COOK FOR ME – COOK FOR YOU

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Anthony Bourdain once inferred that cooking is one of the most personal things you can do for another human being.  This statement allowed me to think deeply about the significance of this process that we do day in and day out.  What a wonderful skill that can, through certain people, go way beyond the process or technique used.  Cooking need not be perfect to be expressive and caring, but when it is – oh what a gift.  To cook for another person is to express love, respect, personal history, generations of caring, and the willingness to risk it all – to put it out there and say: “This is what I can do for you in this moment”. 

We can readily think back to that special dish that a grandmother prepared for her family.  Maybe it was an Italian grandmother who spent every Saturday preparing that Bolognese sauce for the family Sunday dinner that would last for hours.  In the time that those tomatoes were blanched, peeled, crushed, combined with onions and garlic, beef and pork, and fresh herbs from the garden and then carefully simmered and stirred for hours on end – that wonderful woman was pouring her heart and soul into an expression of love for the family that would sit around the table.  Maybe not a sauce, but quite possibly it was that perfect apple pie cooling on the windowsill – tempting everyone with its deep aroma of apple and spice and flaky butter pastry; or a pot roast that was seared and braised with carrots, onions, and celery until it fell off the bone.  Cooking was not a chore to these individuals – it was a gift that was offered to people, a gift that considered family history and generations of passing down a special recipe or technique – it was as uniquely personal as anything could be.

Maybe we can reflect on that “early in life” Mother’s Day or Father’s Day when as a five or six- year-old child we prepared toast and jam with a glass of orange juice and carried it haphazardly into a parent’s bedroom for breakfast, a breakfast that you had prepared as a true act of love and gratitude – a very personal gift that came from your heart.  It may not have been technically perfect, yet to that parent it was the most incredible meal they had ever been served – it was as personal as anything could ever be and maybe it even brought a tear to their eyes.  “This is what I have to offer and all that it means is present on the plate.”

It could have very well been the neighbor who during a tough time in your life, took the time to prepare a meal and deliver it to your home.  That knock on the door and presentation of a dish that he or she knew would be tasty was a way of saying – I am so sorry that you are having a tough time and I truly hope that this will let you know that I care, and I am here to help.  When you look into that neighbors’ eyes you can feel the personal nature of the gift and know the healing power that it brings.

When friends, throughout your life gather to celebrate, to connect, to cheer each other on, or to simply recognize the importance of friendship – they do so with food that is prepared in a manner that attempts to express just how important those things are.  It could be a simple burger on a backyard grill, or a complex multi-course dinner with that special bottle of wine that had been saved for just this event.  In all cases it was a deep expression of caring, of dedication, of connection, and of love.  When those glasses were raised and clinked with each other, when that first bite was enjoyed and when stories and laughter ensued long into the night – each person knew just how personal and special the moment was.

A relationship with another person may begin with a physical attraction, but it is solidified that first time that one cooks for another.  Of course, there are other moments that lead to building a relationship including numerous meals at restaurants, but that first time that a person makes an omelet, prepares a plate of pasta, roasts a chicken, or removes the cork from a bottle of wine during a meal prepared just for that other individual is the time when a relationship moves to another level.  It is so personal, so fulfilling, so expressive of how the other feels that it can literally take your breath away.

We decided at some point in our lives to become cooks and maybe chefs.  To some it may be a job, while for others it was a calling.  To those who view it as a job it may be rote and somewhat impersonal, a process with steps to memorize and plates to assemble as the picture dictates.  To those who see it as a calling it is an opportunity to recall our past experiences where food was a unifying force, a means of expressing what is sometimes difficult to put into words.  To those cooks who see the potential, this craft is a way to perpetuate the history of their family, to pay homage to a parent who passed down a recipe from two generations before, to remember just how everyone felt when that Mother’s Day or Father’s Day breakfast was presented by a six-year-old, and to give back to all who choose to accept a plate of food. 

The cook or chef who understands how personal cooking is, who feels the power of expression through food and who knows that every plate carries with it a tradition of caring is a person who has found one of the most personal ways of communicating with others.  The way that a cook handles ingredients, pays respect to time tested processes, maintains his or her tools, buttons up a starched white chef coat with pride, maintains a clean and organized station, caramelizes a cut of meat before braising, trusses a chicken, gingerly opens an oyster, or simmers a stock that will be used for soups and sauces is a way to build the gift that will be offered on the plate to every special guest.  Throughout the process – a serious cook is engaged in an incredibly personal process of giving back, of thanking a guest for choosing his or her restaurant, of maintaining the trust that a guest invests in the cook, and of saying thank you for being a part of my life.  It is that personal.

We should never take for granted how important food is and how significant the process of cooking can be.  We may not have the gift of words, of music, or art, but we have a lifetime of history, of caring, of tenderness and tradition that through our hands, heart, and soul is prepared for the plate.  This is what we do.

“Cook for me” is such a wonderful request, such an incredible opportunity, such a tremendous gift.  Think of this every day that you draw a French knife across a wet stone to build an edge, set-up a cutting board in preparation for your shift, fold your side towels, build your mise en place, check the edges of plates, stoke the fire of your grill and line up those sauté pans for another service – this is the moment when you offer yourself to others.  Cook for me, cook for you.

*Picture is from 1970 – apprentice with the Statler Hilton Hotel in Buffalo

PLAN BETTER – TRAIN HARDER

Keep it personal

Harvest America Ventures, LLC

Restaurant Consulting

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A CHEF’S WORDS

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Words are powerful, stories even more so.  They can make us aware, lift us up, change our minds, give us hope, shock us into a new way of thinking, give us pause, inspire us, right the ship, record our memories, and set the stage for change.  Words can differentiate the free from the oppressed, the informed from the naive, the warm from the cold, and the inspired from those who feel hopeless.  Words are a gift and can be a curse – it is all up to the application of truth and the confidence of the writer.  Musicians, poets, chefs, authors, speech writers, and journalists are the historians of a time and gatekeepers to awareness.  When we read those words, we are free to think and grow – the words are a gift and writing a platform for happiness and knowledge.

Words that are well thought out, from our memory and filtered through the heart can bridge any gap that might exist between people.  Strategic words can right a wrong, mend old wounds, and help people to start fresh.  Words that fail to pass through that filter can separate those who seek to come closer, hurt and stoke the flames of fear and the bruises that result from animosity.  Words can build friendships or end them just as easily.

When words reflect on past experiences and stimulate positive memories, they can form stories that build interest, paint pictures, engage others in your shared experiences, and align those who listen with your intent and objectives.  Words are that powerful.

As chefs it is important to understand the power that words provide.  It is critical that we understand what we say and how we say it can make all the difference in how those around us feel, respond, and grow.  The right word, at the right moment can earn you respect and followership, while the wrong word can destroy trust, bruise egos, alienate workers, push aside friends, and infuriate those whose support and friendship are needed most.

When we allow the stress and frustration of the moment to erode the filter of the heart and release a word, a phrase, or a story before it has been through the process of impact analysis – then we relinquish our leadership to the sting of negative emotion.  We have all been there – that moment when words are used to attack and sting while at the same time our mind and heart is thinking: “this is wrong”.  Too late – the damage is done, and recovery is ever so difficult.  These are the times when it seems that words flow directly from emotion and are able to defy what we know to be right or wrong.  Been there – done that.

To be a leader is to learn how to control those words and those stories – to work at keeping those filters in place and give emotions a chance to settle down before we speak.  Too many times that word, the one that avoids filtering, is so destructive that the results are beyond repair.  We all need to accept the power of what we say and stay in control.

At the same time, a strategic word or story that is cognizant of the power it wields, can be used to build trust, define followership, move people to a different, positive place and unite those around us on a common mission.  When we are in control, when those filters are working as they should, then we can emerge as true leaders worthy of followership.

A simple: “great job, thank you, spot on, terrific effort, delicious, beautiful plate, outstanding work, etc.”, can raise an individual’s or team’s spirits, help to push them to new levels of excellence, elevate them through a difficult service period, and bridge the gap between impossible and possible.  The right use of words can be more powerful than any other attempt at motivation – including compensation.  You see- everyone craves acknowledgement and encouragement – it is the fuel that stokes the human motor and drives people to perform well. 

Even critique can become a positive motivator when words are used effectively.  “You know you do really exceptional work, your food is flavorful and on point with my expectations and plate presentations are beautiful, however, this particular dish misses the mark.  Let’s work together to figure out how to make it better.”  A statement such as this demonstrates to a co-worker that the chef thinks highly of a cook’s work, talent, and desire to perform at a very high level, but points to a unique situation when something just doesn’t live up to that standard.  The statement is free of emotion but focused on correcting a misstep.  The approach with the right words demonstrates that the problem is not personal but rather a collaborative one that the chef shares responsibility for and intends to collaborate to fix.  A chef without control of the filter might simply say: “This dish is crap – fix it!”  In both cases the problem is identified, but one is based on positive action and the other will embarrass and alienate the employee.   When the filter is in place and the right words are strategically put together as a story – the challenge will most likely be resolved.  Attacking people with biting words may relieve the immediate frustration that you feel, but at what price?  Sometimes the lesson learned from this type of release cannot be repaired.

“Lessons learned are like
Bridges burned
You only need to cross them but once
Is the knowledge gained
Worth the price of the pain?
Are the spoils worth the cost of the hunt?”

-Dan Fogelberg

Chefs can be great teachers when they understand the importance of communication, filtered words, and great storytelling.  People are unlikely to appreciate, learn from, or even remember words that are meant to sting, but will readily learn from effective stories that show the nature of a problem, an action or solution, and the results – good or bad.  Learn to become a storyteller, build your positive vocabulary, discover how to use those filters, take a deep breath and coach your response to others – even when it is difficult to do so.  Teach through those stories that depict examples of past situations, previous actions, and what you personally learned from it.

A chef might pull together his or her team at the end of service and relay a story that can become a reflective lesson for cooks – something that points to what took place and how the experience might be used to simply get better:

“Well, we made it through service tonight – and it wasn’t all that pretty.  This is a great team and I know that your standards are very high, so tonight was not typical and not what you normally expect of yourselves.  This happens to the best of teams, it is not uncommon, but at the same time it is not how we operate.  I remember many examples in my own past as a cook where things just seemed to get out of hand.  I have had my share of nights when it just didn’t seem to click when my timing was off, things got backed up, my mise en place wasn’t tight, and far too many dishes came back for a re-fire.  It is easy to get down on yourself, to think that somehow it is all your fault, but keep in mind that you are each part of a team and team means that you collectively own the not so perfect night and together we hold the opportunity to be better tomorrow.  Yes, I am part of the team and share in the responsibility for tonight – it is just as much on my shoulders as yours. This is not a time to beat ourselves up, it is a time to analyze the cause and work as a team to help each other fix things for tomorrow.  We are not perfect, but we are pretty damn good.  Tomorrow will be great – let’s all learn from tonight.  Thanks for being great at what you do.”

Guaranteed, each cook will remember that story, will reflect on what went wrong and how they can improve, and they will all respect the chef for talking about his or her own past mistakes and owning up to what just happened.  Years from this date they will still remember the chef’s words and the story told.  Lesson learned. This is what can happen when a chef understands the power of words and keeps that filter working as it should.

PLAN BETTER – TRAIN HARDER

Remember the power of words

Harvest America Ventures, LLC

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CAFÉ Talks Podcast

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COOKS NEED TO BUILD AND PROTECT THEIR BRAND

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Success doesn’t happen on its own – you make it happen.  Yes, as a cook you may wonder when great things will come your way and the answer is – probably never.  You need to seek out the opportunities and prepare to thrive when one is in your sights – success doesn’t simply appear.  Every cook, or should I say every serious cook, has the ability to reach for that elusive chef’s job, discover how to make a difference, create a culinary signature that others will notice, and earn a comfortable living in the process.  The difference between those who reach those goals and those who do not is almost always a willingness to do the right work to get there.

Cooks should be paid a living wage and they should be able to feel secure in their job as long as they do what is required, but beyond that each step towards the position of chef is in the individual’s hands.  So, if you are ready to take the leap – here you go:

[]          PATIENCE:  Everyone wants to reach their goals quickly – to become what he or she aspires to become without the effort and time that comes with the turf, but it just doesn’t work that way.  To truly become a chef requires that you have a wealth of knowledge and experience that never comes easy, always requires extra effort, and involves a sometimes-bumpy road along the way.  Be patient – it will take time.

[]          COMMITMENT: “I am going to do whatever it takes to prepare for the position – I am in it to win it”.  Make the commitment, put it in writing, live it every day, and when you look in a mirror, do so knowing that you never waiver from what is required.

[]          HAVE A PLAN:  Plan, plan, plan.  Establish where you want to be and build a detailed road map that takes you from point A to point B.  If you want to be an executive chef at a private club know that the skill set will include: a deep understanding of a full array of ethnic styles of cooking, the ability to organize complex events, human resource management skills, team building prowess, great communication skills, purchasing and negotiating skills, knowledge of wines, service techniques, cost controls, and how to build a public relations image.  How will you acquire those skills?  Where should you work and whom should you work with to fine tune what is needed to build your brand?

[]          LEARN SOMETHING NEW EVERY DAY:  Approach every day with a structured plan to learn something new.  It need not be monumental, but any day that goes by that you have not gained a new skill, or a bit of important knowledge is a day that fails to bring you closer to your goals.

[]          PRACTICE MAKES PERFECT:  Proficiency comes from repetition.  Seek out that new skill or bit of knowledge and build it into your routine just like an exercise regimen.

[]          VOLUNTEER:  There is no shortage of opportunity to learn something new from someone else.  You will not always receive pay for what you learn.  What you gain is far more important than a few extra dollars in your paycheck.

[]          KNOW YOUR WEAKNESSES:  Be humble and know that you are human and there are many tasks that you are not very good at.  Sometimes people just avoid engaging in processes that show their weaknesses where successful cooks and chefs approach them head on and work until a weakness becomes a strength.  This is how competent chefs are made.

[]          NOT SO SOCIAL MEDIA:  Your brand can be easily destroyed through social media.  Be very careful about what you say, what opinions you express, how you look, the language that you use, and the individuals and groups that you associate with on Facebook, Instagram, Tik Tok, and Twitter.  One of the first steps used by employers in researching candidates for a position of responsibility is to check their social media profile.

[]          EXCELLENCE ALWAYS:  Be the person who always approaches every task, no matter how small or large, with a commitment to excellence.  Washing and stacking dishes – be a star, dicing vegetables – make them “show quality”; organizing a cooler – do so like a librarian approaches stacks of books; caramelizing a mirepoix for a stock – make sure that every vegetable is properly browned and ready to release its flavor.  Every single task is a reflection of the cook you are and the chef you hope to become.

[]          EXECUTE AND BUILD TRUST:  If you have your eyes on the chef position then start by becoming the cook that everyone else can depend on.  Once you are given a task, make sure that you follow thru and complete the work as it was intended – always. 

[]          PROBLEM SOLVE:  Watch and learn.  Every day in the kitchen presents challenges that someone needs to approach and deal with problems that require solutions.  Watch how others solve those problems and record the process in your mental data bank.  Sometimes the real hero in any situation is not the person who does everything right, but the one who can correct a misstep if and when it occurs.  As a chef you will become the person whom others expect to rely on as the consummate problem-solver.

[]          NETWORK:  Start making a list of people who you would enjoy having on your resource list.  Make the effort, make the contact, show respect, communicate frequently, and build a relationship with those who can become your “go to people” when support is what you need.  The best chefs don’t have all the answers, but they know who to contact when that solution is not readily at hand.

[]          PRACTICE SAYING YES:  Along the way, one of the best ways to build steadily on your brand is to be the person who says: “bring it on”.  “I need someone to work an extra shift this week” – count me in chef.  “Someone from the line needs to give the dishwasher a hand for 20 minutes to push through that backlog of dishes” – I’m your person chef.  Again, be the person that others can depend on.  Yes, it gets in the way of life and ego sometimes, but it is part of building that brand – a brand that will lead to the chef’s position at some point in time.

[]          BE A PROFESSIONAL:  Above all else – hold yourself to higher standards.  Look the part, act the part, treat others with respect, remain dependable, stay humble, approach every task with an eye on excellence, and know that your brand is made through professional effort.

PLAN BETTER – TRAIN HARDER

Your success is within your grasp

Harvest America Ventures, LLC

www.harvestamericacues.com  BLOG

Café Talks PODCAST

https://cafemeetingplace.com/cafe-podcasts

THE STORY IN A COOK’S EYES

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Nowadays a question I am often asked is: “Why is it so difficult to understand cooks and chefs?”  The answer, quite simply, is – you can’t understand a cook unless you are or have been one.  That may seem like a copout, but it is true.  Take a look into a cook’s eyes, really look beyond the surface and you will see a complex assortment of challenges, pride, experiences, insecurities, and troubled waters which are held together by the thin strings of the apron around their waist.  This may not be the case for all, but it surely is true of most.

Look past the façade – that sometimes crusty, occasionally moody, swashbuckling and seemingly pretentious person wielding sharp knives and hot pans – you know – the person who can smile one minute and then curse you out the next and try to see a bit below the surface.  There is no reason for this split personality – right?  People should leave their baggage at home when they walk through the threshold of a job – push aside those things that haunt them and be sharp and bright, focused and passionate, and committed and intent.  This is what we would like to expect, but is it possible?  Look beyond the surface and connect with the cook’s eyes – try to see what’s inside before we judge and discount.

Get over it, be in the moment, concentrate, push aside that dark cloud and be positive!  Managers and owners throw these words around freely without digging past the effects and looking at the cause.  Am I being too protective and not cognizant of the demands of the job and the environment of the workplace?  Maybe, but I am trying to be real.  In some cases, there is no excuse; some people are just miserable by nature and they use the limited power of their position to make everyone around them miserable – I get that.  Some people are full of themselves and couldn’t care less about how their mood and actions impact others – I know this is unfortunately true; but there are far more people than you imagine who are simply carrying a heavy load of emotional baggage that is hard to shake off.  Look into their eyes to try and see who is behind that tied apron.

This is not a scientific study, but rather a review of the fifty years I have spent around cooks and chefs, kitchen crews and service staff, food operations of all types and people from all types of backgrounds who tie on that apron or deliver a guest’s plate of food.  What I have personally found among those people whom I respect and enjoy being around is an interesting case study.

[]          Think about the type of person who seeks the job of cook or the career of chef.  He or she is typically drawn to the kitchen for some very specific reasons:  It is a safe place where judgement is not the norm – if you can do the job, you belong.  He or she is the type of person who either is or truly wants to be – creative.  The kitchen provides an environment for creative people and a petri dish for those who want to learn to be so.  The kitchen is a place where organization prevails and as such it attracts those who either are or very much need to become organized – some semblance of structure.  The kitchen is a place where team becomes a reality even for those who have rarely found a way to become part of something larger than themselves.  And this is a place where hard physical work allows you to feel good about what took place over a 10–12-hour shift.

[]          Many cooks inadvertently seek a little pain and self-abuse as a way to feel alive.  They crave the physical muscle pain after standing for a full shift, working in conditions of excessive heat, constant noise, and the pressure of timing so that they can actually feel as if they paid their dues.   As strange as this may seem – it is real.

[]          Many cooks are lonely people – sometimes by choice, while oftentimes for other reasons of fear and angst, poor self-esteem, or a history of not fitting in.  While in the kitchen they find solace in the camaraderie and purpose that for a 10-hour period makes up for the loneliness that remains once they punch out.  Afterall, the schedules and work hours required are socially isolating.

[]          A good portion of the cooks and chefs I know and worked with are terribly insecure in their abilities.  They compensate by putting on airs of over-confidence, egotistical swagger, and “I can do and say what I want” musings.  Underneath they know that it would be hard to back up those surface appearances. 

[]          The job itself is difficult at best.  The conditions are not conducive to bright and shining attitudes – this is not an excuse – it is reality.  Heat, physical work, danger, time pressure, being judged by every plate that ends up in the pass and knowing that the success of your peers is based on how well you execute your work – all of this combined make for a pretty abrasive stew.

[]          Sometimes a cook or chef is there because they chose the path long ago.  It was what they were meant to do and provided the incentives that creativity and purpose offer.  Many others, probably the majority, found themselves in the kitchen out of necessity.  The kitchen pirates and vagabonds who are good at the craft, confident in their abilities, and less than enthusiastic about their position in life do abound in the kitchens of America.  Yes, we have our share of crusty misfits, the ones that could only wind up in kitchens and would be a square peg in a round hole anywhere else.  These are the people that become the backbone of the operation because they are competent but may find it easy to walk of the job without notice, be insubordinate, give the rest of the restaurant the sting of their anger, and might even occasionally fail to show up to work for no particular reason.  Yes, they are there, and they are part of the kitchen stew because the kitchen will always welcome them.

Look into their eyes, get past the façade and start to separate effect from cause.  Try as we may to change the formula, it always comes back to those unique individuals who are willing and able to tie on the apron.  It is the chef’s primary job to build a balanced team, understand the mix of people who make up a kitchen crew, look deep into their eyes and provide the empathy and structure needed to keep the band together.    When we fail to understand this and lead in a manner that is people-centric, then the results will always be rocky at best.  When this works, the band will play beautiful music together.

The Moody Blues once wrote:

“And the sounds we make together
Is the music to the story in your eyes
It’s been shining down upon me now, I realize”

When we realize what we are working with and take the time to look to the story in a cook’s eyes, we might just find a way to build something special. 

PLAN BETTER – TRAIN HARDER

Harvest America Ventures, LLC

www.harvestamericacues.com  BLOG

CAFÉ Talks Podcast

https://cafemeetingplace.com/cafe-podcasts

REMEMBERING AND GIVING THANKS ON MEMORIAL DAY

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Being a chef is a tough job, no matter where a person hangs his or her apron.  The physical, mental, and emotional challenges are significant, and the dedication and passion required are as pronounced as one might find in any field.  More often than not, chefs are able to perform their duties with the expectation that they will have the resources, the facilities, and the predictability to function with their concentration placed squarely on the process; yet in some cases this is not always the reality that is before them.

To be quick on your feet, able to adjust, focused on quality while being thrust into dangerous situations, working in temporary/not quite ideal, kitchen spaces, and knowing full well just how important your work is physically, emotionally, and psychologically to a unique group of customers is something that many chefs are able to avoid in their busy lives.  This is the life of the military cook.

Today is a day of recognition for those who have put their lives on the line, many who paid the ultimate sacrifice for their country; a day when we pay special homage to those who gave their lives in combat; but also, those who served under the constant threat of the same.  It is also a day for us to consider the many individuals who worked diligently to protect and serve those who chose the military path.

It is very likely that each of us has a family history that includes individuals who served in the military and unfortunately, some who never returned home.  Today specifically, but every day realistically, we should show our respect and give thanks for all who made the commitment of service.  It may have been a father or mother, grandfather or grandmother, sister or brother, uncle, cousin or spouse; a child or neighbor, a classmate or friend, or simply a person in our community who left his or her mark – but it would be difficult to find a person who has not been touched by the tragedy associated with military service.  We bow our heads today and honor each and every person who served out of choice as well as those who were thrust into combat through the draft.

I thought, given the nature of my blog, that I would also pay respect today to those cooks and chefs behind the scenes who gave their talent, passion, heart and soul to keeping soldiers nourished and offer them a few brief moments of enjoyment and reflection through food.

The military cook or chef is a special person who possesses the same skill set as the restaurant or resort chef, the same dedication to the profession, the same passion for ingredients and the same desire to present beautiful, delicious food to their audience, just as any other culinarian.  This cook or chef may be responsible for nourishing troops in training at one of the bases across the country or overseas, or possibly work out of a field kitchen in the middle of a combat zone with the constant fear of attack to accompany the demands of the job.  He or she may be focused on preparing thousands of meals every day or working on special events or officer dining that provide an opportunity to elevate their cuisine further.  In all cases the food, just like in a restaurant, must be nutritious, hot or cold, fresh, flavorful and attractive.

Contrary to what some may perceive – military dining can run the full spectrum from field cooking under battle conditions, to quick service, banquets and catering, and even fine dining.  There are formal training environments for all branches of the military – each with a focus on standards of excellence, competency, and building opportunities for long careers in foodservice.  As an example – the Joint Culinary Center of Excellence for the Army and Marine Corps graduates more than 6,000 cooks each year to support their efforts domestically and abroad.  Many of these cooks, after completing their terms of service, go on to become very successful and prominent chefs in the restaurant and food related industries. 

On the representative side – the U.S. Military Culinary Team has consistently earned gold medals and the highest praise from their culinary peers in international competitions such as the Culinary Olympics.

Here are a few examples of chefs who had their start as a military cook in various branches of service in the U.S. and overseas:

Chef Andre Rush, a member of the U.S. Army served as a White House Chef through four administrations: Clinton, Bush, Obama and Trump.

Chef Eric Ripert of the 3-star Michelin Le Bernadin Restaurant served in the French Military before working as poissonier for Joel Robuchon leading to his position as chef of one of the few 3-star restaurants in America.

Julia Child was too tall for the military but instead worked for the Office of Strategic Service (predecessor to the CIA) as an intelligence officer.

Chef Bert Cutino – owner/chef of the famous Sardine Factory in Monterey, CA served his country in the naval reserves.

Chef John Besh of Besh Restaurants fame and a name synonymous with Cajun cooking, was a marine who served in the Gulf War.

Even Auguste Escoffier was a member of the French Military serving as a chef during the French/Prussian War.  It was in the military where he devised the structure of the Kitchen Brigade that changed the way that kitchens operated.

In my own experience there have been many friends and associates who have dedicated the early portion of their careers to serving as military cooks and bakers.  Among them, and there are undoubtedly many more, are:

Certified Master Chef Bill Franklin served in Vietnam as a member of the U.S. Navy. 

Chef John McBride – a former student of mine, culinary instructor at Paul Smith’s College and New England Culinary Institute, and outstanding bread baker was a member of the U.S. Navy.

Chef Robert Brown, CMB who facilitated the Baking Program at Paul Smith’s College and served in the U.S. Navy during the Vietnam War.

Chef David Gotzmer, a former executive chef and culinary instructor at Paul Smith’s College was a member of the U.S. Marines during Vietnam.

Chef Michael Garnish, executive chef and former instructor at Paul Smith’s College and served in the U.S. Coast Guard.

Chef David Russ, former military culinary team member and captain, and military chef of the year served his country as a member of the U.S. Army during the Gulf War.

Chef Travis Smith served in culinary leadership roles for the U.S. Army, participated as a member of the military culinary team, and held various positions as executive chef and chef/entrepreneur since retiring from the Army.

Francis Peroni, my first foods instructor from Paul Smith’s College served in the military during World War II.

Chef Phil Learned, former executive chef of The Balsams Grand Resort and founder of their apprenticeship program was a U.S. Marine Corps during World War II and Korea.

Chef Keith Taylor of Zachary’s Bar-b-Que served in the U.S. Army before working as chef for Walt Disney and building a very successful cadre of restaurants in Philadelphia.

Chef Jeremiah Shields, a former student from New England Culinary Institute –   served in the U.S. Army.

And the list goes on and on.  I often reflect on my own time as a cook in the Army National Guard and the discipline I gained in the process.  I treasured the opportunity to cook for those fellow soldiers who chose or were chosen to serve.  On this day and every other I give thanks to those men and women who gave of themselves, those whose lives were changed as a result, and those who gave their lives for the freedoms, democratic process, and equities and advantages that we share and must protect.

*Pictures:                    My dad – WWII (not a cook)

                                     Members of the Coast Guard Culinary Team in training

                                    Military cooks in action

PLAN BETTER – TRAIN HARDER

Give thanks to those who served or serve currently.

Harvest America Ventures, LLC

http://www.harvestamericacues.com. BLOG

CAFE Talks Podcast

https://cafemeetingplace.com/cafe-podcasts

THE DICHOTOMY OF A LINE COOK

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I find it so interesting that the concept of “line cook” is an immersion in contradiction.  When I look a bit deeper into the persona of individuals who choose this career path, I am a bit confused.  The typical person who fills these shoes is a true dichotomy poster child:

di·chot·o·my

/dīˈkädəmē/

noun

“A division or contrast between two things that are or are represented as being opposed or entirely different.”

This creature called “line cook” is a clear representative of opposing thoughts and actions – evident through his or her work.  The line cook is tough as nails, yet gentle as an artist.  He or she is committed to structure but desiring of every opportunity to color outside the lines.  This unique person is able to follow precise directions while at the same time always thinking about how he or she might break the rules.  The line cook is an enigma, a person who is difficult to categorize – yet easy to shape and mold.

e·nig·ma

/iˈniɡmə/

noun

“A person or thing that is mysterious, puzzling, or difficult to understand.”

When I watch a line cook in action and try to analyze what makes he or she tick, I am always amazed at how different the person can be in any given moment.  I watch as a cook work to ignore the hellish conditions under which the work is done: the incredible heat, scorching flames, sweat rolling down every cook’s back,12-hour shifts, constant movement, lifting and reaching, sharp knives waiting to cut a finger; the constant whir of exhaust fans, clanging of pots and pans, ticking of the POS printer, and the piercing bark of orders from the expeditor – the work is hard.  While all of this is going on alongside the pressure of timing and exactness of process – this same hard-nosed, crusted, and sometimes wounded individual is able to take a few extra seconds to gingerly place a delicate cluster of herbs atop a plate to sign his or her effort.

As those flames threaten to sear eyebrows and scorching hot pan handles beckon the cook to grab them with bare hands, while knees ache and feet throb from disregard, and all the while that every pain is pushed aside in exchange for executing the process of cooking under pressure – the cook takes that extra moment to polish the edge of a plate and make sure that every dish is just right.  This is a different kind of person – one who is on a mission and the mission always comes first.

When I look into the eyes of a line cook, I see a person who is oftentimes troubled with what is happening outside of work, but fully focused on this job, a job that provides a sense of purpose, pride in accomplishment, and a release from everything that is happening outside of a shift.  I see a person who is at home in the structure of the kitchen – a place where there is an environment of dichotomy – needed structure with lots of room to improvise.  It is very much like being a member of a jazz or jam band where everything begins with structure, but improvisation is always possible when the individual is comfortable and competent enough to do so.

When I talk with line cooks, I am always impressed to find someone who comes across as rough and tumble, aloof and independent, hard core and sometimes angry at the world, yet able to talk fluently about a beautiful fish flown in from Florida; the impact of recognized chefs, past and present, who he or she admires; or how to develop a nuance of flavor in a dish whose ingredients are out of season. 

I know line cooks who work together as a solid unit yet are so different in background.  They may be from different countries, of different races or polar opposites when it comes to belief structures, unique in their educational backgrounds and political views – yet once that dining room is open and the orders start to flow – they are one.  They may disagree whole-heartedly on music, sports, art, and literature; they may be avid readers or someone who never picks up a book; and they may care or care less about what is happening in the world outside the kitchen – yet they can relish the opportunity to talk with great admiration about a plate of food that they share.  These line cooks – they are unique individuals.

