SEASONS CHANGE AND SO DO I

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I woke to a chill in the air.  It’s dark at 6am and has been since 6:30 the previous night.  Days are shorter now and will become shorter still as the next few weeks tick by.  Smoke billows from chimneys as furnaces and fireplaces are once again cranked up.  Flocks of birds are beginning their sojourn south and boats are being pulled from the water.  I reluctantly drag rakes from the outside shed knowing that they will be in full use before the end of the month.  It’s the end of summer and the beginning of fall – the seasons are changing, and they do so just like clockwork – something that we can all depend on.  It’s time to adjust, time for chefs to think differently and move in a new direction.

“Seasons change and so did I.”

No Time – Randy Bachman of the Guess Who

As much as summer will be missed and we may dread winter, fall provides plenty of inspiration for those who cook for a living.  This is the time for the final harvest that has taken a full five months to develop – a time for squash, root vegetables, late season tomatoes, canning and freezing and methods of cooking that most chefs look forward to with great affection.  This is the time to move from light meals and grilling, from beautiful salads and white wine to braised meats, roasted vegetables, stews, and fricassee, to hearty soups and smokers going full tilt and robust glasses of zinfandel, cabernet sauvignon, and Barolo.  This is when “low and slow” becomes the more established method of cooking in kitchens throughout the Northeast. 

Without a doubt, low and slow is my favorite style of cooking.  I love that deep smell of slowly caramelizing onions and garlic, lesser cuts of meat rising to a level of prominence, the richness of butternut and acorn squash, parsnips, carrots, and brussels sprouts that were harvested after the first frost.  Stocks simmering on the stove fill the kitchen with enticing aromas and light broths and pan reductions are replaced by pan gravies and the sauces that we have labeled “mother” because of their foundational attributes.  Deeply satisfying and “stick to your ribs” viscosity, these foods help to bridge that change from 80-degree days to those that will barely extend beyond sub-freezing.

All cooking is magical, but slow cooking methods challenge cooks to tap into all their skills and demonstrate how this is a process of coaxing flavors to develop rather than allowing those initial ingredient characteristics to shine.  During those low and slow methods, the essence of each ingredient blends with others creating something totally unique and wonderful to experience.  Every hour that a lamb shank braises changes the texture, aroma, taste, and experience of consuming this ingredient that early on in cooking would be difficult to chew.  That brisket that would transition from tough to tougher during those first few hours of smoking in a wood fired pit will melt in your mouth after another 8 hours or so.  Carrots and parsnips that are low on the flavor scale as a raw vegetable become deeply pronounced and sweet during roasting or braising and a simple combination of onions and garlic are irresistible the longer, they come in contact with fire or indirect heat.

All of this is true and quite remarkable, but it will always be soup that demonstrates a cook’s real connection with the craft.  I have enjoyed cooking thousands of restaurant meals and have equally enjoyed tasting the work of countless other chefs who continue to work on mastering their craft.  I will always remember the mushroom soup at Union Pacific Restaurant when Rocco DiSpirito was at the helm.  It must have taken a pound of mushrooms for every cup of broth.  The double lamb consommé at the original Aquavit in the lands of Marcus Samuelsson was so good that I refused to share it with others at the table.  It was topped with a quenelle of foie gras – truly the finest soup I have ever tasted.  Through my own kitchen experiences, I have enjoyed making lobster bisque for a party of two as well as Mulligatawny for 500 in massive kettles.  The joy of combining ingredients to make these heartwarming bowls of goodness is what cooking is all about.  It was Chef Michael Minor of Minor Foods who said whenever he visited a restaurant for the first time, he would always order a cup of the soup of the day first.  If the soup was good, then he knew the rest of the meal would be good as well.  If not, then he would pay for the soup and go elsewhere.

Fall is the precursor to winter; it is the transition from the warmth of summer to the months of bone-chilling cold in the winter.  Nature can be cruel at times, but it presents us with incredible food and the warmth that colder month’s methods of cooking offer as a gift and a way to help us move on and find our place until Spring.

There is a story behind every dish, a story worth sharing.  Chefs and cooks tell their stories through the selection of ingredients, connections with the source, combination of flavors, attention to the details associated with cooking that dish, and the passion with which the finished product is plated and presented.  The story behind low and slow begins with admiration for the farmer, the rancher, and the fisherman; addresses the attention they give to the lengthy process of bringing those flavors together, and the connections to the seasons best represented by these treasured methods.  Every bite connects the diner with the dish, the chef, and the history behind it.

Raise a glass to great cooking and settle in – it will be quite some time before we plant seeds for another season of ingredients.

PLAN BETTER – TRAIN HARDER

Harvest America Ventures, LLC

Restaurant Consulting

www.harvestamericacues.com – BLOG

CAFÉ Talks Podcast

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FOOD MOMENTS THAT CHANGED YOUR LIFE

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Maybe to some the title of this article may seem contrived and exaggerated.  How could food change your life?  Yet, to others it makes perfect sense because they have been there – they are experienced.  As a cook and later in life a chef for almost 55 years now, I can easily reflect on a few moments of my own when a taste, smell, presentation, or texture of a dish or ingredients has given me substantial pause.  It is these moments that help a cook to mature and set the stage for how that person will cook and how he or she will conduct themselves in the kitchen.  Am I serious? You bet I’m serious (smile and nod if you agree).

Maybe it was the first time you ate a tree ripened Bosc or Anjou pear – not one of those rock-hard ones that you find in your local grocery store.  It could very well be that late September MacIntosh apple picked and eaten on the spot.  Hard, tart, splashing your chin with juice, snapping between your teeth as it tears from the core.  How about that first spit roasted chicken, a perfectly braised lamb shank, medium rare inch wide slice of prime rib, or for a cook that first raw oyster filled with a briny liquid that reminds of the sea.  The first time a cook captures the smell of steak cooking on an open flame, peppers roasting, garlic and onions leaving their essence in a pan of clarified butter, or sour dough breads being pulled from a wood fired hearth – this is the moment that solidifies their commitment to spending countless hours in front of a range, always trying to find ways of expressing admiration for ingredients.  There are countless food moments that come to mind, but maybe none more significant than those that filled a childhood with connections to family.  We will never forget a grandmother’s apple pie or an Italian mother’s meatballs and sauce.  Maybe it was as simple as a light fluffy omelet or crunchy Belgian waffles that graced the Sunday morning kitchen table.  A simple bowl of creamy macaroni and cheese or freshly made pasta and clams – these are the foods that drew us into the kitchen and constantly inspire us to bring those experiences to menus in restaurants where we work.

The best cooks, you know – the ones that stand tall in restaurant kitchens with their names on the menu and those who aspire to reach that level in the future – cook from their experiences with those food moments that changed their lives.  As much as they (we) remember them and try to express them, we are always looking for new moments, new chances to blow our minds with flavor, texture, smell, and appearance.

To this end, the question is: “can you become a well-balanced cook without those experiences?”  Maybe those who aspire to become one of those chefs who stands tall within a field of many needs to chart a course that includes exposure to food moments.  Quite possibly, those cooks need to seek immersion with other chefs, with ethnic centers, with distant countries and pockets of cultural influence.  Quite possibly, those cooks need to delve into their own family background and ask important food questions – make connections to those food events that left their mark.  Those ingredients that a cook has not experienced must now become part of their wish list and even more importantly discover when they are at their peak or from where they represent their best qualities.  There are peaches and there are ripe Georgia peaches.  There are cherries and there are Western New York cherries or Rainer cherries from Washington State.  There are fresh chickens and there are organically raised chickens and there is halibut and there is halibut from the Pacific Northwest.  The list goes on and on and the need for food moments must include an in-depth search for the best of each one.  When the best become your benchmark then real cooking begins to form a pattern of standards of excellence – stakes in the ground that define a cook.

While there is a case to be made for statements like:  “You must be Italian to cook real Italian”, or: “Unless you grew up part of the Mexican culture it is impossible to represent their cuisine” – a deep experiential exposure to the traditions and culture of others, to the best ingredients and how they are used, and why an age old cooking process is essential can establish any serious cook as a true representative.

Seek out those food moments and relish the ones that you have had.  Be inquisitive and not just accepting of a method or list of ingredients, know that reliance on a recipe is not a substitute for understanding methods and ingredients.  There is a difference between cooking and becoming a cook – here lies the challenge to all who want to stand tall in a crowd.

PLAN BETTER – TRAIN HARDER

Harvest America Ventures, LLC

www.harvestamericacues.com  BLOG

CAFÉ Talks Podcast

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DO IT RIGHT

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Ironically, there is always room to be great and there is plenty of room to be mediocre.  With more than one million restaurants in the US we can flip a coin and hope for the great, will likely step through the doors of good, and far too often settle into the mediocre.  The choice to be great or not so great is in the hands of the restaurateur and the folks who make a living with food.  We can all choose to be great at what we do; choose to master our craft and create outstanding experiences for guests and co-workers alike, or we can choose to shrug our shoulders and surrender to mediocrity.

This is a topic I have presented numerous times and it seems as though whenever I travel it rises to the top of my thinking.  I relish great restaurant experiences, take pride in the operations where I have worked, feel connected to nearly anyone who works in professional kitchens and restaurants, and admire restaurant folks who find comfort in being the best that they can be.  Unfortunately, dining out and finding the right place to work is oftentimes a wishful roll of the dice.  I wonder why this is the case.  There is no shortage of workbooks, courses, consultants, standardized mechanisms, or benchmarks to look to for help and there are plenty of examples of successes and failures to view if you are an outcomes follower.  Those who strive for excellence are far more likely to succeed and those who avoid doing things right will most likely fail.  Plain and simple.

Some mediocre operations may experience a false sense of euphoria simply because of supply and demand.  When a destination welcomes more people than there are restaurant seats then even the mediocre seem to thrive but check back in a year or two and you will probably find a new owner, a new concept, and a different shot at success.  I always wonder if these restaurateurs scratch their heads and wonder what went wrong, or if they knew they were living on borrowed time from the start.  What are they thinking?  Is it a case of a lack of knowledge (likely often the case), a lack of caring (I guess this is common as well), or a multitude of excuses that point everywhere except back at the person in charge?  I can’t get my arms around why people go into business without the drive to be great.

So, just in case the information is not well known to some – here is the BEST OF Restaurant 101, a good start.

[]       START WITH KNOWING THE MARKET

Find out everything you can about your guests and potential guests.  It all matters – education level, income bracket, age range, frequency of dining, and food and wine preferences.

[]       KNOW WHAT YOU WANT TO BE AND HOW YOU WANT TO BE PERCEIVED

Set the bar right from the beginning – We want to be the best fish fry restaurant in town.  Our goal is to be the restaurant of choice for locals.  Our restaurant will be viewed as providing exceptional experiences and great value.

How you define yourself is how you will be if there is measurement in place and quality controls to ensure that you hit the mark.

[]       BUILD A CONCEPT THAT MAKES SENSE

Don’t try to be something that you are not.  Don’t strive for something that is beyond your ability to reach.  Stick with what you are capable of and do it exceptionally well.  Keep in mind that even a sandwich shop can be extraordinary.  Excellence is not reserved for fine dining.

[]       KNOW HOW TO RUN A BUSINESS

Budgeting, cost controls, smart purchasing, labor management, marketing, and the legal issues that surround a business are just as essential as a great plate of food.  A restaurant cannot survive on attitude, service, and food alone – it must operate as a savvy business.  If you can’t do it, then partner with someone who can.

[]       BUILD IN CONSISTENCY AND DEPENDABILITY

Whatever your concept, whatever your menu – make sure that you execute it well every time.  Build your systems so that every person can depend on the same quality time and time again.  Make sure that every part of your system aligns with consistency: purchasing specs, production, flavor profile, presentation, and service.  Trust is hard to earn and easy to lose.

[]       KEEP IT SIMPLE AND DO IT VERY WELL

Don’t over think your concept or your product – the best food is simple and relies on the quality of ingredients and the attention to detail that cook’s offer in the process of preparing them for the plate. 

[]       HIRE ENERGETIC, CARING, POSITIVE PEOPLE

It’s all about your people.  Hiring is not something to take lightly.  Seek out individuals who like to serve others, who relish doing great work, who you can depend on to be exacting every time, and who exude a positive approach. 

[]       TEACH AND TRAIN EVERY DAY

This is your most important job.  Building skills, knowledge and confidence is a critical part of the search for excellence.

[]       TEST, TASTE, STANDARDIZE, PRACTICE, AND ASSESS YOUR ABILITY TO MAKE EXCEPTIONAL FOOD

Stay on it.  Measure adherence to your standards – don’t let it go out to the guest unless it passes the excellence test.

[]       OFFER CARING SERVICE

Sure, technical service is important, but it is sincerity and commitment to helping people enjoy the restaurant experience that counts even more.  Don’t think service – think hospitality.

[]       MAKE SURE EVERYTHING IS SPOTLESSLY CLEAN

Goes without saying.  Clean, pay attention to details, polish and stay focused on this most important attribute of a great restaurant.  From the parking lot to the restrooms, carpet, walls, tabletop, and uniforms, stay on it!

[]       MATCH THE AMBIENCE TO THE CONCEPT

The ambience should support the product. Does it?

[]       BUILD AN APPROPRIATE TABLETOP

It’s fine to have quality disposables for a $10 meal.  It is important to have crystal, bone chinaware and sterling silver when the menu is priced in line with an American Express card.

[]       SEE EVERYTHING THROUGH THE GUESTS EYES

Walk through the operation as a guest would.  See the whole experience as they do and then adjust to make sure that everything exceeds their expectations.

[]       TREAT EVERYONE WITH RESPECT

Customers, employees, competitors, vendors, and any stakeholder connected to your experience deserves respect.  Let this be your reputation.

[]       PROVIDE THE TOOLS TO DO THE JOB

Don’t allow your employees to struggle to do their job well.  Give them the tools – it is a wise investment.

[]       RECOGNIZE AND REWARD EXCELLENCE

Let this be the expectation and make sure that when it exists, all those involved feel your appreciation.

[]       PAY FAIRLY, CHARGE FAIRLY

We need to put this discussion to bed.  Make ways to pay your staff well, expect great things from them, offer them enticing benefits, and then charge from the standpoint of a value formula that offers the best quality, the most exceptional experiences, and memories that encourage guests to return.

[]       SEEK FEEDBACK – INTERNAL AND EXTERNAL

Don’t wait for it – ask for it!  Ask your employees and your guests to evaluate your work.  Product, service, hospitality, ambience, cleanliness, and value – engage everyone in the assessment process.

[]       BE THE EXAMPLE

As an owner, operator, manager, chef – you set the example for others to follow.  Be that example.

[]       BE YOUR OWN WORST CRITIC

Yes, it’s great when your dining room is full, your customers return, your employees stay, and your bottom line brings a smile to your face.  But you can always improve!  Ask for feedback – it is the breakfast of champions.

[]       RESPOND TO FEEDBACK

You asked for it – act on it.

[]       KNOW YOUR COMPETITION AND FIND YOUR NICHE

Study your competitors, not to cut them off at the knees, but to learn from their mistakes, appreciate their success, and find out where you best fit.

[]       NEVER GET TOO COMFORTABLE

Comfort is the devil in waiting.  Things change, people change, curve balls will come your way; stay on your guard.

[]       STAY WILLING TO CHANGE BEFORE YOU HAVE NO CHOICE

When you see danger hiding around the corner, or opportunities that arise, don’t fight change – embrace it.

OK, so that’s a long list, but it represents the most basic rules of the game if you go into business with any hope of succeeding.  Don’t open a pizza shop – open the best pizza shop, a place intent on becoming the benchmark for others to follow.  Don’t put a sign out front that says: Oyster Bar, unless you intend to learn everything you can about oysters, the fisherman who harvest them, their flavor profiles, and how to open them fast and efficiently without losing any of that briny liqueur from the sea.  Please don’t open another steak house until you have spent time on a cattle ranch, tended to those beautiful animals, visited processing plants that do it right, built an understanding of what makes great beef, and worked alongside exceptional grill cooks who can tell degree of doneness by just looking at a steak.  Before you decide to feature artisan cheeses on your menu – spend time with cheesemakers, learn what an animal eats and how it impacts the flavor of its milk and the flavor of the cheese.  Taste hundreds of cheeses and build your palate, know what accompanies each cheese on the plate and which wines are kickass pairings with each one.  You get the idea.

Start with your feet moving in the direction of excellence.  What will it take to be the best, how will I approach the task at hand, how will I measure progress, and who will I take along for the ride.  Do what my friend from decades ago showed me about excellence.  He was a maitre’d and before his restaurant opened for business each night he insisted that servers measure the distance from the edge of the table to the flatware, lined up glassware with a string plumb line, had table and chair legs polished before service, Steamed wine glasses to remove any possible water spots, misted plants, adjusted room temperatures for the crowd to come, and reviewed each new item on the menu with servers and chefs in attendance including the best wine pairing suggestions.  His philosophy was simple – start out as close to 100% as you can knowing that when it is busy things will surely slip a bit.  If you are focused on exceptional, then when you slip it will still be better than almost everyone else.  Once your staff has a taste of excellence, their tolerance for mediocrity becomes very low.

Do it right!

PLAN BETTER – TRAIN HARDER

Harvest America Ventures, LLC

Restaurant Consulting

www.harvestamericacues.com  BLOG

CAFÉ Talks Podcast

https://cafemeetingplace.com/cafe-podcasts

RESTAURANT STAFF – A LABOR DAY TRIBUTE

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The sun creeps over the horizon, morning fog begins to burn off and the late summer dew is visible on grass and trees.  It’s too early for normal traffic on the roads and the sidewalks are clear of people aside from an occasional dedicated runner.  Yet, within this calm there are lights on in kitchens across the country and the smell of sourdough breads, breakfast pastries, and bacon waft through the air, even making those dedicated runners slow down and take it in.  Breakfast cooks, bakers, and pastry chefs have been at work for the past few hours getting ready for the day ahead. 

Bakers need space and time – something that is hard to find once the rest of the crew arrives and early morning guests expect those pastries, bacon, sausage, home fries and pancakes as close to 6am as possible.  The kitchen only calmed a few hours ago from a busy evening service.  A time when a full battery of cooks, servers, bartenders, and dishwashers fought to keep pace with the crowds that began at 5:00 and only slowed after 10:00.  It was 1am before the dishwashers finally turned out the lights and locked the kitchen door behind them.  It was a good night with two full turns of the dining room.  Even at this hour the kitchen carried the deep aroma of caramelized onions and garlic, the rich smell of prime steaks that a short time ago filled the char-grill, and coffee that is brewing twenty hours a day.  The kitchen was at rest for just a few hours – time to re-charge its batteries, breathe deep and prepare for yet another day of relentless punishment.

There is little conversation between bakers and breakfast cooks only dedication to the task at hand.  Both realize their role, both are highly accomplished, both are organized and purposeful.  Bread dough is kneaded and placed into floured bannetons; Danish is rolled, and shaped and croissant dough is folded, buttered, rolled, folded, buttered, and rolled again and again.  When handled correctly this will produce countless layers of light, flaky, buttery pastry.  Pans of bacon are retrieved from the oven while home fries are caramelizing on a griddle, fresh eggs are cracked and blended for scrambled and omelet orders, and those first pots of coffee are brewed.  At 5:30am the service staff arrives.  Quiet and bleary-eyed from never enough sleep, they go about the process of checking their stations, touching up carpets and tabletops, squeezing fresh orange juice and filling breakfast creamers.  Everyone will be ready just in time – a process that breakfast guests are unaware of and likely don’t care – they expect that everyone does their job – whatever it might be.

Those first orders require smiles on each server’s face, and quick reflexes on the part of cooks.  If guests could take the time to stand in the kitchen and watch the symmetry, the grace of a breakfast cook they would be amazed.  What they don’t know remains a mystery to all except those who work in the kitchen.  There is a silent rhythm, a syncopation and beauty to the way that the cook moves from pan to pan, plate to plate until an order is ready for the pass.  Eggs over easy are flipped gracefully in pans so as not to break the yolk, omelets are folded perfectly and slide under a salamander broiler where they rise to the heat, pancakes are turned at the right moment to reveal a perfect golden brown and plates are assembled quickly and exactly as they slide into position on the shelf of the pass.  Baskets of fresh pastries are assembled, still warm from the oven, cultured butter and fruit preserves are assembled for each table, and coffee is poured cheerfully at tableside the same moment that breakfast entrees arrive through the hands of a back wait.  The rush is on.

This is just the beginning of a day where talented cooks and servers perform their craft.  This is just another day of relentless work, sweltering heat, the intense pressure of time, and potential accidents waiting around every corner.  This is the beginning of Labor Day weekend – special days in America that recognize the hardworking people of our country.  A day when offices are closed, government buildings shut, and home BBQ’s flourish in every neighborhood and many families look forward to a time of family, fun, and reflection.  Not so in the restaurants in towns and cities from California to New York.  In these businesses we gear up for yet another busy few days.  Labor Day is just another day for these folks.  These are the exact people that we are celebrating on this weekend.  Unfortunately, they don’t have the opportunity to celebrate their own contributions to American society.  Their role is to be here and serve.  This is what they signed up for, no need to feel sorry for them, but instead simply recognize and thank them.

Breakfast ends, the stacks of dishes are piled high as dishwashers try to keep pace with the speed of the morning shift, the line cook is busy cleaning the grill, washing and sanitizing, laying out bacon to be baked tomorrow, par cooking and dicing potatoes, slicing mise en place for the next morning’s omelets, and making pancake and waffle batter that will be perfect in another 22 hours.  By the time the lunch crew arrives, the line will be ready for a different style of cooking – clean and organized as if nothing had occurred over the past three hours.  Similar activity is taking place in the dining room as tablecloths are replaced and touched up, place settings aligned, glasses checked for water spots, chairs polished and carpets touched up, napkins are folded, and plants are misted.  In another hour the lunch crowd will arrive.

Each meal period brings its own unique challenges and focus.  As the restaurant moves from the simplicity and uniformity of breakfast to dinner where preparations are more complex and presentations more precise. The type of cook and his or her individual and teamwork evolves from breakfast to dinner.  In all cases there is an intensity of purpose, the pressure of time, the exactness that consistency demands, and the passion for the plate of food presented to the guest.  This is a business for both the craftsperson and the artist, for the organization of the military and the improvisation of a jazz musician, as well as the knowledge of a scientist and the traditions of a historian. 

From the classic American diner to a Michelin starred fine dining restaurant, the hardworking cooks, servers, managers, and chefs deserve recognition and respect.  This is a business that is important to the American way of life, it is a business that rewards others for the work that they do, and a business that is rarely understood.  On this Labor Day weekend, if you want to pay respect to these hardworking individuals who have chosen a career of service and expression through food, then send a message of thanks for a great meal back to the kitchen, be respectful to your server – they have a very difficult job, write a positive note on Trip Advisor or Yelp, tip generously, understand that the restaurant business is a business of pennies and owners are typically not getting rich by charging what they do, and by all means – return often and bring a friend.

Happy Labor Day.

PLAN BETTER – TRAIN HARDER

Support your local restaurant

Harvest America Ventures, LLC

www.harvestamericacues.com  BLOG

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YOU COOK WHAT & WHO YOU ARE

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There is a major fallacy about cooking – the belief that you can teach someone to become a cook.  Now that every chef and culinary educator has their feathers ruffled – let me explain.  Yes, we can teach or train someone to perform the steps in cooking and through practice we can do this quite well – just like it is possible to teach or train someone to play the piano or guitar, violin, or cello.  It is the same as training someone to play the game of baseball, basketball, football, hockey, or golf.  So, where is the fallacy?  There is something missing in this formula, something that separates someone who can cook from a person who is a cook; something that differentiates someone who plays the piano from a person who is a pianist; or teaching someone to play basketball vs. developing a basketball player.  The missing ingredient is who the person is and how they became that person from birth to a given point in time.

When we think of those who know how to play basketball vs. players like LeBron James, Michael Jordan, Bill Russell, or Larry Bird we start to see a significant difference.  Someone who plays the guitar may be worlds apart from Eric Clapton or Jeff Beck; a high school teacher who understands how to play the cello is not quite the same as Yo-Yo Ma, and a chef working for a major chain of busy restaurants may understand the complexity of the job and the outcomes that are necessary may be a far cry from Dominque Crenn or Daniel Boulud.  On one hand, they all know how to execute their taught skills and they all talk the same language, but that is where the comparison ends.  Some call it an innate talent while others understand that there is something even more substantive than that.

If you take the time to study these differences and discover more about individuals you will likely find rich family heritages, a lifetime of engrained traditions, and a plethora of life experiences that go beyond sitting in a classroom or working day in and out on a restaurant line.  These individuals have breadth to their backgrounds, something that is built into their essence, almost a part of their DNA. 

The most accomplished chefs cook from their heart and soul.  They express what they were exposed to throughout their lives: the culture, history, traditions, and life-experiences that cannot be replicated in the classroom or simply taught through repetition in the kitchen.  Daniel Boulud grew up in France, his parents operated a café, he lived on a farm, he pulled carrots from the ground, watched local artisans mill flour for bread, and walked the vineyards where grapes were crying out to become wine.  This is where he cooks from.  Yo-Yo Ma suffers through debilitating paralysis yet his struggle like the knotted old vines of the grapes from Bordeaux helped to create beautiful music like magnificent wine.  LeBron James and Michael Jordan built basketball into their lives as the way out of the hood, a skill – yes, but more importantly, an answer for them.  Their struggle became a passion for this way out, a friend, a mentor, an answer. 

When a cook understands the work of the farmer, when he or she bends down to pull those carrots from the ground or dig potatoes to find that long awaited exposure to the sun from their earthen home, when they have picked a ripe tomato from the vine and tasted it right there – dripping with sweet moisture warmed from the July sunlight – then a real cook is born.  When a young boy or girl spends Sunday mornings with a grandmother making sauce for that traditional Italian (full day) meal, when they smell those tomatoes slowly cooking with garlic, onions, pork, chicken, and beef, sweetening as the process continues for hours – then they understand how to make a great sauce – this can’t be taught fully by following a recipe or even understanding a process.  It is that grandmother’s passion that makes all the difference in the world.

I grew up in a family that was Americanized.  A family that always cooked balanced meals, but that never reflected their history or traditions.  My grandfather left Norway when he was 17 and traveled to find a new life in America.  Once on these shores he was compelled to set aside his history and act like and become – American.  Such a shame that I had to discover what it meant to be Norwegian on my own.  My grandmother on my mother’s side was my only real connection with food tradition and I believe that my real desire to become a chef stemmed from her.  She lived with us for maybe 15years, the most formative years of my young life.  She cooked most of the meals since both my parents worked full-time.  A few things stuck with me forever – statements that said it all, that relayed a deep family connection to cooking:

One of her classic dishes was chicken and dumplings.  This dish was exquisite, so much so that I insist that it be my birthday meal every year.  Her matter-of-fact statement continues to drive one of my bedrock beliefs in cooking:

“To be made right you must use a young chicken.  If you don’t, it won’t be right.”

Throughout my career in the kitchen, I have stressed the importance of using the correct ingredients, from the right source, prepared in the correct manner if a dish is to work.

She also stated, as strongly as I ever heard her speak of anything:

“Never serve day old pie.”

Freshness, seasonality of ingredients, cooking a ’la minute are all philosophies of a cook that make sense.  My attempt to stick to this belief is a credit to my history, to my grandmother.  It would never sink in as well coming from a textbook or a fellow cook.

I relish my collection of cookbooks.  Some would say I have way too many or wonder how often I read or use them.  OK, I don’t use them enough, but they are there, and they represent what I appreciate most about the craft: they represent those special life lessons for each chef or cook who wrote them.  Marcus Samuelsson’s reflections on his life in Africa and then Scandinavia, Lidia Bastianich’s musings about life in an Italian family, Daniel Boulud’s and Jacques Pepin’s classical cooking upbringing and stories of early years in France, or Sean Brock’s connections to heritage crops and traditional Southern cooking through the eyes of a child growing up in that environment.  These are all priceless reflections on where their passion and unique skill set came from.  This is the difference between a person who knows how to play the cello and Yo-Yo Ma. 

Recently, I received a book from my friend Chef Jake Brach – currently the chef responsible for Culinary Learning and Development for Rich Products in Buffalo, New York.  He may not work for a four-star Michelin Restaurant (although he did spend time at Charlie’s Trotter’s in Chicago and Charlie Palmer’s Aureole in New York City), but his passion as a chef is undeniable and his impact on the food system is immense.  This self-published book, “Of Food and Family” is not about what he does, it is about who he is as a cook.  It is a vivid reflection on his history, family traditions, connection with farmers and producers, and imbedded appreciation for every aspect of the journey that an ingredient travels from farm, water, or ranch to plate.  This book, like so many others in my collection is a key to unlock what it means to be a cook, not just know how to cook.

“Food is the thread that has held families and nationalities together for generations.” 

-Brach

The culture of food is the basis for most chef’s start – the spark that lights the passion for a career behind the range.  Reflecting on cooking with his family he states:

“These are the traditions and flavors that last a lifetime and the ones we pass on to our children.”

-Brach

Chefs who are on the level of Yo-Yo Ma, Eric Clapton, and Michael Jordan, and those who are simply recognized by their peers and the guests they serve as authentic and accomplished tend to come from strong food traditions, backgrounds where food connections stretch from the ground to the table, and who have traveled and experienced other cultures and understand their role in bringing all of this to the plate. Cooking has never been a job to them, it is an expression, a sharing, a statement of just how important all those life experiences have been.  They eat and cook who they are – savoring every bite, relishing the chance to work with each ingredient, and committed to paying respect to all who helped them to paint on a plate. 

A FEW BOOKS TO ADD TO YOUR LIBRARY:

         Daniel Boulud

Marcus Samuelsson

Lidia Bastianich

https://www.amazon.com/s?k=Lidia+Bastianich&page=2&crid=2HMI5378RXH6H&qid=1661707876&sprefix=lidia+bastianich%2Caps%2C113&ref=sr_pg_2

Sean Brock

PLAN BETTER – TRAIN HARDER

Cook from the heart and soul

Cook like you mean it

Represent your traditions and experiences

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BRING BACK THE 20 SEAT BISTRO

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Bigger isn’t always better.  Bigger brings a significant upswing in headaches, unforeseen challenges, an inability to flex, and long-term costs.  Bigger is less predictable and much more difficult to control and bigger takes cooks and chefs away from what they love to do, what attracted them to the trade in the beginning – to cook from the heart. 

