THE SINGLE MOST IMPORTANT INGREDIENT IN THE MAKING OF A GREAT CHEF

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Is it possible to narrow down the secret of greatness to one ingredient?  What could it be?  Is it really that simple, or in this case is simplicity really complex?   I have had the honor to work with, know, or at least meet many extraordinary chefs and cooks and my assessment is that – yes, there is one common ingredient that makes all the difference in how adept, interesting, creative, and ultimately successful a chef or cook might become.  The ingredient is CURIOSITY.

Great cooks and chefs never simply accept – they are perpetually inquisitive.   Those classical kitchens where cooks simply follow directives because that is what the chef demanded were never destined to nurture great chefs.  Cooks need to state the most important questions if they are to grow – “why, where from, what is the rationale, what is the history, how is it made, what are the differences, and when should you choose one example over another?”

It is curiosity, the quest for answers upon answers that builds passion, understanding, creativity, and competence.   When a cook simply accepts without asking why, how, what, or when, then his or her passion for the craft will be limited, his or her perspective on the job of cooking with be tainted, and the resulting cooking will be a shadow of what it might become.  To nurture young cooks, to teach and train, and to build competence and confidence among those who work in a kitchen, it is essential that we (chefs and culinary teachers) establish a platform where curiosity reigns. 

Think about the possibilities and the opportunities that curiosity might unveil. 

  • SALT as a mineral and a seasoning is just salt – why question it?  Yet to really know salt is to understand where it comes from and how it is extracted.  Once you understand that the environment where salt is drawn from, just like the terroir for wine grapes, will have a significant impact on this magical mineral.  Visiting a salt mine, a sea salt plant, or if you have the chance a French Fleur de Sel farm or Japanese soy sauce artisan producer will reveal the complexities of this simple ingredient that to many cooks is just a commodity that sits on their storeroom shelves.
  • CARROTS, POTATOES, TURNIPS, and PARSNIPS are root vegetables that are easily available to all cooks and are offered at very inexpensive commodity prices.  Root vegetables are just root vegetables unless you understand them, visit a farm where they are grown, spend a few days in the farmers shoes, harvest the root vegetables by pulling them from the soil that has kept them in a protective blanket for months, and brushed them off and taken a bite.  Curious chefs want to know what that carrot really tastes like, how the farmer plays a role in its shape, texture and flavor, and how soil and climate impact the flavor.  I guarantee that if this curiosity is met – the cook will never view a root vegetable in the same manner again.
  • THAT STRIP LOIN COMES FROM MY VENDOR, period.  This is easy to accept.  Call your local meat vendor, place an order, receive it, store it, prep it and prepare it just as the chef told you.  Simple directions for the cook working the grill station in your kitchen.  But cooking that is void of understanding is so shallow, void of respect, and starved of meaning.  To become an extraordinary grill cook and eventually a chef who plans menus using those products received from a meat vendor – a serious kitchen employee must ask those critical questions:  WHERE does the product come from?  WHAT part of the animal?  WHY do certain cuts adapt well to high temperature, rapid cooking like grilling, while others insist on low heat and slow timing?  HOW is the animal cared for?  WHAT is it fed?  HOW is the animal processed, fabricated, aged, graded, and packaged?  WHAT is the difference between dry and wet aging and does Cryovac impact the flavor of the muscle?  Think about the care, respect, intensity of attention to detail, and pride that a cook will have once he or she is able to have answers to these questions, maybe visit a cattle ranch, a feed lot, and processing plant before turning a steak on a hot grill to receive those perfect grill marks.
  • ORDER FRESH SEAFOOD FROM OUR USUAL FISHMINGER is a task that chefs engage in constantly.  It might come from a local supplier or be flown in from different parts of the world, but what is important is the transaction and receipt – right?  The styro boxes packed with ice arrives and inside are beautiful Queen Snapper from Florida, Mahi Mahi from Hawaii, Atlantic salmon from Norway, Lobsters from Maine, or Dover Sole from the coast of England.  The chef unpacks, fabricates, stores, and prepares this seafood as is intended and the customer enjoys the fruits of the chefs labor.  How shallow is this process that is void of any real understanding or curiosity?  Why did the chef choose that Queen Snapper from Florida, Salmon from Norway, or Lobster from Maine?  Is it simply because of a product specification designed to meet a standard?  Imagine how the chef would approach the transaction if he or she had spent an arduous day on a Maine Lobster boat – pulling in cages?  Imagine how the chef might approach the fabrication of a beautiful Norwegian Salmon if he or she had visited with those engaged in fish farming off the cost of Bergen, Norway?  Imagine if that same chef had tried to overcome seasickness on a 25-ton fishing trawler positioned miles off the coast of Florida as they pulled in nets filled with the fruits of the sea?  Would satisfaction of this curiosity change the way that chefs order, store, fabricate, cook and serve the fish that came through the hands of dedicated fishermen rather than those who simply move the product from point A to point B?
  • PURCHASING THOSE FLOUR OR CORN TORTILLAS is the most cost effective way of acquiring the ingredients for that “authentic”, Central American restaurant.  After all, who has time to make fresh tortilla?  This will always be the case in the absence of curiosity.   Until a cook or chef has tried that first hand pressed and grilled tortilla, folded it to encompass a world of different ingredients, maybe pay a visit to Mexico, Guatemala, Nicaragua, or Costa Rica or at least spent a day with indigenous people who would never, ever use a store bought shell – he or she will fail to feel the history and the passion behind this beautiful ingredient and process.  “I wonder if there is any difference between store bought and hand made tortilla, and I wonder how the item came about in Central American culture.”  Inquiring minds want to know, and inquiring chefs will always learn to excel at what they do.
  • THE WINE LIST IS THE RESPONSIBILITY OF THE DINING ROOM MANAGER OR SOMMELIER – says a typical chef in a busy restaurant.  Have enough variety and there will be something to please most guest palates, besides, the chef really doesn’t have time to engage in wine selection as well.  Great restaurants and great chefs understand the connection and importance of food and wine pairing.  A great chef without a solid knowledge of wine varieties, terroir, the art of the wine maker’s signature, variances in vintage, and how a particular wine enhances the experience of food presented on the menu will surely be at a loss.  Chefs who delve into the winemaker’s closet of understanding will be far better at their job and will reveal a passion that rivals that of the food ingredients that bring a menu to life.  It is the curiosity about this beverage that is alive and ever-changing that adds a spark of interest to a chef’s repertoire.

Whether it is a desire to learn more about the ethnic influences that create a cuisine, the indigenous ingredients that are at the base of a certain cuisine, the time-proven steps in cooking methods, or the historical environment that led to the development of a dish or a regional cooking style – it is that most essential ingredient: curiosity – that separates a good cook from a passionate great one.  We must all remain curious if food is to be viewed as a life-long calling.

PLAN BETTER – TRAIN HARDER

Harvest America Ventures, LLC

www.harvestamericacues.com  BLOG

REMEMBERING THE PROFESSIONAL LEGENDS IN YOUR LIFE

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We are a blend of our experiences and the people whom we let in to our lives.  Everyone and everything influences the personal and professional product that we become.  It is important to note that to whatever degree we allow it to happen – influencers are all around us – shaping and molding the cook, chef, and person that others will see.

If you were to write your story that answers the question: “ how did I become the cook or chef that I am today” – how would you answer?  At Thanksgiving time it is beneficial to stop and take note, to remember those influencers and give personal thanks for their contributions to you.  So, for better or worse – here are my remembrances.  I would encourage you to do the same.

  • Thanks to my grandmother for showing me that cooking is an act of caring, something of yourself that sends a clear message to others that you want to honor them.  She also told me that when you make chicken and dumplings to make sure that you use a young chicken from the farm and to never serve day old pie.
  • Thanks to my great aunt who always baked her own bread.  She showed me that it’s all about the crust and baking is a process of becoming one with the dough.
  • To Millie, my first boss at a local diner – she was the breakfast cook and, at the age of 15, I was the dishwasher.  She would bring me over to her station when it was busy to flip pancakes, butter toast, and keep the home fries coming.  This was my first introduction to “cooking” – I was hooked.
  • To my parents, who during my early teenage years, both worked – leaving me at home after school to finish dinner and get it ready for the family meal.  Being a latch key kid helped to formulate my interest in the kitchen.
  • To Meta Bofinger, owner of the Blue Gentian Restaurant in Saranac Lake, who told me that the flavor of the food you prepare is influenced by the love that you have for the craft and the appreciation you have for the guest.
  • To that Hotel GM who interviewed me for a supervisor position right out of college.  He took the time to point out all that I didn’t know, said no to my application and told me to spend more time in the kitchen and gradually work my way into management.  I took his advice.
  • To the chef at the Buffalo Statler Hilton Hotel who accepted my application into the kitchen apprenticeship program.  I learned about team and spent time in every department during my two years at the property.
  • To Frank Shores who brought me on board at his restaurant in Orchard Park and showed me that to be successful in the restaurant business you have to count all the oranges and watch every penny.
  • To Ed Weibrecht who hired me at his newly acquired Mirror Lake Inn even though he didn’t have an opening.  He just had a good feeling about me and took a chance.  He showed me that your gut feelings are important.  We have maintained a strong professional relationship for 44 years.  He taught me that dining in a restaurant is best when it is part of a total experience that encompasses all of the human senses.
  • To Dr. Woods at Paul Smith’s College who hired me as a totaling inexperienced teacher without even asking for a resume.  I spent 26 years there, finished a bachelors and masters degree, started the culinary programs, and helped to build them into prominence.  I never knew that this would be part of my professional destiny.
  • To Fran Peroni who was my first cooking skills teacher and later peer educator who helped me build the first culinary curriculum for Paul Smith’s College.
  • To Master Chef Anton Flory for encouraging me to compete as a chef and brought me into the fold of the New England Culinary Olympic Team.  More than anything else in my career – this changed and solidified my path.  We competed and brought home the gold from the Culinary Olympics in Germany.
  • To my teammates on the Culinary Team:  Roland Czekelius, Anton Flory, Neil Connolly, Danny Varano, Michael Beriau, Joe Faria, Charles Carroll, Walter Zuromski, George Higgins, and Lars Johansson – who taught me about the power of team, the importance of honesty in critique, the dynamic of friendship, and the significance of confidence.  Of course, my culinary skills improved immensely during the process.
  • To Dick Marecki from Rochester Institute of Technology who convinced me to pursue a masters degree and dedicate my teaching life to relaying the importance of service economics.
  • To Jim Jacobs who was a consummate teacher who frustrated the hell out of me, but showed me that growth comes from asking “why”.
  • To Mary Petersen who helped me to grow my network of exceptional educators – people who always make me realize that I still have so much to learn.
  • To Kenneth Weissberg who provided countless opportunities for me to visit and learn from European chefs, bakers, wine makers, cheese enthusiasts, and historians.  He made the connection between French cooking and American cuisines a personal mission.
  • To so many cooks and chefs – many of them former students, who always helped me to question my own abilities, taught me more than they realize, and made me so proud to say that I am a chef and a teacher.  To name a few:  Curtiss Hemm, Kevin O’Donnell, Tim Hardiman, Tim McQuinn, Jamie Keating, Jamie Prouten, David Frocione, John McBride, Vicky Breyette, Jarrad Lang, Jody Winfield, Kris Angle, Jennifer Beach, Rebekah Alford, Jennette Siegel, Michael Garnish, Mark Fitzgerald, Robin Schempp, Steve Schimoler and hundreds of others.
  • To those who are masters of hospitality and know that service is as, if not more, important than the food that we love to prepare.  Thanks to Tracey Caponera, Kristin Parker, Katie Welch, Christine McCoy, Anne Alsina, Noelle Weissberg, Brian Perry, and Wally Ganzi to name a few.
  • To David Meyers for including me in his incredible placement service allowing me to work with clubs looking for that right chef to bring their brand into prominence.
  • To Curtiss Hemm who encouraged me to start writing a blog.  Harvest America Cues is well on the way to hitting 2 million views in the near future.
  • To Jack Edwards, Alfonse Mellot, Daniel Chotard, Terry Robards, and all of my fellow wine lovers who helped to build my appreciation for the beverage made from the fruit of the vine, and the passion of the wine maker.
  • To all of my consulting clients over the past eight years who helped me to grow in understanding and build on my portfolio of knowledge with each project that comes my way.
  • And, of course, to my wife of 45 years, my incredible children, and pretty spectacular grandkids who humor me, put up with my flaws, and keep me centered while giving me enough space to do what I love.

I know I have left some people out – not intentional.  I appreciate you and realize more and more every day that you are a part of who I am today.

Who’s on your list during this Thanksgiving week?

PLAN BETTER – TRAIN HARDER

Harvest America Ventures, LLC

www.harvestamericacues.com  BLOG

CAFÉ Talks Podcast

IT’S STILL A TIME OF THANKSGIVING

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For most people this will be a different Thanksgiving, a day without the traditional celebrations of large family gatherings, a day with far too much leftover turkey as we attempt to keep some semblance of normality through the bounty of the table.  Even though those we care about the most may remain spread out across the country and social distancing is measured in hundreds of miles instead of six feet – there is still plenty to be grateful for.  We can be grateful for whatever health we are able to enjoy, for the memories of those whom we have lost over the years, and the prospect of a happier and hopeful 2021. 

We can be grateful for faith and science that has carried us through this most difficult time and that will allow us to rise up anew – refreshed and positive as the virus is slowly brought under control.  We can be hopeful that what seems to have separated us will now help us to heal and come together.  When we look in a mirror there will always be more that unites us than tears us apart.  We can be thankful that Mother Nature carries on with her work – the snow will be here soon, the crisp air will wake us in the morning, holiday lights will brighten our day, and the season of giving will have even more meaning this year.  We can be thankful that this crisis serves as a wake-up call – an alert that allows us to remember what is truly important: family, health, friends, traditions, and that our longing to bring all of those blessings together will be rewarded soon enough.

We can be immensely thankful for those tireless individuals who risked their own wellbeing so that we could continue on with our lives during this pandemic: doctors, nurses, grocers, cashiers, first responders, medical technicians, postal carriers, farmers, fisherman, cooks and chefs, servers, FedEx and UPS drivers, teachers, and those in the trades who still managed repairs when their safety was tested.   How would we have managed through this without them?  We can certainly be grateful for ZOOM – this is a gift that allowed us to work from home, stay connected with our families, and even talk with our health care providers when a person-to-person visit was not possible.

For restaurants, chefs, cooks, and servers – this is a particularly difficult holiday season.  Thanksgiving and Christmas Week, New Years Eve, Presidents Week, and Valentines Day are some of the busiest restaurant days of the year – especially during a season that has little to offer small restaurant businesses otherwise.  This year will not be the same.  We won’t see the elaborate holiday buffets, full dining rooms of families looking for a break from cooking at home, restaurants enjoying the seasonal increase in marriage proposals and planning for weddings, and of course those Santa visits to eager youngsters dressed up for the Christmas Eve buffet.   There will be less need for kitchens filled with cooks working overtime, and servers hoping to receive those extra generous gratuities that will make their family holiday season a little brighter.  Maybe it’s a good thing – maybe the industry needs to re-evaluate the importance of allowing their staff to be home with their own families during this time of the year and maybe those traditions of family kitchens filled with relatives trying to lend a hand at dinner will return as we collectively relish the way it once was.

Like other businesses, especially those small businesses that make up the backbone of our economy, this has been a catastrophic year.  Some closed their doors and will not reopen; others have struggled to hang on with hope of a better tomorrow.  Those who remain will be different when this is all over.  They may look different, offer a new product or service, and will certainly be aware that how they deliver those products or services to the public will be different.  They will need your support as never before.  Those who could not weather the storm should know that other opportunities will arise and they will need our encouragement and engagement as well.  We will be different in another year – different, but in many ways better, stronger, and more in tune with what needs to be done.

We may not enjoy those large gatherings at home or in restaurants this year, but we still know that the heart and soul of this season is all about appreciating what we have and looking forward to what will come next.  This can happen in your dining room, in your local restaurant, or breaking bread via a ZOOM call that brings everyone together to smile, laugh, and enjoy the moment, even if virtually.

Next year will require that we remain vigilant and patient.  It will require that we muster up the positive energy and courage to do what is right for our families, our neighbors, and ourselves.  This is a time to give thanks for those connections and to remain strong while science does its work and the world collectively takes another step towards winning this battle.

After we have persevered – whether it is the Spring, Summer, Fall or beyond – it may be time to ask:  “what have we learned and how will we act moving forward?” One thing for sure, we have all assessed and reassessed our priorities over the past few months – let us not forget what we learned in the process.

Happy Thanksgiving everyone; be safe, be well, love your family, cherish your friends, break bread and raise a glass, and let’s move through this as a stronger, more unified, compassionate country of 330 million people.  

PLAN BETTER – TRAIN HARDER

Harvest America Ventures, LLC

Restaurant Consultant

www.harvestamericacues.com  BLOG

CAFÉ Talks Podcast

https://cafetalks.libsyn.com/

CHEFS – FAILURE IS NOT INEVITABLE

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It seems that every time I check my email or flip through postings in social media – there is another restaurant, food business, or culinary school preparing to close their doors.  It is heartbreaking to read of life visions dashed and even long-standing, viable businesses choosing to throw in the towel.  I am writing this to tell you that, in most cases, this does not have to be the storyline.

There is no shortage of organizations established to support their segment of a far-reaching industry.  We have organizations for bakers, pastry chefs, savory chefs, executive chefs, corporate chefs, club chefs, restaurateurs, cooks dedicated to sustainability, whole food chefs, college food service directors, culinary educators, hoteliers, club managers, dietitians and nutritionists, vegetable farmers, dairy farmers, cheese makers, servers, bartenders, mixologists, grape growers, wine makers, and sommeliers.  Each has a focus on issues and opportunities for their particular group, but rarely do they talk effectively with one another.

I tend to try and separate cause and effect – knowing that nothing will truly change unless we identify cause and focus on that.  Restaurants, culinary schools, producers, and those in the beverage business are suffering because of the pandemic, but there were (and still are) plenty of other crisis situations facing these segments long before Covid-19.  Restaurant profits are too low, finding competent staff is far too difficult, prices of ingredients keep rising, rents are out of sight, culinary school enrollment continues to decline, competition is too expansive, cost of an education doesn’t match rates of pay, industry pay scales and benefit offerings are too low, and marketing is way too confusing in the era of technology and social media.  How many of these challenges might be addressed if all of these silo groups actually viewed themselves as part of the same business and worked together?

Here are some things that I know to be true:

[]         Restaurants Will Rise Up Again

When WWI and WWII ended – restaurants and bars were some of the first businesses to recover.  When the Great Depression came to an end – restaurants and bars positioned themselves to thrive.  As we rebuilt American pride after 9/11 – restaurants stood in position to greet a reinvigorated American spirit.  Following the economic devastation of 2008 – restaurants hunkered down for months and then came back refreshed and charged up.  And when we are able to bring the pandemic under control – the same recovery for restaurants will be the case.  Restaurants and bars will be different; their product, service, and method of operation will likely change – but they will rise up again.

[]         Culinary Schools Will Be In Demand Again

Those schools that self-evaluate and communicate effectively with the industry they serve will always be needed.  The question is – are they willing to change?  The purpose of colleges is to teach, prepare, train and connect students with the rest of their lives.  The purpose is not to generate degrees.  When they start to look at the relevance of products that they offer and diversify from the standard degree; and once they connect better with the industry that hires their graduates, they will stand tall and thrive.  Schools cannot continue to exist in their own bubble – creating content that fails to align with the industry they serve.  They cannot continue to create programs that place graduates in debt for 20-years following graduation and, they cannot remain effective unless they deliver an education model that takes advantage of industry partnerships.

[]         Bars Will Once Again Become a Preferred Meeting Place

People love to gather, to connect with friends and make new ones.  Restaurants and bars have always served that purpose and they will again once people are comfortable with being out in public.  In fact, I would dare to guess that bars, in particular, would find themselves busier than ever before.

[]         Smaller Farms Will Become Essential Once Again

One thing that has become very apparent during this pandemic is that our supply chain is far more fragile than we thought.  Compound this with the impact of climate change on centralized production and we have a real concern that reaches far beyond the altruistic and environmental reasons for connecting with local farms.  Although a very difficult business – the opportunities for smaller regional and local farms will only grow.  But, farmers and chefs must work together to create this model.  Neither can exist in a vacuum.  The farmer needs to grow what the chef is looking for and the chef must create more fluid menus that take advantage of growing cycles and the quality derived from peak crop maturity.

[]         Great Bread Will Be Even More Important to Restaurants in the Future

One thing that we have learned over the past two decades is that great bread is essential to a great restaurant experience.  We have also discovered that artisan style bread is preferred over the tasteless, poorly structured products that were prevalent in the American diet for decades.  For those who are willing to learn and invest the intense amount of effort – artisan bread will be in much higher demand – thus a business opportunity.

[]         Private Entrepreneurship Will Prevail in the American Restaurant Industry

Those who have been most impacted by the pandemic are the small, privately owned restaurants in America.  Tens of thousands will close their doors, yet the American dream of entrepreneurship will rise up from the ashes and restaurants that have always been, and will once again become – a first choice for those who want to leap into ownership.  If banks can become more “user friendly” for restaurants and landlords more reasonable with rent, then your neighborhood restaurant will return – maybe with new owners, certainly with new concepts, and a fresh way of serving the needs of a community.

[]         More and More People Will Seek to Eat Healthy as They Understand the Impact on Health and Wellbeing

It is inevitable that our obsession with healthcare will lead a larger percentage of the population to work on preventative issues such as obesity, diabetes, cancer, and heart issues – all are linked to the type of food, the method of cooking, and the amount that we eat.  Restaurants will need to respond, and they will.

[]         Profitability and Challenges with the Labor Market Will Eventually Find Common Ground

Restaurants are and always have been highly labor intensive while remaining very stingy with profit.  The answer has always been to skimp on rates of pay and benefits creating an ever-challenging swinging door of employees moving from operation to operation for a few pennies more in pay.  The likely answer is to change the way we look at production and service leading to more efficient operations requiring fewer employees that can be paid a fair wage with reasonable benefits.  Something has to give.

Now, if we can unify our efforts around these realities, if we can connect all of those silo driven organizations to work together for common solutions, then the business of food will thrive and become far more resilient before the next crisis strikes.

PLAN BETTER – TRAIN HARDER

Harvest America Ventures, LLC

Restaurant and Culinary School Consulting

www.harvestamericacues.com

CAFÉ Talks Podcast

https://cafetalks.libsyn.com/

WHAT CUSTOMERS DON’T KNOW ABOUT RESTAURANT WORK

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More difficult than you may have thought, more chaotic than you might expect, more poetic than you realize, and more fulfilling than you would understand: this, to me, describes the environment of the professional kitchen that few customers are able to view or experience.  It is this dichotomy of experiences that draws people into a career behind the range and keeps them there for decades. This is a behind the scenes look at the place and the people that bring a plate of food to the guest’s table. 

TEN THINGS YOU DIDN”T KNOW ABOUT A RESTAURANT

  • An organizational structure that attempts to keep things under control

There is a long history of how kitchens and restaurants are structured.  Although executed at different levels – this structure is something that all those whom work in restaurants can depend and lean on. It is our comfort zone – a place and an organizational structure that makes sense and attempts to keep a lid on a long list of independent work before and during service. 

In the kitchen – work responsibilities are divided into oversight and action positions – the number depending on the scope of the restaurant menu and the size of the operation, but basically there are chefs, cooks, and support staff.  Each have specific duties and all have some shared responsibility.  The chef will likely be the most experienced culinarian with responsibility for the financial operation of the kitchen, menu planning, ordering and inventory control, training, and quality control.  He or she may not spend as much time cooking as a typical guest might think.  The cook is the action person – this is the individual who actually brings ingredients together, responds to customer requests, and prepares your plate of food.  The support staff members include those dishwashers, and cleaners who keep the ship afloat during the chaos of prep and assembly. 

The front of the house is typically separated into those who interface with guests directly and walk them through the ordering process to those who set the stage and support the work of the primary server.  This includes back waiters, bus personnel, and bartenders.  The strict alignment to table stations, training, development of a wine list that complements the food menu, and the smooth oversight of intense chaos so that it seems to be controlled rests on the shoulders of the dining room or restaurant manager.

Regardless of the restaurant type – this is a standard structure that anyone working in the business can expect and adapt to.

  • Independence in a manufacturing model that defies logic

To walk through a kitchen prior to service you will see a number of cooks and support staff going about their respective work with seemingly little connection to a master plan.  Each will have their own list of prep that relates to either a station or event and with rare exception they are allowed autonomy in how they approach the work.  Underneath the façade of independence lies a system that keeps all of this personal activity integrated into a bigger picture.  This may never become apparent until these same cooks are setting up their stations for finish work once the dining room doors open to the public.

  • A cluster of artists accepting control

Every seasoned cook struggles with controlling a desire to flex his or her artistic muscle and modify a dish to suit his or her style.  At the same time, each cook is fully aware that consistency and adherence to the standards of excellence that defines the restaurant must win in the long run.  A smart chef will provide opportunities for creative expression through nightly features and a cook’s input on the next wave of menus.  Any long-term attempt to keep artistic expression under wraps will result in constant replacement of cooks after frustrated ones leave for an operation with more freedom.

  • Chaos that leads to symphonic orchestration

There are two different kitchens, two different restaurants that might be observed by an interested guest.  The kitchen before service is alive with independent, sometimes stressful work scattered throughout the space.  Each cook is struggling against the clock to get his or her prep in order before setting a station for service.  Once service begins there will not be any time to take care of prep that was not completed in advance.  To view this, one would certainly use the word: chaos.

Once each line station is set for service, the mise en place is well appointed, the side towels are folded, pans stacked in the ready, menu reviewed, and ingredients are in place; once the orders start to tick off the printer and the expeditor raises his or her baton to signify the start of the nightly score – the chaos turns into a beautiful piece of music.  Cooks pivot and turn, pans ring as they hit the stove top, tongs click in rhythm, plates clang in unison as they are set in the pass for pick up, and cooks chime in with yes chef when directives are given by the expeditor.  You can put music to this dance that is very poetic and fluid.

  •      Improvisation that is kept in check

Although cooks will have a chance to express themselves through nightly features and an occasional pitch of an item for the next menu – when the restaurant doors are open on any given night – their job is to make sure that each dish is prepared consistently, looks and tastes the same, and follows the established design that the chef has put his or her stamp on.  There can be no deviation from the established norm.  Cooks know that “buy-in” to this game plan is essential if they hope to keep customers coming back time and again.

  • The chef who rarely cooks your food

This may be a shock to many guests, but the chef in your favorite restaurant is probably not the person who cooks your meal.  As previously mentioned each person has specific responsibilities and the chef’s are at a different level than those who finish the food you order.  It is, however, the chef who is responsible to train those cooks how to prepare the dishes that the restaurant puts its signature on.

  • A culture of family that defies logic

All of the typical highs and lows of being part of a family exist in a kitchen.  Team members know each other’s strengths and weaknesses and compensate accordingly.  They may be highly critical of each other, but don’t ever assume that someone outside of the “family” has the right to do the same.  When in trouble – the team will help a member of their group – without question.  There is a brotherhood or sisterhood that is just as real as if there was a biological connection between them. 

  • Service staff that have other careers

The majority of those restaurant servers that a guest connects with have other jobs – sometimes jobs that are their chosen careers – they just don’t pay enough, or they don’t provide the challenges and stressful excitement that comes from being a pleasant server, psychologist, counselor, and menu expert for those who fill dining room tables. 

  • A gathering place for castoffs and square pegs

The dynamic of the restaurant employee (especially in the kitchen) is flush with those who don’t fit in, are not inspired by typical 40 hour work weeks, find comfort in chaos, never flinch at cuts and burns, and do what they do out of a love for the art they produce and challenges that uncertainty brings every day.  Restaurant employees are part of a culture that doesn’t fit anywhere else.

  • Adrenaline junkies who are gluttons for punishment

When you step back and watch all of this, when you discover that cooks in particular live on the edge of disaster on any given day, when you see how they kick into gear when the job becomes impossible, and when you see them return the next day for a repeat of the same punishment, then you will begin to understand that the heat, the stress, the uncertainty, and the shear craziness of kitchen life is driven by the adrenaline rush.  Unless you have been there and felt it, you can’t understand.

PLAN BETTER – TRAIN HARDER

Harvest America Ventures, LLC

Restaurant Consulting

www.harvestamericacues.com  BLOG

CAFÉ Talks Podcast

https://cafetalks.libsyn.com/

**Check in to CAFÉ Talks Podcast this Wednesday – November 18 for an interview with Chef Jeremiah Tower.

A COOK’S SENSUAL OVERLOAD – TOUCH, TEXTURE, CHEW

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We are tactile beings – the feel and texture of things that we encounter is very personal and very important to our life experience.  Such is the case with the food that we consume.  As is stated by the Institute for the Psychology of Eating – some believe that chew or experiencing the texture of food is an innate need to show a level of aggression – a necessary release for our piece of mind – while others simply point to the process of chewing as an essential part of the digestion process.  In all cases, the concept of flavor depends on the texture of food, to be complete.

To this end, certain foods are defined by their texture or chew.  What would a September apple be without that crisp snap when we bite into it, what would a great bagel be without the hard work of chewing, a pudding without the creamy texture of softened butter, or a steak without the rich chew that releases the deep umami sensation that is a result?

“So important is the level of crunch that many years ago, potato-chip manufacturers developed a sophisticated apparatus to measure the perceived level of crunch that consumers hear in their heads. The most pleasurable decibel levels were deciphered, and potato chips were subsequently manufactured to these standard orgasmic crunch levels.”-The Institute for the Psychology of Eating

Flavor is a complex and complete experience – it is far beyond the stimulation of taste receptors.  To taste without chew is shallow and incomplete.  Chew is something that has lasting meaning and, like smell, there is memory attached to it.  Just as we remember and look forward to the texture of that fall apple, so too do we vividly remember what that experience is and use it as a benchmark of quality when it comes to judging all other apples.

Texture and chew is also a metaphor in life that points to how these “touch” events determine the depth to which we become one with life’s experiences.  We are told to “chew on it” when presented with an opportunity or problem.  Accountants “crunch” the numbers signifying a commitment to ensuring that the results are accurate and when we over-extend or take on too much responsibility we are said to “bite off more than we can chew”.  It is this physical process or association that helps to define the type of experience that is a result.

As cooks and chefs build their flavor memory they must understand and categorize the process of connecting with texture, touch, and chew.  Think about these products and experiences and how important touch, texture, and chew are to the dynamics of flavor.

  • That first oyster or clam:

It is an act of faith in the strong recommendation from a chef or the result of a dare from others that allows us that first experience with a raw oyster or clam.  Certainly, it is rare that anyone would choose to let a live shellfish slide down your throat for any other reason – yet, if we allow that incredible texture and ocean brininess to take hold – the flavor experience is like no other.  In this case – chew is very subtle; we allow the throat to simply accept the texture of the sea.

  • The French fry expectation:

Food companies spend countless hours trying to perfect the French fry experience.  For the product to meet and exceed expectations it must retain its deep fried crunch on the exterior while yielding a soft and moist experience within.  It is a delicate balance between the type of potato, the method of processing, the state of chill or freeze, how it is blanched, the type of oil used in deep frying, the temperature of the oil, and knowing how the cook will treat the whole process before the finished product is placed in the pass.  With the French fry – texture is king.

  • Ripe melon:

Melon is one of those fruits that thrive on the extreme.  An unripe melon just doesn’t feel right in the mouth, is tasteless, and is likely quickly discarded by any who have experienced the benchmark of ripeness.  When ripeness is at its peak – the texture is soft, yet still in complete control, the flavor is pronounced, the level of moisture is intoxicating, and the overall food memory created is exceptional.  Once you experience a perfectly ripe melon – nothing else will do.

  • Vine ripened tomato:

To meet the demands for tomatoes on the market – twelve months a year, and to be able to ship those same tomatoes without damage – they are far too often produced in a greenhouse, sometimes hydroponically, picked long before vine maturity, sometimes waxed and sent your way.  The result is a firm and tasteless product that barely resembles what a perfect tomato should be.  When a tomato is exposed to the sun, grown in rich soil, picked when it is mature and consumed while still warm from that July sun – it is something to write books about and sing its praise with song.  When the texture of the skin serves to simply keep those warn tomato seeds from bursting forth, when the bite yields the powerful flavor and soft texture of that warm interior running down your chin – then you have a flavor memory that will linger until next season.

  • The magic avocado:

Maybe more so than any other fruit – the avocado is a tough client for the chefs cutting board.  Before it is ripe – the texture is uninviting and unwilling to add any value to the kitchen program at your restaurant.  Left too long in its skin and the peak creaminess of a perfect fruit turns to a stringy and sometimes blackened interior that shouts to the cook that he or she has waited too long.  When the avocado is perfect it is as creamy as softened butter, rich in flavor and brilliant in color.  This is the fruit that serves as a centerpiece for salads, appetizers, and your favorite guacamole.

  • Crispy skin of a roast chicken:

There are few preparations that point to the skill of a seasoned cook than a perfectly roasted chicken.  When the cook pays as much attention to the skin as he or she does the breast meat or rich darkness of the thigh and leg, then the chicken experience is so prominent as to become a favorite meal.  Basting, seasoning, covering and uncovering through the roasting process will yield that crisp, buttery, salty crunch that is the first thing that a knowledgeable consumer reaches for.

  • A Georgia peach at peak maturity:

Stone fruits like plums, nectarines, cherries, apricots, and peaches can be just as fickle as the avocado.  Typically picked before maturity so that shipping does not damage the fruit – these hand held products of nature can be too hard, too unforgiving, and too tasteless for positive food memories.  When picked at or near maturity – the peach is an ambassador for Mother Nature.  Soft with a small amount of bite, bursting with flavor of sweet and a little bit of tartness, dripping with nectar, and hard to put down – the ripe peach is right at the top of the food memory data bank.

  • Artisan bread:

Very few foods are as satisfying as perfectly baked artisan sourdough bread.  When done right – the combination of a crisp exterior and a chewy interior that releases more and more flavor the longer you chew is something that you can experience virtually once imbedded in your food memory.

  • The stages of salt water taffy:

Maybe not the most prominent flavor that chefs think about, but in remembrance of your youth – walking on the beach and stopping at that salt water taffy stand is something that can define an important time in your life.  Taffy has it all from a texture and chew standpoint.  The warmth of the sun makes the taffy a bit sticky to handle, but once in your mouth you will always remember the changes from a challenging chew at first to different stages of softness until it finally melts and disappears.    Incredible – imagine if chefs could re-create these stages with their dessert selections in a restaurant.

  • Al dente pasta:

Al dente – or firm to the bite defines how most pasta is designed to be eaten.  When cooked al dente – pasta is digested more slowly and thus satisfies your hunger for a longer period of time.  The firmer texture creates a more enjoyable “chew” and retains far more flavor than over-cooked pasta that bleeds out its flavor to the salted cooking water.

  • A comfortable dining room chair:

Aside from the food itself – the environment where we dine has much to do with the flavor experience.  An uncomfortable chair detracts from the process of eating and attention is placed on finding a way to relax so that dining becomes a positive respite.

  • The feel of the right flatware:

The feel and type of flatware can enhance the flavor experience if it matches the food ingredients, their preparation and their cost.  A plastic fork and knife may be perfectly acceptable for that Nathan’s hot dog and fries, but the Black Angus rib eye steak deserves a rose wood handled Henkel steak knife and heavy, long tine sterling silver fork.  The touch of the tools is part of the dish memory.

  • The delicate elegance of the right wine glass:

Wine is such a unique beverage that is impacted throughout its life by numerous environmental factors.  The struggle that the vine goes through to extract nutrients from the terrior will determine much of the grapes integrity and flavor; the process of touch as it applies to how the grapes are crushed (gravity fed or more aggressively pressed) will determine if the grapes are bruised and possibly change the deepness of flavor; the packaging for shipment of bottles will either protect or endanger the stability of the continued bottle fermentation; and the quality of the wine glass does, in fact, impact the experience of taste and aroma.  If you have never been through a Riedl glass seminar then make sure you put it on your list of “must do” experiences

Touch, texture, and chew are essential components of the dining experience and critical elements that define your food memory benchmarks.

PLAN BETTER – TRAIN HARDER
Harvest America Ventures, LLC

www.harvestamericacues.com  BLOG

CAFÉ Talks Podcast

A COOK’S SENSUAL OVERLOAD – SMELL

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Now that I have your attention – allow me to walk you through a cook’s journey of experiences that activate the senses.  One of the most amazing aspects of the human mind is its capacity to store and remember every single experience from birth to last breath.  These experiences whether they are tactile, social, psychological, or spiritual are stored in the subconscious mind – a person’s “built-in” hard drive.  Sometimes those experiences are buried deeply in that hard drive and take real effort to bring to the surface while others simply require a small prod to jump into the conscious realm and activate all of the senses.  It truly is amazing.

What cooks and chefs talk about quite often is “food memory”.  Oftentimes the difference between a good cook and an exceptional one is the breadth of a person’s food memory.  Sometimes we refer to them as flavor benchmarks – significant additions to a food memory data bank that become the standard-bearers of how we approach and compare food experiences moving forward.  Cooks and chefs are bombarded with these benchmarks – each and every day.

WHAT IS THAT SMELL?

*Bacon – is there any deeper, more intoxicating, more all consuming smell than that of thick strips of bacon frying in a pan or rendering in an oven.  Every kitchen is filled with this gratifying aroma that greets cooks and chefs as an old friend wrapping his or her arm around their shoulder and telling them that life is good?

*Onions – what makes us salivate, wake up and direct our attention to our palate is the rich smell of caramelization.  Onions are the mistresses of the kitchen – that irresistible link to the passion of eating.  Every cook snaps to attention when those onions hit the surface of a hot pan and squeak and hiss as they turn from white to transparent, to lightly brown.

*Garlic – Ahhhh – garlic.  What is that smell that reminds us of home cooked meals, of the beginnings of a rich Bolognese, the foundations of shrimp scampi, or the start of a sear before the long and slow process of braising those veal shanks or short ribs?   Garlic, to cooks, is the magic ingredient that only gets better as it is used with reckless abandon.

*Grilled meat – a cherry red grill fed by the flames from briquettes laps around that ribeye, New York strip, or Black Angus filet.  The marbled fat that webs through the eye of those steaks begins to melt and drip – fueling the flames even more and sealing in the flavor and moisture of the steak with grill marks and an exterior crust that shows the power of the Maillard Reaction.  This smell is like no other – it reminds us of a good life, of summer bar-b-que with family and friends, and the best partner that a robust red wine could have.  This aroma welcomes cooks to their station and reminds them of why they do what they do.

*Sauté’ mushrooms – When we use the term umami we often think of the savory aspects of roast pork or a 109 rib pushing it’s internal temp close to 120 F.  But the smell of fresh mushrooms like porcini, shiitake, crimini, morels and chanterelles is as close to umami nirvana as one might ever expect to achieve.  This is the environment that cooks live in.

*Bread from the oven – the work, the time, the physical handling of a living product, the elegant simplicity of four ingredients, the marvel of a sour dough starter uniting the gluten strands and lifting a dough to a remarkable stature pales in comparison to the smell of the finished product being pealed from the oven.  Let the loaf dance in your hands as you flip it over, pull it close to your nose and drawn that completely unique smell into your being.

*Cinnamon Danish – if you have worked in a kitchen where breakfast is served – then you are familiar with the sinful smell associated with cinnamon rolls or Danish pastries fresh from the oven.  You know that you shouldn’t, but it is nearly impossible to get anything else done until you break apart the rings and allow that first bite to melt in your mouth.  You must take a moment with a familiar cup of coffee to relax and just let the magic happen.

*Simmering Stock – I always made sure that every kitchen that I orchestrated had a stock working every day.  Sure, the stock was important as the foundation to soups and sauces, but maybe even more importantly it sets the tone for a kitchen dedicated to foundations, to building flavors in layers, and to respecting the traditions of a professional kitchen.  Stocks are a statement and their deep aroma welcomes every cook to his or her station, allowing them to know that they are part of something special.

*Fresh brewed coffee – We all have a relationship with coffee.  To many, it is the first thing that we seek in the morning, the finish to a great meal, and the last acknowledgement to signal the end of the day.  Each sip allows us to engage our olfactory senses as well as our taste receptors.  In professional kitchens – coffee is a baseline aroma that is always there, always luring us over for another jolt of caffeine.

*Cured meats – The inspiration for this article was a video clip that I watched a dozen or so times – a walking tour through a curing room filled with thousands of Prosciutto hams hanging and working their way through the long process of fermentation that yields one of the culinary worlds most heavenly aromas and flavors.  Picture what it must be like to walk through that cure room, take a deep breath, and let your senses turn to high alert.  This is a cook’s moment.

*Cheese affinage – As enticing as the prosciutto cure room might be, the musty, fruity, deeply fragrant smell of a cheese cave takes it a step further.  It is the affinage that takes the pressed curds from milk and transitions them into signature cheese from runny soft, and stinky Epoisse, to firm, mature Manchego, or the aged and intelligent aromas of Parmigiana Reggiano.   Cheese, bread, cured meat, and great wine combine to tempt the nose to understand the mystical nature of the food that we eat.

*Shaved truffles on scrambled eggs or pasta – Not an every day experience, even for the most experienced chef, but if there were an aroma that’s impossible to describe except to say “truffle” this would be it.  Nothing else smells remotely close to a truffle, nothing will make you stand tall and give all of your attention to food, and no smell is more addictive than a fresh truffle that is shaved over loosely scrambled eggs or fresh pasta.  If there were a smell to describe heaven – this would be it. 

As cooks we are privileged to work with, be enticed by, and enjoy the pleasures of aromatic foods.  This is the environment we work in and this is quite possibly one of the greatest benefits of choosing a life behind the range.

Up next:  TOUCH, TEXTURE, and CHEW.

PLAN BETTER – TRAIN HARDER

Harvest America Ventures, LLC

www.harvestamericacues.com  BLOG

CAFÉ Talks Podcast

https://cafetalks.libsyn.com/

THE APOCALYPSE FOR RESTAURANTS IS NEAR

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It is the end of October 2020 and we are all focused on the National Election in just a few days.  We certainly should be zeroing on this event that will likely change the course of history and determine what America looks like and how it is perceived for generations to come.  While we wrestle with important issues of voter suppression, confidence in the system (how amazing it is that this is a concern in the United States of America), and whether or not one party or another will accept the results – there are two monumental disasters looming:  Covid-19 is rearing up its ugly head for a second and third wave that all indications point to as worse than the first (even if some may try to down play the threat) and as a result – the restaurant industry is facing the end of the road.  As Jeremiah Tower stated in a recent interview I conducted with him:  “This is not a challenge – it is the apocalypse.”

This is not an exaggeration, this is not a case of fear mongering, this is not political – it is a fact.  As winter looms heavy on every restaurateurs shoulders and those outdoor patios are closed due to weather – restaurant owners and chefs are breathing heavy as they know what lies ahead.  The pandemic is real, the virus is real, and people are scared.  Dining indoors is scary enough for both customers and providers, but opening inside dining with 50% occupancy is simply not workable financially.  Add to that the realization that at any moment, Covid-19 may force local governments hand and another mandated lockdown could be right around the corner.  Leisure travel is non-existent, and business travel is very limited.  Conferences and conventions are gone, weddings are not taking place in hotel and restaurant venues, meetings are virtual, graduations are accomplished on ZOOM , and those Friday night meetings of friends in a local bar or trendy restaurant have basically evaporated.  Each one of these changes is another nail in the coffin of the restaurant business.

Try as they may – restaurants cannot sell enough take out, press regular customers to purchase enough gift certificates, deliver enough re-heat meals, or convert enough dining rooms into marketplaces to cover their expenses and make up for that loss of full dining rooms.  Restaurants are facing really, really difficult times.  These are problems that they can’t ideate their way out of.  Even the best restaurant minds are at a loss – what can be done to stop the bleeding and ride out the storm that is likely to last another year?  Holy crap!  Most restaurants have a tough time surviving through one tough month – let alone nearly two-years.

Breathe deep, sit down, have a glass of wine or beer and think about a world, a country, a neighborhood without those familiar restaurants, those places where we gather with family and friends to celebrate, honor, laugh, toast, and communicate over great food.  We might try to convince ourselves that restaurants are a luxury and we can get by without them – but the reality is that restaurants are a very, very important part of our lives – we all need them.  We may have survived over the past eight months without those restaurants, but think about the hole in our lives as a result let alone the loss of jobs and the demise of small businesses. This is a serious and highly transitional time that will have a long-term impact on society. 

We certainly can’t ignore the dangers of Covid-19, it is our responsibility to do what is necessary to move through this, stay safe, and keep our neighbors healthy.  Restaurateurs and chefs, for the most part, do not deny this – but, the question is: “are we ready to pay the price?”  Are we ready to face a life without those places that are the core of a community?  Is there an answer, is there a way to protect each other and support the restaurant industry at the same time?

