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McCelvey's Back to Kick it Up a Notch

David McCelvey isn't intimidated by the economic downturn. “This company is bullish about its future. We aren't going to lie down,” he says. McCelvey, who has returned to New Orleans and Emeril's Homebase — corporate headquarters for Lagasse's restaurant empire — as v.p. of operations and culinary after spending a year as head of culinary at Chipotle Mexican Grill, plans to create growth by focusing on what is important to customers and what makes good business sense.

McCelvey's mission is to expand Emeril's Homebase. And after nearly 15 years with the company, assisting with development of restaurants in Louisiana, Florida, Nevada and Mississippi, he's more than qualified. McCelvey briefly escaped from his busy schedule overseeing the team of chefs and regional directors at the company's 10 restaurants and the corporate culinary team to talk about business strategy, philosophy and the importance of New Orleans' food culture.

RH: What made you decide to leave Emeril's in 2007?

McCelvey: I've known Steve Ells for a long time. I worked with him at the CIA and we stayed in contact throughout our careers. He had urged me from time to time to come on board with Chipotle. Last year, after having spent a lot of time with Emeril's, I thought it would be interesting to try something different. So I packed up my life and went to Colorado.

RH: Did you learn any great lessons while with Chipotle?

McCelvey: Having spent so much time with Emeril's it was informative to be in a different type of company. One of the things that struck me from the start was the realization that all good restaurants have the same characteristics: great people, solid real estate, fresh ingredients and great training. The parallel between Chipotle and Emeril's was educational.

RH: What brought you back to Emeril's team?

McCelvey: I was offered the v.p. of operations job. That's something I couldn't turn down. Plus I missed New Orleans. All of my kids were born here. This is home. Plus, this town has a really great food culture. Everything revolves around the next meal. I wanted my kids to grow up that way.

What intimidates you about being back?

McCelvey: Hurricanes. I had a home in New Orleans when Katrina hit. And we now operate a number of restaurants in Florida and New Orleans. But, like I said, this is home. We'll find a way to make it work.

How will your experiences with Chipotle help you in your new position?

McCelvey: Chipotle was an interesting animal. It is more similar to fine dining than fast food in that there are cooks with knives preparing fresh ingredients. The cooks are not usually professionally trained, so the fact that they can prepare this food so consistently on such a large scale is really fascinating to me. While I was with Chipotle, I worked to improve training programs and kitchen efficiencies. Now that I'm back with Emeril's, I'm going to be overseeing all aspects of restaurant operations. The time and knowledge I gained while away will lend itself to this role. We have to define our guiding principals and not deviate from them. We are going to surround ourselves with the best people and create a culture that appeals to those who want to succeed.

RH: Emeril credits you with helping to build the foundation of many of the restaurants. How will you move the business forward, given that track record?

McCelvey: We are going to continue to expand and look for more real estate. We will align ourselves with the best partners and have a go at it in what is not an easy economy. We have a plan, I can't get too much into it, but there will be some exciting growth in the next 18 months.

RH: What has it been like since you returned?

McCelvey: I hit the ground running, I had some things I wanted to accomplish right away. It is no secret that we're in an economic downturn. So, one of the things we as a company wanted to shore up as soon as possible was our cost-saving measures to make sure that the restaurants are operating as frugally as possible without compromising the guest experience.

RH: How are you going to do that?

McCelvey: One of the ways is to streamline our labor usage. We want to make sure our managers know exactly how much labor they should be using. We're a company that has enjoyed a tremendous run of business. Learning how not to be busy is something that we have to get used to. Everyone is being receptive to the changes, though, and I think we'll emerge as a stronger, better-run organization.

RH: I hear you studied philosophy in college. How does that translate into what you do today?

McCelvey: I can't tell you that Socrates, Plato and Aristotle have any bearing on how I run the restaurant. Philosophy teaches you how to think, how to learn. It teaches you how to think in situations for which no training program has even been devised. The lessons I learned have taught me to question, to consider, to evaluate, to reason, to judge. And the restaurants are better-run business because of that.

RH: If you could start over, would you have chosen the same path?

McCelvey: I don't regret any of my career decisions and I love my job, but I've always been fascinated by the science of medicine and the notion of helping people at their most vulnerable times.

RH: Don't you kind of do something similar to that in your restaurants?

McCelvey: Yes, but one is hedonism, while the other is necessity.