I have very fond memories of walking the streets of St. Paul de Vance in southern France, or the walled in villages of Tuscany, the narrow streets of Oslo, Norway, and the typical hidden villages found in parts of historic Germany; places that were home to those special little restaurants that reflect the terroir of the region.  There were eighteen or twenty seats (mostly deuces) and in better weather maybe two more tables on the street or alleyway in front or beside these tastes of a chef.  A chef/owner was busy by the stove with an assistant who also washed dishes and bussed tables and out front a single server and maybe, in the busiest of operations, a host/bartender who was likely the spouse of the chef.  That was it!

The restaurants in this storyline boasted menus that changed nearly every day depending on what could be found in local open markets and from friendly farmers and those who raised livestock.  The business was likely open four days per week – usually mid-day till early evening giving everyone a chance to enjoy life outside of work and the chef ample time to shop in the markets for ingredients.  Those four or five employees were like family.  They sat down and ate a meal together, enjoyed the company of each other’s families, and shared some of the good time profits (when they existed).  The food was, of course excellent, but more importantly reflective of the region and its history and the experiences of the chef.  The wine list carried the names of vintners whom everyone in the community knew and the ambience was warm and unpretentious.

There were no sophisticated profit and loss statements or cash flow charts, no point-of-sale systems or computer analytics to pour over and make decisions by; these were not the type of operations that required that level of analysis.  The chef/owner knew how well (or poorly) they were doing and what the customer thought of the experience because they spoke with them every night, worked with each ingredient, took the garbage out, counted the cash, felt the pain associated with every broken plate or wine glass, and wrote the checks each week for employees and vendors.  This restaurant was their house, and they had a handle on how the house was doing. 

The kitchen was not filled with the most sophisticated equipment and certainly not computerized.  The dish machine was likely an under counter unit and there was no need for a walk-in cooler since supplies were purchased every day; a reach-in or two would suffice.  A single eight burner range and convection oven, maybe a plancha or small char grill, a couple stainless tables, sinks, butcher block, and a salamander were all that was required aside from a battery of well-seasoned pots and pans, utensils, and tiny ice machine and storage racks.  This was plenty for a chef, enough to produce a wide range of items to match the freshness of the ingredients available.

There was little waste since managing twenty seats was much easier than trying to fill expansive dining rooms with a turn or two on busy nights.  The chef never bought ingredients by the case, but rather what he or she needed to service their space.  Instead of thirty-gallon trash cans spread out through the kitchen, there were two much smaller cans, a recycling bin, and tubs for compost.  Out back on a small patch of land, or in baskets hanging from windows, the chef grew all the herbs needed to support the cuisine of the restaurant.  This was a lean, fine-tuned machine that worked from the premise of being manageable and comfortable.

It’s true, a restaurant of this type is not likely to make the owner rich, but it could provide a comfortable living.  This business was a reflection of the person, and the person was not a slave to a much larger, more complex beast.

For the guest there was a high level of comfort and trust.  In most cases, the people who filled those twenty seats were there on a regular basis.  You might find the same people there on a Wednesday or a Friday who would grace a table every week.  Occasionally, they would bring a friend or visitor to the area to turn them on to “their restaurant” and meet the chef or host who were also their friends.  This is where people met to talk about their families, local events, a bit of politics, a love of music and art, and laugh with reckless abandon over a plate of magnificent comfort food.

The chef was not trying to impress a local food critic or find fame through his or her latest cookbook or Michelin star, but rather just working to help his friends smile, fill their bellies, and enjoy a piece of their local traditions with food.  These restaurants were comfortable, fun, familiar, rewarding, and part of their lives.

Maybe this is just an exercise in nostalgia, a drift back to personal good times, or a naive look at what once was and no longer is, but I wonder if it’s time for this to return.  Maybe it’s time for chefs to return to feeling the significance of their craft and to stay connected to every aspect of what it takes to bring ingredients to the table.  Could it be time for the restaurant business to slow down and serve their neighborhoods without having to support something so large and so fragile.  Maybe the approach to our labor issues is not hiring a human resource director and re-writing employee manuals for the umpteenth time or figuring out ways to afford to pay for employee retirement plans, but rather to keep it smaller, bring back that family feel to employment, share in their success, and think about a quality of life where work is not something demanded of the employee but rather something that the employee embraces and enjoys.  Maybe pushing for more volume and higher check averages can be replaced by creating incredible value that goes beyond price, that involves experiences and fond memories and charging what will allow the restaurant to flourish and the customer to feel as though it were worth every penny.

” Good friends, good food, good times.”

-author unknown

Sure, this is naïve, but remember this country’s restaurant business was built on the backs of private, single unit entrepreneurships.  This industry was designed to have orders handwritten on a green order pad and was brought forward on the backs of cooks who went to market, smelled the fresh radishes and fish before they were bought, visited farmers, and discussed what would be coming out of the ground next week so that menus could be designed around supplies at their peak of maturity.  These are the restaurants that are portrayed in stories of community, and these are the restaurants where young cooks first developed their passion for a serious craft. 

Maybe it’s time to bring them back.

“Small businesses (restaurants) are the heartbeat of your neighborhood, the spine of your local economy, and spirit of your town.”

-Zachary’s

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Support your small local restaurants – we need them

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CONTROLLED HUSTLE

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I still remember that day in downtown Buffalo.  I was probably 10 or 11 years old on a shopping trip with my parents when we walked by a diner window with full view of their short order cooks.  I was instantly mesmerized by their motions, their intensity, their speed, and their control.  The grill was full, visible sweat was rolling off their foreheads, smoke was billowing off the burgers caramelizing from the intense heat, a line of green and white order slips were posted on a rail just at eye level, servers were calling out more orders as plates were filled with food and slid onto a shelf toward a person who seemed to inspect every plate before it was picked up and delivered to a guest; yet through all of this seeming chaos the cooks remained calm and almost poetic in the steps they took and the organized motions they made.  It was amazing!

I’m not sure that was my “a ha” moment, you know that point in time when you think: “This is what I want to do for a living”, but it did leave a lasting impression, one that I still recall 60 years later.  This was my first observation of controlled hustle.

Since that day, and throughout my career in the kitchen I experienced both controlled hustle and the absolute opposite: uncontrolled chaos.  One is incredibly gratifying and the other completely mortifying.  The difference between the two happens before the first order is received.  The difference is a culmination of knowledge, skill, experience, confidence, and preparation.  There is a statement that I remember from my early days in kitchens that sums it up: “If your mise en place is right you can handle any amount of business.”  Each of those factors: knowledge, skill, experience, confidence, and preparation are part of a cook’s mise en place.  We tend to believe that “mise” is all about the right amount of prep and how it is organized, but in terms of controlled hustle, it is so much more.

As I look back, those short order cooks in the Buffalo diner window had it all together.  Watching them in amazement the depth of what I witnessed didn’t fully sink in until I realized what it took to get to where they were.  Hustle is an attitude, but even deeper than that it is an achievement that comes from knowing the job, the product, and timing; development of a high level of skill in cooking to ensure the product is properly cooked and presented; accumulation of a mountain of experience that allows the cook to anticipate challenges and mentally prepare for them; the confidence that comes from competence – you know that attitude of “bring it on”; and, of course, the right amount of ingredient prep, pans in place, towels folded, utensils within reach, knives sharpened, and plates counted and stacked so that nothing can get in the way of the cook’s rhythm.  This is what I saw that day, and this is what I sought to emulate throughout my career and what I hoped to teach staff members to model their work after. 

Uncontrolled chaos, the opposite of hustle, comes from ignorance of any or all of the factors that lead to controlled hustle.  The workflow of those short order cooks was not an accident, it was not instinctive, and it was not solely the work of the manager or chef who hired them.  That mesmerizing workflow was a result of total commitment on the part of the operational management, the chef, and each one of those cooks.  Everyone needs to take responsibility for setting the stage.  The result of this commitment is a thing of beauty and the result of a lack of commitment is painful to watch.

When uncontrolled chaos takes hold, you can see in in the eyes of the cooks and service staff, you can feel it in the air, your gut hurts as you watch everything quickly fall apart leading to missed orders, improper cooking, long customer waits, and angry guests leaving and intending to never return.  That sweat on a cook’s forehead looks different, their eyes reveal the first signs of panic, the fight or flight reflex is looming, tempers begin to rise, and that sense of hopelessness is right around the corner.  If you have worked for any length of time in restaurants, then you have been there.  This is a place that you never want to visit, an experience that you never want to repeat, a dreaded outcome that keeps cooks up at night.  Once you have been through this you either want to walk away and find a different career or buckle down and do whatever is necessary to not end up there again. 

I suppose uncontrolled chaos is something that needs to be experienced – a teaching moment that serves as a right of passage.  It doesn’t have to occur, but then again, maybe it does.  If the result is a total commitment to “the hustle” then maybe there is a positive life lesson to be had.  A chef who has never felt that chaos will likely never be able to adequately prepare to avoid it.  A chef who fails to invest the time to help cooks understand and prepare for controlled hustle will, without a doubt, see many of those chaotic nights on the line.  

Beyond the controlled and the uncontrolled lies the most serious of problems in restaurants: the “I don’t care malaise”.  I can look back on that short order cook experience with fondness and admiration – this is what drove me to constantly improve over the years and try to avoid chaos.  I cringe when I think of those moments when things slipped out of control but know that each moment when that occurred gave me more resolve to avoid it in the future.  Each of those moments of being out of control is still so vivid; I can remember each one, and there are a few dozen that I keep in my mental catalogue.  Each experience still wakes me up on occasion and I have been removed from daily kitchen life for some years now.  The haunting continues.  I never want to be in that position again.   But now I see with increasing frequency, too many operations and far too many cooks who suffer from malaise.  They live in a different segment of the uncontrolled chaos community – they are part of the fall out that results from a lack of control and they don’t seem to really care.  I am not sure where this comes from or how it is allowed to continue, but it is tragic to watch.  The hustle is the source of positive adrenaline, that juice that so many cooks and chefs from my generation and before, sought.  This is the energy of the kitchen, its enticement, its magic, and the charisma that confident cooks portray.  When it is lacking then a restaurant has little heart and very little soul. 

Chefs need to build an environment where the hustle is expected and where cooks anticipate being part of it.  A truly successful restaurant is not driven solely by a menu or by the ambience of the dining room.  It is not a result of great marketing or a brand with sizzle and it certainly is not simply determined by the right location.  A successful restaurant embraces the hustle and all that helps to build the confidence for that to occur.  It doesn’t end with great hiring practices – this is simply where it begins.  Chefs need to inspire, teach, train, support, show, critique, and reward the hustle – this is the lifeblood of a great restaurant.

PLAN BETTER – TRAIN HARDER

Nurture the hustle!

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COOKING WITH FIRE

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It’s how it all began – furiously rubbing two sticks together or striking flint with an iron rich stone to create a spark.  Small clusters of dried brush capture the spark, smolder, and eventually burst into a small flame.  Stacking twigs and pieces of bark and dry wood from the forest floor gave birth to a fire that would serve mankind’s first cooks well.

Cooks and chefs have remained fascinated by an open fire ever since those early days a few thousand years ago.  There is something intoxicating when we watch, feel, and smell the impact of fire.  Those golden, and sometimes red and blue flames lure us into an interesting world of cooking that is less science and more art.  The flames are not as easy to control as simply turning on the gas and regulating the mix of gas and oxygen.  The flame from a wood fire has a mind of its own – a mind that is impacted by the type of wood, how well it is aged and dried, the size of the wood from kindling to full logs, the amount of oxygen that it has access to, and whether the fire is free to move about or controlled in a domed oven.  The colors are beautiful, and the heat is so different than what cooks work with from a more controllable fuel.

You may believe knowing how to cook with gas or electric prepares us to certainly cook with wood fire.  Simply stated – you are wrong.  When wood is involved, you need to accept that whatever you know may need to be put aside – it’s time to learn all over again.

Wood burns very hot, it is less forgiving than other fuels and tends to hold back a flurry of surprises if you don’t keep your focus on what is happening in the moment.  It will take time to become comfortable with the nuances of fire cooking, don’t rush your education, don’t ever assume, and don’t ever walk away from those yellow, white, red, and occasionally blue flames as they dance under your food and eventually nestle into a bed of cherry red coals.

Mastery of fire may never be in the cards for most cooks, at best you become comfortably aware.  When do you add more wood, of what size and type, should you allow more oxygen in or cut back, should you stoke the fire or let it be?  What is the right temperature for what you are cooking?  You point a laser thermometer to the walls of a live fire oven that has turned from carbon black to powdery white when the temperature is right.  The thermometer reads 850 degrees and then a few minutes later – 900.  Parts of the oven are steady at that temp as long as the fire is active, while a few corners are cooling to 600 or less.  Whatever you cook will accept the heat far too quickly and will need to be moved frequently to adapt to oven temperature changes.  Some items will not stand temperatures that high so you will need to temper the fire, remove some or all the coals, and trust that the oven will cooperate.

An open flame grill may rage at temperatures in excess of 1,000 degrees which may be perfect for searing steaks and chops but challenging for follow thru cooking to ensure proper degrees of doneness.  The cook will need to stay on top of this – moving items to different spots on the chargrill, adding or shifting wood around, raising and lowering the grates to avoid burning – it is a relentless process of attempted control in an uncontrolled environment. 

Ah…but the experience is so gratifying.  The smell of fat dripping on burning wood, especially if you use fruit woods is intoxicating.  The heat is so intense that sweat rolls down your back and collects on your forehead – anxious to flow like streams cascading from a small forest waterfall.  You know you are cooking and sense that you are becoming one with the process – you are part of the fire now.  This is imperative if some level of control is to be maintained.  The caramelization on the exterior of meat is incredible.  It leaves a crust so perfect that when the guest finally cuts into the meat it pops as if to feel a sense of relief releasing those juices that lie underneath the wood charred exterior.

Whole fish hit the surface of cast iron skillets that have been pre-heated in the wood-fired oven instantly sealing in the moisture underneath the skin.  Roasted potatoes and root vegetables, caramelized cippolini onions, mushrooms and winter squash cook in a few minutes while holding on to that caramelized exterior and smoky undertones from the wood coals that now glow like the walls of the devil’s lair.  And let’s not forget pizza.  Once you’ve cooked and tasted wood fired pizza there is no turning back.  Every other product will pale in comparison to that thin, crispy crust, the smoky flavors, and the bubbling hot cheese.  In a 900-degree oven, a pizza bakes in less than two minutes – so beware that every second brings the cook closer to burning their work.

I am reminded of the words from Mick Jaggar:

“Don’t play with me cus you’re playing with fire.”

A warning from the oven or grill that reminds the cook of who is in control.

For the line cook this is a dance that embraces an entire shift.  There is no rest as he or she works constantly to stay a few steps ahead of the fire.  This is hard work, but work that brings a smile to the cook’s face.  At the end of service, when the coals are spread out to cool down faster, and the cook holds a wet towel to his or her face to try and shock away the redness that looks as if it was exposed to hours of intense sun on a Florida beach, the kitchen begins to adjust from what has just occurred.  For the past few hours, the kitchen and its cooks have lived on the edge of chaos.  They worked frantically trying to stay in control and for the most part they were, but there were moments when that was in doubt.  The fire always had the upper hand and now, as it cools, gives a nod of respect for cooks who did their best.  There is mutual respect in a wood fired kitchen – respect for the fire and the fires reluctant respect for the cook.  They went into battle together and survived to cook another day.  What a thrill, what a time they had together – the cook trying to ride the wild horse.  Now they are trotting around, totally exhausted, but feeling complete.  Tomorrow they will try again wondering who will win the battle?

We have connected with the roots of cooking, with those early inhabitants who first marveled at the power of fire and the benefits of cooking food rather than eating it raw.  The flavors and aromas of burning wood and the food it touches were and remain one of life’s great pleasures.

There is nothing like cooking with live fire.

PLAN BETTER – TRAIN HARDER

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THE GREATEST THREAT TO AMERICAN RESTAURANTS

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The greatest threat is not the labor shortage or supply chain issues, it’s not the pandemic or the price of real estate – yes, all those concerns are troubling and must be dealt with, but they are not what will bring the restaurant industry to its knees.  Well then – what will?  Try apathy on for size.

What concerns me the most, and what should concern others is a changing attitude towards what we do, a malaise that starts to smell of giving up, of not trying that hard anymore.  Maybe it’s me but I have seen a growing number of restaurants (certainly not the majority at this point) who are simply not trying that hard anymore.  They appear to have thrown up their hands in defeat and are now on automatic pilot just hoping to “get by”.

Over charged and underwhelmed seems to be a growing trend in some restaurants that are fooled into believing that things are going to get better or worse no matter what they do.  Pride in doing things right is a tremendous motivator for employees, owners, and customers and a lack thereof catches up pretty quick.  Restaurants are busy now, much of it is pent up demand from two years of partial lockdown due to the pandemic.  This is a false sense of relief unless restaurant’s view this as a new chance to shine, a chance to be exceptional at what they do whether it is serving pizza or seven-course meals.  If a restaurant gives up that desire to excel and gives in to mediocrity, then failure is just around the corner.

Thinking that the way to recover from the financial pains of a once in a century pandemic is to cut back on quality product and service and push the ceiling on pricing is short-sighted and ill-conceived as a strategy.  People do care about value and once the splash of being able to get out of the house wears off, value assessment will be paramount once again. 

Apathy is a disease that spreads as quickly as a virus.  It infects others who are easily convinced that it is the way it needs to be.  The industry can and has recovered from the impact of infection, financial downturns and collapse, overwhelming labor issues, and a litany of other challenges, but it is very hard to recover from apathy.  Is it a case of not knowing how to be great or is it a real lack of desire?

“Is it ignorance or apathy?  Hey, I don’t know, and I don’t care.”

-Jimmy Buffet (musician)

When I read an article the other day about BMW charging a subscription fee for heated seats in their cars, I thought: “Where are we going with this?”  Ah, a subscription is a way to boost revenue without providing any real service and then feeding off the vulnerability of customers.  Of course, people want heated seats: “Oh well, I guess we have to pay, and pay, and pay for something that was previously part of the deal.”  Now I see a number of restaurants charging for bread – something that was always part of the value package.  Is this just another result of apathy?  Is it a way of saying: “We have given up on excellence so let’s charge more and offer less”.

I have seen respectable restaurants take tiny moves in the wrong direction: moving to artificial creamer for their coffee because it doesn’t require shelf-life management, failing to inspect flatware, glassware, and plates for cleanliness before they wind up in front of a guest (I guess it takes too much time to check), Ignoring the need for training of service staff who are left to their own devices to figure the job out, or something as simple as giving up on uniforms to save on cost.  I continue to see good restaurants lose a step with their food preparation, flavors, and plate presentations and shrinking menus that no longer inspire.  It is all very troubling even though these restaurants may be busy at the moment.  At some point it will all fall apart.

What once was an exciting part of a trip (finding new restaurants to enjoy), is far too often a gamble that results in empty wallets and disappointed palates.  It is apathy that kills a restaurant, not environmental factors that make operation challenging.  We need to stand up and fight apathy, stand up against mediocrity and push hard for excellence as the standard of operation.  Excellence and value go hand in hand and value is what will set the stage for a restaurant’s success.

“Apathy can be overcome by enthusiasm, and enthusiasm can only be aroused by two things:  first, an ideal that takes the imagination by storm, and second – an intelligible plan for carrying that ideal forward into practice.”

-Arnold J. Toynbee (author and historian)

This is not the time to succumb to mediocrity, not the time to push quality aside, and not the time to think we can reach success simply by raising prices.  We need to grab onto that ideal and run with it.  We need to build enthusiasm among our staff members and create an environment of excellence starting with the small things.  Everything counts in a value formula.

I am reminded of those scenes on the sidelines of a sporting event when one team seems deflated, when they succumb to their feelings of hopelessness and as a result fail to perform as they could and should.  You can see and feel defeat in the air – it is just a matter of time before it all falls apart.  Unless…a coach or player steps up and says “NO”!  “We are not going to give up our pursuit for excellence, we are not going to fall prey to mediocrity, we are not going to let apathy work its way through the team and infect all who allow it to take charge.  We are better than that!”  How many times have we witnessed those miraculous comebacks when apathy is pushed aside, and possibility comes into play? 

Now is the time for restaurants to look at those who continue to embrace excellence, who never sacrifice quality, and who understand the importance of the value formula.  Now is the time to renounce apathy and commit to excellence.  Let’s do this before it’s too late.

PLAN BETTER – TRAIN HARDER

Harvest America Ventures, LLC

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THE END OF THE AMERICAN RESTAURANT

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Now that I have your attention, let’s have a serious conversation.  This is meant to be a chat with all the stakeholders: cooks, chefs, servers, bartenders, managers, owners, dishwashers, and customers.  The end IS NOT near, in fact, restaurants have never been more important than they are right now.  Yet, all we hear is negativity.  We can’t find any employees, people don’t want to work anymore, restaurants treat employees like crap, the pay sucks and the benefits don’t exist, prices are too high, supplies are impossible to find, and profit is so small that it isn’t worth the sweat and tears.  That’s a load of negativity to digest – no wonder the title to this article makes some people believe that it’s true.

Wake up!  Most problems are really challenges and challenges can be met with a willingness to listen, to analyze, and change.  We all need to listen, analyze and change – are you willing? 

For the Restaurateur:

Are you willing to take a hard look at your business model and change how you attract, train, invest in, compensate, and evaluate your staff?  Are you willing to take a hard look at your pricing model and how you approach profitability?  Are you willing to look at your employees as your most important asset and put yourself in their shoes? Are you willing to listen to your employees who interface with guests more often than you?

For the Chef and Manager:

Are you willing to look at menus differently?  Is it possible for you to steer away from high cost, sometimes obscure ingredients that might be exciting to you but are not essential to making guests happy or setting the stage for profitability?  Are you willing to spend much more time working with and training your staff – building their skill set and showing them how to really cook from the heart?  Are you willing to listen to your employees and give them an opportunity to invest their ideas in the operation?  Are you willing to exhibit patience and empathy with your employees and know that any weaknesses they may have, are partially your responsibility?  Are you willing to invest more time catching your employees doing something right rather than pointing out those weaknesses that are partially your fault anyway?  Are you willing to celebrate the successes of your cooks and sincerely thank them for their contributions?  Are you willing to recognize that your employees have a life outside work and balance is something that is important to them?

For the Cook and Server:

Are you willing to listen and learn and to grow and expand your base of knowledge?  Are you willing to accept critique (not criticism) and know that this is part of the growing process?  Are you willing to invest the time and effort to expand your base of knowledge and grow in value?  Do you know that this is the way to move up the career ladder and eventually achieve your goal of becoming a chef, a manager, or even an owner?  Do you recognize that higher wages and greater opportunities must be earned through performance, not just being present?

For the Vendor:

Do you realize that if a restaurant is financially successful, they are in a better position to pay their bills and expand what they buy?  Do you understand the difference between good food and great food begins with the quality of ingredients that a chef receives and that this is the most important part of your job?  Do you understand that the chef cannot sell what he or she doesn’t receive?  Do you appreciate that a chef wants to view you as a partner who makes sure that what is ordered is received?  Are you willing to go the extra mile to make sure that the tools a kitchen needs to succeed are made available?  Are you willing to provide the support that a restaurant needs – support that goes beyond the ingredient and includes: marketing support, cost control support, a full understanding of ingredients and their quality factors, and payment plans that account for swings in business?

For the Customer:

Are you willing to smile at your server, thank them, and understand just how difficult their job is?  Are you willing to treat them with the same level of respect that you would expect for yourself?  Do you understand that the supply chain is broken right now, and availability of ingredients is beyond the control of the restaurant?  Are you willing to accept smaller menus because of this?  Do you understand that if you insist on seeking out that Kobe Beef Tenderloin Steak it will likely sell for $75 or more?  Are you willing to trust that the chef in an operation is talented enough to make a chicken leg that is just as special as that deluxe piece of meat?

The solutions to the challenges we face involve collaboration and creativity, a willingness to change, adaptability and investment of time and effort, empathy and support, and an appreciation for just how important restaurants are to our way of life.  We will collectively move through this period of uncertainty and rise above the challenges – we always have, and we always will.  There is still more pain to be felt, but we can never give up on just how integral restaurants and restaurant people are to a community.

This is not the time for cooks, servers, bartenders, managers, and chefs to hang up their side towels and look for another way of life.  You have invested too much of yourself already to turn your back simply because the waters are a little rough.  This is not the time for chefs and managers to throw up their arms and blame the workforce, the government, or customers for an impossible situation.  This is the time to turn the impossible into the possible and rise to the opportunities that exist – now is the time to take control – we know how to do this.

PLAN BETTER – TRAIN HARDER

Harvest America Ventures, LLC

Restaurant Consulting

www.harvestamericacues.com  BLOG

CAFÉ Talks Podcast

https://cafemeetingplace.com/cafe-podcasts

CHEFS – BUILD YOUR NETWORK OF INFLUENCE

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We cook what we are, and we are a complex combination of all our life experiences with food.  This is what makes us unique as cooks, this is what builds our signature that appears on a menu.  Like a fine wine we are a blend of different flavors that through experience reflect a perfect mix – each flavor has a role to play and is introduced in the right proportion to create that signature.  Like that fine wine, we add time and the temperature of intensity to polish our style, that signature that not only defines the menu, but the entire experience of which we are an important part. 

So, where do those flavors come from?  In most cases, we do not prescribe a blend or even plan what those flavors are, but we simply experience them as part of living.  Those flavors are restaurants we have visited, chefs who inspire us, family traditions that are part of our background, trips that we have made, books we have read, markets we have visited, kitchens where we have worked, and fellow cooks with whom we have shared a stove.  It is rare that all these influences are mapped out in advance – they simply happen, and along the way we sift through and categorize them as we search for the blend that will define our style and signature.

Although we rarely map this out, we should open ourselves up to experiences and potential influences.  As cooks looking for the right blend, we must taste the world around us.  Great cooks never limit themselves to what is in front of them in a current work environment – we need to be inquisitive.  So, what might be an appropriate way to approach that wine making method of building your cooking signature?

[]       START WITH STRONG FOUNDATIONS:

No matter what, a solid chef’s signature stems from his or her full understanding of the foundations of cooking.  Knowing ingredient flavor profiles, peak maturity of those ingredients, the standard cooking methods, and how to adjust to conditions posed through the cooking process will be your strength.  Once these are mastered then nearly any style of cooking can be approached and adopted.  Never lose sight of the importance of foundations.

[]       WORK WHERE YOU CAN LEARN SOMETHING NEW:

When building your career and your skill set – choose to work in operations that are open to teaching and where the cuisine pushes you to expand what you know and how you approach cooking.

[]       READ EVERYTHING YOU CAN:

Cookbooks, books on the cultural differences that drive the development of a cuisine, books on professional discipline and working in an open and collaborative environment – anything to do with the roots of a style of cooking, specific dishes, and how the stage is set to adopt a style to your future signature is extremely valuable.  Invest in reading.

[]       EXPERIENCE RESTAURANTS:

Whether you work in a variety of restaurants, stagiaire at a well know establishment, or simply dine to experience a specific chef’s signature – build restaurant experiences into your skill development.  These will become your benchmarks – the standards that help to eventually define who you are as a cook.

[]       TASTE YOUR HISTORY:

Never overlook your family background – in fact seek it out!  Talk with parents, grandparents, uncles, and cousins.  Research their roots and uncover the indigenous ingredients they likely worked with and the environmental factors that influenced how they cooked and ate.  This is part of your DNA – uncover it, embrace it, learn from it, and store it in your mental data bank.

[]       TRAVEL WHENEVER THE OPPORTUNITY ARISES:

We are strongly influenced by our physical environment and sometimes captive to it.  Whenever you travel to a different city, region, or country you absorb something of their culture.  Whenever you eat their food, you add something else to your portfolio of experiences.  Travel is one of the great educators – it opens your mind and heart to differences and allows you to take in the unknown.  This is critical to your signature.

[]       SEEK OUT FOOD FRIENDS:

One way to push yourself to grow as a cook is to hang out with others who are just as passionate.  We learn from each other, influence each other, and pollinate each other.  Make food friends!

[]       FIND A MENTOR:

Find that person or a few persons who have gone through this process and are now comfortable with their food signature.  Bounce ideas off them, seek their advice, learn from their experiences, and open yourself up to the challenges they present.  A solid education requires a guide on the side.

[]       BE AN ADVENTUROUS EATER:

One phrase has no place in a chef’s dialogue: “I don’t like…….”, or “I am not interested in trying….”.  You may discover that an ingredient, dish, or style of cooking doesn’t align with your signature, but that should never stop you from trying it and then deciding.

[]       PRACTICE AND EXPERIMENT:

Build your palate by taking your food thinking and apply it to cooking.  Some may believe it has all been done before, but truly it has not.  Your foundations will keep you out of cooking trouble but stretching your understanding and your comfort level will allow you to grow and develop the uniqueness you seek.

Your signature will take time, invest wisely and never stop adding to your experience and base of knowledge – the roots of that signature you seek.

PLAN BETTER – TRAIN HARDER

Harvest America Ventures, LLC

www.harvestamericacues.com  BLOG

(800 articles and counting)

CAFÉ Talks Podcast

https://cafemeetingplace.com/cafe-podcasts

Listen to the voices of excellence

Fifty of the most dynamic people who help chefs grow

COOKING – THAT THREAD OF FRIENDSHIP

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Something became even more apparent to me today, something that I have felt for decades, but suddenly it became vividly clear.  I had a call out of the blue from a former culinary student and co-worker at a four-diamond restaurant.  He just wanted to catch up and share what was going on in his life.  He followed up with a number of terrific pictures of his beautiful four-month-old daughter.  I have known him as student, employee, and friend for many years, I even attended his wedding.  After the call I began to think back over the past five decades of involvement in the business of food and realized that there have been a number of these calls and shared moments.  In fact, the majority of weddings that I have had the pleasure to attend have been for former students, employees, and food related friends. 

