Category Archives: Ruminations

What a Return!

Eighteen years ago I stopped last at the Inn at Little Washington. It was already a famous, special place. Please see the podcast below, The “Inn” Place, as to the many aspects that make the town and Inn so distinctively captivating.

I’ve been married just over seventeen years, and this is one place my wife and I had never visited as a couple. My birthday was looming and we decided to experience it anew, together.

The culinary finesse of Patrick O’Connell, a true innovator, beggars description. Thirty two years of operating the Inn and the experience still takes your breath away.

The first picture you see is the extraordinary kitchen, custom designed in France, based on the dairy room of Windsor Castle, with Gregorian chants soothing and focusing the chefs who deliver such a virtuoso performance each night.

The second picture is us, with a glass of superb rose champagne and a bit of whimsy, truffled popcorn to accompany it in the stunning lounge (the popcorn has truffle oil AND shaved truffles on top — talk about “finger licking good”). Simplicity and artistry in one.

The third picture is the cheese cow. The cheese selection is European in sweep and balance, delivered on this cow which even makes a mooing sound as she approaches. What a blend of elegance and humor, of Old World art and New World impertinence!

Even the dishes are more than they seem. The caviar you see in the picture seems as if it’s just Ossetra in a tin. But underneath is a silky and exquisite crab and cucumber rilette that just amazingly flatters the caviar in undreamt of ways. The subtlety isn’t compromised, and the flavors are wonderfully enhanced.

Each dish leaves you puckering your palate as it experiences both sophistication and also at least a few unusually tantalizing overtones…like the warm limoncello souffle with zesty lemon ice cream. We were there two nights and other than the menu below, I can particularly recommend other dazzling highlights like hot and cold foie gras on a single plate (a revelation!), lamb carpaccio with caesar salad ice cream, and a shockingly, decadently alluring butter pecan ice cream sandwich with warm caramel.

Taken all in, it is everything a performance should be — delivered by service personalities who show up for each “act” presciently and yet unobtrusively, contributing appropriate charm and warmth. And I was even given a lovely Boutonniere (the elegant flower in the lapel) as I entered! A lovely tradition rarely preserved today…except at bastions of civility and taste like the Inn.

This is the stuff that memories are truly made on!

Passion comes first, then vision, then devoted execution…success follows, and is almost then incidental. Having chatted with Patrick O’Connel I found he had perused my website and Blog, knew who was inhouse, his team had recommendations in hand for us to enjoy the environs, and he was clearly determined we’d be back well before another eighteen years!

We will…much sooner.

Care that much and I can pretty much guarantee you’ll more than make it in whatever you choose to go for.

MENU

A Tin of Sin: Ossetra Caviar with a Crab and Cucumber Rillette with Gatinois, Grand Cru, Ay, Brut, Champagne, 2002

A Quartet of Island Creek Oyster Slurpies

Lightly Scrambled Local Farm Eggs with Creme Fraiche, Wild Morels and Asparagus in a Crystal Egg with Bodegas Escoda-Sanahuja, Conca de Barbera, Els Bassots, Catalunya, Spain 2006

Pecan-Crusted Soft Shell Crab Tempura with Italian Mustard Fruit and Marinated Cabbage Slaw with Jermann, Pinot Grigio, Venezia Giulia, Friuli, Italy 2006

Pan Seared Four Story Hill Farm’s Peking Duck Breast on Red Wine Risotto with Caramelized Endive and Foie Gras “Croutons” with Thierry Allemand, Cornas, Rhone,  France 2002 and La Grange Meritage, Virginia 2007

Strawberry Basil Bubble Tea

Limoncello Souffle with Lemon Ice Cream with Le Mandolare, Recioto di Soave Classico, Le Schiavette, Veneto, Italy 2005

BONUS: Iced Birthday Cake with Dark Chocoloate and Pistachio

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Grammatically Unimpeachable and Stylistically Extravagant

Roger Cohen in the New York Times pined nostalgically for a time when elegant stylistic forays and purple passages were abundant. It wasn’t that long ago.

The character E.K. Hornbeck (meant to represent H.L. Mencken) in the play INHERIT THE WIND, said so wonderfully: “I do lovable things for which people hate me,  and hateful things for which they love me. I am the friend of enemies and the enemy of friends. I am both poles and the Equator, with no temperate zones in between.”  Once upon a time, a scant few decades ago, the theater going public not only could imbibe the nuances of such word play as they heard these sentences being uttered, they rejoiced in it too.