At the end of a 12-hour shift, after sharing a post service drink at the local watering hole, each one of these line cooks may go his or her separate way – back to a different life, different socio-economic conditions, a life with family or a life alone, and be that other person…until tomorrow when a new kitchen shift begins.  It is in the kitchen where cooks are whole, where they can open their minds and souls to something important and reveal the person they want to be.   This is where opportunities exist, where each cook has a chance to strive for something a little bit lofty, a place where they can build their skills and show them off, feel the joy of competence and spread their wings, sign their plates, and know that they are good at the craft of cooking.  This is where that dichotomy is ever-present.

These line cooks inspire me, confuse me, strengthen my passion, and give me hope.  These are the people of the kitchen who are complex and easy at the same time – they are the heart and soul of a restaurant, filled with intrigue and bursting with promise.  These are the people that I have had the pleasure to work with and study and never fully understand.

PLAN BETTER – TRAIN HARDER

Harvest America Ventures, LLC

Restaurant Consulting

www.harvestamericacues.com

CAFÉ Talks Podcast

https://cafemeetingplace.com/cafe-podcasts

THE BEST OF TIMES, THE WORST OF TIMES

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Most of us will remember those opening lines to Charles Dickens: Tale of Two Cities:

“It was the best of times, it was the worst of times, it was the age of wisdom, it was the age of foolishness, it was the epoch of belief, it was the epoch of incredulity, it was the season of light, it was the season of darkness, it was the spring of hope, it was the winter of despair.”  They are, at least in part – etched into our brains from those early days in English Composition class – lines that stand out as an umbrella statement that encompasses a point in time from yesterday or today.  These words can relate to our personal, political, economic, career centric, or spiritual lives – thus the reason they are so compelling and poignant.

We can easily apply Dickens profound human summary to the state of the restaurant industry today.  Without a doubt, many would paint a bleak picture of troubled times for the restaurant segment.  Coming off fourteen months of partial or full shut down, limited numbers of guests allowed, mask mandates, and loads of fear associated with the virus – staff in restaurants dwindled down to a fraction of what was the norm in 2019, business that had crested the wave of participation and excitement suddenly drew down to a trickle, and even the most noteworthy operations were faced with financial crisis.  Now that the pandemic was beginning to come under control and state governments were loosening the grip of protocol on restaurants – customers were beginning to re-emerge, albeit with some trepidation.  At the same time, many of those restaurant employees – front and back of the house, were taking their time trying to decide if it made sense to return to an industry that was unpredictable, low paying, void of reasonable benefit plans, and now a target for customer anger and angst as servers suddenly became covid policemen.  Yep, it certainly seems like the worst of times even in the face of business optimism.

While the media was filled with stories of despondent employees, angry restaurateurs, and, in particular – cooks who were riding the tide of victimization – there exists a tremendous light of encouraging news.  I am going to make a bold statement and profess that there has never been a better time to be an open-minded chef, cook, server, or restaurateur.  That’s right, you heard me correctly – this may be one of the best times to take the leap into restaurant work and stake your claim to a career.  Why would I say such a thing when so many restaurateurs and chefs are beside themselves with trying to staff their operations, culinary schools are trimming their operations or closing their doors, and restaurants are unable to find the product they need through a distribution network crippled from pandemic uncertainty?  OK, so here it is:

  1. A CHANCE FOR REBIRTH

“It was the age of wisdom” – oh, yes, it is.  Wisdom is often only evident after a time of suffering, of losing what you had gained, of making mistakes time and again, but then to learn from those so that one can be reborn with new insight, knowledge, and confidence.  The restaurant industry has been keeping its wounds under wraps for decades, but the pandemic brought everything to an abrupt stop.  We could no longer hide what we knew needed to change – we had time to reflect and analyze and gain the wisdom from experience that has been avoided for too long.  Now we have an opportunity to be reborn – to change what is wrong with how we operate and come out bigger and better in the end.  The opportunity to be part of this has never been greater.

  • A NEED FOR CREATIVITY

To take full advantage of this opportunity – chefs, restaurateurs, cooks, servers, and managers must put on their creative hats and devise new solutions, to build ideas into actions, to bring to fruition the new and exciting ways that the restaurant industry can regain all that it has lost.  The door is wide open for creative problem solvers.

  • AN INEVITABLE RECOVERY

“It was the epoch of belief”.  Believe it – history has shown this to be true – the restaurant industry has always been one of the first industries to recover after disaster and hard times.  This has occurred time and again, not just in America, but all over the world.  We can depend on this opportunity as long as we are ready to adjust our methods of operation.  What an exciting time to jump on board and become partner to what may very well be one of the greatest world-wide recoveries – ever!

  • A POPULATION READY TO CELEBRATE

The reason that restaurants recover first is because people relish the opportunity to celebrate with others.  We all have an innate need to connect, to share, to enjoy, and to put aside the bad and welcome the good.  Restaurants provide the vehicle for this to happen.  A place where family and friends, business partners, and even adversaries can gather, enjoy a great meal, break bread, raise a glass and laugh away life’s challenges while celebrating the hope of tomorrow.  Don’t you want to be a part of this?

  • A LEVELING OFF OF COMPETITION

“It was the age of foolishness”.  I grieve for those operators who lost their life dream.  When I see a restaurant closed for good – I know that behind that sign is a lifetime of saving, dreaming, working countless hours, sweating details, and struggling with paying their bills.  It is heart wrenching to see dreams dashed especially when it is, to some degree, beyond their control.  Yet, we should all understand that even in a system of free enterprise when anyone has the opportunity to give it a shot – you can oversaturate a market.  Such has been the case with the restaurant industry.  I have no doubt that eventually that oversaturation will return, but for right now we may see the right number of restaurants to service an area and a much greater chance for financial success.  This is a much better environment to be in as a chef, restauranteur, cook, or server.

  • AN INDUSTRY READY TO LISTEN

“It was the epoch of incredulity”. Necessity is the mother of invention (so goes the English proverb that had its origin in the teachings of Plato).  Those changes that needed to happen – you know, the ones that restaurant employees have been talking about for decades, may have never caught the attention of owners and operators until those same operators were unable to staff their restaurants.  Those who do the work are now in the driver’s seat and many of those harped about changes may actually come to fruition as a result.  Step into the new restaurant industry where efficiency, profitability, better pay and benefits, and a willingness to respect life outside of the operation is front and center.

  • AN INDUSTRY THAT HAS NO CHOICE BUT TO CHANGE

“It was the season of light; it was the season of darkness”. So, it is time to reassess, to change the model, to find ways to become more efficient and adaptable, to be positioned to face the next big challenge (and it will come at some point), to take care of staff, develop menus and systems that allow the restaurant to reach its financial goals, to do more with less and as a result take better care of the people who make every restaurant work.

  • NEW MARKETS HAVE EMERGED

“It was the spring of hope, it was the winter of darkness”.  Finally, it is such a great time to engage or re-engage in an industry that has seen new ways of creating product, marketing it, producing it, selling and serving it and building a brand as a result.  Ghost kitchens, food trucks, curbside, home delivery, and on-line engagement will only get better.  Don’t you want to be part of an industry as it finds ways to create experiences around these new business opportunities?  Now is the time – “It is the best of times”.

PLAN BETTER – TRAIN HARDER

            Harvest America Ventures, LLC

            www.harvestamericacues.com  BLOG

            CAFÉ Talks Podcast

https://cafemeetingplace.com/cafe-podcasts

Listen up – Food and Beverage Professionals

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If you are a seasoned food service manager, a chef, or serious cook looking for that next step in your career – I have great opportunities for you.  Whether you are in those early stages of your career or well-established as a professional – I have found that two factors come into play when making a career decision:  First, is the opportunity to learn and make a dent in the universe and second is to find a place that offers exceptional quality of life. There have been many lessons learned over the past 14-months, but in talking with friends and culinary peers nothing stands out more than these two factors.

Financial considerations are certainly important, but without the opportunity to make a difference and without a safe, secure, and balanced way of life – money becomes pretty shallow as the only decisionmaker.   Keep this in mind – this is very important: people need to find something they love, something that allows them a chance to contribute and create, and something that connects with their personal stakes in the ground.  At the same time – living in a place that is safe and secure, a place where you can take a deep breath and know that it is nurturing and healthy – this is ultimately what inspires and makes us whole.

I live in the Adirondacks of New York and have done so for the past forty-odd years.  There is no other place where I have spent time that fits this bill better than living within this six-million-acre park in northern New York State.  I have enjoyed a rewarding and robust career in the food business, while maintaining a quality of life that inspires and protects.  So, listen up!

I have a number of terrific opportunities for the right people, people who want to find that career fit that helps them to grow, allows them to make a difference, embraces their creativity, and supports the quality of life that they are looking for.  There are positions as Food and Beverage Manager for an expansive historic property that is on the cusp of growing into a real event destination while offering authentic foods that reflect the time and theme of the property.  Additionally, I am pleased to work with a number of restaurants in the Adirondack Olympic Region looking for chefs and cooks, professional servers, managers, and even hopeful entrepreneurs.  These career opportunities are perfect for the serious professionals who want it all.

I am truly excited to offer these openings to individuals who believe that a move is right for them, and that they fit the profile of the positions.  IF YOU ARE ONE OF THESE PEOPLE then send me a note and let’s start a conversation.  I am anxious to connect the right people with these exciting properties in the middle of one of the most pristine locations on the face of the earth.  Send me a note today!

PLAN BETTER – TRAIN HARDER

Paul Sorgule

Harvest America Ventures, LLC

psorgule@hotmail.com

www.harvestamericacues.com  BLOG

KITCHEN LIFE – I REMEMBER WHAT I MISS

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It’s interesting how people look forward to retiring from their careers – something that they spent maybe 50 or more years of their life doing.  It is also confusing to see how many can do so without a thought or regret.  Maybe, if that time was spent doing something that was not really that enjoyable – this reaction makes sense.  For me – not so much.  Don’t get me wrong, I am plenty busy in my semi-retirement and keep my foot in the water with a consulting business that is still reasonably vibrant, a fair amount of writing, and an interesting podcast – but I do miss the kitchen.  I started, after all, when I was 16 years old, so for all intents and purposes it is a part of who I am.  So, I thought I would take a little trip down nostalgia lane and address the things that I remember and miss.

“Memory is the treasury and guardian of all things.”

-Cicero

THE SMELL:

Well, working in a kitchen is a full sensory experience that is easy to embrace and hard to forget.  I remember the morning smell of bacon, breads still fragrant from the night baker’s shift, fresh danish and croissant being pulled from the oven, and of course – the smell of coffee that permeates the air.  I remember the aroma from a simmering veal or chicken stock – that lingering, tempting smell of roasted bones and caramelized mirepoix, the sweet aroma of candied garlic and onions browning as a coloring for the broth that would become soup, and sauce for various applications on the menu.  I remember the rich aroma of a roast in the oven, the drippings from a 109 rib that would create the fond for the vibrant au jus that accents this incredible cut of meat and the smell of steaks on an open flame -searing the exterior of the muscle while the marbling of fat drips through the grate and laps up in return as golden flames.  I can remember the intoxicating aroma of pommes frites frying a golden brown in a deep fryer and rosemary catching fire and releasing that intense smoke that draws you in. I miss that.

THE SOUND:

The sounds of the kitchen are ever apparent and all consuming, unless, of course, you are immune through constant exposure.  The funny thing is your life never seems complete when those sounds are absent.  The whir of the hood fans is hard to ignore and although many would claim that this din is annoying and hard to talk around, to those who work in kitchens it is just soothing background noise.  The clanging of pots and pans as they hit metal to metal, the clink of dishes being stacked in the dishpit, and the ping of glassware – just enough to know that they are there, but not so much as to cause a break – these are sounds that are somehow comforting to a cook.  That hiss when a fish fillet hits a cherry red hot sauté pan or scallops anxious for that perfect caramelization that squeak because the pan is so hot – hot enough to always release the protein as if it were a non-stick pan – these are audible signs that the right technique is at play. 

The banter in the kitchen, at least until it gets out of hand, you know that competitive chatter that pushes everyone to step up their game, is somehow refreshing.  The relentless clicking of the POS printer provides a rhythm that sets a tone on the line, and the orchestrated cadence established by the expeditor as he or she chants “order, fire, pick-up, or re-fire” is only superseded by the line cooks response of “Yes Chef”.  The sounds of the kitchen build up to a crescendo as orders pile up and the kitchen reaches peak performance at the seven o’clock push. I miss that.

THE SIGHT:

The kitchen is a visual banquet of incredible ingredients, passionate cooks, colors and exactness that culminate on the plate.  I remember fondly, the beauty of fish orders flown in from Florida, opening the styro boxes that held perfectly fresh, whole Queen Snapper, Black Cod, Mahi Mahi, or Bronzini.  The feel and smell of freshness was so present, waiting for the razor-sharp fillet knife to remove the flesh from bones.  The brilliant red of local strawberries and their deep aroma is always something to pause and take in.  Crisp greens for salad from a local farmer, perfectly marbled strip loins to be cut into beautiful steaks, sticky pink dry sea scallops or deep red tuna for sashimi is something to dream about. 

A cook’s dedication to perfectly cut vegetables – batonnet, julienne, various size dice, and chiffonade attest to a passion to do things right; and that special plate that awaits magnificent turned potatoes and carrots with seven equal sides demonstrates that the cook will never sacrifice quality for quantity.  When the garde manger takes the time to blanch, shock and peel tomatoes for a salad he or she is saying that every detail is important, and a demi-glace that is silky and sticky through hours of reduction and straining and finishing with raw butter points to excellence in every aspect of the word.

Finally, it all comes down to the plate.  When each line cook takes that extra second or two to make sure that the plate is a reflection of the reputation of the kitchen, when each component is strategically placed on the plate to maximize the art in cuisine and this is done regardless of how busy the restaurant might be, you know that the crew is on their game.  I miss that.

THE TOUCH:

Mouthfeel is so important in cooking.  The process of chewing, or in some cases allowing an item to melt in your mouth is so essential in building flavor experiences.  A perfect braise leads to an item that melts off the bone, while still maintaining its chew and the silkiness that comes from doing it just right without drying out the dish.  That perfectly cooked medium rare steak that defines chew and hangs on to the muscles full flavor, moisture and integrity is by far one of the most enjoyable dining experiences.  A sauce that sticks to the inside of your palate and reminds you of its richness, moments after the item is consumed is a thing to behold and an art form in itself.  And an incredibly fresh shucked oyster that promotes the brininess of the sea, the luscious nature of the muscle, and the exhilaration of enjoying seafood that has barely had time to adjust to being out of the water – is one of the most incredible sensations for a diner.

I remember the feel of a French or bird’s beak knife in my hand – the control that comes from this tool serving as an extension of your hand.  I remember the feel of bread dough being kneaded on a floured board – taking shape and allowed to proof until your touch signals when it is ready for the oven.  I remember the feel of cracking dozens of eggs with one hand – pulling the two shell halves apart between your thumb and index finger and allowing the yolk and white to fall gently into a bowl or separating the two parts – allowing the white to lift from its connection to the yolk when preparing to make a hollandaise or a meringue.  I also think back to the sensitive touch of a steak when your fingers are able to judge degrees of doneness with the accuracy of a thermometer.  I miss that.

THE TASTE:

Most of all, I remember the tastes that over decades of work built a flavor memory that allowed me, in many cases, to create a menu and various dishes knowing how items would taste even before they were built.  The memory of vegetables in season, perfectly ripe fruits, fresh fish, different cuts of meat and poultry depending on what method of cooking was used, and how in combination certain foods would marry to create something totally different.  I knew, not as well as some with perfect palates, but I still knew reasonably well what was lacking in a dish when it was tasted or, in some cases, how to compensate for an ingredient that was not mature or full flavored.  I grew to know that those out-of-season tomatoes could take on the character of a fresh picked Roma in July if I sliced it in half, brushed it with olive oil and dusted it with sea salt as it was slid into a 200-degree oven for 90 – 120 minutes.  I knew that time and low temperatures could do wonders with tougher cuts of meat – giving seasoning enough time to penetrate and transform a dish.  I miss this as well.

I guess, conveniently, I choose to forget those difficult times when I was understaffed or overwhelmed.  Those times when vendors were disappointing, when costs were out of line and financial performance was in question – they are not worthy of remembering.  There were times when my own skills did not rise up to the occasion or the way that I handled a situation that required leadership was not what it should have been, but I learned from those situations and try to put them towards the back of the shelf.  I’m good with that.

“Memories are like salt: the right amount brings out the flavor in food, too much, ruins it.”

– Paulo Coelho

The difference between cooking and some other professions is that your memories will never allow you to totally walk away.  The impact on your senses will stay with you forever and for this I will always be grateful.  I remain happy to remember what I miss.

PLAN BETTER – TRAIN HARDER

Harvest America Ventures, LLC

Restaurant Consulting

www.harvestamericacues.com – BLOG

CAFÉ Talks Podcast

https://cafemeetingplace.com/cafe-podcasts

CHEFS – TIME TO BRING BACK THE “WOW” IN DINING

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Let’s put aside, at least for a short time, the antagonistic, woe is me, hard-nosed dialogue about the problems with staffing, the generation that doesn’t want to work anymore, the cheap employers that don’t want to pay a fair wage, and customers who refuse to respect us and let’s focus on what we do. Let’s focus on the passion associated with creating and what the results can be when we tap into that passion.  Many of us entered the kitchen as an inexperienced person with a lack of direction in life, and as a result of the work, the people, maybe a solid mentor, and the rush of adrenaline when things went well – came out the other end as an enthusiastic cook.  So, what was it about the kitchen that built pride and energy, that allowed us to find purpose, that helped us to jump out of bed in the morning and look forward to another day (yes, too many hours; yes, too little pay) even though there were aspects of the job that we would like to change?

To me, it always came down to two things:  creativity with food, and the people we had (have) the pleasure to work with.  The ability to build a portfolio of skills, to transfer a vision to a plate, to discover and then control flavor profiles, to experience the joy of replicating your art on a plate even on a very busy night, and the connections made with like-minded cooks was (is) invigorating and incredibly rewarding.  It is all about the WOW associated with those experiences. So, let’s take a break from complaining and focus on the WOW again.  The challenges of working in restaurants are there and will, eventually, change – but during the process of change, let’s not forget what brought us to tie on an apron and sweat the details.

Walt Disney – the consummate showman, dedicated perfectionist, and super talented storyteller once said:

“Whatever you do, do it well. Do it so well that when people see you do it, they will want to come back and see you do it again, and they will want to bring others and show them how well you do what you do.”

This is what turns work into something altogether different.  This is what allows work to evolve into a passion and a calling.  This is why those young, inexperienced, first-job dishwashers stick it out and learn the trade from the ground up.  The satisfaction of doing anything really well, of having the skills that allow that to occur, and work in an operation where “painting on the plate” is the mantra that everyone follows – is hard to beat.

Don’t you remember those days in the kitchen when it all started to make sense?  It wasn’t creativity first – it was foundations and understanding first.  Don’t you remember that initial frustration when you couldn’t take that idea and make it work, but then that moment when your understanding of cooking and development of your palate brought everything in focus?  Wasn’t that an incredible feeling of satisfaction and a light bulb moment when you realized: “I can do this”?  This was a WOW moment for you – wasn’t it?   We need to remember those moments, relish what they mean to each cook who reaches for those moments and eventually grabs hold and runs with them.  This is why we cook, and this is what life in the kitchen is all about.  We want to earn a good living, we need those benefits, and we desire a reasonable amount of work/life balance, but we also need those WOW moments and a sense of accomplishment that great work brings.

Do you remember when the chef that you admired turned to you for the first time and said: “Come up with a feature for tonight’s menu”?  What he or she was really saying was: “I trust in your skills, I know you have the creative touch, and I have seen how dedicated you are to doing everything with excellence in mind – now, go ahead and show the guests in our dining room what you can do.”  What an incredible WOW moment – the chef is allowing me to represent his or her reputation and that of the restaurant and put my work out there.  Remember how you felt?

From that first painting that you did in kindergarten – you remember, the one that mom or dad proudly displayed on the refrigerator door, or when your teacher mounted it on a hallway bulletin board – this is what you craved: a chance to show everyone what you could do, what you were good at – a real, honest to goodness -WOW moment.

When that feature item that you created was introduced at the dining room table to restaurant guests by a server who had the job of creating positive experiences, stated: “And our chef’s feature tonight is a local poached asparagus salad with citrus supremes, caramelized cippolini onions, bacon dust, and a Valencia orange vinaigrette”, you secretly beamed with pride.  When you peeked out the window to see that first order arrive at a guest’s table and the person who ordered YOUR DISH took out a camera and snapped a picture of your creation – a smile from ear-to-ear graced your face.  And when that plate came back after the course was cleared and there was not a crumb left – you knew, without any doubt, that you had what it takes to create WOW experiences for the guest.  Remember that?

It wasn’t easy, it took time.  That simple salad required that you knew how to select, peel, and properly poach those asparagus spears, how to wield a sharp knife to remove those citrus supremes from their membrane, how to peel and caramelize those cippolini onions, and how to work all the ingredients to make a perfectly balanced vinaigrette.  Moreover, you had to understand how all of those flavors and textures worked together.  You knew, before ever putting the dish together that it would work – you had it all figured out in your head and you had little doubt that it would work.  This took time and experience, it required a sophisticated palate, and it required a bunch of acquired skills.  This was a real WOW moment for you as a cook.  Does this bring back memories?

Maybe, just maybe, a few more times like this led to that same chef pulling you aside and saying: “You have built some really great features over the past few months.  I am working on our next menu change and think that it’s time for you to develop a couple dishes that we can put in print.  I want you to take a week and develop two items that you think would complement our menu concept and stand out as another reason for guests to choose us for their dinner.”  Ok, hold on a minute – did the chef just ask me to be part of the bigger picture?  Did I just take a big leap from sticking my toe in the water to jumping in for a swim?  Remember that moment?  What a rush, what a WOW!  How much time did you take to dive into cookbooks, test different flavor combinations, and push your skill level up a few notches?  Remember that feeling, the positive stress that made you sweat and smile at the same time?  Remember the results of a defined dish that was ready to join the menu?

Or, how about that time when one of those dishes, you know the really creative one that was a real killer.  Incredible, unique flavors and textures, and game changing presentation came together strong enough that the chef added it to one of those exclusive seven-course dinners for VIP’s.  Now that was a moment of pride – wasn’t it?  Do you remember standing back and directing your fellow cooks on how to assemble that dish for the greatest positive impact?  Do you remember how others in the kitchen patted you on the back and took pictures of the dish for their own archives?  WOW!

So, now here you are.  The pandemic is showing signs of loosening its grip on everything that we do.  Sure, there are issues that the industry must face, changes that must be made, but…..this is what you were meant to do and above all else you want to embrace the ability to get back to what you are destined to be a part of.  This is the time to remember all of those WOW moments and get back to constantly enhancing your skills and doing what you love to do.  Don’t forget just how important the WOW experience is for the guest, you, and your team of passionate cooks.  This is your calling.  Bring back the WOW!

PLAN BETTER – TRAIN HARDER

Bring back the WOW

Harvest America Ventures, LLC

Restaurant Consulting

www.harvestamericacues.com  BLOG

CAFÉ Talks Podcast (don’t miss an episode)

https://cafemeetingplace.com/cafe-podcasts

LESSONS GIVEN – LESSONS LEARNED

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History has demonstrated that people tend to have short memories.  Even through the most challenging and tragic experiences, when the lessons are quite vivid – we quickly push aside the need to change in favor of a return to what is considered “normal”.  Transitioning through this pandemic is one of those experiences, a life-changing time that offers a number of important lessons – but which of these lessons will result in real learning?

The restaurant industry continues to be devastated – not just as a result of the pandemic but because the pandemic brought underlying issues to the surface.  The glory days of the restaurant industry have been laid to rest and they may never return to any semblance of normalcy.  If the stakeholders in this important industry do not take the opportunity to learn from the lessons encountered, then a return to those exciting decades of growth and media glory will be difficult to envision.

So, what are the lessons offered and what should we learn:

FROM THE EMPLOYER’S PERSPECTIVE:

  • We are not prepared: Other businesses, as part of their operational strategy, build in scenario planning that helps to develop action plans for the expected and unsuspected.  “What if……happens?  How will we react?”  As good as restaurant people are at reacting to situations – they are not typically astute at planning for things to go wrong and designing actions that will get them through difficult times.  The “new” strategy must be to plan more effectively.
  • Our labor pool is very fragile: For decades – labor issues moved in waves.  When the economy was weak then restaurants were in the driver’s seat – more applicants than jobs available led to a competent workforce that was underpaid and overworked.  When the economy was strong and unemployment low – then restaurants struggled to find enough staff and the result was a less than perfect workforce that was paid more while expecting less.

The current labor shortage is different – restaurants have an opportunity to begin scaling up as the pandemic starts to come under control, but workers are less excited about returning to the same work environment.  The lesson learned must be that our employees are the most important component of a successful restaurant.  To attract and retain quality staff you must train well, treat them with respect, pay them a respectable wage, offer reasonable benefits, and provide them with the tools to be successful. 

  • Our business model requires too much labor:  At the same time as we step back it becomes vividly apparent that our method of operation and the menus that we provide require too many hands.  This creates a domino of challenges – labor dependance, the inability to pay reasonable wages, selling price ceilings that do not yield sufficient profit, etc.   The lesson learned must be to re-build the model to reflect efficiency and less dependence on excessive labor requirements.
  • Our menus are too large:  The days when the way to customer satisfaction was through extensive variety are probably gone.  Four-page menus do not reflect business common sense – inventories become unmanageable, waste is much more difficult to manage, the level of expertise required of employees grows exponentially, consistency and quality are challenging, and profit is hard to predict and realize.  The lesson learned is that it’s not about quantity – it’s all about quality and execution.  When menus are well researched and managed then a restaurant stands a chance of success.
  • Our profit model doesn’t work:  Every chef and restaurateur is well aware of the tight profit margins (5-6% if you do everything right) is problematic.  These margins make it impossible for restaurants to build a nest egg, pay fair wages, and reach their financial goals.  Without cash reserves the pandemic cause thousands of restaurant casualties.  The lesson learned is that menu items must be more profitable – this may mean re-assessing the ingredients used, how they are managed for waste, and the selling price formula used.  It also means that more significant time must be spent training service staff how to upsell and create enhanced customer value.  The top line drives the bottom line and restaurant management must provide employees with the tools to drive sales upward.
  • Brick and Mortar weighs us down: Requiring customers to travel to you puts the weight of participation on their shoulders and the responsibility for push and pull marketing in the hands of the operator.  When a restaurant space is leased then further control over the burden of cost is determined by the lease arrangement and the landlord.  In recent years landlords have leveraged their lease power to eventually drive restaurants out of business.  The lesson here is that restaurants will need to evaluate how they approach physical space.  Does your model work better as a mobile restaurant or strictly on-line through a ghost kitchen?  When a brick-and-mortar operation is deemed essential then how can you build a mutually beneficial, long-term financial arrangement with a landlord?
  • People can do without us (although they don’t want to):  Previously loyal customers found ways to adapt when restaurants were shut down due to the pandemic.  Americans quickly moved from spending 50% of their food budget in restaurants to spending none or a fraction through curbside pick-up and delivery.  The lesson learned is that restaurant business is very fragile and not the necessity we were beginning to believe.  What can restaurants do to diversify their revenue stream that allows adaptation when the environment of need changes?
  • We need to create a take-out experience, not just a source of food:  So, we shifted from in-restaurant dining to take out and delivery.  Restaurants actually did adjust, but the real experience of dining is missing.  The quality factors of temperature, texture, aroma, and visual plate presentation were quickly lost as restaurants moved to selling food rather than experiences.  Expectations and real experiences were dramatically altered for customers changing the perception of even the most established operations.  The lesson is that take out is a market that has previously been underestimated, one that has loads of room for improvement.  Restaurants should invest heavily in finding ways to adopt significantly improved packaging, and associated components that attempt to match the experience of dining in.  Technology can provide ways to fill in the gaps.

FROM THE EMPLOYEE’S PERSPECTIVE:

  • Our jobs are even less secure than we thought: In order to stop the financial bleeding – restaurant owners were forced to furlough employees or risk ruin.  Government subsidies helped to bridge the gap for some, but it was a band aid approach that created longer term issues.  The lesson is to diversify revenue streams in restaurants and provide alternative job opportunities for employees if such a disaster strikes again.  When there is a lack of trust in job security then employees will look elsewhere.

Another opportunity for employees is to build a skill set that is transferrable to other types of jobs that may be less impacted by an unforeseen disaster.

  • Why do we put up with low wages:  Wages have notoriously been below standard in the restaurant business and gratuity based sub-minimum wage for service staff has always been viewed as questionable?  There have always been slower seasons or weeks when staff hours were reduced, or a few weeks of unemployment were dealt with by staff members.  When positions were shut down indefinitely, then the weight of the problem became far more pronounced.  If restaurants are intent on reopening and building a team then they must understand that employees will no longer tolerate the inequities.  The challenge is that unless some of the other aforementioned issues are corrected then the ability to pay those wages will be impossible.  Review, research, discuss, correct, and realign – now is the time.
  • Why do we put up with horrible work/life balance:  A fresh approach towards a new business model must include determining how to create a better environment for employees?  Employees are leaving the business in droves – we have no choice but to address issues of more dependable schedules, stress reduction, reasonable work weeks, delegation of responsibilities, etc.  Necessity is the mother of invention.
  • The sizzle is almost gone: We rode the crest of the wave for 30 years as working in restaurants and becoming a chef or a restaurateur were viewed as exciting and fun.  The sizzle is wearing off as those engaged in restaurants know how hard the work is physically, mentally, and emotionally.  It’s time to tell the truth, highlight the positive, and correct much of the negative.  Ask the question: “Why would anyone want to do this work?”
  • Gratuities shouldn’t take the place of a fair wage:  There are plusses and minuses to the tip-based environment of the front of the house.  Gratuity (merit based) provides incentive linked to exceptional performance.  Tip-based environments set the stage for enhanced customer service experiences which is beneficial to the server and the restaurant.  On the other hand, tip-based employees are oftentimes more interested in individual performance than in teamwork – so it can create friction among staff.  It’s time to have the big discussions- should gratuities go away?  Is there any real justification for paying the lowest possible wage to the employee that has the greatest impact on the customer experience?

The challenges that we face in restaurants are not new, but the extenuating circumstances brought on by the pandemic has pushed everything to the forefront.  There is too much to ignore and no time to hesitate.  If we fail to act, we may find it impossible to bring this incredibly important industry back to where it was and should be.

