3 Strangely Uplifting Lessons I Learned Without Ever Working at a Restaurant

When famished for food, the eyes can play tricks — sometimes, strangely inspiring prisms just show up.

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My dad made a promise to himself.

Never to let me carry the heavy school bag, walk a kilometer and change two public buses to reach home. I lived farther than 99% of my classmates.

That promise was not explicit.

His action through my first 10 grades of school life was grand proof — almost always, I was dropped off and picked up.

That middle-class luxury had tradeoffs. Majority of the days, my siblings and I were the last ones waiting.

As he picked us up, he would give our faces one look. His parental instincts took over. He ferried us to a restaurant close to school.

It was always the same one.

At the restaurant, there was a predictable pattern for what we ordered. The main course came deep from the kitchen stoves. I grew up in Madras (now called Chennai,a Southern City of India)

The waiter brought out the dosa (thin rice pancake, salted not sweet) with a small cup of Sambhar (lentil soup dip). The chutneys (side dishes) were always added on the way out in my full view — a tablespoon each.

In the last act of garnish, I found something amiss

Every other restaurant it was a generous scoop of chutney — ladle full. That was the early 1980s norm.

This restaurant turned the “unlimited refills” model on its head. Truly an outlier — guarded the side dishes with sanctity that few could comprehend.

Unlike the main course, the companion dishes for the taste buds often have intricate seasonings. They take time to make and they do not have volume discounts.

Viewed as a math problem, the contrarian business model made economic sense — not prevailing norm sense.

Many ridiculed the ‘mini garnish’ business model then. Today, the ladles have made way to the tablespoons — almost everywhere. And that pioneering restaurant is today a global chain.

I get reminded of this business model from Chennai whenever I watch this video from the cradle of Apple — uplifting to be an outlier.

My personal lingering memory is endearingly simple. My young famished stomach found the constrained serving tasty and fulfilling — every time.

The restaurant odyssey continued through the ages in the US as well — after grad school. Here are my cherry picks.

Early Career Days: Piping Conversations & Human Frailties

Fast forward to my early years in a job. I was seated at a restaurant with a few senior executives. It was a busy place. All tables were piping with conversations. In the bylines between the tables, a waiter made a splash –a sizzling dish drenched the floor. All around, conversations chopped. People gasped.

At my table it was a blip of a head turn and the executives continued the conversation as if nothing happened.

That opened my eyes to new possibilities. Until then, I was exposed to two reactions to a common water spill — admonishing or pampering with sympathy. I liked the different reaction at my table — to rise above minor fumbles and frailties. That was worth emulating.

An option I remember to bring home to model for my young daughters.

Hiring Days: Job Interview Boosters

I always found the four walls of the conference room very constricting during an interview. I found the excuse of breaking bread together with a candidate more relaxing and real.

It helps me test for a belief — the heart of a great company is built on managing around not managing up. The candidate interactions with the waiter give glimpses of what to expect.

I have hired many people in my life. Most have worked out well. The roles may vary. One thing is common — they respected the waiter in their own signature way.

If great hires make great companies — the acknowledging eye contact, or a courteous thank you on the way out have proven golden through the years.

Serving it all together: Best for last

I had once asked my mom why south Indian cooking involves an overnight soaking of grains. Not known to mince her words, she cut right through, “Every grain has a natural protection- a self preservation. Soaking does something to them, it thaws them– the goodness inside the seed flourishes out during fermentation.”

In this blog, I sliced through my life experiences at restaurants. The apparent surface connection is the restaurant space.

The scorching heat beneath the surface — all you need is an open mind to observe and learn. The physical space could be a classroom or a restaurant. The space does not matter. What matters is the thaw — to thaw our mind to absorb without knowing.

Stories around us are the thaw for the mind like water around soaked seeds. And American chef, Anthony Bourdain’s life story nourishes me — every time. Like the best ones, his story personifies hope - age is just a number and inspiration is just one click away.

Hope you enjoyed my journey and the uplifting crescendo — all around restaurants.

Karthik Rajan

Stories to fuel your mind. Theme: life’s hidden treasures in plain sight. Goal: Warm tone, solid content, crisp stories. About me: one google search away.

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