Over the years we have met at conferences, workshops, trade shows, a stop in for dinner at a restaurant where they worked, or during the pandemic – on zoom.  We are Facebook friends, Linkedin associates, and members of chat groups.  We share phone numbers and email addresses and congratulations for job promotions, graduations, births, marriages, and other major accomplishments in life. We remember those days prepping an impossible amount of food for service, working a hot line with sweat rolling down our backs, flames looking for every opportunity to burn the hair off your arms, the relentless ticking of the POS printer, a board filled with dupes, and your mise en place getting dangerously low.  There are vivid memories of catering events from hell, lines of people waiting for their char-grilled hamburgers or racks of slow cooked BBQ ribs.  It is impossible to forget those times in a culinary classroom when a student just couldn’t seem to get hold of a process and their frustration level was beginning to peak.  Visions of time together as a team competing in a culinary event, testing our skills against the scoring panel and hundreds of other teams vying for recognition. There are profound memories of exceeding our own expectations and showing our peers what we were made of. We talk about clean plates coming back from the dining room – a sure sign that we did our job well.  It all comes back as we talk, reminisce, laugh, and even shed an occasional tear.

There have been moments I treasure when the phone rings or a text appears asking for advice, recommendations, a recipe, or my thoughts on a new menu they are developing or a challenging employee they are not sure how to deal with.  We may not stop to think about it enough, but there is a special bond that exists between those who have jumped into the profession of food.  If you have worked together in a kitchen, there is a special understanding.  There is respect, camaraderie, appreciation, and sympathy that would be hard to find otherwise.  A real sense of connection is in play, similar to being part of a sporting team or military unit.  There is a bond for life that is significant.

It is hard to describe unless you have been part of this club without membership dues.  Maybe it’s the creative part of the work, or maybe it’s the crisis situations that you have worked through together.  It could be that mixed feeling of relief and fulfillment experienced after pushing through an incredibly busy service on the line, bringing an exceptionally difficult event to fruition, or simply working together through times when confidence was not that high, but together you persevered.

Anthony Bourdain was once asked who he would call first if he were in any kind of trouble and without pause, he said: “My sous chef.”  Not a family member, not a high school or college friend – his sous chef.  Why is this the case with so many of us?

We help each other out, we are aware of each other’s strengths and weaknesses, we learn to accept our co-worker’s faults and know when to jump in and help or when to back off and let things take their course.  We have seen each other at our best and seen each other at our worst.  We know that acceptance, understanding, support, and sometimes a little tough love is what is always needed.  These are the foundations of friendship – friendship that is uniquely solid for those who have shared space on a hot line and have fallen so deep in the weeds it seems impossible to work your way out, but then you rose up with strength when one of those friends jumped in to pull you up by the apron strings and found how to get through it. 

Over many years we develop an understanding of the importance of honest critique that ALWAYS involves working together to correct weaknesses.  We know that criticism is vile, but critique with the right amount of help is magical.  There have been ample times when we screwed up, burned ourselves, gashed a finger with a sharp chef knife, lost focus, messed up a batch of sauce, or just couldn’t seem to put out a steak done to the correct temperature on a shift.  If you’re like me, you relish the memories of the people who stepped in to help, never criticized you in the moment, pulled you out of hell and never asked for anything in return.  They did it because that’s what restaurant people do and if that’s not how they work then eventually those individuals find there isn’t a place for them in that kitchen.  We stick together.

Yes, we stick together, we support each other, we help without any expectation of something in return, we truly care about each other.  This is probably why I have been to so many weddings of those with whom I have worked.  This is probably why I receive calls when they earn a promotion or witness the birth of a child and simply want to share it with me.  This is why we (those kitchen warriors that I am referring to) make sure the first thing we do each day is check on social media to see who is celebrating a birthday and take a moment to wish each other well.

This is why, even at my age, I get excited when there is an opportunity to work a special event, in my whites, helping a former employee or student in their kitchen, or when I have a chance to sit in their dining room as a guest and relish just how talented they have become. 

It’s hard to describe, this bond that we share.  It is not something that we think about, it just happens – it makes sense.  When I look back on a long and rewarding career, I know those good memories were because of the incredible people who work in this business.  These are the people who are part of my life experiences and at some level I am part of theirs.  The bond doesn’t weaken over time, it only gets stronger.  When a chance arises for us to reunite or call, we are able to pick things up right where we left off.  That common bond is always there – cooking is the common denominator, that thread of friendship that is as strong as steel.

PLAN BETTER – TRAIN HARDER

Stay connection with those unique friends in food

Harvest America Ventures, LLC

www.harvestamericacues.com  BLOG

CAFÉ Talks Podcast

https://cafemeetingplace.com/cafe-podcasts

KITCHENS CAN BE TALENT INCUBATORS

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The list of responsibilities keeps growing: menu planner, budget manager, concept developer, quality controller, purchaser and negotiator, trainer, and of course – accomplished cook – this is the job description for a restaurant chef.  But, beyond all of this lies a macro responsibility, one that defines the chef’s position in the larger business of food, and that is being a mentor who creates an environment for and nurtures the potential of young cooks to make their own mark on the restaurant scene.  Yes, as chefs, we need to look beyond each cook as a person to fill a slot on the schedule.  You have an opportunity to feed their passion, plant the seed of creativity, expand their knowledge, and push and pull them to improve and grow.

“Creativity is just connecting things.  When you ask creative people how they did something, they feel a little guilty because they didn’t really do it, they just saw something.  It seemed obvious to them after a while.  That’s because they were able to connect experiences they’ve had and synthesize new things.”

-Steve Jobs (founder of Apple Computers)

As chefs, we have a responsibility to involve young cooks in those experiences, repeat them frequently enough so that it sinks in, encourage them to reflect on those experiences, take them apart and put them back together, and assess how they fit (good, bad, or indifferent).  The aha moments will come for those cooks when they start to see how those experiences, combined with others produce something new and unique.  Creativity comes from a process that is part of who they are, not something that they are necessarily born with.  Seeing this come to fruition is quite possibly one of the most enjoyable and rewarding aspects of being a chef.

Building up to this “enlightenment” requires that you set the stage.  You must teach and train the fundamentals, the processes, the flavor profiles, and the history behind cooking a certain way.  Simply telling a young cook to “plan a feature for tonight” will likely result in less than stellar results or something that is far too similar to everything else they do from practice.  Creativity without understanding first is reserved for a very small percentage of people with some unusual talent that is hard to fathom. 

TEACH – SHOW – WATCH – CRITIQUE – SHOW AGAIN – PATIENCE – REPEAT

Practice makes perfect and practice makes a cook competent and comfortable.  These are essential ingredients in the creative process.  It is important to understand the value of each step listed above.  As a chef/mentor you must understand that each step is equally significant.

[]       TEACH:

Teaching comes first because it helps with understanding.  The cook needs to understand “why” they are doing something a certain way.  “Because that’s the way I want it done” is not a reasonable answer to the question “why”.  Is there a reason for a process, the type of equipment used, timing, steps in flavor building, or using one specific ingredient over the other?  If there is, then let them know and provide supportive resources to demonstrate that reason.  Until they know “why” they will never be able to adapt, and adaptation is instrumental in creativity.  Provide reading materials or links to articles that will reinforce what you say – it is important!

[]       SHOW (TRAIN):

Very few things in life will sink in and become innate unless they are practiced.  Unless they are practiced until the results are what they should be then the process will never rise to the level of a skill.  Showing requires that you stand side-by-side with the cook and walk them through the process that they were taught.  Showing requires that you present them with a benchmark of excellence – a model to emulate – an example of what you expect.  Showing also requires repetition, the more you do it together, the more real it becomes.

[]       WATCH:

It’s time to let the cook fly on his or her own.  The cook must be in a position to practice what he or she has been taught and shown.  They must be put in a position to sink or swim, make those mistakes, fail if they must, and mentally record where things went wrong.  They must be given an opportunity to succeed and learn how to differentiate success from failure.

[]       CRITIQUE:

There is, as I have often pointed out, a major difference between criticism and critique.  The result of the “watch” phase is to point out where the cook can improve.  The difference between criticism and critique lies in how this is presented and whether you work with them through the process of improvement.  Simply stating it is “wrong” will never result in improvement – only resentment.

[]       SHOW AGAIN:

Reinforce through re-introduction of the benchmark and working through each step again with the cook by your side.  Present this as positive reinforcement.  Ask the cook to repeat each step and explain why it is done.  This connects the dots with teaching and training.

[]       PATIENCE:

The cook needs to understand that skill comes over time and they will rarely catch on immediately.  Patience is part of the game.  The same applies to you.  The cook needs to crawl before he or she walks, walk before a run, and run many times before they step over the finish line.

[]       REPEAT:

This is an ongoing process, an integral part of the chef’s job.  Reinforcement through the process will help to mold the possibilities for all young cooks you work with.  Additionally, it will demonstrate to other potential employees that your kitchen is one that invests in people – an open loop eco-system of teaching, training, mentoring and development.  This will be your greatest contribution to the profession and to the restaurant where you hang your hat.

PLAN BETTER – TRAIN HARDER

Harvest America Ventures, LLC

Restaurant Consulting

www.harvestamericacues.com  BLOG

(nearly 800 articles on topics related to the life of cooks and chefs)

CAFÉ Talks Podcast

Listen in to interviews with many of the leading professionals in

The business of food

https://cafemeetingplace.com/cafe-podcasts

WORK HARD AND BE KIND

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A little over a week ago, a person whom I knew, worked with, and admired for more than 40 years, passed away.  I am aware as I grow older this is going to happen, but nevertheless, it hits hard and makes you take inventory of the person you are, what you do, how you do it, how you treat others, and the way you live your life. 

Dick Cattani was a monumental figure in the business of food hospitality.  He grew from a young college graduate with prior experience in the dish room and a commis in front and back of the house, to eventually become CEO and President of Restaurant Associates – one of the country’s most influential benchmark providers of the highest quality food in restaurants, world class entertainment venues, museums, office buildings, and special events.  Dick was a graduate of the same college that I attended, a lifelong supportive alum, and eventually chairman of their board of trustees.  Midway through my career I returned to my alma mater as an instructor and eventually dean of their hospitality and culinary programs.  I worked with Dick who was known as a terrific listener, mentor, and problem solver.  I always felt comfortable asking him for advice – he always made time even though his own schedule was incredibly demanding. 

Whenever I visited New York City with students, or with family, Dick helped arrange for us to meet well known chefs and restaurateurs, visit, tour and dine in incredible benchmark restaurants, tour flagship hotels, and in some cases find kitchen space for our student culinary teams to prepare for competitions.  It was through Dick that we had opportunities to work at the U.S. Open Tennis and PGA Golf Tournaments that RA was contracted to provide foodservice.  For a period of years, we were sending 50 students to work the grueling, yet highly educational two-weeks of the Tennis Open.  To this day, those students rate those two weeks as some of the most important in their education. 

As I reflect on Dick Cattani, the person that I knew, but was not fully aware of the scope of his influence, I fell on a short, concise, and all-encompassing quote from him that was highlighted in the official RA notice of his death: “Work hard and be kind”.  What a wonderful legacy, an enormously important mantra, and an inspirational way to live your life.  From my experience, and apparently those who worked at RA, this is the most essential trait of great leadership.  I want people to say this about me some day: “He always worked hard, strove for excellence, expected nothing less of others, was willing to give back, and treated those with whom he associated, with kindness.” This is something to strive for, this is how Dick lived and how I hope to live as well.

When I look around at the world today, and in particular – our country, I find that a lack of connection to this simple mantra is far too pervasive.  It makes me tired, sad, and concerned.  I am tired of people who think only of themselves and never others.  I am tired of people who build their existence around lies and avoidance of the truth.  I am tired of those who seek to discount or demean others, tired of those who feel a sense of superiority and are full of their own sense of importance.  I am tired and deeply concerned about the proliferation of hate and a deficit of kindness and acceptance.  I am tired of those who would prefer to let others do the work while they receive the benefits of that work.  I am tired of those who are satisfied with mediocrity and see little value in striving for excellence.  I am tired of employers who treat their staff as expendable pawns on the table.  I am tired of those who point fingers at others and never accept responsibility. 

Dick was not the type of leader who would relinquish responsibility or point the finger at others.  He had extremely high standards and did expect nothing less from those who worked with and for him.  He did, however, believe in support, training, mentoring, and empathy.  He measured people on performance while admiring them for their character.  I wish that this was more contagious than it appears to be.  We need more like Dick: teachers, advocates, inquisitive and creative people, honest and hardworking, focused and kind. 

The world will miss you, Dick.  Rest in Peace.

PLAN BETTER – TRAIN HARDER

Work hard and be kind

Harvest America Ventures, LLC

Restaurant Consulting

www.harvestamericacues.com  BLOG

CAFÉ Talk Podcast

https://cafemeetingplace.com/cafe-podcasts

AN EVEN BIGGER THREAT TO RESTAURANT SURVIVAL

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Sorry, there isn’t a lot of good news for restaurants and chefs in recent years-except up to this point customer demand for the experience is rising.  We are all aware of the challenge with the workforce – finding and retaining people to do the job, and we are still feeling the pains from Covid shutdowns and the fear and anxiety that went with it.  But not enough attention is being given to the issues surrounding the supply chain and the lack of real solutions.

Most of the articles we read point to the pandemic as the culprit as well as the centralization of processing ownership.  When one of the big four or five producers or distributors closes or slows down production then the trickle effect falls squarely on the restaurant and the consumer.  This is all true and with some government intervention this may eventually be corrected.  But there are even greater cause and effect challenges that fail to receive enough press; challenges that may not be corrected with the stroke of a politician’s pen.  These cause-and-effect challenges are looming now, and the seriousness will become even more apparent in the months and years to come.

Let’s look at just a few:

[]       THE PROFESSION OF FARMING:

Young people are not clamoring to become farmers anymore. The average age of independent farmers today is over 59 years old.  Only 9% of U.S. farmers are under the age of 35.  When our current population of farm operators retire, we will be in serious trouble.  Young people shy away from farming for a variety of reasons:  the work is so physically demanding, real estate prices are rising significantly making it difficult for farms to expand to meet demand, the initial investment in equipment is astronomical, wages keep going up, but the price paid for farm goods is not keeping pace, and farmers are minions to the weather.

[]       CLIMATE CHANGE:

Thanks to the pandemic we stopped thinking about global climate change.  Well, it’s still there and its impact is obvious.  Changes in climate impact farming and ranching more than anything else.  Growing cycles will continue to change, unpredictable alterations in weather patterns will continue to haunt farmers, and crops that would normally thrive in certain parts of the world may not be able to survive there now.

[]       WAR:

Ukraine was the 5th or 6th largest agricultural country in the world.  The war has nearly taken this robust farming nation off the map.  Think of the impact on supply that this creates now and in the future.

[]       GROWING POPULATION:

While numerous factors impact food supplies, the world population continues to grow and so too does the demand for those products.  In 1800 the world population was approximately 1 billion; by 2000 that number had reached 7.9 billion.  Although population growth as a percentage is slowing (from 2.1% per year to 1% per year) this is still a huge number of mouths to feed.  At the same time, our methods of growing and distribution have not evolved sufficiently.

[]       AN ANTIQUAITED DISTRIBUTION SYSTEM:

It may seem amazing that we (restaurants and consumers) can buy nearly any food product we want, any time of the year, delivered to even the most obscure small towns, but the system that connects all the dots is not sophisticated enough to avoid bottlenecks and grow quickly with changes in demand.  Most of our goods come to the loading dock through a trucking system from harbor or farm through the miles of roadways that connect those cities and towns.  It doesn’t take much for the system to collapse.  Additionally, many products are shipped before they are mature to protect against damage in transit which impacts the quality of the restaurant plate.

[]       CENTRALIZED FOOD SYSTEM:

Over the past 100 years the U.S. moved from a decentralized system of food production and distribution to a centralized one.  Certain parts of the country only grow a few crops that have been best suited to their climate.  Those items flourish until the soil is depleted of nutrients or unpredictable weather takes its toll.  We have all felt the pain at the store following a frost in California, a hurricane in the Southeast, or droughts in the Midwest.

[]       ADDICTION TO CHEAP FOOD:

Mass produced convenience foods that are low in nutritional value, and high in calories, fat, and sodium, but low in price, have become the staple in many American family diets.  All the above factors are beginning to change the price point making it difficult for families to fill their dinner table.  Many commodities for restaurants have always been inexpensive from flour and sugar to poultry, non-primal cuts of beef, and some more common fish.  Not anymore – just ask your local brewpub what they are paying for a case of fresh chicken wings right now, or your local bread baker – what has happened to the price of flour.  All of this is changing rapidly, and it is beyond the consumer’s control.

For restaurants and for chefs, these challenges are real.  They impact and will continue to impact menus, the skills of cooks, menu pricing, and an already meager profit margin.  The questions are: “what are you going to do about it? How will you prepare for this growing concern?”

The standardized menu that rarely changes and is dependent on constant availability of certain raw materials may be a thing of the past.  Fluid menus that respond to product availability, seasonality, and price will likely return as the most efficient way to operate.  Chefs will need to step away from many of the higher cost prime cuts of meat and exotic fish and be more creative with alternative cooking methods like braising and poaching.  It may be wise to develop stronger relationships with regional farmers and producers and collaborate on menus and the ingredients that they should grow rather than put all your eggs in the basket of one-stop provisioners that will likely be less flexible. Pricing must be based on an assessment of value, knowing that consumers will also need to change their buying habits.  The twice a week diner may now become the twice a month diner and even the family that spent 50% of their family food budget in quick service restaurants will need to cut back.  The times they are a changing and the adage that the strong will survive and the weak shall perish is about to be replaced with: “The adaptable will survive and those who fail to do so will not.”

PLAN BETTER – TRAIN HARDER

Think ahead and learn to adapt

Harvest America Ventures, LLC
www.harvestamericacues.com  BLOG

CAFÉ Talks Podcast

https://cafemeetingplace.com/cafe-podcasts

KNIVES – THE CHEF’S WITNESS TOOLS

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It’s the start of another day in the kitchen.  Seven in the morning and aside from the baker and breakfast cook, I am alone with clip board in hand and my roll bag of knives placed strategically at a workstation.  I arrived a half hour earlier, grabbed a cup of coffee with a splash of milk, removed my starched chef coat and apron from its home in my office, slide my arms into the sleeves feeling the slight resistance from the serious starched press, folded the first layer back, tied on an apron, adjusted my chef’s toque, and stepped into the kitchen that I called my own.  Having held the position of chef for nearly 20 years, this routine was very familiar and always enjoyed.  I took in the aroma of the early morning kitchen and relished the quiet regimen of the morning crew.  They were methodical in their approach – doing their work with barely a sound except for an occasional: “pick-up” bark from the line cook as another series of plates were slide down the pass.

My position didn’t require that I arrive before the rest of the crew, but I enjoyed the peace of early morning, so this was my routine.  I secured a cutting board on the stainless table that everyone seemed to relegate to me (my sacred territory).  Opening my roll bag, I gently removed my respected tools for the day: 10-inch French knife, flexible boning knife, paring knife, bird’s beak tourne, round steel, and digital pocket thermometer.  I drew the blades down the steel a few times on each side of the edge even though I had worked each one on a wet stone at the close of business yesterday.  I like to ‘brighten” the edge before I start.  I wiped each knife with a side towel dipped in sanitizer solution and strategically set them in place next to the cutting board.

Holding the French knife in my hand I subconsciously recognized each part of this special tool.  The tang that runs through the center of the ebony handle and attaches the blade to the stock.  The stainless rivets that complete the attachment.  The all-important bolster that is thicker and slightly curved as the blade extends from its position.  The bolster helps to protect the palm from blisters and is the point of balance for the knife.  Balance is important so that the rhythm of cutting flows seamlessly.  I take a minute to balance the knife on my finger at the center of the bolster – amazing.  I run my fingers down the spine, or the blunt back of the blade.  The extra thickness of the spine helps to give the knife its power.  I draw my finger across the edge to verify its sharpness and check the tip to make sure that it is still intact.  I think what a beautiful tool. 

This knife, in particular, has been with me since the early days as a kitchen apprentice.  It was a present from the first cook I worked with – Millie.  She was a breakfast cook at the diner where I worked as dishwasher.  Occasionally, when it was busy, Millie pulled me to the line where I flipped pancakes, browned home fries, and garnished plates.  She saw that sparkle in my eyes as the orders piled up – she knew something that I had yet to realize – kitchen life was for me.  When I left the diner to attend college for hotel and restaurant management, she gave me the knife; it had been her husband’s favorite.  He was a career chef at a downtown dinner house and had worked for decades before he passed away a few years prior.  Millie became a cook, out of necessity, and she was great at the work, but it wasn’t her passion, not like her husband.  She said that she saw that same passion in my eyes and the knife belonged in the hands of a person who was destined to be in the kitchen.  Since then, that knife has never left my roll bag and never left my side.

While I glanced at the prep list in front of me, I began to think about that knife in a different way.  “Just think how much this knife has seen?”  Wow, I never thought of a knife, a tool, in this manner before.  This knife had witnessed the culinary life of three chefs so far.  This knife was held, just as I am holding it right now, by three professionals, every day.  It has found a home in countless kitchens, cut through thousands of pounds of vegetables, meats, and seafood.  It has been drawn across a wet stone tens of thousands of times and brought to a sharp finish on a steel dozens of times each day since it was first forged out of carbon and stainless steel. 

This knife has worked tirelessly for more hours than most could imagine, and it never complained, never resisted.  This knife sat quietly at the end of each day, tucked away in a leather roll bag, quietly waiting to start work all over again in a few hours.  It has seen incredibly busy days and nights, endured relentless beating as its edge hit cutting boards and the heel cut through delicate chicken bones and the spine of fresh fish.  This knife was touched, held, and admired by three chefs and anyone else who dared to pick it up to relish its abilities.

This knife, at least for now, is mine.  It is an extension of my hands, a tool that allows me to practice my craft, a piece of my history and that of two chefs before me.  This knife has seen it all – restaurant openings and closings, the steady build of skill and the confidence to use it.  It has occasionally been abused (certainly not by me), been eyed by other cooks as my Excalibur, been present for grand dinners and elaborate buffets, and been photographed countless times without ever being asked for permission.  It has been, is, and will always be a star in my eyes and that of every cook who aspired to reach the position that took me decades to earn.  This knife is a “witness tool”.  If it could talk – oh the stories it could tell.

Although the blade is a bit smaller from constant sharpening over more than 60 years of use, it was still a thing of beauty.  My predecessors and I took care of it, used it properly, cleaned it with care, and stored it to preserve the magnificence of the blade and the beauty of the ebony handle.  I began to wonder: “Who will I pass this knife on to? What aspiring young cook with that passion in his or her eyes will be the next to carry on this knife’s legacy?  What other kitchen and chef will this knife witness?”

There is a deep sense of obligation to protect these witness tools.  Ask any cook about it and they will proclaim: “Don’t touch my knives!”  This is not a demand to be taken lightly.  Every cook is obligated to protect these tools that have seen so much and will see so much more.  The knife has a job to do, and it depends on the cook to care for it properly and respect its ability to do so.  Cooks and chefs are caretakers of the knife, the witness tool that is one with that cook or chef.  “Don’t touch my knives” is not a statement of arrogance, it is a proclamation of intent to protect the story of a cook’s life – to relish every moment that a cook or chef put on that starched white jacket, tied on an apron, set up his or her station, and prepared to experience another day in the kitchen.

Take a moment to wonder: “What have my knives witnessed?  Have I shown enough respect for these important tools?  Am I committed to protecting the story that this knife can tell?  Who will I pass it on to in an effort to keep its legacy alive?”  Think about it.

PLAN BETTER – TRAIN HARDER

Respect your witness tools

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THE FREEDOM TO CREATE

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The symbolism of July 4th is apparent in the arts that are rewarding to those who create and those who receive what they have to offer.  Music, painting, sculpture, literature, drama, and cooking provide an outlet for expression by the craftsperson or artist and a world of discovery for those who appreciate what they see, hear, feel, or taste.  Most of us have come to expect that these avenues of expression will be available, but that is not always the case.  In parts of the world these platforms are controlled for fear of how they will inspire others to question the political or religious environment where they reside.  Art is difficult to thwart because it is like life itself – it finds a way to appear and grow.  When controlled it rebels, when ignored it finds a way to find an audience. 

Art without freedom may seem difficult to imagine, but it finds a way to overcome.  In fact, art is the antidote for autocracy, fascism, and censorship.  Art can be light and easy going, or it can rise up through resistance and courage and bang its fist on the table.  The greatest enemy of control and limitation is art – thus, throughout the world it is one of the first things that dictators, fascists, and power seekers try to monitor and moderate.  It is art that we should revere because it is art’s job to free our thinking, provide us with the chance to express our feelings, and give us a platform to discover all that we might be.

On this day, every year, Americans celebrate July 4th – Independence Day.  This is the day that our forefathers declared their separation from control of English rule.  It is a day when we raise our flag, feel that sense of belongingness to something important, remember for a few hours the history of our country, watch a parade, set aside many of our concerns with government and feel that twinge of patriotism.  It is one of those days when many countries throughout the world recognize that regardless of its many rough edges – the United States represents something important, maybe even great.  But a growing number of people feel uneasy about the idea of freedom and how fragile the platform of democracy is.  This is never more apparent than when we look at the significance of this platform to the arts.  The arts represent the canary in the coal mine to the stability of democracy.  When the arts feel a tinge of control, when the freedom of expression is in question, then a threat to the platform itself becomes real.

Just as the coal miner looks to the canary for signs of the freedom to breathe, we should all look to the arts for a sense of our democratic future and our ability to breathe the oxygen of freedom.  At the same time, we can rest assured that the tenacles of freedom will use art to find a way to shine light on the possibilities that freedom portrays.

We should all celebrate what we have on July 4th.  We should raise our flags, hold a hand over our heart and be proud patriots of American democracy, but we should never take it for granted.  We can never ignore what it means to be free, and we must never ignore just how fragile it is.  It is important that we protect and admire the concept of independence or misconstrue what we may think that it means. 

“We hold these truths to be self-evident, that all men are created equal, that they are endowed by their Creator with certain unalienable Rights, that among these are Life, Liberty and the pursuit of Happiness.”

The expression of Life, Liberty, and Happiness is facilitated through the arts.  Thus, an attempt to minimize, censor, or eradicate forms of expression through music, painting, sculpture, literature, drama, or cooking is an attack on the platform of democracy.  When people seek to stop this expression or misuse it as a vehicle for lies and misrepresentations – a way to incite rather than heal and excite; when art is manipulated as a weapon for destructive causes then we should be cautious.  Democracy provides us with that platform, the basis of freedom that we all enjoy and sometimes take for granted; a platform that allows painters, musicians, sculptors, actors, writers, and chefs to express themselves and share this expression with others.  It is a fragile platform, and the arts are unique instruments that serve as a most significant vehicle for freedom’s voice. 

On this day we should not only give thanks for American democracy and independence, but also acknowledge how important it is to pay attention to the vehicles for freedoms voice.  We need to support the arts in all their forms, understand the power that they hold, be aware that there will always be some people filled with ill intent who will use art to spread lies and conspiracies, but know that protecting the right of expression is protecting the foundations of democracy.  It is a tightrope that requires us all to be open minded and well-informed, appreciative, and willing to approach everything with some level of cautious optimism, and dedicated to keeping the platform of freedom amenable to musicians, authors, painters, sculptors, actors, and chefs to present their art.  Historically, when countries begin to ban books, censor writers, close opportunities to view art, hear certain forms of musical expression, inflict government control over what we watch or hear, or even taste – then the very foundations of democracy are in jeopardy.

On this July 4th, let’s do more than celebrate the day, let’s commit ourselves to protecting those vehicles of freedom that are essential in a democracy.  To protect them is to protect democracy itself and the very thing that we celebrate today.

Every chef is a technician and a craftsperson, but he or she is also an artist seeking expression on the plate and every restaurant guest is an appreciator of this art.  We are cut from the same cloth as those who play a musical instrument, pick up a paint brush, begin that new novel, write a blog post, or stand on a stage to represent a time and place.  We are the ambassadors of freedom.

Happy 4th of July!

Plan Better – Train Harder

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WHY THE SCHOOL OF HARD KNOCKS IS IMPORTANT

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For me, some of the most important tools for life were gained in the kitchen.  They were gained when I had to wake up at 4:00 a.m. to be in the kitchen by 5:00.  They were gained when I worked on my feet for a ten- or twelve-hour shift.  They were gained as I worked over a cherry red flat top range, sweat pouring down my back.  They were gained working with people whom I had to depend on, people from all kinds of backgrounds: ethnic, educational, race, gender, and age.  I grew up while I was learning how to work in a kitchen.

I didn’t know it at the time, nor did the hundreds of people with whom I worked over the years, but we were all being mentored by each other.  This was the place where we learned about life, about how to adapt, how to get along, and how to become uniquely us.

“There is only one road to human greatness – through the school of hard knocks.”

-Albert Einstein

There were plenty of difficult days, some that seemed impossible.  The shift started too early and lasted too long, the work was too demanding and the list of tasks almost beyond reason, and the pressure associated with timing and the skill required was nearly too much to bear.  But we made it through, the work was done, those hundreds of plates of food were beautiful and tasty, the guests were happy, and the chef gave us the thumbs up.  There were many days when our feet were throbbing from long days, when the cuts and burns were too numerous to count, when it seemed like there was no sweat left to give, but we made it and returned the next day to experience it all over again.  There were days of self-doubt when we were our own worst critic, when our work never felt adequate enough, when the chef shook his or her head signaling that we didn’t hit the mark, and when far too many dishes came back from a disappointed guest.  We remember those days; in fact, we never forget them, but we returned to give it another try.

The School of Hard Knocks is riddled with lessons that require us to fall down, feel inadequate, lose faith in our abilities, and doubt those of our co-workers.  But we return and learn from those lessons – it’s the assignment that comes from the school of life.  We learned a great deal about ourselves, those people with whom we work, and those we serve.  We learned what it meant to follow and how to prepare to lead. We discovered that we are in the business of service and it’s not always pretty.

While working our way through the kitchen we discovered what value was all about.  We opened that paycheck and knew that it wasn’t enough, but we also knew that we earned every penny.  We figured out that if we wanted to earn more, we would need to get better at what we do.  We discovered that our base of knowledge had to improve, and we would need to invest in that.  We managed to swallow our pride and accept critique if it was given as a way to help and not to demean.  We discovered that every plate of food that left the kitchen bore our signature and we found out that when it was right then legitimate pride was earned. 

