THE MOMENT WHEN YOU ARE IN THE ZONE – PART I

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As a cook or chef there are many days that go well and a few that challenge the best.  There are times when a service kind of clicks and the night ends without any problems – these are nights that allow you to feel good about what you do and the level of skill that you have built.  But then, on occasion, there are those nights when you and your teammates are in a special place, a place that is hard to describe unless you have been there – you are in the zone.

In the zone is defined as:

“In a mental state of focused concentration on the performance of an activity, in which one dissociates oneself from distracting or irrelevant aspects of one’s environment.”

-Your dictionary

But when this occurrence takes place with a team, the results can be magical.  There is a level of non-verbal communication that defies explanation – communication that keeps everyone in sync, seemingly knowing what every person in the team is doing or is about to do so that work flowed with precision and grace.  A look, a nod, a hand motion, or a single word can move everyone into motion, without hesitation.  When this happens there is a rush of adrenaline that drives the team forward with speed and efficiency.  It is beautiful to watch and energizing to experience.

If you are a seasoned veteran of the kitchen, you have likely experienced this a few times and know exactly what I am referring to, but for others – here is an attempt to re-create the “feel” of being in the kitchen zone:

Tom arrived a bit later than normal for his shift at Café Monique.  He typically liked to be at work an hour or so before his shift began just to get into a rhythm.  Today, he was just 15minutes early and this made him a bit nervous.  The rest of the team was already settled in and hard at work.  Tom quickly washed his hands, tied on an apron, adjusted his uniform and set-up his workstation.  This team was always professional and ready to hit the ground running.  As a result, his prep sheet was built the night before so within a few minutes he was charged up and cranking just like everyone else.  The usual acknowledgements took place, a few fist bumps, and high-fives, but for the most part it was “strictly business”. 

The reservation book was full for tonight – more than 200 recorded and no room for walk-ins.  Tom and everyone else knew that more than half of those reservations would be crammed into the 7:00 hour; so, there would be no room for mistakes and no patience for a lack of adequate mise en place.  The kitchen was active with the staccato sound of knives tapping on cutting boards, prepped items sizzling on super-hot pans, pots and pans clanging, and plates clinking together as they were stacked from the finish end of dishwashing.

Sabrina worked the sauté station.  She was very adept at her craft having worked that station for more than 18 months and bringing experience from two other high-end restaurants before landing at Café Monique.  She had to handle eight different menu items on those cherry red flat tops and high BTU burners and called out orders to each station on slower nights.  Tonight, that additional duty would fall on the shoulders of Shawn who was next in line for the sous chef position (if Jake really did move on to a chef position up town).  Shawn would call out orders and set up plates for the other line cooks.  His role was critical because it helped to set the pace of work.

Cliff or “Duke” as everyone called him, manned the broiler.  His role was steaks and chops, and man was he good at it.  Unlike the other “youngsters” working the line – Duke had been doing this type of job for almost 20 years.  He was the exception to the rule of “it’s a young man’s game”.  He loved the broiler, had no desire to work elsewhere, thrived on pressure, and could tell degrees of doneness through some type of internal radar.  He would look at a steak and know that it was rare, medium rare, or “God forbid” well done.  There were burn marks up and down both arms and his hands were likely made of asbestos at this point.  When he did burn himself, you could see a smile from ear to ear, he seemed to relish those impromptu tattoos.

Tom was the newest addition to the line.  He was only 19 years old and as such just learning the ropes.  His station focused on deep fried items and a few apps. 

Tom was all eyes and ears knowing that every second in this kitchen was a teaching moment.  If he wanted to move up to a more demanding station he would need to “discover” how each player worked, how they set-up their stations, the flavor profile of each dish, timing, and plate presentations.  In a busy kitchen there was no room for asking questions or missing a step once the point-of-sale printer started talking the language that everyone understood.

Garde Manger and desserts was managed by the team of Julio and Martina – a brother/sister team from the Dominican Republic.  They had earned their green card a few years back and were on their way to citizenship.  It was this job at Café Monique that allowed them to stay in the States and transition to become Americans – soon.  They were spectacular at their jobs.  They worked fast, in unison, had great taste buds, and created exceptionally beautiful plates every time.  They were happy to be here and never, ever came to work without a smile on their face.

Jake was the sous chef.  This was his first position at that level.  He had worked at a number of restaurants in town and at the age of 25 he knew he was ready for his own gig as chef.  The chef of Café Monique had set him up with an interview at a small boutique hotel for the position of chef.  Jake was a finalist and hoped to hear whether or not the job was his within the next few days.  As excited as he was, right now his focus was on tonight’s 200 reservations.  Chefs need to live in the moment once service time nears.  There is no room for wandering thoughts of challenges and opportunities outside of the moment.  He constantly touched base with each of his cooks – answering questions, tasting, commenting, and jumping in to help.  When that first ticket arrived off the printer he would be on the other side of the chef’s table as the evening expeditor – the communicator between front and back of the house, the person to inspect each plate, the person to wipe the rims and dress the plate with a cluster of herbs or a dash of infused oil.  Nothing left the kitchen without his final approval.

Everyone worked fast and efficiently as items on their prep lists were checked off and their stations began to come together.  Service time was only an hour away now, so the pace and intensity picked up even more.  Everyone seemed overly serious, except for Duke.  He had a perpetual smile, laughed to himself quite often, and seemed totally in control of a station that he had set-up thousands of times.

It was expected that 30 minutes before service all of the stations would be basically set.  Jake would touch base with each line cook, go through a final tasting, help cooks make last minute adjustments, and then take a few minutes on pre-meal review with the service staff in the dining room.  It was critical that servers understood flavors, ingredients, features, and what might marry well as appetizers, desserts, and wine with each entree.  The more they knew, the better they would be as salespeople and the more balanced the experience for the guest.

As the clock moved closer to the 5:30 opening mark all line cooks were ready.  Their mise en place was tight, side towels folded just so, water bottles for hydration filled, and nerves on edge.  Bouncing from foot to foot, doing a few deep knee bends, clicking their tongs, and downing last-minute espresso for a final energy buzz – they waited to hear the printer start to talk.

The doors opened at 5:30 and ten minutes later the first orders started to click off the POS.  Here we go!

PLAN BETTER – TRAIN HARDER

Harvest America Ventures, LLC

Restaurant Consulting

www.harvestamericacues.com  BLOG

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IN THE ZONE – PART II COMING SOON

THE LINE IN THE SAND WITH RESTAURANT PRICING

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I get it, profit in restaurants is sometimes hard to come by.  We deal with highly perishable goods, unpredictable customer behavior, swinging door staffing, and constantly escalating cost of goods.  Restaurants get hit from all angles so when there is a chance to push the envelope on pricing – many do.  It’s so hard to make money on that 10 oz. Prime Filet or 14 oz. Berkshire Pork Chop.  It seems impossible to push a positive bottom line selling that beautiful halibut fillet or Diver’s scallops, so we have to charge $60 for a steak or $45 for a piece of fish.  People will understand, so let’s just keep charging more and more until we cross that line of “what the market will bear”. 

So here is the line in the sand – WHERE IS THE VALUE?  At what point do you think a guest will ask: “Is this meal really worth $100?  Some of you will respond by pointing to the crazy cost of goods increases in recent years or the fact that we now (rightfully so) have to pay our employees a living wage or even provide some basic benefits – so we have no choice but to charge what we charge.  OK, I have been involved in the restaurant business for more than 50 years – I hear what you are saying, but I pose the question again: “Is this meal really worth $100 (or more)?”  Doesn’t it eventually come down to this?  Rationalize all you want, but if we reach a point where people begin to question value, then we will be lost.

Of course, there is a handful of masterful chefs and restaurateurs who can charge crazy prices to sold out audiences.  These are the restaurants where dining is much, much more than just consuming food.  They provide value through the provision of a very complex experience that includes ambience, the highest level of service, highly sophisticated and creative food presentations, and the aura of food as entertainment – I applaud them and admire their commitment to the extraordinary, but this is a very small percentage of the restaurants available.  How do the rest of us explain the menu with $25 appetizers, $60 entrees, and $20 desserts?  How do we continue to market wines at $20 a glass or cocktails in the same price category?  How often are guests seen leaving the restaurant gripping their wallets and shaking their heads?

The whole premise of a successful restaurant is making guests feel comfortable, welcome, and fulfilled.  We want them to return often and tell their friends what a great place this restaurant is.  It takes so much effort, time, and money to pull customers in for that first visit – we want to make them feel good about their investment and book another reservation soon.  If they don’t see the value, regardless of how tasty or beautiful that plate of food might be, then why would they return?

The average middle class American’s salary is $51,000 – that’s approximately $24 per hour.  That $100 meal took them four hours work to pay for.  So, ask yourself the question: “Is the meal that I provide that guest worth ½ of a day’s work?  Is there a ceiling to pricing where the average guest will simply say:  enough is enough?” 

So – what is the answer?  From my perspective the answer lies in menu planning, training, and labor efficiency.  Restaurants need to take a hard look at what they serve, how they serve it, and what they are able to charge in order to EARN a profit.  At the same time, it is essential that all of these efforts are focused on attracting a broader audience of guests who return frequently.

[]       MENU PLANNING:         If the only way that we can reach profitability with that filet is to charge $60, then maybe it’s time to take the filet off the menu and look for an alternative that with the right talent can be even more exciting than the filet.  If that halibut steak must sell for $45, then let’s take a look at the hundreds of other fish species available without the high price tag of the more common (over-fished) varieties.  If you need to charge $20 a glass for wine, then require your bar manager or sommelier to research “great find” wines that cost your restaurant under $15 and can enhance the guest experience for less than $12 per glass.  We have the ability to find value solutions, we just need to make this a priority. 

[]       PORTION SIZES:  Bigger isn’t always better.  Maybe it’s time to ween our guests off the 12 to 16-ounce portions of protein.  After all, this is a disservice to our guest’s health and wellbeing.  Let’s be more creative with interesting vegetable accompaniments and keep proteins under six ounces.  Smaller portions lead to lower price tags, broader acceptance, and enhanced value from a well-designed, balanced meal.

[]       TRAINING:  We all know the drill – it’s a business of pennies, but without everyone’s buy-in, those pennies will quickly evaporate.  Training in the current restaurant environment has never been more important or more beneficial to both the operator and the guest.  This is one surefire way of keeping selling prices in check.

[]       EFFICIENCY:  This is the hard truth – we may never go back to the era where there are far more qualified individuals to work in restaurants than there are positions.  This may be the perfect time to align menu planning, effective buying, solid training, and efficiency.  Restaurants will need to do more with fewer people – this means workable menus, the right equipment, and systems that allow us to wow our guests, keep portions in check, and do so with a streamlined crew. 

Welcome to the new world where VALUE is centerstage.  How will you approach it?

PLAN BETTER – TRAIN HARDER

Harvest America Ventures, LLC

www.harvestamericacues.com  BLOG

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FROM THE CHEF’S DESK – YOU NEVER KNOW – PART TWO

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Weekend work continued through the Fall and Winter when I turned 16.  I already made plans to work full time at the diner during the summer months.  Millie was beginning to involve me in some of her breakfast prep when things were slow.  I peeled and diced potatoes for home fries, cracked eggs for scrambled and omelets, and learned how to use the slicer to cut bacon from slabs (this was before layout bacon was a thing).  Occasionally, she would call me to help push out a big order by flipping pancakes and French toast on the griddle.  I was having a blast and learning a few skills along the way. 

Summer came, more college waitresses arrived, and Millie had a chef coat available for me.  I moved from washing dishes to her lead prep person and assistant during the breakfast rush.  Suddenly, I was on my way to becoming a short-order cook.  All through the summer I picked up some basic knife skills, organization, and speed to the point where one morning a week (a slower day) I ran the breakfast and lunch grill by myself.  I was in a groove and actually looked forward to going to work every morning. 

Throughout this and the following summer I worked alongside Millie.  She was a great teacher and fun to be around.  She was serious about cooking, even though it was a diner, and made sure that I knew that there was no room for mediocrity.  At the beginning of my second summer (just after my senior year in high school) she sat me down for a serious conversation: “Paul, what are your plans for the future?”  I looked at her without a smile and said: “I don’t have any plans.”  Millie shook her head like she always did and said:

“OK, this is what I see.  You are a natural in the kitchen.  You pick things up quickly, your knife skills are pretty good, you are fast and efficient, and your plates of food are as good as mine.  I just fell into a life in the kitchen after my husband passed away.  He was a chef in a nice restaurant downtown and I had been busy raising a family.  When he died, I needed to make some money, so I took this job and taught myself how to become a cook.  I didn’t have the natural skills or passion that you do, but I made it work.  You’re different and I think that you could grow to be good at this craft.  There are plenty of opportunities and ways that you might approach this.  You could go to culinary school, there are many around, or you could enroll in an apprenticeship, or you could simply start working in a more serious restaurant.  I think that this is a calling for you.  Whatever you decide, I want you to have this.”

She passed me a large box that I opened cautiously.  There were four well-used books and a roll bag with three beautiful knives and a sharpening steel.  I looked at her with eyes of appreciation.

“These were my husband’s knives and his most used cookbooks.  I want you to have them and use them knowing that he and I will always be by your side as you become a professional cook and maybe a chef someday.”

I can’t remember ever feeling so much emotion and gratitude.  All I could muster up was: “Thanks Millie, I will take care of them.”

“Paul, think about what I said, talk it over with your parents, and if you have questions or need help moving forward, please feel free to ask.  Now, back to work!”

That day was a turning point for me; a moment of decision that I had not contemplated before. What am I going to do with my life?  I like the kitchen and the restaurant world that I have been part of, I am feeling confident here, the people are fun, and my mentor thinks that I could be good at this.

Fast forward a few years.  I decided to go with Millie’s recommendation, my parents were happy that I had some direction, I applied to college and packed my knives for a future in the kitchen.

There were bumps along the way, but I never looked back.  From breakfast cook I moved to a more formal kitchen during summers while attending school.  It didn’t take long before I discovered how little I really knew about food and cooking.  The first full-service restaurant chef I worked for was tough.  He took no prisoners and had very little patience for incompetence.  The one thing I had going for me was that I knew to show up early, always said “Yes chef” to whatever he asked me to do, and I was fast (all thanks to Millie).  He took me under his wing and gave me loads of opportunities working banquets, helping on the line as a commis, and getting a taste of real kitchen life.

When I finished college, I moved on to a hotel property that was busier than any place I had ever seen.  The chef was the pinnacle of professionalism.  He had starched whites with his name and position embroidered over the pocket, and a tall chef toque.  He had spent time at the Queen Elizabeth Hotel in Montreal, Canada and was moved to the property where I was working in an effort to add some polish.  The kitchen was huge and set-up by department with a lead person in charge of each:  garde manger, saucier/potager, pâtissier, boucher, and grillade.  I signed up for their apprenticeship program that would give me a chance to rotate through all of these departments. 

For two years I worked with serious people who were good at their craft.  I didn’t become truly proficient in any one area, but I was exposed and able to hold my own.  I worked banquets from 50 to 1,500 people, sometimes engaged in multiple events on a given day.  I learned how to trim and tie rib roasts, bone chickens, cut steaks, make a variety of soups and stocks, cook steaks and chops to various degrees of doneness, open clams, and chop and dice with decent speed and accuracy.  I was becoming a real cook and learning something new every day.  I experienced what it was like to work in a classical kitchen, how the organization worked, and saw, firsthand, how complicated the job of chef really was.  Whatever I learned in college paled in comparison to what I was picking up on-the-job. What would be next?

You never know what lies ahead, so when the sous chef told me he was moving to Atlanta as a property chef and asked me to come with him as a sous chef, I was excited.  I flew down, toured the property, met the staff, and got a quick feel for the city.  I wound up turning it down but moved into a food manager position at a local college.  Three years there gave me a taste of managing a department, scheduling, ordering, evaluating, inventory, and being responsible for the financial success of the business.  Being away from the kitchen was not where I wanted to be, but the management experience was important and would serve me well as other opportunities might come my way.  I returned to the kitchen with a quest of becoming a chef.

PLAN BETTER – TRAIN HARDER

Harvest America Ventures, LLC

www.harvestamericacues.com – BLOG

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PART THREE OF: YOU NEVER KNOW – COMING SOON

FROM THE CHEF’S DESK – YOU NEVER KNOW – PART ONE

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When I was 15 years old the furthest thing from my mind was planning my future.  This was the beginning of that age when aside from finding a way to be independent and seeking a girlfriend, there was very little planning going on.  Ah, but getting a part-time job with a paycheck was a good start. 

I managed to land a weekend job at a local diner as a dishwasher.  I didn’t have any marketable skills yet except I guaranteed the manager that I would show up on time.  Little did I know at the time that this was a lifelong attribute, something that every employer would relish in a job candidate.  So be it, I walked in a few minutes early on day one, was given an apron, given the five -minute tour through the dish pit, introduced to the head cook (Millie), presented with a timecard, and left to my own common sense to figure the rest out.  Millie was a little cold at first, I guess she wanted to see if I would show up and listen to her. The answer was YES on both counts.  She took some time to show me how to set-up, stock, and clean out the machine, how to properly rinse and stack dishes in racks, the best way to stack and deliver plates and glassware to their proper home, and how to be efficient.  I was ready to rock.

That first day was crazy.  It was Saturday so I think everyone within fivemiles decided to come in for lunch.  Millie was working the line with a helper – burgers, fries, grilled cheese, BLT’s, Club sandwiches, a few salads, Western egg sandwiches, sliced roast beef on white bread with globs of gravy, and a few dozen other items including her specials of the day.  They were on fire, and I was enthralled until the dirty dishes started piling up.  At first, I was enamored by the cute college student waitresses, that was until they splashed me with residue from dirty plates.  “Why don’t they stack the same type of plates together to make things easier for me?”  This is a question I would ask for decades to come.  It wasn’t long before I was way behind.  Dishes were backed up as servers barked out orders: “We need silverware.  We’re almost out of water glasses.  Can’t you work faster?”  I put my head down and just plugged ahead, trying my best, dropping a few plates that shattered in a million pieces, wearing the spray of water that bounced off plates in pre-rinse, and burning my hands on the super-hot plates coming out the other end of the machine. 

Millie was really cranking, and I caught her shaking her head a few times when she looked my way.  I started to feel helpless and way over my head, when the lunch crowd finally started to dwindle around 2:00.  It would take me until 3:30 to finally catch up and start to clean the area for the night crew that would arrive around 4:30. Millie and her helper were cleaning the griddle and busy chopping, slicing, and dicing for tomorrow and they seemed oblivious to me and the work that I was still engaged in.  As I was cleaning out and filling the dish machine for the late crew, Millie brought me a cheeseburger and said: “Let’s sit down and talk for a few minutes.”

I thought for sure she was going to fire me after my first day, but instead she smiled and asked: “So how did you like your first day?”  I shrugged my shoulders as if to say: It was OK.  Millie continued: “You know, you did a really good job today.  Many people on their first day, facing a busy rush like that, might have just slipped out the back door and not returned.  It happens all the time.  But you stuck it out.  I saw you struggling, I felt your pain and confusion, but we were busy too, so I couldn’t help.  I looked over now and again and when I saw that you were still there, pushing forward, I just shook my head wondering how we found someone with such persistence.  I am impressed!”  And here I thought that she was shaking her head because I was doing such a terrible job.

Millie smiled again and said: “Listen, I want to tell you something that must stick with you for the rest of your life.  The dishwasher is the most important person in the restaurant.  We can get by without some employees, but the place falls apart without the dishwasher.  You must always take care of the person who does the job that others may think is less important – show respect no matter what you do or where you work.  If you learn nothing else while you work here – learn that.  Now go home and rest – tomorrow is Sunday brunch day – it will be even busier.  The nice thing is that you will have another dishwasher working with you.  Thanks for being a good employee.”

I went home with a big smile on my face.  My first job, my first day, and the chef said thanks.  I think I’m going to like this.

Sunday morning, I struggled to get out of bed, but I knew how important it was for me to be on time.  I dressed and rushed out of the house without any breakfast.  I arrived at the diner right on time.  Millie said: “Good morning, you’re late!”  I looked confused and said: “Millie, I thought I was right on time?”  She looked sternly at me and said: “On time means 15 minutes early.  You need time to put on your apron, wash your hands, say hello to everyone, and then settle into your area.  We don’t pay you for that.”  Then her stern look turned into a smile. “Have you had any breakfast?”  I held my head down and said: “No maam.”  She laughed and put a plate of fried eggs, bacon, hash browns, and toast at the back booth table and said: “You can’t do a good job on an empty stomach.  Take 15 minutes and enjoy your breakfast then get to work.  Breakfast is slow, but by 10:00 the place will be packed.”

I shoveled down the breakfast – it was delicious – and went right to work.  I set my station up, filled the machine, and attacked the handful of breakfast dishes and pots and pans.  Those college waitresses began to arrive and each one stopped at the dish window, smiled, and said: “Good morning, Paul, nice to see you back here today.”  I blushed and suddenly felt like I belonged.

The day was very busy, but Jim, a much more seasoned dishwasher worked with me through lunch.  He showed me a few ways to stay more organized and save some steps, and when things kicked into gear we worked well together.  He handled pre-rinse, stacking dish racks, and pushing them through the machine while I stacked the hot, clean plates, glassware, and flatware and delivered clean items to various spots in the kitchen and dining room.  I was having fun.  Millie caught me out of the corner of her eye, winked and smiled.  This was enough of a signal to me – I was doing what I was supposed to.  When Jim and I cleaned up at the end of service we sat down together and enjoyed that end of shift cheeseburger and he made me drink my first cup of coffee.  “You will learn to love coffee and depend on it.  Coffee can both help to build your energy and calm you at the same time.  Drink up!”  I struggled to get it down but managed to do so.  He shook my hand and told me it was a pleasure working together. 

That week I boasted to my friends about being a working man surrounded by attractive college girls and felt like I was on my way to independence.

The following Saturday I arrived at work 20 minutes early to Millie’s approval.  She put her arm around me and said: “Welcome back!”.  Then she handed me an envelope with my first paycheck.  I quickly opened it and smiled.  It wasn’t much, but it was more than I had in my pocket at any time before today.  Millie explained about the pay deductions which were kind of discouraging, but as she told me: “We all have to do our part to support the government.”  I guess, but I’m only 15 – do they really need those few dollars from me?  It wouldn’t be the last time I wondered that.

OK, let’s see what today brings in the dish pit.

PLAN BETTER – TRAIN HARDER

Harvest America Ventures, LLC

Restaurant Consulting

www.harvestamericacues.com  BLOG

CAFÉ Talks Podcast

https://cafemeetingplace.com/cafe-podcasts

YOU NEVER KNOW – PART TWO COMING SOON

A CHEF’S ADVICE TO 2022 CULINARY GRADUATES

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A retired NFL coach would rally his team before a game with the words: “Where would you rather be than right here, right now?”  This is a sentence that sums up the life’s work of these athletes, a culmination of talent, hard work, and perseverance.  To get to where they were in that moment took everything they had and now was the time when they should not only relish the feeling of accomplishment, but also not let down their teammates, their coaching staff, the fans, or themselves.  This was the moment they were waiting for, the chance to grab what was in front of them and give it their all.

This is where you are right now.  It took a lot for you to get to this point.  One would assume that you dedicated the time and effort to your education, otherwise graduation might not be within your grasp.  Some of you may have been fortunate to come from a family with the finances to support your dreams, while others may have had to scrape and save and take on substantial loan debt to get to the same point – in both cases it took someone’s financial effort to get you here.  Your chef instructors dedicated themselves to passing on the knowledge and skills that you will need to reach for your goals; knowledge and skills that took them a career to acquire.  Now you are ready to take the leap into reality, to test what you think you know in a fast-paced, physically, emotionally, and mentally demanding business.  The next steps you take will lead to a long career with plenty of opportunity and a fair share of bumps in the road.  Here you go!

So, put aside for a moment what you know, or what you think you know and listen up.  Here are some critical points to remember, essential understanding that will open doors to your future, help you to fit in with your first and many other kitchen crews, and build a path forward.

[]       YOU DON’T KNOW ENOUGH – YET:

I know – you spent loads of money for this education and your GPA is much better than average but rest assured – you don’t know enough.  You need to approach every position, and every day with this realization and then work on building that portfolio of skills and knowledge. Experience is ultimately the best educator.

[]       TAKE EVERY OPPORTUNITY TO LEARN – YOUR EDUCATION WILL

         NEVER STOP:

Be a sponge, work for the best, ask too many questions, read everything you can, volunteer on your days off, buddy up with people who are more talented than you, take a course now and then, set a path for your next ten years and make sure that continuing education is a major part of it.

[]       ALWAYS REMAIN HUMBLE:

Even when you know quite a bit – be humble.  Share what you know with others, listen to them, and never exhibit any belief that you are somehow better than they are.

[]       IT’S NOT ABOUT YOU, IT’S ABOUT THE TEAM:

The only consistently successful restaurants are the ones where every member of the team knows they are equal.  The end result of great food, satisfied guests, and a profitable restaurant rests on the shoulders of the group working in unison.  There is little room for star players, only star team players.

[]       WE ARE ALL DISHWASHERS:

Treat dishwashers well, lend a hand, treat them like professionals, thank them, support them, and know that without their work, yours would suffer.

[]       NO JOB IS BENEATH YOU – EVERYTHING IN A KITCHEN IS

 EVERYONE’S JOB:

If you EVER state or even think that any task in the kitchen is beneath you then it is time to look for a different career.

[]       TURN YOUR BACK ON MEDIOCRITY:

Don’t ever be tempted by the words: “good enough”.  Mediocrity is a disease they will ruin morale, destroy reputations, drive guests away, and quickly turn success into failure.  

[]       EXCELLENCE IS THE ONLY APPROACH:

Throughout your career – approach every task as if it were the most important to your career and the reputation of the restaurant.  Peeling onions, slicing mushrooms, turning potatoes, chopping parsley, boning chickens, or filleting fish, taking inventory, washing a piece of equipment, or stacking dishes – every job deserves your very best effort.

[]       NEVER FORGET WHO HELPED YOU ALONG THE WAY:

Practice this every day and know how important it is and how good it makes you feel:  SAY THANK YOU.  Say it freely, mean it, and say it often.  Stop in to see that chef instructor who put forth the extra effort and say: THANK YOU.  Cook a meal for your parents and say: THANK YOU.  Drop a note to a chef who took you under his or her wing and say:  THANKS.  Turn to the co-worker beside you who pitched in when you were in the weeds and say: THANKS!

[]       TAKE CARE OF YOURSELF:

Sometimes the hours will be difficult, the physical demands relentless, the emotional strain hard to take, and the pressure for release by over-drinking or using recreational drugs too great – but YOU NEED TO TAKE CARE OF YOURSELF and find the time to eat well, rest, exercise, and protect your mental health.  MAKE THE TIME and let the chef know that this is part of your lifestyle.

[]       EVERYTHING YOU DO IMPACTS YOUR BRAND:

This is a tough one – you are still young and let’s face it, sometimes naïve about the impact of your actions.  Watch what you post on social media, how you interact with others, obey the laws of the land and the policies of your employer, know what it means to be professional and hold those standards very, very close.  Don’t allow your personal brand to be damaged.

[]       YOU ARE IN THE SERVICE BUSINESS – IF YOU ARE NOT SERVING THE GUEST DIRECTLY, THEN SERVE SOMEONE WHO IS:

You may think you are in the business of food, but we are all in the business of serving others and exceeding their expectations.

[]       CLEAN AS YOU GO:

As has been said: cleanliness is next to godliness.

[]       FOOD SAFETY IS A SACRED TRUST:

The most important thing you can do for a guest and for the reputation of the restaurant is to protect everyone’s wellbeing through application of proper sanitation and food handling. THAT SANITATION CLASS WAS VERY IMPORTANT.

[]       BE COST CONSCIOUS – THE KEY TO BEING NOTICED:

Restaurants work on very small profit margins.  The chef and manager cannot watch every penny, but you and your co-workers can.

[]       RESPECT OTHERS:

Male, female, young, old, dishwasher or executive chef, owner, manager, vendor, delivery driver, co-workers, farmer, guest, health inspector and anyone else who crosses your path – BE RESPECTFUL!

[]       RESPECT THE INGREDIENTS AND THE EQUIPMENT YOU USE:

Always remember that as cooks we are privileged to work with ingredients that farmers, fishermen, ranchers, and producers dedicated as much passion and effort to as you do the job of cook.  We owe them our respect and care.  We need to ensure that those ingredients are handled and stored correctly and when in production used properly and to their fullest.  Excessive waste is a sign of disrespect for those involved in the process of getting those ingredients to you.  The same holds true for the equipment (very expensive I might add) that we work with.  Treat it with care as if it were your own.

[]       BELIEVE IN SOMETHING IMPORTANT and GIVE BACK:

Pick something and make it part of your identity.  Be somewhat altruistic with your profession and stand for something that is meaningful.  It might be sustainability, waste management, protection of traditions, a pursuit of excellence, authenticity, or connection with the source of ingredients, etc.  You will always feel better about your career choice if you take a stand.

[]       LEARN FROM YOUR MISTAKES:

You will make plenty of mistakes – they are a teaching tool.  Mistakes are a problem when we don’t learn from them.

[]       BE DEPENDABLE and HONEST:

Show up when you say you will, be prepared to work, follow through and make sure that every task assigned is completed at the highest level and remain a bastion of honesty – something that others can ALWAYS depend on.

[]       TAKE PRIDE IN THE PROFESSION:

There are centuries of professional cooks who came before you; cooks who defined our profession and established pride in what we do, how we do it, how we look and act, and the standards that define us.  Be proud of this and act and look in a manner that pays respect to that history.  You are the new ambassadors for an industry.

Now, the world is your oyster – do it right!

PLAN BETTER – TRAIN HARDER

Harvest America Ventures, LLC

www.harvestamericacues.com  BLOG

CAFÉ Talks Podcast

Listen to more than 50 incredible interviews with leaders in the field.

https://cafemeetingplace.com/cafe-podcasts

A CHANCE TO BE ALL THAT YOU CAN BE

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This is a direct message to all of those young cooks just starting out, dishwashers, culinary students, and seasoned veterans of the kitchen – you can go as far as you want to go in the food business as long as you are willing to put in the work, build a plan, and stick to the plan.  Am I exaggerating?  NO!  I believe this wholeheartedly, there is no limit to what you can achieve if you believe that you can and invest the energy and time.

Whatever you want to achieve, and whatever position you seek: Restaurant Chef, Research Chef, Personal Chef, Restaurateur, Food and Beverage Director, Teacher, Author, Consultant, or Product Developer are all within your reach.  Yes, this is ABSOLUTELY TRUE.  The only person who can get in the way of your success is YOU.

So, what should you be doing right now to set a course for a great future in the kitchen?  Here are fifteen “must do” methods:

[]       START WITH A PLAN:

You have to want to find a specific level of success and that begins with a “how to” plan.  Do you want to be a chef some day in a high-volume family style restaurant?  Then connect with chefs already in that role and ask what skills are needed and how they managed to acquire them.  Build this into your plan.  Do you want to aspire to become a restaurant owner someday, then do the same with successful restaurateurs.  What are the skills, what are the steps, and how might you meet those requirements?

[]       BE WILLING TO TURN ON A DIME:

One of the interesting things about a career in food is that you never know what opportunities might come your way.  As important as your plan is, be willing to realign with a new plan if one of those great opportunities does emerge.  Trust me – you never know where a career in food might take you.

[]       COMMIT TO CONSTANT SKILL DEVELOPMENT:

Learning will never cease.  If a day goes by that you don’t actively pursue skill growth, then you should view it as a day of missed opportunity.  Commit to constant learning.

[]       BE INQUISITIVE:

If you don’t know – ask.  If you see someone exhibit a unique skill, then find out how you might do the same.  If you face a challenge that is outside of your wheelhouse to fix, then find someone who can lead you on the path to solving it.  Asking WHY is one of the most beneficial steps in the pursuit of a successful career.

[]       TAKE EVERY OPPORTUNITY TO LEARN:

Sometimes learning is not “on the clock”.  Sometimes you will need to volunteer, work without pay after hours, shadow an expert, take a class, or even click on a YouTube video.  Do whatever it takes, whenever it is offered, to build your portfolio of skills and knowledge.

[]       EXPAND YOUR PALATE:

Not just your palate for taste and flavor, but also your palate for understanding people, their traditions and culture, why they cook the way they do and what environmental influences make their food unique.  This is how cooks become accomplished chefs with the ability to represent different cuisines with some level of authenticity.  Tap into the diversity in the kitchens where you work and build an understanding of what makes people tick, what makes them special and in return you will grow as a professional.

[]       THINK PAST TODAY:

Sometimes the challenges of today seem to eat up all of our time and effort.  Sometimes today is so challenging that we find ourselves totally focused on how to get through it.  A career requires that you think beyond today, accept the challenges, find the time, invest money that you don’t have, and be a little humbler than you might like knowing that the end game is your reward.

[]       KNOW WHAT YOU DON’T KNOW:

Admitting that you need to improve, that you are not great at everything, that some things are simply beyond your ability right now, is an important step in building a future career.  Once you know what you don’t know then addressing those obstacles becomes part of your plan.

[]       WORK FOR THE RIGHT PEOPLE:

Select your employers wisely.  Work for operations that can build on your skill set, work for chefs who will push you to get better. Think outcomes vs. paycheck in the beginning, The money will come once you have a lot to sell.

[]       COMMIT TO IT:

If you really want it, then commit fully to the process, to your plan, and to your desire to be all that you can be.  Without the “all-in” commitment this will not work.

[]       LIVE THE SEVEN “R’S”: (Responsible, Relationships, Resist, Read, Remember, Results):

  • RESPONSIBLE:    You are responsible for your own skill set, your own learning, and your own future – don’t relegate the responsibility to others and blame them for your inability to reach your goals.  The ball is in YOUR court.
  • RELATIONSHIPS: Choose your friends, acquaintances, employers, and mentors wisely.  Make sure that they represent what you aspire for yourself.  Do they fit into your plan?
  • RESIST:      In the restaurant business especially, there are a number of temptations that can pull you off course: lack of caring for your health, drugs, alcohol, late nights, more money with the wrong employers, etc.  Cooks with an eye on their future work hard at resisting these temptations.
  • READ:        Invest the time to read everything you can.  Trade magazines, business books, management and leadership, self-help books, novels, travel journals, cookbooks, etc.  These will open your eyes and help to build your intellectual brand.
  • REMEMBER:        Remember all of the individuals who help you along the way, stay engaged with them, and by all means – take the time to thank them over and over again.
  • RESPECT:   Remember, the professional that you want to become is an individual who respects the people he or she works with and for, the guests who choose to spend their money in a restaurant, the ingredients that are available, the people who dedicate their lives to growing, raising, and harvesting those ingredients, and the facilities where every cook works.
  • RESULTS:   All of your investment will fail to produce the right outcomes unless you can chart a history of positive results.  Record those results, track them, create a portfolio of accomplishments, and build on them.

[]       BUILD AND ENGAGE YOUR NETWORK:

Throughout your career it will be those unique connections, your network of influence, that opens doors and helps to continually build your personal brand and portfolio of skills.  Again, build this and stay connected.  Help them and they will help you.

[]       DEPENDABILITY FIRST:

Never forget that trust in your skills and focus on outcomes, trust in your consistency as a person, trust that you will be there when you are scheduled, and trust that you will produce excellent results with every task no matter how small or large is the single most important aspect of your professional brand.  This is what will pave the way for all the success you seek.

[]       BALANCE THE BUSINESS WITH THE ALTRUSITIC REASONS TO BE A FOOD PROFESSIONAL:

Know that you are being paid to produce positive business results and customer satisfaction.  You can never push these facts aside, but at the same time, we all need to feel as though we are doing the right thing and making a difference in the world.  Both outcomes are essential.  Never sacrifice one for the other.

[]       WORK ON YOUR BRAND EVERY DAY:

Everything that you do, every step that you take, ever product that you make, and every associate whom you follow, or lead is part of your brand.  People will invest as much in you as you invest in yourself.

PLAN BETTER – TRAIN HARDER

Harvest America Ventures, LLC

www.harvestamericacues.com  BLOG

700 articles from the chef’s desk

Follow exceptional interviews on CAFÉ Talks Podcast

https://cafemeetingplace.com/cafe-podcasts

A CHANCE TO BE ALL THAT YOU CAN BE

This is a direct message to all of those young cooks just starting out, dishwashers, culinary students, and seasoned veterans of the kitchen – you can go as far as you want to go in the food business as long as you are willing to put in the work, build a plan, and stick to the plan.  Am I exaggerating?  NO!  I believe this wholeheartedly, there is no limit to what you can achieve if you believe that you can and invest the energy and time.

Whatever you want to achieve, and whatever position you seek: Restaurant Chef, Research Chef, Personal Chef, Restaurateur, Food and Beverage Director, Teacher, Author, Consultant, or Product Developer are all within your reach.  Yes, this is ABSOLUTELY TRUE.  The only person who can get in the way of your success is YOU.

So, what should you be doing right now to set a course for a great future in the kitchen?  Here are fifteen “must do” methods:

[]       START WITH A PLAN:

You have to want to find a specific level of success and that begins with a “how to” plan.  Do you want to be a chef some day in a high-volume family style restaurant?  Then connect with chefs already in that role and ask what skills are needed and how they managed to acquire them.  Build this into your plan.  Do you want to aspire to become a restaurant owner someday, then do the same with successful restaurateurs.  What are the skills, what are the steps, and how might you meet those requirements?

[]       BE WILLING TO TURN ON A DIME:

One of the interesting things about a career in food is that you never know what opportunities might come your way.  As important as your plan is, be willing to realign with a new plan if one of those great opportunities does emerge.  Trust me – you never know where a career in food might take you.

[]       COMMIT TO CONSTANT SKILL DEVELOPMENT:

Learning will never cease.  If a day goes by that you don’t actively pursue skill growth, then you should view it as a day of missed opportunity.  Commit to constant learning.

[]       BE INQUISITIVE:

If you don’t know – ask.  If you see someone exhibit a unique skill, then find out how you might do the same.  If you face a challenge that is outside of your wheelhouse to fix, then find someone who can lead you on the path to solving it.  Asking WHY is one of the most beneficial steps in the pursuit of a successful career.

[]       TAKE EVERY OPPORTUNITY TO LEARN:

Sometimes learning is not “on the clock”.  Sometimes you will need to volunteer, work without pay after hours, shadow an expert, take a class, or even click on a YouTube video.  Do whatever it takes, whenever it is offered, to build your portfolio of skills and knowledge.

[]       EXPAND YOUR PALATE:

Not just your palate for taste and flavor, but also your palate for understanding people, their traditions and culture, why they cook the way they do and what environmental influences make their food unique.  This is how cooks become accomplished chefs with the ability to represent different cuisines with some level of authenticity.  Tap into the diversity in the kitchens where you work and build an understanding of what makes people tick, what makes them special and in return you will grow as a professional.

[]       THINK PAST TODAY:

Sometimes the challenges of today seem to eat up all of our time and effort.  Sometimes today is so challenging that we find ourselves totally focused on how to get through it.  A career requires that you think beyond today, accept the challenges, find the time, invest money that you don’t have, and be a little humbler than you might like knowing that the end game is your reward.

[]       KNOW WHAT YOU DON’T KNOW:

Admitting that you need to improve, that you are not great at everything, that some things are simply beyond your ability right now, is an important step in building a future career.  Once you know what you don’t know then addressing those obstacles becomes part of your plan.

[]       WORK FOR THE RIGHT PEOPLE:

Select your employers wisely.  Work for operations that can build on your skill set, work for chefs who will push you to get better. Think outcomes vs. paycheck in the beginning, The money will come once you have a lot to sell.

[]       COMMIT TO IT:

If you really want it, then commit fully to the process, to your plan, and to your desire to be all that you can be.  Without the “all-in” commitment this will not work.

[]       LIVE THE SEVEN “R’S”: (Responsible, Relationships, Resist, Read, Remember, Results):

  • RESPONSIBLE:    You are responsible for your own skill set, your own learning, and your own future – don’t relegate the responsibility to others and blame them for your inability to reach your goals.  The ball is in YOUR court.
  • RELATIONSHIPS: Choose your friends, acquaintances, employers, and mentors wisely.  Make sure that they represent what you aspire for yourself.  Do they fit into your plan?
  • RESIST:      In the restaurant business especially, there are a number of temptations that can pull you off course: lack of caring for your health, drugs, alcohol, late nights, more money with the wrong employers, etc.  Cooks with an eye on their future work hard at resisting these temptations.
  • READ:        Invest the time to read everything you can.  Trade magazines, business books, management and leadership, self-help books, novels, travel journals, cookbooks, etc.  These will open your eyes and help to build your intellectual brand.
  • REMEMBER:        Remember all of the individuals who help you along the way, stay engaged with them, and by all means – take the time to thank them over and over again.
  • RESPECT:   Remember, the professional that you want to become is an individual who respects the people he or she works with and for, the guests who choose to spend their money in a restaurant, the ingredients that are available, the people who dedicate their lives to growing, raising, and harvesting those ingredients, and the facilities where every cook works.
  • RESULTS:   All of your investment will fail to produce the right outcomes unless you can chart a history of positive results.  Record those results, track them, create a portfolio of accomplishments, and build on them.

[]       BUILD AND ENGAGE YOUR NETWORK:

Throughout your career it will be those unique connections, your network of influence, that opens doors and helps to continually build your personal brand and portfolio of skills.  Again, build this and stay connected.  Help them and they will help you.

[]       DEPENDABILITY FIRST:

Never forget that trust in your skills and focus on outcomes, trust in your consistency as a person, trust that you will be there when you are scheduled, and trust that you will produce excellent results with every task no matter how small or large is the single most important aspect of your professional brand.  This is what will pave the way for all the success you seek.

[]       BALANCE THE BUSINESS WITH THE ALTRUSITIC REASONS TO BE A FOOD PROFESSIONAL:

Know that you are being paid to produce positive business results and customer satisfaction.  You can never push these facts aside, but at the same time, we all need to feel as though we are doing the right thing and making a difference in the world.  Both outcomes are essential.  Never sacrifice one for the other.

[]       WORK ON YOUR BRAND EVERY DAY:

Everything that you do, every step that you take, ever product that you make, and every associate whom you follow, or lead is part of your brand.  People will invest as much in you as you invest in yourself.

PLAN BETTER – TRAIN HARDER

Harvest America Ventures, LLC

www.harvestamericacues.com  BLOG

700 articles from the chef’s desk

Follow exceptional interviews on CAFÉ Talks Podcast

https://cafemeetingplace.com/cafe-podcasts

FOOD COST IS NOT THE CHEF’S RESPONSIBILITY

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Now that I have your attention and you are back in your chair, let me explain.  The margins are very tight, in fact they are so tight that most business savvy people would wonder why anyone would ever want to own a restaurant.  The cost of raw materials seems to always go up, most ingredients that restaurants use are highly perishable, customer volume is less predictable than we would like, seasonal differences in quality are quite significant, the supply chain is out of step with demand, and waste seems to be a real problem in many operations.  The buck seems to always stop with the chef; it’s the chef’s kitchen, the chef’s food cost, and the chef’s menu that drives marginal profit at best.  So, if the cost of goods is not the chef’s responsibility, then where does the buck stop?

The answer is simple, yet profoundly challenging:  food cost is EVERYONE’S responsibility.  From the dishwasher to the prep cook, line cook to sous chef, and server to restaurant manager – food cost percentages must be something that everyone takes on as a job requirement.  Until this is universally accepted and embraced, a restaurant is unlikely to meet its obligation for financial success.

Let’s look at how this works:

[]       SMART BUYING

Whether the chef or another assigned individual is responsible, buying ingredients is not simply a case of calling your purveyor and stating what you need.  Smart buying involves purchasing fresh ingredients when they are in season and keeping them off menus when they are not.  Smart buying means to look at quantity discounts when available, buying generic brands when quality still meets your standards, and shopping several vendors with quality and price in mind. Smart buying is a key to cost control.

[]       PRODUCT RECEIVING

Cost control begins at the back door. If it is sold by weight, then weigh it when it arrives.  If it is sold by count, then count when it arrives.  Check for quality and expiration dates, make sure that storage in transit was handled properly and match the product to your specifications to ensure that it is consistent. Proper receiving equals good cost control.

[]       STORAGE AND ROTATION

First in, first out.  Make sure that cooler temperatures are appropriate for the products stored.  Fresh fish on ice with proper drainage, produce cleaned and transferred to Lexan containers with proper labeling and dating.  Part of cost control is to maximize freshness and longevity.  Waste control is cost control.

[]       LABEL AND DATE

One of the easiest and most effective ways of maintaining freshness and shelf-life is to immediately label and date products on receipt and do the same for products once they are prepped or cooked and stored.  Waste and quality control is cost control.

[]       FOUNDATIONAL COOKING METHODS

Practicing proper cooking methods is another way of ensuring consistent quality and cost.  In the end, the purpose of the ingredients you buy is ultimately to translate into sales.  Consistent quality through proper cooking will translate into satisfied guests and return business.  Implementing proper cooking methods is a form of cost control.

[]       RECIPES

Although recipes are not foolproof, they are effective guides that lead to consistent quality and consistent, predictable cost.  When you know what the cost of a menu item truly is then you are able to build proper selling prices that lead to profitability.  Recipes are a significant piece of the cost control puzzle.

[]       WASTE ACCOUNTABILITY

Try requiring your cooks to keep a Lexan container at their workstation for any “waste” that they generate in production.  Monitor it and discuss ways that they might minimize their production waste, how much that waste impacts on cost and profitability, and why perceived waste is a driver of business failure.  Also, as a friend of mine once suggested:  buy smaller garbage cans as a way of discouraging wasteful practices in the kitchen. 

[]       STANDARDS IN PLACE, FOLLOW STANDARDS

Build in standard operating procedures that are focused on cost control.  Train to these standards and manage them.  As an example, vegetable peelings can be standardized as a component for broth flavoring instead of cut mire poix, and meat trim can be incorporated in staff meat through creative recipe development.  Used coffee grounds can be worked into the herb garden soil mix, lobster and shrimp shells can become a base for fumet for seafood sauces, unused dining room bread and rolls can be dried for breadcrumbs.  Standards become habits, and good habits are a start in the right direction for cost control.

[]       WATCH RETURNING PLATES

Watch returning plates from the dining room to help assess the reaction to new menu items and the size of portions.  Sometimes guests do not point to your misses – they just don’t return if they are unhappy or if they feel that portions are excessive.  Understanding guest reactions will help to manage sales and in turn reflect on cost control.

[]       BIGGER IS NOT ALWAYS BETTER

The size wars in restaurants are a no-win game.  To some operators there is a feeling that value is directly related to how large the portions are, but value is connected to the experience associated with ordering and consuming a menu item.  Out of control portions leave little room for profitability when price ceilings are always a concern.  Quality and the experience of consuming a dish are significant cost control factors.

[]       MENU PLANNING WITH TOTAL USE IN MIND

When a chef plans a menu, it is important to build in ways for total use of raw materials.  A menu can appear larger by simply factoring in multiple ways of using every part of ingredients.  Menu planning leads to better cost control.

[]       UPSELLING TO DRIVE DOWN PERCENTAGES

The top line drives the bottom line.  Part of the process of cost control lies in the hands of servers who understand that part of their job is to sell.  When done properly, upselling appetizers, desserts, and even different, more profitable menu items, lead to better control of waste, cost, and the guest dining experience. Your servers hold the key to profitability and cost control.

[]       RESTAURANT EYES

Part of your job as a chef or restaurateur is to “see” what is going on.  Solid cost control begins and ends with your ability to understand and manage all of the measures listed above.  This is an “every-minute” task that defines success and profitability.  Every employee must be involved in this process – not just management.  As managers your primary method of cost control is to train and manage others to be your eyes and cost management implementors.

PLAN BETTER – TRAIN HARDER

Harvest America Ventures, LLC

Restaurant Consulting

www.harvestamericacues.com BLOG

CAFÉ Talks Podcast

https://cafemeetingplace.com/cafe-podcasts

THE TWO TYPES OF RESTAURANT OWNERSHIP

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I have never physically owned a restaurant, but I have always approached the position of chef as if I did.  Like many chefs that I have known over the years, I was always “all in” when it came to my actual responsibilities and those that I perceived where there.  Those who physically own a restaurant are the ones who write the checks; they are constantly faced with all the decisions that go along with that responsibility, oftentimes tough decisions, and oftentimes decisions that require some level of compromise. They are all in at a different level entirely. Emotional ownership, the type that has always driven me and many other chefs is no less demanding but comes short of those physical decisions.  I’m not sure that any chef can be truly effective in his or her position without that emotional ownership and I am surprised when a chef/owner is able to stay true to his or her stakes in the ground and still be effective as a physical owner. 

Now, don’t get me wrong, after decades of engagement in the restaurant business, I know full well how to make those tough decisions and I understand why, in many cases, they need to be made – I just don’t have the stomach to make them.  Sometimes those decisions mean that labor hours must be cut, or positions eliminated; sometimes it means raising selling prices again or finding ways to cut costs that compromise some level of quality or quantity.  Oftentimes it means that a menu that was the heart and soul of a restaurant must be changed to meet the financial goals of the operation and sometimes in the extreme it may mean drifting away from the concept that was the core of the restaurant identity.  From the physical ownership perspective – this is the smart approach, but to the emotional owner it may be perceived as a stab to the heart.  Neither type of ownership is totally correct nor totally incorrect, it just is the way it is in a highly volatile business.

There certainly are example of restaurants where the emotional and physical ownerships align; where the somewhat altruistic approach is so viable that physical ownership can maintain their margins and the chef who is not interested in being the one who writes the checks can feel good about the restaurants approach.   I admire these operations, but also respect those who need to make those tough decisions that keep the operation afloat. 

What I have found though is that a healthy business cannot thrive unless there is an equal dose of both ownership types.  Unless there is a strong belief and execution of concept, consistent quality of product, real investment in people, and encouragement for excellence and value then the restaurant will eventually struggle.  At the same time if there isn’t an understanding of the need for tough decision-making, an understanding that compromise is likely inevitable on occasion, then all the altruism that a chef might muster may not be enough for the operation to survive.

