Lynn Bound and Tracy Wilson Revolutionize the Museum Cafe

Chef Lynn Bound and Manager Tracy Wilson - all photos Brent Herrig Photography

Chef Lynn Bound and Manager Tracy Wilson – all photos Brent Herrig Photography

I love stories, and there are millions of them in my city. Most of the stories I get to share focus on those in the hospitality industry, which is a quirky place to settle right now; food media works itself into a frenzy I find amusing at times, but often overwhelming. Yet right when I’m at the tipping point I’ll spend a few hours of ease listening to incredibly smart, dedicated people who truly invest all of themselves into the experiences they create for fortunate eaters such as myself. This story is about one such experience.

Most who live in New York are familiar with the name Danny Meyer — he practically reinvented the word “hospitality” — and I’ve never been anything less than impressed with the many chefs I’ve worked with at his restaurants, largely in part to his phenomenal powerhouse team of PR ladies. But there’s one outpost that doesn’t get the fancy coverage reserved for Shake Shack and Gramercy Tavern and Maialino; the cafes at the Museum of Modern Art.

There, Executive Chef Lynn Bound and General Manager Tracy Wilson turn out 900 full meals a day, plus two staff meals for the museum’s 300+ workers, with additional event catering and snacks ready for those just looking for a sweet treat or quick cup of coffee. Further, Bound and Wilson have transformed the entire museum dining experience, utilizing buzz words like “hospitality” and “guest experience” and “seasonality” as they provide healthful, beautiful food to refuel guests and staff alike.

It’s also not lost on this particular writer that Bound is Danny Meyer’s only female executive chef, and the Bound/Wilson team is one of few dual female teams at such an executive level in New York City. Sadly this is not at all uncommon in this profession: Daniel Boulud and Gabe Stulman don’t have a female executive chef under their titles at all.

Our recorded conversation was just over an hour, and we lingered yet another, talking about food allergies and Lynn’s recipes and how badass it feels to be in a museum like the MoMa after closing hours. The much abbreviated version of our talk went up in my column on Serious Eats. Below is the lightly ironed out, full chat.

Chef Lynn Bound and Manager Tracy Wilson On Transforming the MoMa Dining Scene

Taken January, 2014

For those unfamiliar with exactly what you’re responsible for, what production do the two of you handle?

Lynn: From the kitchen perspective we’re responsible for creating all menus, costing them out, and making sure the bars are flowing. We do a huge number here; 900 guests between the two cafes.

Tracy: And that’s real covers – savory – not just beverages or desserts. We also have catering that runs independently of us, and StaffCaf, which is a MoMa unit. Plus, we also take care of staff meal for the entire complex, so an additional 300 people morning and evening.

What’s the difference between the two cafes?

Lynn: Café 2 has more of a restaurant line where we cook fresh and people can have a heartier meal, whereas there’s no cooking at Terrace 5, and limited space. Even with those restrictions we have to provide a nourishing, healthful, beautiful, delicious lunch. We deal with such a diverse group of folks – from young kids to adults – so the menus have to be reflective of that. We also have to be very mindful of people who are vegan, gluten-free, dairy-free, and have nut allergies.

How long has that been on your radar?

Lynn: I noticed that about five years ago, when people would approach me; first it was kids, then adults with Celiac disease. Recently I had a man here who asked if we had butter in the soup, because he was bitten by a specific tick upstate and was now allergic to the protein in dairy. I went and researched it and thought it was pretty interesting that this particular tick – I don’t know the name – produced that allergy in him. Someone on a vegan diet will come in and, of course, they think there’s nothing for them to eat here; but there are so many options for them, and not just salad. That’s a fun part – it’s now a ton of people, so the menu’s geared towards that.

How long have you both been working here?

Tracy: Since 2007; Lynn came a few months after me.

What was your perception when you first started?

Tracy: When I first came there were some words sort of assigned to the restaurants; Café 2 was “refuel”, because when you have a lot of sensory information coming at you it’s exhausting, so this was a place to bring the whole family and refuel. One of the things I saw immediately was that it was very much a family restaurant – lots of piles of papers and napkins. Not to detract from anybody, but it looked more like any other kind of museum. So I thought we could work with the look and feel of the place.