Even in reaction to sentences laden with too much excess and embroidery, Mark Twain could cause us a twitter (in a more venerable sense of the word) by enjoining us to “Eschew surplusage.”  What made that of course so amusing is that he used the very thing which he was advising us to “eschew”. But then Twain could do that so artfully precisely because he was such a master of the language.

Professionals take heed, global consultants in particular beware. Facility with language, albeit perhaps less vintage language — the ability to make points crisply yes, but compellingly as well, is a critical way to differentiate our value, to project our ideas, to broadcast our brand.

When companies write such tortured English as “deploy our intellectual capital and proprietary technologies synergistically across geographies and value domains to achieve competitive advantage” or outright sap like “we will win through empowering our people, serving our customers and teamwork” there is good reason to be bullish. If you can simplify prose and vivify it at the same time, you’ll find yourself without much by way of competition in this regard.

You might disagree, pointing to the fact that some poets even have opted to be grammatically dubious like E.E. Cummings. But remember,  the impact he achieved while doing so, came from his deep knowledge of and deft touch with the language…it was a deliberate “pattern interrupt” not someone ignorantly careening through the language.

Thoughts worth sharing are a precondition to adding value. But then being able to convey them in a way that lands with your chosen audience is almost as critical. In this age of anodyne inanities and bloviating braggadocio, anyone who thinks clearly, communicates clearly and perhaps memorably, will find themselves with an enormous advantage, globally and even locally. There’s no reason you shouldn’t join their ranks.

Immerse yourself in the speeches, the writing, of masters of the language, and you’ll get ever more attuned to the cadences and rhythms of language, and the luminous potential of the right words employed at the right time.

A wonderful example of this was a writer who suggested that since we are unable to predict so much of what happens, including our prosperity when it comes, then when we encounter good fortune, the only fitting response is not skyrocketing self-regard, but grateful service.

Language is an extraordinary gift. Why not respond to it with grateful study and put that gift to use in valuable service of your clients, colleagues, family and friends?

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The Things People Say

Back in New York after a whirlwind tour…good to be home!

When I landed at JFK my assistant had managed to persuade the officer in charge of the Global Entry Program I had enrolled in (which allows ‘trusted travelers’ to clear immigration via an electronic kiosk using fingerprints) to schedule my approval interview 45 minutes after we landed! Usually you’re told when to show up and have to schlep back out to Kennedy. But she established a human connection with him, and the officer was a thorough gentleman. We also found we share a birthday! 20 minutes and it was done…it’ll be fun to try out when we return from London next week.

Warren Buffet feels that the Administration is trying to do too many things and suggested the economy had plunged off a cliff over the last six months.

An interesting distinction has been drawn. No one is expecting the Administration to be alchemists turning base metal into gold. What people are clamoring for is clarity on game-plan and focus. I remember stating early on in this Blog and my newsletter, the need for a debated and agreed dashboard, with frequent progress checks against it. The need for that is now becoming ever more palpable…and urgent.

A representative of a fund called me relative to a business expansion we’re planning. We had said ‘no thanks’ to them, but he insisted on speaking to me personally. He said they wanted to fund our expansion but on what seemed to be curious terms. It didn’t, to me, pass the ‘sniff test’. And for us, it IS an expansion…not a bail-out, so we’re not pressed. Rather than figuring that out, assuming (or perhaps hoping) we were desperate for their funding, he tried an amateurish and condescending ‘hard sell’. Five minutes talking to me would have established it was absolutely the worst way to pitch me. He then suggested that no one else would fund us (nothing like insinuating you and your plans are hopeless — leading you then to wonder what ‘death wish’ is impelling them to so aggressively try to land the deal themselves!), and we’d come crawling back to him (not in so many words, but that was the import), and he’d then have (ominous drum roll please!) ‘new terms’.  So he’d punish us for looking around and thinking about it!! Post Madoff and the debacles on the Street, this chest-pounding neanderthal is resolutely off-base if he thinks that anyone is going to tie any part of their financial destiny to an unknown ‘fund’ without taking a comprehensive look at options — including in our case, the option to postpone expansion for a year and stick to our knitting if we so choose.

I mention this last only to highlight that the worst thing you can do is attempt to browbeat people into doing business with you…at any time, but especially now. Truly become their trusted advisor, and help them evaluate and learn whether you are actually the right answer for them, or not. You’ll either get the business or you won’t. But you’ll definitely get the relationship, and in the longer term, I’ll lay odds you’ll do more business with them as well…or have another zealous brand referee, or the source of a truly warm referral.

