THE VALUE OF THE SCHOOL OF HARD KNOCKS

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

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

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

[]       IT MUST BEGIN WITH WASHING DISHES:

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

[]       DIVE FOR PEARLS:

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

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

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

[]       THAT FIRST KNIFE MUST BE EARNED:

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

[]       PEEL 500 POUNDS OF ONIONS FIRST:

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

[]       DICE A BAG OF CARROTS – PERFECTLY:

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

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

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

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

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

 diner’s attention.

[]       WHAT – YOU NEVER HAD A PAPER ROUTE?

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

[]       WASH AND IRON YOUR OWN UNIFORM:

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

[]       OF COURSE, THOSE SHOES MUST BE POLISHED:

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

[]       SHOWER AND SHAVE:

Simple – look the part of a professional.

[]       NO ONE IS ABOVE CLEANING:

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

[]       ON TIME REALLY IS 15 MINUTES EARLY:

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

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

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

[]       SPEND THREE DAYS ON A FARM:

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

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

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

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

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

[]       YOUR NAME ON A CHEF COAT MEANS SOMETHING:

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

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

PLAN BETTER – TRAIN HARDER

Learn by doing

Harvest America Ventures, LLC

www.harvestamericacues.com – BLOG

CAFÉ Talks Podcast

https://cafemeetingplace.com/cafe-podcasts

FINDING YOUR WAY AS A COOK AND A CHEF

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

PLAN BETTER – TRAIN HARDER

Make a dent in the universe – start today

Harvest America Ventures, LLC

Restaurant Consulting

www.harvestamericacues.com BLOG

CAFÉ Talks Podcast

https://cafemeetingplace.com/cafe-podcasts

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

PLAYING WITH FIRE

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

-Julia Child

PLAN BETTER – TRAIN HARDER

Harvest America Ventures, LLC

Restaurant Consulting

www.harvestamericacues.com – BLOG

CAFÉ Talks Podcast

https://cafemeetingplace.com/cafe-podcasts

THE CHARLIE WATTS OF THE KITCHEN

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

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

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

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

PLAN BETTER – TRAIN HARDER

Respect the Grillade

Harvest America Ventures, LLC

Restaurant Consulting

www.harvestamericacues.com  BLOG

CAFÉ Talks Podcast

https://cafemeetingplace.com/cafe-podcasts

THE TERRITORY AHEAD FOR CHEFS

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It’s time to accept where we are, listen and understand where we might be going, put aside our frustrations and begin to establish a working strategy that is based on what is inevitable.  Yes, I’m talking about what it will be like in our restaurants from this point on and into the foreseeable future.

I know, I know – we all want things to return to normal, and we want the industry we knew to come back just as it was.  In the profound words of David Byrne: “Same as it ever was, same as it ever was.”  But the fact of the matter is: it will not likely ever be the same as it ever was.  So, take a deep breath, kick a few empty five-gallon buckets around the kitchen (make sure they are empty), release a string of expletives if it makes you feel better, and take a few ibuprofens to address that constant headache.  Sometimes, things start to feel better when you know that the decisions are much clearer now than they were a few months ago – even if the clarity is not what we hoped for.

So, here is what we know and what we must learn to work with:

[]       COVID PROTOCOLS WILL LIKELY BE WITH US FOR SOME TIME:

You’re tired of it, your employees are tired of it, and your customers are tired of, but it is the second-best tool in your toy chest (next to the vaccine) to help keep this pandemic under control and keep everyone safe. Many indicators point to Covid as a constantly mutating virus that comes back in a different form every year.  This means that booster shots, like the flu vaccine, will be an annual reality and masks and other internal protocols will probably be either recommended or required at some level for months or even years to come (sorry to burst your bubble).

[]       SOME OF YOUR BEST EMPLOYEES WON’T BE COMING BACK:

They stepped away while you were shut down, they had time to evaluate and take a hard look at the pros and cons and concluded that working in restaurants just wasn’t worth it.  The pay was not the best, the benefits not so great, the hours and uncertainty of schedules frustrating, the physical work demanding, the environment stressful, and working evenings and holidays quite anti-social.  So, they decided to look for a change of career.  We didn’t address all those issues when we should have and now the pandemic made it all too obvious that it was time for them to cut the apron strings.