PLAN BETTER – TRAIN HARDER

Harvest America Ventures, LLC
Restaurant Consulting

www.harvestamericacues.com BLOG

CAFÉ Talks Podcast

https://cafemeetingplace.com/cafe-podcasts

NO ONE WANTS TO WORK ANYMORE

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Now, I have your attention.  I hear this statement every day and receive countless calls from restaurant operators pleading for help finding employees to fill their vacant roles.  I don’t believe this statement for one minute.  Is there a labor shortage?  You bet and it is crushing the restaurant industry just as much as the pandemic has.  But is America filled with a generation of lazy people, sitting at home playing video games and waiting for a government bailout?  I don’t think so.

Are there some people who are lazy and waiting for a handout – of course there are some, there always have been, and there always will be, but is it generational, is it somehow genetic?  Has society created a generation of discontent, disengaged, lazy, good for nothing parasites without an ounce of energy or pride?  Empathically NO!  Here is the reality – a person is taught to have great work ethic, just as he or she is taught to be lazy.  This occurs through both example and expectation.  When parents, employers, friends, and coworkers exhibit an admirable work ethic then a young person is more likely to emulate that effort.  If those same individuals expect quality work and effort, then young people will also respond accordingly.  If the example is not there and if the expectation is not promoted, then the opposite results will be evident.

The situation we are in (in my opinion) is complex and it requires that we all try to move past the effects (no one wants to work anymore) and focus on the causes.  First, think about the environment where Millennial and Gen Z youth have come of age and how it differs from previous generations.  For decades there was an expectation that when a person reached the age of 16 (or sometimes even younger with working papers) – he or she would start applying for part time jobs (at least in the summer months when school was out).  Whether a family could afford to support children without requiring they work or not was not the issue – the expectation was that learning that work is an essential part of life.  If a 16 year had a job, he or she could afford to purchase things that they wanted, experiences that were presented to them, and even save some money for a rainy day.  We have, in many cases, taught current generations that asking for something can take the place of working to earn it.  That $600 smart phone has no real value to a person who received it as a rite of passage rather than saving to buy it.  When any person is never taught how to grow, select, and prepare meals, but is simply given the opportunity to buy prepared foods or slide a plate into the microwave, then he or she will never learn to appreciate the process, the control, the joy, and the nutritional value derived from the process of cooking.  When no one builds expectations of excellence in school, or set standards that are to be met before the reward of a grade is administered, then when will that person ever learn to push forward and strive to be great at a task? 

We teach young people to exercise, to maintain a healthy lifestyle, to align with honorable friends, to respect others, to work hard and earn what they have, and to experience the joy of a good day’s work.  We can also teach them to strive for the opposite if the example is not set and if the expectations are not in place and enforced.  No one is born with a lazy gene, no one is born to avoid reaching for excellence – we all have a responsibility to create the environment to push individuals in the right direction.   I am convinced that when the environment is properly set and when expectations of excellence are in place – then people will respond positively.  Look at the pride on a fiveyear old’s face when he or she produces a picture that is refrigerator worthy?  Look at the student who enters a science fair and earns the praise of judges.  Watch the determination on that same student’s face when he or she is told that the project could have been improved and is then shown how to do so.  Watch a young person beam with pride when the little league baseball team that he or she is a part of wins that critical game because they worked hard to build a level of teamwork that set the stage for success.  These results create the environment for that same person to want to work hard and enjoy the feeling of accomplishment.

“Education is a shared commitment between dedicated teachers, motivated students, focused employers, and enthusiastic parents with high expectations.”  -Bob Beauprez

This is part of the complex issue – the other sits on the shoulders of employers and industries that seek to hire employees.  It was Abraham Maslow who decades ago theorized that there was a hierarchy of needs that lead to self-motivation.  This hierarchy was progressive in nature – the first requirement is SURVIVAL.  In other words, the individual must be able to provide for those essentials of food, shelter, and clothing before he or she can feel the joy of effort as an employee.  Industries need to be aware of what that level of compensation is for different individuals if the expectation is that a person will be energized to perform – a living wage.  The second requirement is SECURITY.  Individuals must trust that if they work at a level that is deemed acceptable and are dependable in this regard that their job and paycheck will be reasonably secure.  The top three requirements of BELONGINGNESS, SELF ESTEEM, and ACTUALIZATION are all within the power of the individual to control (at least partially), but without environmental SURVIVAL and SECURITY – they will fail to surface. 

The current labor issues in America are systemic and will not be easily fixed without wholesale reflection on how we operate as a society.  In the meantime, everyone struggles to find a quick fix.  Is throwing government money at every individual in the country the answer?  Probably not.  Is over-compensating restaurant employees just to get them to show up the right answer? Probably not.  Is stereotyping a generation as lazy the answer?  Probably not.

The restaurant industry needs to change and find ways to adjust the environmental package for employees (compensation, benefits, work conditions, trust, etc.) and the American family needs to evaluate the stage that is being set for young people as they formulate their life habits.  Work is a wonderful thing – it inspires, builds character, helps our physical, mental, and emotional health, and opens our eyes to the possibility of excellence.  This is something that every person has the ability to perceive and benefit from.

PLAN BETTER – TRAIN HARDER
Harvest America Ventures, LLC

Restaurant Consulting

www.harvestamericacues.com BLOG

CAFÉ Talks Podcast

https://cafemeetingplace.com/cafe-podcasts

A NEED FOR SOLUTIONS

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I have been asked to provide potential solutions for a generations long dilemma in the hospitality industry, a dilemma that has resulted in physical, mental, and emotional burnout and even a dependence on drugs and alcohol to serve as a band-aid for the wounds that are formed. 

“My question to you is, how will management of Restaurants, Clubs and Hotels try to provide a sense of balance and wellbeing for the chefs who have the history of working from dawn until well into the night, six and sometimes seven days a week.
There has been much talk during the pandemic of all the hours chefs work, the drug and alcohol issues but I have not seen much if any solutions for helping to provide the balance necessary for staff to have a better mental attitude towards work and to not become dependent on the substances surrounding them.  I thought you would be a great colleague to ask.”

*The reality is that there is no quick fix for a challenging situation that points fingers back to a variety of culprits.  Certainly, one could say that the nature of the industry is such that excessive hours and stress are the nature of the beast.  Some point to the industry itself as the primary culprit – an industry of service that rarely rests and job descriptions for a number of positions that are close to impossible to adequately fulfill – thus, chefs and managers have no real choice but to invest an obscene amount of time on the job in an attempt to meet the demands.  Is there truth to this?  Of course, this is true so what is the solution?

TRAINING AND DELEGATION:

Yes, the hospitality industry has plenty of responsibility for this situation that can only be resolved through teaching and training managers and chefs to be more efficient with their time, able to discover how to prioritize their tasks and learn when and how some of this work can trickle down to other staff members.  Truly understanding what each position should focus on is essential rather than simply assuming that managers and chefs are responsible for everything and rely on their ability to determine how to approach the job.  The best managers, and the most effective chefs are the ones who hire competent people, train them, encourage them, and delegate what is best suited to their position.  The manager or the chef should, wherever possible, be the conductor of the orchestra, not a person trying to play every instrument.

*Others may point to overly demanding owners and operators who expect that a salary paid infers that managers and chefs must be present whenever the restaurant or hotel is open for business.  “The buck stops here” is, in some people’s minds – carte blanche to use and abuse employees in certain positions.  Is this true?  Of course, there are examples of owners and operators who expect blood, sweat, and tears for the salary offered.  Even though there are parameters, according to the U.S. Department of Labor, and a number of State Labor Departments that limit this type of thinking – there is no denying that it does exist.  So, what’s the solution?

REALIZATION, TRAINING, DELEGATION, AND RESULTS:

Ultimately, owners and operators care about results.  Whether it is product quality, brand image, smooth operation of a department, or profit to budget realities – this is what drives the train.  Those operators who simply hire for key positions and allow that person to determine how to proceed without clearly defining objectives and training these managers how best to approach them will always be pushing the ball up a hill and will simply rely on chefs and managers to be present as a way to assess their effectiveness.  “The quality of your food wasn’t there last night – where were you?”  “You missed your budgeted profit again and your food cost was too high – why weren’t you here for every shift last week?”  “Occupancy rates are way down – what have you been doing?”  Effective managers need to understand the: what, why and how outcomes are determined – hire and train the right people, delegate responsibility and measure results against owner expectations. 

*Some may point a finger at customers who seem to have unfulfilled expectations of excellence that require the presence of the manager or chef.  If the restaurant or hotel is open, then this level of management must be present to ensure adherence to standards and solve problems when they arise.  Is there truth to this?  Yes, of course there is truth to this expectation – unrealistic as it may be – the customer does feel that the manager or chef must be there for the business to operate.  So, what is the solution?

SYSTEMS, TRAINING, DELEGATION, AND MEASUREMENT:

Customers don’t understand how their food or how a hotel room is prepared for their enjoyment – they really only care about the results: clean room, everything in working order, key works, meal is well prepared, service is courteous and efficient, and value is evident.  When this does not occur, then they are looking for resolution – this is when the presence of a chef or manager seems to be front and center in their minds. 

A well-run hotel or restaurant meets or exceeds standards regardless of a manager’s presence.  This is the result when there are well-designed systems in place, when everyone knows their job and how it relates to outcomes, when staff members are trained how to problem solve, and recognition of properly executed work is a standard operating procedure.  Finally, measuring customer satisfaction/dis-satisfaction and building effective recovery strategies is paramount to helping managers and chefs feel comfortable when they are present or absent.  When employees are allowed to own a problem, are trained to effectively deal with the problem, and are encouraged to make decisions then the need for excessive, super-human efforts from any one employee is diminished.

*Finally, there are some who point the finger directly at the people in question (chefs and managers).  I have found that in numerous professions there are individuals who view what they do as being synonymous with their own self-worth.  They are chefs, managers, doctors and nurses, lawyers, owner/operators, scientists, artists, financial planners and investment bankers, writers and reporters, carpenters, and administrators who do what they do because they love the work or feel the need to constantly prove themselves.  These individuals rarely work the hours they do because someone schedules them to do so, they work excessive hours and take on the stress of meeting objectives because that’s who they are.  These individuals do not understand how to say “no” to any request, have a difficult time accepting anything produced by another person because it doesn’t meet their personal standards. These are obsessive people who tend to gravitate to the positions that provide ample opportunity for self-abuse.  As an example – I have never met a chef who works a schedule that someone else has created.  They work, what they feel they need to work to be able to look themselves in the mirror and say: “I did all that I could”.  Furthermore, since the answer to this mirror question is inevitably: “No, I could do more”, the cycle continues.  So, what is the answer?

TRAINING, DELEGATION, TRUST, DIVERSION TACTICS:

Type A individuals (most chefs and managers) are oftentimes less confident than one might assume.  They have a difficult time backing away from a request even if they know how difficult it might be to get the expected results.  The way that some will deal with this situation is to simply invest more time, assuming that less will go wrong if they are there.  Insecurity is rarely resolved by working harder – resolution comes from working smarter.  This requires, again, lots of training, mentoring, coaching, encouragement to delegate and train others to take on many tasks and showing managers and chefs how to trust good employees to do the right thing.  Even with all of these tools in place- Type A individuals will need help in breaking bad habits and learning how to step away.  Helping them create other diversions in their lives will help to some degree: providing them with a gym membership, enrolling them in a class, insisting that they attend conferences and workshops, encouraging them to coach a little league team, insisting that they take days off and vacations, or scheduling them to provide some type of community service will help to take their mind away from the everyday nature of their positions.

I don’t have the solutions to these challenges that restaurants and their employees face.  It is the responsibility of everyone involved to recognize it and collectively work to save good employees from the dangers of single-minded workaholism.  When individuals are pushed past their threshold of tolerance then they may look for unhealthy ways of dealing with their physical, mental, or emotional stress. 

PLAN BETTER – TRAIN HARDER

Harvest America Ventures, LLC

www.harvestamericacues.com  BLOG

CAFÉ Talks Podcast

https://cafemeetingplace.com/cafe-podcasts

IS THE RESTAURANT INDUSTRY ADDICTED TO NORMAL?

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We are so close to the turning point, so close that we can almost taste it.  If we can just get past the vaccine hesitancy then the country, and the restaurant industry might be able to see the light at the end of the tunnel.  Well, this is what we hope.  As states wrestle with decisions to open everything back up and whether the timing is right or premature – the real demon remains those who deny their role in turning things around whether it is preventative measures or standing in line for their vaccination.  No one is certain whether or not that last 25 or 30% of the population will do what needs to be done.  If they continue to refuse then a fresh start is unlikely.  

The other elephant in the room however is how will the restaurant industry approach business if we reach herd immunity through vaccination?  With all of the pain and suffering that independent restaurants and their employees have gone through it appears that many are simply hoping to return to where they were pre-pandemic.  This difficult time in our history has revealed significant flaws in how restaurants operate – flaws that will not only remain if we seek to return to “normal” – they will be even more pronounced.  This time away from the way we operated for decades has given employees and customers a chance to re-evaluate.  What they discovered is that these flaws are too significant to ignore any longer.  This is why restaurants across the country -all restaurants – are finding it very difficult to pull employees back to their old positions.  This quest for normal will not work anymore – we cannot ignore the flaws and expect that everyone will simply stet back in line as if nothing ever happened.

Trust has eroded and without trust restaurants will have a very difficult time regaining the ground that they lost.  It is time for wholesale change – the kind of change that people know is needed, but the pain that will accompany it seems too severe to welcome.  Our employees need to trust that the restaurant will have their back moving forward, they need to trust that as the restaurant succeeds – so will they.  Our customers need to trust that the restaurant they patronize will be safe and that the operation will take all of the necessary steps to ensure their health and wellbeing.  Until this is the standard of operation – the restaurant business will suffer.

Right now it is important that “a return to normal” be replaced with “a fresh start built on trust”.  This is the chance that is offered to restaurants as we ease out of shutdown and re-open businesses.  Each restaurant should approach this time as an opportunity to start over, and do it right this time.

“The entrepreneurial life is one of challenge, hard work, dedication, perseverance, exhilaration, agony, accomplishment, failure, sacrifice, control, and powerlessness – but ultimately, extraordinary satisfaction.”

-David S. Rose (angel investor)

This is the time to set the stage for ultimate extraordinary satisfaction.  A time when employees are treated appropriately, paid fairly, provided with reasonable benefits, secure in their positions when they perform as they should, listened to and engaged, and treated with respect.  This is a time when customers are listened to and restaurants acknowledge that service, convenience, consistency, experiences, and value equate to the formula for success regardless of the type of restaurant, product, or price range.  This is a time to start fresh.

We remain addicted to normal, but with the right treatment and support – any addiction can be broken, or at least held at bay.  Restaurants must replace ordinary with extraordinary; average with superior; normal with fresh; and common with unique.  

There will be many who ignore the signs and hang on to normal as long as they can, but a few that will heed the call and embrace the opportunity that change can provide.  It will mean that restaurants address location, the need for brick and mortar businesses, the type of service provided in the dining room, menu concepts and menu variety, efficiency, pricing and cost controls, training and skill level, the number of employees needed and how a smaller number can be expected to accomplish more but be paid accordingly, and it will mean that the old “normal” when it comes to work/life balance for restaurant employees be seriously addressed.  Those few that “get it” will win.

“Bad things do happen in the world – like war, natural disasters, and disease.  Out of those situations always arise stories of ordinary people doing extraordinary things.”

-Daryn Kagan (broadcast journalist)

Let’s not lose sight of the opportunity.   Let’s look past the absolute need to bring restaurants back to operating capacity and let’s work to set the stage for a better restaurant industry – one that employees relish the chance to be a part of and customers stand in line to support with trust and confidence.  This is not a time to despair or a time to rely on decision by reaction – this is a time to act.  The ball is in our court.

PLAN BETTER – TRAIN HARDER

Harvest America Ventures, LLC

Restaurant Consulting

www.harvestamericacues.com. BLOG

CAFE Talks Podcast

https://cafemeetingplace.com/cafe-podcasts

FOOD NOISE OR FOOD SYMPHONY

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I find it very interesting how diverse the food experience is.  In all cases, the process of eating is important and accomplishes similar goals.  Just as all cars can move a person from one geographic point to another yet the experience that takes place in between can be totally different – so too is this true with food.  Food is fuel and will help to keep the body sound, muscles developed, bones strong, digestion working properly, and brain cells multiplying exponentially – but the way that food takes a person to those goals and the quality of the end result can be monumentally different.

If we compare the food experience to a full gamut of sound and music – some food experiences are nothing more than noise, while others can approach all of the senses just as a symphonic orchestra can invigorate every one of our senses and engage a person in state of fulfillment.  Food that is noise may fill our stomachs and even stimulate the sense of taste, but the total sensual experience will be lost in the process of eating.  At the other extreme – an extraordinarily prepared, multi-course meal, touched by accomplished cooks, presented on a plate of fine china, in a pristine environment, with attentive service and complemented by exceptional wines will reveal all that food might attempt to be.

Those of us who are currently or had previously spent many years in front of a kitchen range also made choices regarding which type of culinary music we wanted to play.  Would it be noise, folk music, country, rock and roll, or classical; would we focus on quick service, organic vegetarian, burgers and pizza, bar-b-que, full-service, or fine dining.  Each has its place and each provides a different level of experience for the cook and for the guest.  So, I thought it might be fun to address each comparison of food experience to musical taste so that you might see where you fit.

QUICK SERVICE:  This is the food noise experience for both the customer and the employee.  The over-riding objectives are fast, consistent and affordable.  The nutritional objective is to fill your stomach, and to provide fuel to make it through the day.  Little attention is paid to the “experience” of eating which is made perfectly clear by the incredible growth of drive thru delivery and systems designed to move people and turn tables (or cars).  This, of course services a great need in our stressed out, fast paced society – a need that is met with ever-increasing efficiency.  Nearly 55% of all the restaurants in the United States fit into this category – a category that to many people under the age of 21 provided their first paycheck.  For the cook starting out – this can be an introduction to the field of foodservice, but the skills necessary to meet the standards of production and service are minimal. Noise, but important.

PUB FOOD:  The two most significant entrees in the American diet are pizza and hamburgers.  This is how the pub food segment grew to be such a significant player in the foodservice market.  Those who grew up with “noise” (the quick service experience) as their primary restaurant encounter found a place of comfort in operations that simply prepared similar items at a different level.  The fast food hamburger became the half-pound burger from brisket and short ribs, on a brioche or pretzel roll, with organic tomato and spicy slaw, and a variety of added toppings.  The simple pizza became a wood-fired, thin crust vehicle for toppings like smoked duck, goat’s cheese, arugula, nicoise olives, and loads of fresh herbs.  Add your favorite alcoholic beverage and you have the concept that accounts for the lion’s share of food experiences for those in the 21-40 age bracket.

For the cook – a certain level of skill is required, including:  the ability to determine degrees of doneness, a bit of showmanship to spin pizzas, speed and efficiency, knife skills and a palate that allows the cook to adjust seasoning when needed.  This is the rock and roll experience of foodservice.  Loud, exciting, flashy, a great beat, fast paced, unconventional, and pure fun.

BISTRO OR CAFÉ:  For those with a bit of travel under their belts and the desire to re-create those experiences – the café or bistro provides a moment to step back and connect with the food stylings of Europe.  Along with the foods of French cafes, British and Irish pubs, Italian trattorias, the bistros of Belgium, or the Haufbrauhaus’ of Germany and Austria these restaurants are inspired by the authentic music of the culture or time in history.  It is the whole package for those who consume or prepare these foods from Confit and Cassoulet to a plate of Buccatini, or Bangers and Mash to Pigs Knuckle and Sauerkraut, or even Etouffee to Boiled Crayfish.  This is the International music crowd who listens to the Neville Brothers, a Zydeco band, the Chieftains with Van Morrison, The Gipsy Kings, or maybe an Oompah band leftover from Octoberfest – people who seek authenticity above all else whether raising a glass of ale, stemware filled with wine, or a few shots of tequila.  Cooks who look to make their mark in these operations must invest the time to understand the culture and the indigenous ingredients that fill the coolers and storerooms of these kitchens.

BAR-B-QUE: Bar-b-que may be universally loved, but it is somewhat safe to say that acoustic guitars and fiddles, snake skin boots and ten gallon hats are as common in these restaurants as rich, sticky racks of ribs, fall apart brisket sandwiches, pulled pork and corn on the cob.  Chances are, if you indulge in this cuisine or fancy yourself as a cook standing over a pit with a sauce mop and smoldering cherry wood smoke in your eyes – you are also listening to the Allman Brothers, Marshal Tucker, The Flying Burrito Brothers, Allison Kraus, or Keith Urban.  This is the country rock crowd that would love to enjoy their food while attending a local rodeo.  Now, for the Bar-b-que cook there is always time spent in the trenches to learn how to control the fire, the smoke, the timing, and the way that all work together to create the lip smacking goodness that results from time in the pit.

FAMILY STYLE: Whether a customer looking for that occasional break from cooking at home or a cook seeking the comfort of an operation that is consistently good, but never intent on pushing the envelope, the family style restaurant is a haven.  Lots of food, consistent and recognizable flavors, and the informality that comes from service that is designed to be comfortable, but never too reliant on technique.  These restaurants will always have a line outside waiting for the next open table.  They are typically cost effective and designed to be profitable as a result of volume.  Those who grace a table with parents, grandparents, cousins, and children from just barely born to disgruntled teenagers are less concerned with what is playing over the sound system than they are hearing their reservation called: “Table of 8 for Jones is ready”.  The music is likely to be Top 40 pop tunes that run the gamut and have little if anything to do with the food or the experience – it is just there to fill the dead air and attempt to hide the crying of babies.  Cooks that work here are happy to be part of the cadence of an unrelenting number of tickets burning off the printer.  They have some chops, but are rarely known to move outside the lines – their profile is built for speed and to them the most important assessment at the end of the night is how many covers they served. 

FULL-SERVICE MOM and POP:  If ever there were restaurants known as an extension of the owner/operator it would be the mom and pop, full service operation.  The food can be anything one might imagine, but always a reflection of the food that the owner enjoys.  The restaurant is even connected to the owner through associations like: “Jim’s restaurant, Marty’s diner, or Carlos joint.”  Everything about the place maintains that connection:  what the menu promotes, how the place looks and feels, the style of service, and yes – even the music.  Sometimes the restaurant tries to connect with a theme, but more than likely it is a reflection of the owners “play list”.  The music connection falls under the heading of: “What I like to listen to”, and is probably a hodge-podge of music defined by the era when the owner grew up.  Cooks who work in these operations have a connection to the owner, and might even be related at some level.  Their skills were built by paying attention to how the owner likes to cook, how he or she was taught, and exactly how he or she envisions everything tasting and looking.

FINE DINING/WHITE TABLECLOTH:  Now we come to the symphony – these are the restaurants where cooking is a lifetime commitment to technique, finesse, commitment to details, and the unquenchable thirst for perfection.  Kitchens are serious places where only excellence is tolerated – mediocrity or a slip from standards is a mortal sin.  The food is a work of art and the prices to consumers reflect the artist’s determination to seek the highest bidder.  Everything about the restaurant exudes this intent to never deviate from the exceptional and never allow anyone to step out of line.  While tensions below the surface run very high – the ambience is designed to reflect a level of calm that comes from a pursuit of perfection.  It is very likely that the music will be classical or maybe serious jazz – the desire is to use music to reflect an aura of class and sophistication – not something that the guest will tap their foot to or raise a glass with laughter and song.

So, if my analogies are correct, if what you eat or cook and what you listen to are connected – then where do you fit?  What type of restaurant best describes who you are and what type of music best determines the type of experience that you are attracted to?

PLAN BETTER – TRAIN HARDER

You are what you eat – you are what you listen to.

Harvest America Ventures, LLC

Restaurant Consulting

www.harvestamericacues.com  BLOG

CAFÉ Talks Podcast

https://cafemeetingplace.com/cafe-podcasts

A COOK’S DESTINY

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Every day I read articles predicting the demise of the restaurant business – in particular the inability of restaurants to attract employees.  There are a number of reasons why this is true and most do point to an industry that avoided change for so long.  But, this is not the intent of this article.  I am directing this post to current, former, and future employees – specifically cooks.  I will certainly not deny the seemingly overwhelming reasons to change careers or push aside the desire to pursue one in the kitchen, but please – hear me out. 

We are only on this planet for a short period of time, so wasting that time is never a great idea.  We should search for fulfillment, invest in ourselves and others, find a way to make a difference, and above all not waste a moment working without the pleasure of knowing that you are doing something that is gratifying.  If you choose wisely, you might even find something that you were destined to do, something that is part of your DNA, your heart and soul, and something that charges with great energy through your entire being. 

Many, if not most people find themselves searching for this destiny, but on occasion it just comes our way.  I firmly believe that when this occurs it is a calling that finds you and not the reverse.  This calling is very similar to that feeling when you find a mate or a great friend – when you know, you know.  It is that spark of excitement; that desire to give into it, to embrace the good, the bad, and even the ugly – because it is the right relationship.  If you have not experienced this yet – know that at some point in time you will – we all do if we leave ourselves open to the possibility.

There are millions of Americans who have been, or currently are engage in kitchen work.  It is not for everyone, and in some cases it is simply a means to an end – a chance to earn a paycheck.  But, to others this work is “it”.  This is what makes you whole, what makes you want to jump out of bed in the morning, inspires you to find ways to learn more each and every day, to fire up your human engine and paint your art on a plate.  To deny this is to resist part of your purpose and that would be a shame.

“It is your moments of decision that your destiny is shaped.”

-Tony Robbins

This is a moment of decision for you.  Cooking – real cooking that involves a commitment to learning, an investment in building a portfolio of skills, an appreciation for the ingredients you work with and the history of the craft is a gift that some of us are destined to share.  Putting aside for just a moment the absolute need to make a living – it is important that how we make that living be through this gift.  Whether you are a cook, a chef, a doctor, an engineer, a musician, carpenter, teacher, or a painter – the gift should not be set aside.

Restaurants do need to change – no doubt, but this will not happen unless we stay engaged with that gift that needs to find a vehicle for expression.  To move away from this or to avoid quenching your thirst for a future career in food will always leave you wanting for that something that you gave up or pushed aside. 

That something that you can possess, that you have the power to control, that you have a need to discover and nurture is the determination to grab hold of your destiny and find a way to give it the fuel it needs.  Maybe it isn’t the restaurant where you have worked prior to the pandemic, maybe it’s not even the type of restaurant where you built your initial skill set, or maybe it’s not even the restaurant segment at all, but food and a career connected to it is something that touches many different directions in life.  Don’t give up on it! 

“Destiny is no matter of chance.  It is a matter of choice.  It is not a thing to be waited for, it is a thing to be achieved.”

– William Jennings Bryan

You have a choice to make if you are a cook or chef, or someone who aspires to those crafts – if working in a kitchen is your destiny then make a choice to find a way for that career to work for you.  One of the worst feelings is to find yourself saying: “If only I had….. I could have been……It’s too late now.”  Don’t let regret creep into your destiny as a cook.

This is not a time to walk away – this is a time to work even harder to be what you were meant to be.  When you know, you know.

PLAN BETTER – TRAIN HARDER – CONNECT WITH YOUR DESTINY

Harvest America Ventures, LLC

www.harvestamericacues.com  BLOG

CAFÉ Talks Podcast

https://cafemeetingplace.com/cafe-podcasts

WHEN YOU THINK YOU HAVE HAD ENOUGH OF KITCHEN LIFE

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This appears to be one of those times of reflection – a time when those hard working people in kitchens around the country are asking a simple question: “Why am I doing this?”  The pandemic is not the cause of this period of questioning – it simply brought it to the forefront.  Everyone that I know in this business has asked that question a few times in their life, and rightfully so.  To not question is to ignore the possibility that maybe, just maybe there is something that you are better suited to do.  That’s OK – we should all strive to find our niche – a place where we are happy and where we can make a difference.  Of course we need to earn a living and support ourselves, and possibly a family, but beyond that we all have an innate desire to find our place.

I for one have been and will continue to be very happy with my career choice and the opportunities that continue to arise as a result of my decision to focus on food.  I feel fortunate to call many of my friends – equal advocates for a great decision in this regard.  There have been moments when that decision wasn’t clear, and there have been moments when I considered looking in a different direction, but those moments were fleeting and I jumped right back in.  I have always found that being methodical about career decisions served me well, so why not share my approach with others?  So, here is a good exercise that will allow you to assess where you are and where you might turn.

  1. Do you spend more days looking forward to kitchen work or do you constantly dread another day?
  2. Do you look forward to the chance to work with other talented people who have the ability to create on the plate?
  3. Do you find working with people of different nationalities, races, cultures, and beliefs to be inspirational?
  4. Do you feel privileged to work with the ingredients that come from farmers, fishermen, ranchers, and artisans?
  5. Do you find satisfaction in creating something tangible each day that reflects on the skills that you have acquired over time?
  6. Do you enjoy cooking for the benefit of others?
  7. Do you find physical work to be gratifying? 
  8. Are you a person who relishes organization and planning?
  9. Are you proud to wear a uniform that represents a history of cooks and chefs who came before you?
  10. Do you relish an environment where there is a need for structured discipline?
  11. Do you consider yourself to be artistic and a person looking for a medium to express yourself?
  12. Do you enjoy accomplishing goals as part of a team?

If you answer yes to all or most of these questions then it is very likely that working with food is something that will always satisfy you.  If you feel forced to step away because of the negatives that certainly do exist:  long hours, unpredictable schedules, far too modest pay scales, a lack of benefits, etc., then know that any other choice of career will leave you a bit empty.  My advice is to look around and seek out the numerous opportunities to work with food in different operations or in related fields that can satisfy your innate, intangible needs as well as those tangible ones that help with the physical requirements of life.  Don’t give up on what you are destined to do.

We can, and maybe should unite in finding ways to help the restaurant industry finds its groove and finally address what drives good people away.  It is a challenge that we all must share.  We can all help to find ways for operations to become more efficient and profitable so that some of the challenges listed can be addressed.  Let’s think about making 2021 and beyond a time when we collectively own the problems and commit to finding solutions.  Let’s not give up on what we are meant to do with a career.  Hang in there!

PLAN BETTER – TRAIN HARDER

Harvest America Ventures, LLC

Restaurant Consulting

www.harvestamericacues.com

CAFÉ Talks Podcast

https://cafemeetingplace.com/cafe-podcasts

WHAT I WISH I KNEW AS AN 16 YEAR OLD BREAKFAST COOK

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My first real job at the age of 15 (unless you count being a paperboy) was washing dishes and helping out the breakfast cook at a local diner.  By the time I graduated from high school I had worked at a few restaurants and found myself holding down a line position dropping fries and fish fillets into 375-degree oil.  At this point working in a kitchen was all that I knew.  I somewhat reluctantly applied to colleges to appease my parents, but really had no idea what I wanted to do with my life.  I finally settled on attending school for hotel management – why not – right?  Little did I know, at that point, that working in kitchens was what I would do for the rest of my career.

