Halfway through CIA, he served a three-month externship at Roberto Donna’s Galileo, at the time one of Washington’s top restaurants. To be the best, Tracy thought, you have to learn from the best.
Galileo was an education—in what not to do. Purveyors were strung along with a hundred excuses as to why they weren’t being paid. Shelves of high-priced food were going to waste. The kitchen was tense, full of shouting.
I don’t want to run a place like this, Tracy thought. There has to be another way.
He might never be a great chef, but he knew what he could do—and in the end, he suspected, that might be more important. He understood how to lead people, and he understood how to create a system.
After graduation he worked as floor manager at 1789, also owned by the Clyde’s group.
One day he approached Meyer. “How many years should I work in kitchens before I open my own place?” he asked. “Five? Ten? Fifteen?”
“I usually talk people out of the restaurant business,” Meyer recalls. “But Geoff just had a passion for it, and he was really smart and really talented.”
“The time is right now,” Meyer told him. “If you wait 10 to 15 years, you’re gonna have a wife, a mortgage, a dog. What’s your net worth?”
Tracy wanted to laugh. Or cry. “Fifteen-hundred dollars,” he said.
Meyer advised him to forget about opening the sort of place most sous chefs dream of—the intimate bistro where they can express themselves at the stove: “You’ll be working six nights a week and burned out in five years.” Instead Meyer urged him to open a bigger, high-volume restaurant where Tracy could take full advantage of his understanding of operations.
In the winter of 1999, Tracy agreed to take on the debt of one of Donna’s satellites, Dolcetto, complete with a freezer of rotting meat and a rear-wall mural of the chef framed in ivy and flanked by cherubs. It had just gone out of business.
Three of Tracy’s CIA classmates—including a current executive chef, David Pow—leapt at the chance to work for him, despite being warned that they wouldn’t be paid until after the place opened.
Tracy was blessed, also, with an eye for talent. A guy he’d hired to work the salad station turned out to be an exceptional cook. Tracy promoted him twice, making him executive chef overseeing the kitchen at Chef Geoff’s downtown. Great chefs often speak of a grueling apprenticeship in a Michelin-starred restaurant in Paris followed by several years of study in a succession of four-star restaurants in the States. But after only a couple of years under Tracy, a 24-year-old Johnny Monis struck out on his own and open DC’s acclaimed Komi in 2003.
Tracy’s obsession with systems was born not of the forethought and planning on which he now prides himself but of necessity. Really, of desperation.
Lia’s, which opened in 2006, was the first restaurant he launched that didn’t take over an existing place, a mistake he vows never to repeat. Build-out costs exceeded estimates, and the job dragged on. Lia’s struggled in the first few months, and the two Chef Geoff’s were struggling, too. He worried about keeping all three places afloat. Some nights, he hardly slept. It was, he says, the worst time of his life, “a total meltdown.”
He cursed his younger, cockier self as he recalled the words of his commencement address at the Culinary Institute of America: “When things become too comfortable, that’s precisely the time to change and do something else. When your heart’s pumping and you’re really scared, that’s when you’re really living life.”
His heart was pumping, all right. It had never pumped harder. Scared? He had never been more scared in his life.
His father, Dan, heard it in their nightly phone conversations. A retired CPA from Arthur Andersen who gave the books a once-over every month, he listened to Tracy pour out his frustration and fear one night. He told his son, “You need to hire your brother.”
My brother? Tracy thought. I should hire a teacher?
Chris Tracy had worked for Teach for America; had taught English as a Second Language at DC’s Shaw Middle School at Tenth and U streets, Northwest; and had just abandoned a PhD program at Johns Hopkins in sociology. He was uncertain what to do with his life, and while that meant he’d likely be available, nothing on his résumé suggested he would be an asset to the company.
But Tracy trusted his father in business matters, and the more he mulled the idea, the more he thought Chris might be useful.
In September 2006, Geoff brought his brother aboard for what he figured might be six months, until Chris grew bored or restless. But the restaurant novice was a quick study, and he liked the work, the gamesmanship, the idea of competing every day. It was one of the few things the brothers had in common.
Geoff was a big-picture guy. In college, he had loved the intro courses, the big ideas, but got bored when he was forced to delve deeper into a subject. Chris, on the other hand, lived to, as he puts it, “drill down into the details,” examining the contradictions of things, exploring their many shades of gray.
Geoff wasn’t so proud that he couldn’t admit that where he was weak, Chris was strong. Also that where Geoff was weak, the company itself was weak. He couldn’t keep doing things the old way. He needed a new system. It would be like starting over again.
Forced to reckon with the kind of restaurateur he wanted to be, he would forge a new kind of company. Out of the chaos would emerge a new order.
Chris Tracy sits staring at his two computer screens at 9 am one morning at company headquarters while Sarah Murphy, the company’s “executive director of profitability,” feeds him numbers from a sheet of paper filled with so much data, so minutely recorded, that she has to use a ruler to make sure she’s read the correct line. By the end of the hour, he’ll be bleary-eyed. By 2, he still won’t have had lunch.
Downstairs, Geoff makes the rounds of the kitchen—sampling dishes, snapping pictures, asking after his cooks. He’s performing one kind of control: a human, tactile interaction. Chris performs another: detached, numerical.
“We’re both analytical guys, but we’re different analytical guys,” Geoff says. “I barely understand the things he’s doing.”