[]       FINDING NEW STAFF WILL BE A CHALLENGE FOR QUITE A WHILE:

The same media that made our industry exciting and attractive (unrealistically attractive) for decades has now invested in pointing out on social media, in newspapers and magazines, in expose books, and on television that working in restaurants has a dark side.  Combine this with the cost of a culinary or hospitality education and the 30-year payback to become debt free and many young students are turning their backs on a restaurant career.

[]       LABOR WILL BE MUCH MORE EXPENSIVE

Those employees that you are able to attract, especially the good ones, will be able to demand significantly higher wages and much broader benefit packages.  Yep, we might actually have to pay people a fair wage for the work that they do.  Ouch! 

[]       WE DO NEED TO ADDRESS WORK/LIFE BALANCE FOR EVERYONE:

It is absolutely true that when you find something that you enjoy doing, time investment is far less a concern, but try telling that to a good employee who has a family that also demands his or her attention.  When the stress of the job, especially the demands for excellence, poise, teamwork, service mentality, and competence, become over-bearing then everyone loses.  We (all of us) need to see these roadblocks, listen to our employees, and find ways to create a more accommodating environment – one that treats people with respect and works to create a user-friendly space where employees can perform well and feel good about themselves.

[]       CUSTOMERS ARE ANGRY WITH THE WORLD AND THEY SEEM TO ENJOY TAKING IT OUT ON YOUR STAFF – DON’T TOLERATE IT!

Of course, we all get it.  Life has been very challenging of late, and everyone is tired, on edge, frustrated beyond belief, and just DONE.  We are all ready to own our lives again and enjoy the simple things – like going out for a meal.  When the frustrations that a person feels translates to treating our employees poorly, placing blame on their shoulders for the protocols that they are required to enforce, and ignorance of the unique staffing challenges that continues to shoot holes in our delivery systems – then chefs and restaurateurs need to step in to protect the well-being of their employees.  The customer isn’t always right when they look down on our staff and try to make their lives unbearable.  Don’t allow it – there is no space for that crap in our places of work.

[]       THE SUPPLY CHAIN IS BROKEN AND WILL BE FOR A WHILE:

This is the straw that broke the camel’s back.  Staffing is difficult, customers are sometimes miserable, everyone is tired, and many are afraid, but now we can’t even depend on receiving the supplies that we need to conduct business.  Reminds me of that telling moment in the movie Network, when people hung their heads out of their apartment windows and yelled: “I’m mad as hell and not going to take it anymore.”  Well, the supply chain is bigger than all of us, very complex, and apparently – very fragile.  We can’t find staff, but neither can farmers, processors, supply ports, trucking companies, and even air carriers who bring that beautiful fresh fish to your door or wild mushrooms from Washington State.  So, it’s time to build contingency plans with this in mind – the problem will not be fixed overnight.

[]       SMALLER MENUS ARE A MUST, AT LEAST FOR NOW:

Chefs do like to strut their stuff.  We do like to show what we can do through our menus, train our staff how each should be prepared, how they should taste, and how they must be presented on the plate.  Unfortunately, staffing and supply issues make large menus impossible to maintain.  Get accustomed with smaller menus and fluid ones that change in an instant based on what is available.

[]       RIGHT NOW, VALUE IS FOCUSED ON SAFETY, TRUST, AND EFFICIENCY – EVENTUALLY IT WILL TURN BACK TO QUALITY AND PRICE:

We need to be ready to wow our guests again with exceptional, interesting, flavor packed, beautiful food and warm, friendly, comfortable service.  This never goes out of style so don’t be coaxed into thinking that a safe and efficient restaurant can survive without the magic of the kitchen and its cooks.

[]       LESS COMPETITION DUE TO RESTAURANT CLOSURES IS NOT A GOOD THING FOR YOU: 

Less competition means less interest in those related careers.  Less competition means less incentive to always stay on the cutting edge with product and service, less competition means that fewer people in your community will view a lunch or dinner out as the “thing to do”.  We should applaud competition, welcome it, and learn from it.

[]       DON’T PUSH ASIDE FOOD TO GO, FOOD DELIVERY, GHOST KITCHENS, OR CURBSIDE PICK-UP JUST YET:

Yep, it saved many restaurants and our customers embraced it – now we can’t forget it.  We need to become incredible at food to go – figure out ways to maintain quality, package it beautifully so that it looks fantastic, and create a “to go experience” that is comparable to in-person dining.  A tall task, but necessary.  To go is here to stay.