Had I built a long-term plan at that point – what would I have done differently?  For years now I have preached how important it is to establish your goals and then create a roadmap to get to your eventual destination.  I had no such plan at the age of 16, so like many who will read this article I was stepping out day after day without any direction.  Even while in college there was no real desire to figure it all out – I just took life as it came my way.  Looking back I wish that someone had given me the advice that I so freely now give to others.  So, what if that “someone” had been around to point me in the right direction –what would he or she have advised me to do?  Here are my thoughts (in hindsight):

[]         STUDY THE POSSIBILITIES

What lay beyond the dishpit and breakfast griddle?  At the age of 16 I had no idea what the possibilities might be.  Searching for a career and a life at this age was not front and center in my thinking– yet had I known then maybe, just maybe I could have developed a plan.  What is a chef, what restaurant experiences are there beyond grilled hard rolls and eggs over easy, and what does a really great meal look and taste like? 

[]         FIND YOUR BENCHMARKS

Cooking for a living would certainly be different than becoming a doctor, lawyer, or rock and roll star, but I had no idea about any of these ways to make a living – nor did any other 16 year old.  My idea of a great meal was fried chicken at KFC.   Cooking methods were not even on my radar and thinking about plating a beautiful dish was foolish because I didn’t know that this was a “thing”.  There were no life-changing meals, no a’ ha moments, and no reason to think that food was anything more than fuel.  Maybe if I had the opportunity to “experience” something more then I would have charged my batteries earlier and built a portfolio of moments filled with: “I want to learn how to cook like that!”

[]         IDENTIFY A MENTOR(S)

Sure, Millie the short order breakfast cook took me under her wing and because of that I had a chance to flip pancakes, grill hard rolls, make a few omelets and try my hand at eggs over easy, but I never felt the need to ask her more, nor did she offer.  If I had worked with someone who pushed me harder at that age, a person who would challenge me, critique my work, and set my standards at that age – who knows where my career would have gone.

[]         PICK YOUR EMPLOYERS WISELY

At that early age everyone is impressionable.  We establish our standards and set our sights on a level of excellence based on the environments and the people we work with.  Instead of looking for a job it would have been wise to look for the right job, a place where I could learn, a place that I would respect and a place that would help to form the cook and chef that I would become.

[]         PICK YOUR FRIENDS WISELY

Fact: 16-24 – now that is a dangerous age.  Boys, in particular are not terribly discriminating about the company they keep as long as “fun” is part of the formula.  These early relationships build your character and help to determine the type of person you will become.  It is also the time when your early brand starts to develop.  Thank goodness the internet was not yet a thing back then – so there is little record of the bad decisions that I made and that all of my friends made as well.  A mentor would have helped me to be a bit pickier at times.  At that age you are whom you hang out with.

[]         KNOW WHAT COUNTS

A career is built on a few core attributes that are developed in a person early on.  Individuals who work on these are destined to be successful at whatever they pursue.  I learned the importance of these a bit later on in my life and they have served me well, but I can only imagine how much more could have been if I had been guided in this direction.  These attributes are dependability, being prepared, remaining organized, completing tasks, and a commitment to excellence no matter how small or large the task.

[]         YOU WILL NEVER KNOW ENOUGH

As much as you think you know – you will never know enough.  Realizing early on that a total commitment to learning your craft is essential to success can be humbling and energizing at the same time.  Successful people are always seeking to find the answers to how, why, and when.  Your education is always in need of a boost – it will never end.  This is what keeps people reaching higher.

[]         LOOK AND ACT PROFESSIONAL

Try telling this to a 16 year old.  Look sharp, act like you care, treat others appropriately, use language properly, write in complete sentences, check your spelling and sentence structure, and respect the chain of command.  Yes – these things are important and they work together to build perceptions of who you are and what you might become.

[]         LISTEN

Talk less, listen more – these are great rules of thumb.  This is how we learn, this is how people learn to trust you, and this is how you set the stage to eventually lead others.

[]         PRACTICE, PRACTICE, PRACTICE

As hard as it may be to swallow – you will never become exceptional at anything unless you repeat an act or process many, many, many times.  Do you want to become an exceptional free-throw shooter in basketball?  If the answer is yes – then practice 100 free throws everyday – FOREVER!  Do you want to become noteworthy with your culinary knife skills?  If the answer is yes – then practice those skills and measure them against a standard many, many, many times – FOREVER!  Do you want to become a well-rounded chef?  If the answer is yes –then make sure that you work every possible position in the kitchen many, many, many times –and never allow yourself to stray away from those skills – FOREVER!

[]         BE YOUR OWN WORST CRITIC

There will be many people who will critique your work: employers, peers, employees, and customers.  In the end, the most important critique should come from you.  Am I living up to my own set of standards?  Could I improve on this process?  Is there room for improvement?  These are the questions you need to ask every day.

[]         TAKE IT SERIOUSLY

Take the work that you do seriously.  Cooking is a very important profession that services the physical, emotional, and even spiritual needs of the people for whom you cook.  Don’t ever lose sight of how high everyone’s expectations are of your commitment to doing things correctly, of always striving for excellence.  While you should never take yourself too seriously – your work and its impact is another story.

[]         IDENTIFY YOUR STAKES IN THE GROUND

During your early years in the kitchen be observant and collect those ideas, processes, and beliefs that establish who you are as a person and a food professional.  These will become your stakes in the ground – the things that you are never willing to sacrifice, never willing to put aside.  At some point in your career this is how people inside and outside your circle will identify you.  Know how you want to be identified and stick to your guns.

[]         RESPECT, RESPECT, RESPECT

You have heard it many times before – treat others, as you would want them to treat you.  We are part of a fantastic industry that is filled with diversity – this is one of the most important aspects of working in the business of food.  Honor this opportunity by respecting others for who they are and what they believe.  You may not agree with them, but you can respect them for their own beliefs just like you would expect them to respect you. 

Respect the ingredients that you work with and know how hard a farmer, fisherman, rancher, cheesemaker, bread baker, or salt miner works to bring those ingredients to your table.  If possible – walk a day in their shoes to feel the passion that exists in their work.

Respect the equipment that you work with and treat it as if it were your own.  Respect the business that pays your wages and how fragile their profit margins are.  Do this by controlling waste, being frugal with energy and water, and staying efficient with the tasks that you perform.

[]         PRACTICE SAYING YES

Another tough one for a 16-year old, but if you want to chart a course for a career in food know that you are entering the service business.  This means that you should always begin your thinking with the word yes.  “I need you to step aside from your line position for a few hours and wash dishes.  We are getting backed up in that area.”  Your response:  “Yes chef”.  “The guest at table 23 says that this steak is over cooked – we need to fire a new one.”  Your response: “Yes chef”. 

[]         DON’T LET MEDIOCRITY SLIP IN

As much as excellence should be your goal in everything that you do, it is just as important to never succumb to the temptation of mediocrity brought about by time, lack of assistance, or changes in environment.  Stay strong.

[]         MAKE MISTAKES AND LEARN FROM THEM

Don’t dismay – you will make mistakes, you should make mistakes, everyone makes mistakes.  It’s OK, just learn from them and don’t make the same mistakes again.  This is where real learning takes place.

[]         ALWAYS WORK ON YOUR BRAND

Finally, young grasshopper, remember that everything you do contributes to your positive or negative brand.  How you look, how you act, who you associate with, how you talk, what you say, how you set-up your station, how sharp your knives are, how well you follow established cooking methods, the beauty of your finished plates, how dependable you are, and your commitment to constant improvement are the components of your brand.  Your brand is what opens doors to your success.  Be the brand you want to become.

PLAN BETTER – TRAIN HARDER

Harvest America Ventures, LLC

www.harvestamericacues.com  BLOG

CAFÉ Talks Podcast

https://cafemeetingplace.com/cafe-podcasts

THE DOG AND BUTTERFLY

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Sometimes I get a bit lofty in my reflections of kitchen life and the cooks who spend time behind the range.  This is probably one of those times – yet oftentimes I can’t help myself.  Take the analogies for what they are worth to you.

Being a professional cook or chef is such a contradiction of the human condition.  When you walk through a typical kitchen you will see individuals intent on their work, dressed in clean, crisp white uniforms that attempt to hide the tattoos, burns, stitches, crustiness, sometimes vulgar personality who can in one moment lift an 80- pound stock pot from the stove or carry a 100-pound sack of flour the length of the kitchen and in the next moment – carefully and strategically place a delicate cluster of herbs atop a carefully caramelized slice of foie gras mounted on a perfectly cooked filet of beef, complemented by a white china plate painted with a meticulously reduced demi glace.  Who is this person?

I was listening the other day to the lyrics of Ann Wilson from the group Heart when she referred to the contradiction and quest of the dog and butterfly.  She described the song in this manner:

“When you’re an earthbound creature you’re always jumping and reaching for things we can never really catch, but you try anyway.  And that’s the point of the song, you’re always trying to grab at something higher.”

Could it be that the hard work of the dog is all an effort to try and become the butterfly.  Is it possible that the hard work of the cook is all in quest of reaching for the perfection of the plates’ art?  The dog will be exhausted at the end of the day as it reaches for the butterfly just as the cook will end the day with cuts, burns, sweat, sore muscles and physical exhaustion all in search of that plate perfection.

There are so many contradictions of this type in the kitchen when cooks are viewed from that 10,000 – foot vantage point.  Anger and finesse are evident in the intensity that takes place as a cook attacks a relentless list of preparations for service.  There is the pressure of time, the need to meet standards, the variables that inevitably come from working with nature’s ingredients that are consistently inconsistent, and the need to depend on others for your own success.  At the same time there is that finesse that must come into play when finish cooking demands a level of organization and calm that must be separated from the anger derived from all of those pressures.  If a cook is unable to separate the two then the result will be chaos and a finished product that does not reflect what is intended.  Angry food will taste angry, yet finesse without the intensity of physical and mental preparation fueled by a touch of anger will often times fall flat.

Anxiety is part of the cook’s chemistry.  Stress is a fragile beast that at some level is an important driver sparked by adrenaline, but too much will cause the body to decay and plans to fall apart.  When a kitchen is void of anxiety it will appear to be unprepared for the intensity of service and the peace that comes from a well-executed meal service and beautiful plates of food.  The contradiction of anxiety and peace seems to be present in every kitchen that reaches for the butterfly.

Despair is present in the eyes of cooks who are within striking distance of those allusive first orders clicking off the POS printer.  It is that feeling of impending doom, that mental checklist that reviews all the details of preparation leading to this point, that flood a cooks consciousness. “Did I peel enough shrimp, cut enough steaks, blanch enough vegetables, chop enough parsley or clarify the right amount of butter?  Will I run out of anything at the peak rush and if so how will I find the time to prep more when tickets are lining up on the board?”  Every cook, at some point, has felt this despair – the sense of everything falling apart. Yet, hope springs eternal, because that mental checklist will, more often than not, lead to a level of confidence: “I’ve got this!”  The contradiction of despair and hope is an everyday reality in professional kitchens and although cooks may feel this, they rarely express it – it is internalized.

The visible toughness of a professional cook, the effort that it takes to never show weakness and to tough things out is the sign of the hammer – when things get really difficult cooks just swing the hammer harder and faster.  Work through the heat, the back pain, the burns, and the sweat because we are tough – we are the hammer.  Sometimes those who do not live the life of the cook become the nail and thus view the cook as irrational, insolent, or simply angry.  But then, there are the moments when those same cooks take an extra second to paint on the plate, to express themselves with beautiful and delicious presentations of food that reflect their artistic and caring side.  Any respectable cook ultimately cares deeply that the guest who purchased that meal is satisfied and even impressed.  It is the contradiction of the hammer and the artistic brush that confuses others and inspires career cooks and chefs.

Work hard, push yourself, attack that prep list, use a hammer if necessary to be ready when the printer starts to talk and then take a deep breath, make sure you are organized, and play your instrument in such a manner as to portray calm, confidence, and true art.  The dog will leave the day tired and somewhat dissatisfied in his or her inability to fly, but tomorrow that same dog will try just as hard once again.  It is the pursuit of the butterfly that makes the dog complete.  The cook will work until he or she is exhausted from the physical, mental, and emotional demands of the job and the ongoing pursuit of excellence.  But knowing that excellence is hard to achieve the cook will arrive the next day to try once again for perfection on the plate.  He or she will work just as hard again – leaving everything they have on the playing field.  It is the nature of the person who chooses to be both that tattooed crusty individual underneath with the finesse of the butterfly in crisp, clean white uniform that signs every plate leaving the kitchen.

PLAN BETTER – TRAIN HARDER

Reach for the butterfly

Harvest America Ventures, LLC

Restaurant Consulting

www.harvestamericacues.com  BLOG

CAFÉ Talks Podcast

https://cafemeetingplace.com/cafe-podcasts

WHY CULINARY PROGRAMS FAIL

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There has never been a more important time for culinary schools than right now.  Sure, I know how much the restaurant/foodservice industry is suffering and how many operations are shutting their doors as a result of avoiding decades of challenges brought to a head by the pandemic, but believe me when I say that this will change.  Everything will change for the better if we (the food industry and the culinary schools that provide the talent) change as a collective group.

 Just as the restaurant industry evolves, so too must the industry of education.  When this change does not occur then the strong shall survive and the weak shall perish.  There are ample examples of culinary school failure over the past ten years with the lion’s share since 2016.  If you understand that one way to avoid failure is to know why others wave the white flag, then a course might be set to do just the opposite: succeed.

So here are my 20 observations pertaining to why culinary schools fail:

  1. ENROLLMENT DEPENDENCE/ENROLLMENT DECLINE

All culinary schools are businesses as well as altruistic institutions for the betterment of mankind.  This means that the top line drives the bottom line (more students equals the ability to continue providing their products and services).  When enrollment declines then colleges must make decisions to trim services, increase class sizes, eliminate content, reduce investment in supplies, or shut their doors.  Programs need to either find ways to stabilize enrollment or come up with some other source of funding to support their efforts.  When schools seek to solve the challenge by lowering standards to attract a broader base of incoming students then the entire system begins to crumble.

  • LACK OF COHESIVE MISSION

What is the program’s purpose?  What are they trying to accomplish and what are the standards that they insist living by?  How will they measure their success as aligned with these standards or objectives?  If this is not clear then the organization is left without direction – a surefire way to fail.

  • LACK OF COMMUNICATION WITH THE BUSINESSES THEY SERVE

Do you really connect with restaurants, hotels, resorts, food manufacturers, retail, food research and development and other groups to make sure that your program is in line with their needs?  If not, how will you be able to create a clear career path for your graduates?  The businesses that will hire your students need to be vested in your effort – this is how success is defined.

  • STUBORN ADHERENCE TO THE WAY IT HAS ALWAYS BEEN DONE

When program administrators and faculty believe that they have all of the answers, when they design a culinary program to match the way that they learned or the way that everyone else delivers a culinary education – then those stakeholders are missing out on the natural evolution of the craft and the people who are inclined to seek a place in the system.  What the industry needs today is different than a few years ago and the young people entering the trade are different in the way they learn and what their priorities might be.

  • POORLY DEFINED BRAND

Who are you?  How do potential students, businesses, the community, current students, faculty members, and program alumni perceive your program?  Perceptions become reality and how you support these perceptions defines your brand.  Make sure that it is clear and positive.

  • LACK OF REALISM

Is what you are teaching real?  If you teach in a live restaurant environment on your campus is it operated with five times as many cooks in training as would be possible in a real restaurant?  If so, what are students learning about cost effectiveness, efficiency, speed, and effective menu execution?  How will they be able to function when faced with that first job?  If your teaching kitchens are filled with every cool piece of kitchen equipment on the market how will graduates function in a real kitchen when there are not limitless supplies of combi-ovens, sheet pans, Robot Coupes, Vitamix blenders, and sous vide circulators?  Until students realize that the one kitchen Robot Coupe must be shared by the entire crew – they will never learn how to communicate and work as a team.

  • LACK OF AWARENESS ON THE PART OF FACULTY

A chef instructor’s learning curve does not end when they accept the job.  Yes, even faculty members need to continue to engage in the learning process.  Volunteer for a stage at a great local restaurant, take an occasional sabbatical to re-enter the industry, attend conferences and workshops, take a class on a new method of preparation, and belong to professional organizations.  You can’t teach what you don’t know.

  • NOT ABLE TO TEACH A SENSE OF URGENCY

One thing that I hear constantly from chefs who are asked about their opinions of culinary school graduates is that young cooks do not understand “sense of urgency”.  They must be able to multi-task and complete work at the highest level of quality with speed and dexterity.  When there are 100 reservations on the books – you don’t have the luxury of spending three hours to turn six-dozen potatoes.  No matter what – you need to be ready!

  • LACK OF REPETITION

How do you get better at any task in the kitchen: knife skills, making stocks, filleting fish, trimming beef tenders, shocking oysters, or peeling shrimp?  The answer is simple:  you invest the time in doing the task over, and over, and over again.  When a program spends two days on teaching classic sauces – the student will never become competent at making any of them.  When a stock is something that you do in week number four of Foundations of Cooking, then you will never be confident and competent at making stocks.  Exposure is nice – repetition is how we really learn.

  1. UNWILLING TO REALLY STRESS THE FOUNDATIONS

The foundations are only relevant if they become habits.  A recipe that takes two pages of dialogue to explain how to braise a veal shank does not make a cook a master of braising.  When we stress methods and practice them constantly then they become habits and all that a recipe need do is direct the cook to “braise”.  Everything else is imbedded in a cook’s subconscious.

  1. INABILITY TO TEACH STUDENTS TO THINK

What drive chefs crazy are the foolish questions that abound when cooks are not taught to think things through.  Give a young cook a list of six tasks to perform in a shift and watch to see how many will prioritize those tasks by the amount of effort required and the time involved in their completion.  Ask a student to follow a recipe and watch to see how well they think through the organization of their workstation to accomplish the task.  Think before you act – this is what builds confidence and ability.

  1. INABILITY TO TEACH STUDENTS TO PROBLEM SOLVE

What happens when an emulsion breaks?  How can it be fixed?  What can be done if a particular ingredient fails to arrive in time – can it be replaced with something else?  How will you act if one of your fellow cooks fails to show up to work – do you just ignore his scheduled work or do you accommodate that into your production?  Your sauté pans are sticking – do you wait for someone to walk you through the process of polishing those pans, do you ask the chef to solve the problem for you, or do you take the initiative to make it work?

  1. LACK OF DISCIPLINE

What are the most primal expectations that a chef has of any cook?  Most would say: show up, be prepared, listen, work well with others, work fast and efficiently, and work to the standards of excellence that are established for the business.  These are disciplines that rank very high on an employers list, yet do we adequately emphasize them in our programs?

  1. INABILITY TO TEACH TEAMWORK

Our students will more often than not – seek to earn the best grades for their individual work.  When we set the stage for students to strive for that grade we oftentimes lose sight of the fact that individual effort on the job will always pale in comparison to the team effort.  It is much more difficult to learn to depend on others and support them than it is to put forth the best individual effort.  Cooking is a team sport!

  1. LACK OF COST CONSCIOUSNESS

Restaurants are businesses that operate on profit measured in pennies.  Every product that a student handles in class should carry a price tag.  What are the raw costs of the materials, what is the production costs associated with seasoning, oils, flour for dredging, etc.  What would it cost, from a labor perspective, to produce that dish and what selling price would need to be attached to maintain a reasonable profit?  Aside from taste and appearance – this is what we should be teaching.

  1. A POORLY DEFINED OVERALL EXPERIENCE

Are you building in experiences that complement the learning curve?  When you talk about the beautiful raw materials that a cook is able to use in restaurants – the meaning of that becomes much more vivid if it is accompanied by a visit to a farm, dockside fishing vessel, cattle ranch, or cheese making facility.  This is an essential part of learning in schools that have “success” as part of their vocabulary.

  1. NOT COMMITTED TO THE LONG HAUL

Schools that put a timeline on an education are missing the chance to embellish their brand and help support a graduate through the stages of his or her career.  Developing and presenting ways of enhancing their degree through continuing education, on-line resources, short training videos, and other communication pieces such as blogs and a resource center that students might contact once they graduate is a great way to become a partner in student success.

  1. LACK OF PARTNERSHIPS WITH INDUSTRY

Developing internships and externships that are measureable, training chefs how to continue a student’s education while on a work program, inviting chefs and restaurateurs to visit the campus, speak with students, work alongside them in classes, or present a demo will build partner relationships that are bonding. 

  1. INABILITY TO EXPLAIN VALUE

When a guest leaves a restaurant and is most concerned with how much the meal cost – then the restaurant has failed to demonstrate value.  When a student graduates from a culinary program and spends years complaining about the cost of his or her education – then the school has failed to demonstrate value.  Know what it is that you uniquely offer to justify the investment of money and time.

  • NOT PREPARED TO BE A COMPLETE RESOURCE FOR INDUSTRY

Finally, schools will have a difficult time succeeding if they do not find ways to support the needs of the businesses that hire graduates.  This might mean simply serving as an information resource, offering refresher courses for their employees, or even providing consulting services that will help food businesses survive the ups and downs of serving the public.

Those schools that “get it” will find that the years ahead will be very bright and students, employers, and alumni will want to connect with them and become a part of their success.

PLAN BETTER –TRAIN HARDER

Harvest America Ventures, LLC

www.harvestamericacues.com  BLOG

CAFÉ Talks Podcast

https://cafemeetingplace.com/cafe-podcasts

CHEF OF THE COLD KITCHEN

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We have all heard the phrase: “If you can’t stand the heat – get out of the kitchen”.  To many it defines what it is like to work in a restaurant kitchen – toiling over cherry red hot flat tops and char broiler flames that rise up to surround steaks and chops seeking those perfect grill marks, a deep fryer spitting hot oil back at the fry cook, and pans so hot that they would polish the palms of a cook if touched without a proper dry towel.  Those who have held a station position on the line know what it’s like to feel sweat run down your back, chef hats soaked at the end of the night, feet swollen from the heat, and dinner plates almost too hot to handle.  The temperature in front of the sauté station is likely in excess of 150 degrees and the broiler even higher.  Ovens are cranked up all the way during service so that opening and closing of doors does not drop the temperature too much, and if you have a wood fired oven for pizza it is likely tipping the scales at over 700 degrees.  It’s hot!

But….there is another part of the kitchen where this is not so.  A part of the kitchen that is home to cooks and chefs who are just as hard working and just as talented as those on the line.  This is a place where the pressure of the clock still exists, where orders off the POS seem to stream just as relentlessly, and where impatient servers tap their shoes and stare just as mercilessly as they do on the hot line.  This is the home of Garde Manger, or pantry, or simply – the cold kitchen.  This is where cold appetizers, salads, terrines, pates, cheese plates, and likely desserts are presented with a high level of artistic expression and where, in many cases, the profit in restaurants reside.

Don’t dismiss this area of the kitchen.  While the hot line may be home to the adrenaline rush and the machismo associated with a bit of suffering to accompany the excitement – the cold kitchen is a place of a methodical approach towards design and structure.  The person who is dedicated to the cooking methods used and the complexity of design will find that the cold kitchen is a place where cooks learn about ratios and formulas, the exactness of flavor building that is sometimes replaced by an educated palate on the hot line, and where the layout on the plate can be comprised of an inventory of flavors that are both separate and unified akin to planning out what clothes you might wear signifying the uniqueness of each piece and the symmetry of the whole package.

When an appetizer is planned appropriately it is a vivid introduction to a meal, a piece that starts the process of leading up to the entrée and foretells what the guest can expect.  The flavors should be full and tempting causing the person to both salivate and anticipate what will follow.  The garde manger must be conservative with portion sizes while affording the greatest impact on the dining experience.  Additionally, the cold appetizer that arrives from the garde manger must be so striking as to cause the guest to stop and admire the dish from different angles before experiencing the flavor, aroma, and texture.  Finally, the cold appetizer should be such that the guest is hoping for more, but knowing that the stage has been set for subsequent courses to complete the package.

If it is a pate, terrine, or galantine; rillettes, plate of canapés, or even the before the meal amuse bouche – the Garde Manger must understand composition, the role of and ratio for fat to meat, the impact that temperature has on the flavor profile of the item, the best way to use space on the plate, the right complements or sauces that will enhance the flavor of the item while not attacking the palate leaving it unreceptive to the next course.  It is a fine line to walk – one that requires the planning of the menu to be such that all courses are designed to marry with others.  Chef Grant Achatz of Alinea Restaurant in Chicago refers to it as “Flavor Bouncing” where everything on a plate marries with every other ingredient and every dish on a menu does the same with other dishes.

When the Garde Manger approaches salads- he or she does so with the same enthusiasm that a Sauté Cook or Grillade does with a dish from their station.  There can be no “utilitarian” salad in a true garde manger department.  The salad, even one described as a “side”, should be able to stand alone in terms of its flavor blending, and visual presentation.  Salads from this department are designed to accent the components of construction to include a base, body, garnish, and dressing.  Nothing on the salad plate is superfluous – everything has a purpose.  The ingredients must reflect the height of freshness, the colors and flavors of the season, the application of height and breadth on the plate, the textures that excite the palate, and a dressing that is noticeable, yet reluctant to hide the natural flavors of the primary ingredients.  In a true garde manger department the salad dressing is applied by the cook, not by the server, and the dressing used is specific to the integrity of the dish.

Oftentimes the cold kitchen is also the place where the work of a pastry chef or baker is assembled for the guest.  The ingredients of gelato, sorbet, cakes, tortes, pate au choux, Bavarian, mousse, coulis and hippenmasse, and tuilles and savarin may have been prepared earlier that day, but the Garde Manger at night is assigned the responsibility of pulling everything together in an orchestra of color, height, structure, texture balance, and exciting flavor.  This is, after all, the end of the meal and a memory that guests will carry with them.

On buffets it is the Garde Manger who stands tall and steals the show.  Those platters of charcuterie, relishes and chutneys, exotic cheeses presented as if someone measured the precise distance between pieces and placed them as a river might flow within the boundaries of its banks.  Standing tall on risers, or tilted toward the guest as if waiting for a camera to capture the art, these platters signify the commitment to quality that exists in the kitchen and how proud every cook is of the work done.

The first course and the last course are in the hands of the cold kitchen and as such become the basis for memories of the dining experience.  It is this combination that affords the restaurant an opportunity to earn a profit.  Those items that guests need not purchase, yet if presented properly are highly desired, are the ones that signify whether a restaurant will be able to remain viable or not.  This is the role of the garde manger and the value of the cold kitchen.  Don’t underestimate the importance of the person who calls this area of your kitchen – home.

PLAN BETTER – TRAIN HARDER

Harvest America Ventures, LLC

Restaurant Consulting

www.harvestamericacues.com  BLOG

CAFÉ Talks Podcast

https://cafemeetingplace.com/cafe-podcasts

CHEF’S HAVE PERMISSION TO SUCCEED

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It was 1969 when the acclaimed “super group” – Blind Faith with Steve Winwood, Eric Clapton, and Ginger Baker caused a stir with their self-titled album.  Although the group was short lived, they did leave us with an applicable lyric:

DO WHAT YOU LIKE:

“Do right, use your head, everybody must be fed
Get together, break your bread, yes, together, that’s what I said
Do what you like”

-BLIND FAITH

Well, to a significant degree chefs have been working on blind faith for decades.  The hope was that by doing more, working harder and longer, making more complicated menus, and pushing the envelope of creativity the restaurant industry would rise up to new levels of success.  Menus became encyclopedic, the skills to execute these menus were over the top, the equipment that allowed for this level of creativity was space age and expensive, the intensity and stress in the kitchen was as heavy as lead, and the number of staff members required to execute this complexity was painful.

Chefs and those aspiring to become chefs gave up any semblance of balance in their lives to be part of this madness, dozens of vendors were required to meet the ingredient needs of complex menus, dining room table tops were plagued by extraordinarily expensive inventories of Riedl glassware, bone china and sterling silver flatware; and wine cellars became museums for wine selections from around the world that rang up hundreds of thousands of dollars in rare vintages to support the menus that chef’s felt compelled to design.

At the end of service when the lights were finally turned off over the $50K combi ranges, bank of sous vide set-ups, All-Clad pots and pans, Vitamix blenders, Paco-Jets, and anti-griddles – chefs were left exhausted, bruised, angry, desperate to keep the line cooks that they had just belittled for placing fresh herbs with stainless tweezers at 3 o’clock instead of 5 o’clock on the plate, and discovering that although the dining room was full of 4-hour dining patrons, and wine was served at every table – the restaurant was still not profitable. 

Down the street – a cadre of small independent restaurants with smaller staff requirements and tasty rustic menus would have been profitable except rents on their space had gone through the roof ever since this high end, 8-course menu, mecca restaurant opened its doors.  These small restaurant operators opened and closed their doors at an alarming rate simply because they couldn’t afford the space.

Any reasonable person would look at these situations, scratch his or her head and wonder what in the world was everyone thinking.  This was the restaurant world, or at least part of it, prior to the pandemic.  This is a restaurant world that is not sustainable.  This is the restaurant world that must change – and it will.

Chefs and restaurateurs need the freedom to “do what they like” and find success in terms of restaurant profitability, life balance, happy guests, and fulfilled employees.  This is what needs to happen and this is what will happen – chef’s and restaurateurs have permission to change.

In a recent article about Danny Meyer – NYC restaurateur extraordinaire, he talks about his epiphany over the past year – an opportunity he had to truly assess everything about his restaurants and the accepted approach towards operation.  

“Never again in our careers will we be able to take the boat out of water and put it in dry dock for a year to inspect every inch of its underbelly and make it seaworthy again,”

“We want to make sure when we put the boat back in the water, it’s a sounder boat and does business in a better way.”

-Danny Meyer – Union Square Hospitality

Inc. Magazine:

https://www.inc.com/lindsay-blakely/danny-meyer-union-square-future-restaurant-business.html?fbclid=IwAR30zbCadI_9nqRmBZU6o4Iu9XuYETaxJ7riH_NOE2mDcDaUhaxI5c7jpas

Danny Meyer is giving all of us permission to change the accepted approach towards the restaurant business and the way that we measure success.

Fairness, equality, respectable pay, balanced lives, manageable menus, fair third-party fee structures, and operations that stand a better chance of earning a profit must be key to a formula for success moving forward.  This is an opportunity and an absolute requirement moving forward – we must embrace this and more.

Menus that reflect excellent ingredients and seasonality, menus that offer less choice, but the highest standards of quality, presentations that are naturally beautiful but that do not require an army to assemble, flavors that excite and satisfy, service that is real and filled with honest to goodness hospitality, dining rooms that are comfortable, cheerful and fun, and prices that allow for profitability while making sense to a larger swath of guests – this is what we have permission to focus on.

Let’s keep our standards high with fewer, well-paid employees who have the ability to engage in exciting careers and balance a life beyond the kitchen or dining room.  We can do this and there has never been a better time to think about how we move in this direction.

