Food

An Unsavory Guide to Mastering the Power Meal

Course through a business deal with a few courses of food.
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If you've been having your fill of opportunities since the Index first hit its record high, you're probably still busy popping bottles and all that champagne and black ink still haven't run dry. If you're one of those cautious conservatives, then that smell is the smell of the deal you've been hedging on getting overcooked. If you're the type who likes to sleep in, you better wake up to reality. The economy got up before you and there's breakfast to be scheduled.

Brunch and Business

According to successful sources, business proposals are best made over breakfast. Something to do with the movement of bowels and blood in the vessels. Also biorhythms. But really, it's an audition of sorts: if you're tough enough to method-act your best at a sadistic hour, you probably deserve that account.

This brand of tableside justice makes sense, especially when you consider that breakfast is equally the most important and the most boring meal of the day, no matter how many variations you make on what fried thing you want to eat your eggs with, and no matter which you choose among the lazy colonial adjectives “American,” “Continental,” and “Filipino.” Everyone knows it's not really about the food; it's the company. And by company we mean that company whose bottom line is on the line when the greasy plates are taken away and only the coffee remains. At this point, the business at hand is the only variable on the menu, and the day's opening may as well be opening day for your enterprise.

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Big shots always like to hold breakfast meetings at the same place, and usually at the same table. They also like to order the same thing every time, from a server they like to call by name. Hopefuls must be warned never to order the same thing their client or superior just ordered. This is not a date, where relationships are built on quaint mutual preferences, and neither is it a competition, where “poached” beats “scrambled” for health points. These worn affectations, woven deeply into the surface of our business culture, are merely part of the power ritual.

In the Filipino timezone, promptness makes for all the difference. By getting busy early and on-the-dot, you're already dining by international standards, no matter if you're dying for the daing you're missing at home. Act like you have a busy day ahead, but never look like you're in a hurry.

As you go higher up the pay scale, meetings becomes more of a pure sport, but no less spectacular: business suits are traded in for country club attire and talk turns to taking the front nine all by the hour of nine.

When it's breakfast between equals, the game often gets deadlier. We've seen industry leaders, looking and smelling fresh as daisies, march into hotel cafes still held in the dim light of dawn. Call it hubris, call it bravado, but the sight of corporate brass fussing over business fluctuations does work well in impressing the latecomers and those less motivated. Observe also that as you go higher up the pay scale, it becomes more of a pure sport, but no less spectacular: business suits are traded in for country club attire and talk turns to taking the front nine all by the hour of nine.

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Lucrative Lunches

Lunch is another matter. You're coming off the rigor of the first half of the day and you want to put a nice bright cordon bleu around it. If you're in mid-career, it's an unavoidable metaphor for lifestage and workstage. So you want to look like you're hungry to get somewhere but you're also exactly where you want to be, and there's nothing like the slow burn of a long lunch to show off that you're already made, or appropriately on the make.

If you are of the latter stripe, make sure you look unfazed by your company and by your magnificent surroundings. Where early morning power spots can take the form of fastfood restaurants or pedestrian cafes, high profile lunches preferably take place at high-ceilinged mid-day retreats reserved for business royalty. After all, the entire city is up and about, and for all the executives on lunch break, nobody really wants to be seen ordering the “executive meal” because everyone knows it is an oxymoron.

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Now that you’ve been plucked from the lot and you’ve been asked to be an eating and talking partner, you’ll need to give good shop talk as well as take it. It’s always wise to carry a conversational nugget or two to your appointment. We’ve always liked having three or four, to be used appropriately as the conversation prospers: something about movies, because it always shows the breadth of your interests, but only about Oscar frontrunners and accepted Hollywood classics, because anything else might draw a blank stare or a suspicion that you were not cut out for business; something about current events, but never about politics unless you are at a meeting about politics or with politicians; something about food, because if there has ever been an excuse to eat well, it has always been that meal that someone or something else—your company, their company, or either of your business interests—is paying for.