[]       SURVIVAL IS THE FIRST THING ON A CHEF’S JOB DESCRIPTION RIGHT NOW:

All hands-on deck!  We can’t afford to close, and we can’t afford to open – UNLESS – everyone in your operations is part of the solution.  Survival means the right menu, perfectly prepared and presented food, real service that includes the cooks desire to always say YES, clean, and upbeat dining rooms, with staff who offer service with a smile, and cost control on everyone’s mind.  It means, more than ever before that every guest is important AND it means that if, in your position, you are not serving the guest directly, then you must serve someone who is.

[]       FORGET THE EXECUTIVE CHEF TITLE – WORKING CHEF IS MUCH MORE REALISTIC RIGHT NOW:

It may be some time before the chef with a clipboard is back.  If you haven’t done so for some time – be prepared to occasionally work a station, engage in prep, push a few racks through the dish machine, and yes – help to bus tables and mop an occasional floor.  This is a good thing – roll up your sleeves, the chef won’t always have the cleanest uniform in the kitchen.

PLAN BETTER – TRAIN HARDER

Prepare for the New Reality

Harvest America Ventures, LLC

www.harvestamericacues.com  BLOG

CAFÉ Talks Podcast

https://cafemeetingplace.com/cafe-podcasts

I AM A COOK, HEAR ME ROAR

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At this time, when it seems so easy to complain, to point fingers, to question, and sometimes even to bail on a career in the kitchen – I offer these insights for a professional cook: 

I am a cook, hear me roar

*I am proud to be a cook, and to be a caretaker of beautiful ingredients from the land, the sea, and the air.

*I am proud to wear the uniform of the cook and know that it represents a proud tradition of one of the world’s oldest professions.

*I am protective and proud of the tools I use.  My knives are an extension of my hands and I respect and care for them making sure that they are sharp and clean and used for their intended purpose.

*I am fully aware that my future as a cook or chef lies in my hands.  I can be whatever I hope to be – the world is and always has been my oyster.

*I know that success results from hard work, it is never a given.  My future depends on how hard I am willing to work to get there.

*As a proud cook I know that my skills are important but will fail to result in a great product without collaboration with others.

*I know that organization is paramount to success.

*I understand that my role is to respect the ingredients I use and coax out the flavor and nutrition that is already there.

*I know that great cooking comes from an understanding of the culture, traditions, methods, trials and tribulations, and celebrations behind a cuisine or a dish.

*I know that the only way to become truly masterful at my craft is to practice, practice, practice.

*As a cook I understand the importance of respect for others, respect for the chain of command in the kitchen, and respect for the foundations of cooking.

*I know that cooking and giving people a chance to break bread is a gift that keeps on giving.

*I know that hard work and smart work must go hand-in-hand.

*As a cook I understand that my growth to the position of chef will take time, experience, wins and losses, joy and sorrow, and a willingness to listen and learn.

*I know the satisfaction that comes from a dish well prepared and presented.

*As a cook I understand the importance of a well-rounded palate and know that it will take time to develop, even if I seem to have the gift of developed taste buds.

*As a cook I respect those who have been able to benefit from a formal culinary education but realize that they too will need to experience day-to-day kitchen intensity before they can celebrate their ability.

*As a cook I understand just how important every person in the kitchen and dining room is to our collective success.

*As a cook I will never discount the importance of the dishwasher.

*I live to work clean and am proud of the fact that no one ever need remind me to clean as I go.

*I understand that mise en place is the key to success on the line.

*I understand that serving the food that I prepare is also stressful and demanding so I respect those who do so with enthusiasm and professionalism.

*As a professional cook I know that everyone is equal, some simply have different jobs.  Whether white or of color, young or old, male, or female, college educated or from the school of hard knocks, short, small, tall, thin, or heavy, American born or from any of the hundreds of countries around the globe – as long as you work hard and respect others – I will respect you.

*I am an artist who uses the plate as a canvas.

*I have burns, cuts, sore muscles and backs, and many insecurities that I try to work out daily, but so do you – so I shouldn’t invest too much energy in complaining.

*I know that with all the challenges that cooks face, all the perceived inequities, all of the scabs that cover the cuts beneath, this is a rewarding profession like no other.

*I know that a kind word goes a long way toward understanding and respect.  I also know that vicious talk and demeaning attitudes will tear a team apart and leave far too many people without the confidence to perform well.

