As part of our series about the “Five Things You Need To Be A Highly Effective Leader During Turbulent Times,” we had the pleasure of interviewing Luigi Diotaiuti.
Award winning Chef/Restaurateur Luigi Diotaiuti was dubbed “The Ambassador of Italian Cuisine” by the Federation of Italian Cooks in Florence, Italy in 2018. The owner of Washington DC’s Al Tiramisu (named one of “the 50 Top Italian Restaurants in the World 2019” by www.50topItaly.it) has been a celebrity favorite for decades. Born and educated in Basilicata, Italy, Chef Luigi trained at some of the world’s most prestigious locations before opening Washington DC’s “most authentic” Italian restaurant twenty-five years ago. In 2017, he was named “Ambassador of Basilicata’s Cuisine in the World” by The Federation of Italian Cooks. Chef Luigi also received the “La Toque” award by The National Area Concierge Association at The Basilica of the National Shrine of the Immaculate Conception in Washington, DC in 2018. Chef Luigi’s first cookbook, The Al Tiramisu Restaurant Cookbook: An Elevated Approach to Authentic Italian Cuisine was released in December 2013.
Luigi Diotaiuti opened Al Tiramisu restaurant in 1996, and was awarded the coveted Insegna del Ristorante Italiano, the seal of approval by the President of Italy as well as Gambero Rosso’s Top Italian Restaurants 2018 award, and Slow Food DC’s
Snail of Approval award. He is a member of the American Chefs Corps Network through the U.S. Department of State where he led culinary activities and attended programs at the Milan Expo on behalf of both the American Chefs Corps and on behalf of his native region of Basilicata. Holding dual citizenship, Chef Luigi is passionate about giving back to both communities which he considers home. He founded and is the president of a non-profit organization in Italy called Basilicata: A Way of Living. His mission is to maintain the local traditions of the region while creating jobs, supporting sustainable agriculture, and promoting tourism. Basilicata: A Way of Living’s Sirino in Transumanza project is already in its’ 6th edition and was adopted by students at George Washington University who helped Chef Luigi monitor the success of the project and transformed it into a global model to promote responsible agriculture, hospitality, and tourism in various locations in the world. In 2021, during the pandemic crisis, the multi award-winning chef donated more than 1,295 meals to The Archdiosese of Washington, DC‘s McKenna House and created a movement called #ChefLuigiCares to fund his efforts in feeding front-liners and those in need which he still continues doing today.
Thank you so much for your time! I know that you are a very busy person. Our readers would love to “get to know you” a bit better. Can you tell us a bit about your ‘backstory’ and how you got started?
I was born on a farm near Lagonegro, in the mountains of the Southern Italian province of Basilicata, where we learned the relationship between people and food firsthand. When I was 14, I had the opportunity to attend culinary school in the seaside resort of Maratea, and I knew from my first day of class that this was what I wanted to do. After school, my formal training includes working in renowned restaurants such as the Hotel Georges V in Paris, the Grand Hotel Bauer Grunwald in Venice, Il Gourmet restaurant and Hotel Bellavista in Montecatini, Tuscany and Costa Smeralda and Forte Village in Sardinia. I opened Al Tiramisu Restaurant in Washington DC in 1996. In 2015 I founded and am now the president of a non-profit organization in Italy called Basilicata: A Way of Living.
Can you share a story about the funniest mistake you made when you were first starting? Can you tell us what lessons or ‘take aways’ you learned from that?
Yes! When I first opened Al Tiramisu, I quickly learned that my efficacy at leading in the kitchen wasn’t the same as dealing with the Front of House staff. I now had to be a leader and to delegate responsibilities to the wait staff and the management as well. I never really thought about all of the responsibilities that I was stepping in to as a restaurateur for the first time.
The funniest story is that in the beginning I didn’t know how to divide tips for the waiters. In Italy, waiters get monthly wages, not tips, so I had no idea how to pay the wait staff each night.