So, what is my point?  Look at the truly successful operations, the ones with decades of success, the ones that are benchmarks for others and you will find this balance of physical and emotional ownership.  Both owners are “all-in”; both owners listen to each other and respect the role that each play.  This is the only way that it can work.  Great restaurants are more than businesses – they reflect history, tradition, experiences, heart and soul, passion, and commitment to something that is greater than the sum of its parts.  Great restaurants feed people’s bodies, minds, hearts, and souls – they are an escape for some and a reward for many.  Great restaurants are there to support people, to pamper them, to recognize them, and to connect them with others.  They are the place where people gather to celebrate and commemorate. Great restaurants represent something important and as such are revered by employees and guests alike – this is the emotional side, the altruistic side of being in the restaurant business – this is hospitality.  Every great restaurant has an abundance of this emotion.  At the same time, the restaurant, if it is to support all these altruistic ambitions, must be financially viable.  Someone needs to write the checks and analyze whether the emotional side is making sound business decisions.  The two sides of the equation are essential.

It is rare that the two sides are represented by one person.  There must be room for give and take and this is hard to imagine without discussion and debate.  Sometimes the two sides can “put their money where their mouth is”, to be financially engaged at some level, while other times one may hold the financial responsibility while the other invests the “sweat equity”, but they both are committed. 

I can’t imagine a chef in a successful restaurant who is not an emotional owner, who fails to treat the position as if the restaurant were “owned”.  I can’t imagine any level of real success for a restaurant without this level of commitment, a commitment to concept, menu, people, marketing, cost control, vendors, and cooking integrity.  I cannot imagine a successful chef who is not fully committed to excellence, and consistency, as well as the art and the craft.  For those of us who understand this, I say “welcome to the club”.  For those who feel that the job can be done without this level of commitment, I say “show me how”?  I am willing to listen, but my decades of experience make it difficult for me to see how that might work.

This is not a letter of support for giving up balance in the process.  I do believe that emotional ownership can exist within the parameters of reasonable hours and life/work balance but separation from the emotional commitment to excellence, consistency, the art, and the craft; to the altruistic side of what we do, and to the image that the restaurant seeks to promote is, I believe, highly unlikely.

There is something very rewarding about ownership whether it is physical and financial, or more emotional than anything else – it is a business with both tangible and intangible rewards.  You can tell when both types of ownership are in place.  You can see it on the plate and feel it through the sincerity of hospitality; it is quite tangible.  To be an effective chef, in a successful restaurant, some level of ownership must be present – my perspective.

PLAN BETTER – TRAIN HARDER

Harvest America Ventures, LLC

www.harvestamericacues.com  BLOG

CAFÉ Talks Podcast

https://cafemeetingplace.com/cafe-podcasts

CHEFS- REMEMBER THE EXCITEMENT AND SURPRISE

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You remember those early moments with food – the aha moments when a dish really surprised you.  The flavor, aroma, texture, or presentation made you sit back in your chair, close your eyes, and wonder how anything could be this good.  We have all had those moments – this is likely the reason that a career in food became inevitable.  That first fresh, briny oyster; the experience of a perfectly braised, fork tender, full-flavored, silky lamb shank; the incredible crunch of a crusty, salty, rich buttermilk fried chicken; the deep sweetness of a July heirloom tomato, fresh pulled- still warm mozzarella, garden picked basil leaves, extra virgin olive oil and crunchy sea salt from a salad caprese; or a simply elegant grilled fresh fish with zesty lemon and cracked pepper – these were flavor moments that stayed with you and inspired you to pay them homage on your own menus.  Remember how beautiful those well designed and executed plate presentations gave you pause, stopped your conversations, and insisted that you snap a picture for posterity.  These became your benchmarks for how the plates that came from your kitchen were to be measured.

As chefs we have significant challenges including building an organizational structure and the right cohesive team of cooks, identifying vendors that can be trusted and relied on, navigating through the roadblocks of a pandemic, and trying to figure how to earn a profit for a restaurant, but it will be very hard to accomplish any of that if we fail to remember and zero in on excitement and surprise with the food that we prepare and present.  Just as these two factors inspired you to become a chef, so too are they what inspire your guests to return time and again – driving that potential for profit and helping you to attract the very best cooks.

Yes, the times are different, and we have to adjust and sometimes compromise; we must prepare to problem solve every day; but holding on to excitement and surprise is also crucial for navigation through these times.  The most important word ever uttered by a guest and ever embraced by a peer cook or chef is WOW!  Chefs must remain in constant pursuit of WOW.  Guests who view the plate in front of them with alert senses – taking in the visual presentation and the aroma and thinking, in anticipation, how incredible the experience of eating this will be, is a guest who is ready to take note and store every bit of this meal in his or her subconscious.  The guest who savors every bite and offers a sample to the person sitting next to them, saying: “you have to try this”, is an ambassador who will boast about your food and the dining experience to friends, family, and social media strangers alike.  You remember those meals that you experienced and the impact they had on your career – this is what you need to re-create in your restaurant.

These restaurant guest experiences will bring them back for more – seeking another chance to feel the WOW.  Subsequent trips from these ambassadors become more challenging for chefs – you need to create another exciting surprise with flavor, texture, and presentation every time they return.  To this end the menu that you build should always have some fluidity.  Whether it is a constantly evolving menu or a robust “features” component, part of reaching and maintaining success is to offer a bit of excitement and surprise each time a guest makes a reservation.  The same is true of those individuals who cook for you.  They too need that element of excitement and surprise to look forward to, a new experience in cooking every time they tie on an apron. 

The real experience of dining begins when a potential guest makes a decision to call for a reservation.  Help build that level of wonder and positive anticipation: “what will the chef surprise us with this time.” 

Of course, there is always a need for a level of stability and predictability.  There are certain well-executed items on your menu that define your restaurant, items that your return guests can depend on, and items that help with kitchen organization and work patterns. But these items should always leave room for something that the guest didn’t expect (in a good way).  Keep the menu fresh and alive – build in anticipation, it keeps everyone wondering what gifts the chef will offer today.

Routine can be comforting, and predictability is a foundation of control, but the energy in a successful restaurant comes from pushing the edges and keeping people guessing.  Word of mouth marketing is driven by the wonders of anticipation – you need to play in that sandbox.

When times are unusually challenging like they are today, the tendency is to hunker down, keep things simple, and avoid coloring outside the lines, but this is not the territory where great restaurants thrive.  Long term profit potential is driven by perceived value and value encompasses so much more than price for the guest and measurable profit for the operator.  Value is all about how the guest feels about the experience of dining and how the restaurant views contribution.  When value is based on experience and brand significance then guests will become fans and profit will be the inevitable outcome.  For this to occur we can never forget the importance of excitement and surprise.

In a hotel or resort the elements of surprise and excitement will come from the amenities offered, rarely from the room that is rented.  Even in the most luxurious hotels, it will be the spa service, the health and exercise facilities, and the restaurant where excitement pulls people in.  Renting rooms becomes exponentially easier when the amenities excite and surprise.  Do you strive to be a great hotel with a restaurant or a great restaurant with great rooms.  This is more than semantics; it is a philosophy that determines the level of excitement and surprise that you provide.

In a free-standing restaurant it is the magic of the food and the intrigue that accompanies some level of predictable unpredictability that keeps those reservation phones ringing.  Don’t lose sight of how important this is.  Remember those early experiences in your career and use them as a benchmark for how you approach the job of being a chef.  Put your signature on the menu and in the kitchen through your cooks – make that signature synonymous with great anticipation.

Whether it is a magnificent seven-course pre-fix menu that changes frequently, or an incredible rib and brisket operation with “fall off the bone” tenderness, incredible wood smoked aroma, and rich “melt-in-your-mouth” flavors – never forget the essential ingredients: excitement and surprise.  It’s what great restaurants do.

PLAN BETTER – TRAIN HARDER

Harvest America Ventures, LLC

Restaurant Consulting

www.harvestamericacues.com  BLOG

CAFÉ Talks Podcast

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WE EAT WHAT WE ARE AND WE ARE WHAT WE EAT

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Cooking and eating are two of the great pleasures in life.  They are sensual in nature, vividly stimulating sight, sound, touch, smell, and taste as we participate in a process of transitioning Nature’s ingredients through the application of heat and seasoning.  When cooking and eating add tradition and structure they become “dining”, an entirely new process that builds memory and organizes digestion into silos of recall, history, and correctness, but at their core – these two elements of life are pure pleasure.  The smell of meat caramelizing on an open fire, the chew of crusty artisan bread, the creaminess of cultured butter, the crunch of a Fall apple, or the deep flavor of a warm July tomato pulled directly from the vine are heavenly to experience.  Sweet corn with its plump kernels exposed beneath the protection of husk and silk, fresh pan fried trout plucked and eviscerated minutes before from an icy stream, the sound of a crunchy potato chip between your teeth, the bite of a tart and sweet strawberry harvested from a field in early June, the soft textures of a custard baked in a water bath and topped with a brulee of caramelized sugar, or the beauty of a perfectly assembled plate of food with an emphasis on color, texture, and balance are all wonderful to experience and nearly as wonderful to envision.

Centuries ago, nutrition was not a science, but rather the body’s divining rod pointing to specific foods that it required, and a stroke of luck.  What was the basis for the Mediterranean diet but adapting one’s eating to the indigenous, available, and affordable ingredients of Italians, Spaniards, and Greeks?  Why did poor Mexican families build a diet around beans, rice, and corn (protein complementation) except for availability and the affordability of plentiful indigenous ingredients?  How did Native Americans decide to grow vegetables to accompany a diet of bison, deer, rabbit, and fish? Nutrition was not a science; it was innate with a heavy dose of luck.

In recent decades we have become aware of the science of nutrition.  We know how the body acts and reacts, what it needs, and why it needs what it needs.  We know full well that our health, how we feel, and our capacity to learn and grow are clearly tied to a balance of essential nutrients in the correct proportions.  Cooking and eating are both pleasurable and now scientific acts.  What we understand, we can control.  Yet, with all that we inherently know, our free will and those desires for the sensual process of cooking and eating tend to reign supreme.  We find excuses in those sensual pleasures and even point to “what we can afford” as reason to push aside what we know.

Is there room for sensual cooking, eating, and paying respect to the traditions and structures that make both an integral part of civilized living as well as the science of what our body’s need?  It is a question that is rarely vocalized, but often considered by cooks and consumers when they make food choices. It is a choice that cooks have a responsibility to understand and address.

I had the pleasure of communicating with Dr. Deborah Kennedy, the CEO of Culinary Rehab – an organization focused on teaching kitchens and nutrition programs to change the health of populations. She holds a PhD. in Nutrition from Tufts University and has dedicated her career to helping bring nutrition awareness into our lives.  We focused on the Power of Food to impact our physical, mental, emotional, and spiritual being as well as effective ways of changing eating habits and attitudes.  Having faced a critical health diagnosis herself, she has (in her own words)

“taken on the biggest journey of my life when I chose what my healing journey would look like 1.”

It became her mission to open others to this possibility.

As chefs and professional cooks, we have an opportunity and quite possibly an obligation to understand healthy choices in dining, implement effective methodologies in our kitchens, and demonstrate through our menus how “healthy food can be delicious and even craveable2.” So many diseases that plague humankind are linked to dietary choices: heart disease, stroke, diabetes, and certain forms of cancer can be controlled through healthy food choices.  With this in mind, habit changes will not be driven by one sector, but rather through a unified effort including doctors, dietitians, cooks and chefs, family, marketers, and what Kennedy refers to as a “tribe of food coaches”.  According to Kennedy, medical doctors have so much to learn that nutrition is often pushed aside.  Her approach is referred to as Culinary Medicine where medical students are coached to practice “self-care” while they are learning about nutrition through their own practice.

This same approach, it would seem, has tremendous potential in all segments of the population where influencers are present.  Cooks, chefs, restaurateurs, distributors, product developers, and marketers when properly coached about their own dietary wellness will intentionally, or unintentionally pass it forward.  Dr. Kennedy hopes, with her organization, to support doctors through coached personal nutritional habits that would reduce physician burnout.  The “coach” would be, as she puts it:

 “the liaison between the doctor and the patient.  The doctor and/or dietitian tells the patient to eat less fat or sodium as an example, and the food coach is there to show individuals what to buy and how to cook food in order to follow that advice 3.”

We discussed the challenges that people face in absorbing what they should be doing to practice healthy eating:

“people don’t like being told what they can and cannot eat.  Each of us, on average, makes over 200 food decisions a day.  Add to that the more than 150 dietary guidelines and that is too much for anyone to handle 4.”

One solution is to approach the results of our fast-paced society that has led many of us to eat at breakneck speed. 

“Let’s show people how to eat a variety of healthful food; let’s show them how to slow down enough and become present when eating so they can feel when they have had enough to eat5.”

This should hit home with most cooks and chefs who tend to cram in a five-minute power dinner while standing up before those restaurant doors open to the public.

One question that every chef is wrestling with pertains to directions in food consumption.  There are indications that societal pressures may move us closer to “plant-based” diets.  This is not strictly for dietary reasons, but also drivers associated with the impact of livestock on global climate change.  We wonder, how will we transition our menus to accommodate this and is this really a chef’s responsibility?  Chefs have always lived by the mantra that our job is customer satisfaction; are we now charged with changing eating habits and saving the planet?  Kennedy believes that change is coming – we have no long-term choice but to change.  However, small changes can make a big difference.

“What I know is that each step down the plant forward path will have its own rewards and one does not need to reach the end of the spectrum (vegan) in order to heal themselves and this planet 6.”

Over the past three years, Dr. Kennedy has worked with a dozen chefs and forty nutrition experts from the U.S., Canada, and Europe to create “culinary competencies” so that a doctor’s dietary recommendations can translate into “what to buy and how to prepare it in order to promote health and healing”.

The result is a modular textbook reference for all who can become a change advocate – a culinary coach.

Cooks and chefs are important liaisons in the quest for a healthier community.  We are on the front lines for change and change communication.  Understanding is critical, but execution even more so.  Our ability to dispel the misconceptions about healthy food choices and support the preparation of delicious and nutritious food can have a far-reaching impact on the wellbeing of customers, friends, family, co-workers, and neighbors.

Dr. Kennedy’s book should be on the shelf of in every chef’s office.  It is an important tool.

THE CULINARY MEDICINE TEXTBOOK:

https://cafemeetingplace.com/cafe-podcasts

Footnotes:   1, 2, 3, 4, 5, 6 – Deborah Kennedy, Ph.D.

                                    Interview questions – April 2022

PLAN BETTER – TRAIN HARDER

You Are What You Eat

Harvest America Ventures, LLC

www.harvestamericacues.com  BLOG

CAFÉ Talks Podcast

https://cafemeetingplace.com/cafe-podcasts

AS A CHEF – A FEW THINGS I KNOW

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Decades of working in or focusing on kitchens and kitchen life have led me to wonder, and sometimes question what I really know.  Our resumes never really tell the story, at least not the important story.  A resume may reflect on where you have spent time, the title that you have been given, and the scope of the business, but what do I (you) really know after all this time and all of those positions?

We may have been exposed to much, experienced a great deal, and have been through a great number of bumps in the road – but what have we taken away from that?  This really is an interesting assessment of time in the kitchen, time in the life of a chef.  This is a reflection, a deep reflection on what the answer might be to the question: “what do I know?”  So here is my assessment:

[]       As much as I think I know about food and operating a kitchen there is so much more that I don’t know.

Just when we think that we might be good at our jobs – something new stares us down.  A new technique, a new way to measure, a different type of presentation, a different challenge in operations, a higher cost, product unavailability, more competition to keep us on our toes – it is never ending.  If nothing else, over the years, I have found that there is so much more that I don’t know.  The question is always – how will I respond to this?  Will I make an effort to learn and grow, or will I accept that a “new thing” is beyond me?  Will I profess to have mastered my craft or will I admit that this will never be possible?

[]       I love to cook – always have, always will.

This is something that I can always trust, the love of the craft, the enjoyment of working with the ingredients, the thrill of a well-prepared plate of food, and a smile on the face of the person who enjoys it.  During the most challenging times as a chef – this is something that I could always take enjoyment in.

[]       What cooks and chefs do is meaningful.

I have always been able to look in a mirror and feel good about what I do.  I have always been able to talk with cooks about the importance of their job.  We cook to pay homage to those who grow, raise, catch, and produce the ingredients we are privileged to work with; we cook the make people happy, to give them a break from their challenges and problems, to reward them when others fail to do so, and to bring them together with friends and family, business associates, and even those who they disagree with.  This is what we do.

[]       As a chef I am only as good as my team.

My reputation as a cook and a chef is really my team’s reputation.  I am nothing but a reasonably competent cook without them.  This is something to always remember, to never forget.  There is no place in the kitchen for a chef’s ego.  The chef is the orchestrator who brings together and hopefully leads an incredibly talented and dedicated team of marvelous technicians.

[]       Training and supporting the kitchen team is my primary responsibility.

Yes, there are numerous lists of responsibilities that accompany a chef’s job description, but none is more important than investing in that team.  Every minute spent in teaching, training, mentoring, and lifting up that team is an investment in the future of the restaurant.  This is job number one!

[]       What I learned in school pales in comparison to what I learned on the job.

A formal education is an essential part of a person’s growth and preparation for life and a career.  This being said – until those lessons are applied in the unpredictable environment of life, they will remain theoretical and un-tested.  For a chef, there is no greater teacher than the school of hard knocks, the environment where each day we face the opportunity to succeed and the chance to fail. 

[]       Even the predictable is unpredictable in a kitchen.

We work with ingredient seasonality that challenges the value of a recipe without the understanding of how to compensate for variance in quality.  We work with employees who have their own set of challenges on and off the job, so how they approach their job is always unpredictable.  And we serve customers who also bring their challenges to the table – how they feel in the moment will impact their experience and the experience of serving them. 

[]       My reputation will always be based on the last meal served.

Hard as it may be to accept – 99 exceptional meals and 1 that misses the mark will not result in a grade of 99, but rather a failing one for that individual who was not happy.  In a world where dissatisfaction is projected to thousands on social media, instantly, a chef must work extra hard to strive for 100% or at least recover very quickly when the opportunity to “wow” is missed.

[]       My actions on and off the job impact the restaurant’s reputation.

Maybe, a line cook can step in the wrong direction and still keep those actions from impacting their job and the reputation of the restaurant, but this is not the case with the chef.  Ironically, the actions of the chef, like the actions of any manager, are connected by the general public, to the reputation of the restaurant.  There is little room for error here.  The chef is always an ambassador of the operation.

[]       My actions set the tone for the working environment of the kitchen.

As a chef, I am (you are) the role model for others.  This is not something that chefs tend to ask for, but it is the fact of the matter.  How you treat others, the consistency of your attitude, your grace under fire, your dependability and how you embrace the trust that others want to put in you will be exactly how others will in turn act.  You are the parent of the operation – act like it.

[]       If I am not trusted then I have nothing.

Unconditional trust is reserved for family members, a spouse, or best friend, but outside of those individuals (and sometimes even they push the limits of trust), individuals only trust actions that are consistent and predictable.  Trust needs to be earned every day and can be lost in an instant.  If you violate the unwritten pact of trust between co-workers, owners, or the general public then it is extremely difficult to regain it.

[]       Mediocrity has no place in the kitchen – ever.

No matter how small or large the task, no matter if it is part of your job description of simply an everyday task that we tend to take for granted – excellence needs to be the goal.  Be excellent in how you look, act towards others, how you sharpen your knives, how you organize your coolers, plan menus, train your staff, how you approach the foundations of cooking, build flavors, or stay true to how you care for ingredients, or how each plate looks when it hits the pass – never allow mediocrity to take control.

[]       Quality and consistency are the foundations of success.

Quality is the reputation of a chef.  Quality is the reputation of the restaurant, and the consistency of that quality is what brings people back and what sets the stage for a chef’s career.

[]       If any one of my cooks fails then I have failed as a teacher and mentor.

Keeping in mind that the primary responsibility of a chef is to train and support his or her cooks – if a cook is unable to execute or uncomfortable with the responsibilities assigned, if he or she fails to deliver a dish properly or present menus items as they were designed, it is a representation of how well or poorly the chef addressed training and mentoring. Point the finger at yourself before chastizing others for their mistakes.

PLAN BETTER _TRAIN HARDER

Harvest America Ventures, LLC

www.harvestamericacues.com

CAFÉ Talks Podcast

https://cafemeetingplace.com/cafe-podcasts

THE DICHOTOMY OF THE HAVES AND HAVE NOTS

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“There a billion people in the world who are chronically hungry.  There are a billion people in the world who are overweight.”

-Mark Bittman

It’s 4am and I’m awake, actually, I have been for a few hours.  This is not an uncommon occurrence for the past decade or so – always too much cluttering my mind.  Anyway, I’m enjoying breakfast, my first of three fresh, well-prepared, nutritious meals of the day, sitting next to the radiator in my comfortable home thinking about the day ahead.  Maybe it was a result of watching the tragedy in Ukraine unfolding on live television last night, or reflections on my own good fortune, but I just couldn’t get past that feeling of embarrassment for all that I have.

As I sipped on a hot cup of tea, I started to Google some frightening statistics that I was somewhat cognizant of, but suddenly fully away of the have’s and have nots.  The opening quote from Mark Bittman – author and New York Times columnist, was a starting point.   So, I thought that it might be helpful for all of us, the ones who have a computer or smart phone at the ready to read this article, to pay attention to the dichotomy.

  • 10% of the world lives on less than $2 per day.  Sure, I worked hard all my life and earned the comfort of retirement investments and my monthly social security check, but man – $2 per day! 
  • There are 56.1 million – millionaires in the world and 2,800 billionaires.  Let that sink in for a minute and then re-read the previous statistic.
  • The average American spends $3,000/year in some type of restaurant.  OK, I shouldn’t complain about this – the restaurant industry allowed me to be where I am and “thank you” for spending your hard-earned money there, but an enormous number of people worldwide will not only never see a restaurant, but they may also not see their next meal of boiled rice for some time.
  • Two billion people worldwide suffer from some form of malnutrition.  Hmmm, that’s 25% of the world’s population.  So, when any one of us grumbles about missing a meal or portions a bit too small we need to think about how many people wish that they were in our shoes.
  • 12.5% of American families are food insecure.  Wait a minute – this is the richest country in the world, we are one of the top agricultural countries in the world, we have an incredible food distribution system and more restaurants per capita than anywhere else – we couldn’t possibly have that many people wondering about when their next meal will be available.  Or could we?
  • Onethird of world food production is wasted, and the figure is the same in the U.S.  So, what they are saying is that the food is there, but we simply fail to get it in the hands of the hungry.  Really?  How could this be?  All that food on farms, in grocery stores, and in restaurant coolers, winds up as waste?  Yikes!  If it doesn’t look quite as pristine, if it has a bruise, or if it is a day or two old – your local grocery store and restaurant is likely to toss it in the trash while one-third of their neighbors are hungry.  How could that be? (I take another sip of my tea)
  • 785 million people worldwide do not have access to potable water. Time to start my daily health routine by drinking the first of 6-8 classes of water a day, right before I take a 10-minute shower.  I look out my window at the lake below my house, the one I take for granted and suddenly realize how precious that glass of water is.
  • Here’s a telling statistic: 63 million children worldwide, between the ages of 6-11 will not be able to attend school.  Oh, but 525 million people have a college degree – I’m one of them, in fact, I have three degrees.  Talk about cause and effect.  How is it possible that this many people are unable to have access to a basic advantage?
  • 150 million people worldwide are homeless.  I look around my house – it is small but comfortable, sits on ½ an acre of land overlooking a lake, we are able to take good care of it and occasionally change the décor in a room or two, buy new towels for the bathrooms, replace battered china and glassware, and relish the memories of raising three children here and welcoming those grandkids a few times a year.  There are 150 million people who are unable to say this.  How could this be?  Some live in shelters while many simply curl up in an alley and try to get through another day without a roof over their heads.  My tea is getting cold now.
  • As I watch families struggling to leave their homes in Ukraine and find shelter in Poland or Romania, I decide to Google any data on refugees worldwide.  According to the Danish Refugee Counsel there are 82 million refugees worldwide – people who are forcibly displaced from their home country (this is a statistic BEFORE the war in Ukraine.) Gulp.  82 million people who only want the basic right to live in their home country and carry on with their lives.  They leave jobs, traditions, family, and generations of memories to find safety from oppression.  They may very well become part of that homeless population soon.  I stare out my window again and give silent thanks for the country where I live, the democracy that we often take for granted, the ability to speak my mind and even point out mistakes and shortcomings of our leaders, and shudder to think what it would be like if all of that was lost.
  • I drift away for a moment and shake my head about the price of gas when I filled up my car yesterday.  The price was over $4/gallon.  I searched for price comparisons to other countries:  France $8.23, Denmark $9.70, Germany $9.12, Italy $9.08, and this list goes on.  Oh, what am I complaining about?  How many people in the world will never own a car, let alone find themselves complaining about a gallon of gas.

Anyway, I’m still awake, even more so now.  I shake my head and put the kettle on to make another cup of tea.  How fortunate am I?  How fortunate are we?  We have so much opportunity, we have more than we need.  My refrigerator is full, my home is comfortable and paid for, I have resources that I saved for 50 years, we are healthy, well-educated, and able to speak our minds.  I drink water with reckless abandon, and plan meals with fresh, available ingredients without giving adequate thought to all who are unable to say the same. 

This is a world of the have’s and have nots.  A world that isn’t fair and seems unable to contemplate what that means.  We must take time to understand this and find ways to help rectify the wrongs.

As a former chef and educator, I must do what I am able to do.  I spread the word, support organizations like World Central Kitchen, Habitat for Humanity, and UNICEF’s Help for Ukrainian Children, C-CAP, local food pantries, and most importantly never take for granted what I have.

PLAN BETTER – TRAIN HARDER

Harvest America Ventures, LLC

www.harvestamericacues.com

SUPPORT THEIR WORK:

World Central Kitchen

https://wck.org

Habitat for Humanity

https://secure.habitat.org/

UNICEF – Help the children of Ukraine

https://www.unicefusa.org

C-CAP – Culinary Education for underserved communities

FINDING YOUR PLACE

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From the ages of 18 to 65 we experience 47 years of life.  This is 410,592 hours of breathing. These are typically the years when the average American works to earn a paycheck.  If you work a typical 40-hour week (not typical in hospitality careers) that equates to 94,000 hours over 47 years and if you are able to sleep an average of six-hours per night, that’s another 98,700 hours leaving 217,892 hours to do what we choose.  How are you going to spend that time?

You could sleep more, spend time in a trance in front of your TV or computer screen, text, read, hike, ride, climb, swim, travel, eat, or simply do nothing, but how much sense does that make?  When you look at “time well spent” it might make sense to combine what you do, with the time you have and find a way to make a difference in your life or others.  When we punch into life there is always an opportunity to do something that floats your boat and as Steve Jobs once said: “make a dent in the universe.”  Once you punch in – how will you spend your precious time?

Now, some may align “making a difference” with professions like doctor, nurse, teacher, statesman, writer, clergy, or motivational speaker, but I want to focus on cooking as a definitive “put a dent in the universe” career.  Yes, you heard correctly – cooks and chefs can make a difference.

Put aside the pursuit of profit and the self-gratification derived from expressing yourself and think about the numerous ways that cooks connect the dots, move people in a positive direction, equalize the playing field, or even change other people’s lives.

[]       NOURISH THE BODY

Cooks should be aware that how people feel, how active they are, how strong and how resilient they are, as well as how able they are to ward off disease is incredibly dependent on the quality of their diet.  Cooks hold the key to all of this whether they are professionals who have chosen the kitchen for their career, or a conscientious home cook dedicated to proper nutrition.

[]       NOURISH THE MIND

Our mind’s ability to grow cells and accommodate the enormous amount of information that comes its way in a lifetime has a direct connection to the foods that we eat and how they are prepared.  Cooks hold the key to our brain’s capacity.

[]       NOURISH THE SOUL

How we connect with others, the warmth of our hearts, our feeling of completeness, the traditions that we cherish, and connections with our history are all aligned directly or indirectly to not just what we eat, but how we share it with others.  Cooks have the ability to draw others together in recognition of all that celebrates our collective soul.

[]       BRING PEOPLE PHYSICALLY TOGETHER

The neighborhood restaurant and the food it serves represent more than a process of nourishing, it is a destination that brings family, friends, associates, strangers, and business connections together. It is a place where people can put aside their challenges and their differences forming a common bond around food and drink.  It is a place where these people can break bread and raise a glass knowing that they have more in common than the surface differences that seem to cloud their existence.  Restaurants are a neutral ground where people connect.

[]       HELP PEOPLE TO CELEBRATE

There may not be a more important place than a restaurant for celebrating success, lifetime accomplishment, weddings, anniversaries, birthdays, new beginnings, or the end of an era.  Whenever these significant events take place – food is almost always the catalyst for cheers and smiles.  Cooks are able to play a key role in these life moments.

[]       HELP TO TEMPER GRIEF AND DISAPPOINTMENT

How many of us have taken the time to recognize in celebration – a loved one or friend who has come to the end of his or her life.  It is food and the work of the cook who helps to temper sadness and open the door to the joy that that person brought to others.  Never the centerpiece, but always there in support – food and the cook make a difference.

[]       SUPPORT ARTISTIC EXPRESSION

As I have pointed out too many times to count – the cook is both a technician and an artist.  As a technician, he or she is charged with understanding process leading to consistency in flavor, texture, and appearance.  As an artist the cook is focused on connections with all of the human senses.  Where a musician appeals to the sense of sound, the painter the sense of sight, the sculptor the sense of touch, and the parfumier the sense of smell – the cook appeals to them all and adds the sense of taste.  There is no more diverse, impactful artist than the cook.

[]       RAISE SPIRITS WHEN ALL ELSE FAILS

Finally, the cook and the chef allow us to put aside challenges and seemingly insurmountable problems, to temporarily forget those things that gnaw on our psyche and make us wonder about the fate of the world and for a moment enjoy a bite of food, the good memories associated with a particular dish, the traditions of home and family, and the promise of better days to come.

Yes, making a difference is a goal that we all share.  We want our time on this planet to mean something, to put a dent in the universe, and to fulfill us and those around us with a sense of accomplishment.  We need to find our place, to know that we have done something with our time.  For many of us, this is possible whether we choose to practice medicine, teach, train, protect, communicate, or lead; but as I look at those friends and associates whom I have cooked with, I know that they too have found their place and are making a true difference in people’s lives. To many others, today is all about survival. We are privileged – how will we spend our time?  As I watch what chefs like Jose Andres, Ann Cooper, John Folse, and thousands of others worldwide who give through cooking, do, I am able to smile and stand tall knowing that we have found our place in a world that needs as many cooks as it can find.

Be proud to cook!  You have found your place.

PLAN BETTER – TRAIN HARDER

Harvest America Ventures, LLC

www.harvestamericacues.com

CAFÉ Talks Podcast

https://cafemeetingplace.com/cafe-podcasts

(47 incredible interviews (and counting) with leaders in the business of food

 

TWENTY COMMON MISTAKES INDEPENDENT RESTAURATEURS MAKE

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Are you thinking about owning a restaurant?  You are not alone if the thought of putting your name on a restaurant awning has crossed your mind.  One of the most tempting forays into entrepreneurship is the restaurant business.  How hard can it be – right?  Well, you have all heard the statistics about success and failure when food and beverage are involved, so I won’t repeat them.  Instead, let’s look at some of the common reasons why restaurants fail (this is only a sampling).  If you were to address them all then maybe, just maybe, you can make it work.

[]       ASSUMING THAT IT WILL BE EASIER AS AN OWNER

Spoiler alert – nothing could be further from the truth.  As hard as you work right now, as many hours as you currently invest in a job, the level of stress that you feel, and the number of challenges that you have faced in the past will only pale in comparison to ownership.

[]       NOT UNDERSTANDING HOW TO MEASURE AND COMPARE

It really isn’t hard to know what to do – it has all been done before.  You need to lean on the mistakes and successes that others have under their belt and constantly compare where you are to them.  There are plenty of organizations that can help, but one that always stands out is the National Restaurant Association.  Tap into their resources for excellent benchmarks of performance.

[]       WORKING WITHOUT A BUDGET

Seriously, why would you ever jump into the deep end unless you had a plan and real-life measurements that serve as a roadmap?  The more often you budget and measure the better you will get at it.  Again, turn to the National Restaurant Association for guidance.

[]       PRICING YOUR MENU BY COMPARISON

What is always shocking to me is how many restaurateurs, intelligent people, determine their selling prices by looking at their competition and trying to replicate what they do, or underprice them thinking that this is the answer to growing a business.  These are the restaurateurs who call me up and ask: “My dining room is full, why am I not making any money?”

[]       NOT UNDERSTANDING HOW TO PLAN EFFECTIVE MENUS

More often than not – the success of your restaurant begins with effective menu planning, proper pricing, and consistent execution.  Yep, it really is much easier than you think, yet………….

[]       FAILING TO IMPLEMENT ESSENTIAL CONTROLS

Every business requires controls in pricing, consistency, quality, and cash handling.  All of the tools are available for inventory control, purchasing systems, cash handling, costing templates, and quality assessment.  Use them!

[]       NOT ESTABLISHING STANDARDS

Develop your standards, teach your standards, execute your standards, measure your standards, and solicit feedback on how those standards sit with customers, vendors, and staff.  Once established – do not sacrifice what you have invested the time in developing.

[]       FAILING TO INVEST IN TRAINING

Training ALWAYS pays back in dividends.  Train to your standards and be very clear.  Every employee needs to be trained and most relish the opportunity to learn and get better at what they do.  This is absolutely essential.

[]       NOT HAVING A CLEAR CONCEPT

If you are not clear on what your restaurant is all about, how your menu works, and how you relay those messages then how could you expect anyone else to understand?

[]       FAILING TO UNDERSTAND SOCIAL MEDIA

Plain and simple – social media IS YOUR MOST IMPORTANT PLATFORM FOR COMMUNICATION.  This is what everyone pays attention to.  Ads in your local newspaper are more about showing that you support that paper rather than a tremendously effective way of communicating with the public.  Social media is very inexpensive, but someone needs to effectively manage it every day and every way.  Your website, Facebook, Instagram, and Twitter accounts need to be up-to-date and fed constantly.  In some cases, not just daily but multiple times during the day.  Make sure your messaging is clear, photos are high quality, and ensure that they connect with your standards of excellence.

[]       NOT EMPHASIZING THE BASICS

This has been the same since the first restaurant opened its door centuries ago:  hot food hot, cold food cold; consistency is king; service with a smile; recover quickly from your mistakes; make sure the table is level; sparkling clean bathrooms; spotless glassware, china, and flatware; remember return customer names; etc.

[]       TRUSTING BEFORE IT’S EARNED

This is business and in business trust must be earned.  Don’t assume anything until your experience proves that it is warranted.  Build those standards in so that your basis of trust is communicated very clearly to all involved and then measure trust based on how well everyone adheres to those standards.

[]       NOT UNDERSTANDING THE ROLE OF PROFESSIONALISM

Regardless of your concept and your price point, professionalism should have a home in your restaurant.  How everyone cares for their grooming, their uniform, their attitude, their hospitality persona; the way they treat each other and the respect they show for the ingredients they use; how honest they are and how they care for the space and equipment they use is all part of that professionalism package.

[]       NOT KNOWING LABOR LAW

Oh boy, entrepreneurs that fail to understand the labor laws in their respective state are in for a big surprise.  Rates of pay, overtime rules, payroll procedures, hostile work environments, equality in employment, and any form of discrimination will lead to real unpleasant and expensive outcomes.

[]       FAILING TO MANAGE THE DOOR AND RESERVATIONS

“The kitchen is slow tonight”.  “Tensions are high.”  “Service is off.”  “Everyone is in the weeds.” You know the drill; we have all been there before.  There might be a multitude of reasons, but one that consistently stands out is poor door management.  Letting too many guests in at once, flooding the dining room and over-taxing servers will quickly lead to the same challenge in the kitchen.  This is when things start to fall apart.  Pacing reservations and slowing down the seating of guests will keep the rhythm in order and leave everyone further away from the edge of the cliff.  This is a front-of-the-house art – learn it!

[]       NOT MANAGING CASH FLOW

Food, beverage, and labor cost percentages mean very little if money is going out faster than it is coming in.  An astute accounting department is one that manages this flow to keep everything in balance.

[]       NOT HAVING A HANDLE ON SOLID COMMUNICATION

Ask nearly any employee, in any business: “What is the biggest problem in the business where you work?”  Chances are pretty good the answer will be: “Communication.”  It’s either insufficient, inaccurate, poorly timed, or conflicting.  Learn to be as transparent and timely with your communication and make sure that it is accurate and the same, no matter who is delivering the message.

[]       NOT PARTNERING WITH THE DEPARTMENT OF HEALTH

You, of course want to make sure that your staff and customers are safe and that you are doing everything to protect their health.  It is important to know that the Department of Health is there to help you do just that.  Don’t wait for that annual surprise visit – engage them, respect them, communicate with them, ask them questions, and make them a partner in your standards.

[]       NOT HAVING A NEST EGG TO FALL BACK ON

Guess what?  Things will go sideways.  The economy will dip at times.  Weather is inconsistent and somewhat unpredictable.  Employees will leave suddenly.  A new restaurant will open up and lure your customers away.  And there will be another pandemic at some point in time.  If you are living from week to week, hoping that enough cash will flow through your operation to keep you afloat, then any one of those challenges will open the door to failure.  Stash money for a rainy day.  Save, save, save.  Make sure your relationship with your bank is strong and arrange for a line of credit to fall back on when needed.  Plan for challenges – it is critical.

[]       NOT UNDERSTANDING THE ROLE OF HOSPITALITY

In the end, the quality of food you offer is important, the technical service you provide is essential, the prices you charge will attract or push certain customers away, but it is your sincere, friendly, warm hospitality that creates customer loyalty.  It is your kindness, empathy, and positivity that attracts and retains good employees.  Never lose sight of the importance of this.

PLAN BETTER – TRAIN HARDER

Harvest America Ventures, LLC

www.harvestamericacues.com  BLOG

CAFÉ Talks Podcast

https://cafemeetingplace.com/cafe-podcasts

IN THE KITCHEN – ORGANIZATION IS EVERYTHING

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From first-in, first-out in the walk-in cooler to how you fold side towels and where your knives are placed – it is organization that allows a kitchen to run efficiently and keeps the mood and pace of the restaurant in sync.  To some, it may seem less significant, but to seasoned professionals – this is the truth of the kitchen.  To the novice it may appear the cooks and chefs are plagued by OCD (Obsessive-Compulsive Disorder) but let me be clear:  a kitchen without this level of organization will revert to chaos and chaos never wins in the long run.

When a kitchen exudes calm, even when the amount of food prep and the stress of the moment seem over-the-top, it is always a result of organization and attention to detail.  Spend time in such a kitchen and you will note how pervasive this attention to detail is.  It goes way beyond the typical thoughts about mise en place, it extends much further than having your prep in order, organization becomes a way of life that permeates every detail of a cook’s work and life.  When a kitchen is this organized, cooks practice detailed organization without even thinking about it.  In fact, you will oftentimes find that this organization extends into their personal lives as well.  Attention to detail cannot be turned on and off, so how a cook organizes his or workstation in the restaurant is how he or she will organize their home kitchen, their clothes, books, records, and food supplies.  It becomes natural – how he or she lives.

The kitchen is a thing of beauty and intense structure when organization is the rule of thumb. Plating salads for a large group – all the plates are lined up perfectly and ingredients placed in the exact same spot on each plate.  Storerooms and coolers are organized so that containers are all pointed in the same direction with labels facing out, sauté pans at a line cooks station are stacked with the handles facing in the same direction, and a cook’s production list is written either in order of work to be done, or in terms of the amount of time each task requires.  Throughout the kitchen – this is the rule of thumb:  everything has an order, a place, and a time that everyone adheres to.

In the dining room, the same attention to organization must be prevalent.  How tables are set, what order is used, in some cases measuring the distance from the edge of the table to the bottom of forks, knives, and spoons; lining up glassware with a taut string to ensure equidistance, where each type of backup glassware and plate is stored, a specific location for pens, candles, salt and pepper shakers, napkins, and menus – it is essential that everything is placed exactly where it should be so that each person can depend on that structure.  Lost moments looking for anything out of place is not only inefficient, but also a prime source of frustration. 

Orders are always taken in a certain order at the table, entered into the point of sale in that same order, and then delivered with the expectation that each server followed the rules of engagement.  If a tray is used, plates are placed on the tray in the order that they will be delivered to guests at that table.  It is a synchronized process that leads to consistent, predictable results.  Front and back of the house demand this organization if the end result is a smooth operation and happy guest. 

Back to the kitchen – if you were to record the workings of a team of line cooks and put the video to music, it would be a symphony that made the connection – not improvisational jazz, pop, or rap.  Each cook depends on the next to follow the pre-determined steps, in order, and in sync with the timing orchestrated by the expeditor.  The left hand always knows what the right hand is doing.  A pivot step from the sauté cook is met with the same from the grill, the center person is strategically placing the vegetable, starch, and sauce on the plate at the same moment as the expeditor waits to adjust a fresh herb, wipe the plate rim, and step aside for the server to pick-up an order while it is at the peak of freshness.  It is majestic, inspiring, and almost effortless when organization is the rule that everyone follows.

When a chef talks about those minute details of placement, process, timing, and uniformity – keep in mind what the intended result will be.  Chefs work from the end placement backward in establishing those standards – it is quite possibly the most important thing that a professional chef can do.  Hire people with the capacity and set the standards of organization that everyone must buy into.  Never underestimate just how important this is for the guest, for the demeanor of those who work in the kitchen, for the communication between front and back-of-the-house, and for the success of the restaurant.

PLAN BETTER – TRAIN HARDER

Harvest America Ventures, LLC

www.harvestamericacues.com  BLOG

CAFÉ Talks Podcast

https://cafemeetingplace.com/cafe-podcasts

COOKS – HOLD YOUR HEAD HIGH

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You walk through those kitchen doors one more time, straighten your white coat, roll up the sleeves and tie on a starched white apron.  A quick adjust on that skull cap, wash your hands, and slide a cutting board in place.  Your knives are always sharp, but you run the blades down a steel just the same, sanitize the edge and line up your station for another day of work.  You address everything like a surgeon ready for the operating table knowing that all items have a place, and everything must be in its place.  This is how a professional begins, this is how you were trained, this is how you pay respect to the profession that you have chosen. 

Sure, there are cooks who have not been given the opportunity to learn the proper way to work, the established steps that define proper cooking technique, or know the history behind the job and the foods that you are about to prepare – but you do.  You feel fortunate, even though not every aspect of the job is glamorous or even exciting; you know that everything is important in the long run.  Now it’s time to get to work.

Some people just don’t know.  You shake off those comments from last night’s meeting with a few friends outside of the restaurant business, friends who shared those years in high school or college: an engineer, a forever student finishing medical school, an accountant, and a teacher. It was that biting comment, the condescending one that portrayed “pity” on you for not pursing a “real career”.  The arrogance, the tasteless jokes, the lack of understanding about what a cook or a chef does. 

“When are you going to get a real job, one with a promising future?”

How dare they demean the career that you have chosen.  It’s the same misunderstanding that is evident in how your parents still shake their heads and wonder why you are wasting your time.  It really starts to wear on you.  At times you are hurt and other times angry as hell.  Screw them!  But then there are those moments when you wonder if they are right.  It’s hard to focus and get started on the mountain of work in front of you.  You try to shake it off, but the feeling keeps eating away at your psyche.  You set down your knives, wash your hands again, grab a cup of coffee and knock on the chef’s office door.

“Chef, can I talk with you for a moment?”

The chef, a man you respect, a person in his late forties who has a long history of working in some spectacular restaurants, a person who seems to have it together – removes his glasses, sets them on the desk and says: 

“Have a seat, what’s up?”

You close the door, settle into a chair, take off your hat and sigh. 

“Chef, what am I doing here?”

You proceed to tell him the whole story.  Your stress, questioning your decision to become a cook, wonder as to how long it will take to reach the position that he holds, lack of support and understanding from your friends and family, and sudden lack of confidence as a result.  The chef listens intently, nods on occasion, takes a sip of his coffee and clears his throat.  After a long minute he looks me in the eye and begins:

“Let me tell you a few things that I think are important.  What you are feeling right now is real and how you sift through those feelings will determine where you go from here and how you will view your personal value. 

Every hard-working person has a moment of doubt.  They doubt their abilities, their choices, and their direction.  Like most people I know – they want to make a difference.  It is part of the grand design, that part that questions: ‘why am I here?’  I had that moment a long time ago, and there are still occasions when I look in a mirror and re-address those concerns. 

Let me tell you this: cooking is one of the noblest professions on the planet.  It allows the cook to satisfy one of the most basic needs – hunger, but at the same time it is one of the most significant expressions of caring and sharing that any person can offer. Cooking is a line of communication that opens your heart and soul to others, a chance to share in the culture and traditions that are part of your background, and a way to say – here is a part of me.  Cooking is important and cooks are essential to society.  Beyond this, a professional cook is a highly intelligent ambassador of a profession that requires an understanding of history, psychology, math, science, and an appreciation for the human spirit.  There are few other professions that are so comprehensive.  As an art form, cooking appeals to every human sense: sight, sound, smell, touch, and taste – what other art form can boast this? 

For those who falsely label what you do as less than significant – invite them to join you in our kitchen for a day.  Have them tie on an apron and just watch the motion, accuracy, intensity, passion, and art and have them feel the heat, the sore muscles, and the impending danger around every corner.  Make sure that they watch the poetry of motion on the line during service; the orchestration by the expeditor, the chain of command that requires a ‘yes chef’ response, and the meticulous detail as each cook assembles a dish with the finesse of a promising painter.  I guarantee that their dialogue will change – they simply do not understand the heart and soul of the cook, the ‘all-in’ mentality that is required of every person who knows that this profession has chosen them. 

I want you to think about this.  You have it all – the desire, the passion, the skill, and the commitment to make a difference – one plate at a time and don’t ever let anyone take that away from you.  Question what you do – it is natural and important, but know that cooking is a joy, a gift, and a calling.  You have it.”

I lifted my head, smiled, adjusted my hat, shook the chef’s hand, and said: “thank you.”  Time to get back to work in the kitchen – the place where I am meant to be.

PLAN BETTER – TRAIN HARDER

Where would you rather be?

Harvest America Ventures, LLC

www.harvestamericacues.com  BLOG

CAFÉ Talks Podcast

https://cafemeetingplace.com/cafe-podcasts

COOKS FEASTING ON OVERLOAD

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Well, some may not agree with this article, but I felt compelled to point out some observations over the past few years.  I have held myself hostage to some of the martyr reflections that have permeated the business of kitchens for decades. These beliefs have taken control of the minds and hearts of many cooks and chefs.  It is certainly a tough business.  It is physically, mentally, and emotionally draining at times, the hours can be brutal, and the pay and benefits never seem to match up.  However, I look around and see many other professions with similar challenges: nurses, doctors, engineers, firefighters, EMT’s, law enforcement, research scientists, steel workers, and the list goes on and on.  The major difference is that those professions (for the most part) are not as inclined to create angry podcasts and exaggerated tv shows, write isles of books, dominate blogs and magazines, and stand on a soapbox to let the world know how hard they work.  We do.

This is not to take away from the challenges that we face from the level of cook through executive chef, but it did make me wonder why we proclaim our challenges and either go back for more or leave a trail of discontent.  It made me wonder if maybe, just maybe, those who choose a life in the kitchen somehow secretly enjoy the challenges and the pain.  Maybe, just like the adrenaline that pushes us through another busy night on the line, we find comfort in the “business of hard knocks”. 

It’s an interesting thought – “cooks feast on overload”.  Maybe this is the fuel that we seek, the gratification that comes from pushing ourselves too far and doing so without a safety net.  It’s kind of like the weightlifter who jumps into a cross-fit regimen, or the runner that decides to train for a triathlon.  Outsiders look at the uncomfortable pain that these physical fitness advocates put themselves through and marvel, but wonder “why” at the same time.  Aren’t we doing the same thing in the kitchen?

I know a few cross-fit advocates who psych themselves up for their next session, dreading what is to come but pumped to jump in.  They finish a session drained, sore, and exhausted, talking about how the program is crazy and brutal and they shouldn’t do it, but then proceed to talk to others about it with a strange type of enthusiasm.  Sounds like chefs and cooks – doesn’t it?

We profess to want the restaurant business to change, to help us build balance into our lives, yet at the same time we speak to those starting out as if what we continue to do is “the way it is” and something to be proud of.  The pain of overload is a badge of courage.  So, the question is – do we really want it to change that much?  What if working in a restaurant kitchen was more user-friendly, predictable, comforting, empathetic, and supportive – how would we feel then?

It’s interesting to consider, isn’t it?  There is little question that the restaurant business needs to change.  Life/work balance is important at some level, and fair compensation is a must, but what part of the “kitchen overload environment” are we not willing to give up?  Maybe it’s a generational thing and younger folks might have a better perspective on what commitment to job means.  Maybe older generations never came to grips with what life outside the kitchen means.  But I find it fascinating that there is this dichotomy and that we seem to have a love affair with telling our story using every possible outlet available.  Hey, I write this blog that focuses on the trials, tribulations, joys, wins, and losses associated with working in professional kitchens – so I have bought in lock, stock, and barrel. 

Is this life of challenges, unpredictability, physical, emotional, and mental stress somehow attractive because of this?  What happens if we take away much of what makes kitchen life seem untenable?  I’m sure that there are many who would applaud this type of change – a shift to a more reasonable work environment – one that can provide a more predictable and steady life outside the range, but I wonder if there are just as many who would find the new environment boring.  I just don’t know.

Whenever I get together with some of my friends from past kitchen teams we immediately engage in stories of the “good old days”, as if we survived and are somehow better chefs as a result.  Whenever I addressed a class of culinary students it was always the stories of “hard knocks and crazy work environments” that peaked their attention.  I wonder if the same occurs in medical school, nursing school, the police academy, engineering classes, and the like.  My quite extensive collection of culinary books includes at least four dozen by chefs who reminisce and lament their time in the kitchen and offer their share of war stories for everyone to nod in agreement or shake their head in disbelief.  It is an industry of people who enjoy looking back and proclaiming: “I survived”.  I wonder, is this normal or are chefs and cooks an anomaly?