YES THERE IS!

First, and foremost – we need immediate assistance from the Congress and the Executive Branch of government.  It might even be too late, but we (I mean each and every one of us) must insist that Congress pass a relief bill that focuses on the individual, restaurants, and state governments that host all of those public services that we depend on.  A new wave of PPP support to help restaurants and other small businesses pay their employees (employees that are in rough shape through no fault of their own), intervention with landlords for reasonable deferral and payback programs for rent that can’t be met during the pandemic, and an infusion of funds to the SBA so that they can buoy up restaurants that need short term loans and consultation to help problem solve their crisis issues.

Second, we need to stop this politically polarized nonsense that denies the seriousness of Covid-19, ignores the directives of science, and coddles people who fight common sense over wearing masks as if they were middle school brats, and promotes dumb conspiracy theories that the virus is non-existent or far less serious than it is.  This is just absurd and we will never get back to anything close to normal unless we stop this foolish behavior.

Finally, we all need to do our part to support local businesses in ways that we can, while still practicing safe behavior.  We need a 12-month strategy that will support the 24/7 efforts of local businesses to survive.  The alternative is to accept a life after Covid without those restaurants that have been around for generations, those places where we gather to celebrate special occasions, take a break from the stress of work, or simply get together to clink glasses, share our day, and laugh with reckless abandon.  Remember those days, remember how important those opportunities were to our wellbeing? 

Call your representative, vote for those who know what needs to be done and stand on a soapbox to fight for yourself and those local businesses that make a community all that it can be.

PLAN BETTER – TRAIN HARDER

Harvest America Ventures, LLC

Restaurant Consulting

SAVE LOCAL RESTAURANTS – WE NEED THEM!

Be smart – wear a mask, socially distance from one another, wash your hands, and know that together, with effort, we can make a difference.

www.harvestamericacues.com BLOG

COOKS AND CHEFS – WE ALL CRAVE DISCIPLINE

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Let’s not confuse freedom with a desire to do whatever we want without a system of order or respect for the discipline of structure.  We can both be free and still respect the need for that discipline that comes from organization.  A well-run kitchen is not a free-form environment where every cook does his or her own thing or moves to the beat of his or her own drum.  Just like other well-run organizations – the kitchen functions best in a system where everyone has well defined jobs, follows the structure of systems or order, and exhibits the discipline of structural respect. 

Whether it is the military, your favorite baseball or football team, FedEx, UPS, the airlines, or your favorite musical group – structure and a level of discipline are essential if the end result is going to be accomplishment of business objectives. 

My experience, and I will note that it may not be everyone’s experience, is that kitchens tend to attract a broad array of staff members who come from environments where discipline is not always the norm.  The refreshing nature of discipline is what attracts many of those great employees to the environment of the kitchen.  There is comfort in the ability to achieve concrete objectives – a well-prepared plate of food and a satisfied customer.  There is comfort in wearing a clean, crisp, white uniform that represents history, tradition, and pride.  There is comfort in following the directives on a prep list, a recipe, or a banquet order.  There is comfort in knowing and executing foundational methods of cooking that can consistently yield good results.  There is comfort in knowing that there is a chain of command in the kitchen and that following this order creates a sense of team when and where it is needed.

I have recently read articles that claim that the discipline and order of chefs as far back as Escoffier or as contemporary as Ferran Adria or Thomas Keller are no longer appropriate or needed.  That this structure that chefs have defended for generations will somehow stifle an individuals opportunities in a kitchen and thwart their ability to grow.  Oh contraire, my experience is just the opposite.  It is exactly this structure, and this discipline that helps to develop talented, polished individuals and build a skill set that leads to long-term success. 

Do not misconstrue this support for discipline as an endorsement of hostile work environments where some chefs have been known to demean and excessively criticize cooks – there is no place for this approach.  Discipline is not synonymous with this awful, abhorrent approach that is, for some reason, portrayed as normal on TV kitchen shows.  This may have been normal in the distant past, but it cannot be tolerated today.  But, a level of discipline and structure is critical, especially in complex, ever changing and time sensitive environments like a busy kitchen.

I have observed kitchens that are highly disciplined while employee centric at the same time.  It is these kitchens that hum with enthusiasm, pride, and professionalism and produce extraordinary results.  I have seen cooks when they button up those crisp, clean uniforms, tie on an apron, and draw their knives across a wet stone to hone an edge; when they wipe down their station, line up their tools, and pull down an organized prep sheet, and I have watched that spring in their step, that look of focused professionalism that can only occur in a kitchen that respects the order and discipline of the work.

It makes no difference if it is a 4-diamond restaurant offering fine dining, a quality pizza shop, a bakery, or a hospital foodservice – discipline, pride, and results are closely aligned.  I have seen cooks from all different walks of life – some from culinary schools, some who worked their way up from dishwasher, some born into an American neighborhood, and some who came to our country for a better life, both male and female, young and at the beginning of their work life and others who are nearing the end of their careers – come together with pride in the work they do, joy in their accomplishments in front of the range, and charged up about the kitchen where they work.  This is what discipline and organization bring to a work environment. 

Peek into the kitchens of restaurants that you patronize and you can immediately see the difference.  In fact, it is likely that the food presented to you as a customer will reveal the level of discipline, professionalism, and organization that exists in that kitchen. 

A chef who understands that his or her role is to define that structure, create an environment where critique is tied to training, and results are aligned with the structure and organization that –yes, Escoffier, Pointe, Poilane, Keller, Trotter, and others established or reinforced, is a chef who will not only find personal success, but will set the stage for employees to enjoy a long and fruitful career.

There are many aspects of the restaurant business that need to change: pay scales, benefits, reasonable work schedules, tolerance of chefs and operators who demean and belittle employees, and addressing the factors in restaurants that limit profitability- but, in all cases it will be organization and structural discipline that will make those changes possible.

PLAN BETTER – TRAIN HARDER

Harvest America Ventures, LLC

www.harvestamericacues.com  BLOG

CAFÉ Talks Podcast

https://cafetalks.libsyn.com/

CHEFS – WHAT DOES YOUR MENU REPRESENT?

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Consider this – the menu is the most important component of a successful restaurant and once designed it can, and should, impact every other aspect of the business.  These aspects include: décor, skill level of staff, style of service, pricing, profit, type of vendors selected, kitchen layout, equipment selection, marketing and advertising, pay scales, dining room seating, type of china, glassware and flatware, even the location and color scheme for the exterior of the restaurant.  YES – the menu is that important!

The menu comes first and should reflect the philosophy of the owners and chef and how the operators expect to be perceived by the public.  Far too many times the menu takes a back seat to all other planning that will lead to serious miscalculations along the way.  General Motors would never build and equip an auto plant, hire the entire staff, and create a marketing strategy until the car they intend to build is designed, prototyped, and presented to various focus groups first.  Why should it be any different for restaurants and their menus?

That being said – here are a few examples of “menu thinking” that can be considered:

[]         A COLLECTION OF ITEMS THAT SELL

This menu is developed using analytical data that is drawn from surveys and historical reference to other restaurants within a community or region.  There is certainly nothing wrong with this approach except that the result is typically an operation that lacks inspiration, lacks soul, and attracts employees who are less interested in passion and far more content to align with the operation that provides a dependable paycheck.  There are thousands of restaurants just like this – they serve a real need for dependability.

[]         A CONNECTION TO HISTORY

Whether it’s the history of the town where the restaurant is located, the family that owns the operation, or the heritage of a certain ethnicity – sometimes these influences set the stage for a menu and what it represents.  Destiny and tradition create expectations that are hard to argue with.  A restaurant on the Maine coast without lobster would be difficult to justify, just as a café in the French Quarter of New Orleans without some reference to Cajun, Creole, traditional Southern or Acadian French cooking would seem out of place.

[]         A CHEF’S SIGNATURE

Of course – many chefs view the menu as a chance to make a statement – a statement that focuses on those styles of cooking that influenced the chef, his or her desire to “push the envelope”, and a chance to stand out among the crowd of competitors.  This menu energy is attractive to chefs while at the same time it is risky.  A chef’s signature without any research can set a negative perception of the restaurant that is hard to break.  At the same time – a restaurant that boxes a chef into a corner with little or no room for expression will find it difficult to hang on to culinary talent. 

[]         THE COLLECTIVE STYLE OF THE KITCHEN TEAM

When a chef engages the culinary team in the process of menu building, and when this is done with proper guidance and adherence to a common set of benchmarks, then real kitchen synergy will result.  This is one of the best ways to attract excellent cooks and create an environment where they want to stay and contribute to the team effort.

[]         A DARING TRIP INTO THE UNKNOWN

We have seen some examples of uniquely talented and daring chefs who want to shock as much as inspire.   Keeping in mind that there is a relatively small, but passionate number of consumers who are referred to as “innovators” (1-2% of the dining public) – there will always be room for a few disruptor restaurants.  The biggest challenge is keeping those innovators interested and expanding the market to enough predictable guests to keep the restaurant in business.

[]         A REFLECTION OF COMMUNITY

When a chef takes part in active demographic research – a menu might very well reflect something about the community where the restaurant sits.  Building a neighborhood restaurant where support for the operation is considered a responsibility of residents becomes a reality when that operation truly connects.  It might be based on a menu that reflects the heritage of the community, the ethnicity of residents, their socio-economic background, or something about the community that makes it unique.  When a chef identifies this and as a result creates loyalty – then a restaurant can expect to live on for generations.

[]         THE OWNER’S FAVORITES

Owners have a tough time staying out of the menu planning process.  It is their business after all – right?  The chef, regardless of how creative he or she might be, and the owner, regardless of how savvy he or she might be as a consumer – needs to take a back seat to all of the factors that will lead to a connection with consumers and return customers.  Beware of the owner that hopes to build a personal menu rather than one that might work.

[]         A LIST WITHOUT DIRECTION

It takes just a minute or two for a seasoned restaurant professional to identify a menu without direction.  There should always be “connections” on the menu:  the appetizers set the stage for the entrees, and the entrees lead to desserts that complete the package.  When a menu lacks continuity, then the experience suffers and the customer is left – confused.

[]         AN ATTEMPT TO PLEASE EVERYONE

There was a time when the American diner was prevalent at every major crossing of highways.  Not ever knowing whom their next customer might be – these operations attacked the customer will pages of menu choices, representing multiple ethnic influences, utilizing every ingredient possible, and doing so without any parameters such as what makes sense for a given meal period or how the kitchen and service staff might function.  When the restaurant offers pasta primavera and tacos throughout the day then the consumer starts to wonder what the results will be.

Don’t underestimate the importance of smart menu planning that takes into consideration the habits and desires of typical customers, demographics, the facility layout and equipment on hand, the skill level of the cooks, the style of service that front of the house employees are trained to execute, the price point and profitability potential of the items selected, the availability of vendors, and the passion and ability of the chef who stands at the helm.

PLAN BETTER – TRAIN HARDER

Harvest America Ventures, LLC

www.harvestamericacues.com  BLOG

CAFÉ Talks Podcast

https://cafetalks.libsyn.com/

THE COOK’S INTELLECT

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Anyone who has tied on an apron in a professional kitchen understands the physical nature of the work.  We know about the aching muscles, the throbbing feet, the faltering knees, and the heat – did I mention the heat?  But we don’t often take the time to stop and pay attention to the intellect of the cook and the broader skills that few careers can boast.  Great cooks and chefs are highly intellectual individuals who are challenged to apply those skills and aptitudes every day.  Unfortunately, it is rare to hear of anyone pointing out these essential abilities or the need for them if one is to be effective in the job.

So, for all who are sweating on the line every day, for all who are dipping their toes into the rushing water of a culinary profession, and to all chefs who think they know their worth – here are the unheralded skills that cooks and chefs apply each and every day without much fanfare:

[]         MATH

Yep, that’s right – cooks are adept at using math every day in the kitchen.  They apply these principles while expanding recipes, using fractions with units of measurement, working with percentages (especially in the bakeshop), portioning products, determining yield of products through fabrication and cooking, using geometry to determine precise vegetable cuts, and working within the parameters of recipe costing.

[]         TIME MANAGEMENT

Working backwards from a finished plate of food – cooks must prioritize work based on how long each step will take, as well as pacing of a ‘la minute work on the line to ensure that every dish on an order is ready at the precise time for plating.

[]         STRATEGIC PLANNING

From the moment a cook walks through those kitchen doors he or she is building a strategy for the day.  “How will I approach today’s prep, what can I defer till a later time, based on who is scheduled for a shift – how must I adjust the work that I do, and given the reservations for tonight – which items might move and which items will take a back seat to demand.”  Sometimes the strategy is systemic and doesn’t waver, while at other times each day will be unique. 

[]         PROJECT MANAGEMENT

Especially in operations where there are significant numbers of banquets and special events – the cook is assigned a function and must either align with a project strategy already developed by the chef, or in some cases build and manage that project independently.  All of this is done within the parameters of standards of excellence and timing.

[]         PROBLEM SOLVING

Even the best-laid plans can go astray when the unforeseen gets in the way.  The best cooks and chefs will constantly work on scenarios so that very little is classified as a surprise.  If left to chance – whatever could go wrong – will.  This is the principle of Murphy’s Law that every cook subscribes to.  The best cooks solve problems before they arise.

“In its simplest form, Murphy’s Law states: If anything can go wrong, it will. However, as with many successful business theories, the original law has been extended over time to cover specialist areas, several of which are given below:

  • Project Planning: If anything can go wrong, it will. Usually at the most inopportune time.
  • Performance Management: If someone can get it wrong, they will.
  • Risk Assessment: If several things can go wrong, the one you would LEAST like to happen will occur.
  • Practical creativity: If you can think of four ways that something can go wrong, it will go wrong in a fifth way.”
  • www.mindtools.com

[]         HISTORY AND ANTHROPOLOGIE

The best cooks take the time to study the background of a dish or a cooking process.  A person who has never studied the history of a dish such as Cog au Vin is far less likely to master it than another person who understands the ingredients, why they are used, how they are used, the type of people who consumed it, their socio-economic background, the indigenous nature of the ingredients used, how it was presented and how it might have been celebrated by those involved.  So cooks are often compelled to learn more about a dish or process as part of their skill development.  One does not learn how to make Kansas City BBQ without living in KC and apprenticing with a pit master who was born and raised there.

[]         ART AND DESIGN

Food is the ultimate art form and every plate of food that a cook touches is truly a canvas that was analyzed and approached with an eye for color contrast, symmetry, dimension, consideration of negative space, applying different textures, combining geometric shapes, and maximizing the three-dimensional nature of the dish.   Additionally, the cook considers all human senses in the build out of that dish: sight, sound, smell, taste, and touch – no other art form is that fully engaged with the senses.

[]         PSYCHOLOGY

There is psychology at play whenever team members are reliant on each other to perform a task.  The kitchen team is a fragile organism that requires understanding, compassion, support, critique, anger management, and passion.  All of the aspects of understanding oneself and those around you are at play at every moment in the kitchen.

[]         COMMUNICATION

Communication in all of its forms is essential in a well-run kitchen.  Verbal, body language, written communication, and eye contact are used by cooks – all the time.  Whether it is checking what and how you say something, the manner with which you give a directive, offer critique, write a prep sheet, enter info in a log, prepare a recipe, or simply give a nod or make eye contact with another player on the team – communication is critical.  Cook’s learn to be masters at this essential skill.

What is most interesting about these unique skills is that they define the difference between a cook and a great cook, a chef and a remarkable chef.  These skills are also very transferrable – thus great cooks and remarkable chefs can quite easily transition into another career track as a result.

PLAN BETTER – TRAIN HARDER

Harvest America Ventures, LLC

Restaurant Consulting

Know your value and the unique skills that you bring to the table.

www.harvestamericacues.com  BLOG

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THE FUTURE OF THE RESTAURANT BUSINESS

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Numerous people have asked me, over the past few months, what I think about the future of restaurants in America.  Of course, this is a question without scientific studies to back up an answer – this is pure speculation.  However, there are a number of indicators that point to a very challenging few years ahead.  The simple answer is nobody knows for sure, but it doesn’t look good.  Please read through till the end, because it’s not all doom and gloom.

Here are the challenging indicators

In the short term:

  1. A capacity limit of 25% or 50% simply doesn’t work for an industry with substantial fixed costs and low profit margins.
  2. The difficult labor situation pre-Covid was tough, it’s even worse now, as many people have decided that a job in the restaurant business is just not worth it.
  3. Landlords can only be forgiving for a short period of time – they have bills to pay as well.
  4. Customers may put their toe in the water and test the safety of going to restaurants now, but all that it will take is an outbreak traced back to a restaurant to change everything.
  5. The industry, in many parts of the country, had a decent summer season, but that was because of outside dining.  In many parts of the U.S. that is beginning to change as winter looms large.  Dining inside is just not as attractive right now.
  6. Un-employment and under-employment eradicate unnecessary family expenses – so restaurants are right back where they were after the 2008 economic crash – they are not essential.
  7. Small restaurants, in particular, are just like their employees.  They cannot endure long periods of time without a revenue stream.  Many restaurants cannot survive past a month or so without throwing in the towel (It has now been more than seven months).
  8. Our government just doesn’t get it.  Restaurants are important to the economy, they are important to American’s piece of mind, they are effective ways of bringing people together especially when everything else seems to push them apart, and restaurants tend to define a community or neighborhood – they are the heart and soul of what makes a community gel.
  9. It is estimated that as many as 50% of the nations restaurants will close and never re-open as the virus continues to thwart any chance of financial survival.

In the long term:

  1. Restaurants don’t want a bail out – they want support and real help.  This means that American entrepreneurs need the support and advice of experts to help them figure a way out of this business mess.  These restaurants need training and mentorship, they need easier access to low interest loans, they need some type of easement on their rents (which requires federal support for landlords), they need extended unemployment benefits for their employees and they need a national marketing program to focus on the importance of your neighborhood restaurants.
  2. This pandemic has revealed significant problems with the U.S. supply chain.  This is just as important as talk about infrastructure rebuilds.  Without real dialogue that looks hard at centralized production and distribution vs. a return to a more de-centralized model – there is little doubt that the supply chain will continue to show its weakness.
  3. Low profitability and intense need for lots of hands to get the job done are issues that have plagued the success of restaurants for many decades.  The country needs a load of great minds to figure this one out.  With an increased failure rate among restaurant start-ups, soon enough we will see a decreased interest in becoming a restaurant entrepreneur.
  4. Low pay and meager benefits have been associated with restaurant work forever, finding a solution to this is long overdue.  Ask yourself: “Why would anyone want to work in a high stress, physically demanding, unpredictable, labor deprived powder keg industry when pay is below the national average for skilled workers, employer paid healthcare is impossible to find, sick leave is even rarer, vacation time is questionable, personal days are non-existent, and predictable schedules are impossible?
  5. For seven months people have become accustomed to avoiding restaurants, cooking more at home, and saving money that would have normally been spent for a dine out meal.  Will they return at some point as though this period in time was just a slight inconvenience?
  6. As restaurants suffer from low participation and in many cases – closure, so too have culinary schools who had the job of training tomorrows cooks, chefs, and restaurant entrepreneurs suffering from low enrollment and less than stellar placement opportunities for graduates.  This adds to the draining of the labor pool.

So, indications for long-term recovery and success are not great.  But, this does not mean the restaurant industry will not recover and regain strength over time.  These factors simply change the face of an industry that has evolved very little over the past 50 or so years.  There is, and will be, real opportunities moving forward for those who can recognize and solve the immediate problems, accept the need to change – really change, and approach tomorrow with passion and enthusiasm.

This is what I (again, no scientific data to support my theory) think will occur over the next few years:

  • There will be a wholesale culling of restaurant numbers.  Those who are not business savvy with disappear, those who fail to recognize that they need to re-invent will disappear, and those without quality leadership will not have the heart and energy to carry on.  This breaks my heart to see; yet it is the most likely scenario.
  • Those who stand tall and admit that they need help, seek out those who can encourage change and show them the path, and those who relish the opportunity to become truly different will find a path to renewed success.  Of this I am certain.
  • Those who re-design their systems to reduce the number of hands required in a restaurant while increasing efficiency and quality will be able to pay their employees better and find a way to create improved work/life balance for their most important assets – people.
  • There will be a movement towards more reasonable dialogue and contractual agreements with landlords.  There is a space for effective compromise here.
  • More and more – mobile options for restaurants will gain traction.  This means more food trucks, more appropriate licensing and tax burden sharing with communities, and wider acceptance of this as a long-term answer.
  • Take out food will rise to a new level of excellence as most restaurant realize that although this will never be their most profitable way to present a meal – it will be an expectation and they had better do it exceptionally well.
  • Consumer education will become the norm through on-site classes, video chef demonstrations, and instructional links for take out customers – how your food was prepared and how to refresh it at home.
  • Partnerships between schools and restaurants will provide opportunities for certificates and degrees in culinary arts that cost less and result in better-trained graduates.  Schools will need to speed up the process of learning, ensure that what they teach is relevant, and build hybrid delivery experiences that are as good or even better than full-time person-to-person.  Refresher process specific course work will become available on line or through social media, and those who enroll in school will be able to access skill updates for life.  The connection between schools and students will never end and job placement will become the key element of an education with some level of guarantee that those who complete a course or degree are “kitchen ready”.
  • The safety protocols that larger chains have adopted and seem able to deliver will be just as well programmed in those independent operations.  As a result, the neighborhood restaurant will have a fighting chance of regaining their support in communities across America.
  • The government will eventually see the importance of restaurants to our way of life and will re-invigorate the breadth of work and power of the SBA to do so much more.  They will be able to provide training and consultation for small restaurants, help them negotiate better terms for long and short-term bank loans, and connect hundreds of thousands of independent operations to a national marketing campaign that helps the industry attract employees, and convince the public that these businesses are streamlined to keep them healthy and safe.
  • Finally, the Department of Commerce, the U.S. Department of Agriculture, the Food and Drug Administration, and professional commodity groups, food related organizations, and chefs will form a taskforce to look deeply into the changes needed for a stronger, more resilient food distribution system.

I truly believe this and am confident that with leadership in Washington that is more in-tune with the issues facing restaurants – things will change.  It will take time, but as has been the case through national and international disasters over many decades – the restaurant industry will rise up and thrive again.

PLAN BETTER – TRAIN HARDER

Harvest America Ventures, LLC

Restaurant Consulting

www.harvestamericacues.com BLOG

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A KITCHEN’S ELEGANT LAST IMPRESSIONS

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As a chef, I have long admired the craft of the Patissier and Boulanger. Chefs readily admit that the skill set of a dedicated pastry chef or bread baker is quite different from that of the savory chef.  Aside from the innate artistic talent for detailed presentations – the pastry chef is far more adept at applying the exactness of chemistry to food, and far more intent on the details and patience required to present incredible works on a plate.  Pastry chefs are in a league of her own – a club of amazingly talented individuals who make every chef shake his or her head in disbelief at the art of individual with a pastry bag in hand.

One of my favorite “wake up” moments was working in a competition kitchen many years ago when the famous Pastry Chef – Lars Johannson walked by my station.  I was busy piping a salmon mousse on canapés at the time.  He looked at me and

said: “You do very nice work, but you have no business holding a pastry bag.”  He walked away and I knew for certain that pastry work was not in my future.

I have always subscribed to the importance of first and last impressions to the overall experience of dining.  Think about it – I would dare to say that many guests understand that those initial experiences in a restaurant and those that end the meal are the ones that stick with us.  They define the food experiences that we have and create benchmarks for others to follow. 

Whether it is a trip to your local retail bakery, a walk through a well appointed grocery store, that first impression of food when seated in a restaurant or the final course before the presentation of the check – I guarantee that the visual impact,

deep aromas, and first bite of an artisan bread, or luscious plated dessert are some of the most satisfying parts of the guest experience.

Why is it that a simple ham sandwich from a bistro in Paris can be so extraordinary?  Sliced ham on a buttered baguette – that’s it!  Why does this rival the finest complex sandwich found in a New York deli?  It’s the quality of the bread.   Why is it that no matter how full we might be after a restaurant meal – it takes very little prodding to convince us to order that feature dessert?  It’s our nature to crave something sweet and our desire to see just how exceptional the kitchen might be with this last impression. 

That commitment to great bread and the focus that a chef places on a dessert menu that rivals a restaurants signature entrees is one of the most important drivers of a successful restaurant.  That beautiful retail bakery window display that highlights the skills of a pastry chef with cakes, tarts, petite fours, profiteroles, Madeleines, and meringues is impossible to resist. 

People crave the luxury and innocent pleasures that sugar, pastry, fruits, genoise, chocolate, and crème fillings bring.  It is in our DNA to want and our limited willpower to resist the temptations of the pastry chef.  If a chef loses sight of this

reality then he or she is limiting the full experience for the diner.

Bobby Flay once said:  “First Impressions are Everything”, but I would add – it is also true that: Last Impressions are Forever Impressions.  The pastry chef and baker are responsible for both.

It may have been Chef Careme who first brought the concept of Grand Cuisine and the art of cooking to the event tables of his day, but today’s pastry chef has refined and re-defined the art and the importance of food for the eyes as well as the palate.

Carême, as you may remember, gained fame in Paris for his elaborate centerpieces made of pastillage, sugar, and marzipan.  He did free lance work for Napoleon and Charles Maurice de Talleyrand to name a few.

A pastry chef to those operations large and complex enough to support the position is the visual signatory of the operation.  Hotels, resorts, clubs, and caterers crave those signature pieces to make their food events stand out as memorable and sought after.  A grand wedding deserves the grandest of cakes; a conference or convention seeks out those centerpieces on buffets and individual tables that reflect the objectives of the event; holiday festivities in hotels and resorts demand those structures that align the property with the joy of Thanksgiving, Christmas, Easter, Hanukah, and other ethnic and religious celebrations as well as welcoming in the New Year.  It is what is expected and it will always be what guests talk about for years to come.

The talent of the pastry chef may be innate, but the skill to produce centerpieces and individual plated works of art is built from hard work, countless years of practice, and loads of patience.

A SINGLE DAY OF EXCELLENCE:

The pastry chef – Suzanne Holmes, enters a resort kitchen just shortly after 4 a.m. – the bread baker is pulling crusty whole-wheat boules and crunchy baguettes from the oven – his day is nearing an end.   She pulls down the clipboard with today’s prep list and smiles nervously at the breadth of detailed work to be done.  Her apprentice will arrive shorty and Sam – her counterpart for the evening shift will take over sometime after 3 p.m.  This is a week of high profile events including the unveiling of the hotel’s new spa.  Chef Holmes will need to concentrate much of her effort today on completing an elaborate chocolate sculpture of male and female figures in a yoga pose.  This has been a project that she has worked on for the past two weeks in addition to her normal onslaught of pastry and dessert work.  Additionally, two weddings will require triple tier fondant cakes and nearly 1,000 individual petite fours glace.  The dessert menu that has brought fame to the main restaurant must be stocked with individual components that Sam will assemble in the evening.  Chef Holmes breathes easy when she touches base with Addie – her bread baker and breakfast pastry aficionado – she knows that this part of her department will always take care of itself.

The petite fours cakes have been layered and trimmed so all that remains is to wrap them in marzipan, coat with fondant, and pipe a simple rosette on the top of each bite size piece.  Her apprentice has been with the department for six months now so aside from delicate chocolate filigree work and important sauce reductions – the apprentice can handle the restaurant dessert work.  Sam always keeps up with ice cream work since the operation added two Pacolet machines that make the work much easier.  So – it looks like centerpiece time.  Chef estimates that the finish work on the sculptures and final spray with cocoa butter will take her about three hours – plenty of time to let everything set and move the showpiece to the spa entrance.  The resort GM is counting on the chocolate work to be front and center when local press arrives to take pictures at the opening.  Another three hours on the petite fours and the two weddings tomorrow should be set except for assembly and final piping on the three tier cakes.

As pressured as Chef Holmes feels she knows that being patient and methodical are essential traits with the detail work before her.  Her dedication to excellence and insistence that every piece of work that comes from her shop meet exacting standards makes the work fun, but always stressful.  She re-hangs the prep sheet clipboard, sets her station and begins a typical day in the pastry shop – a day where her last impressions will help to define the quality of the whole operation.

PLAN BETTER – TRAIN HARDER

Harvest America Ventures, LLC

Restaurant Consulting

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CHEFS – YOUR EMPLOYEES JUST MIGHT HAVE THE ANSWERS

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We all know the challenges facing restaurants right now – there is little benefit in reiterating the problems.  The question is: “What’s the answer?”  Of course the pandemic is the cause and the effects are either a direct result of that or the necessary restrictions that evolved from Covid.  What needs to be addressed is: “ How do we build trust among customers, trust that the restaurant will keep them safe, and how do we generate enough sales and in turn – profit, to keep the operation moving forward?  Ask your staff!

Your staff members are vested in the success of the restaurant, just as you are.  They may not be encumbered with as many critical issues as you – but they know the customer, they see the operation through a less cluttered lens, and they are able to tune into immediate changes that might just pull you out of the weeds.  Engage them, trust them, encourage them, excite them and give them an opportunity to help far beyond preparing a plate of food or delivering it to the table.  Behind the mask and the social distancing each one of those employees is home to that next great idea – sometimes obvious, and sometimes hidden beneath the surface.

WHAT THEY KNOW:

[]         Your employees know that the essential challenge is TRUST.  They see those hesitant customers walking into a restaurant (or not) while scanning the environment for masks, distancing, and proper safety protocol.  Your employees know that this is not the best way to start a dining experience.  They know that at this point their primary job is to make the customer feel safe.  Ask your employees: “What else can we do to bring about that trust?”

[]         Your employees know that preparing and serving food is only a part of what has kept customers coming back on a regular basis.  They know that the ability to attract new customers lies not with just flavorful food and speedy service, but rather with a deeper experience that can and does create memories.  Ask them how you might bring back an experience in a world of masks and 6 feet of distance.

[]         Your kitchen employees know that the wall that separates the kitchen from the customer creates a level of uncertainty: “What are they doing back there to ensure that the food is safe, the plates are sanitary, and the process of preparation is designed to keep Covid at bay?”  Pose these questions to your employees – who is better positioned to find the answers that would lead to a higher level of trust among customers than those who interact mask to mask?

[]         Your kitchen employees know that 25 or 50% occupancy caps on restaurant dining rooms will never be sufficient to sustain an operation.  They fully understand the rationale that the top line (sale) drives the bottom line (profit).  They can see the concern in your eyes over the certainty of failure when a full dining room is not allowed.  Ask them for ways that you might increase check averages, improve costs, become more efficient, or build menus that contribute more to the bottom line.  You might just be amazed at what they have to offer.  They live every day what you simply oversee.  Who is better prepared to understand the cause of problems and potential solutions than those people who are closest to the challenge?

[]         Your employees know that one confirmed case of Covid stemming from your restaurant will result in temporary or even permanent closure.  Any trust that was built will be set aside when fear takes over.  Ask your employees about your protocol and how to best protect them, the guest, and the business.  Who lives closer to the challenge than employees who are shoulder to shoulder in the operation?  What should be done to protect this? 

[]         Your employees know that typical marketing in the midst of a pandemic is very ineffective.  That ad in the local paper or radio commercial that helped to fill a dining room in the past is frivolous at best when fear and uncertainty are the norm.  Ask them how to best promote a restaurant experience when so many people are simply saying: “No, I’ll just wait until this whole thing is over?”  Ask them about creating word-of-mouth, and a social media buzz that quells fear and builds anticipation for that experience once again.  Your employees are more than just a name on the payroll – they are ambassadors and salespersons who, when they trust what you are doing, will invest in creating that buzz.  Get them engaged.

Your greatest asset in business will always be the employees’ who clock in to your front or back of the house.  All of the investment in décor, menu, tabletop, and marketing are far less significant than the quality of committed staff members.  Solicit their ideas and engage them in the process of success.  Don’t rely on government to solve our problems and overcome our challenges – rally your troops to rise up and find the opportunities that will always exist even in the most difficult times.

PLAN BETTER – TRAIN HARDER

Harvest America Ventures, LLC

www.harvestamericacues.com  BLOG

Restaurant Consulting

TEAM COMPETITIVENESS IN THE KITCHEN

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Create a Team Built to Win

When Coach Vince Lombardi said: “Winning isn’t everything – it’s the only thing”, he was not inferring that winning at all costs justifies the means, not was he inferring that somehow “losing” was the end of all hope – he was simply stating that the attitude of excellence and the goals that define it should always be a driving force within a person’s attitude or a teams mantra.  How you play the game in the process of winning is critical, as is the sportsmanship that allows people to get past defeat with honor and grace while taking the time to positively recognize those who administered that defeat.  Standing tall and looking forward to the next chance to win, knowing what needs improvement, how to rise above mistakes, and supporting each other in the process is at the core of a winning team – even in defeat.

Well-run organizations – in this case a kitchen, are built to win.  They hire, train, critique, support, celebrate, and rally behind the members of the team that has been built and push each individual to contribute his or her best – always.  This is what great organizations and great teams do.

Kitchens, like athletic teams, share in a common structure.  This structure is based on the understanding that the team is only as strong as its weakest link and that greatness is achieved with each team member understands his or her strengths and weaknesses as well as those of the other members of the organization.  Great teams turn to those with certain strengths to rise up and show the way and build up those with identified weaknesses so that together they can float their boat even on the most challenging seas.

Each day in a kitchen there are ample opportunities for a “win”.  Getting that dish just right, controlling costs, managing inventory, meeting budgetary goals, topping yesterdays customer count, clearing the rail of tickets without any re-fires, a complement from customers, top ratings on Trip Advisor or Yelp, or a positive local restaurant review can all be viewed as a competitive opportunity.  Each of these goals requires that all players on your kitchen team be tuned into their role and self-motivate to hit the mark of expectation that the chef, manager, or owner has set.  Success will not occur if the weight of success falls solely on one individual or even a part of the kitchen team.  United in purpose is the call to arms.

The spirit of competition must be felt by every individual in an organization and by the team as a whole.  In this manner – competition helps to drive people to always improve.  The Japanese refer to this as Kaizen.

Michael Jordan is probably one of the most vivid examples of a person who would breathe that competitive spirit constantly.  He said:

“You have competition every day because you set such high standards for yourself that you have to go out every day and live up to that.”

Michael did not need to be pushed to strive for excellence – it was in his DNA.  As a result, he became the taskmaster for the team, the standard setter that drove the expectation of others.  His unwillingness to accept anything less than best effort became the core philosophy of those around him.  He was tough, but focused on something that would benefit everyone.  He could play a support role when the team was clicking on all cylinders or he could take individual control when the rest of the team had lost its steam.  It was his competitiveness with himself that kept the team boat afloat.

Charlie Trotter, in many chefs’ minds, defined what fine dining would become in America.  His renowned restaurant: “Trotter’s” was the benchmark for others to follow for nearly 25 years.  The food was groundbreaking, the service was impeccable, the restaurant was polished and smooth on the eye, and the creativity was beyond parallel.  It was his competitiveness and the expectation of the same from his staff that made the restaurant what it was.  He was a tough person to work for and his expectations were not for the faint of heart. 

His focus is clear in this quote:

“I have always looked at it this way:  If you strive like crazy for perfection – an all-out assault on total perfection – at the very least you will hit a high level of excellence, and then you might be able to sleep at night.”

It is this internal competitiveness that pushed Trotter to not only create a truly great restaurant, but more importantly to help those who worked for and with him to carry this spirit of winning to their own careers, and in some cases – their own future restaurants.

Never known as a pleasant person to work for – Steve Jobs – founder of Apple, was a consummate perfectionist, the driving force behind and in front of a company that always maintained a mission of excellence and ease of use.  Creating the next great product was secondary to doing so as the company that created the benchmark of excellence with regard to that product.  His focus on every detail from the user interface to how beautiful the circuit boards in an electronic device were (something that the average user would never see), to the packaging and style of everything associated with the company became the core belief and guiding measurement for every employee in the company.  Some could not live up to the expectation and some would thrive in the environment where winning meant admiration, respect, coolness, and desire to own.  Although he is no longer with us – Apple continues to move forward with the underlying question: “What would Steve think?”

Steve once stated:

“For you to sleep well at night – the aesthetic, the quality, has to be carried all the way through.”

He was in competition with himself to always produce a product that was great – this same objective became the calling card of Apple – that internal competition that drives them to always determine how to make things better – how to win.

“When you’re a carpenter making a beautiful chest of drawers, you’re not going to use a piece of plywood on the back, even though it faces the wall and nobody will ever see it.  You’ll know it’s there, so you’re going to use a beautiful piece of wood on the back.”

-Steve Jobs

This is how a great business “wins”.  This is the result of a commitment to excellence and internal competition that moves people in that direction.

The same can be said for numerous other companies like Walt Disney, IDEO, Porsche, Bose, Oxo, Daniel Boulud’s Dinex Group, Thomas Keller’s restaurants, Danny Meyer’s Union Square Hospitality, and Ritz Carlton Hotels.  Each of these successful companies is founded on an attitude of excellence – a desire to win – not at all costs – but through a commitment to individual and group need to reach for excellence.

Your restaurant whether it is a neighborhood pizzeria, taco shop, American diner, Italian trattoria, French bistro, Farm to Table fine dining operation, or New York style deli – can and should build up from a desire to be excellent, a commitment to win, and a team effort to reach those goals.

As a friend of mine and successful entrepreneur once said: 

“No matter how many similar businesses there are in a community – there is always room to be the best.”

It’s hard to argue with that logic.

PLAN BETTER – TRAIN HARDER

Harvest America Ventures, LLC

www.harvestamericacues.com  BLOG

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CHEFS – FINE TUNE THOSE SENSES

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The kitchen sensual army

There are many things that differentiate cooks and chefs, but none more important to the customer experience and the reputation of the restaurant than mastery of the senses.  Whether a fine-dining experience or your local taqueria – the cooks that stand out, the ones that are the reason why customers line up to buy their food, are the ones with well developed senses of taste, smell, touch, sight, and sound as they relate to what takes place in the kitchen.

The essential tool in development of these senses is experience.  Certain individuals may be born with the capacity to taste and smell, with the innate talent to present beautiful food, and with excellent hearing, but it is what those senses are exposed to that makes a cook – a great cook.  Every experience that we have is imbedded in our subconscious mind.  When we are exposed to that memory again, it moves quickly to the conscious realm and we say: “a’ha – I remember that”.  After frequent exposure to that same memory can even allow an experienced cook or chef to envision what that product will smell, look, sound, and taste like – even before that takes place.  This is how experienced chefs are able to plan dishes and menus knowing how ingredients will marry together, what the overall flavor profile will be, and how the final dish will look.  It’s an amazing process.

Without the experience associated with the development of this sensual tool, it is like a beautiful knife that never leaves the roll bag, or fine china that never serves as a canvas for a plate of food.  Thus, the best cooks and chefs are always seeking out those sensual food experiences so that they can develop their flavor memory.

It is common for people to confuse flavor and taste as being the same, but taste is but a portion of the flavor experience.  Flavor is a combination of taste, sight, sound, smell, and texture – all in the right proportions.  Try tasting a familiar ingredient while you hold your nose to see how the flavor changes.  Close your eyes and taste a raw potato next to a fresh apple and see how similar they are.  Think about it: Is a potato chip a potato chip without the sound of the crunch?  Is fresh baked apple pie as appealing if it has no smell?  Why do green and white asparagus taste so different – does it have anything to do with the color?

An interesting exercise to establish the importance of sense experiences is to ask your cooks some basic questions:

[]         WHAT DOES A STRAWBERRY TASTE LIKE?

The majority of time the cook will likely say something like: “It tastes like a strawberry”.  Well, if that cook had never tasted a fresh picked, fully mature strawberry before – how would they know what to expect?  More importantly, how would they know how to differentiate a great strawberry from an inferior one?

[]         DESCRIBE THE FLAVOR OF BAR-B-QUE BRISKET?

Anyone from a southern state will likely win any contest in describing this flavor, and ironically, their response will differ depending on which state they are from.  What will be universal are the smokiness, the moisture, the tenderness, and the subsequent mouth feel that comes from a process that goes beyond taste.  Unless you have tried a brisket that was smoked and cooked over coals for 12-24 hours then it will be impossible to describe the flavor or know when a properly cooked brisket is just right.

[]         WHAT DOES A FRESH TRUFFLE SMELL LIKE?

The truffle is one of the most unique, impossible to describe ingredients unless you have held one up to your nose, shaved it offer soft scrambled eggs or fresh pasta, or buried it in raw Arborio rice to imbed its perfume in a dish of risotto.  It is intoxicating and overwhelming to the senses.  But without the experiences mentioned, it would be impossible to describe.

[]         TELL ME IF THE HOLLANDAISE I JUST PREPARED IS CORRECT?

What is the balance of lemon and heat from Tabasco? What is the right amount of salt? Is the correct balance of egg yolk and clarified butter present?  Is the mouth feel correct?  A sauce with the simplest of ingredients is so hard to make correctly and to achieve proper balance.  Can you imagine being asked to make a hollandaise if you never made one correctly before or had never tasted a perfect example? 

[]         CAN YOU TELL IF A SAUTE DIVER SCALLOP IS BEING COOKED CORRECTLY IF YOU ARE BLINDFOLDED AND 20 FEET AWAY FROM THE RANGE?

That scallop will only reach it’s perfect state if the pan used to sear it is screaming hot and the portion of clarified butter is just right.  The sound of a pan when it sizzles beneath that scallop and the smell of butter before it passes the burn point is a tell- all even if the cook does not see the scallop.

[]         ARE YOU ABLE TO DETERMINE THE DEGREE OF DONENESS ON THAT STEAK BY SIMPLY TOUCHING IT?

Of course a cook can always probe that steak with a thermometer to determine degrees of doneness, but a seasoned broiler cook would never be caught doing that.  This cook knows the give of the muscle at medium or medium rare.  He or she knows the perfect point at which to give the steak a 45 degree turn to imprint those beautiful grill marks, when to flip the steak (just once), and when to pull it from the heat so that it takes advantage of carry over cooking and time to rest so that it doesn’t bleed out when that first cut of the knife opens it up on a plate.

[]         CAN YOU TELL IF THOSE ONIONS ARE CARAMELIZING PROPERLY JUST BY SMELLING THEM FROM THE OPPOSITE END OF THE KITCHEN?

The Maillard reaction (reducing sugars and protein through the application of heat) that is the process of caramelization has its own smell and sound.  If it is taken too far then the item begins to burn giving off a less than pleasant aroma.  When it is done right the sound of the sizzle and the sweet smell of this chemical reaction is one of the most positive of kitchen aromas.

When the chef turns on his sensual radar

A seasoned chef can walk through a kitchen, turn on his or her sensual radar and assess what is going right and what is going wrong.  When the radar is tuned in, he sights, smells, sounds, and tastes of the kitchen fill the air and send signals of process and outcome.  These are skills that go way beyond a person’s natural ability; it is a culmination of experiences that have changed how the cook views the world around him or her.  Without these experiences, this capacity will never be realized.

Cooks who have the desire to master their craft are the ones who seek out food experiences, taste and mentally record those experiences, re-introduce those experiences frequently enough to allow them to become a part of their bag of tricks, and relish the opportunity to share this gift with others.  When this happens they are in control of the food that is being prepared, the ingredients that are being purchased, and the success of the team engaged in creating memories for restaurant guests.

PLAN BETTER – TRAIN HARDER

Experience is the best educator

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A SOMBER DAY – WE SHOULD NEVER FORGET THE SOUL OF AMERICA

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Nineteen years later – what does 9/11 continue to mean to America and the world?  This is a day that must give us pause, a day of unthinkable horror that will always be remembered by anyone born before 2001.  It is also a day that has and will continue to impact every person worldwide, regardless of his or her age and nationality.  This is the day when the world stopped and gave a collective gasp – The United States was attacked on its own soil, by an outside entity, for the first time since Pearl Harbor signaled a new phase in World War II.  This is a day that changed our lives forever, that set a new uncomfortable course for the world, and a day that changed how others viewed the U.S.  We were suddenly – vulnerable.

First, and foremost, for me and others who were going about their normal business on that day in 2001 – this is a day to remember the fear and uncertainty that rushed through our veins when word of the attack became real; when the twin towers crashed to the streets of New York, when a passenger jet plowed into the Pentagon, and when another was brought to a halt in a Pennsylvania field en route to the White House.  That moment brought about a paralyzing fear of: “What just happened, what is next, who did this, how could this be happening?”  This was also a moment that drove us all to immediately think about our families and what must be done to protect them.

In the days to follow, the real meaning of 9/11 would become clear.  We learned of the friends, family and co-workers who lost their lives in the attack, the first responders who would selflessly give their lives to help others, the extent to which this event would change the character of America, and for the first time leave our citizens with a realization that we were vulnerable.

