Douglas Katz, Chef, Proprietor, and Experience Hacker Interview Transcription 20140919, Institute for Open Economic Networks (I-Open), Wednesday, September 19, 2014, Cleveland, Ohio
I’m Douglas Katz, the Chef/Owner of fire food and drink at Shaker Square in Cleveland, Ohio. I am the Owner/Proprietor of The Katz Club Diner in Cleveland Heights, Ohio and I’m the Chef/Partner at the Provenance at the Cleveland Museum of Art.
My passion extends from cooking, which is what my earliest passion was, to community engagement and working with the community to enliven or ignite my passion. Cooking is my passion but as I’ve worked in my restaurant and as I’ve cooked in my restaurant, I’ve connected with local farmers, with local people in the community, it really invigorates my passion and brings that to life in so many other dimensions.
One of the most memorable engagements that I had as it relates to my passion, is I started to use local farmers at my restaurant, fire. I connected with the person who supplies our wood. We would get a standard delivery every couple of weeks and one particular day, Ray, who’s our wood guy, didn’t show up and I was really upset about it because he was so consistent with his deliveries, I didn’t know what happened, I called several times and didn’t get an answer and he happened to show up two days later and said that unfortunately his wife had been hit in a collision and she had passed away. Just the feeling I had in my stomach when that happened, I realized that I was just not a business person connecting with this person in the community to get me something. It was really about connecting with a human in our community and that relationship meant so much more to me when I knew what had happened. It just gave me so much more empathy for him and his situation and it made me want to do business with him more. It gave me more passion every time I would load our Tandoor oven with a piece of wood, I thought of Ray. Every time I would see the wood pile, I thought of Ray. And so I thought, those connections are the ones that really invigorate my passion each day and the more farmers and the more community people I can connect with, the better, because that would just make my life fulfilled.
I opened The Katz Club Diner, we happen to be sitting in my diner car, and I live actually about five blocks down the road from here and my Diner has been five other businesses since it opened. The person who lives down the street from me, Steve Presser who owns Big Fun, he has been a staple in our community and has brought toys to the kids in our community through his store. He opened these cars, moved a diner car from Atlantic City, New Jersey and from Berwick, Pennsylvania to this location and put in a 3,000 square foot kitchen. The reason I love this building is because of the kitchen, we do a lot of off premise catering in my business so, we decided to purchase the building and move in, but we didn’t want to leave the diner cars empty just because we were doing catering. I decided to open a diner and a bar car to really invigorate this community in Cleveland Heights. It’s an area not as well traveled as other areas and I thought that by bringing my name and my reputation to the location, it would really help to invigorate the street a bit. And we’ve really done that. We have a great coffee counter that brings people in each day, we have a diner where people can enjoy really great quality local food and we have a bar car that brings people together at night in an atmosphere that is really unique to the area.
I’ve located my businesses within a very tight area of Cleveland. I think growing up in Cleveland and going out of town for many different experiences, I lived in Portland, Oregon, Aspen, Colorado and Boston, Massachusetts, I learned that living in Cleveland, first of all I was so passionate about Cleveland and I love the fact that it is such a small community, there is so much that happens here and you can really make a great impact in a small community like this.
I located my businesses within five minutes of each other, University Circle is where I have my restaurant at the Cleveland Museum of Art, Shaker Square is about five minutes from University Circle and my Diner is about five minutes from University Circle. I really love the connection, this triangle, that I have in this neighborhood, where I can really connect with the community on a much deeper level. If I had restaurants all over town it would be much harder to make those connections, I’d be in my car driving too much and I love biking or walking in the neighborhood and seeing what’s
I think when we’re talking about connecting with community, I think the most important thing that a community has that drives it, is authenticity. For me to passionate about something, I think people that come to that discussion, have to have some authenticity, they have to take pride in what they’re doing, there has to be a level of pride for what has happened before. I think that what guides me, I love the detail. I don’t need to create this huge five hundred story building, to me, what I can bring to the table just makes it a little bit better and I think everyone has to feel that way in a community. When I landscaped the Diner, when I first came into this community, the first thing I wanted to do was to beautify the landscape. It’s almost a gift I could bring to the neighborhood where the building would look much happier and it would give the building more of a soul. I think you have to have soul and you have to have authenticity and you have to have pride for what you’re doing. It’s the little things that really get us going and as long as the people in the community bring those little things together, then you make a big thing. I think of a potluck dinner, if you all come together and bring a little piece of it, it’s so much better than having one person make that whole dinner and work so hard and then you have this guilt that you’re at their house and you’re enjoying it but that person worked so hard. A potluck is a perfect example of how to build community.
