Category Archives: Culture

Why does Noma only have two Michelin stars?

How can the supposed best restaurant in the world have only two Michelin stars? The answer provides lessons for business leaders.

First, let’s get the obvious out of the way: Eating at the famous Copenhagen restaurant Noma with some longstanding professional friends is a fortunate privilege I am lucky to have experienced. Writing about the experience sounds like bragging, and I have plenty of hard-working colleagues who make it possible, so I’m not going to wax on about how wonderful it is. Instead, I’d like to explore why the restaurant many consider to be the best in the world has not yet achieved the renowned Michelin Guide’s highest rating?

Contributing to Noma’s reputation as the world’s best is its retaking of top honors by the prestigious San Pellegrino World’s 50 Best Restaurant Awards—an award it has now won four times. Albeit not the 114-year old Michelin Guide, the award is “viewed as the Oscars of fine dining,” suggesting that Noma might indeed “be” the best restaurant in the world, if there is such a thing.

On the other hand, Noma has only two Michelin stars, meaning there are about 100 restaurants in the world Michelin considers better. Opinion on Noma’s inability to get a third Michelin star ranges from outrage to Michelin’s own sanguine opinion on the matter: “It will happen one day, I’m sure. It’s a very good two-star restaurant and sits easily in the guide,” says Rebecca Burr, editor-in-chief of the guide.

The Michelin Guide was founded in 1900 as a way to encourage driving and thus demand for tires. The original guide contained useful information such as maps and—surprise, surprise—how to change a tire. Professional reviewers visit—always anonymously—and rate on a three star system that is essentially based on how much of a detour the restaurant is worth taking (remember, it’s a tire company): one star if you’re already in that town; two stars, well, that’s worth a detour; and three stars makes for a worthy destination unto itself. Keep in mind, this is not a movie rating system. Godzilla gets a 73% rating on and thus a red tomato, but it would surely not get a single Michelin star—only about 2,000 restaurants worldwide have any Michelin stars.

Okay, so back to Noma. Best restaurant in the world by many accounts, but only two Michelin stars. Why? Here’s how our evening unfolded…

When we first arrived at the unassuming restaurant that Noma is, we were welcomed outside the front door by one of the staff and again once inside by no small gathering of Noma staff—one great big family-size welcome if you will. We were then shown to a relatively simple and unadorned wood table. Wait, no linens? No clusters of silverware and empty glasses in anticipation of the courses and wine servings to come? Nope. I remember recalling an upscale pizza place I enjoy taking my family—yes I said upscale, but in respect to pizza places, not supposedly the best restaurant in the world.

Next came wet towels to wash our hands with, along with the explanation that we will be eating much of the meal with our hands, family style. Eating with our hands? Family style? Perhaps my pizza place analogy wasn’t far off after all. After selecting preferences for juice or wine, the 23-course meal began. In reasonably rapid succession, though never more than two at any one time, course after course appears. First the “appetizer” series such as “Nordic coconut,” “Moss and cep, “Pickled and smoked quails egg,” “Flatbread with wild roses,” and “Burnt leek and cod roe,” followed by “entrées” such as “Beef tartar” with ants and “Turbot and nasturtium.” Then the “desserts” like “Rhubarb and sorrel” and “Crème fraiche and Spanish chervil” followed by the “sweets”—the desserts were apparently not sweet—such as “Aronia berries and söl.” So the evening went. The food was terrific, sometimes even spectacular, and often visually worthy of “food selfies” such as those my tablemates took…

Nordic coconutMoss and cep

Pickled and smoked quails eggFlatbread with wild rosesBurnt leek and cod roeBeef tartar with ants

Black currant leaves and barleyGreen aspargus and scallop?

Each course was delivered to the six of us by a few servers—in synchronized fashion as you’d expect from any fine restaurant—with an additional person there to explain that course—the “presenter” if you will. Each new course seemed to bring us different servers and presenters. Instead of a designated waiter for our table, it seemed the entire staff came to our table either delivering or explaining the food. We were eating family style, and they were serving family style. Nice.