On the first night of our opening, I was delegating and telling them what to do all night long but at the end of the shift they were waiting for the tips and it never occurred to me to handle that, so we all started laughing. Eventually, the waiters showed me how to make a pool and then divide them at the end of each shift.
I quickly learned things that I needed to know to run a restaurant and that those skills were different than what was needed to run a kitchen, so I had to learn all of them in order to succeed.
None of us are able to achieve success without some help along the way. Is there a particular person who you are grateful towards who helped get you to where you are? Can you share a story?
Many people helped me and taught me along the way. In the professional realm, the first was Gerardo Novi, one of my first chef mentors. He taught me refinement and tranquility in the kitchen as well as how to transmit calmness and organization to my team under any circumstances. Sichi Brunello from Il Gourmet where I worked in Montecatini, Tuscany helped me feel part of the restaurant world. He also taught me the important role of wine and the wine list in restaurants. He was the first person to give me responsibility inside of a restaurant and it was my first role as a leader. Ettore Tigani, the gentleman who sold me Al Tiramisu also mentored me on how to succeed in the United States. He always supported me in my professionalism and was a sort of informal career coach. I may have never entered this business if it wasn’t for him. When I met Amy Riolo, she saw all of my best qualities, and understood my roots, my profession, and my career goals. We wrote The Al Tiramisu Restaurant Cookbook together and I remember a few months after we first met she told me: “You will become the Ambassador of the cuisine of Basilicata and of Italian cuisine,” and I used to laugh and tell her she was crazy. But three years later I was given the title by the Italian Cooks Federation and the Department of Agriculture of my region. She helps me to communicate my vision and achieve my goals.
Extensive research suggests that “purpose driven businesses” are more successful in many areas. When your company started, what was its vision, what was its purpose?
I wanted to bring authentic Italian food to the DC area. After 3 years of working in Italian restaurants in DC, I felt that there was a huge need for authenticity. In the 1990’s it was a different time, and I knew that genuine cuisine — whether it was Italian or of another authenticity was what the Nation’s Capital lacked. The famous late food critic, Phyllis Richman called Al Tiramisu “Modern Italian.” Her label embodied my goal to serve traditional dishes with a slice of modern culture without the need for travelling abroad.
The vision was to be the most authentic Italian restaurant and it was dubbed that by food critics. It was also very important to me to create a community within our area. Community is integral to our culture and my upbringing, so I knew that part of our success could only be achieved when we kept our neighbors in mind.
I later used this same philosophy to create my non-profit organization in Italy called Basilicata: A Way of Living which is all about promoting my home region and its’ time honored traditions. I now offer similar events on both sides of the Atlantic to foster relations not only within our neighborhood in DC, but also with my community in Italy as well.
Thank you for all that. Let’s now turn to the main focus of our discussion. Can you share with our readers a story from your own experience about how you lead your team during uncertain or difficult times?
Although I am fortunate that my restaurant has been a celebrity favorite for decades, it wasn’t all easy. Located within walking distance to the White House has presented us many challenges in the 25 years that we have been open. Political unrest starting with September 11 caused a lot of problems. The recession in 2007 , 2017’s government shutdown for a month and a half, government protests, and the pandemic that we are currently facing made it necessary for me to always be on my toes.
In addition, it requires deeply committed relationships to my staff, our clients, and the community in order to survive. Because I grew up on a farm in Basilicata, Italy, I am no stranger to sacrifice. Leading a team through these types of situations takes passion, care, commitment, and a great deal of hard work. Thankfully, we have learned to survive and thrive in these times.
What has always worked for us, whether it was during the recession or what happened with the pandemic, is that I never fire anyone due to trying times. When we are faced with these situations, I meet with my team. I explain to each person the important role that they play in the business. I tell everyone that we have to make cuts together, not just one person or another. For example, when I was growing up, we were a family of 8, and when times were tough, we all had to sacrifice. Then, when things got better everyone enjoyed more. That is how I have always operated as a leader. We all make sacrifices together so that no one loses their job. This reinforces the important role that everyone plays, the importance of teamwork and equality. If someone decides to leave, that is their choice, but I don’t fire people to make cuts.