Jon Stewart has been raking CNBC over the coals again for their bloviating excess in the recent past, hyping the bubble and its distortions. They’ve been flailing around trying to respond, demonstrating that the role of ‘court jester’ has never been more powerful…or needed right now. Stewart pointed out the obvious. His is a comedy show, so asking him for better economic predictions (as MSNBC host Joe Scarborough did) as if that’s a relevant gauntlet, only demonstrates the depth of confusion prevailing in parts of that network. But hey, it’s made for an interesting set of exchanges and the financial ‘gurus’ at CNBC are treading far more lightly as a result.

Citibank announced a multi-billion dollar profit for the first two months of ’09…this sent global markets upwards in a frenzied tizzy, just as Mr. Madoff was showcased as possibly being given a 150 year sentence. Watch out for many more roller coaster swings in the financial markets until a new normal is re-set. Time for businesses and indivduals everywhere to redefine ‘value’ and ‘success’ and ‘priorities’, possibly also ‘ethics’ and ‘character’.  The inflection point is HERE!

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Things That Catch Your Eye

Hong Kong always impresses you with highly efficient professionalism. The Cantonese excel in functional excellence. Our otherwise sober hotel, Langham Place in Mongkok revealed its lighter side as I said in my earlier post with its choice of statuary and art. But also they showed human insight and a wry (yet always appropriate) take on hospitality. Soon after we had checked in, in the small study alcove in our suite, I found a folder that said “Read Me”. How could you not? Wonderfully irresistible. Inside was a note about some maintenance being done on the pool and provisions that had been made for us to use the pool at their sister property. Similar notes dotted the suite and gave unusually clear input into Club facilities, restaurants and bar, laundry service and more. Always clear, simple, elegant, attractive.

When we left, we enjoyed an impeccable early check-out at a wonderfully run 24 hour Club Floor at 6:15, the promised 6:30 lavish continental spread (which included excellent Dim Sum by the way!) was already set up and ready. The bags were down at 6:40, the car was ready. Only when we pulled out the copy of the bill after landing in Ho Chi Minh City several hours later did we see that the back of the envelope read: “Miss You Already.”  From a campy chain that would have been too much syrup. From a resolutely professional and efficient hotel in bustling Mongkok, it was a charming and insightful touch.

Ho Chi Minh hasn’t changed. A study in contrasts…and a commitment to national development. The government here has tried a new approach to stimulate consumption. They’ve done a 5 month income tax hiatus in ’09!!  Their hope that this will keep consumers spending normally!  Very clever…and as they’re NOT snowed under a mountain of debt, it’ll be fascinating to see how it pans out.

Anywhere the English colonized they left behind bureaucracy and institutions. When the bureaucracy stifles it’s sad, when the institutions work, great progress is possible (India for example is a case study in both simultaneously). Where the French colonized, they left in relative terms arguably greater inefficiency, but usually an advanced sense of aesthetics, style, and a rich appreciation of cuisine. This is very evident in Vietnam, and harmonizes well with their own cultural sensibilities.

We stayed at the Sofitel Plaza because of so many memories from the time the Unilever Vietnam office was next door, and we helped them build their teams and thereby their results over several years. Vietnam takes you constantly by surprise! We learned that a 3 star Michelin Chef had just finished a promotion at the Sofitel’s French restaurant Olivier, the first such tour in Vietnam from a Chef of such international repute. It won’t be the last. Another such is planned for November.

After a meeting with an old friend and future business partner, we went with a Sensei colleague to Mandarine, an elegant local restaurant whose ambiance and presentation of lovely dishes, done with real subtlety and style conveyed, as ever, so much of the spirit of this remarkable place.

Off we go to China Beach in Central Vietnam and another senior leadership team…coming there to both experience Vietnam and re-experience themselves and how they collaborate and interact.

PS. Much as we adore HCMC overall, not everything is impressive. Clearly they issue taxi licenses on a capricious whim. It’s evident that virtually no cab driver in Ho Chi Minh City knows any major restaurant, hotel or landmark. However, they don’t let that deter them! They drive on with great expectations…until eventually the location is spotted, or finally their ego relents and they call their dispatcher!

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Why Oh Why…?