Eating at Noma naturally entails talking about the meal with your tablemates. Someone raised the observation of Noma’s top rating yet only two Michelin stars, which led to many observations on why that might be the case. Someone noticed that when you went to the washroom, the staff did nothing with your napkin. Some highfalutin restaurants fold your napkin and place it in the proper place, if not replace it entirely (not very conservation-minded when you think about it). Not Noma: Where and how you leave it is where you find it. Fine with me.

Another thing I noticed: They rarely changed the plates or silverware. Twenty-three courses at some high-end restaurants might mean 23 plates and 23 sets of silverware. At Noma, just a couple of changes: I only recall between apps and entrées and again before desserts. To keep your plate clean, a server occasionally wipes it with a towel. I wonder how toweling off your plate was perceived by the anonymous Michelin reviewer?

The Noma staff also has some levity. When one of the entrée dishes was placed, as the presenter started to explain, “This turbot…” he was interrupted by one of the servers, with the quip: “These are mushrooms from Zimbabwe.” Clearly it was not a mushroom dish and doubtful the turbot was from Zimbabwe, so we all laughed aloud, including the presenter. It was subtle but important for setting the tone: The staff wasn’t taking itself too seriously and neither should we; they were there to have fun, so we should too. I was trying to imagine dining at a Michelin three-star restaurant I know in New York City and a server interrupting with a fabricated description intended to make everyone laugh—it would never happen.

All of this began to add up to why Noma did not have three Michelin stars. How could it? It does not even try to meet the very high service expectations three-star restaurants are known for. And that’s the brilliance of it. I’ve often heard Noma compared to Alinea, considered by many to be America’s best restaurant. But whereas Alinea’s dishes are so technical chef Grant Achatz has to have a Chicago mechanical engineering company invent machines so he can prepare them, Noma’s dishes feel as if they could have been prepared “in a barn” from ingredients “found in the field” as someone at my table suggested. Do not get me wrong: Alinea is terrific, possibly more innovative and maybe even better food-wise, but eating at Alinea will never be considered relaxing or simple.

Toward the end of the evening, we asked the Noma staffer who had seemingly settled into being our official host, “Why doesn’t Noma have three stars?” His answer could be succinctly stated as this: “Because we don’t want to.” Well, maybe that’s not quite fair. He explained that ratings matter and they would be honored to have the third star, but they don’t want to change what they do just to achieve it. While they may not want all the linens or the constant plate and silverware change outs, what it seems they really don’t want is all the pretense and stuffiness that might go with trying to achieve service perfection. They want to have fun and they want it to be relaxed—for their patrons—but I sensed first most for themselves. It is their own work environment, after all—their own culture really—that they are protecting.

At most high-end restaurants there are two sides of the swinging door: the kitchen side, where the real culture of the establishment exists; and then the dining side, where tuxedos are pulled tight and every nuance of fine dining is adhered to with surgical precision. Therein lies the great innovation, or perhaps contradiction, that is Noma: Remarkable food—with farm-to-table simplicity but as sophisticated as any in the world—delivered in a comfortably relaxed and friendly environment that depicts exactly the way the staff wants to work, regardless of whether they are in the kitchen or the dining room.

Noma provides an important lesson for business leaders. Company culture used to be something locked up behind closed doors at headquarters and how customers were serviced was managed with process and procedures, just like the façade servers create at fine dining establishments. Nowadays, culture is out in the open for everyone to see, and process and procedures are harder to instill with today’s mobile workforce. Companies need their associates to grasp the company’s purpose and how that translates to servicing clients much more quickly and without much if any formal training. It is culture that makes this possible. Hiring for the right culture fit is critical, of course, but the culture employees experience on the job dramatically shapes the way they interact with customers. Essentially, culture is more than just trying to make the office a fun place to work and has become something customers see. Those that get it right will create competitive advantage.