In the days to follow we would see the world united in condemning what happened and showing solidarity for America and our people.  “My God, someone attacked the United States!  What does this mean for every other free country in the world?”  There was unity among our allies and even those who were on the fence about a relationship with the U.S.  We could, for a period of time, feel comfort in how much support we saw throughout the world. 

In the days to follow, the world focused on a common enemy- terrorism.  It seemed as though this focus could actually bring about a collective effort to stop the growth of hate and violence that brought about this terrorist statement, a statement that pointed to our fragility.  Dozens of countries would send their troops and advisors to help America fight this battle that threatened the free world – it was, if such a statement can be made, a reality that brought about a feeling of completeness and unification.

Then we over-stepped our bounds, other underlying initiatives drove us to make assumptions, and include other deeply seated theories in our approach towards this common battle.  What once was a unified effort would slowly lose its heart and many of our allies drifted away – eventually leaving America to fight a battle that was no longer clear and the countries impacted left with even more fragility and anger at its peak.  The world became even more polarized than it was in the past and nationalism rose up its ugly head in not just America, but in numerous European countries as well.  Tens of thousands of soldiers and innocent bystanders would lose their lives or end up with life long disabilities as a result of wars without end. 

Our country was changed significantly on that day in 2001.  The fear and anger that was justified on 9/11 fueled the fires of mistrust, polarization, isolation, and hate.  The face of America looks quite different than it did in the summer of 2001.  The once unified world that respected the meaning of America and supported the democratic dream that was the model for others to follow was damaged, maybe beyond repair.  The word of Americans and the intent to be a guiding light for human rights and personal freedom was much dimmer than it was in the summer of 2001.

The scabs of previous cuts and bruises in our history were ripped off in the coming years- exposing old wounds that had not been adequately addressed, but rather simply bandaged and ignored.  Worldwide concern over a new American direction was heightened as they watched internal discontent and anger rise up on the streets of our country that had always been the example of justice and righteousness. 

America changed on 9/11 and we are where we are with far more uncertainty, polarization, and fear than at any other time, at least in my life.  World terrorists have taken a back seat to domestic terrorists.  We no longer disagree with others; we hate them if their thoughts and beliefs don’t align with ours.  The world no longer turns to America for direction; in fact they turn away from us so as not to be infected with this spreading negativity and malaise.  America has changed, and not for the better.

On this day we need to remember all of those fine people who lost their lives on 9/11, all of those first responders who gave of themselves in an effort to save and protect others, those soldiers of America and our allies who gave their lives in the fight against terrorism, and the concept of America that has lost so much ground in 19 years.  At the same time we must remember that what made America great is still there under the cloud of uncertainty and isolation.  We can resurrect what has always been great about America and rise up again.  We can unite our country so that our differences are embraced rather than being viewed as irreconcilable and we can win back the respect and support of our allies so they once again view our country as that place that defined freedom.  We should no longer allow what happened on 9/11 to be a moment in time when the definition of America was changed.  We must unite, use our vote to make a difference, look to our left and look to our right and know that the person beside us can have different opinions and beliefs and that is OK.  Doing the right thing has always been what made our country special and doing the right thing now is the best way to remember all of those individuals whose lives were lost or changed as a result of this day, 19 years ago.

As is always the case on this day – I want to pay special tribute to Chris Carstanjen – a former student of mine who lost his life in a plane that crashed into the twin towers.  Chris was a kind soul who boarded that plane en route to a well-deserved vacation.  He had no idea what was to happen minutes later, nor would he ever dream what that day would mean to the world 19 years later.  Pay due respect to Chris on this day – vote, open your arms and hearts to others, and help to bring back the soul of America.  Let November 3, 2020 be the day of a new beginning that Chris and millions of others would want – the America they knew and believed in.

PLAN BETTER – TRAIN HARDER

Never Forget

Harvest America Ventures, LLC

www.harvestamericacues.com  BLOG

Chris Carstanjen

THE BREAKFAST COOK – TOUGH, DEPENDABLE, ORGANIZED, AND FAST

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There are cooks and there are cooks – each has his or her list of responsibilities, required skills, and bag of tricks.  Just because you are listed on a schedule as a cook does not necessarily mean that you are adept at filling every position under that designation.  Grill cooks, sauté, prep, garde manger, bakers and pastry chefs are all very unique.  Then there is the breakfast cook – although some cooks use this position as a stepping stone to the evening line – many are comfortable choosing this as their position of choice.  If you fit the mold – then you possess a special value reserved for just a few, value that – to the chef goes way beyond the ability to prepare breakfast items.

Unlike other line positions where there is a time allowance for preparation, pacing of courses, and the detail work that equates to a meticulously aligned plate presentation – the breakfast cook must be efficient and fast.  When the order is placed the cooking is almost instantaneous. 

Finding that perfect person for the job is one of the more important tasks of the chef in a property.  Comparable to finding a solid sous chef – this position must, at some point, almost become invisible.  The chef wants to know that the cook will be there, will be ready, will be consistent, and will represent the quality that is expected of the operation – without much supervision.   When this person is identified then the chef can rest easy.

There can occasionally be room for a creative dish or two, but when it comes to breakfast – most restaurant guests are looking for well-executed familiarity.  At the same time, the guest is quite specific about how they like their breakfast items prepared – their expectations are clear.  “I want my eggs over-easy but yolks that are not too runny”.  “I want my waffles crunchy”.  “Make sure that the scrambled eggs are dry”.  “I like my bacon well done”.   “A five minute egg  (not shorter and not longer)”.  The list goes on and on.  Add this to an onslaught of orders coming in a breakfast crunch time and you can see how easy it would be for a cook to get frazzled. 

So what are the unique attributes of this individual?

[]         DEPENDABILITY:

The last thing in the world that the chef needs is that 5 a.m. call from the restaurant stating that the breakfast cook called out or didn’t show.  The thought of jumping out of bed and rushing to the restaurant, setting up an unfamiliar station and trying to function while behind the eight ball is un-nerving.  This is not the best moment in a chef’s day.  He or she must be able to depend on the breakfast cook to be there or provide ample warning so that the chef can find a replacement.

[]         INDEPENDENCE:

Oftentimes the breakfast cook is an island.  It is very common to find, unlike the evening shift where there may be three or four line cooks for a meal period, the breakfast cook may be the one and only.  Because of this, his or her planning, prep, organization, and attack are separated from the rest of the kitchen team.  The right candidate must be able to function effectively in this manner.

[]         EFFICIENCY:

Efficiency is the rule of law for all cooks, but even more so for the breakfast cook.  When an order comes in it is immediately cooked, plated, and slid into the pass.  This requires that the cook’s system is tight and foolproof.  Mise en place has never been more important!   The breakfast cook must be able to anticipate business volume, reflect on his or her past experience to assess what items will move, how many eggs to crack, how much batter to make, bacon to cook ahead, and plate garnishes to prepare.  Considering the limited time available between orders placed and orders filled – there is no time to return to prep during service.

[]         ORGANIZATION:

Pan placement, folded side towels, clarified butter placement, temperature of griddle, poaching water, and plate organization are all crucial, especially during crunch time.  All cooks must be organized, but a breakfast cooks station will resemble the cockpit of an airplane – he or she will be able to point to the placement of each ingredient or tool without even thinking.  If you want to see impeccable organization turn to chaos in a few seconds – let the chef jump behind the range to “help” a breakfast cook through the rush.  Most cooks would rather not have the help.  As a chef, whenever I helped I made sure that I stuck to garnishing plates and wiping the edges of china before a plate went into the pass.

Pans lined up waiting for the command.

[]         MULTI-TASKER:

Eight pans of eggs cooking simultaneously (some sunny side, others varying degrees of over-easy), four orders of pancakes on the griddle, eggs benedict poaching, waffles in the iron, and a refresh on the oatmeal.  This is constant, unrelenting as the dining room moves from a few guests at 6:30 a.m. to a full house by 7:15.  Flip the cakes, slide the over easy eggs in a pan, respond to the buzzer on the waffle iron, plate up orders, transfer that rasher of bacon or triple sausage alignment,  bark out: “pick up!”, and start all over again.  Multi-tasking must be second nature.

[]         SPEED:

Guests and in turn – servers have little patience during breakfast.  The average dining room guest for breakfast is likely to spend no more than 30 minutes from the time they are seated.  They have things to do, places to be, and breakfast is simply a means to an end.    A five-minute wait seems like an eternity to a breakfast guest.  The pressure is thus on the cook to be fast – lightning fast.  To watch an efficient breakfast cook is mesmerizing.  This modern version of the short order cook still amazes me. 

I remember my first introduction to the cooking profession was watching a short-order cook through a restaurant window.  At the age of 9 or 10, it was amazing to watch the efficiency and speed, the focus and the calmness of a person who was able to handle so many orders with grace.  It is this experience that years later helped me to decide to become a cook and eventually a chef.

[]         DETAIL ORIENTED:

As traditional and seemingly simple as breakfast may be, there is a detail that is expected, a focus on doing the little things right that makes all the difference in the world.  If that bacon isn’t exactly how the guest likes it – the meal is substandard.  If the oatmeal is not the perfect consistency, then it is pushed aside by a disappointed guest.  If those eggs are too runny or not runny at all, then the expectation of a good start to the day is shattered.  The details are small, but nevertheless important. 

The breakfast cook cannot sacrifice the details for speed, nor speed for the details.  It is a delicate balance.

[]         ECONOMY OF MOTION:

The best cooks work from the standpoint of the pivot step.  Everything must be within that pivot step if the system is to work.  One step to the left or right, forward or back – any more and the game plan is in jeopardy.  The more steps that a cook takes the greater the opportunity for mistakes.  This is why organization and efficiency are so closely tied to how this station is set-up.

Focus, organization, efficiency.

[]         FOCUS:

Watch this cook from the moment he or she arrives until everything is packed away for tomorrow.  There is a focus that tells a story of oneness with the job.  Walking through that back door at 4:30 a.m. – the cook clicks on that focus switch in his or her head and then it takes over.  Flip on the lights and the hood fans, fire up the ovens for bacon and sausage, turn on the griddle to warm up, and the flat top that will accommodate those egg pans in a short period of time.  Fill the steam table and grab a cup of coffee.

Roll out the cart with mise en place that was prepped at the close of yesterdays business, slide those first pans of bacon and sausage in the oven, set the timer, put on butter to clarify, and oil the flat top to welcome pre-cooked, diced potatoes for home fries.  Crack a half case of eggs for scrambled, and finish the pancake and waffle batters that were measured out yesterday.  Check plates for chips and cleanliness and restack in their assigned location.  Pre-assemble garnishes, transfer eggs to cooler pans for easy access, keep those potatoes moving so that they are crisp on the outside and soft and warm inside, transfer cooked bacon and sausage to the steam table, fold side towels, and align spatulas, tongs, and slotted spoons for service.  Pre-heat pans in that lowboy oven, and double-check all of your mise.  Set up that pinch pot of salt and pepper, wash and dry berries of pancakes, remove the solids from that clarified butter, and grab another cup of coffee. 

Only a few minutes till the dining room opens – time to check in with the dining room manager and walk through your checklist one more time.  There will be no rest for the next three hours.  Soon the action begins and if all is organized properly it will run like a well-rehearsed orchestra.  At the end you will prep for tomorrow, clean your station, and pass on the spatula to the next shift.

PLAN BETTER – TRAIN HARDER

All respect for the breakfast cook

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A CHEF’S 2020 LAMENT

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They say that hindsight is 2020 – that being so, there is plenty for us to reflect on and determine how we might have done things differently.  The fact is, we can’t go back, but we can look forward.  At this point we are all hoping that 2020 will just fade from our memories.  In the moment, however, there are loads of things that we miss, things that make us shake our heads in disbelief, things that we long for – a return to a time when our greatest concern as a chef was our reservation list and daily mise en place.

The prudent approach would probably be to put the past behind us and lay a course for the future, but when the future is so uncertain there is some solace in looking backward and reminiscing about those things that had put a smile on our face.  There is always a level of comfort in reflection, even if there is “no turning back”.  It’s history, as they say, but history is important.  History is a great teacher and, if nothing else, we can reflect as a way to learn. 

So, what do chefs miss in this crazy environment where employees and guests float around in masks, keeping their distance, and eyeing each other with concern?  What do chefs long for in a world where restaurants are closing left and right – even the most established ones?  What do chefs crave when protocol becomes far more important that the flavor profile of a dish?  Here are a few things on my list:

[]         ANTICIPATION

That moment in the early morning when a chef steps out of bed with the knot of mixed emotion in his or her stomach is – yes, something that is missed.  There is a bit of fear regarding what might be faced when stepping through that back kitchen door, yet at the same time there is always a twinge of excitement about the same.  The minute a chef’s feet hit the floor from a restless nights sleep – adrenaline is pumping.  After time, this is a highly anticipated feeling.  Chefs miss that in 2020.

[]         POSITIVE ANXIETY

Anxiety in small doses can be that spark that starts the human engine.  Too much anxiety has just the opposite effect, yet if a chef can control it at some level, then anxiety can be used to fuel the energy needed for the day.  Positive anxiety can keep us on our toes, helping us to prepare for the expected and the unexpected.  This positive anxiety gives the chef a bounce in his or her step – the bounce of confidence that the kitchen team depends on.  Chefs miss that in 2020.

[]         THE SPIRIT OF WINNING

It is always more than “how you play the game” – every person ultimately wants to win at whatever they attempt.  Some put the time and effort into helping that happen, while others may simply hope that it occurs without their active involvement.  Chefs tend to put the effort in.    When the chef has the winning spirit then it rubs off on the team, setting the stage for achievement.  To a kitchen team it is all about the basics – efficiency, great tasting and looking food, a clean operation, meeting the timing demands of orders, clearing the board of orders, no re-fires, no injuries, and happy guests sending back empty plates.  This is what the chef and the team work for; this is what brings about fist bumps, high fives, and a smile at the end of service.  Chefs miss that in 2020.

 

[]         APPROPRIATE BANTER

There is certainly no place in today’s kitchen for hurtful or inappropriate banter that demeans or makes people uncomfortable, but that harmless banter that yields a laugh or a re-energized staff is simply a part of the environment that cooks and chefs look forward to.  Chefs miss that in 2020.

[]         INTERACTION WITH STAFF

Walking through that back kitchen door – the chef grabs a cup of coffee and invests the time to walk the kitchen and connect with prep cooks, breakfast line cooks, bakers and pastry chefs, dishwashers, and service staff.  This is the first opportunity to touch base and connect with the people who are at the heart of a restaurants success.  Throughout the day it is the sometimes serious, oftentimes light conversation that pulls chefs and cooks alike into the environment of the kitchen.  People are interesting, they all have stories to tell, they all bring something special to the team, and they validate why a chef chose to do this work for a living.  Chefs miss the level of this interaction in 2020.  Instead of a smile and a resounding “yes chef” response from cooks, 2020 brings a look of uncertainty and a less than enthusiastic “yes chef”, wondering what tomorrow may bring.

 

[]         INTERACTION WITH GUESTS

Many chefs look forward to the opportunity to occasionally “ walk the dining room” and interact with guests, engage in short conversations about food and maybe a suggested wine pairing, check for those smiles of satisfaction from diners, and feel the energy of the front of the house.  Somehow this just doesn’t work when everyone is wearing a mask and looking over their shoulder for a person walking too close.  Chefs miss that in 2020.

[]         BEING FOOD CENTRIC

Of course chefs always worry about food cost, training, labor cost, vendor dependability, and the next health inspection, but what brought a person to this position is a love of food and a desire to learn more and create for the plate.  When menus become utilitarian out of necessity, when a diminished labor pool is the driving force for menu design, and when survival is the focus – that food centric energy is in short supply.  When the focus is not on creative food that is the signature for the restaurant – chefs miss that.

[]         A FULL DINING ROOM

One of the measures of success that is most exciting in restaurants is looking through those swinging doors and seeing every table full of happy guests – eating, raising glasses, and laughing with reckless abandon.  This is what we strive for in restaurants.  When tables are 6 feet apart and capacity is limited due to pandemic protocol – that dining room energy is far less noticeable.  It is really difficult to relax, enjoy a dining experience, celebrate, and laugh when the fear associated with Covid is always present.  Chefs miss those full dining rooms in 2020.

[]         THE ENERGY AND BEING ON THE EDGE

That knot in a chef’s stomach, that nervous energy that a line cook feels just prior to those first orders clicking off the POS, that uneasiness that servers experience just prior to opening the restaurant doors is, when in control, very similar to that anticipation felt before an exciting football game, cross country race, or rush to fill the stands at a rock concert.  Sure it is a nervous energy, but it only feels dangerous until the gates open, the kickoff starts the game, the starting gun is fired, or those first orders signal – let the fun begin.  Chefs miss this in 2020.  It may exist, but at a much more subdued level.

[]         THE SMELLS, SOUNDS, AND TASTES OF A KITCHEN ON A PATH TO SUCCESS

As that chef walks through the back kitchen door and grabs a cup of coffee – it is always the familiar sensual experience that reminds him or her that there is no other job more physically and emotionally rewarding than cooking.  The smell of breakfast bacon, fresh baked bread, Danish pastries, caramelizing onions, and roasted garlic somehow completes the aroma package with the nutty, deep roasted smell from a cup of coffee.  The sounds of sizzling pans, clinking of plates being stacked from the dishwasher, cooks barking out warnings like “behind” or “hot”, and the resounding cadence of the POS printer and expeditor barking “ordering, fire, or pick-up”, are part of the music of the kitchen.  When this is muted or felt to be less indicative of a warm kitchen – then- yes, the chef misses that.

[]         THE FREEDOM TO CREATE

Menus need to be streamlined, costs need to be watched very closely, limited staff must be considered, and efficiency must rule the day.  Creativity takes a back seat during times of crisis and uncertainty.  This is what charges up a chef and when it is lacking then chefs truly miss that.

[]         KNOWING THAT TOMORROW WILL BE BETTER THAN TODAY

Most significantly, when the restaurant business is healthy then there is little energy invested in worrying about your position or that of your team members.  The impact of the pandemic is intense and all consuming.  Tomorrow is always a question.  Whether it be new protocols, or expenses that can’t be met – when tomorrow is uncertain then the chef certainly misses the comfort of knowing that doing things right will take away that fear.

Yesterday is gone, today is challenging, but tomorrow will come and with it will be a restaurant industry that is different, but robust, challenging, and once again – exciting.  Today is tough, but reflection and optimism will help us all to chart a course for success.  Chef’s should remember the past, miss what is lacking today, but think about tomorrow with a smile of optimism.

PLAN BETTER – TRAIN HARDER

Harvest America Ventures, LLC

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SUCCESSFUL CHEFS – WHAT CAREER KILLERS TO AVOID

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Rest assured, at some point restaurants will rise up again, clubs and hotels will measure success based on occupancy and food service activity, and the position of “chef” will be center stage in driving sales and measuring profitability. The opportunities for chefs will be viewed again as instrumental and of significant value to owners, and those who are qualified and prepared will have ample career opportunities in front of them.

This being said, some responsibilities will return to where they were pre-pandemic, yet others will work their way into the chef’s bag of expectations. In all cases, there will be a re-shuffling of priorities driving changes to the profile of the “best candidate” for the leadership position in the kitchen. Some of the previous characteristics of chefs and their role will be viewed as less important and some may even not be tolerated in the “new normal”. Now is the time to self-assess and realign priorities. When those opportunities rise up – you want to be ready. Here is a list of career killers in the new normal – now is the time to make the necessary adjustments.

[]         OVER-CONFIDENCE/EGO

“I am the best” is more likely to turn employers and teams off. You should not confuse being humble with being weak or lacking in confidence. Chefs can be very confident without putting on an air of superiority. When chefs are willing to listen to others, admit that they still can learn something new, that others may have the right answer to a problem and that those individuals should receive credit for their ability to bring about resolution is the sign of a strong leader. This is where you need to be.

[]         POWER vs. LEADERSHIP

“I am the chef” has oftentimes been a statement that points to his or her authority over others. This is arrogant and rarely sets the stage for teamwork and alignment with a common goal. Leaders don’t boast about their authority and never use it for personal gain over another. The power of leadership comes with tremendous responsibility to listen, treat others with respect, study an issue and avoid making rash decisions, and an understanding that his or her role is that of guide, coach, and mentor – not dictator.

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[]         LACK OF EMPATHY

“That’s not my problem” is a statement that demonstrates a callous approach towards other members of the kitchen or restaurant team. This callousness will do very little to create followers, in fact it will contribute to division and angst among those team members. The environment that is a result will surely drive a wedge between management and staff.

[]         POOR COMMUNICATION

“I don’t have time to tell you everything” demonstrates a lack of understanding the importance of taking the time to make employees, vendors, and customers comfortable with your style of management and the decisions you make. Share as much as you possibly can, do it in real-time, and do it because it will build understanding and support. Share your financials, share your challenges with product, share your vision moving forward, share your commitment to excellence, share what you know and share what you don’t – it’s all important. This is what brings a team together and firing on all cylinders.

[]         LACK OF TRAINING

“You should know how to do that” is an attempt to relinquish responsibility for a team members skills and abilities. When you hire a person you own the responsibility to inform, train, teach, and improve their abilities. The best operators seek to find ways to help employees improve even if it means that they eventually move on to find other opportunities as a result. Training will create a business brand that attracts the very best.

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[]         POOR DELEGATION

“I will make those decisions” is a proclamation that only the chef knows how to make the right decision. You are foolish if you think that the hundreds of decisions that are necessary on any given day in the kitchen must rely on your abilities alone. The best chefs train effectively so that others can make solid decisions without the chef’s active involvement. Delegation of responsibility must include the responsibility for decision-making and the authority to make those decisions. This is how a team operates.

[]         INADEQUATE FOCUS ON COST

“My responsibility is to produce great food”! Yes, this is true, but it is even truer that a chef’s responsibility is to make great food that yields a profit. The most talented cooks without a focus on financial acumen will not be enough to sustain their position. Chefs must be number crunchers and advocates for analytics that allow them to make the best financial decisions for the restaurant. This is your job!

[]         LACK OF TRANSPARENCY

“That’s beyond your pay grade” is a statement that hides something that will make an employee question your actions. If labor cost is too high in comparison to sales – share it with your staff. If food cost is too high, then share it with your staff and talk about possible solutions. If ownership is not satisfied with the product that is leaving the kitchen, then share this with your staff. If your job is becoming overwhelming, then share this with your staff and show how they can help to relieve some of this stress. Trust me when I state that your employees will respect and appreciate this, and will rise to the occasion if they feel that you trust them with business information.

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[]         DO AS I SAY, NOT AS I DO

“I am the chef – just do as I say. My position is different that yours.” This is the most effective way of losing the respect of your employees. You need to set the example for others to follow. Be there, work as hard as they do, demonstrate your passion for excellence, look and act the part of a professional, help others when they need it, and support your staff in the way that you would like to be supported in your role.

[]         AVOIDANCE OF SCENARIO PLANNING

“I can’t predict those things” is an admission that you are not prepared. The chef is expected to have answers and solutions. This goes with the turf. The best way to solve problems that arise is to prepare for them. Yes, experience will certainly help – if you have faced a challenge before then you understand how to react, but scenario planning is a more effective way of avoiding those challenges before they arise. Plan for a power outage, plan for that crippling snow storm, plan for the delivery that doesn’t arrive or that missed event that shows up unexpectedly, plan for new competition, plan for sick employees and plan for that new menu that doesn’t hit the mark. How will you respond if any of these realities knock on your door? Planning is the best antidote to chaos.

Take the time NOW to look at yourself and build a portfolio for success in the future. Be the kind of chef that is in demand, a chef that attracts followers, a chef that helps a restaurant succeed, and a chef prepared for the new normal.

PLAN BETTER – TRAIN HARDER

Harvest America Ventures, LLC

Restaurant Consulting

www.harvestamericacues.com BLOG

CAFÉ Talks Podcast

https://cafetalks.libsyn.com/

 

IN CHALLENGING TIMES DON’T MAKE CLASSIC BUSINESS MISTAKES REMEMBER THE TOP ELEVEN

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Difficult times in business can never be addressed with complacency. This is the time to double your efforts rather than allow yourself to get caught up in the malaise. There is always opportunity beyond business survival for those who commit to moving forward. William Channing once wrote:

“Difficulties are meant to rouse, not discourage. The human spirit is to grow strong by conflict.”

For the restaurant operator caught up in the current, somewhat bleak reality of the business environment we are living in – there is hope in knowing how resilient the business of food can be. History is only kind to those who put one foot in front of the other and face each day with a “can do” attitude. Giving in to the weight of challenge is never a suit of clothes that looks good on anyone – especially restaurateurs and chefs. Shake off the dust of complacency, press the wrinkles out of that chef coat, polish those shoes and face the challenges straight on. You can do this!

The first step is to open up that time-tested playbook and remind you how important the basics are. These foundations of business success are even more important when facing difficult business cycles – so here is a blueprint for setting a course towards renewal:

  • DEPENDABILITY

Your employees and your guests need to hang on to that business anchor that will keep them feeling safe and secure in the realization that you have a firm footing and will consistently be there to help them feel the same. This means that you are a beacon of strength and dependability. Find your hours of operation, your strength in concept, your commitment to keeping your eye on the details and don’t waver from the standards that you set. Show everyone that you intend to stay the course and be there when they need you.

  • COMMUNICATION

As much as communication is always the number one criticism of those on the receiving end – it will be even more so during times of crisis. This is the time to up your game in this regard. Share everything that you can with your staff – right down to the nitty gritty of business finances – they deserve to know. Communicate profusely with your business guests – use all of the mediums available and make the communication positive and uplifting. Engage in social media even more than before – post positive info daily. Send out information about your current offerings and your future plans through effective email blasts. Ask your guests for advice and ideas that might help the business that they are a part of. Invest the time – this is very critical.

When I see a restaurant with a lackluster website or a Facebook page of sporadic posts with lengthy gaps in activity then I sense that the business has lost its energy. When I fail to see Instagram posts of great looking dishes coming from a restaurant kitchen then I sense that there is a culinary team without that spark that draws people in. Become obsessed with communication!

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  • CREATING A BUZZ

Remember all of those exciting things that you did to draw customers in when business was great? This is not the time to put that effort aside – this is the time to invest even more energy in creating that excitement that demonstrated a business that was alive. Everyone is engaged in take out or delivery – don’t settle for being everybody – make your engagement in this arena really exceptional. Social distancing is un-nerving in restaurant settings – how can you make it fun? Remember that guest chef program that you tried before – do it again with real gusto – hype it up – make it your signature. Don’t just sit there – do something unique and filled with excitement.

  • HOSPITALITY FIRST

It seems that far too many restaurants when faced with the extraordinary challenges of the day are relegating their operations to utilitarian delivery of product and service. Where is the welcoming attitude, the willingness to go the extra mile for the guest, the smiles and laughter, the little touches that made you that preferred operation for guests? I know it’s hard, I know these are uncharted waters, I know it’s tough when you are wearing a mask and gloves – but, everyone is wearing a mask now – this is the common space we are living in. How do you make it come alive with hospitality? Work at it, train for it, stand behind it, and make a difference.

  • FIND WAYS TO MAINTAIN THE EXPERIENCE

Look around you – the restaurants that are open at some level are not focused on creating experiences anymore. This is what the restaurant business has been about for decades now – where is the attempt to find ways of building a new experience that goes beyond providing food for a paying customer? I don’t know what that means for your operation but take an inventory and look for the sensual interaction with guests. What are the sights, sounds, smells, textures, and tastes that you offer and how do they blend together to create something enticing and enjoyable? Is it ambience, music, plate presentations, great smells seeping out from the kitchen, the sound of frothing milk from the espresso machine, quality background music, fresh cut flowers, pots of herbs on the table, attractive logos and uniforms? All of this still counts! Don’t let your edge slip away.

  • BE PRESENT

As owners, managers, and chefs – regardless of the hours that you invested in the job in the past, this is not the time to back off – this is the time to be even more present. In many cases the comfort and support that your guests have aligned with in the past were probably nurtured through the connections they built with you. You have been the rock of the business – the reason it exists – now is the time to renew those connections and be that friendly greeter when they give you a chance during these scary times to be out and about. YOU NEED TO BE PRESENT! Your guests will remember this effort when we move past the pandemic.

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  • KEEP THE SURPRISES COMING

Every few weeks add another twist to what you do – keep it exciting. Hold on to what works, but don’t let uncertain times keep you from being innovative. Whether it’s menu, special events, feature nights, or catchy pricing packages – do something that keeps people guessing and returning to your social media posts for more news.

  • REMEMBER FRIENDS – MAKE NEW ONES

You know how important those return guests have been in the past – guess what, they are even more important now. These are the folks who give you lots of slack, forgive you when you make mistakes, encourage you when you get it right, and tell the world about their special place. Invest heavily in keeping these folks on your side. Offer special pricing for them, create a loyalty program, as them for advice on menu changes, invite them to new menu tastings before they are unveiled to the public, make sure you treat them well when they walk through the door, train your staff how to interact with those VIP’s – these folks work for you without pay – they want to tell the world about the place that treats them well.

  • EMBRACE YOUR EMPLOYEES

Isn’t it ironic that with unemployment higher than it has been in decades – restaurants can’t seem to find employees right now? If you view your staff members as interchangeable parts then they will always look for a better opportunity somewhere else, or feel that unemployment insurance is a better option. Hire well, connect with them, train them exceptionally well, show some empathy for their personal situation, be fair and just, communicate, pay a fair wage, and embrace them as part of your family.

  • QUALITY FIRST

The kiss of death for a restaurant is to cut corners when times are tough. Maintain your standards of excellence, continue to buy the best ingredients, ensure that your kitchen team treats those ingredients with respect, be consistent with your process of cooking and plating, and never, EVER sacrifice quality standards for the sake of a few extra pennies of profit. This is the time to up your game!

  • INVEST IN TRAINING

I understand that money is very tight, in fact many restaurants are just hoping to have cash flow rates exceed outgoing bills until they can be in a position to reach for elusive profits; some, in fact, might be incurring losses during this time of limits to top line sales. This is not the time to cut back on training. Your employees, if well trained will help you through these tough times. They will provide that experience for guests, treat them as friends, provide that hospitality that is so important, watch your costs and help you control them, communicate as loyal ambassadors, and be there to problem solve through these challenging times. Help them to improve – invest in training even when it seems that you can’t afford it. You can’t afford not to train.

PLAN BETTER – TRAIN HARDER
Harvest America Ventures, LLC

Restaurant Consulting

We will get through this together

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IN BUSINESS – BIGGER ISN’T ALWAYS BETTER

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There are lessons to be learned that are often overlooked. Growth seems to be one of those markers that define a successful business, yet there is ample evidence that growth can be a deterrent to success. How so? What makes a start-up a rising star is more often than not – a few very simple factors:

[]         It’s all about employees that commit beyond what is required

[]         It’s all about formal and informal communication in an open system

[]         It’s all about understanding what everyone does

[]         It’s all about sharing in success and accepting failure as a team

[]         It’s all about a shared philosophy

[]         It’s all about a simple thank you

[]         It’s all about employee/customer relationships

[]         It’s all about trust

[]         It’s all about empowering great employees

Study and watch – these are the characteristics of businesses that are supported by loyal customers, able to attract great people, viewed as wonderful places to work, and willing to share the responsibilities of leadership. It’s true of great restaurants, great retail stores, great investment firms, exceptional banks, small auto dealerships, and even local government offices. Small, personal and people first always shines above large and business first.

So what happens as businesses grows?

[]         Those committed employees suddenly become disposable pawns

[]         Communication becomes jaded and sporadic with more unknown that           known

[]         Employees are judged against job descriptions rather than what they actually          contribute without seeking recognition

[]         Success is reserved for those in positions of power and failure is passed         down to others

[]         Suddenly staff alignment with that original philosophy that made the             company what it was is less important and negotiable

[]         Thank you are set aside in exchange for the expectation that people will work          without a pat on the back because they are getting paid to do so

[]         Employee’s are no longer given that direct contact with customers – getting to close is a sign of relinquishing power from those at the top

[]         Bigger companies are often far more Machiavellian and make a habit out of not trusting their employees

[]         Empowerment is less of a priority as companies get larger – they simply        create more layers of management to avoid giving their employees the           responsibility and authority to do what’s right.

So why is this so? It’s all about power and fear of losing it. When businesses are small and personal their operation is all about shared opportunity and unity of purpose. The question is” “Does it need to be this way?” There are examples of companies who have retained their integrity and “small business feel”, but they seem to be the exception to the rule. There are ways to structure a larger business with smaller “cohorts” based on product or service, breadth of responsibility, or defined projects but they still require leadership that is willing to work at maintaining this thinking big and acting small.

It is just depressing to see the casualties associated with companies that grow without principles and integrity. It is those great employees who made the company what it is who carry the weight of pain from a loss of faith in what they helped to build.

Support your small businesses – they have product, real service, and most important: heart and soul. Support the neighborhood restaurant with owners and employees who work side by side with a smile on their face. Support your local bookstore where the owner and staff are excited to turn you on to a new book. Support that neighborhood grocery store staffed by individuals who know the farmers and bakers who stock their shelves and make sure you know about those items on sale. Support your local hardware store where staff members know how to help you solve a problem, fix it yourself, and save a little money in the process. Support your local coffee shop – you know, the one that treats their employees like family and their customers like best friends. Maybe those local business prices are a bit higher, but they offer something that adds real value – they offer heart and soul.

I applaud those businesses that maintain the integrity of being small and personal while nurturing a growth strategy and implore those who forgot what they originally believed in, the principles that made them successful early on, to look in a mirror, pause, and take a step back. Bigger isn’t always better.

PLAN BETTER – TRAIN HARDER

Harvest America Ventures, LLC

Restaurant Consulting

www.harvestamericacues.com BLOG

CAFÉ Talks podcast

https://cafetalks.libsyn.com/

 

IT’S ONLY FOOD

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You know I have occasionally heard this statement, or at least felt that it was implied: “Don’t get so wrapped up in it – it’s only food.” Well, I am here to state unequivocally that this just isn’t so. Of course, there are restaurants and home cooks who seem to view it as such – sustenance, a way to fill an empty stomach, and there are loads of people – both preparers and recipients who are content to define it that way, but their perception is shallow. “It’s only food” discounts all that goes into the understanding of a dish, a process, an ingredient, and the numerous people and systems that sit behind the steps in bringing that food to a plate.

A plate of food is a culmination of so many factors: the farmer and the soil that nurtured a crop, maybe a crop that originated in a country far from our borders and was brought to America during those early days of exploration and expansion; a crop that had been historically integrated into family pantries as a staple in home food preparation, or maybe appeared in those early European taverns as a comfort food for vagabond travelers and then eventually worked it’s way into a traditional preparation that became a signature item defining a culture. Maybe that signature item found its way to the New World and with the addition of some indigenous ingredients in America it morphed into something different and was adopted by those early settlers as something new, but something familiar. Quite possibly this comfort food found its way onto American restaurant menus as a familiar dish that was prepared well and reminded people of their family heritage. As the profession of cooking was raised to a new level – that same dish evolved into something more refined and elegant, paired with great wine and served on fine china, presented with finesse and revealed as something new and fresh.

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The chef and the cook who prepared that dish is now representing the farmer who grew the crop, the rancher who raised the animal, the fisherman who spent treacherous hours out at sea trying to bring home a reasonable catch, the history and traditions that went back to those early days in a peasant European home and brought to America for a few generations of transition, and the respect that the chef or cook has for all other cooks who took part in the evolution of that dish. It’s not just food – it is all of this and more.

The cook or chef who stands tall in front of a range, proud in a uniform that draws its energy from hundreds of years of hard work and tradition; the cook or chef who has spent years developing those unique skills that allow he or she to wield a knife with precision, multi-task while keeping the five senses tuned in to a variety of preparations and timings, exercises that database of preparation techniques that result in consistently delicious food, and works in a highly stressful environment that relies of teamwork to bring everything together at the right moment – can’t accept that “it’s just food”.

Think about it for a moment: that bowl of pasta that graces your place setting in a restaurant came about from ancient preparations in Asia that date back thousands of years ago and even though many believe that it was Marco Polo during his world travels who brought noodles from China to Italy, that can be disputed through historical references that show the combination of flour, egg, water, and salt to make pasta was present in Italy before Marco Polo undertook his travels. Noodles, in some form, are present in almost every culture and with its preparation promote tradition and loads of stories to support its importance to a population. In Poland we find pierogi, Germany promotes spaetzle, Orzo in Greece, Dumplings in Vietnam, Wontons in China, and pasta in all its forms is by far one of the most important comfort foods in Italy and the U.S. So, that simple plate of pasta that is rolled and mounted on your restaurant plate is quite historical and as simple as the ingredients are, the perfect preparation through technique and understanding can be quite difficult. It takes skill to make great pasta and it takes understanding to build it into a memorable dish. It is, after all, not just food.

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That professional cook or chef is much more than a preparer of food, far more significant than someone who deals with “just food”, he or she is:

  • A HISTORIAN who has an opportunity to protect and promote the background of a dish or an ingredient
  • AN AMBASSADOR for the cultural influences that brought a dish to the public
  • AN ADVOCATE for the farmer, the rancher, the fisherman, and the producer who provides the ingredients that allow a dish to come together
  • AN ARTIST who views the ingredients and the history behind them as paints to create a feeling or portray that history on the plate – the chef’s canvas
  • A PROTECTOR of time tested methods that took a simple dish to a new level of excellence
  • A SCIENTIST who understands the methods used in cooking that extract or change the flavor of an ingredient through the application of chemistry
  • A CONDUCTOR who orchestrates the symphony of collaboration that takes place on a kitchen line as all of the above factors come together to replicate what a dish means – time and again.

It’s not just food to many and as long as this is true there will be restaurants, there will be chefs and cooks bringing a dish to life, there will be a connection between the consumer and all of those stakeholders in the process, and history and tradition will continue to flourish through the hands of those who know just how important food is and how significant the process of cooking can be.

PLAN BETTER – TRAIN HARDER

Harvest America Ventures, LLC

Restaurant Consulting

www.harvestamericacues.com BLOG

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WHAT RESTAURANTS HAVE LEARNED DURING THE PANDEMIC

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As restaurants rally to try and meet the requirements of the new protocol for operation – distancing tables, reducing customer volume, enforcing mask wearing, deep sanitizing of surfaces, moving to on-line menus or single use documents, removing anything from table tops that could carry the virus, and trying to calm the fear that both customers and employees share – they are even more concerned with the inability to convince employees to return to the job. From coast to coast restaurants that are open at some level are paralyzed by a lack of staff. This might seem counter-intuitive when one considers that unemployment rates have skyrocketed – but it is the reality.

As restaurant owners and chefs scratch their heads trying to figure out what’s going on – it might be helpful to look at the lessons that are before us. Restaurants have been struggling to attract and retain employees for years, but never at this level. Typically, when unemployment is high – people line up to find those open positions, but not now. So here are some thoughts:

TEN LESSONS LEARNED:

[]         PASSION FOR COOKING IS FRAGILE: Those of us who cook because of a love of the craft, the pride in the history of the profession, the joy of creating, and the energy derived from working with a team of like-minded people may not fully understand this – but there are many others who enjoy cooking, but discovered that their enjoyment was dampened by the reality that the work conditions, commitment of hours, and meager wages and benefits are hard to ignore. Passion is not blind forever.

[]         THE RESTAURANT BUSINESS IS EVEN HARDER THAN WE THOUGHT: The pandemic has demonstrated to owners/operators just how very fragile their business is. Obviously, revenue is critical to any business, but most others have the capacity to ride a storm for a period of time. Restaurants, like the employees who work for them, cannot survive more than a handful of weeks without sufficient revenue. Four months of lockdown is the end of the road for most restaurants, in fact one month was all that it took for the grim reaper to knock on their door.

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[]         WE ARE THE POSTER CHILDREN FOR ECONOMIC DISASTER: Take note of the amount of press that restaurants have received as economists point to the devastation caused by the pandemic economic disaster. According to ABC news – more than 16,000 U.S. restaurants have permanently closed as a result of the pandemic and the numbers are growing – thousands more are hanging on by a thread. Yes, other businesses in numerous sectors have closed, but none at this rate. Low profitability, inconsistent business volume, and the inability to create an emergency nest egg have been at the root of this problem.

[]         THE SUPPLY CHAIN IS TENUOUS: The domino effect became apparent early on as meat processing plants were impacted by Covid outbreaks, farms found it difficult to attract harvesters, transportation systems were cut back as restaurants closed, and consumer hoarding made it difficult for businesses to keep their stock levels where they should have been. Suddenly, those items that were simply a phone call away from supplier to restaurant are faced with inventory shortages. As a result, normal menus have been challenged and restaurant storerooms are looking pretty challenged. All of this happened within a few weeks of a significant bump in the road.

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[]         COMFORT AND SERVICE RULE THE DAY: Restaurants and chefs have long portrayed the quality of food, uniqueness of menus, and signature of the chef as being the key to success. The pandemic has shown that the fear of exposure has directed consumer attention to a much simpler formula: good tasting, comfortable food, prepared and served safely, and packaged in a convenient manner so that the guest can minimize exposure to others. This may put a different spin on what restaurants look like in the future.

[]         TRAINING REALLY IS IMPORTANT: The pandemic has made it acutely obvious that TRUST is at the core of success for restaurants. Trust must be evident to employees and customers and trust during the pandemic is based on training all involved about the necessary protocol to keep people safe. There has never been a more important time for employee (and management) training than right now.

[]         GOVERNMENT DOESN’T UNDERSTAND: It has become abundantly clear that federal, and in some cases, state governments do not fully comprehend what the restaurant industry is facing. They seem to waver on unemployment for employees who typically live paycheck to paycheck, fail to understand that if a restaurant is mandated to be closed – they are unable to pay their landlord, fail to understand that PPP to cover labor cost is great, but if it comes with a mandate to keep everyone employed when protocol limits business capacity to 25 or 50%, there is a disconnect, and seem to believe that throwing money at restaurants is the long-term answer, when what small operators need is expertise on how to weather this storm and prepare for the next.

[]         THE NATIONAL ECONOMY DEPENDS ON RESTAURANTS: We knew this all along, but now it is vividly apparent that the number two employer in the U.S., even though many of those jobs are close to minimum wage, has a significant impact on the economic health of the country. The restaurant industry needs serious assistance right now if it is to continue helping the national economy equalize.

[]         IT IS NEARLY IMPOSSIBLE TO SOCIALLY DISTANCE IN RESTAURANTS: OK, we can open (at some level), but the common sense protocols of masks and 6-feet of social distancing are quite impossible to maintain in a restaurant setting. Either we simply can’t open, or we need some very creative thought on how we can keep everyone safe and do it economically.

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[]         WE CAN’T IGNORE THE NEED FOR FAIR PAY: Finally, the pandemic has brought home, even more so, that there needs to be a systemic change in the restaurant business, a change that makes us more efficient, more profitable, and able to pay a fair wage to our employees and offer a basic platform of reasonable benefits that any worker should expect. When the federal government offered expanded unemployment benefits and a $600 per week stipend to all workers – two things occurred: first – these employees were, in some cases for the first time, able to pay their bills and enjoy the comfort that comes from keeping creditors at bay; and these same employees realized that they could make more money not returning to work than if they did in the highly stressful activity of being a restaurant employee. This is a challenging combination for restaurant operators to compete with.

Out of every disaster comes a bit of sunshine, or at least clear vision of what is wrong and what the potential solutions might be. Hopefully this will be the case for restaurants and all of the stakeholders who depend on the restaurant experience.

PLAN BETTER – TRAIN HARDER

Harvest America Ventures, LLC

Restaurant Consulting

www.harvestamericacues.com BLOG

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WHAT IS THE INTENT OF EDUCATION?

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As the country continues to come to grips with the ravages of a pandemic and the trail of chaos and long-term destruction that it leaves behind, we will need to think very clearly about how a country deals with diminishing funds to support our lifestyle and establishing priorities moving forward. Without question there are two areas, short and long-term, that must be at the top of our list: education and healthcare. Of course – there are many other needs, and at some level these other needs are priorities as well, but few things have more substantial impact on generations to follow than the education of our youth and setting a plan in place for the health and wellbeing of a population. For the purpose of this article – let’s just focus on education.

For decades many have debated what a good education entails and where our efforts should lie. When budgets are tightened (education always seems to be in the cross hairs) the first targets appear to be in the arts and technical life skills. Having spent my professional life in that career category of falsely labeled “non-essential” I have been acutely aware of the rising desire to de-emphasize the arts and technical skills and view them as less necessary than the traditional battery of courses that lead to an entrance in a college of choice. What the decision makers oftentimes fail to recognize is that the key to a “great education” is the ability to set the stage for creative thought, dreaming, and application of those courses that seem to dominate a curriculum. This article is not intended to downplay the importance of the classics: reading, writing, and arithmetic, but rather to view them through the lenses of the arts and technology. It is, in my opinion and that of many highly successful people, that application and integration of essential skills is a preferred method of generating real learning.