Anyway, this is not an article to admonish those of us who take the time to reflect “out loud”, write our stories, embellish on our experiences, or even complain about how hard the work is – it is simply an observation and a question without a clear answer: “Do cooks and chefs feast on overload”?

Food for thought.

PLAN BETTER – TRAIN HARDER
Keep telling your stories

Harvest America Ventures, LLC

www.harvestamericacues.com  BLOG

CAFÉ Talks Podcast

https://cafemeetingplace.com/cafe-podcasts

ALL HAIL DISHWASHERS

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March 9 was National Dish Washer Day.  I’m not sure who decided that this declaration be made, but for those of us in the restaurant business – it is so appropriate.  I have long proclaimed that the dish washer was the most important position in the kitchen – even more important than the chef.  If you doubt my belief – think about this:

  • If a line cook calls out – we simply spread the work out among those who are present.  We grumble and curse, we step up the pace and show our anger on our face, but we get by.
  • A server doesn’t show up, we adjust the station chart and maybe change the timing at the door, but we figure it out.
  • If the chef doesn’t show up for some reason, there are those who might even cheer.  At the very least, we know that the work right in front of us won’t change.  We dig in an get by.
  • The dishwasher doesn’t show up and the place falls apart.  As much as some may tend to pass off this position as unskilled in comparison to cooks, no one else wants to do this physically demanding, oftentimes thankless job that everyone takes for granted until the person fails to show up.
  • I rest my case.

On this day of recognition, and for that matter every day that we turn on the kitchen lights, let’s rethink how we view the position and look at the facts:

  • The best food will never be received well on a less than sparkling plate.
  • The most expensive wine with rave reviews from Robert Parker and the Wine Spectator will fail to impress if there are spots on that Riedl stemware.
  • How frustrating would it be if that stacked china ready for plating was spotted or chipped?
  • How frustrated would a line cook be if he or she had to clean their own sauté pans after every use?
  • How much more difficult would your job as a cook be if every pot or pan that you picked up were slick with grease or caked with yesterday’s burnt mirepoix?
  • How beautiful is a kitchen that sparkles?
  • How fluid is a kitchen when the cooks and dishwasher are in sync?
  • And maybe most importantly: How many professional cooks got their start by working in the dish pit – the place where they received their first taste of kitchen life and suddenly knew that this was the career for them?  How many chefs owe their appreciation for building a team to starting their careers at the age of sixteen – diving for pearls and stacking steaming hot plates?

The rhythm of the kitchen is closely tied to the work and efficiency that is present in the dish area.  Why do we place so much value on the organization and professionalism of cooks and chefs, but forget how this must apply to the dish area as well?  Why do we sometimes treat dish washers as commodities – interchangeable and easily replaceable parts, when their role is so critical to the success of the restaurant (front and back of the house)?  On this day of recognition and every day that follows we might want to re-think how we approach this essential position.

Think about this: 

  • The most expensive piece of equipment in kitchens is the dishwashing machine. Who is responsible for this machine?  The dish washer!
  • One of the hidden painful costs of operating a kitchen comes from the cost of chemicals used in the dish area.  Who is in control of this?  Who can make a difference through efficient use of the machine and the process of washing dishes?  The dish washer!
  • By far one of the most expensive inventories in a kitchen is china, glassware, and flatware.  Who is responsible for this?  The dish washer!
  • Who has one of the most impactful relationships with restaurant employees (front and back of the house)?  The dish washer!
  • What employee is constantly viewed as “low man on the totem pole”, paid the lowest possible wage, ignored until they get behind, and passed off as non-essential by many?  The dish washer!
  • It’s time to change attitudes.

Here are some great rules to live by when it comes to dishwashers:

[]       Hire great attitudes.

[]       Pay a fair wage and offer ample opportunities to scale up every few months.

[]       Provide a clean, crisp uniform that parallels what you offer your cooks.

[]       Make sure new dish washers are properly oriented and trained.  Introduce them to every cook and server, and every manager and sous chef as an essential member of your team.

[]       Feed them well, give them breaks.

[]       Teach your cooks how to properly scrape and stack pots and pans in the dish area.  Treat the dish washer with respect.

[]       Discipline any employee who fails to treat the dish washer with respect.

[]       Involve the dish washer in your staff meetings and give he or she an opportunity to express themselves.

[]       Provide opportunities for dish washers to learn about cooking (if they express an interest).  Show them the way to move up.

[]       As a chef, when dish washers arrive at work – welcome them, shake their hand, and at the end of the shift – thank them for a good day’s work.

[]       If the dish washer gets backed up, in the weeds, jump in to help, or have a line cook give a hand if they are free.

[]       When trying out new menu items – allow the dish washer to be part of your tasting panel.

[]       Give the dish washer some added responsibilities and let everyone know that they are in charge.  Make them the sanitation lead in the kitchen – maybe even in charge of HACCP logs, etc.

A sous chef who worked with me once stated that I should just constantly hire dish washers if any show up looking for a job.  “You may not need them today, but you will tomorrow.”  Maybe, just maybe, the rule of thumb should be: “Treat those dish washers like they are important, and they might just stay with you for quite some time.  These individuals might be a chef or owner someday.”

PLAN BETTER – TRAIN HARDER

Harvest America Ventures, LLC

Restaurant Consulting

www.harvestamericacues.com  BLOG

CAFÉ Talks Podcast

https://cafemeetingplace.com/cafe-podcasts

FIRE and HEAT

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It is something quite hard to explain – a fascination, a bit of fear, a desire, something to marvel at, and even something to try and control.  It is at the core of what every cook does, the most essential ingredient, the key to releasing unlimited varieties of flavor, the one ingredient that determines a person’s ability to cook, the mysterious component that separates a kitchen from the rest of the world – heat. 

There is a point in time when a person finds him or herself staring at that dancing flame of blue, yellow, and white and decides to step into the exciting world of heat and try to learn how it might be controlled.  To be a cook, after all, is to spend a lifetime learning how to control the somewhat uncontrollable.  Of course, we have tools to help us tame the beast, to place limits on what the flame and its heat attempt to do, but the cook always knows that at any given moment that flame will break free and do what it wants.  It’s like riding a wild horse, the rider or the cook can never disconnect, never fail to pay attention, and never assume that he or she has everything under control.  Cooks spend their careers trying to tame the flame.

One of the goals of a professional cook is to gain control and never let go.  Cooks learn quickly to respect heat for its potential and its wonders.   The flame and the heat that it creates is a symbol of the danger that lurks in a kitchen, yet it is a danger that must be faced if cooking is to take place.  From that first moment that a cook holds a knife in his or her hand and approaches the range a world of opportunity comes into view.  So much can happen when the ingredient of heat becomes a partner with the cook.

Cooks and chefs know that flavor not only comes from an individual ingredient, the seasoning used, or the combination of ingredients that work together; flavor comes from the process of applying heat in a certain way for a specific amount of time.  It is this partnership with heat that allows a novice to become a master.  

Low and slow allows the muscle to breakdown, the fat in meat to render and flavor a dish, and additional ingredients to gradually impart their flavor contribution.  At first the meat resists, tightening and eventually giving way to the comfort that low and slow offers.  Eventually, the muscle gives in and becomes one with the heat.

On the grill a different cut of meat is attacked by the intense blue and golden yellow flames that feast on the dripping fat and surround it through caramelization, the Maillard Reaction that converts protein into sugar – imparting a unique flavor that can only exist when the flame becomes one with the ingredient.  It produces umami, or the taste of savory that is mouthwatering, rich, and immensely satisfying.

The sauté cook may have the most difficult challenge of controlling heat.  Pans must be very hot, sizzling hot, scorching hot if any ingredient added to the pan is to properly sear, caramelize and dance without sticking.  Heat provides the ultimate non-stick surface if managed correctly.  The cook spent hours seasoning the pan by super heating it, rubbing the interior with kosher salt, heating it again, and polishing the surface making sure that it is ready.  There is an understanding that the pan is a vehicle for heat transfer and the vehicle must be maintained properly.  The cook knows when the pan is right – it sounds a certain way when those ingredients hit its polished surface.  If it doesn’t sound right, then proper cooking will be compromised.  He or she knows that once the ingredients are removed it will be crucial to bring the fond, or remaining essence in the pan, to just a few seconds before it burns and then deglaze with wine, citrus, liquor, or stock to create the basis for a pan sauce.  If it goes too far the sauce will taste burnt, if not far enough then the flavor derived from a sear or sauté will not develop.  When that splash of wine or liquor hits the fond, the cook lifts one edge of the pan 20 or 30 degrees to accept the flame and burn off excess alcohol.  The cook is always inviting the flame and its heat to try and take control but then tames it sufficiently to keep it in check. It is an art that takes time to master.

Pushing the pan forward slightly and then pulling it back just as quickly will tease ingredients to take flight and then catch the pan on their way back down.  Ingredients seem to dance in the pan at the hand of a cook in charge of the heat.  Oh, but don’t for one second think that the cook is the master of heat or the flame.  If he takes his eyes off the pan or fails to respect the flame, then the flame will gain control again.  It is a constant battle for control.

The fry cook is focus on a vat of 375-degree fat that sits comfortably waiting to receive an ingredient that will immerse and fight to retain its identity, only to quickly give way to the attack that will ensue.  The cook knows what the hot fat will like and what it will resist.  Water and fat do not mix, so any trace of water on ingredients will result in 375-degree heated oil sling shot towards the cooks’ hands, arms, or face.  It’s as if the heated oil is shouting – no you don’t!  the ingredient quickly gives in to the comfort of caramelization as the vegetable, breaded or battered protein, or skin takes in the flavor and accepts a new texture as a result.

On the line there is a relentless battle with flames and heat as cooks sear, char, boil, broil, roast, braise, fry, poach and melt before a completed dish comes into being and finds a home in the pass.  There is a cacophony of sound, a complex blending of aroma, and a blending of both that find their roots in flame and heat.  In the meantime, cooks are battling the ill effects of heat on their own bodies.  Sweat pours down their back and forms on their brow.  Hot pan handles are always tempting bare hands to “grab on”, but the cook is seasoned enough to resist.  Flames burning off the alcohol in sauté pans are always hoping to burn off the hair on arms to eyelashes that dare to get too close.  Finishing a shift without damage is an accomplishment for a line cook.

In the back of the kitchen – the baker is working a different kind of magic, a different level of control over “heat”.  For those artisan sourdough breads, the oven hearth must be a perfect temperature with the right amount of steam injected at the right time to develop the wonderful crust and caramel color desired.  Pastries and cakes address the oven just in time to get the right amount of spring from their leavening agents, and simple syrups and crème anglaise heat gradually on stove tops till the viscosity is perfect or the egg yolks bind with cream for a rich sauce or base for house made ice cream.  The baker is a master of heat control, but still subservient to the fluctuations that occur when the oven door is opened, the steam injected, or the open flame develops a mind of its own. 

If the baker is daring enough to bake in a woodfired oven, then all bets are off.  The coals from a perfectly heated oven will transition the dome to pure white when it reaches around 1,000 degrees – way too hot for bread.  The baker must rake the coals from the oven, clean the hearth, wait until the oven cools to 500 degrees or a bit less, add steam, and peel the breads directly on to the stone hearth.  Managing the heat to stay at or below the 500-degree threshold is only possible with ample experience tending fires.

It is fire and heat that attracts young cooks, it is the fire that humbles us all while we learn the ropes, and it is the on-going quest to control the fire and not have the fire control us, that keeps a chef growing and on his or her toes. 

PLAN BETTER – TRAIN HARDER

Harvest America Ventures, LLC

Restaurant Consulting

www.harvestamericacues.com  BLOG

CAFÉ Talks Podcast

https://cafemeetingplace.com/cafe-podcasts

THE REALITY FOR AN AGING CHEF

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I would assume that many chefs who read this article – at least the ones from my generation have reflected on where they are, what they have done, and what they are still able to do.  I also assume that, like me, you have entertained lofty ideas of your ability to “do it all over again” with the same energy as you did a few decades earlier.  There is something about aging that we all want to resist – at least mentally.

We read the articles and listen to chefs and restaurateurs desperate to fill positions of line cook, sous chef, chef, manager, etc. and quietly think to ourselves: “I could do that again.”  After many years of working in kitchens, leading operations, managing departments, problem-solving, planning, directing, and listening we know that we have the skills – so maybe it would make sense to jump back in the game.  Whenever these feelings rise to the surface, I try to think about the lyrics from an old song by the group Little Feat:

“You know that you’re over the hill when your mind makes a promise that your body can’t fill”

How true it is.  The often-used belief that working in a professional kitchen is a “young person’s game” is very true.  There are many aspects of the work that require the physical strength and stamina, the speed, and the capacity to challenge adrenaline, that are hard to come by after your 50’s or 60’s. 

You watch those young line cooks stepping quickly from one task to another, bouncing on their feet while managing multiple sauté pans or a char grill filled with steaks and chops moving towards different degrees of doneness, clicking their tongs in anticipation of the next wave of orders from the expeditor, and able to differentiate multiple methods of cooking and unique flavor profiles for hours on end and you shake your head with a feeling of respect.  Sure, you know all of those preparations, probably better than any line cook; you have a palate that may be as or even more sophisticated than his or hers, and you have certainly put thousands more hours behind the range than they have, but that physical stamina and mental quickness are not what they once were.  You breathe out and shake your head again knowing that as much as you try to convince yourself, those jobs are not part of your portfolio anymore.

Like me, you want to jump in and help that restaurant solve their challenges.  You want to personally address the dilemma of not enough people to do the work and show everyone how it is done, but alas, that will not come to pass – this is not how you can help.

OK, so don’t feel depressed, this is not the time to sit in a rocking chair and wait for the end of time to knock on your door.  Push aside what you are no longer able to do and realize what you are able to do at a level that only those decades of experience can bring about.  That line cook may be able to work faster, organize multiple tasks better, and tap into that adrenaline far better than you, but they still lack the experience to plan, create, coach, and problem-solve like you.  You have been there, done that and as a result have ample good, bad, and ugly experiences to know what needs to be done.  You have the ability to anticipate and make adjustments before a challenge becomes a problem and as such far better prepared to adapt.

Age is a funny thing; it is unforgiving in many respects and comforting in others.  For a chef it simply means that we must modify what we do, how we do it, and how we promote our professional value.  Stop for just a moment and reflect on your experiences, how much your base of knowledge has grown over the years, how your approach towards challenges has matured, and how others view what you have to offer.  William Holden said it very succinctly:

“Aging is an inevitable process.  I surely wouldn’t want to grow younger.  The older you become, the more you know; your bank account of knowledge is much richer.”

Aging becomes a problem for chefs when they continue to think that their value is the same as it was 20 or 30 years prior.  The problem for employers of aging chefs is that they often try to view the role of that person in the same way they did during the early days of their career.  It’s time for both parties to re-think what age and experience can bring to the table.  Age is only a deterrent if you believe that it is.

So, what does a senior chef, even one who is retired, bring to the table?  Where does their value lie and how can they help a struggling industry right now?  Here are a few thoughts:

[]       THE TEACHING STORYTELLER:

Whether it is a classroom or on the job – true teachers are storytellers and storytelling prowess comes from a lifetime of experience.  People remember stories far better than facts or directives.  It is those priceless stories that come from “been there, done that” that help young cooks understand the “why”.

[]       THE REFLECTIVE, CONFIDENT PROBLEM SOLVER:

Whatever the challenge is – experience can come to the rescue.  Food cost is way too high – the senior chef has faced that problem numerous times.  He or she knows where to look, where the source of the problem may lie.  An employee is constantly late or lacks the personal motivation to do a consistently good job – the senior chef will likely seek the cause rather than simply lash out or give up on a person.  The line is getting overwhelmed with orders from the dining room and the system is about to collapse – the senior chef knows how to calm the players and help reason to take the place of reaction.

[]       THE STRATEGIC RISK TAKER:

An owner is faced with the need for drastic change or is contemplating expansion into a new market – the young chef is oftentimes quick to say, “go for it”, while the senior chef will take the time to research, analyze risk, and find an approach that is more comfortable for all involved.  Risk is fine as long as there is a greater chance of success than failure – something that experience brings to the table.

[]       THE TRAINER AND COACH:

The younger chef is sometimes quick to show frustration when the team seems unable to meet his or her expectations – the senior chef knows that the team will only function at its potential if there is a plan and an effective training program in place to help everyone get on the same page.  Senior chefs are less likely to assume and more adept at guiding a process and the people involved in that process.

[]       THE ROLE MODEL AND CONFIDANT:

Every kitchen thrives when the chef is a role model of professionalism, a steady ship’s captain who sets very high standards, teaches and trains, shows empathy along the way, praises and equitably uses constructive critique, and looks and acts the part of a leader.  Senior chefs (not all of them, but many) have made enough mistakes in this regard to understand how to avoid those same mistakes in the future.

[]       THE MENTOR AND AMBASSADOR:

Younger chefs are very busy and quite driven.  As a result, they are oftentimes impatient – expecting everyone to excel and focus on his or her vision.  Senior chefs can bring a different perspective to the table – as a mentor the senior chef seeks to build up young cooks, show them the way, share experiences, and shape those cooks for a long future in the business.  As a result, the senior chef is an ambassador for the business as one that invests in people.

[]       THE PATIENT VOICE OF REASON:

With age comes a different level of patience.  There is no shortage of triggers that can set a chef off in reactionary mode, but the senior chef is able to temper those reactions by listening, reflecting, inquiring, and acting rather than reacting.  This patience can save an operation from designation as a hostile work environment or an unstable kitchen that is not a place where cooks want to work.

Yes, we are a bit slower on the draw, less able to stand on our feet for 12-hours a day, and hard put to give up a balanced life for the constant demands of a typical kitchen, but we can offer so much more than our younger selves, we have depth through experience.

PLAN BETTER – TRAIN HARDER

Harvest America Ventures, LLC

Restaurant Consulting

www.harvestamericacues.com – BLOG

CAFÉ Talks Podcast

https://cafemeetingplace.com/cafe-podcasts

COOKING DURING TROUBLING TIMES

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It’s 2:00 in the morning and as is all too often the case lately – I am unable to sleep.  There is no shortage of stress nowadays, but for me, unlike the stress that I felt as a chef in my prime – the stress is not related to business volume, staffing, unpredictable vendors, and budgetary pressure.  Today’s stress is far more significant – it is stress over the state of our industry as a whole, our democracy, and the wellbeing of the world where we live. 

As much as this blog is focused on what is right in front of cooks, chefs, and restaurateurs every day, it is impossible to do so in a vacuum.  The old management adage that you should “leave your problems at home when you come to work”, is ridiculous – I don’t know anyone who can do that, especially when the consequences of those problems are so grave.

I keep flipping back to on-line news services to follow the Russian invasion of Ukraine – a proud country of kind people with a deep-seated wonderful culture who have done nothing to provoke the wrath of a superpower except to choose to be free and democratic.  We (all of us) cannot ignore their plight, and we must not forget history.  This playbook was used before and its outcome impacts all of us at some level.  Just like the virus that we continue to battle, this aggressive attack on freedom will spread if left unchecked.  We simply cannot just turn back to our jobs of creating delicious food for those who can afford it while all of this is going on.  We simply cannot put the challenges that the world faces aside while we do our work.

Everything and everyone are connected – it is the nature of a system.  One person’s suffering will eventually impact even the most fortunate.  Ukraine’s stability and free future will impact every other country and every other person from Europe to Asia, and the Middle East to the Americas.  There is no separation – when one suffers, we all suffer.

Whether it is collectively doing our part to bring the pandemic to closure; finding ways to help feed, clothe, and find shelter for those in need; establish a fair and honest system of education that opens the door to equal opportunity; working to push aside hate; rising up to protect truth; protecting the democratic process; or crushing those pockets of evil in the world – we must pay attention and do something.  It is not possible to ignore all that is going on and simply shrug our shoulders and say: “it is, what it is”.

As cooks we do provide a release for people, a way to breathe in the air of calm that a great meal can provide; create an environment for friends, family, and even foes to break bread and raise a glass in solidarity and comfort the soul.  But is it enough?  What else can we do to address the bigger picture? 

Before we are cooks, we are people of the earth, friends and neighbors, citizens and ambassadors, caring people who hopefully want others to simply be free.  I am reminded of the song (now ancient unless you are over the age of 50) by the group the Rascals:

PEOPLE GOT TO BE FREE

“All the world over, so easy to see
People everywhere just wanna be free
Listen, please listen, that’s the way it should be
There’s peace in the valley, people got to be free”

As simple as that – this is what people want and need.  Free to be themselves, free to practice their religion, free to find a well-balanced education, free to provide food, shelter, and clothing for their families, and free to move about without the threat of power hungry, hateful leaders.  Whatever your profession – you cannot ignore this reality.  It is what you want, what Ukrainians want, what every person on the face of the earth wants. Isn’t it ironic that this is exactly what the American Constitution was written to support?  We must pay attention and do what we can, even if it’s a small gesture.  To ignore our role in this system is to disrespect the life that we have been given.

The health of our restaurant industry depends on the health of all parts of the system.  Yes, Ukraine’s fight for freedom impacts the restaurant where you work.  Yes, bringing the pandemic to a close through a unified effort impacts the restaurant where you work.  Yes, the ability of all people to relish the basics of life, to survive, impacts your restaurant.  And yes, the environmental health of our planet certainly impacts the restaurant where you work.

Here are some thoughts for cooks, chefs, and restaurateurs:

[]          Support World Central Kitchen – Chef Jose Andres’ organization that unifies cooks and chefs around the world wherever people are struggling to find food because of a disaster.  His organization is already in Ukraine and surrounding countries that are accepting refugees from this oppressive situation.  You may not be able to physically find a way to cook with him when disaster strikes, but you can give – even the smallest amount to help support these efforts.  Whether it’s $10 or $100 – it all helps.  https://wck.org/

[]          Talk about world issues with your peers and do so from a position of knowing the facts.  Read a newspaper, listen to the experts, learn to trust a source that believes in telling the story even more than offering their opinion.  Take the time to learn and digest the challenges that others in the system face.

[]          Support your local food pantries.  Maybe even volunteer once a month to help cook a meal for those who are unable to provide for themselves.  Care about those who are food insecure and those who are homeless.  A hot meal goes a long way to showing you care and helping to take away someone’s stress.

[]          Put aside personal opinions about pandemic protocols and do what’s right for the whole population.  We are in this together and the only way that we move past the pandemic is to unify in our effort.  This is not a political issue – it is a global health issue.

[]          Learn about a more sustainable approach towards how you conduct your life and your business.  Do what you can: recycle, reuse, reduce waste, buy local, find ways to connect with more sustainable energy sources, save water, and be an ambassador for good practices.

[]          Take the time to put aside your prejudice (we all likely have some), listen to others and learn.  In many cities you can find signs on front lawns that proclaim: “Hate has no home here”.  Be that person, be that business.

These are very challenging times, but we can all make a difference.  Together we can change the world one plate of food at a time, one act of kindness at a time, one concerted effort to align with the system that everyone is part of and then we can look at ourselves in the mirror and sleep at night.

PLAN BETTER – TRAIN HARDER

Let’s all make an effort to be better and do our part.

Cooks united!

Harvest America Ventures, LLC

www.harvestamericacues.com  Blog

RESPECTING A COOKS INGREDIENTS

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As cooks we tend to live in the moment.  A dish that finally reaches the pass began its journey when it arrived at our back loading dock or even when we located it in the walk-in.  It is hard to think further back than that since our work is endless and always demanding – we need to live in the moment and work with what is in front of us.  However, to be truly effective as a cook or a chef it is essential that we know how difficult the road was to get to that delivery truck or walk-in.  Until we understand and appreciate the journey our ability to do justice to that ingredient is limited.

If we take the time to understand and appreciate, then we will likely take pause.  This journey requires the farmer, fisherman, rancher, or forager and the ingredient to give it all – total commitment.  Here are a few examples:

[]          CARROT: It takes 70-80 days for a carrot to reach maturity.  The right balance of sandy and nutrient based soil, farmer care, rainfall and sun will yield the bright orange, sweet and tender vegetable that the cook requires.  It doesn’t simply fall off the back of a truck.  When you appreciate the carrot then you are less likely to waste even the peels that might be used for flavoring a vegetable stock.

[]          PEPPER: List the carrot (although above ground) the pepper can take upward of 90 days to reach maturity.  Too much rain and the roots will rot, too little and the pepper will fail to flourish; too much sun and the pepper will struggle and too little will slow down growth and maturity.

[]          POTATO:  The potato is a staple in many diets.  An incredibly versatile ingredients with almost limitless varieties, it is inexpensive and sturdy – lasting for months in colder storage.  A typical potato takes 120 days for the farmer to nurture and harvest.

[]          TOMATO: An incredible fruit that seems to hold the warmth of the sun when picked at the peak of maturity.  There is no comparison to the burst of flavor from a ripe summer tomato.  Most varieties take around 100 days to mature.

[]          CORN: Few vegetables can provide so much as an ear of corn: cornmeal for masa and flour for baking, corn oil, fresh corn on or off the cob, important animal feed, and some varieties for popcorn.  Corn also has a maturation range of up to 100 days.  Plenty of sun and just the right amount of rain is critical for optimum growth. 

[]          GRAPES: Whether table varieties or those for wine production, grapes mature 100 days after blossoms appear on the vines.  Grapes require lots of tender loving care, protection of roots, tying up branches to provide better sun exposure, trimming back vines at the end of the season and culling too many grapes to allow those remaining to receive optimum nutrients, mounding dirt around the base of roots after harvest to protect the vines during harsh winters, and picking the grapes clusters at the correct brix (sugar content) for the best fermentation results. All farming is back breaking work but caring for grapes might be the most physically demanding.

[]          AVOCADO:  Once a novelty item, now a significant ingredient that spreads beyond your favorite guacamole.  Avocados are finicky fruit that finish their maturation after being picked.  The window of opportunity for the right texture, color, and flavor is very short.  The avocado never waits for the cook, the cook must always wait for the avocado.  If planted from seed, the avocado plant will take 5-13 years before producing fruit.

[]          ONION: In a professional kitchen it would be difficult to identify too many dishes that are untouched by onions or onion varieties (Bermuda, golden, white, Vidalia, scallions, leeks, shallots, Red Wing, chives, Cipollini, pearl, Walla-Walla).  Many onion varieties can take up to 175 days to mature, but they cold store well for months.  Often relegated to commodity status in kitchens – they are one of a cook’s most essential ingredients.

[]          ATLANTIC SALMON: Of the hundreds of flat or round fish species available from fresh or salt waters – salmon has become the king on restaurant menus.  Available from Atlantic and Pacific sources – a salmon will take 3-5 years to mature enough for harvesting.  Found wild caught or farmed, salmon is nutritionally robust (Omega-3’s), uniquely flavored, and beautiful in presentation. 

[]          LOBSTER:  Lobster fishing is closely monitored to protect availability and their ability to flourish.  This, like most fishing, is difficult and dangerous work with sometimes unpredictable results.  The prices we see on menus do not, in any way shape or form, represent what the fisherman receives for his/her work.  The typical lobster (warm or cold water; Maine, Florida, or Pacific Coast) take 5-7 years to be large enough to harvest.

[]          CLAM:   The hard-shell varieties of Cherrystone, Littleneck, or Mahogany clams take 3-6 years to mature only to disappear at the hand of a consumer in a few seconds. 

[]          OYSTER: These bivalves are natural filters that represent one of natures most heavenly representative flavors of the sea’s brininess.  To many cooks, their first raw oyster is an epiphany – a turning point in their love of food and the process of cooking.  Oysters take 18-24 months to mature.

[]          SCALLOP:  Few shellfish are more prevalent on restaurant menus than the sea scallop.  Wonderful texture, the freshness of the sea, slight saltiness, and beauty once caramelized in butter – these rich seafood treats take 3-4 years before they are ready to harvest.  Their shells are a work of art playing the role of unique packaging for the prize inside.

[]          SHRIMP:  The Emperor of seafood menus – shrimp that comes from waters in the Gulf of Mexico, South America, Taiwan, China, Thailand, India, and Vietnam is, by far, one of the most versatile shellfish.  From sashimi to tempura fried, sauteed to stuffed, etouffee to gumbo, and shrimp cocktail to bar-b-que – shrimp is rarely omitted from a restaurant menu and as such is a critical ingredient for cooks.  Most varieties will be ready to harvest in 6 months.

[]          ANGUS STEER:  These beautiful animals considered one of the most prized sources of quality beef reach their ideal weight of around 1,200 pounds in 18 months or so.  In most cases, contrary to common belief, they are initially grass fed and given significant free-range access to pasture until in the final months of growth when they are transitioned to a nutritionally structured feed mix that is designed to optimize quality and yield.  Most processing plants have adopted the Temple Grandin approach towards kindness and humane treatment of the animals prior to processing.

[]          PIG:  Although there are plenty of examples of poor animal treatment on commercial pig farms, more and more ranchers are adopting a kinder approach providing opportunity for pigs to move about freely, interact with their own, and enjoy a vegetarian diet primarily consisting of corn and soybeans.  Most pigs are bought from farms where piglets are just weening off their mother’s milk at about 35-50 pounds.  They reach their harvest weight of about 250 pounds in 6-8 months.

[]          CHICKEN:  Like the stories of poorly treated pigs, chickens are notoriously mishandled, however, a growing number of organic farms are adopting a modified free-range approach that produces a meatier, more flavorful chicken that comes from a happier place.  Chickens reach maturity in about 18 weeks.

Knowing more about the ingredients that a cook uses will bring home the need to respect what it takes to bring those items to a kitchen’s coolers and dry storage, how privileged we are as cooks to work with them, and how important it is to fully use everything that we can and waste nothing.  It is the only respectful approach that honors the animal or plant for its contribution to the plate.

PLAN BETTER – TRAIN HARDER
Harvest America Ventures, LLC

www.harvestamericacues.com  BLOG

CAFÉ Talks Podcast

https://cafemeetingplace.com/cafe-podcasts

COOKS BREAKING THE STEREOTYPE

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It is so easy to fall into the trap of a stereotypical line cook. It seems, at times, written in stone that those who work in kitchens will be quick to point out other’s mistakes, easily angered, inflexible, excessive drinkers, lacking in balance, and outside of their job in the kitchen – somewhat irresponsible. We can deny it and point to examples of cooks who are always professional, kind, cool under pressure, and willing to listen, but face it – this is more the exception to the rule rather than the rule itself. Why is this?

The job is difficult: true; the hours are temperament crushing: sometimes; we can’t get the respect we deserve: maybe sometimes but respect must be earned; or we don’t get paid enough to be kind: really? In just about any profession one can find reasons to support volatile or inconsistent attitudes, but then again, there is no legitimate rationale for simply falling into a trap of the notorious line cook. There is little reward for the person who is unable or unwilling to break the mold and seek to be positive.

OK, so some will say: “The chef, the manager, or the owner is the reason why I lash out and add to the tension at work.” Sure, point the finger elsewhere – but this means that you are releasing any responsibility for your own actions. Some will say: “This is just the way it is in kitchens.” Again, you are failing to represent positive change and simply giving in to the temperament of the crowd, or the belief in horrible traditions. Is this the person you want to be? Does this help to correct any challenges that exist, or are you simply feeding those challenges with the fuel of acceptance and discontent?

Let’s assume a few things for the moment without the cloud of challenges that certainly do exist:

  • You started out in the kitchen because the craft is something that inspired you – something that made sense.
  • Creativity was always in the back of your mind – something that gave you purpose and drove you to learn about the art of cooking.
  • You felt at home in the kitchen; you thought that this was a space where you belonged and where you might stand tall and make a difference.
  • You are either very good at the job of cooking or well on your way to that point.

If we can assume this (and I believe that most cooks do relate to these assumptions) then a good starting point is reflecting on your initial reason for taking on that first job as cook. There was a spark of real interest – an intent to pursue this with enthusiasm. So WHY DID YOU ALLOW YOUR FEELINGS TO GO SOUTH? The key here is the word: “ALLOW”. Yes, your attitude toward the job and people of the kitchen is totally within your control. Stop blaming others for a decision you made to fall into the role of a stereotypical sometimes arrogant, angry, and unpredictable cook. This is not to infer that the challenges you face are not real. THEY ARE VERY REAL, but I am speaking of how you choose to face those challenges. As is often said: “you can choose to be part of the problem, or part of the solution.” Which will it be?

Here is something to chew on: based on numerous studies the following outcomes are associated with negativity and anger:

  • Outbursts of anger can put your heart at risk: outbursts will raise your blood pressure – one of the key contributors to heart disease.
  • This rise in blood pressure is a risk factor for stroke.
  • Anger and negativity can weaken your immune system: people who are constantly looking at their cup as half empty and tend to lash out at others with bursts of anger are frequently sick.
  • Anger and negativity are linked to a rise in anxiety levels: if you have ever experienced high anxiety or panic attacks you know how frightening and debilitating they can be.
  • Constant negativity and anger have been linked to inflammation in the lungs: this can impact your ability to breathe normally and can cause you to feel winded and fatigued.
  • Anger and negativity can ultimately shorten your life!

This doesn’t even address the fact that it takes all the fun out of the work that you were initially excited about – the work that you are good at. It doesn’t address the impact this has on your teammates, employer, and even customers. Your negativity and anger can be habit forming and can then be passed on to others who will experience the same trauma in their lives.

When negativity and anger become a habit, then it is only natural that the body and mind seek ways to release the pressure – oftentimes in an equally negative way. How many of you, or those you know, find release through lashing out, demeaning and insulting others, drinking to excess, using drugs, and eventually bouncing from job to job looking for someone else to “make things better for you”?

Try to break the stereotype and experience the difference it can make. Try saying “yes” far more often than “no”. Ask others: “how can I help?” Use the words: “I’m sorry” when it is appropriate, and mean it. Take a deep breath and ask yourself: “does this really matter” before you lash out in anger. Try seeing things from the other person’s perspective rather than assuming you are right and they are wrong. Try it for a day, a week, or go out and make the attitude adjustment for a month. See the difference it will make in your life, in your performance on the job, and in the “feel” of the kitchen.

Anger and negativity lead to depression and fear. Calmness and positive action lead to enjoyment and an open door to solving many of those challenges you face.

Life is too short to be a prisoner to negativity, to fall into the trap of the stereotypical angry cook, and to limit your ability to enjoy what you do while building your personal brand as a person who seeks to be “part of the solution”. YOU CAN CHOOSE to be different and to step into the shoes of a role model. This will pay you back tenfold and maybe even help with your health and wellbeing.

PLAN BETTER – TRAIN HARDER

Harvest America Ventures, LLC

http://www.harvestamericacues.com. BLOG

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WHY DO YOU COOK?

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Desperation is never a good approach towards hiring.  I know how difficult staffing is right now, believe me – I hear it every day from every chef that I communicate with.  But desperation hiring is, more often than not, a terrible way to staff your kitchen.  Your goal should never be to simply fill in a blank space on your schedule, but rather to find the right people to balance out your team.  For the individual cook – the same holds true.  Do you really want to work in an operation where desperation is the primary motivation for hiring?

Push aside, for just one moment, the temptation to just find a warm body and begin to look at building an environment where committed cooks want to become part of your team.  Yes, let’s start there.

First, and maybe most importantly, chefs want to hire people who cook for the right reasons, or at least know what their motivation is.  For the dedicated cook, you want to work in an operation where your peers are also cooking for the right reasons.  To this end, I would suggest that you consider relegating your interview process to one question – a question that reveals so much of what you need to know – a question that some who apply have never thought about and as such they may have a difficult time determining the answer that truly reflects the person and the cook that they are.

The question:

“WHY DO YOU COOK?”

Simple question, right?  A question that some will think is too basic, maybe even contrived or even trivial in comparison to the typical array of questions like: “What are your strengths or weaknesses”, “why did you leave your last job”, “what would others say about you”, “what is your educational background”, “where have you worked before”, “what is your favorite style of cooking”, or “where do you want to be in five years”.  “WHY DO YOU COOK” is an all-consuming question that gets to the heart of who the person is and what he or she will likely bring to the kitchen position.

Without thought, the answer might be:

* “Because I need to work”

* “It’s all I’ve ever done”

* “I went to school for cooking”

* “I’m an adrenaline junkie and I live for the energy” or

* “I like the lifestyle”

Certainly, there is room in most kitchens for these individuals, but will they prove to be a strong foundation for building a successful team?  Have they really thought beyond “the moment”, the needs that they have right now?  Are these the individuals who will help the operation reach its long-term goals?  Will they mesh with the other players in your kitchen?  Or will you be looking to fill those same positions again in just a few months?

Think about the question yourself?  WHY DO YOU COOK?  What firmly held answer(s) would define the type of person who would complement your team?  Here are some answers that would make others pay attention:

[]       Since the first day I entered a kitchen, I knew this was where I belonged:

         When this is the case then a cook will always be looking for a way to fit in with the team and contribute.  There is a sense of appreciation and wonder; acknowledgement that this is a special environment that is calling he or she into service.

[]       I enjoy the teamwork, the focus, and the passion for creating exciting food that makes people happy:

         This is an all-encompassing answer that speaks to the cook’s desire to be part of something bigger than one person, the desire to have purpose and commit to a larger goal, and an understanding that as cooks we are in the business of bringing joy.

[]       There is something special about the energy and the engagement that cooks have with a process that makes me proud:

         Pride in one’s chosen profession is a powerful tool.  The energy that a cook experiences is a direct result of this pride.  Self-motivation (the only real motivation) happens when cooks can look in a mirror and admire the person they see.

[]       It’s hard work that requires me to constantly improve my skills and learn about the ingredients I work with:

A real important answer – this relates to a strong work ethic, a desire to feel the gratification that comes from physical, mental, and emotional involvement in the work.  This will be the type of person you want by your side when things get difficult.

[]       Cooking is how I am most comfortable communicating with others.  Whether it is a restaurant guest, my peers in the kitchen, or my family – cooking is what I do to tell them I care:

         The kitchen can be a melting pot of characters- some are extroverts that thrive in an environment where they can shine, and others are introverts who are looking to contribute, but find the kitchen is where they feel safe, wanted, and important.  They are not looking for the limelight, but rather a place where they feel valued and secure.

[]       I’m good at this.  When I am in the kitchen, I feel confident in my abilities:

Confidence is a real asset in any work environment, especially if the person can back up that confidence with results.  Confidence comes from competence and competence is a result of commitment, practice, and great listening skills while the individual builds his or her portfolio of abilities.

[]       I have always admired the symmetry and interconnectivity of the kitchen and the complexity of what it takes to excel.  I want to be a chef some day and I know that I must invest in learning as much as I can to reach that goal:

Sometimes individuals find great joy in being part of a well-oiled machine.  In a kitchen I would always prefer someone who finds greater satisfaction in playing baseball or basketball that golf.  This is not to slight golfers (I try to be one on occasion myself), nor is it meant to infer those cooks need to play sports at all – it is a reference to wanting to be part of a team versus standing on a soapbox as an independent.  This also shows that the person has a goal and knows what it will take to get there.  Not everyone wants to reach for that position, some are perfectly happy to be excellent cooks – both are needed, and both will find a home in a great kitchen.

[]       Whenever I put on the uniform of the kitchen, I feel proud of what I do and who I have become:

         Maybe this seems trivial to some, but to those who are truly dedicated culinarians, pride in the uniform and what it represents, the history of the profession, and the membership feel that exists when the uniform is worn properly can lead to a more focused, cohesive team.  Pride in how one looks will oftentimes result in how that same person acts and performs.

As long as restaurant owners and operators learn that recognition, training, supportive work environments, fair compensation, and concern about work-life balance are essential, then building a team of professionals who can answer the question: WHY DO YOU COOK will set the stage for a bright future and a successful operation.

PLAN BETTER – TRAIN HARDER

Harvest America Ventures, LLC

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“I cook, therefore I am”

ADJUSTING A COOK’S SKILLS TO MEET A CHANGING INDUSTRY

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The good news is that restaurants are beginning to see an increase in sales as more and more customers return to in person dining in addition to their new habit of ordering for home delivery.  So, as life starts to transition to a level of normalcy, restaurants may find that the pandemic opened the door to a viable, additional source of revenue that isn’t going away. 

The not so good news is that labor issues continue to plague all restaurants from fine dining to quick service, and supply chain challenges are limiting availability and in conjunction with inflation pushing prices of raw materials to unprecedented levels.  There are a number of possible solutions, but not all of them positive.  Restaurants could choose to raise prices, reduce portion sizes, or lower quality standards to make up the difference, or take a more proactive approach without alienating guests or impacting their reputation for quality.

One way to approach a viable solution is to modify how we do business, what we sell, and the skill set that makes sense for today’s cook.

SOLUTIONS and the NEW SKILL SET:

[]       Smaller Menus

  • SKILL SET: Too many factors are making it difficult to maintain large, diverse menus.  Cook and chefs will need to deal with it and learn how to keep their work exciting.  Striving for excellence will be the name of the game – set your eyes on perfecting skills, flavors, and presentations and take pride in being the best at what you do.  

[]       Move Away from Premium Proteins

  • SKILL SET: Today’s cooks will need to shift from reliance on cooking high end proteins such as prime steaks and chops, the most common species of fresh fish, and over-used poultry items and become familiar with less common cuts of beef and pork and underutilized poultry items such as shoulder, shanks, thighs, and legs.  It will be important to understand the anatomy of animals, fat content, muscle grouping, and the best methods of handling these excellent ingredients that are used far less frequently in restaurants.

[]       Alternate Cooking Methods

  • SKILL SET: Grilling and sauté methods typically rely on cuts of meat that are inherently tender and/or marbled with fat to impart flavor and moisture.  Cooks will need to master alternative methods such as braising, poele, poaching, sous vide, and low and slow smoking that in the end provide opportunities to tenderize and enhance the flavor of lesser utilized cuts.

[]       Cross Utilization to Minimize Waste

  • SKILL SET: Knowing how to maximize utilization through fermentation, marination, curing, and canning will be as important as preparing items in more traditional manners.  Using everything from hoof to snout will be the price of admission for todays and tomorrow’s cooks.

[]       Variety on the Plate

  • SKILL SET: One way to not only reduce costs, increase profit, and build an even better guest experience is to offer variety on the plate.  Less emphasis on the protein and more variety of vegetables, starches, relishes, chutneys, and salsas will become a very effective way of addressing the challenges that restaurants may continue to face for some time.

[]       Fluid Menus

  • SKILL SET: A cook’s repertoire will need to expand.  Menus will tend to be smaller and more in tune with the seasonality of ingredients.  Menus that change weekly or even daily will become the norm and cooks will need to readily adapt.  Reliance on strong foundational cooking skills will remain paramount, but fluid menus will likely include mastering sous vide, marination, preparation of fresh charcuterie, low and slow methods like braising and bar-b-que, and the like.

[]       Grow Your Own

  • SKILL SET: When possible, the farm to table movement will include a restaurant’s ability to grow some of their own ingredients.  Growing and harvesting herbs, salad greens, tomatoes, beans, zucchini, and even root vegetables for canning will continue to grow in popularity.  Cook’s will need to have a passion for gardening since it may become part of their job.

[]       Teaching – Awareness

  • SKILL SET: Chefs will need to teach cooks and cooks will need to monitor each other’s compliance with the rules of sustainable cost control.  Full utilization of ingredients, minimizing waste, composting and portion control will be even more essential than they were in the past.

Cooks and chefs need to update and enhance their skills to build their personal brand and make a difference in an ever-changing restaurant business.  Are you working in this direction right now?

PLAN BETTER – TRAIN HARDER

Harvest America Ventures, LLC

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THE IRREFUTABLE LAWS OF BEING A CHEF

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It happens now and again, that question comes up on-line, usually from individuals new to a professional kitchen, or those who have little idea about how kitchens work.  “What is the difference between a cook and a chef”?  Sometimes, it depends on how you ask the question.  As an example, I remember one very moving presentation to a room full of culinary professionals by Andre Soltner (a consummate chef whom I will forever admire) during which he directed all who were in the audience to remember that we should “never forget that we are all cooks first”.  But to the first group I mentioned, the question was meant to try and delineate the two titles.

So, I felt compelled to define a few points of differentiation that might help cooks aspiring to the title of chef and current chefs who may not be entirely clear on their role.

A CHEF IS (A baker’s dozen):

[]       The Role Model for the Kitchen

THE LAW: Look to the chef to see how the kitchen will act.  It is the chef’s responsibility to set the standard for others to follow.

[]       A Team Builder

THE LAW:   It is not enough to hire competent people.  The chef must be the coach who recognizes strengths and weaknesses and builds consensus around common goals so that the machine works properly.

[]       A Teacher and a Trainer

THE LAW: It may be the responsibility of the cook to constantly enhance his or her skill set, but it is the chef who must create an environment of learning and provide the tools for others to gain knowledge and skill.

[]       The Ambassador for the Kitchen

THE LAW: The person in the role of “chef” is responsible for the image of the kitchen through his or her actions – BOTH ON AND OFF THE JOB.

[]       The Person Who Establishes the Direction for the Kitchen

THE LAW: Unless you know where you are going, any road will take you there.  The chef must define that destination: how the restaurant wants to be perceived by all stakeholders.

[]       A Mentor to Others

THE LAW: Chefs have a responsibility to help each employee set a course and stay on course to reach his or her professional objectives.  It goes with the turf.  When a chef’s cooks succeed in life, so too does the chef.

[]       A Leader in Every Sense of the Word

THE LAW: Take this very seriously – how chefs act, how they look, how they treat others, the standards they set for product, the expectations they establish for work habits, and the commitment that the chef has for excellence is what others will emulate.  If a chef fails to understand this, then he or she will eventually fail in that position.

[]       A Business Manager

  • Budgeter
  • Cost Controller and Analyzer
  • Marketing Resource

THE LAW: First and foremost – the restaurant must be profitable!  Unless this becomes a guiding principle then all other objectives of the chef will be unattainable.  The chef must be able to build realistic, measurable, and challenging budgets that push and pull everyone in the organization to meet and exceed expectations.  To do this, the chef must understand and practice solid cost control measures such as inventory control, recipe costing, portion control, as well as theft and waste control.  And, the chef must play an active role in assisting, and sometimes driving marketing initiatives. 

[]       A Negotiator

THE LAW:  The chef is in a position that requires negotiation with vendors, employees, and other managers.  This requires patience and diplomacy – something that many cooks fail to embrace.

[]       A Problem Solver

THE LAW:  Chefs can never view problems with a fatalistic eye.  Problems are really challenges and opportunities.  Others in and outside the kitchen will look to the chef to solve problems.  The chef must have the answer or know where to go to find the answer.  It’s that simple.

[]       The Source of Creative Energy

THE LAW:  All individuals have the raw ability to be creative, it is up to the chef to channel that creativity, encourage it, and feed it, but also temper it when it lacks direction.  By referring to the chef as the “source” need not require that all creativity originates from the chef – in fact, the greatest use of creative energy is to set the stage for others to be the innovators.

[]       A Consummate Organizer and Planner

THE LAW:  Every day brings a need for planning and organizing; it is the experience of the person who earns the title “chef” that provides the ability to develop systems that will allow this to work consistently.  This is also where mentorship comes into play.  The chef should guide his or her sous chef to build the necessary skills that organization and planning require.  The best planners are also great trainers, teachers, and delegators.

[]       A Resource for Cooks

THE LAW:  The chef must always serve as the resource encyclopedia in the kitchen.  Sometimes, the chef will tap into experiences that he or she has in their job portfolio, other times, the chef simply knows where to look or whom else to contact for the answers a cook requires. 

This is only a partial list, but one that I believe all accomplished chefs would agree on.  All of these aptitudes and skills are built over time with ample experiences; some resulted in positive outcomes and others, not so positive.  They all add to a chef’s ability to function in the position.  As talented as a cook might be, as knowledgeable and skillful as he or she might be about preparing food, and as enthusiastic as the person might be for the work – without the experience to solidify what the cook may know, it would be (at least in my opinion) impossible to be effective as a chef.  There are no real shortcuts from cook to chef – it takes time and a willingness to learn.  All chefs are cooks (and Andre Soltner will not let us forget that), but not all cooks are chefs.

PLAN BETTER – TRAIN HARDER

Harvest America Ventures, LLC

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TO BE A COOK – DON’T LET OTHERS DEMEAN THE JOB

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We have all heard it before; it is perpetuated in the media, by our politicians, guidance counselors, professors, our peers, and sometimes even parents.  You know that generalization about the position of cook and the inference that somehow it is less than professional and quite frankly, beneath considering as a viable career choice.  How many times has the job been referred to as “flipping hamburgers” or working in a “greasy spoon”?  How wrong they are, how uninformed, how misleading to those who might find a perfect place to build a terrific career, and how insulting they are to one of the most significant, and impactful careers. 

In some ways we have come a long way over the past sixty some odd years, and in other ways we haven’t budged an inch.  I remember the feeling when I tied on an apron for the first time – washing dishes at the age of 15.  It was a job and a paycheck, a signal that I wanted to take on some responsibility, and the beginning of a six-decade work ethic, but there were no pats on the back for a choice of careers.  The feeling in those days was: “great that you have a job, but what are you going to do when you grow up?”  To a guidance counselor it was a signal to potential college admissions officers that I knew how to work hard, but there was never a word about: “have you considered a career in the kitchen?” My parents were convinced that I needed a college education and without any other indication of a potential career other than “I would really like to be in a band”, they pushed me from the baseline of kitchen helper to maybe try your hand at hotel management.

After college ( it would take another decade before I decided to complete a degree), I tried to find my footing as a young manager (even though it never really excited me at this point), but fortunately found a general manager who interviewed me for quite a few hours, showed me how much I didn’t know at the age of twenty, and told me to return to the back of the house, learn all that I could, and then aspire to move into management.  I have thanked that manager (in my heart) countless times for that advice over the years.  This was the first time that anyone actually referred to the kitchen as a great place to learn, grow, and get a foothold on a career.

Why has this been the case for decades and why are we still struggling to convince others that becoming a professional cook is not only viable as a career – it is important, inspiring, intelligent, enjoyable, and eventually lucrative? 