*As a professional cook I relish the opportunity to learn something new, to try a new food, to build my palate and advance my skill proficiency – this is what makes me stronger.

*I know the difference between critique and criticism.  I embrace the prior and reject the later.

*I accept critique but feel that if others need to point out my mistakes it is because I was not paying attention.  I know when I haven’t lived up to my own standards and when I fall short of the necessary skills required.  Tell me what I need to do but show me how to do it and I will listen and learn.

All of this I know with certainty.  This is the same as it always was and how it will always be for those who view working in a kitchen as a chance to grab the bull by the horns, determine where they want to be in the future, create a roadmap to get there, and stay the course.  I ask myself every day: “Is what I am doing right now bringing me any closer to reaching my goals?”  If the answer is “no” then it is time to self-correct.

PLAN BETTER – TRAIN HARDER

Why do I cook – because it’s who I am

Harvest America Ventures, LLC

www.harvestamericacues.com  BLOG

CAFÉ Talks Podcast

https://cafemeetingplace.com/cafe-podcasts

LET’S NOT ALLOW EVIL TO WIN

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Twenty years ago, yes twenty years, our lives changed forever.  When those terrorists without a soul, with evil and hate in their hearts chose to attack innocent people who were just going about their lives and sent a message to America and the world that life is not precious and never guaranteed.  We all remember, at least those who were born before 1995, where we were, when we heard, and how much fear was infused into the air that we breathe.  It remains one of the most tragic, heart wrenching, stomach churning, and depressing, events of our lives.  Something that we never will and never should forget. 

It is likely that each of knows someone who died on that day, whether on a plane, in an attacked building, or doing their job trying to save others.  Those memories are branded into our subconscious.  One of my former students, Chris Carstanjen, was on the second plane that was flown directly into the twin towers.  I still think of him and what must have been going through his mind at that moment.  He was simply in route to the west coast for a well-deserved vacation. 

The emotions that we collectively felt became a unifying introduction to twenty years of a changing America.  At first, we came together to share in our grief and to help everyone make sense of the act and find a way to breathe again.  Then that unity opened the door to anger, a need for revenge, political divide, a lack of trust, a tendency among some to find blame in conspiracy theories, loads of hate and calls for isolation.  To a large degree, the challenges that we face today had many of their roots in this one day in history.  Is our great divide whether political, spiritual, ethnic, or social somehow connected to the fear, anger, and uncertainty that was sparked on a day of national trauma?  

We are a country so divided that America is somewhat hard to recognize.  This is not the country that I remember as a youngster, this is not the country that my parents would have recognized and certainly not the country that my father, grandfather, uncle, and father-in-law fought to protect and defend in the first two world wars.  This is certainly not the country that those who built our democracy would remember. 

After twenty years of continued fighting, disruption of countries, trillions of dollars spent, and countless lives lost – we finally recognized that ending the fighting was the only logical outcome.  All the fighting, all the tragedy of 20 years did not really change anything.  So, on this anniversary of 9/11 we must all wonder what are we doing?  If America continues to entrench in individual beliefs whether based on fact or contrived fiction, where will we end up?  Is it possible that our collective mistrust of everything, our collective belief that there is something sinister going on behind everything, our collective willingness to push aside the conclusions and work of highly competent, world-class scientists in favor of idiots spewing conspiracy theories on social media, our total distrust of our democratic system by many average Americans and even those who represent us, can be connected to that date in 2001?

Did 9/11 uncover the worst of us or the best of us?  It remains one of the most tragic days in our history – a day when our guard was down and evil triumphed, at least for a moment in time.  The question is – are we going to allow that evil to change what America is(was) all about?  This great country was always a beacon of light for others, a place where the magic of the people and where sound majority beliefs determined how we would act.  A place where we all had an opportunity to express our beliefs knowing that the scrutiny of the truth would prevail, but also relishing the opportunity to have an opinion.  America has always been a place of civilized discourse but also where facts were accepted, where educators were respected, where experts in a field of study were admired, where the news was the news and not filled with a table full of talking heads, where what was in print could be trusted because we had controls in place and ethics aligned to make sure that before it was said, it was verified.  I remember that country – do you?

This week I will shed another tear for those people who lost their lives on September 11, 2001 – especially Chris Carstanjen.  I will remember, with respect, all the firemen, police officers, and volunteers who risked their lives to search for others and who continue to die today because of the toxins they were exposed to.  This week I will remember all the young men and women, military and civilian who lost their lives as a direct or indirect consequence of 9/11 and the wars that followed.  This is a week to remember and respect, but it should also be a week where we self-assess and ask the question: “Are we going to let evil win?”