Keep in mind that the word education is derived, at some level, from the Latin word: “Educo” which can be interpreted as “To draw forth”. In other words, the intent of education is to create an environment where the person who is being educated is allowed to come to an understanding rather than be simply on the receiving end of information. What better way to “come to an understanding” than to think, create, produce, embrace, feel, hear, smell, and touch what it is that is being offered?

Here are a few thoughts/examples:

WRITING: When young people are presented with an opportunity to write – the natural approach is to begin with structure, grammar, punctuation, spelling, etc. All of this is critically important, but not natural. Structure and process must be drilled in and this takes time. What comes natural to young people is the desire and ability to tell stories. As soon as a two year old begins to develop a vocabulary – he or she is anxious to tell a story. The most intriguing and engaging part of writing is the ability to express a story that is drawn from experiences and vision. Creative writing is the application while structure is an important part of polishing the story. This is something that becomes real when it is encouraged outside of the traditional “course in English Composition”, when it is something that is part of everything that a student is engaged in.

When writing becomes real, tangible, and part of a student’s normal approach towards life and learning then so many doors are opened. Writers give all of us the opportunity to dream, express, feel, embrace, think, build a vocabulary, open our eyes and minds, question, challenge, connect, and enter a story as if it were part of who we are. Writing and subsequently reading what others have written is one of the most important parts of building creative thought, converting imagination into tangible ideas and results, giving hope, challenging difficulties, and becoming a problem solver. I always feel despondent when a person states, unequivocally, that he or she doesn’t read or can’t write. What a lost opportunity.

MUSIC: To those who love a particular type of music without experiencing the opportunity to broaden learning about different styles – I would state that you are missing so much of the experience that music provides. To those who have never picked up an instrument to play or approached the process of learning to play and building a connection to scales and chords, then I say that you are missing one of the great creative joys that music brings. I would dare to say that an education void of the opportunity to embrace an instrument, attempt to sing a bar or two of music, play a solo or become part of an ensemble or band, is an education that lacks breadth. Music is tactile and deeply rewarding, music is a way of understanding math (yes math), music helps individuals to understand the importance of teamwork, and music is relaxing, encouraging, demanding, structured yet free form. Music can be a friend at times in a person’s life when others seem too distant to understand and help, and most importantly – music is joy.

CARPENTRY: It is human nature to make things. Students inherently respond well to learning foundational skills that will serve them well for a lifetime. Everyone should know how to identify the right tools for the right job, swing a hammer, operate a circular saw, use a hand drill, a level, and a square, sand with the grain, pre-drill holes, and apply a coat of paint. EVERYONE will use these skills for the rest of their lives and will enjoy the results regardless of their age. This is creative expression that is tangible and like others listed is still an art form that applies basic math skills, planning, creative thinking, and various forms of communication.

TECHNOLOGY: technological advances and the products that have been a result surround us. Students are rather adept at using technology – it is almost innate. Exposing them to the positive uses of hardware and software, the thinking process that goes into design, foundational programming, and problem solving using technology is essential in today’s world.

COOKING & HEALTH: There are few things in life more important, more gratifying, and more beneficial than learning how to cook and draw out the natural flavors of the ingredients that we have access to. Cooking is an art form that incorporates all of the human senses – no other art form is this comprehensive.

DRAMA: Isn’t it interesting that many who are gifted as actors are far less gregarious when not in character? Acting allows us to step outside of the person who others perceive us to be and become someone else, sometimes revealing an inner person who has a tough time demonstrating certain traits otherwise. Acting allows us to experiment with that inner person, to see how others react. Sometimes creativity is inhibited because we are cautious about showing others that we are flush with great ideas. Acting frees many people to be expressive.

ART EDUCATION: Painting, drawing, sculpting, design, and architecture are crafts for sure, but more than that – these are visual ways for us to tell those stories that make our lives rich and connect us with a larger audience. Art can be a way to apply the concepts of storytelling, geometry, physics, and those processes that express a connection to oneself and to others (psychology and sociology).

To starve an education by minimizing these forms of expression is to minimize those opportunities to apply the skills and aptitudes that society deems essential. Real learning takes place when the opportunity to apply concepts is present.

Support your local schools and support the arts and technology.

“An arts education helps build academic skills and increase academic performance, while also providing alternative opportunities to reward the skills of children who learn differently.”

-Gavin Newsom

PLAN BETTER – TRAIN HARDER

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STRENGTH, GRACE, AND DIGNITY

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I am in the process of reading Chef Dominique Crenn’s autobiography: Rebel Chef. I have long been a fan of her style and passion for expressive cooking, but it is these three words that solidified, in my mind, how a chef should run his or her kitchen: Strength, Grace, and Dignity. Those of us who are over the age of 40 – probably worked in a kitchen or two where Strength may have always been at the core of a chef’s style, but Grace and Dignity were not part of the formula. It was the way it was, and few ever questioned the methodology.

The problem is that strength without grace and dignity does not inspire, does not rally support, and will never result in long-term positive action. Let there be no question that strength that also demeans, discounts, segregates, disrespects, and undermines others is actually the definition of underlying weakness. Chefs, by the definition of the role, are leaders of a team, the face of a kitchens integrity, and the role model for others to follow. When strength is practiced without grace and dignity, then leadership is in serious question.

I know, I have been there – there are ample opportunities every day for a chef to sense that the only way to get things done is through promotion of fear of the chef’s wrath – the temptation to move in this direction is always present. Yet, the best chefs ask: “Where does this approach get me?” Employees who are less than dependable, those who fail to understand that sense of urgency that is pervasive in a kitchen, people who are too cavalier with the ingredients they work with, cook’s who are not on top of controlling waste, those who drift away from defined cooking methods, sloppy work stations, failure to take that extra few seconds to make sure a plate presentation meets the standards of the operation, or confrontational disregard for the chain of command will also light the fires of anger in a chef. How the chef approaches these instances has everything to do with whether or not there will be a change in attitude as a result. A demeaning comment, an embarrassing quip, a vile word in view of peers, a violent tirade of expletives along with a few idle threats may have an impact in the moment, but at the same time it creates an environment of discontent, anxiety, and isolation rather than team unity.

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“Dignity is one of the most important things to the human spirit. It means being valued and respected for what you are, what you believe in, and how you live your live. Treating other people with dignity means treating them the way we’d like to be treated ourselves.”

-Family Education

Those who promote the integration of grace and dignity in their style of leadership are also those who understand that many, if not all of those listed examples of operational realities are directly related to how the chef approaches them. The solutions rest on the shoulders of training, setting examples, equitable enforcement of operational standards, provision of the tools for employees to be successful, support of their efforts, honest critique, and all done under the umbrella of strength – a 100 percent commitment to excellence without exception.

“Grace in Business. … The dictionary definition of grace is elegance, and yet to me, in business, it is a combination of many qualities, including valuing people, being gracious and respectful, having gratitude and quiet confidence.”

-Association for Talent Development

Strength in business is a combination of power and trust. The power comes from the position, the title – not always the actions of the person who holds that position. When those around can trust the business leader to be honest, do what is right, represent the best interest of the position, the business, and those who work and support that business – then strength is viewed in a very positive light. When the person “in charge” uses power to demonstrate privilege over someone else, use it as a manipulative tool to push another individual in a direction that is contrary to his or her belief or authority – then strength takes on a whole different, contrary role. Far too many chefs in the past leaned on the power of the title vs. the power drawn from consistency and earned trust.

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Those who exemplify strength, grace, and dignity in appropriate proportions live by these rules:

[]         STANDARDS OF EXCELLENCE (strength, dignity)

Everything that the chef and his or her team members engage in: from the simplest tasks (vegetable mise en place, organization of storage, station mise en place, cleaning plates or pots) to the most complex (finishing a delicate sauce, perfect plating of dishes even when it is very busy) is done with a commitment to excellence and constant improvement.

[]         TRAINING TO MEET THOSE STANDARDS (strength)

Chefs should never assume that excellence will take place – it must be accompanied by a commitment to training and teaching. Strong chefs take the time to explain, demonstrate, and follow-up with those standards of excellence that are clearly defined for the restaurant.

[]         CONSISTENCY (strength)

Chefs who are in control know that the importance of excellence lacks strength unless every task, every process, and every plate of food consistently meets those standards. Thus systems and procedures are expressed and solidified throughout the operation.

[]         REAL CRITIQUE (Grace and Dignity)

Strong chefs never criticize – they critique. In critique – the notation is not personal but rather procedural and pointing to what is wrong is viewed as shallow unless it is accompanied by showing the person how to improve and why to improve.

[]         PROMOTION OF A TEAM INITIATIVE (Strength, Grace, Dignity)

Strong chefs know that they are never able to accomplish the lofty goals of excellence unless every person on the team understands, appreciates, and becomes passionately involved in meeting those goals with an uncompromised commitment to excellence. It is a team effort that counts and the leaders responsibility is to promote this environment.

[]         RECOGNITION AND SUPPORT (Grace and Dignity)

Strong chefs give credit where credit is due. Strong chefs applaud (publically) the good work of others and always recognize their focus on meeting and exceeding standards of excellence. One of the chef’s most rewarding moments is when this happens and support is always given so that team members can feel the gratification that comes from a job well done.

[]         ASSESSMENT (Grace, Dignity and Strength)

Strong chefs are always giving feedback to team members as they reinforce those standards, point out where there are needs for improvement and how to achieve that, and celebrate even the smallest win. A simple “thanks for such great work” goes a long way toward building pride and confidence.

[]         PRIDE IN THE PROCESS AND RESULTS (Strength, Grace, Dignity)

To a strong chef – the pride that comes from his or her team members reaching or exceeding a particular goal is far more important than personal accomplishments. That five minute wrap-up at the end of service when the chef says: “Well done team – customers were thrilled and I am so proud of how well everyone did their job to the best of their ability and did so while supporting each other” – will inspire those team members to replicate that same effort again, and again.

PLAN BETTER – TRAIN HARDER

Do so with Strength, Grace, and Dignity

*Thank you Chef Crenn for the inspiration.

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COOK FOR ME

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I have seen the following quote from Anthony Bourdain many times before, but today it really resonated. It is a statement so simple, yet so profound; so foundational, yet so deep and meaningful; so intriguing and so beautiful. This statement strikes a chord with every professional cook, every chef, and every entrepreneur who owns that intimate corner bistro that opens its doors to a community. This is a statement that strikes a chord with every grandparent who protects those family recipes, every parent who tries to hang on to family traditions, and every friend who seeks to find the best way to project how much they care for another person. This is a statement that resonates with everyone who seeks to demonstrate who they are and what they care about.

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

-Anthony Bourdain

COOK FOR ME is a request that allows the person who ties on an apron a chance to bare his or her soul, to demonstrate how heritage impacts the plate, to talk about joy and pain, memories and challenges, and the love that they have for those who will share what they present through food. This is a big ask, a personal ask, a request to have the cook reveal everything about him or herself.

Cooks never take this request lightly – it is as if the ask was similar to “tell me everything about yourself”. There are few requests that are more personal, few that are more significant, and few that help to solidify a relationship more than: “cook for me”. To a professional – this is an opportunity to shine, to give his or her all, to stand tall and put everything on the table: “This food is a reflection of me, my history, my skill, what I care about, who has influenced me, and a compilation of those experiences that have brought me to this point”.

I paused this morning when I read Bourdain’s words again because there may have never been more important words to cooks; never more telling of why, deep in their heart, a person decides to become a cook or a chef. Once you peel away the necessary layers of: “I need a career, a paycheck, a marketable skill, a way to support my family, a way to fill up my days, etc.” – underneath all of that is a desire to bare your soul, to define what makes you happy, and a way to express that to others.

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“Why do you want to become a cook”? This is a question that many will pose to you as you contemplate a career in the kitchen. Think about your answer; think seriously about how you will answer this question. If you respond by relating to a career, a paycheck, a marketable skill, a way to support your family without giving due consideration to the deeply personal meaning behind it – then you really should think twice. Yes, all of those factors are important and necessary, but they do not reveal what makes a cook a cook, a chef a chef, a restaurateur a restaurateur.

Those cooks, chefs, or restaurateurs who peer out the front window of that corner bistro – minutes before opening the door, are doing so in anticipation of bearing their heart and soul, representing their history and their experiences on a plate, and welcoming others into their space so that they can share all of this. Cook for me is such a personal request and cooking for you such a form of personal expression.

To prepare a meal for someone else is to share everything, giving the guest a chance to find out what makes you tick – a chance to reveal so much that might be missing in simple conversation.

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

-Anthony Bourdain

Think about those early days of building a new personal relationship. Maybe the first few experiences together were relegated to a third party: a dinner or two at your favorite restaurant, a concert, a movie, or a gathering with friends. One of the best ways to solidify whether or not the relationship has staying power is to invite that person to enjoy a meal that you prepare. This is personal, this is revealing, this is significant. Cook for me is significant.

I have had the pleasure to work with some extraordinary chefs, not always ones with names that roll off the tip of your tongue, but extraordinary all the same. I have shared incredible meals with many exceptional individuals, and I have had the opportunity to experience the work of chefs who take their role seriously and restaurateurs who live to make guests feel at home when they walk through that bistro door. Menus are a fascinating window into the character and skill of a chef, but what is most exciting to me is when I simply say to the server: “Ask the chef if he or she would just cook for me.” Make that dish on the menu that is most inspiring to the kitchen, the dish that resonates to them in the moment, the one that he or she is most proud of – or simply cook whatever you want even if it is not on the menu. I want to connect with the cook, to provide the cook with that opportunity to tell a story and open up a dialogue on the plate. This is exciting for me.

At one point as a chef, I actually put an option on the menu called: Cook for Me. Take a chance and put the entire experience in the hands of the cook and the chef. Give them a chance to be who they are through food. At times it was a diversion from the pace of meeting the demands of a full board of orders, and at other times it caused additional stress – but in all cases, cooks and chefs take the opportunity seriously. Cook for me is significant.

Anthony Bourdain hit the nail on the head when he proclaimed that cooking is a way of telling your story and revealing who you are. What a privilege it is to be a cook, a chef, or a restaurateur. What an opportunity cooking provides to tell your story and share yourself with others. That plate of food is your story, it is a painting that reflects so much about the person that you are.

PLAN BETTER – TRAIN HARDER
Cooking for others is a privilege

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A COOK WITHOUT A KITCHEN

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They say we’re back. The kitchen lights are back on, deliveries arrive, the battery of ranges is fired up, and cooks (some of us) are welcomed back. Somehow, it just doesn’t feel right. After four months of idle time – time without a schedule, time without a chance to do what cooks normally do – this kitchen just seems vacant.

Walking through the back door there is an uncomfortable feeling of emptiness, of fear and trepidation, and of caution that feels so foreign to anyone who remembers the instant connections that existed in the past. Remembering the mixture of feelings that once were prevalent as a cook stepped through the “staff only” door – you know: that nervous feeling that stemmed from the uncertainty of a new day, minds racing as cooks mentally flip through mise en place lists, wondering about projected customer counts, and that usual knot in the stomach that comes from typical angst before the adrenaline kicks in.

Yep, the kitchen lights are on, and the exhaust fan is whirling, a few other cooks are engaged in prep at their station, but the place is just lacking the charge of electricity that would always greet everyone who walked in with knife kit in hand. It is an uneasy feeling that was pronounced as those cooks who were already at work – looked cautiously at their teammate, nodded, and turned their heads back to the work in front of them. There was no banter, no smiles, no syncopation of knives hitting their fast-paced rhythm, and no active clanging of pots and pans, shouts of “behind”, or clatter of plates being stacked as they conveyed from the dish machine. This is not the kitchen that any cook would recognize and embrace.

There is a different uncertainty that hung in the air; it is thick as fog, and heavy on the soul. This is the uncertainty that only a silent threat can unveil. Sure, there are temperature checks at the back door, masks donned upon arrival, and deep hand cleaning constantly throughout the day, but in reality no one knows if this is enough. Is anyone asymptomatic, have they been exposed in the past few days to someone who is, will the virus hitchhike on some of those boxes coming off the vendors delivery truck, or is someone secretly experiencing slight symptoms without a fever?

A cook adjusts her mask, ties on a clean apron, snaps on a pair of latex gloves, sanitizes a stainless table that is strangely distant from any other worker, dampens a side towel and places a cutting board on top to keep it from slipping, pulls her knives across a wet stone to waken the edge, washes the sharp blades with a bleach solution, takes a deep breath behind a constricting mask, and makes a quick list of work to be done.

Grabbing a 4-inch hotel pan – she walks to the produce cooler to collect items for prep. Noticing that another cook is already inside – she waits until the cooler is free. There will be no more sliding between carts, shelves, and other cooks – one at a time is the rule. The pace is already different, there seems to be little sense of urgency, no panic based on work to be done – the panic is all related to fear of infection.

Sure, the restaurant has been offering take-out options for the past six weeks, but it’s not the same experience for the cook. Meticulous plate presentations do not apply, the basic rules of thumb: “hot food hot, cold food cold” are a stretch when a guests meal is placed in disposable containers for re-heating at home, and the showmanship of service is relegated to passing a bag of food through a car window. Now we are back to in-house dining, yet it is still far from ideal.

Takeout numbers have been ok, but can be handled by two people in the kitchen – in-house is a different story with a skeleton, yet more robust line crew: one person in the back for take-out assembly and two on the line plus an expeditor and a limited dish crew. Reservations are sparse since the restaurant is limited to 50% occupancy, tables 6 feet apart, and wider common isles for people movement. The service staff is even more on edge than the cooks. Who knows where these guests have been, whether or not they are symptomatic or asymptomatic, have they recently been exposed to someone who is positive and they have not shown any sign of impact yet? Was that someone coughing, or was it a sneeze?

The guests are arriving, paced by reservations only, and they walk through the front door with loads of trepidation. They won’t be greeted with a smile today, at least not one that they can see from behind a mask. They are pointed to their table and reminded to wear their mask until fully seated, told that the menu is on line (no more physical menus here), and that the server will take their order shortly. The table is free of any un-necessary frills: no more table cloths (for ease of cleaning table tops), no salt and pepper shakers, flowers are gone, silverware is wrapped in a napkin, and glassware will be brought to the table as needed. The guests sit down, uneasily and look from side to side to make sure that no other guest is within the six-foot margin.

The server approaches the table to determine if guests need any assistance with finding the menu on-line, he explains that there are no specials tonight and that the menu is limited during the pandemic. Drink orders are taken and in short order the server returns with two glasses of Pinot Noir. The guests say thank you and as the server leaves – both guests eye each other, thinking: “How do we know that these glasses were handled correctly?” When the server returns the order is taken (guests opt out of appetizers thinking that the less time spent here, the better) – two orders of salmon – and the order is shot back to the waiting line cooks in the kitchen.

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Ah…at least the cooks are able to do what they do best – prepare delicious, beautiful food. Somehow the cooks are nervous – it has been a while, and they suddenly realize that how they handle this is not only part of the restaurant experience – it can determine whether or not the guest becomes seriously ill. This is a new level of stress that cooks have never experienced before. The steps in cooking are the same: heat the pan, small amount of clarified butter, sear the fish both sides, baste with pan butter, a splash of wine, lightly salt, push to the side. Reheat the blanched vegetables in a separate pan, season, and dust with chopped parsley. “Pick up table 23!” shouts the expeditor – just like old times. Two hot plates are pulled from the pass, salmon is slid into a 500-degree oven for a 2-minute finish, and the plating begins. The cooks walk through the mental assembly – lemon beurre blanc on the plate, creamy polenta in the shape of a quenelle. The salmon is pulled from the oven and transferred to the polenta – slightly mounted on the side and vegetables are neatly arranged – tucked into the gap that the salmon provides in its nested position. A light salad of fresh mixed herbs on top, a grind of coarse pepper and both salmon are returned to the pass. The cooks are happy with this first effort as the server works a crisp white napkin in his hands and proudly carries the entrees to the table. As the server approaches – the guest nervously fumble to put their masks back on- nod when the dinner plates are presented and wait for a moment for the server to leave their safe zone.

The fish is delicious, but all that the guests can think about is how quickly they can finish and leave this anxiety drenched environment. As the server walks by, the guests ask for the check even though they are only half way through their entrees. As the server prints off the check from the POS, he thinks – this is not a dining experience, this is not something to look forward to, it is something to dread.

The board in the kitchen is never full as it once was, three or four tickets at a time so the pace is laid back and that adrenaline rush that every line cook looks forward to, never arrives. Cooks are clicking their tongs in anticipation, bouncing from foot to foot, constantly wiping down their stations, and hydrating for the sake of something to do. This is not the way that cooks want to be, this is starting to feel like a job.

Out front – the guests hand a credit card to the server as he clears their plates. There is no exchange of small talk, no gushing over the flavors or presentation, just a simple “thank you”. The credit card is returned, the check signed, a 15% gratuity added, and the guest places the card in his pocket, noting: “I have to remember to sanitize the card as soon as I get home”.   As the guests walk out the door the service sanitizing crew gets to work. A frantic process of wiping table top and chairs with sanitizing solution as the faint smell of bleach hangs in the air providing a glimmer of hope to the next guest scheduled to arrive in 15-minutes.

Until there is a clear solution, until there is a vaccine and a protocol for administering that vaccine, until there is a way to assure that everyone – employees and guests are immune – this is what the life of a restaurant employee and guest will be like. It is a far cry from where it was and where it will be, but it is a start. The cook will eventually become accustomed to the new normal, as will the server and the guest. When this happens there will be a glimmer of trust and a taste of the experience to come – some day soon.

PLAN BETTER – TRAIN HARDER

Have faith – things will get better

Wear a mask to protect yourself and others – It’s not that hard

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THE LINE COOK’S NEW KITCHEN RULES SOME THINGS NEVER CHANGE

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As cooks start to, or at least hope to, begin settling into kitchen life again, it seems appropriate to reiterate those standard rules of thumb that everyone must abide by. They may be tweaked a bit – after all, a lot has changed over the past five months, but for the most part – the rules of operation that cooks have always lived by, are still the rules.

Ah..but, here is the thing – creative people often claim that rules are there to be broken, otherwise we never discover, we never move forward. Jeff Beck, the guitarists’ guitarist once stated:

“I don’t care about the rules. In fact, if I don’t break the rules at least 10 times every song, then I am not doing my job.”

Well, if you listen to great musicians then you probably thank Jeff Beck for being radical in that regard. Steve Jobs, the household name for creativity and founder/creative genius behind Apple Computers proclaimed that we should “Think Different” and ignore the rules. Hard to argue with him – isn’t it? Yet, in the kitchen there are things that need to be done a certain way to avoid chaos and to respect each other’s role in getting the job done. Strange – maybe rules are important, or, maybe they aren’t rules at all.

President Franklin D. Roosevelt wrote:

“Rules are not necessarily sacred, principles are.”

Now we’re getting closer – maybe, just maybe, what we are talking about is not a list of rules or policies, but rather, a list of universal principles. That sounds better – the Principles of Being a Professional Cook.

Your principles, and those of the cooks who proudly wear the uniform of the kitchen, are your stakes in the ground. The very beliefs, actions, and standards that define the kind of person you are, the way that you carry yourself, the way that you want others to perceive you, and the predictable results of your actions.

We should not confuse principles with rules of conduct, or polices and procedures – principles go so much further than that – they are not dictated, they are embraced.

“Policies are many, Principles are few, Policies will change, Principles never do.”

-John C. Maxwell

So, what are those Principles of a Professional Cook – his or her “stakes in the ground”:

[]         RESPECT

The first general principle of the kitchen is to live the attitude of respect for co-workers who may have different skill levels, may be of a different culture or race, different gender, and different education level, they may have beliefs that are contrary to yours, but they are all worthy of your respect. When they tie on an apron they are part of your family.

Respect applies to the established chain of command in the kitchen because it exists for a reason. You can respect the position even when the person holding that position rubs you the wrong way. “Yes chef “is not a blind commitment to the person, but rather to the need for order and organization in the kitchen.

 

Respect applies to the ingredients that a cook uses, the source of those ingredients: farmer, rancher, fisherman, cheese maker, processor, and distributor. It also applies to the equipment and the facilities that every cook uses – it is imperative that every cook treats these resources as if they were his or her own.

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Respect applies to the foundations of cooking – the processes that are time honored and proven and the steps used to build flavors and consistently excellent products.

Finally, respect applies to the history of the proud profession of cooking. This does not infer that cooks should not move forward and create their own history, but when we honor those who came before we establish the same pattern for the future.

[]         OWNERSHIP

The second principle for cooks is to always honor the dynamics of work environments. Professional cooks know how important personal tools are to anyone who stands in front of a range. A cooks tools, the space that he or she has identified as their work parameters, the ingredient mise en place and station set-up are all sacred to the cook and to his or her ability to work efficiently and effectively. Cooks will never violate these parameters.

Cooks must also practice effective cost controls through total utilization of ingredients, minimizing waste, following procedures and where important – recipes, and making sure that perishable goods are rotated and stored properly. The financial success of the restaurant is in everyone’s hands.

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[]         TEAM

The third principle relates to the interaction of all members of the crew as a true team. This means that everyone is in it together. The stronger help those who have limitations and weaknesses, those who are still learning become effective listeners, and each cook has the other cook’s back. Professional cooks avoid pointing fingers and when wrong – they take responsibility. When a team has formed – the group wins as a total unit or loses as a total unit.

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[]        CLEANLINESS

The fourth principle relates to one of the most important tasks of any professional cook – maintaining the highest level of sanitation, cleanliness, and safety in the kitchen. Clean as you go must become second nature to every cook. This applies to their personal work area as well as all common areas. This is what the guest expects; this is what every cook must expect.

[]         TEACH AND SHARE

The fifth principle for cooks relates to the responsibility to “pass it on”. All cooking techniques and procedures are public domain. There can be no secret processes or methods in a team environment. Every cook and chef has the responsibility to share and help others build their proficiency. In a team environment there is no shame in admitting that you “don’t know how” – the only shame is in refusing to admit it. When a cook asks for help in building skills then that help is freely given in a professional kitchen.

[]         PASSION

The sixth principle is something that comes from the heart and soul of a cook. There will always be room for cooks who function effectively at the job of cooking, but to truly excel – a cook must feel that this is what he or she was meant to do. The professional cook has a passion for the ingredients, the process of cooking, and the history behind a dish, the creation of flavor, and the presentation of a dish. When it is part of a cook’s heart and soul, then cooking will produce magical results.

[]         EXCELLENCE

The seventh principle is one that is at the core of everything else. Professional cooks are always seeking out excellence. Perfection may never be reached, but excellence is a commitment to moving in that direction. From the simplest task: cutting perfectly symmetrical vegetables, trimming tenderloins, cutting steaks, filleting whole fish without leaving valuable meat on the bone, respecting the steps in preparing a perfect stock, mincing herbs, clarifying butter, or the exactness of a plate presentation – a professional cook takes each task seriously.   Every step in the cooking process deserves your best effort.

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[]        PROFESSIONALISM

The eighth principle, as basic as it may seem – sets the tone for great work and excellent cooking. When the cook looks sharp (clean, pressed uniform, neat grooming, clean shoes, etc.) then he or she is more inclined to act professional. When a professional cook treats the job and the people who work in the kitchen in a professional manner – then that cook can expect the same in return. This is how professionals reap the benefits of appropriate attitude.

[]         BEING ALL IN

The ninth principle is a focus on commitment. Professional cooks know that the job is never over until it is complete. To some this means investing more time than the schedule shows, while to others it means focusing on ways to improve efficiency so that the job can reach completion in the time allotted. In all cases the job must be done and done correctly.

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[]         HONESTY

Finally, the tenth principle pertains to building an environment of trust where cooks are upfront, honest in their approach to the tasks at hand, willing to take responsibility, able to accept critique and willing to offer that critique as long as it includes a “how to improve” lesson, and careful to respect the standards of operation that allow the restaurant to remain successful.

These ten principles are not rules – rules are demanded of those who work for a business. Principles are those stakes in the ground that each person accepts as part of who they are. When this occurs then cooks follow those principles because it is right, not because it is demanded.

PLAN BETTER – TRAIN HARDER

We are in this together

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GOVERNMENT WHEN WE NEED IT MOST

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Take a breath, exhale and sit down. Let’s face reality – the Coronavirus is going to be with us for some time and simply opening back up and expecting that everything will be fine is misguided. We are in this for the long haul, at least until there is a safe and available vaccine – a vaccine that must be distributed to every human on the planet. Is this six months, a year, or longer? We don’t know, nor do the scientists who are working non-stop to develop the solutions. OK – did that sink in yet? Knowing this frees our minds to compensate and plan ways to effectively adjust, as best we can.

Much of the dialogue today sounds like this: “We recommend that you consider doing this or that, but it is up to the states and local communities to decide how they want to address the plethora of issues that stem from the reality of the virus.” Really?? The last time I looked we are called the UNITED States of America, not the INDEPENDENT States of America. We have a federal government for these reasons more than anything else. When in time of crisis we need a united effort, expert guidance, and creative thinking that must be effectively implemented in ALL states. During these times we expect our government to take the lead.

The first concern with the pandemic continues to be the safety and wellbeing of our population. We can’t even agree on this because every state is able to make its own decisions on how to approach control. If we can, at some point, get ourselves together on the need to have a universal approach towards containment – then we must address all of the systemic challenges that will define who we are as a country for decades to come. These are education, economics, healthcare, innovation, infrastructure, and equality. Let’s just take a look at education since many would agree that it is the most critical component of recovery and growth.

Overnight – teachers were required to transition their classes from on-ground to on-line. This was true from elementary school to college. Let’s applaud teachers for the wartime effort that they rallied behind. Now that one semester of programming is complete, try asking those teachers how effective on-line was, comparatively how well did students perform, how much support did teachers receive as they “figured it out”, and how would they evaluate their own capacity to create meaningful educational experiences?

Now that it’s summer – most of those teachers from elementary school to college are breathing a sigh of relief – they made it through the term and they are able to enjoy a well-deserved break. What is going to happen in the fall? What is the plan, how is the system being adjusted to help teachers be excellent at what they do in the fall when the virus will still be with us? Most schools do not know what direction to take in just two months time. Elementary and secondary teachers have likely been told to prepare for three options: full return, hybrid return, full on-line. Is there guidance on what this will look like and how to prepare for something that is probably foreign to all of them?

We have wrestled with the onset of on-line education for some time now and the vote is still out. There are examples, in some cases, where it works, but there is little research as to what extent and how effective it can be as the only option for all students. There are also many questions from those who teach in fields where hands-on application has long been viewed as essential. Certainly in my field (culinary arts and hospitality), but what about medical studies, nursing, engineering, building trades, and law? How can we prepare individuals for these careers without face-to-face education and ample opportunity to practice skills in a live environment? What will the virus do to the supply of trained doctors, nurses, engineers, tradespeople, etc.? If we are to face the existence of the virus, at some level, for the next year or more – what impact will it have on those skilled workers that are already in short supply?

So, where is the government effort for the UNITED States of America? Where is that critical taskforce (unknown if anything has been planned in this regard) led by the National Department of Education that is researching, planning, and preparing to guide states and those who teach and administer educational programs? If we freely print more money to support the bailout of various private industries – where are the funds to support the absolutely essential education model in the U.S., an education model that despite talk about shifting to private school vouchers – is best served by a public education system that has countrywide guidance and support?

If we simply allow the federal government to turn the decision-making and implementation of educational solutions to states without giving them the resources to do so (not just money, but also guidance and well-researched models) then we will continue to erode our outcomes where the best education is relegated to states that can afford it, cities that are more economically sound, and neighborhoods where affluent residents are able to add an influx of cash to the system. Is this the right approach for a great country?

If we agree that education can be the key to opportunity for our young people, if education can be one of the solutions to issues of inequality, if education is a vehicle for creating hope as well as opportunity for our future leaders, then there has never been a more important time to insist that our government unite the states behind a universal approach towards finding solutions.

If we simply think that this time is just a bump in the road and that there will be no real long-term challenges because “students and parents just need to relax and adjust their lives to the new laid back approach towards learning, then we are driving blind. One semester is significant, more time removed from an effective educational model will be devastating to society, will fuel more discontent and social unrest, and will severely limit opportunities for our children for years to come. THIS IS A HUGE ISSUE and there seems to be very little unified, creative thinking around it.

Everyone is trying to figure this whole thing out as we go along. It is a crisis that we have not faced in 100 years, and we were, for all intents and purposes, caught off-guard. But, we have had four months to settle in to reality and do what we have always done best – problem solve. “We have a problem Houston”, a problem that impacts every aspect of our lives so – let’s insist that government do what they should do: provide us with the tools to solve it.

People will not return to restaurants until this is addressed, people will not return to retail stores until this addressed, people will not travel until this is resolved, and our economy will not recover until we resolve it.

If how we deliver, what we deliver, and when we deliver our educational model is not resolved it will impact the future of our children, parents ability to work and keep their children safe, the economy and our ability to get business back to business, our standing in the world market, and our ability to set the stage to resolve some of the great social and humanitarian issues of our time.

This is not an INDEPENDENT states issue this is a UNITED States issue. This is the opportunity for the greatness that has always defined our country. At the core of any truly great society is the quality of its education model.

PLAN BETTER – TRAIN HARDER

Harvest America Ventures, LLC

Restaurant Consulting

www.harvestamericacues.com BLOG

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KITCHENS CELEBRATE DIFFERENCE

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It has always been my experience that kitchens are the great equalizer. Sure, I know that the environment of a kitchen can sometimes be tough and abrasive, it’s hot, humid, noisy, stressful, fast paced, and somewhat unforgiving, but…..all that being said – the kitchen is a place where who you are and what you believe in is far less important than what you do and how well you do it. I always found it gratifying to walk into a kitchen and find diversity of color, ethnicity, language, age, gender, sexual orientation, and certainly culinary heritage. It is this melting pot that makes a kitchen buzz, that gives it personality and character – that makes each day an experience.

Personally, I have never understood blatant prejudice that is based on erratic and unfounded perceptions that an entire race, gender, nationality, age group, or for that matter any group of people identified as different can be problematic or not worthy of respect. Where does this come from? Is it based on geography, historic bias, generational bias, or isolationism? Is it based on one groups feeling of superiority over another? Or is it some level of genetic tendency towards hateful action?

My answer is: spend time working in a kitchen. We are all different and that is precisely what makes us interesting and important. In kitchen life is pretty clear – there is loads of quality work to be done, work that requires attention to detail, process, knowledge of ingredients, an educated palate, and a commitment to doing things right. You are either in tune with that, or you are not. If you are then no one cares about how different you may be, they care that you can do the work and do it well. Later on that “difference” can come into play as a real positive. It is that difference that brings history, traditions, cultural nuances, new flavors, and great systems ideas to make a restaurant kitchen function better and continue to exceed customer expectations.

angry chef

Spend a day in the kitchen and learn how those differences won’t separate you, but rather bring you together. To all chefs and operators – know that it is important to promote and support the environment where differences are celebrated and the unifying factor remains: can you do the job, are you willing to do the job, are you willing to learn how to improve, and will you strive for excellence in executing that job. Know that there are limitless opportunities to create a learning organization when we celebrate differences.

[]         HIRE COMPETENCE AND POSITIVE ATTITUDE

I know that this is already your method of operation, but it’s always an important reminder that what matters is their ability to do the job, willingness to learn how to do the job, commitment to excellence, and their all-in positive attitude. Everything else really doesn’t matter. It doesn’t matter if they are black, white, or brown; it doesn’t matter if they are young or old; it doesn’t matter if they are male or female, gay or straight; it doesn’t matter what their ethnic background is; it doesn’t matter if they are Republican or Democrat, Liberal or Conservative; it just doesn’t matter – they are all part of the kitchen team and united they stand, divided they fall.

[]         BUILD A WORK ENVIRONMENT OF RESPECT

As a chef or restaurant operator you set the tone for how the team treats each other. When you show respect for all people, regardless of how they might be different in some people’s eyes, then your team will emulate that approach. If some try to poison that environment of acceptance, inclusion and respect then they really do not belong on your team. There should always be the expectation of excellence, but never tolerance for exclusion or disrespect.

[]         TRAIN TOWARDS, INSIST UPON, AND SUPPORT EFFORTS TOWARDS EXCELLENCE

Some may try to cloud your approach by inferring that your respectful approach towards all is somehow a sign of weakness, but when you show respect while still building an environment of excellence then, and only then will you be able to build a winning team. Be respectful, but never drift from that insistence of excellence, that commitment to training toward excellence, and that support for all who view that as their obligation and motivation.

chuck and mickey

[]         BE FAIR AND EQUITABLE IN YOUR APPROACH

Respect begins with being equitable in your approach towards others. Again, when you focus on – can you do the job, are you willing to learn how to do the job, are you passionate about excellence, and do you view this commitment as your stake in the ground, and when you measure everyone on these attributes – then you will have built a real team.

[]         DO NOT TOLERATE DEMEANING INTERACTIONS IN YOUR KITCHEN

You are in control of the environment that people work in. When you tolerate ANY disrespect towards others, when you turn your eyes away from inappropriate, or hurtful behavior towards others, when you write it off as “that’s kitchen life”, or “you need to toughen up”, then the team will begin to crumble. Stay in control, teach and observe, call out poor behavior, and demonstrate through your own actions what the right approach should be.

[]         LISTEN TO DIFFERENCES AND BE WILLING TO LEARN FROM THEM

When you build an environment where people in your organization feel comfortable talking about their differences in a positive manner, when they are willing to share and you are willing to listen, then so much can be gained. We each bring powerful history, traditions, observations and ideas to the team if the team is open to what is presented. Build that environment and the whole organization can benefit.

changin

You know how this can work, if you have been in a kitchen you will understand the outcomes of both a positive and negative work environment, you know that the responsibility starts at the top, and you know that a person’s attitude and behavior is, to a large degree, a reflection of his or her environment. Set the stage for excellence, inclusion, and opportunity.

For those who struggle with acceptance – I encourage you to work in a kitchen – a place where a melting pot of differences helps to create a perfect dish.

PLAN BETTER – TRAIN HARDER

“This is a moment that will shape us for generations to come”

Harvest America Ventures, LLC

Restaurant Consulting

www.harvestamericacues.com BLOG

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WHY IS A PARTICULAR CHEF’S FOOD SO MUCH BETTER THAN ANOTHER’S?

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Every chef has experienced it and as a result he or she will relate to the content of this article. There are times, possibly many times, when you question your own skill – whether in cooking or presenting food, or even with the operation of a kitchen. You have likely been on the receiving end of a plate of food that is just so damn good that it first gives you pause, then amazes you, makes you angry for a brief moment, and then finally makes you question whether or not you are really worthy of wearing a chef’s toque.

This same reality happens to artists, musicians, writers, designers, architects, woodworkers, and a suitcase full of craftspeople. I remember two specific examples with the late guitarist – Jimi Hendrix.

When asked about playing the blues – Hendrix stated:

“The blues are easy to play but hard to feel.”

Hendrix

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This paid homage to those blues musicians who stood apart from all others: BB King, Albert King, Taj Mahal, Muddy Waters, Robert Johnson, Buddy Guy, Howlin Wolf, Ella Fitzgerald, John Lee Hooker, Billie Holiday, Bonnie Raitt, John Hiatt, and Aretha Franklin to name a few. It is what is felt and experienced deep down inside that made these individuals stand out as accomplished and authentic. They were one with what they played and sang. There are tens of thousands of blues players who would automatically feel inadequate when standing next to these greats.

It was early in his career that Hendrix spent time in England building his chops and forming the Jimi Hendrix Experience when he somehow finagled his way on stage to play alongside Eric Clapton and Cream. During this mind-blowing concert – Hendrix embarrassed Clapton, who up to this point was considered the greatest guitar player in the world. Clapton walked off the stage and said that he suddenly questioned his ability to play guitar next to this man who obviously was his superior as a musician, master of the instrument, and showman. Obviously, Clapton continued on – but it was that moment when he, just like many of us in the kitchen, questioned his or our own abilities.

I consider myself an acceptable chef from the perspective of cooking, respectable at food presentation, and better than average at running a kitchen operation. All in all – I can do the job. I learned very early on that there are thousands upon thousands of chefs who are far more talented as cooks, many who are way more artistic, and a considerable number who run a better, more systematic kitchen than I. I am OK with that and never tried to proclaim that I was any better than that. There were many times when I was humbled by a bite of food that left me in awe of a chef’s talent, many times when a chef’s food was so beautiful that I felt embarrassed to admit that I also was a chef, and numerous times when I recognized a chef who was stellar at running a profitable, well mannered kitchen that made me very jealous. At the same time I always thought, and oftentimes acted on finding out why that food, that presentation, that operation was so much better and how I might learn and grow from the experience. These are some of the things that I learned:

[]         YOU CAN’T REALLY PLAY THE BLUES UNLESS YOU HAVE EXPERIENCED THE BLUES

All of those musicians whom I listed, and hundreds more, are able to amaze us with their talent of expression. Their talent goes well beyond instrumental prowess – it is all about channeling feelings and experiences that connect with that prowess. Hendrix felt it, Ella Fitzgerald felt it, Buddy Guy felt it, and so does Shaun Brock, Stephanie Izard, Dan Barber, Dominique Creen, Rick Bayless, John Folse, David Chang, Keith Taylor, Alain Passard, and many other chefs who hold the key to authenticity in cooking. The common thread is a deep understanding of what they are working with, the history behind ingredients, people, and process, and a sincere love for what they do. Being a chef is never just a job to them – it is an expression of who they are and what they know. You can sense it when you walk into their restaurants, when you sit at their table, when the server proudly presents the menu, when the line cook receives the order and the plate is presented in the pass, and you know it when you take that first bite. It is no different than when Hendrix played that first note of “Little Wing”.

[]         YOU CAN’T ADJUST FLAVOR UNLESS YOU KNOW AS MUCH AS POSSIBLE ABOUT THE INGREDIENTS YOU USE

“What does it need” – is oftentimes the consummate question that a cook asks the chef. How do you know – really? “It needs salt”, or “More heat, more acid, some butter to provide a smooth mouth feel”. What the dish really needs is far more complicated, far more interesting, and far more connected to a real understanding of the dish, the cuisine, the history, and the terroir. What does that Hoppin John need is something that Sean Brock might answer appropriately since he has made the study of southern beans, spices, and culinary culture his life’s work. What does that taco really need is something that Rick Bayless might answer by first asking about the type of corn that was used to make the masa for the tortilla or whether the flavor profile you are looking for is based on Mexican heritage or Latino. And Stephanie Izard might very well ask you to talk about the farm where the goats were raised for that braise, what they were fed, and the way that you butchered the animal and handled the meat before cooking. Somehow: “It needs salt”, just doesn’t cut it.

[]         YOU WILL NEVER PLATE FOOD AS BEAUTIFUL AS NATURE AND YOU WILL NEVER UNDERSTAND NATURE UNLESS YOU APPRECIATE ART

To me, it has always been interesting to have a conversation with highly artistic chefs who make beautiful plate presentations. Some are advocates for simply relying on Mother Nature’s palate to combine foods that grow together, pick them at the peak of maturity, and do very little to change them from how the earth intended them to be. Others invest all of their creativity to use those ingredients to duplicate a vision they had – sometimes inspired by nature, sometimes events, and sometimes a parallel presentation that mirrors some experience from their past. In most every case – the chef is inspired by what they see in nature.

I worked with a chef/educator who during his classes on plate presentation made students forage through the nearby woods for branches, leaves, stones, moss, and natures mushrooms to create plate presentations from Nature’s floor. He wanted this to be their roadmap to working with food – follow what Nature offers you first.

[]         THE OPERATION OF A CHEF’S KITCHEN IS NOT A REFLECTION OF OWNERSHIP, IT IS A REFLECTION OF SHARED PHILOSOPHY

Leadership and management are sometimes a chef’s greatest challenge. Chefs tend to be highly focused individuals who have a need to express what they believe through their food and their operations. They tend to demand that others follow what they see as important and cringe at anything or anyone who steps in the way of this vision. These kitchens tend to be tense, always on edge, highly stressful, ready to burn out at any second, and wrought with mistrust and angst. Things get done, but the price to pay is high. You can feel it when you walk in the kitchen, you might even feel it in the dining room – it is not a good feeling. Others (the ones that I believe are far more successful) are chefs who work hard to identify cooks who are confident, yet cognizant of the chain of command; willing to express themselves, but knowing when it is best to simply say: yes chef; and dedicated to a shared philosophy of food, commitment to excellence, and team dynamics. In this case, the chef can reach the same goals, but do so as a unified body that believes in what they are doing. The difference is: “I wouldn’t dare put out a plate of food that fails to meet the chef’s standards” vs. “Why would I ever put out a plate of food that doesn’t meet our collective standards?”

