Their Specialty? Teamwork

Chef Michael Schlow and his colleagues at Radius, a hot restaurant in Boston's Financial District, have an unusual recipe for success: generous portions of learning and a heaping scoop of teamwork.

What are the ingredients of a great restaurant? Superb cuisine, a special ambience, a chef with presence. Radius, which opened in December 1998, has those ingredients in abundance. Its modern French fare has won raves from food critics. Its location, in a bank building in Boston's Financial District, is quite distinctive. And its co-owner and chef, Michael Schlow, 35, keeps a high profile in Boston and New York City.

But Radius's recipe for success includes a fourth ingredient: a real commitment to teamwork. "We chose the name partly because of the architecture of the space," explains Christopher Myers, 41, co-owner and wine director. Adds Schlow, "This restaurant is about creating something bigger than any of us could accomplish alone."

Radius wants to rank among the top 25 restaurants in the country. And it follows 10 commandments to achieve that goal. "Achieving greatness is hard enough," says the 10th. "Sustaining greatness is the mark of true excellence."

Greatness at Radius starts with great teamwork, and great teamwork starts in the kitchen. The Radius kitchen is made up of stations: the meat station, the fish station, the garde-manger station, the pastry station. Two people work at each station, and they have full responsibility for their part of the meal. In other words, the team at the meat station not only cooks the meat but also butchers it and seasons it — a sharp departure from the standard procedure at most restaurants.

So is the setup of the "career ladder" inside the kitchen. At most places, cooks start out as garde-mangers and work their way up to preparing meat and fish. At Radius, cooks work at one station for six weeks and then rotate to another. "We asked, How can we make the Radius experience fun, exciting, and educational?" says Schlow.

Radius has also developed a series of meetings in which both the spirit and the practice of teamwork get reinforced. One weekly meeting focuses on frontline service. The sous-chefs and the pastry chefs meet with the back waiters and the food runners (the waiters' support staff) to review dishes and procedures. Because servers at Radius announce each course, they need to know what is on each plate, how to put it down in front of a guest, and how to pronounce it.

A daily meeting (the kitchen-staff session) focuses on behind-the-scenes operations. About 30 staffers gather around Schlow to discuss plans for the evening. He reminds them about his obsession with using as much of every ingredient as possible. "Can we make a sauce with that extra crème fraîche?" he asks. "What about that extra port?"

Then there's the daily service meeting. This meeting, led by Myers and general manager Esti Benson, 29, includes all of the waitstaff, the floor managers, and the hosts and hostesses. About 40 people gather around a large, rotundalike lounge located in the restaurant's lower level. Benson begins by going over that night's reservations: who the customers are — their names, what they do, if they've been to Radius before. Then all eyes shift to a plate of food. Benson calls on a server to describe the dish. She follows with a series of highly detailed questions. "What are the red beads around the plate?" she asks. "Spicy tomato oil," the server answers.

What has resulted from this unusual commitment to learning and teamwork? A loyal following — and a growing reputation among the industry's rising stars. One such star is Jay Caputo, a 26-year-old line cook and a recent graduate of the Culinary Institute of America. "The first time I walked into Radius, the whole atmosphere was beautiful," he says. "You could tell that people really believed in what they were doing. I knew this was the place for me."

Learn more about Radius on the Web (www.bostonchefs.com).

Sidebar: Cooking School

People who run great restaurants struggle with a critical issue that people who run great companies also contend with: retaining the best talent. The more Michael Schlow, chef and co-owner of Radius, thought about why Boston's best young cooks were jumping from restaurant to restaurant, the more he realized that it had little to do with money or buzz. "They were doing it to learn," he says. So he decided to run his kitchen like a cooking school.

That's why there's homework. One ongoing assignment is for everyone in the kitchen to keep up with the latest news and trends in the restaurant business. "If you go to a computer company, you're expected to know what other computer companies are doing," explains Schlow.

Then there's the daily food fact. Each day, a member of the kitchen staff is responsible for researching a morsel of information about food. He or she presents that fact to the service staff at the daily meeting.

There are even exams. The tests, which take about 30 minutes to complete, cover a broad range of topics about the restaurant, its cuisine, and its staff. "The tests are a way for me to monitor who's not getting enough instruction," says Radius co-owner Christopher Myers. "That way, while people are learning, I'm also learning about them."

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