To those who still doubt that this is true – here are some indications to support my belief:

[]       THIS IS A JOB THAT REQUIRES INTELLECT AS WELL AS PHYSICAL SKILL

Professional cooks must be able to see, reference, analyze, prioritize, and make decisions in an instant.  There is a tremendous need for those individuals who have this broad capacity as well as the skill to cook a great meal.  Decision-making is ever present and comes at the cook in an instant.  Everything is fluid and fast requiring agility and the ability to prepare for the unknown and act when even good advance planning takes a side road.

[]       THIS IS A JOB THAT REQUIRES AN UNDERSTANDING OF APPLIED MATHEMATICS and SCIENCE:

This is absolutely true.  When some may discount cooking as a rote process of following a recipe, they fail to see that this process involves working with fractions, percentages, conversions, multiplication and division, experimentation, analysis, applied chemistry, a process of understanding and respecting biology, and even applied physics on a daily basis.  In fact, there are few careers that blend all of these throughout a typical day like that of the cook.

[]       THIS IS A JOB THAT DEMONSTRATES THE IMPORTANCE OF TEAMWORK:

One of life’s most important skills is the ability to play fairly with others in the sandbox.  Accomplishment of a successful meal service in a restaurant will never happen unless every cook understands teamwork and works to constantly enhance it.

[]       THIS IS A JOB THAT REQUIRES AN UNDERSTANDING OF HISTORY, PYSCHOLOGY, AND SOCIOLOGY AND HOW TO APPLY THOSE INTERESTS:

To be able to prepare any authentic dish, to have the ability to design a menu with ethnic authenticity, and to build a restaurant brand that is true to a specific style of cooking requires that the cook understand and appreciate the history behind a cuisine or dish, where ingredients originate and why they are important to the dish, and how the process of preparing items is important to the result.  Success also depends on the cook’s (and later chef’s) ability to understand people, what makes them tick, what excites them and what upsets them, and how their heritage and upbringing, and their self-confidence and socio-economic background influence the person they are and how they interact.

[]       THIS IS A JOB THAT BUILDS STRONG PROBLEM SOLVERS:

Cooks learn to adjust in the moment (there is little time to waste when that printer is spitting out orders at lightning speed), but also to step back and make longer-term adjustments to avoid problems in the future. When things go sideways, the professional cook finds a way to avoid that situation again.

[]       THIS IS A HIGHLY CREATIVE FIELD, JUST AS BROAD AS MUSIC, ART, ENGINEERING, ARCHITECTURE AND DESIGN, AND EVEN CREATIVE WRITING:

Think about it: what other job allows the individual to approach every human sense: sight, sound, smell, touch, and taste; communicate, design, build, and set the stage for performance like a cook?  Every day a cook designs and executes a menu that requires an understanding of texture, smell, taste, and sound, while painting a beautiful dish on a plate.  The dining room is the stage, the service staff are the performers, and the entire package creates the flavor of an experience.

[]       THIS IS A JOB THAT THRIVES ON DIVERSITY AND APPRECIATION OF OTHERS:

Some careers are challenged to create environments where diversity is present – the kitchen has always been a platform for all people regardless of place of birth, ethnicity, race, gender, age, or personal beliefs.  Cooks (for the most part) are blind to differences.  As long as everyone does his or her job – they are all equal.

[]       THIS IS A JOB THAT IS WELCOMING TO ANYONE AND EVERYONE WILLING TO WORK:

In any given kitchen you will find those with college degrees, those who came up through the school of hard knocks, those from impoverished backgrounds, and those who grew up in affluence, those who were class clowns and those who were serious introverts, and those who are happy go lucky as well as those who are mad at the world.  They all have a place if they want it, and all have an opportunity to grow.

[]       THIS IS A JOB THAT CAN PROVIDE LIMITLESS OPPORTUNITIES FOR UPWARD MOBILITY:

Cooks who want to eventually become a chef can do so – if they want to commit the time and energy to build their skills, if they are willing to accept critique and learn from others, if they are willing to accept what they don’t know and work to change that, and if they are determined to say “yes” when given the chance to stretch their abilities and build the right skill set over time can hold the position of ship’s captain.

[]       THIS IS A JOB THAT EVEN AT ITS ENTRY LEVEL STAGE CAN PROVIDE DREAMS OF ENTREPRENEURSHIP THAT MAY ACTUALLY COME TO FRUITION:

Many cooks have a desire to be a business owner but may feel that it is out of their reach.  These statistics may provide a different outlook:  According to the National Restaurant Association 1 out of every 3 people in the U.S. received their first job in a restaurant of some type and 80% of all restaurant owners in the country started out with an entry level position in a restaurant (dishwasher, short order cook, bus person, etc.).  Opportunity always knocks for those with the ambition to take the bull by the horns.

[]       THIS IS A JOB FILLED WITH PRIDE:

For those who know the history of the profession and see the opportunities that exist, the act of buttoning that chef’s coat, tying on an apron, and adjusting that name tag provides a deep sense of pride as they represent what has been, what is, and what might be in the future.

[]       THIS IS A JOB THAT PROVIDES A NEEDED SERVICE APPRECIATED BY EVERYONE WHO SEEKS TO BREAK BREAD WITH OTHERS:

We work so that others can enjoy life, take a break from their busy schedules, celebrate success, comfort each other during tough times, enjoy family and friends, and raise a glass to another day in the life.

[]       THIS IS A JOB THAT ALLOWS THE COOK TO SEE THE RESULTS OF HIS OR HER WORK THROUGH THE PRESENTATION OF A TANGIBLE GOOD AND RECEIVE IMMEDIATE FEEDBACK FOR WHAT IS PRODUCED:

All the planning, all the organization, the accumulation of skills, the recognition of history, the sophistication of a palate and the creation of flavor memory come together on a plate of food in the pass.  When the cook finishes a plate and wipes the rim, when that cluster of fresh herbs tops off a dish and the finished product is presented to a server, the cook knows that his or her signature accompanies the item in route to a guest.  When the plate comes back clean, then a cook knows immediately – job well done!

PLAN BETTER – TRAIN HARDER

Be Something Special – Be a Cook

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THE POWER OF MUSIC TO INSPIRE

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What we do, how we act, and what we believe is influenced by many experiences in life.  It is safe to say, that we are, to a very large degree, a product of those experiences and inspirations.  When we stop and accept the opportunity to absorb these experiences, we open the door to becoming something unique – a product of everything that we let in.  In this case, I thought that I would talk about music.

Music can make us feel, help to calm our nerves, or build us into a frenzy, and make us think deeply or simply allow us to remember vividly.  Music is a box of memories to be cherished and admired, something to open frequently and re-visit as a source of inspiration.  This special box that we possess can make us smile or frown, laugh or cry, stand up and shout, or become quiet and contemplative; it can help us to come together with others, or jump at the chance to claim our silo of beliefs.  Music can make us tap our feet or even jump up and dance, even when a dancer we are not.  It is powerful stuff that affects each person differently, but rest assured, it affects us all.

It would be hard to sit through a concert in New York City’s Blue Note Jazz Club, just a few feet from the stage and watch Stanley Jordan masterfully play his guitar, running both fingers at lightning speed up and down the frets while his eyes were closed, and not feel some of the magic that inspires him.  It would be just as difficult experiencing a show at the age of 12, sitting with your parents just a few yards from Gene Krupa playing drums and not wonder what it would be like to have that sense of rhythm.  Standing fifty feet from the stage where the Tower of Power horn section was bouncing to the crescendo of horns playing “You’re Still a Young Man”, would send shivers up your spine as you contemplate the challenges of aging.  I was there for each of these musical experiences, they are in my special box.

Sitting cross legged on a gymnasium floor in 1969 mesmerized by an intense light show and engulfed in the music of Jefferson Airplane, especially when they roared thru “White Rabbit” and “Saturday Afternoon” was life-changing for a nineteen-year-old.  Being part of the crowd at a Jethro Tull Concert during their Aqualung Tour or the quadraphonic concert experience of Pink Floyd as the sang of the Dark Side of the Moon, could only be topped by watching the master musician Frank Zappa lead the Mothers of Invention with Jean Luc Ponte on violin and Ruth Underwood on vibraphone.  But it might be most memorable to feel the calming impact of the Moody Blues speak of the Threshold of a Dream through their magical harmonies and accomplished musicianship. I remain inspired because I was there, they are in my special box.

Sitting in a local malt shop at the age of thirteen, flipping through the choices on a jukebox, I would always slide in a nickel to hear The Hollies sing: Look Through Any Window, or Carrie Ann.  Or maybe a few Beatles selections since they dominated the Top Ten in those days:  A Hard Day’s Night, Love Me Do, Eight Days A Week, or All My Lovin, still bring a smile to my face as I reflect on the people and the places where I first heard those incredible voices.  There were ample dances to attend back then and no shortage of local bands trying to imitate what we all heard on the radio: The Beatles, Rolling Stones, Jay and the Americans, Paul Revere, and the Turtles provided the energy for our youth.  Later they were replaced with anthem bands that made us stand up and rally around new beliefs:  The Airplane spoke of “Volunteers of America”, or Crosby Stills, Nash and Young as they raised a fist over Kent State with resounding cries of “Four Dead in Ohio”, and Country Joe and the Fish questioned whether we wanted to “Be the First One On Our Block to Have Your Boy Come Home in a Box”. 

The Summer of Love and the years that followed were filled with hope and rebellion from the Monterey Festival to Woodstock where Love, Peace, and Happiness were the backbone of the music that we heard and aligned with.  The world could be a better place and music was the guide. Then came the unfortunate end to this time of enlightenment at Altamont where Love and Peace, was replaced with Hate and Violence.  We felt the music and reeled from the loss of faith.

It was the era of Folk Music that gave us insight into the intelligent, thought-provoking power of music.  Dylan told us that “The Times Were a Changing”, Joni Mitchell warned us to protect what we held as precious and avoid paving paradise, and Joan Baez gave us a deeper understanding of what it meant to speak our mind and resist.  Some spoke of love, some of friendship, others of broken hearts and shattered dreams, but all made us pay attention to the lyrics and put our own interpretations on the meaning.

While all of this energy was taking place, there was always room to learn to appreciate the structure and beauty of classical music.  To sit in an acoustically designed room and listen to an orchestra of fifty or more musicians playing in perfect unity, each having totally mastered his or her instrument and be mentally, physically, and spiritually aligned with the conductor and the intent of the composer is something I will never forget.  This is powerful stuff to listen to, watch, and feel.  A friend of mine is a world class classical pianist.  From a very early aged he was deemed a protégé and now commands world attention as he serves as the centerpiece of those orchestras in acoustically perfect rooms.  I have sat on the floor in his living room and listened to him play at maybe the age of ten and in small bistros where he would dust off a player’s bench and play Rachmaninoff to a crowd of a few dozen mesmerized listeners.  This is music at its most refined.  I was there, this is part of my special box.

My tastes are eclectic – I appreciate many styles of music, especially when it is a reflection of the heart and soul, and when the skill level of the musician is evident.  Listening to divas like Celine Dion and the late Whitney Houston when they build a song up to that hook: “All By Myself Anymore”, or “And I Will Always Love You” never cease to send shivers up my spine.  At the same time when Bonnie Raitt plays bottleneck guitar or John Hiatt growls out lyrics that you can’t get out of your head, I feel the day get a little brighter.  When the Allman Brothers play Statesboro Blues, the Band offers their Americana music from Big Pink, or the Grateful Dead go on for hours blending jazz style improvisation, bluegrass, and a bit of psychedelia it is hard to stand still.

Music is so powerful, so important, and so much a part of the person we become.  No matter what you do, that special box of music memories is there.  As a cook and a chef, I have always found inspiration in music.  Whether it’s the structure of classical music that relates to the importance of cooking foundations, or the free-wheeling improvisation of Jazz greats like Keith Jarrett, Miles Davis, or Chick Corea and how creativity in cooking allows for this type of self-expression, it is music in my head that always keeps cooking alive.  All cooks and chefs can tap into that special box of music memories as they plan that next menu or stand in front of a stove with a basket of ingredients waiting for inspiration.

PLAN BETTER – TRAIN HARDER

Harvest America Ventures, LLC

Restaurant Consulting

www.harvestamericaventures.com  BLOG

CAFÉ Talks Podcast

https://cafemeetingplace.com/cafe-podcasts

TO THOSE COOKS DEPRIVED OF A GREAT KITCHEN

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It always upsets me to run into a cook with a bleak attitude towards working in a kitchen.  When an individual complains about the hours, his or her team, a lousy chef, a restaurant that doesn’t care about them, about how uninspiring the food is, or how poor the pay is and how limited the opportunities, then my reaction is: “it’s so sad that you haven’t found the right kitchen, the right chef.”   When the house is operated in the way it should, the way it was meant to be; when the property is committed to doing things right, when the standards are high and the expectations even higher, then a serious cook can find a home to celebrate.

There are many, many kitchens that do it right.  A cook who is serious about learning and setting a course towards the position of chef, can find the right property if he or she chooses to do so.  There is little reason to accept mediocrity as long as you want no part of it.  There are plenty of very good chefs who operate exceptional kitchens, who will welcome those with a high level of enthusiasm and a humble attitude towards listening and learning.  When excellence is the most important word in your vocabulary then the opportunities are limitless.  Don’t ever accept that mediocrity is the norm.  It isn’t!  

I, for one, want to believe that pride is a good thing, and that pride is the key to opening the right doors for serious cooks.  I’m not talking about that false attitude of pride that keeps individuals from accepting their mistakes or asking for help, the type of pride that pits one against another and leaves little room for celebrating others accomplishments; I’m talking about the pride that will not allow a person to approach any task or situation with anything less that the desire to do it right, to view every situation as a learning opportunity, and every person as a source of energy.

The right kitchen, as I have mentioned before, sweats the details.  Everything is important when creating an environment of excellence.  There is no such thing as insignificance in the right kitchen with the right chef.  In these operations pride begins with clean, complete, professional uniforms, an expectation of perfect personal hygiene, respect for all ingredients, organization, cleanliness, a respect for cooking foundations, professional interactions and communication, well-defined standards and enforcement of those standards, training and teaching, respect for others and consistency in work execution.  There is symmetry of motion, almost as if a well-appointed musical score when it comes to teamwork.  The right kitchen is a place where everything has a place, and everything is in its place.  It is a place where every cook is expected to grow and build on a set of skills so they continue to enhance a portfolio of excellence eventually leading to the position of sous chef and chef.  In the right kitchen, the chef feels a responsibility to grow his or her cooks in this manner – it is expected. 

The right kitchen is a place where teachable moments happen every day and where the chef is focused on providing the right guidance during those moments.  In these kitchens cooks are never treated as replaceable pawns, they are viewed as moldable apprentices with a bright future.  As long as a serious cook is willing to learn, respectful of others, and able to invest in personal development – then the right kitchen will be a welcoming place. 

In the right kitchen, the cook is shown how to improve and never simply chastised for making a mistake.  Critique will replace criticism in these operations – noting that pointing to mistakes has little meaning unless the chef is willing to roll up his or her sleeves and show the cook how to improve.  This does not mean the chef is soft on expectations, in fact, just the opposite.  In the right kitchen there is typically a higher level of expectation and disappointment only when a cook fails to acknowledge a need to improve and ask for help. 

In the right kitchen, led by the right chef, every cook looks in a mirror before starting a shift, adjusts his or her uniform, makes sure that the name tag is positioned properly, maintains his or her knives with real pride, insists on working clean and organized, and approaches every task with enthusiasm.  It matters not that it is mincing onions, breaking down a chicken, peeling potatoes, or assembling a complicated pate en croute – every task is done with excellence in mind.

In the right kitchen everyone is aware of the status of their peers and willing to help whenever needed.  It is this type of environment that cooks are proud to work in.  It is possible!   I feel fortunate to have worked in many of the “right” kitchens and hopefully am seen as a chef who operated in such a manner.  This is why I am so distressed when cooks express that they feel used, unappreciated, demeaned, insulted, under paid, and void of any opportunity to improve.  My answer is: “If this is the case then you are in the wrong operation.”  If a cook is truly serious about becoming excellent at what he or she does – there are ample examples of great kitchens and great chefs – move on, show your commitment, and sign on.

I believe that some of the discontent right now that came to a head during the pandemic is because too many “solid cooks” have accepted that the wrong kitchen is the norm.  It is not!  If anyone needs recommendations on kitchens and chefs, who do it right – send me a request.  If you are willing to go where the opportunities lie, then you can find a home in an environment where excellence is present.

PLAN BETTER – TRAIN HARDER

Harvest America Ventures, LLC

Restaurant Consulting

www.harvestamericacues.com  BLOG

CAFÉ Talks Podcast

(Listen to leaders in the field)

https://cafemeetingplace.com/cafe-podcasts

PERFORMING TO YOUR POTENTIAL

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Watching exceptional and sometimes surprising football this past weekend I realized that it is not old fashioned to give it all you’ve got.  It really shouldn’t matter what we are doing: work, fun, hobbies, sports, exercise, school, family, or relationships – giving it all means that you appreciate what you have, relish the skills you have required, respect those who are part of the activity, and have pride in your personal and collective performance.  The rewards for this effort need not always be tangible, sometimes they are what might be referred to as “soft rewards”.  These include knowing you gave more than you received, contributed to the success of others, had some level of positive impact on those who were on the receiving end of your work, and realizing you participated in something that served as a shining example for others. 

I have always been a firm believer that if you give your all, every time, no matter what the task then those tangible rewards will also come your way at some point in time.  One of my favorite quotes (author unknown) says it all:

“There are only three choices in life: Give Up, Give In, or Give It All You’ve Got.”

The question is: which path will we take?  As I watched these players and teams that have earned the right to fight for position in the playoffs, I was moved by so many who chose the third path: “Give it all you’ve got”.  Games were won and lost in the final seconds of play, points were traded back and forth as one teams successful drive motivated the opposing team to stand tall and push even harder to match that effort.  Most games, including the one with my fully embraced and supported team from Buffalo, New York were addressed in the end just like the famous coach, Vince Lombardi said decades ago:

“I never really lost a football game; on occasion I simply ran out of time.”

When there is an unrelenting effort towards excellence, when each member of a team supports each other, when effort is measured in giant steps and not simply going through the motions, then a game can never be lost – you may on occasion simply run out of time.  

I was inspired by the effort, by the all-out pursuit of excellence, by individuals who gave everything they had and did so in support of others.  Even though the results in some cases were not what was hoped for, it is this commitment, pride, and “never give up” attitude that won in the end. 

Some may say: “If I was paid that kind of money then I would give it my all”, but from my experience people either give it all regardless of compensation or they don’t.  I will always believe that people want to win through extraordinary effort.  They want to use their skills and ability to reach for the stars and feel good about the effort they gave.  Maybe I am naïve, but I hope not.  When we lose sight of being the best we can be, when we accept mediocrity simply because those tangible rewards don’t come quickly enough, then how do we look ourselves in a mirror and feel any level of satisfaction?  

This Give Up, Give In, or Give It All You’ve Got choice applies just as well to what we do in the kitchen as it does those who earn millions playing on a football field, basketball court, baseball diamond, ice rink or performance stage.  The ones who are successful in any endeavor perform at the highest level, every day, with every task because that is what they expect of themselves. 

Those who refuse to give up or give in look at disappointment as a wakeup call and a roadmap pointing to the road of improvement.  When we are unable to reach the goals, we have today, it’s time to assess, commit, and work even harder to improve.  Steve Young, the retired Superbowl winning quarterback for the San Francisco 49ers had a tough act to follow.  His predecessor was Joe Montana, one of the greatest quarterbacks of all time, a sports icon who was deeply loved by the people of San Francisco.  Young’s motivation was to fill those shoes and he did that very well over time.  He said:

“The principle is competing against yourself.  It’s about self-improvement, about being better than you were the day before.”

We can all learn something important from paying attention to organized sports, especially when the team and those who mold the players into a cohesive unit are committed to giving it all they’ve got.  The best restaurants, the most impressive schools, and the most effective kitchen teams will do exactly what the teams who played this past weekend will do moving forward.   During the weeks and months ahead, they will focus on playing their individual roles to the best of their ability and giving it all they’ve got each and every day. 

PLAN BETTER – TRAIN HARDER

Harvest America Ventures, LLC

Restaurant Consultant and Couch Coach

Be the Best That You Can Be – Always

www.harvestamericacues.com  blog

CAFÉ Talks Podcast

https://cafemeetingplace.com/cafe-podcasts

SYNCHRONICITY – THE CHEF’S BRAIN

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One of the many things that I find truly amazing is a person’s ability to assimilate, understand, categorize, blend, envision, and call into action thoughts from a variety of experiences and do so with relative ease.  This happens progressively throughout our lives as we tap into our memories – memories that are constantly evolving.  As an example, a line cook has an incredible capacity to remember and use complex actions while stacking those actions on top of each other.  Just for a moment, think about what it takes to work a busy sauté station.  Every dish that is part of that station portfolio must be fully understood.  How the mise en place is prepared in advance, uniformity of vegetable cuts, clarification of butter, sauce preparations, and where each ingredient should be stored according to the station map.  The timing of each dish must be imbedded in the cook’s consciousness, the specific flavor profile of each item, portion sizes, the steps in cooking must be second nature; caramelization, degrees of doneness, the intensity of a flame, reduction of sauces in a pan, adjustments to seasoning, how the dish must be presented on the plate, how to time finishing so that it aligns with other stations, etc.  And then, the cook must be able to catalog multiple, simultaneous preparations of a number of other dishes with totally different profiles and preparations.  All the while, he or she is coordinating and communicating with other line cooks and doing so as the point-of-sale printer is spitting out a stream of additional orders to catalog and process.  Amazing.

As we get older and more seasoned in our role as cook to chef, our capacity matures and grows in different ways.  As a 50-year-old chef we may not be fast enough to work that busy sauté station (even though we think we are), to organize all of those different a ’la minute preparations in our head and do so with incredible ease, but we are able to approach far more complex processes that fall under the heading of “the chef’s job”.  At this level we are able to envision a dish without even preparing it.  Our ability to plan a menu is done virtually at first.  We come up with an idea for a presentation and a flavor profile and tap into our memory that has matured through experience.  We can close our eyes and see what the dish will look like, how it is built, how each ingredient flavor melds with others, how the dish will smell, what its texture will be, and overall, what the flavor experience will be.  This is before the protein even hits the hot pan.  We are able to do this because we have years of experiences working with those ingredients that are stored in our memory bank allowing us to discover synchronicity in thought.  Different parts of our brain kick into action and merge to produce those visual pictures, faux aromas in our head, an understanding of “chew”, or texture, and how all the flavors will come together and identify the dish.  Amazing.

I am currently engrossed in reading a wonderful book by Dr. Sanjay Gupta entitled: “Keep Sharp”, a book that I highly recommend for everyone. Originally, I purchased it as a resource to help me maintain mental acuity as I age, but since turning the first few pages I have come to the realization that my interpretation of memory and memory loss is skewed by misinformation.  As chefs we have all found ourselves in the walk-in cooler wondering why we were there, or in a hurry to get somewhere in the kitchen only to discover that our mission was not so clear, misplacing our keys or glasses, or finding it difficult to remember where you placed a file, recipe, book, or cup of coffee.  The common approach is to blame it on age, but it may just be our brain trying to prioritize a pile of messages, some of which are evolving as we walk from point A to point B.  We create elaborate checklists, so we don’t forget, but in reality, those lists simply help us to keep certain immediate priorities front and center as our brains move in dozens of different directions.  According to Dr. Gupta, our brains contain over 100 billion cells or neurons where our every activity and thought is shipped and processed allowing us to move, breathe, think, reason, assimilate, decipher, create, speak, see, smell, touch, and taste.  All of this takes place in a 3.3-pound organ that represents only 1/40th of our body mass. Unlike other organs that can be protected much more easily through diet and exercise, the brain is an enigma without a clear understanding of how to maintain its health.  Yet, its health is the key to who we are, what we are able to do, and if we are able to exist. Yes, diet can help immensely and although we may not physically exercise our brain, we can still exercise it through proper use: reading, sleep, problem solving, calculations, and other forms of positive stimulation. But the brains health is often simply taken for granted – it’s there and we trust that it will continue to do its job.

The ability to visualize a dish, as an experienced chef can, is not unique to that profession.  It is a process that musicians, writers, sculptors, painters, athletes, doctors, and engineers are also able to tap into and learn to control.  This 3.3 pounds of mass has the capacity to multitask better than any computer made by man, yet we have failed to discipline our ability to use more than a small fraction of its ability.  When you stop to think about what we are able to do with that fraction and what we might be able to accomplish if we learned how to tap into its capacity it is hard not to be astounded. 

As a chef ages and matures, his or her experiences build a capacity to move from the speed of a line cook’s brain to the chef’s depth of understanding that comes in time.   We move from the immediate ability to perform tasks to synchronicity where the brain is able to reference hundreds or even thousands of past experiences simultaneously as we solve problems, design and create, teach and train, and build a high level of competence and confidence. 

We find it fairly easy to enjoy the physical nature of our bodies, a healthy heart, and sound digestive system, and as a chef – our palate that triggers the ability to create delicious food; but far too often we take for granted, the wonders of our brain and how it is the key to who we are and what we have the capacity to accomplish.  Take a moment, now and again, to marvel at what our brains are capable of, how we have evolved and how important it is to nurture it as much as we innately rely on it.  Feed your brain with interesting information and experiences, treat it kindly with ample amounts of rest and sleep, and exercise its capacity by challenging it to process, create, solve, and inspire.  FOOD FOR THOUGHT.

KEEP SHARP:

PLAN BETTER – TRAIN HARDER

Harvest America Ventures, LLC

Restaurant and Culinary School Consulting

www.harvestamericacues.com BLOG

CAFÉ Talks Podcast

https://cafemeetingplace.com/cafe-podcasts

A COOK FULFILLED

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Every person has needs that go beyond food, shelter, and clothing.  Of course, we require those important things to survive, but survival to the average person is never enough.  Getting by does not inspire and will never address the potential that we all have.  It is the ability and desire to strive for this potential that allows us to jump out of bed in the morning and face the day knowing that we can and will contribute in some way.  We want and need to make a difference, no matter how small or how large that contribution might be.  As I often quote Steve Jobs: “To make a dent in the universe.”

It is this potential that results in incredible music, inspiring art, important writing, new machines, impressive architecture, medical breakthroughs, and other scientific discoveries.  It is also this potential that allows teachers to change the direction of a young student’s life, a garden expert to beautifully landscape a home, a plumber to turn copper into a work of art, an electrician to properly wire a house, or a cook to prepare a perfect restaurant meal.  Each person has something to offer and a need to do so.  When we reach for our potential and find a vehicle for personal expression then fulfillment is within our reach.

There are times when and there are reasons why some feel this potential is out of their reach or that various factors get in the way of putting in the effort; when this happens, our lives seem shallow – even if we are able to provide for food, shelter, and clothing – the basic survival needs.  Putting one foot in front of the other may be the right place to start, but inherently we all want to run.  

So, it disturbs me to see an increasing number of cooks who feel stymied or who have given up on their potential while they allow themselves to be consumed by survival.  I want to believe that under the façade of despair and sometimes even distain lies a person with incredible potential to be the best he or she can be, to serve and to create, and to reach for his or her personal and professional potential – to be fulfilled.

Remember those times when you felt that rush of adrenaline after a successful service, felt pride in a dish you created, or simply enjoyed a new skill you worked hard to master?  Remember the feeling of belonging you experienced when you wore a clean, pressed, white uniform and apron?  You were part of a team and an extension of a long history of tradition and accomplishment – that uniform meant something – it meant someone recognized your potential.

When I see cooks and chefs who now invest more time in complaining about how hard kitchen work is, how demanding and unforgiving it can be, how the heat, the hours, and the pressure are so unreasonable while they discount the opportunity to reach for their potential, I know we (the industry) have failed.  We have failed to look at how we might move the conversation to fulfillment and the joy associated with cooking for others.  We (the food industry) need to point to a well-known quote from Anthony Bourdain:

 “When someone cooks for you – they are saying something. They are telling you about themselves: where they come from, who they are, what makes them happy.”

 This is what being a cook is all about.  This is how a cook can be fulfilled – knowing he or she is communicating with another person and setting the stage for happiness, even if it is for a short period of time.

So, here we are- still struggling every day to attract, retain, inspire, and encourage cooks without much success.  What can we (the industry) do to fulfill our cooks and regain much of the passion and enthusiasm prevalent just a few short years ago?  You remember, those days when to cook was viewed as one of the more exciting professions, a time when there were more aspiring cooks seeking positions than there were opportunities.  Those days may be a distant memory, but there is still demand for restaurant food, still opportunities for new restaurants to open, and still a need to find the “right” people to represent the cuisine restaurants hope to be known for.  How might we turn the tide?  Here are some thoughts:

[]       ADDRESS SURVIVAL FIRST and STOP DENYING THAT IT IS A PROBLEM: Yep, food, shelter, and clothing are important.  Until your cooks are able to provide these basic elements of survival for themselves and their families you will never be able to convince those individuals to think of anything else.  Figure it out!  Become more efficient so you can work with fewer staff members and pay them more.  Re-evaluate your restaurant pricing for menu items to provide greater profitability and more room for higher wages.  Where there is a will, there is a way.  Make your employees a priority.

[]       RESPECT and SUPPORT: Treat your cooks the way you would want to be treated.  It’s as simple as that.  Be empathetic and firm at the same time.  Expect excellence from them and don’t waver, but at the same time find ways to build on their competence and confidence.

[]       TEACH and TRAIN: One sure fire way to build competence and confidence is to invest seriously in teaching and training.  Pride will result when individuals experience your investment in them and see the results in their own performance.

[]       LISTEN and ENGAGE:  We need to stop thinking we have all the answers.  You hire a person inferring you see their potential and trust they have something to offer.  Engage them, ask their opinions, give them a chance to express themselves, take it all in and recognize their effort, build an understanding of their concerns, and most importantly demonstrate your desire to involve them.

[]       RECOGNIZE and CELEBRATE:  Every person enjoys the public recognition of a job well done, a great idea, and a sound opinion.  Celebrate their engagement by using the word “thanks” as often as possible, smiling, or giving a thumbs up, shaking their hand, putting their name on a menu, recognizing them as an employee of the week, etc.  These celebrations cost you very little – only your time and sincere effort.  THIS MEANS EVERYTHING and adds to a realization of fulfillment.

[]       HEALTH and SAFETY: Be concerned, especially during this time of a national health crisis, with how your employees (cooks) are dealing with their health (physical, mental, and emotional).  Talk with them one-on-one, inquire about their families, and give them an opportunity to share.  Make sure that your compensation package includes some level of healthcare – this is the price of admission.  If they are sick, send them home but do so out of caring, not anger that they are sick.  Simple stuff folks – treat people as you would like to be treated.  Recognize their potential and help them on the road to fulfillment.  This is how we solve our current staffing dilemma and change attitudes.

“Leadership is unlocking people’s potential to become better.”

-Bill Bradley

PLAN BETTER – TRAIN HARDER

Reach for the stars

Harvest America Ventures, LLC

www.harvestamericacues.com  BLOG

CAFÉ Talks Podcast

https://cafemeetingplace.com/cafe-podcasts

IS THIS A GOOD TIME TO BECOME A RESTAURATEUR?

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The real question is: “Is it ever a good time to become a restaurateur?”  The underlying answer stems from one simple word: “uncertainty”.  Entering the restaurant business has always been like a non-swimmer jumping in the deep end of the pool and hoping that he or she will float.  But now we can’t even be certain that there will be water in the pool. 

Before you turn and run away or write me off as unaware of how you have the perfect formula for success, just hear me out.  Since those early days of the restaurant business (I have always felt that the restaurant business in America only began the day that Prohibition was repealed in 1933) there has been a number of truths:

  1. People who enter the restaurant business do so because they truly love to serve others and create an environment where people can converse, meet with friends and family, raise a glass, let their struggles sit on the shelf for a time, and laugh with reckless abandon.  Most certainly restaurateurs want to earn a decent living in the process, but few have serious aspirations of becoming rich.
  • Those who think they are entering the restaurant business with visions of wealth and prosperity are more often than not setting themselves up for disappointment.
  • People who enter the restaurant business are typically individuals with a number of experiences working in other restaurants in positions from entry level to management.  This is rarely a business for the novice – regardless of how big their bank account might be.
  • Those who try to become restaurateurs without this breadth of experience are in for a rude awakening.
  • Those people who choose to become successful restaurateurs must have a strong background in finance and financial management.  They know where their money comes from, are able to analyze data, and understand how to control their pennies.
  • Those who do not bring a strong financial background to the table are destined to fail at some point in time.
  • Those who are successful restaurateurs believe in, implement, and stay focused on systems, standards, and process.  In a business where profit runs between 5-7% as long as they stay in control, these systems are essential.
  • Those who fail to understand this need and/or do not have the background in systems implementation and analysis will likely scramble to stay afloat.
  • Successful restaurateurs are ones who understand the power of people marketing, of keeping the name of the restaurant in the public eye and communicating effectively with existing and potential customers.
  1. Those who do not understand marketing are playing a guessing game.
  1. Those who are successful in the restaurant business live and breathe service and hospitality.  They are gregarious, generous, kind, and always happy to go the extra mile for internal (employees) and external (paying guests) customers.
  1. If you do not fit into this profile of natural hospitality, then this is absolutely the wrong business for you.
  1. Finally, those who are successful tend to be visionary, creative, and flexible.  Successful operators are able to bob and weave, problem solve, and always adjust to the unpredictable climate that surrounds the restaurant business.  If you are rigid and unable to change then prepare yourself for rough times.

Now these points have been universally proven true for decades.  When we add an unprecedented pandemic on top of this then all bets are off.  Who knows what the climate for restaurants will be like in six months or five years?  We do know it will be different and the Baker’s Dozen list in this article will be only the start for those who think they are ready to take the leap.

So, are you ready to push aside the emotional tug of “owning your own” and approaching this as a pragmatic businessperson would?  Are you willing to take the leap and dive into the deep end of the pool and are you equipped with proper floatation to ensure that you don’t sink to the bottom?  Do your homework, seek advice from smart and experienced people, run through every scenario possible, make sure you have the right amount of financing and available funds to weather the storm, hire and train the right people, and set yourself up with a better chance of succeeding than failing.  This is the only way that the restaurant business makes sense today.

Restaurants will be different moving forward, they must evolve.  People need to visit restaurants and they will always find joy in breaking bread with friends and enjoying great tasting and beautiful looking food of all types.  The opportunity is there, make sure you are ready to do it right.

PLAN BETTER – TRAIN HARDER

Harvest America Ventures, LLC

www.harvestamericacues.com  BLOG

CAFÉ Talks Podcast

https://cafemeetingplace.com/cafe-podcasts

CHEF OR NOT – THESE ARE LIFE CHANGING EXPERIENCES TO ADD TO YOUR LIST

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This is the time of year when far too many of us put together a list of new year resolutions only to find them on the shelf collecting 365 days of dust.  I thought that rather than go through that futile exercise I would simply list a sampling of life-changing experiences that would merit an add on to your bucket list.  Each has particular meaning to me and may not fit your goals, however, hear me out:

*Visit the DUOMO in Florence, Italy.  Quite possibly the most breathtaking architectural work of art in all of Italy and beyond.  When you first turn the corner in Florence and experience this church coming into view you will think that it is an otherworldly encounter.  Trust me when I say that it will change your perspective and make an indelible mark on your life.

*STAND AT THE BASE OF EL CAPITAN the center of the mountain climbing universe.  3200 feet of granite extending straight up to the heavens.  This is something to behold.  Climbers consider this the most perilous ascent in the world and a prime example of the wonders of nature.  I am not a climber, but I stood at the base, put my hand on the giant rock, looked up and became dizzy simply thinking about how and why someone might expect to climb its face.

*THE CULINARY OLYMPIC EXPERIENCE.  If you are a professional chef, I would encourage you to establish one goal of competing in the culinary Olympics held every four years in Germany.  With thousands of the world’s best chefs putting their skills on the line the adrenaline rush is impossible to describe.  Win or lose, this is a benchmark experience.

*STAND AT THE TOP OF AN OLYMPIC SKI JUMP.  There are only a few in the world, but one sits in my backyard of Lake Placid, New York (home to the 1932 and 1980 Winter Olympic Games).  Standing at the top of the 90-meter ski jump and looking down will form a knot in your stomach.  Television will never do it justice.  I stood at the top in 1979 when they were pouring the last few feet of concrete (the entire structure was a continuous pour until it was done), with just a 2 x 4 railing.  The experience made my heart skip a beat.

*FLY INTO THE NICE, FRANCE AIRPORT.  There are airports and there are airports but access to the one in Nice includes a low flying pass over the Mediterranean as the pilot steadied a descent – simply spectacular.

*GO TO A DEAD CONCERT.  Yea, I know, you either love or hate the Grateful Dead, but before you pass judgement, buy a ticket to the latest version of the Dead without Garcia, and live the experience.  There is nothing like it.

*STANDING ON TOP OF THE HIGHEST PEAK SOMEWHERE.  Whether it is The Eiger, Mt. Hood, Everest, or New York’s Mt. Marcy – when you stand on top of the highest peak in a state, country, or the world you will be, at that moment, higher than anyone else in that area.  When I stood on top of Mt. Marcy, I was higher than more than 10 million other people in the State of New York and that is exhilarating and humbling.

*STAND ON THE STAGE AT CARNIGIE HALL.  To a musician, Carnegie Hall is the epitome of venues.  To be there means that you are a master of your craft and as such are part of a unique club of individuals who have earned the right.  Well, everyone can be part of a tour that allows you to stand on that stage and look out at the magnificence of this theater.  Do it!

*HAVE DINNER AT A MICHELIN 3-STAR RESTAURANT.  To many, the cost of a Michelin dining experience is far too extravagant and excessive.  That is until you experience it.  If you want to know what the big deal is, then save up your silver dollars and make a reservation at a three-star mecca for the culinary arts.  Crazy money, but worth it.

*WORK A DAY IN A VINEYARD.  Do you enjoy a nice glass of wine, but are you at a loss to understand how the beverage gets to the bottle?  Spend a day bent at the waist either weeding, tying vines, or picking grapes, sit down with the crew for a meal prepared by the vintner, take a few ibuprofen to calm the back pain, and raise a glass in awe of the winemaker.

*VISIT A MEAT PROCESSING PLANT.  We take for granted the fact that that beautiful steak, roast, or chicken come from an animal that gave its life for you to enjoy a meal.  It’s not enjoyable, but it is important for everyone to visit a meat processing plant so that you can fully appreciate the animal and show it respect the next time you cook or consume.

*SPEND TIME ON A COMMERCIAL FISHING BOAT.  Depending on the type of fishing, this can be one of the most dangerous jobs to be found.  Some commercial fishermen travel a hundred miles offshore to catch the haddock, flounder, tuna, or swordfish that you enjoy on your grill or in your sauté pan.  Prepare for an uneasy stomach but spend a day or even a few hours on a fishing boat, or even a lobster boat to understand the work of these blue-collar artisans.

*STAND UNDER THE EIFFEL TOWER AND LOOK UP.  You have seen the pictures, read the stories, and maybe you have even visited Paris, but until you stand directly under the center of the Eiffel Tower and look up (if you are daring – lie on your back and do the same) you cannot grasp the wonder of this incredible structure.

*SPEND TIME IN THE WOODS – BY YOURSELF.  There is no greater church, no more peaceful environment, no more meaningful connection with the earth than to spend time alone in the forest.  Smell the pine and the musty aroma of mushrooms and decaying trees, listen to the sounds of insects and creatures of the wood, and feel the vibrations that come from noble trees standing tall for decades or generations, taking in carbon dioxide and giving us back the oxygen that allows us to live.

*WALK INTO NOTRE DAME.  The fire that nearly destroyed Notre Dame came close to removing this magnificent work of art and incredible tribute to God.  It is spectacular and make sure that it sits on your bucket list.  Spend time there, order a few Café au Laits at a nearby brasserie and watch the people walk through its doors – it is truly special.

*WRITE A BOOK.  Everyone can do it.  You all have stories to tell and share.  Write constantly, read even more constantly, and write some more.  Listen to other’s critique of your work. You will get better.  Tell your story and let it live on.

*TOUCH THE DESK OF ESCOFFIER.  At the museum in the chef’s former hometown of Villeneuve Loubet, France sits the desk where he wrote his menus and memos.  If you are a chef or a cook, visit this mecca and lay your hands on his desk.  It is inspiring.

*WALK THROUGH THE CAVES OF MOET CHANDON.  Underneath the streets of Reims, France lay miles of chalk caves that hold hundreds of thousands of Moet Chandon and Dom Perignon bottles resting and preparing themselves to grace your table a few years down the road.  Experience it.

*WATCH THE MOVIE – FREE SOLO.  I need not say more other than watch this movie about Alex Honnold who was the first climber to ever successfully scale El Capitan without ropes.  Scarry as hell – you will shake your head in wonderment.

STAND IN THE MUSEE d’ORSAY AND STUDY A VAN GOGH OR MONET.  One of the most important museums in the world – this extraordinary haven for Impressionist Art is worthy of anyone’s bucket list.  You will know the paintings but fail to comprehend how beautiful they are until you stand a few feet from them.

*FLY OVER NYC ON A CLEAR NIGHT.  It’s called the center of the universe for a number of reasons, but it is most breathtaking at night when lit like a Christmas tree shining as a beacon welcoming people from every corner of the world.

*SIT IN CENTRAL PARK AND LOOK UP AT THE DAKOTA WHERE LENNON LIVED. Sit on a bench, look up at the building façade, and sing “Imagine” out loud.  It’s therapeutic.

*WALK THE MARGINAL WAY IN OGUNQUIT, MAINE.  I have been there almost every year for the past ten and while visiting, my wife and I walk the mile long marginal way that is on the rocky edge of the Atlantic Ocean dozens of times and marvel at sunrises, the power of crashing waves, the distant view of fishing boats, and a sense of how majestic our world is.

*WATCH THE PEAK OF MOUNT HOOD FROM A PLANE.  Flying to Oregon or Washington State will likely always include a pilot dipping his wings to give you an incredible view of the Mt. Hood Summit.  It is amazing.

*MARVEL AT LAKE MEADE FROM THE MIDDLE OF THE DESERT.  It doesn’t seem possible that in the middle of the desert there is a real oasis (albeit manmade).  A body of water that nourishes much of California farmland and the opulence of Las Vegas.  When you first see it, the vista doesn’t seem real.

*SKATE ON THE OLYMPIC OVAL – EVEN IF YOU CAN’T SKATE.  Visit Lake Placid in the wintertime, rent a pair of skates even if your ankles (like mine) resist staying upright, and shuffle around the outdoor speedskating oval where Eric Heiden won five gold medals in 1980.  It’s amazing.

*HOLD A WHITE TRUFFLE IN YOUR HAND AND TAKE IN THE AROMA.  There is no other smell like it.  It is Mother Nature’s hidden treasure for a reason.  Order gnocchi, fresh fettuccini, or even loose scrambled eggs and have the server shave plenty of this hidden gem on top.  Take in the smell and do so with eyes closed.

*DRINK A GRAND CRU BORDEAUX IN BORDEAUX, A PINOT NOIR IN OREGON, AND A DEEP RED ZINFANDEL IN NORTHERN CALIFORNIA.  No bottle of wine is worth more than $20 – or is it.  If you want an answer to this – try a great wine that has been stored and aged properly.  Relish how it smells, look at how it coats a glass, make sure that it is a very good glass, sip a small amount and swirl in it your mouth, stick your rose right in the glass to take in all of the aroma, and let it slide down your throat.  It will never become your everyday wine, but you will learn to appreciate it.

*WORK ON A BUSY LINE AT A SERIOUS RESTAURANT.  The work that goes in to completing that plate of food in your favorite restaurant is mind blowing.  If you are a young cook or just a person who enjoys great food, find a way to spend a full day and night in a professional kitchen and on the line even if just to watch.

*STAND ON THE EDGE OF NIAGARA FALLS.  It is a wonder of the world after all.

*SIT WITHIN 10 FEET OF STANLEY JORDAN PLAYING THE GUITAR.  Or it could be Tommy Emmanuel, Jeff Beck, Jorma Kaukonen, Bonnie Raitt, Eric Clapton, or a handful of other masters, but the key is to find a way to get that front row seat so that you can take it all in and feel what that musician feels when he or she bends those strings or picks a friendly tune.

*COOK DINNER FOR BELA FLECK AND THE FLECKTONES.  Just because I did this.  Very cool.  I asked him who is favorite banjo player was and he responded, “who’s yours?”  I said – you of course.

This is part of my list – yours will be different, but what is most important is that you fill your life with remarkable experiences, fill your dance card and set out to check everything off that you can.

PLAN BETTER -TRAIN HARDER

Happy 2022 – may it knock your socks off

Harvest America Ventures, LLC

www.harvestamericacues.com  BLOG

CAFÉ Talks Podcast

https://cafemeetingplace.com/cafe-podcasts

CHEFS – REMEMBER THE MAGIC

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I know you remember the first day that you slid your arms into the sleeves of that chef’s jacket with your name embroidered under the title: executive chef.  It was that first time in the lead position – the commander of the kitchen brigade.  You earned this title through years of hard work, loads of unique experiences, trials and tribulations moving through positions from commis to prep, line cook to sous chef, and now having arrived at the helm.  You walked through the kitchen greeting each person at his or her station finally coming to rest at a stainless table that will be your workspace.  As the chef you want to make sure that you lead by example, so even though your plate will be filled with a new list of responsibilities, you want to spend time each day as a cook. 

You take time to sanitize your area, firmly place a cutting board on a damp towel to keep it from slipping, draw your knives across a wet stone while honing their edge, and quickly jotting down a prep list for the next hour.  You take a deep breath and smile knowing that this is where you belong, this will be a magical day.

There is something very special about working in a professional kitchen, something that is hard to explain unless you are there.  From the moment you walk through that back entrance you are captivated by the dynamics of the environment, the structure of the operation, and the sensation of being enveloped by its alluring magic.  The aroma of a simmering veal stock, pans of bacon being pulled from the oven, fresh coffee brewing and pastries hot from the bake shop meld together like a cacophony of sound produced by a finely tuned orchestra.  Cooks are busy at work with their own preparations as breakfast orders from the dining room arrive at a harrowing pace. 

As service begins to reach its peak, you set aside your prep work and jump into the expeditor position calling out orders and finishing plate garnishes.  “Ordering – three eggs over-easy, two pancakes, one poached, two benedicts.  Picking up – three benedicts, two French toast, one veggie omelet”.  The cooks are in the zone as the orders attack the kitchen even faster now as the dining room fills and servers’ line up to make toast and refill silver coffee pitchers.  You know exactly what to do, how to keep the rhythm, when to pull back or push forward, and how to keep the cooks, your cooks, calm and focused.  You are now the conductor of the orchestra that is totally in sync, creating beautiful music together.  This is magical.

When you stop to think about it, the process of cooking is quite amazing.  You and your team are able to take raw materials, apply well-designed cooking methods, season using time-tested palates, and plate the finished product with the vision of an artist creating a delicious, aromatic, visually pleasing dish.  This is not an automatic process; it requires a number of skills that are built over time.  For you, the process is even more amazing.  As a chef you are able to plan menus knowing how the dishes will look, smell, and taste before they are even made.  You have prepared so many items in the past that your senses are internalized and able to rely on flavor memory. 

You can sense what caramelization will do to those incredible Diver’s scallops the size of silver dollars, what flavor those blue and yellow flames will impart on the exterior of a steak or chop, or how that perfect sauce will respond to monte au beurre at the end of preparation.  When you sit down with the sommelier with your first menu as chef you can offer reasonable comments on the selection of wines to accompany each item.  Through your time in the kitchen, you embraced tasting wines, studying their source, and building an understanding of the factors that impact on flavor. 

As you pan your eyes through the kitchen you are able to take in the magic that had taken place before your arrival and know how important it will be for you to continue to teach and train.  Many of these professional cooks started out just like you as a dishwasher or commis to a prep cook.  Over time they developed foundational skills that would allow them to progress up through various brigade positions.  They developed strong knife skills, an understanding of cooking methods, the ability to identify ingredients and how they should be handled, food safety and sanitation, and how to work as part of a team.  You will continue to build them and to provide opportunities for the passionate to strive for a fruitful career in the kitchen.  Some will move on to other properties and find the success they are after, and you will be OK with that.  This is part of the chef’s job.

Sitting later with the dining room manager you wear the hat of orchestrator of the dining experience.  Together you will work to polish all of the details that will keep your food centerstage while adding those unique elements that will keep guests coming back time and again.

Dinner service pulls a different crew to the hot and cold lines. Unlike breakfast that is focused on speed and efficiency, these cooks need more time to develop flavors and paint their artwork on the plate.  Speed is still important, but details and finesse are front and center.  Fifteen minutes before service begins you walk through each station with the sous chef to taste and critique each cook’s mise en place and then engage the front of the house with a premeal review of features and any menu changes.  It is that final staging before the curtains open to another dining performance. 

As the day winds down, you spend a few moments alone in the office preparing your first presentation to the entire restaurant staff.  Tomorrow will provide a brief moment for you to address this group of seasoned professionals and talk about new directions, your vision, the way that you intend to lead, and how important they all are to the mission.  This will be one of those magic moments – there will be many more. There is plenty of opportunity during these challenging times to find fault, to stress over how things are not what they were, and to wonder how the restaurant business will pull through.  When those thoughts creep into your consciousness, take a few moments to remember the magic of what we do.  Look at those young cooks and know the impact that you can have on their future and their passion.  Look at those plates of food and marvel at what takes place during cooking and remember how important your role is in creating special moments, enjoyable experiences, and great memories for those who choose to sit at a table and take in all that you and your team can offer.