Some of us may have gained knowledge through trade school or college, but many simply placed their education in the hands of hard work and patience.  We found out that both have value, but one without the other is rarely enough.  To be the best that we could be, would require an investment in learning and attention paid to teaching moments.

“Successful people are not necessarily gifted; they just work hard and then succeed on purpose.”

-G.K. Nelson

The School of Hard Knocks teaches us determination and commitment.  We figured out that we are never owed success, it comes to those who invest in the journey, learn from life’s lessons, and move forward with a sense of purpose.  Over time we discovered that no one owes us a living, we have to earn it.

So, what are those life lessons from the School of Hard Knocks?  Here are a few that can’t be taught as well in a classroom:

  • DEPENDABILITY:

Show up, suit up, be sharp, follow-thru, finish what you start, exceed expectations, be consistent.  Do this and the doors of opportunity will always open for you.

  • KNOW YOUR IMPACT:

Come to understand that every task (no matter how small or significant), every interaction, every step that you take impacts others and the products and services they provide.  Your work counts – do it well and do it right.

  • INVEST IN OTHERS:

Today and throughout your career, you will rarely be able to succeed on your own.  An investment in others success is an investment in yours.  Help others to do well – it matters.

  • RESPECT:

Respect every person you work with, work for, and serve.  Respect the ingredients you work with and the people who provide those ingredients.  Respect the facility where you work and the equipment that you are able to use.  Respect the profession of cooking that is as old as the discovery of fire.  It all matters and it is all worthy of your respect.

  • PATIENCE:

Nearly every level of success (no matter how you measure it) will take time to achieve.  You will need to build your skill level, make plenty of mistakes, develop a base of knowledge, and build the ability to adjust through the experiences you have – it takes time.

  • INVEST IN YOURSELF:

No one owes you an education – you have to seek it out.  Look at every day as an opportunity to learn and grow – build it into your daily calendar and at the end of the day ask yourself – “what did I learn today?”

  • FAIL BEFORE YOU SUCCEED:

Mistakes are natural as long as you learn from them, correct them, and work hard to avoid making the same mistakes again.  When viewed this way – mistakes are part of the growing process.  When you learn what not to do you are better positioned to get it right the next time.

  • AVOID MEDIOCRITY, INVEST IN EXCELLENCE:

Always remember – anything worth doing is worth doing well.  Never allow mediocrity to take hold – be on top of your game with everything you do.  Let excellence be your signature.

  • LEAD BY EXAMPLE:

Eventually, you will become a leader in your field.  Learn one of the most basic rules of leadership: “Treat others as you would like them to treat you.”  The people who report to you are no less significant than you as a person – they just have a different position.  They will, in many cases, emulate your actions, your behavior, and your beliefs.  Be careful to represent what you would like them to represent.

  • WORKING HARD FEELS GOOD:

When all is said and done – hard work is not a negative thing.  Hard work makes us aware of what we have accomplished and how we have approached a task.  Hard work helps us to grow, it builds character and demonstrates to others how committed you are.  As has often been said: “No pain, no gain.”

“I have never let my schooling interfere with my education”

-Mark Twain

PLAN BETTER – TRAIN HARDER

Enroll in the School of Hard Knocks

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“SOMETIMES THE PASTA LIKES TO BE BY ITSELF”

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This classic line by Stanley Tucci in the fabulous movie: “The Big Night”, has always struck a chord with me.  It speaks well of simplicity and allowing ingredients to be themselves and shine.  Whether it’s perfectly cooked pasta, a fresh garden salad, fresh fish, or a prime roast of pork, there is so much there to love without adding ingredients or seasoning that takes away from how perfect those ingredients are, on their own.

It’s interesting how our approach towards food, as chefs and cooks, changes over the years.  I suppose it’s not too dissimilar to our approach towards music, art, and life in general.  We may dip our toe into the unusual and the daring while young but then step back to strong foundations as we age.  It may be exciting and even beneficial to test the waters with a more Avant Garde approach towards cooking when we are young chefs, we may find inspiration in highly detailed preparations and presentations, molecular gastronomy, or show quality perfection in incredibly intricate plate presentations, but at some point, we realize that great cooking is all about respecting ingredients, executing solid cooking technique, and finding ways to allow ingredients speak for themselves.  It must be the same in those other professions that touch the realm of art.  I can still relish Eric Clapton’s era of experimentation with improvisation and jazz interpretations of blues classics.  As a member of the group “Cream” he amazed us all with his style and ability to push the envelope with structure in music, but in his later years he returned to his blues roots and produced melodic, thoughtful music that relied on tradition, foundations, and technique.  Apparently, we all tend to find our way back.

Our growth as craftspeople or artists seeks to find the beat of our own drum.  In the process we pick up little pointers along the way; nuances of style that may hide behind a more mature, seasoned approach, but with the ability to still occasionally surprise.  This is what I find in my own approach towards cooking and what I find satisfying in others.

What I found exciting in my thirties and forties – the sizzle of plate presentations that were manipulated for that perfect photo shoot, the entrée with twelve or more components and multiple sauces, the highly manipulated dish that was designed to change a guest’s understanding of cooking and confuse others who were challenged to identify the original ingredients, no longer feels right to me.  I still admire the skill of chefs who go “where no person has gone before”, the presentations that dazzle and leave me wondering, and the flavor profiles that work but make me wonder how, but most times I gravitate towards that perfectly grilled piece of fish, that mouth-watering braise, or a pile of perfectly cooked garden vegetables.  The older I get, the more important it is to respect established execution and natural flavors that aren’t interrupted by a desire to pursue the unknown.

There is a lesson here, a lesson for all who enjoy the process of creating something with their hands, something that represents who they are, where they came from, and what they choose to do for a living.  The foundations ground us, they are home base – a destination that sometimes takes starts and stops to get to.  We learn along the way from our wins and our misfires, but always grow and evolve through the process.  But, getting home is still the goal and when we pay our dues, experiment, and challenge, and try different ways to get from one base to another, we end up crossing the plate with our own approach towards the foundations – our personal signature.  It might be how we embrace established methods, whether we prefer to cook with gas or wood, whether we use stainless, steel, or cast iron, when we salt, how we sear, or how long we temper or rest an ingredient before it winds up on a plate, but when we cross that plate, we have clearly defined the cook that we are, the one we were always meant to be.

What inspires me now?  What do I love to eat and what do I long to cook?  Open fire grilled bronzini or black bass that is scored, brushed with olive oil and a touch of lemon; wood-fire roasted loin of pork with pearl onions, apples and prunes and a lightly thickened jus lie; a loaf of artisan sour dough bread with crusty exterior and chewy interior filled with holes from long fermentation and gentle handing during the kneading process; a crisp salad with vine ripened tomatoes and a touch of vinaigrette, and a cup of rich French press coffee with warm milk.  In my later years I find that home plate is in view and my style has finally drifted back to the foundations – a place that is warm and comforting.  An ideal meal would be hand cut fettuccini with olive oil, garlic, fresh basil, grated parmigiana, cracked pepper and a splash of lemon, because sometimes the pasta likes to be by itself.

PLAN BETTER – TRAIN HARDER

Never forget the foundations – they will serve you well

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THE IMPORTANCE OF WORK

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When a person refers to “work” there are a number of connotations that come to mind.  Quite often the term “work” implies something slightly negative – a necessary evil.  In this light, we tend to think of associated words to explain the feelings we have towards work:  hard, demanding, stressful, required, tiring, limiting, etc.  Those who approach “work” in a more positive way may view it as fulfilling, rewarding, purposeful, dynamic, and even enjoyable.  It is interesting how the same word can have such different meanings to people.  The fact remains that work is part of life – whether viewed as simply necessary or sought after with great enthusiasm.

Henry Ford once said:

“There is joy in work.  There is no happiness except in the realization that we have accomplished something.”

His reference is to work as one of the keys to a full life; an approach that is contrary to some of the visions we promote of sore muscles, tired minds, disgruntled and mistreated employees, or angry workers who find little inspiration in what they do to earn a living.  Ironically, Henry Ford was the forefather of the factory assembly line that allowed our country to grow and provide manufactured goods at a price that the masses could afford.  This same assembly line would house workers who had plenty to gripe about when it came to what they did to earn a living.  However, the core of what this statement presents is quite accurate – we (humankind) are built to perform, to hone our skills, to apply those skills, to produce results, and to feel complete. 

There are limitless opportunities for all of us if we understand how to invest in aligning with those opportunities and bringing them to fruition.

“Opportunity is missed by most people because it is dressed in overalls and looks like work.”

-Thomas Edison

Why is it that some look forward to each day and are ready to jump out of bed and attack the day with enthusiasm and commitment, prepared to give their best to the work they pursue and to constantly improve along the way?  Why is that others may view the day quite differently – a chore, something to dread, the source of pain and uncertainty, and work that is something to avoid at all costs?

At some level it may be that individuals in the latter category have simply not found the type of work that they were meant to engage in, or it could very well be that they fail to see just how important work of any type is to their wellbeing.

Martin Luther King stated it so well:

“If a man is called to be a street sweeper, he should sweep streets even as a Michelangelo painted, or Beethoven composed music or Shakespeare wrote poetry. He should sweep streets so well that all the hosts of heaven and earth will pause to say, ‘Here lived a great street sweeper who did his job well.”

To achieve happiness and success at any level, a person might approach work with equal enthusiasm – whatever the task.  For those of us in the business of food this implies that real satisfaction in our trade will come from approaching all tasks as if they are the most important.  Whether you are finishing a beautiful plate of food, ready for the pass or dicing 25 pounds of carrots for soup – you can find joy in knowing that you did the work well, to the best of your ability.

There is also the misconception of worth as it applies to the work that we do.  When worth relates strictly to compensation then we lose sight of purpose and significance.  Certainly, compensation is important – we live in a world where what we earn helps to determine how we are able to survive, thrive, and do the things that we seek to do.  But real worth is so much deeper than that.  Worth has everything to do with how you feel about yourself when you look in a mirror, how others view your skills and talent, how you contribute to the success of a team and the business you represent, how your work makes those who receive it feel, and how the work that you do impacts the world around you as well.  Great compensation without addressing the larger concept of worth will lead to dissatisfaction and doubt.

There is also a tremendous amount of gratification derived from “earning” a living through the work that we do.  Even the sore muscles, sweat, tiredness, and even stress that result from work can lead to real satisfaction and happiness when you know that what you are paid is deserved, and how you feel about your larger contribution is appreciated.  Earning a living, earning the trust of your co-workers, earning the respect of those for whom you work, and earning praise from the guests who enjoy the meal that you helped to prepare is one of the most important aspects of having a job and learning a skill.

Every successful chef that I know found joy in washing dishes, cutting vegetables, kneading bread dough, grilling a steak, sweating on the hot line, passing finished plates to a server, and even sweeping and moping a floor.  It is this approach towards work that allowed them to rise to the pinnacle of their profession and eventually put their signature on a restaurant.  Work is hard, it does require effort and sacrifice, it depends on a person’s commitment to doing even the smallest task with enthusiasm, it requires patience, and it requires a willingness to jump out of bed with a positive outlook on the day.  To view work as anything less that an opportunity is to miss what can result.

At a time when some struggle with finding the meaning to what they do, some question how their worth is viewed, some view work as a necessary evil, and some even invest their energy in finding ways for others to take care of them rather than take care of themselves, we (society and the food industry specifically) need to help others find the true meaning of work and how they define their own worth.

“Everyone has been made for some particular work, and the desire for that work has been put in every heart.”

-Rumi – Persian Poet

There are far more jobs today than people willing to work. The opportunities abound.  So, if you seek fulfillment, then jump out of bed, splash cold water in your face, look sharp and get to work.  Find your purpose, look for fair compensation but by all means know that your true worth awaits you no matter what position you use.  You need to work to fill your heart with promise and feed your soul.

It’s time to light the spark in everyone and start the fire of enthusiasm for work.  The issues of work ethic and a puzzling workforce dilemma that plagues every industry will not be solved simply by raising wages or changing life/work balance. If we don’t address the importance of work, then nothing will truly change.

PLAN BETTER – TRAIN HARDER

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RE-THINKING THE NEIGHBORHOOD RESTAURANT

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There are many questions that people ask with regard to the restaurant industry, but two seem to really stand out in the post pandemic world:

  1. Why should I spend money in a restaurant?
  2. Why would I choose to support a locally owned restaurant?

Let’s begin with some facts about the business of serving food:

  1. There are more than 1 million restaurant locations in the United States.
  2. In 2019, over 490,000 of those locations were independent, privately owned businesses.
  3. 64% of those independent restaurants were “full-service”.
  4. Only 1.4% fell in the category of “fine dining”.
  5. The overall industry employed more than 15 million U.S. workers.
  6. 35% of the overall male U.S. workforce and 65% of the female workforce was employed, at some time in their life, in the restaurant industry.
  7. Nearly 10.4 % of the entire current U.S. workforce is employed in the restaurant industry.
  8. In 2020 the restaurant industry generated $564 billion in sales (down a whopping $330 billion from pre-pandemic numbers), but the expected growth will be significant now that pandemic restrictions are being lifted.  The potential for a return to pre-pandemic levels is very optimistic.

(National Restaurant Association)

Now I mention these statistics because they will help to frame what the future may hold for the industry and those considering a career in kitchens and dining rooms across the country.

Everywhere you look, people are beginning to line up for a return to the good old days of restaurant service.  There is a great deal of pent-up demand and restaurants are struggling to figure out how to gear up.  Labor issues loom large, and it is hard to imagine any major correction, at least as long as unemployment is so low.  Supply chain challenges are not going away as production and logistics catch-up.  Indications are these challenges are larger than was originally thought putting added pressure on restaurant menus. And, although people are venturing out, there is still ample concern over Covid and the threat of another impending surge during the Summer or Fall.  So, with all of this – what’s the good news and how might the small independent restaurant find a way to thrive or at least survive?

Here are my unscientific predictions of a perfect restaurant universe where the strength of the American Independent Entrepreneur rises to the top.

FIRST: It’s all about the employee and the team that an independent restaurant assembles.  Passion, interest in learning, service orientation, personality, and drive will, as always, set the stage for a dynamic team and a successful restaurant.  Ah, but this must be your PRIMARY FOCUS.  There is little reason for previous employees to return to this business if it has no interest in changing its approach towards employee pay, benefits, work conditions, growth opportunity, and investment in learning.  The independent restaurant of 2023 and beyond must be a place that does what large corporations can’t or won’t do.

SECOND:  As large chains and corporate restaurants seek to find solutions through efficiency using technology and dumbing down menus, independents must re-invigorate their commitment to hospitality, person-to-person contact, creativity, and customer experiences.  Touch screen order kiosks, QSR code access to restaurant menus, a resurgence of convenience foods, and even robotics are certainly ways to minimize human error and control costs in the long run, but what does it do for the experience?

THIRD:  Ask everyone you see: “Why would you choose to spend your money in a restaurant”?  It is the ultimate question leading to how you approach business.  People re-acquainted themselves to cooking at home during the pandemic.  They drifted away from the ever-growing NEED for restaurants to support their work/family lifestyle, knowing that in many cases they could prepare a cost effective, time saving, and sometimes better tasting and nutritious meal at home.  Restaurants need to re-establish the essential reasons for dining out that will carry the industry forward after the pent-up demand is met.

FOURTH:  Know that fine dining (as we have defined it in the past) may truly be on the way out.  Remember only 1.4% of those independent restaurants fall into this category; yet this is the segment that receives most of the media attention, the segment that so many young cooks gravitate toward, and where much of the greatest investment took place.  Our customers are far savvier than they were in the past; they know great food and they expect that restaurants will provide it.  They understand quality, they appreciate cooking from scratch, they enjoy attractively presented food, and they are interested in the source of quality ingredients.  What they are less interested are pretentious environments, stuffy service, gimmicks, and absurd pricing.  They expect excellence in product, friendly and sincere service, and the ability to have fun while enjoying a spectacular meal.  The future of independent restaurants lies within the scope of understanding this and building menus and teams that focus on the right direction.

FIVE:  The independent neighborhood restaurant needs to accept that the supply chain of 2019 is not likely to return any time soon.  It will remain unpredictable as everyone tries to figure out what it should look like moving forward.  Restaurants will need to keep their menus fluid, stay away from offerings that are less dependent on seasonality and more dependent on an international network of producers, shippers, and vendors.  Yes, buying local or regional will become inevitable as the smart way to approach menus.

SIX:  Don’t forget what kept you going over the past two crazy years.  Continue to seek out ways to create exceptional experiences through take-out and delivery options.  Think about packaging:  find sustainable solutions, create attractive presentations to match what you offer in-house, and work with vendors on options that can maintain temperature and presentation through effective packaging solutions. 

SEVEN:  Know that one of the oldest sayings in the restaurant business is even more important today; that this mantra is the critical piece of the puzzle that will always separate the independent neighborhood restaurant from corporate chains:

“The handshake of the host can determine the flavor of the roast.”

Good, old-fashioned hospitality was, is, and will always be the essence of the restaurant business and the real answer to that question: ‘Why should I spend my money in a restaurant.”

PLAN BETTER – TRAIN HARDER

Harvest America Ventures, LLC

Restaurant Consulting

www.harvestamericacues.com  BLOG

(Over 700 articles)

CAFÉ Talks Podcast

https://cafemeetingplace.com/cafe-podcasts

THE IMPORTANCE OF THE SECOND OLDEST PROFESSION

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Setting aside the challenges of today, it is important to recognize just how instrumental the restaurant business is to society and how significant the role of cooks and chefs.  I feel privileged to come from a lineage of restaurateurs, and although not chefs, they represented a taste of this importance. 

Throughout history it has been the cook and the restaurateur who have given a spark of hope and life to even the bleakest of times.  Whether war, economic depression, plague, or political upheaval – the work of the restaurant has been a bright spot in history.  Looking back is always important as we face the challenges of today and such is the case with those of us in the restaurant field.

The local tavern, bistro, trattoria, or café has always been a place of respite, renewal, and neutral gathering.  A place to celebrate or commiserate; a place where friends, neighbors, family, or even adversaries can take a break, raise a glass, and break bread.  Restaurants are places where we can forget our challenges for a moment, set aside our differences, resist the temptation to delve into the negative and invest a little time in grasping onto a positive future.  This has always been the case and as such is one of the important roles that restaurants, restaurateurs, cooks, and chefs play.

When the sirens of impending bombings cried their awful sound through the streets of London and Paris during WWI and WWII, there were bakers in basement shops kneading dough and finding ways to bake loaves of bread for those who literally had nothing.  Hidden taverns pouring contraband alcohol and serving simple food could still be found as a beam of light for a world that seemed to be crumbling all around.

From 1920-1933 a combination of the impending depression and the ill-conceived Prohibition of alcohol in the U.S. seemed impossible for a business that depended on disposable income, and distilled and fermented beverages, yet creative entrepreneurs like my grandfather ran underground “speak-easies” for a local population that needed the comfort of taverns and cafes to try and make sense of it all.  My grandfather’s work led to a series of restaurants that found a home in 1933 when prohibition was repealed and later as America clawed its way out of economic Armageddon.  Aunts, uncles, and grandmothers on both sides of my family continued the legacy of restaurateur for the better part of twenty more years.  This was the case in many families of immigrants who found their way to America and brought with them the traditions and recipes for hospitality that were born in Europe.  Americans found their way to these safe havens of food and beverage and held their heads high knowing that better days were ahead.

Throughout the world, these small, neighborhood havens were a breath of fresh air.  This tradition of salvation through a full glass and a plate of food continues to prevail today.  After all, it is a full stomach that helps us stand tall and face our challenges.  It is the cook and the chef, through their craft who reward us for our hard labor, and comfort us when it is needed.  The impact of the cook’s work is physical, emotional, and even spiritual.

In war torn parts of the world, when the dust settles and it is time to rebuild – cafes, bistros, trattoria’s and taqueria’s are the first to rise up.  People need these places of business as a sign that life returns, and hope remains eternal.  When places of food and beverage close, the lifeblood of a community is cut off.  When these same operations open, we know that everything else that is good in a community will likely follow.  We are social creatures who draw our energy from being with others and cooks and restaurateurs are the catalyst for this energy.

After WWII, the U.S. stepped into a period of growth.  We build an infrastructure of highways to connect the country and wherever roads intersected a gas station and a diner seemed to crop up.  This was the signal that another village or town would follow.  The introduction of restaurants, cooks and chefs stimulates hope and prosperity.

What humanitarians like Chef Jose Andres work in impossible conditions to bring a plate of food to those who have nothing else, he is demonstrating the power of the chef and restaurateur to heal.  His work is the first step in bringing restaurants back to a community in despair and seeking out the light that others crave.  This has been the case with so many in our field of work.  When the towers collapsed in New York City – restaurateurs and chefs came together to feed the firefighters, police, construction workers, and volunteers.  It was almost immediate and a sign that good cannot be stopped by evil and that we would rebuild.  When the floods destroyed much of New Orleans after devastating hurricanes it was restaurateurs and chefs like John Folse who rallied the industry to feed those affected and start the rebuilding process for communities just days after.  It is always the people of this important business: the owners, operators, chefs, cooks, dishwashers, servers, and bartenders who come to the aid of their communities.  It is the farmers, fishmongers, ranchers, and vendors who open their storerooms to take care of the most basic human needs.

Yes, we work for a paycheck, and we have definitive needs in this regard.  Yes, there is a real need to improve this and some of the historical working conditions that have been part of the business for generations, but there is a heart and soul aspect to the work that we do.  We are giving people, people who understand just how important that plate of food is to rebuild the human spirit and heal the wounds of a sometimes-unfriendly world.  What we do is so important, and we should never lose sight of this.  As we collectively face challenging times, times of pandemics, economic uncertainty, hate and struggles for power, we can find comfort in the work of the cook, the chef, the restaurateur, and the server – we represent that glimmer of hope.

PLAN BETTER – TRAIN HARDER

Harvest America Ventures, LLC

www.harvestamericacues.com  BLOG

CAFÉ Talks Podcast

https://cafemeetingplace.com/cafe-podcasts

SUPPLY CHAIN – LESSONS LEARNED

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(an opinion piece)

Well, it has come to roost as they say – if you leave the opportunity for something to go wrong, it likely will.  Murphy’s Law has been tested time and again and it seems that in most cases Murphy’s Law wins.  What is ironic is in most cases we can see it coming, but even our gut feelings get put aside in favor of chance.  One of the most vivid examples involves supply chain challenges and the minimalization of competition in the American marketplace. 

“Murphy’s Law (If anything can go wrong, it will) was born at Edwards Air Force Base – in 1949.  It was named after Captain Edward A. Murphy, an engineer working on an Air Force project. “

As an example, we are all aware of the serious supply issue of infant baby formula in the wealthiest nation on earth – the United States.  How could this happen?  Fingers are aggressively pointing at the manufacturer of baby formula (one of only four companies that control the market) who shut down its plant.  This manufacturer, purportedly, did so in response to health and safety violations.  I’m sure that we would all support the temporary shutdown if their process was deemed unsafe for consumers.  Some, point fingers at the current administration in Washington for not responding quickly enough as supplies began to evaporate, yet few are addressing the most significant cause – monopolies.  As companies grew larger, consuming many of the smaller producers, the control of this product wound up in the hands of a few, making it much more vulnerable.  The same is true with the slowdown in auto manufacturing because computer chips made overseas by a small number of producers is in short supply, or the current shortage of dog food.  When a commodity is placed in the hands of a few, then eventually Murphy’s Law rears up its ugly head.  Can you imagine what would happen in the marketplace if Amazon were to suddenly fail?

In the restaurant business we are subject to similar supply chain faults.  Only a handful of wholesalers control the restaurant supply market, you can count the number of meatpackers on one hand, large scale farms focus on growing one or two crops to maximize yield and control price, and even equipment manufacturers have become fat while chewing up smaller producers over the past few decades.  It is easy to see how a challenge posed to any one of these large-scale suppliers can raise havoc within the restaurant world.  And such is the case right now.

As companies grow, so too does their focus on efficiency – some for the better, and some simply to find ways to stretch profit margins and stockholder incentives.  Real service is replaced with call centers and on-line ordering.  Special effort to ensure that a restaurant has what it needs is replaced with stricter minimum orders or reduced service days, and that vendor who always went the extra mile for you finds it too difficult to continue to try and compete.  If one of those large vendors or producers should fail, then the snowball impact is quite serious. 

There are many altruistic reasons for buying local or regional, but to my way of thinking, it simply makes better business sense.  Those regional vendors need and want your business, they have a real interest in providing exceptional service, and they need to listen to your concerns.  Oftentimes they face the chef or the food and beverage director to take an order, so there is no escaping the reality of any problem that may exist.  The local producer and vendor wants you to succeed!  They need you to succeed and as such they will do what they can to ensure that this happens.  When was the last time you were able to call a salesman at 4:00 on a Friday asking he or she to “find me a particular product tonight – I’m running short”?  When was the last time you were able to ask for a few extra weeks of extended credit from a vendor because business is slow this month?  It is the “time of need” that truly defines great service – something that the big guys just can’t afford to do (at least according to their accountants). 

There is another piece of the supply chain puzzle that has made us dependent on the larger producers – we have become accustomed to having whatever we want, whenever we want it, with the convenience of having it delivered to our door under one invoice.  One-stop buying of ingredients is the hallmark of the size of limited sellers.  They simply find ways to keep the marketplace filled with products from various parts of the world.  Strawberries in February – no problem we’ll get them from Mexico (white inside and tasteless).  You want to save time cleaning that parsley or peeling garlic? Well, we’ll find a source to do that for you.  Fresh halibut from the coast of Alaska?  No problem, we’ll fly it in overnight.  Great service- right?  Great service, until the product doesn’t show up and we lash out at the vendor when the problem starts with us and how we view menus. What about quality, maturity, price, or carbon footprint?  When restaurants and consumers expect everything, all the time, without question – then the local guy can’t compete at the same level as a larger player. 

So, buy local or regional because you want quality, are concerned about the integrity of the source, or it makes sense to be a good neighbor, or at the very least – support them because it makes good business sense.  Unless the federal government decides to actually enforce Anti-Trust rules, then the only way to challenge Murphy’s Law and do our part to rectify supply chain issues is to think about our menus, focus on seasonality, let the real production cycle drive how we buy, and support those regional producers and vendors.  These recent examples of supply chain problems were predictable – Murphy’s law was just waiting for the right moment.

PLAN BETTER – TRAIN HARDER

Harvest America Ventures, LLC

www.harvestamericacues.com  BLOG

CAFÉ Talks Podcast

https://cafemeetingplace.com/cafe-podcasts

BUILDING A RESTAURANT FAMILY

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The most important room in a home is the kitchen.  This is the hub of activity, the space that portrays unity, defines tradition, nourishes the body and mind, and sets the tone for communication.  This is where we celebrate and reflect – the place where a cook offers the most important expression of love through the creative preparation of food.  If the family were defined as a team, it would be the kitchen that served as the locker room and the playing field.  The kitchen provides a platform for many of the most vivid memories of our lives and as such is cherished by all.  Preparing for school or work, welcoming friends, and relatives, solving challenges, celebrating the end of the day, and listening to those reflections on life that everyone needs to share – this is the role of the kitchen and the family table.

Restaurants are very much like families, sometimes dysfunctional, but still family.  Those who spend their days in the kitchen, or the dining room do so sometimes out of necessity, but oftentimes because it is what they love to do – to create and bring a little joy to other’s lives.  We work hard, very hard physically, mentally, and even emotionally through the process of preparing and serving delicious food.  The kitchen is where we put our acquired skills to the test from simple knife work to mastering the foundational cooking methods and building sophisticated palates.  Some may be just starting out while others are seasoned veterans.  We wear our battle scars with pride: the burns, cuts, occasional stitches, swollen feet, and carpel tunnel hands – these are the symbols of our work ethic and the dangers that do exist in the kitchen.  These unplanned tattoos are a rite of passage, our report cards that help to define when we have passed the test of time in front of the range. 

The dining room staff face some different marks in time that establish them as “prepared”.  There are the emotional scars from that small percentage of guests who fail to treat the staff with any level of respect, the demands of timing, the challenges in upselling, and the struggle to always keep a smile on their face.  They are the ambassadors of hospitality and need to maintain a semblance of calm and the stage presence that helps guests feel comfortable and at ease.

In both cases, there is a high level of stress in restaurant work.  Fast, efficient, poised, and graceful, flexible, able to recover from mistakes, organized, a problem solver, and skilled, all come into play every day, with every guest.  Managing all of this will fail if there isn’t a place to gather, decompress, share, and consult.  Just like the family table at home – the staff meal can be the place where front and back of the house staff members come together, build understanding, support each other, laugh, and even cry as they prepare for another day of craziness.  Breaking bread together becomes that universal language, that calming process, the chance to celebrate each other, raise a glass and welcome the work that is done in service of the food that represents tradition and art, and the hospitality that can make a guest’s day.

“Some of the most important conversations I’ve ever had occurred at the family dinner table.”

-Bob Ehrlich

(Former Governor of Maryland)

How important is the staff meal to the success of a restaurant?  I would propose that during these times of real uncertainty, a time when restaurants are seeking answers to the challenges that plague them, such as the difficulty in finding and retaining staff – the family meal, in the truest sense of the term is of consummate importance.  Now, there is a difference between putting out a few bowls of salad, a sheet of pizza, or ten pounds of pasta and creating a family meal.  So, let’s be clear about what it takes to build this cohesive team (family) through food.

  1.  DEDICATE THE TIME

If this is to work, then the 10-minute family meal won’t cut it.  Build 30 minutes into your planning and schedule before you open the dining room.

  • DEDICATE THE SPACE

Make it a long table so that everyone can sit together as a family. Set the table correctly – put out the good china and flatware, baskets of bread, family style bowls and platters to pass around. 

  • COOK LIKE IT WAS FAMILY

No need for expensive ingredients, just well-prepared food, ample portions, full flavor, good technique.  Invest the time to make it as you would for a guest or family member.  Dedicate one your cooks each night to be the guest chef.  Plan the menus for a week and post them – build anticipation for the family meal.

  • MIX AND MATCH

Break up the us and them.  Mix front and back of the house to create an environment for friendly discussion and a chance to get to know each other on a different level.

