Excellence Served Three Ways

Settle in, folks. It’s going to be a long one.

I’ve always been obsessed by obsession. What does it take to be excellent? What does it mean to surpass good enough to get to really good, and then beyond that?

In the past two days, I’ve seen three very different answers to that question.

I’ve just finished Andre Agassi’s autobiography, Open. An absolutely brilliant book about a brilliant career, it’s a story portrayed in extraordinary ways because he was able to be fully open about his goals and his fears with a writing coach who pushed him, and listened to him, as carefully as his tennis and conditioning coaches had before.

Agassi’s excellence came from fear. From fear of his father, from fear of tennis svengali Nick Bollitierri, from fear of not ever being good enough. As a child, Agassi was surrounded by men who knew only force and dominance and competition. Their work left him physically strong and emotionally disabled, the fate of so many men.

In the end, he had two careers. The immature career built on the scaffold that those angry men had constructed, and the mature later career built on the trust he bestowed upon a different community, the trust that they reflected back upon him as well. But even his triumphant second act carried the physiological and psychic scars of the first, never left him wholly at peace.

Last night, Nora and I went with a friend to a chamber concert by The Queen’s Six, a vocal ensemble that is a subset of the Choir of St. George’s Chapel, in Windsor Castle. For a little over two hours, the Six ran through a repertoire covering nearly five hundred years, from Henry VIII to Stevie Wonder. Precise, and sophisticated, and beautiful… and a little bit cold.

Their excellence came from a dedication to craft for the sake of craft, came from the endless shaping of vowels and mastery of music theory, from seeking out the finest training to an array of public performance (ranging from eight services per week in the Chapel to last summer’s wedding of Harry and Meghan). But the edge of the stage formed a powerful wall, a wall over which music could pass but humanity could not.

But prior to the show, the three of us went for drinks and dinner at one of Vermont’s very best restaurants, Misery Loves Co. of Winooski. And we saw a third origin of excellence, excellence that stems from generosity and love. We sat at the counter facing the open kitchen and watched four young men on the line—surrounded by a continual flow of eight or ten others—care for each other, and through one another to care for us.

They tasted everything, and if they liked it, they gave a spoonful to one of their colleagues. They did this not merely as an objective quality check, but because they were proud of what they’d done, and wanted to share it with a friend. In the midst of a busy line, they’d hold out a sauté pan, their friend would take a spoon and taste a sauce, and they’d spend ten quiet, thoughtful seconds thinking about what they were eating, talking to each other about what they thought.

One of the more experienced chefs was showing a younger fellow how to strip and julienne a lemon. “Your flat knife is gonna work really well for that,” he said. Not a direction—“Use your flat knife”—but an encouragement, a mutual desire for satisfying work.

It’s a busy kitchen, as all successful restaurant kitchens must be, but there are no raised voices, no calling out and calling back, no hollering to the dishwasher for more bowls. The dishwashers themselves are part of the generosity, ensuring that their more public colleagues never had to question whether their workstations would be depleted. As I wrote about the relationship between a fictional 1950s bartender and his barboy:

Your barboy is an extension of your own body. He brings you what you need, carries away what you need no more. He cleans where you cannot reach, moves where you cannot go, sees and hears what is too distant for you to perceive. You tell him your needs and he responds instantly. Eventually, he becomes you. You wish him to bring ice and find that ice has already arrived. You notice beer caps high in the trash, and then notice that the trash has been emptied. The words “thank you” are invaluable. They indicate not merely polite gratitude, but the more important fact of having been noticed, having been recognized.

Misery is a restaurant in which everyone, from customer to bartender to line cook, has been noticed, has been recognized.

The great bartender Jim Meehan once weighed in on the debate between the terms bartender and mixologist. “A mixologist serves drinks,” he said. “A bartender serves customers.” And it’s that impulse toward generosity that causes Misery to do surprising things.

Nora spotted one of the chefs dropping a fish skeleton into the basket of the deep fryer and then lowering it into the oil. “What the hell is that?” Nora asked. It turns out that fish bones, dusted with cornstarch and deep fried, are a delicacy known in Japan as hone senbei, or bone crackers. When a patron orders the whole lubina (a kind of Atlantic bass), the waiter offers at the end of the meal to have their fish’s carcass rendered into a lovely second course, at no charge. It takes everyone by surprise, it’s not on the menu, but when one comes back into the kitchen, it’s treated with as much care as the whole fish originally on the brazier, as beautifully plated and presented on its second life as its first. Those are the kinds of gifts—unnecessary, as gifts always are—that mark the shift from good enough to really good, and then beyond that.

So excellence from three root stocks. Excellence from fear, focused on defending the fragile self. Excellence from craft, focused on perfecting the object. Excellence from generosity, focused on lifting everyone around you to greater joy. Each brings a different flavor, but only one has the power of engaging all of its participants.

Let’s leave the final word to Andre Agassi, now wiser than his wounded younger self:

Helping Frankie provides more satisfaction and makes me feel more connected and alive and myself than anything else that happens in 1996. I tell myself: Remember this. Hold on to this. This is the only perfection there is, the perfection of helping others. This is the only thing we can do that has any lasting value or meaning. This is why we’re here. To make each other feel safe.