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June 21, 2010

Q&A with Joe Catterson, Alinea's General Manager

Below you'll find my interview with Joe Catterson, Alinea's GM.

But first, I hope you'll indulge me in a little link-love.  I hope you all regularly read Hank Shaw's fantastic blog: Hunter, Angler, Gardener, Cook.  I'm a long-time fan of Hank, and had the great pleasure of meeting him (and Holly, hi guys!) in New York in early May.  Hank and I talked about the Alinea cookbook and how, when seasonal ingredients come into the markets, a home cook could really find inspiration in this cookbook.  And, he's gone and done it.  Here's Hank's post, Porcini-O-Rama, featuring a dish inspired by "Porcini" on Page 180 of the Alinea cookbook.  I love it!  Only wish I'd been there to eat it.

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Joe Catterson is the General Manager and Wine Director at Alinea.  His official bio on the restaurant's website is as follows:

Overseeing the service staff at Alinea is our GM/Sommelier Joe Catterson, a native of New York who, before settling in Chicago, had also lived in Seattle, Los Angeles, Berlin, London, and Tenerife. A career path that zigzagged between service and management positions in numerous fine restaurants and studies and professional engagements as a classical musician, found itself focused on a long-held passion for wine. Catterson honed his chosen craft and was named Sommelier at Le Français in 1996 and later also at Les Nomades. Challenged to create a wine program for Trio to complement the cuisine of incoming chef Grant Achatz, Joe found an ideal environment to explore the pairing of wine and spirits with Chef Achatz' cutting edge menus. The opportunity to entice diners with a highly eclectic selection of obscure discoveries as well as classic favorites led to Chicago Magazine bestowing "Best Wine Program" honors to Trio in their 2002 and 2003 restaurant award issues, and naming Joe "Best Sommelier" in 2003.

What the bio neglects to specifically mention is that Joe is awesome.  True story.  Read on to learn more about Joe, what makes great service at Alinea, and what the team had for staff meal:

Carol: First of all, congratulations on Alinea's 2010 James Beard Award for Outstanding Service.  Having dined at Alinea, I know why you won; but, if you were to encapsulate Alinea's service philosophy in 20 words or less, what would it be?

Joe: Strive for detailed, polished service.  Create a comfortable tempo and flow for the experience.  Provide engaging narrative for the cuisine.

IMG_0121 Catterson, celebrating with what looks like a g&t at the James Beard Awards, New York, May 3, 2010.

Carol: How did you get to Alinea?

Joe:  Henry Adaniya invited me to return to Trio when he hired Chef Achatz. He knew I would enjoy creating a wine program to match Grant's cuisine. Alinea was the next step, taking what started at Trio and finding ways to make the entire dining experience more polished and complete.

Carol:  In the course of your career, how have you seen restaurant service evolve?  Are diners more/less demanding than in the past 5, 10, 20 years? 

Joe: My experience is that diners are increasingly more knowledgeable about food and wine, and in many ways more demanding, but also, on the whole, more respectful and appreciative of a well-trained and professional server.  But as far as demanding diners, in a sense, we work at Alinea to diffuse the diners' need to control the dining experience; they'll have the best time giving themselves over to our program.

Carol: Does your front-of-house staff turn over regularly, or have many folks been on board for the five years Alinea has been open?

Joe: Very few remain from the opening team, but there’s been little turnover in the past 2 plus years.  Right now we have a very solid crew.
Carol:  Alinea is moving to a single menu in August.  What kind of impact will this have on both the kitchen and the front-of-house service?

Joe:  It will increase efficiency in many regards, but the net result will be a longer average menu and actually a small reduction in the number of guests we serve per evening.  More diners will get a broader sampling of our cuisine, and our currently very long workdays should become somewhat shorter.

Carol: It seems Grant's post on Alinea-Mosaic about photography and videography has spurred some debate, leading to many misinterpreting his post to mean that he hates or wants to ban photography altogether.  Care to set the record straight?  What is the restaurant's policy on photography and videography in the dining room and kitchen?

Joe:  It’s a very double-edged issue, isn’t it? On the one hand, much of the photography that gets shared in posts and blogs has undoubtedly served us well as effective promotion. On the other hand, the act of taking the pictures can be disturbing to other diners and, for that matter, to the staff.

We allow photography, but ask that in consideration of other diners, people not use flash in the dining room. For some reason, there are always some folks that don't agree with that policy and don't understand why we would ask them to do without the flash. So they flash anyway, and we ask them not to, et cetera. Some people will unabashedly film the chef preparing something at another table; we're amazed that we need to suggest that that might be intrusive of the other diners' experience.

We get frustrated that excessive photography (I've seen people honestly stage a dozen shots of a single dish, multiplied by 20-odd courses) interrupts the pacing of the menu (something we feel is important to the overall experience), and sometimes detracts from the intended experience of a dish, particularly when temperature is an issue.