  • EVERYONE PARTICIPATES

No one is AWOL from family meal including chef, sous chef, manager, dishwasher, and cooks who are behind on their mise en place. 

  • FOOD and WINE CENTERPIECE OF CONVERSATION

The guest chef for family meal should talk about the food, its history, connection to his or her family, etc.

  • MAKE IT EDUCATIONAL

This is a perfect time for your sommelier to introduce a new wine on your list.  A sample for everyone, discussions about pairing, the grape, terroir, flavor profile, etc.

  • FEATURE TRADITIONS and HISTORY

Encourage your guest chefs to bring their heritage into the meal.  You may want to include your dishwashers as guest chefs as well.  You will be amazed at the food that comes to the plate.

  • CELEBRATE YOUR STAFF

The family meal is also a time to give thanks for staff members – celebrate something – length of service, highest check average, new dish created for the menu, completion of a degree, birth of a baby, etc.  There is always something worth celebrating in a family.

Push aside all of the negative reasons why this won’t work: too expensive, can’t find the time – we are too busy, just more work for the cooks, they won’t appreciate it so why bother, too much trouble, etc.  Give it a try!  Even if you only do this once a week to start – make it a critical part of how you do business and watch how the team starts to become a family.  The payback can be team unity, better understanding, pride, a feeling that the restaurant cares about employees, more open dialogue, stronger connections with management, and less friction between front and back of the house.  A small step, but a giant leap for any restaurant.

“You learn a lot about someone when you share a meal together.”

-Anthony Bourdain

PLAN BETTER – TRAIN HARDER

Harvest America Ventures, LLC

www.harvestamericacues.com  BLOG

CAFÉ Talks Podcast

https://cafemeetingplace.com/cafe-podcasts

THE THRILL OF OPENING YOUR OWN RESTAURANT

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Well, there is little that can be said to those who have caught the restaurant fever – you know, when that opportunity finally knocks, and you have your sights on a café with your name on it.  The feeling is hard to describe – a cross between elation and shear panic.  Your blood pressure is way up, you occasionally break out in cold sweats, and when you look in a mirror you see a mix of the weight of the world and a perpetual smile. This roller coaster of emotions is something that you are not in control of – adrenaline is running the show right now so hang on to your hat.

There is a litany of reasons to stay away from restaurant ownership, there is little need to focus on them now – you made your decision, one that was based on emotion and very little sound reasoning, and now it’s time to buckle down and make it happen.  First and foremost, you need to build a checklist, a very well thought out checklist of everything that must be done before you open your doors.  Leave nothing to chance – no matter how small the task, put it on your list.  Next, prioritize that list based on the amount of time, effort, and money it will take to get that specific work done.  As an example – applying for a liquor license.  This might take 60-days or 6-months depending on variables that are out of your control.  So, as soon as you are able – fill out the paperwork and submit your application.  Whatever time you think should be allotted to a task – double it, whatever amount of money you think that it might take to finish a task – know that it will be more.

Back to your list – next to each task state who will be responsible for it and when you would like to see it complete.  Transfer those dates onto your calendar. NOTE:  If you would like a sample opening list – just forward your email address under COMMENTS and simply say PLEASE SEND LIST.  Each night before you hit the sack, pull out your master list and make your specific task list for the next day.  If you failed to complete an item on today’s list, then transfer it to tomorrow – DON’T LET IT GET AWAY FROM YOU!

OK, you catch my drift -LISTS ARE IMPORTANT!  When adrenaline is in charge you need a dependable roadmap.  Adrenaline is like an accelerator on your car that is stuck to the floor and your brakes don’t work.  All you can think about is not crashing and nothing else.  Your roadmap (LISTS) will ease your foot off the gas pedal and help your vision come back into focus.

NEXT: don’t ever be afraid to ask for help.  This is when you call in all the favors that are on your “you owe me list”.  This is when every friend or family member with an investment in your success and happiness will come in handy.  Asking them for help is what friends, family, and colleagues do.  Make a note of who pitches in and MAKE SURE THAT YOU THANK THEM PROFUSELY.  DO IT WITH SINCERITY AND DO IT OFTEN.  Keep those notes and be prepared, at some time in the future, to return the favor.  THAT’S HOW IT WORKS!  This is your turn to receive, tomorrow may be theirs.  These folks are your network – tap into their expertise and contacts – it literally takes a village to open a restaurant.

NEXT: Don’t take shortcuts!  If you think that you can “get by” without doing something right the first time, know that you will be doing it over again sooner than you think.  Oh, and by the way, the next time around it will be much more expensive.  Excellence on the plate begins with excellence in the materials you by to frame in a wall.  IT ALL COUNTS!

NEXT: Ahhhh – staffing.  Do not approach staffing as the final step before opening.  Staffing IS THE MOST CRITICAL STEP IN SOLIDIFYING YOUR FUTURE SUCCESS.  Visit local businesses, introduce yourself, talk to the owners about your vision, address the kind of individuals you are looking for and ask if they would help you to get the word out.  I am not encouraging you to pirate their employees, but rather partner with them to help your boat float from day one.  If you are successful, it will help them with their business.  If they recommend a great potential employee, then make note of it and invite that ambassador in for dinner sometime after your restaurant is settled in.  Believe me – THIS WORKS!

Think about the interview process.  Think about what you are really looking for in the right individuals.  Differentiate what you want them to bring to the operation vs. what you can teach them once they are there.  Would you rather have a great line cook with a crappy attitude, a person who lacks dependability, and one who brings the team down constantly, or would you prefer a team player, always upbeat, anxious to learn, and always at work on time and ready to rock?   If they have good foundations and the right attitude you can teach them to move quickly from good to great.

NEXT: The menu.  OK, you’re a chef, you love to cook, you have a style and a bag of tricks focused on the food that you like to make.  It seems obvious that you should have a menu that plays off of those strengths.  So, here’s the toughest part of being a chef/owner:  YOU MUST CONSIDER SELLING THOSE FOODS THAT PEOPLE WANT TO BUY.  If they are totally tuned into your style and your dishes – then go for it.  If you aren’t sure, then check out the competition, talk to people in the community, and keep your menu rather fluid at first until you discover what works.  Don’t sacrifice your commitment to quality but make menu decisions based on good research rather than just your ego.  BOY, THAT’S HARD ADVICE TO GIVE.

NEXT:  Brand building.  Everything you do impacts your brand.  Whatever impacts your brand will also impact your sales, your profitability, the employees you are able to attract, and your longevity as a restaurateur.  PAY ATTENTION TO EVERYTHING YOU DO – YOUR BRAND IS YOUR KEY TO SUCCESS.

FINALLY: Be prepared to stop and change direction at a moment’s notice.  Set your pride aside – if it’s not working – CHANGE IT!  You should always maintain a “stakes in the ground” beliefs that are essential to your being (like trying to buy local, only using organic ingredients, treating your employees well, etc.), but other than those – GET RID OF THE SACRED COWS.  Those immoveable objects in your business plan that aren’t working will drag you down.  CHANGE THEM. 

There are numerous other “rules of engagement” that are helpful and sometimes even essential – but this is a good start.  Make sure you have plenty of cash to fall back on, a good line of credit with the bank, keep accurate records, don’t try to cheat the State you live in out of their sales tax, pay your bills on time, order smart, check prices, don’t’ drink your profits, don’t give things away (you can’t afford to do this – also if a “friend” asks you for freebies then he or she is not really a friend), lock your coolers and storerooms at the end of a shift, take inventories, accurately cost out recipes and charge what you need to charge, treat your employees well and they will treat your guests well, and the list goes on and on.

You made that decision to open a restaurant, know that it will be very, very hard, extremely challenging, not always profitable, stressful, and sometimes disappointing – but when you plan it right and when you build a focused team, then Mr. Adrenaline will keep a smile on your face more days than not.

GOOD LUCK!

PLAN BETTER – TRAIN HARDER

Harvest America Ventures, LLC

Restaurant Consulting

www.harvestamericacues.com  BLOG

CAFÉ Talks Podcast

https://cafemeetingplace.com/cafe-podcasts

THE MOMENT WHEN YOU ARE IN THE ZONE – PART II

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The early crowd sputtered in – parties of two mainly, usually no appetizers – they got down to business with the less expensive entrees and a cocktail.  This was “order/fire” time.  Jake didn’t even spend much time at the expo station until this first group of reservations was well underway – the line could handle it quite well.  As sous chef, he was focused on double checking everything before the push.  By 6:15 the crew had pushed through about 40 orders with relative ease.  Everyone knew what was coming any minute now, so they continued to bounce from foot to foot, clicking tongs, and hydrating as much as possible.  Then everything began to change.

The printer was dropping orders at a frenzied pace as the early birds left and tables were quickly turned.  Jake was stationed at expo and the staccato frenzy of the printer created a rhythm for each cook to find his pace in the music of the kitchen.

Jake called out: “Ordering, three filets mid-rare, 2 strips rare, a sole Veronique, three etouffee, two feature apps.” Duke, Tom, and Sabrina returned the communication: “Yes chef”. 

“Ordering: 2 halibut, 3 salmon – medium, 1 filet – well (crap).  Order/fire: 4 shrimp apps, 2 calamari.”  “Yes chef”.

By 7:00 the dining room was full, and the orders came in relentlessly.

“Pick-up: table 23, table 15, and table 18 (all deuces).  Pick-up 4 shrimp apps and 2 calamari.”  “Yes chef”.

“Ordering: 3 pork chops – medium.  5 strips – 2 medium, 3 rare (same table).  Order/fire: 4 trout (hold the nuts).  We have a nut allergy folks – be careful.”

Everyone was engaged fully, and the chatter was held to a minimum.  Sabrina kept an eye on Tom since he was still new to the position.  Her station was spot on and she approached each order with grace and determination.  Nothing would leave her station that wasn’t perfect.  Duke had that perpetual smile on his face as he danced among the char broiler flames and made those perfect hash marks on each steak.  He had a system for moving steaks and chops around like a puzzle that only he understood.

“Fire table 18 – that’s all you Duke.”

Duke quickly returned his held, marked steaks to the broiler, eyeballed and light touched them until he knew they were perfect.  He always made sure to let them rest for a minute or two before adding their signature slice and stack that revealed their perfect color.  “Two minutes to plate”, called out Duke as Sabrina immediately switched gears, pulled down his plates, garnished them with the nightly vegetables that were carved, blanched, and then quickly immersed in a buttered and seasoned water to bring them up to temp.  Duke didn’t need to ask – when he turned around with the steaks, the plates were set.  Cut, stacked, garnished, and slid up in the pass – this table was ready for Jake to inspect, wipe the rims, and add a cluster of appropriate herbs and maitre’d butter for that extra richness.  When he wiped the last rim, the server was there to take the order quickly to the guests at table 18.  It was a seamless process.

Over on Garde Manger – Julio and Martina were keeping their own pace that was in sync with servers and the hot line.  Salads, cold apps, and desserts were beautifully presented and ALWAYS ready when the server needed them.  Occasionally, Jake would look their way and Julio always gave his signature “thumbs up”.  “We’re good boss”.

For the next 90 minutes the orders kept coming, but the line looked like a symphonic orchestra and Jake was the conductor.  There weren’t enough o’s in smooth to describe how seamless the operation was.  One refire on a well-done steak that wasn’t well enough (everyone grumbled under their breath, but Duke just laughed it off). 

Orders came in for rack of lamb, halibut (very popular), loads of hot apps to keep Tom on his toes, and a very special order for an elderly man who asked if he could have poached eggs.  The answer was: “Of course”, even though everyone dreaded this interruption in flow.  Fortunately, the chef had placed prime rib on the menu with Yorkshire popovers.  This took some of the pressure off the line.  All that Duke had to do was slice and plate.

As 8:30 came around the second seating was starting to clear out and the late- date night – deuces were beginning to arrive.  Line cooks, the chef, and sommelier loved this seating that was always open to appetizers, bottles of wine, desserts, and a more leisurely dinner.  Some even sent back a message to the kitchen to “cook something special”, which might upset some teams, but this one enjoyed the chance to be creative.  The 8:30 crowd, although smaller would take the restaurant up to closing time around 11:00 as the kitchen team gradually began clean-up and making notes for tomorrow’s mise en place.  By 10:00, Jake excused himself from the expo station, sat in his office and shared a glass of wine with the dining room manager.  This is when they decompressed and talked about the evening and what might need to change for tomorrow.

The dining room manager said:

“Chef, that was a fantastic service.  Guests were extremely happy – lots of compliments, and my service staff felt in total sync with the kitchen.  I don’t think it could have been better – you were in the zone.”

Jake smiled and knew exactly what she was talking about.  Everyone was in tune and did their job at the highest level.  Sabrina, Tom, Julio, and Martina were giving each other high fives and Duke said:

“That was a pleasure, loads of fun.  It doesn’t always happen, but man we were on our game tonight.”

With that, he cooked two perfect steaks with all the accompaniments and walked them over to the dish crew.

“You guys are the unsung heroes.  Without you being as sharp as you are, we never would have experienced a near perfect night.  THANKS, from the entire crew, the crew that owes a lot to your work.”

Jake watched from his office, shook his head in agreement, and wondered why Duke never wanted to be a chef.  He had the talent and all the leadership qualities of a great chef.

Everyone relished tonight and agreed that every night should be like this.  Oh, well – they can only hope.

PLAN BETTER – TRAIN HARDER

Harvest America Ventures, LLC

Restaurant Consulting

www.harvestamericacues.com  BLOG

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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

Harvest America Ventures, LLC

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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

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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

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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

https://cafemeetingplace.com/cafe-podcasts

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

CAFE Talks Podcast

https://cafemeetingplace.com/cafe-podcasts

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

www.harvestamericacues.com BLOG

CAFÉ Talks Podcast

https://cafemeetingplace.com/cafe-podcasts

“I cook, therefore I am”

SEASONS CHANGE AND SO DO I

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I woke to a chill in the air.  It’s dark at 6am and has been since 6:30 the previous night.  Days are shorter now and will become shorter still as the next few weeks tick by.  Smoke billows from chimneys as furnaces and fireplaces are once again cranked up.  Flocks of birds are beginning their sojourn south and boats are being pulled from the water.  I reluctantly drag rakes from the outside shed knowing that they will be in full use before the end of the month.  It’s the end of summer and the beginning of fall – the seasons are changing, and they do so just like clockwork – something that we can all depend on.  It’s time to adjust, time for chefs to think differently and move in a new direction.

“Seasons change and so did I.”

No Time – Randy Bachman of the Guess Who

As much as summer will be missed and we may dread winter, fall provides plenty of inspiration for those who cook for a living.  This is the time for the final harvest that has taken a full five months to develop – a time for squash, root vegetables, late season tomatoes, canning and freezing and methods of cooking that most chefs look forward to with great affection.  This is the time to move from light meals and grilling, from beautiful salads and white wine to braised meats, roasted vegetables, stews, and fricassee, to hearty soups and smokers going full tilt and robust glasses of zinfandel, cabernet sauvignon, and Barolo.  This is when “low and slow” becomes the more established method of cooking in kitchens throughout the Northeast. 

Without a doubt, low and slow is my favorite style of cooking.  I love that deep smell of slowly caramelizing onions and garlic, lesser cuts of meat rising to a level of prominence, the richness of butternut and acorn squash, parsnips, carrots, and brussels sprouts that were harvested after the first frost.  Stocks simmering on the stove fill the kitchen with enticing aromas and light broths and pan reductions are replaced by pan gravies and the sauces that we have labeled “mother” because of their foundational attributes.  Deeply satisfying and “stick to your ribs” viscosity, these foods help to bridge that change from 80-degree days to those that will barely extend beyond sub-freezing.

All cooking is magical, but slow cooking methods challenge cooks to tap into all their skills and demonstrate how this is a process of coaxing flavors to develop rather than allowing those initial ingredient characteristics to shine.  During those low and slow methods, the essence of each ingredient blends with others creating something totally unique and wonderful to experience.  Every hour that a lamb shank braises changes the texture, aroma, taste, and experience of consuming this ingredient that early on in cooking would be difficult to chew.  That brisket that would transition from tough to tougher during those first few hours of smoking in a wood fired pit will melt in your mouth after another 8 hours or so.  Carrots and parsnips that are low on the flavor scale as a raw vegetable become deeply pronounced and sweet during roasting or braising and a simple combination of onions and garlic are irresistible the longer, they come in contact with fire or indirect heat.

All of this is true and quite remarkable, but it will always be soup that demonstrates a cook’s real connection with the craft.  I have enjoyed cooking thousands of restaurant meals and have equally enjoyed tasting the work of countless other chefs who continue to work on mastering their craft.  I will always remember the mushroom soup at Union Pacific Restaurant when Rocco DiSpirito was at the helm.  It must have taken a pound of mushrooms for every cup of broth.  The double lamb consommé at the original Aquavit in the lands of Marcus Samuelsson was so good that I refused to share it with others at the table.  It was topped with a quenelle of foie gras – truly the finest soup I have ever tasted.  Through my own kitchen experiences, I have enjoyed making lobster bisque for a party of two as well as Mulligatawny for 500 in massive kettles.  The joy of combining ingredients to make these heartwarming bowls of goodness is what cooking is all about.  It was Chef Michael Minor of Minor Foods who said whenever he visited a restaurant for the first time, he would always order a cup of the soup of the day first.  If the soup was good, then he knew the rest of the meal would be good as well.  If not, then he would pay for the soup and go elsewhere.

Fall is the precursor to winter; it is the transition from the warmth of summer to the months of bone-chilling cold in the winter.  Nature can be cruel at times, but it presents us with incredible food and the warmth that colder month’s methods of cooking offer as a gift and a way to help us move on and find our place until Spring.

There is a story behind every dish, a story worth sharing.  Chefs and cooks tell their stories through the selection of ingredients, connections with the source, combination of flavors, attention to the details associated with cooking that dish, and the passion with which the finished product is plated and presented.  The story behind low and slow begins with admiration for the farmer, the rancher, and the fisherman; addresses the attention they give to the lengthy process of bringing those flavors together, and the connections to the seasons best represented by these treasured methods.  Every bite connects the diner with the dish, the chef, and the history behind it.

Raise a glass to great cooking and settle in – it will be quite some time before we plant seeds for another season of ingredients.

PLAN BETTER – TRAIN HARDER

Harvest America Ventures, LLC

Restaurant Consulting

www.harvestamericacues.com – BLOG

CAFÉ Talks Podcast

https://cafemeetingplace.com/cafe-podcasts

FOOD MOMENTS THAT CHANGED YOUR LIFE

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Maybe to some the title of this article may seem contrived and exaggerated.  How could food change your life?  Yet, to others it makes perfect sense because they have been there – they are experienced.  As a cook and later in life a chef for almost 55 years now, I can easily reflect on a few moments of my own when a taste, smell, presentation, or texture of a dish or ingredients has given me substantial pause.  It is these moments that help a cook to mature and set the stage for how that person will cook and how he or she will conduct themselves in the kitchen.  Am I serious? You bet I’m serious (smile and nod if you agree).

Maybe it was the first time you ate a tree ripened Bosc or Anjou pear – not one of those rock-hard ones that you find in your local grocery store.  It could very well be that late September MacIntosh apple picked and eaten on the spot.  Hard, tart, splashing your chin with juice, snapping between your teeth as it tears from the core.  How about that first spit roasted chicken, a perfectly braised lamb shank, medium rare inch wide slice of prime rib, or for a cook that first raw oyster filled with a briny liquid that reminds of the sea.  The first time a cook captures the smell of steak cooking on an open flame, peppers roasting, garlic and onions leaving their essence in a pan of clarified butter, or sour dough breads being pulled from a wood fired hearth – this is the moment that solidifies their commitment to spending countless hours in front of a range, always trying to find ways of expressing admiration for ingredients.  There are countless food moments that come to mind, but maybe none more significant than those that filled a childhood with connections to family.  We will never forget a grandmother’s apple pie or an Italian mother’s meatballs and sauce.  Maybe it was as simple as a light fluffy omelet or crunchy Belgian waffles that graced the Sunday morning kitchen table.  A simple bowl of creamy macaroni and cheese or freshly made pasta and clams – these are the foods that drew us into the kitchen and constantly inspire us to bring those experiences to menus in restaurants where we work.

The best cooks, you know – the ones that stand tall in restaurant kitchens with their names on the menu and those who aspire to reach that level in the future – cook from their experiences with those food moments that changed their lives.  As much as they (we) remember them and try to express them, we are always looking for new moments, new chances to blow our minds with flavor, texture, smell, and appearance.

To this end, the question is: “can you become a well-balanced cook without those experiences?”  Maybe those who aspire to become one of those chefs who stands tall within a field of many needs to chart a course that includes exposure to food moments.  Quite possibly, those cooks need to seek immersion with other chefs, with ethnic centers, with distant countries and pockets of cultural influence.  Quite possibly, those cooks need to delve into their own family background and ask important food questions – make connections to those food events that left their mark.  Those ingredients that a cook has not experienced must now become part of their wish list and even more importantly discover when they are at their peak or from where they represent their best qualities.  There are peaches and there are ripe Georgia peaches.  There are cherries and there are Western New York cherries or Rainer cherries from Washington State.  There are fresh chickens and there are organically raised chickens and there is halibut and there is halibut from the Pacific Northwest.  The list goes on and on and the need for food moments must include an in-depth search for the best of each one.  When the best become your benchmark then real cooking begins to form a pattern of standards of excellence – stakes in the ground that define a cook.

While there is a case to be made for statements like:  “You must be Italian to cook real Italian”, or: “Unless you grew up part of the Mexican culture it is impossible to represent their cuisine” – a deep experiential exposure to the traditions and culture of others, to the best ingredients and how they are used, and why an age old cooking process is essential can establish any serious cook as a true representative.

Seek out those food moments and relish the ones that you have had.  Be inquisitive and not just accepting of a method or list of ingredients, know that reliance on a recipe is not a substitute for understanding methods and ingredients.  There is a difference between cooking and becoming a cook – here lies the challenge to all who want to stand tall in a crowd.

PLAN BETTER – TRAIN HARDER

Harvest America Ventures, LLC

www.harvestamericacues.com  BLOG

CAFÉ Talks Podcast

https://cafemeetingplace.com/cafe-podcasts

DO IT RIGHT

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Ironically, there is always room to be great and there is plenty of room to be mediocre.  With more than one million restaurants in the US we can flip a coin and hope for the great, will likely step through the doors of good, and far too often settle into the mediocre.  The choice to be great or not so great is in the hands of the restaurateur and the folks who make a living with food.  We can all choose to be great at what we do; choose to master our craft and create outstanding experiences for guests and co-workers alike, or we can choose to shrug our shoulders and surrender to mediocrity.

This is a topic I have presented numerous times and it seems as though whenever I travel it rises to the top of my thinking.  I relish great restaurant experiences, take pride in the operations where I have worked, feel connected to nearly anyone who works in professional kitchens and restaurants, and admire restaurant folks who find comfort in being the best that they can be.  Unfortunately, dining out and finding the right place to work is oftentimes a wishful roll of the dice.  I wonder why this is the case.  There is no shortage of workbooks, courses, consultants, standardized mechanisms, or benchmarks to look to for help and there are plenty of examples of successes and failures to view if you are an outcomes follower.  Those who strive for excellence are far more likely to succeed and those who avoid doing things right will most likely fail.  Plain and simple.

Some mediocre operations may experience a false sense of euphoria simply because of supply and demand.  When a destination welcomes more people than there are restaurant seats then even the mediocre seem to thrive but check back in a year or two and you will probably find a new owner, a new concept, and a different shot at success.  I always wonder if these restaurateurs scratch their heads and wonder what went wrong, or if they knew they were living on borrowed time from the start.  What are they thinking?  Is it a case of a lack of knowledge (likely often the case), a lack of caring (I guess this is common as well), or a multitude of excuses that point everywhere except back at the person in charge?  I can’t get my arms around why people go into business without the drive to be great.

So, just in case the information is not well known to some – here is the BEST OF Restaurant 101, a good start.

[]       START WITH KNOWING THE MARKET

Find out everything you can about your guests and potential guests.  It all matters – education level, income bracket, age range, frequency of dining, and food and wine preferences.

[]       KNOW WHAT YOU WANT TO BE AND HOW YOU WANT TO BE PERCEIVED

Set the bar right from the beginning – We want to be the best fish fry restaurant in town.  Our goal is to be the restaurant of choice for locals.  Our restaurant will be viewed as providing exceptional experiences and great value.

How you define yourself is how you will be if there is measurement in place and quality controls to ensure that you hit the mark.

[]       BUILD A CONCEPT THAT MAKES SENSE

Don’t try to be something that you are not.  Don’t strive for something that is beyond your ability to reach.  Stick with what you are capable of and do it exceptionally well.  Keep in mind that even a sandwich shop can be extraordinary.  Excellence is not reserved for fine dining.

[]       KNOW HOW TO RUN A BUSINESS

Budgeting, cost controls, smart purchasing, labor management, marketing, and the legal issues that surround a business are just as essential as a great plate of food.  A restaurant cannot survive on attitude, service, and food alone – it must operate as a savvy business.  If you can’t do it, then partner with someone who can.

[]       BUILD IN CONSISTENCY AND DEPENDABILITY

Whatever your concept, whatever your menu – make sure that you execute it well every time.  Build your systems so that every person can depend on the same quality time and time again.  Make sure that every part of your system aligns with consistency: purchasing specs, production, flavor profile, presentation, and service.  Trust is hard to earn and easy to lose.

[]       KEEP IT SIMPLE AND DO IT VERY WELL

Don’t over think your concept or your product – the best food is simple and relies on the quality of ingredients and the attention to detail that cook’s offer in the process of preparing them for the plate. 

[]       HIRE ENERGETIC, CARING, POSITIVE PEOPLE

It’s all about your people.  Hiring is not something to take lightly.  Seek out individuals who like to serve others, who relish doing great work, who you can depend on to be exacting every time, and who exude a positive approach. 

[]       TEACH AND TRAIN EVERY DAY

This is your most important job.  Building skills, knowledge and confidence is a critical part of the search for excellence.

[]       TEST, TASTE, STANDARDIZE, PRACTICE, AND ASSESS YOUR ABILITY TO MAKE EXCEPTIONAL FOOD

Stay on it.  Measure adherence to your standards – don’t let it go out to the guest unless it passes the excellence test.

[]       OFFER CARING SERVICE

Sure, technical service is important, but it is sincerity and commitment to helping people enjoy the restaurant experience that counts even more.  Don’t think service – think hospitality.

[]       MAKE SURE EVERYTHING IS SPOTLESSLY CLEAN

Goes without saying.  Clean, pay attention to details, polish and stay focused on this most important attribute of a great restaurant.  From the parking lot to the restrooms, carpet, walls, tabletop, and uniforms, stay on it!

[]       MATCH THE AMBIENCE TO THE CONCEPT

The ambience should support the product. Does it?

[]       BUILD AN APPROPRIATE TABLETOP

It’s fine to have quality disposables for a $10 meal.  It is important to have crystal, bone chinaware and sterling silver when the menu is priced in line with an American Express card.

[]       SEE EVERYTHING THROUGH THE GUESTS EYES

Walk through the operation as a guest would.  See the whole experience as they do and then adjust to make sure that everything exceeds their expectations.

[]       TREAT EVERYONE WITH RESPECT

Customers, employees, competitors, vendors, and any stakeholder connected to your experience deserves respect.  Let this be your reputation.

[]       PROVIDE THE TOOLS TO DO THE JOB

Don’t allow your employees to struggle to do their job well.  Give them the tools – it is a wise investment.

[]       RECOGNIZE AND REWARD EXCELLENCE

Let this be the expectation and make sure that when it exists, all those involved feel your appreciation.

[]       PAY FAIRLY, CHARGE FAIRLY

We need to put this discussion to bed.  Make ways to pay your staff well, expect great things from them, offer them enticing benefits, and then charge from the standpoint of a value formula that offers the best quality, the most exceptional experiences, and memories that encourage guests to return.

[]       SEEK FEEDBACK – INTERNAL AND EXTERNAL

Don’t wait for it – ask for it!  Ask your employees and your guests to evaluate your work.  Product, service, hospitality, ambience, cleanliness, and value – engage everyone in the assessment process.

[]       BE THE EXAMPLE

As an owner, operator, manager, chef – you set the example for others to follow.  Be that example.

[]       BE YOUR OWN WORST CRITIC

Yes, it’s great when your dining room is full, your customers return, your employees stay, and your bottom line brings a smile to your face.  But you can always improve!  Ask for feedback – it is the breakfast of champions.

[]       RESPOND TO FEEDBACK

You asked for it – act on it.

[]       KNOW YOUR COMPETITION AND FIND YOUR NICHE

Study your competitors, not to cut them off at the knees, but to learn from their mistakes, appreciate their success, and find out where you best fit.

[]       NEVER GET TOO COMFORTABLE

Comfort is the devil in waiting.  Things change, people change, curve balls will come your way; stay on your guard.

[]       STAY WILLING TO CHANGE BEFORE YOU HAVE NO CHOICE

When you see danger hiding around the corner, or opportunities that arise, don’t fight change – embrace it.

OK, so that’s a long list, but it represents the most basic rules of the game if you go into business with any hope of succeeding.  Don’t open a pizza shop – open the best pizza shop, a place intent on becoming the benchmark for others to follow.  Don’t put a sign out front that says: Oyster Bar, unless you intend to learn everything you can about oysters, the fisherman who harvest them, their flavor profiles, and how to open them fast and efficiently without losing any of that briny liqueur from the sea.  Please don’t open another steak house until you have spent time on a cattle ranch, tended to those beautiful animals, visited processing plants that do it right, built an understanding of what makes great beef, and worked alongside exceptional grill cooks who can tell degree of doneness by just looking at a steak.  Before you decide to feature artisan cheeses on your menu – spend time with cheesemakers, learn what an animal eats and how it impacts the flavor of its milk and the flavor of the cheese.  Taste hundreds of cheeses and build your palate, know what accompanies each cheese on the plate and which wines are kickass pairings with each one.  You get the idea.

