"Tea is a missed opportunity in a lot of restaurants. It has cultural links to so many different cultures: Britain, China, Japan, India, and so many more."
― Tony Carson, General Manager at The Modern
We, at Mansa, believe in the power of good food and beverage and love to learn more about the people that make it possible. Whether it be the chefs who conjure exciting dishes to scintillate taste buds or whether it be the sommeliers who find the perfect wine every single time, a lot of players in the food industry go into creating the perfect experience for diners. We bring to you Tea Time: an interview series with food culture innovators, where we interview managers, chefs, sommeliers, and restaurateurs of Michelin-star restaurants and 5-star hotels in NYC and took a peek into their lives.
Interview with Tony Carson at The Modern
The Modern is a two Michelin-starred contemporary American restaurant at the Museum of Modern Art. Helmed by Executive Chef Abram Bissell, the restaurant features refined, playful dishes that highlight exceptional ingredients and seasonality. Dinner at The Modern is a 7-course menu, involving a few choices on your part, as well as some courses that the restaurant are excited to share with you, perfectly combining an element of surprise and a mediation by your own tastes.
During a busy lunchtime, I had the pleasure of interviewing Tony Carson, the General Manager at The Modern. We talked about his early days as a cook, his rethinking of classics, and his love for "things that are difficult"
A: For those who are unfamiliar to the restaurant industry, could you describe your role as the General Manager of the Modern? What does your day to day look like?
T: The role of a general manager is pretty difficult to define because it’s different in every restaurant. It depends on things like the size, goal, and age of the restaurant. The Modern is a very large restaurant; it’s a very large operation, it’s two restaurants under one roof. So identity is important. I always try and ensure that The Modern as a whole--both The Bar Room and The Modern--maintain their own identities without confusing guests. It’s both an ongoing challenge and opportunity for us.
In terms of my role, I guess you could say my responsibility is...everything [laughing]. I have to ensure the financial health of the business, I have to make sure we are always speaking to our community, I have to create feedback channels to ensure everyone feels like they have a voice. I create training programs to make sure new employees feel welcomed in the business. I focus on how people are treated when they leave the business and why they leave the business. My number one priority is our people. I try very hard to create an environment that people are happy to work in. When you combine all of these things, my day-to-day could be virtually anything, and that’s what makes my job so thrilling.
A: You mentioned The Modern has two separate identities: The Bar Room and The Modern (or the dining room). How do you keep these two restaurants distinct while maintaining The Modern’s brand identity as a whole?
T: We are constantly refining what each restaurant is. Every decision that we make in either restaurant has to have that thought process behind it. For example, about three years ago I decided that I wanted to have the menu on the table when the guests sat at The Bar Room because I think this conveys a different message than the dining room. When you sit down at The Modern--the dining room--all that’s on the table is some beautiful dinnerware, a glass, and a napkin. Then, we come and hand you the menu in such a way that conveys the type of experience you are about to engage in. In fact, both of these menus have different materials, weights, colors, and fonts, all to evoke a distinct emotion that is specific to each restaurant. We always ask ourselves, “What would we do if this restaurant was its own restaurant and wasn’t connected to the other? What would be our decision?”
A: The details you mentioned seem to drastically influence the dining experience! How do you strike a balance between innovation and customer feedback? To what degree does customer feedback shape your decisions?
T: We try not to push a square peg into a round hole. Sometimes we just have to let the restaurant do what it wants to do. The terrace is a really good example. Every year we try to think about what we want to do out there. We come up with some really fun and cool ideas. We market it by social media, and practically every other way we can think of marketing it. But ultimately what guests want to do is be out there and drink rosé. Who are we to deny them that just because we have cool ideas? I use this analogy: If you were in a kayak going down the rapids, you probably wouldn't try and put your ore in the water and steer. You’d probably just try to not bang into the rocks and capsize. When you get to open water, you can start to put your ore down and navigate.
A: So you shape the overall direction, but at the end of the day you have to be reasonable and see what people actually want.
T: Right. It's a fine line we have to walk. If someone wants to come in here and just do shots, we aren't going to let that happen. That’s not who we are. We have to be confident in our decision making even if the guest sometimes has the answers.
A: The Modern is a very innovative restaurant, but so many restaurants in New York City are innovating at rapid rates. How does The Modern fit into this scene and are you doing anything to stay one step ahead of competitors?