PLAN BETTER – TRAIN HARDER

Harvest America Ventures, LLC

www.harvestamericacues.com – BLOG

CAFÉ Talks Podcast

https://cafemeetingplace.com/cafe-podcasts

DON’T SETTLE FOR MEDIOCRITY

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It would be difficult to find a more sinister, demoralizing, harmful, or self-destructive word than mediocre.  Mediocre sucks the lifeblood out of an individual or an organization – it is the dark side of the moon, the harbinger of discomfort and pain, and the salt in the wound that saps your energy and leaves you hardened and embarrassed.  Am I over-dramatizing it – maybe, but then again –  maybe not.

When we settle for mediocre we relegate ourselves to a life of not good enough, also ran, and didn’t care enough to make it.  Is this where you want to be?  Look around you – identify the companies, businesses, or individuals whom you admire – you know, the ones that seem to win a lot and fit into that category of “successful”.  Even more important – these are the companies, businesses, or individuals that seem to enjoy what they are all about.  These “successful” players are there due to one very important reason: they never accept mediocrity.  In fact, just the opposite – they constantly seek excellence and always know that as good as they may be – they can always be better.  Mediocrity has no place in their vocabulary.

These are the Ritz Carlton’s of the hotel business, the Tesla’s of electric autos, the Wegman’s of the grocery business, the Apple’s of computer hardware and electronics, the Harvard’s of business schools, and the French Laundry’s of the restaurant industry.  We know them by name, we oftentimes buy their products and services, we read about their success, and we aspire to be like them in some small way.  Look deeply into these businesses and the people who own and operate them and you will see an unrelenting effort towards achieving excellence in design, product quality, efficiency, value, and service.  The culture of these businesses insists on the relentless pursuit of greatness.  The Japanese would refer to them as companies focused on “Kaisen” (a pursuit of constant improvement). 

Now here is the kicker – excellence has very little to do with the price you charge or the type of product or service you provide.  The big misconception is: “You get what you pay for”.  This is an excuse that allows a person or a company to accept being mediocre.  “It’s only a hot dog” – so excellence is not an option: WRONG.  “It’s only a plate of spaghetti” – so excellence is a pipe dream – WRONG.  “It’s only beer” – so why even focus on excellence – people will drink what you pour – WRONG.    “This isn’t the French Laundry” so why even invest the time in plate presentation and cooking it properly – WRONG. 

Take a simple hamburger – the second most popular item on American menus (a close second to pizza).  Ground beef, lettuce, tomato, onion, and a bun – simple right?  Walk through the steps toward excellence:

  • What blend of meat and what fat content make the most flavorful and moist burger?
  • What method of cooking will yield the best opportunity for caramelization and deliciousness?
  • What piece of equipment will be most successful in reaching your goals of deliciousness?
  • Which type of lettuce will provide the freshness, the crunch, the mouth-feel, and the flavor balance with that perfect burger?
  • Which type of tomato will present the most pronounced flavor of fine ripened, deeply refreshing acid/sweet balance on the sandwich and how can we ensure this consistently throughout the year?
  • Which bun sits best in the hand, has the balance of crust and soft interior, toasts well and holds its shape while absorbing the juice from that perfectly cooked burger?
  • What type of onion provides the aroma, sweet bite, and intensity that cuts through the fat of the burger to offer the perfect package of flavor and texture?
  • Should the fries offered on the side be hand cut or frozen?  If hand cut – which potatoes offer the right balance of starch and sugar to brown properly and hold their shape?  What type of fat and what is the best temperature for producing the perfect fry?
  • Should pickles be sliced in coins, sliced lengthwise, cut in wedges, or left whole.  Should we pickle our own or buy them? Should they be sour dills, half dills, bread and butter pickles, or intensely spicy?  What works best in creating excellence?

If you walk through these questions and answer each with excellence in mind it is easy to see how the simple acceptance of mediocrity will never set the stage for success, but an all out assault on mediocre decisions with an over-riding intent to make “the absolute best burger in the history of mankind” can lead a restaurant of any type to be superior and to create loads of  “WOW” experiences for guests.

Create a similar checklist for every product on your menu, regardless of the type of operation or the prices on you charge and you will find a path from mediocrity to excellence. 

Now, here is the bonus: when mediocrity is replaced with excellence then every person who works in an operation feels the power of earned pride.  Excellence will eventually become the norm with everything that they do – on the job and off.  At some point their work stations will be better organized, their uniforms will look a bit more pristine, their knives will be sharper, their attitude toward others will be brighter, and their acceptance of mistakes or slips towards mediocrity (from themselves or others) will not be tolerated.  As the movement towards excellence becomes the standard – everyone and everything will begin to rise up.  At some point excellence will no longer be a destination – it will become a habit and an essential part of a business culture.

When excellence is the standard method of operation for the business then purveyors will work extra hard to make sure you receive the best ingredients, the best potential employees will be knocking on your door for an opportunity to join the team, the regional press will notice and be more inclined to tell your story, and occasional customers will become steady customers and eventually ambassadors to spread the word about a GREAT restaurant (or school, car dealership, shoe store, or insurance agency).

Now this doesn’t happen overnight – it is a process that takes time, but it starts with the small stuff.  It is your job to SWEAT THE SMALL STUFF.  It is your job to make sure the equipment in the kitchen is in good working order, the store rooms are organized, uniform appearance is monitored, the dining room tables are steady, employees are constantly being trained, the dish pit procedures produce spotless china, glassware, and flatware; the windows are clean, the parking lot swept, the signage is maintained, and the bottles on the back bar are dusted with labels facing forward.  All of the details from the mix of beef in your hamburger to the polish on the flatware will lead the operation away from mediocrity and pointed in the direction of excellence.  This can work for the hot dog stand that attracts customers from 20 miles away to the fine dining restaurant picking organic fresh vegetables from their roof top garden.  The formula is the same – it’s all about your interest and commitment to make it happen.

PLAN BETTER – TRAIN HARDER

Eliminate mediocre from your vocabulary

Harvest America Ventures, LLC

Restaurant Consulting

www.harvestamericacues.com  BLOG

CAFÉ Talks Podcast

https://cafemeetingplace.com/cafe-podcasts

A CHEF’S MANIFESTO – 2021

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An exercise that I have found to be really helpful is to occasionally state/re-state what you believe in as a chef.  Every now and then this can serve as a “checks and balance” activity to keep you on the right path and assess where and why you might have strayed from those “stakes in the ground” that are important to your core.  This is also a great comparative process to use when seeking a new career opportunity – a chance to note if taking a different position aligns with your beliefs or if it causes you to compromise.  I would encourage you to think about this and take the time to write down your beliefs as a “manifesto” and then use it as a guide moving forward.

Here is my manifesto as a chef.  Full disclosure – I have drifted from these beliefs at times and have generally regretted doing so. 

[]         RESPECT:

All people are different – they bring their own set of baggage to work and to life.  They may not agree with you or you may not agree with them but they deserve to be treated with respect as human beings.  You can disagree, even disagree strongly, but they deserve the opportunity to look you in the eye and know that you do not feel superior because of that disagreement. 

Respect for the place where you work, those who own and operate the business and the physical property for which you are responsible is paramount.  Just as is the case with the first paragraph – even though you may not agree with the actions of the business or those in charge – you should always respect that you work for them.  You can disagree, take a stand, make your point, continue to have a unique opinion, but in the end – it is their business.  If this violates your manifesto of beliefs and cannot be altered then look for another place to work – do not slip from your commitment to respect.

[]         COMMITMENT TO EXCELLENCE:

Anything worth doing is worth doing well; in fact it is worth doing at a level that lives up to your potential.  Whether the task is washing pots, cutting vegetables, or setting up the most intricate plate presentation – that commitment to excellence should prevail.  Writing a memo?  Do it with excellence in mind.  Preparing a menu?  Excellence is the standard that you must follow.  If you are taking inventory on a Sunday night – approach it as if it is the most important task imaginable.

Excellence should never be a goal for which you strive – excellence is a habit that is impossible to break.

[]         FAIRNESS:

There will always be decisions that you will need to make as a chef; decisions that impact people (as most decisions will) – decisions that will not sit well with some.  Such is life and as hard as those decisions might be – just make sure that those who are impacted are treated fairly and justly. 

If you are in a position to reward performance – make sure you are fair in how you decide to reward.  If you need to punish for actions taken, make sure that you are equitable in your approach so that it is not perceived that you play favorites.  In general, people can accept your decisions, but they cannot accept them if they are done with bias.

[]         EMPATHY:

Remember, everyone has baggage that they carry with him or her to work.  The old adage: “When you come to work – leave your personal problems at home” is simply not feasible.  As the chef you are charged with helping your employees give a good days work for a good days pay, but to do that effectively you must understand the environmental factors that impact this work.  This does not mean that you should expect anything less that good work, but you should always try to understand what might be getting in the way. 

On occasion you may need to make adjustments so that an employee can work through their challenges (schedule adjustment, change assignments, send them home, offer advice, refer them to someone who might help, etc.).  Employees that know that you care are always more determined to try their best and less willing to disappoint you or their co-workers.

[]         TRUST:

Trust is something that goes both ways.  If you expect your employees and co-workers to trust you and the decisions that you make then it is imperative that you trust them first.  If employees are properly trained to perform a task then you need to trust them to do it.  Some refer to this as delegation, but behind delegation of duties must lay a willingness to trust.  Trust that is given leads to trust that is gained.

The irony of trust is that it is rarely given without experience and it is quickly lost when violated even once.  Be consistent with your approach towards people and situations so that others can predict and depend on how you will act.

[]         TRANSPARENCY:

When you hide things from employees and/or co-workers then trust will quickly erode.  Obviously, there are some things that are beyond the purview of others, but make it clear when that is the case.  In fact, wherever possible try to share more than people would expect.  You will be surprised at how much they appreciate it.

If you have a need to better control costs then begin by sharing figures and challenges with your staff.  Let them know about sales, food cost, labor cost, changes in vendor prices, increases in utilities, mortgage or lease arrangements, and how profitable or unprofitable the restaurant is.  What will often be surprising is that your staff members will have great ideas on how to save money and increase sales.  Bring them into the fold and they will rise to the occasion and feel ownership for the challenges as much as you do.

[]         LISTEN:

Sometimes it is far more important to listen than to talk.  As the saying goes – the best leaders listen more and talk less.  Don’t pre-judge a situation until you have heard all sides.  Don’t approach a challenge with a predetermined conclusion or action without inquiring into all of the factors involved.

Give your employees a forum for expressing their opinions, observations, and ideas.  This can be regularly scheduled staff meetings, 10 minute post shift wrap-up sessions, or an open door policy where they feel comfortable approaching you one-on-one.  Even if you don’t act or even agree – the fact that you were willing to listen is a big step in the right direction.

[]         STAY TRUE TO THE FOUNDATIONS:

You started out as a cook and did so because you focused on learning the right approach toward cooking.  The right way to hold a knife and cut vegetables, the right way to fabricate meats and fish, the right way to organize the kitchen and a work station, the right way to apply basic cooking methods, the right way to prepare a stock or a soup, the right way to purchase and control the quality of ingredients, etc.  Don’t ever lose sight of this in favor of short cuts that might interfere with quality or a consistent end result.  “If you don’t have the time to do it right the first time, when will you find the time to do it over?”

[]         QUALITY and VALUE:

These two factors are inseparable.  Quality is what built your reputation and quality is what will help to keep it.  Quality quickly becomes the expectation of all involved and reputation is built on it.  When quality is sacrificed then value is diminished and reputations with suffer.

Always remember that the reputation of the restaurant and the reputation of those who work there (including yourself) are based on everyone’s reliance on quality and value.  Once lost, a good reputation is hard to recover.

[]         THINK FIRST – THEN ACT:

There is a major difference between action and reaction.  The factor that gets in the way of good decisions is the emotion that you allow in.  Reaction is poisoned by fear, anger, hate, revenge, and misunderstanding.  Take a moment, breathe deep, and ask why did something happen that requires action, who was responsible, what is an appropriate action, and how should it be implemented and relayed to others.  It is that brief moment of reflection that will make all the difference in how successful you action is.

[]         PLANNING TO ELIMINATE MISTAKES:

Mistakes, more often than not, are avoidable if you take the time to plan.  Murphy’s Law is always applicable:  “If something can go wrong, it probably will”.  Your role as a chef is to think ahead, to run through scenarios that might occur, to take the time to organize thoughts and build a strategy, and then to implement all of that in an effort to eliminate the need to deal with challenges or minimize the impact of those challenges. 

Ironically, there are rarely decisions made that do not impact others.  Reaction without planning will uncover numerous other challenges that you failed to think through.  Take the time to plan.

[]         OWN IT:

Everyone makes mistakes – this is inevitable.  In fact, many people believe that the best overall decisions come from lessons learned from failure.  Failure weighs heavy on those who realize their mistakes, but even heavier on those who fail to take responsibility.  Co-workers, employees, and even customers will forgive your mistakes if you admit them and then work like hell to make sure the same mistakes are not made in the future.  You screwed up – so what!  Own it, ask for help, and learn how to recover.

[]         IF YOU ARE NOT SERVING THE GUEST DIRECTLY THEN SERVE THOSE WHO ARE:

As a chef your plate is always full.  You can’t be everywhere thus you must rely on others to step up and “do their job”.  Ultimately, it is the guest who must walk away satisfied, and hopefully impressed.  You can’t order, organize, plan, cook the food, plate the dishes, and deliver everything to a waiting guest – so one of your primary tasks must be to properly train and provide the necessary tools for others in your organization to attend to the details and bring about customer satisfaction.  “What do you need, what can I do, and where can I be to best support you” goes a long way toward achieving those goals.

[]         KEEP IT ORGANIZED:

Mise en place goes way beyond your personal work area.  As a chef it is imperative that you set the tone by creating an organized kitchen – everything has a place and everything is in its place” is a theme that sets the stage for success.

[]         LOOK THE PART, ACT THE PART:

Finally, a chef must always stand out as the example for others.  A clean pressed uniform, an organized office, a person who carries himself or herself as a consummate professional, a person who acts in a manner that is beyond reproach, a person who is consistent in how situations are handled, and a person who makes sure that everyone is treated fairly and respectfully is a model for others to emulate.  Be that person.

PLAN BETTER – TRAIN HARDER

Harvest America Ventures, LLC

Restaurant Consulting

www.harvestamericacues.com  BLOG

CAFÉ Talks Podcast

https://cafemeetingplace.com/cafe-podcasts

THE AMERICAN RESTAURANT 2022 (Post Pandemic)

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Ah…now is the time for everyone to start speculating about what the restaurant business will look like when all of this craziness is over.  Let’s start with what we are fairly comfortable saying:  whatever “normal” is will likely not make an appearance until the end of 2021 – so…let’s begin our speculation with January of 2022 to be safe.  I know what you are thinking – WHAT!!!! Restaurants cannot wait that long, no way, no how – this is the end of the world, as we know it.  Sorry – just trying to be realistic.  Once we have a target we might at least be able to plan effectively to either re-invent or throw in the towel.  At least the real bad news is out of the way.

Now, let’s think about the purpose of restaurants so that current and potential restaurateurs and chefs can choose the direction they want to take. 

THE PURPOSE OF RESTAURANTS (Where do you want to fit)

  1. To nourish and provide sustenance
  2. To offer convenience
  3. To provide a forum for conversation
  4. To create opportunities for gatherings
  5. To reward customers
  6. To provide an outlet for chef creativity
  7. To complete a neighborhood or destination
  8. To rock customers world

There may be more reasons, but these are the most common.  So choose where you want to sit and lets jump on the speculation train.

[]         NOURISH AND PROVIDE SUSTENANCE:

Without a doubt – one of the primary purposes of a restaurant and one that supports the defined needs of a guest is to fill their stomachs.  There are numerous multi-billion dollar chains along with countless mom and pop operations that do a great job on this front.  Of, course the food must be tasty and appealing at some level and above all else – consistent.  If this is your purpose then the field is wide open and will remain so as long as the price you charge matches the level of purpose.

[]         OFFER CONVENIENCE:

Quite often, the restaurant that is focused on nourishment is also great at providing convenience.  In a world where everyone seems to live on tight schedules – convenience rules the day.  How convenient you might ask:  we barely need to slow down our cars and roll down the window when our food arrives – that’s convenience.  During the pandemic – those operators who have been able to convert their operations to take out, curb side, or delivery using third party providers like GrubHub and Uber Eats have hit the nail on the head.  Safety and convenience are first and foremost in consumer’s minds.

[]         PROVIDE A FORUM FOR CONVERSATION:

The heart and soul of many communities is a place where conversation flows freely –  a place where opinions reign and where judgment of others is set aside in favor of a free flow of ideas.  This was (is) the design of classic coffee houses, speakeasys, and corner cafes for generations.  Whether a restaurant or tavern fills the role is dependent on many factors, but high on the list is the owner’s intent on creating a mecca for this to take place.   If creating this type of environment is high on your list of priorities then there will come a time, an important time, when we are able to return to this type of interaction. 

[]         TO CREATE OPPORTUNITIES FOR GATHERINGS:

Houses focused on catering informal and formal events whether it is that tavern where people gathered after a game to celebrate a win or commiserate a loss, the banquet hall booked for weddings, reunions, birthdays, and holidays; or simply that restaurant where you can always depend on familiar faces to clink glasses with – gathering spots are important.  We have felt the pain of their loss over the past year, and will need to do without them a bit longer, but in all likelihood they will return in a very robust way once it makes sense. 

[]         TO REWARD CUSTOMERS:

There are operators who enter the business for altruistic reasons:  to bring happiness to people, to reward them when others may forget to do so, or even to allow guests to find their own reason to seek a pat on the back.  Great food and drink and honest, sincere service can be the sunshine at the end of a not so terrific day.  This is what hospitality is all about.

[]         TO PROVIDE AN OUTLET FOR CHEF CREATIVITY:

The definition of a chef sometimes includes: “frustrated artist”.  Individuals who dedicate their lives to the preparation of food often view the plate as their canvas and what they do as something far more than just nourishment.  This may be your priority, but know that those on the consuming end may not appreciate the chef’s art form.  Restaurants are businesses as well and the customer is the other end of the restaurant tug of war.  Art is wonderful, but in business it must sell to have any real value.

[]         TO COMPLETE A NEIGHBORHOOD OR DESTINATION:

Look at your own neighborhood and point to any common point of interest that helps to bring people together and turn a few blocks of houses into a community of homes.  Chances are pretty good that the point of interest will be a restaurant.  Gentrification or urban renewal almost always begins with the opening of a place of dining.  Focusing on this makes both altruistic and good business sense.

[]         ROCK CUSTOMERS’ WORLD:

Ah, then there are restaurants, restaurant owners, chefs and cooks who see the operation as a vehicle for standing out, for making people jump up and applaud, for confusing the competition and helping people focus on food experiences that they never imagined.  These are the risk takers, the individuals who push the envelope, and the ones who work like crazy because they have a goal of knocking people’s socks off.  If this is your objective then know that it is hard, it involves the fickle nature of consumers, it requires superhuman effort to earn and then more to maintain a reputation for “the extraordinary”.  To see this as a goal is to make a lifetime commitment to constant improvement because what rocks a customer today will become ordinary tomorrow.  Many have tried, but few have succeeded.

So, what will rise to the top when the Covid Monster has gone into hibernation?  Impossible to say, but there are some indications of change they just might have staying power.  Here are a few to chew on:

  1. GHOST KITCHENS are making people scratch their heads and wonder if this is the next “big” thing.  Rent kitchen space, develop multiple concepts around a core of ingredients, develop a separate branding campaign including “order friendly” websites, contract with a third party delivery service and go to town.  Minimal staff, no long-term lease, no property taxes, no dining room, no service protocol, and social media as your only marketing initiative.  If one of those brands fails to move well then shut down the website and you are done.  Much of the sizzle is set aside, customer interaction is non-existent, and the feeling of community may be lost – but it certainly is interesting and it eliminates many of the challenges that restaurants face.
  • FOOD TRUCKS are not a passing fad.  Eliminating the need for brick and mortar and a set location give restaurateurs a chance to take the product where the customer is and move freely when customers have a need to do the same.  Limited, focused menus; high impact flavors; spontaneity, and limited staff needs make this a very attractive model for chefs and owners.  Add a rented commissary kitchen space (ghost kitchen) for prep and you can scale a hot concept to multiple trucks working an entire city.
  • POP UP RESTAURANTS give a chef the opportunity to experiment with concepts, menu items, styles of service and preparation, and even multiple locations.  Running a concept for a few weeks can provide enough analytical data to support the need for a brick and mortar operation someday down the road.  It makes sense to move in together before marriage.
  • GROCERY STORE PARTNERSHIPS provide chefs with another potential outlet for their product without the headache of dining rooms, service staff, and the pressure of the clock.  Renting shelf or cooler space for your product places the merchandising, collection of cash and credit, and facilities maintenance in the hands of the store.  Placing your product in a location where customers visit anyway opens the door for spontaneous sales providing your packaging and point of sale merchandising is top shelf.
  • BRICK AND MORTAR OPERATIONS will have a much more difficult time rising from the destruction that the pandemic is leaving behind.  Lease, mortgage, utilities, staffing, and the need to convince people to visit you is even more of a challenge than in the past.  There is little doubt that location restaurants will return, will service the needs of customers, and in some cases will thrive, but they’re a far greater gamble than other options – at least in the short term.

Be cautious, but through planning and the willingness to make solid business decisions you can find a market for your product and service.

PLAN BETTER – TRAIN HARDER

Harvest America Ventures, LLC

Restaurant Consulting

www.harvestamericacues.com  BLOG

CAFÉ Talks Podcast

https://cafemeetingplace.com/cafe-podcasts

ONCE UPON A TIME THERE WAS A TAVERN

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Every year, a significant number of new restaurants open and almost as many close their doors for good.  It is, that spark of “I have a great idea for a restaurant” that drives many people towards the leap into entrepreneurship – a leap that too many are unprepared for.  Nevertheless we have always been blessed with choice when it comes to finding a place to eat.  On occasion, a restaurant opens, the owners have the right idea, everyone in the operation rallies around core principles that find a home in consumer minds and hearts, and the place enjoys success for a long period of time.  These are the places where memories are built and where customers become friends, and friendships last from generation to generation.

This past year has been excruciatingly brutal on restaurants that simply haven’t been able to weather this relentless storm of pandemic related restrictions and consumer concerns.  The typical 30% or more failure rate has crept up to 50% and even the most established generational restaurants have locked their doors for the final time.

It pains me to see any restaurant close.  I know how much time, energy, money, and heart goes into that first day when a proud operator and/or chef looks up at the front door sign that proclaims they are open for business.  I know how much personal experience is expressed in the menu that is oftentimes comprised of family recipes and a chefs “best effort”.  I know how many sleepless nights went into the decision to lease a space, writing a check for the kitchen equipment, filing for an LLC, hiring those first employees, receiving that first order from vendors, and wondering if there will be enough money to pay the bills each week.  I know how heartbreaking it is when the dining room is nearly empty, and how invigorating it is when it is full.  The decision to close, to tell your loyal employees that it is over, to file for chapter eleven, to clean out the coolers and shut off the lights for the final time is something that cuts deep – this is maybe one of the worst feelings imaginable.

To some it is a sense of failure while to others it represents the end of a chapter and the beginning of a new one.  Some walk away never to contemplate ownership again, while others immediately begin to formulate the next “great idea”.  In all cases, it is not something that was contemplated on that first day of opening – it is always a last resort.

To this end, I think that it is proper to recognize all who take the leap, who give it their best, who pour their heart and soul into an idea – even if the end means a lock on the door.  Here are just a few remarkable restaurants that have closed this past year – many simply because the pandemic was the last straw – something that they just could not overcome – we will miss them:

[] BLACKBIRD:  A superb Chicago restaurant known for its innovation and passion.  Donnie Madia and Chef Paul Kanan did an extraordinary job of bringing a relatively small restaurant into the Chicago limelight.  Ultimately it was this small size that made it impossible to survive with the limits to capacity that the pandemic brought.

[] K-PAUL’S:  There were times when people would wrap around the block and wait hours for a chance to sit and break bread at Paul Prudhomme’s landmark restaurant that defined the Cajun/Creole obsession that people had for this New Orleans mecca.  Even after his death, the restaurant carried on – until it just couldn’t.

[] AUREOLE:  For a few decades there were a handful of incredible restaurants in New York City, just a handful out of the more than 25,000 in the Big Apple that truly defined the food revolution.  Chef Charlie Palmer’s Aureole was one of those operations.  Incredibly creative, extraordinarily delicious food accompanied by an out of this world wine list helped to put this operation on the map as one that stood out for decades.  Now the space is for rent.

[] BLUE SMOKE:  Quite possibly one of the most noteworthy, successful restaurateurs in America – Danny Meyer and his Union Square Restaurant group seemed to own New York City for quite some time.  Blue Smoke was his foray into the Barbeque genre, and it was a star.  Even the brightest stars can fade, and so Blue Smoke is no more.  Still, there is little question that Meyer’s restaurants will shine again once Covid is behind us.

[] THE COPACABANA:  A number of owners, a variety of locations, but always recognized as the premier “club” in the Big Apple.  This was the place in the city for the hip and the fun loving, for those in the know, and those who wanted that to be so.  No owner had more influence on this landmarks prominence from generation to generation than Peter Dorn.  He overcame many obstacles as locations were changed for various reasons from “off the park” to Hell’s Kitchen – this was the place to party.  Now it is a memory.

[] GOTHAM BAR AND GRILL:  I had a number of extraordinary meals at Gotham – a place known for innovation, the operation that coined “vertical cuisine”, a place of elegance and lightheartedness, a place for consistent excellence for more than 25 years under the guidance of Chef Alfred Portale (originally from Buffalo, New York), and a restaurant that for quite some time was one of the top grossing operations in the city.  Portale left a few years ago, but it was his standards that put the operation on the map.  I will really miss this restaurant.

[] THE 21 CLUB:  A speakeasy in 1922 during Prohibition – Jack Kriendler and Charlie Burns made this a place that was synonymous with the New York dining scene.  Hemingway was a regular, and the mob was known to hang out and even plan a hit on individuals not in their favor.  It was part of the New York landscape for almost 100 years.

[] FARALLON:  This was a restaurant whose décor was a combination of beauty and strangeness, but its food was undeniably superb.  The octopus ceiling lights may have been what reporters wrote about, but it’s the food and service at this San Francisco restaurant that everyone will miss.

[] PATINA:  This was Chef/owner Joachin Splichal’s first entrance into the fine dining scene of Los Angeles.  Often written about, frequently compared to, and always respected – this operation grew into a small empire of restaurants within the Patina Group that would eventually include restaurants on both coasts.  Now it is a memory.

[] CITY TAVERN:  This important restaurant opened its doors in 1773.  Many of the most influential people in American history spent time in this grand operation from Paul Revere to George Washington, Thomas Jefferson, and John Adams – the halls of City Tavern are filled with history.  In 1777 the 1st 4th of July celebration in our country was held at City Tavern – the most American of celebrations.  Chef Walter Staib was given approval to operate the business in the now National Park that is host to America’s past and he held this position with great pride until 2020 presented the business with a challenge that it could not overcome.

[] MORTONS CHICAGO and LAWRY’S PRIME RIB:  Houses of beef would be the most appropriate title for these operations.  Steaks, chops, and prime rib carved tableside.  Although other locations remain – these were destinations.

[] EVEREST:  Richard Melman – owner of Lettuce Entertain You – the thematic restaurant group centered in Chicago, opened Everest as his entrance into the high-end fine dining market.  Beautiful, masculine, impeccable old world service, and a menu that reflected the grand style of cuisine – now a moment in time.

[]         MESA GRILL – LAS VEGAS:  Bobby Flay was the guy for quite some time.  His blending of American cuisine and Southwestern won him acclaim at the New York City Mesa Grill and his sister operation Vegas took it to the next level.  When Vegas succumbed to the pandemic, the volumes needed to sustain many of the incredible restaurants there were forced to re-evaluate.  Mesa is a victim.

This is just a sample of the tens of thousands of restaurants that have closed over the past year.  Many in your neighborhood have likely fallen through no real fault of their own.  Where do these operators turn to for answers?  The normal: “what could I have done differently” is no longer valid.  Those in the business will try to ask these questions as recovery looms closer, but the answers will be few and far between.  One thing is clear – restaurants will rise again but with battle scars that will take years to heal.

Support your local restaurants when you are able, thank those restaurant owners and chefs for what they provide, and relish the memories that cafes, bistros, taverns, and restaurants have provided in your past.

“Once upon a time there was a tavern

Where we used to raise a glass or two

Remember how we laughed away the hours

And think of all the great things we would do

Those were the days my friend

We thought they’d never end

We’d sing and dance forever and a day

We’d live the life we choose

We’d fight and never lose

For we were young and sure to have our way”

  • Mary Hopkins – 1968

PLAN BETTER – TRAIN HARDER

Harvest America Ventures, LLC

Restaurant Consulting

www.harvestamericacues.com  BLOG

CAFÉ Talks Podcast

https://cafemeetingplace.com/cafe-podcasts

MOMENTS LOST

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How did it happen that we drifted apart

In so many cases no room for a start

We live in a world closed off to so much

Where neighbors and friends are kept out of touch

What you believe, what I believe limits what, who, when, and where

Think about common ground – how would we dare

The house next door seems miles away

The people inside think different than us

We wave and we nod, but fail to say

Let’s stay in touch and connected each day

We come from different roots

Our religion, color, or politics define who we are

Forget our neighbors forget their kind

Keep them at arms distance keep them behind

What once defined America

What once made us great

What kept the world in awe of the American Dream

Was so much less than what it might seem

A place of freedon where people were equal

Where opportunity abounds

And everyone started on common ground

Freedom of speech – to speak the truth

The privilege to vote to choose those to represent

The right to assemble, a chance to peaceably vent

We allowed it to happen

To change the intent

To disregard right and wrong

To forget what it was like to get along

Fear, lies, and incitement to act

In ways that drew us even further from fact

We turned our backs and said it wasn’t so bad

We laughed and we jeered at those who denied the truth

Until it was too late to turn things back

We stand now in disbelief and wonder for sure

And know that we are so far away from a cure

Our focus now is fighting for our life

Our time is spent dealing with extraordinary effects

The cause is far from our thoughts

Too many crises to spend time with that strife

Fight what’s before us, all effort is there –let’s do it – NOW

Pandemic, economic, a crumbing infrastructure, and political vow

This is where we invest our time and effort

This is now the focus that we allow

Isolation is hard, but not as hard as one might think

After all we have become so distant over the years

That we adjust in a blink

The real issue, what keeps us at bay

Is the sense of isolation that keeps us away

From shaking hands, listening, and giving people space

From allowing others to be who they are

Not who we want them to be

To separate facts from lies, to tell the truth

To trust one another to take the time to truly just see

Gone are the days when people did not fear

Trusting their neighbors and keeping them near

To help one another is a just cause

To deny each other’s rights should give us pause

Greatness does not come from denying what our forefathers built

To step on the home of the republic

Is never a sign of being a patriot

To threaten those who were duly elected

Is never a sign of being so true

To incite is never a right

To support those who do from which a great divide so grew

When we salute the flag under the pretense of loyalty

And treat those who deny its true meaning as royalty

Then how do we bring together

Those who seek right from wrong

Those who held on to truth all along

When people can’t distinguish good from evil

Then how do we ever mend

Where will we find the help to lend

Is this the America of Washington and Lincoln

A place where people unite to find a way

To recognize each other

To relish the day

When you and I find a common thread

Where the word of freedom and goodness

Is once again spread

This was America once

Is this America today

Who will bring us together

Who can show us the way

It’s up to us

Up to you and me

To make America the place

That once all could see

As a glimmer of light

A place to hold up high

A place where all

Could rise up and be free

God bless America the great democracy

To aspire to be

A land of opportunity

A land made for you and me

– Paul Sorgule

February 2021

THAT FIRST NIGHT ON THE LINE ALL OVER AGAIN

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One thing is for sure – we will be back.  We don’t know exactly when, or what it might look like, but we will be back.  A year has gone by and most cooks have now forgotten what it was like to have a full dining room, to feel the anxiety of the wait for those first tickets, of feeling that you don’t know how things will turn out.  It has been a long year of uncertainty that has pulled you away from what you do best; a year that maybe even made you question whether or not this “cooking thing” is what you want to do any more.