This week chefs and cooks can pay respect to all those who have suffered and perished directly or indirectly from the trauma of 9/11 and help to bring people together in the spirit of the America that the world held so high, for so long. We can do this by preparing food from the heart and the soul and breaking bread with others.  Do so with respect for all people and in direct defiance of evil.  We hold in our hands, the means to bring people together of all walks of life, all nationalities and beliefs, and all traditions and perspectives.  I can think of no better way to honor all whom we have lost.  I will cook for the memory of Chris Carstanjen this weekend.  What will you do?

PLAN BETTER – TRAIN HARDER

Never forget

www.harvestamericacues.com  BLOG

HARVEST – IN SERVICE OF THE POTATO

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It has been around for centuries, oftentimes held high as a somewhat mystical crop, a tuber that fed the poor, protected against the scourge of scurvy, became a type of currency, and amazed everyone for its variety.  The potato is an incredible marvel of Mother Nature that remains the centerpiece of many cuisines, a centerpiece that gives the chef plenty of poetic license for nurturing its qualities and celebrating its ability to morph into so many unique dishes that are influenced by tradition and context.

To the cook and the chef, the potato is a clean slate.  A product so essential, so versatile, packed with nutrition, and cost effective that sometimes it is taken for granted.  The potato has become a commodity, an ingredient that is too often purchased with more concern over size and shape than by the uniqueness of its countless varieties and flavor profiles.

“Not everyone can be a truffle. Most of us are potatoes. And a potato is a very

good thing to be.”
– Chef Massimo Bottura

Chef Bottura makes an important comparison but falls into the habit of inferring that the potato is common and simple.  It is prevalent and sometimes dismissed in comparison to other ingredients just as far too many excellent and talented people are pushed aside if they fail to stand out as unique.  The potato is so much more robust as an ingredient and so much more significant in the kitchen than those ingredients that have a limited appeal or function even though they may be revered.  Think about the possibilities:

THE FRENCH FRY: Potatoes are the number one vegetable consumed in the United States and French fries are top of the list when it comes to potato choices.  When done well they are crisp and golden on the outside and creamy and satisfying on the inside.  Served piping hot with just the right amount of salt – they are hard to beat and not only a classic, but an essential item on nearly every restaurant menu regardless of the pricing structure.  Sometimes served with cheese curd and pan gravy as poutine or enhanced with truffle oil and Himalayan salt; or rosemary, lemon and cracked pepper; thin and crunchy as pommes frites, or thick planks with prime steak – there are limitless choices for any palate.

THE MIGHTY BAKED POTATO: Few menu items are easier to prepare, yet more rewarding than a properly baked potato.  Russets are best for the perfect baker since their coarser skin can withstand the 400-degree heat necessary to build a crust and protect the soft texture of the interior.  Slice through the crunchy skin at service, pinch both ends to reveal the steamy hot interior and insert ample amounts of butter and/or sour cream, a pinch of salt and pepper and you will find a centerpiece for the plate that is impossible to resist.  Watch guest approach their plate and note that in most cases it is the baked potato that welcomes the first bite and not the steak. My favorite is the crunchy skin lathered with butter and a sprinkle of salt and pepper.

WHIPPED OR MASHED WITH LOADS OF BUTTER: So, inviting are mashed potatoes (pommes puree) that Chef Joel Robuchon, at one point the most revered chef in the world, created his signature version that was so sinful that it became the most important dish on his menu.  A time-tested method of preparation and equal parts of potato and butter led to an item that drew customers from across the globe.

https://guide.michelin.com/us/en/california/article/features/joel-robuchon-pommes-puree

HASH BROWNS TO START THE DAY: If you are a restaurant chef, chances are one of your first jobs in the kitchen was working breakfast.  Waking up at 4 a.m. to be fresh enough to walk through those kitchen doors at 5:00 took quite an effort.  But quickly your energy level would rise as you smelled fresh brewed coffee, bacon being pulled from the oven, finished pastries from the bakeshop filling the air with their sweetness, and the caramelization of potatoes on the griddle.  Hash browns and home fries with their sweet crunchiness as the butter and potato starchiness combined to form that delicious crust would always make you salivate.  What better way to start the day than a plate of hash browns, bacon and two eggs over easy?