PLAN BETTER – TRAIN HARDER

Harvest America Ventures, LLC

http://www.harvestamericacues.com. BLOG

CAFE Talks Podcast

https://cafemeetingplace.com/cafe-podcasts

THE LIFE WE HAVE

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My, oh my, did you see that sky

Sunrise to sunset

It can take your breath away

In the darkest night

A million stars make us wonder

How could we be so wrapped up in who we are

When in doubt just watch a star

Paul Kantner once wrote

“Have you seen the stars tonight

Would like to go up on a deck and look at them with me”

Our world is small in the vastness of the universe

Small but full and amazing

My, oh my, did you see the sky

Isn’t it amazing how simple and complex the world is

Have you looked at the majesty of a mountain top

When have you taken the time to marvel at the veins in a leaf

Hydrogen and Oxygen melt their structure to form water

The sun evaporates the water while clouds miraculously collect it

And distribute it elsewhere

Without its presence we could not exist

Bees are busy at work pollinating plants to feed a growing population

The sun provides light to show us the way

It starts the cycle of photosynthesis

Plants breathe in carbon dioxide and emit the oxygen we need

The air that we breathe fills our lungs and gives us life

Gravity keeps us in place, but not so much that we can’t jump for joy

Isn’t it amazing how simple and complex the world is

A simple cell builds life, how is it possible

We touch, we smell, we see, we hear, we speak

We taste and savor, form our words and tell a story

We grow, we learn, we see and observe

As a people we interact, learn, and teach

Our hands convey our feelings

Our minds try to figure things out

We design, create and build

We collaborate and take what the earth has to offer

We mold it, break it down, re-assemble and present something new

We love and live, bond and smile, laugh and cry

A simple cell builds life, how is it possible

The freedom to choose is a gift and a curse

Some view the world through rose colored glasses

Others find fault with everything around

We choose to believe and follow

Sometimes with an open mind and mindful thought

Other times through emotion and reaction

Some see others as demons in disguise

While others embrace difference as life’s great offering

Some love unconditionally while others hate with reckless abandon

Some chose to lift up while others prefer to tear down

Some give life while others take it away

Power and money trump reason and respect

Us versus them versus united we stand

The freedom to choose is a gift and a curse

Oh my, oh my, did you see the sky

Isn’t it amazing how simple and complex the world is

A simple cell builds life, how is it possible

The freedom to choose is a gift and a curse

Relish where we are, who we are, what we have, and what we know

Time is short, don’t miss the chance

To relish life and make the world a better place

To breathe the air, to see the mountain top, to raise a glass and engage in life’s dance

Let 2022 be the year that we learn from our mistakes

And move forward – together

Happy New Year

Harvest America Ventures and www.harvestamericacues.com  BLOG

PLAN BETTER – TRAIN HARDER

THE END OF SERVICE TO SERVICE

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There is another casualty in the restaurant business – one that is far more detrimental than the loss of another corner operation.  This casualty has been in the making for some time but adding point of origin supply chain issues has made the loss even more significant.  We are witnessing the death of service to those who service the end consumer.  The supply chain link that most vividly impacts restaurants is that connection between the manufacturer, wholesaler, and restaurant. 

Restaurants, for decades, have depended on the intermediary wholesaler to identify, source, communicate, train, deliver, and support their needs. The menu cannot be driven by the chef’s desires, or the operator’s determined concept without a strong partnership with wholesalers.  Once an item makes its way to the menu it is up to the wholesaler to deliver a consistent list of ingredients, at the specifications that are important to the restaurant, on time and at a price that makes sense for the restaurants price point.  If any part of this service formula is broken, then the chef’s hands are tied.

Over the past few decades, restaurants have become increasingly dependent on one-stop wholesalers – providers that offer a complete line of ingredients from perishables to cleaning supplies, small equipment to frozen goods, and baking supplies to non-alcoholic beverages.  “Everything you need” with one invoice makes sense in a world that increasingly looks for ways to streamline work and process.  These large vendors were also able to support the restaurants financial needs with extended credit and quantity discounts when chefs committed to purchasing the lion’s share of goods from that one source.  It all seemed to make sense – a service was provided.

Over time, wholesalers felt the pinch of competition from other one-stop providers, sometimes regional and not terribly large, but large enough to cut into the share of business that the larger vendors had come to expect.  The only solution was to partner or purchase the little guy and minimize competition.  It makes sense in a system that rewards the largest players.  Big is better and getting larger equates to survival.

Suddenly choice is at a premium and restaurants no longer have the ability to look for options – if they want product, they are only able to look to a single source, or very few alternatives.  The larger the vendor, the more control they have, and need to have with the product, brands, delivery times and requirements, follow-up service, and price.  That neighborhood Italian restaurant that featured a homemade marinara dependent on a particular brand of canned tomato might now be forced to purchase a less desirable brand.  The seafood restaurant expecting to purchase fresh langoustines from the French Atlantic coast may find that the one-stop vendor no longer finds it economical to import a product this exclusive.  The smaller corner restaurateur that is essential to a community can suddenly find that minimum orders with the vendor have been doubled making cash flow an increased challenge for the restaurant.  In some cases, if a vendor deems that a town or rural region is not financially viable, they can and will simply decide not to service restaurants.  And the vendor that once would extend billing for 60 or 90 days during the slower season has suddenly cut the restaurants credit and now demands cash on delivery.

There was a time, not too long ago, when a sales rep would visit the chef of even the smallest operation and physically take an order, communicate specials, answer questions that a chef might have about products, and serve as an advocate when orders were short, timing was critical, or credit extensions were in need.  That time is long gone.  Chefs may not know of short orders until the minute the delivery arrives.  Oftentimes orders are made on-line without any face-to-face interaction, and don’t even think to ask a question about a product ingredient and its benefits.  It is likely the chef will always know more about the vendor’s ingredients than any salesperson (if one ever visits an operation).  Extended credit?  Not a chance.  Pay now or we cut your service.

What was once a symbiotic relationship between vendor and restaurant is now adversarial and lopsided.  Once upon a time it was the restaurant who sat in the chair of “customer” and was in control of the relationship.  Now, the vendor has the upper hand.  My how things have changed.

This is the environment that restaurants live in today.  Their menus must be fluid since availability and affordability of ingredients will always be in question.  Unless a restaurants’ cash flow is positive twelve months of the year, then it will be either at the mercy of a bank line of credit or unable to service its guests.

There was a time when it was in the best interest of the vendor to help ensure that their restaurant clients were successful.  This meant doing whatever they could to boost a restaurants business savvy, go the extra mile to make sure the chef had what he or she needed in a timely manner, or guiding the chef through the next menu change.  Not anymore – the vendor has become a means of getting a product from point A to point B. 

There was a time when a sudden change in business meant that a chef needed extra product on the fly.  A call to his or her sales rep would result in a salesman driving his or her own vehicle in search of the needed product.  Chefs could depend on this when challenging situations arose.  Not anymore – sales reps are not allowed to engage in this level of service.

So here we are, at a time when pandemic related shutdowns are always on the horizon, staffing is very challenging, seating limitations are enforced, and customers are leery about leaving their homes – vendors are suddenly no longer on our side.  What is the solution?

When our faith in the supply chain is at an all-time low there is a real case to be made for buying local and regional, buying directly from the source, and moving back to where we were just a few decades ago.  Maybe the convenience of buying from one source is no longer ideal and counter-productive for the small to medium single unit proprietorship.  Maybe, just maybe, the solution to move to a “producer-to-table” business model makes sense and trumps the convenience that the large vendor had provided for some time.  Maybe, just maybe, the set menu model that restaurants and consumers grew to expect is no longer viable and a constantly changing menu must make a comeback.

If this is the death of service-to-service, then maybe it’s time to adjust and not succumb.  The end consumer is always best served when a collaborative service environment exists behind the scenes.  Chefs need to depend on the ingredients they buy to produce the food that carries a restaurant’s signature.  The small business that our country has always held high as its strength needs a symbiotic, dependable relationship with the supply chain if it is to survive.  When the system no longer works it’s time to change how we view the system.  Let’s rebuild those relationships with regional providers and create a workable business ecosystem again.

PLAN BETTER – TRAIN HARDER

Harvest America Ventures, LLC

www.harvestamericacues.com  BLOG

CAFÉ Talks Podcast

https://cafemeetingplace.com/cafe-podcasts

Next up:      Why we still need chef centric restaurants

A COOK FOR ALL AGES

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The trials and tribulations associated with the restaurant business are many – it is not an endeavor for the faint of heart.  Finding the right concept, building in the right location, finding, and training the best staff, nurturing the team, and creating a menu that reflects the needs of the guest and the passion of the cook is only the beginning.  This is a profession for those with a need to express, but it is also a business with very slim profit margins so oftentimes the artist and the accountant are part of a tenuous relationship.  For some reason the industry tries to convince the artist and the accountant to be one and the same.  To owners and operators, the cook for all ages must be both.

I have occasionally been asked what is the composite skill set of the chef or what should a graduate of a culinary program be able to do?  What is that cook for all ages like, what list of attributes make up the ideal person for the job?  The answer is not what you might think – in fact, from my perspective many of the attributes of the ideal cook/chef will not be found in a training manual or a college curriculum.  The ideal cook or chef is no different than the ideal doctor, marketing expert, real estate agent, or entrepreneur.

First, allow me to address the dichotomy of the artist/accountant.  Every chef, and for that matter every professional cook hoping to one day become a chef, MUST understand the business component of operating a restaurant.  He or she must relish viable analytics, well designed budgets, and profit/loss statements.  The chef must also appreciate marketing, the importance of social media, human resource management, business law, and how to be an effective communicator.  This does not mean that the chef or professional cook must be expert at any of these processes or skills, or that he or she be the designer and driver of these important pieces of the business puzzle.  A chef must be able to read and use analytics in the process of operating a kitchen, and he or she must learn how to contribute to the marketing efforts and always represent the property in alignment with the marketing strategy.  Additionally, the chef must operate the kitchen as is dictated by labor laws to ensure fair treatment of all employees, and the messages that come from the chef’s desk must be professional, well designed, and reflective of the standards by which the restaurant operates.  HOWEVER, this cannot take the chef or cook away from the primary duty of engagement with food, understanding the history and traditions associated with cooking, and being elbow-to-elbow with his or her kitchen team.  This is paramount!

Now – down to the attributes of a cook for the ages – the cook who stands out as timeless and always to be admired and followed.  This is what it takes to be truly worthy of the title by any real definition of “successful”:

[]       A PERSON OF INTEGRITY:

What spells out your ability to function as a member of a team and lead others rests with those character traits that make up your integrity as a person:  dependability, honesty, trustworthiness, and your consistent adherence to those stakes in the ground that define your style and beliefs.  People follow those whom they can count on.

[]       A HUMBLE PERSON:

The very best may know they are but they have little need to tell the world that it is so.  These are the cooks and chefs, doctors, musicians, athletes, artists, business leaders, and educators who simply focus on constant improvement and always give their best because it is who they are.

[]       AN INDIVIDUAL WHO PRACTICES EFFECTIVE LISTENING:

Those who are successful in life, especially those in leadership positions share a commitment to listening to what others have to offer.  There is a definitive difference between hearing to respond vs. listening to learn.  Others will respect you if they sense that you are tuned in to their thoughts, concerns, and ideas.

[]       A PERSON WHO IS TRUE TO HIM(HER) SELF:

The very best know what is important to them and stay the course – making sure that they never sacrifice who they are when life’s pressures attempt to push them off course.

[]       A PERSON WHO SETS THE TONE FOR EXCELLENCE:

Giving your best, knowing your weaknesses, and working hard to improve is one of the most attractive attributes of a successful person.  Approaching every task, every opportunity, and every problem with the intent of reaching for excellence is a trait that others will gravitate toward.

[]       A PERSON WHO RESPECTS OTHERS:

Demonstrating that every person has something to offer, that they are due your respect as a human being regardless of their age, gender, ethnicity, personal beliefs, level of education, or financial status will set the tone for your business and your home.  Be this person and know that a world of opportunity will come your way.

[]       A PERSON WHO RELISHES THE HONOR OF WORKING WITH FOOD:

Respect for the ingredients that a cook has the chance to work with, the people who grow the food and those who distribute it, and those who have an impact on that finished, plated meal is paramount to holding the title of chef.  Know just how privileged we are to tie on an apron.

[]       A PERSON WHO NEVER SACRIFICES OTHERS FOR PERSONAL GAIN:

If you commit to excellence, if you respect others and the food that you work with, if you seek to constantly improve, listen to others, and help them reach their own level of excellence then you will succeed.  Trying to succeed at others expense will never work in the long run – your role is to help others to grab opportunities and succeed, not get in their way.

The cook for all ages will rise to the top – the cream always does.

PLAN BETTER – TRAIN HARDER

Harvest America Ventures, LLC

www.harvestamericacues.com  BLOG

CAFÉ Talks Podcast

https://cafemeetingplace.com/cafe-podcasts

AMERICA’S CULTURAL DESERT

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My grandfather came to the United States from Norway at the age of 17.  He worked his way over on a ship as a carpenter and set his sight on the fortunes that would await him on our shores.  Like so many in the early 1900’s, he entered the land of the free through Ellis Island, and with a wing and a prayer headed for Minnesota and the rush to lay stake on a piece of land.  He did and soon after took a one-year job as a ships carpenter in South America.  When he returned, his land was lost to another claimant so he shuffled off to Buffalo where he would stay and raise a family.  My grandfather was proud and determined to become American.  All through my early years he never shared a story about Norway, nor did he say much to my father, his son.  He wanted to be American, to speak only English, and to set aside his heritage.  Such a shame.

Many of those early immigrants to our soil felt the same.  A few hung on to their cultural heritage, but after time more and more of this would be lost.  My parents (Norwegian and Irish decent) never shared a story about their roots, their parents rarely shared anything with them.  Those wonderful traditional dishes from Norway and Ireland never graced our family table as the 1950’s gave way to ease and convenience.  TV dinners, box mixes, frozen and canned goods, and restaurant take out became the basis for the new American food culture.  Some pockets of ethnicity remained – my friends from strong Italian, German, and Polish neighborhoods still carried on with the traditions of their original homeland, but so many others enthusiastically embraced the American Way.  Within a few decades the U.S. became a cultural desert, a homogenized country without much historical perspective.

This homogenization has become an obsession.  To try and hold on to cultural backgrounds is somehow less than American.  It is often expected that we only use the English language, we dress as American fashion dictates, and we eat what is assumed to be American food.  So, what is American food and where is its story?  We are a melting pot nation of people from every corner of the world and with them come the traditions, beliefs, and food that encapsulated their culture.  It is this culture and all that it encompasses that gives their food meaning and flavor.

What is most interesting is that FLAVOR is far more complex than it may seem on the surface.  We commonly accept that flavor is a composite of taste, smell, and touch but there are many other factors that play a role that is just as significant as those three senses.  Of course, the visual impact of food is important as is any connection to sound (the sizzle of a metal plate, the crunch of a fresh apple or potato chip, the snap of a green bean or the chew of a bagel or crusty artisan bread), but we rarely associate CONTEXT as an element of taste, yet it may be the most important.

Context refers to whom you are enjoying a food with, the environment where eating takes place, your connection with the person who prepared it, the source of components, the history of the dish and its ingredients, memories connected to the item, or the ceremony that may be part of enjoying that dish.  All these factors play into how a dish tastes, and how it will be remembered.

This being said, take a look at the restaurant where you work and begin to dissect the experience.  Talk with the service staff and inquire about their knowledge of those contextual factors associated with items on the menu.  How much do they know?  What have they been taught?  What have they experienced and how are they able to build a customer experience with the knowledge that they have?  For that matter, go through the same exercise with the culinary staff.  I would be willing to bet that even the cooks real understanding doesn’t go very far beyond taste, smell, texture, and plate presentation.  The question is: “can they really own a dish and express their craft without a deeper understanding of context?”

I remember an experience decades ago when I had the privilege of dining at Andre Soltner’s Lutece Restaurant in New York City.  In my mind, Soltner has always been the consummate example of a professional chef.  The food, of course, was exceptional – classic French executed to the highest level.  What was even more impressive was our waiter.  He was certainly in his mid to late 70’s, maybe even older, but he knew as much about the food, the source of ingredients, the way it was prepared, and the historical significance of each menu item as Soltner.  Beyond this, he was excited about the food and the opportunity to serve it to us – CONTEXT. 

The point is – homogenized restaurant and family menus have left us stranded in a cultural desert.  There is a place for “filling station” food in support of legitimate hunger, but the experience of dining must be much more than this.  There is something lacking in experience when a seafood restaurant is located in a strip mall, a northern Italian restaurant offers food prepared by cooks who have never been to Italy, never studied the culture, or never been part of the important rituals of Italian family life.  There is something lacking when a rich culinary culture like that from Mexico and the Yucatan peninsula is expressed on a menu that portrays the cuisine as pinto beans and melted cheese and there is something confusing about a healthy spa or vegetarian influenced menu when it is prepared by those who have never personally engaged in the lifestyle that accompanies it.  Context.

So, what should be done?  If restaurants propose to be authentic in any way, regardless of the concept, ethnicity, or influence portrayed, then we all have an obligation to teach, train, engage, and embrace all stakeholders in the context that is so important to real flavor.  If you are a chef – what are you doing to teach and train and create real contextual experiences for staff?  If you are a dining room manager – the same question applies to you.  The people who represent the food and the experience of the restaurant must have real understanding to accompany the process of doing their job.  It is the context that will make their jobs more enjoyable and more rewarding.  Make sure that you invest in becoming a learning organization that talks as much about culture, history, and the people who influenced a dish as you do in the steps associated with preparing, plating, and serving the finished dish.  When this is accomplished then the flavor experience will be unique and sought after and quality staff members will see the value gained in being part of your team.

PLAN BETTER – TRAIN HARDER

Fight the Cultural Desert

Harvest America Ventures, LLC

www.harvestamericacues.com  BLOG

CAFÉ Talks Podcast

https://cafemeetingplace.com/cafe-podcasts

THE END OF BEING CIVIL, KIND, LAW ABIDING AND PROFESSIONAL

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It seems as if our society is on the threshold of decay.  That is an awful opening sentence, but there are numerous indications that it is true.  Differences of opinion are to be cherished, but this expression never crept into our psyche and functioning as a society to the extent it has right now.  Expression and even bold argument had always been part of our culture – debate was a way of presenting what we knew and/or believed in an effort to gain support or stimulate thought, but it had never spiraled into hate and negative action as it is today.  The extent to which it is occurring and growing is a new phenomenon for all of us; and it is frightening to say the least.

This unrest and lack of reason has crept into every corner of our existence – separating family members, neighbors, organization members, schools, and the American workforce.  When consideration of whom we might interact with is determined by beliefs that are based on fiction or fact, then we have a disease that will grow with reckless abandon. 

Civility, or politeness as our parents and grandparents would have proclaimed, is an essential ingredient in life.  Respectfulness is something that was engrained into our being from an early age and was a cardinal rule.  We can have our opinions, but they should never interfere with treating others the way that you would like to be treated.  Where has civility gone?  The positions, people, and systems that were always respected by our ancestors are now constantly attacked or demeaned.  Pick an example – there are many: doctors, business leaders, teachers, police, fire fighters, entrepreneurs – they are no longer held up as role models, they are blamed for the woes of a community.  Of course, there are examples where this mistrust and ire are well-founded, but why are the majority painted with the same brush?  In restaurants, the chef who was quite recently held up with admiration and respect is now often dismissed and criticized for his or her passion and work ethic.

There were always cooks who would call out sick on occasion, but the thought of simply not showing up – that was just not something that we did.  Sure, work scheduling needs to change, and life-balance must be addressed – but to show your dislike for a schedule by not showing up and putting extra stress on your teammates was just not done.  This is disrespectful and not worthy of the uniform that you wear.  If change does not come and you are unhappy, then give your notice and look elsewhere.  There are plenty of restaurants looking for talented cooks – maybe your ideal job is somewhere else.

Kindness, being considerate and empathetic were traits that always stood out, and to a large degree were the common traits of Americans in the eyes of the world.  I grew up in kitchens where equality was always evident, where we might have critiqued and poked fun, but never with malice or ill-intent.  We may have raised our voices on occasion but would always “have the back” of the person next to us.  Where has this environment gone?  Bullying is not something that we want to encourage whether it be in schools or on-the-job.  The lack of kindness that occurs in our society has grown exponentially with the availability of social media.  It is hurtful and destructive, un-called for and cancerous in an organization.  Yet, it occurs at an alarming rate and is far too often ignored in so many environments.  How hard is it to be kind?  Where is the thrill in making someone else feel insignificant?

I remember how important it was to my family to be law abiding.  Order is something that helps a civilization function.  We have laws to protect members of a society and if the laws are deemed unfair, then we have the right to choose different representatives and work to change them.  In the meantime, we follow the laws or suffer the consequences.  I have watched in horror as mobs break into stores and steal merchandise, terrorize employees and customers, and do so without any consideration of the harm being done, or the laws that are designed to protect.  I shake my head when I watch citizens and some law enforcement officials ignore or manipulate the law to justify their hate or misunderstanding.  I cringe when those in the retail business refer to theft in their stores as “shrink” (an anticipated and accepted about of theft) that they are unable to control, but instead pass on the cost to law abiding citizens.  And I shake my head when items disappear from coolers and storerooms in restaurants where I have worked – knowing that it may have been the person that I worked next to who was responsible.

What type of society do we have if even those elected to represent us ignore the law and/or manipulate it for personal gain?  Why is it less important to be law abiding today?

There is a problem in our country that is growing by the day, it is a problem that must be addressed, cannot be ignored, must not be accepted, and will only continue to eat away at everything that our communities were built on.  The problem must be addressed by everyone and cannot simply be relegated to law enforcement and legal battles over “hostile work environments”, or discrimination lawsuits.  It is OUR problem to solve.  It must be addressed in the home by parents who take the time to reflect on past generations attitudes.  It must be addressed by business owners and managers – not just by writing an employee manual, but more importantly through their actions as leaders.  It must be addressed by local, regional, and national governments who need to focus on the root issues of building a society that is knowledgeable, civil, kind, law abiding, and professional.  It must be addressed by educators, the media, police, firefighters, chefs, clergy, and neighbors.  If left to fester and grow – this will destroy our country from within, destroy our restaurants and other businesses, eat away at the integrity of our educational system, and change the way the rest of the world views the American democratic experiment. 

We can fix this, but we cannot simply expect someone else to fix it for us.  We need to start today – where we are.  It is our challenge and our problem to solve.

PLAN BETTER – TRAIN HARDER

Harvest America Ventures, LLC

www.harvestamericacues.com

CAFÉ Talks Podcast

https://cafemeetingplace.com/cafe-podcasts

FREE SOLO IN THE KITCHEN

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Alex Honnold may very well be the greatest climber of all time.  Although he has climbed many of the most serious mountains in the world, he is best known for his free solo climb of El Capitan in Yosemite National Park.  This 3,000-foot granite icon stretches strain up and is considered the most radical climb to be found anywhere in the world.  The Captain is on the bucket list of any serious climber, but few have ever attempted it without ropes or assist (free solo).  In most cases, the climb (even with ropes and assist) is something that can take 2-3 days, but Alex not only succeeded in climbing this monster “free solo”, but he accomplished it in three hours and fifty-six minutes!  The confidence and competence that he displayed is unparalleled.  The adrenaline rush must have been through the roof.

Now, it will seem a stretch to compare what he did with the work of a professional cook, but that un-nerving, sometimes euphoric rush of adrenaline is still there.  The first few times that a line cook works “free solo”, that experience of being fully responsible for a busy station without a guide is just as intense in the moment (without the fear of sudden death).

Working free of support, in any profession, requires dedication, practice, understanding, a healthy dose of fear, confidence through trial and error, and a willingness to go for it.  Through the fear there is always a sense that you can do it.  Jumping in without a reasonable amount of fear mixed with the confidence that comes from competence would be the equivalent of attacking a mountain with an uncontrolled fear of heights.

If you are a professional cook or a chef, you remember that first free solo flight on the line.  It had been some time in the making – maybe starting off as a young dishwasher, that first job.  You started by helping the breakfast cook work pans of bacon in the oven, setting up plates with garnishes, and flipping a few orders of pancakes.  Then you learned how to hold a knife, build an edge on a wet stone, and cut perfect dice, julienne, and oblique vegetables.  Team members drilled in the importance of sanitation and properly setting your workstation – working clean and staying organized.  Then one day you had your chance to work the fry station – guided by the cook next to you – learning timing, the flow, listening to orders, and getting that proper doneness on items that hit that 375-degree oil.  After a few weeks you were good at it and needed little guidance, but you always knew it was there – right next to you.

All along the way you were paying attention, learning the terminology, watching the steps that each cook had mastered, tasting everything, and building your palate, studying methods of cooking, and watching how plates were assembled for proper eye appeal.  Every now and then, the sauté cook would let you jump in and prepare a dish start to finish – nothing too crazy, just a single dish when it wasn’t too busy.  When sauté mise en place was running short – you jumped in to cut, mince, clarify, or portion – things were beginning to come together. 

Then, one day, it happened without warning.  The sauté cook called out sick.  There was no time to bring in a replacement – the chef turned to you:

 “Time to see what you are made of.  You have been watching and learning for quite some time.  Tonight, the station is yours.  We are here to jump in if you need help, but it’s time for you to swing for the fences.”

Gulp – you felt that knot in your stomach, the tingling in your fingertips, the dryness in your throat, and deep, down FEAR.  You knew the station set-up, you had practiced the methods, your palate was still young, but you had a decent understanding of the flavors of each dish, and you had plated every item from that station enough times.  Beads of sweat formed on your forehead, and there was a slight tremor in your hands.  The chef looked at you and said:

“Are you ready?”

You returned his stare, straightened your back, took control and responded:

“Yes chef”!

Tonight, you were flying free solo on that sauté station.

It has been that way throughout your career: from sauté to broiler, roundsman to sous chef, sous chef to working chef, and on to executive chef if your career has advanced that far.  Each time there was or will be a “free solo” moment.  A time when your metal is tested, a moment when competence transitions into confidence.  If you prepare yourself properly, and if the next step is always in your sights, then when the time comes you will be ready.  That knot in the stomach never ceases to arrive, the dry throat, sweaty palms, tingling fingers and light tremors that accompany an adrenaline rush, but in a short moment all of that turns into a smile and a determination to conquer another peak, to jump through another hoop, and move past the fear.

You know what I am talking about – you have been there and will be again.

PLAN BETTER – TRAIN HARDER

Conquer those peaks and learn to fly free solo

Harvest America Ventures, LLC

www.harvestamericacues.com  BLOG

CAFÉ Talks Podcast

https://cafemeetingplace.com/cafe-podcasts

IN THE KITCHEN IT MATTERS – 15 RULES TO LIVE BY

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Nearly every professional cook or chef will agree that discipline in the kitchen and adherence to certain rules and methods is critical to success.  Kitchen careerists live by these rules, imbed them in their subconscious, and rely on them every day.  There are certainly more to adopt, but this is a start.  Follow a serious cook or chef around for a day and watch how they instinctively fall back on these “rules of the professional kitchen” and fully understand why they are important.

[]       LONG SLEEVES ON A CHEF COAT

In an era when tradition seems to fall by the wayside and relying on the way things have been done for decades is oftentimes frowned upon, this is one that is designed to protect a cook’s wellbeing.  Long sleeves on a chef coat may seem to get in the way of comfort, but they are there to protect arms and wrists from splattering grease, the immediate burn from boiling liquids, and the heat of the oven and grill.  You may want to show off those cook’s tattoos, but this will help from showing off those burns and welts.

[]       HOT PAN FIRST

A seasoned chef can tell if a cook is preparing a dish correctly simply by the sound of the pan.  Hot pans before a sear, sauté, or pan fry will set the stage for the Maillard Reaction that reduces protein and natural sugars into that beautiful golden color and the umami flavor of savory that is so important to the integrity of a dish.  An added bonus is that a properly heated (seasoned) pan is far less likely to stick during cooking – this is the natural way to create non-stick surfaces.

[]       SEARING FIRST

Preparing a perfectly grilled steak, grilling an exceptional burger, setting up that lamb shank for braising, building a beautiful sea scallop, or preparing a 109-rib roast for tonight’s prime rib feature all begin with a proper sear.  It is this cooking step that unlocks the texture, color and flavor that is so satisfying.   Some may argue that it is not necessary or that it does not lock in the moisture within during the balance of cooking, but my experience points to the opposite. 

[]       TEMPER BEFORE ROASTING/REST AFTER

Allowing meat to set out at room temperature for 30-60 minutes prior to roasting or braising will cut down on the time of cooking and the shock of a cold product in a very hot environment.  Failure to temper is one of the reasons why meats will oftentimes fail to reveal that beautiful, even pink color from just below the exterior to the center.  After cooking it is critical to rest the meat (whether a steak or chop or a full roast) at room temperature allowing the pool of internal moisture to be reabsorbed throughout the product.  Meat that rests for a few minutes will retain more of its juice and flavor once sliced.

[]       WHEN TO SALT

There is considerable debate over when to salt foods, especially meats.  Salting before cooking (anywhere from 30 minutes to overnight) will allow the magic of salt to permeate the entire product.  At the same time, salt will draw moisture from the product which may in turn make it drier (the way that curing does).  Salting after cooking provides that immediate salt blast to your senses – one of the more impactful tastes in your mouth.  Too much salt will alter the natural flavor of the dish while the right amount can enhance those natural flavors.  We can become salt immune if our first reaction in cooking is to always “add salt”.  The more you use it, the more you need to retain the same flavor reaction.  Always keep in mind that the guest may not have the same salt immunity as you and you can always add more, but you can’t take it away.  Learning this balance is part of the art of cooking.

[]       RAPID CHILLING and REHEATING

Aside from the importance of chilling and re-heating rapidly for food safety issues, rapid chilling can slow down or stop the cooking process (as is the case with blanching and shocking fruits and vegetables for later finishing) that will retain the texture, flavor, and nutritional value of foods – and rapid re-heating will refresh a product to its intended texture and flavor without further cooking that might change the character of a dish.

[]       FOLDING YOUR TOWELS

This may seem like a silly habit, but it is consistent with a cook’s need for organization (mise en place).  Every part of a cook’s station needs to flow from a map of consistent perfection just like a pilot makes sure that the cockpit is precisely organized, or a musician ensures that his or her instruments are placed just so before a performance.  The cook needs to know, without looking or thinking, exactly where everything is placed so that a rhythm can result.  When mise en place, including towel folding and placement, is tight then the flow of cooking can be maintained.

[]       SHARP KNIVES

You have probably heard that a dull knife is far more dangerous that a sharp one.  In both cases a knife is only as dangerous as the person holding it.  A dull knife takes more effort to do its job, more pressure to slice or dice, and as such more opportunity to find a finger or hand.  Additionally, your knives are meant, in most cases to cleanly slice through a vegetable, meat, or fish.  If a knife is dull, it can bruise those ingredients and impact their appearance, cooking, and flavor.

[]       CLEAN AS YOU GO

Cleanliness sets the tone for everything else that a cook does.  Cleanliness is a responsibility and an action that must become habit.  No matter how busy a cook gets, constantly washing and sanitizing work surfaces and tools will ensure food safety and build a sense of pride in his or her methods of cooking.

[]       HYDRATE

The ambient temperature in front of a stove can be well over 120 degrees, the ovens on a line are probably cranked up to 500 degrees or more during service, the blue flames from a char grill can reach close to 3,000 degrees Fahrenheit, and the humidity driven by liquids in the process of cooking and the ambient air moisture from the dishwasher can make the environment of the kitchen almost unbearable.  Cooks must constantly replenish their internal moisture levels so drinking WATER (not espresso, energy drinks, or soda) during work is critical to health.  Your body will not tell you when it is dehydrated until it is too late – you must prevent that from happening.

[]       PRESSED, CLEAN UNIFORM

The uniform is a symbol of the importance of cleanliness and the respect that you have for your chosen profession.  Represent this and you will find that your personal brand will be enhanced. 

[]       POLISHED SHOES

Attention to detail – clean shoes demonstrate your desire to maintain clean floors.  Polished shoes tell the world that you are a proud representative of your work.  Clean shoes symbolize that you intend to work clean – it all goes together.

[]       LABEL AND DATE

The chef probably harps on this every day so cooks can choose to do this because they are told to, or label and date because they know that this simple step is a key to food safety and freshness, communication in the kitchen, and a standard that every health department demands.  Make it a habit – not a directive.

[]       PUT IT BACK

Whatever it may be, food product, tool, dish or pan, piece of equipment, clipboard, or ice scoop – when you take it – return it (clean) to where it belongs so that any other person in the kitchen can easily find it.  Avoid the frustration of: “Has anyone seen the blade to the Robot Coupe?”

[]       DRY TOWELS/WET TOWELS

Finally, back to towels.  Every cook must have both dry and wet towels.  Dry towels (only) are for handling hot pans and pans and removing items from the oven.  Wet towels (in a sanitizer solution) are used to wipe down surfaces.  Keep them separate and train your conscious mind to always distinguish between the two.

PLAN BETTER – TRAIN HARDER

Harvest America Ventures, LLC

www.harvestamericacues.com  BLOG

CAFÉ Talks Podcast

https://cafemeetingplace.com/cafe-podcasts

KNOW AND APPRECIATE THE KITCHEN MELTING POT

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I have mentioned many times before how my love for the kitchen stems from the appreciation I have for the diverse types of people who work there.  Every day in a kitchen is a learning experience – not just in terms of skill development, but even more importantly the opportunity to learn about the people who find a home in this environment.

Far too often we take this opportunity for granted.  Look around you and take it all in – these kitchen/restaurant people are unique and complex.  Their backgrounds vary, but their purpose is the same.  The parallels to an effective sporting team are never lost on me, it is, for all intents and purposes, identical in nature.  A common goal, a purpose, and mission that every person can align with knowing that each one has an important role to play.  In the case of the kitchen or restaurant it is the plate of food and a satisfied (hopefully wowed) guest.  Every member of the staff is focused on these two goals. 

If we take the time to dig below the surface, each member of the team carries a unique set of characteristics, interesting and sometimes even troubled backgrounds, and unique talents that if realized can build team cohesiveness and add to the experience of the guest.  Some have started their career in the kitchen as a dishwasher – looking for a paycheck, lacking in any substantial kitchen skills, but hoping for an opportunity to grow.  Others, like professional athletes have experience with a variety of teams – they are “free agents” who bounce from restaurant to restaurant in search of something that remains elusive.  A few may have college degrees and are not sure of any long-term direction in their lives, or maybe they hold a culinary degree and are dipping their toes in the water of opportunity that your operation provides.  There are some with troubled pasts, a few wrong turns, mistakes that have limited them in the eyes of many, but not in the kitchen.  A few are angry while others are sheepish and content to stay in the shadows.  A few are very talented but for various reasons have been ignored when it came to advancement. 

Biologically and environmentally, it is also interesting to study the ethnic heritage and geographic background of each player and what that might mean to how your team grows, learns, and expresses themselves.  Where did they come from?  How were they raised?  What foods were part of their culture and how did those foods influence their presence in your kitchen today?  Think about what you are missing if these questions are never asked? 

It is this melting pot that makes your restaurant tick and builds its unique character.  As a chef, these individuals do help to define the type of cook and leader you are or will become.  The greater your exposure and understanding of the “people of the kitchen”, the more balanced you will become as a chef.  It makes sense – doesn’t it?

I have always relished knowing more about the people with whom I work.  Who are they, why are they here, what brought them to the kitchen in the first place, and what unique attributes do they bring to the table?  There are so many examples of chefs who have taken the time to learn from their staff, to ask the questions and to learn just how important everyone is to the operation.  In some cases, these unique players have become integral to a concept, even though this is beyond what they were hired for.  A breakfast cook from a strong Italian family who has a knack for making exceptional fresh pasta, the Mexican dishwasher who learned how to make extraordinary tortilla from the age of ten, or the prep cook with a passion for fishing and boning skills that would embarrass most chefs.  Ask the questions, open your mind to learn, relish the connections, and watch how engaging and passionate these employees become when asked to play a unique role and share their history.

Take advantage of the opportunity that staff meal provides to learn about each other.  I remember one property that I took a lead role in and the first thing that I did was take the chefs and sous chefs out for dinner.  I asked each to take a few moments to explain their background and influences, primarily for my benefit.  What was most extraordinary is that the group knew very little about each other – it was an enlightening moment.  Ask the questions, listen, and learn, and engage their stories in your operation – it will be incredibly gratifying.  Ask those Hispanic or Ecuadorian dishwashers to prepare staff meal using the techniques that are unique to their culture and watch them beam with pride as every person on your team learns something new.  Celebrate this, embrace it, and learn from it.

Like many others, I have enjoyed the opportunity to work with such a diverse group of people.  Different ethnicities, cultural differences, a wide array of socio-economic differences, young, old, experienced and novice, college educated or no degree at all, tall or short, male, or female, different political beliefs, Grateful Dead followers, country music lovers, or rap enthusiasts, and career cooks as well as those who are simply looking for a paycheck – each person is a book ready to be opened and enjoyed.  Take the time to read each person’s book – it will be worth your while.

PLAN BETTER – TRAIN HARDER

Harvest America Ventures, LLC

www.harvestamericacues.com  BLOG

CAFÉ Talks Podcast

https://cafemeetingplace.com/cafe-podcasts

MEASURE TWICE – CUT ONCE

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Desperation leads to ineffective decision making.  This is always, always, always the case.  Decisions based on panic are like the amateur carpenter who keeps making the wrong cut on a length of board until there is nothing left.  It seems to me that this is where we are with our decisions about restaurant operation.  Every restaurateur and chef that I know is focused on one big challenge – finding people to work.  We have debated this issue for the past two years and the only solutions that most restaurant operators have come up with are to cut services and keep raising wages.  Both decisions seem to make sense, but are they the right decisions by themselves? 

I will always remember my early years growing up in Buffalo, New York when nearby Lackawanna was one of the steel capitols of the world.  Bethlehem and Republic Steel were major employers in the area that were supported by a very strong union.  I can’t even count the number of times that the union, representing thousands of steel workers, threatened slowdowns, walk outs or strikes on behalf of their membership.  Inevitably the challenge resulted in a compromised raise in wages or benefits to the cheers of every employee.  It wouldn’t take very long (measured in months) before there was more dissent among the rank and file and the union was back to the table with managers and operators.  The fact of the matter was that the job was horrible.  The heat, noise, sweat, repetition, and danger associated with work in a steel mill did not change – only the compensation.  It wouldn’t take long for employees to realize this and then turn to the union for another band aid.  It was a vicious cycle that never got to the root of the problem – the work environment was horrible and needed to change.  The American steel industry didn’t change but their foreign competitors did.  Robotics took the place of much of the repetition, danger, heat, etc.  and employee jobs moved from production to quality control.  Sure, jobs were lost, but those that remained were both well paid and dramatically improved.  Bethlehem and Republic Steel are now shuttered wastelands in Lackawanna and Buffalo.

The point is that although better pay and benefits are part of the answer for the restaurant industry it is the larger picture that we must eventually come to terms with.  A recent picture posted of line cooks sitting on the floor of a beautiful kitchen catching a five-minute meal before the POS starts spitting out orders is symptomatic of the big picture.  No matter what we pay employees – if the environment where employees work and the expectations of them fails to benefit from a fresh coat of paint, then we will lose the battle.  If we think that the only reason that employees have resisted coming back to work or that the endless stream of new candidates dried up is because of money, then we are very mistaken. 

As an industry we need to step back, take the appropriate amount of time to study the situation, measure twice and cut once.  Take the time to assess and discuss, observe, and catalog, and truly view the environment and the expectations of the job.  This is the measurement phase, and it must be meticulously studied and discussed opening with those employees who had once viewed the work as noble, interesting, exciting, and worthwhile.  How can we make the work valuable, respected, manageable, interesting, and healthy for those who choose to view this as a career choice?

Just like the survivors of the steel industry who decided that long term success required wholesale change – the restaurant industry must do the same.  Here are some things to consider while restaurants continue to think that it’s all about the money:

[]       PEOPLE

Don’t sacrifice your need to find and retain GOOD people just because you are short staffed.  Putting a round peg in the square hole of your team will only compound your issues.  Determine the character of individual that will build your team and stick to those standards when hiring.  I know you will say: “But that doesn’t help me today!”  Patience – “wax on, wax off”, you are building for a long successful business cycle.

[]       TEAM

Money will be attractive, but you can safely assume that those who work for you are inspired by the people who work around them.  Team is just as important as the money.

[]       RESPECT

Create an environment where everyone is respected as a human being and their contributions are noted and applauded.  Those who you respect and don’t return that to those who work in your operation will need to move on.

[]       TEACH AND TRAIN

Assume that people want to become good at their job – even great.  You are in the driver’s seat and can help them reach their personal best through training, teaching, and mentoring.  Invest in this – your staff will relish the opportunity to improve, and that word gets around quickly.

[]       CRITIQUE NOT CRITICISM

Part of your job is to hold an employees’ performance to the standards of the operation.  This should always be front and center.  There is a way to do this and way not to – critique, unlike criticism is all about pointing out areas for improvement and then showing the person how to do so.  Start with a compliment and demonstrate how you expect them to grow in the position.

[]       WIN

Everyone enjoys being part of a winning team.  They typically relish the opportunity to work for a restaurant that has earned the recognition of others or the success of entrepreneurship.  When you run a well-oiled machine that teaches and respects employees and a restaurant that is financially viable then your staff will proudly state that they are part of that success.

[]       LIFE BALANCE

Respectful scheduling, empathy and acknowledgement, the desire to listen and support, and flexibility whenever possible will go a long way towards attracting and retaining great employees.

[]       PROFESSIONALISM

Be professional, teach professionalism, expect professionalism, and celebrate when it happens.  This involves personal appearance, dependability, respect for ingredients and equipment, respect for people, service attitudes, and a commitment to excellence with the work that everyone engages in.

[]       SAFETY

Certainly, now and for the foreseeable future – your employees will expect that their safety is at the top of your list.  Following pandemic protocol, building a work environment that puts their wellbeing first, supporting their professional interactions with guests and maintaining a zero tolerance with those guests who do not treat your staff with the same safety in mind is and will remain essential.  Do it and promote it.

[]       TOOLS

Make sure that your staff has the tools to do the job and that those tools are maintained so that performance is never hindered by poor maintenance.  It may seem like a small thing – it isn’t!

[]       ENVIRONMENT

A little bit of tension in a kitchen and dining room can be beneficial, but too much can spiral out of control.  It is your job to maintain some equilibrium so that people understand that sense of emergency but do so with the ability to calmly pursue answers to challenges.

[]       TRANSPARENCY

Don’t hide things from your staff – let them in!  The more you can share with them about decisions, business performance, and the challenges that you face as an operator, the more they will sense that they are valued.

[]       CREATIVITY INSPIRES

Yes, you are the chef or the manager and many decisions, including menu, procedure, and presentation are part of your job description, but cooks tend to be inherently creative people who need an outlet for that creativity.  When denied an opportunity to express themselves – cooks will begin to look for a different environment that supports this need.  Let them contribute.

[]       UPWARD MOBILITY

Many cooks will have a desire to someday become the chef of a property or even own an operation.  When there is a path to move up, or support to move on, there will always be a line of competent professionals who want to work for you.

[]       EFFICIENCY – TOO MANY HANDS, THE PIE IS ONLY SO BIG

Work on becoming efficient through systems and training.  If you can reach your standards with fewer people and accomplish your business financial goals with fewer, highly competent hands, then the pie of money to support employee needs will go a lot further.

[]       FAIR WAGE AND BENEFITS

And yes, this is not last because it is less important EVERY ONE OF THESE POINTS IS IMPORTANT, but let’s at least understand that money without addressing the core challenges of working in restaurants is no different than increasing the wages of steel workers without taking a hard look at the environment where they work and the nature of the job. 

Measure twice and cut once before you reveal your plan to address staffing issues.

PLAN BETTER – TRAIN HARDER

Harvest America Ventures, LLC

www.harvestamericacues.com  BLOG

CAFÉ Talks Podcast

https://cafemeetingplace.com/cafe-podcasts

CHEFS PASSING THE TORCH

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This is one of those reflective moments – we all have them – a time to think back rather than forward and simply wonder how the future will compare and who will hold the keys to progress.  I was reading an article from the blog: www.blog.cheapism.com titled: “33 of the oldest chefs in America”, when that flame of nostalgia kicked in.  At first, I thought isn’t it great that these incredible chefs and ambassadors for cuisine in America were still doing what they love at the age of 62-85?  Then it struck me: “What will the American Food Scene look like when these trailblazers are no longer around?”   What happens after Lidia Bastianich, Thomas Keller, Patrick O’Connell, Jacques Pepin, and Rick Bayless? Maybe, this is morbid thinking (sorry to all of the chefs on the list), but it is something that made me really wonder.

As is often the case, one series of thoughts leads to another, and I started to apply the same questioning to other professions.  I watched a video clip of the Tedeschi Trucks Band with guest guitarist Jorma Kaukonen – a terrific example of American R and B with the former guitarist from Jefferson Airplane and Hot Tuna (in my top five greatest bands list).  Kaukonen has mellowed over the years but has also refined and enhanced his skills as a picker using a wide range of genres – he is 80 years old.  Looking deeper I found that Carlos Santana is 74, Keith Richards 77, Eric Clapton 76, Jeff Beck 77, the grand-daddy of them all – John Mayall is 87, Grace Slick of White Rabbit fame is 82, Joni Mitchell is 78, and the grand master – Bob Dylan is 80.  I can still remember the first time I heard Blowin in the Wind and Big Yellow Taxi and knew that these musicians were changing the world.

If you are an avid reader, like me, then you have been entertained for decades by authors like James Patterson, John Grisham, or Agatha Christie all who range in age from 66-85.  Who will take their place on the best seller lists? 

The same is true for business leaders who built the standards of excellence for American products and service.  It was Steve Jobs of Apple, Bill Gates from Microsoft, and a plethora of others who built the new economy in America.  Jobs would have been 66 this year if he had not passed in 2011, Gates is 66, Larry Ellison of Oracle is 77, Richard Melman of Lettuce Entertain You Restaurant Group turned 79, Danny Meyers of Union Square Restaurants is the youngster at 63, and the investment genius Warren Buffet is 91.  Who will make up future clubs of business innovators?

Of course, the answer is: there are always plenty of new and exciting leaders to take the place of innovators in every genre, but what will they be like, where will they take their respective industries or what new industries will they create?  In so many cases it was the curiosity of the leaders listed that helped them to invent or reinvent a business formula or a product that everyone needed before they even knew that they needed them.  It was the need for perfection and innovation that nurtured the work of Charlie Trotter and Thomas Keller who gave birth to the American Tasting Menu; the desire for authenticity that allowed Rick Bayless to envision Frontera Grill and Topolobampo, an understanding of what real service means to bring Danny Meyer to NYC restaurant prominence, a vision of the impossible for Steve Jobs to reveal the first smart phone, and finding a formula for holding reader interest to allow James Patterson and his partners to write or co-write 114 books to date. 

I continue to reflect on that article of the 33 oldest chefs in America and appreciate all that they have done.  I am part of their generation and have enjoyed working under their influence but at the same time know that there will be others to follow.  They will not be the same, but they will be great.  Their methods will differ, but they won’t be wrong.  Their products will never be the same as Keller, O’Connell, Bayless, Bastianich, Waters, Tower, or Morimoto, but they will be inspiring and delicious.  One thing that history has taught us is curiosity is always present and the need to ask: “why and why not” will drive future generations to push the envelope and make that dent in the universe.

There were many that came before this aging generation of great leaders and there will be many that are ready in the wings, sitting on the bench and waiting for their chance to become part of the first string.  I will continue to reflect on the past, admire the present, but always look forward with excitement to the future.  It is time to pass the torch and welcome a new generation of cooks and influential chefs.

ARTICLE: 33 of the oldest chefs in America

https://blog.cheapism.com/oldest-chefs/?fbclid=IwAR3j7HJyKHu61OjD_YusXN2J8hR5D2GbBSwvuJInuWnXNyK0a9HKhe2EOX0

PLAN BETTER – TRAIN HARDER

Harvest America Ventures, LLC

“Never lose your curiosity”

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THE KITCHEN IS LIFES’ CLASSROOM

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Sitting is the chef’s office, or what some might refer to as a storage room with a desk, it is always enlightening to look out on the kitchen and watch the motions of those who have found a home in double-breasted white jackets and skull caps.  Any day can be a day of reflection for a chef – a day when life assessment is always close at hand.

 “What is my purpose, why am I here, how did I wind up sitting in this chair, and what value do I bring to the environment I am in?” 

Chefs think about the product that they are proud of, the system and organization that has been put into place, the control of those small margins of profitability, or the special menus that are occasionally developed for events and holidays. 

“This is my purpose and look at the results!”  

Well, this is certainly a major part of a chef’s job description and probably what your paycheck is based on but is this really a chef’s purpose?

Look around the kitchen again and focus on the people rather than that list of measurable objectives that you have committed to.  It’s the people who represent your real success in the position of chef – they are your purpose.  This is the altruistic side of being a chef, and this is the aspect of your character and value that will be remembered.  It is through these individuals that you will be acknowledged as a chef. 

What many chefs neglect to understand is that they are teachers, mentors, and life coaches.  These cooks may very well become the individuals who will fill your shoes or those shoes of solid chefs somewhere across the country.  How they turn out, not just as accomplished technicians, but more importantly as human beings and citizens of the world is partially based on the role that you play in their lives.  WOW, now that is a responsibility.

Look around that kitchen.  For many cooks, the kitchen is a safe haven, a place where they can breathe deep and know that they are in friendly territory.  They are in a place where their value is based on performance and commitment to the team, a place where a certain amount of discipline is necessary and welcomed.  Some may have shady backgrounds, maybe their past was riddled with bad decisions, many are loners or otherwise angry at the world.  But here, in this place, they have purpose, they are good at what they do, their skill is respected, and they are able to produce delicious, beautiful food.  This is a place where no matter how others may label them, the kitchen only sees them as dependable, focused, competent, and willing to work together for a common goal.  This is your place chef – a place that you have developed, a place where different people can come together and produce while they learn to feel good about themselves.

These cooks, through your effort, build life skills that go beyond mastery of a chef knife and the foundations of good cooking.

  • They learn how important it is to be dependable, to show up, suit up, and come to work ready to play their role.
  • This is a place where they learn to act professional and look the part.
  • This kitchen is where they build a lifelong commitment to organization because it is essential for their job.  Once accepted, those organizational skills become a part of who they are.
  • This is a place where standards of operation are at the core of everything that they do.
  • This kitchen is clean – it must be so.  These cooks learn to work clean and pay attention to this in every moment.
  • These cooks develop the ability to multi-task because the environment is too fast and too complex to survive in unless they can do many things at once.  Whether they know it or not, this ability to multi-task will become one of their greatest strengths.
  • This is a place where even the angriest individual learns to depend on the person next to him or her and where they quickly learn to be there for others.  When a fellow cook is in the weeds – they jump in and help.
  • This is a place where details are critical.  The cook learns, under your mentorship to never accept mediocrity – to always strive for excellence.
  • This is a place where these young cooks build an appreciation for the ingredients they work with and the equipment they use.  They take responsibility for this every day.
  • In the right kitchen, these cooks will learn to view each other as equal – whether young or older, tall or short, male or female, white or a person of color, liberal or conservative, straight or gay, college educated or a product of the school of hard knocks – they are all equal when that apron is tied on.