As a chef, in this community, I think it’s important for me to give back to our community and so one way I can do that is by using my kitchen to really educate students and have teachers bring students to our kitchen. One thing we really love at fire and at the Diner, at fire we have a foreign language class that comes to us most every year. We also have a sustainability group that comes most every year and we teach them how a kitchen runs and we show them the kitchen and we tour the kitchen and show them the local food that we procure and we teach them how the kitchen has to be organized and clean and how to work in a kitchen as a professional environment and we teach them how the division of labor in a kitchen really makes it efficient. There are so many things that someone from the outside doesn’t understand when they come into a restaurant to eat. These students really get a back door look into how a kitchen works and they are able to put a lunch or a meal together as a team of about eighteen students and we put the food together and serve it. When you see these kids and the faces when you see them eating chicken livers for the first time and you see them eating eggs that are just, sunny side up, or over easy where they’re not cooked all the way, you realize the passion and the education really teaches students about their passions and once they’re passionate about something and they own it, then they are much more interested in trying something. If they are participatory in something, then they want to really enjoy the fruits of their labor. We do this at the Diner as well. We have a local gardener who brings herbs and vegetables to us and we cook those and the kids will help us cook and they sit in the Diner atmosphere and it just really brings the community together and it’s a way that I can give back.
If I were to think of things that I really value and that I would want other people to understand in their lives, I think the word “beyond” is really to me what inspires me. In terms of food, in terms of my my day-to-day life, I think you have to think beyond or outside of the box. ‘Beyond’ refers to being beyond organic or beyond local. When I’m purchasing food, I don’t want to know that it’s organic, I want to know my farmer, I want to know where my food comes from. I want to connect with that person and know that that person has so much passion and so much care in what they do, that it’s beyond the requirements. When you’re thinking outside of the box, when we’re doing a catering job for someone, I want to know that we’re going beyond just the expectation, I want to know the expectations are being exceeded in every way. We go to someone’s house and we will do a party for forty people, and I actually love washing dishes at the end of the night or cleaning the floor and I’m on my hands and knees scrubbing the floor because I know they’ll look at it the next day and they’ll say, “Wow! That person really cared about coming into my home and doing this function for me.” You really can’t just meet expectations in any way, you really have to think about how you can exceed those and I think my passion really drives me to exceed those and that’s where I feel fulfillment. I think that with anything if you have that drive that that will really separate you from the pack.
5 Tips for Entrepreneurs
If I were to give advice to entrepreneurs, or people who are interested in becoming entrepreneurs today, I think I’ve mentioned drive before and I think it’s really important to have that drive. I think I learned at a very early age because of my love for food, I learned how to deal with adversity in a way. I was a very fat kid and I was not the one chosen off the bench first for sports, I was one teased often because of the way my body looked. I think I learned at an early age how to deal with that, unfairness, in a way, and I think it really gave me a thick skin, a stone foundation really for dealing with things when they don’t go right. I think making mistakes and learning from those mistakes is probably the most important thing an entrepreneur can do. I think you have to be so patient and you have to be willing to let these mistakes carry out so that you can see the time that it takes to work these mistakes out. The longer it takes, I feel, the more you will learn, and unfortunately, it can be hard to be patient but I think if you’re patient and you do things with deep thought and a clear understanding you can learn so much from those mistakes. So I think really don’t be afraid to make mistakes and it allows you too, to have stamina to make it through really difficult times and I think as an entrepreneur that is probably the most important thing you can have is to be able to be patient and to deal with really difficult times and you will, ultimately, get through them.