DON’T FORGET THE CHEESE AND CREAM: A somewhat lost menu item in restaurants that deserves to reemerge is the scalloped or au gratin potato.  Potatoes are cooked till they nearly fall apart and then tossed with salted cream, maybe a few egg yolks, and if au gratin ample amounts of cheddar, baked till a crust forms as a package to protect what is inside – what a treat. 

POTATOES ANNA – A STEP ABOVE:  When simplicity meets elegance – magic occurs.  Thinly sliced potatoes, overlapping and assembled in a cast iron pan with copious amounts of butter and salt, baked until they are golden brown and crunchy on the outside while still creamy once the seal is broken.  The lowly potato can be elevated to the most revered fine dining establishment with this potato pie.

“Pommes Anna is a famous French preparation of white potatoes, borne in the mid 19th century.  The story goes that the dish was named for Anna Deslions, a well-known Parisian courtesan who frequented Café Anglais where Chef Adolophe Duglere invented the dish to honor her and the wealthy clientele that she brought into the popular restaurant.”

-The Domestic Man

https://thedomesticman.com/2015/09/08/pommes-anna-potatoes-anna/

VICHYSOISSE – REFINED AND ELEGANT:  The soup of kings that intrigues and dismays.  Chilled puree potato and leeks with cream, and salt and chives mystify many by its simplicity and elegance.  There seems to be no end to the stories of its creation, the most common is that Louis the XV was so paranoid about being poisoned that a series of tasters were employed to test everything that he would eat.  This potato soup had to be tasted so many times that by the time it got to the king it was cold.  He enjoyed it that way, so it became a staple in his diet.  The more likely origin is through the hands of Chef Louis Diat who, as chef at the Ritz Carlton New York, invented the soup in 1917 for the hotel’s roof top garden restaurant.  The chef built the dish to help cool diners during the hot summer months.  In any case – it is a classic.

OVEN ROASTED – A HOME FOR ROSEMARY: All chefs know that there are foods that seem to naturally pair well.  We know that Stilton Cheese is easily married to a good port, foie gras to sauternes, mint with lamb, and rosemary with roasted potatoes.  The aroma of rosemary and butter as they caramelize on the surface of potatoes is intoxicating.

YAMS AND SWEETS: Oftentimes associated with holidays, sweet potatoes can be a differentiated item on any menu.  Sweet and soft in texture, the sweet potato can find its way into a blend with traditional mashed, a uniquely different pommes frites, or pan caramelized in butter as a complement to chicken or pork dishes.  Yams are a completely different root vegetable that are somewhat tasteless on their own.  They have a dark brown outer skin and are NOT what most of us buy in the store.  Louisiana sweet potatoes have long been marketed as yams to differentiate them from the other choices on the market- but they are not real yams.

ANGLAISE – SIMPLY BOILED: Sometimes the simplest version is still the best.  Peeled and boiled white skin potatoes tossed in butter, salt, and parsley is hard to top.

POTATO SALAD – THE SUMMER TREAT:  When we think of summer foods it is impossible to talk about barbeque without mentioning the importance of potatoes (with or without skins) boiled, diced, and chilled, tossed in mayonnaise and sour cream, salt and pepper, fresh chives, maybe a few slices of robust radishes, scallions and celery, a touch of paprika and a cold beer or iced tea on the side.  This is a dish of July and August, one that is universally American.

FINGERLINGS WITH SOUR CREAM AND CAVIAR:  Chefs looking for that interesting finger food passed at hors d’oeuvre receptions – a food that will excite the palate and demonstrate the chef’s ability to create flavor explosions that can become a point of conversation among guests, will find this simple dish a perfect fit.  Boiled, chilled and split fingerling potatoes topped with a dollop of sour cream and a generous amount of quality caviar are such a surprise that guest will spend the evening in search of just one more.

THE MIGHTY POTATO CHIP:  Invented in Saratoga, New York as the Saratoga Chip by a cook: George Crum, who out of frustration over a customer who kept sending back his fried potatoes as too soggy.  As a reaction, Crum finally sliced the potatoes very thin and cooked them until they were hard, salted them generously and sent them out to the guest as a reaction to his complaints.  As it turned out – the guest loved them – the rest is history.  Today, nearly 1.5 billion pounds of potato chips (originally Saratoga Chips) are consumed in the US each year.