All of this happens because you chef – set the stage and encourage it to be so.  All of this happens because you chef – teach and train, critique, and support, and hold them to high standards and show them how to do so.  This happens when you, as the chef, understand your purpose.  Your long-term responsibility and the basis for your legacy will extend way beyond accomplishments with cuisine or the profit that you generate for a restaurant.  Your name can become viewed as that of a person who spent the time to develop others. 

Look no further than out your office window at those cooks who are serious about their craft, who show up to work on time and ready to put their signature on a plate.  Look no further than those individuals who respect the persons next to them, support those who need it, take that extra second to set up a plate just right, and who relish the opportunity to serve your food and theirs with a sense of pride and accomplishment.

Congratulations chef – mission accomplished!

PLAN BETTER – TRAIN HARDER

Harvest America Ventures, LLC

www.harvestamericacues.com BLOG

CAFÉ Talks Podcast

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THE VALUE OF THE SCHOOL OF HARD KNOCKS

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Kitchens are great equalizers – it is the place where individual talent and exceptional intellect can be less important that dependability, organization, focus, and teamwork.  The kitchen is a place where those who are successful come to the realization that those later aptitudes are enhanced through experience – the more you do, the better you become.   Some talented people are not the best cooks and chefs and quite often the most intelligent (using commonly referred to scales of measurement) are lacking in common sense. 

As a teacher, chef, cook, and initially – dishwasher, I have been witness to those with incredible natural talent, many extraordinarily intelligent individuals, and far more “Rudi” type individuals who compensated with plain old hard work and dedication.  Some from each group have been (are) quite successful while others stumble along not quite sure what steps to take next.  In the end, from my perspective, the ones who exceed their own and other’s expectations are the ones that find strength in the school of hard knocks.  These are the people who worked their way up, failed countless times along the way, stumbled and picked themselves back up, were humble and grateful, and realized that contrary to the organization of the dictionary – work does come before success.

I was thinking the other day how we may be taking away from the opportunities that the school of hard knocks provides.  Is it possible that we have become a society determined to make everything easier – assuming that easier is better?  Have we dedicated ourselves to minimizing disappointment, push aside fear, eliminate steps that in the past helped us to grow, take away pain, and shorten the distance between a beginning and our end goals?  I may be wallowing in my own opinions and readily admit that there is no real science behind my thought process – but here it goes:

[]       IT MUST BEGIN WITH WASHING DISHES:

Every, yes, EVERY cook with a desire to become a chef someday must begin by washing dishes.  This is a must!  You will learn how important this job is, how a chef must ensure that the dishwasher is treated with respect, and how much you can learn about the kitchen through the eyes of this position.

[]       DIVE FOR PEARLS:

If it is a separate task from dishwashing – every cook, yes, EVERY cook who wants to be a chef someday must wash pots.  This will teach him or her the importance of organization, how to become a more efficient cook someday, how important clean equipment is to the chef, and the pot washer’s role in mise en place.

[]       LET ME SHOW YOU HOW TO MOP A FLOOR:

This is a skill to be learned.  Don’t think for a minute that how to mop is an innate process – you must be taught.  Sweep well, hot water with the right amount of the correct soap, change water frequently, rinse mop and in some cases dry mop afterward to avoid falls.  Make sure the mop head is clean and changed frequently.  Clean floors are happy floors.  Happy floors help to build happy cooks.

[]       THAT FIRST KNIFE MUST BE EARNED:

Something important is lost when the parents or relatives of an 18-year-old purchase a $600 set of Henkel knives for this inexperienced apprentice before he or she has earned the right to hold a high-quality knife in hand.  Ideally, that first knife is something that the young cook saves money for, learns to cherish and respect, and care for like a musician cares for a musical instrument.  This is important!

[]       PEEL 500 POUNDS OF ONIONS FIRST:

So, you want to cook?  Begin with an appreciation for the basics – practice until you are very good at the basics.  Learn to respect the foundational ingredients and the importance of repetition.  Start with onions, learn accuracy, speed, and routine.  Cry a lot – this is how the onion wants to be remembered.

[]       DICE A BAG OF CARROTS – PERFECTLY:

Practice large, medium, small, and brunoise dice.  Measure your cuts, look at your waste – improve every day until you are fast and ALWAYS accurate.

[]       TURN 300 POTATOES PERFECTLY, THEN ASK AGAIN IF YOU CAN WORK THE LINE:

Why is it important for a potato to have seven equal sides?  The potato is a

 beautiful part of the meal – present it as a prized gem that cooks evenly,

 browns on the edges, and graces the plate as a competitor of the entrée for the

 diner’s attention.

[]       WHAT – YOU NEVER HAD A PAPER ROUTE?

There is something about that first job at the age of 15 – working papers in hand, bike all tuned up, rain or shine, moving from house to house making sure that morning paper hits the front door before breakfast, and taking home that weekly paycheck that sets the tone for a 50-year career ahead.  Learning to be responsible and earning what is in your pocket – the school of hard knocks.  You know how it feels to not want to get out of bed in the morning but realize that you have a responsibility to others – learn dependability and trust early on and you never forget.

[]       WASH AND IRON YOUR OWN UNIFORM:

Wash and iron, make sure that it is spotless and pressed, sharp and proud – now the uniform means something and you know that your appearance is a reflection of a profession that dates back many centuries.  When you are responsible for it then it means so much more.

[]       OF COURSE, THOSE SHOES MUST BE POLISHED:

A friend of mine used to say clean shoes, happy shoes, happy cook.  Just like in the military – polish them until you can see your reflection.  Those clean shoes mean something, and you will take extra care to make sure the floors are clean so that those shoes stay sharp.  It’s an entire ecosystem of caring.

[]       SHOWER AND SHAVE:

Simple – look the part of a professional.

[]       NO ONE IS ABOVE CLEANING:

One of the great aspects of working in a kitchen is that typically job silos don’t exist.  Everything is everyone’s job.  At the top of the list is cleaning!  Respect for fellow workers, for the safety of the guest, for the image of the operation, for pride in work, and for the traditions of the profession begin with cleaning.  The school of hard knocks will not allow prima donnas to find a home in the kitchen.

[]       ON TIME REALLY IS 15 MINUTES EARLY:

This is a chant of many chefs, and some have viewed it as an abuse of power – but the gist of this statement is that your start time in the kitchen should be when you are able to be productive immediately.  For this to happen you need to get a lay of the land, button up your uniform, determine the state of work, the breadth of responsibility on a shift, and grab that first cup of coffee before the “start” button is hit.  The school of hard knocks is all about discipline.

[]       THERE ISN’T ANY SHORT CUT TO STOCK:

I have preached the importance of stock before, but to summarize stock is the heart and soul of a soup or sauce, it is a vehicle for using core ingredients such as onion peels, carrot trimmings, and celery tops that might otherwise become waste, and it brings an aroma of commitment to doing things right in the kitchen.  Stock is as much symbolic as it is functional.  There is no shortcut when the school of hard knocks demands that we do things right.

[]       SPEND THREE DAYS ON A FARM:

When we walk a mile in a farmer’s shoes, we learn to pay adequate respect for their work and pay homage to the ingredients that cooks are privileged to use.  The school of hard knocks teaches us that those carrots and onions are more than a commodity that is tossed off the back of a delivery truck.

[]       OF COURSE, EVERY COOK MUST LEARN TO SERVE A GUEST:

The friction that is an ongoing story of life in restaurants typically exists because one department fails to understand what the other one does and the challenges that they face.  When a cook is scheduled to spend some time, in any capacity, in the front of the house where teamwork is just as important as in the kitchen and where the individual must learn to interface professionally with a guest, then understanding takes place and that friction is less likely to find a home.  The school of hard knocks requires understanding and appreciation.

[]       MASTER THAT KNIFE – EARN THE RIGHT TO A PROCESSOR:

Shortcuts are oftentimes viewed as a path to efficiency, less stress, and profitability.  This may be true, but appreciation of tools that allow this to occur is more pronounced once the individual understands how the task is done without it.  We appreciate a bike after we are relegated to walking everywhere and relish owning a car even more when our previous mode of transportation was that bike.  The school of hard knocks teaches us to crawl before we run.

[]       YOUR NAME ON A CHEF COAT MEANS SOMETHING:

Finally, let’s talk about symbols of accomplishment.  A criticism of younger generations has been that everyone expects a trophy no matter how they perform.  I’m not sure how true this is but do know that the symbol of a cook’s name on his or her chef coat has always meant that he or she has demonstrated the skill and knowledge to warrant their name embroidered on the jacket.  It may seem trivial, but it is important – a real sense of pride that should not be diminished by automatically providing that without associated accomplishment.  Give them a name tag but reserve the embroidery for a right of passage.  To a cook enrolled in the school of hard knocks, this is a certificate of accomplishment.

Whether a chef who began as a dishwasher and never pursued a formal culinary education or a college graduate with a culinary degree – that indoctrination through the school of hard knocks is the most effective manner of building skills, knowledge, pride, and trust that the individual is capable, competent, and confident.

PLAN BETTER – TRAIN HARDER

Learn by doing

Harvest America Ventures, LLC

www.harvestamericacues.com – BLOG

CAFÉ Talks Podcast

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FINDING YOUR WAY AS A COOK AND A CHEF

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To make a difference – this is something that many of us seek and so few of us think that we accomplish.  At some level we all make a difference, even if only in one person’s life, one situation, one community, or even one business.  We should all take some level of comfort in this – there is a reason why we are here.  A few seek to only make a difference in their own lives while others are far more concerned with the impact they have on others but in both cases, there is a cause and effect.  We make a difference through the effort that we are willing and able to give.

I often quote Steve Jobs of Apple Computer who proclaimed that certain people are determined to “make a dent in the universe”, no matter how large or small that dent might be.  Starting out in a kitchen as a dishwasher may not feel like a path to making a difference, but it is a door that can open to incredible opportunity, a lifetime of learning, and immense satisfaction through creativity and making someone else’s day.  If we look at those little steps as the start of something extraordinary then the effort that we invest and the patience that we exhibit can, and likely will pay off.

It is so true no matter what you choose to do with your life – that first open door will show you the way.  When a young Eric Clapton received his first guitar, Michael Jordan embraced his first basketball, Steve Jobs and Steve Wozniak built that first computer in their garage, Michael Phelps dove into a pool for the first time, Tiger Woods swung a club and connected with a golf ball for the first time, or Claude Monet touched a canvas with his first brush stroke they were starting a path to greatness – setting the stage to make a dent in the universe.

Who would have guessed that Chef Jose Andres would wind up one of the world’s great humanitarians with the skills of an accomplished chef and the heart of a saint?  Who would have guessed that the primitive computer built in Steve Jobs garage would wind up creating the worldwide market for personal computers?  Who would have imagined that the first song co-written by Paul McCartney and John Lennon would light the spark that continues to resonate throughout the world?  And who would have ever thought that the idea for a book written on a paper napkin could have created a global interest in J.K. Rawling’s series around Harry Potter and his wizardry adventures?  These individuals made significant dents in the universe, but what about you and me?

Stacking and scraping dishes, pushing rack after rack through the conveyor machine, and restacking hot, clean dishes at the other end may seem like a mindless, boring task, but it is a start – an important start.  Who would ever consider that a 19-year-old working the fry station on a kitchen line could ever aspire to run a kitchen or own a restaurant someday, but thousands, upon thousands have done so?  Talk with those who command busy kitchens, talk with Jose Andres, Stephanie Izard, Daniel Boulud, Sean Brock, Danny Meyer, and Dan Barber about their start and their vision for making a dent in the universe and they will likely reflect on their time in the dish pit – that first open door.

Gavin Kaysen – chef/owner of Spoon and Stable Restaurant and past competitor in the Bocuse d’Or – one of the world’s most challenging culinary competitions, started out as a sandwich maker at Subway.  He knew that if he approached that job as if it were the most important thing that he could do; if he treated his steady customers as if they were special; and if he made every sandwich with the same care as a chef would approach an award-winning entrée in his or her restaurant – that he could step out and go as far as he wanted with a career in food.  He knew he could make a dent in the universe.

Every time that we (cooks or chefs in any type of restaurant) approach our position with the same vigor and commitment that Chef Kaysen shows, then we will always make a difference.  We will make a difference in the comfort and stress level of the chef, put our teammates at ease knowing that they can depend on us, help the restaurant reach its goals, and help the guest enjoy the experience of food and forget about their problems for that one moment when they take a bite of the food that we prepared. 

I have enjoyed opportunities beyond my wildest dreams.  It was that first job washing dishes and then on to helping a breakfast cook work through the daily rush that solidified my interest in the kitchen.  It was that desire to keep opening doors and stepping through that energized me and demonstrated that I might make a difference.  You can do this as well.  There is nothing to stop you except any self-imposed roadblocks that you let get in your way.  Here are some ways to set the stage for making a dent in the universe:

  • If you don’t know how to do something in the kitchen – ask
  • If you are serious about learning – volunteer
  • If you see something that needs to be done – do it
  • If you see a fellow cook in the weeds – jump in and help
  • If your eyes are set on becoming a chef – find a mentor
  • If you are not given adequate opportunities to learn at your current job – find another property with a chef who will teach and train – give adequate notice where you are and open another door
  • If you don’t make enough money right now – be patient and show every day that you are worth more – do so by constantly improving
  • If you are too slow – practice
  • If the chef at your property looks stressed out – ask him or her what you can do to help

There are doors everywhere and you never know which one will lead to an opportunity to make a difference.  Don’t shy away from them – take a step forward and view your next footfall as the most important in your career.  Your dent is based on your effort.  Your confidence is based on your competence.  Your competence is based on your willingness to open the next door and commit.

PLAN BETTER – TRAIN HARDER

Make a dent in the universe – start today

Harvest America Ventures, LLC

Restaurant Consulting

www.harvestamericacues.com BLOG

CAFÉ Talks Podcast

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**Check out my CAFÉ Talks podcast interview with Chef Gavin Kaysen launching on Wednesday, October 20.

PLAYING WITH FIRE

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Most of us tend to gravitate to what we can control.  We have an innate desire to do what we’re good at and avoid what we are not.  It is the fact of control that differentiates comfort from a lack thereof.  We invest the time and the energy in a process of skill development, and of knowledge building for some very specific reasons:  we want to be good at what we do, we want to be respected, we need others to depend on us, and we have a real desire to be comfortable in our own shoes.  Being uncomfortable is un-nerving; it makes our palms sweat, our stomachs churn, our mind wander, and others around us lack the necessary trust in our outcomes. 

So, as cooks we focus on the processes, the systems, the equipment, and the recipes that allow us to be in control.  Sauté cooks know that a burner can be controlled by the right mix of oxygen and gas, or the thermostat on an electric range.  The fry cook can rely, to a large degree, on the thermostat that controls the temp on a deep pan of high temperature oil, and as long as the oil is cleaned and skimmed and changed every few days, they can depend on the results.  The banquet cook can set temperature, time, and moisture in a slow cook oven to ensure that a roast is cooked to the proper degree of doneness every time.  But then there is the grill station – the place where fire controls everything and the cook is subservient to its inconsistencies.

Fire feeds on oxygen and the dripping of collagen fat melting through the marbling of steaks and chops.  Fire, even in the most sophisticated equipment has the upper hand and for a cook to manage it he or she must respect the power that exists in the blue, orange, red and white variances in the character of the flame.  The heat varies, the sizzle from contact with fire varies, and the ability to coax the fire into doing what you want is as challenging as hitting a golf ball into 30 mile per hour wind gusts and expecting it to do what you want.  A good cook must respect these facts and work every day to try and understand the complex nature of open fire preparations.

Humankinds first attempt at cooking dates back two million years ago according to anthropologist Richard Wrangham, as early cooks built open fire pits to make food more palatable.  Some believe that it was this act of cooking meat that allowed the human brain to evolve through the provision of added surplus energy.  See “Catching Fire – How Cooking Made Us Human”. https://www.amazon.com/Catching-Fire-Cooking-Made-Human/dp/0465020410/ref=sr_1_1?crid=1N7SLKW94L4NK&dchild=1&keywords=catching+fire+richard+wrangham&qid=1633958900&s=books&sprefix=Catching+Fire+%2Caps%2C183&sr=1-1

Today, the vast majority of the nearly 8 billion people around the world still cook with open fire.  Although most may use available wood, twigs, and brush for their fires – in America we were attracted to a new method of fire starting and tending, with the invention of charcoal briquets.  It was actually Thomas Edison and Edward Kingsford who perfected the process of pressing sawdust, wood scraps, tar and cornstarch into the magical fuel that many still use today.  Kingsford perfected the chemistry and Edison designed the plant for manufacturing.  Combining this invention with the work of the Weber Brothers Metal Works in the Chicago area drove the creation of a new industry and a great American pastime. (National Geographic – A Brief History of Cooking with Fire) https://www.nationalgeographic.com/culture/article/a-brief-history-of-cooking-with-fire

Today’s chefs have reinvigorated the ancient process of cooking with open fire.  With more sophisticated wood fired grills and ovens, they are opening “Live Fire” restaurants from coast to coast.  The comfort of being in control of the process is steadily being replaced by the art of embracing the unpredictability of fire along with the flavor benefits that are a result.  Learning to cook in this manner involves a willingness to put aside what a chef thinks he or she knows and be willing to re-learn how to turn over much of the control to the flame.  The cook must be willing to tag along for the ride and learn something new every time the coals are stoked.

Starting the fire, selecting the right wood, curing an oven, building the coals, monitoring temperatures that can reach 1,000-degree Fahrenheit, and staying focused on the product that may cook in a few short minutes is far less a science and much more an art form that takes considerable time to understand and begin to master. 

The heat is intense, the sweat will pour down a cook’s back, the view of the flames is intoxicating, the sear is breathtaking, and determining degrees of doneness is completely different than working with traditional char broilers and ovens.  Neapolitan pizzas take 90 seconds on an 850-degree wood fired hearth, artisan breads bake at 500 degrees, chickens and game birds’ nest in cast iron Dutch ovens as they absorb the flavor of hardwoods like cherry or oak, and steaks and chops take their direction from the deep blue and golden yellow flames that jump from the embers that sit just a few inches from the steel grates designed to take the heat. 

If you felt that being a line cook was physically hard before – hang on to your hat when you first enter the world of open fire cooking.  This is how cooking was meant to be – a challenge, a way to pit the intelligence of the cook against the all-consuming power and unpredictable nature of fire.

“The comforts of life’s essentials – food, fire, and friendship.”

-Julia Child

PLAN BETTER – TRAIN HARDER

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THE CHARLIE WATTS OF THE KITCHEN

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I have been following the current Rolling Stones Tour without Charlie Watts for the first time in 59 years.  He was, like so many drummers, far more important to the band than many would have thought.  He wasn’t flamboyant, didn’t invest too much energy in building rapid fire fills in all the Stones songs, and wasn’t one to seek out the limelight, but he was the energy, the force, the stability behind the music that carried the band for an unbelievable number of years (and still going).  When you stop to reflect back on the dozens of albums and hundreds of songs that make up their catalog you start to hear the power and unique character to what he said through his instrument.  A short catchy rhythm here and there, a short staccato accent, or a strategically placed rim shot and you suddenly had a Stones song that played in your head over and over again.  He was always there, keeping the others in line, and being consistently present. Never underestimate the importance of that piece of the machine.

In the kitchen, like in a band, there are players who grab the microphone and the spotlight and some who add a flashy solo now and again to take centerstage and seem to be most important to the sound of the kitchen, but it really is one person, one station that consistently serves as the drummer keeping the engine churning and holding everything together.  In most kitchens it is the person working the chargrill.  This is the line cook who works with fire, the one cook who allows the flame to touch the product directly and as such must learn to control the uncontrollable.  The steaks and chops are a consistent centerpiece on nearly every menu.  The muscle that when properly marbled or blended with the right amount of fat, feeds the flame as it laps up its energy from the moisture that drips into the soul of fire as it wraps around a strip, filet, chop, ribeye, or beautifully blended burger. 

Yes, every cook can be trained to determine degrees of doneness and after a period of time get pretty good at it, but it is the accomplished grill person, the Charlie Watts of the kitchen, who can sense when it is time to give that steak a quarter turn to highlight those perfect grill marks, or flip the steak (only once), when he or she knows that it is time.  The grill cook always dances on the edge of knowing just when to make a move so that the protein will caramelize on the outside, building that incredible carbon crust while still ensuring that a perfect rare, or medium rare is maintained inside.  The Charlie Watts of the line knows just when to pull that steak or chop from the fire so that carry over cooking never leaves the meat overdone and to allow adequate time for the meat to rest before slicing to ensure that the juice stays in the meat and not on the plate.  A perfectly cooked steak is a work of art just like those steady beats from the drummer in a band. 

The grill keeps the rhythm of the kitchen, sets the pace and defines the tone.  All timing from other stations: sauté, fry station, and plate set up is built around the work of the grillade. Building flavors on the sauté station takes a sophisticated palate and the ability to keep multiple preparations organized as tickets come screaming into the kitchen where as the grillade typically only works with salt and pepper – leaving the flavor up to the quality of the meat and the magic of the flame.  One adds to the flavor profile, while the other protects what is present from the beginning.  It is the steady beat of the grillade that defines how successful a line of cooks will be during service. He or she is the commander of the flame – fire and man or woman – the most primal of cooking techniques, the most admired, the most intense.  Everything about the position exudes power, determination, and the ability to work in an environment of extremes.  It is physical, mental, and emotional; it is independent and collaborative, but most importantly it is the beat that other cooks depend on.  Just like Charlie Watts – the grill cook is the soul of the band of cooks.

PLAN BETTER – TRAIN HARDER

Respect the Grillade

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THE MOMENT WHEN YOU ARE IN THE ZONE – PART I

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As a cook or chef there are many days that go well and a few that challenge the best.  There are times when a service kind of clicks and the night ends without any problems – these are nights that allow you to feel good about what you do and the level of skill that you have built.  But then, on occasion, there are those nights when you and your teammates are in a special place, a place that is hard to describe unless you have been there – you are in the zone.

In the zone is defined as:

“In a mental state of focused concentration on the performance of an activity, in which one dissociates oneself from distracting or irrelevant aspects of one’s environment.”

-Your dictionary

But when this occurrence takes place with a team, the results can be magical.  There is a level of non-verbal communication that defies explanation – communication that keeps everyone in sync, seemingly knowing what every person in the team is doing or is about to do so that work flowed with precision and grace.  A look, a nod, a hand motion, or a single word can move everyone into motion, without hesitation.  When this happens there is a rush of adrenaline that drives the team forward with speed and efficiency.  It is beautiful to watch and energizing to experience.

If you are a seasoned veteran of the kitchen, you have likely experienced this a few times and know exactly what I am referring to, but for others – here is an attempt to re-create the “feel” of being in the kitchen zone:

Tom arrived a bit later than normal for his shift at Café Monique.  He typically liked to be at work an hour or so before his shift began just to get into a rhythm.  Today, he was just 15minutes early and this made him a bit nervous.  The rest of the team was already settled in and hard at work.  Tom quickly washed his hands, tied on an apron, adjusted his uniform and set-up his workstation.  This team was always professional and ready to hit the ground running.  As a result, his prep sheet was built the night before so within a few minutes he was charged up and cranking just like everyone else.  The usual acknowledgements took place, a few fist bumps, and high-fives, but for the most part it was “strictly business”. 

The reservation book was full for tonight – more than 200 recorded and no room for walk-ins.  Tom and everyone else knew that more than half of those reservations would be crammed into the 7:00 hour; so, there would be no room for mistakes and no patience for a lack of adequate mise en place.  The kitchen was active with the staccato sound of knives tapping on cutting boards, prepped items sizzling on super-hot pans, pots and pans clanging, and plates clinking together as they were stacked from the finish end of dishwashing.

Sabrina worked the sauté station.  She was very adept at her craft having worked that station for more than 18 months and bringing experience from two other high-end restaurants before landing at Café Monique.  She had to handle eight different menu items on those cherry red flat tops and high BTU burners and called out orders to each station on slower nights.  Tonight, that additional duty would fall on the shoulders of Shawn who was next in line for the sous chef position (if Jake really did move on to a chef position up town).  Shawn would call out orders and set up plates for the other line cooks.  His role was critical because it helped to set the pace of work.

Cliff or “Duke” as everyone called him, manned the broiler.  His role was steaks and chops, and man was he good at it.  Unlike the other “youngsters” working the line – Duke had been doing this type of job for almost 20 years.  He was the exception to the rule of “it’s a young man’s game”.  He loved the broiler, had no desire to work elsewhere, thrived on pressure, and could tell degrees of doneness through some type of internal radar.  He would look at a steak and know that it was rare, medium rare, or “God forbid” well done.  There were burn marks up and down both arms and his hands were likely made of asbestos at this point.  When he did burn himself, you could see a smile from ear to ear, he seemed to relish those impromptu tattoos.

Tom was the newest addition to the line.  He was only 19 years old and as such just learning the ropes.  His station focused on deep fried items and a few apps. 

Tom was all eyes and ears knowing that every second in this kitchen was a teaching moment.  If he wanted to move up to a more demanding station he would need to “discover” how each player worked, how they set-up their stations, the flavor profile of each dish, timing, and plate presentations.  In a busy kitchen there was no room for asking questions or missing a step once the point-of-sale printer started talking the language that everyone understood.

Garde Manger and desserts was managed by the team of Julio and Martina – a brother/sister team from the Dominican Republic.  They had earned their green card a few years back and were on their way to citizenship.  It was this job at Café Monique that allowed them to stay in the States and transition to become Americans – soon.  They were spectacular at their jobs.  They worked fast, in unison, had great taste buds, and created exceptionally beautiful plates every time.  They were happy to be here and never, ever came to work without a smile on their face.

Jake was the sous chef.  This was his first position at that level.  He had worked at a number of restaurants in town and at the age of 25 he knew he was ready for his own gig as chef.  The chef of Café Monique had set him up with an interview at a small boutique hotel for the position of chef.  Jake was a finalist and hoped to hear whether or not the job was his within the next few days.  As excited as he was, right now his focus was on tonight’s 200 reservations.  Chefs need to live in the moment once service time nears.  There is no room for wandering thoughts of challenges and opportunities outside of the moment.  He constantly touched base with each of his cooks – answering questions, tasting, commenting, and jumping in to help.  When that first ticket arrived off the printer he would be on the other side of the chef’s table as the evening expeditor – the communicator between front and back of the house, the person to inspect each plate, the person to wipe the rims and dress the plate with a cluster of herbs or a dash of infused oil.  Nothing left the kitchen without his final approval.

Everyone worked fast and efficiently as items on their prep lists were checked off and their stations began to come together.  Service time was only an hour away now, so the pace and intensity picked up even more.  Everyone seemed overly serious, except for Duke.  He had a perpetual smile, laughed to himself quite often, and seemed totally in control of a station that he had set-up thousands of times.

It was expected that 30 minutes before service all of the stations would be basically set.  Jake would touch base with each line cook, go through a final tasting, help cooks make last minute adjustments, and then take a few minutes on pre-meal review with the service staff in the dining room.  It was critical that servers understood flavors, ingredients, features, and what might marry well as appetizers, desserts, and wine with each entree.  The more they knew, the better they would be as salespeople and the more balanced the experience for the guest.

As the clock moved closer to the 5:30 opening mark all line cooks were ready.  Their mise en place was tight, side towels folded just so, water bottles for hydration filled, and nerves on edge.  Bouncing from foot to foot, doing a few deep knee bends, clicking their tongs, and downing last-minute espresso for a final energy buzz – they waited to hear the printer start to talk.

The doors opened at 5:30 and ten minutes later the first orders started to click off the POS.  Here we go!

PLAN BETTER – TRAIN HARDER

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IN THE ZONE – PART II COMING SOON

THE LINE IN THE SAND WITH RESTAURANT PRICING

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I get it, profit in restaurants is sometimes hard to come by.  We deal with highly perishable goods, unpredictable customer behavior, swinging door staffing, and constantly escalating cost of goods.  Restaurants get hit from all angles so when there is a chance to push the envelope on pricing – many do.  It’s so hard to make money on that 10 oz. Prime Filet or 14 oz. Berkshire Pork Chop.  It seems impossible to push a positive bottom line selling that beautiful halibut fillet or Diver’s scallops, so we have to charge $60 for a steak or $45 for a piece of fish.  People will understand, so let’s just keep charging more and more until we cross that line of “what the market will bear”. 

So here is the line in the sand – WHERE IS THE VALUE?  At what point do you think a guest will ask: “Is this meal really worth $100?  Some of you will respond by pointing to the crazy cost of goods increases in recent years or the fact that we now (rightfully so) have to pay our employees a living wage or even provide some basic benefits – so we have no choice but to charge what we charge.  OK, I have been involved in the restaurant business for more than 50 years – I hear what you are saying, but I pose the question again: “Is this meal really worth $100 (or more)?”  Doesn’t it eventually come down to this?  Rationalize all you want, but if we reach a point where people begin to question value, then we will be lost.

Of course, there is a handful of masterful chefs and restaurateurs who can charge crazy prices to sold out audiences.  These are the restaurants where dining is much, much more than just consuming food.  They provide value through the provision of a very complex experience that includes ambience, the highest level of service, highly sophisticated and creative food presentations, and the aura of food as entertainment – I applaud them and admire their commitment to the extraordinary, but this is a very small percentage of the restaurants available.  How do the rest of us explain the menu with $25 appetizers, $60 entrees, and $20 desserts?  How do we continue to market wines at $20 a glass or cocktails in the same price category?  How often are guests seen leaving the restaurant gripping their wallets and shaking their heads?

The whole premise of a successful restaurant is making guests feel comfortable, welcome, and fulfilled.  We want them to return often and tell their friends what a great place this restaurant is.  It takes so much effort, time, and money to pull customers in for that first visit – we want to make them feel good about their investment and book another reservation soon.  If they don’t see the value, regardless of how tasty or beautiful that plate of food might be, then why would they return?

The average middle class American’s salary is $51,000 – that’s approximately $24 per hour.  That $100 meal took them four hours work to pay for.  So, ask yourself the question: “Is the meal that I provide that guest worth ½ of a day’s work?  Is there a ceiling to pricing where the average guest will simply say:  enough is enough?” 

So – what is the answer?  From my perspective the answer lies in menu planning, training, and labor efficiency.  Restaurants need to take a hard look at what they serve, how they serve it, and what they are able to charge in order to EARN a profit.  At the same time, it is essential that all of these efforts are focused on attracting a broader audience of guests who return frequently.

[]       MENU PLANNING:         If the only way that we can reach profitability with that filet is to charge $60, then maybe it’s time to take the filet off the menu and look for an alternative that with the right talent can be even more exciting than the filet.  If that halibut steak must sell for $45, then let’s take a look at the hundreds of other fish species available without the high price tag of the more common (over-fished) varieties.  If you need to charge $20 a glass for wine, then require your bar manager or sommelier to research “great find” wines that cost your restaurant under $15 and can enhance the guest experience for less than $12 per glass.  We have the ability to find value solutions, we just need to make this a priority. 

[]       PORTION SIZES:  Bigger isn’t always better.  Maybe it’s time to ween our guests off the 12 to 16-ounce portions of protein.  After all, this is a disservice to our guest’s health and wellbeing.  Let’s be more creative with interesting vegetable accompaniments and keep proteins under six ounces.  Smaller portions lead to lower price tags, broader acceptance, and enhanced value from a well-designed, balanced meal.

[]       TRAINING:  We all know the drill – it’s a business of pennies, but without everyone’s buy-in, those pennies will quickly evaporate.  Training in the current restaurant environment has never been more important or more beneficial to both the operator and the guest.  This is one surefire way of keeping selling prices in check.

[]       EFFICIENCY:  This is the hard truth – we may never go back to the era where there are far more qualified individuals to work in restaurants than there are positions.  This may be the perfect time to align menu planning, effective buying, solid training, and efficiency.  Restaurants will need to do more with fewer people – this means workable menus, the right equipment, and systems that allow us to wow our guests, keep portions in check, and do so with a streamlined crew. 

Welcome to the new world where VALUE is centerstage.  How will you approach it?

PLAN BETTER – TRAIN HARDER

Harvest America Ventures, LLC

www.harvestamericacues.com  BLOG

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FROM THE CHEF’S DESK – YOU NEVER KNOW – PART TWO

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Weekend work continued through the Fall and Winter when I turned 16.  I already made plans to work full time at the diner during the summer months.  Millie was beginning to involve me in some of her breakfast prep when things were slow.  I peeled and diced potatoes for home fries, cracked eggs for scrambled and omelets, and learned how to use the slicer to cut bacon from slabs (this was before layout bacon was a thing).  Occasionally, she would call me to help push out a big order by flipping pancakes and French toast on the griddle.  I was having a blast and learning a few skills along the way. 

Summer came, more college waitresses arrived, and Millie had a chef coat available for me.  I moved from washing dishes to her lead prep person and assistant during the breakfast rush.  Suddenly, I was on my way to becoming a short-order cook.  All through the summer I picked up some basic knife skills, organization, and speed to the point where one morning a week (a slower day) I ran the breakfast and lunch grill by myself.  I was in a groove and actually looked forward to going to work every morning. 

Throughout this and the following summer I worked alongside Millie.  She was a great teacher and fun to be around.  She was serious about cooking, even though it was a diner, and made sure that I knew that there was no room for mediocrity.  At the beginning of my second summer (just after my senior year in high school) she sat me down for a serious conversation: “Paul, what are your plans for the future?”  I looked at her without a smile and said: “I don’t have any plans.”  Millie shook her head like she always did and said:

“OK, this is what I see.  You are a natural in the kitchen.  You pick things up quickly, your knife skills are pretty good, you are fast and efficient, and your plates of food are as good as mine.  I just fell into a life in the kitchen after my husband passed away.  He was a chef in a nice restaurant downtown and I had been busy raising a family.  When he died, I needed to make some money, so I took this job and taught myself how to become a cook.  I didn’t have the natural skills or passion that you do, but I made it work.  You’re different and I think that you could grow to be good at this craft.  There are plenty of opportunities and ways that you might approach this.  You could go to culinary school, there are many around, or you could enroll in an apprenticeship, or you could simply start working in a more serious restaurant.  I think that this is a calling for you.  Whatever you decide, I want you to have this.”

She passed me a large box that I opened cautiously.  There were four well-used books and a roll bag with three beautiful knives and a sharpening steel.  I looked at her with eyes of appreciation.

“These were my husband’s knives and his most used cookbooks.  I want you to have them and use them knowing that he and I will always be by your side as you become a professional cook and maybe a chef someday.”

I can’t remember ever feeling so much emotion and gratitude.  All I could muster up was: “Thanks Millie, I will take care of them.”

“Paul, think about what I said, talk it over with your parents, and if you have questions or need help moving forward, please feel free to ask.  Now, back to work!”

That day was a turning point for me; a moment of decision that I had not contemplated before. What am I going to do with my life?  I like the kitchen and the restaurant world that I have been part of, I am feeling confident here, the people are fun, and my mentor thinks that I could be good at this.

Fast forward a few years.  I decided to go with Millie’s recommendation, my parents were happy that I had some direction, I applied to college and packed my knives for a future in the kitchen.

There were bumps along the way, but I never looked back.  From breakfast cook I moved to a more formal kitchen during summers while attending school.  It didn’t take long before I discovered how little I really knew about food and cooking.  The first full-service restaurant chef I worked for was tough.  He took no prisoners and had very little patience for incompetence.  The one thing I had going for me was that I knew to show up early, always said “Yes chef” to whatever he asked me to do, and I was fast (all thanks to Millie).  He took me under his wing and gave me loads of opportunities working banquets, helping on the line as a commis, and getting a taste of real kitchen life.

When I finished college, I moved on to a hotel property that was busier than any place I had ever seen.  The chef was the pinnacle of professionalism.  He had starched whites with his name and position embroidered over the pocket, and a tall chef toque.  He had spent time at the Queen Elizabeth Hotel in Montreal, Canada and was moved to the property where I was working in an effort to add some polish.  The kitchen was huge and set-up by department with a lead person in charge of each:  garde manger, saucier/potager, pâtissier, boucher, and grillade.  I signed up for their apprenticeship program that would give me a chance to rotate through all of these departments. 

For two years I worked with serious people who were good at their craft.  I didn’t become truly proficient in any one area, but I was exposed and able to hold my own.  I worked banquets from 50 to 1,500 people, sometimes engaged in multiple events on a given day.  I learned how to trim and tie rib roasts, bone chickens, cut steaks, make a variety of soups and stocks, cook steaks and chops to various degrees of doneness, open clams, and chop and dice with decent speed and accuracy.  I was becoming a real cook and learning something new every day.  I experienced what it was like to work in a classical kitchen, how the organization worked, and saw, firsthand, how complicated the job of chef really was.  Whatever I learned in college paled in comparison to what I was picking up on-the-job. What would be next?

You never know what lies ahead, so when the sous chef told me he was moving to Atlanta as a property chef and asked me to come with him as a sous chef, I was excited.  I flew down, toured the property, met the staff, and got a quick feel for the city.  I wound up turning it down but moved into a food manager position at a local college.  Three years there gave me a taste of managing a department, scheduling, ordering, evaluating, inventory, and being responsible for the financial success of the business.  Being away from the kitchen was not where I wanted to be, but the management experience was important and would serve me well as other opportunities might come my way.  I returned to the kitchen with a quest of becoming a chef.

PLAN BETTER – TRAIN HARDER

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PART THREE OF: YOU NEVER KNOW – COMING SOON

FROM THE CHEF’S DESK – YOU NEVER KNOW – PART ONE

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When I was 15 years old the furthest thing from my mind was planning my future.  This was the beginning of that age when aside from finding a way to be independent and seeking a girlfriend, there was very little planning going on.  Ah, but getting a part-time job with a paycheck was a good start. 

I managed to land a weekend job at a local diner as a dishwasher.  I didn’t have any marketable skills yet except I guaranteed the manager that I would show up on time.  Little did I know at the time that this was a lifelong attribute, something that every employer would relish in a job candidate.  So be it, I walked in a few minutes early on day one, was given an apron, given the five -minute tour through the dish pit, introduced to the head cook (Millie), presented with a timecard, and left to my own common sense to figure the rest out.  Millie was a little cold at first, I guess she wanted to see if I would show up and listen to her. The answer was YES on both counts.  She took some time to show me how to set-up, stock, and clean out the machine, how to properly rinse and stack dishes in racks, the best way to stack and deliver plates and glassware to their proper home, and how to be efficient.  I was ready to rock.

That first day was crazy.  It was Saturday so I think everyone within fivemiles decided to come in for lunch.  Millie was working the line with a helper – burgers, fries, grilled cheese, BLT’s, Club sandwiches, a few salads, Western egg sandwiches, sliced roast beef on white bread with globs of gravy, and a few dozen other items including her specials of the day.  They were on fire, and I was enthralled until the dirty dishes started piling up.  At first, I was enamored by the cute college student waitresses, that was until they splashed me with residue from dirty plates.  “Why don’t they stack the same type of plates together to make things easier for me?”  This is a question I would ask for decades to come.  It wasn’t long before I was way behind.  Dishes were backed up as servers barked out orders: “We need silverware.  We’re almost out of water glasses.  Can’t you work faster?”  I put my head down and just plugged ahead, trying my best, dropping a few plates that shattered in a million pieces, wearing the spray of water that bounced off plates in pre-rinse, and burning my hands on the super-hot plates coming out the other end of the machine. 

Millie was really cranking, and I caught her shaking her head a few times when she looked my way.  I started to feel helpless and way over my head, when the lunch crowd finally started to dwindle around 2:00.  It would take me until 3:30 to finally catch up and start to clean the area for the night crew that would arrive around 4:30. Millie and her helper were cleaning the griddle and busy chopping, slicing, and dicing for tomorrow and they seemed oblivious to me and the work that I was still engaged in.  As I was cleaning out and filling the dish machine for the late crew, Millie brought me a cheeseburger and said: “Let’s sit down and talk for a few minutes.”

I thought for sure she was going to fire me after my first day, but instead she smiled and asked: “So how did you like your first day?”  I shrugged my shoulders as if to say: It was OK.  Millie continued: “You know, you did a really good job today.  Many people on their first day, facing a busy rush like that, might have just slipped out the back door and not returned.  It happens all the time.  But you stuck it out.  I saw you struggling, I felt your pain and confusion, but we were busy too, so I couldn’t help.  I looked over now and again and when I saw that you were still there, pushing forward, I just shook my head wondering how we found someone with such persistence.  I am impressed!”  And here I thought that she was shaking her head because I was doing such a terrible job.

Millie smiled again and said: “Listen, I want to tell you something that must stick with you for the rest of your life.  The dishwasher is the most important person in the restaurant.  We can get by without some employees, but the place falls apart without the dishwasher.  You must always take care of the person who does the job that others may think is less important – show respect no matter what you do or where you work.  If you learn nothing else while you work here – learn that.  Now go home and rest – tomorrow is Sunday brunch day – it will be even busier.  The nice thing is that you will have another dishwasher working with you.  Thanks for being a good employee.”

I went home with a big smile on my face.  My first job, my first day, and the chef said thanks.  I think I’m going to like this.

Sunday morning, I struggled to get out of bed, but I knew how important it was for me to be on time.  I dressed and rushed out of the house without any breakfast.  I arrived at the diner right on time.  Millie said: “Good morning, you’re late!”  I looked confused and said: “Millie, I thought I was right on time?”  She looked sternly at me and said: “On time means 15 minutes early.  You need time to put on your apron, wash your hands, say hello to everyone, and then settle into your area.  We don’t pay you for that.”  Then her stern look turned into a smile. “Have you had any breakfast?”  I held my head down and said: “No maam.”  She laughed and put a plate of fried eggs, bacon, hash browns, and toast at the back booth table and said: “You can’t do a good job on an empty stomach.  Take 15 minutes and enjoy your breakfast then get to work.  Breakfast is slow, but by 10:00 the place will be packed.”

I shoveled down the breakfast – it was delicious – and went right to work.  I set my station up, filled the machine, and attacked the handful of breakfast dishes and pots and pans.  Those college waitresses began to arrive and each one stopped at the dish window, smiled, and said: “Good morning, Paul, nice to see you back here today.”  I blushed and suddenly felt like I belonged.

The day was very busy, but Jim, a much more seasoned dishwasher worked with me through lunch.  He showed me a few ways to stay more organized and save some steps, and when things kicked into gear we worked well together.  He handled pre-rinse, stacking dish racks, and pushing them through the machine while I stacked the hot, clean plates, glassware, and flatware and delivered clean items to various spots in the kitchen and dining room.  I was having fun.  Millie caught me out of the corner of her eye, winked and smiled.  This was enough of a signal to me – I was doing what I was supposed to.  When Jim and I cleaned up at the end of service we sat down together and enjoyed that end of shift cheeseburger and he made me drink my first cup of coffee.  “You will learn to love coffee and depend on it.  Coffee can both help to build your energy and calm you at the same time.  Drink up!”  I struggled to get it down but managed to do so.  He shook my hand and told me it was a pleasure working together. 

That week I boasted to my friends about being a working man surrounded by attractive college girls and felt like I was on my way to independence.

The following Saturday I arrived at work 20 minutes early to Millie’s approval.  She put her arm around me and said: “Welcome back!”.  Then she handed me an envelope with my first paycheck.  I quickly opened it and smiled.  It wasn’t much, but it was more than I had in my pocket at any time before today.  Millie explained about the pay deductions which were kind of discouraging, but as she told me: “We all have to do our part to support the government.”  I guess, but I’m only 15 – do they really need those few dollars from me?  It wouldn’t be the last time I wondered that.

OK, let’s see what today brings in the dish pit.

PLAN BETTER – TRAIN HARDER

Harvest America Ventures, LLC

Restaurant Consulting

www.harvestamericacues.com  BLOG

CAFÉ Talks Podcast

https://cafemeetingplace.com/cafe-podcasts

YOU NEVER KNOW – PART TWO COMING SOON

A CHEF’S ADVICE TO 2022 CULINARY GRADUATES

Featured

A retired NFL coach would rally his team before a game with the words: “Where would you rather be than right here, right now?”  This is a sentence that sums up the life’s work of these athletes, a culmination of talent, hard work, and perseverance.  To get to where they were in that moment took everything they had and now was the time when they should not only relish the feeling of accomplishment, but also not let down their teammates, their coaching staff, the fans, or themselves.  This was the moment they were waiting for, the chance to grab what was in front of them and give it their all.

This is where you are right now.  It took a lot for you to get to this point.  One would assume that you dedicated the time and effort to your education, otherwise graduation might not be within your grasp.  Some of you may have been fortunate to come from a family with the finances to support your dreams, while others may have had to scrape and save and take on substantial loan debt to get to the same point – in both cases it took someone’s financial effort to get you here.  Your chef instructors dedicated themselves to passing on the knowledge and skills that you will need to reach for your goals; knowledge and skills that took them a career to acquire.  Now you are ready to take the leap into reality, to test what you think you know in a fast-paced, physically, emotionally, and mentally demanding business.  The next steps you take will lead to a long career with plenty of opportunity and a fair share of bumps in the road.  Here you go!

So, put aside for a moment what you know, or what you think you know and listen up.  Here are some critical points to remember, essential understanding that will open doors to your future, help you to fit in with your first and many other kitchen crews, and build a path forward.

[]       YOU DON’T KNOW ENOUGH – YET:

I know – you spent loads of money for this education and your GPA is much better than average but rest assured – you don’t know enough.  You need to approach every position, and every day with this realization and then work on building that portfolio of skills and knowledge. Experience is ultimately the best educator.

[]       TAKE EVERY OPPORTUNITY TO LEARN – YOUR EDUCATION WILL

         NEVER STOP:

Be a sponge, work for the best, ask too many questions, read everything you can, volunteer on your days off, buddy up with people who are more talented than you, take a course now and then, set a path for your next ten years and make sure that continuing education is a major part of it.

[]       ALWAYS REMAIN HUMBLE:

Even when you know quite a bit – be humble.  Share what you know with others, listen to them, and never exhibit any belief that you are somehow better than they are.

[]       IT’S NOT ABOUT YOU, IT’S ABOUT THE TEAM:

The only consistently successful restaurants are the ones where every member of the team knows they are equal.  The end result of great food, satisfied guests, and a profitable restaurant rests on the shoulders of the group working in unison.  There is little room for star players, only star team players.

[]       WE ARE ALL DISHWASHERS:

Treat dishwashers well, lend a hand, treat them like professionals, thank them, support them, and know that without their work, yours would suffer.

[]       NO JOB IS BENEATH YOU – EVERYTHING IN A KITCHEN IS

 EVERYONE’S JOB:

If you EVER state or even think that any task in the kitchen is beneath you then it is time to look for a different career.

[]       TURN YOUR BACK ON MEDIOCRITY:

Don’t ever be tempted by the words: “good enough”.  Mediocrity is a disease they will ruin morale, destroy reputations, drive guests away, and quickly turn success into failure.  

[]       EXCELLENCE IS THE ONLY APPROACH:

Throughout your career – approach every task as if it were the most important to your career and the reputation of the restaurant.  Peeling onions, slicing mushrooms, turning potatoes, chopping parsley, boning chickens, or filleting fish, taking inventory, washing a piece of equipment, or stacking dishes – every job deserves your very best effort.

[]       NEVER FORGET WHO HELPED YOU ALONG THE WAY:

Practice this every day and know how important it is and how good it makes you feel:  SAY THANK YOU.  Say it freely, mean it, and say it often.  Stop in to see that chef instructor who put forth the extra effort and say: THANK YOU.  Cook a meal for your parents and say: THANK YOU.  Drop a note to a chef who took you under his or her wing and say:  THANKS.  Turn to the co-worker beside you who pitched in when you were in the weeds and say: THANKS!

[]       TAKE CARE OF YOURSELF:

Sometimes the hours will be difficult, the physical demands relentless, the emotional strain hard to take, and the pressure for release by over-drinking or using recreational drugs too great – but YOU NEED TO TAKE CARE OF YOURSELF and find the time to eat well, rest, exercise, and protect your mental health.  MAKE THE TIME and let the chef know that this is part of your lifestyle.

[]       EVERYTHING YOU DO IMPACTS YOUR BRAND:

This is a tough one – you are still young and let’s face it, sometimes naïve about the impact of your actions.  Watch what you post on social media, how you interact with others, obey the laws of the land and the policies of your employer, know what it means to be professional and hold those standards very, very close.  Don’t allow your personal brand to be damaged.

[]       YOU ARE IN THE SERVICE BUSINESS – IF YOU ARE NOT SERVING THE GUEST DIRECTLY, THEN SERVE SOMEONE WHO IS:

You may think you are in the business of food, but we are all in the business of serving others and exceeding their expectations.

[]       CLEAN AS YOU GO:

As has been said: cleanliness is next to godliness.

[]       FOOD SAFETY IS A SACRED TRUST:

The most important thing you can do for a guest and for the reputation of the restaurant is to protect everyone’s wellbeing through application of proper sanitation and food handling. THAT SANITATION CLASS WAS VERY IMPORTANT.

[]       BE COST CONSCIOUS – THE KEY TO BEING NOTICED:

Restaurants work on very small profit margins.  The chef and manager cannot watch every penny, but you and your co-workers can.

[]       RESPECT OTHERS:

Male, female, young, old, dishwasher or executive chef, owner, manager, vendor, delivery driver, co-workers, farmer, guest, health inspector and anyone else who crosses your path – BE RESPECTFUL!

[]       RESPECT THE INGREDIENTS AND THE EQUIPMENT YOU USE:

Always remember that as cooks we are privileged to work with ingredients that farmers, fishermen, ranchers, and producers dedicated as much passion and effort to as you do the job of cook.  We owe them our respect and care.  We need to ensure that those ingredients are handled and stored correctly and when in production used properly and to their fullest.  Excessive waste is a sign of disrespect for those involved in the process of getting those ingredients to you.  The same holds true for the equipment (very expensive I might add) that we work with.  Treat it with care as if it were your own.