Eamon

[]         THE OPERATION OF A KITCHEN IS LIKE ADJUSTING A RECIPE

Recipes lack soul and fall short on understanding the need for flexibility. Not every tomato tastes the same, not every fish from the sea is the same, and not every berry that the pastry chef uses is cut from the same cloth in terms of flavor. A chef understands the difference, knows what the ingredient at its peak should look and taste like, understands the history of a dish and how a certain profile must be maintained before he or she is able to complete a recipe with predictable results. The same is true with kitchen dynamics. Not all cooks are the same; in fact they may differ depending on the day of the week or their personal circumstances that will impact performance. The chef must know all the nuances of character, empathy, and leadership to get a consistent result from that kitchen crew. Cooks need to understand before they adjust a recipe and chefs need to understand before they proceed with day-to-day operations.

Why does that chef’s food taste so much better than another’s? It is a complex question with complex answers. When the food is right you know it immediately. When the kitchen is running smoothly, it can be sensed from the moment you step through the door.

PLAN BETTER – TRAIN HARDER

Harvest America Ventures, LLC

www.harvestamericacues.com BLOG

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A BAROMETER OF CHANGE FOR AMERICAN COOKS & DINERS

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You can sense it in the air, you can feel it in your bones, and you can hear it in the silence – the energy that had surrounded the career of professional cook is down a few quarts. For nearly four decades the job of cook dominated the media and served as a major point of conversation and entertainment for guests of all ages and socio-economic backgrounds. Suddenly, the conversations have drifted away, the excitement is tempered, the media has more important things to cover, and the energy – well the energy is hard to find. Is this a barometer for change? Is the relationship of food and dining much less important to all stakeholders?

As Americans found themselves in lockdown for the last few months they changed their priorities, they became more focused on what they needed vs. what they wanted. After a period of time – that restaurant meal was pushed to the back burner. Dining out was unavailable and we got by, we re-introduced ourselves to cooking at home and dusted off those skills that had been dormant, or added some new ones that had here-to-for not existed. Cooks and chefs drifted out of the limelight and now even those career cooks were likely questioning their choice of jobs. Is this where we are at?

Time will quickly tell as restaurants begin to open and operators try to coax back those cooks, chefs, and servers to an industry that still has a few warts that need to be addressed. In the meantime, what can be done to build back that enthusiasm, the mystery, the excitement and joy of cooking and dining?

What took decades to build up has taken only a few months to deflate. You remember – just a few months ago – dining out was a source of entertainment, chefs were careerists worth admiring, a restaurant meal was a reward, and a chance to clink glasses with friends was something to truly look forward to. You remember as a cook – the job that you did was never boring, filled with adrenaline, creative, and at its core – a dynamic team sport. We need to put loads of energy into bringing that back. This is what restaurants are all about and an industry without the energy that existed a short time ago will be shallow and certainly not the same.

Part of the reason is the isolation reality, part is the negative impact of “pause”, part is a lack of availability, a good part is fear, and an even more significant part is our fault for not keeping those lines of communication open with all stakeholders in the restaurant experience.

Let’s start with a clean slate and lean back on some old marketing tools:

[]         BUILD ANTICIPATION

It has been a while since employees and guests have walked through your restaurant doors. What was it about that previous experience that brought excitement into their lives? What was it like to be part of your restaurant experience before and what will it be like now. Try not to show signs of trepidation or fear, but rather well thought out optimism. This is where you need to make everyone feel comfortable about walking through those doors – this is where you need to show that you will have your act together. Now – start to build on anticipation.

[]         COMMUNICATE FREQUENTLY

Build this anticipation using the tools that are within your grasp. Flood social media with “COMING SOON” type announcements, take loads of quality food and people photos and post them on Instagram, use your network of email addresses to talk about specifics, update your tired website to reflect a “NEW and IMPROVED” restaurant, and connect with your loyal ambassadors for something special – maybe a pre-opening, socially distant event for them to try out the new menu. Do it all and do it often. Be present every day on these platforms.

[]         LIFT UP THE BRAND

Your regular customers were your ambassadors and your raving fans. They remember you, your people, your name, and your image – talk it up. Make sure that your name and what you stand for is prominent in every communication you send out. Order new uniforms with the brand name front and center, print a bunch of T-shirts to give away or sell during those initial re-opening days: “RESTAURANT SO AND SO IS BACK”, “WE SURVIVED FOR YOU”, “THANKS FOR WAITING”, “BE PART OF OUR EXPERIENCE”, etc.

[]         FOCUS ON THE REWARD

People have been out of action for a long time, they crave an opportunity to be served, to eat someone else’s food, to see other people (even if they are socially distant and wearing masks). The restaurant experience has always been more than just filling stomachs – it has always been about tangible and intangible rewards. Remind everyone about this. “You deserve a break today” was always a perfect marketing pitch that focused on reward – don’t underestimate its importance.

[]         PRODUCT, PRODUCT, PRODUCT

Refresh your tired menus with something new. It doesn’t need to be groundbreaking, but it should make people feel good. This might be the perfect time to resurrect those classics that make people comfortable – put your own twist on them. A few years back there was a trend to bring back the grilled cheese sandwich as something with limitless possibilities – look at what you might re-invent and add your signature to.

[]         RE-IMAGINE THE EXPERIENCE

Right now we are scratching our heads trying to rationalize how the Coronavirus restaurant experience might be even remotely enjoyable. Limited seating, at least 6-feet apart, everyone in masks, the smell of bleach as everything is sanitized frequently, limited menus, no group tables, and nerves on edge everywhere you look. Stop thinking about how difficult it will be and start contemplating how you might make lemonade out of lemons. How can you have fun with the limitations? Is there a way to create some level of interaction without violating those protocols that are so important? What rewards can you offer your guests?

[]         VALUE IS AT THE CORE

This is a time to rebuild confidence, to minimize fear, to become part of everyone’s routine again. This is not the time to make too many decisions that are based solely on profit. Yes, every restaurant is faced with the financial challenges brought about by the shutdown, but there has never been a more important time to focus on value. Remember people have figured out that they can get by without restaurants – so why skimp on experience or focus too much on making up for lost financial ground? Build menus and experiences that demonstrate that the experience is important and the price is right.

[]         RE-INVEST IN EMPLOYEES

In some cases – your hourly employees have been able to make more money on enhanced unemployment than they made working for you. Although this is short-lived it is hard to compete with that reality. This is not the time for despair; this is the time to show your employees that they are important and that you intend to invest in them. Financial incentives are important, but so are the non-tangible investments like enhanced training and a new attitude that shows how much you care about them and their life challenges.

[]         CELEBRATE THE CRAFT

Cooking and service are two of the oldest professions know to mankind. The inclination might be to figure out ways to make things easier, use more convenience items to save on labor, cut back on the details of service, or plan menus that are not challenging for cooks who had, in the past, taken their craft seriously. This might backfire. Many in the restaurant business have chosen their career because of the craft, because of the skills, and because of the creativity. Don’t lose sight of this.

[]         LISTEN AND ACT

There has never been a more important time to listen to your employees, listen to your regular guests, and listen to your competition. There is much to be gained from listening, really listening, digesting what is offered and building a positive action into that formula.

[]         START TO FIX THE PROBLEMS

Part of listening is to acknowledge the problems that are systemic in the restaurant business as well as those that are unique to your operation. If you want to regain the ground lost and set a course to thrive as time goes on, then your strategy must include a sincere attempt to correct many of the problems that plague the operation and impact employees and guests.

Let’s bring back the enthusiasm and the energy – this is the lifeblood of a vibrant restaurant business.

PLAN BETTER – TRAIN HARDER

Harvest America Ventures, LLC

www.harvestamericaventures.com

www.harvestamericacues.com BLOG

COMING SOON:

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A podcast for chefs, cooks, and culinary educators

 

 

FUTURE PERFECT – A RESTAURANTS NEXT CHAPTER

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OK, so here we are: restaurants are beginning to re-open (maybe prematurely, maybe not) and we are all scared to death. We are fearful of a virus that is still out there, still scoping us out, still waiting to strike again, and we are not prepared for that. We are fearful that 25% or 50% capacity in our restaurants will not allow us to survive – so, what’s the point? We are fearful that customers will not return and customers are fearful of what is waiting for them as they venture out with loads of trepidation. And we are fearful that everything will be different and we don’t yet know how to define “different”.

Yep, I get it – we are all in the same boat – fear of the unknown. The natural inclination is to play it safe, to try and bring everything back to where it was pre-pandemic. This is our comfort zone, this is what we know, this is the space that everyone can jump back into and not lose a beat. Let’s bring back the same menu, let’s try and make service like it was, let’s keep the same pricing model, let’s set-up our kitchens as we did just a few months ago with the same staff and the same skill set. Wouldn’t it make sense to not rock the boat any more – to get into our rhythm and put on a familiar face – this is, after all what out customers expect and want – right?

It’s interesting how last month everyone was proclaiming that everything will be different when restaurants open again, that what we knew will not suffice in the near future. So what did we do to prepare for wholesale change over the past three months? Did we invest in ideation sessions, did we look to other industries that were forced to change in recent years, did we seek advice from knowledgeable experts in our and others industries, did we take a hard look at fixing some of the issues that have plagued us for decades? I am not positive, but I have yet to see any real future thinking and strategic planning in this regard outside of how to social distance, how to incorporate more take-out options, and discovering what new sanitation procedures will be in place at least until a vaccine is developed. Where are the exciting future thinkers in the restaurant business – you know, the disruptors, the ones that force us to scratch our heads, the ones who piss us off, and make us wag our fingers saying: “You can’t do that.”

Painted in Waterlogue

Why can’t we just return to “normal”? Well, for one thing – normal really wasn’t that great for restaurants – was it? Rents were getting out of whack, ingredient costs kept inching up, finding employees was increasingly difficult, many skilled workers were underpaid and under appreciated, profits were too low if present at all, failure rates were very high, and banks – well they just don’t want to invest in a very fragile restaurant business. So – why do we want to return to that – especially with the addition of new protocols brought on by the pandemic?

John F. Kennedy wrote:
“For time and the world do not stand still.  Change is the law of life.  And those who look only to the past or the present are certain to miss the future.”

Think about that for a minute: “Change is the law of life.” In other words, whether we like it or not change is inevitable and it will occur with us, or without us. To fail to change at a time when the door has been opened for the possibility is a lost opportunity that may never come your way again.

Since the early days of restaurants we have acknowledged and embraced a way of doing business that, for all intents and purposes, has not really changed at all. If we allow ourselves to slip right back into the same model then we must accept the fact that all of the problems that I listed will not only remain, but will intensify. Where are the future thinkers who want to seize the opportunity to re-imagine, to re-invent, and to disrupt what we have accepted as “the right way” for generations?

Where are the Steve Jobs, Elon Musks, Bill Gates, Dan Barbers, Helen Turleys, and Peter Senge prophets who would turn the restaurant business upside down and find a new way of doing business – a way that is innovative while maintaining all of the feel good parts of our business – the hospitality, the gathering, the beautiful food, and celebratory environments that bring people to restaurants for nourishment, entertainment, and cheer? Let’s just pretend that this was just a bump in the road, a moment in time that we can quickly forget and move back into the groves of the highway that we left for a short period of time. Does this make sense to you?

Lincoln gave us clear words of advice:

“You cannot escape the responsibility of tomorrow by evading it today.”

As I walk down the street and see lights begin to shine in those restaurant dining rooms that were vacant for three months, as I watch the dust being removed from table tops and masked employees begin their sanitation routines, as I see cautious vendor drivers and hesitant cooks don their masks and take those first steps into restaurant kitchens, I am just perplexed. What are they stepping back into? Hell – what compelling reasons will bring guests back into those restaurants to dine? Is it convenience, the need to just get out and live again, or an opportunity to re-ignite a love of food and service? Will those guests venture out into the unknown just to find what they had experienced before? Will the benefits outweigh the risk? Really folks – have we thought this through?

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As Lincoln alluded to: we have a responsibility to tomorrow – this is basic and important. Avoidance will never allow us to move forward as an industry and come out the other end – stronger, better, and happier. This is a time for future thinking, this is only scary if we fail to see the excitement of positive change.

 Buckminster Fuller was a visionary, future thinker, designer, educator and inventor (developed the geodesic dome as an example) who outlined the exact situation we are in right now:

“We are called to be architects of the future, not its victims.”

If we (the restaurant industry) fail to embrace the opportunities that the future can bring, then we are likely to be left behind. If not you, then someone will; if not now, then when; if you ask why, try asking why not.

Ask yourself some foundational questions as a starting point:

  • How can we better serve the needs of our customers?
  • How can we build a more conducive work environment for our employees?
  • How can we build a new level of excitement for dining out?
  • How can we build new, compelling experiences that will bring customers back time and again?
  • How can we make restaurants more profitable while allowing them to be cost accessible to a broader population?
  • How can we build a restaurant industry that is friendlier to the environment?
  • How can we enhance our relationships with the source of ingredients and improve the integrity of our food supply?

These and other questions can and likely should be prods to stimulate our train of thought, to excite us about the possibilities, and to engage a spectrum of stakeholders to play a role in making the next generation of restaurant experiences a reality NOW. It can start with you – NOW IS THE TIME!

We know that there are dreamers and there are doers and it is rare to find individuals who possess both abilities. This is why we put teams of people together. Visionaries/futurists are essential individuals who make us “think different” (as Steve Jobs asked us to do) and attack the problems of today to help find the right solutions. Let’s not fall back into our comfort zone – we can’t afford to do that. Build your team, ask the questions, encourage dialogue, and put aside pre-conceived ideas about how it “should be” – think more in terms of how it “could be”.

PLAN BETTER – TRAIN HARDER

Harvest America Ventures, LLC

Restaurant Consulting

Embrace the opportunity to make it better

www.harvestamericacues.com BLOG

 

 

 

 

 

COOKS – GETTING BACK INTO THE ZONE

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Take a deep breath as you walk through those back doors, back into the kitchen that was so familiar, back to a place that you have missed for the past three months. Somehow you are nervous – why is that? You’re not as nervous about the virus as you are being able to hit the ground running. This is a job that has always required you to be on your game, to be able to zig and zag, solve those little problems that crop up every day, finding your pace, organize your station, and respond with syncopation and confidence when those orders start to roll off the printer. How will you be able to perform – that is the question that is churning in your stomach, that brings beads of sweat to your forehead, and that clouds your vision as you make that first step into the kitchen.

Things are certainly different as you pull on your N-95 mask, nod to your teammates while trying to keep a safe distance, scrub your hands for the first of 25 times today, sanitize your work area and your tool kit, grab your station prep list and start to work. The chef has some background music playing from his iPhone as a way to lighten the tension, and although the conversation is less engaged as it once was, people begin to throw around some of the typical banter. “Hey, I hope your knife skills didn’t get any more pathetic than they use to be”, “ I hope the chef stocked up on extra band aids now that you are back in the kitchen”, and a few other slights that are a bit more graphic. Somehow, the banter makes you feel relaxed, relieves that knot in your stomach, and brings hope to quell those fears that you have about your ability to adapt.

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Soon the cadence of work lightens the mood and that muscle memory kicks in as you charge through vegetable prep and begin to trim tenders and strip loins, cut steaks, peel and devein shrimp, clean Divers scallops, flatten chicken breasts, and fillet various types of fish for your station.

You nick one of your fingers with a boning knife and it bleeds like a bastard. Trying not to let others see your sloppy mistake you wrap it in a side towel and make a stealth move towards the rest room. You wash and dry the cut (damn, it’s on the tip of my index finger where it is impossible to stop the bleeding) wrap it tightly with three band-aids and double up your gloves hoping that the blood won’t give away your misguided knife handling. Back to work – the only thing hurt is your ego.

“Hey Jake – you cuttin steaks or fingers the rest of the day?” Damn – busted. Of course, now you will be the butt of everyone’s jokes for the next couple hours. The chef walks past you and just smiles. Well, at least you broke the ice.

Everyone is trying hard to bring back some semblance of “normal”, but the air is heavy, as each cook knows that nothing is normal anymore. The chef had sent everyone a list of new protocols before they arrived, so routines of old were out the window.

You notice a delivery truck arrive with supplies – even this is part of the change that the virus has brought to the restaurant. The driver is no longer allowed to simply wheel in supplies and unload them in coolers, freezers, and dry goods storage. Items are received at the back entrance where boxes will be opened, cardboard immediately discarded to outside recycling bins, and each item is wiped with bleach cloths before transferred to storage. This is an all hands on deck process that eats away at time that would have normally been spent on prep. No one is happy about this added process, yet everyone feels that sense of responsibility for everyone’s safety and wellbeing.

Back to prep, that is after scrubbing hands again, re-sanitizing your work station, adjusting your mask that has begun to cause a rash on your face, and turning in your apron for one that is fresh and sanitary. Now that sense of urgency returns, the knowledge that there is more work to complete than there is time – you dive into the details for your station. Time to clarify butter, blanch and shock vegetables, reduce stocks for sauce work, mince herbs, refill bottles of wine and olive oil, prepare garnishes, season your pans, fire up the grill and salamander, and fold your side towels as you always had in the past. Thirty minutes more and that POS printer will begin to talk once again.

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Now things begin to seem right. Comfort and confidence overtake angst and doubt as every cook instinctively falls back into his and her pace. This is what they are trained to do, this is their calling, this is that point in time when their skills point the way and cooking becomes part of their reflex. Cooks mark steaks and chops at their chargrill and fall back into a comfort zone of knowing degrees of doneness. Sauté quickly remembers how to multi-task: hot pan, clarified butter, scored skin on the fish fillet hits that screaming hot pan, keep the pan in motion so it doesn’t stick, sear to a golden brown, baste the fish, hit it with a touch of salt and deglaze the pan with white wine – push the pan aside until pick up. Another hot pan – no two, two orders of tournedos on the fly. A quick sear of salted meat – both sides. Deglaze with a touch of Madeira and a splash of demi. A spin of fresh cracked pepper and then remove the meat. Finish reducing the pan sauce, add some chopped parsley and return the meat to coat. Plates up – toast medallions, fillets, sear two cut pieces of foie gras in a dry hot pan (it only takes a few seconds) sear both sides and top off the fillets – mask with sauce madeira and a few shavings of black truffle – four pieces of perfect asparagus and two baby carrots tossed in butter – slide the plates into the pass. “Give me an all day”: the expeditor calls out: one more tournedos – rare, three shrimp, two Dourade fillets, four chicken picatta, and one vegetable tart – all have apps coming up first – fire the first Dourade right now!

The pace continues to quicken and everything seems to slide into that slow motion groove of a cook in control. All he hears is the commands from the expeditor and the ticking cadences of the printer. Everything is under control as his mental state is total focus on the work. This cook is there, he is back, he feels the adrenaline coursing through his veins, and sees things clear again. This is what he missed over the past three months. All his uncertainty is put aside – he is back.

At some point the board is almost clear – he looks to Janis to his left on apps and Greg on the broiler. They both have smiles on their faces. They too overcame their fear and rose to the occasion. No one struck out or lost his or her poise – the night was winding down and the day was won. The expeditor gives them a thumbs-up and the chef simply nods. Good cooks don’t forget, it’s like riding a bike – it only took one push to adjust to the new normal and get their confidence back. A few high fives and then it’s back to cleaning and making notes for what tomorrow will bring.

This time of uncertainty has left everyone shaken. Cooks and chefs in particular rely on protocols and systems and uncertainty never sits well with them. The time will come when restaurants will be back and cooks find their groove once again. The swagger of line cooks will return and the gratification of plating that perfect dish will bring a smile to their faces. It will happen soon enough – be patient.

PLAN BETTER – TRAIN HARDER

Harvest America Ventures, LLC

Restaurant Consulting

We are in this together

www.harvestamericacues.com BLOG

EFFECTIVE LEADERSHIP WHEN IT SEEMS TO BE IN SHORT SUPPLY

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I am a concerned spectator at a time when everything seems to be in question and every one of us lives on the edge. We fear, we adjust, we cope, and then there comes a time when our coping mechanism comes into real question. This is when leadership is most needed.

Leadership is always important, but seems to be in critical need when we are in time of crisis. This is when people turn to either those with the title or those with a history of leadership. Leadership, real leadership comes from four actions:

* What we hear

* What we learn

* What we say

* What we do

The issue of proximity comes into play, because it is difficult, if not impossible to lead in situations or lead people when a person has not walked in those shoes, does not know the people in need of leadership, or has not felt their desperation. It is not possible to truly lead those with whom you can’t relate. This is true of any situation, individual, or group. In situations where this proximity is not possible then a person with the title of leadership must engage people who can relate and then hear, learn, speak, and act in a manner that respects the knowledge of others.

This is true of leaders of companies, organizations, geographic areas, communities, or populations. It is true of mayors, governors, Congressional members, presidents, law enforcement, and judges, just as it is of those in the clergy, and the classroom. Proximity and history are important when it comes to leadership with positive results.

  • WHAT WE HEAR and LISTEN TO:

– Who are “leaders” listening to? Are they listening to people with the background to know, with insight that is based on experience, or with the talent to find solutions? If not, what are leaders basing their decisions on? Doesn’t it make sense to listen (not just hear) to those individuals in a position to understand what is before them?

  • WHAT WE LEARN:

– Effective leaders convert listening to learning and invest the time to build a level of understanding that factors in proximity and relies on experience and facts. When this is done then decision-making will more likely result in effective outcomes.

  • WHAT WE SAY:

– Effective leaders coach their words and base them on what they have learned – backed up with facts and input from those “experts” that they have effectively listened to. WORDS ARE POWERFUL – WORDS MATTER.

  • WHAT WE DO:

–           Finally, effective leaders take actions that are calculated, inclusive of expert understanding, and based on collaboration and strategic thought. There is never a guarantee for success, but this process is far more likely to reach that end result while earning respect and support.

At this critical time in our lifecycle (on the macro scale) we crave effective leadership in all areas. We look for leadership to guide us through this health crisis, we look for leadership to keep our priorities in line, crave leadership to help us build a strategy to work through a deep economic crisis and build confidence in that strategy, seek leadership to help our businesses survive and thrive again, pray for leadership to bring our country through a time of hate, anger, and despair; and seek leadership to bring our communities and nation back to a time of integrity and strength.

On the micro level, let’s look at the restaurant industry, an industry that is truly in a crisis situation. We are all aware, at some level that this is an immensely important industry, and at the same time – a very fragile industry. Unless a leader has “proximity” then he or she cannot truly understand the level of fragility and despair. We hear of major restaurant companies that struggle, but pay far less attention to the small business, the independent restaurant that represents the largest segment of the industry and the most fragile. If these operators are unable to recover from the worst health and economic challenge in our lifetimes, then the future of the restaurant industry is truly in jeopardy. Unless our leaders have proximity or build proximity into their decisions, then it is very likely that those mom and pop operators will fall. It is that simple. That local café or diner that has been part of your quality of life for years is in jeopardy. That local pizzeria that makes the best pie around is in jeopardy. That chef owned fine dining restaurant is in jeopardy. That world-famous bar-b-que joint that has been around for generations is in jeopardy. And that coffee shop where you greet your favorite barista on the way to work or use their tables as a temporary office to support you on-line business is in jeopardy.

Unlike that corporate restaurant firm with dozens or hundreds of outlets offering consistent product and service, your independent operation does not have the advantage of a marketing department, human resource officer, significant lines of credit with a bank, or leverage with vendors to gain better pricing through volume. Those chains are far more likely to gather their collective minds to find a way out of the storm and survive a period of business downturn. That independent operator measures their ability to survive in terms of a few weeks without sufficient business revenue.

Here is the reality: PPP loans that turn into grants don’t work for most independents when the conditions associated with that loan to grant remain inflexible. Allowing those operators to open with a restriction of 25% or 50% capacity does not help a business that depends on filling their seats and turning tables once or twice on a weekend night. It doesn’t help those restaurants if their bar operation is unable to accommodate revelers who seek to mingle with friends and buy a few rounds. It doesn’t help those independents when customers remain fearful of being in an environment where people cluster. It doesn’t help those independents when there are no clear answers to the questions above.

When the President’s Council for economic recovery only includes CEO’s from major restaurant chains and a few very high-end operations and shuns representation from mom and pop restaurants and shops – then any solution found will avoid listening to, learning from, speaking to, and acting upon a base of knowledge that really reflects the restaurant industry in America.

Where are the knowledgeable leaders who share proximity with the operators most clearly impacted by decisions that are supposedly designed to help restaurants recover? Where are the knowledge leaders who understand that this is an industry of diverse individuals who are on the lower end of the pay spectrum, and who try to get by without baseline benefits? Where are the knowledgeable leaders that understand the cliff that these restaurants live on without the benefits of help that exist within those restaurant chains and high-end operations that may be more flush with cash?

The best ideas for these independent operators cannot come from an assumption that throwing a bit of money their way and simply encouraging them to find their own solutions is enough. Leaders need to understand that the majority of these independent operators are good at two things: making consistently good food, and providing real service for guests that they work hard at knowing and caring for. They are not marketing experts, social media aficionados, financial planners, systems analysts, physical plant designers, or strategic planners. They are good at what they do and need real help with everything else. Remember – they are not responsible for this crisis – they are living with the necessary decisions that others made to protect public health.

How about boosting the breadth of assistance that the SBA offers to include building recovery strategies for small restaurants? How about financially supporting the SBA to recruit hundreds or thousands of regional restaurant/business consultants to roll up their sleeves and work on site with independents on recovery plans? Why not invest government spending in aligning small restaurants with culinary and business schools to provide additional training leading to recovery action? Why not subsidize local banks to cover some of their concerns about lending money to community restaurants in need? Most small restaurants know that a meeting with their bank to seek a larger line of credit or low interest loan to make physical changes to their operation in an effort to maximize sales while supporting social distancing will lead to a “sorry we can’t do that” response. This is where these independents need help. These are the type of solutions that can come from leadership that relies on proximity, listening, learning, speaking the truth, and acting accordingly.

Restaurants need real help and they need it now! If these restaurants fail so too will our economy. As the second largest employer of people in the U.S. – the restaurant industry (mostly independent operators) needs real help, not just a handout.   These are proud people who have given everything they have to the businesses that they operate. These restaurants are their dream, their life, their purpose and we should all be conscious of how much they mean to the communities where they hang a sign that reflects this.

Where is the leadership?

PLAN BETTER – TRAIN HARDER
Harvest America Ventures, LLC

www.harvestamericacues.com BLOG

*PHOTO:  The proud Mirror Lake Inn Culinary Team 2006

OUR DAILY BREATH: OPENING RESTAURANTS – WHERE’S THE PLAN, STAN?

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Let’s assume, for a moment, that we actually are all in this together. Let’s put on our restaurant hat and take responsibility for doing what is right for both the health and wellbeing of our families, staff, and customers, and help in bring our communities out of the deepest economic hole since the Great Depression. Both of these issues are significantly important and even though we should all agree that health and safety is foremost – if we manage to beat the virus into submission and destroy the economy in the process then we are left with a problem that can be devastating for decades to follow. OK – so that doesn’t help much unless we have a plan, a plan that everyone buys into, and a plan that shows hope on both fronts.

So the question is – where is the leadership in building such a plan? The CDC has provided recommendations for re-opening businesses (restaurants), and some states have qualified these recommendations by instituting phases for opening once certain statistical criteria is met, but much of what happens within those phases is up to individual restaurants to interpret and devise methods of delivery. Where is the real leadership from professional organizations and from the communities where those restaurants reside? Where is the collaboration among community restaurants to portray a consistent message and a self-assessment process?

Think about the following:

[]         RESTAURANTS CAN REOPEN WITH 25% CAPACITY: Great – we all know that it is impossible for any restaurant to survive with 25% capacity. Where are the organization experts with thoughts on how this parameter might be approached?

[]         RESTAURANTS THAT OPEN MUST PRACTICE PHYSICAL DISTANCING: Sounds reasonable – how can that truly be accomplished with the ebb and flow of customers, servers approaching tables, taking orders and delivering food?

[]         THE VIRUS CAN LIVE ON SURFACES FOR A PERIOD OF TIME SO ENHANCED SANITATION MUST BE PRACTICED: OK, we get it – what does that mean and how does it apply to plates, glassware, flatware, tablecloths, salt and pepper shakers, chairs, booths, walls, table tops, etc.? How can we really stay on top of this challenge? Who will provide consistent guidance in this regard?

[]         THERE IS NO EVIDENCE THAT THE VIRUS CAN BE TRANSMITTED THROUGH FOOD: Well, that seems reassuring, but tell me how is it that the virus can live on non-food surfaces for many hours, but will avoid clinging to that salad, glass of beer, or tonight’s special?

[]         ALL STAFF AND CUSTOMERS SHOULD WEAR MASKS: Totally agree, and we can certainly require our staff to do so, but with the wild west attitude among a few customers that this is an infringement on their rights as American’s – what is our legal support to demand this and what is the best way to manage unreasonable guests?

[]         WE ARE ENCOURAGED TO SANITIZE OUR PERSONAL GROCERIES FROM THE STORE BEFORE THEY ARE BROUGHT INTO HOMES: Fine, if you are like me – it takes an hour to shop every two weeks and two hours to sanitize everything before I move items to storage in the house. Shouldn’t we be doing the same in restaurant kitchens? If so, what it the plan for vendors and restaurants to work together in this regard?

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[]         AT A CERTAIN POINT (before there is a vaccine) CUSTOMERS WILL BE ALLOWED TO RETURN TO RESTAURANT DINING ROOMS: Terrific! When that occurs we will be able to go back to business as usual – right? Oh, but what if customers don’t want to return to dining rooms? What if they (rightfully so) are still nervous about being in public groups while the virus is still flourishing? How do we rebuild trust – not just in returning to our restaurant, but even more importantly – to restaurants as a whole? Where is the leadership coaching on that?

[]         WE ARE ALL IN THIS TOGETHER: Yep – I have heard that many times before – so why does it feel like we are on our own? Why are there mixed messages from state to state and community to community?   Why are we given guidelines yet no one seems intent are really enforcing them? Why is each restaurant struggling with how to manage the need for safety vs. the need to generate revenue? Why is there no universal strategy that helps restaurants collectively walk through the process of re-opening with confidence and uniformity? If we are all in this together, why are we so far apart?

Re-opening restaurants when there is no resolution to this invisible threat is risky business. It scares restaurant owners to death – as it should.   The last thing in the world that anyone wants is to create a pool of infection that threatens the very customers who have helped a restaurant through tough times before. The answer cannot be: “Every man for himself”. The answer must be collective agreement on the best way to move forward for the safety of all involved and the financial health of the business. We know that the only tools that we have right now are physical distancing, wearing masks, and washing hands and surfaces extremely well – but is that enough to build trust in a return to business?

We should applaud the states that have exacting criteria for reopening businesses in phases and methods in place to assure that the criteria is met, but it is not enough – at least not for restaurants. We (the restaurant industry) need local governments to bring restaurant owners together to build a model that everyone buys into, a model that is reasonable, safe, and verifiable. We need industry organizations like the National Restaurant Association and American Culinary Federation to go beyond printing a list of recommendations and rather become actively involved in communities by walking them through the process of collaboration, ideation, and implementation. Most importantly, we need community restaurant owners, operators, and chefs to come together to build active lines of communication, serious platforms for implementation assistance, and an active commitment to doing the right thing – every restaurant, every chef, every day. If we are in this together than we need to build a strategy for that to be realized.

PLAN BETTER – TRAIN HARDER

We SHOULD be in this together – the only way to address the challenges

Restaurant Consulting

Harvest America Ventures, LLC

www.harvestamericacues.com BLOG

OUR DAILY BREATH: CHANGE FOR THE RIGHT REASONS

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There is so much angst and uncertainty among the restaurant community right now. Should we reopen when the green light is given? What precautions need to be in place to protect our staff and customers? How will we survive if we are required to live with 25% or 50% of normal capacity? Will customers return, or will they shy away from any contact with groups of people? The common realization is that things will be different and we need to change.

Change is too often implemented based on need or fear of not moving in a different direction. Sometimes change happens just to push the envelope and stand out as being different. In reality – change out of necessity is rarely accompanied by the passion to do so, and being different does not mean that you are good at what you do – sometimes you are just different. Neither one of these reasons seems to make business sense, yet they do fit in with the theory that failure to change is a sure sign of failure.

Right now, the restaurant industry and those who work within it feel the pressure for change. We don’t have a choice – right? Profits are slim, employees may be reluctant to return, the fear of the virus is looming, the food distribution system is heavily bruised, and customers are cautious. We need to change.

According to Bill Buford in his newly released book “Dirt”: The late Chef Michel Richard of Citronelle Restaurant often quoted the French Pastry Chef Gaston Lenotre, who stated: “You can change anything as long as the result is better than the original.” This is a powerful and very important statement that should become a rallying cry in 2020. Change must occur because the crisis before us demands it, but change need not be only reactionary. The question that precedes moving in a new direction must be: “How can we change and make the situation, the experience, and/or the product better than what it was?”

I don’t have the answers because they will always be unique to each property or situation, but you can find the answers. As you contemplate re-opening your restaurant operation in the near future – pull your important stakeholders together (chef, owner, manager, sous chef, cooks, service staff, and loyal customers) and put these questions on the table:

  1. We will need to rearrange our dining room space to adhere to physical distancing – how do we build a dining experience around this to give comfort, warmth, trust, great technical service, and enjoyment? Is there a way to make the overall dining experience BETTER than it was?
  2. If we are required to reduce our capacity to 25 or 50% of what it was, how can we be financially successful and how can our service staff make a respectable living? How can we make the financial results for our restaurant and service staff BETTER than it was before?
  3. If we need to reduce the size and breadth of our menu, how can we keep the product choices exciting and enticing? How can we make our menus smaller, yet BETTER than they were before?
  4. If we need to downsize the number of cooks in our kitchen because of a reduction in restaurant capacity and menu breadth, how can we make the job of cooking attractive and lucrative? How can we make the employee experience BETTER than it was before?
  5. Without a vaccine for the virus and with constant words of caution about engaging in social environments, how can we create a compelling reason for customers to return? How can we make the feeling of trust in customer safety BETTER than it was before?
  6. If we decide to ramp up our business presence as a “to go” or delivery operation, how can we increase volume to make it financially lucrative? How can we make the “to go” experience BETTER than it has been and comparable to our dine-in experience before the pandemic?

The same applies to all facets of the food business – from culinary education to farming, from distribution to catering, and from contract food operations in business complexes to theme parks with thousands of potential visitors every day. Change is required, but change to make things BETTER is the only formula for success.

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Striving for excellence and making decisions based on being the best that you can be will always set your operation apart from the competition. This is an exciting prospect that can convert much of the pressure of change out of necessity to change as an invigorating opportunity to improve in all areas.

One of the ironies of change is that it is never confined to you and your operation. Any change that you make – positive or negative – has implications for all other connected businesses. Your need to create a BETTER, more limited menu for your restaurant will put your vendors in a position to consider positive change. Any decision to change restaurant capacity and make the experience different and BETTER will have an impact on landlords, neighborhood dynamics, advertisers, and those in the business to help create safer environments. And any change in the number of employees in your kitchen and the skill set that they must possess to fit in with your improved work environment will impact the economics of a community and the quality of life for those who choose to work in kitchens.

All this being considered – make sure that your change decisions are well founded in critical thought – thought based on improvement rather than just reaction. Change for the right reason is a roadmap to recovery.

PLAN BETTER – TRAIN HARDER

We are in this together

Change to make things better

Harvest America Ventures, LLC

www.harvestamericacues.com

COMING SOON: Watch for our new collaborative podcast with The Center for Advancement of Foodservice Education (CAFÉ).

DIRT – A novel by: Bill Buford

https://www.amazon.com/Dirt-Adventures-Training-Looking-Cooking-ebook/dp/B081M7TWY5/ref=sr_1_1?crid=T47CPUS0K6LH&dchild=1&keywords=dirt&qid=1589982314&s=books&sprefix=Dirt%2Caps%2C171&sr=1-1

 

A LETTER TO CULINARY SCHOOL GRADUATES

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First and foremost – congratulations on earning your degree or certificate. This is an accomplishment that over the course of your lifetime will reward you tenfold. Know that the degree or certificate is more than an acknowledgement of the skills and knowledge that you have gained – it represents your level commitment and discipline that will serve you well.

This is a very challenging time for graduates of any program – an unprecedented time when the health and wellbeing of world citizens is the number one priority, but also a time when there is much uncertainty in the workforce. The restaurant industry is being hit extraordinarily hard, unlike any other time in recent history. As we continue to fight this pandemic that we still know so little about, and try to gradually open up the economy with a keen eye on public safety – it will be restaurants and other hospitality businesses that suffer the longest. We are an industry that provides so much more than an opportunity to satisfy physical hunger – we are an industry that provides a forum for people to gather, to embrace, to break bread and clink glasses, to tell stories and to laugh with reckless abandon – this is what hospitality is all about. This is also the environment where a virus can find a fertile home. So, we wait, plan, contemplate change, try to find the funds to carry the burden of closure, and hope that science will find a way for us to return sooner rather than later.

Here you are – enthusiastic, informed, confident in your foundational skills, and ready to start a career in food that will last for four decades or more. Today’s jobs for cooks and bakers are in short supply, and they likely will be for a period of time. The restaurant industry will return at some point, historically it always has after crisis, and it will again. The format that we have become accustomed to may change, in fact it certainly will, but restaurants as gathering places are absolutely essential to a civilized world. The communities where you will live depend on restaurants to provide that respite, that environment for celebration and reward that helps us to be one. So, what can be done now with so much uncertainty before you? Here are some words to the wise:

WORDS OF ADVICE:

[]         STAY POSITIVE:

It will be challenging for some time – stay positive! Your attitude and confidence in the ability to rise above the roadblocks placed in your way will define your character.

[]         KEEP WORKING ON THOSE FOUNDATIONAL SKILLS:

A constant focus on improvement is a common trait that all successful people share. It is the foundations, and the mastery there of, that will instill confidence in those who hire you and the seed that defines your self-worth.

[]         KNOW YOUR END GOAL, BUILD A STRATEGY

Whatever your end goal might be: Executive Chef in a fine dining operation, Corporate Chef, Sous Chef, Restaurant Manager, Entrepreneur, Research Chef, or Consultant – where ever you hope to land in the future – put that goal in writing. Research that goal and establish the skill set those successful individuals in that position must possess, and build that into your strategy. “How can I master each of those skills to position myself as a natural candidate for this career goal?”

[]         WORK WHEREVER YOU CAN, JUST MAKE SURE THAT IT CONNECTS WITH FOOD – DO IT WITH EXCELLENCE IN MIND

During this crisis and transition to a solid economy once again, the job opportunities will be far more limited than just a few months ago. This will likely be the case for some time. Make sure that you seek out opportunities that involve food. Know what skill you hope to master as a result of working in that operation and make sure that it fits your career strategy. EVERY POSITION IN THE FOOD BUSINESS WILL HELP WITH YOUR CAREER – IF YOU BUILD IT INTO YOUR PLAN. Here are some examples:

  • QUICK SERVICE: The type of food and ambience of a quick service operation may not be your ultimate goal, but these operations have great systems and controls in place. Every Chef, Manager, or Owner must understand systems and controls. If you work in quick service for an interim period of time – do so with the intent of learning about their controls and systems.
  • FAMILY STYLE: These operations, oftentimes ethnic based, can provide you with an appreciation for the early and late majority of customers who patronize restaurants. This is nearly 70% of all restaurant diners. Dedicate your time to building an appreciation for the taste of the majority.
  • BAR-B-QUE JOINT: Maybe your goal is to work in a white tablecloth restaurant and the thought of investing your time in an operation with paper tabletops and bottles of hot sauce on the table does not sit well with your plan. But you can learn a very important lesson in these operations: It’s all about flavor and flavor takes time and discipline. There are no shortcuts to building flavor that is universally enjoyed.
  • FARM WORK: The back breaking work on a farm may seem to be a far cry from working in starched chef whites in a stainless steel kitchen, but what is most important in cooking is to understand, appreciate, nurture, and admire the work of those who invest in this back-breaking work. A period of time working on a farm will build a greater appreciation for the source of ingredients you work with and the commitment of those people who do the work.
  • SENIOR CARE: Working in senior care facilities can be emotionally draining and too often does not reflect the quality of food that a chef would put his or her signature on. Working in these facilities and approaching the task of cooking with passion and commitment to process is incredibly rewarding. You will learn empathy and how much the “care” that you put into the food you prepare means to others.
  • HEALTHCARE: Typically, working in a hospital is not at the top of many cooks’ career lists. Yet, where else can you develop a real understanding of how important proper nutrition can be to the health and wellbeing of others. This is where you can find definitive evidence of the importance of well-prepared food.
  • CORPORATE DINING: The corporate “cafeteria” has long been replaced with food operations that provide fresh, well-prepared food that is exciting and packed with flavor and nutrition. In corporate environments these operations are essential ingredients in creating positive work attitudes, important conversation, and a chance to break bread and do business at the same time. Learn how food experiences can set the stage for positive action.

All of these operations, when taken in the right context, can add to your skill set to become a chef, manager, or operator. Don’t pass them by because of ego or pride; they can all “fit”.

Painted in Waterlogue

[]         BE THE PROFESSIONAL THAT YOU WERE TRAINED TO BE:

Never lose your commitment to looking, acting, and being the professional that is representative of the best of the position of cook and chef. Make this a part of your character.

[]         KNOW THAT PATIENCE IS A REQUIRED VIRTUE:

Patience has always been a requirement of success, but in these challenging times of crisis, patience is essential. I know you hope and expect to reach your goals quickly. I know that you have financial needs that cannot be met with entry-level wages, and I know that you expect that degree to pay off on day one, but understand that your patience now is an investment in that future. Your success will not happen overnight.

[]         UNDERSTAND THE NEED FOR FLEXIBILITY:

Being able and willing to turn on a dime and change directions is the price of admission in a faltering economy. Be flexible and willing to change.

[]         DEPENDABLE RULES THE DAY:

Be on time, ready to work, and excited about what is in front of you. Be the employee who once given a task – sticks with it until it is done correctly. Trust is earned and dependability is the key to building that trust.

[]         STICK TO YOUR STRATEGY:

You have a strategy, now ask yourself every day: “Is what I am doing right now bringing me any closer to reaching my goals?”

[]         BUILD YOUR NETWORK OF INFLUENCE:

Along the way, no matter how long it takes; your commitment to doing things well and demonstrating dependability will lead to a network of individuals who can help you at various stages of your career. Work on that network and DON’T BURN ANY BRIDGES along the way.

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[]         BE A PROBLEM SOLVER, NOT A FINGER POINTER:

Don’t waste any time pointing a finger at others. Help them to improve, do your job to the best of your ability, ask for help when you need it, and use your data bank of experiences to help resolve issues rather than charge others for their lack of commitment.

Good luck, be the best that you can be. Remember that even during tough times – being a chef is a noble profession with loads of opportunity.

PLAN BETTER – TRAIN HARDER

Harvest America Ventures, LLC

Restaurant Consulting

We are all in this together

www.harvestamericacues.com BLOG

OUR DAILY BREATH: PROBLEMS WITH THE CENTRALIZED FOOD SYSTEM

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Every day there are lessons to be learned. At this level of crisis there are bound to be ancillary challenges that arise – challenges that were not obvious until the domino theory took hold. The farm to table movement of the past two decades was, on the surface, a return to supporting local growers and producers, but the core of this initiative was far more significant. It became obvious to some that putting all of our eggs in one basket was not a wise decision for our country, a decision that could lead to a breakdown of the food production/distribution system if conditions turned sour. Climate change, depletion of soil nutrients, over-use of chemicals in agriculture, carbon footprint issues driven by the methods of distribution, quality issues driven by farming methods that were controlled by demand rather than seasonality, the threat of agri-terrorism, and/or the inevitable appearance of a public health issue (pandemic) were looming potential problems that could devastate a centralized production/distribution system. To some (not enough) people – the answer was a return to a de-centralized system where end users found their food supplies from local and regional producers – where seasonality and use of indigenous ingredients to an area drove menus in the home and in the restaurant. If we failed to move in this direction then a crisis could bring things to a halt – sooner or later the bottom would fall out. So, in 2020 this is exactly where we are.

The domino effect can be described as follows:

“Domino effect describes a situation in which one event triggers another similar event and then another, until there is a cascade of events that occur, all because of the first, precipitating event.”

-The Grammarist

We are living in a vivid example of the domino theory. The coronavirus is testing the stability of every system that man has created. The question is: “how will our systems fare? Will our systems stand the stress test or will they crumble?” As we focus on food production and distribution it is easy to see how quickly stress caused by the pandemic (the first domino) is threatening the way that we grow, produce, distribute, and use those food ingredients that we depend on.   As an example – centralized meat packing plants are devastated by the spread of the virus – some of those plants are closing down until the spread can be controlled.