During the pandemic, however, it was different because we had to close due to government mandates. It was very hard for me because it was out of my hands. I had to have a meeting and tell everyone that we had to close. I learned about what was available in terms of resources or unemployment for my team. I counseled them each, one person at a time to see what was the best option for them and made sure that they were OK. When we did delivery, we only needed 2 employees in the restaurant, so the other 17 had to be taken care of. I evaluated their skills and had them doing various tasks — from delivery to computer work, just to stay busy and employed if they wanted to work. That was the hardest thing for me to do. I kept in touch with the people who weren’t working and made sure that they applied for unemployment benefits and asked if they needed anything. Often times they came to the restaurant for food. I don’t want anyone to feel alone or that they lost their place here just because the government caused us to close.
Did you ever consider giving up? Where did you get the motivation to continue through your challenges? What sustains your drive?
No, I never consider giving up. Obviously it comes to my mind, but I don’t entertain those thoughts. After so many years in the business, I think that I get gratification from my customers and my employees. I mentored a lot of my employees and I am proud that I have had some of them with us on our team for 20–25 years. There are some members of our Al Tiramisu team who have really became a family. I know that I wouldn’t be anything without them. Many of our clients come to us during the pandemic and buy things that they don’t need which we all appreciate greatly. Some people buy gift certificates that they may never use or leave $1,000 tips because they want to make sure that our business stays alive. I am very grateful for them and this gratification is what helps me to sustain my drive.
What would you say is the most critical role of a leader during challenging times?
You don’t have the luxury to show your emotions or to panic. Even though you feel the hard times, you have to think of everyone else’s point of view and act on their behalf. It’s not always easy, but you have to do it. It is important not to spread panic and fear. It’s very similar to being a good parent. If you remain calm and focused and as optimistic as possible, your team can be more effective.
When the future seems so uncertain, what is the best way to boost morale? What can a leader do to inspire, motivate and engage their team?
New projects and new ideas help to boost morale. You don’t want to fall into a routine and when business is down, people notice the change in the routine. For example, I decided to start a charity project out of our kitchen during lockdown and it really helped.
A leader should take their staff members one at a time to determine their needs and what they would like to get out of the position. There are some people who have great qualities but they are not motivated to use them. If you help them develop those qualities and give them the opportunity to use them, they will be much more engaged. It’s also important to recognize that people are motivated by different things, some want recognition, some like the familial aspect of a team, while others want to be rewarded more financially. Knowing this can help you motivate your team more effectively.
What is the best way to communicate difficult news to one’s team and customers?
The best way is to be transparent. Be honest. Tell them that we have a challenging situation at hand and we will go through it together. I usually come up with potential solutions before I address them. I like to turn negative situations into opportunities, so I try to pinpoint opportunities for potential growth before I address my staff or customers.
For example, when we had to close due to the lockdown, instead of announcing that we had to close to the public, we announced that we were now offering carry out and we offered delivery for the first time ever.
How can a leader make plans when the future is so unpredictable?
They can’t. A leader is a leader because they have skills in human relations and also talents. You have to think of what will still be available or marketable in the future. Nowadays we’re changing and adding new options on a weekly basis. When the pandemic hit we immediately started an online market, delivery, and options that we never had before.
Is there a “number one principle” that can help guide a company through the ups and downs of turbulent times?
Sometimes you just have to do the most you can each day while hoping that the future will bring more opportunities. You can’t sit and wait for things to go back to the way they were before. You must keep changing and evolving to achieve your goals.
Can you share 3 or 4 of the most common mistakes you have seen other businesses make during difficult times? What should one keep in mind to avoid that?