[]       BELIEVE IN SOMETHING IMPORTANT and GIVE BACK:

Pick something and make it part of your identity.  Be somewhat altruistic with your profession and stand for something that is meaningful.  It might be sustainability, waste management, protection of traditions, a pursuit of excellence, authenticity, or connection with the source of ingredients, etc.  You will always feel better about your career choice if you take a stand.

[]       LEARN FROM YOUR MISTAKES:

You will make plenty of mistakes – they are a teaching tool.  Mistakes are a problem when we don’t learn from them.

[]       BE DEPENDABLE and HONEST:

Show up when you say you will, be prepared to work, follow through and make sure that every task assigned is completed at the highest level and remain a bastion of honesty – something that others can ALWAYS depend on.

[]       TAKE PRIDE IN THE PROFESSION:

There are centuries of professional cooks who came before you; cooks who defined our profession and established pride in what we do, how we do it, how we look and act, and the standards that define us.  Be proud of this and act and look in a manner that pays respect to that history.  You are the new ambassadors for an industry.

Now, the world is your oyster – do it right!

PLAN BETTER – TRAIN HARDER

Harvest America Ventures, LLC

www.harvestamericacues.com  BLOG

CAFÉ Talks Podcast

Listen to more than 50 incredible interviews with leaders in the field.

https://cafemeetingplace.com/cafe-podcasts

A CHANCE TO BE ALL THAT YOU CAN BE

Featured

This is a direct message to all of those young cooks just starting out, dishwashers, culinary students, and seasoned veterans of the kitchen – you can go as far as you want to go in the food business as long as you are willing to put in the work, build a plan, and stick to the plan.  Am I exaggerating?  NO!  I believe this wholeheartedly, there is no limit to what you can achieve if you believe that you can and invest the energy and time.

Whatever you want to achieve, and whatever position you seek: Restaurant Chef, Research Chef, Personal Chef, Restaurateur, Food and Beverage Director, Teacher, Author, Consultant, or Product Developer are all within your reach.  Yes, this is ABSOLUTELY TRUE.  The only person who can get in the way of your success is YOU.

So, what should you be doing right now to set a course for a great future in the kitchen?  Here are fifteen “must do” methods:

[]       START WITH A PLAN:

You have to want to find a specific level of success and that begins with a “how to” plan.  Do you want to be a chef some day in a high-volume family style restaurant?  Then connect with chefs already in that role and ask what skills are needed and how they managed to acquire them.  Build this into your plan.  Do you want to aspire to become a restaurant owner someday, then do the same with successful restaurateurs.  What are the skills, what are the steps, and how might you meet those requirements?

[]       BE WILLING TO TURN ON A DIME:

One of the interesting things about a career in food is that you never know what opportunities might come your way.  As important as your plan is, be willing to realign with a new plan if one of those great opportunities does emerge.  Trust me – you never know where a career in food might take you.

[]       COMMIT TO CONSTANT SKILL DEVELOPMENT:

Learning will never cease.  If a day goes by that you don’t actively pursue skill growth, then you should view it as a day of missed opportunity.  Commit to constant learning.

[]       BE INQUISITIVE:

If you don’t know – ask.  If you see someone exhibit a unique skill, then find out how you might do the same.  If you face a challenge that is outside of your wheelhouse to fix, then find someone who can lead you on the path to solving it.  Asking WHY is one of the most beneficial steps in the pursuit of a successful career.

[]       TAKE EVERY OPPORTUNITY TO LEARN:

Sometimes learning is not “on the clock”.  Sometimes you will need to volunteer, work without pay after hours, shadow an expert, take a class, or even click on a YouTube video.  Do whatever it takes, whenever it is offered, to build your portfolio of skills and knowledge.

[]       EXPAND YOUR PALATE:

Not just your palate for taste and flavor, but also your palate for understanding people, their traditions and culture, why they cook the way they do and what environmental influences make their food unique.  This is how cooks become accomplished chefs with the ability to represent different cuisines with some level of authenticity.  Tap into the diversity in the kitchens where you work and build an understanding of what makes people tick, what makes them special and in return you will grow as a professional.

[]       THINK PAST TODAY:

Sometimes the challenges of today seem to eat up all of our time and effort.  Sometimes today is so challenging that we find ourselves totally focused on how to get through it.  A career requires that you think beyond today, accept the challenges, find the time, invest money that you don’t have, and be a little humbler than you might like knowing that the end game is your reward.

[]       KNOW WHAT YOU DON’T KNOW:

Admitting that you need to improve, that you are not great at everything, that some things are simply beyond your ability right now, is an important step in building a future career.  Once you know what you don’t know then addressing those obstacles becomes part of your plan.

[]       WORK FOR THE RIGHT PEOPLE:

Select your employers wisely.  Work for operations that can build on your skill set, work for chefs who will push you to get better. Think outcomes vs. paycheck in the beginning, The money will come once you have a lot to sell.

[]       COMMIT TO IT:

If you really want it, then commit fully to the process, to your plan, and to your desire to be all that you can be.  Without the “all-in” commitment this will not work.

[]       LIVE THE SEVEN “R’S”: (Responsible, Relationships, Resist, Read, Remember, Results):

  • RESPONSIBLE:    You are responsible for your own skill set, your own learning, and your own future – don’t relegate the responsibility to others and blame them for your inability to reach your goals.  The ball is in YOUR court.
  • RELATIONSHIPS: Choose your friends, acquaintances, employers, and mentors wisely.  Make sure that they represent what you aspire for yourself.  Do they fit into your plan?
  • RESIST:      In the restaurant business especially, there are a number of temptations that can pull you off course: lack of caring for your health, drugs, alcohol, late nights, more money with the wrong employers, etc.  Cooks with an eye on their future work hard at resisting these temptations.
  • READ:        Invest the time to read everything you can.  Trade magazines, business books, management and leadership, self-help books, novels, travel journals, cookbooks, etc.  These will open your eyes and help to build your intellectual brand.
  • REMEMBER:        Remember all of the individuals who help you along the way, stay engaged with them, and by all means – take the time to thank them over and over again.
  • RESPECT:   Remember, the professional that you want to become is an individual who respects the people he or she works with and for, the guests who choose to spend their money in a restaurant, the ingredients that are available, the people who dedicate their lives to growing, raising, and harvesting those ingredients, and the facilities where every cook works.
  • RESULTS:   All of your investment will fail to produce the right outcomes unless you can chart a history of positive results.  Record those results, track them, create a portfolio of accomplishments, and build on them.

[]       BUILD AND ENGAGE YOUR NETWORK:

Throughout your career it will be those unique connections, your network of influence, that opens doors and helps to continually build your personal brand and portfolio of skills.  Again, build this and stay connected.  Help them and they will help you.

[]       DEPENDABILITY FIRST:

Never forget that trust in your skills and focus on outcomes, trust in your consistency as a person, trust that you will be there when you are scheduled, and trust that you will produce excellent results with every task no matter how small or large is the single most important aspect of your professional brand.  This is what will pave the way for all the success you seek.

[]       BALANCE THE BUSINESS WITH THE ALTRUSITIC REASONS TO BE A FOOD PROFESSIONAL:

Know that you are being paid to produce positive business results and customer satisfaction.  You can never push these facts aside, but at the same time, we all need to feel as though we are doing the right thing and making a difference in the world.  Both outcomes are essential.  Never sacrifice one for the other.

[]       WORK ON YOUR BRAND EVERY DAY:

Everything that you do, every step that you take, ever product that you make, and every associate whom you follow, or lead is part of your brand.  People will invest as much in you as you invest in yourself.

PLAN BETTER – TRAIN HARDER

Harvest America Ventures, LLC

www.harvestamericacues.com  BLOG

700 articles from the chef’s desk

Follow exceptional interviews on CAFÉ Talks Podcast

https://cafemeetingplace.com/cafe-podcasts

A CHANCE TO BE ALL THAT YOU CAN BE

This is a direct message to all of those young cooks just starting out, dishwashers, culinary students, and seasoned veterans of the kitchen – you can go as far as you want to go in the food business as long as you are willing to put in the work, build a plan, and stick to the plan.  Am I exaggerating?  NO!  I believe this wholeheartedly, there is no limit to what you can achieve if you believe that you can and invest the energy and time.

Whatever you want to achieve, and whatever position you seek: Restaurant Chef, Research Chef, Personal Chef, Restaurateur, Food and Beverage Director, Teacher, Author, Consultant, or Product Developer are all within your reach.  Yes, this is ABSOLUTELY TRUE.  The only person who can get in the way of your success is YOU.

So, what should you be doing right now to set a course for a great future in the kitchen?  Here are fifteen “must do” methods:

[]       START WITH A PLAN:

You have to want to find a specific level of success and that begins with a “how to” plan.  Do you want to be a chef some day in a high-volume family style restaurant?  Then connect with chefs already in that role and ask what skills are needed and how they managed to acquire them.  Build this into your plan.  Do you want to aspire to become a restaurant owner someday, then do the same with successful restaurateurs.  What are the skills, what are the steps, and how might you meet those requirements?

[]       BE WILLING TO TURN ON A DIME:

One of the interesting things about a career in food is that you never know what opportunities might come your way.  As important as your plan is, be willing to realign with a new plan if one of those great opportunities does emerge.  Trust me – you never know where a career in food might take you.

[]       COMMIT TO CONSTANT SKILL DEVELOPMENT:

Learning will never cease.  If a day goes by that you don’t actively pursue skill growth, then you should view it as a day of missed opportunity.  Commit to constant learning.

[]       BE INQUISITIVE:

If you don’t know – ask.  If you see someone exhibit a unique skill, then find out how you might do the same.  If you face a challenge that is outside of your wheelhouse to fix, then find someone who can lead you on the path to solving it.  Asking WHY is one of the most beneficial steps in the pursuit of a successful career.

[]       TAKE EVERY OPPORTUNITY TO LEARN:

Sometimes learning is not “on the clock”.  Sometimes you will need to volunteer, work without pay after hours, shadow an expert, take a class, or even click on a YouTube video.  Do whatever it takes, whenever it is offered, to build your portfolio of skills and knowledge.

[]       EXPAND YOUR PALATE:

Not just your palate for taste and flavor, but also your palate for understanding people, their traditions and culture, why they cook the way they do and what environmental influences make their food unique.  This is how cooks become accomplished chefs with the ability to represent different cuisines with some level of authenticity.  Tap into the diversity in the kitchens where you work and build an understanding of what makes people tick, what makes them special and in return you will grow as a professional.

[]       THINK PAST TODAY:

Sometimes the challenges of today seem to eat up all of our time and effort.  Sometimes today is so challenging that we find ourselves totally focused on how to get through it.  A career requires that you think beyond today, accept the challenges, find the time, invest money that you don’t have, and be a little humbler than you might like knowing that the end game is your reward.

[]       KNOW WHAT YOU DON’T KNOW:

Admitting that you need to improve, that you are not great at everything, that some things are simply beyond your ability right now, is an important step in building a future career.  Once you know what you don’t know then addressing those obstacles becomes part of your plan.

[]       WORK FOR THE RIGHT PEOPLE:

Select your employers wisely.  Work for operations that can build on your skill set, work for chefs who will push you to get better. Think outcomes vs. paycheck in the beginning, The money will come once you have a lot to sell.

[]       COMMIT TO IT:

If you really want it, then commit fully to the process, to your plan, and to your desire to be all that you can be.  Without the “all-in” commitment this will not work.

[]       LIVE THE SEVEN “R’S”: (Responsible, Relationships, Resist, Read, Remember, Results):

  • RESPONSIBLE:    You are responsible for your own skill set, your own learning, and your own future – don’t relegate the responsibility to others and blame them for your inability to reach your goals.  The ball is in YOUR court.
  • RELATIONSHIPS: Choose your friends, acquaintances, employers, and mentors wisely.  Make sure that they represent what you aspire for yourself.  Do they fit into your plan?
  • RESIST:      In the restaurant business especially, there are a number of temptations that can pull you off course: lack of caring for your health, drugs, alcohol, late nights, more money with the wrong employers, etc.  Cooks with an eye on their future work hard at resisting these temptations.
  • READ:        Invest the time to read everything you can.  Trade magazines, business books, management and leadership, self-help books, novels, travel journals, cookbooks, etc.  These will open your eyes and help to build your intellectual brand.
  • REMEMBER:        Remember all of the individuals who help you along the way, stay engaged with them, and by all means – take the time to thank them over and over again.
  • RESPECT:   Remember, the professional that you want to become is an individual who respects the people he or she works with and for, the guests who choose to spend their money in a restaurant, the ingredients that are available, the people who dedicate their lives to growing, raising, and harvesting those ingredients, and the facilities where every cook works.
  • RESULTS:   All of your investment will fail to produce the right outcomes unless you can chart a history of positive results.  Record those results, track them, create a portfolio of accomplishments, and build on them.

[]       BUILD AND ENGAGE YOUR NETWORK:

Throughout your career it will be those unique connections, your network of influence, that opens doors and helps to continually build your personal brand and portfolio of skills.  Again, build this and stay connected.  Help them and they will help you.

[]       DEPENDABILITY FIRST:

Never forget that trust in your skills and focus on outcomes, trust in your consistency as a person, trust that you will be there when you are scheduled, and trust that you will produce excellent results with every task no matter how small or large is the single most important aspect of your professional brand.  This is what will pave the way for all the success you seek.

[]       BALANCE THE BUSINESS WITH THE ALTRUSITIC REASONS TO BE A FOOD PROFESSIONAL:

Know that you are being paid to produce positive business results and customer satisfaction.  You can never push these facts aside, but at the same time, we all need to feel as though we are doing the right thing and making a difference in the world.  Both outcomes are essential.  Never sacrifice one for the other.

[]       WORK ON YOUR BRAND EVERY DAY:

Everything that you do, every step that you take, ever product that you make, and every associate whom you follow, or lead is part of your brand.  People will invest as much in you as you invest in yourself.

PLAN BETTER – TRAIN HARDER

Harvest America Ventures, LLC

www.harvestamericacues.com  BLOG

700 articles from the chef’s desk

Follow exceptional interviews on CAFÉ Talks Podcast

https://cafemeetingplace.com/cafe-podcasts

FOOD COST IS NOT THE CHEF’S RESPONSIBILITY

Featured

Now that I have your attention and you are back in your chair, let me explain.  The margins are very tight, in fact they are so tight that most business savvy people would wonder why anyone would ever want to own a restaurant.  The cost of raw materials seems to always go up, most ingredients that restaurants use are highly perishable, customer volume is less predictable than we would like, seasonal differences in quality are quite significant, the supply chain is out of step with demand, and waste seems to be a real problem in many operations.  The buck seems to always stop with the chef; it’s the chef’s kitchen, the chef’s food cost, and the chef’s menu that drives marginal profit at best.  So, if the cost of goods is not the chef’s responsibility, then where does the buck stop?

The answer is simple, yet profoundly challenging:  food cost is EVERYONE’S responsibility.  From the dishwasher to the prep cook, line cook to sous chef, and server to restaurant manager – food cost percentages must be something that everyone takes on as a job requirement.  Until this is universally accepted and embraced, a restaurant is unlikely to meet its obligation for financial success.

Let’s look at how this works:

[]       SMART BUYING

Whether the chef or another assigned individual is responsible, buying ingredients is not simply a case of calling your purveyor and stating what you need.  Smart buying involves purchasing fresh ingredients when they are in season and keeping them off menus when they are not.  Smart buying means to look at quantity discounts when available, buying generic brands when quality still meets your standards, and shopping several vendors with quality and price in mind. Smart buying is a key to cost control.

[]       PRODUCT RECEIVING

Cost control begins at the back door. If it is sold by weight, then weigh it when it arrives.  If it is sold by count, then count when it arrives.  Check for quality and expiration dates, make sure that storage in transit was handled properly and match the product to your specifications to ensure that it is consistent. Proper receiving equals good cost control.

[]       STORAGE AND ROTATION

First in, first out.  Make sure that cooler temperatures are appropriate for the products stored.  Fresh fish on ice with proper drainage, produce cleaned and transferred to Lexan containers with proper labeling and dating.  Part of cost control is to maximize freshness and longevity.  Waste control is cost control.

[]       LABEL AND DATE

One of the easiest and most effective ways of maintaining freshness and shelf-life is to immediately label and date products on receipt and do the same for products once they are prepped or cooked and stored.  Waste and quality control is cost control.

[]       FOUNDATIONAL COOKING METHODS

Practicing proper cooking methods is another way of ensuring consistent quality and cost.  In the end, the purpose of the ingredients you buy is ultimately to translate into sales.  Consistent quality through proper cooking will translate into satisfied guests and return business.  Implementing proper cooking methods is a form of cost control.

[]       RECIPES

Although recipes are not foolproof, they are effective guides that lead to consistent quality and consistent, predictable cost.  When you know what the cost of a menu item truly is then you are able to build proper selling prices that lead to profitability.  Recipes are a significant piece of the cost control puzzle.

[]       WASTE ACCOUNTABILITY

Try requiring your cooks to keep a Lexan container at their workstation for any “waste” that they generate in production.  Monitor it and discuss ways that they might minimize their production waste, how much that waste impacts on cost and profitability, and why perceived waste is a driver of business failure.  Also, as a friend of mine once suggested:  buy smaller garbage cans as a way of discouraging wasteful practices in the kitchen. 

[]       STANDARDS IN PLACE, FOLLOW STANDARDS

Build in standard operating procedures that are focused on cost control.  Train to these standards and manage them.  As an example, vegetable peelings can be standardized as a component for broth flavoring instead of cut mire poix, and meat trim can be incorporated in staff meat through creative recipe development.  Used coffee grounds can be worked into the herb garden soil mix, lobster and shrimp shells can become a base for fumet for seafood sauces, unused dining room bread and rolls can be dried for breadcrumbs.  Standards become habits, and good habits are a start in the right direction for cost control.

[]       WATCH RETURNING PLATES

Watch returning plates from the dining room to help assess the reaction to new menu items and the size of portions.  Sometimes guests do not point to your misses – they just don’t return if they are unhappy or if they feel that portions are excessive.  Understanding guest reactions will help to manage sales and in turn reflect on cost control.

[]       BIGGER IS NOT ALWAYS BETTER

The size wars in restaurants are a no-win game.  To some operators there is a feeling that value is directly related to how large the portions are, but value is connected to the experience associated with ordering and consuming a menu item.  Out of control portions leave little room for profitability when price ceilings are always a concern.  Quality and the experience of consuming a dish are significant cost control factors.

[]       MENU PLANNING WITH TOTAL USE IN MIND

When a chef plans a menu, it is important to build in ways for total use of raw materials.  A menu can appear larger by simply factoring in multiple ways of using every part of ingredients.  Menu planning leads to better cost control.

[]       UPSELLING TO DRIVE DOWN PERCENTAGES

The top line drives the bottom line.  Part of the process of cost control lies in the hands of servers who understand that part of their job is to sell.  When done properly, upselling appetizers, desserts, and even different, more profitable menu items, lead to better control of waste, cost, and the guest dining experience. Your servers hold the key to profitability and cost control.

[]       RESTAURANT EYES

Part of your job as a chef or restaurateur is to “see” what is going on.  Solid cost control begins and ends with your ability to understand and manage all of the measures listed above.  This is an “every-minute” task that defines success and profitability.  Every employee must be involved in this process – not just management.  As managers your primary method of cost control is to train and manage others to be your eyes and cost management implementors.

PLAN BETTER – TRAIN HARDER

Harvest America Ventures, LLC

Restaurant Consulting

www.harvestamericacues.com BLOG

CAFÉ Talks Podcast

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THE TWO TYPES OF RESTAURANT OWNERSHIP

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I have never physically owned a restaurant, but I have always approached the position of chef as if I did.  Like many chefs that I have known over the years, I was always “all in” when it came to my actual responsibilities and those that I perceived where there.  Those who physically own a restaurant are the ones who write the checks; they are constantly faced with all the decisions that go along with that responsibility, oftentimes tough decisions, and oftentimes decisions that require some level of compromise. They are all in at a different level entirely. Emotional ownership, the type that has always driven me and many other chefs is no less demanding but comes short of those physical decisions.  I’m not sure that any chef can be truly effective in his or her position without that emotional ownership and I am surprised when a chef/owner is able to stay true to his or her stakes in the ground and still be effective as a physical owner. 

Now, don’t get me wrong, after decades of engagement in the restaurant business, I know full well how to make those tough decisions and I understand why, in many cases, they need to be made – I just don’t have the stomach to make them.  Sometimes those decisions mean that labor hours must be cut, or positions eliminated; sometimes it means raising selling prices again or finding ways to cut costs that compromise some level of quality or quantity.  Oftentimes it means that a menu that was the heart and soul of a restaurant must be changed to meet the financial goals of the operation and sometimes in the extreme it may mean drifting away from the concept that was the core of the restaurant identity.  From the physical ownership perspective – this is the smart approach, but to the emotional owner it may be perceived as a stab to the heart.  Neither type of ownership is totally correct nor totally incorrect, it just is the way it is in a highly volatile business.

There certainly are example of restaurants where the emotional and physical ownerships align; where the somewhat altruistic approach is so viable that physical ownership can maintain their margins and the chef who is not interested in being the one who writes the checks can feel good about the restaurants approach.   I admire these operations, but also respect those who need to make those tough decisions that keep the operation afloat. 

What I have found though is that a healthy business cannot thrive unless there is an equal dose of both ownership types.  Unless there is a strong belief and execution of concept, consistent quality of product, real investment in people, and encouragement for excellence and value then the restaurant will eventually struggle.  At the same time if there isn’t an understanding of the need for tough decision-making, an understanding that compromise is likely inevitable on occasion, then all the altruism that a chef might muster may not be enough for the operation to survive.

So, what is my point?  Look at the truly successful operations, the ones with decades of success, the ones that are benchmarks for others and you will find this balance of physical and emotional ownership.  Both owners are “all-in”; both owners listen to each other and respect the role that each play.  This is the only way that it can work.  Great restaurants are more than businesses – they reflect history, tradition, experiences, heart and soul, passion, and commitment to something that is greater than the sum of its parts.  Great restaurants feed people’s bodies, minds, hearts, and souls – they are an escape for some and a reward for many.  Great restaurants are there to support people, to pamper them, to recognize them, and to connect them with others.  They are the place where people gather to celebrate and commemorate. Great restaurants represent something important and as such are revered by employees and guests alike – this is the emotional side, the altruistic side of being in the restaurant business – this is hospitality.  Every great restaurant has an abundance of this emotion.  At the same time, the restaurant, if it is to support all these altruistic ambitions, must be financially viable.  Someone needs to write the checks and analyze whether the emotional side is making sound business decisions.  The two sides of the equation are essential.

It is rare that the two sides are represented by one person.  There must be room for give and take and this is hard to imagine without discussion and debate.  Sometimes the two sides can “put their money where their mouth is”, to be financially engaged at some level, while other times one may hold the financial responsibility while the other invests the “sweat equity”, but they both are committed. 

I can’t imagine a chef in a successful restaurant who is not an emotional owner, who fails to treat the position as if the restaurant were “owned”.  I can’t imagine any level of real success for a restaurant without this level of commitment, a commitment to concept, menu, people, marketing, cost control, vendors, and cooking integrity.  I cannot imagine a successful chef who is not fully committed to excellence, and consistency, as well as the art and the craft.  For those of us who understand this, I say “welcome to the club”.  For those who feel that the job can be done without this level of commitment, I say “show me how”?  I am willing to listen, but my decades of experience make it difficult for me to see how that might work.

This is not a letter of support for giving up balance in the process.  I do believe that emotional ownership can exist within the parameters of reasonable hours and life/work balance but separation from the emotional commitment to excellence, consistency, the art, and the craft; to the altruistic side of what we do, and to the image that the restaurant seeks to promote is, I believe, highly unlikely.

There is something very rewarding about ownership whether it is physical and financial, or more emotional than anything else – it is a business with both tangible and intangible rewards.  You can tell when both types of ownership are in place.  You can see it on the plate and feel it through the sincerity of hospitality; it is quite tangible.  To be an effective chef, in a successful restaurant, some level of ownership must be present – my perspective.

PLAN BETTER – TRAIN HARDER

Harvest America Ventures, LLC

www.harvestamericacues.com  BLOG

CAFÉ Talks Podcast

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CHEFS- REMEMBER THE EXCITEMENT AND SURPRISE

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You remember those early moments with food – the aha moments when a dish really surprised you.  The flavor, aroma, texture, or presentation made you sit back in your chair, close your eyes, and wonder how anything could be this good.  We have all had those moments – this is likely the reason that a career in food became inevitable.  That first fresh, briny oyster; the experience of a perfectly braised, fork tender, full-flavored, silky lamb shank; the incredible crunch of a crusty, salty, rich buttermilk fried chicken; the deep sweetness of a July heirloom tomato, fresh pulled- still warm mozzarella, garden picked basil leaves, extra virgin olive oil and crunchy sea salt from a salad caprese; or a simply elegant grilled fresh fish with zesty lemon and cracked pepper – these were flavor moments that stayed with you and inspired you to pay them homage on your own menus.  Remember how beautiful those well designed and executed plate presentations gave you pause, stopped your conversations, and insisted that you snap a picture for posterity.  These became your benchmarks for how the plates that came from your kitchen were to be measured.

As chefs we have significant challenges including building an organizational structure and the right cohesive team of cooks, identifying vendors that can be trusted and relied on, navigating through the roadblocks of a pandemic, and trying to figure how to earn a profit for a restaurant, but it will be very hard to accomplish any of that if we fail to remember and zero in on excitement and surprise with the food that we prepare and present.  Just as these two factors inspired you to become a chef, so too are they what inspire your guests to return time and again – driving that potential for profit and helping you to attract the very best cooks.

Yes, the times are different, and we have to adjust and sometimes compromise; we must prepare to problem solve every day; but holding on to excitement and surprise is also crucial for navigation through these times.  The most important word ever uttered by a guest and ever embraced by a peer cook or chef is WOW!  Chefs must remain in constant pursuit of WOW.  Guests who view the plate in front of them with alert senses – taking in the visual presentation and the aroma and thinking, in anticipation, how incredible the experience of eating this will be, is a guest who is ready to take note and store every bit of this meal in his or her subconscious.  The guest who savors every bite and offers a sample to the person sitting next to them, saying: “you have to try this”, is an ambassador who will boast about your food and the dining experience to friends, family, and social media strangers alike.  You remember those meals that you experienced and the impact they had on your career – this is what you need to re-create in your restaurant.

These restaurant guest experiences will bring them back for more – seeking another chance to feel the WOW.  Subsequent trips from these ambassadors become more challenging for chefs – you need to create another exciting surprise with flavor, texture, and presentation every time they return.  To this end the menu that you build should always have some fluidity.  Whether it is a constantly evolving menu or a robust “features” component, part of reaching and maintaining success is to offer a bit of excitement and surprise each time a guest makes a reservation.  The same is true of those individuals who cook for you.  They too need that element of excitement and surprise to look forward to, a new experience in cooking every time they tie on an apron. 

The real experience of dining begins when a potential guest makes a decision to call for a reservation.  Help build that level of wonder and positive anticipation: “what will the chef surprise us with this time.” 

Of course, there is always a need for a level of stability and predictability.  There are certain well-executed items on your menu that define your restaurant, items that your return guests can depend on, and items that help with kitchen organization and work patterns. But these items should always leave room for something that the guest didn’t expect (in a good way).  Keep the menu fresh and alive – build in anticipation, it keeps everyone wondering what gifts the chef will offer today.

Routine can be comforting, and predictability is a foundation of control, but the energy in a successful restaurant comes from pushing the edges and keeping people guessing.  Word of mouth marketing is driven by the wonders of anticipation – you need to play in that sandbox.

When times are unusually challenging like they are today, the tendency is to hunker down, keep things simple, and avoid coloring outside the lines, but this is not the territory where great restaurants thrive.  Long term profit potential is driven by perceived value and value encompasses so much more than price for the guest and measurable profit for the operator.  Value is all about how the guest feels about the experience of dining and how the restaurant views contribution.  When value is based on experience and brand significance then guests will become fans and profit will be the inevitable outcome.  For this to occur we can never forget the importance of excitement and surprise.

In a hotel or resort the elements of surprise and excitement will come from the amenities offered, rarely from the room that is rented.  Even in the most luxurious hotels, it will be the spa service, the health and exercise facilities, and the restaurant where excitement pulls people in.  Renting rooms becomes exponentially easier when the amenities excite and surprise.  Do you strive to be a great hotel with a restaurant or a great restaurant with great rooms.  This is more than semantics; it is a philosophy that determines the level of excitement and surprise that you provide.

In a free-standing restaurant it is the magic of the food and the intrigue that accompanies some level of predictable unpredictability that keeps those reservation phones ringing.  Don’t lose sight of how important this is.  Remember those early experiences in your career and use them as a benchmark for how you approach the job of being a chef.  Put your signature on the menu and in the kitchen through your cooks – make that signature synonymous with great anticipation.

Whether it is a magnificent seven-course pre-fix menu that changes frequently, or an incredible rib and brisket operation with “fall off the bone” tenderness, incredible wood smoked aroma, and rich “melt-in-your-mouth” flavors – never forget the essential ingredients: excitement and surprise.  It’s what great restaurants do.

PLAN BETTER – TRAIN HARDER

Harvest America Ventures, LLC

Restaurant Consulting

www.harvestamericacues.com  BLOG

CAFÉ Talks Podcast

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WE EAT WHAT WE ARE AND WE ARE WHAT WE EAT

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Cooking and eating are two of the great pleasures in life.  They are sensual in nature, vividly stimulating sight, sound, touch, smell, and taste as we participate in a process of transitioning Nature’s ingredients through the application of heat and seasoning.  When cooking and eating add tradition and structure they become “dining”, an entirely new process that builds memory and organizes digestion into silos of recall, history, and correctness, but at their core – these two elements of life are pure pleasure.  The smell of meat caramelizing on an open fire, the chew of crusty artisan bread, the creaminess of cultured butter, the crunch of a Fall apple, or the deep flavor of a warm July tomato pulled directly from the vine are heavenly to experience.  Sweet corn with its plump kernels exposed beneath the protection of husk and silk, fresh pan fried trout plucked and eviscerated minutes before from an icy stream, the sound of a crunchy potato chip between your teeth, the bite of a tart and sweet strawberry harvested from a field in early June, the soft textures of a custard baked in a water bath and topped with a brulee of caramelized sugar, or the beauty of a perfectly assembled plate of food with an emphasis on color, texture, and balance are all wonderful to experience and nearly as wonderful to envision.

Centuries ago, nutrition was not a science, but rather the body’s divining rod pointing to specific foods that it required, and a stroke of luck.  What was the basis for the Mediterranean diet but adapting one’s eating to the indigenous, available, and affordable ingredients of Italians, Spaniards, and Greeks?  Why did poor Mexican families build a diet around beans, rice, and corn (protein complementation) except for availability and the affordability of plentiful indigenous ingredients?  How did Native Americans decide to grow vegetables to accompany a diet of bison, deer, rabbit, and fish? Nutrition was not a science; it was innate with a heavy dose of luck.

In recent decades we have become aware of the science of nutrition.  We know how the body acts and reacts, what it needs, and why it needs what it needs.  We know full well that our health, how we feel, and our capacity to learn and grow are clearly tied to a balance of essential nutrients in the correct proportions.  Cooking and eating are both pleasurable and now scientific acts.  What we understand, we can control.  Yet, with all that we inherently know, our free will and those desires for the sensual process of cooking and eating tend to reign supreme.  We find excuses in those sensual pleasures and even point to “what we can afford” as reason to push aside what we know.

Is there room for sensual cooking, eating, and paying respect to the traditions and structures that make both an integral part of civilized living as well as the science of what our body’s need?  It is a question that is rarely vocalized, but often considered by cooks and consumers when they make food choices. It is a choice that cooks have a responsibility to understand and address.

I had the pleasure of communicating with Dr. Deborah Kennedy, the CEO of Culinary Rehab – an organization focused on teaching kitchens and nutrition programs to change the health of populations. She holds a PhD. in Nutrition from Tufts University and has dedicated her career to helping bring nutrition awareness into our lives.  We focused on the Power of Food to impact our physical, mental, emotional, and spiritual being as well as effective ways of changing eating habits and attitudes.  Having faced a critical health diagnosis herself, she has (in her own words)

“taken on the biggest journey of my life when I chose what my healing journey would look like 1.”

It became her mission to open others to this possibility.

As chefs and professional cooks, we have an opportunity and quite possibly an obligation to understand healthy choices in dining, implement effective methodologies in our kitchens, and demonstrate through our menus how “healthy food can be delicious and even craveable2.” So many diseases that plague humankind are linked to dietary choices: heart disease, stroke, diabetes, and certain forms of cancer can be controlled through healthy food choices.  With this in mind, habit changes will not be driven by one sector, but rather through a unified effort including doctors, dietitians, cooks and chefs, family, marketers, and what Kennedy refers to as a “tribe of food coaches”.  According to Kennedy, medical doctors have so much to learn that nutrition is often pushed aside.  Her approach is referred to as Culinary Medicine where medical students are coached to practice “self-care” while they are learning about nutrition through their own practice.

This same approach, it would seem, has tremendous potential in all segments of the population where influencers are present.  Cooks, chefs, restaurateurs, distributors, product developers, and marketers when properly coached about their own dietary wellness will intentionally, or unintentionally pass it forward.  Dr. Kennedy hopes, with her organization, to support doctors through coached personal nutritional habits that would reduce physician burnout.  The “coach” would be, as she puts it:

 “the liaison between the doctor and the patient.  The doctor and/or dietitian tells the patient to eat less fat or sodium as an example, and the food coach is there to show individuals what to buy and how to cook food in order to follow that advice 3.”

We discussed the challenges that people face in absorbing what they should be doing to practice healthy eating:

“people don’t like being told what they can and cannot eat.  Each of us, on average, makes over 200 food decisions a day.  Add to that the more than 150 dietary guidelines and that is too much for anyone to handle 4.”

One solution is to approach the results of our fast-paced society that has led many of us to eat at breakneck speed. 

“Let’s show people how to eat a variety of healthful food; let’s show them how to slow down enough and become present when eating so they can feel when they have had enough to eat5.”

This should hit home with most cooks and chefs who tend to cram in a five-minute power dinner while standing up before those restaurant doors open to the public.

One question that every chef is wrestling with pertains to directions in food consumption.  There are indications that societal pressures may move us closer to “plant-based” diets.  This is not strictly for dietary reasons, but also drivers associated with the impact of livestock on global climate change.  We wonder, how will we transition our menus to accommodate this and is this really a chef’s responsibility?  Chefs have always lived by the mantra that our job is customer satisfaction; are we now charged with changing eating habits and saving the planet?  Kennedy believes that change is coming – we have no long-term choice but to change.  However, small changes can make a big difference.

“What I know is that each step down the plant forward path will have its own rewards and one does not need to reach the end of the spectrum (vegan) in order to heal themselves and this planet 6.”

Over the past three years, Dr. Kennedy has worked with a dozen chefs and forty nutrition experts from the U.S., Canada, and Europe to create “culinary competencies” so that a doctor’s dietary recommendations can translate into “what to buy and how to prepare it in order to promote health and healing”.

The result is a modular textbook reference for all who can become a change advocate – a culinary coach.

Cooks and chefs are important liaisons in the quest for a healthier community.  We are on the front lines for change and change communication.  Understanding is critical, but execution even more so.  Our ability to dispel the misconceptions about healthy food choices and support the preparation of delicious and nutritious food can have a far-reaching impact on the wellbeing of customers, friends, family, co-workers, and neighbors.

Dr. Kennedy’s book should be on the shelf of in every chef’s office.  It is an important tool.

THE CULINARY MEDICINE TEXTBOOK:

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Footnotes:   1, 2, 3, 4, 5, 6 – Deborah Kennedy, Ph.D.

                                    Interview questions – April 2022

PLAN BETTER – TRAIN HARDER

You Are What You Eat

Harvest America Ventures, LLC

www.harvestamericacues.com  BLOG

CAFÉ Talks Podcast

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AS A CHEF – A FEW THINGS I KNOW

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Decades of working in or focusing on kitchens and kitchen life have led me to wonder, and sometimes question what I really know.  Our resumes never really tell the story, at least not the important story.  A resume may reflect on where you have spent time, the title that you have been given, and the scope of the business, but what do I (you) really know after all this time and all of those positions?

We may have been exposed to much, experienced a great deal, and have been through a great number of bumps in the road – but what have we taken away from that?  This really is an interesting assessment of time in the kitchen, time in the life of a chef.  This is a reflection, a deep reflection on what the answer might be to the question: “what do I know?”  So here is my assessment:

[]       As much as I think I know about food and operating a kitchen there is so much more that I don’t know.

Just when we think that we might be good at our jobs – something new stares us down.  A new technique, a new way to measure, a different type of presentation, a different challenge in operations, a higher cost, product unavailability, more competition to keep us on our toes – it is never ending.  If nothing else, over the years, I have found that there is so much more that I don’t know.  The question is always – how will I respond to this?  Will I make an effort to learn and grow, or will I accept that a “new thing” is beyond me?  Will I profess to have mastered my craft or will I admit that this will never be possible?

[]       I love to cook – always have, always will.

This is something that I can always trust, the love of the craft, the enjoyment of working with the ingredients, the thrill of a well-prepared plate of food, and a smile on the face of the person who enjoys it.  During the most challenging times as a chef – this is something that I could always take enjoyment in.

[]       What cooks and chefs do is meaningful.

I have always been able to look in a mirror and feel good about what I do.  I have always been able to talk with cooks about the importance of their job.  We cook to pay homage to those who grow, raise, catch, and produce the ingredients we are privileged to work with; we cook the make people happy, to give them a break from their challenges and problems, to reward them when others fail to do so, and to bring them together with friends and family, business associates, and even those who they disagree with.  This is what we do.

[]       As a chef I am only as good as my team.

My reputation as a cook and a chef is really my team’s reputation.  I am nothing but a reasonably competent cook without them.  This is something to always remember, to never forget.  There is no place in the kitchen for a chef’s ego.  The chef is the orchestrator who brings together and hopefully leads an incredibly talented and dedicated team of marvelous technicians.

[]       Training and supporting the kitchen team is my primary responsibility.

Yes, there are numerous lists of responsibilities that accompany a chef’s job description, but none is more important than investing in that team.  Every minute spent in teaching, training, mentoring, and lifting up that team is an investment in the future of the restaurant.  This is job number one!

[]       What I learned in school pales in comparison to what I learned on the job.

A formal education is an essential part of a person’s growth and preparation for life and a career.  This being said – until those lessons are applied in the unpredictable environment of life, they will remain theoretical and un-tested.  For a chef, there is no greater teacher than the school of hard knocks, the environment where each day we face the opportunity to succeed and the chance to fail. 

[]       Even the predictable is unpredictable in a kitchen.

We work with ingredient seasonality that challenges the value of a recipe without the understanding of how to compensate for variance in quality.  We work with employees who have their own set of challenges on and off the job, so how they approach their job is always unpredictable.  And we serve customers who also bring their challenges to the table – how they feel in the moment will impact their experience and the experience of serving them. 

[]       My reputation will always be based on the last meal served.

Hard as it may be to accept – 99 exceptional meals and 1 that misses the mark will not result in a grade of 99, but rather a failing one for that individual who was not happy.  In a world where dissatisfaction is projected to thousands on social media, instantly, a chef must work extra hard to strive for 100% or at least recover very quickly when the opportunity to “wow” is missed.

[]       My actions on and off the job impact the restaurant’s reputation.

Maybe, a line cook can step in the wrong direction and still keep those actions from impacting their job and the reputation of the restaurant, but this is not the case with the chef.  Ironically, the actions of the chef, like the actions of any manager, are connected by the general public, to the reputation of the restaurant.  There is little room for error here.  The chef is always an ambassador of the operation.

[]       My actions set the tone for the working environment of the kitchen.

As a chef, I am (you are) the role model for others.  This is not something that chefs tend to ask for, but it is the fact of the matter.  How you treat others, the consistency of your attitude, your grace under fire, your dependability and how you embrace the trust that others want to put in you will be exactly how others will in turn act.  You are the parent of the operation – act like it.

[]       If I am not trusted then I have nothing.

Unconditional trust is reserved for family members, a spouse, or best friend, but outside of those individuals (and sometimes even they push the limits of trust), individuals only trust actions that are consistent and predictable.  Trust needs to be earned every day and can be lost in an instant.  If you violate the unwritten pact of trust between co-workers, owners, or the general public then it is extremely difficult to regain it.

[]       Mediocrity has no place in the kitchen – ever.

No matter how small or large the task, no matter if it is part of your job description of simply an everyday task that we tend to take for granted – excellence needs to be the goal.  Be excellent in how you look, act towards others, how you sharpen your knives, how you organize your coolers, plan menus, train your staff, how you approach the foundations of cooking, build flavors, or stay true to how you care for ingredients, or how each plate looks when it hits the pass – never allow mediocrity to take control.

[]       Quality and consistency are the foundations of success.

Quality is the reputation of a chef.  Quality is the reputation of the restaurant, and the consistency of that quality is what brings people back and what sets the stage for a chef’s career.

[]       If any one of my cooks fails then I have failed as a teacher and mentor.

Keeping in mind that the primary responsibility of a chef is to train and support his or her cooks – if a cook is unable to execute or uncomfortable with the responsibilities assigned, if he or she fails to deliver a dish properly or present menus items as they were designed, it is a representation of how well or poorly the chef addressed training and mentoring. Point the finger at yourself before chastizing others for their mistakes.

PLAN BETTER _TRAIN HARDER

Harvest America Ventures, LLC

www.harvestamericacues.com

CAFÉ Talks Podcast

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THE DICHOTOMY OF THE HAVES AND HAVE NOTS

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“There a billion people in the world who are chronically hungry.  There are a billion people in the world who are overweight.”

-Mark Bittman

It’s 4am and I’m awake, actually, I have been for a few hours.  This is not an uncommon occurrence for the past decade or so – always too much cluttering my mind.  Anyway, I’m enjoying breakfast, my first of three fresh, well-prepared, nutritious meals of the day, sitting next to the radiator in my comfortable home thinking about the day ahead.  Maybe it was a result of watching the tragedy in Ukraine unfolding on live television last night, or reflections on my own good fortune, but I just couldn’t get past that feeling of embarrassment for all that I have.

As I sipped on a hot cup of tea, I started to Google some frightening statistics that I was somewhat cognizant of, but suddenly fully away of the have’s and have nots.  The opening quote from Mark Bittman – author and New York Times columnist, was a starting point.   So, I thought that it might be helpful for all of us, the ones who have a computer or smart phone at the ready to read this article, to pay attention to the dichotomy.

  • 10% of the world lives on less than $2 per day.  Sure, I worked hard all my life and earned the comfort of retirement investments and my monthly social security check, but man – $2 per day! 
  • There are 56.1 million – millionaires in the world and 2,800 billionaires.  Let that sink in for a minute and then re-read the previous statistic.
  • The average American spends $3,000/year in some type of restaurant.  OK, I shouldn’t complain about this – the restaurant industry allowed me to be where I am and “thank you” for spending your hard-earned money there, but an enormous number of people worldwide will not only never see a restaurant, but they may also not see their next meal of boiled rice for some time.
  • Two billion people worldwide suffer from some form of malnutrition.  Hmmm, that’s 25% of the world’s population.  So, when any one of us grumbles about missing a meal or portions a bit too small we need to think about how many people wish that they were in our shoes.
  • 12.5% of American families are food insecure.  Wait a minute – this is the richest country in the world, we are one of the top agricultural countries in the world, we have an incredible food distribution system and more restaurants per capita than anywhere else – we couldn’t possibly have that many people wondering about when their next meal will be available.  Or could we?
  • Onethird of world food production is wasted, and the figure is the same in the U.S.  So, what they are saying is that the food is there, but we simply fail to get it in the hands of the hungry.  Really?  How could this be?  All that food on farms, in grocery stores, and in restaurant coolers, winds up as waste?  Yikes!  If it doesn’t look quite as pristine, if it has a bruise, or if it is a day or two old – your local grocery store and restaurant is likely to toss it in the trash while one-third of their neighbors are hungry.  How could that be? (I take another sip of my tea)
  • 785 million people worldwide do not have access to potable water. Time to start my daily health routine by drinking the first of 6-8 classes of water a day, right before I take a 10-minute shower.  I look out my window at the lake below my house, the one I take for granted and suddenly realize how precious that glass of water is.
  • Here’s a telling statistic: 63 million children worldwide, between the ages of 6-11 will not be able to attend school.  Oh, but 525 million people have a college degree – I’m one of them, in fact, I have three degrees.  Talk about cause and effect.  How is it possible that this many people are unable to have access to a basic advantage?
  • 150 million people worldwide are homeless.  I look around my house – it is small but comfortable, sits on ½ an acre of land overlooking a lake, we are able to take good care of it and occasionally change the décor in a room or two, buy new towels for the bathrooms, replace battered china and glassware, and relish the memories of raising three children here and welcoming those grandkids a few times a year.  There are 150 million people who are unable to say this.  How could this be?  Some live in shelters while many simply curl up in an alley and try to get through another day without a roof over their heads.  My tea is getting cold now.
  • As I watch families struggling to leave their homes in Ukraine and find shelter in Poland or Romania, I decide to Google any data on refugees worldwide.  According to the Danish Refugee Counsel there are 82 million refugees worldwide – people who are forcibly displaced from their home country (this is a statistic BEFORE the war in Ukraine.) Gulp.  82 million people who only want the basic right to live in their home country and carry on with their lives.  They leave jobs, traditions, family, and generations of memories to find safety from oppression.  They may very well become part of that homeless population soon.  I stare out my window again and give silent thanks for the country where I live, the democracy that we often take for granted, the ability to speak my mind and even point out mistakes and shortcomings of our leaders, and shudder to think what it would be like if all of that was lost.
  • I drift away for a moment and shake my head about the price of gas when I filled up my car yesterday.  The price was over $4/gallon.  I searched for price comparisons to other countries:  France $8.23, Denmark $9.70, Germany $9.12, Italy $9.08, and this list goes on.  Oh, what am I complaining about?  How many people in the world will never own a car, let alone find themselves complaining about a gallon of gas.

Anyway, I’m still awake, even more so now.  I shake my head and put the kettle on to make another cup of tea.  How fortunate am I?  How fortunate are we?  We have so much opportunity, we have more than we need.  My refrigerator is full, my home is comfortable and paid for, I have resources that I saved for 50 years, we are healthy, well-educated, and able to speak our minds.  I drink water with reckless abandon, and plan meals with fresh, available ingredients without giving adequate thought to all who are unable to say the same. 

This is a world of the have’s and have nots.  A world that isn’t fair and seems unable to contemplate what that means.  We must take time to understand this and find ways to help rectify the wrongs.

As a former chef and educator, I must do what I am able to do.  I spread the word, support organizations like World Central Kitchen, Habitat for Humanity, and UNICEF’s Help for Ukrainian Children, C-CAP, local food pantries, and most importantly never take for granted what I have.

PLAN BETTER – TRAIN HARDER

Harvest America Ventures, LLC

www.harvestamericacues.com

SUPPORT THEIR WORK:

World Central Kitchen

https://wck.org

Habitat for Humanity

https://secure.habitat.org/

UNICEF – Help the children of Ukraine

https://www.unicefusa.org

C-CAP – Culinary Education for underserved communities

FINDING YOUR PLACE

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From the ages of 18 to 65 we experience 47 years of life.  This is 410,592 hours of breathing. These are typically the years when the average American works to earn a paycheck.  If you work a typical 40-hour week (not typical in hospitality careers) that equates to 94,000 hours over 47 years and if you are able to sleep an average of six-hours per night, that’s another 98,700 hours leaving 217,892 hours to do what we choose.  How are you going to spend that time?

You could sleep more, spend time in a trance in front of your TV or computer screen, text, read, hike, ride, climb, swim, travel, eat, or simply do nothing, but how much sense does that make?  When you look at “time well spent” it might make sense to combine what you do, with the time you have and find a way to make a difference in your life or others.  When we punch into life there is always an opportunity to do something that floats your boat and as Steve Jobs once said: “make a dent in the universe.”  Once you punch in – how will you spend your precious time?

Now, some may align “making a difference” with professions like doctor, nurse, teacher, statesman, writer, clergy, or motivational speaker, but I want to focus on cooking as a definitive “put a dent in the universe” career.  Yes, you heard correctly – cooks and chefs can make a difference.

Put aside the pursuit of profit and the self-gratification derived from expressing yourself and think about the numerous ways that cooks connect the dots, move people in a positive direction, equalize the playing field, or even change other people’s lives.

[]       NOURISH THE BODY

Cooks should be aware that how people feel, how active they are, how strong and how resilient they are, as well as how able they are to ward off disease is incredibly dependent on the quality of their diet.  Cooks hold the key to all of this whether they are professionals who have chosen the kitchen for their career, or a conscientious home cook dedicated to proper nutrition.

[]       NOURISH THE MIND

Our mind’s ability to grow cells and accommodate the enormous amount of information that comes its way in a lifetime has a direct connection to the foods that we eat and how they are prepared.  Cooks hold the key to our brain’s capacity.

[]       NOURISH THE SOUL

How we connect with others, the warmth of our hearts, our feeling of completeness, the traditions that we cherish, and connections with our history are all aligned directly or indirectly to not just what we eat, but how we share it with others.  Cooks have the ability to draw others together in recognition of all that celebrates our collective soul.

[]       BRING PEOPLE PHYSICALLY TOGETHER

The neighborhood restaurant and the food it serves represent more than a process of nourishing, it is a destination that brings family, friends, associates, strangers, and business connections together. It is a place where people can put aside their challenges and their differences forming a common bond around food and drink.  It is a place where these people can break bread and raise a glass knowing that they have more in common than the surface differences that seem to cloud their existence.  Restaurants are a neutral ground where people connect.

[]       HELP PEOPLE TO CELEBRATE

There may not be a more important place than a restaurant for celebrating success, lifetime accomplishment, weddings, anniversaries, birthdays, new beginnings, or the end of an era.  Whenever these significant events take place – food is almost always the catalyst for cheers and smiles.  Cooks are able to play a key role in these life moments.