I honestly get the impression that for some people, the act of photographing the food is more important to them than actually enjoying the food. I hope I’m wrong about that. But no, I don’t believe anyone here hates or wants to ban photography. We would, however, hope for moderation and, mostly, higher consideration for the dining experience of others.

Carol:  Thank you for clearing that up.  And while we're on the topic of manners, I'm not asking you to rat out rude diners or "tell tales out of school," but what kinds of things do you and your team find most frustrating or challenging?  Is it people who talk too loudly?  Show up drunk?  Not understand the concept before making their reservation?  Show up with a list of alleged food allergies instead of telling the reservationist ahead of time?

Joe:  I’m sure we could post quite a long list, but I think you landed on one of our most regular challenges. It is disappointing that there are often groups who seemingly have no concept that the volume of their conversation and laughter is out of any reasonable proportion. Of course we want them to have fun, but there are other people in the dining room. Pretty basic lack of manners.

Carol: Most chefs I know do what they do because they've always known they wanted to cook.  When it comes to the service side of the business, I'm wondering if the same pull is there.  Did you always know this is what you wanted to do?

Joe: I was always interested in wine and cuisine; I became fascinated by the running of a restaurant and the choreography of the dining experience. This was never my first choice of career, but it was something I did for a job and came to appreciate more and more over time.

Carol: Never your first choice of career?  What was? Astronaut?  Cheesemonger?  Neurosurgeon?  Race car driver?  Barber?  In a dream world, is there another career you'd love to pursue?

Joe: When I was in high school, I narrowed my college choices down to studying architecture, enology, or music. Music won out. My choice of career was playing the horn. I was lucky enough to get to do that for a while, but unfortunately injury led me to veer from that path. If I were to leave the food and wine business altogether, I’m sure I would find some way back into music.
Carol: What advice do you have for those who want to get into the restaurant management business?  Do you need a culinary or hospitality degree?  Or, can you learn by working for good people/establishments? 

Joe:  I’ve seen people get great benefit from culinary and hospitality degrees, and I’ve seen many who didn’t. I was fortunate to work for talented people in some really excellent restaurants. It worked out to be an effective education for me. Whether someone chooses a focused culinary or hospitality degree or not, I don’t think there is any substitution for practical experience in the best venues possible.

Carol:  You're managing service and operations at Alinea while also helping open Next Restaurant and Aviary.  (do you ever sleep?)  How will service be different at these two new ventures?  Will some of the Alinea staff move over to either of these new spots to help during the opening? 

Joe:  The nature of the new ventures will undoubtedly be more casual, but we would certainly expect to uphold similar standards of service. The bottom line of the success of Alinea's service is the care and thoughtfulness everyone in the house applies to their job, I should hope we will be able to carry that over to Fulton Street. And yes, bringing along team members from Alinea will be an important step in expanding the brand.

Carol:  Alright, no more talk about work (for a minute).  What's your ideal vacation?  What do you like to do when you have time off?

Joe:  An ideal vacation definitely includes plenty of beach time. I also very much enjoy exploring other cities, checking out the local food scene, art, and architecture. With time on my hands I will go to symphony concerts, look for good jazz, get to sports events when I can. And, over the past five years I’ve played a fair amount of poker.

Carol:  What did you have for staff meal last night?

Joe:  We had chicken breast fillets with a very tasty barbecue sauce, fingerling potato salad, slaw, and green salad.

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Thanks, Joe.

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Read My Previous Post:  Beef, elements of A1


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Hey! Thanks for the shout-out. Maybe someday I will get to eat at Alinea....

Uh, he's totally cute. :)

2 things: am I the only one that counted words in his first response?


I would love to work for this man. Classy.

Great post! I've been thinking about this issue of photography/video during service since your last post in reference to Chef Achatz' post. Wouldn't these venues (Alinea, French Laundry, Per Se, etc) be better served by establishing a policy of "No photos or video", but made available on the website multiple shots of all the dishes served? I wouldn't want some at the table next to me video'ing a chef/staff at my table doing any part of the service, especially if I was in the video without being asked. I'd be tempted to wag a finger at them; not sure which finger would best get the point across.

Hey, I have a Joe story!

I ate at Alinea earlier this month and on the way there, everything went wrong. We got horribly lost, there was a random traffic jam at 5pm on a Sunday, and a torrential downpour that soaked me as I dashed the 8 ft from car to door. We were a half hour (HALF HOUR) late to dinner, and I was absolutely horrified. The gentleman at the restaurant helping me navigate over the phone had gotten so annoyed, I was worried it would carry over once we got into the restaurant. Thankfully, the moment we walked in, Joe and the rest of the staff made us feel at home. My shoulders relaxed and we had an absolutely amazing meal.

ps. I'm still so embarrassed by being late that I almost didn't read this interview, for fear Joe would CALL ME OUT BY NAME Re: rude guests. Maybe I'm a little paranoid.

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