Episode #302: Nick Kokonas – How To See The Genius In People

Nick Kokonas is co-founder and co-owner of groundbreaking Alinea, Next, and The Aviary (and it’s speakeasy The Office) in Chicago. Alinea, which opened in 2005, has been on the World’s 50 Best Restaurants list since 2007, rising as high as seventh and twice being the “Best Restaurant in North America.” It has held three Michelin stars since 2010, and in 2016 received James Beard’s “Outstanding Restaurant” award. In 2012, equally as avant-garde Next won the James Beard Award for “Best New Restaurant.”

Nick is also the founder of Tock, a ticketing system that helps restaurants operate more efficiently. A pioneer in the use of ticketing, Kokonas’ Tock has processed more than $205-million pre-paid restaurant tickets, in addition to seating more than 1 million people in nine countries and 37 cities around the world.

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“No one is giving it away for free.  It takes effort.”

Show Notes:

  • Commonalities of sustaining excellence:
    • Intellectual curiosity – A desire to learn.  Not for the outcome, but for the curiosity to learn more
    • Healthy degree of paranoia – What Jim Collins would call “productive paranoia”
      • In the pursuit of excellence
    • “No one is giving it away for free.  It takes effort.”
  • Balance — “I get manic at times. I’m not always well balanced.”  The skill is in being able to turn it on and off… Which can happen over time
  • “I’ve always been curious about how things worked…”
  • Why it was helpful to go to Colgate University
    • A Liberal Arts school forced Nick to study areas outside of just his major.  Made him more well-rounded
    • He “learned how to learn” — Forced him to wrestle with existential questions
  • Rhetoric — Can you understand all sides of an issue? Where does ambiguity exist?
    • Need to learn to think critically — How you do it is more important that you do it
  • General advice:
    • “Learn to communicate well.  Concisely. Learn to write and speak well.”
    • From a psychology perspective, analyze, “what are they really saying?”
  • Why he became a derivatives trader:
    • “I got into law school, but didn’t want to go.”
    • He tested well, but desired his independence
    • “Prestige as part of pay doesn’t matter to me.”
    • To be great at anything, you must be disciplined to show up everyday — “My money has always been at risk everyday. Some think that’s crazy.  But I’ve always worked to have an edge.”
    • How to figure out outcomes as soon as possible
  • The decision to leave the world of derivatives trading to open a restaurant… Why?
    • “I took some money off the table… Then my dad died… and I thought, what am I doing?  I had no idea what I was going to do next…”
  • Meeting Grant Achatz and the impact that had on Nick’s life…
    • “He reminded me a lot of myself.  He was thoughtful, driven, shy (this was the opposite), and he wasn’t afraid of hard work.”
    • “I think I have a skill to see the genius in some people.”
    • “Grant’s work is of artistic genius”
  • Doing what you love and are passionate about:
    • “For me the test is… When I wake up in the morning is it nagging at me to do it?”
  • If you’re going to start something new and open a restaurant, it better be great… They opened Alinea exactly one year after discussing it.
  • Keys:
    • “Show the fu*k up.  It’s not sexy to show up everyday and work, but that’s what it takes.”
  • Experiential design — think of a dentist office:  how could you make it a place where you want to go?
    • Hospitality should be universal.  Look at the theater, you want to evoke certain emotions
    • “We focus on every aspect of interacting with the public.  From the moment you make the contact.”
    • “Create a goal of ‘what do I want that person to feel?”
    • Create some tension and then relieve it
    • “Create a series of emotional experiences for the diner.  It should be like a good magic trick.”
    • “How do we make them pause and say, ‘how do I eat that?'”
  • The essence of good art evokes nostalgia… Emotion
  • “The essence of being a good business is being a good editor.”
    • Quality always wins out
  • 5 year plan? “I’ve never made one and I don’t have one.”
  • Use the “Get To Know You Document
  • Why joining The Learning Leader Circle is a good idea

“It’s not sexy to show up to work everyday and work, but that’s what it takes.”

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Episode 216: Jim Collins — How To Go From Good To Great

Episode 200: Keith Hawk & AJ Hawk — Showing Up, Doing The Work, Earning Trust, Helping Others, Winning The Super Bowl, Celebrating #200

Episode 234: Jocko Willink — Why Discipline Equals Freedom