[]       HELP TO TEMPER GRIEF AND DISAPPOINTMENT

How many of us have taken the time to recognize in celebration – a loved one or friend who has come to the end of his or her life.  It is food and the work of the cook who helps to temper sadness and open the door to the joy that that person brought to others.  Never the centerpiece, but always there in support – food and the cook make a difference.

[]       SUPPORT ARTISTIC EXPRESSION

As I have pointed out too many times to count – the cook is both a technician and an artist.  As a technician, he or she is charged with understanding process leading to consistency in flavor, texture, and appearance.  As an artist the cook is focused on connections with all of the human senses.  Where a musician appeals to the sense of sound, the painter the sense of sight, the sculptor the sense of touch, and the parfumier the sense of smell – the cook appeals to them all and adds the sense of taste.  There is no more diverse, impactful artist than the cook.

[]       RAISE SPIRITS WHEN ALL ELSE FAILS

Finally, the cook and the chef allow us to put aside challenges and seemingly insurmountable problems, to temporarily forget those things that gnaw on our psyche and make us wonder about the fate of the world and for a moment enjoy a bite of food, the good memories associated with a particular dish, the traditions of home and family, and the promise of better days to come.

Yes, making a difference is a goal that we all share.  We want our time on this planet to mean something, to put a dent in the universe, and to fulfill us and those around us with a sense of accomplishment.  We need to find our place, to know that we have done something with our time.  For many of us, this is possible whether we choose to practice medicine, teach, train, protect, communicate, or lead; but as I look at those friends and associates whom I have cooked with, I know that they too have found their place and are making a true difference in people’s lives. To many others, today is all about survival. We are privileged – how will we spend our time?  As I watch what chefs like Jose Andres, Ann Cooper, John Folse, and thousands of others worldwide who give through cooking, do, I am able to smile and stand tall knowing that we have found our place in a world that needs as many cooks as it can find.

Be proud to cook!  You have found your place.

PLAN BETTER – TRAIN HARDER

Harvest America Ventures, LLC

www.harvestamericacues.com

CAFÉ Talks Podcast

https://cafemeetingplace.com/cafe-podcasts

(47 incredible interviews (and counting) with leaders in the business of food

 

TWENTY COMMON MISTAKES INDEPENDENT RESTAURATEURS MAKE

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Are you thinking about owning a restaurant?  You are not alone if the thought of putting your name on a restaurant awning has crossed your mind.  One of the most tempting forays into entrepreneurship is the restaurant business.  How hard can it be – right?  Well, you have all heard the statistics about success and failure when food and beverage are involved, so I won’t repeat them.  Instead, let’s look at some of the common reasons why restaurants fail (this is only a sampling).  If you were to address them all then maybe, just maybe, you can make it work.

[]       ASSUMING THAT IT WILL BE EASIER AS AN OWNER

Spoiler alert – nothing could be further from the truth.  As hard as you work right now, as many hours as you currently invest in a job, the level of stress that you feel, and the number of challenges that you have faced in the past will only pale in comparison to ownership.

[]       NOT UNDERSTANDING HOW TO MEASURE AND COMPARE

It really isn’t hard to know what to do – it has all been done before.  You need to lean on the mistakes and successes that others have under their belt and constantly compare where you are to them.  There are plenty of organizations that can help, but one that always stands out is the National Restaurant Association.  Tap into their resources for excellent benchmarks of performance.

[]       WORKING WITHOUT A BUDGET

Seriously, why would you ever jump into the deep end unless you had a plan and real-life measurements that serve as a roadmap?  The more often you budget and measure the better you will get at it.  Again, turn to the National Restaurant Association for guidance.

[]       PRICING YOUR MENU BY COMPARISON

What is always shocking to me is how many restaurateurs, intelligent people, determine their selling prices by looking at their competition and trying to replicate what they do, or underprice them thinking that this is the answer to growing a business.  These are the restaurateurs who call me up and ask: “My dining room is full, why am I not making any money?”

[]       NOT UNDERSTANDING HOW TO PLAN EFFECTIVE MENUS

More often than not – the success of your restaurant begins with effective menu planning, proper pricing, and consistent execution.  Yep, it really is much easier than you think, yet………….

[]       FAILING TO IMPLEMENT ESSENTIAL CONTROLS

Every business requires controls in pricing, consistency, quality, and cash handling.  All of the tools are available for inventory control, purchasing systems, cash handling, costing templates, and quality assessment.  Use them!

[]       NOT ESTABLISHING STANDARDS

Develop your standards, teach your standards, execute your standards, measure your standards, and solicit feedback on how those standards sit with customers, vendors, and staff.  Once established – do not sacrifice what you have invested the time in developing.

[]       FAILING TO INVEST IN TRAINING

Training ALWAYS pays back in dividends.  Train to your standards and be very clear.  Every employee needs to be trained and most relish the opportunity to learn and get better at what they do.  This is absolutely essential.

[]       NOT HAVING A CLEAR CONCEPT

If you are not clear on what your restaurant is all about, how your menu works, and how you relay those messages then how could you expect anyone else to understand?

[]       FAILING TO UNDERSTAND SOCIAL MEDIA

Plain and simple – social media IS YOUR MOST IMPORTANT PLATFORM FOR COMMUNICATION.  This is what everyone pays attention to.  Ads in your local newspaper are more about showing that you support that paper rather than a tremendously effective way of communicating with the public.  Social media is very inexpensive, but someone needs to effectively manage it every day and every way.  Your website, Facebook, Instagram, and Twitter accounts need to be up-to-date and fed constantly.  In some cases, not just daily but multiple times during the day.  Make sure your messaging is clear, photos are high quality, and ensure that they connect with your standards of excellence.

[]       NOT EMPHASIZING THE BASICS

This has been the same since the first restaurant opened its door centuries ago:  hot food hot, cold food cold; consistency is king; service with a smile; recover quickly from your mistakes; make sure the table is level; sparkling clean bathrooms; spotless glassware, china, and flatware; remember return customer names; etc.

[]       TRUSTING BEFORE IT’S EARNED

This is business and in business trust must be earned.  Don’t assume anything until your experience proves that it is warranted.  Build those standards in so that your basis of trust is communicated very clearly to all involved and then measure trust based on how well everyone adheres to those standards.

[]       NOT UNDERSTANDING THE ROLE OF PROFESSIONALISM

Regardless of your concept and your price point, professionalism should have a home in your restaurant.  How everyone cares for their grooming, their uniform, their attitude, their hospitality persona; the way they treat each other and the respect they show for the ingredients they use; how honest they are and how they care for the space and equipment they use is all part of that professionalism package.

[]       NOT KNOWING LABOR LAW

Oh boy, entrepreneurs that fail to understand the labor laws in their respective state are in for a big surprise.  Rates of pay, overtime rules, payroll procedures, hostile work environments, equality in employment, and any form of discrimination will lead to real unpleasant and expensive outcomes.

[]       FAILING TO MANAGE THE DOOR AND RESERVATIONS

“The kitchen is slow tonight”.  “Tensions are high.”  “Service is off.”  “Everyone is in the weeds.” You know the drill; we have all been there before.  There might be a multitude of reasons, but one that consistently stands out is poor door management.  Letting too many guests in at once, flooding the dining room and over-taxing servers will quickly lead to the same challenge in the kitchen.  This is when things start to fall apart.  Pacing reservations and slowing down the seating of guests will keep the rhythm in order and leave everyone further away from the edge of the cliff.  This is a front-of-the-house art – learn it!

[]       NOT MANAGING CASH FLOW

Food, beverage, and labor cost percentages mean very little if money is going out faster than it is coming in.  An astute accounting department is one that manages this flow to keep everything in balance.

[]       NOT HAVING A HANDLE ON SOLID COMMUNICATION

Ask nearly any employee, in any business: “What is the biggest problem in the business where you work?”  Chances are pretty good the answer will be: “Communication.”  It’s either insufficient, inaccurate, poorly timed, or conflicting.  Learn to be as transparent and timely with your communication and make sure that it is accurate and the same, no matter who is delivering the message.

[]       NOT PARTNERING WITH THE DEPARTMENT OF HEALTH

You, of course want to make sure that your staff and customers are safe and that you are doing everything to protect their health.  It is important to know that the Department of Health is there to help you do just that.  Don’t wait for that annual surprise visit – engage them, respect them, communicate with them, ask them questions, and make them a partner in your standards.

[]       NOT HAVING A NEST EGG TO FALL BACK ON

Guess what?  Things will go sideways.  The economy will dip at times.  Weather is inconsistent and somewhat unpredictable.  Employees will leave suddenly.  A new restaurant will open up and lure your customers away.  And there will be another pandemic at some point in time.  If you are living from week to week, hoping that enough cash will flow through your operation to keep you afloat, then any one of those challenges will open the door to failure.  Stash money for a rainy day.  Save, save, save.  Make sure your relationship with your bank is strong and arrange for a line of credit to fall back on when needed.  Plan for challenges – it is critical.

[]       NOT UNDERSTANDING THE ROLE OF HOSPITALITY

In the end, the quality of food you offer is important, the technical service you provide is essential, the prices you charge will attract or push certain customers away, but it is your sincere, friendly, warm hospitality that creates customer loyalty.  It is your kindness, empathy, and positivity that attracts and retains good employees.  Never lose sight of the importance of this.

PLAN BETTER – TRAIN HARDER

Harvest America Ventures, LLC

www.harvestamericacues.com  BLOG

CAFÉ Talks Podcast

https://cafemeetingplace.com/cafe-podcasts

IN THE KITCHEN – ORGANIZATION IS EVERYTHING

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From first-in, first-out in the walk-in cooler to how you fold side towels and where your knives are placed – it is organization that allows a kitchen to run efficiently and keeps the mood and pace of the restaurant in sync.  To some, it may seem less significant, but to seasoned professionals – this is the truth of the kitchen.  To the novice it may appear the cooks and chefs are plagued by OCD (Obsessive-Compulsive Disorder) but let me be clear:  a kitchen without this level of organization will revert to chaos and chaos never wins in the long run.

When a kitchen exudes calm, even when the amount of food prep and the stress of the moment seem over-the-top, it is always a result of organization and attention to detail.  Spend time in such a kitchen and you will note how pervasive this attention to detail is.  It goes way beyond the typical thoughts about mise en place, it extends much further than having your prep in order, organization becomes a way of life that permeates every detail of a cook’s work and life.  When a kitchen is this organized, cooks practice detailed organization without even thinking about it.  In fact, you will oftentimes find that this organization extends into their personal lives as well.  Attention to detail cannot be turned on and off, so how a cook organizes his or workstation in the restaurant is how he or she will organize their home kitchen, their clothes, books, records, and food supplies.  It becomes natural – how he or she lives.

The kitchen is a thing of beauty and intense structure when organization is the rule of thumb. Plating salads for a large group – all the plates are lined up perfectly and ingredients placed in the exact same spot on each plate.  Storerooms and coolers are organized so that containers are all pointed in the same direction with labels facing out, sauté pans at a line cooks station are stacked with the handles facing in the same direction, and a cook’s production list is written either in order of work to be done, or in terms of the amount of time each task requires.  Throughout the kitchen – this is the rule of thumb:  everything has an order, a place, and a time that everyone adheres to.

In the dining room, the same attention to organization must be prevalent.  How tables are set, what order is used, in some cases measuring the distance from the edge of the table to the bottom of forks, knives, and spoons; lining up glassware with a taut string to ensure equidistance, where each type of backup glassware and plate is stored, a specific location for pens, candles, salt and pepper shakers, napkins, and menus – it is essential that everything is placed exactly where it should be so that each person can depend on that structure.  Lost moments looking for anything out of place is not only inefficient, but also a prime source of frustration. 

Orders are always taken in a certain order at the table, entered into the point of sale in that same order, and then delivered with the expectation that each server followed the rules of engagement.  If a tray is used, plates are placed on the tray in the order that they will be delivered to guests at that table.  It is a synchronized process that leads to consistent, predictable results.  Front and back of the house demand this organization if the end result is a smooth operation and happy guest. 

Back to the kitchen – if you were to record the workings of a team of line cooks and put the video to music, it would be a symphony that made the connection – not improvisational jazz, pop, or rap.  Each cook depends on the next to follow the pre-determined steps, in order, and in sync with the timing orchestrated by the expeditor.  The left hand always knows what the right hand is doing.  A pivot step from the sauté cook is met with the same from the grill, the center person is strategically placing the vegetable, starch, and sauce on the plate at the same moment as the expeditor waits to adjust a fresh herb, wipe the plate rim, and step aside for the server to pick-up an order while it is at the peak of freshness.  It is majestic, inspiring, and almost effortless when organization is the rule that everyone follows.

When a chef talks about those minute details of placement, process, timing, and uniformity – keep in mind what the intended result will be.  Chefs work from the end placement backward in establishing those standards – it is quite possibly the most important thing that a professional chef can do.  Hire people with the capacity and set the standards of organization that everyone must buy into.  Never underestimate just how important this is for the guest, for the demeanor of those who work in the kitchen, for the communication between front and back-of-the-house, and for the success of the restaurant.

PLAN BETTER – TRAIN HARDER

Harvest America Ventures, LLC

www.harvestamericacues.com  BLOG

CAFÉ Talks Podcast

https://cafemeetingplace.com/cafe-podcasts

COOKS – HOLD YOUR HEAD HIGH

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You walk through those kitchen doors one more time, straighten your white coat, roll up the sleeves and tie on a starched white apron.  A quick adjust on that skull cap, wash your hands, and slide a cutting board in place.  Your knives are always sharp, but you run the blades down a steel just the same, sanitize the edge and line up your station for another day of work.  You address everything like a surgeon ready for the operating table knowing that all items have a place, and everything must be in its place.  This is how a professional begins, this is how you were trained, this is how you pay respect to the profession that you have chosen. 

Sure, there are cooks who have not been given the opportunity to learn the proper way to work, the established steps that define proper cooking technique, or know the history behind the job and the foods that you are about to prepare – but you do.  You feel fortunate, even though not every aspect of the job is glamorous or even exciting; you know that everything is important in the long run.  Now it’s time to get to work.

Some people just don’t know.  You shake off those comments from last night’s meeting with a few friends outside of the restaurant business, friends who shared those years in high school or college: an engineer, a forever student finishing medical school, an accountant, and a teacher. It was that biting comment, the condescending one that portrayed “pity” on you for not pursing a “real career”.  The arrogance, the tasteless jokes, the lack of understanding about what a cook or a chef does. 

“When are you going to get a real job, one with a promising future?”

How dare they demean the career that you have chosen.  It’s the same misunderstanding that is evident in how your parents still shake their heads and wonder why you are wasting your time.  It really starts to wear on you.  At times you are hurt and other times angry as hell.  Screw them!  But then there are those moments when you wonder if they are right.  It’s hard to focus and get started on the mountain of work in front of you.  You try to shake it off, but the feeling keeps eating away at your psyche.  You set down your knives, wash your hands again, grab a cup of coffee and knock on the chef’s office door.

“Chef, can I talk with you for a moment?”

The chef, a man you respect, a person in his late forties who has a long history of working in some spectacular restaurants, a person who seems to have it together – removes his glasses, sets them on the desk and says: 

“Have a seat, what’s up?”

You close the door, settle into a chair, take off your hat and sigh. 

“Chef, what am I doing here?”

You proceed to tell him the whole story.  Your stress, questioning your decision to become a cook, wonder as to how long it will take to reach the position that he holds, lack of support and understanding from your friends and family, and sudden lack of confidence as a result.  The chef listens intently, nods on occasion, takes a sip of his coffee and clears his throat.  After a long minute he looks me in the eye and begins:

“Let me tell you a few things that I think are important.  What you are feeling right now is real and how you sift through those feelings will determine where you go from here and how you will view your personal value. 

Every hard-working person has a moment of doubt.  They doubt their abilities, their choices, and their direction.  Like most people I know – they want to make a difference.  It is part of the grand design, that part that questions: ‘why am I here?’  I had that moment a long time ago, and there are still occasions when I look in a mirror and re-address those concerns. 

Let me tell you this: cooking is one of the noblest professions on the planet.  It allows the cook to satisfy one of the most basic needs – hunger, but at the same time it is one of the most significant expressions of caring and sharing that any person can offer. Cooking is a line of communication that opens your heart and soul to others, a chance to share in the culture and traditions that are part of your background, and a way to say – here is a part of me.  Cooking is important and cooks are essential to society.  Beyond this, a professional cook is a highly intelligent ambassador of a profession that requires an understanding of history, psychology, math, science, and an appreciation for the human spirit.  There are few other professions that are so comprehensive.  As an art form, cooking appeals to every human sense: sight, sound, smell, touch, and taste – what other art form can boast this? 

For those who falsely label what you do as less than significant – invite them to join you in our kitchen for a day.  Have them tie on an apron and just watch the motion, accuracy, intensity, passion, and art and have them feel the heat, the sore muscles, and the impending danger around every corner.  Make sure that they watch the poetry of motion on the line during service; the orchestration by the expeditor, the chain of command that requires a ‘yes chef’ response, and the meticulous detail as each cook assembles a dish with the finesse of a promising painter.  I guarantee that their dialogue will change – they simply do not understand the heart and soul of the cook, the ‘all-in’ mentality that is required of every person who knows that this profession has chosen them. 

I want you to think about this.  You have it all – the desire, the passion, the skill, and the commitment to make a difference – one plate at a time and don’t ever let anyone take that away from you.  Question what you do – it is natural and important, but know that cooking is a joy, a gift, and a calling.  You have it.”

I lifted my head, smiled, adjusted my hat, shook the chef’s hand, and said: “thank you.”  Time to get back to work in the kitchen – the place where I am meant to be.

PLAN BETTER – TRAIN HARDER

Where would you rather be?

Harvest America Ventures, LLC

www.harvestamericacues.com  BLOG

CAFÉ Talks Podcast

https://cafemeetingplace.com/cafe-podcasts

COOKS FEASTING ON OVERLOAD

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Well, some may not agree with this article, but I felt compelled to point out some observations over the past few years.  I have held myself hostage to some of the martyr reflections that have permeated the business of kitchens for decades. These beliefs have taken control of the minds and hearts of many cooks and chefs.  It is certainly a tough business.  It is physically, mentally, and emotionally draining at times, the hours can be brutal, and the pay and benefits never seem to match up.  However, I look around and see many other professions with similar challenges: nurses, doctors, engineers, firefighters, EMT’s, law enforcement, research scientists, steel workers, and the list goes on and on.  The major difference is that those professions (for the most part) are not as inclined to create angry podcasts and exaggerated tv shows, write isles of books, dominate blogs and magazines, and stand on a soapbox to let the world know how hard they work.  We do.

This is not to take away from the challenges that we face from the level of cook through executive chef, but it did make me wonder why we proclaim our challenges and either go back for more or leave a trail of discontent.  It made me wonder if maybe, just maybe, those who choose a life in the kitchen somehow secretly enjoy the challenges and the pain.  Maybe, just like the adrenaline that pushes us through another busy night on the line, we find comfort in the “business of hard knocks”. 

It’s an interesting thought – “cooks feast on overload”.  Maybe this is the fuel that we seek, the gratification that comes from pushing ourselves too far and doing so without a safety net.  It’s kind of like the weightlifter who jumps into a cross-fit regimen, or the runner that decides to train for a triathlon.  Outsiders look at the uncomfortable pain that these physical fitness advocates put themselves through and marvel, but wonder “why” at the same time.  Aren’t we doing the same thing in the kitchen?

I know a few cross-fit advocates who psych themselves up for their next session, dreading what is to come but pumped to jump in.  They finish a session drained, sore, and exhausted, talking about how the program is crazy and brutal and they shouldn’t do it, but then proceed to talk to others about it with a strange type of enthusiasm.  Sounds like chefs and cooks – doesn’t it?

We profess to want the restaurant business to change, to help us build balance into our lives, yet at the same time we speak to those starting out as if what we continue to do is “the way it is” and something to be proud of.  The pain of overload is a badge of courage.  So, the question is – do we really want it to change that much?  What if working in a restaurant kitchen was more user-friendly, predictable, comforting, empathetic, and supportive – how would we feel then?

It’s interesting to consider, isn’t it?  There is little question that the restaurant business needs to change.  Life/work balance is important at some level, and fair compensation is a must, but what part of the “kitchen overload environment” are we not willing to give up?  Maybe it’s a generational thing and younger folks might have a better perspective on what commitment to job means.  Maybe older generations never came to grips with what life outside the kitchen means.  But I find it fascinating that there is this dichotomy and that we seem to have a love affair with telling our story using every possible outlet available.  Hey, I write this blog that focuses on the trials, tribulations, joys, wins, and losses associated with working in professional kitchens – so I have bought in lock, stock, and barrel. 

Is this life of challenges, unpredictability, physical, emotional, and mental stress somehow attractive because of this?  What happens if we take away much of what makes kitchen life seem untenable?  I’m sure that there are many who would applaud this type of change – a shift to a more reasonable work environment – one that can provide a more predictable and steady life outside the range, but I wonder if there are just as many who would find the new environment boring.  I just don’t know.

Whenever I get together with some of my friends from past kitchen teams we immediately engage in stories of the “good old days”, as if we survived and are somehow better chefs as a result.  Whenever I addressed a class of culinary students it was always the stories of “hard knocks and crazy work environments” that peaked their attention.  I wonder if the same occurs in medical school, nursing school, the police academy, engineering classes, and the like.  My quite extensive collection of culinary books includes at least four dozen by chefs who reminisce and lament their time in the kitchen and offer their share of war stories for everyone to nod in agreement or shake their head in disbelief.  It is an industry of people who enjoy looking back and proclaiming: “I survived”.  I wonder, is this normal or are chefs and cooks an anomaly?

Anyway, this is not an article to admonish those of us who take the time to reflect “out loud”, write our stories, embellish on our experiences, or even complain about how hard the work is – it is simply an observation and a question without a clear answer: “Do cooks and chefs feast on overload”?

Food for thought.

PLAN BETTER – TRAIN HARDER
Keep telling your stories

Harvest America Ventures, LLC

www.harvestamericacues.com  BLOG

CAFÉ Talks Podcast

https://cafemeetingplace.com/cafe-podcasts

ALL HAIL DISHWASHERS

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March 9 was National Dish Washer Day.  I’m not sure who decided that this declaration be made, but for those of us in the restaurant business – it is so appropriate.  I have long proclaimed that the dish washer was the most important position in the kitchen – even more important than the chef.  If you doubt my belief – think about this:

  • If a line cook calls out – we simply spread the work out among those who are present.  We grumble and curse, we step up the pace and show our anger on our face, but we get by.
  • A server doesn’t show up, we adjust the station chart and maybe change the timing at the door, but we figure it out.
  • If the chef doesn’t show up for some reason, there are those who might even cheer.  At the very least, we know that the work right in front of us won’t change.  We dig in an get by.
  • The dishwasher doesn’t show up and the place falls apart.  As much as some may tend to pass off this position as unskilled in comparison to cooks, no one else wants to do this physically demanding, oftentimes thankless job that everyone takes for granted until the person fails to show up.
  • I rest my case.

On this day of recognition, and for that matter every day that we turn on the kitchen lights, let’s rethink how we view the position and look at the facts:

  • The best food will never be received well on a less than sparkling plate.
  • The most expensive wine with rave reviews from Robert Parker and the Wine Spectator will fail to impress if there are spots on that Riedl stemware.
  • How frustrating would it be if that stacked china ready for plating was spotted or chipped?
  • How frustrated would a line cook be if he or she had to clean their own sauté pans after every use?
  • How much more difficult would your job as a cook be if every pot or pan that you picked up were slick with grease or caked with yesterday’s burnt mirepoix?
  • How beautiful is a kitchen that sparkles?
  • How fluid is a kitchen when the cooks and dishwasher are in sync?
  • And maybe most importantly: How many professional cooks got their start by working in the dish pit – the place where they received their first taste of kitchen life and suddenly knew that this was the career for them?  How many chefs owe their appreciation for building a team to starting their careers at the age of sixteen – diving for pearls and stacking steaming hot plates?

The rhythm of the kitchen is closely tied to the work and efficiency that is present in the dish area.  Why do we place so much value on the organization and professionalism of cooks and chefs, but forget how this must apply to the dish area as well?  Why do we sometimes treat dish washers as commodities – interchangeable and easily replaceable parts, when their role is so critical to the success of the restaurant (front and back of the house)?  On this day of recognition and every day that follows we might want to re-think how we approach this essential position.

Think about this: 

  • The most expensive piece of equipment in kitchens is the dishwashing machine. Who is responsible for this machine?  The dish washer!
  • One of the hidden painful costs of operating a kitchen comes from the cost of chemicals used in the dish area.  Who is in control of this?  Who can make a difference through efficient use of the machine and the process of washing dishes?  The dish washer!
  • By far one of the most expensive inventories in a kitchen is china, glassware, and flatware.  Who is responsible for this?  The dish washer!
  • Who has one of the most impactful relationships with restaurant employees (front and back of the house)?  The dish washer!
  • What employee is constantly viewed as “low man on the totem pole”, paid the lowest possible wage, ignored until they get behind, and passed off as non-essential by many?  The dish washer!
  • It’s time to change attitudes.

Here are some great rules to live by when it comes to dishwashers:

[]       Hire great attitudes.

[]       Pay a fair wage and offer ample opportunities to scale up every few months.

[]       Provide a clean, crisp uniform that parallels what you offer your cooks.

[]       Make sure new dish washers are properly oriented and trained.  Introduce them to every cook and server, and every manager and sous chef as an essential member of your team.

[]       Feed them well, give them breaks.

[]       Teach your cooks how to properly scrape and stack pots and pans in the dish area.  Treat the dish washer with respect.

[]       Discipline any employee who fails to treat the dish washer with respect.

[]       Involve the dish washer in your staff meetings and give he or she an opportunity to express themselves.

[]       Provide opportunities for dish washers to learn about cooking (if they express an interest).  Show them the way to move up.

[]       As a chef, when dish washers arrive at work – welcome them, shake their hand, and at the end of the shift – thank them for a good day’s work.

[]       If the dish washer gets backed up, in the weeds, jump in to help, or have a line cook give a hand if they are free.

[]       When trying out new menu items – allow the dish washer to be part of your tasting panel.

[]       Give the dish washer some added responsibilities and let everyone know that they are in charge.  Make them the sanitation lead in the kitchen – maybe even in charge of HACCP logs, etc.

A sous chef who worked with me once stated that I should just constantly hire dish washers if any show up looking for a job.  “You may not need them today, but you will tomorrow.”  Maybe, just maybe, the rule of thumb should be: “Treat those dish washers like they are important, and they might just stay with you for quite some time.  These individuals might be a chef or owner someday.”

PLAN BETTER – TRAIN HARDER

Harvest America Ventures, LLC

Restaurant Consulting

www.harvestamericacues.com  BLOG

CAFÉ Talks Podcast

https://cafemeetingplace.com/cafe-podcasts

FIRE and HEAT

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It is something quite hard to explain – a fascination, a bit of fear, a desire, something to marvel at, and even something to try and control.  It is at the core of what every cook does, the most essential ingredient, the key to releasing unlimited varieties of flavor, the one ingredient that determines a person’s ability to cook, the mysterious component that separates a kitchen from the rest of the world – heat. 

There is a point in time when a person finds him or herself staring at that dancing flame of blue, yellow, and white and decides to step into the exciting world of heat and try to learn how it might be controlled.  To be a cook, after all, is to spend a lifetime learning how to control the somewhat uncontrollable.  Of course, we have tools to help us tame the beast, to place limits on what the flame and its heat attempt to do, but the cook always knows that at any given moment that flame will break free and do what it wants.  It’s like riding a wild horse, the rider or the cook can never disconnect, never fail to pay attention, and never assume that he or she has everything under control.  Cooks spend their careers trying to tame the flame.

One of the goals of a professional cook is to gain control and never let go.  Cooks learn quickly to respect heat for its potential and its wonders.   The flame and the heat that it creates is a symbol of the danger that lurks in a kitchen, yet it is a danger that must be faced if cooking is to take place.  From that first moment that a cook holds a knife in his or her hand and approaches the range a world of opportunity comes into view.  So much can happen when the ingredient of heat becomes a partner with the cook.

Cooks and chefs know that flavor not only comes from an individual ingredient, the seasoning used, or the combination of ingredients that work together; flavor comes from the process of applying heat in a certain way for a specific amount of time.  It is this partnership with heat that allows a novice to become a master.  

Low and slow allows the muscle to breakdown, the fat in meat to render and flavor a dish, and additional ingredients to gradually impart their flavor contribution.  At first the meat resists, tightening and eventually giving way to the comfort that low and slow offers.  Eventually, the muscle gives in and becomes one with the heat.

On the grill a different cut of meat is attacked by the intense blue and golden yellow flames that feast on the dripping fat and surround it through caramelization, the Maillard Reaction that converts protein into sugar – imparting a unique flavor that can only exist when the flame becomes one with the ingredient.  It produces umami, or the taste of savory that is mouthwatering, rich, and immensely satisfying.

The sauté cook may have the most difficult challenge of controlling heat.  Pans must be very hot, sizzling hot, scorching hot if any ingredient added to the pan is to properly sear, caramelize and dance without sticking.  Heat provides the ultimate non-stick surface if managed correctly.  The cook spent hours seasoning the pan by super heating it, rubbing the interior with kosher salt, heating it again, and polishing the surface making sure that it is ready.  There is an understanding that the pan is a vehicle for heat transfer and the vehicle must be maintained properly.  The cook knows when the pan is right – it sounds a certain way when those ingredients hit its polished surface.  If it doesn’t sound right, then proper cooking will be compromised.  He or she knows that once the ingredients are removed it will be crucial to bring the fond, or remaining essence in the pan, to just a few seconds before it burns and then deglaze with wine, citrus, liquor, or stock to create the basis for a pan sauce.  If it goes too far the sauce will taste burnt, if not far enough then the flavor derived from a sear or sauté will not develop.  When that splash of wine or liquor hits the fond, the cook lifts one edge of the pan 20 or 30 degrees to accept the flame and burn off excess alcohol.  The cook is always inviting the flame and its heat to try and take control but then tames it sufficiently to keep it in check. It is an art that takes time to master.

Pushing the pan forward slightly and then pulling it back just as quickly will tease ingredients to take flight and then catch the pan on their way back down.  Ingredients seem to dance in the pan at the hand of a cook in charge of the heat.  Oh, but don’t for one second think that the cook is the master of heat or the flame.  If he takes his eyes off the pan or fails to respect the flame, then the flame will gain control again.  It is a constant battle for control.

The fry cook is focus on a vat of 375-degree fat that sits comfortably waiting to receive an ingredient that will immerse and fight to retain its identity, only to quickly give way to the attack that will ensue.  The cook knows what the hot fat will like and what it will resist.  Water and fat do not mix, so any trace of water on ingredients will result in 375-degree heated oil sling shot towards the cooks’ hands, arms, or face.  It’s as if the heated oil is shouting – no you don’t!  the ingredient quickly gives in to the comfort of caramelization as the vegetable, breaded or battered protein, or skin takes in the flavor and accepts a new texture as a result.

On the line there is a relentless battle with flames and heat as cooks sear, char, boil, broil, roast, braise, fry, poach and melt before a completed dish comes into being and finds a home in the pass.  There is a cacophony of sound, a complex blending of aroma, and a blending of both that find their roots in flame and heat.  In the meantime, cooks are battling the ill effects of heat on their own bodies.  Sweat pours down their back and forms on their brow.  Hot pan handles are always tempting bare hands to “grab on”, but the cook is seasoned enough to resist.  Flames burning off the alcohol in sauté pans are always hoping to burn off the hair on arms to eyelashes that dare to get too close.  Finishing a shift without damage is an accomplishment for a line cook.

In the back of the kitchen – the baker is working a different kind of magic, a different level of control over “heat”.  For those artisan sourdough breads, the oven hearth must be a perfect temperature with the right amount of steam injected at the right time to develop the wonderful crust and caramel color desired.  Pastries and cakes address the oven just in time to get the right amount of spring from their leavening agents, and simple syrups and crème anglaise heat gradually on stove tops till the viscosity is perfect or the egg yolks bind with cream for a rich sauce or base for house made ice cream.  The baker is a master of heat control, but still subservient to the fluctuations that occur when the oven door is opened, the steam injected, or the open flame develops a mind of its own. 

If the baker is daring enough to bake in a woodfired oven, then all bets are off.  The coals from a perfectly heated oven will transition the dome to pure white when it reaches around 1,000 degrees – way too hot for bread.  The baker must rake the coals from the oven, clean the hearth, wait until the oven cools to 500 degrees or a bit less, add steam, and peel the breads directly on to the stone hearth.  Managing the heat to stay at or below the 500-degree threshold is only possible with ample experience tending fires.

It is fire and heat that attracts young cooks, it is the fire that humbles us all while we learn the ropes, and it is the on-going quest to control the fire and not have the fire control us, that keeps a chef growing and on his or her toes. 

PLAN BETTER – TRAIN HARDER

Harvest America Ventures, LLC

Restaurant Consulting

www.harvestamericacues.com  BLOG

CAFÉ Talks Podcast

https://cafemeetingplace.com/cafe-podcasts

THE REALITY FOR AN AGING CHEF

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I would assume that many chefs who read this article – at least the ones from my generation have reflected on where they are, what they have done, and what they are still able to do.  I also assume that, like me, you have entertained lofty ideas of your ability to “do it all over again” with the same energy as you did a few decades earlier.  There is something about aging that we all want to resist – at least mentally.

We read the articles and listen to chefs and restaurateurs desperate to fill positions of line cook, sous chef, chef, manager, etc. and quietly think to ourselves: “I could do that again.”  After many years of working in kitchens, leading operations, managing departments, problem-solving, planning, directing, and listening we know that we have the skills – so maybe it would make sense to jump back in the game.  Whenever these feelings rise to the surface, I try to think about the lyrics from an old song by the group Little Feat:

“You know that you’re over the hill when your mind makes a promise that your body can’t fill”

How true it is.  The often-used belief that working in a professional kitchen is a “young person’s game” is very true.  There are many aspects of the work that require the physical strength and stamina, the speed, and the capacity to challenge adrenaline, that are hard to come by after your 50’s or 60’s. 

You watch those young line cooks stepping quickly from one task to another, bouncing on their feet while managing multiple sauté pans or a char grill filled with steaks and chops moving towards different degrees of doneness, clicking their tongs in anticipation of the next wave of orders from the expeditor, and able to differentiate multiple methods of cooking and unique flavor profiles for hours on end and you shake your head with a feeling of respect.  Sure, you know all of those preparations, probably better than any line cook; you have a palate that may be as or even more sophisticated than his or hers, and you have certainly put thousands more hours behind the range than they have, but that physical stamina and mental quickness are not what they once were.  You breathe out and shake your head again knowing that as much as you try to convince yourself, those jobs are not part of your portfolio anymore.

Like me, you want to jump in and help that restaurant solve their challenges.  You want to personally address the dilemma of not enough people to do the work and show everyone how it is done, but alas, that will not come to pass – this is not how you can help.

OK, so don’t feel depressed, this is not the time to sit in a rocking chair and wait for the end of time to knock on your door.  Push aside what you are no longer able to do and realize what you are able to do at a level that only those decades of experience can bring about.  That line cook may be able to work faster, organize multiple tasks better, and tap into that adrenaline far better than you, but they still lack the experience to plan, create, coach, and problem-solve like you.  You have been there, done that and as a result have ample good, bad, and ugly experiences to know what needs to be done.  You have the ability to anticipate and make adjustments before a challenge becomes a problem and as such far better prepared to adapt.

Age is a funny thing; it is unforgiving in many respects and comforting in others.  For a chef it simply means that we must modify what we do, how we do it, and how we promote our professional value.  Stop for just a moment and reflect on your experiences, how much your base of knowledge has grown over the years, how your approach towards challenges has matured, and how others view what you have to offer.  William Holden said it very succinctly:

“Aging is an inevitable process.  I surely wouldn’t want to grow younger.  The older you become, the more you know; your bank account of knowledge is much richer.”

Aging becomes a problem for chefs when they continue to think that their value is the same as it was 20 or 30 years prior.  The problem for employers of aging chefs is that they often try to view the role of that person in the same way they did during the early days of their career.  It’s time for both parties to re-think what age and experience can bring to the table.  Age is only a deterrent if you believe that it is.

So, what does a senior chef, even one who is retired, bring to the table?  Where does their value lie and how can they help a struggling industry right now?  Here are a few thoughts:

[]       THE TEACHING STORYTELLER:

Whether it is a classroom or on the job – true teachers are storytellers and storytelling prowess comes from a lifetime of experience.  People remember stories far better than facts or directives.  It is those priceless stories that come from “been there, done that” that help young cooks understand the “why”.

[]       THE REFLECTIVE, CONFIDENT PROBLEM SOLVER:

Whatever the challenge is – experience can come to the rescue.  Food cost is way too high – the senior chef has faced that problem numerous times.  He or she knows where to look, where the source of the problem may lie.  An employee is constantly late or lacks the personal motivation to do a consistently good job – the senior chef will likely seek the cause rather than simply lash out or give up on a person.  The line is getting overwhelmed with orders from the dining room and the system is about to collapse – the senior chef knows how to calm the players and help reason to take the place of reaction.

[]       THE STRATEGIC RISK TAKER:

An owner is faced with the need for drastic change or is contemplating expansion into a new market – the young chef is oftentimes quick to say, “go for it”, while the senior chef will take the time to research, analyze risk, and find an approach that is more comfortable for all involved.  Risk is fine as long as there is a greater chance of success than failure – something that experience brings to the table.

[]       THE TRAINER AND COACH:

The younger chef is sometimes quick to show frustration when the team seems unable to meet his or her expectations – the senior chef knows that the team will only function at its potential if there is a plan and an effective training program in place to help everyone get on the same page.  Senior chefs are less likely to assume and more adept at guiding a process and the people involved in that process.

[]       THE ROLE MODEL AND CONFIDANT:

Every kitchen thrives when the chef is a role model of professionalism, a steady ship’s captain who sets very high standards, teaches and trains, shows empathy along the way, praises and equitably uses constructive critique, and looks and acts the part of a leader.  Senior chefs (not all of them, but many) have made enough mistakes in this regard to understand how to avoid those same mistakes in the future.

[]       THE MENTOR AND AMBASSADOR:

Younger chefs are very busy and quite driven.  As a result, they are oftentimes impatient – expecting everyone to excel and focus on his or her vision.  Senior chefs can bring a different perspective to the table – as a mentor the senior chef seeks to build up young cooks, show them the way, share experiences, and shape those cooks for a long future in the business.  As a result, the senior chef is an ambassador for the business as one that invests in people.

[]       THE PATIENT VOICE OF REASON:

With age comes a different level of patience.  There is no shortage of triggers that can set a chef off in reactionary mode, but the senior chef is able to temper those reactions by listening, reflecting, inquiring, and acting rather than reacting.  This patience can save an operation from designation as a hostile work environment or an unstable kitchen that is not a place where cooks want to work.

Yes, we are a bit slower on the draw, less able to stand on our feet for 12-hours a day, and hard put to give up a balanced life for the constant demands of a typical kitchen, but we can offer so much more than our younger selves, we have depth through experience.

PLAN BETTER – TRAIN HARDER

Harvest America Ventures, LLC

Restaurant Consulting

www.harvestamericacues.com – BLOG

CAFÉ Talks Podcast

https://cafemeetingplace.com/cafe-podcasts

COOKING DURING TROUBLING TIMES

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It’s 2:00 in the morning and as is all too often the case lately – I am unable to sleep.  There is no shortage of stress nowadays, but for me, unlike the stress that I felt as a chef in my prime – the stress is not related to business volume, staffing, unpredictable vendors, and budgetary pressure.  Today’s stress is far more significant – it is stress over the state of our industry as a whole, our democracy, and the wellbeing of the world where we live. 

As much as this blog is focused on what is right in front of cooks, chefs, and restaurateurs every day, it is impossible to do so in a vacuum.  The old management adage that you should “leave your problems at home when you come to work”, is ridiculous – I don’t know anyone who can do that, especially when the consequences of those problems are so grave.

I keep flipping back to on-line news services to follow the Russian invasion of Ukraine – a proud country of kind people with a deep-seated wonderful culture who have done nothing to provoke the wrath of a superpower except to choose to be free and democratic.  We (all of us) cannot ignore their plight, and we must not forget history.  This playbook was used before and its outcome impacts all of us at some level.  Just like the virus that we continue to battle, this aggressive attack on freedom will spread if left unchecked.  We simply cannot just turn back to our jobs of creating delicious food for those who can afford it while all of this is going on.  We simply cannot put the challenges that the world faces aside while we do our work.

Everything and everyone are connected – it is the nature of a system.  One person’s suffering will eventually impact even the most fortunate.  Ukraine’s stability and free future will impact every other country and every other person from Europe to Asia, and the Middle East to the Americas.  There is no separation – when one suffers, we all suffer.

Whether it is collectively doing our part to bring the pandemic to closure; finding ways to help feed, clothe, and find shelter for those in need; establish a fair and honest system of education that opens the door to equal opportunity; working to push aside hate; rising up to protect truth; protecting the democratic process; or crushing those pockets of evil in the world – we must pay attention and do something.  It is not possible to ignore all that is going on and simply shrug our shoulders and say: “it is, what it is”.

As cooks we do provide a release for people, a way to breathe in the air of calm that a great meal can provide; create an environment for friends, family, and even foes to break bread and raise a glass in solidarity and comfort the soul.  But is it enough?  What else can we do to address the bigger picture? 

Before we are cooks, we are people of the earth, friends and neighbors, citizens and ambassadors, caring people who hopefully want others to simply be free.  I am reminded of the song (now ancient unless you are over the age of 50) by the group the Rascals:

PEOPLE GOT TO BE FREE

“All the world over, so easy to see
People everywhere just wanna be free
Listen, please listen, that’s the way it should be
There’s peace in the valley, people got to be free”

As simple as that – this is what people want and need.  Free to be themselves, free to practice their religion, free to find a well-balanced education, free to provide food, shelter, and clothing for their families, and free to move about without the threat of power hungry, hateful leaders.  Whatever your profession – you cannot ignore this reality.  It is what you want, what Ukrainians want, what every person on the face of the earth wants. Isn’t it ironic that this is exactly what the American Constitution was written to support?  We must pay attention and do what we can, even if it’s a small gesture.  To ignore our role in this system is to disrespect the life that we have been given.

The health of our restaurant industry depends on the health of all parts of the system.  Yes, Ukraine’s fight for freedom impacts the restaurant where you work.  Yes, bringing the pandemic to a close through a unified effort impacts the restaurant where you work.  Yes, the ability of all people to relish the basics of life, to survive, impacts your restaurant.  And yes, the environmental health of our planet certainly impacts the restaurant where you work.

Here are some thoughts for cooks, chefs, and restaurateurs:

[]          Support World Central Kitchen – Chef Jose Andres’ organization that unifies cooks and chefs around the world wherever people are struggling to find food because of a disaster.  His organization is already in Ukraine and surrounding countries that are accepting refugees from this oppressive situation.  You may not be able to physically find a way to cook with him when disaster strikes, but you can give – even the smallest amount to help support these efforts.  Whether it’s $10 or $100 – it all helps.  https://wck.org/

[]          Talk about world issues with your peers and do so from a position of knowing the facts.  Read a newspaper, listen to the experts, learn to trust a source that believes in telling the story even more than offering their opinion.  Take the time to learn and digest the challenges that others in the system face.

[]          Support your local food pantries.  Maybe even volunteer once a month to help cook a meal for those who are unable to provide for themselves.  Care about those who are food insecure and those who are homeless.  A hot meal goes a long way to showing you care and helping to take away someone’s stress.

[]          Put aside personal opinions about pandemic protocols and do what’s right for the whole population.  We are in this together and the only way that we move past the pandemic is to unify in our effort.  This is not a political issue – it is a global health issue.

[]          Learn about a more sustainable approach towards how you conduct your life and your business.  Do what you can: recycle, reuse, reduce waste, buy local, find ways to connect with more sustainable energy sources, save water, and be an ambassador for good practices.

[]          Take the time to put aside your prejudice (we all likely have some), listen to others and learn.  In many cities you can find signs on front lawns that proclaim: “Hate has no home here”.  Be that person, be that business.

These are very challenging times, but we can all make a difference.  Together we can change the world one plate of food at a time, one act of kindness at a time, one concerted effort to align with the system that everyone is part of and then we can look at ourselves in the mirror and sleep at night.

PLAN BETTER – TRAIN HARDER

Let’s all make an effort to be better and do our part.

Cooks united!

Harvest America Ventures, LLC

www.harvestamericacues.com  Blog

RESPECTING A COOKS INGREDIENTS

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As cooks we tend to live in the moment.  A dish that finally reaches the pass began its journey when it arrived at our back loading dock or even when we located it in the walk-in.  It is hard to think further back than that since our work is endless and always demanding – we need to live in the moment and work with what is in front of us.  However, to be truly effective as a cook or a chef it is essential that we know how difficult the road was to get to that delivery truck or walk-in.  Until we understand and appreciate the journey our ability to do justice to that ingredient is limited.

If we take the time to understand and appreciate, then we will likely take pause.  This journey requires the farmer, fisherman, rancher, or forager and the ingredient to give it all – total commitment.  Here are a few examples:

[]          CARROT: It takes 70-80 days for a carrot to reach maturity.  The right balance of sandy and nutrient based soil, farmer care, rainfall and sun will yield the bright orange, sweet and tender vegetable that the cook requires.  It doesn’t simply fall off the back of a truck.  When you appreciate the carrot then you are less likely to waste even the peels that might be used for flavoring a vegetable stock.

[]          PEPPER: List the carrot (although above ground) the pepper can take upward of 90 days to reach maturity.  Too much rain and the roots will rot, too little and the pepper will fail to flourish; too much sun and the pepper will struggle and too little will slow down growth and maturity.

[]          POTATO:  The potato is a staple in many diets.  An incredibly versatile ingredients with almost limitless varieties, it is inexpensive and sturdy – lasting for months in colder storage.  A typical potato takes 120 days for the farmer to nurture and harvest.

[]          TOMATO: An incredible fruit that seems to hold the warmth of the sun when picked at the peak of maturity.  There is no comparison to the burst of flavor from a ripe summer tomato.  Most varieties take around 100 days to mature.

[]          CORN: Few vegetables can provide so much as an ear of corn: cornmeal for masa and flour for baking, corn oil, fresh corn on or off the cob, important animal feed, and some varieties for popcorn.  Corn also has a maturation range of up to 100 days.  Plenty of sun and just the right amount of rain is critical for optimum growth. 

[]          GRAPES: Whether table varieties or those for wine production, grapes mature 100 days after blossoms appear on the vines.  Grapes require lots of tender loving care, protection of roots, tying up branches to provide better sun exposure, trimming back vines at the end of the season and culling too many grapes to allow those remaining to receive optimum nutrients, mounding dirt around the base of roots after harvest to protect the vines during harsh winters, and picking the grapes clusters at the correct brix (sugar content) for the best fermentation results. All farming is back breaking work but caring for grapes might be the most physically demanding.

[]          AVOCADO:  Once a novelty item, now a significant ingredient that spreads beyond your favorite guacamole.  Avocados are finicky fruit that finish their maturation after being picked.  The window of opportunity for the right texture, color, and flavor is very short.  The avocado never waits for the cook, the cook must always wait for the avocado.  If planted from seed, the avocado plant will take 5-13 years before producing fruit.

[]          ONION: In a professional kitchen it would be difficult to identify too many dishes that are untouched by onions or onion varieties (Bermuda, golden, white, Vidalia, scallions, leeks, shallots, Red Wing, chives, Cipollini, pearl, Walla-Walla).  Many onion varieties can take up to 175 days to mature, but they cold store well for months.  Often relegated to commodity status in kitchens – they are one of a cook’s most essential ingredients.

[]          ATLANTIC SALMON: Of the hundreds of flat or round fish species available from fresh or salt waters – salmon has become the king on restaurant menus.  Available from Atlantic and Pacific sources – a salmon will take 3-5 years to mature enough for harvesting.  Found wild caught or farmed, salmon is nutritionally robust (Omega-3’s), uniquely flavored, and beautiful in presentation. 

[]          LOBSTER:  Lobster fishing is closely monitored to protect availability and their ability to flourish.  This, like most fishing, is difficult and dangerous work with sometimes unpredictable results.  The prices we see on menus do not, in any way shape or form, represent what the fisherman receives for his/her work.  The typical lobster (warm or cold water; Maine, Florida, or Pacific Coast) take 5-7 years to be large enough to harvest.

[]          CLAM:   The hard-shell varieties of Cherrystone, Littleneck, or Mahogany clams take 3-6 years to mature only to disappear at the hand of a consumer in a few seconds. 

[]          OYSTER: These bivalves are natural filters that represent one of natures most heavenly representative flavors of the sea’s brininess.  To many cooks, their first raw oyster is an epiphany – a turning point in their love of food and the process of cooking.  Oysters take 18-24 months to mature.

[]          SCALLOP:  Few shellfish are more prevalent on restaurant menus than the sea scallop.  Wonderful texture, the freshness of the sea, slight saltiness, and beauty once caramelized in butter – these rich seafood treats take 3-4 years before they are ready to harvest.  Their shells are a work of art playing the role of unique packaging for the prize inside.

[]          SHRIMP:  The Emperor of seafood menus – shrimp that comes from waters in the Gulf of Mexico, South America, Taiwan, China, Thailand, India, and Vietnam is, by far, one of the most versatile shellfish.  From sashimi to tempura fried, sauteed to stuffed, etouffee to gumbo, and shrimp cocktail to bar-b-que – shrimp is rarely omitted from a restaurant menu and as such is a critical ingredient for cooks.  Most varieties will be ready to harvest in 6 months.

[]          ANGUS STEER:  These beautiful animals considered one of the most prized sources of quality beef reach their ideal weight of around 1,200 pounds in 18 months or so.  In most cases, contrary to common belief, they are initially grass fed and given significant free-range access to pasture until in the final months of growth when they are transitioned to a nutritionally structured feed mix that is designed to optimize quality and yield.  Most processing plants have adopted the Temple Grandin approach