At that point we had cashiers; you would go down the line, place your order, and then we’d give you a number to bring to your table – not a number with a stand, mind you, just the number. Then the 52% of people who could not speak English would put the number on the table, and the runners would circle the airport for 3 or 4 times looking for a number while the food was getting cold! So I said, well, we have some changes to make, because we want to have our hospitality be inclusive. So the first change we made was to give the number and the stand to the guests – a little unorthodox, but at least we could find the food now. Then we took the numbers and we wrote “welcome” in many languages on them, because we wanted to say “welcome” and “thank you” – this is inclusive hospitality, and so it must be.

Then we decided that because 52% of our guests don’t have English as a first language and many people do not have English as a language – which is astounding, not a single word of English – it was clear that we needed more and more hospitality, to be with the guest. Because the guest didn’t understand when the food was coming, or that it was cooked fresh to order, and that it’s one sized fits one – whatever you need Lynn can supply. So that needed to be reflected in the front of house, too. So we made the very bold decision to go to front of house service last year, in November. One day we were cashiers and the next day we were waiters; we turned around a 200 seat café in one day. The majority of my staff had been cashiers who didn’t know how to be a restaurant server, so we had three weeks of training to bring them up to a Danny Meyer-style server, which means to be attentive, educated, sensitive, and empathetic. We had great people and were on the right track, we just needed to give them the right training. So now we’re going to another bold move, which is giving them all hand-held computers, and starting next month you’ll have your order taken when talking to the server, upon greeting

How do you train your staff to handle such a drastic language barrier for that 52%?

Tracy: Action words; you try to use words that might be applicable in any language. Also, I’ve had as many as 13 different languages represented in this service team. I’ve had a three-year dream to take the menus and translate them out into all the languages of MoMa, and then to have them represented electronically, presented here on iPads so you can be presented with a menu you can read, and have a better experience.

How does the internationality affect the shape of the menu?

Lynn: I think that when people come that they want to see something different and not the food they see every day in their own culture. So I like to make it interesting, where it looks intriguing and they’re still able to understand it. A lot of the food is live – they’ll walk down the stations to see it being made.

Does the art itself affect the food, too?

Lynn: The art is so beautiful and so fulfilling for people to look at, that when they come to eat they want to eat something equally beautiful and that makes them feel good, and not the typical stuff you’d get at another institution; hot dogs or chicken fingers. So that’s where we kind of try to keep the food – Italian with a contemporary twist to it. So they do kind of go together. We have done dinners with the curators, and we did a cookie once for Starry Night. But I don’t want it too become kitschy, and a lot of the artists don’t want you to take their work and paint it on a cookie – they feel that it’s kind of not taking it seriously. There’s a line between doing something right and it not feeling authentic. When we had Diego Rivera, we did a concha – a typical bread from Mexico. We had a great exhibit, and then when people came out they could enjoy that and question it. So things like that – reminiscent of the artists and not the art itself – feels good to me.

I hadn’t thought of this until now, but isn’t it sort of ironic that you work in a museum of modern art yet your restaurant isn’t swimming in modernist cuisine? Was there a time you’ve plated or constructed a bit more abstractly?

Lynn: Yeah, at different places I’ve worked in. It’s just not natural to me, and was never my style. I like food to be not so manipulated, to be very natural, to taste like what it is, and not to have it be disguised in too many ways. I appreciate those plates, and think they look beautiful too, but I think there’s a time and a place for it.

It’s funny though, because wouldn’t you think the place would be here? In the museum of modern art?!

Yeah, that’s a really good point! I think in the Modern it kind of is that way – the desserts are very architectural.

Neither of you had worked in hospitality within a museum before. What was the greatest hurdle to overcome when you started?

Lynn: For me it wasn’t much, it was just bringing together what Danny and the museum wanted. I came with experience both big and small, so when I came here this was big and small together so all my experience was helpful. So it was just about understanding what the vision was and how they wanted us to make sure everyone felt welcome here.

