When I reached my destination two hours early, I asked my contact about a place for lunch.

“Sure thing,” the woman smiled. “Stay where you’re parked and walk about two blocks towards the gas station.” She pointed down the street. “You’ll come to a small building with a blue door. That’s Maria’s Kitchen. It’s the best food — and the only food — in town.”

Hungry and not minding a chance to stretch my legs, I walked the two blocks and reached the building. And as I opened up the blue door, I found myself entering someone’s actual kitchen. Probably Maria’s.

The dimly lit room revealed humble walls… shabby, but clean… I walked in to find a woman standing by a kitchen counter — Maria? — and I waved, and she waved. I said hello and… she waved. I could tell there might be a language barrier. I considered running out when she smiled and gave me the “come on in” sign, motioning to her kitchen table.

There was no turning back now.

The small wooden table was arranged with four mismatched chairs and I took a seat at the nearest one. She welcomed me with a tall glass of sweet tea and reached to get a large bowl from the counter. After filling the bowl with what looked like red stew, she placed it in front of me with a spoon and returned to her work.

Now, I’m an Irish guy from northern Ohio. I’ve never known much about real Mexican cuisine and the last time I had ordered a chalupa it came with free sauce packets. So, I slowly took the spoon and tried some of the red stuff. It was hot. Not temperature hot… but spicy. I saw my host eyeing me from across the room and, not wanting to embarrass her or myself, I took another spoonful. Even hotter. I drank some tea… then more stew… then more tea. Lots of tea.

I got to a point where I’d finished about half the bowl — which I think is respectable — and pushed the bowl to the middle of the table, the international “I’m done” sign. At this point, I figured I would head out.

Not so fast.

Just as I am about to get up, two more guests arrive and sit at the table with me. Soon after, she brings both them and me chicken enchiladas… homemade in that very kitchen. They looked amazing. For the first time I breathed a sigh of relief, but the moment wouldn’t last. For now I watched in horror as the fellow to my right pulled over the half-eaten bowl, took the spoon, and put a little bit of the red stuff on his enchiladas.

That’s right — I had been eating the hot salsa the entire time.

It was a mistake I paid for all day. And while the abdominal discomfort I felt was significant, it wasn’t enough to prevent me from enjoying the pineapple upside-down cake she served for dessert. It was the perfect ending to a meal that would live in my memory forever.

Maria brought more to my table than chicken enchiladas and salsa that day. She served-up a reminder of what it means to put your heart and soul on a plate. Her humble kitchen lacked the extras that identify so many chain restaurants, but being fancy was not what her meal was about. Instead, she focused on the one thing her customers valued most: authentic food made by Maria.

Be authentic. Put your heart on a plate and place yourself into all that you offer, whether it’s from your kitchen, your recording studio, your church, or the head office. Competitors will continue to focus on gimmicks and extras. Let them. They will never be able to provide the one thing your fans and customers want most: You.