Leaders need to also remember to be careful what they pursue. A business-minded Noma might modify what it was doing in an effort to gain that third star, only to lose what made it the best restaurant in the world. The secret to happy customers: Have happy employees who enjoy what they do. My memory of the food will fade over time (except maybe for the beef with ants), but the one thing that will make me want to go back will be to enjoy how they turn a remarkably innovative menu into a wonderfully relaxed dining experience—provided they never get that third Michelin star. Whether or not I am lucky enough to ever go back, thank you Noma for a terrific example of how culture drives success.

What “no brown M&Ms” means to quality control

I was struck by a story about the rock band Van Halen and their insistence on having all of the brown M&Ms removed from the M&M bowls in the backstage catering. At first glance, it sounds like some vain request. Why would someone want M&Ms yet want the brown ones removed? We all know the different colors all taste the same, so it would seem to serve no other purpose than creating unnecessary work for some unfortunate soul tasked with picking out all the brown ones. As it turns out, however, requesting to have the brown M&Ms removed was a stroke of genius with good reason. Watch this video to hear why…

Brown M&Ms from Van Halen on Vimeo.

If you don’t watch the video, here’s an excerpt of what David Lee Roth says. If you did watch the video, skip the italicized text.

Van Halen was the first band to take huge productions into tertiary, third-level markets. We’d pull up with nine 18-wheeler trucks, full of gear, where the standard was three trucks, max. And there were many, many technical errors—whether it was the girders couldn’t support the weight, or the flooring would sink in, or the doors weren’t big enough to move the gear through. 

The contract rider read like a version of the Chinese Yellow Pages because there was so much equipment, and so many human beings to make it function. So just as a little test, in the technical aspect of the rider, it would say “Article 148: There will be 15 amperage voltage sockets at 20 foot spaces, evenly, providing 19 amperes . . .” This kind of thing. And article No. 126, in the middle of nowhere, was: “There will be no brown M&Ms in the backstage area, upon pain of forfeiture of the show, with full compensation.” 

So, when I would walk backstage, if I saw a brown M&M in that bowl . . . well, line-check the entire production. Guaranteed you’re going to arrive at a technical error. They didn’t read the contract. Guaranteed you’d run into a problem. Sometimes it would threaten to just destroy the whole show. Something like, literally, life-threatening.

This story made me think about the philosophy of leaving nothing to chance when it comes to absolute assurance in quality.

In the case of the company I work for, World 50, providing a high-quality service every single time is paramount. Our members simply expect it of usand they should. Delivering upon it once or even a few times is hard enough, but time and again, without exception, is another matter. I am often in awe of how we are able to consistently do so, but like every organization, there’s always room for improvement and for World 50, we know however good we are, we can never settle and must keep raising the bar.

I suspect that if one of Van Halen’s production companies came to understood the meaning of the “no brown M&Ms” the need to actually remove the brown ones from catering was no longer required. I can still imagine, though, David Lee Roth, as he walked on stage for the pre-concert sound check, saying out loud to the production crew, “Remember, no brown M&Ms! Right?” and their understanding of what he meant: no detail could be left unattended to.

When I look back at instances when we weren’t at our best, when something didn’t go quite right, rarely was it something completely unexpected or out of the blue. Rather, it was almost always something that could have been predicted in advance. That realization begs the question: If we simply ask ourselves, “What could possibly go wrong?” every single time, in advance and without exception, we can probably anticipate and avoidor at least prepare forjust about every conceivable challenge we will encounter. Consistently delivering high quality is simply expecting it of yourself, every time, and doing whatever it takes to make it so, with nothing left to chance.

Next time you and your team are preparing for something bigbe it an event, a meeting, a product launch or whatever pertains to your endeavorsask yourself and your team, “Are there any brown M&Ms?”

I Run for Nikki

A little over a year ago, on September 12, 2012, World 50 participated in its first corporate run/walk event at the Kaiser Permanente 5K Corporate Run/Walk in Atlanta. Nearly three-quarters of the company participated. It was an impressive turnout. In usual World 50 style, various factions formed in an attempt to win certain race categories; and the day ended with what was surely the best company BBQ there, bringing together runners, kids, spouses, friends and an awesome crew.