Tracy: I had no experience in a format this large. Here you run across two football fields and up one football field and maintain staff on all levels and make sure that it’s going well at the level the guest would expect or, more, at the level Danny would expect, because you hear people say, “Oh, this is a Danny Meyer restaurant, isn’t it?” You don’t even know how they know, but they know. I came from Gramercy Tavern; I opened there as a busser and then left as an Executive Captain to open Tabla, and left there as a general manager to come here. I had no inkling of what I was in for here, but it was amazing.

This whole shebang seems like it’d be part puzzle that can be mathematically configured but with a large dose of heart, which can’t be faked. Where has your greatest growth been in the 7 years?

Lynn: That’s a good question.

Tracy: That’s a very good question.

Lynn: When I got here this wasn’t a preferred position – it was hard for them to place a chef because you don’t have the toys that you could have in another kitchen. Also staff would prefer to go to the Modern, so when I started I had some inconsistency with staff not showing up, calling out, and not being skilled. There were a lot of them, and so we decided to invest in them; have less of them, teach them really well, and pay them a little bit more. So I think over time we’ve built an awesome team – most of my guys have been promoted from porter positions and the rest come from school, so I have a nice, diverse mix in the kitchen from age 18 to age 65, men and women of different nationalities. By investing in them we have a strong team today.

Guest-wise, in the beginning people would come in an order the caprese salad, which is 11 dollars, and they would have a fit because they thought the price was too high. I had to address it, but couldn’t say, “Hey, this cheese is coming in from Italy every Tuesday and Thursday”, because they just had a sense of being ripped off. It was the plating; I just put a different arugula salad on it so that it looked bigger, and now everyone loves it. I think the hurdle was getting people away from what museums were; “Where’s my wrapped sandwich?”, “Why can’t I get my own food?”, “Why is this salad $11?” Their shock and amazement followed because they didn’t realize what they were going to get from a museum. I can have a line out the door and a board full of tickets, but I can’t tell you how many people will stop me and ask for recipes. They leave thinking, “That was great”. They’ll tell the guys or videotape them when they’re working.

And Tracy?

Tracy: What hasn’t changed! I’ve made hundreds of small changes – from the number on the stands to cloth napkins. We’ll have a big family in one spot and right next to them a couple in their nineties, so we had to start thinking about how we could make this a warm, hospitable environment that was safe and clean so that people could rest? Because to rest you have to feel safe and like you’re in a good environment. We have hundreds of children a week here, so we show attention to even the smallest things; a concierge for strollers, we warm bottles, we provide warm food for them, and if they need something we make it from scratch as much as possible.

Lynn: We offer food for the babies, too, for free, like hummus or polenta.

Tracy: We’ve had plenty of families come in and email us before saying, “What can you provide for my child who is allergic to almost everything?” Recently one said, “This is the first time that I’ve not had to send a meal with my child somewhere because I felt that they could get a safe meal.” That’s very touching to us. So, everything has changed. We work with integrity and try to be better every day when we come in, and a better team every single day, and continue to up our game. It’s a lot easier when you have a much smaller restaurant, with fewer staff and just one of you. Here, there’s a whole team of managers. I’m first generation Danny – Danny trained me himself. So I need to make sure that I’m representing the business the way Danny would want it represented, and making sure everyone down the line does the same thing.

In freestanding restaurants you’re going to have reviewers and social media jumping on things to put you in a spotlight. But, here, no one’s going to expect a wonderful menu and expect talk about the guest experience and seasonality. Did you recognize the hurdles you’d have set against you, working within a museum?

Lynn: I think whatever menu you do, you do what you can execute well with what you have. I know this isn’t a place that’s going to get reviewed, and I’m fine with that. I just try… it’s challenging, and so you work within the challenges to see how you can make it great. My mind isn’t around getting it reviewed, I just try to do my absolute best for my guests and my staff and my company. We don’t have Open Table or anything so we don’t know who anyone is, and we just see these incredible stories they write and are like, “Wow, I had no idea.” Other people have different paths with what they want to do; I just want to work with integrity and do the best I can.