T: It’s important to innovate, especially in our industry. In fact, It’s not only important that we stay culturally relevant and impactful, but necessary. The Modern, in my opinion, is a very important restaurant for both this city and our industry, so I feel an incredible responsibility and opportunity to uphold this reputation. With The Modern specifically, we are hopefully on our way to becoming an institution here in NYC. This is where innovation becomes a bit more complex. We have a responsibility for a certain level of consistency that comes with an institution. When you go to a restaurant like Union Square Cafe, Gramercy Tavern, Babbo, Per Se, Daniel, then come back a year later, you’re hoping that you will have a similar experience. These restaurants don't drastically change each year to keep up with the cool kids. They are just excellent year after year. Their innovation manifests in different ways: For example, in how they communicate to the outside world. Now, most of these restaurants have a strong social media presence. We rethink classics, yes, but we are always careful not to change for the sake of changing. We change to make our restaurant better. Apple is almost universally considered to be an innovative company, but when is the last time they produced a new product? They just keep improving their products year after year.
A: I really like how you defined innovation for The Modern: rethinking classics. Our readers also want to learn more about you! Did you always know you were going to end up in the restaurant industry?
T: I pretty much always knew I was going to be involved in hospitality. I fell into hospitality straight out of school and cooked for the first three years of my career. Hospitality is an industry that you’ll never be finished with. You’ll never conquer it. It’s always changing, there’s always something new, there are always challenges, there’s always competition, there’s always the “next thing”. You can travel the world with it, every culture under the sun is involved. When you first start, it’s really exciting. As a young adult, you get to immerse yourself in this new world. You get to meet people that you never thought you would have the chance to meet. In school, there were lots of rules and conventions that I confined within. The hospitality industry tipped all that in its head for me. When I entered the industry, it was a no-rules kind of place, and that was fun.
A: What did you learn in those three years as a cook? Has any of that translated to your role as a general manager now?
T: In those three years I worked as a cook I learned so much. Before the first day there I hadn’t ever really cooked. All the sudden I was working in a professional kitchen. People were showing me all these ingredients and cooking processes. I learned what happens if you dice something small versus big and what that does to the cooking process and flavor. I learned scientific approaches to cooking. I learned the reasoning behind what I was doing, the why behind everything. That was a pretty special time in my career because it really set me up to do what I’m doing today. I know what it feels like to have the ticket machine never stop, to have to work nonstop in the kitchen. It gives you more empathy as a leader for sure.
A: I noticed that The Modern actually has a printed tea menu, which I haven’t seen at many other restaurants. How do you choose these teas? And do you see any tea trends in the industry?
T: I’m not an expert on everything. In fact, I'm an expert in almost nothing [laughing]. That’s why it’s important to work closely with the people who are experts and specialists. That’s how we decide our teas: we trust our tea suppliers. I think that tea is a missed opportunity in a lot of restaurants because it has cultural links to so many different cultures: Britain, China, Japan, India, and so many more. It seems like tea is becoming more and more important in the fine dining scene. In places like Copenhagen and London, there are places pairing tea with their courses. Unlike coffee or wine, tea is in its infancy and the industry isn’t oversaturated here yet. That’s what makes tea so exciting.
I also think tea serves as a vehicle to put the meal to bed. Coffee is such a punch in the face sometimes. Especially in restaurants like The Modern. You just had 9 courses, then you just have a massive espresso at the end. It’s so unsubtle. Tea, on the other hand, is such a nice soft finish, it’s so much more delicate.
A: What is your favorite food?
M: That’s always the hardest question, isn’t it… I like eating fish. It’s nice to eat something and feel healthy doing it. As delicious as pasta is, sometimes when you’re eating a big bowl of it you think, “I'm going to have to work hard to get rid of this one” [laughing]. One of my favorite things to do is eat fish by the sea, there’s some sort of connection there. Eating oysters that have been caught that day. It’s It’s amazing. Maybe you’re in a seaside town and you know that the market is full of fish that were brought in at 3 o’clock in the morning and you’re eating them at noon. I also enjoy the cooking element of fish. It’s so delicate and takes real skill to cook while having it hold its integrity in terms of flavor, texture, and aroma.
A: Sounds like a Type A answer. You like it because it’s hard [laughing]. What do you do outside of work?
M: I think that’s my personality actually. When you consider my work and things I do outside of work, I like things that are difficult. I’m involved in some martial arts, Jiu-Jitsu specifically. Like this industry, I enjoy just how hard it is, and how no matter how far you progress, you’ll never be finished. You’re always a student. While this can be frustrating, it ensures I never lose interest. I also like to run. I’m doing the marathon this year. Running is a bit like therapy for me, it gives me time to release whatever stresses I may have.
A: Lastly, what is your favorite beverage?
T: This is so cliche, but I’m totally a negroni guy. I just absolutely love them. I have a little bar at home and the only three ingredients in it are the three ingredients for a Negroni [laughing]. When it comes to beverage I like drinks that are stirred as opposed to shaken.
As for wine, I love the classics. Off the beaten path, some of my favorite wines are from Eastern France, and South Africa which have an interesting nuance but preserve classics with grape variety.