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Collaboration is the Secret to Blackbird's 20-Year Success

James Beard Award winner Donnie Madia on mentorship and growth

Maggie Borden

November 08, 2018

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Donnie Madia
Photo: Brian Willette

In this era of escalating real estate costs, high-concept restaurants, and celebrity chefs, any type of longevity in the hospitality industry is all too rare. The idea of a restaurant being open for five years is impressive, but when you get to two decades in business, that’s just astonishing. Chicago’s Blackbird recently hit that mark, with parent group One Off Hospitality recognizing 20 years of the restaurant’s lauded fine dining with celebratory dinners in their hometown and across the country, including a dinner at the Beard House last month.

But what made their trek to our namesake’s historic home even more memorable was the pairing of Blackbird’s anniversary meal with another Beard House dinner the following night, this one prepared by the team from new Chicago hot spot Pacific Standard Time (PST). The twist? PST is the result of a unique partnership between One Off and Underscore Hospitality, the company formed by a pair of former One Off employees Erling Wu-Bower and Joshua Tilden. We sat down with James Beard Award–winning restaurateur and One Off partner Donnie Madia to talk about the restaurant group’s past, present, and future, and how this duo of dinners reflects the company’s legacy as a leader and mentor for the industry.

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JBF:  You're celebrating 20 years at Blackbird! Looking back, what have been the biggest changes over those two decades, for your restaurant group and the industry in general?

Donnie Madia: Years ago I would focus more on the restaurant and the guests, and now I’m focused more on the staff, on training. What was a staff of 50 is now a thousand, so now I’m trying to “macromanage” instead of “micromanage.” When you have one restaurant or two, you can be the best micromanager in the world. You can pick up every crumb. You can straighten every chair. You can make sure every glass is straightened. I can’t do that now, or I’ll be in a straitjacket!

In terms of the industry, more than ever before it’s crucial to be on top of the changes in our culture. For our group, the fact is I can’t control a thousand people. So you put people in place that have an immense amount of knowledge around the hiring process, labor laws, and HR practices. I think that smaller operators can get away with operating HR with the leadership in-house, but the more things grow, the more responsibility and awareness you need to have.

JBF: Can you take us through the creation of Underscore Hospitality, and how you and the other One Off partners decided to become partners in Pacific Standard Time?

DM: I think if [One Off partner and James Beard Award–winning executive chef] Paul [Kahan] were here, he’d probably take the lead on that conversation, so I’ll try to live in both bodies if I can. Paul would say that it was heartbreaking to see them move away from us. Erling put in almost 12 years and grew as a man through the kitchens he worked in.

We traveled extensively with him to Puglia, Italy to research our Italian seafood concept, Nico—which was actually an idea that he pitched to us back when he was a sous chef at the Publican. So he’s been thinking about ownership for a long time and you can’t begrudge anybody that.

It was a tough decision on our part. Paul and [partner] Terry [Alexander] and I sat in a room and we argued for hours about what our play was going to be. Ultimately, we told Erling and Josh, “hey, we’ve got this space, why don’t we just see if we can join forces?”

They decided to incorporate and create their own entity, Underscore Hospitality, and then partnered with us as 50/50 partners, so each person has the same amount of shares. So kudos to them for being open to a different and new arrangement, and kudos to us for the ability to be humble and vulnerable.

JBF: What does that partnership look like, on a practical, day-to-day level? Are you going over there and checking all the glasses and making sure they’re straight?

DM: No, Josh does a really good job. I’m a little bit more outgoing and he’s a little bit more reserved, so he has different bullets in his arsenal than I do. Erling runs his kitchen, and he’s responsible for labor, for food cost. Paul and Erling do work on dishes together, and I do go in occasionally, but Erling and Josh are the owners and the operators.

JBF: The connection between One Off and Underscore is indicative of your company's focus on nurturing talent as a cornerstone of your business. What does quality mentorship look like to you?

Donnie Madia: I think mentoring is being able to pick up the phone and call someone and not worry about sending an email. It requires a level of trust and belief in opportunity because most of us can swim in the ocean of emails and would otherwise never even interact with anyone on the phone or face-to-face.

Paul has focused on mentoring from the earliest stage. Traditionally, French chefs have a hierarchy and the food is solely reflective of a narrative from the executive chef. What I learned from Paul is that it can be a collaborative effort. Everyone can bring a new dish to Paul. He might tweak it, but that collaboration can end up in front of guests. And that tells that line cook that they don’t have to wait until they’ve spent five years in this business or have to go somewhere else and work their way up. That’s grassroots mentorship right there.

JBF: What you just said is an easy, a simple explanation for why Pacific Standard Time exists. There’s an opportunity for collaboration from the beginning, so your staff has agency and their ideas can grow.

DM: Erling’s a perfect example. He wrote a business plan for an Italian seafood concept and he kept on Terry and Paul, and lo and behold, three years after he wrote his business plan, we were in Puglia. Ultimately, we feel very good about the people that came up in the ranks and happy to support them in their endeavors, whether it’s Pacific Standard Time or outside projects like Dana Cree’s ice cream shop.

One goal that I always have for these conversations is to make sure that I can pay homage to everyone that I work with, because as Terry says, “not one person’s bigger than the whole.” So I can’t be here having a conversation without Paul or Terry, Ricky, Eduard, Josh, Erling, Kimberly, or Peter. It’s not about me, it’s about the whole—I couldn’t have opened Blackbird by myself.

Learn more about the Blackbird and Pacific Standard Time Beard House dinners .

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Maggie Borden is content manager at the James Beard Foundation. Find her on Instagram and Twitter.