It was the exercising of your skills, relying on your competence and confidence, of getting ready for battle and conquering the beast that made you want to crawl out of bed in the morning and face another day of craziness.  With all of it’s speed bumps, curve balls, and relentlessness – this job is something that you were good at, something that brought excitement along with a touch of fear, a job that made you feel alive and pushed you to your limits.  It has been far too long since you felt all of these emotions.

One day it will all return.  One day customers will fill those restaurant seats, look at your menu with anticipation, test your abilities and sometimes your patience, and give you reason to click those tongs with anxious anticipation.  I don’t know if it will come this summer or fall, but I do know that the day will come and I hope that you will be ready.

Consider this to be the off-season for cooks, a time to relax a bit and shed some of the stress, but also a time to get into a new rhythm of conditioning.  This is the time to build your physical strength, hone your technical skills, exercise your mental acuity, and dig into more of the “why” that you cook a certain way.  This is not a time to forget and lose a step, this is a time to get ready for the real season to come, and it will come.

I am certain of this because people need us, our communities need us, the economy needs us, growers and producers need us, and we need to do what we do best – it is our calling to cook.   People crave the opportunity to gather again, to laugh and cheer, to break bread and tell stories, to raise a glass and toast to today and tomorrow.  This is human nature and it cannot be denied forever – restaurants will rise again as soon as they are able.  The time is getting near; if we all work to contain this virus and stand ready to receive the vaccine – the time will come soon.

So here are a few reminders for cooks immersed in the off-season – we are about to enter spring training camp – a time when we put aside what we have lost and bring ourselves into competitive condition.

[]         PHYSICAL STRENGTH

You remember – don’t you?  Pulling a 10-12 hour shift off is physically demanding.  You will be on your feet for most of that time, always lots of movement – turning, lifting, bending, stretching to reach, using your shoulders and back, and gripping and flipping filled sauté pans allowing the food to dance with the syncopation of orders coming and going.  You will need to be ready for this.  You will perform best if you are in condition.  This is the time to immerse in a physical exercise regiment.  Walking, running, weight lifting, sit-ups, push ups, chin ups, hand exercises, stretching and good nutrition will be the keys.  Keep that weight down and hone your diet to that of one most aligned with an athlete.  GREAT LINE COOKS REALLY ARE ATHLETES!

[]         MENTAL ACUITY

Being able to think clearly is essential if you are to win the battles on the line.  Remember – those orders will come at you with relentless rapidity.  The expeditor will challenge your retention skills, the steps in cooking that differ from dish to dish will test your memory, your flavor memory will be your friend once again as you taste-season-taste, and your ability to problem-solve when things go sideways will be your saving grace more times than you can imagine right now.  Take time every day to walk through those steps in cooking that made you superb at your job; run through all of those problem scenarios that came your way in the past and jot down how you solved (or failed to solve) the problem, and push yourself to multi-task in your current environment – fill your head with too much to do and try like crazy to work your way through the list.

[]         SKILL TUNING

It will be the foundations again that save the day, that will make you valuable to an employer, that will separate you from those who don’t quite have what it takes.  Knife skills, mise en place, sanitation, and speed and dexterity are all part of your bag of tricks.  Practice them at home or work even when business volume doesn’t demand it.  Keep your knives sharp, organize yourself every day, and keep your lists of things to do (even if not related to cooking) – all of this will pay off when that day arrives.

[]         KNOWLEDGE

Read professional cookbooks, study the cuisine that you are focused on, and make a list of those processes that you followed in the kitchen – “because that’s the way you were taught” – and commit to finding out “why” those processes are important.  Commit to being more knowledgeable when business returns – the more you know the more confident you will become.

[]         TEAM BUILDING

I know it’s hard to work on team skills when the team is not together, but what you can do is to mentally walk through scenarios in the past that can help to drive your “team savvy” approach in the future.  Think about those actions of yours or others that drove a wedge between team members and think through ways of avoiding that in the future.  Write down those “team defeating” actions that drove you crazy in the past and commit to working through them in a more positive way in the future.  Think about “why” things might have gone sideways in the past and how honest sharing with the team can help to work through those events in the future.  Don’t let correctible problems raise up their ugly head in the future and put a damper on the effectiveness of a team.

[]         RE-COMMIT TO YOUR COMMITMENT

Most importantly, this is a time to ask yourself a very important question: “Now that I have been forced to step back or step away from the life of a cook – do I want to jump back in when the opportunity arises?  Am I willing and able to re-commit what it takes to be GREAT at what I do?”  If the answer is “no or I’m not sure” – then this is a perfect time to start thinking about your next career choice.  If the answer is “yes” then roll up your sleeves and get to work on your conditioning.  The time WILL come when restaurants are back in full swing.

PLAN BETTER – TRAIN HARDER

Harvest America Ventures, LLC

Restaurant Consulting

www.harvestamericacues.com  BLOG

CAFÉ Talks Podcast

FOR THE LOVE OF RESTAURANTS and COOKING

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I am optimistic and realistic at the same time.  I am optimistic in the ability of the restaurant business to recover and shine, to bring people together once again, to return to a position of central to the life of neighborhoods, and optimistic that this business of food will provide wonderful careers for cooks, chefs, service staff, bartenders, managers and owners – THIS WILL HAPPEN.  At the same time – I am realistic and know that this will not occur without the pain of defeat for some, the anxiety of not knowing when this will occur, understanding that the financial burdens will seem unmanageable for some time, and realistic in understanding that the business of restaurants will look different a few months from now and that change is inevitable.  This is the Yin and Yang of the environment where restaurants live today.

The lifeblood of success will be, as it always has been – the love that owners, chefs, cooks, servers, and managers have for what they do, the food that they have the privilege to work with, and the guests who place trust in their hands.  Restaurant work is not for everyone, yet those who find their way, or in many cases – those who are drawn into restaurant work will readily say: “There is nothing else that I would rather do.”  It is because of these people that I am very bullish on the future of the restaurant business.

I look at the multitude of restaurant people that I know and see interesting similarities among those who somehow manage to hang on, weather the storm, and keep an optimistic eye on the future.  These individuals are inspiring and worthy of our praise – they are solid advocates for the right reasons to get involved in the restaurant business, and always encouraged by what they see as that glimmer of light at the end of the tunnel.  I offer their insights as a spark that will hopefully give others a chance to breathe deep and wrestle with the realities before them.

“I feel like I’m not doing my job and staying true to myself if I put anything on my menu, or use an ingredient that doesn’t have a story behind it.”  Know your source.

-Chef Tim Hardiman – The Tailor and the Cook

Great restaurants, great menus, and great chefs bring memorable stories to their tables.  It is these endearing stories that help to establish the longevity and resiliency of a restaurant.

“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.  To accomplish something significant – excellence has to become a life plan.”

-ChefCharlie Trotter – Charlie Trotters

Those restaurants and chefs  – regardless of menu focus or price tags on the menu, that stem from an unrelenting push towards excellence will always find an audience.  These are the benchmarks that others strive to emulate and guests can’t stop talking about.

“When you get close to the raw materials and taste them the moment they let go of the soil, you learn to respect them.”

-Chef Rene Redzepi – NOMA

True Farm to Table goes beyond buying local – it means that the chef and cook understands the farmer, respects his or her work, and know what it’s like to become truly connected to the ingredients – real cooking demands this.

“Food feeds our souls.  It is the single great unifier across all cultures.  The table offers a sanctuary and a place to come together for unity and understanding.”

-Chef Lidia Bastianich

What we do as cooks is important.  Our craft bridges gaps in understanding and speaks to anyone willing to listen.  We are communicators, ambassadors, and speakers of the universal language of food.  Differences can be put aside when we revel in the beauty of a well-prepared plate of food.

“It wasn’t about mechanics; it was about a feeling, wanting to give someone something, which in turn was really gratifying.  That really resonated with me.”

– Chef Thomas Keller – The French Laundry and Bouchon

Service is a noble profession.  Those who understand this know that the restaurant business – front and back of the house, is the service business.  When service exists business success will follow.  Service requires understanding, empathy, the ability to listen, caring, and joy.  Guests may come initially for the opportunity to enjoy your food, but they return time and again because of your commitment to real service.

“A great restaurant is one that just makes you feel like you’re not sure whether you went out or you came home and confuses you.  If it can do both of those things at the same time – you’re hooked.”

– Danny Meyer – Union Square Hospitality

We (those in the restaurant business) are part of a family and every restaurant guest is welcome to join.  Hospitality – a sense of place – is the heart and soul of a great restaurant.  Operations that believe in this will always be in demand.

“We need to get into the community and understand who they are and what their needs might be instead of just giving them something without understanding what they want.”

– Chef Dominique Crenn – Atilier Crenn Restaurant

All hail the neighborhood restaurant (not just geographical) that responds to guest needs and sets aside the ego of the restaurateur and chef.  When this happens – the restaurant can become the centerpiece of a community, the place of choice, and a business that sees their success through the eyes of the guest.

“It’s hard to be 100% better than your competition, but you can be 1% better in 100 ways.”

– Richard Melman – Lettuce Entertain You

It’s all about the details.  Sweat those details, no matter how small, and know that the “experience” is an accumulation of hundreds of pieces of the puzzle.  Become an expert at the little things from the lighting in your parking lot to the greeting at the door; from the comfort of your chairs to the temperature of the butter on the tabletop.  Great restaurants sweat the small stuff.

“I realized very early that the power of food to evoke memory, to bring people together, to transport people to other places, and I wanted to be a part of that.”

-Chef Jose Andres – Jose Andres Restaurants and World Central Kitchen

The experience of a restaurant allows the guest to build a relationship with other cultures, traditions, flavors, and history.  The restaurateur is the tour guide.  A person may be able to cook in the style of Italy, Scandinavia, Mexico, Asia, New Orleans or France at home, but only the restaurant can provide the Italian, Mexican, Scandinavian, Asian, Cajun, or French experience.

“It’s around the table and in the preparation of food that we learn about ourselves and about the world.”

– Chef Alice Waters – Chez Panisse

The preparation and sharing of food brings all of our senses into alignment and points us to the question: “what am I capable of creating and how can I communicate what I am feeling with others through food?”  Differences melt away when we engage in this most personal act of caring – the preparation of a plate of food for a friend, family member, passing guest, or individual who otherwise may differ from you in so many ways.  Food is the great equalizer.

“If I have a really bad cook, manager, or sous chef – I previously would have fired them or lost my temper.  But now I realize that if I’m so right, then I should be able to communicate it so clearly that they get it.”

– Chef David Chang – Momofuku Restaurant Group

The restaurants that are able to thrive again are the ones that are able to build a team – a cohesive group of well-trained professional artisans with a shared vision; individuals who take their job seriously and are given the tools to do so.  Long gone are the days when the chef or restaurateur ruled with an uncaring, iron fist.  To be successful in the food business you must learn to listen, to train, to support, to collaborate, and to lead.

“I take so much pleasure in seeing customers who are happy – happy with what they eat, but happy with their friends and in sharing a moment together.  I think that this is more important in life than the endless pursuit of perfection.”

– Chef Daniel Boulud – The Dinex Group

Why do we cook or operate restaurants if not to bring happiness?  Happiness is what we strive for among those who cook and serve and happiness to those who enjoy the chance to break bread at our table.  To watch guests savor each bite, to see them smile or laugh, to watch them raise a glass to friendship or success, or to simply view them relax and shed the stress of the day – this is what we work for – this is our mission.

“Anyone can write a menu, but the ability to consistency execute (that menu) profitably is the true test of an operator.”

-Chef Keith Taylor – Chefsoul Culinary Enterprises

Yes, everything stated in this article is true, but the super-human effort of the chef or restaurateur without the discipline and understanding of how to generate sales and control costs will quickly lose energy.  Restaurants are operated from the standpoint of many altruistic building blocks, but they are businesses at the same time.  Those that will survive our current challenges and thrive once again in the near future are ones that understand this.

“We have a philosophy – it’s very simple – it’s called ROG, Return of Guest.  Everyone, in every aspect of the operation has got to be doing something that translates into the guest wanting to return.”

-Roger Berkowitz – Legal Seafood

It’s very challenging and costly to convince individuals to walk through your door and become a guest.  To not focus your energy on their comfort, happiness, and willingness to return makes no sense at all.  Why would they want to return if we treat them as if they are just passing through?  Set the stage for their return – turn them into raging fans and they will be at your door when the time is right.

Yes, I am optimistic and realistic, but I know that this sampling of individuals who are or were enormously successful in the restaurant business had “that something” that set them apart.  It was and is a passion, a commitment to excellence, an understanding of real service, a desire to please, and a strong business foundation that created a path for natural success.  We can all learn from them.

PLAN BETTER – TRAIN HARDER

Harvest America Ventures, LLC

Restaurant Consulting

www.harvestamericacues.com BLOG

CAFÉ Talks Podcast

https://cafemeetingplace.com/cafe-podcasts

A SURREALISTIC PILLOW EVENT

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In the mid-sixties, a relatively unknown band (outside of San Francisco) released an album that would become one of the enduring recordings of the last 60 years.  The Jefferson Airplane’s Surrealistic Pillow was both strange (surreal) and comforting (pillow) in its beautiful melodies (Today and Coming Back to Me) and cutting edge norm shakers (Somebody to Love and White Rabbit).  This is a record that I still listen to often, but failed, over the years, to understand the meaning of the album title – until today.

After weeks of trying I was able to arrange a date to receive my first of two Covid vaccinations.  Needless to say, I was excited (interesting that I was excited to get a shot).  It was to be administered in Plattsburgh – a 1-hour drive from home.  First, it was one of the longest trips that my wife and I had taken since March 2020.  It was a beautiful winter drive through snow covered trees and the black and white panorama of winter.  The roads were dry and a light snow flurry was in the air.  We had planned on stopping at Panera for a curbside delivered sandwich (our first venture to a restaurant since March of last year) and had ordered our food an hour in advance with an email confirmation resting in wait on my phone. 

The Plattsburgh Panera had moved from their old location (things happen while you are tucked away in your house for 9-months) and the new building was built for drive-thru and curbside service.  I parked the car and hit “we’re here” on my email message.  Two minutes later, our neatly packaged sandwiches were delivered to our car.  Off to a similar experience at Dunkin Donuts for a cup of coffee and we found a nice parking spot for our “restaurant meal”.  It seemed a bit odd that this would be my first “restaurant like” experience, after all, the business of food is my life, quick service has never been my venue of choice, and eating in my car while bundled up in winter jacket and fur hat was hardly “normal” for me.  Yet, here we were, and it was good.

I plugged in the coordinates on Google maps for our next stop – vaccination central.  I never knew that this part of Plattsburgh existed.  It was desolate, poorly lit (dark already at 4:45 in the Adirondacks) and actually a bit creepy.  This was part of the remnants of the old Plattsburgh Air force Base and our destination was a warehouse at the intersection of Connecticut and Arizona Ave.  Digital signs directed us to the first stop where a State Trooper checked my ID to make sure I was eligible by age and that it matched my reservation receipt.  National Guardsmen directed us to a drive thru tent where they again checked this information and provided additional paperwork to be filled out (damn – did I bring a pen?).  We moved on to the next line waiting to enter an unknown warehouse space (the door would open to allow one car in at a time).  We frantically looked for a pen and finally found one under my seat and I worked quickly to complete the five pages of information while holding the papers in my lap.  The excitement was building while I worked to beat the clock and occasionally look up in anticipation of the door opening. 

I had shed my jacket and sat with mask on and short sleeve shirt in anticipation of an event that had been wished for almost exactly one year.  The garage door opened and the National Guard waved me into the large, 30 foot ceiling space – creeping along till I reached the table where two nurses were waiting.  I shut off the engine and rolled down the window to a warm, friendly greeting: “you made it!”  They were pleased that I had completed the paperwork and after entering some data into the computer, the nurse apologized while gently stabbing my left arm.  It was a tiny bit un-nerving when she stated: “this vaccine is not approved by the FDA, it is available through “emergency designation” and that it still carries the experimental tag.”  My response was quick:  “bring it on”.  A Band-Aid followed as she told me to pull my car into an outside lot for the required 15-minute wait and that I would receive an email message indicating the time I should arrive for my second dose in 21 days.  She smiled as I pulled away.  I felt a bit emotional about the whole experience – this meant that there was light at the end of the tunnel.  The dangers are not over, our lives will forever be different, there are nearly 300 million more Americans that need to experience this yet, but it was the beginning of the end.

Driving home in the dark winter night, struggling to see very far down the road on this mountain trek, I suddenly understood the meaning behind Surrealistic Pillow.  The album that I faithfully listen to will never be experienced in the same way.  This day was both strange and comforting.  The fact that what was experienced is accepted and expected meant that normal was headed in a new direction.  This new normal is with us now and the world is adjusting.  I felt truly blessed to have the experience and pray that others will line up soon to discover the same.  Get your shot as soon as you can and don’t forget to bring a pen.

We will get through this – of this I am sure.  Today, for me, was an affirmation that there are brighter days ahead.  The restaurant industry will survive – Panera was an example of adaptation and an encouraging sign that great minds are carving out a new way that will only continue to evolve and improve.  The chaos surrounding the pandemic, the tragedy that continues, and the questions around expediting the vaccine will be answered (I felt real comfort in how well organized the process of delivery was), we will eventually be able to shake hands and hug each other again, and life will be great at some point in the near future.  As this happens we should never forget what has and continues to occur and how unprepared we were at the onset.  We must not lose sight of how important it is to be ready and think through many scenarios that can and will accompany the next crisis.  Let’s learn from this experience.  In the meantime – wear a mask, keep your distance, avoid crowds, and wash your hands.  The time will come when the good life will return if we work together.

PLAN BETTER – TRAIN HARDER

Harvest America Ventures, LLC

www.harvestamericacues.com  BLOG

CAFÉ Talks Podcast

https://cafetalks.libsyn.com/

CHEFS – VALUE and the TOP LINE DRIVE the BOTTOM LINE

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In the restaurant business there are really only two ways to view profit:  a very small amount of profit balanced by very significant volume, or a significant amount of profit on far less volume.  How you approach the design of your restaurant in this regard will determine nearly everything else.  How you approach profit will determine what your physical plant will look like, the scope of sophistication in your kitchen, who your vendors will be, how many employees you will hire and the depth of their experience, where you advertise and how much you invest in that, your table top appointments, and even your hours of operation.  So, if you are in the process of ideation with regard to a restaurant – then start with one simple question:  “How do I want to measure profit?”

In those restaurants where profit is measured in terms of smaller numbers with significant volume then concerns such as food cost percentage are of paramount importance.  When profit is measured in more significant profit from fewer sales then I will make a statement that may cause many chefs scratch their heads in disbelief: “Food cost percentage is far less relevant – it’s all about contribution margin.”  In both cases it is sales (the top line) that sets the stage for success.

So what is contribution margin?  Simply stated it is what a menu item contributes to the financial success of a restaurant.   This can be direct (the menu item itself contributes working funds) or indirect (because the item is present on the menu – other items are more likely to sell).  So let’s look at this through an example or two:

Chicken Saltimbocca vs. Beef Tenderloin with Wild Mushroom Demi Glace. 

The Chicken breast (6 ounce flattened) may cost in the neighborhood of $3, the additional slice of Prosciutto, Provolone Cheese, and sauce reduction another $1.50, and complementary vegetable/starch combination another $.75 for a total plate cost (not actual costs, but fair estimates) equals around $5.25.  The baseline formula for determining selling price using an acceptable food cost percent of 30% would be:

SELLING PRICE SP) = PLATE COST (PC)/FOOD COST %(FC%)

SP = $5.25 / .30

SP = $17.50

The available funds left (contribution) = $17.50 – $5.25 or $12.25

________________________________________________________________________________________
The Beef Tenderloin might look something like this:

Beef Tenderloin (trimmed) (8 oz.) at around $18/pound = $9.00, the wild mushroom demi from stock to finished reduction around $1.25, mélange of wild mushrooms (chanterelles and morels) at approximately $2.00, and a standard vegetable/starch combination at $.75 for a total plate cost of around $13.00.  If we use the same baseline formula for determining selling price:

SP = $13.00 / .30

SP =    $43.33

The available funds left (contribution) = $43.33 – 13.00 or $30.33

Now the first question is:  Can you sell this steak at $43 or does this exceed what the market will bear?

If we chose to use 50% as the desired FC% then the result would be:

SP = $13.00 / .50

SP = $26.00 (A price that guests would be more willing to swallow)

The available funds left (contribution) would be $13 or $.75 greater than chicken at 30%.  But now the contribution potential goes even further if we consider general psychology and human behavior. 

1.         It would not be a stretch to consider that a steak person is different than a chicken person (behavior considerations are generalized).  The steak person may very well be less “price sensitive” and more willing to listen to recommendations by the server for adding appetizers, desserts, and even a nice bottle of wine.  The chicken person might be of the same mindset, but could be considered more cost conscious and a tougher sell.  So, in this example  – even though the steak (at a 50% cost) falls outside of the norm for food cost percentage, it stands to contribute more in terms of available gross profit as well as the ability to encourage ancillary sales of other items. 

If, in fact, you understand that the success of a restaurant leans on the ability to generate sales, then it becomes obvious that getting all wrapped up in food cost percentage pales in comparison to driving the “top line”. 

2.         The “soft issues” that go beyond measurement of dollars and cents point to a more robust overall “dining experience” when a guest is able to enjoy a broader spectrum of dishes and complementary beverages.   When the “experience” is driven by turning tables to reach a desired volume then something will likely be missing.  It should always be the restaurateur’s goal to encourage return business and ambassadorship when happy guests recommend what you have to offer to others.

Now, what about those operations that rely on a smaller amount of profit enhanced by some serious volume – can they create an experience that is worthy of a return?  Absolutely!  But, in this case you need to rely on the uniqueness of an atmosphere that also encourages shorter dine in times, signature items that create excitement and buzz (think Chick fill-A chicken sandwich), systems throughout the operation that are geared for speed (think about the order/delivery system at Panera), and the ability to maintain a high level of volume.

In the higher profit/lower volume model there will be a requirement for higher levels of skill from both front and the back of the house, a greater understanding of ingredients and their source, cost appropriate table top items (more expensive china, flatware, and glassware), and a level of finesse that rises to the level of the menu pricing.

At a time when pandemic restrictions dramatically impact typical top line initiatives for both methods of measuring profit, it is easy to see just how challenged restaurants are to find a profit scenario that works.

BRING VALUE INTO THE FORMULA

The magic of a great restaurant and one that yields profit potential for the operation lies in those factors that go beyond costs and selling price determination.  These are the elements of a food experience that create “value”.  Every restaurant should embrace, as part of its goal structure, a feeling among its customers of: “That was well worth what I spent.”  Whether it is a $5.00 quick service meal or a $100 fine dining evening – there is always room to create experiences and in turn – great value.  The most common components of the value approach are:

  • UNIQUE, MEMORABLE FLAVORS

It may very well be that one item or a few signature menu choices that just knock people’s socks off.  Excitement around flavor is one of the most compelling reasons to support a restaurant.  People come from all over the country to New Orleans with a clear commitment to stand in line at Café du Monde for their beignets.

  • A SPECIAL LOCATION

Those restaurants that are fortunate enough to physically sit in proximity to a breathtaking view, a center of exciting activity, or in a community of other restaurants will always enjoy a steady flow of value seeking customers.  The Union Oyster House in the middle of Quincy Market – Boston; The Slanted Door on the edge of San Francisco Bay; or Spiaggia overlooking Chicago’s Magnificent Mile and a view of Lake Michigan are all prime examples of locations that create an experience for diners.

  • BEAUTIFUL FOOD PRESENTATIONS

A chef knows that he or she has succeeded in engaging a guest and creating visual value when the presentation of a plate of food causes the table to stop, focus on the beauty before them, and pull out their cell phones to take a few pictures to remember.

  • TRUST IN CONSISTENCY

Those restaurants that consistently create food flavors that are expected, presentations that are anticipated, and service that lives up to previous experiences will always be viewed as a place that offers special value.

  • REAL SERVICE

There certainly is value in proper technical service, but it will always be those restaurants that offer that warm sincerity, the welcoming attitudes, and those friendly connections with guests that build the most important reasons to return.

  • COMMUNITY RELEVANCE

Finally, when a restaurant is engaged with a community, supportive of neighborhood efforts and causes, and there to make a difference  – true value becomes incredibly obvious.  Why would guests patronize any other operations when yours is part of the neighborhood family?  This is value.

In the end, creating compelling reasons for guests to patronize your restaurant is complex, but it can be narrowed down to building value.  Building value will always lead to healthy top lines (sales) for restaurants.

PLAN BETTER – TRAIN HARDER

Create Value Experiences

Harvest America Ventures, LLC

www.harvestamericacues.com  BLOG

Check out CAFÉ Talks Podcast

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CULINARY SCHOOL – STICK YOUR TOE IN THE WATER BEFORE BUYING A BOAT

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There are a handful of very significant decisions that we make in life – decisions that involve tremendous commitments of time, effort, focus, and yes – money.  Starting a relationship, a decision to marry, buying a house or an expensive car, opening a business, and enrolling in college are all decisions that would be considered “monumental”.  The right decision can lead you to self-awareness, long-term gratification, rewarding careers, and the foundations of family.  The wrong decision – of course will be the opposite.  How we go about making those decisions is the real question.

Making a decision to marry another person without taking the time to understand who he or she is and what makes that person tick can lead to loads of pain and disappointment.  Buying a home without researching what is available, how that location fits your life situation, and how you will manage paying for that home can weigh heavy on your shoulders. Choosing to attend a college, especially one that is focused on a very specific career path without having a clear idea of what that career path is and how it will impact your life – will oftentimes lead to heartache and years of burdensome debt.

So – you are a young (or not so young) person who loves food, enjoys restaurants, and finds the media depiction of becoming a chef to be exciting and rewarding.  “This looks like something that I would love to do for the rest of my professional life.”  This might be true, and if you like games of chance, maybe this is a “roll of the dice” that is intriguing.  If you understand the implications of: “You can’t always judge a book by looking at the cover”, then you should understand that the sizzle may sell the steak, but the sizzle doesn’t always tell the full story.

It has been my experience that those who choose culinary school as a way to build a strong foundation for a career in the kitchen fall into one of two brackets: 

  • Those who do so from a place of experience (they have worked in a kitchen – preferably one that is run in a professional manner)
  • Those who do so by placing all of their decision making powers in the hands of the media

In other words those who understand what they are getting into vs. those who don’t.  Now, I do not have any statistical data to support my next observation, but I have found that those who have spent time in a kitchen before entering culinary school are more committed, more intent on doing everything they can to absorb all that is offered, hungrier to learn and apply new skills, and far more likely to succeed and stick with their career choice.  Again, an unscientific conclusion, but I would bet that many culinary instructors and restaurant chefs would agree.

My plea to those who are wrestling with a decision about culinary college is to get a job in a kitchen first.  If you are a high school student – find a part-time position on weekends while in school and full time in that summer period.  If you are a career changer – knock on a chef’s door and tell him or her of your plans to attend school, ask for a position in the kitchen (yes starting off as a dishwasher is a good decision), tie on an apron and give it a whirl.  You will learn what you need to know about the type of work, the physical demands, the stress of timing, how decisions are made, the organization of a kitchen that sometimes is chaotic, the dynamics of team, the demands of a customer, the heartache that comes from a rejected meal, the joy that comes from an occasional compliment, the exhilaration of serving more guests in a meal period than anyone thought was possible, the crush of defeat when things go sideways, and the effort that will be required to move from dishwasher to chef at some point in time.  Just imagine how shocking it would be to enter that culinary school classroom or kitchen without having those experiences under your belt.

Those decisions in life that are monumental are learning experiences, but proper research will help to minimize the negative impact of wrong ones.  Culinary schools understand all of this, but at the same time they are intent on making sure that enough students enroll to make a class viable.  After all – everyone should have an opportunity to succeed or fail, but when students discover mid-term that this is not for them, then everyone suffers from a realization that did not have to be.  When a student fails to complete a program or loses the energy to remain passionate then it hurts the instructor and the school as much as it does the student.

There was a time when prior experience was a pre-requisite to acceptance into a culinary program, but the feeling that this is somehow counter-intuitive to a persons right to choose what he or she wants took over the logic of requiring prior experience.  I believe, that this is a harmful change in approach. 

If a prospective student is wrestling with the college decision then there are avenues that can help.  Working in a restaurant is a natural step in the right direction, but there is also the vocational education option for high school students or if all else seems to not fit your situation – at least schedule appointments with local chefs and ask if they would talk with you about “what it takes”.  Spend a couple days as a stage’ (working or shadowing without pay) in a restaurant just to get a feel for the environment.  Dine in as many different restaurants as you can and ask for a tour of the kitchen.  Do whatever you can to paint a more accurate picture than is portrayed in the media.  You owe this to yourself!  Restaurant work is NOT FOR EVERYONE.  Once engaged in a restaurant you will find that 98% of what you do in the kitchen is just plain hard work.  You need to learn about the heat and the sweat, the physical demands, the emotional requirements, the infringements on what is considered a “normal” life/work balance, and the time that it will take to accumulate the skills, knowledge, and experience to become a chef.

Stick your toe in the water before you choose to buy the boat.  You might start by reading the 650 articles in this blog.

