you know how I knew this was the case recently? I was in a lecture hall at The Culinary Institute of America in St. Helena for The National Pork Board’s Pork Summit, sitting in a room full of chefs, and a James Beard finalist walked up to the demo board. He spoke for a few minutes, nobody flinched, and then he said something that made the entire room gasp. An actual, literal, collective gasp. It was almost comical. I think I heard one guy even utter, “There’s no way,” like a student protesting an upcoming term paper deadline. It was as though a singer just skipped a line in the Star Spangled Banner.
The chef in spotlight was Justin Carlisle, owner of revered Milwaukee eatery Ardent. He was a finalist for Best Chef: Midwest this year. He was the same in 2015 and 2016 and Ardent earned semifinalist honors for Best New Restaurant in 2014. Carlisle also owns Red Light Ramen and upcoming The Laughing Taco.
Here’s the deal. Ardent has 20 seats and nine employees, including Carlisle. All nine of those staff members cut the same check. As Carlisle says, “I make the same each night as the dishwasher.”
That isn’t a farce. Ardent truly runs as a collective force. “We don’t have a bartender and a line cook,” he says. “We have a staff.”
I found this outrageous and insanely impressive for a couple of reasons. For starters, I have spent a lot of time talking to operators about tipping versus non-tipping. As Danny Meyer so trailblazingly explained, it’s hard to keep chefs when they’re making so much less than the front of the house. Really, in many cities, cooks at fine-dining landmarks are earning wages similar to quick-service employees. And then, on the flip side, you have servers collecting (well earned) tips that far exceed chef’s hourly take.
What’s the solution? Tip pooling? Some states require some form of this. This can get dicey and confusing at times because then the question becomes, did we all work the same to earn these shares? And then, are servers likely to work as hard if their tips get funneled elsewhere?
What about Meyer’s no-tipping? This works if you’re a restaurant with the leverage to lift your prices significantly, and with, again, a labor pool that is willing to forgo their tips for the greater good. At his restaurants that’s probably a pretty reasonable equation. But taking from the front of the house to feed the back of the house is a dangerous proposition at most places. The chance of you inspiring longevity with your wait staff is not great, either, since they can seek out an establishment that allows them to pocket tips as usual. Smaller, independent restaurants just don’t have the margin to say, “Dear guest, we are raising prices 20 percent to accommodate a no-tipping policy.” Many diners, even though they wouldn’t be paying gratuity, wouldn’t be hip to that arrangement. People still like to exercise power at the end of the meal. It’s a way to thank (and criticize) the experience. We are all critics when we get that check, are we not?
Now, in Ardent’s case, let’s start with one fact he shared with me later that night. Since the restaurant opened in October 2013, Carlisle hasn’t lost a single employee. Nobody has quit. Nobody has moved elsewhere. Personally, I was surprised a single chef hadn’t opened his own restaurant or tried to lead another venture.
To clarify Carlisle’s earlier dishwasher comment, it’s a bit more complicated than that. Each of those eight other employees are taught to do every job in the kitchen, from dishwashing to preparing an elevated dish to mixing a cocktail. That was one of the reasons, Carlisle says, that he was able to take a couple of days and attend the Pork Summit in Wine Country. He trusts his staff because they all do everything. There’s no air between them.
The other thing is that Ardent is open Wednesday through Sunday with two seatings each evening. We’re talking a 10-course tasting menu for around $100 (without drinks). In the culinary world, this setup is like stepping through the wardrobe to Narnia. It’s just fantasy. Not only that but the employees close each night understanding they made as much as the James Beard-nominated chef next to them.
That’s another thing that struck me. The worst kind of boss it a leader who makes more money than you and does far less, right? But isn’t that often the rule rather than the exception? I’m not surprised Carlisle’s model has inspired fervent loyalty among his staff.
“We are really just a family,” he says. “That’s truly how it feels.” Carlisle told me that the families hang out on off days. They celebrate life milestones with each other. Even the small restaurant itself is setup like a house. There is no hood. No gas grill. It’s a 200-square-foot kitchen that focuses on hyper-local ingredients—some even sourced from his family farm.
Carlisle grew up on that farm in Sparta, Wisconsin, a town known as the Bicycling Capital of America, with his two brothers. He started dishwashing at 15 and was a prep cook by 17. Carlisle also spent time in the Army and National Guard, worked in restaurants, attended Madison Area Technical College, and then clocked time at Madison, Wisconsin’s Restaurant Muramoto, Tru in Chicago, and Umami Moto in Milwaukee.
Along the way he found himself divorced at 27. He was working (no surprise) double-digit hours making low wages. But more importantly, as he has said about Ardent, it wasn’t about getting rich. Working the day-to-day grind was simply stripping his passion away.
That’s when he cut bait and took a chance on Ardent. One person I spoke to called it “Culinary Communism.” Call it whatever you will but it’s working. Those who knock it, for one reason or another, probably just can’t make it work.
Carlisle says the model allows his staff to have two full days home with their significant others and to be home by supper on Tuesday. Sundays are dedicated to his wife, Lucia.
At Ardent, when shifts were over, Carlisle used to pull the blinds down and start calling fellow chefs in Milwaukee. They would head over and get in line for a night of shooting the breeze and eating ramen. Carlisle says they’d dish out some 120 bowls in an hour and a half. If you didn’t like what they were making, you went home empty handed.
Eventually the event became so popular that it spurred the creation of Red Light Ramen, his brick-and-mortar creation, adjacent to Ardent.
Even with the opening of The Laughing Taco, Carlisle says he doesn’t plan to plant the seeds of a restaurant empire. No matter what path he takes, it will remain focused on food and quality of life. I’m not sure there’s a better way to do it.