Among the 47 World 50 associates who participated was one of its newest, Nicole Rouis, or “Nikki” as her friends and family called her. Nikki was a gifted athlete. She had been a decorated soccer player in high school and as a runner her athletic grace showed through. I know she enjoyed the day and for that I’m grateful. What none of us knew—inlcuding Nikki herself—is that she ran with a late stage malignant brain tumor that she would discover two months later and would take the life of this vibrant young woman in just four months.

Nikki Running 1

In the short time Nikki was part of World 50 she inspired us with her energy, attitude and teamwork. She was considerate and sweet, hard working, and possessed an quiet sense of humor that was impossible not to appreciate. When her colleagues learned of her illness, they rallied to her support like they had known her for years, starting with the creation of “Team Nicole.”

Team Nicole 1

It helps to have talented graphic designers in the company.

Nicole Final

I have been proud to be part of World 50 on many occasions, but never as proud as then. We only got to see Nikki one more time, at World 50’s 2012 holiday party. Team Nicole seized the opportunity to show how much she meant to all of us, and with the help of video pro Churchill Morgan, created an amazing video that brought tears and laughter to everyone:

 << link to video >>

The news of Nikki’s passing early in 2013 came as a surprise and was a difficult moment for all that knew her. It was hard to grasp that one of our own, someone so full of life and so young, was suddenly gone. The more we learned about Nikki through her family, the more we liked her, and the more we missed her. She had made an indelible mark on our hearts. We needed to do something to honor her memory and we set about it doing just that in three ways:

  1. An annual “Nicole Award” to be given to the World 50 associate who most exhibited the  character and values that made Nikki so very special.
  2. A donation to the place that had tried so hard to save Nikki’s life: Emory’s Winship Cancer Center.
  3. Participating as a company in the Winship 5K Run/Walk.

Participating in the 5K seemed more than anything to bring things full circle. Once again, Team Nicole jumped into action, with T-shirts and banners and race day preparations.


Nothing felt more right than inviting Nikki’s family to join us and we were honored to have 14 members of her family with us. I cannot express enough the courage they showed in returning to the Emory campus, the last place they had been with their Nikki.

Rouis Family

It was an emotional day and a reminder that who we spend our time with often matters more than what we spend our time doing. We were fortunate to have had Nikki in our lives, however unfairly short that time turned out to be. When I looked around World 50’s race day tent, I saw associates who had brought their parents, brothers, sisters, friends and kids. People whom I had never met told me how honored they were to take part in our “run for Nikki.” It seems that her warmth and grace were still inspiring people she had never met.


Nikki’s father completed the 5K with the very towel that Nikki had run the Kaiser 5K with just a year before. He’s a brave man who misses his daughter tremendously. I think of my own young daughter and can hardly imagine what he has gone through. But all around him were friends and family and it was clear that Nikki, even in her absence, was binding them together still. She was binding us all together—reminding us that the friends and loved ones around us are what matter most. It would seem that “running for Nikki” was more than just running in her memory, it was running for what a wonderful, smart and generous person can mean within our hearts.

I Run For Nikki

I am not a big fan of running. In fact, I often find it unpleasant and prefer the kind of suffering encountered on bicycle to that on foot any day. But I really wanted to put in a good 5K time in Nikki’s honor, which meant training. During morning and lunchtime runs—alone or with colleagues with similar motivation—I found a surprising appreciation for it. It might be cold, the roads might be hilly, or something might be sore—the kind of things that make running uncomfortable—but I found a serene lucidness knowing what I was training for and knowing that “I Run for Nikki.” On race day, with a sore knee, I ran the fastest 5K of my life with no pain at all. Looking around at all the other runners before the start, with the numerous “I Run For _____” race numbers completed with names of their loved ones, I am confident I was not alone in that experience.

Nikki Running 2

Nikki, we miss you. But we won’t forget. And there’s more to this story. Stay tuned.