There are four companies in the U.S. that control 85% of the meat market. Americans consume over 50 billion pounds of meat each year and these four companies control 42 billion of those pounds. These same phenomena can be applied to almost every aspect of food production and processing in the U.S. The underlying rule of thumb for those who are in the business of food is: “Go big or go home.” Profit comes from volume and control of market segments. This is efficient and well supported on paper as a solid way to manage business, but it creates incredible vulnerabilities.

So, some of the meat processing plants have succumb to the virus and partially closed their operations. Suddenly the meat supply is impacted and consumers feel the pinch in the supermarket. Restaurants are forced to close to slow the spread of the virus and flatten the curve. As a result, demand for meat is reduced putting additional stress on the packaging system and directly impacting ranchers who now find that the market for their cattle, pigs, and chickens is reduced. Out of necessity they are forced to euthanize some of their animals. Everyone suffers – sick employees, ranchers struggling to make ends meet, distributor sales tank, and end consumers are faced with empty meat shelves in grocery stores leading to hoarding and further panic over availability. Similar problems rise up in agriculture as dairy farmers are faced with a diminished market for their product with the restaurant business in shutdown. Milk is being dumped because of its short shelf life while millions of Americans find it difficult to feed their families as jobs have instantly disappeared. People are in lockdown at home so to help fill time and alleviate some of the problems with food availability begin to bake bread at home putting overnight strains on the market for flour. Without enough regional flour mills – the supply is suddenly tapped out and consumers can’t even find all-purpose flour on grocery shelves. There is plenty of grain, just not enough capacity for milling since centralized mills forced many of those regional operations to shut down decades ago. The dominos are falling and the system is crumbling and struggling to find ways to keep up.

“Necessity is the mother of invention.”

-Plato

One of mankind’s historic strengths has been adaptation and correction after a crisis occurs. We adapted and corrected after World War II, after the Great Depression, after numerous recessions, following the tragedy of 9/11, and in reaction to the market crash of 2008. We will adapt and correct after Covid-19. Unfortunately, history has shown that it is far less common to find proactive planning to eliminate the inevitability of crisis. It is likely that our food system will adapt at some level and it is also likely that those who drive this change will be in a better position to survive and thrive.

At some point a new version of the restaurant industry will rise up. Those who will be positioned for success will be restaurants that advocate for a redefined distribution model. Call it farm to table if you like, but it will be more than that. It will likely be a return to decentralization – an environment where chefs not only buy local, but where menus are driven by seasonality, not a reliance on buying and serving anything, any time of the year, regardless of origin. This will be an environment where problems in the system can be isolated by region or locale, and managed properly. This will be an environment where market conditions, even during a crisis, are viewed as regional, not global challenges. Everything needs to be reassessed to avoid the domino effect in the future. This is a systemic approach that is based on an understanding that any action will impact another, and some actions can impact everything.

Just an opinion: Food for thought.

PLAN BETTER – TRAIN HARDER
SUPPORT YOUR LOCAL FOOD SYSTEM

Harvest America Ventures, LLC

Restaurant Consulting

http://www.harvestamericacues.com

OUR DAILY BREATH:  COOKS ARE SALT OF THE EARTH

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There is a world of difference in how we view people whether from the outside looking in or the inside looking out. We walk on dangerous ground when we rely on first impressions or unverified perceptions (outside looking in) to assess others and stand a much better chance of understanding the type of person they are when we stand beside them, experience their daily interactions, inquire about their background and influences, feel their pain and share in their joy.

I have enjoyed the privilege of working with, standing beside, listening to the stories, and building an understanding of the people who work in kitchens. These people, once a baseline level of trust is realized, tend to bare their souls to each other. To build an effective kitchen team is to learn what is in each individuals heart, what has brought them to this point in time, how they feel about their own position in time, and their feeling of self-worth. Once you share this information with another person you are suddenly in a position to appreciate who they are and how you might connect in work and in life. It is a wonderful feeling to reach that point and have that experience, an experience that would be hard to replicate anywhere else but in a kitchen.

This is what I have found once you put aside the thick layers of crust, once you dig past the exterior and move away from any preconceived ideas about who a person is, then the real person rises to the surface. Let’s face it, many cooks have loads of layers of crust that seem impenetrable at times, layers that have taken decades to create and will take time to break through. I have found that the vast majority of cooks, chefs, bakers, and dishwashers are salt of the earth individuals. They may come from different socio-economic backgrounds: some have college degrees, while others never made it through high school; some come from strong family backgrounds while others have non-existent or even tragic relationships with their families; some are well read while others never pick up a book; some have an untarnished relationship with the law while many others have a rap sheet of offenses that will stay with them for life; and some have strong relationships with others while many are loners who find no-one to share their life with outside of work. I have invested time with kitchen workers from Mexico, Venezuela, Brazil, Poland, Greece, Portugal, France, Germany, the UK, Ireland, China, Japan, Ecuador, Africa, Russia, Jamaica, and Italy; from the poorest communities of the U.S. South, to affluent urban centers on both coasts – in their heart they are almost always the same – they are the salt of the earth.

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I frequently reflect on the lyrics from the Rolling Stones “Salt of the Earth”:

Let’s drink to the hard working people
Let’s drink to the lowly of birth
Raise your glass to the good and the evil
Let’s drink to the salt of the earth

Say a prayer for the common foot soldier
Spare a thought for his backbreaking work
Say a prayer for his wife and his children
Who burn the fires and who still till the earth

These cooks, chefs, bakers, and dishwashers that I have shared space with in kitchens are all foot soldiers for the craft – members of a community that work physically, mentally, and emotionally hard – every day. They put aside their differences, push away from the outside challenges in their lives, and embrace this common bond – “do the work, do it well, do it with passion, and always support the person working next to you.”

It is the work that helps to bridge all of those differences, it is the work that pulls them in and gives them purpose, it is the work that helps to define them as special.

LINE COOKS ARE THE ENGINE THAT DRIVE A RESTAURANT

As I continue to struggle with the impact that our current crisis has on nearly everything in our lives, I can’t help but wonder how detrimental this time is to these “salt of the earth” foot soldiers. If it is the work that gives them purpose, that unifies their spirit, and that allows them to look past the challenges in their lives – what happens as that work is taken away?

I felt a pain of disappointment the other day when I read articles that chastised some foodservice workers who seemed reluctant to go back to work because they were making more on enhanced unemployment than they would if they were to sweat over a blazing range. The inference was that they must be lazy and that the government was a soft parent for rewarding their laziness. I think that we are missing the point – these are my salt of the earth people, these are the same people who would rather work when they were in pain than disappoint their co-workers, these are the individuals who would consistently spend 10-12 hours a day on their feet in a very challenging, and sometimes dangerous work environment because it was the right thing to do. Maybe, just maybe, it is finally time for us to realize that these employees are worth more and that what they are paid is far too often insufficient for them to survive. Make no mistake – the vast majority would rather work, but for this brief period of time they are able to pay their bills. Let’s start to reflect on value and fair treatment as we transition back into business.

I continue to think about these fantastic people with whom I have spent my entire career and know that as we bring life back to our kitchens we will have a considerable amount of acclimation to deal with. Skills can atrophy when not in use and this period of months when our warrior kitchen staff has been idle, when those bonds that were built among their team members, and when those life stories were shared and accepted, there will be much that has atrophied. They won’t be as trusting when they return, they won’t share as much as they had when their life was entwined with others, and many of those technical skills that were once fine tuned will suffer from idle rust. It will be like a favorite sauté pan that has lost its season – it just won’t work well until is has been fired, rubbed with salt, used and abused until it is slick and polished – that point where it never fails the cook and nothing sticks. All of those “salt of the earth” employees will need some time to polish their skills, to let down their barriers, and to remove a few layers of that crust.

This time of idleness is dangerous for a cook, it is a time when there is too little to do and not enough release for those environmental factors that make them interesting yet vulnerable. Chefs and operators need to keep this in mind as they struggle with the when and how to bring their operations back on line. Communicate with those team members and give them something to chew on so that when the time arrives they will be able to fire up their engines, brush off the dust from their shoulders, and perform their magic once again.

PLAN BETTER – TRAIN HARDER

Stay Connected to Your Team

Harvest America Ventures, LLC

www.harvestamericacues.com BLOG

OUR DAILY BREATH: WONDERS OF KITCHEN SKILL DEVELOPMENT

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Cooks have a certain swagger that oftentimes hides a sense of pride in skill development from that first day in the kitchen. Maybe it was that entry-level first job at the age of 16 – that part time work as a dishwasher or fast food worker, or a series of progressive positions once cooking seemed to hold that spark of interest that could evolve into a future career – but in all cases under that growing façade of confidence is a sense of pride in those little things that inspire and motivate. Think back to those skills that may seem simple and automatic now, but at the time they were a revelation.

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Cracking an egg is something that we rarely think about nowadays, but remember how gratifying it was the first time you mastered cracking and egg with one hand, separating the top and bottom of the shell to reveal the yolk and white, watching it hit a hot pan and realizing that the yolk would remain intact. From that moment on, this hand memory became part of your skill portfolio, a sign that you had mastered something simple, but important.

Think back to the practice that it took to finally reach that point when you were able to flip vegetables in a pan, watching the product lift briefly into the air and then gingerly lay back down as the pan was drawn back into position. No need for utensils to stir the product, a flip of the wrist is all that it took. Now something we do without thought was at that point a great accomplishment – check it off your skill list.

Learning how to build an edge, properly hold, efficiently guide a French knife and expertly cut vegetables to precise lengths and dimensions, would become a sign of your proficiency and confidence. Now we relish the role that that knife plays in our daily work and enjoy how fluid our knife skills have become. In the beginning it was so gratifying to reach that point where the knife became and extension of our hand.

Learning about caramelization (the Maillard Reaction) when the application of heat to the amino acids and natural sugar in an ingredient helped to bring out and enhance flavors, is life changing for a cook. Discovering that this is what defines that mouthwatering flavor of a grilled steak or chop, that mirepoix of carrots, onions, and celery, or the combination of exterior crunch to the soft, mouthwatering internal moisture of a hash brown potato, opens up so many doors to a lifetime of great cooking.

After watching the process numerous times and now holding that fillet knife in our hand, the chef gives us a chance to approach that whole salmon with the intent of removing the fillets. The knife is razor sharp and the trepidation is real as you make that attempt at hugging the bones while removing the fillets and minimizing any signs of valuable salmon behind. Those initial attempts were probably pretty sloppy resulting in less than stellar results, and maybe too much product destined for a salmon mousse. After those initial dozen or so tries you built up confidence, but not speed. After years of wielding that fillet knife you can now zip through that fish without even an ounce of beautiful pink flesh left behind. Check off another skill that sets you apart from the novice.

chuck and mickey

You were struck early on by the intoxicating smells of the kitchen. It was that veal stock simmering in large stainless kettles that wrapped itself around you and gave a sense of comfort to the kitchen. You would take a deep breath when you first walked into the kitchen knowing that that smell led to liquid gold that would eventually become a series of important sauces and foundation for featured restaurant soups. The stock was something even more important than that – the stock represented the chef’s desire to do things right, to respect the foundations of cooking, and to find ways to respect and use all of the ingredients in the kitchen as the magic of cooking turned them into something truly special. This was one of the first deep-seated foundational cooking skills that you were involved with. You discovered that a true stock was more than water, meat trimmings and vegetable peels, it was an exact product that included the caramelization of bones, the right proportion of mirepoix vegetables, a proportionate relationship of water to bones, the right temperature, and time. Once you understood this it became second nature and a treasured relationship that would stick with you throughout your career. Pride in doing it correctly would become a hallmark of your career, a signature of your professionalism.

Do you remember when the science of cooking became part of your repertoire? It might have happened without you realizing it, but it likely occurred the first time you pulled off a perfectly prepared hollandaise, beurre blanc, or mayonnaise. Process, temperature, a steady hand, and using an emulsifier like egg yolks brought science to life for you as a young cook. Now you approach this each time as a fully understood, natural process. Simple ingredients with an understanding of exactness yield a skill to be silently proud of.

Thickening a sauce can be approached in a variety of ways: modified starch, liaison of egg yolks, puree of vegetables or fruit, reduction, or a roux. All of these methods have their place – but that first time you really understood the role and importance of a roux was magical. When you realized that the amount of time dedicated to the cooking of a roux would impact the finished sauces texture and flavor, was a special moment. Not all roux is made equal and now you were in control.

saucing

Reflect back on how you struggled to learn how to pop open an oyster from that pocket in the back of the shell, or approach a littleneck clam with a clam knife after purging it in water, cornmeal and salt. Remember the fear that rushed through you, as the knife slipped into the palm of your hand leaving a cut that would remind you of your lack of skill for the rest of the night. Remember how you cursed and complained as you tried to hide your own doubt of skill as you struggled from bi-value to bi-value – until, you finally got it. Do you remember that moment? Do you remember how that next oyster became a sample of success as you allowed the muscle and the briny liquid inside an oyster to slide down the back of your throat? This was a celebration and a reckoning of why you became a cook. Check another skill off your list.

When the chef told you to attack that case of whole chickens and break them into eight pieces – you groaned in anticipation of a skill that you had yet to master. You took way too long to finish the job, but by the end of that task you were able to find those ball and socket joints in the legs, and swiftly slice the breasts off each side of the carcass without leaving valuable meat behind. The remaining bones would be used in that chicken stock that was ready to simmer in a 30-gallon kettle in the prep kitchen. Now busting out a case of chickens was just another well-developed skill that helped to make you a confident cook.

There would be so many other simple tasks to add to your portfolio along the way: turning a seven-sided potato, watching a popover spring to life with steam as its leavening agent, learning how to control the flames in a pan while deglazing with wine or liquor, slow roasting garlic until its bite sweetened with heat, whisking room temperature egg whites into beautiful peaks of meringue, trimming a tenderloin and hand cutting into perfect filets, folding a perfect omelet while an onslaught of orders click off the POS printer, and walking through the steps of a book fold on croissant dough that would yield hundreds of flaky layers. Each small process built your confidence, and your brand as a cook.

We take these acquired skills for granted now as our careers have progressed and the demands of our job have changed, but it will always be these skills that allow us to proudly hold the title of cook and have the ability to apply magical processes to the ingredients we are privileged to work with. We have come a long way, but every once in a while it is important to reflect back on that bag of tricks that gave us the confidence and the power to do what we do.

PLAN BETTER – TRAIN HARDER

Harvest America Ventures, LLC

Be all that you can be – be a chef

www.harvestamericacues.com BLOG

Photo #1:  Forty years ago

Photo #2:  Today we are going to learn how to crack and egg

Photo #3:  Chefs Carroll and Beriau

Photo #4:  Tableside sauce work at the CIA – Bocuse Restaurant

 

OUR DAILY BREATH: TRUST

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What is very clear, as restaurants in certain states sense a desire to lift stay at home restrictions and return to business is that guests will remain leery of any interaction with others in public places. A lack of trust will apply to everyone and every place as those once enthusiastic patrons give pause to any thought of dining out. Re-opening businesses when the virus is still clawing towards its peak is very risky, of that we are sure. All reputable predictions point to an upswing in cases and severe cases once the stay at home requirements are eased. Time is not the only answer for pulling the rug out from underneath Covid-19 – the only real answer is a vaccine which is not likely for more than a year from now – if at all. So, we open our businesses to the reality that aligns with these predictions. TRUST will be, and should be, our first order of business.

“Trust takes years to build, seconds to break, and forever to repair.”

-unknown author

Look at your restaurant reopening through the eyes of the employee and the guest. They will both have trust issues that will determine whether or not you are successful beyond this first phase of transition. There will be mandated restrictions on capacity, physical distancing, sanitation protocols, use of masks, etc., but it will be your commitment to the safety of all involved that is the key to rebuilding a level of trust that will carry your operation through this tenuous time and on to an eventual renewal of prosperity.   Please note: IF YOU MAKE A MISTAKE THAT IMPACTS ON THE SAFETY AND WELLBEING OF GUESTS OR EMPLOYEES IT MAY BE IMPOSSIBLE TO RECOVER AS A BUSINESS.

“Trust is the glue of life. It’s the most essential ingredient in effective communication. It’s the foundational principle that holds all relationships.”

-Stephen R. Covey

It doesn’t make sense to reopen without a well thought out plan on how to keep all stakeholders safe, how to communicate your commitment to everyone, how to live that commitment, and how to rebuild a level of trust that alleviates fear and anxiety. We see this already in various businesses that have rampant cases of Covid-19, yet are expecting employees and guests to carry on with business as usual. Consider if you were an employee in a senior center, a hospital worker, or a line worker in a meat processing plant. How would you feel about walking through that employee door to a day of uncertainty? How about a patient or visitor to those facilities? What would your level of trust be?

As a restaurant operator, a business person with strong operational skills but very limited understanding of viral infection aside from the mandates from the government and what you decipher from an equally poorly informed media – how prepared will you be to communicate a high level of trust in your ability to keep everyone safe?

When your employees walk through that kitchen back door – how will they know and trust that you have their safety in mind – first and foremost? When your guest walk-through that front door – how will they know and trust that you have their safety in mind – first and foremost? Your plan must include not only the details surrounding safety and sanitation, but an effective communication strategy that will help to alleviate some of the concerns that people will have. Forget the connections that you had with all of those stakeholders in the past – this is new, uncharted territory. You will need to prove yourself all over again, and with stakes that can mean life or death. Scary isn’t it?

If you fail to plan, and as a result make a mistake that leads to serious illness – you may forever violate that trust that will be so important to a thriving business. Think about restaurant chains that had well publicized safety issues in the past and how dramatically those incidents impacted their business. Those incidents pale in comparison to the threat posed from Covid-19. Take the time now, don’t leap at the opportunity to reopen simply because it is allowed – PLAN, PLAN, PLAN.

“If people like you, they’ll listen to you, but if they trust you, they’ll do business with you.”

-Zig Ziglar

So, how do you approach the process of planning for reopening when there is so much uncertainty associated with any decisions that you make? Here are some thoughts:

[]         EDUCATE YOURSELF:

You can’t be effective as a crisis manager if you are not well informed. Study information about viruses and how they spread, what can be done to control them, how to properly sanitize and how to keep the potential for transmission down. Before you insist that employees wash their hands frequently with hot soapy water and use sanitizer – make sure understand why 20 seconds is important and how the virus is impacted by proper procedures. Before you insist that all products coming into the restaurant be sanitized before moving items to cooler and storerooms – build an understanding of how the virus is transmitted on cardboard, metal, and plastic. KNOW WHAT YOU ARE DOING AND WHY YOU ARE DOING IT!

[]         TEACH AND TRAIN YOUR STAFF

Make it a requirement for your employees to complete a virus-training program that builds on an understanding of the role that they play in keeping everyone safe and healthy. Include an understanding of signs of infection that should send up a red flag of concern and consider some sick day compensation model so that employees don’t feel compelled to work through early signs that may just be a common cold, but could be worse.

[]         INSTITUTE A REGIMENT OF SAFETY – MAKE IT PART OF YOUR DNA

Institute a “no exception” protocol when it comes to sanitizing surfaces, washing hands, wearing masks, keeping safe distances, and proper handling of food, utensils, pots and pans, dishes, and glassware. Enforce this consistently so that it becomes second nature to all who work in your operation. This applies to EVERYONE.

[]         PARTNER WITH LIKE MINDED VENDORS

Take a look at the vendors that you currently use. Talk with them and discover how seriously they are taking their role in prevention. Are their drivers wearing masks and gloves? Are they sanitizing their trucks? What is their protocol for entering your kitchen? How committed and knowledgeable are their employees who handle product, load trucks, and care for the safety of ingredients on their hand carts as they roll orders across your kitchen floor? Make this one of your most important criteria in deciding from whom to buy the ingredients that you use.

[]         GO BEYOND WHAT IS REQUIRED

State governments will likely mandate certain precautions during the first two or three phases of reopening businesses. This will include limiting capacities, distancing tables, and protective equipment for employees, and even masks for guests who enter your restaurant. First it is essential that you are the enforcer, but in building that level of trust it is even more important to go beyond what is required. Signage, dialogue with service staff, floor markings that point to proper distancing, sanitary packaging of utensils, on-going training sessions with staff, sanitary bags for guests to store their masks during dinner, etc. Everything helps to build trust and protect all involved.

[]         START COMMUNICATING NOW – BEFORE YOU OPEN

Use your website and social media outlets to communicate with your potential guests while you are going through the planning process. Start Today! Let everyone know about your training program, your focus and commitment to safety, how you will be working with certain vendors, and your breadth of knowledge about the virus. Trust begins long before employees or guests walk through the door. Be proactive during this planning phase.

[]         WALK THE TALK

What you say you will do must be what you actually do. Comfort and trust is validated when it is obvious that you walk the talk.

[]         MEASURE YOUR OWN PERFORMANCE

Debrief with your staff on a regular basis. Where are there kinks in the system? What isn’t working and how can it be fixed. What problems need to be solved and what potential problems need addressing before they get out of hand.

[]         DON’T PUT ALL OF YOUR EGGS IN ONE BASKET

Nobody knows how successful reopening might be. We project that cases of infection will increase as restrictions are loosened, but we don’t know to what extent. To be proactive – it is important that your restaurant look at continuing alternative measures that build new business along with the opportunity to open up our dining rooms. Take out, delivery, mini-markets, on-line cooking classes, etc. Keep the creativity engine working at full steam.

[]         MODIFY AND ADAPT – CREATE A NEW BUSINESS MODEL

Do not assume that what worked in the past will work again. Every restaurateur knows that restrictions on restaurant capacity will make it impossible to survive, yet – this may be the model that we will face for some time. Rather than succumb – think about new models that will help during these transitions.

[]         STAY FLEXIBLE

Most importantly – stay flexible. If cases of the virus increase exponentially as a result of loosening requirements then be prepared for a re-enactment of those requirements. This is nowhere near over – so let’s plan for future scenarios rather than face unplanned change that cripples our industry even more.

PLAN BETTER – TRAIN HARDER

Harvest America Ventures, LLC

Restaurant Consulting

We are in this together

www.harvestamericacues.com BLOG

OUR DAILY BREATH – OUR DAILY BREATHE: A CHEF’S RESOLVE

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Breathe in – breathe out. Fill your lungs and then slowly exhale. To breathe is to engage in a process unlike a breath – which is a short moment in time. We breathe to cleanse our soul and to refresh our heart, to take time to reflect and put aside our anxiety, to pause and think more clearly, to contemplate the bigger picture and to start anew as an individual or part of a group. Our daily breath is a moment in time – our daily breathe is a process of being alone/together and take a step in a different direction, to think differently and to become open to the possibility of change.

A breath is a short moment that is in control. A breath happens hopefully on its own – we take a breath to survive, we gulp in air and fill our lungs with oxygen, a gas that is transported through the respiratory and circulatory systems via the lungs and blood vessels – this gives color to our skin, allows our heart to beat in rhythm, gives us the ability to think, to move, to react, to see, to hear, and to sense what we touch. One breath is followed by another- until we are comfortable that it will occur automatically without pause. When we struggle for that breath we open the door for fear to override everything else. All that we can focus on is finding that next breath. When panic strikes around that next breath then nothing else matters.

When we breathe we become at ease for we are in control, to a degree, of all processes. A deep breathe process fills the lungs with hope and strength and a slow exhale allows the trials and tribulations of the moment to pass with it. This is a conscious cleansing process that puts the mind at ease, allows the heart to find a relaxed pace, and clears the system of fear and anxiety.

Our current situation is ripe with fear and anxiety. Fear of the unknown and anxiety that stems from a sense of helplessness. “What will happen next, how will I take that next breath, what can I do to prepare, and what will I do if the virus strikes?” In this situation even a healthy next breath can feel raw and uncertain. This is a time to train yourself to breathe and think more clearly.

Chefs depend on their ability to stay ahead of situations, to be in control, to think clearly and depend on past experience to find the answers. Cooks and other kitchen employees depend on the chef’s ability to plan effectively and problem-solve when need be. When there are too many unknowns for the chef to feel as if he or she is in control, then either chaos or hopelessness ensue. To a degree – this is where we are. There are far too many unknowns, far too much uncertainty, far too many things out of the chef’s control for there to be any semblance of calm and confidence. Chefs and those around them are worried about taking their next breath – they are living in the precise moment-to-moment world where certainty and resolve are replaced with fear and anxiety. So – what can a chef do?

Here are some thoughts:

[]         BREATHE MORE THAN YOU TAKE A BREATH

Remember when you focus on the “breathe” process you will be able to push aside much of the anxiety, think much more clearly, relax, analyze, and shift to an effective action mode rather than a reactive one.

[]         TAKE A STEP BACK AND LOOK AT THE BIGGER PICTURE

The first inclination is to immerse in the crisis of the minute and react to what is thrown at you (and there will be a limitless number of challenges that hit you in the face), but progress will only come from your ability to train others to be decision makers and for you to invest the time in planning for a brighter future – eliminating further problems from occurring rather than simply reacting to them when the take control of your time.

[]         RELY ON YOUR FOUNDATIONAL SKILL SET

Never lose sight of the fact that you have a significant skill set that can be relied on. Your skills are why you are in the position that you currently hold. You are an exceptional cook, a communicator, a planner, a problem solver, a team builder and a business savvy chef with an entrepreneurial spirit. Fall back on those skills and many of the in the moment crisis situations will find their match.

[]         REFLECT ON YOUR EXPERIENCES

Skills are essential, but it will always be your experiences in applying those skills that allow you to be viewed as a leader and a problem solver. Learn from your mistakes, and hold on to your successes – they will continue to serve you well through any crisis.

[]         SHARE WITH OTHERS

You are not alone. Every other restaurant owner, manager, and chef is facing the exact same challenges that you are. Don’t ever assume that you must bear all of the weight of a crisis, nor should you ever assume that you must have all of the answers. Talk with other chefs and operators, share your challenges and ideas, and don’t shy away from asking for help.

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[]         RELY ON YOUR TEAM

Every chef understands that the success of a restaurant is in the hands of the team that he or she is able to put together, train, and support. This team makes it possible for you to hold a position of merit so make sure that you include them in finding solutions to the challenges that this crisis brings.

[]         STRATEGIZE AND SCENARIO PLAN

You cannot afford to live in the moment. Remember – BREATHE rather than simply look for your next breath. Build a series of strategies for the transitions ahead. How will you deal with that initial soft opening with loads of restrictions, how will you transition from that phase to one with more significant customer numbers and greater demands on menu and service, and how should the restaurant be perceived once the world returns to some level of a new normal? None of this should be a surprise – plan for it. Work through a limitless series of “what if this happens” scenarios and design a solutions based approach that can be quickly implemented if necessary. Remember – don’t leave the door open for too many surprises.

[]         KNOW WHAT YOU DON’T KNOW AND SEEK HELP

Self-assess while you are taking the time to breathe, identify where your weaknesses are and find ways to either build a skill set to address the weakness or plan on hiring the right people to complement what you offer.

[]         DON’T HOLD THINGS TOO CLOSE TO YOUR VEST

Share your frustrations, concerns, fears, and lack of confidence with others who are good listeners and who have the potential to point you in the right direction. The worst thing to do is to hold these uncertainties inside and try to pretend that you are in control. There is no shame in asking for help, for seeking words of advice and encouragement, or simply talking things through.

[]         ACCEPT THAT MISTAKES WILL BE MADE

Chefs hate to admit that they are not able to approach a certain task, admit that they are wrong, or reveal their weaknesses in decision making that lead to mistakes. EVERYONE MAKES MISTAKES – own up to them, find out why things went wrong, seek help and/or corrective action, and move on. Don’t let it eat you up.

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[]         THINK, DECIDE, RECORD, SEEK FEEDBACK, ANALYZE, CORRECT

Know that moving forward this six-prong approach towards managing and leading your team is a surefire way of setting the stage for success. Print these six steps in large font and post them on your door as a reminder. This is what solid managers and great leaders do.

Breathe new life into this challenge and regain control over the situation currently faced – this is the only way that you will find peace.

PLAN BETTER – TRAIN HARDER

Harvest America Ventures, LLC

We are in this together

Restaurant Consulting

www.harvestamericacues.com BLOG

(over 600 articles that are there for your benefit)

OUR DAILY BREATH: A PHASED IN APPROACH TOWARD RESURRECTING RESTAURANTS

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A cautious approach towards opening is the most prudent rule as we begin to see signs of a virus that might be controlled in the future. There are few certainties at this time except an understanding that this is not over. As some states begin to entertain loosening restrictions and easing out of “stay at home” directives – restaurants will consider their options. Do we open in such uncertain times and potentially endanger our employees and guests? How can we not open with so much financial pressure and the looming threat of permanent closure? Whichever side of the question you find yourself on – there is no denying that the constraints will be significant, customers will be very leery about entering a restaurant, and initial sales will never be enough to keep a restaurant solvent.

Rather than let things unfold without adequate thinking, I offer some ideas on a phased in strategy based on objectives designed as building blocks towards eventual success and that sense of normalcy that we are all hopeful for.

[]         PHASE ONE:

(Cautious opening, social distancing, intense sanitation, masks, screening)

We realize that opening in the next few months will require social distancing of at least 6-feet, use of masks, significant improvements in on-going sanitation, and maybe temperature screening of employees and customers. I would suggest that during this opening phase restaurants should focus on the following:

Comfort:        This is a time to help people put aside their fear and rely on familiarity with food that is well prepared, flavorful, nutritious, and fresh. This is not a time to experiment with changing food perceptions and pushing the envelope with cuisine. Keep it simple, keep it familiar, and do it very well.

Convenience:            Many of you have implemented take out and delivery options during the height of this pandemic – customers have responded well to the convenience of this option and will likely remain most comfortable with this option rather than dining in. Make the process better, work on making sure that the food is hot when it should be, work on how food looks and whether it matches the image that you want for your restaurant – make convenience a positive experience.

Trust: Customers, rightfully so, are very cautious and concerned about your ability to keep them safe. Whatever you do during this early transitional opening phase – make sure you invest the effort in building trust. Have a plan and promote your plan from focused signage, greeters that put people at ease (maybe even check temperatures), well defined distancing in the dining room, all employees wearing masks, required customer masking, and visible sanitation efforts. Any employee that shows sign of sickness will be required to stay home until they can show that they are symptom free. This is absolutely essential if you want your customers to return.

Value: During this phase – value will be based almost entirely on price and whether the guest feels that they are able to justify the expenditure. This can happen through menu design, working with minimal labor, and staying away from any frills of dining.

Efficiency:     It’s simple – restaurants are in financial trouble, many may not be able to reopen after months without sales. The only way that they may be able to stay in operation is to become very efficient in how they buy, prepare, and serve food and beverage. Smaller menus, fewer employees, less steps in production, reasonable portions, and little emphasis on those parts of a restaurant experience that are not tangible. Think about the no-frills environment of Chipotle – a program built on efficiency.

Cash Flow:    Restaurants should not view profit as a goal during Phase One. Making sure that sales are coming in faster than payments are going out should be the realistic objective. Working on creating an acceptable level of volume, minimizing labor, keeping menus small, and investing considerable time in managing the restaurants bank account are all critical initiatives at this point in time.

[]         PHASE TWO:

(Access to treatment, vigilant business model, intense sanitation, social           distancing)

Even though Phase Two may be many months away, this is the time to plan for an effective transition. Caution will still rule the day, but with effective treatments for the virus available – restrictions will begin to evaporate. Restaurants must be ready.

            Service:          Providing treatment(s) are available to those who contract the virus, familiar table service will likely return. This means that service staff will be able to interact with guests, social distancing will be a thing of the past, and masks will no longer be required even though people will still be cautious. Any employee that shows even the slightest sign of a cold will be cautioned to stay home so that environmental fear does not take control of an operation.

Convenience:            Convenience will remain an option that is enticing to customers. There will be indications that take out, counter service, and delivery may become a permanent part of the restaurant experience.

Concept:        It will now be time to look at your concept and how you want to be perceived moving forward. Whether it is built from an ethnic focus, farmer relationships, and style of cooking or level of service – what you do now will set the stage for your restaurants future. Make sure that your concept ideas are well researched and try to involve input from your ambassador customers who have supported you throughout.      

Expanded Menus:    Those simple menus may be able to expand at this point as you bring additional employees on board and enjoy greater numbers of guests. Still keep efficiency in mind.

Trust: Stay true to everything that you have done thus far to earn customer trust. You want to reach a point where those who patronize your operation don’t need to think about your commitment to their safety.

Value:             The value formula will change in Phase Two. Aside from price sensitivity – guests will also consider the level of service, flexibility, speed of service, presentation of food, breadth of menu, and how the operation appeals to all of the human senses. We will have to work much harder at winning the value prize.

Breakeven:    Once restaurants are able to openly accept as many customers as they want – it will be important to stay focused and efficient. Profit will still be elusive, but solid management of expenses can result in breakeven. Stop the bleeding will be an essential part of financial management. Restaurateurs are on the right path as long as they manage to keep their heads above water.

[]         PHASE THREE:

(A vaccine is available to all, intense sanitation, loosening of social        distancing, virus is contained)

This is likely a year to 18-months away, yet your business strategy must include thinking long-term – even beyond this point.

Experience:   As a vaccine becomes universally available and communities are able to breathe with confidence – restaurant customers will be looking for more than food and baseline service. We entered this pandemic as part of the experience economy where restaurants were considered entertainment as well as a source of food. This will be the time that chefs live for, servers are able to perform for exceptional gratuities, and owners are able to see their operations be all that they can be. Operations will need to have a strategy for that experience and what it will take to be competitive again in that environment.

Concept:        There will, once again, be room for restaurant concepts that push the envelope, that excite and inspire, and for creative people to test the waters with ideas that have been waiting for a market.

Mass Customization:          This will also be a time for restaurants to totally re-think what they do and how they do it. As other industries have moved towards the flexibility of mass customization (have it your way), so too will restaurants need to think in those terms.

Convenience:            Time will tell, but once you offer convenience to guests and they develop a level of familiarity with that convenience it will be difficult to take it away. Think about the “experience” of take out and delivery and see how you can own that market.

Membership:            The ultimate goal of every business is to create guest ambassadors who would never think about patronizing anyone else. This sense of membership comes from service, communication, and experiences that cannot be found elsewhere. This will be a focus in Phase Three.

Efficiency:     Be prepared – restaurants have been very inefficient for decades. We are labor intensive creating a cost burden that makes profit difficult to imagine. As we move towards Phase Three – restaurants will need to constantly look for ways to maintain quality while reducing process and cost. This will be the new essential skill for chefs seeking to captain the ship.

Value: Value will be based on the experience, whether your concept is a counter service – quick operation, or a sit down multi-course operation – there must be some level of experience involved for value to exist. “Is it worth it” will be the essential question.

Profitability: Finally, when dining rooms are full, kitchens are operating efficiently, and value experiences are being offered – restaurants can return to profitability. You must dot all the “i’s” and cross the “t’s” for this to occur.

Build a Nest Egg:      Know that at some point in the future there will be another crisis that impacts our lives and businesses. Phase Three should provide a wake-up call that helps restaurateurs to start building a next egg that will allow them to weather the next storm.

Food for thought.

PLAN BETTER – TRAIN HARDER

Harvest America Ventures, LLC

Restaurant Consulting

www.harvestamericacues.com BLOG

 

 

 

 

 

OUR DAILY BREATH: CHEFS – REMEMBER THE IMPORTANCE OF “WOW”

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There is so much to think about, so many decisions to make, and so much angst about what the future holds. Building a well thought out strategy for starting up the restaurant engine after we move forward is paramount and will, in the process of thinking it through, give every chef and restaurateur a spark of excitement to lean on. What will our restaurants physically look like with social distancing, how will we be able to interact with guests at service, how will our kitchen teams function as a unit, what changes will be necessary for our menus to be effective, and what role will take out and delivery play in every restaurant concept? The planning process seems overwhelming because there are so many unknowns.

Chefs know that things will be different and as a result they may be lost as to how to approach this planning process. Are there any guidelines on how to approach the process and is there a way to set the stage for a level of profitability that will allow the restaurant to not only survive but also thrive in the future? Here are a dozen thoughts on how to approach planning:

[]         DON’T FORGET THE IMPORTANCE OF “WOW”

It matters not whether you are selling a Wagyu beef tenderloin or a fried chicken sandwich – what is essential is that your product is so good, so well prepared, so special that customers look at it, smell it, and take that first bite followed by a pause of surprise and a response that begins with “WOW”!   White tablecloth restaurants and food trucks will benefit from the exact same end result – you need to make people stand up and pay attention – you want them to stand on a soap box and shout for everyone else to hear: “THIS IS INCREDIBLE”! If customers are not posting Instagram pictures of your food, rushing to Twitter to tell their network of friends, writing exceptional reviews on Trip Advisor or Yelp, and most importantly returning time and again for that special flavor, presentation, unique service, or special sauce – then you are missing the most important opportunity to create raving fans. MAKE SURE THAT YOUR PLANNING INCLUDES AND EVEN FOCUSES ON BUILDING WOW INTO THE MIX.

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[]         USER FRIENDLY IS THE PRICE OF ENTRY

Convenience is the name of the game. If your concept remains “sit down” and you are not connected with an on-line reservation system, then you will miss out on a customer base that is accustomed to 24/7 relationships with providers. If your customers have become accustomed to your take-out or delivery service during the virus, then you must give serious thought to keeping these options and making them exceptional.

[]         BUILD IN EDUCATION AS A VALUE BENEFIT

Some operators have maintained connections with their customer base through on-line cooking classes during the pandemic – keep it going. Promoting your connections with regional farmers and even bringing them into the operation for value added lectures and product tastings is a way to show your commitment to the region and educate your guest. Offering tastings of new wines or beers you intend to add to your list and demonstrate to guests how to identify differences and how to properly pair them with food is a way to create strong connections. Having your chef walk through the dining room and connect with guests is a way to make customers feel special and provides an opportunity for them to ask serious questions about the menu. Everything helps. Think about how your concept – whether quick service, causal or high end dining, can incorporate a level of education in a restaurant concept.

[]         DON’T FORGET WHAT PEOPLE LIKE

This may not be the time to try and show how uniquely creative you can be with your menu. This might very well be more appropriate to rely on the types of food combinations, flavors, and even service that help people feel comfortable and welcome. Pushing too much creativity during the initial stages of re-introduction of the restaurant experience might be better reserved for a time when people are far more relaxed about socializing.

[]         KNOW HOW YOU WANT TO BE PERCEIVED

During this time of planning it will be important to build a better understanding of how your customers perceived you before the pandemic and how you want to be perceived moving forward. Think about those key factors of welcoming, consistency, food quality, speed, flexibility, and price and build a new scenario that more closely matches the needs and desires of a somewhat apprehensive audience dipping their toe in the water of dining out again.

[]         FLEXIBILITY IS CRITICAL

Regardless of what we thought prior to the coronavirus lockdown – when we return we will not be in charge – the customer truly is. Flexibility when it comes to menu offerings, methods of preparation, hours of service, pricing packages, and so on are the cost of admission. Other companies have long ago adopted a flexibility formula – it may be time for restaurants to do the same.

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[]         WHAT IS YOUR SERVICE FORMULA

Is your service formula simply a process of taking orders and delivering product, or is it one where the server is considered a product and content expert with the ability to help guests with decisions of choice? Is your service formula one where whenever you enter a restaurant a server will be assigned to your table or do you build a model where specific servers develop a client base similar to other professions where the customer depends on the relationship with a particular provider? Is your model one that relies on counter pick-up service or will you build off of the curbside delivery formula that is beginning to work for some restaurants during this crisis? Think it through and determine what will work best for you.

“The handshake of the host determines the flavor of the roast.”

-Benjamin Franklin

[]         TRUST AND SAFETY

As I have previously mentioned – restaurant guests will likely return to our businesses once they feel that they can entrust their safety to your staff. Whatever you plan now, it is imperative that it includes the standards and training that will feed into rebuilding trust between you and your guests. Their safety is paramount – let them know how you are approaching it.

[]         THE OVERALL EXPERIENCE WINS THE DAY

People have become accustomed to cooking at home again. Out of necessity they have regained some foundational skills and will, as a result, look to dining out as a luxury far more than they did just a few months ago. Some, with busy work schedules, may return to restaurants out of necessity, while others will need to find new reasons to do so. It will be the overall experience that brings customers back at a level similar to what we knew pre-Covid-19. The experience includes all of the human senses and how they marry well together in a particular operation. What will be your experience? Will it be participative dining, self-serve, cash and carry, fun dining, fine dining, educational dining, etc.? This is the time to make that determination and build it into your planning, marketing and experience.

[]         KEEP IT SIMPLE – DO IT EXTRAORDINARILY WELL

Some chefs believe in complexity and this may have worked for them in the past. Complex ingredients from around the world, complex preparation that requires countless numbers of trained staff in the kitchen, and complex methods that require sophisticated and expensive tools to execute- all well and good, exciting, and challenging, but will it work post Covid-19? In the future this may find a home and attract those innovative customers looking for something new, but for now the rule of thumb might be best to buy high quality, fresh, simpler ingredients and apply those cooking methods and flavor palates that people respond to and do this every day at the highest level of excellence.

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[]         SET THE STAGE FOR LOYALTY

What we (restaurants) have always been so proud of is the number of loyal customers who made reservations every week or multiple times during a week, and who brought friends along for the shared experience. This is where we need to be again. Some may return with great enthusiasm as they did in the past, while others will be apprehensive for a variety of reasons. As you plan for the future – touch base with those loyal customers, engage them, and let them know just how treasured their support has been and will be moving forward. We all need loyalty to thrive.

[]         COMMUNICATE, COMMUNICATE, COMMUNICATE

Finally, as you plan a strategy for renewal – make sure that you build a package of communication that keeps everyone: return customers, new customers, and staff members, fully in the loop. Make sure that your communication loop includes: website, Facebook, Twitter, Instagram, email blasts, signage, and word-of-mouth initiatives that keep your concept alive and well. It has never been more important to communicate than right now.

These are just a few guidelines that can help you with that planning process. I have been chatting with numerous restaurant operators and chefs over the past few weeks and have found a lack of serious planning to be a common issue. Don’t kid yourself – recovery will be very difficult, survival is not a given, everything will be different, and guests are not likely to return in sufficient numbers to help you to survive UNLESS you have a well thought out, comprehensive plan moving forward. DON’T WASTE THIS TIME – STRATEGIZE YOUR WOW EXPERIENCE.

PLAN BETTER – TRAIN HARDER
Harvest America Ventures, LLC

Restaurant Consulting

“We are in this together.”

www.harvestamericacues.com   BLOG

 

 

 

OUR DAILY BREATH: SO WHY DO CHEFS OWN RESTAURANTS?

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Yesterday, I read an emotional, well-written, soul-crushing article by Gabrielle Hamilton – chef/owner of Prune Restaurant in New York City. She spoke from the heart of her “all-in” commitment to her restaurant and staff over the past 20 years while addressing the countless challenges that face independent restaurateurs across the country. She is wrestling with the big questions: Why am I doing this and is there room for this and other small restaurants after the threat from Covid-19 is behind us? I felt as if I were sitting at a table in Prune with Gabrielle while she told her story. It was an emotional experience reading this article and knowing that thousands of other chefs and restaurateurs across the country could have written a similar one. Why do these people choose to open a restaurant when the daunting amount of work involved is a given, when the challenges of keeping the lights on and stoves operating are constant, and when even the smallest amount of profit is never a given? Here are my unsubstantiated beliefs:

[]         THE ART OF EXPRESSION

There are (although putting people in silos is always shortsighted at some level) three different types of people when it comes to the work aspect of life: Leaders, Followers, and Artists. Leaders can be nurtured into their roles as they build a skill set and experience different aspects of a career until they are comfortable with the responsibility of setting the stage for others to self-motivate and find their strengths through a leader’s example. Followers have a need to feel needed and be successful with their work, but seek to have someone else point the way and support their efforts in the process. Artists have an uncontrollable need to express themselves through whatever medium they choose to focus on. They often have little interest in the traditional measures of success as long as their ability to write, paint, play music, sculpt, act, or prepare beautiful food is present. They certainly feel the weight of critique, but as an artist that will pass – they need to do what they do, regardless of the cost to their personal or financial wellbeing. This is quite often a legitimate description of a chef/restaurateur.

[]         THE NEED TO BE OFF THE JOB GRID

Restaurateurs abhor the process of “selling themselves” to potential employers. “This is why you should hire me” seems to be demeaning and lacking in any self-awareness of ones potential. Thus, even those who happen to land a job with a great company and supportive employer seem to feel as if they copped out to on a desire to own their own. While they enjoy the benefits of a good employer they are always thinking about breaking off on their own.

[]         THE LOVE OF COOKING

Chefs – first and foremost – love to cook. They relish the work, the smells, flavors, textures, process, and challenges of taking raw materials and creating something that is aromatic, delicious and beautiful to look at. This is what draws people to the profession of cooking and keeps them coming back every day to the extended hours, and the physical, intellectual, and emotional demands of the work.