- When people don’t have a strong vision with their business and they change their concept. The purpose needs to be solid and integrated.
- Some businesses don’t face reality. They don’t adjust to the difficulties and then it becomes too late and they can’t keep up.
- Some businesses don’t ask for help — they don’t seek loans or assistance when they are available to them and then it becomes too late.
To avoid these three pitfalls, business can have a strong vision and purpose from the beginning and stick to it so that they don’t confuse customers. They need to face reality quickly, not panic, and come up with a plan to take advantage of any available solutions. They should ask for financial help if they need it before it is too late.
Generating new business, increasing your profits, or at least maintaining your financial stability can be challenging during good times, even more so during turbulent times. Can you share some of the strategies you use to keep forging ahead and not lose growth traction during a difficult economy?
In our case, I quickly evaluated our situation not from the role of a business owner, but from that of our clients. We could no longer have them in our restaurant, but they still had a desire for our food and their favorites. In addition, they were suffering from cooking fatigue because they were not used to cooking at home all of the time. Many of the restaurants that were doing delivery were fast casual and other types of ethnic cuisine, but not fine dining. Lastly, customers could not get the type of quality ingredients and my house-made signature items such as liqueur, jams, baked goods, etc. elsewhere, so there was a need.
We put all of these opportunities together and began offering a complete menu for take-out and delivery when possible even though we had never done that before and I was philosophically opposed to deliver in the past. We offered new specials and traditional, authentic, and unique Italian meal packages for people who wanted to experience the cuisine the right way, but didn’t want to cook. I created an online market to offer goods that were hard to find in stores, our classic cuisine, and a selection of wine and house — made spirits for the first time. This combination of our signature items now being available in home, coupled with unique products that customers couldn’t get elsewhere and my willingness to cater to their specific needs helped us to forge ahead and not lose growth traction even though the economy is difficult. When things open up again, I look forward to offering this new expanded platform in addition to our in-house dining.
Here is the primary question of our discussion. Based on your experience and success, what are the five most important things a business leader should do to lead effectively during uncertain and turbulent times? Please share a story or an example for each.
- Get the team together and let them know what the situation is, what steps you are going to take and that they will be OK. This is what I did when the pandemic, September 11, and when the economic crash of 2007 hit, and my staff appreciated it. And that’s why so many members of our staff have weathered out all of those times and continued to work on our team.
- Make clients and the community aware of what you do offer. We constantly communicated through newsletters, social media, and even by telephone to let them know that we are still in business and we are around.
- Give back to the community. Show your neighborhood that you are still there and that you care and share. I set up Chef Luigi Cares, and take donations to supply meals to the Catholic Charities’ McKenna House in DC on a weekly basis. We also supplied meals to many front-liners.
- Re-evaluate the products and services that you are going to offer going forward based on your clients’ needs, not your own. This is how we knew what to offer on our online store and in terms of carryout menu items.
- Look for hidden business opportunities that the turbulent times offer and take advantage of any resources available.
Because people couldn’t dine out there was an increase in catering. People would come to us and we were happy to oblige even if the items weren’t on or menu.
Can you please give us your favorite “Life Lesson Quote”? Can you share how that was relevant to you in your life?
I like the expression “Learn, earn, and return.” When this model was originally stated, it suggested that we divide our lives into 3 segments of thirds — one to spend learning, one to spend earning and one to spend returning. It is my belief, however, that if we want to be truly gratified, we need to do all three on a daily basis in our lives. Learning keeps our minds sharp and our spirits young. Earning gives us a sense of accomplishment and returning provides the highest sense of gratitude, so all three are a winning combination, no matter what your profession is.
How can our readers further follow your work?
Facebook: @chefluigidiotaiuti @altiramisu @basilicatawayofliving
Instagram @chefluigidiotaiuti @altiramisu @basilicatawayofliving
Twitter: @luigidiotaiuti @altiramisu @Basilicata_way