Will Guidara '01 gives the keynote address at Hotel Ezra Cornell 2018.

Top restaurateur urges students to defy expectations

With playful, self-deprecating humor and pithy lessons from his successful career, Will Guidara ’01, co-owner of a restaurant ranked among the best in the world, gave the keynote address at Hotel Ezra Cornell 2018 March 17 in Alice Statler Auditorium. He geared much of his talk toward students in the audience.

“You cannot create experiences based on what the world expects you to create,” he said. “Too often, people are so focused on learning the rules that they never give themselves the grace to break them. In the world of hospitality, we get to dream about the worlds that we wished existed, and then we get to create them.”

Guidara is co-owner, with chef Daniel Humm, of Eleven Madison Park (EMP) in New York City. It has received four stars from The New York Times, three Michelin stars, the No. 1 ranking in the 2017 San Pellegrino World’s 50 Best Restaurants and five James Beard Foundation awards. Guidara co-owns Make It Nice, a hospitality group that owns EMP, the NoMad restaurants and Made Nice.

A native of Sleepy Hollow, New York, Guidara was especially close to his father. His mother was a quadriplegic for most of his childhood; one of his father’s favorite phrases was “Adversity is a terrible thing to waste.” A lifelong restaurateur, Guidara’s father inspired his early interest in the restaurant business. At age 12, Guidara had three life goals: go to Cornell, marry supermodel Cindy Crawford and open a restaurant in New York City. “So two out of three,” he quipped. “Not bad.”

As an undergraduate, he was service director of Hotel Ezra Cornell, and he especially remembered a course called “Themes, Cuisines and Beyond.” “I loved that class because I was given the freedom at an age far earlier than I deserved to just dream and then to see that dream come to life. I would spend the rest of my career fighting for that feeling over and over and over again because there’s nothing more inspiring to me.”

He encouraged students to take courses outside the School of Hotel Administration. He studied photography, public speaking and Spanish, which he called “one of the most beneficial classes I’ve taken in my entire life.”

He also advised students to avoid management internships. “Get a job and build your craft,” he said. He was a server at Tribeca Grill and a busboy at Spago. “If you can’t do the jobs of the people you’re managing, you will never be truly good at what you’re trying to do.”

The day after he graduated, his mother died. Soon after he took his father to the famed restaurant Daniel, where chef Daniel Boulud, whom Guidara had met at Hotel Ezra Cornell, gave them a tour of the restaurant, an amazing dining experience and no check at the end of the evening. Boulud taught him the power of generosity, Guidara said. “Manage your numbers like an animal 95 percent of the time. The other 5 percent, spend foolishly. Because it’s in that 5 percent that you create moments.”

At 21, he was maître d’ at restaurateur Danny Meyer’s Tabla; he later became general manager at the Museum of Modern Art restaurants, also run by Meyer. He was wholly uninterested in fine dining, which he called “boring.”

But in 2006 Meyer asked him to become the general manager of EMP, and transform it, with Humm, from a brasserie to a fine dining restaurant. While many restaurants focus either on food or service, he and Humm decided to concentrate on both. And they drew inspiration from jazz trumpeter Miles Davis, making EMP fresh, collaborative and forward-thinking.

That, he said, is the reason for their success – and his realization that fine dining didn’t need to be stuffy. He and Humm wanted to keep a sense of glee in their restaurants. “It’s important to do things that people would advise against,” he said. They’ve served a gourmet hot dog, closed EMP for a day each year to throw a Kentucky Derby party for industry insiders, and arranged for their staff to have a snowball fight in the restaurant. They’ve instituted Mama Guidara’s, a Sundays-only service of Italian comfort food at NoMad’s bar. For a time they integrated magic tricks into each EMP course.

“You need to look at the world with a fresh set of eyes, grab inspiration when it’s placed in front of you, dream with every ounce of your being,” he said. “My dad’s favorite quote was ‘What would you attempt to do if you knew could not fail?’ Ask yourself that question – and do that.”

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Rebecca Valli