[]         THE DESIRE TO BE SOLELY RESPONSIBLE FOR DECISIONS

Chefs have an overwhelming desire to be the decision maker and have a very difficult time relinquishing that responsibility to others. Even in the most chef-centric kitchen there is typically a level or two of management that can override the decision making of a chef. This, even if the override is appropriate, is frustrating to the chef and his or her need to be solely responsible and accountable to only the person seen in the mirror. The only logical answer is to become an entrepreneur.

[]         THE HOPE OF MAKING A DIFFERENCE IN PEOPLE’S LIVES

Chefs and restaurateurs enjoy the thought of making a difference in a person’s life through food and warm hospitality. After all – operating a restaurant is akin to inviting people into your home to break bread, share stories, and celebrate the importance of friendship – just on a larger scale. When we invite people into our homes we hope to make them feel special, welcome, safe, and offer a reward through food. Chefs intend to do the same in a restaurant setting. The reward is in giving to others.

[]         AN INNATE DESIRE FOR THE AMERICAN DREAM

We are told from our earliest days on earth that we have the potential to be whatever we want. That with the right effort and commitment we can aspire to a lifestyle that fits our dreams, a job that suits our talent, and even own our own business if that is a path we choose to take. This is the opportunity that has drawn millions of people from around the world to American shores and a spark that becomes the driving force in many: the chance to be our own boss – The American Dream. This desire, if you are the type to dream in this regard, is what keeps many chefs up at night: planning concepts, working through menu ideas, and always being on the lookout for a perfect restaurant location.

[]         A TOUCH OF EGO

Of course – we can’t discount the ego. Chef’s have a tendency to push aside the reality of owning a restaurant that they are perfectly aware of. They know the challenges, the pitfalls, the impossible nature of the work, the failure rates, and the odds that are stacked against them – yet, that ego tends to step in and proclaim that: “I have the idea and the plan that will overcome all of those obstacles. I know that I can beat the odds and succeed where others have failed. I have the magic formula figured out, the one that has alluded so many before me. My success is all but assured.”

And there you have it – another chef who wants to become a restaurant owner. A person who will pour his or her heart and soul into this business for the opportunity to express what is churning inside their being, waiting for an outlet. A person who will pull out all the stops, tap into every penny that they have saved, seek out loyal customers who might want to invest in the chef’s dream, call on family members to contribute what they can, call up those former co-workers to leave their current employer and join the team, plead with vendors and salesmen to give them a credit application, and pour out their hearts to a local bank for an equipment loan and a line of credit. This is that chance the chef has been waiting for – to put his or her signature on a menu, to hang a sign out front with their name, to walk through a dining room holding his or her head high and stopping by tables to hear praise for the kitchens food, and to nervously read the food critics column every week in hopes that they will receive a positive review. This is the chef, like Gabrielle who now, during this mandated shutdown, gets on his or her hands and knees to scrub a floor or polish a stove top while the dining room rests with lights off and inverted chairs stacked on tables – waiting and wondering – is it worth it – is there a need for us to return?

It broke my heart to read her article just as it crushes my soul to see restaurants with the lights out or “for sale” signs in the window. This is someone’s life work, their dream, an extension of who they are – now deflated and unsure. We can only hope that the chef/owner will find that sense of hope, that renewed energy and passion to give it another try and make a difference in the world.

PLAN BETTER – TRAIN HARDER

Harvest America Ventures, LLC

Restaurant Consulting

www.harvestamericacues.com BLOG

Gabrielle Hamilton’s article in the New York Times:

https://www.nytimes.com/2020/04/23/magazine/closing-prune-restaurant-covid.html?smid=fb-share&fbclid=IwAR1Yw_4QmzvNF0auAHeO70Old_PPaMuhP7Gj2gav6bcm8e4GENJOzkOQCs4

 

OUR DAILY BREATH: HOW CHEFS ADAPT TO A SHUT DOWN A touch of levity (or is it) when we need it

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As previously stated – you can take the chef out of the kitchen, but you can’t take the kitchen out of the chef. This time of displacement is tough on everyone. We feel the difficulty financially, intellectually, emotionally, and spiritually – it is an all-encompassing challenge of a magnitude that we haven’t felt in this country since the World Wars and Great Depression. Each of us deals, or tries to deal, with this situation in our own unique way. Chefs – are likely dealing with it in the same way that they deal with the challenges of their job – they rely on their routines.

This is a tongue and cheek look at what it might be like to live in a “lockdown home” with a chef, a chef who lives by routine and process to survive and thrive.

[]         STARTING EACH DAY WITH A PREP SHEET

Chefs are obsessively organized and as a result begin and end each day with a list of tasks and their completion. Just because a chef may be home and unable to work in his or her kitchen does not mean that a prep list is put aside. Chefs at home must stay organized – they can’t help themselves.

[]         EVERY MEAL PRESENTED ON A BEO

You might find that a stay at home chef takes this organization to a new extreme and build a banquet/event order (BEO) for each meal and break. You can never be too organized or communicate too frequently. You know you are in trouble if the chef orders seven clip boards – one for each day of the week.

[]         MENU PLANNING

Meals at home are no different than meals in the restaurant. Serious planning always precedes preparation. Chefs at home will likely plan menus before developing detailed shopping lists, and transpose that information to BEO’s and daily prep sheets. No reason to change the rhythm of the work.

[]         FACETIME ARGUMENTS WITH SALESMEN

One of a chef’s favorite hobbies is arguing and testing salespersons who knock on their office door. Since we are in a time of required human distancing, the chef will still have a need to feed his or her passion for this hobby. FaceTime might turn out to be a perfect tool for the chef to connect with sales representatives and interact, push, and challenge them. It is all part of the game.

[]         A NO MODIFICATION RULE ON MENUS

Chefs may subscribe to the “customer is always right”, but in their heart of hearts they know that each dish on a menu was developed with collaborative flavors, aroma, and presentation in mind. Chefs do hate to break the symmetry of a dish when a guest chooses to “substitute”. At home – the chef is able to draw that line in the sand: “NO SUBSTITUTIONS”!

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[]         DON’T TOUCH MY KNIVES

Be aware (I can’t emphasize this enough), be aware – a chef’s knives are his or her most treasured tools – they care for them as if they were family heirlooms and will be stressed into a visible level of anger if anyone touches them, moves them, or God forbid – uses them inappropriately. Put down the knife and back away from the table.

[]         YES CHEF RULES THE DAY

The chef ultimately rules in the kitchen when business is in full swing – this is something that cooks understand. They may not agree with the chef or his or her methods, but in the heat of service there is only one answer that works: “YES CHEF”. You may find that the stay at home chef looks for that same respect (even if they don’t deserve it) at home from anyone who enters the kitchen.

[]         HOT FOOD HOT, COLD FOOD COLD

These are the two Cardinal Rules in a restaurant – assume that this will be required in the home. Now that the chef has lost his or her domain (temporarily) the home kitchen will be expected to follow the rules. Heat those entrée plates until they are almost too hot to handle, chill those salad and dessert plates, and serve them when the temperature is right.

[]         PRE-MEAL MEETINGS

The chef always knows that a server cannot represent a dish well unless he or she understands the ingredients, process of cooking, and flavor profile of that dish. This is why the pre-meal review of menus items is so critical in a restaurant. Expect that the annoying chef at home will want to explain each dish in detail before you are allowed to partake.

[]         SQUIRREL AWAY SIDE TOWELS

Clean, dry towels are essential to every cook in a restaurant. These towels quickly become an endangered commodity as cooks’ horde as many as they can. Be prepared as you walk through the kitchen – you will find towels hidden behind ceiling tiles, in drawers where they don’t belong, behind a stack of books, and maybe even in the freezer. Again, chefs can’t help themselves. Twelve dry towels is a good amount – two-dozen would be better.

[]         LABELING AND DATING EVERYTHING

This is an ingrained habit that all cooks live by. Everything must be labeled and dated, rotated and if past their use by date – discarded. After just a few days you will find a shortage of masking tape and markers and a refrigerator filled with rotated, dated and labeled ingredients and leftovers.

[]         HALF CUPS OF COFFEE EVERYWHERE

Chefs always need a cup of coffee by their side and tend to pour cups, set them down, get distracted, and move on – forgetting that the cup was there. Thus, more cups succumb to this fate. Expect to see a number of half empty, cold cups of coffee spread out through the house.

[]         WEEKLY INVENTORIES

Chefs cannot function unless they know what is in house, what needs to be used, and where there are shortfalls. If you walk into the kitchen on a Sunday afternoon and see your stay at home chef walking around with a clipboard and pencil in hand – don’t be concerned – IT’S INVENTORY TIME!

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[]         DOCUMENT AND SEEK CRITIQUE

Without customers to take pictures of a chef’s food and post them on Instagram, the chef will need to take this job on as well. When dinner is served – please wait before you take that first bite until the chef takes pictures of the food from six different angles. By all means – when you see the item posted on Instagram or Facebook – please press “LIKE” or state how extraordinary the dish looks. Feed the chefs ego – someone must.

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[]         SLEEPLESS NIGHTS

Chefs are accustomed to sleepless nights as they wrestle with what needs to be done, what wasn’t done the day before, and where he or she failed to meet his or her own standards. You can assume that the chef will continue in this vein, even during this time of shutdown. There is always something to worry about.

Rest assured – at some point restaurants will reopen and your stay at home chef will practice those annoying habits outside of the home. For now – smile, nod, and keep those four letter responses to yourself. The next time you see someone who works with the chef – offer your condolences and nod in appreciation for their patience.

PLAN BETTER – TRAIN HARDER

Harvest America Ventures, LLC

We are in this together

www.harvestamericacues.com BLOG

 

OUR DAILY BREATH: THE COOKING PROFESSION WILL SURVIVE

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THIS IS A LONG ONE – BUT IMPORTANT FOR ALL WHO ARE SERIOUS ABOUT PROFESSIONAL COOKING.

Cooking for others is one of the oldest professions in the civilized world. Cooks have been, and will continue to be, a catalyst for progress and change and their work provides a window into the state of society and the changes that mankind does and will face. Those who are furloughed and wondering what their future holds, those who had a burning desire to learn how to cook for a living before the onset of Covid-19, and those who took the leap and opened a restaurant of their own, may be having second thoughts about their career choice. I can assure you that cooking will survive and once again thrive – history has demonstrated its resilience.

Pride in one’s profession is as important as the skills necessary to function as a member of that tribe of professionals. Pride is something that taken in the right way is the fuel that runs the kitchens from coast to coast and allows those who cook to accept the challenges that they face every day. This crisis is one of those challenges – maybe one of the greatest challenges of the last few generations. Pride recognizes the importance of history and uses that history as motivation for problem solving and renewal. So, in that vein – here is some important culinary history, a snapshot of individual cooks who have changed history and who, through their actions, we might all find comfort and inspiration.

[]         TAILLEVENT (Guillaume Tirel)

A chef to nobility during medieval times, Taillevent is considered to be one of the first truly professional chefs and a master of traditions and new process such as the development of forms of preservation since refrigeration would be centuries away from development. He wrote one of the first books on the art of cooking that depicted kitchen life during these times and serves as one of the early foundations of the development of French cuisine.

[]        BARTOLOMEO SCAPPI

A chef during the Renaissance – Scappi became a well-known master of cooking during his time as chef for Popes Pius the IV and V. He wrote a document (cookbook) called Opera that contained more than 1,000 recipes and some of the first defined connections between food and health – an early predecessor to the science of nutrition.

[]         ANTONINE CAREME

A truly remarkable chef who came into prominence following the French Revolution. Careme spent most of his career working for Talleyrand – preparing some of the most elaborate banquets of the era with incredible sculptures of food and pastry serving as centerpieces for the noble and the rich. He is considered the first master of Grand Cuisine or Haute Cuisine (artful cooking).

[]         AUGUSTE ESCOFFIER

It would be impossible to over-state the importance of Escoffier to the profession of cooking. He is often referred to as a king of chefs. He partnered with Cesar Ritz to open many of the grand hotels of the day including the Savoy in London and the Hotel du France in Monte Carlo. His work with Ritz led to the formation of successful hotels under the brand of Ritz Carlton. Escoffier even opened the Ritz in Boston – the first in the U.S. His contributions include: development of the system of kitchen organization called the brigade, development of Service a’la Russe (service in courses), writing of Le Guide Culinaire – still considered the most important book on an Executive Chefs shelf (it contains over 5,000 recipes), and raising the craft of cooking to a level of professionalism that had not been realized up to that point.

[]         FERNAND POINT

Point was one of the most important chefs of all time. He operated and was the chef at the world famous Le’ Pyramide outside of Lyon, France. He is credited with training some of Europe’s most noteworthy chefs including Paul Bocuse.   Point was a tough taskmaster who demanded excellence and realized this through his restaurant that was considered the most important such establishment in the world. One of my favorite Point quotes is:

“As far as cuisine is concerned one must read everything, see everything, hear everything, try everything, and observe everything in order to retain in the end – just a little bit.”

-Fernand Point

[]         FANNIE FARMER

Never an operation chef, per se, Fannie Farmer was, however, one of the most influential cooks of all time. A very accomplished cook – Farmer ran the Boston Cooking School (one of the first in the U.S.) and wrote the incredible Boston Cooking School Cookbook (Fannie Farmer Cookbook) that is the most published reference of all time. She also developed units of measurement that are still used in the U.S. to this day.

[]         JULIA CHILD

Julia’s husband was a member of U.S. Intelligence stationed in Paris. To establish her own purpose – Julia attended the Le Cordon Bleu cooking school there and quickly became obsessed with and in love with French Cooking. She was amazed at how little Americans knew about real cooking and became determined to change that. She spent a decade researching and writing “Mastering the Art of French Cooking” a landmark cookbook that continues to be an international bestseller. Subsequently she became America’s first celebrity television cook with her show: The French Chef which first hit the airways in 1963. Julia brought quality cooking into every American home.

Julia was a true fan of professional cooks and chefs spending many years highlighting their talents and enjoying their technical prowess. She has been revered in museums, Saturday Night Live, and in recent years- the feature movie: Julie and Julia. Two quotes that summarize her style are:

“The only real stumbling block is fear of failure. In cooking you’ve got to have a what-the-hell attitude.”

and

“People who love to eat are always the best people.”

-Julia Child

[]         PAUL BOCUSE

Traditions are important as are classic preparations. Few chefs have bridged these as well with contemporary thought as Paul Bocuse. In collaboration with Chef Roger Verge – Bocuse introduced the world to Nouveau French cooking where heavy sauces and loads of butter were replaced with more natural preparations with freshness and simplicity as the primary ingredients.

[]         ALICE WATERS

As is the case with Julia Child – Alice Waters became infatuated with the French style of cooking and later with the importance of natural ingredients straight from the farm and garden. At her restaurant Chez Panisse – Waters introduced America to the first musings of Farm to Table cooking where her partnerships with farmers and respect for simplicity drove dramatic changes in restaurants across the country.

[]         JEREMIAH TOWER

Some consider Chef Tower to be the driving force behind Alice Waters and the California Farm to Table movement. After serving as chef for Waters during the inception of Chez Panisse – he went on to open Stars Restaurant that was at the center of the celebrity restaurant movement. To many he still remains the chef of chefs in America.

[]         CHARLIE TROTTER

Chef Trotter introduced America to the Tasting Menu in his restaurant “Trotters” in Chicago. For 25 years this destination was the centerpiece of fine dining in America and remained one of the top five restaurants in the States for that entire time. His menu that included 7- 15 courses changed every night for those 25 years.

[]         FERDINAND METZ

Many respect Chef Metz for his skill as a Certified Master Chef, his management of successful U.S. Culinary Olympic Teams, his work with the Heinz Corporation, and his unfaltering commitment to cooking – but his efforts in truly building the Culinary Institute of America into the premier cooking school in the world will surely rise to the top of his resume.

[]         DOMINQUE CRENN

The first woman chef in America to win 3-stars from the Michelin Guide – Her incredibly innovative style at both Atelier Crenn and Petite Crenn have won her international acclaim as one of the top chefs in the world. Combining the innovative style of Ferran Adria and the farm focus of California contemporaries her menus create intrigue and excitement.

[]         MARCO PIERRE WHITE

The accomplished original bad boy of the kitchen. White is a no nonsense ambassador for the sometimes obscene work ethic of professional cooks and chefs, a person who ignores his fame and stays focused on the work. He turns his nose up to the sizzle of the title “chef” and would much rather be known as a hard working cook. He has little patience for anyone who fails to cook with the same passion and total commitment that he has adopted for himself.

[]         JOHN FOLSE

Many think first of Paul Prudhomme when New Orleans cooking comes to mind, but Chef Folse is Prudhomme on steroids. He is not just a superb chef and restaurateur, but a celebrated historian when it comes to Cajun/Creole cooking and the lifestyle of those who call the Bayou their home. He loves Louisiana, its people, and their incredible contributions to America’s most authentic melting pot cuisine.

[]         EDNA LEWIS

Chef Lewis changed America’s view of Southern Cooking and its African American influences. She combined history and tradition with finesse to bring this cuisine to a new level and set the stage for others like Sean Brock who followed in her footsteps. She wrote four cookbooks that truly define what Southern Cooking is all about.

[]         MASSIMO BOTURRA

Italian cooking is steeped in tradition and as such was relegated to those classic preparations to be found in most quality restaurants throughout Italy. Massimo, wanted to break that mold and approach preparations with an innovative eye, while preserving enough of the traditional combinations and flavors to protect the history of this great cuisine. His restaurant Osteria Francescana in Modena, Italy is considered one of the top five restaurants in the world – respecting his new approach to Italian food.

[]         THOMAS KELLER

If you love food, practice professional cooking, and find that cuisine is essential to American culture then you know who Thomas Keller is. His restaurant The French Laundry was rated the number one restaurant in the world and remains in the top 25 ever since it opened in Yountville, California. Since its popularity grew, so did his breadth of offerings in other restaurants such as Bouchon, Per Se, and Ad Hoc. He is now, by far, the most important ambassador of American cooking – recognized throughout the world.

[]         LIONEL POILANE

Travel around the world and visit bread bakers who have committed their lives to the dough and the oven, have a cup of coffee with incredible chefs in every country, visit baking schools and carry on a conversation with baking faculty, and collect all of the most celebrated bread books that you can find and ask one simple question: “Who was the finest bread baker in the world?” The answer will undoubtedly be: Lionel Poilane. Unfortunately, we lost Poilane to a tragic helicopter crash in 2002, but his daughter carries on the traditions that he established in his destination bakery in the heart of Paris.

[]         ALAIN PASSARD

L’Arpege in Paris is one of the top ten restaurants in the world. Passard has been chef operator for 34-years and established himself as one of the truly extraordinary chefs to be found anywhere. What he is most famous for now is his reinvention into the most noteworthy “plant forward” chef in a field of restaurants that would otherwise find cooking with vegetables – incomplete. He has brought the vegetable to the center of the plate and in the process started a revolution in healthy eating and cooking.

[]         ERIC RIPERT

Simply put – the finest seafood chef in the world – operating the finest seafood restaurant in the world. Ripert is also a chef who has found a way to create balance in his life. He has the highest standards while at the same time maintaining his reputation as a calm chef who supports and teaches his staff exceptionally well. Le Bernadin in New York City is a must visit restaurant that should appear on every serious cooks bucket list.

[]         DAN BARBER

Blue Hill in NYC and Blue Hill at Stone Barn are more than great restaurants – they are experiments designed to educate and move America closer to quality ingredients and demonstrate how essential great farming is to great cuisine. The chef works diligently to help diners understand these connections and learn to respect good practice as part of great cooking.

[]         RICK BAYLESS

Having spent seven years living in Mexico engaged in Mexican culture – Chef Bayless and his wife Deann felt compelled to open two restaurants in Chicago: Frontera Grill and Topolobampo (a restaurant within a restaurant) to demonstrate to America what authentic Mexican food was all about. He is a definitive expert in the culture and processes that surround this exciting and very complex style of cooking. His cookbooks and television shows were instrumental in bringing this understanding to America.

[]         JOSE ANDRES

Aside from his prowess as an exceptional chef and restaurateur who brings his passion for Spain to menus – Chef Andres is a true humanitarian who has taken his fame and success to a mission that includes support for restaurant workers and for those who are food deprived throughout the world. Wherever there is a need after natural disasters – Andres World Central Kitchen is there to muster up volunteer support, interact with local governments, find the resources and facilitate the first need in recovery: feed the people. He is the first chef to ever be nominated for a Nobel Peace Prize.

[]         YOU

Time to carry on the tradition, carry the torch for change, and continue to build a dynamic, exciting, innovative, inclusive industry that not only represents what each country is, but what it might become. The profession will survive and those who tie on an apron now or have a desire to do so in the coming months will be the survivors and the face of a business that is so important to society. Stand proud, stand tall as a cook, stand tall as a chef, and be the next contributor to the proud history of a great profession.

PLAN BETTER – TRAIN HARDER

Restaurant Consulting

Harvest America Ventures, LLC

www.harvestamericacues.com BLOG

OUR DAILY BREATH: HEY AMERICA – THIS IS WHY RESTAURANTS ARE IMPORTANT

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It seems that we have reached a point where acceptable casualties is a consideration in so many decisions. Whether it is the environment, the postal service, senior citizens, global partnerships, healthcare, or restaurants – there is a tendency to set aside or forget just how important these businesses, global responsibilities, and people truly are to our existence. Let’s take restaurants as an example – one might assume that these businesses are a luxury since cooking at home is always a logical alternative. But, what those who hold the decision-making power might overlook is that restaurants are more than a vehicle for preparing food and passing it on to those willing to buy.

Throughout history – restaurants have been integral to civilized communities. This dates back to the Renaissance, through this time of enlightenment, the growth of human intellect, during times of conflict and war, struggling through recession and depression, when the structure of society and its government seems to falter and of course, when times are great and life seems to glow with optimism. Restaurants are more than places where we can fill our stomachs – so much more. Let’s take a look:

[]         RESTAURANTS ARE ESSENTIAL TO THE GROWTH OF SMALL TOWN AMERICA

From the days of prohibition to the opening of America through the Eisenhower initiative to build the highway infrastructure of the U.S. – restaurants were always one of the first signs of community spirit. Restaurants could be found wherever roads intersected and people began to build their homes. The America Diner and the Speakeasy represented the presence of promise and the existence of the institution of neighborhoods. Every town – regardless of size, needs its centerpiece restaurant.

[]         RESTAURANTS ARE CENTERS FOR INTELLECTUAL DISCUSSION

From the early coffee houses of Europe to the Brasseries and Cafes of France, the Trattorias of Italy, the Pubs of England and Ireland, the Cantinas and Taquerias of Mexico, and to the corner American diners, taverns, pizzerias, and hotel dining rooms – mankind has relied on restaurants to serve as a destination where people of all backgrounds and beliefs could gather and discuss or argue their beliefs, strategies, and conclusions. This forum has been essential as people from all over the world developed their philosophy of life and ethical/moral standards.

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[]         RESTAURANTS ARE IN THE BUSINESS OF REWARD AND RECOGNITION

People crave some level of recognition and reward. It may be as simple as allowing friends a chance to say congratulations, an opportunity to recognize the bond between two or more people, the ability to gather and recognize the accomplishments of a group, toasting wins and commiserating a loss, celebrating a departed friends life, or simply a pat on the back for a hard days work – people desire and need those opportunities. Restaurants have always been the logical place where these activities take place and restaurant people are born to provide those opportunities.

[]         RESTAURANTS ARE THE GATEWAY TO CAREERS

Pick a professionally successful individual, or maybe a few who you see as highly successful in their careers – ask them about their background and most importantly – what was their first job. It is highly likely that many would say that their first introduction to work for pay was in a restaurant of some type. It may have been quick service, or probably a position such as dishwasher, counter server, or bus person, but I have a high level of confidence that the first job was in a restaurant. Some stayed with it, but many took the work ethic and entry level skills they learned and created a road map for their own careers moving forward. That restaurant experience set the stage.

[]         RESTAURANTS ARE THE PORTAL FOR ENTREPRENEURSHIP

If, in fact, the great American Dream is to own a business and chart ones own path towards success, then it would be impossible to ignore how important the restaurant business is to that dream. People migrated through Ellis Island from countries all over the world in search of this American Dream and many chose the path of restaurants. With their history and traditions in hand they came from Ireland, England, France, Italy, Spain, Portugal, Greece, Russia, China, Japan and dozens of other countries and took their small savings to open that corner ethnic restaurant from New York to San Francisco. The restaurant industry in America was born of this melting pot of ethnic explorers – it continues to be this opportunity that makes our country diverse, unique, and great.

Nearly 70% of all restaurants in the U.S. are private entrepreneurships and 80% of owners started their careers in entry-level foodservice positions.

[]         RESTAURANTS PROVIDE A ROADWAY FOR BUSY LIFESTYLES

Americans work, American families work, and these families need two incomes to thrive and support the lifestyle that inspires them – thus, restaurants are a necessity to support incredibly busy lives. Where dining out just fifty years ago was considered a luxury that was reserved for special occasions, it is now an absolute necessity.

[]         RESTAURANTS ARE ESSENTIAL TO OUR ECONOMY

According to the National Restaurant Association – 2020 projections (before Covid-19 struck) included expected national sales of $899 billion, in more than 1 million freestanding restaurants that would employ 15.6 million workers. This defines the restaurant industry as one of the top employers in the U.S. Of course, all of these projections will now change as a result of the current crisis, but this picture of growth and influence has been evident for decades.

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[]         RESTAURANTS PROVIDE A FORUM FOR EXPRESSION

One of the common traits of restaurant careerists – especially cooks, chefs, and restaurateurs is an inherent need to express their art through work. To the chef – the canvas is their plate and to the restaurateur it is the art of hospitality, making customers feel welcome and special. No other art form allows the craftsperson to approach all five human senses as they develop a connection with each guest who walks through a restaurant’s doors.

[]         RESTAURANTS ARE THE ULTIMATE CONNECTION BETWEEN GROWER AND CONSUMER

When we enjoy a plate of food we are indirectly recognizing the hard work and passion of the farmer, fisherman, rancher, cheese maker, brewer, wine maker, distiller, and distributor. That restaurant plate is their collective chance to showcase their work as much as it is a canvas for the chef.

[]         RESTAURATEURS AND CHEFS ARE IN THE BUSINESS OF EDUCATION

Although some may deliver an education without realizing it – restaurateurs and chefs are providing opportunities each day for consumers to learn about the source of food, the people involved in the distribution chain, the ethnic background of the chef and his or her cultural influences, the styles of service passed down through generations, the warmth of spirit that the restaurant owner lays out every day, and the traditions of an industry that is rich and diverse. Every guest walks away from a restaurant experience with a new piece of knowledge every time he or she invests in the experience.

[]         RESTAURANTS ARE A MAGNET FOR URBAN RE-DEVELOPMENT AND GENTRIFICATION

When neighborhoods are focused on growth, when tired communities are committed to resurrection or transformation, and when people within a neighborhood are ready to create a new level of positive spirit – it is a restaurant that holds the key to that energy. Time and again we find this to be the case. Urban renewal begins with restaurants first, then shops and residences, parks and recreation, and so on.

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[]         RESTAURANTS PROVIDE COMFORT, SUPPORT, AND HOPE

Restaurant people are some of the most generous to be found anywhere. Community leaders and essential organizations look to restaurants for help in supporting their causes, and restaurants always respond. We have come to rely on this generosity and know that those incredible chefs and owners are part of the heart and soul of a community.

[]         RESTAURANTS ARE ONE OF THE MOST IMPORTANT VEHICLES FOR APPRECIATING DIVERSITY

America gives lip service to creating diversity in the workplace and even attempts to formally or informally dictate that this happens. Diversity has been natural in the restaurant business since it’s beginning. Walk into any restaurant in America, even more so in urban centers, and you will find a plethora of ethnicity, race, gender, and belief. It is refreshing and natural.

[]         RESTAURANTS DEFINE THE CULTURAL BACKGROUNDS, TRADITIONS, AND FLAVORS OF A COMMUNITY

People tend to flock to the things that make us alike. City centers, in particular, find a natural gravitation to micro communities of ethnic background and at the center will be restaurants that portray the cultural similarities and traditions of that group. If you want to know something about a neighborhood- look to its restaurant scene.

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[]         RESTAURANTS ARE THE SOUL OF THE TRAVEL INDUSTRY

As the world moves past the Coronavirus at some point – it will be the travel industry that defines how quickly the economy recovers. Whether for business or pleasure, people have a need and desire to travel by plane, train, and automobile. Every travel destination relies on its restaurants to help create its uniqueness and attractiveness. Travel and restaurants are an important partnership for economic growth and the wellbeing of a society.

This is a time to understand and appreciate the significance of the restaurant industry that is devastated right now. Those in the industry understand and support the need for isolation – we must work together to defeat this invisible viral enemy, but we must realize that many of the restaurants in the U.S. and beyond will not survive the impact of mandated closure. This is a wonderful industry with very tight profit margins, and an industry made of small private entrepreneurships without cash reserves – they are hanging on by a thread. When they are able to return, the ones that are able to hold out that long, it is important that we all find ways to support them. In the meantime they turn to the U.S. government – not for a handout, but for assistance and understanding.

SIGN THE LETTER TO HELP SAVE INDEPENDENT RESTAURANTS

www.saverestaurants.com/letter

PLAN BETTER – TRAIN HARDER

Harvest America Ventures, LLC

We are in this together

Restaurant Consulting

www.harvestamericacues.com BLOG

 

 

THE SINGLE MOST IMPORTANT INGREDIENT IN THE MAKING OF A GREAT CHEF

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Is it possible to narrow down the secret of greatness to one ingredient?  What could it be?  Is it really that simple, or in this case is simplicity really complex?   I have had the honor to work with, know, or at least meet many extraordinary chefs and cooks and my assessment is that – yes, there is one common ingredient that makes all the difference in how adept, interesting, creative, and ultimately successful a chef or cook might become.  The ingredient is CURIOSITY.

Great cooks and chefs never simply accept – they are perpetually inquisitive.   Those classical kitchens where cooks simply follow directives because that is what the chef demanded were never destined to nurture great chefs.  Cooks need to state the most important questions if they are to grow – “why, where from, what is the rationale, what is the history, how is it made, what are the differences, and when should you choose one example over another?”

It is curiosity, the quest for answers upon answers that builds passion, understanding, creativity, and competence.   When a cook simply accepts without asking why, how, what, or when, then his or her passion for the craft will be limited, his or her perspective on the job of cooking with be tainted, and the resulting cooking will be a shadow of what it might become.  To nurture young cooks, to teach and train, and to build competence and confidence among those who work in a kitchen, it is essential that we (chefs and culinary teachers) establish a platform where curiosity reigns. 

Think about the possibilities and the opportunities that curiosity might unveil. 

  • SALT as a mineral and a seasoning is just salt – why question it?  Yet to really know salt is to understand where it comes from and how it is extracted.  Once you understand that the environment where salt is drawn from, just like the terroir for wine grapes, will have a significant impact on this magical mineral.  Visiting a salt mine, a sea salt plant, or if you have the chance a French Fleur de Sel farm or Japanese soy sauce artisan producer will reveal the complexities of this simple ingredient that to many cooks is just a commodity that sits on their storeroom shelves.
  • CARROTS, POTATOES, TURNIPS, and PARSNIPS are root vegetables that are easily available to all cooks and are offered at very inexpensive commodity prices.  Root vegetables are just root vegetables unless you understand them, visit a farm where they are grown, spend a few days in the farmers shoes, harvest the root vegetables by pulling them from the soil that has kept them in a protective blanket for months, and brushed them off and taken a bite.  Curious chefs want to know what that carrot really tastes like, how the farmer plays a role in its shape, texture and flavor, and how soil and climate impact the flavor.  I guarantee that if this curiosity is met – the cook will never view a root vegetable in the same manner again.
  • THAT STRIP LOIN COMES FROM MY VENDOR, period.  This is easy to accept.  Call your local meat vendor, place an order, receive it, store it, prep it and prepare it just as the chef told you.  Simple directions for the cook working the grill station in your kitchen.  But cooking that is void of understanding is so shallow, void of respect, and starved of meaning.  To become an extraordinary grill cook and eventually a chef who plans menus using those products received from a meat vendor – a serious kitchen employee must ask those critical questions:  WHERE does the product come from?  WHAT part of the animal?  WHY do certain cuts adapt well to high temperature, rapid cooking like grilling, while others insist on low heat and slow timing?  HOW is the animal cared for?  WHAT is it fed?  HOW is the animal processed, fabricated, aged, graded, and packaged?  WHAT is the difference between dry and wet aging and does Cryovac impact the flavor of the muscle?  Think about the care, respect, intensity of attention to detail, and pride that a cook will have once he or she is able to have answers to these questions, maybe visit a cattle ranch, a feed lot, and processing plant before turning a steak on a hot grill to receive those perfect grill marks.
  • ORDER FRESH SEAFOOD FROM OUR USUAL FISHMINGER is a task that chefs engage in constantly.  It might come from a local supplier or be flown in from different parts of the world, but what is important is the transaction and receipt – right?  The styro boxes packed with ice arrives and inside are beautiful Queen Snapper from Florida, Mahi Mahi from Hawaii, Atlantic salmon from Norway, Lobsters from Maine, or Dover Sole from the coast of England.  The chef unpacks, fabricates, stores, and prepares this seafood as is intended and the customer enjoys the fruits of the chefs labor.  How shallow is this process that is void of any real understanding or curiosity?  Why did the chef choose that Queen Snapper from Florida, Salmon from Norway, or Lobster from Maine?  Is it simply because of a product specification designed to meet a standard?  Imagine how the chef would approach the transaction if he or she had spent an arduous day on a Maine Lobster boat – pulling in cages?  Imagine how the chef might approach the fabrication of a beautiful Norwegian Salmon if he or she had visited with those engaged in fish farming off the cost of Bergen, Norway?  Imagine if that same chef had tried to overcome seasickness on a 25-ton fishing trawler positioned miles off the coast of Florida as they pulled in nets filled with the fruits of the sea?  Would satisfaction of this curiosity change the way that chefs order, store, fabricate, cook and serve the fish that came through the hands of dedicated fishermen rather than those who simply move the product from point A to point B?
  • PURCHASING THOSE FLOUR OR CORN TORTILLAS is the most cost effective way of acquiring the ingredients for that “authentic”, Central American restaurant.  After all, who has time to make fresh tortilla?  This will always be the case in the absence of curiosity.   Until a cook or chef has tried that first hand pressed and grilled tortilla, folded it to encompass a world of different ingredients, maybe pay a visit to Mexico, Guatemala, Nicaragua, or Costa Rica or at least spent a day with indigenous people who would never, ever use a store bought shell – he or she will fail to feel the history and the passion behind this beautiful ingredient and process.  “I wonder if there is any difference between store bought and hand made tortilla, and I wonder how the item came about in Central American culture.”  Inquiring minds want to know, and inquiring chefs will always learn to excel at what they do.
  • THE WINE LIST IS THE RESPONSIBILITY OF THE DINING ROOM MANAGER OR SOMMELIER – says a typical chef in a busy restaurant.  Have enough variety and there will be something to please most guest palates, besides, the chef really doesn’t have time to engage in wine selection as well.  Great restaurants and great chefs understand the connection and importance of food and wine pairing.  A great chef without a solid knowledge of wine varieties, terroir, the art of the wine maker’s signature, variances in vintage, and how a particular wine enhances the experience of food presented on the menu will surely be at a loss.  Chefs who delve into the winemaker’s closet of understanding will be far better at their job and will reveal a passion that rivals that of the food ingredients that bring a menu to life.  It is the curiosity about this beverage that is alive and ever-changing that adds a spark of interest to a chef’s repertoire.

Whether it is a desire to learn more about the ethnic influences that create a cuisine, the indigenous ingredients that are at the base of a certain cuisine, the time-proven steps in cooking methods, or the historical environment that led to the development of a dish or a regional cooking style – it is that most essential ingredient: curiosity – that separates a good cook from a passionate great one.  We must all remain curious if food is to be viewed as a life-long calling.

PLAN BETTER – TRAIN HARDER

Harvest America Ventures, LLC

www.harvestamericacues.com  BLOG

REMEMBERING THE PROFESSIONAL LEGENDS IN YOUR LIFE

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We are a blend of our experiences and the people whom we let in to our lives.  Everyone and everything influences the personal and professional product that we become.  It is important to note that to whatever degree we allow it to happen – influencers are all around us – shaping and molding the cook, chef, and person that others will see.

If you were to write your story that answers the question: “ how did I become the cook or chef that I am today” – how would you answer?  At Thanksgiving time it is beneficial to stop and take note, to remember those influencers and give personal thanks for their contributions to you.  So, for better or worse – here are my remembrances.  I would encourage you to do the same.

  • Thanks to my grandmother for showing me that cooking is an act of caring, something of yourself that sends a clear message to others that you want to honor them.  She also told me that when you make chicken and dumplings to make sure that you use a young chicken from the farm and to never serve day old pie.
  • Thanks to my great aunt who always baked her own bread.  She showed me that it’s all about the crust and baking is a process of becoming one with the dough.
  • To Millie, my first boss at a local diner – she was the breakfast cook and, at the age of 15, I was the dishwasher.  She would bring me over to her station when it was busy to flip pancakes, butter toast, and keep the home fries coming.  This was my first introduction to “cooking” – I was hooked.
  • To my parents, who during my early teenage years, both worked – leaving me at home after school to finish dinner and get it ready for the family meal.  Being a latch key kid helped to formulate my interest in the kitchen.
  • To Meta Bofinger, owner of the Blue Gentian Restaurant in Saranac Lake, who told me that the flavor of the food you prepare is influenced by the love that you have for the craft and the appreciation you have for the guest.
  • To that Hotel GM who interviewed me for a supervisor position right out of college.  He took the time to point out all that I didn’t know, said no to my application and told me to spend more time in the kitchen and gradually work my way into management.  I took his advice.
  • To the chef at the Buffalo Statler Hilton Hotel who accepted my application into the kitchen apprenticeship program.  I learned about team and spent time in every department during my two years at the property.
  • To Frank Shores who brought me on board at his restaurant in Orchard Park and showed me that to be successful in the restaurant business you have to count all the oranges and watch every penny.
  • To Ed Weibrecht who hired me at his newly acquired Mirror Lake Inn even though he didn’t have an opening.  He just had a good feeling about me and took a chance.  He showed me that your gut feelings are important.  We have maintained a strong professional relationship for 44 years.  He taught me that dining in a restaurant is best when it is part of a total experience that encompasses all of the human senses.
  • To Dr. Woods at Paul Smith’s College who hired me as a totaling inexperienced teacher without even asking for a resume.  I spent 26 years there, finished a bachelors and masters degree, started the culinary programs, and helped to build them into prominence.  I never knew that this would be part of my professional destiny.
  • To Fran Peroni who was my first cooking skills teacher and later peer educator who helped me build the first culinary curriculum for Paul Smith’s College.
  • To Master Chef Anton Flory for encouraging me to compete as a chef and brought me into the fold of the New England Culinary Olympic Team.  More than anything else in my career – this changed and solidified my path.  We competed and brought home the gold from the Culinary Olympics in Germany.
  • To my teammates on the Culinary Team:  Roland Czekelius, Anton Flory, Neil Connolly, Danny Varano, Michael Beriau, Joe Faria, Charles Carroll, Walter Zuromski, George Higgins, and Lars Johansson – who taught me about the power of team, the importance of honesty in critique, the dynamic of friendship, and the significance of confidence.  Of course, my culinary skills improved immensely during the process.
  • To Dick Marecki from Rochester Institute of Technology who convinced me to pursue a masters degree and dedicate my teaching life to relaying the importance of service economics.
  • To Jim Jacobs who was a consummate teacher who frustrated the hell out of me, but showed me that growth comes from asking “why”.
  • To Mary Petersen who helped me to grow my network of exceptional educators – people who always make me realize that I still have so much to learn.
  • To Kenneth Weissberg who provided countless opportunities for me to visit and learn from European chefs, bakers, wine makers, cheese enthusiasts, and historians.  He made the connection between French cooking and American cuisines a personal mission.
  • To so many cooks and chefs – many of them former students, who always helped me to question my own abilities, taught me more than they realize, and made me so proud to say that I am a chef and a teacher.  To name a few:  Curtiss Hemm, Kevin O’Donnell, Tim Hardiman, Tim McQuinn, Jamie Keating, Jamie Prouten, David Frocione, John McBride, Vicky Breyette, Jarrad Lang, Jody Winfield, Kris Angle, Jennifer Beach, Rebekah Alford, Jennette Siegel, Michael Garnish, Mark Fitzgerald, Robin Schempp, Steve Schimoler and hundreds of others.
  • To those who are masters of hospitality and know that service is as, if not more, important than the food that we love to prepare.  Thanks to Tracey Caponera, Kristin Parker, Katie Welch, Christine McCoy, Anne Alsina, Noelle Weissberg, Brian Perry, and Wally Ganzi to name a few.
  • To David Meyers for including me in his incredible placement service allowing me to work with clubs looking for that right chef to bring their brand into prominence.
  • To Curtiss Hemm who encouraged me to start writing a blog.  Harvest America Cues is well on the way to hitting 2 million views in the near future.
  • To Jack Edwards, Alfonse Mellot, Daniel Chotard, Terry Robards, and all of my fellow wine lovers who helped to build my appreciation for the beverage made from the fruit of the vine, and the passion of the wine maker.
  • To all of my consulting clients over the past eight years who helped me to grow in understanding and build on my portfolio of knowledge with each project that comes my way.
  • And, of course, to my wife of 45 years, my incredible children, and pretty spectacular grandkids who humor me, put up with my flaws, and keep me centered while giving me enough space to do what I love.

I know I have left some people out – not intentional.  I appreciate you and realize more and more every day that you are a part of who I am today.

Who’s on your list during this Thanksgiving week?

PLAN BETTER – TRAIN HARDER

Harvest America Ventures, LLC

www.harvestamericacues.com  BLOG

CAFÉ Talks Podcast

IT’S STILL A TIME OF THANKSGIVING

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For most people this will be a different Thanksgiving, a day without the traditional celebrations of large family gatherings, a day with far too much leftover turkey as we attempt to keep some semblance of normality through the bounty of the table.  Even though those we care about the most may remain spread out across the country and social distancing is measured in hundreds of miles instead of six feet – there is still plenty to be grateful for.  We can be grateful for whatever health we are able to enjoy, for the memories of those whom we have lost over the years, and the prospect of a happier and hopeful 2021. 

We can be grateful for faith and science that has carried us through this most difficult time and that will allow us to rise up anew – refreshed and positive as the virus is slowly brought under control.  We can be hopeful that what seems to have separated us will now help us to heal and come together.  When we look in a mirror there will always be more that unites us than tears us apart.  We can be thankful that Mother Nature carries on with her work – the snow will be here soon, the crisp air will wake us in the morning, holiday lights will brighten our day, and the season of giving will have even more meaning this year.  We can be thankful that this crisis serves as a wake-up call – an alert that allows us to remember what is truly important: family, health, friends, traditions, and that our longing to bring all of those blessings together will be rewarded soon enough.

We can be immensely thankful for those tireless individuals who risked their own wellbeing so that we could continue on with our lives during this pandemic: doctors, nurses, grocers, cashiers, first responders, medical technicians, postal carriers, farmers, fisherman, cooks and chefs, servers, FedEx and UPS drivers, teachers, and those in the trades who still managed repairs when their safety was tested.   How would we have managed through this without them?  We can certainly be grateful for ZOOM – this is a gift that allowed us to work from home, stay connected with our families, and even talk with our health care providers when a person-to-person visit was not possible.

For restaurants, chefs, cooks, and servers – this is a particularly difficult holiday season.  Thanksgiving and Christmas Week, New Years Eve, Presidents Week, and Valentines Day are some of the busiest restaurant days of the year – especially during a season that has little to offer small restaurant businesses otherwise.  This year will not be the same.  We won’t see the elaborate holiday buffets, full dining rooms of families looking for a break from cooking at home, restaurants enjoying the seasonal increase in marriage proposals and planning for weddings, and of course those Santa visits to eager youngsters dressed up for the Christmas Eve buffet.   There will be less need for kitchens filled with cooks working overtime, and servers hoping to receive those extra generous gratuities that will make their family holiday season a little brighter.  Maybe it’s a good thing – maybe the industry needs to re-evaluate the importance of allowing their staff to be home with their own families during this time of the year and maybe those traditions of family kitchens filled with relatives trying to lend a hand at dinner will return as we collectively relish the way it once was.

Like other businesses, especially those small businesses that make up the backbone of our economy, this has been a catastrophic year.  Some closed their doors and will not reopen; others have struggled to hang on with hope of a better tomorrow.  Those who remain will be different when this is all over.  They may look different, offer a new product or service, and will certainly be aware that how they deliver those products or services to the public will be different.  They will need your support as never before.  Those who could not weather the storm should know that other opportunities will arise and they will need our encouragement and engagement as well.  We will be different in another year – different, but in many ways better, stronger, and more in tune with what needs to be done.