Potatoes are an integral part of world culture.  They appear, in many forms, in nearly every cuisine and serve as a source of nutrition and enjoyment.  To some like the Irish, they were salvation during famine, and others like the Incas and Aztecs – a tuber that had mystical properties.  For chefs – they are an all-year essential ingredient, but one to celebrate even more during harvest when they are tilled from the soil, washed, sorted, and prepared for chefs to work their magic.  Like any other ingredient from nature that has its season – this is the best time to hail this root vegetable and put yourself in SERVICE OF THE POTATO.

PLAN BETTER – TRAIN HARDER

Enjoy the potato harvest

Harvest America Ventures, LLC

Restaurant Consulting

www.harvestamericaventures.com  BLOG

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HARVEST TIME

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Late summer and early fall are very exciting times for chefs.  Summer heat is winding down, the colors of autumn are beginning to highlight trees and plants, and gardens are presenting kitchens with some of the most dynamic fruits and vegetables to grace restaurant menus.  Over the next few weeks – Harvest America Cues will highlight five of those ingredients that offer robust flavor, loads of versatility, and a seasonal presence that can change the focus of a chef’s menu. 

We will take a deep dive into the world of tomatoes, potatoes, corn, apples, and root vegetables like parsnips, carrots, and beets.  Although best when harvested and used immediately, many of these fall gifts are able to store well either under refrigeration or canned for later use.  First up – the mighty tomato.

Growing up in the 50’s and 60’s the tomato was a fruit (yes, a fruit) that was easy to identify.  A tomato was round and somewhat red, off the vine, uniform, often mealy and typically tasteless.  I still loved tomatoes and found them to be a welcome addition to salads, burgers, and even part of those grilled cheese sandwiches with American slices (cheese food), layered between two slices of Wonder bread.  Those were the days before we “discovered “(re-discovered) great tomatoes, real cheese, and whole grain rustic breads.  Oh, how things have changed and how wonderful that transition has been.

It wasn’t until much later in life, still before I entertained a career in the kitchen, that I was exposed to the real thing.  I still remember that first fresh, ripe tomato picked from the farmer’s vine in the middle of July.  The sun had warmed the fruit that was nearly bursting with luscious seeds and drenched with moisture and flavor – flavor that I had not experienced before.  I took a bite of that warm tomato, just as I would from a fall apple and was amazed at the powerful flavor as the seeds dripped down my chin and the full intensity of Mother Nature’s gift was firmly entrenched in my sub-conscious.  Whoa, that was incredible!  From that point on, my absolute favorite summer sandwich was (and still is) a fresh, sun warmed tomato, sliced thick and sandwiched between two slices of wheat toast with ample amounts of mayonnaise, sprinkled with pepper and salt.  Just writing about it now makes me hungry.  Later, of course, I changed the bread to a rustic, crusty sourdough, that beefsteak tomato to an heirloom varietal like a dark Cherokee, sea salt, and fresh cracked pepper – and sometimes a handful of fresh basil leaves as well. 

The mighty tomato is an absolute thing of beauty and a gift from late summer harvest.  We now understand that there are hundreds, maybe thousands of heirloom varieties from the tiny grape and pear tomatoes to San Marzano (great for canning and sauce), to Brandywines, Ribbed varieties, and those incredible Cherokee’s.  From simple seeds nurtured in rich potting soil during the early spring, to robust plants with fruit that is too heavy to be held up to the sun without some support, the tomato comes to life from seed to bud, to green pearl, and with the right amount of care, water, and sunlight – grows to a fruit beyond compare.

As a chef, the tomato, if truly appreciated, can serve as a supporting character or a centerpiece on late summer menus.  For that window of time, a chef can push aside those somewhat tasteless, uniform tomatoes that have become a boring commodity, and feature the breadth of heirloom varieties that come from local farmers.  Wonderful tomato tarts with fresh ricotta and pignoli crust as an appetizer, the classic Caprese salad with tomato, fresh mozzarella or burrata, basil, virgin olive oil and aged balsamic; a truly fresh marinara made with fruit that was picked a day or two before; baked tomatoes as an entrée side, a Salsa Fresca to flavor those simple tortilla chips and guacamole, or sauteed grape tomatoes to add sharpness to ratatouille.  The options are only limited by the chef’s creativity.