PLAN BETTER – TRAIN HARDER

Harvest America Ventures, LLC
Restaurant Consulting

www.harvestamericacues.com  BLOG

CAFÉ Talks Podcast

https://cafetalks.libsyn.com/

THE KITCHEN MAGIC OF CHEF PHIL LEARNED

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Our industry recently lost a giant of the professional kitchen.  Chef Phil Learned stood tall in the kitchen of The Balsams Grand Resort in Dixville Notch, NH.  In its day, the Balsams was one of the finest destination resorts in the country – a place of elegant relaxation, beautiful surroundings, and most notably – exceptional food.  This place tucked away in the hills of the northeast represented the epitome of culinary arts in their American Plan dining room.  A stay at the Balsams included all meals – each one representative of the dining style that had a long history of classic representation.

The kitchen of the Balsams was expansive and structured in the manner of Escoffier.  A separate pastry shop with Patissier and Boulanger, a Garde Manger department where elaborate platters of charcuterie, cheeses, fruit and crudité were built to complete elaborate buffet presentations; a butcher shop that broke down primal and sub primal cuts of meat and filleted the fresh fish that came from Portland, Gloucester and Boston; simmering stocks and reducing sauces from the prep kitchen; and of course a hot line that was built for speed and volume with quality always front and center. 

The menu changed every night within a cycle with a full array of appetizer, salad, entrée and dessert choices for an audience that was likely staying at the hotel for a week or more at a time (many of the patrons were second or third generation Balsam’s guests) since a stay at the “Notch” was a family right of passage.  Each line cook during service had one dish to prepare completely.  Guests would make their selection, servers would drop off a plate cover to a cook’s station, and then the final preparation and plating would begin.  Counts were tallied throughout the night and the chef/expeditor would keep everyone apprised as to how many guests had been served and how many registered guests remained.  Service was swift and efficient as the 300-400 patrons were acknowledged at each meal.

What was most impressive to me was the work leading up to service.  From purchasing to plating there was a commitment to communication and doing your job well.  Professionalism was expected from the starched chef uniforms that were maintained by the on-site laundry, the cleaning regiment that everyone participated in, the adherence to classical techniques, and the respect that was shown everyone who became part of the team.

Prior to the beginning of service each cook had to prepare two sample plating’s of his or her respective dish.  One was set for the department chefs to evaluate before service, making any last minute adjustments to the flavor profile and presentation; and the other would grace the show table in the dining room.  This way, every guest who entered the dining room was able to see every menu item as they made their menu decision.

Those last few moments before the dining room doors were opened saw every member of the service staff around the show table as chefs went over the preparation, ingredients, and flavors of each dish.  It was important for service staff to know the menu and be that seasoned resource for guest questions.  This ritual was so important to the Balsam’s Experience.

At the core of the kitchen team were highly professional, accomplished chefs and a cadre of enthusiastic apprentices.  The Balsams was one of the premier formal cook’s apprenticeship sites in the country.  Supported by the American Culinary Federation, this highly structured 6,000-hour program was the passion of Phil Learned.  He was always an ambassador for passing it forward – for making sure that what he had learned throughout his career, was given with enthusiasm to any who were committed and enthusiastic recipients. 

Over the years a significant number of young cooks got their start in the Balsam’s kitchen as an ACF Apprentice.  A number of those individuals went on to hold the top position in restaurant, hotel, resort, and club kitchens as well as those who went on to become entrepreneurs.  It was easy to recognize a Balsam’s cook in their spotless, starched chef coats and professional decorum.  “Yes Chef” was the typical response to any directive that was made in Chef Learned’s kitchen.  After two tours in the military (WWII with the Marines and Korea as a member of the Army) Chef Phil worked his way up to his first chef position at the Balsam’s in 1966.  He served as Executive Chef (the first chef to be certified at that level in the State of New Hampshire) until 1977 when he became the Director of Food Services where he stayed until 2005.

Since many of the employees at the resort were apprentices or interns from other schools – a significant portion of staff members lived on property during their season.  This led to a sense of team and loads of positive camaraderie.  Chef Learned, cognizant of the importance of professionalism and team dynamics always made sure that staff meals were of the highest quality and a priority of the kitchen.  He also instilled a commitment to the basics of cooking.  Stocks were made as they were intended, knife skills were to be exact, sauces were defined by their history, caramelization in cooking was paramount, the right pan for the right task, and mise en place ruled the day.

Chef Phil will be missed, but his legacy will live on – a legacy of giving back, of teaching the next generation, of insisting on standards of excellence, setting the stage in kitchens for professional conduct, and customer service above all else.  I feel fortunate to have known Chef Learned and to call him a friend.  Working with many of his exceptional leadership team:  Charles Carroll, Steve James, Will Beriau, Torill Carroll, Steve Learned, Jennifer Beach, and John Carroll – I built a new level of commitment to my own work as did every young cook who passed through those kitchen doors.

Rest in Peace Chef!

PLAN BETTER – TRAIN HARDER

Harvest America Ventures, LLC

www.harvestamericacues.com  BLOG

CAFÉ Talks Podcast

https://cafetalks.libsyn.com/

THE 2021 CHEF SKILL SET

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It is always safe to say: “things change”.  Change is an inevitable part of life and as we all know if we fail to recognize that and adapt – we can become obsolete.  Throughout history there are countless examples of those who ignore or seem paralyzed by the need to change as their industries or specific job descriptions evolve.  This is reality, a reality that is quite predictable although the pace of change is now much more rapid than in the past.  Think about the technology sector as a prime example.

Sometimes the change curve can be mapped out allowing ample time to gear up with new skills, new products, new methods of production, and a laser focused marketing strategy, while on occasion, something environmental takes place that forces a more immediate response.  Such is the case in 2021. 

We all knew that the restaurant industry was in need of a structural overhaul, we (those of us affiliated with the business) were well aware of the cogs in the chain, and the years of rust that had accumulated on systems and organization, but it took the pandemic of 2020/21 to shout out: THE TIME IS NOW!

So here is the good news:  there will be ample opportunities in 2021 and beyond for chefs, cooks, managers, and service staff who recognize the immediacy of the challenge and the new skill set that will be required of successful players and leaders in the field.  Let’s take the position of chef as a prime example – here is a list of skills and aptitudes that will set todays and tomorrows chef apart from those who are in a state of change paralysis:

[]         EFFICIENCY

Doing more with less will be the name of the game.  The labor-intensive environments that have been typical in kitchens are nearly impossible to maintain.  Chefs who are able to develop systems of production that work with fewer people will find a gold star on their resume.

[]         STREAMLINED MENU PLANNING

To go along with efficiency – the new chef will need to find ways to develop creative menus that rely on fewer ingredients, are fluid enough to change as the market demands, cost effective, aligned with seasonal ingredients at their peak of quality, and just as exciting for customers and cooks as those expansive models used prior to 2021.

[]         ANALYSIS

Chefs who are able to generate, assess, and use analytical data in their decision-making (menu trends, cost trends, daily labor analysis, market prices, etc.) will have the upper hand when it comes to securing those prime job opportunities.

[]         SOCIAL MEDIA SAVVY

Marketing no longer belongs to a department – marketing is every person’s responsibility.  With the increasing relevance of social media as the primary method of getting a restaurants message out – chefs who are social media savvy (astute at using Instagram, Facebook, Tik Tok, YouTube, and Twitter) will be at the top of the “hire” list for prominent restaurants.

[]         TEACHING/TRAINING

Of course chefs have always been trainers, but be aware that this will now become a “must schedule” part of their job.  Chef’s who are able to progressively teach cooks and even service staff about the ingredient, preparations, flavor profiles, pairings, and presentations of the food that is designed and produced in the kitchen will be in high demand.  With all of the challenges that culinary schools are also facing in this changing business environment, restaurants cannot depend on graduates as their primary source of trained cooks.

[]         LOGISTICS MANAGEMENT

Assuming that after the pandemic customers will return to a semi-predictable pattern of traveling to your restaurant is a bit naïve.  Chefs who are experienced in multiple ways of connecting customers with their food (catering, food trucks, pop-up restaurants, delivery, take out pick-up, etc.) will find themselves in the winner’s circle.

[]         FLEXIBILITY

My way or the highway may be difficult to maintain as a chef’s method of operation.  Bending to the market, changing in an instant, adopting other people’s ideas, and seeking out new ways of preparing and presenting food will become the new norm.  Can you leave your old habits behind?

[]         SANITATION ADVOCATE

As important as sanitation and food safety is already, look for this to become the most important signature of a chef’s repertoire.  Ultra-clean and safe will be a very important way that a restaurant markets itself and the chef who has the tallest toque.

[]         LABOR LAW SAVVY

If you don’t have a restaurant law course in your background, now is the time to sign up.  In a world where the employee will continue to have an upper hand, owners will want a chef on board who will protect them against litigation, not one who creates litigious situations.

[]         HR ROLE MODEL

How the parent acts is how the child will also act.  The same holds true in a kitchen: how the chef acts will become the standard of operation for everyone else.  Throw out all of the stereotypes of belligerent, egotistical, pan throwing, demeaning chefs – they can no longer exist.  If this is your M.O. then it’s time to retire.

[]         SUPPLY CHAIN NEGOTIATOR

Everything, every service, every price, every vendor relationship is negotiable –especially when it comes to buying local and regional.  Picking up the phone to place an order without talking about those details and negotiating the best option for the restaurant is not acceptable in the new restaurant world.  A negotiation savvy chef will win the day.

[]         IDEATOR/PROBLEM SOLVER

Finally, more than ever before the restaurant will look to the chef for new ideas and solutions to problems.  A 2021 chef must be the go-to person for that next great idea and must have the experience and confidence to find instant resolutions to the plethora of challenges that arise every day in a kitchen and restaurant.

In case you didn’t notice – I failed to mention anything about cooking skills – the act that attracted a person to the kitchen in the first place.  It will always be assumed that the chef in any operation has impeccable cooking skills, understands ingredients, is a master of preparation and presentation, and owns a palate for creating flavors that draws a steady flow of customers through the restaurants doors.

This is quite the package. How does your bag of tricks fit the profile?

PLAN BETTER – TRAIN HARDER

Harvest America Ventures, LLC

Restaurant Consulting

www.harvestamericacues.com  BLOG

CAFÉ Talks Podcast

https://cafetalks.libsyn.com/

THE EINSTEIN MOMENT FOR RESTAURANTS

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I have been thinking quite a bit lately about a comment made by Chef Jeremiah Tower during our recent podcast conversation.  He stated: “The restaurant industry needs an Einstein Moment.”  There are numerous ways that we categorize these occurrences:  Eureka moments, aha moments, or light bulb moments; but what we are referencing are those points in time when we suddenly understand the solution to a problem or the need for something that no one has pondered before.  With all of the challenges facing the restaurant industry today, it would seem that Chef Tower is spot on; but where do we turn for that flash of inspiration?

One thing is certain – we are overwhelmed with the problems of the moment and seem unable, or unwilling to move through the storm to blue skies that might exist beyond.  Those who have confidence in their abilities will often times say: “Give me some time to think, to reflect on my experience, to chat with a few friends, and I will find a solution to the problem.”  When we are able to set aside the pressure of the moment and let our imagination wander, there will be greater opportunities to find solutions and to define a new direction – one that might create even greater opportunities. 

I have been struggling to dig deeper into Chef Tower’s statement and have come to a few conclusions:

  • I don’t have the answers for the restaurant challenges of the day
  • I do have a better understanding of how we might collectively approach those challenges

There are a variety of ways that people, throughout history, have approached Einstein Moments – inspiration that leads to positive solutions:

  • OBSERVATION – Newton supposedly observed an apple falling from a tree and thought about earth’s pull – the result was an understanding of gravity.
  • EXPERIENCE – Horst Shultze, a young bellman at a hotel used his experience of working his way through various positions to eventually land the position of CEO of Ritz Carlton Hotels and their approach towards Total Quality Management.
  • TRIAL AND ERROR – Thomas Edison had thousands of failures before he was able to perfect the light bulb – the world has never been the same.
  • BUILDING A DEEP PORTFOLIO OF KNOWLEDGE – Doctor Salk, an accomplished researcher and virologist was able to build on his knowledge and that of his peers to develop the first vaccine for polio.
  • BEING BORN WITH THE GIFT OF VISUALIZATION – Steve Jobs was always able to envision devices and services that only he knew the world would need before they came to that realization.  The resulting products of personal computers, smart phones, clean and addictive MP3 players, and tablets are an integral part of our lives today.
  • DIGGING IN AND WORKING THEIR WAY THROUGH IT – This is the method that every professional chef has used for generations.

One thing is certain, as described simply by Albert Einstein:

“We cannot solve our problems with the same thinking we used when we created them.”

Ah – stay with me:  you might be thinking that the current challenges that restaurants face are all driven by the pandemic – so, we didn’t create them.  Certainly, the pandemic is a major curve ball that was not anticipated, but the effects on our businesses are crippling to this degree because of some deep seated issues that have been around for decades:  a labor intensive business, low profits, high rents, ingredients with a short shelf-life, unpredictable business volume, high cost of ingredients, and the list goes on.  In the end, the restaurant business did not have the resources or the wherewithal to weather this storm.  Our country will get through this crisis, but there will be others, maybe not as severe, but there will be others.  The Einstein Moment must begin with a realization of the “cause” so that we can find better ways to avoid curve balls in the future, or at least better deal with the “effects”.

Restaurant folks are pretty good at problem-solving when we can approach the issue in a logical manner:  “business volume is down and labor cost is out of whack so we change our operating hours and reduce the amount of labor needed – problem solved for the time being.”  But when the boat is leaking from a dozen different spots, then logic is far less effective.

“Logic will get you from point A to B.  Imagination will take you everywhere.”

-Albert Einstein

The industry’s current situation requires imagination that can lead to a Eureka moment and a new direction that attacks the root cause of leaking from a dozen different spots.

“Knowledge of what is does not open the door directly to what should be.”

-Albert Einstein

Relying on what we know may simply not be enough to pull our industry out of the weeds, build on its solvency, and set the boat right as we move forward into uncharted waters.

Somehow the restaurant industry as a whole (ideally), or at the very least small groups of community restaurants need to make the time to step back, take a deep breath, put aside the pressures of the moment and let their collective minds wander.  What we are looking for is not a solution to a problem so much as it is a rethinking of how we perceive our businesses.  

If we are looking for those flashes of insight it is important to define periods of time when we can “incubate” our thinking – stop focusing on the current problems and allow your mind to observe, listen, drift a bit, take in your environment, share with others, tap into other interests, and give your mind a chance to breathe and clear ample space for new thinking.  It may mean that we need to engage with other stakeholders and rather than state your time-tested approach – open yourself up to their feelings, needs, and thoughts.

“The broader one’s understanding of the human experience, the better design (and longer term challenge solving) we will have.”

-Steve Jobs

Think of some of the great new directions (and products) that came out of this “Eureka Moment” approach:

  • When asked what consumers thought about buying record albums in the 1990’s and beyond, it was discovered that they were miffed that they had to purchase an entire album to get the one or two songs that they really liked.  The result was Napster – a free (illegal) service that allowed people to download individual songs to their MP3 player.  The industry responded by filing lawsuits and taking Napster to court rather than listening to consumers and addressing the real issue.  Along comes Steve Jobs and Apple – iTunes is born and the recording industry is suddenly re-invented.
  • When asked what they felt about the decades old taxi industry – customers expressed their dissatisfaction with standing on street corners trying to wave down a cab.  The resulting Einstein Moment gave birth to Uber built on the technology of a smart phone. The taxi business was re-invented.
  • When customers were asked about the service they received from their banks – they expressed dissatisfaction with hours of operation and their ability to access service when they were not at work.  The result was an Einstein Moment that led to drive-thru windows and ATM machines that were available 24/7. The banking industry was re-invented.
  • And when it was observed how much time and effort was involved in shopping for everyday purchases – Jeff Bezos responded with amazon.com that gave customers access to nearly everything imaginable, available 24/7, delivered to your door in a few days, and now with Prime – without the cost of shipping on every purchase. The retail business was re-invented.

This is what Chef Jeremiah Tower meant when he called for a restaurant industry Einstein Moment – a time when a major paradigm shift results in reinvention, not fixing a problem.  Who will be our Albert Einstein, our Steve Jobs, or our Jeff Bezos?  When will we take a step back and allow our minds to wander, to incubate, and to think clearly about what the restaurant business can and should be like in the decades to come?

PLAN BETTER – TRAIN HARDER

Harvest America Ventures, LLC

Restaurant Consulting

www.harvestamericacues.com  BLOG

CAFÉ Talks Podcast

https://cafetalks.libsyn.com/

A CHEF’S LETTER TO CONGRESS

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When approached, as it should be – your position is very challenging, at times – almost impossible.  By design you are charged with defending the Constitution, protecting the American people from harm, creating and passing laws that support the Bill of Rights, keeping other branches of government in check, lifting up the economy, being a beacon of light for other countries seeking to maintain or create a democratic government, creating an environment for private business to be innovative and cutting edge, maintaining the infrastructure of an enormous country, and doing all of this as representatives of the people.  This job of representation was designed to be a public service, something that you choose to do for the betterment of the country – offering your expertise in an altruistic manner for a period of time.  This is hopefully done in a manner that will leave the country better off as a result of your involvement.  You are elected by the people to do just this, and they trust that you will live up to the pledge that demands it.  We know that it takes time to get comfortable and understand your role more fully; we know that a few years is not enough time, but we also know that representation was never meant to be a lifetime career that bends to your need to “keep the job” and hang on to the personal benefits that it provides.

All of this is a heavy responsibility – not for the faint at heart.  This should never be a position that sets aside what you know is right and what the people expect in favor of a political party’s inclination or the pressures from donors and lobbyists.  The expectation is that you will stand up to this pressure and choose what is right and appropriate over what special interest groups desire.  This is a position that should make it difficult for you to sleep at night, to take those long vacations, to set aside the need to read and research, to avoid challenging the norm and stand on that soapbox at times in defense of what is right for the people.  Sorry, this is what goes along with the position of representation – representation that holds on it’s shoulders the lives of American people, their livelihood, their families, and their potential to live the American dream.

These are incredibly challenging times, times that none of us could have imagined just a year ago.  We all know the issues: a 100 year pandemic, a crumbling economy, a threatened system of education, loss of millions of jobs, a planet crying out for help, our decaying international stature, runaway deficit spending, fairness and equality, and the demise of private entrepreneurship – such an enormous load.  This is the worst of times, not the best and as a result this is the most inappropriate time to relinquish your responsibility for partisanship behavior.  When times are toughest teamwork must rise to the top of everyone’s priority list.  The decisions to be made must always take precedent over party desires and special interest pressure.  You need to come together to resolve the critical issues of our time or we all will pay the price.  Your people, the ones who placed their trust in you with their vote, are counting on you and they are watching.  The world depends on you just as much as do the American people and they are watching as well, watching with bated breath. 

One issue that may seem to be just another to add to the pile is the health of the restaurant industry in our country.   To some, this industry may seem to be one that is far from critical.  After all, people can cook at home.  To some, restaurants will always be a luxury and not a necessity – something that is great to have, but not essential.  I would beg to differ, and so would the millions of Americans who either work in, or dine in those establishments that have been the backbone of our economy for generations (yes, the backbone).  Allow me to elaborate for your edification – first some hard facts:

According to the National Restaurant Association:

  • There are (were) over 1 million freestanding restaurants in the United States before the coronavirus was part of our vocabulary.
  • 15.6 million Americans are (were) employed by the restaurant industry and to so many who live in this country – working in a restaurant was their introduction to the workforce
  • 90% of restaurant managers started out as entry-level restaurant employees demonstrating the upward mobility from a job to a career and although I don’t have a numeric value for it – a high percentage of professional chefs got their start as a dishwasher
  • 80% of restaurant owners started as an entry-level restaurant employee demonstrating the magic of the American Dream to become an entrepreneur
  • 70% of American restaurants are single unit private entrepreneurships

Now on the qualitative side – the following list points to the societal importance of restaurants to the heart and soul of our country:

  • Throughout the last 150 years – restaurants have been that place where people gather to challenge each other, to celebrate, to nourish, and to reward.  We rely on restaurants to provide these opportunities and the environment that fosters these interactions.
  • As our country has clawed its way through disaster after disaster: two world wars, the Korean war, Vietnam, Desert Storm, The Afghanistan War, the Great Depression, numerous recessions, the horrors of 9-11, Polio and HIV, hurricanes, fires, earthquakes, and other natural disasters – it has been the American restaurant that showed the first signs of national recovery.  When these disasters occur – it has been the American restaurant Industry that came together to help with the first, most basic need – to feed those in need. 
  • When families seek to raise their children to be active members of society and learn to care for themselves while earning those first paychecks – they turn to restaurants to teach their sons and daughters some basic skills.
  • When the demands placed on families because both parents need to work, or in single parent homes where survival is the first call to arms – the ability to lean on restaurants for family meals has always been a comfort.
  • When neighborhoods that have been plagued by decades of neglect seek to renew and rebuild – it is oftentimes expected that a restaurant will be the first business to open and show signs of life and hope for that renewal.

I could go on and on, but the essential point is that restaurants are important to America, they represent all that we envision and work to reach: a paycheck, an opportunity to become an entrepreneur, a place of gathering and comfort, a place to celebrate and raise a glass, an a sign of life and vitality for a community. 

Right now restaurants are in need of understanding and help from Congress.  This is not an issue that can be put aside for a while and looked at in the future.  This is not a tomorrow issue – this is critical TODAY, in this very moment.  The pandemic and necessary restrictions on public places like restaurants in order to protect the lives of so many are something that restaurant owners, chefs, servers, and managers understand.  At the same time, this is not a normal situation that resulted from an operator’s ability to manage properly, this is far beyond our control and as a result we need help to weather the storm.  Some predict that as many as 50% of the private restaurants in America will close before this pandemic comes under control – some will reopen and new ones, undoubtedly will rise up, but millions of jobs, the centerpieces of many neighborhoods, the lifeblood of far too many communities, and a significant chunk of the American Dream stand to crumble.

This is not a time for Congress to bicker over politics, to take partisan sides, to try to slide in those special interest expenditures, or to go on vacation with the job left undone.  This is the time to act for the people and the country that put you in office to be a representative, to do what is right.  The restaurant industry needs help in providing a paycheck for their employees, loan deferrals, rent support, and long-term advisement on how to reinvent themselves.  This is what one would expect from the greatest nation in the world and from a country that promotes the American Dream as essential to its character.

To fail to do this will result in the destruction of an essential industry to the character of America.  WE CAN’T WAIT – TIME HAS RUN OUT.  Do what you were elected to do and do it TODAY.  We are all watching what you do next.

PLAN BETTER – TRAIN HARDER

Harvest America Ventures, LLC

Restaurant Consulting

www.harvestamericacues.com  BLOG

A CHEF’S REFLECTIONS

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The most challenging part of difficult times is living in the moment.  Today is what gives us the most angst since we live in uncharted territory with all of the unpredictable factors that align with it.  Yesterday is easy to look back on – it gives us strength and a point of reference, it provides context and the ability to analyze our actions, and it provides hope since we managed to work our way through it.  Tomorrow is inspiring and energizing since it provides opportunity and possibility without the burden of reality, it lifts us up and points the way to thinking in a positive manner – a manner that demonstrates that anything is possible if we set a course and stick to our commitment.  Ah, but TODAY is the tough one.  “How will we get through this, what else can possibly happen, will we survive to see those brighter times?”  This is where the restaurant industry is today, this is where chefs, cooks, and restaurateurs sit in the moment, and this is what keeps us all up at night – challenges without definitive answers.

There is plenty of hope and promise to be found in history – so maybe this is a good starting point.   Quite possibly we can find potential answers in the things that we miss, the challenges that we have, and similar points in time when others had faced similar situations.  So, as we close out on 2020 – here are some reflections and outcomes in the past that we might learn from.

[]         A DRAMATIC EVENT, BEYOND OUR CONTROL HAS SHUT THE DOOR ON RESTAURANT BUSINESS

Over the past 100-years our country has struggled through a number of earth shattering events that have changed the course of our lives, and re-shaped the structure of our life environment.  America has moved through two world wars, Prohibition, the 1918 pandemic, polio and tuberculosis, the Korean War, Vietnam, the tragedy of 9-11, the Great Depression and the economic collapse in 2008 as well as a number of recessions along the way, Iraq and Afghanistan wars, and now another epic pandemic.  It is hard to imagine how we have been able to still prosper and keep a positive outlook – yet we have and do.  During each of these events small businesses like restaurants have been challenged to stay afloat, yet alone grow.  Restaurants have always been, to varying degrees, viewed by many as a luxury that can easily be put aside when times are tough.  In fact, when times are tough – restaurants are even more important.  When we collectively are able to move past each of these life-changing cycles – it is the restaurant that helps to bring light and excitement back into people’s lives.  Restaurants have always been one of the first businesses to recover – people need to gather, to lift those glasses, to break bread and to celebrate all that is good and all that is promised.

Loads of future thinkers are projecting the demise of the restaurant business after Covid -19 subsides, but just as many have done the same after each of the other earth-shattering events listed in this article.  Certainly, there will be victims of these challenging times and many, many restaurants that we love will never open their doors again – but the restaurant business will evolve, adapt, regain energy, and find a way to thrive again.  We hope that our government will learn to respect the important role that restaurants play in our way of life and lend a helping hand, but even if this fails to happen – the American spirit of entrepreneurship will find a way – of this I am certain.

[]         LIMITATIONS ARE PLACED ON RESTAURANT OPERATIONS THAT EAT AWAY AT THE POTENTIAL FOR PROFITABILITY

It is difficult to argue with safety precautions designed to keep people well and thwart the spread of the virus.  At the same time it is worth noting that restaurants cannot survive at 50% capacity or worse, lockdowns that prevent any inside dining, take out or delivery only, or an environment that limits the “experience of dining out”.  It is certainly not the first time that the restaurant business has been faced with these types of challenges – Prohibition as an example.  Serving alcohol has always been the primary profit driver in full-service restaurants and when Prohibition took that option off the table then restaurants were hard put to find a path to profitability.  Of course their answer of serving alcohol illegally is not the best approach, but the fact remains that restaurants found a way – they had to. 

Fighting the common sense approach to limiting customer and employee exposure may make sense emotionally, but it is not realistic.  The only viable solution is to find ways to adapt and change to discover an approach that is safe, exciting for customers, and one that provides owners with the ability to earn a living. 

We have, as an example, predicted the death of fine dining through 9-11, the 2008 economic collapse, and every recession from the early 1960’s on.  Just as restaurants of this caliber seem to be on the precipice – they find a way to reshape what fine dining means, reinvent themselves, and rise back to a level of prominence.   If history is our guide, this transition will happen again – recognition, re-evaluation, re-invention, and revitalization.

Limitations force us to look for alternatives and workarounds.  Knowing that from insurmountable obstacles come the next wave of brilliant ideas – restaurateurs and chefs can and should rely on their innate ability to problem solve and invest in resilience and creativity to find a new way.

Finally, when we relinquish our desire to truly serve, when we fail to exemplify the word “hospitality”, when we give up on that part of the experience because we feel that limitations do not allow for it to occur – then we are doomed.  It has always been about hospitality and will always be so.  It is this commitment to making people feel welcome, special, and thought well of is the key to a return to success.

“Hospitality is central to the restaurant business, yet it’s a hard idea to define precisely.  Mostly, it involves being nice to people and making them feel welcome.  You notice it when it’s there, and you particularly notice it when it isn’t.  A single significant lapse in this area can be your dominant impression of an entire meal.”

_John Lanchester

[]         THE MAGIC OF WORKING IN A PROFESSIONAL KITCHEN HAS LOST ITS SHINE

As we ideate our way to a new business model it is important to remember that hiring passionate, creative, dynamic, excited employees will always be the way to success.  Every new business model must provide a platform for these individuals to be expressive.  Without this dynamic, a restaurant will be relegated to a standardized product and level of service that provides a means to an end, but will rarely entice great employees to knock on your door. 

We (the industry of food) created employee attraction throughout the 80’s and 90’s by elevating the status of talented chefs to become the centerpiece of the food experience.  Just as in the past, it will be important for the food industry to present kitchen work as inspiring, important, beneficial, exciting, and rewarding both professionally and financially.  As long as cooks and chefs view the work of the kitchen as a job with a paycheck then the brilliance of culinary artistry will take a back seat to free agency.  When chefs simply seek out the highest bidder for their skills and talent then the sparkle of a career in food will falter and fewer and fewer individuals will commit to tie on an apron and dedicate the effort.

Those of us who have spent a significant part of our lives working in kitchens, interacting with a well connected team, embracing great raw materials as we transition them into beautiful plates of food, and helping to make people smile, relax, laugh, and raise a glass in friendship – are distraught.  Our purpose, and our passion have been devastated over the past 9-months and we know that it will still take time before things truly begin to improve.  It may seem a bit hopeless to some and difficult at best to others, but rest assured – the environment where restaurants exist will improve, in fact it will likely improve dramatically.  Life in the kitchen will change, but there is little doubt that the role of restaurants in the human experience will rise up again.  The talent, passion, and ambitions that you have as a cook, chef, or entrepreneur is simply dormant right now – a period of hibernation.  We will fill a void that has been gnawing at the fabric of the American experience for far too long – the need to gather, to break bread, to enjoy a great meal, and to laugh will never go away.

PLAN BETTER – TRAIN HARDER

HERE’S TO A VERY PROMISING 2021

Restaurants are the center of our American communities

Harvest America Ventures, LLC

Restaurant Consulting

www.harvestamericacues.com  BLOG

CAFÉ Talks Podcast

https://cafetalks.libsyn.com/

THE RESTAURANT ECO-SYSTEM NEEDS HELP

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There are a number of reasons why restaurants fail – some are predictable and avoidable, while others can catch a business off guard.  None, however, are as devastatingly out of the operators control as this pandemic.  Even the best operators are at a loss for solutions.  There are short-term band aid solutions such as takeout, delivery, or even conversion into retail markets where wine inventories and local necessities take over space once occupied by diners, but they are not a replacement for a steady turn of tables.  Restaurants have been relegated to outside dining or limited indoor space with loads of protocol limitations (some that are even more stringent than what is expected of other businesses) – this doesn’t pay the bills or keep a staff employed.

The pandemic is an “all hands on deck” problem that can be somewhat contained through simple precautions, but until there is mass vaccination of a population – these precautions dig at the heart and soul of a business that is essential to our way of life, our psyche, and our social health and wellbeing. 

There have been well over 100,000 restaurants that have closed their doors permanently as a result of the pandemic.  Many of these restaurants have been around for decades or even generations.  They just can’t survive the pain of lost business for months on end.  Now, this alone might not keep the average consumer or politician up at night, but what they fail to understand is that restaurants are at the center of a broad eco-system of businesses that are inter-dependent.  When your favorite restaurant closes its doors it is disturbing and sad, but it is also part of a domino effect that can tumble out of control.

Here are some of the other businesses that suffer when a restaurant closes, sometimes they too cannot survive as a result:

[]         Regional Farmers:  A significant percentage of farm crops are dedicated to restaurants.  A reduction in restaurant business leads to crop waste, unplanted land, and serious cash flow problems for farmers.  Already living on the edge – smaller farms cannot withstand this loss of business volume.