You’re Danny’s only female executive chef / executive team, which is not uncommon. Has your gender been a factor in your career in general?

Lynn: No, I’ve had some really wonderful positions even prior to this. But as you develop in your career you also choose who you work for. I think this is a great company, and so for me this hasn’t been an issue at all. Danny’s an awesome individual with awesome partners, and they know. It’s been a great experience for me, being here.

Tracy: I was lucky – Danny almost wasn’t going to hire me at Gramercy because I worked for a competitor and he’d already had three people come over from that restaurant. He found me training in the dining room and said, “I can’t hire you. You work for the LaFriedas and I’ve already taken three of their people.” I said that they’d given me their blessing, and so he let me be.

But the real blessing was that he gave me the ability to operate a restaurant as if it were my own, though it’s not. I don’t have business training – not one lick – and I didn’t even know how to use a copy machine when I started as a manager. My first fax was faxed upside down! But I was honored to be put into the place of running a restaurant as important as this. And I’ll go back to Lynn saying this wasn’t the most desirable property; we have a lot of sexy properties with three stars everywhere, and the desire is to cut your teeth on those. I was lucky to do that. But then we started to say, “Hey, we have something to offer here.” We’re the international face of the company and, on top of that, we can offer things to managers they’ve never had before. I train them across five different service styles and different menus; there’s a certain training here you can’t find anywhere else. So I think we started to find our niche and make things sparkle because we found we did things as good, if not better, than others in our company because we have advantages only we can have; great artists, and a director and executive team that supports and adores Lynn.

Lynn: I don’t think when we first started anyone had even thought about collaborations between the chef and curators. It only developed out of relationships; coming in and building those relationships and talking about interests. I think we’re still growing. I think the museum is so pleased with the relationship they have with the cafes – people love art and they love food – so we can do big and small dinners, and work with the performance artists and curators.

Yeah, I read about the Edible Magritte dinner all over the web!

Lynn: All over! I was astonished! It was so much fun, and look at the amount of exposure it got for us and the museum! And the next time we do something, people will definitely want to go. I went to the exhibit with the artist I was working with on it because I wanted to see it through her eyes, so it was very interesting for me. When you see it with them it’s a whole other experience. From that, we started working on the dishes. It was great.

Did you learn anything about rethinking how you create a dish from that collaboration?

Lynn: Not so much with making a dish, but yes with learning what people want when they come to an event like this. The first time we did one it was a little bit stuffy – the people didn’t know each other and were sitting at communal tables. But after stories came out the next group of people that came were coming to have fun. They’d heard about it, didn’t know anybody here, and just wanted to have a ball.

Tracy: And we find there’s an element of magic to these, too. These communal tables may be different than a lot of Manhattan, but I will say, when we do a big dinner like Eat, Drink, MoMa or Diego Rivera, people who sit at these tables start as strangers and end as friends. It’s amazing. They’ll sit talking afterwards for as long as we’ll let them.

I don’t think you give yourselves enough credit for how much you handle. Of the many hats you wear in this space, is there anything that you weren’t expecting or something you were hoping for that feels really satisfying?

Lynn: I think if you have a standalone restaurant you have a menu and that’s your menu, and your three months in that season are pretty much it. Here we can have that, but we also have these opportunities to have creative enterprises with the artists and curators, which keeps me so motivated and engaged. It’s never boring – there’s always something fun to do. I want to do more than just put a plate on a table. I want to make sure I know the people here.

Tracy: I agree with Lynn that it’s the relationships – half the emails of my day are sent to MoMa, so I’m literally wearing two hats. We train all of the 300 volunteers, the security team, the visitor’s services and lobby managers. They have a sense that the institution is so much larger than one individual person, and we try to make it not about an institution, but about an individual person. They’ve picked up on that and like it, and want more of it. So they’re growing because we’re here. It really is a mutual relationship, and quite a wonderful one, I think. These curators love Lynn, and they love what we do, and they want to be in a dialogue. I think MoMa has done more food-related exhibitions than any other museum in the world. Big and small, so many are food related.

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