Start with your feet moving in the direction of excellence.  What will it take to be the best, how will I approach the task at hand, how will I measure progress, and who will I take along for the ride.  Do what my friend from decades ago showed me about excellence.  He was a maitre’d and before his restaurant opened for business each night he insisted that servers measure the distance from the edge of the table to the flatware, lined up glassware with a string plumb line, had table and chair legs polished before service, Steamed wine glasses to remove any possible water spots, misted plants, adjusted room temperatures for the crowd to come, and reviewed each new item on the menu with servers and chefs in attendance including the best wine pairing suggestions.  His philosophy was simple – start out as close to 100% as you can knowing that when it is busy things will surely slip a bit.  If you are focused on exceptional, then when you slip it will still be better than almost everyone else.  Once your staff has a taste of excellence, their tolerance for mediocrity becomes very low.

Do it right!

PLAN BETTER – TRAIN HARDER

Harvest America Ventures, LLC

Restaurant Consulting

www.harvestamericacues.com  BLOG

CAFÉ Talks Podcast

https://cafemeetingplace.com/cafe-podcasts

RESTAURANT STAFF – A LABOR DAY TRIBUTE

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The sun creeps over the horizon, morning fog begins to burn off and the late summer dew is visible on grass and trees.  It’s too early for normal traffic on the roads and the sidewalks are clear of people aside from an occasional dedicated runner.  Yet, within this calm there are lights on in kitchens across the country and the smell of sourdough breads, breakfast pastries, and bacon waft through the air, even making those dedicated runners slow down and take it in.  Breakfast cooks, bakers, and pastry chefs have been at work for the past few hours getting ready for the day ahead. 

Bakers need space and time – something that is hard to find once the rest of the crew arrives and early morning guests expect those pastries, bacon, sausage, home fries and pancakes as close to 6am as possible.  The kitchen only calmed a few hours ago from a busy evening service.  A time when a full battery of cooks, servers, bartenders, and dishwashers fought to keep pace with the crowds that began at 5:00 and only slowed after 10:00.  It was 1am before the dishwashers finally turned out the lights and locked the kitchen door behind them.  It was a good night with two full turns of the dining room.  Even at this hour the kitchen carried the deep aroma of caramelized onions and garlic, the rich smell of prime steaks that a short time ago filled the char-grill, and coffee that is brewing twenty hours a day.  The kitchen was at rest for just a few hours – time to re-charge its batteries, breathe deep and prepare for yet another day of relentless punishment.

There is little conversation between bakers and breakfast cooks only dedication to the task at hand.  Both realize their role, both are highly accomplished, both are organized and purposeful.  Bread dough is kneaded and placed into floured bannetons; Danish is rolled, and shaped and croissant dough is folded, buttered, rolled, folded, buttered, and rolled again and again.  When handled correctly this will produce countless layers of light, flaky, buttery pastry.  Pans of bacon are retrieved from the oven while home fries are caramelizing on a griddle, fresh eggs are cracked and blended for scrambled and omelet orders, and those first pots of coffee are brewed.  At 5:30am the service staff arrives.  Quiet and bleary-eyed from never enough sleep, they go about the process of checking their stations, touching up carpets and tabletops, squeezing fresh orange juice and filling breakfast creamers.  Everyone will be ready just in time – a process that breakfast guests are unaware of and likely don’t care – they expect that everyone does their job – whatever it might be.

Those first orders require smiles on each server’s face, and quick reflexes on the part of cooks.  If guests could take the time to stand in the kitchen and watch the symmetry, the grace of a breakfast cook they would be amazed.  What they don’t know remains a mystery to all except those who work in the kitchen.  There is a silent rhythm, a syncopation and beauty to the way that the cook moves from pan to pan, plate to plate until an order is ready for the pass.  Eggs over easy are flipped gracefully in pans so as not to break the yolk, omelets are folded perfectly and slide under a salamander broiler where they rise to the heat, pancakes are turned at the right moment to reveal a perfect golden brown and plates are assembled quickly and exactly as they slide into position on the shelf of the pass.  Baskets of fresh pastries are assembled, still warm from the oven, cultured butter and fruit preserves are assembled for each table, and coffee is poured cheerfully at tableside the same moment that breakfast entrees arrive through the hands of a back wait.  The rush is on.

This is just the beginning of a day where talented cooks and servers perform their craft.  This is just another day of relentless work, sweltering heat, the intense pressure of time, and potential accidents waiting around every corner.  This is the beginning of Labor Day weekend – special days in America that recognize the hardworking people of our country.  A day when offices are closed, government buildings shut, and home BBQ’s flourish in every neighborhood and many families look forward to a time of family, fun, and reflection.  Not so in the restaurants in towns and cities from California to New York.  In these businesses we gear up for yet another busy few days.  Labor Day is just another day for these folks.  These are the exact people that we are celebrating on this weekend.  Unfortunately, they don’t have the opportunity to celebrate their own contributions to American society.  Their role is to be here and serve.  This is what they signed up for, no need to feel sorry for them, but instead simply recognize and thank them.

Breakfast ends, the stacks of dishes are piled high as dishwashers try to keep pace with the speed of the morning shift, the line cook is busy cleaning the grill, washing and sanitizing, laying out bacon to be baked tomorrow, par cooking and dicing potatoes, slicing mise en place for the next morning’s omelets, and making pancake and waffle batter that will be perfect in another 22 hours.  By the time the lunch crew arrives, the line will be ready for a different style of cooking – clean and organized as if nothing had occurred over the past three hours.  Similar activity is taking place in the dining room as tablecloths are replaced and touched up, place settings aligned, glasses checked for water spots, chairs polished and carpets touched up, napkins are folded, and plants are misted.  In another hour the lunch crowd will arrive.

Each meal period brings its own unique challenges and focus.  As the restaurant moves from the simplicity and uniformity of breakfast to dinner where preparations are more complex and presentations more precise. The type of cook and his or her individual and teamwork evolves from breakfast to dinner.  In all cases there is an intensity of purpose, the pressure of time, the exactness that consistency demands, and the passion for the plate of food presented to the guest.  This is a business for both the craftsperson and the artist, for the organization of the military and the improvisation of a jazz musician, as well as the knowledge of a scientist and the traditions of a historian. 

From the classic American diner to a Michelin starred fine dining restaurant, the hardworking cooks, servers, managers, and chefs deserve recognition and respect.  This is a business that is important to the American way of life, it is a business that rewards others for the work that they do, and a business that is rarely understood.  On this Labor Day weekend, if you want to pay respect to these hardworking individuals who have chosen a career of service and expression through food, then send a message of thanks for a great meal back to the kitchen, be respectful to your server – they have a very difficult job, write a positive note on Trip Advisor or Yelp, tip generously, understand that the restaurant business is a business of pennies and owners are typically not getting rich by charging what they do, and by all means – return often and bring a friend.

Happy Labor Day.

PLAN BETTER – TRAIN HARDER

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YOU COOK WHAT & WHO YOU ARE

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There is a major fallacy about cooking – the belief that you can teach someone to become a cook.  Now that every chef and culinary educator has their feathers ruffled – let me explain.  Yes, we can teach or train someone to perform the steps in cooking and through practice we can do this quite well – just like it is possible to teach or train someone to play the piano or guitar, violin, or cello.  It is the same as training someone to play the game of baseball, basketball, football, hockey, or golf.  So, where is the fallacy?  There is something missing in this formula, something that separates someone who can cook from a person who is a cook; something that differentiates someone who plays the piano from a person who is a pianist; or teaching someone to play basketball vs. developing a basketball player.  The missing ingredient is who the person is and how they became that person from birth to a given point in time.

When we think of those who know how to play basketball vs. players like LeBron James, Michael Jordan, Bill Russell, or Larry Bird we start to see a significant difference.  Someone who plays the guitar may be worlds apart from Eric Clapton or Jeff Beck; a high school teacher who understands how to play the cello is not quite the same as Yo-Yo Ma, and a chef working for a major chain of busy restaurants may understand the complexity of the job and the outcomes that are necessary may be a far cry from Dominque Crenn or Daniel Boulud.  On one hand, they all know how to execute their taught skills and they all talk the same language, but that is where the comparison ends.  Some call it an innate talent while others understand that there is something even more substantive than that.

If you take the time to study these differences and discover more about individuals you will likely find rich family heritages, a lifetime of engrained traditions, and a plethora of life experiences that go beyond sitting in a classroom or working day in and out on a restaurant line.  These individuals have breadth to their backgrounds, something that is built into their essence, almost a part of their DNA. 

The most accomplished chefs cook from their heart and soul.  They express what they were exposed to throughout their lives: the culture, history, traditions, and life-experiences that cannot be replicated in the classroom or simply taught through repetition in the kitchen.  Daniel Boulud grew up in France, his parents operated a café, he lived on a farm, he pulled carrots from the ground, watched local artisans mill flour for bread, and walked the vineyards where grapes were crying out to become wine.  This is where he cooks from.  Yo-Yo Ma suffers through debilitating paralysis yet his struggle like the knotted old vines of the grapes from Bordeaux helped to create beautiful music like magnificent wine.  LeBron James and Michael Jordan built basketball into their lives as the way out of the hood, a skill – yes, but more importantly, an answer for them.  Their struggle became a passion for this way out, a friend, a mentor, an answer. 

When a cook understands the work of the farmer, when he or she bends down to pull those carrots from the ground or dig potatoes to find that long awaited exposure to the sun from their earthen home, when they have picked a ripe tomato from the vine and tasted it right there – dripping with sweet moisture warmed from the July sunlight – then a real cook is born.  When a young boy or girl spends Sunday mornings with a grandmother making sauce for that traditional Italian (full day) meal, when they smell those tomatoes slowly cooking with garlic, onions, pork, chicken, and beef, sweetening as the process continues for hours – then they understand how to make a great sauce – this can’t be taught fully by following a recipe or even understanding a process.  It is that grandmother’s passion that makes all the difference in the world.

I grew up in a family that was Americanized.  A family that always cooked balanced meals, but that never reflected their history or traditions.  My grandfather left Norway when he was 17 and traveled to find a new life in America.  Once on these shores he was compelled to set aside his history and act like and become – American.  Such a shame that I had to discover what it meant to be Norwegian on my own.  My grandmother on my mother’s side was my only real connection with food tradition and I believe that my real desire to become a chef stemmed from her.  She lived with us for maybe 15years, the most formative years of my young life.  She cooked most of the meals since both my parents worked full-time.  A few things stuck with me forever – statements that said it all, that relayed a deep family connection to cooking:

One of her classic dishes was chicken and dumplings.  This dish was exquisite, so much so that I insist that it be my birthday meal every year.  Her matter-of-fact statement continues to drive one of my bedrock beliefs in cooking:

“To be made right you must use a young chicken.  If you don’t, it won’t be right.”

Throughout my career in the kitchen, I have stressed the importance of using the correct ingredients, from the right source, prepared in the correct manner if a dish is to work.

She also stated, as strongly as I ever heard her speak of anything:

“Never serve day old pie.”

Freshness, seasonality of ingredients, cooking a ’la minute are all philosophies of a cook that make sense.  My attempt to stick to this belief is a credit to my history, to my grandmother.  It would never sink in as well coming from a textbook or a fellow cook.

I relish my collection of cookbooks.  Some would say I have way too many or wonder how often I read or use them.  OK, I don’t use them enough, but they are there, and they represent what I appreciate most about the craft: they represent those special life lessons for each chef or cook who wrote them.  Marcus Samuelsson’s reflections on his life in Africa and then Scandinavia, Lidia Bastianich’s musings about life in an Italian family, Daniel Boulud’s and Jacques Pepin’s classical cooking upbringing and stories of early years in France, or Sean Brock’s connections to heritage crops and traditional Southern cooking through the eyes of a child growing up in that environment.  These are all priceless reflections on where their passion and unique skill set came from.  This is the difference between a person who knows how to play the cello and Yo-Yo Ma. 

Recently, I received a book from my friend Chef Jake Brach – currently the chef responsible for Culinary Learning and Development for Rich Products in Buffalo, New York.  He may not work for a four-star Michelin Restaurant (although he did spend time at Charlie’s Trotter’s in Chicago and Charlie Palmer’s Aureole in New York City), but his passion as a chef is undeniable and his impact on the food system is immense.  This self-published book, “Of Food and Family” is not about what he does, it is about who he is as a cook.  It is a vivid reflection on his history, family traditions, connection with farmers and producers, and imbedded appreciation for every aspect of the journey that an ingredient travels from farm, water, or ranch to plate.  This book, like so many others in my collection is a key to unlock what it means to be a cook, not just know how to cook.

“Food is the thread that has held families and nationalities together for generations.” 

-Brach

The culture of food is the basis for most chef’s start – the spark that lights the passion for a career behind the range.  Reflecting on cooking with his family he states:

“These are the traditions and flavors that last a lifetime and the ones we pass on to our children.”

-Brach

Chefs who are on the level of Yo-Yo Ma, Eric Clapton, and Michael Jordan, and those who are simply recognized by their peers and the guests they serve as authentic and accomplished tend to come from strong food traditions, backgrounds where food connections stretch from the ground to the table, and who have traveled and experienced other cultures and understand their role in bringing all of this to the plate. Cooking has never been a job to them, it is an expression, a sharing, a statement of just how important all those life experiences have been.  They eat and cook who they are – savoring every bite, relishing the chance to work with each ingredient, and committed to paying respect to all who helped them to paint on a plate. 

A FEW BOOKS TO ADD TO YOUR LIBRARY:

         Daniel Boulud

Marcus Samuelsson

Lidia Bastianich

https://www.amazon.com/s?k=Lidia+Bastianich&page=2&crid=2HMI5378RXH6H&qid=1661707876&sprefix=lidia+bastianich%2Caps%2C113&ref=sr_pg_2

Sean Brock

PLAN BETTER – TRAIN HARDER

Cook from the heart and soul

Cook like you mean it

Represent your traditions and experiences

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BRING BACK THE 20 SEAT BISTRO

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Bigger isn’t always better.  Bigger brings a significant upswing in headaches, unforeseen challenges, an inability to flex, and long-term costs.  Bigger is less predictable and much more difficult to control and bigger takes cooks and chefs away from what they love to do, what attracted them to the trade in the beginning – to cook from the heart. 

I have very fond memories of walking the streets of St. Paul de Vance in southern France, or the walled in villages of Tuscany, the narrow streets of Oslo, Norway, and the typical hidden villages found in parts of historic Germany; places that were home to those special little restaurants that reflect the terroir of the region.  There were eighteen or twenty seats (mostly deuces) and in better weather maybe two more tables on the street or alleyway in front or beside these tastes of a chef.  A chef/owner was busy by the stove with an assistant who also washed dishes and bussed tables and out front a single server and maybe, in the busiest of operations, a host/bartender who was likely the spouse of the chef.  That was it!

The restaurants in this storyline boasted menus that changed nearly every day depending on what could be found in local open markets and from friendly farmers and those who raised livestock.  The business was likely open four days per week – usually mid-day till early evening giving everyone a chance to enjoy life outside of work and the chef ample time to shop in the markets for ingredients.  Those four or five employees were like family.  They sat down and ate a meal together, enjoyed the company of each other’s families, and shared some of the good time profits (when they existed).  The food was, of course excellent, but more importantly reflective of the region and its history and the experiences of the chef.  The wine list carried the names of vintners whom everyone in the community knew and the ambience was warm and unpretentious.

There were no sophisticated profit and loss statements or cash flow charts, no point-of-sale systems or computer analytics to pour over and make decisions by; these were not the type of operations that required that level of analysis.  The chef/owner knew how well (or poorly) they were doing and what the customer thought of the experience because they spoke with them every night, worked with each ingredient, took the garbage out, counted the cash, felt the pain associated with every broken plate or wine glass, and wrote the checks each week for employees and vendors.  This restaurant was their house, and they had a handle on how the house was doing. 

The kitchen was not filled with the most sophisticated equipment and certainly not computerized.  The dish machine was likely an under counter unit and there was no need for a walk-in cooler since supplies were purchased every day; a reach-in or two would suffice.  A single eight burner range and convection oven, maybe a plancha or small char grill, a couple stainless tables, sinks, butcher block, and a salamander were all that was required aside from a battery of well-seasoned pots and pans, utensils, and tiny ice machine and storage racks.  This was plenty for a chef, enough to produce a wide range of items to match the freshness of the ingredients available.

There was little waste since managing twenty seats was much easier than trying to fill expansive dining rooms with a turn or two on busy nights.  The chef never bought ingredients by the case, but rather what he or she needed to service their space.  Instead of thirty-gallon trash cans spread out through the kitchen, there were two much smaller cans, a recycling bin, and tubs for compost.  Out back on a small patch of land, or in baskets hanging from windows, the chef grew all the herbs needed to support the cuisine of the restaurant.  This was a lean, fine-tuned machine that worked from the premise of being manageable and comfortable.

It’s true, a restaurant of this type is not likely to make the owner rich, but it could provide a comfortable living.  This business was a reflection of the person, and the person was not a slave to a much larger, more complex beast.

For the guest there was a high level of comfort and trust.  In most cases, the people who filled those twenty seats were there on a regular basis.  You might find the same people there on a Wednesday or a Friday who would grace a table every week.  Occasionally, they would bring a friend or visitor to the area to turn them on to “their restaurant” and meet the chef or host who were also their friends.  This is where people met to talk about their families, local events, a bit of politics, a love of music and art, and laugh with reckless abandon over a plate of magnificent comfort food.

The chef was not trying to impress a local food critic or find fame through his or her latest cookbook or Michelin star, but rather just working to help his friends smile, fill their bellies, and enjoy a piece of their local traditions with food.  These restaurants were comfortable, fun, familiar, rewarding, and part of their lives.

Maybe this is just an exercise in nostalgia, a drift back to personal good times, or a naive look at what once was and no longer is, but I wonder if it’s time for this to return.  Maybe it’s time for chefs to return to feeling the significance of their craft and to stay connected to every aspect of what it takes to bring ingredients to the table.  Could it be time for the restaurant business to slow down and serve their neighborhoods without having to support something so large and so fragile.  Maybe the approach to our labor issues is not hiring a human resource director and re-writing employee manuals for the umpteenth time or figuring out ways to afford to pay for employee retirement plans, but rather to keep it smaller, bring back that family feel to employment, share in their success, and think about a quality of life where work is not something demanded of the employee but rather something that the employee embraces and enjoys.  Maybe pushing for more volume and higher check averages can be replaced by creating incredible value that goes beyond price, that involves experiences and fond memories and charging what will allow the restaurant to flourish and the customer to feel as though it were worth every penny.

” Good friends, good food, good times.”

-author unknown

Sure, this is naïve, but remember this country’s restaurant business was built on the backs of private, single unit entrepreneurships.  This industry was designed to have orders handwritten on a green order pad and was brought forward on the backs of cooks who went to market, smelled the fresh radishes and fish before they were bought, visited farmers, and discussed what would be coming out of the ground next week so that menus could be designed around supplies at their peak of maturity.  These are the restaurants that are portrayed in stories of community, and these are the restaurants where young cooks first developed their passion for a serious craft. 

Maybe it’s time to bring them back.

“Small businesses (restaurants) are the heartbeat of your neighborhood, the spine of your local economy, and spirit of your town.”

-Zachary’s

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CONTROLLED HUSTLE

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I still remember that day in downtown Buffalo.  I was probably 10 or 11 years old on a shopping trip with my parents when we walked by a diner window with full view of their short order cooks.  I was instantly mesmerized by their motions, their intensity, their speed, and their control.  The grill was full, visible sweat was rolling off their foreheads, smoke was billowing off the burgers caramelizing from the intense heat, a line of green and white order slips were posted on a rail just at eye level, servers were calling out more orders as plates were filled with food and slid onto a shelf toward a person who seemed to inspect every plate before it was picked up and delivered to a guest; yet through all of this seeming chaos the cooks remained calm and almost poetic in the steps they took and the organized motions they made.  It was amazing!

I’m not sure that was my “a ha” moment, you know that point in time when you think: “This is what I want to do for a living”, but it did leave a lasting impression, one that I still recall 60 years later.  This was my first observation of controlled hustle.

Since that day, and throughout my career in the kitchen I experienced both controlled hustle and the absolute opposite: uncontrolled chaos.  One is incredibly gratifying and the other completely mortifying.  The difference between the two happens before the first order is received.  The difference is a culmination of knowledge, skill, experience, confidence, and preparation.  There is a statement that I remember from my early days in kitchens that sums it up: “If your mise en place is right you can handle any amount of business.”  Each of those factors: knowledge, skill, experience, confidence, and preparation are part of a cook’s mise en place.  We tend to believe that “mise” is all about the right amount of prep and how it is organized, but in terms of controlled hustle, it is so much more.

As I look back, those short order cooks in the Buffalo diner window had it all together.  Watching them in amazement the depth of what I witnessed didn’t fully sink in until I realized what it took to get to where they were.  Hustle is an attitude, but even deeper than that it is an achievement that comes from knowing the job, the product, and timing; development of a high level of skill in cooking to ensure the product is properly cooked and presented; accumulation of a mountain of experience that allows the cook to anticipate challenges and mentally prepare for them; the confidence that comes from competence – you know that attitude of “bring it on”; and, of course, the right amount of ingredient prep, pans in place, towels folded, utensils within reach, knives sharpened, and plates counted and stacked so that nothing can get in the way of the cook’s rhythm.  This is what I saw that day, and this is what I sought to emulate throughout my career and what I hoped to teach staff members to model their work after. 

Uncontrolled chaos, the opposite of hustle, comes from ignorance of any or all of the factors that lead to controlled hustle.  The workflow of those short order cooks was not an accident, it was not instinctive, and it was not solely the work of the manager or chef who hired them.  That mesmerizing workflow was a result of total commitment on the part of the operational management, the chef, and each one of those cooks.  Everyone needs to take responsibility for setting the stage.  The result of this commitment is a thing of beauty and the result of a lack of commitment is painful to watch.

When uncontrolled chaos takes hold, you can see in in the eyes of the cooks and service staff, you can feel it in the air, your gut hurts as you watch everything quickly fall apart leading to missed orders, improper cooking, long customer waits, and angry guests leaving and intending to never return.  That sweat on a cook’s forehead looks different, their eyes reveal the first signs of panic, the fight or flight reflex is looming, tempers begin to rise, and that sense of hopelessness is right around the corner.  If you have worked for any length of time in restaurants, then you have been there.  This is a place that you never want to visit, an experience that you never want to repeat, a dreaded outcome that keeps cooks up at night.  Once you have been through this you either want to walk away and find a different career or buckle down and do whatever is necessary to not end up there again. 

I suppose uncontrolled chaos is something that needs to be experienced – a teaching moment that serves as a right of passage.  It doesn’t have to occur, but then again, maybe it does.  If the result is a total commitment to “the hustle” then maybe there is a positive life lesson to be had.  A chef who has never felt that chaos will likely never be able to adequately prepare to avoid it.  A chef who fails to invest the time to help cooks understand and prepare for controlled hustle will, without a doubt, see many of those chaotic nights on the line.  

Beyond the controlled and the uncontrolled lies the most serious of problems in restaurants: the “I don’t care malaise”.  I can look back on that short order cook experience with fondness and admiration – this is what drove me to constantly improve over the years and try to avoid chaos.  I cringe when I think of those moments when things slipped out of control but know that each moment when that occurred gave me more resolve to avoid it in the future.  Each of those moments of being out of control is still so vivid; I can remember each one, and there are a few dozen that I keep in my mental catalogue.  Each experience still wakes me up on occasion and I have been removed from daily kitchen life for some years now.  The haunting continues.  I never want to be in that position again.   But now I see with increasing frequency, too many operations and far too many cooks who suffer from malaise.  They live in a different segment of the uncontrolled chaos community – they are part of the fall out that results from a lack of control and they don’t seem to really care.  I am not sure where this comes from or how it is allowed to continue, but it is tragic to watch.  The hustle is the source of positive adrenaline, that juice that so many cooks and chefs from my generation and before, sought.  This is the energy of the kitchen, its enticement, its magic, and the charisma that confident cooks portray.  When it is lacking then a restaurant has little heart and very little soul. 

Chefs need to build an environment where the hustle is expected and where cooks anticipate being part of it.  A truly successful restaurant is not driven solely by a menu or by the ambience of the dining room.  It is not a result of great marketing or a brand with sizzle and it certainly is not simply determined by the right location.  A successful restaurant embraces the hustle and all that helps to build the confidence for that to occur.  It doesn’t end with great hiring practices – this is simply where it begins.  Chefs need to inspire, teach, train, support, show, critique, and reward the hustle – this is the lifeblood of a great restaurant.

PLAN BETTER – TRAIN HARDER

Nurture the hustle!

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COOKING WITH FIRE

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It’s how it all began – furiously rubbing two sticks together or striking flint with an iron rich stone to create a spark.  Small clusters of dried brush capture the spark, smolder, and eventually burst into a small flame.  Stacking twigs and pieces of bark and dry wood from the forest floor gave birth to a fire that would serve mankind’s first cooks well.

Cooks and chefs have remained fascinated by an open fire ever since those early days a few thousand years ago.  There is something intoxicating when we watch, feel, and smell the impact of fire.  Those golden, and sometimes red and blue flames lure us into an interesting world of cooking that is less science and more art.  The flames are not as easy to control as simply turning on the gas and regulating the mix of gas and oxygen.  The flame from a wood fire has a mind of its own – a mind that is impacted by the type of wood, how well it is aged and dried, the size of the wood from kindling to full logs, the amount of oxygen that it has access to, and whether the fire is free to move about or controlled in a domed oven.  The colors are beautiful, and the heat is so different than what cooks work with from a more controllable fuel.

You may believe knowing how to cook with gas or electric prepares us to certainly cook with wood fire.  Simply stated – you are wrong.  When wood is involved, you need to accept that whatever you know may need to be put aside – it’s time to learn all over again.

Wood burns very hot, it is less forgiving than other fuels and tends to hold back a flurry of surprises if you don’t keep your focus on what is happening in the moment.  It will take time to become comfortable with the nuances of fire cooking, don’t rush your education, don’t ever assume, and don’t ever walk away from those yellow, white, red, and occasionally blue flames as they dance under your food and eventually nestle into a bed of cherry red coals.

Mastery of fire may never be in the cards for most cooks, at best you become comfortably aware.  When do you add more wood, of what size and type, should you allow more oxygen in or cut back, should you stoke the fire or let it be?  What is the right temperature for what you are cooking?  You point a laser thermometer to the walls of a live fire oven that has turned from carbon black to powdery white when the temperature is right.  The thermometer reads 850 degrees and then a few minutes later – 900.  Parts of the oven are steady at that temp as long as the fire is active, while a few corners are cooling to 600 or less.  Whatever you cook will accept the heat far too quickly and will need to be moved frequently to adapt to oven temperature changes.  Some items will not stand temperatures that high so you will need to temper the fire, remove some or all the coals, and trust that the oven will cooperate.

An open flame grill may rage at temperatures in excess of 1,000 degrees which may be perfect for searing steaks and chops but challenging for follow thru cooking to ensure proper degrees of doneness.  The cook will need to stay on top of this – moving items to different spots on the chargrill, adding or shifting wood around, raising and lowering the grates to avoid burning – it is a relentless process of attempted control in an uncontrolled environment. 

Ah…but the experience is so gratifying.  The smell of fat dripping on burning wood, especially if you use fruit woods is intoxicating.  The heat is so intense that sweat rolls down your back and collects on your forehead – anxious to flow like streams cascading from a small forest waterfall.  You know you are cooking and sense that you are becoming one with the process – you are part of the fire now.  This is imperative if some level of control is to be maintained.  The caramelization on the exterior of meat is incredible.  It leaves a crust so perfect that when the guest finally cuts into the meat it pops as if to feel a sense of relief releasing those juices that lie underneath the wood charred exterior.

Whole fish hit the surface of cast iron skillets that have been pre-heated in the wood-fired oven instantly sealing in the moisture underneath the skin.  Roasted potatoes and root vegetables, caramelized cippolini onions, mushrooms and winter squash cook in a few minutes while holding on to that caramelized exterior and smoky undertones from the wood coals that now glow like the walls of the devil’s lair.  And let’s not forget pizza.  Once you’ve cooked and tasted wood fired pizza there is no turning back.  Every other product will pale in comparison to that thin, crispy crust, the smoky flavors, and the bubbling hot cheese.  In a 900-degree oven, a pizza bakes in less than two minutes – so beware that every second brings the cook closer to burning their work.

I am reminded of the words from Mick Jaggar:

“Don’t play with me cus you’re playing with fire.”

A warning from the oven or grill that reminds the cook of who is in control.

For the line cook this is a dance that embraces an entire shift.  There is no rest as he or she works constantly to stay a few steps ahead of the fire.  This is hard work, but work that brings a smile to the cook’s face.  At the end of service, when the coals are spread out to cool down faster, and the cook holds a wet towel to his or her face to try and shock away the redness that looks as if it was exposed to hours of intense sun on a Florida beach, the kitchen begins to adjust from what has just occurred.  For the past few hours, the kitchen and its cooks have lived on the edge of chaos.  They worked frantically trying to stay in control and for the most part they were, but there were moments when that was in doubt.  The fire always had the upper hand and now, as it cools, gives a nod of respect for cooks who did their best.  There is mutual respect in a wood fired kitchen – respect for the fire and the fires reluctant respect for the cook.  They went into battle together and survived to cook another day.  What a thrill, what a time they had together – the cook trying to ride the wild horse.  Now they are trotting around, totally exhausted, but feeling complete.  Tomorrow they will try again wondering who will win the battle?

We have connected with the roots of cooking, with those early inhabitants who first marveled at the power of fire and the benefits of cooking food rather than eating it raw.  The flavors and aromas of burning wood and the food it touches were and remain one of life’s great pleasures.

There is nothing like cooking with live fire.

PLAN BETTER – TRAIN HARDER

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THE GREATEST THREAT TO AMERICAN RESTAURANTS

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The greatest threat is not the labor shortage or supply chain issues, it’s not the pandemic or the price of real estate – yes, all those concerns are troubling and must be dealt with, but they are not what will bring the restaurant industry to its knees.  Well then – what will?  Try apathy on for size.

What concerns me the most, and what should concern others is a changing attitude towards what we do, a malaise that starts to smell of giving up, of not trying that hard anymore.  Maybe it’s me but I have seen a growing number of restaurants (certainly not the majority at this point) who are simply not trying that hard anymore.  They appear to have thrown up their hands in defeat and are now on automatic pilot just hoping to “get by”.