We may not enjoy those large gatherings at home or in restaurants this year, but we still know that the heart and soul of this season is all about appreciating what we have and looking forward to what will come next.  This can happen in your dining room, in your local restaurant, or breaking bread via a ZOOM call that brings everyone together to smile, laugh, and enjoy the moment, even if virtually.

Next year will require that we remain vigilant and patient.  It will require that we muster up the positive energy and courage to do what is right for our families, our neighbors, and ourselves.  This is a time to give thanks for those connections and to remain strong while science does its work and the world collectively takes another step towards winning this battle.

After we have persevered – whether it is the Spring, Summer, Fall or beyond – it may be time to ask:  “what have we learned and how will we act moving forward?” One thing for sure, we have all assessed and reassessed our priorities over the past few months – let us not forget what we learned in the process.

Happy Thanksgiving everyone; be safe, be well, love your family, cherish your friends, break bread and raise a glass, and let’s move through this as a stronger, more unified, compassionate country of 330 million people.  

PLAN BETTER – TRAIN HARDER

Harvest America Ventures, LLC

Restaurant Consultant

www.harvestamericacues.com  BLOG

CAFÉ Talks Podcast

https://cafetalks.libsyn.com/

CHEFS – FAILURE IS NOT INEVITABLE

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It seems that every time I check my email or flip through postings in social media – there is another restaurant, food business, or culinary school preparing to close their doors.  It is heartbreaking to read of life visions dashed and even long-standing, viable businesses choosing to throw in the towel.  I am writing this to tell you that, in most cases, this does not have to be the storyline.

There is no shortage of organizations established to support their segment of a far-reaching industry.  We have organizations for bakers, pastry chefs, savory chefs, executive chefs, corporate chefs, club chefs, restaurateurs, cooks dedicated to sustainability, whole food chefs, college food service directors, culinary educators, hoteliers, club managers, dietitians and nutritionists, vegetable farmers, dairy farmers, cheese makers, servers, bartenders, mixologists, grape growers, wine makers, and sommeliers.  Each has a focus on issues and opportunities for their particular group, but rarely do they talk effectively with one another.

I tend to try and separate cause and effect – knowing that nothing will truly change unless we identify cause and focus on that.  Restaurants, culinary schools, producers, and those in the beverage business are suffering because of the pandemic, but there were (and still are) plenty of other crisis situations facing these segments long before Covid-19.  Restaurant profits are too low, finding competent staff is far too difficult, prices of ingredients keep rising, rents are out of sight, culinary school enrollment continues to decline, competition is too expansive, cost of an education doesn’t match rates of pay, industry pay scales and benefit offerings are too low, and marketing is way too confusing in the era of technology and social media.  How many of these challenges might be addressed if all of these silo groups actually viewed themselves as part of the same business and worked together?

Here are some things that I know to be true:

[]         Restaurants Will Rise Up Again

When WWI and WWII ended – restaurants and bars were some of the first businesses to recover.  When the Great Depression came to an end – restaurants and bars positioned themselves to thrive.  As we rebuilt American pride after 9/11 – restaurants stood in position to greet a reinvigorated American spirit.  Following the economic devastation of 2008 – restaurants hunkered down for months and then came back refreshed and charged up.  And when we are able to bring the pandemic under control – the same recovery for restaurants will be the case.  Restaurants and bars will be different; their product, service, and method of operation will likely change – but they will rise up again.

[]         Culinary Schools Will Be In Demand Again

Those schools that self-evaluate and communicate effectively with the industry they serve will always be needed.  The question is – are they willing to change?  The purpose of colleges is to teach, prepare, train and connect students with the rest of their lives.  The purpose is not to generate degrees.  When they start to look at the relevance of products that they offer and diversify from the standard degree; and once they connect better with the industry that hires their graduates, they will stand tall and thrive.  Schools cannot continue to exist in their own bubble – creating content that fails to align with the industry they serve.  They cannot continue to create programs that place graduates in debt for 20-years following graduation and, they cannot remain effective unless they deliver an education model that takes advantage of industry partnerships.

[]         Bars Will Once Again Become a Preferred Meeting Place

People love to gather, to connect with friends and make new ones.  Restaurants and bars have always served that purpose and they will again once people are comfortable with being out in public.  In fact, I would dare to guess that bars, in particular, would find themselves busier than ever before.

[]         Smaller Farms Will Become Essential Once Again

One thing that has become very apparent during this pandemic is that our supply chain is far more fragile than we thought.  Compound this with the impact of climate change on centralized production and we have a real concern that reaches far beyond the altruistic and environmental reasons for connecting with local farms.  Although a very difficult business – the opportunities for smaller regional and local farms will only grow.  But, farmers and chefs must work together to create this model.  Neither can exist in a vacuum.  The farmer needs to grow what the chef is looking for and the chef must create more fluid menus that take advantage of growing cycles and the quality derived from peak crop maturity.

[]         Great Bread Will Be Even More Important to Restaurants in the Future

One thing that we have learned over the past two decades is that great bread is essential to a great restaurant experience.  We have also discovered that artisan style bread is preferred over the tasteless, poorly structured products that were prevalent in the American diet for decades.  For those who are willing to learn and invest the intense amount of effort – artisan bread will be in much higher demand – thus a business opportunity.

[]         Private Entrepreneurship Will Prevail in the American Restaurant Industry

Those who have been most impacted by the pandemic are the small, privately owned restaurants in America.  Tens of thousands will close their doors, yet the American dream of entrepreneurship will rise up from the ashes and restaurants that have always been, and will once again become – a first choice for those who want to leap into ownership.  If banks can become more “user friendly” for restaurants and landlords more reasonable with rent, then your neighborhood restaurant will return – maybe with new owners, certainly with new concepts, and a fresh way of serving the needs of a community.

[]         More and More People Will Seek to Eat Healthy as They Understand the Impact on Health and Wellbeing

It is inevitable that our obsession with healthcare will lead a larger percentage of the population to work on preventative issues such as obesity, diabetes, cancer, and heart issues – all are linked to the type of food, the method of cooking, and the amount that we eat.  Restaurants will need to respond, and they will.

[]         Profitability and Challenges with the Labor Market Will Eventually Find Common Ground

Restaurants are and always have been highly labor intensive while remaining very stingy with profit.  The answer has always been to skimp on rates of pay and benefits creating an ever-challenging swinging door of employees moving from operation to operation for a few pennies more in pay.  The likely answer is to change the way we look at production and service leading to more efficient operations requiring fewer employees that can be paid a fair wage with reasonable benefits.  Something has to give.

Now, if we can unify our efforts around these realities, if we can connect all of those silo driven organizations to work together for common solutions, then the business of food will thrive and become far more resilient before the next crisis strikes.

PLAN BETTER – TRAIN HARDER

Harvest America Ventures, LLC

Restaurant and Culinary School Consulting

www.harvestamericacues.com

CAFÉ Talks Podcast

https://cafetalks.libsyn.com/

WHAT CUSTOMERS DON’T KNOW ABOUT RESTAURANT WORK

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More difficult than you may have thought, more chaotic than you might expect, more poetic than you realize, and more fulfilling than you would understand: this, to me, describes the environment of the professional kitchen that few customers are able to view or experience.  It is this dichotomy of experiences that draws people into a career behind the range and keeps them there for decades. This is a behind the scenes look at the place and the people that bring a plate of food to the guest’s table. 

TEN THINGS YOU DIDN”T KNOW ABOUT A RESTAURANT

  • An organizational structure that attempts to keep things under control

There is a long history of how kitchens and restaurants are structured.  Although executed at different levels – this structure is something that all those whom work in restaurants can depend and lean on. It is our comfort zone – a place and an organizational structure that makes sense and attempts to keep a lid on a long list of independent work before and during service. 

In the kitchen – work responsibilities are divided into oversight and action positions – the number depending on the scope of the restaurant menu and the size of the operation, but basically there are chefs, cooks, and support staff.  Each have specific duties and all have some shared responsibility.  The chef will likely be the most experienced culinarian with responsibility for the financial operation of the kitchen, menu planning, ordering and inventory control, training, and quality control.  He or she may not spend as much time cooking as a typical guest might think.  The cook is the action person – this is the individual who actually brings ingredients together, responds to customer requests, and prepares your plate of food.  The support staff members include those dishwashers, and cleaners who keep the ship afloat during the chaos of prep and assembly. 

The front of the house is typically separated into those who interface with guests directly and walk them through the ordering process to those who set the stage and support the work of the primary server.  This includes back waiters, bus personnel, and bartenders.  The strict alignment to table stations, training, development of a wine list that complements the food menu, and the smooth oversight of intense chaos so that it seems to be controlled rests on the shoulders of the dining room or restaurant manager.

Regardless of the restaurant type – this is a standard structure that anyone working in the business can expect and adapt to.

  • Independence in a manufacturing model that defies logic

To walk through a kitchen prior to service you will see a number of cooks and support staff going about their respective work with seemingly little connection to a master plan.  Each will have their own list of prep that relates to either a station or event and with rare exception they are allowed autonomy in how they approach the work.  Underneath the façade of independence lies a system that keeps all of this personal activity integrated into a bigger picture.  This may never become apparent until these same cooks are setting up their stations for finish work once the dining room doors open to the public.

  • A cluster of artists accepting control

Every seasoned cook struggles with controlling a desire to flex his or her artistic muscle and modify a dish to suit his or her style.  At the same time, each cook is fully aware that consistency and adherence to the standards of excellence that defines the restaurant must win in the long run.  A smart chef will provide opportunities for creative expression through nightly features and a cook’s input on the next wave of menus.  Any long-term attempt to keep artistic expression under wraps will result in constant replacement of cooks after frustrated ones leave for an operation with more freedom.

  • Chaos that leads to symphonic orchestration

There are two different kitchens, two different restaurants that might be observed by an interested guest.  The kitchen before service is alive with independent, sometimes stressful work scattered throughout the space.  Each cook is struggling against the clock to get his or her prep in order before setting a station for service.  Once service begins there will not be any time to take care of prep that was not completed in advance.  To view this, one would certainly use the word: chaos.

Once each line station is set for service, the mise en place is well appointed, the side towels are folded, pans stacked in the ready, menu reviewed, and ingredients are in place; once the orders start to tick off the printer and the expeditor raises his or her baton to signify the start of the nightly score – the chaos turns into a beautiful piece of music.  Cooks pivot and turn, pans ring as they hit the stove top, tongs click in rhythm, plates clang in unison as they are set in the pass for pick up, and cooks chime in with yes chef when directives are given by the expeditor.  You can put music to this dance that is very poetic and fluid.

  •      Improvisation that is kept in check

Although cooks will have a chance to express themselves through nightly features and an occasional pitch of an item for the next menu – when the restaurant doors are open on any given night – their job is to make sure that each dish is prepared consistently, looks and tastes the same, and follows the established design that the chef has put his or her stamp on.  There can be no deviation from the established norm.  Cooks know that “buy-in” to this game plan is essential if they hope to keep customers coming back time and again.

  • The chef who rarely cooks your food

This may be a shock to many guests, but the chef in your favorite restaurant is probably not the person who cooks your meal.  As previously mentioned each person has specific responsibilities and the chef’s are at a different level than those who finish the food you order.  It is, however, the chef who is responsible to train those cooks how to prepare the dishes that the restaurant puts its signature on.

  • A culture of family that defies logic

All of the typical highs and lows of being part of a family exist in a kitchen.  Team members know each other’s strengths and weaknesses and compensate accordingly.  They may be highly critical of each other, but don’t ever assume that someone outside of the “family” has the right to do the same.  When in trouble – the team will help a member of their group – without question.  There is a brotherhood or sisterhood that is just as real as if there was a biological connection between them. 

  • Service staff that have other careers

The majority of those restaurant servers that a guest connects with have other jobs – sometimes jobs that are their chosen careers – they just don’t pay enough, or they don’t provide the challenges and stressful excitement that comes from being a pleasant server, psychologist, counselor, and menu expert for those who fill dining room tables. 

  • A gathering place for castoffs and square pegs

The dynamic of the restaurant employee (especially in the kitchen) is flush with those who don’t fit in, are not inspired by typical 40 hour work weeks, find comfort in chaos, never flinch at cuts and burns, and do what they do out of a love for the art they produce and challenges that uncertainty brings every day.  Restaurant employees are part of a culture that doesn’t fit anywhere else.

  • Adrenaline junkies who are gluttons for punishment

When you step back and watch all of this, when you discover that cooks in particular live on the edge of disaster on any given day, when you see how they kick into gear when the job becomes impossible, and when you see them return the next day for a repeat of the same punishment, then you will begin to understand that the heat, the stress, the uncertainty, and the shear craziness of kitchen life is driven by the adrenaline rush.  Unless you have been there and felt it, you can’t understand.

PLAN BETTER – TRAIN HARDER

Harvest America Ventures, LLC

Restaurant Consulting

www.harvestamericacues.com  BLOG

CAFÉ Talks Podcast

https://cafetalks.libsyn.com/

**Check in to CAFÉ Talks Podcast this Wednesday – November 18 for an interview with Chef Jeremiah Tower.

A COOK’S SENSUAL OVERLOAD – TOUCH, TEXTURE, CHEW

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We are tactile beings – the feel and texture of things that we encounter is very personal and very important to our life experience.  Such is the case with the food that we consume.  As is stated by the Institute for the Psychology of Eating – some believe that chew or experiencing the texture of food is an innate need to show a level of aggression – a necessary release for our piece of mind – while others simply point to the process of chewing as an essential part of the digestion process.  In all cases, the concept of flavor depends on the texture of food, to be complete.

To this end, certain foods are defined by their texture or chew.  What would a September apple be without that crisp snap when we bite into it, what would a great bagel be without the hard work of chewing, a pudding without the creamy texture of softened butter, or a steak without the rich chew that releases the deep umami sensation that is a result?

“So important is the level of crunch that many years ago, potato-chip manufacturers developed a sophisticated apparatus to measure the perceived level of crunch that consumers hear in their heads. The most pleasurable decibel levels were deciphered, and potato chips were subsequently manufactured to these standard orgasmic crunch levels.”-The Institute for the Psychology of Eating

Flavor is a complex and complete experience – it is far beyond the stimulation of taste receptors.  To taste without chew is shallow and incomplete.  Chew is something that has lasting meaning and, like smell, there is memory attached to it.  Just as we remember and look forward to the texture of that fall apple, so too do we vividly remember what that experience is and use it as a benchmark of quality when it comes to judging all other apples.

Texture and chew is also a metaphor in life that points to how these “touch” events determine the depth to which we become one with life’s experiences.  We are told to “chew on it” when presented with an opportunity or problem.  Accountants “crunch” the numbers signifying a commitment to ensuring that the results are accurate and when we over-extend or take on too much responsibility we are said to “bite off more than we can chew”.  It is this physical process or association that helps to define the type of experience that is a result.

As cooks and chefs build their flavor memory they must understand and categorize the process of connecting with texture, touch, and chew.  Think about these products and experiences and how important touch, texture, and chew are to the dynamics of flavor.

  • That first oyster or clam:

It is an act of faith in the strong recommendation from a chef or the result of a dare from others that allows us that first experience with a raw oyster or clam.  Certainly, it is rare that anyone would choose to let a live shellfish slide down your throat for any other reason – yet, if we allow that incredible texture and ocean brininess to take hold – the flavor experience is like no other.  In this case – chew is very subtle; we allow the throat to simply accept the texture of the sea.

  • The French fry expectation:

Food companies spend countless hours trying to perfect the French fry experience.  For the product to meet and exceed expectations it must retain its deep fried crunch on the exterior while yielding a soft and moist experience within.  It is a delicate balance between the type of potato, the method of processing, the state of chill or freeze, how it is blanched, the type of oil used in deep frying, the temperature of the oil, and knowing how the cook will treat the whole process before the finished product is placed in the pass.  With the French fry – texture is king.

  • Ripe melon:

Melon is one of those fruits that thrive on the extreme.  An unripe melon just doesn’t feel right in the mouth, is tasteless, and is likely quickly discarded by any who have experienced the benchmark of ripeness.  When ripeness is at its peak – the texture is soft, yet still in complete control, the flavor is pronounced, the level of moisture is intoxicating, and the overall food memory created is exceptional.  Once you experience a perfectly ripe melon – nothing else will do.

  • Vine ripened tomato:

To meet the demands for tomatoes on the market – twelve months a year, and to be able to ship those same tomatoes without damage – they are far too often produced in a greenhouse, sometimes hydroponically, picked long before vine maturity, sometimes waxed and sent your way.  The result is a firm and tasteless product that barely resembles what a perfect tomato should be.  When a tomato is exposed to the sun, grown in rich soil, picked when it is mature and consumed while still warm from that July sun – it is something to write books about and sing its praise with song.  When the texture of the skin serves to simply keep those warn tomato seeds from bursting forth, when the bite yields the powerful flavor and soft texture of that warm interior running down your chin – then you have a flavor memory that will linger until next season.

  • The magic avocado:

Maybe more so than any other fruit – the avocado is a tough client for the chefs cutting board.  Before it is ripe – the texture is uninviting and unwilling to add any value to the kitchen program at your restaurant.  Left too long in its skin and the peak creaminess of a perfect fruit turns to a stringy and sometimes blackened interior that shouts to the cook that he or she has waited too long.  When the avocado is perfect it is as creamy as softened butter, rich in flavor and brilliant in color.  This is the fruit that serves as a centerpiece for salads, appetizers, and your favorite guacamole.

  • Crispy skin of a roast chicken:

There are few preparations that point to the skill of a seasoned cook than a perfectly roasted chicken.  When the cook pays as much attention to the skin as he or she does the breast meat or rich darkness of the thigh and leg, then the chicken experience is so prominent as to become a favorite meal.  Basting, seasoning, covering and uncovering through the roasting process will yield that crisp, buttery, salty crunch that is the first thing that a knowledgeable consumer reaches for.

  • A Georgia peach at peak maturity:

Stone fruits like plums, nectarines, cherries, apricots, and peaches can be just as fickle as the avocado.  Typically picked before maturity so that shipping does not damage the fruit – these hand held products of nature can be too hard, too unforgiving, and too tasteless for positive food memories.  When picked at or near maturity – the peach is an ambassador for Mother Nature.  Soft with a small amount of bite, bursting with flavor of sweet and a little bit of tartness, dripping with nectar, and hard to put down – the ripe peach is right at the top of the food memory data bank.

  • Artisan bread:

Very few foods are as satisfying as perfectly baked artisan sourdough bread.  When done right – the combination of a crisp exterior and a chewy interior that releases more and more flavor the longer you chew is something that you can experience virtually once imbedded in your food memory.

  • The stages of salt water taffy:

Maybe not the most prominent flavor that chefs think about, but in remembrance of your youth – walking on the beach and stopping at that salt water taffy stand is something that can define an important time in your life.  Taffy has it all from a texture and chew standpoint.  The warmth of the sun makes the taffy a bit sticky to handle, but once in your mouth you will always remember the changes from a challenging chew at first to different stages of softness until it finally melts and disappears.    Incredible – imagine if chefs could re-create these stages with their dessert selections in a restaurant.

  • Al dente pasta:

Al dente – or firm to the bite defines how most pasta is designed to be eaten.  When cooked al dente – pasta is digested more slowly and thus satisfies your hunger for a longer period of time.  The firmer texture creates a more enjoyable “chew” and retains far more flavor than over-cooked pasta that bleeds out its flavor to the salted cooking water.

  • A comfortable dining room chair:

Aside from the food itself – the environment where we dine has much to do with the flavor experience.  An uncomfortable chair detracts from the process of eating and attention is placed on finding a way to relax so that dining becomes a positive respite.

  • The feel of the right flatware:

The feel and type of flatware can enhance the flavor experience if it matches the food ingredients, their preparation and their cost.  A plastic fork and knife may be perfectly acceptable for that Nathan’s hot dog and fries, but the Black Angus rib eye steak deserves a rose wood handled Henkel steak knife and heavy, long tine sterling silver fork.  The touch of the tools is part of the dish memory.

  • The delicate elegance of the right wine glass:

Wine is such a unique beverage that is impacted throughout its life by numerous environmental factors.  The struggle that the vine goes through to extract nutrients from the terrior will determine much of the grapes integrity and flavor; the process of touch as it applies to how the grapes are crushed (gravity fed or more aggressively pressed) will determine if the grapes are bruised and possibly change the deepness of flavor; the packaging for shipment of bottles will either protect or endanger the stability of the continued bottle fermentation; and the quality of the wine glass does, in fact, impact the experience of taste and aroma.  If you have never been through a Riedl glass seminar then make sure you put it on your list of “must do” experiences

Touch, texture, and chew are essential components of the dining experience and critical elements that define your food memory benchmarks.

PLAN BETTER – TRAIN HARDER
Harvest America Ventures, LLC

www.harvestamericacues.com  BLOG

CAFÉ Talks Podcast

A COOK’S SENSUAL OVERLOAD – SMELL

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Now that I have your attention – allow me to walk you through a cook’s journey of experiences that activate the senses.  One of the most amazing aspects of the human mind is its capacity to store and remember every single experience from birth to last breath.  These experiences whether they are tactile, social, psychological, or spiritual are stored in the subconscious mind – a person’s “built-in” hard drive.  Sometimes those experiences are buried deeply in that hard drive and take real effort to bring to the surface while others simply require a small prod to jump into the conscious realm and activate all of the senses.  It truly is amazing.

What cooks and chefs talk about quite often is “food memory”.  Oftentimes the difference between a good cook and an exceptional one is the breadth of a person’s food memory.  Sometimes we refer to them as flavor benchmarks – significant additions to a food memory data bank that become the standard-bearers of how we approach and compare food experiences moving forward.  Cooks and chefs are bombarded with these benchmarks – each and every day.

WHAT IS THAT SMELL?

*Bacon – is there any deeper, more intoxicating, more all consuming smell than that of thick strips of bacon frying in a pan or rendering in an oven.  Every kitchen is filled with this gratifying aroma that greets cooks and chefs as an old friend wrapping his or her arm around their shoulder and telling them that life is good?

*Onions – what makes us salivate, wake up and direct our attention to our palate is the rich smell of caramelization.  Onions are the mistresses of the kitchen – that irresistible link to the passion of eating.  Every cook snaps to attention when those onions hit the surface of a hot pan and squeak and hiss as they turn from white to transparent, to lightly brown.

*Garlic – Ahhhh – garlic.  What is that smell that reminds us of home cooked meals, of the beginnings of a rich Bolognese, the foundations of shrimp scampi, or the start of a sear before the long and slow process of braising those veal shanks or short ribs?   Garlic, to cooks, is the magic ingredient that only gets better as it is used with reckless abandon.

*Grilled meat – a cherry red grill fed by the flames from briquettes laps around that ribeye, New York strip, or Black Angus filet.  The marbled fat that webs through the eye of those steaks begins to melt and drip – fueling the flames even more and sealing in the flavor and moisture of the steak with grill marks and an exterior crust that shows the power of the Maillard Reaction.  This smell is like no other – it reminds us of a good life, of summer bar-b-que with family and friends, and the best partner that a robust red wine could have.  This aroma welcomes cooks to their station and reminds them of why they do what they do.

*Sauté’ mushrooms – When we use the term umami we often think of the savory aspects of roast pork or a 109 rib pushing it’s internal temp close to 120 F.  But the smell of fresh mushrooms like porcini, shiitake, crimini, morels and chanterelles is as close to umami nirvana as one might ever expect to achieve.  This is the environment that cooks live in.

*Bread from the oven – the work, the time, the physical handling of a living product, the elegant simplicity of four ingredients, the marvel of a sour dough starter uniting the gluten strands and lifting a dough to a remarkable stature pales in comparison to the smell of the finished product being pealed from the oven.  Let the loaf dance in your hands as you flip it over, pull it close to your nose and drawn that completely unique smell into your being.

*Cinnamon Danish – if you have worked in a kitchen where breakfast is served – then you are familiar with the sinful smell associated with cinnamon rolls or Danish pastries fresh from the oven.  You know that you shouldn’t, but it is nearly impossible to get anything else done until you break apart the rings and allow that first bite to melt in your mouth.  You must take a moment with a familiar cup of coffee to relax and just let the magic happen.

*Simmering Stock – I always made sure that every kitchen that I orchestrated had a stock working every day.  Sure, the stock was important as the foundation to soups and sauces, but maybe even more importantly it sets the tone for a kitchen dedicated to foundations, to building flavors in layers, and to respecting the traditions of a professional kitchen.  Stocks are a statement and their deep aroma welcomes every cook to his or her station, allowing them to know that they are part of something special.

*Fresh brewed coffee – We all have a relationship with coffee.  To many, it is the first thing that we seek in the morning, the finish to a great meal, and the last acknowledgement to signal the end of the day.  Each sip allows us to engage our olfactory senses as well as our taste receptors.  In professional kitchens – coffee is a baseline aroma that is always there, always luring us over for another jolt of caffeine.

*Cured meats – The inspiration for this article was a video clip that I watched a dozen or so times – a walking tour through a curing room filled with thousands of Prosciutto hams hanging and working their way through the long process of fermentation that yields one of the culinary worlds most heavenly aromas and flavors.  Picture what it must be like to walk through that cure room, take a deep breath, and let your senses turn to high alert.  This is a cook’s moment.

*Cheese affinage – As enticing as the prosciutto cure room might be, the musty, fruity, deeply fragrant smell of a cheese cave takes it a step further.  It is the affinage that takes the pressed curds from milk and transitions them into signature cheese from runny soft, and stinky Epoisse, to firm, mature Manchego, or the aged and intelligent aromas of Parmigiana Reggiano.   Cheese, bread, cured meat, and great wine combine to tempt the nose to understand the mystical nature of the food that we eat.

*Shaved truffles on scrambled eggs or pasta – Not an every day experience, even for the most experienced chef, but if there were an aroma that’s impossible to describe except to say “truffle” this would be it.  Nothing else smells remotely close to a truffle, nothing will make you stand tall and give all of your attention to food, and no smell is more addictive than a fresh truffle that is shaved over loosely scrambled eggs or fresh pasta.  If there were a smell to describe heaven – this would be it. 

As cooks we are privileged to work with, be enticed by, and enjoy the pleasures of aromatic foods.  This is the environment we work in and this is quite possibly one of the greatest benefits of choosing a life behind the range.

Up next:  TOUCH, TEXTURE, and CHEW.

PLAN BETTER – TRAIN HARDER

Harvest America Ventures, LLC

www.harvestamericacues.com  BLOG

CAFÉ Talks Podcast

https://cafetalks.libsyn.com/

THE APOCALYPSE FOR RESTAURANTS IS NEAR

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It is the end of October 2020 and we are all focused on the National Election in just a few days.  We certainly should be zeroing on this event that will likely change the course of history and determine what America looks like and how it is perceived for generations to come.  While we wrestle with important issues of voter suppression, confidence in the system (how amazing it is that this is a concern in the United States of America), and whether or not one party or another will accept the results – there are two monumental disasters looming:  Covid-19 is rearing up its ugly head for a second and third wave that all indications point to as worse than the first (even if some may try to down play the threat) and as a result – the restaurant industry is facing the end of the road.  As Jeremiah Tower stated in a recent interview I conducted with him:  “This is not a challenge – it is the apocalypse.”

This is not an exaggeration, this is not a case of fear mongering, this is not political – it is a fact.  As winter looms heavy on every restaurateurs shoulders and those outdoor patios are closed due to weather – restaurant owners and chefs are breathing heavy as they know what lies ahead.  The pandemic is real, the virus is real, and people are scared.  Dining indoors is scary enough for both customers and providers, but opening inside dining with 50% occupancy is simply not workable financially.  Add to that the realization that at any moment, Covid-19 may force local governments hand and another mandated lockdown could be right around the corner.  Leisure travel is non-existent, and business travel is very limited.  Conferences and conventions are gone, weddings are not taking place in hotel and restaurant venues, meetings are virtual, graduations are accomplished on ZOOM , and those Friday night meetings of friends in a local bar or trendy restaurant have basically evaporated.  Each one of these changes is another nail in the coffin of the restaurant business.

Try as they may – restaurants cannot sell enough take out, press regular customers to purchase enough gift certificates, deliver enough re-heat meals, or convert enough dining rooms into marketplaces to cover their expenses and make up for that loss of full dining rooms.  Restaurants are facing really, really difficult times.  These are problems that they can’t ideate their way out of.  Even the best restaurant minds are at a loss – what can be done to stop the bleeding and ride out the storm that is likely to last another year?  Holy crap!  Most restaurants have a tough time surviving through one tough month – let alone nearly two-years.

Breathe deep, sit down, have a glass of wine or beer and think about a world, a country, a neighborhood without those familiar restaurants, those places where we gather with family and friends to celebrate, honor, laugh, toast, and communicate over great food.  We might try to convince ourselves that restaurants are a luxury and we can get by without them – but the reality is that restaurants are a very, very important part of our lives – we all need them.  We may have survived over the past eight months without those restaurants, but think about the hole in our lives as a result let alone the loss of jobs and the demise of small businesses. This is a serious and highly transitional time that will have a long-term impact on society. 

We certainly can’t ignore the dangers of Covid-19, it is our responsibility to do what is necessary to move through this, stay safe, and keep our neighbors healthy.  Restaurateurs and chefs, for the most part, do not deny this – but, the question is: “are we ready to pay the price?”  Are we ready to face a life without those places that are the core of a community?  Is there an answer, is there a way to protect each other and support the restaurant industry at the same time?

YES THERE IS!

First, and foremost – we need immediate assistance from the Congress and the Executive Branch of government.  It might even be too late, but we (I mean each and every one of us) must insist that Congress pass a relief bill that focuses on the individual, restaurants, and state governments that host all of those public services that we depend on.  A new wave of PPP support to help restaurants and other small businesses pay their employees (employees that are in rough shape through no fault of their own), intervention with landlords for reasonable deferral and payback programs for rent that can’t be met during the pandemic, and an infusion of funds to the SBA so that they can buoy up restaurants that need short term loans and consultation to help problem solve their crisis issues.

Second, we need to stop this politically polarized nonsense that denies the seriousness of Covid-19, ignores the directives of science, and coddles people who fight common sense over wearing masks as if they were middle school brats, and promotes dumb conspiracy theories that the virus is non-existent or far less serious than it is.  This is just absurd and we will never get back to anything close to normal unless we stop this foolish behavior.

Finally, we all need to do our part to support local businesses in ways that we can, while still practicing safe behavior.  We need a 12-month strategy that will support the 24/7 efforts of local businesses to survive.  The alternative is to accept a life after Covid without those restaurants that have been around for generations, those places where we gather to celebrate special occasions, take a break from the stress of work, or simply get together to clink glasses, share our day, and laugh with reckless abandon.  Remember those days, remember how important those opportunities were to our wellbeing? 

Call your representative, vote for those who know what needs to be done and stand on a soapbox to fight for yourself and those local businesses that make a community all that it can be.

PLAN BETTER – TRAIN HARDER

Harvest America Ventures, LLC

Restaurant Consulting

SAVE LOCAL RESTAURANTS – WE NEED THEM!

Be smart – wear a mask, socially distance from one another, wash your hands, and know that together, with effort, we can make a difference.

www.harvestamericacues.com BLOG

COOKS AND CHEFS – WE ALL CRAVE DISCIPLINE

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Let’s not confuse freedom with a desire to do whatever we want without a system of order or respect for the discipline of structure.  We can both be free and still respect the need for that discipline that comes from organization.  A well-run kitchen is not a free-form environment where every cook does his or her own thing or moves to the beat of his or her own drum.  Just like other well-run organizations – the kitchen functions best in a system where everyone has well defined jobs, follows the structure of systems or order, and exhibits the discipline of structural respect. 

Whether it is the military, your favorite baseball or football team, FedEx, UPS, the airlines, or your favorite musical group – structure and a level of discipline are essential if the end result is going to be accomplishment of business objectives. 

My experience, and I will note that it may not be everyone’s experience, is that kitchens tend to attract a broad array of staff members who come from environments where discipline is not always the norm.  The refreshing nature of discipline is what attracts many of those great employees to the environment of the kitchen.  There is comfort in the ability to achieve concrete objectives – a well-prepared plate of food and a satisfied customer.  There is comfort in wearing a clean, crisp, white uniform that represents history, tradition, and pride.  There is comfort in following the directives on a prep list, a recipe, or a banquet order.  There is comfort in knowing and executing foundational methods of cooking that can consistently yield good results.  There is comfort in knowing that there is a chain of command in the kitchen and that following this order creates a sense of team when and where it is needed.

I have recently read articles that claim that the discipline and order of chefs as far back as Escoffier or as contemporary as Ferran Adria or Thomas Keller are no longer appropriate or needed.  That this structure that chefs have defended for generations will somehow stifle an individuals opportunities in a kitchen and thwart their ability to grow.  Oh contraire, my experience is just the opposite.  It is exactly this structure, and this discipline that helps to develop talented, polished individuals and build a skill set that leads to long-term success. 

Do not misconstrue this support for discipline as an endorsement of hostile work environments where some chefs have been known to demean and excessively criticize cooks – there is no place for this approach.  Discipline is not synonymous with this awful, abhorrent approach that is, for some reason, portrayed as normal on TV kitchen shows.  This may have been normal in the distant past, but it cannot be tolerated today.  But, a level of discipline and structure is critical, especially in complex, ever changing and time sensitive environments like a busy kitchen.

I have observed kitchens that are highly disciplined while employee centric at the same time.  It is these kitchens that hum with enthusiasm, pride, and professionalism and produce extraordinary results.  I have seen cooks when they button up those crisp, clean uniforms, tie on an apron, and draw their knives across a wet stone to hone an edge; when they wipe down their station, line up their tools, and pull down an organized prep sheet, and I have watched that spring in their step, that look of focused professionalism that can only occur in a kitchen that respects the order and discipline of the work.

It makes no difference if it is a 4-diamond restaurant offering fine dining, a quality pizza shop, a bakery, or a hospital foodservice – discipline, pride, and results are closely aligned.  I have seen cooks from all different walks of life – some from culinary schools, some who worked their way up from dishwasher, some born into an American neighborhood, and some who came to our country for a better life, both male and female, young and at the beginning of their work life and others who are nearing the end of their careers – come together with pride in the work they do, joy in their accomplishments in front of the range, and charged up about the kitchen where they work.  This is what discipline and organization bring to a work environment. 

Peek into the kitchens of restaurants that you patronize and you can immediately see the difference.  In fact, it is likely that the food presented to you as a customer will reveal the level of discipline, professionalism, and organization that exists in that kitchen. 

A chef who understands that his or her role is to define that structure, create an environment where critique is tied to training, and results are aligned with the structure and organization that –yes, Escoffier, Pointe, Poilane, Keller, Trotter, and others established or reinforced, is a chef who will not only find personal success, but will set the stage for employees to enjoy a long and fruitful career.

There are many aspects of the restaurant business that need to change: pay scales, benefits, reasonable work schedules, tolerance of chefs and operators who demean and belittle employees, and addressing the factors in restaurants that limit profitability- but, in all cases it will be organization and structural discipline that will make those changes possible.

PLAN BETTER – TRAIN HARDER

Harvest America Ventures, LLC

www.harvestamericacues.com  BLOG

CAFÉ Talks Podcast

https://cafetalks.libsyn.com/

CHEFS – WHAT DOES YOUR MENU REPRESENT?

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Consider this – the menu is the most important component of a successful restaurant and once designed it can, and should, impact every other aspect of the business.  These aspects include: décor, skill level of staff, style of service, pricing, profit, type of vendors selected, kitchen layout, equipment selection, marketing and advertising, pay scales, dining room seating, type of china, glassware and flatware, even the location and color scheme for the exterior of the restaurant.  YES – the menu is that important!

The menu comes first and should reflect the philosophy of the owners and chef and how the operators expect to be perceived by the public.  Far too many times the menu takes a back seat to all other planning that will lead to serious miscalculations along the way.  General Motors would never build and equip an auto plant, hire the entire staff, and create a marketing strategy until the car they intend to build is designed, prototyped, and presented to various focus groups first.  Why should it be any different for restaurants and their menus?

That being said – here are a few examples of “menu thinking” that can be considered:

[]         A COLLECTION OF ITEMS THAT SELL

This menu is developed using analytical data that is drawn from surveys and historical reference to other restaurants within a community or region.  There is certainly nothing wrong with this approach except that the result is typically an operation that lacks inspiration, lacks soul, and attracts employees who are less interested in passion and far more content to align with the operation that provides a dependable paycheck.  There are thousands of restaurants just like this – they serve a real need for dependability.

[]         A CONNECTION TO HISTORY

Whether it’s the history of the town where the restaurant is located, the family that owns the operation, or the heritage of a certain ethnicity – sometimes these influences set the stage for a menu and what it represents.  Destiny and tradition create expectations that are hard to argue with.  A restaurant on the Maine coast without lobster would be difficult to justify, just as a café in the French Quarter of New Orleans without some reference to Cajun, Creole, traditional Southern or Acadian French cooking would seem out of place.

[]         A CHEF’S SIGNATURE

Of course – many chefs view the menu as a chance to make a statement – a statement that focuses on those styles of cooking that influenced the chef, his or her desire to “push the envelope”, and a chance to stand out among the crowd of competitors.  This menu energy is attractive to chefs while at the same time it is risky.  A chef’s signature without any research can set a negative perception of the restaurant that is hard to break.  At the same time – a restaurant that boxes a chef into a corner with little or no room for expression will find it difficult to hang on to culinary talent. 

[]         THE COLLECTIVE STYLE OF THE KITCHEN TEAM

When a chef engages the culinary team in the process of menu building, and when this is done with proper guidance and adherence to a common set of benchmarks, then real kitchen synergy will result.  This is one of the best ways to attract excellent cooks and create an environment where they want to stay and contribute to the team effort.

[]         A DARING TRIP INTO THE UNKNOWN

We have seen some examples of uniquely talented and daring chefs who want to shock as much as inspire.   Keeping in mind that there is a relatively small, but passionate number of consumers who are referred to as “innovators” (1-2% of the dining public) – there will always be room for a few disruptor restaurants.  The biggest challenge is keeping those innovators interested and expanding the market to enough predictable guests to keep the restaurant in business.

[]         A REFLECTION OF COMMUNITY

When a chef takes part in active demographic research – a menu might very well reflect something about the community where the restaurant sits.  Building a neighborhood restaurant where support for the operation is considered a responsibility of residents becomes a reality when that operation truly connects.  It might be based on a menu that reflects the heritage of the community, the ethnicity of residents, their socio-economic background, or something about the community that makes it unique.  When a chef identifies this and as a result creates loyalty – then a restaurant can expect to live on for generations.

[]         THE OWNER’S FAVORITES

Owners have a tough time staying out of the menu planning process.  It is their business after all – right?  The chef, regardless of how creative he or she might be, and the owner, regardless of how savvy he or she might be as a consumer – needs to take a back seat to all of the factors that will lead to a connection with consumers and return customers.  Beware of the owner that hopes to build a personal menu rather than one that might work.

[]         A LIST WITHOUT DIRECTION

It takes just a minute or two for a seasoned restaurant professional to identify a menu without direction.  There should always be “connections” on the menu:  the appetizers set the stage for the entrees, and the entrees lead to desserts that complete the package.  When a menu lacks continuity, then the experience suffers and the customer is left – confused.

[]         AN ATTEMPT TO PLEASE EVERYONE

There was a time when the American diner was prevalent at every major crossing of highways.  Not ever knowing whom their next customer might be – these operations attacked the customer will pages of menu choices, representing multiple ethnic influences, utilizing every ingredient possible, and doing so without any parameters such as what makes sense for a given meal period or how the kitchen and service staff might function.  When the restaurant offers pasta primavera and tacos throughout the day then the consumer starts to wonder what the results will be.

Don’t underestimate the importance of smart menu planning that takes into consideration the habits and desires of typical customers, demographics, the facility layout and equipment on hand, the skill level of the cooks, the style of service that front of the house employees are trained to execute, the price point and profitability potential of the items selected, the availability of vendors, and the passion and ability of the chef who stands at the helm.

PLAN BETTER – TRAIN HARDER

Harvest America Ventures, LLC

www.harvestamericacues.com  BLOG

CAFÉ Talks Podcast

https://cafetalks.libsyn.com/

THE COOK’S INTELLECT

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Anyone who has tied on an apron in a professional kitchen understands the physical nature of the work.  We know about the aching muscles, the throbbing feet, the faltering knees, and the heat – did I mention the heat?  But we don’t often take the time to stop and pay attention to the intellect of the cook and the broader skills that few careers can boast.  Great cooks and chefs are highly intellectual individuals who are challenged to apply those skills and aptitudes every day.  Unfortunately, it is rare to hear of anyone pointing out these essential abilities or the need for them if one is to be effective in the job.

So, for all who are sweating on the line every day, for all who are dipping their toes into the rushing water of a culinary profession, and to all chefs who think they know their worth – here are the unheralded skills that cooks and chefs apply each and every day without much fanfare:

[]         MATH

Yep, that’s right – cooks are adept at using math every day in the kitchen.  They apply these principles while expanding recipes, using fractions with units of measurement, working with percentages (especially in the bakeshop), portioning products, determining yield of products through fabrication and cooking, using geometry to determine precise vegetable cuts, and working within the parameters of recipe costing.

[]         TIME MANAGEMENT

Working backwards from a finished plate of food – cooks must prioritize work based on how long each step will take, as well as pacing of a ‘la minute work on the line to ensure that every dish on an order is ready at the precise time for plating.

[]         STRATEGIC PLANNING

From the moment a cook walks through those kitchen doors he or she is building a strategy for the day.  “How will I approach today’s prep, what can I defer till a later time, based on who is scheduled for a shift – how must I adjust the work that I do, and given the reservations for tonight – which items might move and which items will take a back seat to demand.”  Sometimes the strategy is systemic and doesn’t waver, while at other times each day will be unique. 

[]         PROJECT MANAGEMENT

Especially in operations where there are significant numbers of banquets and special events – the cook is assigned a function and must either align with a project strategy already developed by the chef, or in some cases build and manage that project independently.  All of this is done within the parameters of standards of excellence and timing.

[]         PROBLEM SOLVING

Even the best-laid plans can go astray when the unforeseen gets in the way.  The best cooks and chefs will constantly work on scenarios so that very little is classified as a surprise.  If left to chance – whatever could go wrong – will.  This is the principle of Murphy’s Law that every cook subscribes to.  The best cooks solve problems before they arise.

“In its simplest form, Murphy’s Law states: If anything can go wrong, it will. However, as with many successful business theories, the original law has been extended over time to cover specialist areas, several of which are given below:

  • Project Planning: If anything can go wrong, it will. Usually at the most inopportune time.
  • Performance Management: If someone can get it wrong, they will.
  • Risk Assessment: If several things can go wrong, the one you would LEAST like to happen will occur.
  • Practical creativity: If you can think of four ways that something can go wrong, it will go wrong in a fifth way.”
  • www.mindtools.com

[]         HISTORY AND ANTHROPOLOGIE

The best cooks take the time to study the background of a dish or a cooking process.  A person who has never studied the history of a dish such as Cog au Vin is far less likely to master it than another person who understands the ingredients, why they are used, how they are used, the type of people who consumed it, their socio-economic background, the indigenous nature of the ingredients used, how it was presented and how it might have been celebrated by those involved.  So cooks are often compelled to learn more about a dish or process as part of their skill development.  One does not learn how to make Kansas City BBQ without living in KC and apprenticing with a pit master who was born and raised there.

[]         ART AND DESIGN

Food is the ultimate art form and every plate of food that a cook touches is truly a canvas that was analyzed and approached with an eye for color contrast, symmetry, dimension, consideration of negative space, applying different textures, combining geometric shapes, and maximizing the three-dimensional nature of the dish.   Additionally, the cook considers all human senses in the build out of that dish: sight, sound, smell, taste, and touch – no other art form is that fully engaged with the senses.

[]         PSYCHOLOGY

There is psychology at play whenever team members are reliant on each other to perform a task.  The kitchen team is a fragile organism that requires understanding, compassion, support, critique, anger management, and passion.  All of the aspects of understanding oneself and those around you are at play at every moment in the kitchen.

[]         COMMUNICATION

Communication in all of its forms is essential in a well-run kitchen.  Verbal, body language, written communication, and eye contact are used by cooks – all the time.  Whether it is checking what and how you say something, the manner with which you give a directive, offer critique, write a prep sheet, enter info in a log, prepare a recipe, or simply give a nod or make eye contact with another player on the team – communication is critical.  Cook’s learn to be masters at this essential skill.

What is most interesting about these unique skills is that they define the difference between a cook and a great cook, a chef and a remarkable chef.  These skills are also very transferrable – thus great cooks and remarkable chefs can quite easily transition into another career track as a result.

PLAN BETTER – TRAIN HARDER

Harvest America Ventures, LLC

Restaurant Consulting

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