Wikipedia-Hacker (programmer subculture). A hacker is one who enjoys the intellectual challenge of creatively overcoming and circumventing limitations of programming systems and who tries to extend their capabilities The act of engaging in activities (such as programming or other media) in a spirit of playfulness and exploration is termed hacking. However the defining characteristic of a hacker is not the activities performed themselves (e.g. programming), but the manner in which it is done: Hacking entails some form of excellence, for example exploring the limits of what is possible, thereby doing something exciting and meaningful. Activities of playful cleverness can be said to have "hack value" and are termed hacks (examples include pranks at MIT intended to demonstrate technical aptitude and cleverness).
Richard Stallman explains about hackers who program:
What they had in common was mainly love of excellence and programming. They wanted to make their programs that they used be as good as they could. They also wanted to make them do neat things. They wanted to be able to do something in a more exciting way than anyone believed possible and show "Look how wonderful this is. I bet you didn't believe this could be done."
I think through my life experiences I’ve had a lot of time to think and so that has really developed my creativity. Because I had a lot of ‘alone time’ I was often able to overthink things, or analyze things and it is something that has just become a part of my makeup. It really gives me that gift of creativity because I am always thinking outside of the box. I’m always thinking about how to change something or how to make it better because I’ve had that practice of thinking through things. I do that really internally and I also do it with other people. I love to share my ideas with people and see what their thoughts are. A bigger reaction the better. I love debating, I love talking through things it teaches me so much. When I think that to develop creativity, you really have to share with other people because you learn so much from them and don’t be afraid to take ideas from other people that you can tweak and remold. As long as your passion is invigorated, your creativity can be really so much more. When you’re not feeling good, and I should say too I exercise a lot, exercise really helps me invograte that passion and creativity. I feel so much better after a run. Another tangent: I love going to Colorado to feel this open blue sky and I feel the mountains and I feel the great air and I feel after a run you often will feel that same way. You have to get away from your day-to-day life in order to expand your creativity and whether you’re leaving your neighborhood or you’re going to have a great coffee somewhere, you really need to leave that rhythm for at least a half hour to an hour so that you can really invigorate that passion and that creativity.
I’m lucky in my job, I work in a kitchen, and that’s a very independent job but you also have a lot of people around you that are working at the same time. I love that focus when I’m working on something and I tune everyone else out, but I also have the opportunity when people are dining in my restaurant or when my employees are asking questions, I love connecting because I think it’s an important learning opportunity for me, it’s very safe to stay inside and to not connect with people but I think that one of the most invigorating things, I love going to my restaurant on a Saturday night walking around the tables, and I could feel a little depressed in the afternoon on a Saturday and I can go to work and I feel so invigorated talking to people and hearing about what they’re doing or something to bring to my experience. So, you can’t be afraid to open up and connect with others. It’s easy to say that and I had some acting experience when I was little too, and I think that sometimes you have to “walk the walk” as they say and you just have to try it, and once you start doing and practicing it, it will be much easier and you just have to figure out whether it’s a cup of coffee that invigorates you, that allows you talk to people, I think just keep your head up, look people in the eye, and it starts the conversation and then you can realize after the conversation you are so much happier for the day because you connected and also learned something that you add to your experience.
As a chef, you experience days where the team works together as a perfect machine and then other times as a chef you realize there are pieces that are not quite working well and I think in my experience working as a team is the most fulfilling time. When you cook in a kitchen and there’s a division of labor: certain people are cutting vegetables for the stock and that stock is being used to make a sauce, someone’s sautéing a steak and that sauce that’s been made is used on that steak and then someone else makes the butter that enhances the flavor of that and someone else makes a vegetable. So, when you’re working in a kitchen and you have clear organization up front and everyone knows what their role is and what to do and they’re been trained properly and they have great technique, there’s nothing better than finishing that experience and looking back and saying, “Wow! That was just so special.” That is what I live for. I can talk to people all day long but the thing I love most is cooking in a kitchen with others and having that experience and working really, really hard to complete maybe a catered dinner for four hundred people, which we did last night, and to have all the pieces fit together and to have the dinner go out smoothly and have everyone assist. You really have to be a part of the team if that’s going to work, you can’t think of how unfair something is, you always have to give a little bit more. I think, again, that ‘beyond’ comes back into play. Go beyond what the expectation is and do a little more and you’ll see how much that impacts you and how much more fulfilled and passionate you will feel.