Over charged and underwhelmed seems to be a growing trend in some restaurants that are fooled into believing that things are going to get better or worse no matter what they do.  Pride in doing things right is a tremendous motivator for employees, owners, and customers and a lack thereof catches up pretty quick.  Restaurants are busy now, much of it is pent up demand from two years of partial lockdown due to the pandemic.  This is a false sense of relief unless restaurant’s view this as a new chance to shine, a chance to be exceptional at what they do whether it is serving pizza or seven-course meals.  If a restaurant gives up that desire to excel and gives in to mediocrity, then failure is just around the corner.

Thinking that the way to recover from the financial pains of a once in a century pandemic is to cut back on quality product and service and push the ceiling on pricing is short-sighted and ill-conceived as a strategy.  People do care about value and once the splash of being able to get out of the house wears off, value assessment will be paramount once again. 

Apathy is a disease that spreads as quickly as a virus.  It infects others who are easily convinced that it is the way it needs to be.  The industry can and has recovered from the impact of infection, financial downturns and collapse, overwhelming labor issues, and a litany of other challenges, but it is very hard to recover from apathy.  Is it a case of not knowing how to be great or is it a real lack of desire?

“Is it ignorance or apathy?  Hey, I don’t know, and I don’t care.”

-Jimmy Buffet (musician)

When I read an article the other day about BMW charging a subscription fee for heated seats in their cars, I thought: “Where are we going with this?”  Ah, a subscription is a way to boost revenue without providing any real service and then feeding off the vulnerability of customers.  Of course, people want heated seats: “Oh well, I guess we have to pay, and pay, and pay for something that was previously part of the deal.”  Now I see a number of restaurants charging for bread – something that was always part of the value package.  Is this just another result of apathy?  Is it a way of saying: “We have given up on excellence so let’s charge more and offer less”.

I have seen respectable restaurants take tiny moves in the wrong direction: moving to artificial creamer for their coffee because it doesn’t require shelf-life management, failing to inspect flatware, glassware, and plates for cleanliness before they wind up in front of a guest (I guess it takes too much time to check), Ignoring the need for training of service staff who are left to their own devices to figure the job out, or something as simple as giving up on uniforms to save on cost.  I continue to see good restaurants lose a step with their food preparation, flavors, and plate presentations and shrinking menus that no longer inspire.  It is all very troubling even though these restaurants may be busy at the moment.  At some point it will all fall apart.

What once was an exciting part of a trip (finding new restaurants to enjoy), is far too often a gamble that results in empty wallets and disappointed palates.  It is apathy that kills a restaurant, not environmental factors that make operation challenging.  We need to stand up and fight apathy, stand up against mediocrity and push hard for excellence as the standard of operation.  Excellence and value go hand in hand and value is what will set the stage for a restaurant’s success.

“Apathy can be overcome by enthusiasm, and enthusiasm can only be aroused by two things:  first, an ideal that takes the imagination by storm, and second – an intelligible plan for carrying that ideal forward into practice.”

-Arnold J. Toynbee (author and historian)

This is not the time to succumb to mediocrity, not the time to push quality aside, and not the time to think we can reach success simply by raising prices.  We need to grab onto that ideal and run with it.  We need to build enthusiasm among our staff members and create an environment of excellence starting with the small things.  Everything counts in a value formula.

I am reminded of those scenes on the sidelines of a sporting event when one team seems deflated, when they succumb to their feelings of hopelessness and as a result fail to perform as they could and should.  You can see and feel defeat in the air – it is just a matter of time before it all falls apart.  Unless…a coach or player steps up and says “NO”!  “We are not going to give up our pursuit for excellence, we are not going to fall prey to mediocrity, we are not going to let apathy work its way through the team and infect all who allow it to take charge.  We are better than that!”  How many times have we witnessed those miraculous comebacks when apathy is pushed aside, and possibility comes into play? 

Now is the time for restaurants to look at those who continue to embrace excellence, who never sacrifice quality, and who understand the importance of the value formula.  Now is the time to renounce apathy and commit to excellence.  Let’s do this before it’s too late.

PLAN BETTER – TRAIN HARDER

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THE END OF THE AMERICAN RESTAURANT

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Now that I have your attention, let’s have a serious conversation.  This is meant to be a chat with all the stakeholders: cooks, chefs, servers, bartenders, managers, owners, dishwashers, and customers.  The end IS NOT near, in fact, restaurants have never been more important than they are right now.  Yet, all we hear is negativity.  We can’t find any employees, people don’t want to work anymore, restaurants treat employees like crap, the pay sucks and the benefits don’t exist, prices are too high, supplies are impossible to find, and profit is so small that it isn’t worth the sweat and tears.  That’s a load of negativity to digest – no wonder the title to this article makes some people believe that it’s true.

Wake up!  Most problems are really challenges and challenges can be met with a willingness to listen, to analyze, and change.  We all need to listen, analyze and change – are you willing? 

For the Restaurateur:

Are you willing to take a hard look at your business model and change how you attract, train, invest in, compensate, and evaluate your staff?  Are you willing to take a hard look at your pricing model and how you approach profitability?  Are you willing to look at your employees as your most important asset and put yourself in their shoes? Are you willing to listen to your employees who interface with guests more often than you?

For the Chef and Manager:

Are you willing to look at menus differently?  Is it possible for you to steer away from high cost, sometimes obscure ingredients that might be exciting to you but are not essential to making guests happy or setting the stage for profitability?  Are you willing to spend much more time working with and training your staff – building their skill set and showing them how to really cook from the heart?  Are you willing to listen to your employees and give them an opportunity to invest their ideas in the operation?  Are you willing to exhibit patience and empathy with your employees and know that any weaknesses they may have, are partially your responsibility?  Are you willing to invest more time catching your employees doing something right rather than pointing out those weaknesses that are partially your fault anyway?  Are you willing to celebrate the successes of your cooks and sincerely thank them for their contributions?  Are you willing to recognize that your employees have a life outside work and balance is something that is important to them?

For the Cook and Server:

Are you willing to listen and learn and to grow and expand your base of knowledge?  Are you willing to accept critique (not criticism) and know that this is part of the growing process?  Are you willing to invest the time and effort to expand your base of knowledge and grow in value?  Do you know that this is the way to move up the career ladder and eventually achieve your goal of becoming a chef, a manager, or even an owner?  Do you recognize that higher wages and greater opportunities must be earned through performance, not just being present?

For the Vendor:

Do you realize that if a restaurant is financially successful, they are in a better position to pay their bills and expand what they buy?  Do you understand the difference between good food and great food begins with the quality of ingredients that a chef receives and that this is the most important part of your job?  Do you understand that the chef cannot sell what he or she doesn’t receive?  Do you appreciate that a chef wants to view you as a partner who makes sure that what is ordered is received?  Are you willing to go the extra mile to make sure that the tools a kitchen needs to succeed are made available?  Are you willing to provide the support that a restaurant needs – support that goes beyond the ingredient and includes: marketing support, cost control support, a full understanding of ingredients and their quality factors, and payment plans that account for swings in business?

For the Customer:

Are you willing to smile at your server, thank them, and understand just how difficult their job is?  Are you willing to treat them with the same level of respect that you would expect for yourself?  Do you understand that the supply chain is broken right now, and availability of ingredients is beyond the control of the restaurant?  Are you willing to accept smaller menus because of this?  Do you understand that if you insist on seeking out that Kobe Beef Tenderloin Steak it will likely sell for $75 or more?  Are you willing to trust that the chef in an operation is talented enough to make a chicken leg that is just as special as that deluxe piece of meat?

The solutions to the challenges we face involve collaboration and creativity, a willingness to change, adaptability and investment of time and effort, empathy and support, and an appreciation for just how important restaurants are to our way of life.  We will collectively move through this period of uncertainty and rise above the challenges – we always have, and we always will.  There is still more pain to be felt, but we can never give up on just how integral restaurants and restaurant people are to a community.

This is not the time for cooks, servers, bartenders, managers, and chefs to hang up their side towels and look for another way of life.  You have invested too much of yourself already to turn your back simply because the waters are a little rough.  This is not the time for chefs and managers to throw up their arms and blame the workforce, the government, or customers for an impossible situation.  This is the time to turn the impossible into the possible and rise to the opportunities that exist – now is the time to take control – we know how to do this.

PLAN BETTER – TRAIN HARDER

Harvest America Ventures, LLC

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CHEFS – BUILD YOUR NETWORK OF INFLUENCE

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We cook what we are, and we are a complex combination of all our life experiences with food.  This is what makes us unique as cooks, this is what builds our signature that appears on a menu.  Like a fine wine we are a blend of different flavors that through experience reflect a perfect mix – each flavor has a role to play and is introduced in the right proportion to create that signature.  Like that fine wine, we add time and the temperature of intensity to polish our style, that signature that not only defines the menu, but the entire experience of which we are an important part. 

So, where do those flavors come from?  In most cases, we do not prescribe a blend or even plan what those flavors are, but we simply experience them as part of living.  Those flavors are restaurants we have visited, chefs who inspire us, family traditions that are part of our background, trips that we have made, books we have read, markets we have visited, kitchens where we have worked, and fellow cooks with whom we have shared a stove.  It is rare that all these influences are mapped out in advance – they simply happen, and along the way we sift through and categorize them as we search for the blend that will define our style and signature.

Although we rarely map this out, we should open ourselves up to experiences and potential influences.  As cooks looking for the right blend, we must taste the world around us.  Great cooks never limit themselves to what is in front of them in a current work environment – we need to be inquisitive.  So, what might be an appropriate way to approach that wine making method of building your cooking signature?

[]       START WITH STRONG FOUNDATIONS:

No matter what, a solid chef’s signature stems from his or her full understanding of the foundations of cooking.  Knowing ingredient flavor profiles, peak maturity of those ingredients, the standard cooking methods, and how to adjust to conditions posed through the cooking process will be your strength.  Once these are mastered then nearly any style of cooking can be approached and adopted.  Never lose sight of the importance of foundations.

[]       WORK WHERE YOU CAN LEARN SOMETHING NEW:

When building your career and your skill set – choose to work in operations that are open to teaching and where the cuisine pushes you to expand what you know and how you approach cooking.

[]       READ EVERYTHING YOU CAN:

Cookbooks, books on the cultural differences that drive the development of a cuisine, books on professional discipline and working in an open and collaborative environment – anything to do with the roots of a style of cooking, specific dishes, and how the stage is set to adopt a style to your future signature is extremely valuable.  Invest in reading.

[]       EXPERIENCE RESTAURANTS:

Whether you work in a variety of restaurants, stagiaire at a well know establishment, or simply dine to experience a specific chef’s signature – build restaurant experiences into your skill development.  These will become your benchmarks – the standards that help to eventually define who you are as a cook.

[]       TASTE YOUR HISTORY:

Never overlook your family background – in fact seek it out!  Talk with parents, grandparents, uncles, and cousins.  Research their roots and uncover the indigenous ingredients they likely worked with and the environmental factors that influenced how they cooked and ate.  This is part of your DNA – uncover it, embrace it, learn from it, and store it in your mental data bank.

[]       TRAVEL WHENEVER THE OPPORTUNITY ARISES:

We are strongly influenced by our physical environment and sometimes captive to it.  Whenever you travel to a different city, region, or country you absorb something of their culture.  Whenever you eat their food, you add something else to your portfolio of experiences.  Travel is one of the great educators – it opens your mind and heart to differences and allows you to take in the unknown.  This is critical to your signature.

[]       SEEK OUT FOOD FRIENDS:

One way to push yourself to grow as a cook is to hang out with others who are just as passionate.  We learn from each other, influence each other, and pollinate each other.  Make food friends!

[]       FIND A MENTOR:

Find that person or a few persons who have gone through this process and are now comfortable with their food signature.  Bounce ideas off them, seek their advice, learn from their experiences, and open yourself up to the challenges they present.  A solid education requires a guide on the side.

[]       BE AN ADVENTUROUS EATER:

One phrase has no place in a chef’s dialogue: “I don’t like…….”, or “I am not interested in trying….”.  You may discover that an ingredient, dish, or style of cooking doesn’t align with your signature, but that should never stop you from trying it and then deciding.

[]       PRACTICE AND EXPERIMENT:

Build your palate by taking your food thinking and apply it to cooking.  Some may believe it has all been done before, but truly it has not.  Your foundations will keep you out of cooking trouble but stretching your understanding and your comfort level will allow you to grow and develop the uniqueness you seek.

Your signature will take time, invest wisely and never stop adding to your experience and base of knowledge – the roots of that signature you seek.

PLAN BETTER – TRAIN HARDER

Harvest America Ventures, LLC

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COOKING – THAT THREAD OF FRIENDSHIP

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Something became even more apparent to me today, something that I have felt for decades, but suddenly it became vividly clear.  I had a call out of the blue from a former culinary student and co-worker at a four-diamond restaurant.  He just wanted to catch up and share what was going on in his life.  He followed up with a number of terrific pictures of his beautiful four-month-old daughter.  I have known him as student, employee, and friend for many years, I even attended his wedding.  After the call I began to think back over the past five decades of involvement in the business of food and realized that there have been a number of these calls and shared moments.  In fact, the majority of weddings that I have had the pleasure to attend have been for former students, employees, and food related friends. 

Over the years we have met at conferences, workshops, trade shows, a stop in for dinner at a restaurant where they worked, or during the pandemic – on zoom.  We are Facebook friends, Linkedin associates, and members of chat groups.  We share phone numbers and email addresses and congratulations for job promotions, graduations, births, marriages, and other major accomplishments in life. We remember those days prepping an impossible amount of food for service, working a hot line with sweat rolling down our backs, flames looking for every opportunity to burn the hair off your arms, the relentless ticking of the POS printer, a board filled with dupes, and your mise en place getting dangerously low.  There are vivid memories of catering events from hell, lines of people waiting for their char-grilled hamburgers or racks of slow cooked BBQ ribs.  It is impossible to forget those times in a culinary classroom when a student just couldn’t seem to get hold of a process and their frustration level was beginning to peak.  Visions of time together as a team competing in a culinary event, testing our skills against the scoring panel and hundreds of other teams vying for recognition. There are profound memories of exceeding our own expectations and showing our peers what we were made of. We talk about clean plates coming back from the dining room – a sure sign that we did our job well.  It all comes back as we talk, reminisce, laugh, and even shed an occasional tear.

There have been moments I treasure when the phone rings or a text appears asking for advice, recommendations, a recipe, or my thoughts on a new menu they are developing or a challenging employee they are not sure how to deal with.  We may not stop to think about it enough, but there is a special bond that exists between those who have jumped into the profession of food.  If you have worked together in a kitchen, there is a special understanding.  There is respect, camaraderie, appreciation, and sympathy that would be hard to find otherwise.  A real sense of connection is in play, similar to being part of a sporting team or military unit.  There is a bond for life that is significant.

It is hard to describe unless you have been part of this club without membership dues.  Maybe it’s the creative part of the work, or maybe it’s the crisis situations that you have worked through together.  It could be that mixed feeling of relief and fulfillment experienced after pushing through an incredibly busy service on the line, bringing an exceptionally difficult event to fruition, or simply working together through times when confidence was not that high, but together you persevered.

Anthony Bourdain was once asked who he would call first if he were in any kind of trouble and without pause, he said: “My sous chef.”  Not a family member, not a high school or college friend – his sous chef.  Why is this the case with so many of us?

We help each other out, we are aware of each other’s strengths and weaknesses, we learn to accept our co-worker’s faults and know when to jump in and help or when to back off and let things take their course.  We have seen each other at our best and seen each other at our worst.  We know that acceptance, understanding, support, and sometimes a little tough love is what is always needed.  These are the foundations of friendship – friendship that is uniquely solid for those who have shared space on a hot line and have fallen so deep in the weeds it seems impossible to work your way out, but then you rose up with strength when one of those friends jumped in to pull you up by the apron strings and found how to get through it. 

Over many years we develop an understanding of the importance of honest critique that ALWAYS involves working together to correct weaknesses.  We know that criticism is vile, but critique with the right amount of help is magical.  There have been ample times when we screwed up, burned ourselves, gashed a finger with a sharp chef knife, lost focus, messed up a batch of sauce, or just couldn’t seem to put out a steak done to the correct temperature on a shift.  If you’re like me, you relish the memories of the people who stepped in to help, never criticized you in the moment, pulled you out of hell and never asked for anything in return.  They did it because that’s what restaurant people do and if that’s not how they work then eventually those individuals find there isn’t a place for them in that kitchen.  We stick together.

Yes, we stick together, we support each other, we help without any expectation of something in return, we truly care about each other.  This is probably why I have been to so many weddings of those with whom I have worked.  This is probably why I receive calls when they earn a promotion or witness the birth of a child and simply want to share it with me.  This is why we (those kitchen warriors that I am referring to) make sure the first thing we do each day is check on social media to see who is celebrating a birthday and take a moment to wish each other well.

This is why, even at my age, I get excited when there is an opportunity to work a special event, in my whites, helping a former employee or student in their kitchen, or when I have a chance to sit in their dining room as a guest and relish just how talented they have become. 

It’s hard to describe, this bond that we share.  It is not something that we think about, it just happens – it makes sense.  When I look back on a long and rewarding career, I know those good memories were because of the incredible people who work in this business.  These are the people who are part of my life experiences and at some level I am part of theirs.  The bond doesn’t weaken over time, it only gets stronger.  When a chance arises for us to reunite or call, we are able to pick things up right where we left off.  That common bond is always there – cooking is the common denominator, that thread of friendship that is as strong as steel.

PLAN BETTER – TRAIN HARDER

Stay connection with those unique friends in food

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KITCHENS CAN BE TALENT INCUBATORS

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The list of responsibilities keeps growing: menu planner, budget manager, concept developer, quality controller, purchaser and negotiator, trainer, and of course – accomplished cook – this is the job description for a restaurant chef.  But, beyond all of this lies a macro responsibility, one that defines the chef’s position in the larger business of food, and that is being a mentor who creates an environment for and nurtures the potential of young cooks to make their own mark on the restaurant scene.  Yes, as chefs, we need to look beyond each cook as a person to fill a slot on the schedule.  You have an opportunity to feed their passion, plant the seed of creativity, expand their knowledge, and push and pull them to improve and grow.

“Creativity is just connecting things.  When you ask creative people how they did something, they feel a little guilty because they didn’t really do it, they just saw something.  It seemed obvious to them after a while.  That’s because they were able to connect experiences they’ve had and synthesize new things.”

-Steve Jobs (founder of Apple Computers)

As chefs, we have a responsibility to involve young cooks in those experiences, repeat them frequently enough so that it sinks in, encourage them to reflect on those experiences, take them apart and put them back together, and assess how they fit (good, bad, or indifferent).  The aha moments will come for those cooks when they start to see how those experiences, combined with others produce something new and unique.  Creativity comes from a process that is part of who they are, not something that they are necessarily born with.  Seeing this come to fruition is quite possibly one of the most enjoyable and rewarding aspects of being a chef.

Building up to this “enlightenment” requires that you set the stage.  You must teach and train the fundamentals, the processes, the flavor profiles, and the history behind cooking a certain way.  Simply telling a young cook to “plan a feature for tonight” will likely result in less than stellar results or something that is far too similar to everything else they do from practice.  Creativity without understanding first is reserved for a very small percentage of people with some unusual talent that is hard to fathom. 

TEACH – SHOW – WATCH – CRITIQUE – SHOW AGAIN – PATIENCE – REPEAT

Practice makes perfect and practice makes a cook competent and comfortable.  These are essential ingredients in the creative process.  It is important to understand the value of each step listed above.  As a chef/mentor you must understand that each step is equally significant.

[]       TEACH:

Teaching comes first because it helps with understanding.  The cook needs to understand “why” they are doing something a certain way.  “Because that’s the way I want it done” is not a reasonable answer to the question “why”.  Is there a reason for a process, the type of equipment used, timing, steps in flavor building, or using one specific ingredient over the other?  If there is, then let them know and provide supportive resources to demonstrate that reason.  Until they know “why” they will never be able to adapt, and adaptation is instrumental in creativity.  Provide reading materials or links to articles that will reinforce what you say – it is important!

[]       SHOW (TRAIN):

Very few things in life will sink in and become innate unless they are practiced.  Unless they are practiced until the results are what they should be then the process will never rise to the level of a skill.  Showing requires that you stand side-by-side with the cook and walk them through the process that they were taught.  Showing requires that you present them with a benchmark of excellence – a model to emulate – an example of what you expect.  Showing also requires repetition, the more you do it together, the more real it becomes.

[]       WATCH:

It’s time to let the cook fly on his or her own.  The cook must be in a position to practice what he or she has been taught and shown.  They must be put in a position to sink or swim, make those mistakes, fail if they must, and mentally record where things went wrong.  They must be given an opportunity to succeed and learn how to differentiate success from failure.

[]       CRITIQUE:

There is, as I have often pointed out, a major difference between criticism and critique.  The result of the “watch” phase is to point out where the cook can improve.  The difference between criticism and critique lies in how this is presented and whether you work with them through the process of improvement.  Simply stating it is “wrong” will never result in improvement – only resentment.

[]       SHOW AGAIN:

Reinforce through re-introduction of the benchmark and working through each step again with the cook by your side.  Present this as positive reinforcement.  Ask the cook to repeat each step and explain why it is done.  This connects the dots with teaching and training.

[]       PATIENCE:

The cook needs to understand that skill comes over time and they will rarely catch on immediately.  Patience is part of the game.  The same applies to you.  The cook needs to crawl before he or she walks, walk before a run, and run many times before they step over the finish line.

[]       REPEAT:

This is an ongoing process, an integral part of the chef’s job.  Reinforcement through the process will help to mold the possibilities for all young cooks you work with.  Additionally, it will demonstrate to other potential employees that your kitchen is one that invests in people – an open loop eco-system of teaching, training, mentoring and development.  This will be your greatest contribution to the profession and to the restaurant where you hang your hat.

PLAN BETTER – TRAIN HARDER

Harvest America Ventures, LLC

Restaurant Consulting

www.harvestamericacues.com  BLOG

(nearly 800 articles on topics related to the life of cooks and chefs)

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WORK HARD AND BE KIND

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A little over a week ago, a person whom I knew, worked with, and admired for more than 40 years, passed away.  I am aware as I grow older this is going to happen, but nevertheless, it hits hard and makes you take inventory of the person you are, what you do, how you do it, how you treat others, and the way you live your life. 

Dick Cattani was a monumental figure in the business of food hospitality.  He grew from a young college graduate with prior experience in the dish room and a commis in front and back of the house, to eventually become CEO and President of Restaurant Associates – one of the country’s most influential benchmark providers of the highest quality food in restaurants, world class entertainment venues, museums, office buildings, and special events.  Dick was a graduate of the same college that I attended, a lifelong supportive alum, and eventually chairman of their board of trustees.  Midway through my career I returned to my alma mater as an instructor and eventually dean of their hospitality and culinary programs.  I worked with Dick who was known as a terrific listener, mentor, and problem solver.  I always felt comfortable asking him for advice – he always made time even though his own schedule was incredibly demanding. 

Whenever I visited New York City with students, or with family, Dick helped arrange for us to meet well known chefs and restaurateurs, visit, tour and dine in incredible benchmark restaurants, tour flagship hotels, and in some cases find kitchen space for our student culinary teams to prepare for competitions.  It was through Dick that we had opportunities to work at the U.S. Open Tennis and PGA Golf Tournaments that RA was contracted to provide foodservice.  For a period of years, we were sending 50 students to work the grueling, yet highly educational two-weeks of the Tennis Open.  To this day, those students rate those two weeks as some of the most important in their education. 

As I reflect on Dick Cattani, the person that I knew, but was not fully aware of the scope of his influence, I fell on a short, concise, and all-encompassing quote from him that was highlighted in the official RA notice of his death: “Work hard and be kind”.  What a wonderful legacy, an enormously important mantra, and an inspirational way to live your life.  From my experience, and apparently those who worked at RA, this is the most essential trait of great leadership.  I want people to say this about me some day: “He always worked hard, strove for excellence, expected nothing less of others, was willing to give back, and treated those with whom he associated, with kindness.” This is something to strive for, this is how Dick lived and how I hope to live as well.

When I look around at the world today, and in particular – our country, I find that a lack of connection to this simple mantra is far too pervasive.  It makes me tired, sad, and concerned.  I am tired of people who think only of themselves and never others.  I am tired of people who build their existence around lies and avoidance of the truth.  I am tired of those who seek to discount or demean others, tired of those who feel a sense of superiority and are full of their own sense of importance.  I am tired and deeply concerned about the proliferation of hate and a deficit of kindness and acceptance.  I am tired of those who would prefer to let others do the work while they receive the benefits of that work.  I am tired of those who are satisfied with mediocrity and see little value in striving for excellence.  I am tired of employers who treat their staff as expendable pawns on the table.  I am tired of those who point fingers at others and never accept responsibility. 

Dick was not the type of leader who would relinquish responsibility or point the finger at others.  He had extremely high standards and did expect nothing less from those who worked with and for him.  He did, however, believe in support, training, mentoring, and empathy.  He measured people on performance while admiring them for their character.  I wish that this was more contagious than it appears to be.  We need more like Dick: teachers, advocates, inquisitive and creative people, honest and hardworking, focused and kind. 

The world will miss you, Dick.  Rest in Peace.

PLAN BETTER – TRAIN HARDER

Work hard and be kind

Harvest America Ventures, LLC

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AN EVEN BIGGER THREAT TO RESTAURANT SURVIVAL

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Sorry, there isn’t a lot of good news for restaurants and chefs in recent years-except up to this point customer demand for the experience is rising.  We are all aware of the challenge with the workforce – finding and retaining people to do the job, and we are still feeling the pains from Covid shutdowns and the fear and anxiety that went with it.  But not enough attention is being given to the issues surrounding the supply chain and the lack of real solutions.

Most of the articles we read point to the pandemic as the culprit as well as the centralization of processing ownership.  When one of the big four or five producers or distributors closes or slows down production then the trickle effect falls squarely on the restaurant and the consumer.  This is all true and with some government intervention this may eventually be corrected.  But there are even greater cause and effect challenges that fail to receive enough press; challenges that may not be corrected with the stroke of a politician’s pen.  These cause-and-effect challenges are looming now, and the seriousness will become even more apparent in the months and years to come.

Let’s look at just a few:

[]       THE PROFESSION OF FARMING:

Young people are not clamoring to become farmers anymore. The average age of independent farmers today is over 59 years old.  Only 9% of U.S. farmers are under the age of 35.  When our current population of farm operators retire, we will be in serious trouble.  Young people shy away from farming for a variety of reasons:  the work is so physically demanding, real estate prices are rising significantly making it difficult for farms to expand to meet demand, the initial investment in equipment is astronomical, wages keep going up, but the price paid for farm goods is not keeping pace, and farmers are minions to the weather.

[]       CLIMATE CHANGE:

Thanks to the pandemic we stopped thinking about global climate change.  Well, it’s still there and its impact is obvious.  Changes in climate impact farming and ranching more than anything else.  Growing cycles will continue to change, unpredictable alterations in weather patterns will continue to haunt farmers, and crops that would normally thrive in certain parts of the world may not be able to survive there now.

[]       WAR:

Ukraine was the 5th or 6th largest agricultural country in the world.  The war has nearly taken this robust farming nation off the map.  Think of the impact on supply that this creates now and in the future.

[]       GROWING POPULATION:

While numerous factors impact food supplies, the world population continues to grow and so too does the demand for those products.  In 1800 the world population was approximately 1 billion; by 2000 that number had reached 7.9 billion.  Although population growth as a percentage is slowing (from 2.1% per year to 1% per year) this is still a huge number of mouths to feed.  At the same time, our methods of growing and distribution have not evolved sufficiently.

[]       AN ANTIQUAITED DISTRIBUTION SYSTEM:

It may seem amazing that we (restaurants and consumers) can buy nearly any food product we want, any time of the year, delivered to even the most obscure small towns, but the system that connects all the dots is not sophisticated enough to avoid bottlenecks and grow quickly with changes in demand.  Most of our goods come to the loading dock through a trucking system from harbor or farm through the miles of roadways that connect those cities and towns.  It doesn’t take much for the system to collapse.  Additionally, many products are shipped before they are mature to protect against damage in transit which impacts the quality of the restaurant plate.

[]       CENTRALIZED FOOD SYSTEM:

Over the past 100 years the U.S. moved from a decentralized system of food production and distribution to a centralized one.  Certain parts of the country only grow a few crops that have been best suited to their climate.  Those items flourish until the soil is depleted of nutrients or unpredictable weather takes its toll.  We have all felt the pain at the store following a frost in California, a hurricane in the Southeast, or droughts in the Midwest.

[]       ADDICTION TO CHEAP FOOD:

Mass produced convenience foods that are low in nutritional value, and high in calories, fat, and sodium, but low in price, have become the staple in many American family diets.  All the above factors are beginning to change the price point making it difficult for families to fill their dinner table.  Many commodities for restaurants have always been inexpensive from flour and sugar to poultry, non-primal cuts of beef, and some more common fish.  Not anymore – just ask your local brewpub what they are paying for a case of fresh chicken wings right now, or your local bread baker – what has happened to the price of flour.  All of this is changing rapidly, and it is beyond the consumer’s control.

For restaurants and for chefs, these challenges are real.  They impact and will continue to impact menus, the skills of cooks, menu pricing, and an already meager profit margin.  The questions are: “what are you going to do about it? How will you prepare for this growing concern?”

The standardized menu that rarely changes and is dependent on constant availability of certain raw materials may be a thing of the past.  Fluid menus that respond to product availability, seasonality, and price will likely return as the most efficient way to operate.  Chefs will need to step away from many of the higher cost prime cuts of meat and exotic fish and be more creative with alternative cooking methods like braising and poaching.  It may be wise to develop stronger relationships with regional farmers and producers and collaborate on menus and the ingredients that they should grow rather than put all your eggs in the basket of one-stop provisioners that will likely be less flexible. Pricing must be based on an assessment of value, knowing that consumers will also need to change their buying habits.  The twice a week diner may now become the twice a month diner and even the family that spent 50% of their family food budget in quick service restaurants will need to cut back.  The times they are a changing and the adage that the strong will survive and the weak shall perish is about to be replaced with: “The adaptable will survive and those who fail to do so will not.”