On the MSNBC show, “Morning Joe”, Professor Jeffrey Sachs (author of THE END OF POVERTY and COMMON WEALTH) found himself in broad agreement with Conservative host Joe Scarborough (despite simple-minded detractors more eager to catalogue people than listen to varying ideas, calling Professor Sachs a ‘Marxist-leftist nut’) about the need for igniting a Green Technology Revolution, using the technological and creative prowess of the United States to thereby revitalize long-term economic prospects.

Senator Barbara Boxer of California came on the show, speaking of both President Obama’s tour-de-force Town Hall Meeting and the disastrous, market-plummeting ‘non-plan’ (insofar as being painfully light on specifics) presented by Treasury Secretary Geitner.

At one point Professor Sachs asked Senator Boxer why an overall framework wasn’t being presented with the economic plan — a 5 year framework explaining not only where money was to be spent, but how it would stimulate growth, how then we’d exit from some of the spending commitments, how we’d go back to balancing the budget and how we’d pay down the debt.

Senator Boxer said it was already there and if he wasn’t hearing it, the President would need to keep going out into town hall type engagements and explain what was at least evident to him and Senator Boxer. Senator, why oh why can’t we call a spade a spade?

It’s not there! Or if it is, it’s hidden with such monumental artifice that it would take CSI-like forensics and Sherlockian deduction to locate it. Repeating it’s there, replaying the rhetoric about ‘this will create jobs, it will give people money, it will provide infrastructure’ does not at all answer what the end game is, and how it is envisaged that we will grow our way out of this. Generics about ‘banks starting to lend again’ won’t suffice — it doesn’t address what’s being asked for.

I’ve repeated the recommendation that while seeking to lead any major change, create a dashboard, with debated and agreed metrics. Professor Sachs, in a similar vein, is asking for a framework for more than the immediate ‘electroshock’ we’re going to provide the economy in the short-run.

Leaders when asked why something isn’t there in your plans, if it’s truly there, just point it out, and don’t make it part of an avalanche of rhetoric. If it’s not there, accept it, and commit to getting it there fast…then come through. As real leaders committed to real results, why wouldn’t we?

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Eighteen Hours Rich in Meditations

Last night I attended a Chinese New Year ‘feast’ that was well concieved and executed at Shun Lee West in New York. Alas the table was so tightly packed that it required several contortions per dish to make sure the morsels ended up in my mouth rather than my lap. The table congestion was very visible BEFORE we sat down. I wonder at producing something like that, and not looking at all that is relevant in the ambient surroundings to enhance people’s comfort and enjoyment.

This morning I heard that Bank of America was being called onto the rack by legislators due to a rather extravagant Super Bowl party they threw for customers. Their claim? Every $1 they spent will earn them $10 in return. If so, an arguable investment. However, these days, might those who have been recipients of taxpayer largesse have to manage both appearances and reality? Without pandering, all of us have to show sensitivity to how things appear as well as how they are. We recently did a critical client strategy session at their corporate training center rather than at an exotic resort. Everything was more intense, and action oriented, and much was achieved. Reality AND appearance were both well served.

I also heard yet again one more talking head opining that government is not well placed to run banks. No disagreement here! But then the implication can’t be they shouldn’t be involved, as the ‘geniuses’ running banks in the private sector managed to run up apocalyptic losses due to untrammeled greed and almost criminal financial legerdemain. Watch out for things repeated sonorously that are supposed to be self-evident. Ask, “How do we know this?” And ask it again until it’s clear. Warren Buffet’s mantra, “I don’t invest in anything I don’t understand,” wouldn’t be a bad compass if adapted to, “I’m not agreeing with anything until I’ve challenged the assumptions underlying it.”

I had my hair cut at John Allen’s in New York later in the morning, not the most expensive option, not the most cost-effective. If you want, they’ll also do a manicure (for a modest extra cost). The stylists are friendly and affable, without being excessively familiar. And they’re now offering a 15 minute ‘complimentary shoulder massage’ as a lovely way to say ‘thank you’.  Their invitation (I’m paraphrasing):  ‘Forget about business and worries for 15 minutes.’  And needless to say,  remember us for a long time afterward. Smart move! What can you and I do to say ‘thank you’ in a way that’s meaningful?

I’m now waiting for a time-critical document delivery. It’s taken three phone calls and was promised for noon, by the company putting together the information. It’s two as I write this. I’d go with the John Allen model rather than the service ethos of the company getting these documents togehter. This is as good a time as any to be as impeccable as we can be in our commitments.

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