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Endless reinvention, or ‘a bit more Miles Davis’

By Alan Deutschman

Over the Thanksgiving weekend I went to a 70th birthday dinner for my father-in-law at Eleven Madison Park in New York. At the end of the exceptionally delicious meal, the maitre d’ invited us to tour the kitchen with her. As we stepped into the workspace, one of the first things we noticed was a large photograph of Miles Davis, the jazz legend.

Miles Davis

Photo is Miles Davis’ Twitter icon

Why Miles Davis?

It turned out that four years earlier, a critic from the New York Observer, Moira Hodgson, had mentioned the trumpeter in her review, Madison Avenue Makeover: Star Chef Gives New Personality, which appeared soon after the 29-year-old Daniel Humm had taken over as chef. Hodgson had awarded Eleven Madison Park an impressive three and a half stars out of a possible four, but she added that the restaurant could use “a bit more Miles Davis.”

Humm and Eleven Madison Park’s general manager, Will Guidara, could have dismissed the criticism, or they could have been content with three and a half stars, a rating that thousands of restaurateurs would have envied. But they decided instead to use the article as an inspiration and an impetus to action. They studied the voluminous literature about Miles and compiled a list of words that were often used to describe what had made him great over the several decades of his prolific career. And they eventually wound up inscribing the list up on the kitchen wall in big lettering covering from ceiling to floor:

  • Cool
  • Endless Reinvention
  • Forward Moving
  • Inspired
  • Fresh
  • Collaborative
  • Spontaneous
  • Vibrant
  • Adventurous
  • Light
  • Innovative

This list actually guided them as they made significant changes in the restaurant. Even after Eleven Madison Park received a perfect rating of four stars from the New York Times in August 2009, its leaders nonetheless took the risk of a major remodeling and menu revamping this year, At Eleven Madison Park, Fixing What Isn’t Broke.

That’s “endless reinvention,” and I can’t think of a better expression of what the established media business needs to master at this critical time.

It needs more Miles Davis. A lot more.

Alan Deutschman is the Reynolds Endowed Chair in Business Journalism at the University of Nevada, Reno. More about Deutschman and the other Reynolds Chairs.

In Basics, Featured, Networking.

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