As I am so involved in so many different aspects of our community, it makes me think of how I started out in this business. At an early age I learned that my reputation was really everything. As I did things, I wanted to improve my reputation and I wanted people to respect what I was doing. No matter how hard it got, I started out as a young chef, I was thirty years old and I had a crew of people, who, some were forty-five years old, some were fifty years old, and I learned at an early age I’m not always going to earn the respect from people because of my age. But if I do things the way I believe they should be done, it works itself out and you earn that respect from those people. You learn too, that some people are not going to be a part of your team and they’re not ones that you’ll necessarily connect with longterm. It doesn’t mean that you’re not doing something correctly, you have to believe enough in your roadmap, so you can keep going along that path. I think that because of all the things I’m connected with in my community, whether I’m hiring an employee, or working next to an employee, or talking to a guest, my reputation has really given my that level of, I have a certain level of expectation from everyone else in my community to support local organizations, to be a part of a neighborhood, to bring as much experience as I can to others, I think people value that and they give back to me because I have that level of connection with my community.
3 Tips To form A dynamic team
Culinary craft is really created based on the team that’s created. You have to put together a team that aligns with you and how you feel about things. It doesn’t mean you have to be in agreement, in fact it’s better to have people who are on different sides of that box and can bring interesting things to the team. To me, the basis is creating a team that really works well together and that’s how you make change and that’s how you make things happen that are so much more special than just run of the mill.
When building a team I think you have to make people feel comfortable in your interactions. Say, you are interviewing someone, maybe a new student who just graduated from college. You have to give that person a sense of support and connectedness to you so that that person will open up to you and give you all the information that that person could give as part of that team. So once you can do that you can really evaluate whether that person is a good person for your team or not. You have to create questioning that really allows someone to open up so that you know how that person will react within difficult situations, you have to ask pointed questions when you’re creating a team. Many of these things are just a part of who I am because of my life experience, everyone brings life experience. If you think of who you would want on your team, you really have to get at questions that help to find those people. When you have the perfect team, that is how you can move forward and you can exceed expectation and you can do so much more.
In my team, skills are probably the least important thing. To me, as part of my team I want to see passion, I want to see happy interaction, I want to see people who are willing to work very hard, so I want to hear that experience when I’m talking to people. Skills are things that can be taught to a certain extent. If I’m interviewing someone, that person usually already has a basic level of skill. I look for other people’s opinions when I’m interviewing people and that person has to have great references, I want to dig deep when I’m talking to people about references. I really look for someone who’s open or optimistic and who sees much more beyond and out of the box. If I see someone who doesn’t think that way, then I’m not sure if I really want to align myself with that team because I don’t know if you’ll really have the potential to exceed that expectation.
We live in a very exciting time in our world. I think things are changing faster every day. If I were to look to the future, to see how I can impact that future, I think that every day I’m learning so much whether it’s computer based technology, I always try to latch onto those things to learn as much as possible about things. I say in my restaurant, we put a cheese plate on the menu so I could learn about it because I didn’t really know that much about cheeses before I did that. Once I put a cheese plate on the menu, I learned about cheeses and the differences. I try to take advantage of all the new technology, all the new things that are happening. If there’s a new restaurant, I go and I experience it. If there’s someone new in the community that’s doing something great, I try to experience it. If there’s an art gallery opening, I go. I try to be a part of everything. So, for the future I think there will be so much more collaboration, I think there will be more long distance learning and though community is very important that we’ve created, I think the inauthentic communities we’re created that don’t feel good, I think of the places where people are, like a town center, I think we’re going to get back to that.
Below: View the interview transcription on Scribd.
One thing I like about connecting, and I’m communicating to you my visions and my passions, and I feel that what drives me is hearing from others as well. So, if there’s something that I’ve said or there is something that you heard that either question or have any responses to, I would love to see or hear those. So feel free to reach out and let me know what you think.
-Betsey Merkel, Editor and Publisher
Contact Information for Douglas Katz:
Provenance and Provenance Cafe
The Cleveland Museum of Art
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