Chocolate Truffles, Onion Soup, and Leadership Lessons

What I learned about leadership from a celebrated French restaurant.

How does a traditional French restaurant weather the notoriously competitive and fickle restaurant industry to stay highly successful for over 50 years? And what can those lessons learned teach us about becoming successful leaders?

L’Auberge Chez Francoise in Great Falls, VA has received scads of top level awards, most recently a “100 Best” from Open Table.  Jacques Haeringer, owner and executive chef, recently spoke at the Washington Executive Association about the restaurant’s success.

Here are three “truffles” of leadership wisdom I put in my ‘take away’ box. 

“Don’t mess with the onion soup!”

Chef emphasized that Consistency is the foundation of their success. As tempting as it may feel at times to ‘update’ the menu, people come to L’Auberge for a reason and with a set of expectations–including that they are going to taste the most delicious French onion soup this side of the Atlantic.  

Because of high customer expectations, they approach innovation cautiously. His message: Be attuned to what your customer base wants and expects; Never lose sight of that. L’Auberge has expanded into different streams of revenue aligned around the brand, however always with a cautious eye on how that impacts their core product—the exceptional authentic French dining experience they are known for. 

In my take-away box– Don’t lose sight of your core.

Your values, beliefs, what you are passionate about, your strengths, the exceptional gifts that you bring.  There is a lot of pressure for change in our world. That’s not a bad thing, however make sure you don’t become unmoored from what is most important to you in the process.  I have worked with many fast-paced leaders who have somehow forgotten what matters most to them. Once we work to allow that to re-emerge, the chaos seems to fall away and making decisions is much clearer.

Are you in touch with your core and is that reflected in the decisions you make? 

“You’re only as good as the last truffle you served.” 

Chef believes the Quality of the experience is what keeps people coming back. It is what has helped the business survive—and thrive—during economic down-turns and still receive high awards in a city now recognized for fine dining. At the end of each meal, a plate of hand-made truffles is brought out as a ‘thank you’ from the Chef.  Even after the entire superb multi-course dining experience, if the little ‘freebie’ offered at the end of the meal is not also the best quality, it would sink the whole experience. 

In my take-away box— Everything counts.

Think of the experience you want others to have when they interact with you.  Pay attention to the whole system, from end to end. What is that one thing that could degrade your quality? 

What is your equivalent of a so-so truffle at the end of a meal?

“We are the holders of people’s memories.”

As Maya Angelou said, it is not about what you say, or what you do, it is about how you make them feel. Chef says his Reputation is staked on creating that amazing experience that people are seeking.  To illustrate how integral his staff is to the reputation of his business, he shared that when a fire closed the restaurant and forced a major renovation, all employees were kept on the payroll for the entire 6 months. Hiring, training, and most importantly, ramping back up to quality and consistency with a new workforce held far more risk to the restaurant’s reputation than keeping everyone on payroll. 

In my take-away box– A good reputation is built on trust.

Trust happens when I know what to expect. That you have my interests at heart. That you are going to stand by me. That you will somehow make it right if it is wrong. In the brain, trust is created in the Pre-Frontal Cortex, where we make choices. If we somehow feel threatened—unsure of the experience we will have, for example—we become more cautious as a result of our natural drive towards self-preservation and mentally move away from being open to the experience.

How do you imprint a consistently positive—trusting–experience on your employees, your customers memories?

In your own life, your business….

  • What is your onion soup (Consistency)?
  • What is your chocolate truffle (symbol of a Quality experience)?
  • What is the memory you want to leave with others? (Reputation)


Photo credit: JMaliszewski, 2018, Chocolate Truffles


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