PLAN BETTER – TRAIN HARDER

Think ahead and learn to adapt

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KNIVES – THE CHEF’S WITNESS TOOLS

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It’s the start of another day in the kitchen.  Seven in the morning and aside from the baker and breakfast cook, I am alone with clip board in hand and my roll bag of knives placed strategically at a workstation.  I arrived a half hour earlier, grabbed a cup of coffee with a splash of milk, removed my starched chef coat and apron from its home in my office, slide my arms into the sleeves feeling the slight resistance from the serious starched press, folded the first layer back, tied on an apron, adjusted my chef’s toque, and stepped into the kitchen that I called my own.  Having held the position of chef for nearly 20 years, this routine was very familiar and always enjoyed.  I took in the aroma of the early morning kitchen and relished the quiet regimen of the morning crew.  They were methodical in their approach – doing their work with barely a sound except for an occasional: “pick-up” bark from the line cook as another series of plates were slide down the pass.

My position didn’t require that I arrive before the rest of the crew, but I enjoyed the peace of early morning, so this was my routine.  I secured a cutting board on the stainless table that everyone seemed to relegate to me (my sacred territory).  Opening my roll bag, I gently removed my respected tools for the day: 10-inch French knife, flexible boning knife, paring knife, bird’s beak tourne, round steel, and digital pocket thermometer.  I drew the blades down the steel a few times on each side of the edge even though I had worked each one on a wet stone at the close of business yesterday.  I like to ‘brighten” the edge before I start.  I wiped each knife with a side towel dipped in sanitizer solution and strategically set them in place next to the cutting board.

Holding the French knife in my hand I subconsciously recognized each part of this special tool.  The tang that runs through the center of the ebony handle and attaches the blade to the stock.  The stainless rivets that complete the attachment.  The all-important bolster that is thicker and slightly curved as the blade extends from its position.  The bolster helps to protect the palm from blisters and is the point of balance for the knife.  Balance is important so that the rhythm of cutting flows seamlessly.  I take a minute to balance the knife on my finger at the center of the bolster – amazing.  I run my fingers down the spine, or the blunt back of the blade.  The extra thickness of the spine helps to give the knife its power.  I draw my finger across the edge to verify its sharpness and check the tip to make sure that it is still intact.  I think what a beautiful tool. 

This knife, in particular, has been with me since the early days as a kitchen apprentice.  It was a present from the first cook I worked with – Millie.  She was a breakfast cook at the diner where I worked as dishwasher.  Occasionally, when it was busy, Millie pulled me to the line where I flipped pancakes, browned home fries, and garnished plates.  She saw that sparkle in my eyes as the orders piled up – she knew something that I had yet to realize – kitchen life was for me.  When I left the diner to attend college for hotel and restaurant management, she gave me the knife; it had been her husband’s favorite.  He was a career chef at a downtown dinner house and had worked for decades before he passed away a few years prior.  Millie became a cook, out of necessity, and she was great at the work, but it wasn’t her passion, not like her husband.  She said that she saw that same passion in my eyes and the knife belonged in the hands of a person who was destined to be in the kitchen.  Since then, that knife has never left my roll bag and never left my side.

While I glanced at the prep list in front of me, I began to think about that knife in a different way.  “Just think how much this knife has seen?”  Wow, I never thought of a knife, a tool, in this manner before.  This knife had witnessed the culinary life of three chefs so far.  This knife was held, just as I am holding it right now, by three professionals, every day.  It has found a home in countless kitchens, cut through thousands of pounds of vegetables, meats, and seafood.  It has been drawn across a wet stone tens of thousands of times and brought to a sharp finish on a steel dozens of times each day since it was first forged out of carbon and stainless steel. 

This knife has worked tirelessly for more hours than most could imagine, and it never complained, never resisted.  This knife sat quietly at the end of each day, tucked away in a leather roll bag, quietly waiting to start work all over again in a few hours.  It has seen incredibly busy days and nights, endured relentless beating as its edge hit cutting boards and the heel cut through delicate chicken bones and the spine of fresh fish.  This knife was touched, held, and admired by three chefs and anyone else who dared to pick it up to relish its abilities.

This knife, at least for now, is mine.  It is an extension of my hands, a tool that allows me to practice my craft, a piece of my history and that of two chefs before me.  This knife has seen it all – restaurant openings and closings, the steady build of skill and the confidence to use it.  It has occasionally been abused (certainly not by me), been eyed by other cooks as my Excalibur, been present for grand dinners and elaborate buffets, and been photographed countless times without ever being asked for permission.  It has been, is, and will always be a star in my eyes and that of every cook who aspired to reach the position that took me decades to earn.  This knife is a “witness tool”.  If it could talk – oh the stories it could tell.

Although the blade is a bit smaller from constant sharpening over more than 60 years of use, it was still a thing of beauty.  My predecessors and I took care of it, used it properly, cleaned it with care, and stored it to preserve the magnificence of the blade and the beauty of the ebony handle.  I began to wonder: “Who will I pass this knife on to? What aspiring young cook with that passion in his or her eyes will be the next to carry on this knife’s legacy?  What other kitchen and chef will this knife witness?”

There is a deep sense of obligation to protect these witness tools.  Ask any cook about it and they will proclaim: “Don’t touch my knives!”  This is not a demand to be taken lightly.  Every cook is obligated to protect these tools that have seen so much and will see so much more.  The knife has a job to do, and it depends on the cook to care for it properly and respect its ability to do so.  Cooks and chefs are caretakers of the knife, the witness tool that is one with that cook or chef.  “Don’t touch my knives” is not a statement of arrogance, it is a proclamation of intent to protect the story of a cook’s life – to relish every moment that a cook or chef put on that starched white jacket, tied on an apron, set up his or her station, and prepared to experience another day in the kitchen.

Take a moment to wonder: “What have my knives witnessed?  Have I shown enough respect for these important tools?  Am I committed to protecting the story that this knife can tell?  Who will I pass it on to in an effort to keep its legacy alive?”  Think about it.

PLAN BETTER – TRAIN HARDER

Respect your witness tools

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THE FREEDOM TO CREATE

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The symbolism of July 4th is apparent in the arts that are rewarding to those who create and those who receive what they have to offer.  Music, painting, sculpture, literature, drama, and cooking provide an outlet for expression by the craftsperson or artist and a world of discovery for those who appreciate what they see, hear, feel, or taste.  Most of us have come to expect that these avenues of expression will be available, but that is not always the case.  In parts of the world these platforms are controlled for fear of how they will inspire others to question the political or religious environment where they reside.  Art is difficult to thwart because it is like life itself – it finds a way to appear and grow.  When controlled it rebels, when ignored it finds a way to find an audience. 

Art without freedom may seem difficult to imagine, but it finds a way to overcome.  In fact, art is the antidote for autocracy, fascism, and censorship.  Art can be light and easy going, or it can rise up through resistance and courage and bang its fist on the table.  The greatest enemy of control and limitation is art – thus, throughout the world it is one of the first things that dictators, fascists, and power seekers try to monitor and moderate.  It is art that we should revere because it is art’s job to free our thinking, provide us with the chance to express our feelings, and give us a platform to discover all that we might be.

On this day, every year, Americans celebrate July 4th – Independence Day.  This is the day that our forefathers declared their separation from control of English rule.  It is a day when we raise our flag, feel that sense of belongingness to something important, remember for a few hours the history of our country, watch a parade, set aside many of our concerns with government and feel that twinge of patriotism.  It is one of those days when many countries throughout the world recognize that regardless of its many rough edges – the United States represents something important, maybe even great.  But a growing number of people feel uneasy about the idea of freedom and how fragile the platform of democracy is.  This is never more apparent than when we look at the significance of this platform to the arts.  The arts represent the canary in the coal mine to the stability of democracy.  When the arts feel a tinge of control, when the freedom of expression is in question, then a threat to the platform itself becomes real.

Just as the coal miner looks to the canary for signs of the freedom to breathe, we should all look to the arts for a sense of our democratic future and our ability to breathe the oxygen of freedom.  At the same time, we can rest assured that the tenacles of freedom will use art to find a way to shine light on the possibilities that freedom portrays.

We should all celebrate what we have on July 4th.  We should raise our flags, hold a hand over our heart and be proud patriots of American democracy, but we should never take it for granted.  We can never ignore what it means to be free, and we must never ignore just how fragile it is.  It is important that we protect and admire the concept of independence or misconstrue what we may think that it means. 

“We hold these truths to be self-evident, that all men are created equal, that they are endowed by their Creator with certain unalienable Rights, that among these are Life, Liberty and the pursuit of Happiness.”

The expression of Life, Liberty, and Happiness is facilitated through the arts.  Thus, an attempt to minimize, censor, or eradicate forms of expression through music, painting, sculpture, literature, drama, or cooking is an attack on the platform of democracy.  When people seek to stop this expression or misuse it as a vehicle for lies and misrepresentations – a way to incite rather than heal and excite; when art is manipulated as a weapon for destructive causes then we should be cautious.  Democracy provides us with that platform, the basis of freedom that we all enjoy and sometimes take for granted; a platform that allows painters, musicians, sculptors, actors, writers, and chefs to express themselves and share this expression with others.  It is a fragile platform, and the arts are unique instruments that serve as a most significant vehicle for freedom’s voice. 

On this day we should not only give thanks for American democracy and independence, but also acknowledge how important it is to pay attention to the vehicles for freedoms voice.  We need to support the arts in all their forms, understand the power that they hold, be aware that there will always be some people filled with ill intent who will use art to spread lies and conspiracies, but know that protecting the right of expression is protecting the foundations of democracy.  It is a tightrope that requires us all to be open minded and well-informed, appreciative, and willing to approach everything with some level of cautious optimism, and dedicated to keeping the platform of freedom amenable to musicians, authors, painters, sculptors, actors, and chefs to present their art.  Historically, when countries begin to ban books, censor writers, close opportunities to view art, hear certain forms of musical expression, inflict government control over what we watch or hear, or even taste – then the very foundations of democracy are in jeopardy.

On this July 4th, let’s do more than celebrate the day, let’s commit ourselves to protecting those vehicles of freedom that are essential in a democracy.  To protect them is to protect democracy itself and the very thing that we celebrate today.

Every chef is a technician and a craftsperson, but he or she is also an artist seeking expression on the plate and every restaurant guest is an appreciator of this art.  We are cut from the same cloth as those who play a musical instrument, pick up a paint brush, begin that new novel, write a blog post, or stand on a stage to represent a time and place.  We are the ambassadors of freedom.

Happy 4th of July!

Plan Better – Train Harder

America the Beautiful – a beacon of freedom’s light

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WHY THE SCHOOL OF HARD KNOCKS IS IMPORTANT

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For me, some of the most important tools for life were gained in the kitchen.  They were gained when I had to wake up at 4:00 a.m. to be in the kitchen by 5:00.  They were gained when I worked on my feet for a ten- or twelve-hour shift.  They were gained as I worked over a cherry red flat top range, sweat pouring down my back.  They were gained working with people whom I had to depend on, people from all kinds of backgrounds: ethnic, educational, race, gender, and age.  I grew up while I was learning how to work in a kitchen.

I didn’t know it at the time, nor did the hundreds of people with whom I worked over the years, but we were all being mentored by each other.  This was the place where we learned about life, about how to adapt, how to get along, and how to become uniquely us.

“There is only one road to human greatness – through the school of hard knocks.”

-Albert Einstein

There were plenty of difficult days, some that seemed impossible.  The shift started too early and lasted too long, the work was too demanding and the list of tasks almost beyond reason, and the pressure associated with timing and the skill required was nearly too much to bear.  But we made it through, the work was done, those hundreds of plates of food were beautiful and tasty, the guests were happy, and the chef gave us the thumbs up.  There were many days when our feet were throbbing from long days, when the cuts and burns were too numerous to count, when it seemed like there was no sweat left to give, but we made it and returned the next day to experience it all over again.  There were days of self-doubt when we were our own worst critic, when our work never felt adequate enough, when the chef shook his or her head signaling that we didn’t hit the mark, and when far too many dishes came back from a disappointed guest.  We remember those days; in fact, we never forget them, but we returned to give it another try.

The School of Hard Knocks is riddled with lessons that require us to fall down, feel inadequate, lose faith in our abilities, and doubt those of our co-workers.  But we return and learn from those lessons – it’s the assignment that comes from the school of life.  We learned a great deal about ourselves, those people with whom we work, and those we serve.  We learned what it meant to follow and how to prepare to lead. We discovered that we are in the business of service and it’s not always pretty.

While working our way through the kitchen we discovered what value was all about.  We opened that paycheck and knew that it wasn’t enough, but we also knew that we earned every penny.  We figured out that if we wanted to earn more, we would need to get better at what we do.  We discovered that our base of knowledge had to improve, and we would need to invest in that.  We managed to swallow our pride and accept critique if it was given as a way to help and not to demean.  We discovered that every plate of food that left the kitchen bore our signature and we found out that when it was right then legitimate pride was earned. 

Some of us may have gained knowledge through trade school or college, but many simply placed their education in the hands of hard work and patience.  We found out that both have value, but one without the other is rarely enough.  To be the best that we could be, would require an investment in learning and attention paid to teaching moments.

“Successful people are not necessarily gifted; they just work hard and then succeed on purpose.”

-G.K. Nelson

The School of Hard Knocks teaches us determination and commitment.  We figured out that we are never owed success, it comes to those who invest in the journey, learn from life’s lessons, and move forward with a sense of purpose.  Over time we discovered that no one owes us a living, we have to earn it.

So, what are those life lessons from the School of Hard Knocks?  Here are a few that can’t be taught as well in a classroom:

  • DEPENDABILITY:

Show up, suit up, be sharp, follow-thru, finish what you start, exceed expectations, be consistent.  Do this and the doors of opportunity will always open for you.

  • KNOW YOUR IMPACT:

Come to understand that every task (no matter how small or significant), every interaction, every step that you take impacts others and the products and services they provide.  Your work counts – do it well and do it right.

  • INVEST IN OTHERS:

Today and throughout your career, you will rarely be able to succeed on your own.  An investment in others success is an investment in yours.  Help others to do well – it matters.

  • RESPECT:

Respect every person you work with, work for, and serve.  Respect the ingredients you work with and the people who provide those ingredients.  Respect the facility where you work and the equipment that you are able to use.  Respect the profession of cooking that is as old as the discovery of fire.  It all matters and it is all worthy of your respect.

  • PATIENCE:

Nearly every level of success (no matter how you measure it) will take time to achieve.  You will need to build your skill level, make plenty of mistakes, develop a base of knowledge, and build the ability to adjust through the experiences you have – it takes time.

  • INVEST IN YOURSELF:

No one owes you an education – you have to seek it out.  Look at every day as an opportunity to learn and grow – build it into your daily calendar and at the end of the day ask yourself – “what did I learn today?”

  • FAIL BEFORE YOU SUCCEED:

Mistakes are natural as long as you learn from them, correct them, and work hard to avoid making the same mistakes again.  When viewed this way – mistakes are part of the growing process.  When you learn what not to do you are better positioned to get it right the next time.

  • AVOID MEDIOCRITY, INVEST IN EXCELLENCE:

Always remember – anything worth doing is worth doing well.  Never allow mediocrity to take hold – be on top of your game with everything you do.  Let excellence be your signature.

  • LEAD BY EXAMPLE:

Eventually, you will become a leader in your field.  Learn one of the most basic rules of leadership: “Treat others as you would like them to treat you.”  The people who report to you are no less significant than you as a person – they just have a different position.  They will, in many cases, emulate your actions, your behavior, and your beliefs.  Be careful to represent what you would like them to represent.

  • WORKING HARD FEELS GOOD:

When all is said and done – hard work is not a negative thing.  Hard work makes us aware of what we have accomplished and how we have approached a task.  Hard work helps us to grow, it builds character and demonstrates to others how committed you are.  As has often been said: “No pain, no gain.”

“I have never let my schooling interfere with my education”

-Mark Twain

PLAN BETTER – TRAIN HARDER

Enroll in the School of Hard Knocks

Harvest America Ventures, LLC

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“SOMETIMES THE PASTA LIKES TO BE BY ITSELF”

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This classic line by Stanley Tucci in the fabulous movie: “The Big Night”, has always struck a chord with me.  It speaks well of simplicity and allowing ingredients to be themselves and shine.  Whether it’s perfectly cooked pasta, a fresh garden salad, fresh fish, or a prime roast of pork, there is so much there to love without adding ingredients or seasoning that takes away from how perfect those ingredients are, on their own.

It’s interesting how our approach towards food, as chefs and cooks, changes over the years.  I suppose it’s not too dissimilar to our approach towards music, art, and life in general.  We may dip our toe into the unusual and the daring while young but then step back to strong foundations as we age.  It may be exciting and even beneficial to test the waters with a more Avant Garde approach towards cooking when we are young chefs, we may find inspiration in highly detailed preparations and presentations, molecular gastronomy, or show quality perfection in incredibly intricate plate presentations, but at some point, we realize that great cooking is all about respecting ingredients, executing solid cooking technique, and finding ways to allow ingredients speak for themselves.  It must be the same in those other professions that touch the realm of art.  I can still relish Eric Clapton’s era of experimentation with improvisation and jazz interpretations of blues classics.  As a member of the group “Cream” he amazed us all with his style and ability to push the envelope with structure in music, but in his later years he returned to his blues roots and produced melodic, thoughtful music that relied on tradition, foundations, and technique.  Apparently, we all tend to find our way back.

Our growth as craftspeople or artists seeks to find the beat of our own drum.  In the process we pick up little pointers along the way; nuances of style that may hide behind a more mature, seasoned approach, but with the ability to still occasionally surprise.  This is what I find in my own approach towards cooking and what I find satisfying in others.

What I found exciting in my thirties and forties – the sizzle of plate presentations that were manipulated for that perfect photo shoot, the entrée with twelve or more components and multiple sauces, the highly manipulated dish that was designed to change a guest’s understanding of cooking and confuse others who were challenged to identify the original ingredients, no longer feels right to me.  I still admire the skill of chefs who go “where no person has gone before”, the presentations that dazzle and leave me wondering, and the flavor profiles that work but make me wonder how, but most times I gravitate towards that perfectly grilled piece of fish, that mouth-watering braise, or a pile of perfectly cooked garden vegetables.  The older I get, the more important it is to respect established execution and natural flavors that aren’t interrupted by a desire to pursue the unknown.

There is a lesson here, a lesson for all who enjoy the process of creating something with their hands, something that represents who they are, where they came from, and what they choose to do for a living.  The foundations ground us, they are home base – a destination that sometimes takes starts and stops to get to.  We learn along the way from our wins and our misfires, but always grow and evolve through the process.  But, getting home is still the goal and when we pay our dues, experiment, and challenge, and try different ways to get from one base to another, we end up crossing the plate with our own approach towards the foundations – our personal signature.  It might be how we embrace established methods, whether we prefer to cook with gas or wood, whether we use stainless, steel, or cast iron, when we salt, how we sear, or how long we temper or rest an ingredient before it winds up on a plate, but when we cross that plate, we have clearly defined the cook that we are, the one we were always meant to be.

What inspires me now?  What do I love to eat and what do I long to cook?  Open fire grilled bronzini or black bass that is scored, brushed with olive oil and a touch of lemon; wood-fire roasted loin of pork with pearl onions, apples and prunes and a lightly thickened jus lie; a loaf of artisan sour dough bread with crusty exterior and chewy interior filled with holes from long fermentation and gentle handing during the kneading process; a crisp salad with vine ripened tomatoes and a touch of vinaigrette, and a cup of rich French press coffee with warm milk.  In my later years I find that home plate is in view and my style has finally drifted back to the foundations – a place that is warm and comforting.  An ideal meal would be hand cut fettuccini with olive oil, garlic, fresh basil, grated parmigiana, cracked pepper and a splash of lemon, because sometimes the pasta likes to be by itself.

PLAN BETTER – TRAIN HARDER

Never forget the foundations – they will serve you well

Harvest America Ventures, LLC

Restaurant Consulting

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THE IMPORTANCE OF WORK

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When a person refers to “work” there are a number of connotations that come to mind.  Quite often the term “work” implies something slightly negative – a necessary evil.  In this light, we tend to think of associated words to explain the feelings we have towards work:  hard, demanding, stressful, required, tiring, limiting, etc.  Those who approach “work” in a more positive way may view it as fulfilling, rewarding, purposeful, dynamic, and even enjoyable.  It is interesting how the same word can have such different meanings to people.  The fact remains that work is part of life – whether viewed as simply necessary or sought after with great enthusiasm.

Henry Ford once said:

“There is joy in work.  There is no happiness except in the realization that we have accomplished something.”

His reference is to work as one of the keys to a full life; an approach that is contrary to some of the visions we promote of sore muscles, tired minds, disgruntled and mistreated employees, or angry workers who find little inspiration in what they do to earn a living.  Ironically, Henry Ford was the forefather of the factory assembly line that allowed our country to grow and provide manufactured goods at a price that the masses could afford.  This same assembly line would house workers who had plenty to gripe about when it came to what they did to earn a living.  However, the core of what this statement presents is quite accurate – we (humankind) are built to perform, to hone our skills, to apply those skills, to produce results, and to feel complete. 

There are limitless opportunities for all of us if we understand how to invest in aligning with those opportunities and bringing them to fruition.

“Opportunity is missed by most people because it is dressed in overalls and looks like work.”

-Thomas Edison

Why is it that some look forward to each day and are ready to jump out of bed and attack the day with enthusiasm and commitment, prepared to give their best to the work they pursue and to constantly improve along the way?  Why is that others may view the day quite differently – a chore, something to dread, the source of pain and uncertainty, and work that is something to avoid at all costs?

At some level it may be that individuals in the latter category have simply not found the type of work that they were meant to engage in, or it could very well be that they fail to see just how important work of any type is to their wellbeing.

Martin Luther King stated it so well:

“If a man is called to be a street sweeper, he should sweep streets even as a Michelangelo painted, or Beethoven composed music or Shakespeare wrote poetry. He should sweep streets so well that all the hosts of heaven and earth will pause to say, ‘Here lived a great street sweeper who did his job well.”

To achieve happiness and success at any level, a person might approach work with equal enthusiasm – whatever the task.  For those of us in the business of food this implies that real satisfaction in our trade will come from approaching all tasks as if they are the most important.  Whether you are finishing a beautiful plate of food, ready for the pass or dicing 25 pounds of carrots for soup – you can find joy in knowing that you did the work well, to the best of your ability.

There is also the misconception of worth as it applies to the work that we do.  When worth relates strictly to compensation then we lose sight of purpose and significance.  Certainly, compensation is important – we live in a world where what we earn helps to determine how we are able to survive, thrive, and do the things that we seek to do.  But real worth is so much deeper than that.  Worth has everything to do with how you feel about yourself when you look in a mirror, how others view your skills and talent, how you contribute to the success of a team and the business you represent, how your work makes those who receive it feel, and how the work that you do impacts the world around you as well.  Great compensation without addressing the larger concept of worth will lead to dissatisfaction and doubt.

There is also a tremendous amount of gratification derived from “earning” a living through the work that we do.  Even the sore muscles, sweat, tiredness, and even stress that result from work can lead to real satisfaction and happiness when you know that what you are paid is deserved, and how you feel about your larger contribution is appreciated.  Earning a living, earning the trust of your co-workers, earning the respect of those for whom you work, and earning praise from the guests who enjoy the meal that you helped to prepare is one of the most important aspects of having a job and learning a skill.

Every successful chef that I know found joy in washing dishes, cutting vegetables, kneading bread dough, grilling a steak, sweating on the hot line, passing finished plates to a server, and even sweeping and moping a floor.  It is this approach towards work that allowed them to rise to the pinnacle of their profession and eventually put their signature on a restaurant.  Work is hard, it does require effort and sacrifice, it depends on a person’s commitment to doing even the smallest task with enthusiasm, it requires patience, and it requires a willingness to jump out of bed with a positive outlook on the day.  To view work as anything less that an opportunity is to miss what can result.

At a time when some struggle with finding the meaning to what they do, some question how their worth is viewed, some view work as a necessary evil, and some even invest their energy in finding ways for others to take care of them rather than take care of themselves, we (society and the food industry specifically) need to help others find the true meaning of work and how they define their own worth.

“Everyone has been made for some particular work, and the desire for that work has been put in every heart.”

-Rumi – Persian Poet

There are far more jobs today than people willing to work. The opportunities abound.  So, if you seek fulfillment, then jump out of bed, splash cold water in your face, look sharp and get to work.  Find your purpose, look for fair compensation but by all means know that your true worth awaits you no matter what position you use.  You need to work to fill your heart with promise and feed your soul.

It’s time to light the spark in everyone and start the fire of enthusiasm for work.  The issues of work ethic and a puzzling workforce dilemma that plagues every industry will not be solved simply by raising wages or changing life/work balance. If we don’t address the importance of work, then nothing will truly change.

PLAN BETTER – TRAIN HARDER

Harvest America Ventures, LLC

Restaurant Consulting

www.harvestamericacues.com – BLOG

(Over 700 articles on the people of food)

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RE-THINKING THE NEIGHBORHOOD RESTAURANT

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There are many questions that people ask with regard to the restaurant industry, but two seem to really stand out in the post pandemic world:

  1. Why should I spend money in a restaurant?
  2. Why would I choose to support a locally owned restaurant?

Let’s begin with some facts about the business of serving food:

  1. There are more than 1 million restaurant locations in the United States.
  2. In 2019, over 490,000 of those locations were independent, privately owned businesses.
  3. 64% of those independent restaurants were “full-service”.
  4. Only 1.4% fell in the category of “fine dining”.
  5. The overall industry employed more than 15 million U.S. workers.
  6. 35% of the overall male U.S. workforce and 65% of the female workforce was employed, at some time in their life, in the restaurant industry.
  7. Nearly 10.4 % of the entire current U.S. workforce is employed in the restaurant industry.
  8. In 2020 the restaurant industry generated $564 billion in sales (down a whopping $330 billion from pre-pandemic numbers), but the expected growth will be significant now that pandemic restrictions are being lifted.  The potential for a return to pre-pandemic levels is very optimistic.

(National Restaurant Association)

Now I mention these statistics because they will help to frame what the future may hold for the industry and those considering a career in kitchens and dining rooms across the country.

Everywhere you look, people are beginning to line up for a return to the good old days of restaurant service.  There is a great deal of pent-up demand and restaurants are struggling to figure out how to gear up.  Labor issues loom large, and it is hard to imagine any major correction, at least as long as unemployment is so low.  Supply chain challenges are not going away as production and logistics catch-up.  Indications are these challenges are larger than was originally thought putting added pressure on restaurant menus. And, although people are venturing out, there is still ample concern over Covid and the threat of another impending surge during the Summer or Fall.  So, with all of this – what’s the good news and how might the small independent restaurant find a way to thrive or at least survive?

Here are my unscientific predictions of a perfect restaurant universe where the strength of the American Independent Entrepreneur rises to the top.

FIRST: It’s all about the employee and the team that an independent restaurant assembles.  Passion, interest in learning, service orientation, personality, and drive will, as always, set the stage for a dynamic team and a successful restaurant.  Ah, but this must be your PRIMARY FOCUS.  There is little reason for previous employees to return to this business if it has no interest in changing its approach towards employee pay, benefits, work conditions, growth opportunity, and investment in learning.  The independent restaurant of 2023 and beyond must be a place that does what large corporations can’t or won’t do.

SECOND:  As large chains and corporate restaurants seek to find solutions through efficiency using technology and dumbing down menus, independents must re-invigorate their commitment to hospitality, person-to-person contact, creativity, and customer experiences.  Touch screen order kiosks, QSR code access to restaurant menus, a resurgence of convenience foods, and even robotics are certainly ways to minimize human error and control costs in the long run, but what does it do for the experience?

THIRD:  Ask everyone you see: “Why would you choose to spend your money in a restaurant”?  It is the ultimate question leading to how you approach business.  People re-acquainted themselves to cooking at home during the pandemic.  They drifted away from the ever-growing NEED for restaurants to support their work/family lifestyle, knowing that in many cases they could prepare a cost effective, time saving, and sometimes better tasting and nutritious meal at home.  Restaurants need to re-establish the essential reasons for dining out that will carry the industry forward after the pent-up demand is met.

FOURTH:  Know that fine dining (as we have defined it in the past) may truly be on the way out.  Remember only 1.4% of those independent restaurants fall into this category; yet this is the segment that receives most of the media attention, the segment that so many young cooks gravitate toward, and where much of the greatest investment took place.  Our customers are far savvier than they were in the past; they know great food and they expect that restaurants will provide it.  They understand quality, they appreciate cooking from scratch, they enjoy attractively presented food, and they are interested in the source of quality ingredients.  What they are less interested are pretentious environments, stuffy service, gimmicks, and absurd pricing.  They expect excellence in product, friendly and sincere service, and the ability to have fun while enjoying a spectacular meal.  The future of independent restaurants lies within the scope of understanding this and building menus and teams that focus on the right direction.

FIVE:  The independent neighborhood restaurant needs to accept that the supply chain of 2019 is not likely to return any time soon.  It will remain unpredictable as everyone tries to figure out what it should look like moving forward.  Restaurants will need to keep their menus fluid, stay away from offerings that are less dependent on seasonality and more dependent on an international network of producers, shippers, and vendors.  Yes, buying local or regional will become inevitable as the smart way to approach menus.

SIX:  Don’t forget what kept you going over the past two crazy years.  Continue to seek out ways to create exceptional experiences through take-out and delivery options.  Think about packaging:  find sustainable solutions, create attractive presentations to match what you offer in-house, and work with vendors on options that can maintain temperature and presentation through effective packaging solutions. 

SEVEN:  Know that one of the oldest sayings in the restaurant business is even more important today; that this mantra is the critical piece of the puzzle that will always separate the independent neighborhood restaurant from corporate chains:

“The handshake of the host can determine the flavor of the roast.”

Good, old-fashioned hospitality was, is, and will always be the essence of the restaurant business and the real answer to that question: ‘Why should I spend my money in a restaurant.”

PLAN BETTER – TRAIN HARDER

Harvest America Ventures, LLC

Restaurant Consulting

www.harvestamericacues.com  BLOG

(Over 700 articles)

CAFÉ Talks Podcast

https://cafemeetingplace.com/cafe-podcasts