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You’re also expected to watch your table manners, beyond knowing enough not to ask for a toothpick or “extra rice.” Order the inch-thick steak, and you’ll come off as a blowhard—or worse, a freeloader. Order the arroz caldo and you’ll look sickly and contagious, and you’ll be blamed for the CEO’s missed holiday. Watches are for showing and not for looking at. If you must know the time, look at the other man’s timepiece. You can even verbally admire it. Chances are, it’s something you’ll be aspiring for over the next 10 working years anyway.

If you’re one of the gilded few who see lunchtime as a genuine respite from the pressures of corporate scheming or—God forbid—actual management, then an alcoholic lunch is always in order. We’ve found that nothing dulls the pain and tweaks the senses more than a shared bottle of wine; you can simply schedule a pretend-meeting in the afternoon so you can nod off in the comfort of your pied-a-terre (or someone else’s). Nothing begins a friendship in quite the same way either; you will find that in the dining halls and private luncheon rooms of business, there are powerful friendships worth making, just as there are powerful enemies worth conspiring against.

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Afternoon Aperitifs

Which brings us to the next real highlight of the day, that magically pickled hour between the time everybody else is supposed to punch out and the time they actually do. Never have business and pleasure mixed so well than at the one-on-one cocktail. Casually scheduled, rigorously implemented and set firmly apart from those corporate-sponsored underpowered affairs where hordes of people are meant to “network,” the wet tete-a-tete is where business relationships are engineered to go beyond the working day and enter personal territory.

We’ve discovered all too often that a stray remark, weakly formulated and hastily delivered in the effort to be glib and conversational, can often lead to disaster.

This setup is perhaps only for those with some experience. The choice of bar, microbrewery, or hotel lobby is key. You must learn to match your preferred libation—beer for beer, wine for wine, single malt to single malt. A wise businessman will learn to love alcohol in any form. Whatever the choice, you are required to hold your liquor and keep your composure at the same time. Talk might drift to company shenanigans, personal confessions, and unusual favors. Take it all in, and if you’re too low in the ranks to come up with any juicy stuff, make up your own. The cocktail hour is open-ended, with almost no boundaries and expectations. But never drop your guard. At this juncture, you are your own worst enemy. We’ve discovered all too often that a stray remark, weakly formulated and hastily delivered in the effort to be glib and conversational, can often lead to disaster. So, too, can swift conclusions. Expect no satisfaction of finality: there will be no contracts or signatures to obtain, and none offered. Promises may be made, but take these as brash statements that need sober validation. Invitations may be offered, but the only real invitation is the invitation to the next cocktail, or, if you’re lucky, to dinner.

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Dinner and Dollars

The power dinner is for victors and VIPs only. The rest can dine at home with their parents or their ugly wives.

These occasions, we find, happen most often among equals. The lighting conditions demand it. The inevitably high price demands it. Note the corner table for two: that’s for celebrating a partnership. Note the long twelve-topper that required complicated reservations: that’s for a successful board takeover. Note the restaurant whose name you do not even know how to pronounce, closed down for the evening for a private event: that’s for an IPO.

Dinner, we also conclude, is the most unnecessary and cumbersome meal of the business day. At best, it presents a formal cap—medalled with an ostentatious presentation dish and finished with an impossible-to-finish cake—to what has already been decided and cannot be revoked, whether it is a contract, a promotion or a successful lawsuit.

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Make sure you look unfazed by your company and by your magnificent surroundings.

At worst, it is an offensive intrusion into the private lives of the ones at the table. Surely—you will be tempted to ask, thrown off-balance by the sleep deprivation incurred by that early presentation, that bout with indigestion after lunch and the buzz of the preceding cocktails—surely we all really just want to be home with our women and our children, or parked in front of the TV watching another Hollywood blockbuster to get us off to sleep?

But hold fast and do not speak with your mouth full. Tell yourself that it is merely a meal. This, like many other meals you have shared, and are destined to share, with those who exude power and who wish desperately to wield it, will pass, quickly and quite literally. The time will come, it is hoped, and it might be one bright morning, or existential afternoon, or glassy-eyed evening, when you will come to know the privilege of real power, which is to dine as one pleases, without a care for the encumbrances of class and standing and companionship, alone.

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Sarge Lacuesta
Editor at Large, Esquire Philippines
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