[]         Fisherman:  The end consumer’s love of fish cannot sustain a fisherman’s need to catch and sell a quantity of product to offset their expenses.  Restaurants account for a large percentage of a fisherman’s direct or indirect business volume.

[]         Ranchers:  Have you noticed that the price of beef, pork, and chicken has increased significantly over the past few months?  Those processing plants need to cover their substantial operational costs now that restaurant business has all but disappeared.  If processing plants cannot find an outlet for their end product then this trickles down to the rancher who is saddled with cattle, pigs and chickens without a market.  The end result is reduced herds, increased cost of feed, land without sufficient grazing, etc., etc.

[]         Cheese Makers:  Cheese, although there are exceptions, is still a product with a shelf life.  When restaurants fail or reduce their product needs, then cheese makers must do the same.  Inventories wane, waste becomes a real concern, decreased cheese product means a reduced need for milk putting a strain on dairy farmers, and the lists goes on and on.

[]         Equipment Manufacturers:  Restaurant kitchens are home to some very expensive equipment – when sales volume evaporates then restaurants are faced with aging equipment that they cannot replace, and delays in opening new operations that require equipment purchases.   There is no other outlet for this specialized equipment.

[]         Breweries:  Sure, maybe consumers are directing their beer purchases to their local package store, but breweries know that this direct to consumer cycle is not sufficient to support their growing expenses.  It is the restaurant segment of their business that creates a steady flow of cash to support their endeavors. 

[]         Distilleries and wineries:  The same holds true for those who market distilled beverages, and of course the wine industry.  Restaurants are the mainstay of business for vintners both domestic and imported.

[]         Table Top Manufacturers:  Restaurants are constantly buying and replacing china, glassware, and flatware for their restaurants.  It is a business that is predictable and dependable – until purchases stop.  Every restaurant that tries to survive during these difficult times will commit to tightening their belts and deferring any purchases that are deemed non-essential.  Those companies focused on tabletop have found that their business has disintegrated.

[]         Local Musicians:  Musicians need to play.  That wonderful local talent that graced the stage in bars and restaurants, and at banquets and festivals no longer has an outlet.  There is literally no opportunity for them to play and earn a living.  The need to survive will have a long-term impact on the availability of live music for quite some time.  Musicians depend on the restaurant business.

[]         Florists:  Sure – florist shops do very well on Mother’s Day, Easter, and Valentine’s Day – but the rest of the year involves a full-time focus on weddings, banquets, reunions, anniversary parties, and daily restaurant floral displays.  When this business goes away (there are no conferences, large wedding receptions, business gatherings, or restaurant floral displays during the pandemic) then the florist is left with unsustainable cash flow.

[]         Linen Companies:  The vast majority of restaurants do not have laundries where tablecloths and napkins, and restaurant uniforms and side towels can be laundered, starched and ironed.  These restaurants rely on linen companies for this service as they rent all of the above.  When business dries up in restaurants – so does business disappear for linen companies.

[]         Wholesalers:  Those companies that collect, deliver, stock, and bill for essential ingredients in restaurants depend, almost exclusively, on restaurants for their business.  Unless they can change their business model and supply ingredients directly to consumers – then wholesalers are left with a greatly diminished amount of business volume.

[]         Clothing Stores and Uniform Companies:  Those local clothing stores take a direct and indirect hit from a faltering restaurant industry.  Directly – those clothing stores that have relied on providing restaurant uniforms have found that their business model is void of customers.  Indirectly, as fewer people take the risk of dining out and shelter at home during the pandemic, they also cut back on clothing purchases that they can display when enjoying a night at their local restaurant or bar.

[]         Coffee Growers and Roasters:  The direct to consumer market for coffee roasters is certainly important, and at some level the take out business and home brew option is still strong, but still a large section of their wholesale business has dried up as restaurants fail at an alarming rate while others have seen business volume decrease by 50% or more.

[]         Landlords:  Building owners have been a target during the pandemic as restaurants have found it impossible to meet the requirements of a lease.  In the end, the landlord also has to pay bills and when a restaurant defaults – they find themselves in a very difficult situation.  “Should we cancel a lease for non-payment and evict the tenant, or should we try to compromise?”

[]         Bakeries:  Most small to medium sized restaurants cannot afford the space or talent needed to produce their own breads and other baked goods.  So, they rely on local or regional bakeries for those goods.  Many bakeries have built their business model on this type of wholesale as their mainstay.  When restaurants fail – they take your local bakeries with them.

[]         Culinary and Restaurant Management Colleges:  With a decrease in the number of restaurants and significantly lower volume of business – there is far less need for those young, eager graduates.  Schools are experiencing dramatic declines in enrollment and challenges in job placement.  Every day brings another college program closing.

The list could go on and each of these listed businesses has their own eco-system of impacted operations.  The point is that that failing local restaurant is only part of the dilemma.  If we allow restaurants to fail, then we allow the entire ecosystem to fail as well.  If restaurants are financially healthy then the system works well.  Right now the restaurant industry needs help from the Federal government.  Without extended PPP benefits, bank loan deferrals, help for landlords, and business recovery training for small restaurants – this system will crumble.  Restaurants cannot wait until 70 or 80% of the population receives a vaccine.  Restaurants cannot survive until the fall of 2021, restaurants cannot continue to wonder from week to week whether they will be able to accept indoor customers or not and they cannot wait for politicians to find a way to talk respectfully to one another.  They need help now!  If this is not provided then an important part of our culture, a major employer of people, and the heart of the food ecosystem will not survive.   Write to your representative, speak your mind through the media, stand in support of your local businesses and do your part.  We have lost too much over the past 9-months; don’t add your local restaurants to the list.

PLAN BETTER – TRAIN HARDER

Harvest America Ventures, LLC

Restaurant Consulting

www.harvestamericacues.com  BLOG

CAFÉ Talks Podcast

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MARC MENEAU – ONE OF THE WORLD’S GREAT CHEFS

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There are chefs who have mastered the craft of cooking, chefs who have built a public brand that defines a region or exemplifies a cuisine; there are others who give to their community and as a result uplift those who call that community “home”; and there are those who push cooking in new and exciting directions.  On rare occasions, there are chefs who do all of the above and more.  Chef Marc Meneau was such a chef – a powerful personality who elevated the dining experience – a chef who lived excellence every day in his restaurant L’Esperance in Vezelay, France.

A small, historic community on the crest of a hill in the Burgundy stands tall as a village where thousands of worshipers and interested historians visited each year to pass through the threshold of its Benedictine monastery – The Basilica of Sainte-Marie-Madeleine built in 1120 A.D. – a house of worship where it is claimed rest some of the bones of Mary Magdalene.  Walking up the cobblestone road that leads to the church and taking in the beauty of the French countryside is truly a spiritual experience.  At the same time, on the outskirts of this religious mecca, sits another destination that for decades attracted worshipers of a different kind.

Vezelay is a centuries old village of less than 500 year-round residents, but throughout the year, visitors from around the world would make the trek to experience the spirituality of the area and to win a table reservation at Marc Meneau’s magnificent restaurant.  Some would fly into France and make the final journey by car to break bread with friends and business clients at the Michelin 3-star L’Esperance, enjoy a memorable meal, and then fly home.  It was this good.

Walking towards the entrance to L’Esperance – you could feel the stress of life leave and the anticipation of something unique and noteworthy about to happen.  Chef Meneau’s wife, Francoise, might greet you at the door, as well as their dog that had free reign of much of the restaurant.  A beautiful, petite gift shop on your left was reminiscent of stepping into a Cartier store in Paris, but in this case the product was not jewelry, but rather expensive wine, caviar, glassware, and reminders of your time visiting Marc Meneau’s contribution to the culinary arts.

The dining room was perfectly appointed with fresh flowers, the finest tabletop details, and magnificent views of the L’Esperance gardens.  Many visitors would in fact be encouraged to walk through the gardens in between courses to take in its beauty and aid in digestion of the multiple courses to come.

As you walk through to your table you might pass young service staff hand wrapping house made caramels and chocolates, polishing silver, and nurturing the robust coffee beans that would eventually become a perfect espresso at the end of your meal.

As perfect as the dining room was – the environment was still light and comfortable.  The L’Esperance experience was not pretentious at all, yet for those who make their livelihood with food – there was a reverence to this place that was quite unique. 

If first impressions are truly lasting impressions then Meneau knew how to control them.  While guests take in the view and passionately read the menu – the L’Esperance signature Cromesqui would arrive.  Painstakingly prepared with foie gras passed through a fine mesh sieve until it was as smooth as silk, and added truffle and cognac – this mind blowing concoction was refrigerated, cut into precise cubes, coated in seasoned flour, and fried until crisp.  When served the process of enjoying this amuse bouche came with instructions from your server.  “Place it in your mouth, do not chew – allow it to melt in your mouth and attack your senses.”  This single bite could be felt in your sinuses, on your palate, and in the process of coating your throat as it disappeared.  This set the stage for what was to come.

Each course would be masterfully prepared and presented and flawless in execution.  You would find yourself wanting more of each dish, but anxiously awaiting what would come next at the same time.  This was dining as it could be; dining executed at the highest level.  If you ever wondered why a 3-star Michelin experience was so special – you now knew.

A tour of the kitchen was to a food lover, the ultimate polish to a perfect meal.  The kitchen, as you would expect, was pristine.  Stainless, silver, and copper was accentuated by the natural light that flowed from the kitchen windows.  Stations were set as per the same model that Escoffier had defined more than a century and a half before.  Entremetier, Saucier, Poissonier, Garde Manger, Grillade, and Patissier were directed by the calm yet forceful voice of the Sous Chef/Expeditor as he called out orders in French.  Everything was made fresh and from scratch – in fact, at the end of a service, the coolers at L’Esperance would likely be near empty –waiting for the early morning orders to arrive tomorrow.

Chefs and commis were in crisp whites and blue aprons.  They were serious about their work and cognizant that the smallest detail was as important as the most complex.  The experience that was the guest’s – began with this level of passion and commitment.

Meneau’s presence was always felt, even though he might be walking through the dining room visiting guests.  He did not need to cook a dish to impact it’s flavor and presentation.  This kitchen was the perfect example of a consummate team of professionals.

Meneau was never trained as a cook, yet his passion for food, for outstanding experiences, and for the significance of excellence allowed this self-taught study of the craft to rise to the culinary world’s highest perch.

For ten years, I had the distinct pleasure of sending student interns for a semester experience in France.  An experience that included a stage in operations like L’Esperance.  While not every student had the opportunity to work with Meneau, they did find themselves in Michelin restaurants from Paris to Sancerre.  Every student knew of Meneau and what he represented, and he would often visit our home base in Entrains sur Nohain to chat with them about food, history, and the beauty of France.

Meneau was a world ambassador for French cooking and was treated as a celebrity wherever he would visit.  He was commissioned to work with the producers of the movie “Vatel” featuring Gerard Depardieu as the chef who made the grand food presentations during the age of Louis the XIV.  The food that you see in the movie was directed by Meneau.  Sofia Coppola, in the movie: “Marie Antoinette, was surrounded by beautiful food created by Meneau and his team.

As a restaurateur – Meneau understood the challenges of being successful.  Of earning a profit – he once told me:  “Restaurant profit is found in the onion peel, not the onion, and in the lobster shell, not the lobster itself.”  At one point Meneau suffered through the loss of a Michelin star, but- re-energized, he worked to gain it back and did so.  Earning those stars is challenging, but keeping them is relentless.

On December 9, 2020 – Marc Meneau passed away at the age of 77 and the culinary world will miss him.  His impact will not be lost as this chef has raised the bar and sits with a small cadre of exceptional culinarians as a benchmark that will continue to define the possibilities of great dining.

Rest in Peace – chef.

PLAN BETTER –TRAIN HARDER

Listen to and learn from the great chefs

Harvest America Ventures, LLC

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COOKS AND THE SCHOOL OF HARD KNOCKS

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Sweat was creeping down Alex’s back.  The line was just 15 minutes into the 7 o’clock push and the board was full.  The pressure was on, but Alex was on his game – he was wearing an ear-to-ear smile because he knew he was in the zone.  The line team was in total sync:  Alex looked at his sous chef expediting on the other side of the pass – his eyes said: bring it on chef.

This has been a long haul for the eager, confident line cook who started out three years ago as a dishwasher.  It was that part-time job in his senior year of high school, diving for pearls on weekends and an occasional weeknight that gave Alex a level of confidence that was lacking in his life.  He would graduate from school, but not because he was a stellar student, but simply because he promised his parents that he would.  School actually came easy for him, but it just wasn’t his thing.  Working, sore muscles sweat, aching feet – this is what gave him a sense of purpose.

The light bulb went off the summer after graduation when he finished his third consecutive week of 50 plus hours on dishes – the chef called Alex into his office and sat him down.  “Alex, I really like your work ethic, the fact that I can always count on you to be here and work your hardest is incredibly valuable to me and the team.  I just don’t think that you are working to the level of your ability.  You’ve washed enough dishes – it’s time to learn how to cook.”  From that moment on Alex knew that his career choice had been made.

This is how so many cooks are made.  Even those who have the opportunity to take the time to attend culinary school, if they are truly committed, started out just like Alex.  It has been said many times that career cooks don’t choose their profession – it chooses them.

Alex spent a year as a prep cook – this is where he learned how to identify ingredients and judge their quality, proper food safety and sanitation, how to set-up a work station, sharpen and care for knives, the dimensions on vegetable cuts, how to make a perfect stock, all of the cooking methods, fabricate a chicken, cut steaks, bone out a ham, fillet round and flat fish, open clams and oysters, turn potatoes, build flavors, and create an array of sauces from the bold stocks that he made.  Most importantly he discovered how to organize his work, be consistent, meet the standards of the operation, and build some speed.  After a year of this important routine – he was ready for the line.

Things were a bit rough at first.  Alex had become accustomed to working independently – playing his skills against the clock and the constantly expanding prep list, but now he had to depend on others.  The whole concept of team was something that would take adjustment time.  He started on the fry station where his focus was on a few bar appetizers, pommes frites, and an occasional deep fried entrée.   When other stations depleted their mise en place Alex would jump in to chop fines herbs, portion extra proteins, clarify butter, or simply line up plates or fold extra side towels.  This was a valuable experience since he had the chance to watch how every other station operated.  At first it seemed impossible: “How do they keep all of those orders timed properly, seasoned appropriately, and always looking perfect at the time of plating?”   After a few months he had a pretty good picture of how it all worked and his comfort level improved dramatically.  Now he was pulled into the grill station on a reasonably slow night when the normal station cook was ill and couldn’t make it in for his shift.  Alex understood degrees of doneness, but keeping a chargrill organized with multiple degrees of doneness, making sure that those hash marks from the grill were spot on, and taking carry over cooking into account was overwhelming.  He made it through that first night with only three re-fires, but it was rough.

The chef made sure that from that point on – Alex was scheduled one night per week on the grill.  Practice makes perfect and in no time he had built a high level of competence and confidence.  Alex saw that the chef was determined to build him into a roundsman – a cook who could work many stations with a high level of skill.  For the first time since washing that first dish while in high school, Alex saw the kitchen as a likely career – one that might even lead to the chef’s position at some point.

Another few months and the chef pulled Alex off of the hot line and scheduled him to shadow the Garde Manger.  “You need to learn the cold side of the kitchen as well.  Garde Manger is where we make our profit.  Salads, appetizers, and desserts are the “extras” that help to turn a restaurant into a successful one.  This is also where you will fine tune your skill at plate presentations.”

To Alex, this seemed like a demotion.  The hot line was where the action was, where teamwork was built, and where the sweat from hard work was most evident.  Garde Manger seemed too light for a cook on the rise.  He would work with Sally who had been at the restaurant for three years – the last two in Garde Manger.  Alex quickly saw that the shear number of components that Sally had to work with made the grill station look like child’s play.  Everything had its own process, most of which fell on Sally’s shoulders unlike the hot line that was serviced by the prep cook.  There were marinades, dressings, poached fruits, sauce reductions, delicate garnishes, artisan cheeses of all types, croustades, washed and spun greens, shucked oysters and clams, poached lobster, pates, and galantines, and the assembly of some pretty intricate desserts that were prepped by the pastry chef in the early morning hours.  It was a lot to organize and assemble – Sally did it so well, with so much finesse.  Alex’s learning curve would be steep.  He dove into the challenge and learned to admire Sally’s skill more and more every day.  He would later find out that she too started on the hot line, but now preferred her artistic station.

Through his on-going training rotation Alex felt himself grow into each position, earn respect from his peers, and slowly become a very good and extremely valuable member of the restaurant kitchen team.  After three solid months in Garde Manger the chef called Alex in to the office.  “Alex, I am very pleased to see how much you have grown and how confident your teammates are in your skill set.  I want to take a step back for the next month and schedule you back in the dish room.  You will start there on Monday.”  The chef left it at that without any explanation.  Alex was crushed and confused.  “This is where I was two years ago.  I thought I was doing a really good job in the kitchen – why is the chef doing this?”  A bit of anger crept into Alex’s psyche and as he walked home he even gave thought to quitting this job and looking to a different restaurant.  The next day, however, he returned to the kitchen thinking that he would show the chef that he was much more talented than wasting his abilities on diving for pearls.

What happened in that first week of dishwashing was both enlightening and humbling.  He began to see the position differently now – he looked at the importance of the dishwasher through the eyes of the cook.  It wasn’t sufficient just to wash sauté pans for the middle station – he wanted to make sure that they were stacked in line with the cooks mise en place, handles pointing a certain way, scrubbed till they glistened, and always perfectly dry before they hit the deep blue flame from the stove.  He made extra sure that plates were perfectly clean, dry, and free of chips and cracks.  He knew now how frustrating it was for a cook to pick up a plate and find out it wasn’t suitable for the assembly of a dish.  He took the time to show servers just how important it was to properly scrape and stack dirty plates to keep the system working well, and he was always on the look out for floor spills that could endanger a cook or server.  He quickly slipped into the role of an excellent dishwasher.

After two weeks, the chef called Alex into the office again.  “You may have wondered why I put you back in the dish area after two years of cooks training.  I think you see now that the objective was to give you a different perspective on how important that position is to the operation of the kitchen.  A great dishwasher can lead to success and a poor one can bring a kitchen down.  I guarantee you that from this point on you will never take the position for granted.   Tomorrow you will begin to learn sauté – our most complicated line position.”

It has been three months now since Alex started on sauté.  He is exceptional at the work, incredibly well organized, spot on as a teammate, and well rounded with his understanding of cooking.  When his look passed on to the expeditor said: “bring it on”, it was because Alex was a confident and competent cook who learned through the school of hard knocks.  He loved what he did and knew that the chef could depend on him to jump into any position where he was needed – even the dish room.  Alex could see into the future and knew that it wouldn’t be long before that first sous chef position came his way.

There is no better way to learn the ropes, become excellent at your craft, and set the stage for a long and fruitful career than learning by doing.  All of these steps are essential.  Look for the opportunities, accept the challenges, enter each phase with an open mind, and build your repertoire in a methodical fashion.  The world is your oyster.

PLAN BETTER – TRAIN HARDER

Harvest America Ventures, LLC

One Step at a Time

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CHASING THE DEVIL – SUBSTANCE ABUSE IN THE RESTAURANT BUSINESS

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Joe is a single guy, young and well educated, quiet yet personable enough, incredibly talented as a cook, reflective, and a closet alcoholic.  From the perspective of the chef who reigns in charge of the restaurant where Joe works – this young line cook is an ideal employee.  The chef knows that Joe will always be ready with his mise en place at service, always be focused on excellence in cooking, he will look the part of a professional and whenever the chef is short an employee he knows that Joe will respond to the emergency and double time it in on his day off.  The chef is either oblivious to or avoiding what everyone else in the kitchen knows – Joe drinks with reckless abandon.  After work – Joe can’t wait to trot to the closest bar where his alter-personality kicks in after the second drink.  When he settles in to this environment he quickly turns from that quiet, reflective, talented cook to the life of the party.  He has done this for so long that Joe is able to stumble home at 3 in the morning and appear sharp and focused at 1 p.m. when he arrives for another shift behind the line.

Today, something is different.  It’s 1:20 and Joe hasn’t shown up for work yet.  The rest of the crew is quiet and uncomfortable as the chef asks if anyone has heard from Joe – his most dependable cook.  The chef has called Joe’s cell a few times – but no one answers.  By 2:00 everyone is rather worried and the chef sends one of his other cooks to Joe’s apartment to check on him.  After pounding on his door for ten minutes – he finally opens the door.  He is in rough shape, his face is bruised and cut, his clothes are spattered with blood, and he is obviously still intoxicated from a late night of bar hopping.  “Man – what the hell is going on?  You’re supposed to be at work – the chef sent me to check on you.”  Joe is speechless – he simply waves off his peer and says: “I’m not coming in today.”  This cook has hit the wall – alcohol has taken control and there is no turning back at this point.  He hasn’t been on an extended bender for quite some time – but now one is rearing up its ugly head.  This isn’t the first job that he will likely lose, and it won’t be the last.

If you are working in the restaurant business then this story will ring true.  Maybe you are one of the lucky ones who can occasionally over-subscribe to alcohol or other substances and not worry about the disease sinking its clutches into your every being.  Even if this is the case – you have worked or are working with others who can’t turn it on or off.  Statistics that measure substance abuse by industry rank food service as #3 in heavy alcohol use and #1 in abuse of illicit drugs.  Joe is not an anomaly.  Nearly 13% of all heavy alcohol users in the U.S. work in the food service industry!  Why is this so and what can be done about it?

There are a number of tragedies associated with Joe’s situation – a number of ancillary victims whose only shortcoming is a quiet association with Joe and his problem.  The chef will ultimately lose a great employee, his co-workers will suffer the impact of Joe’s meltdown, customers might even begin to notice a change in the quality of work, Joe’s family will suffer the uncertainty of his health and wellbeing, friends and relationships will deteriorate, and he will continue down this bottomless pit until he self-destructs even further.  All of those connections tried to ignore the growing problem and simply shook their heads and hoped for the best.

One recovering alcoholic stated: “I think I always knew there was going to be a problem – but I thought – not me.   One day a delivery driver arrived late – I was pissed!  I gave him a hard time for no reason – it was not his fault.  On his way out the door he said to me: ‘I wish I could give you a beer’.  It was confirmed – I wasn’t hiding it well.”

Alcoholism and Drug Abuse are part of a disease category that relies on dependence.  Like any other disease it needs to be recognized, accepted, and treated.  This dependence will not go away on it’s own.  The person or persons impacted by this disease will require a regimented treatment unlike any other debilitating disease.  People impacted by substance abuse will need tough love, support, physical treatment, mental and emotional support, and a lifetime of discipline to overcome the need to lean on alcohol or drugs.  As is said: “once an alcoholic or drug user, always an alcoholic or drug user.”  Note that no one is ever cured of this disease – they are always referred to as “recovering” – never cured.  Yet, like Joe – so many keep their problem under wraps as long as they can – never seeking help, never admitting that they are plagued by the evil hands of a monster that always tries to draw them in.

You might think:  “a drink now and then is fine, it’s enjoyable, a nice release, a way to enjoy the social nature of friendship and family.”  You might reflect on your own situation where a bottle of wine with a great meal is the complete package and never something that draws you in at the expense of family, friendships, mental health, or a career.  That’s great – I belong to this fortunate club, but at the same time I have witnessed lives crushed, relationships shattered, careers end, and even lives lost among those who are not as fortunate to have the off and on switch.  What Joe is experiencing is what tens of thousands of food service workers face every day – it is a very, very serious problem.  There was a point in my career when I felt that I should become an honorary member of Alcoholics Anonymous simply because so many of my friends and co-workers built their life schedules around AA meetings.  Let me reiterate – it is a very, very serious problem.

A good friend and fellow chef stated:  “Most alcoholics and addicts feel all alone in a crowded football stadium – most of us think we don’t belong.  A lot of people think, in the beginning, it will help them be more social, to get along better, but what you’re really doing is placing yourself where you can no longer learn – you stop growing.”

During these unprecedented times when the restaurant industry is challenged like never before, when the routine of the cook, chef, server, or manager is very uncertain, and when that typical adrenaline rush of working in a busy kitchen has, in some cases, come to a halt; there may be more individuals than ever before who are on the edge.  It is so easy for alcohol or drugs to creep in and take control.  We all need to pay attention to the signs, be aware, and be there to support those who are finding it difficult to cope.

It takes a village to save a friend or co-worker from the ravages of substance dependence; we can all play a role in the recovery process.  First, most who are in the know will tell you that it serves no purpose to ignore or discount an alcoholic’s or drug addict’s actions.  This is the tough love part – they need to be called out.  Second, we can all help by talking about how their actions impact not just themselves, but also all those individuals around them.  It is important that the individual come to grips with the problem.  Third, we need to support them by helping the alcoholic or drug dependent individual connect with the right help.  Bring the individual to the helping hands of another recovering cook, chef, friend, family member, or known AA sponsor.  Know where and when local AA meetings are being held.  Post it in your kitchen for all to see.  Finally, be the voice of encouragement – the process out of despair is long and difficult, but never turn away from their desire to become whole again.  The person may lose a job along the way; find a family member or friend who turns his or her back, or a co-worker who fails to understand the disease.  From this point on – staying sober or clean is the most important action in their lives.

Words of advice from my friend: “Ask for help!  You are not alone.  There is so much help out there – talk with somebody before it’s too late.”

I was turned on to the following TEDTalk.  It is heart-wrenching and uplifting at the same time.  Everyone, whether directly impacted by substance abuse or not – should watch and listen.  This is a valuable 10-minute investment of your time.

SOBER REALITY FOR THE FOOD AND BEVERAGE INDUSTRY:

PLAN BETTER – TRAIN HARDER
Know that you are not alone

Harvest America Ventures, LLC

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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 FISHMONGER 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/

CHEF – A PATH TO GREATNESS

The first question is always: “Do you want to be great?”, followed by: “Are you willing to put forth the effort to be great?”

Let’s assume that the desire to be great is innate – a desire that we are born with – a desire that can either be nourished or squashed.  This desire is a spark of enthusiasm to accomplish goals, exceed expectations, know no barriers to entry, and reach for the stars.  We possess this desire universally but experience has shown us that it can be pushed aside by parents, friends, supervisors, peers, and even by our own lack of confidence in potential outcomes.

“There is no greatness without a passion to be great – whether it’s the aspiration of an athlete or an artist, a scientist, a parent, business owner (or chef).”

-Author unknown

I have spoken oftentimes about the disease of mediocrity and the joy of an attitude of excellence.  It is this attitude that sets a course toward greatness.  Greatness can be achieved in the simplest of tasks or the overwhelming impact of a project, process, discovery, or “win” that might elude those who choose not to reach for the stars and adopt excellence as their standard.

As cooks and chefs we spend our days in a business that allows ample room for greatness or mediocrity and in some cases both are rewarded with financial success, but only one will make you whole.   Greatness is realized both in the moment and through strategic planning, but greatness is still greatness no matter how small or how lofty the task.   You must have an unrelenting passion to be great and a total unwillingness to put it aside and accept mediocrity.

So what is the path to greatness for a chef?  What can we all do today, right now, to move in this direction?  Where do we begin?

[]         KNOWLEDGE:

Greatness has its roots in knowledge.  Chefs should not only know process and methods, but also the why, where, and who behind everything that is done in the kitchen.  Understanding the culture behind a cuisine, the people and the ingredients they worked with, why those ingredients were used, and how they work together to create a dish is essential if a chef is to truly represent a cuisine or a dish.  This knowledge must be constantly fed – so great chefs are reading and researching, inquiring and visiting, and absorbing all that they can so that everything can be shared with the team.

[]         VISION:

Greatness stems from a chef’s vision and goals – what sets a path for the restaurant today and into the future?  Copycat operations can certainly thrive, but greatness comes from uniqueness and excellence in executing that uniqueness.

[]         COMMITMENT:

Greatness tends to surround those who dedicate themselves and much of their lives to the pursuit of excellence.   Think of the analogy of breakfast:  “The chicken is involved – the pig is committed.”

[]         FLEXIBILITY:

Great chefs and great operations know that there will be times when they need to change or at least bend.  The willingness to change is as important as the ability to do so.

[]         SKILL:

Certainly the foundations of cooking will always rise to the top of any cook’s skill set, but to assume that cooking will always remain as it has been is foolish.  Equipment and technology change and our understanding of the process of cooking will forever evolve.  Great chefs are constantly working on adding to and enhancing their skills.

[]         VARIED EXPERIENCE:

Chefs who are at the top of their game are individuals who have committed themselves to building a portfolio of unique experiences in all aspects of cooking from a’ la carte fine dining to street food, from large scale catered events to formal seven course dinners for groups of 20, and from a’ la carte breakfast to classic formal buffets – everything adds up to a basis for greatness.

[]         THE ABILITY TO LISTEN:

If a chef believes that he or she is the only person in the room with a useful thought, then learning will never take place, teams will never truly form, and excellence will rarely be achieved.  Listen to others.

[]         DECISION MAKING:

When a cook reaches the level of chef it is expected that this person will be confident and competent enough to make the tough decisions and delegate those that others are able to make.

[]         PROBLEM SOLVING:

The experiences that a chef brings to the table create a repository of solutions and the preventative medicine that will help an operation avoid many problems in the first place.  The chef in an operation is the ultimate problem-solver.

[]         COMMUNICATION:

Great ideas, helpful experiences, and important decisions will fail to meet objectives unless the chef is able to effectively communicate verbally and in writing.  This communication must represent a professional approach and be structured under the heading of: “The Proper Use of the English Language”.  Communication is core to greatness.

[]         A NETWORK OF INFLUENCE:

Greatness is rarely an individual effort.  The best chefs have built a network of associates over years of working in kitchens.  This network is there to help, advise, critique, support, and sometimes stop a chef from making a decision.  It takes a village to raise a great chef.

[]         TEAM BUILDING:

First and foremost – great chefs are incredible team builders.  Chefs must know how to identify, hire, train, mentor, coach, evaluate, and sometimes cut a team member loose if his or her presence has a negative impact on the team.  Teams need leaders and leaders need followers – the chef must build a cohesive group with common vision, a comfort level in speaking their mind, but a desire to contribute to the team effort.

[]         AMBASSADORSHIP:

Gone are the days when a chef can hide behind the swinging doors.  Greatness is also measured in a chef’s ability to interact with the community of guests, leaders, and influencers. 

[]         PROFESSIONALISM:

Above all else – greatness is measured in a chef’s ability to look, act, interact, and consistently model professional behavior.  Treating everyone with respect is the price of admission.  Acting the part of a leader is expected.  Being a role model is the basis for followership attitudes from others.  This is what great chefs do.

PLAN BETTER – TRAIN HARDER

Harvest America Ventures, LLC

Restaurant and Culinary School Consulting

www.harvestamericacues.com BLOG

CAFÉ Talks Podcast

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