Yes, it takes more effort, certainly the process of bringing these ingredients to your kitchen requires far more communication with farmers than it does to place an order with a large box vendor, but the benefits for the guest are worth the extra work.  When we work with Mother Nature and do our best to celebrate the seasonality of the ingredients that we work with, our menus sing, our cooks learn to take on the role of caretaker, and the guest is thrilled with the results. 

Hold a tomato in your hand and know the care and passion of the farmer, relish the work of the summer sun, enjoy the hard work of the soil that fed the plant, and know that our job as chefs and cooks is less about manipulation and far more about celebrating the flavors that we are given to work with.  Tomatoes deserve to be warmed by the sun, not chilled into submission.  Tomatoes have earned our respect and as such must be handled with care as a sign of respect for the farmer’s work.  Give tomatoes a chance to stand up as the leading character on your menu – give them their day in the spotlight; it will be 11 more months before you will have another opportunity.

For these few short weeks, we have a unique chance to participate in a seasonal ritual – a ritual of celebration just as important as that of the grape ready for harvest, the apple ready to drop from the tree, or corn at the peak of its sweetness.  This is the time to celebrate the tomato.

PLAN BETTER – TRAIN HARDER

Celebrate the Tomato

Harvest America Ventures, LLC

Restaurant Consulting

www.harvestamericacues.com  BLOG

CAFÉ Talks Podcast

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BEFORE THE DINING EXPERIENCE TRY THE KITCHEN EXPERIENCE

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The goal of every restaurant and every chef is to create memorable experiences for the guest.  Somewhere in our internal job description is a desire, and even a need to build an environment of WOW!  Wow visuals on the plate and in the dining room, wow views from every seat, wow service, and of course – wow flavors on the plate.  We may complain about the guest who is taking loads of pictures of their food and posting them on Instagram, but deep inside we get a bit of a rush when it happens.  Guests will return when the effort expended to create memorable complete dining experiences is front and center. 

What we seem to forget sometimes is that those memorable experiences are due to a collective effort of every person involved in creating a dining event.  That Instagram picture was possible because of the farmers, ranchers, fishermen, and vendors who brought the ingredients to your receiving dock.  Internally, the guest experience owes a great deal to the housekeeping staff, the dining room servers and managers, bartenders and sommelier, dishwashers, prep cooks, bakers and pastry chefs, line cooks, expeditor, sous chef, and chef who holds the lead position in the kitchen.  It is, and must be, a team effort.  So, what are we doing to create a memorable experience for this team?  Does this seem farfetched?  After all, these folks get paid to do their part in creating guest experiences – why in the world would we put any effort into creating the same for them?

The answer is obvious – if those involved directly or indirectly with your team feel the magic of your operation, feel it in the same way that the guest does, then they will perform better, look forward to their work, engage better with others on the team, and feel part of something special.  These team members will go out of their way for the guest because you do so for them.  Chefs, managers, and owners should live by a simple rule – “If you are not serving the guest directly then it is your job to serve those who are.”  Take care of your employees and vendors and they will take care of your paying customers.

Think about it for a moment:  If you create a positive experience with your vendors then they might just go the extra mile for you.  If you recognize the farmer, the rancher, and the fisherman, then they might be so inclined to set aside those extra special ingredients for your kitchen.  If you create an educational, supportive, uplifting, and inclusive environment for your staff from dishwasher to line cook, and server to sommelier then they will feel great about their job and in turn build those experiences for a guest – every guest.  So, here are a few thoughts on creating those behind-the-scenes experiences:

[]       FOR THE VENDOR: Give them a tour of your operation, introduce them to the staff and the ownership, put their name on your menu (if they do an excellent job), give them an opportunity to talk with your cooks about their ingredients, take your cooks to tour the vendor’s facilities, drop them a note on occasion thanking them for the quality products they deliver to your door, invite them to dinner once a year to see their ingredients on the finished plate.  Make them feel as if they are part of your mission – they are!

[]       FOR THE SERVICE STAFF: Training, teaching, and tasting are all part of the program.  They can’t sell a product that they don’t know.  Let them kick the tires and take the menu for a spin.  Put an apron on every server and let them shadow and help your cooks for a good part of a shift – you will be amazed how far this will go towards building understanding and appreciation on both sides of the kitchen doors.  Let them taste wines on your list and help to build an understanding of the process and the product.  Make it fun!

[]       FOR THE SOMMELIER AND BARTENDER: Food and beverage pairing is a fast road to customer satisfaction and a great way to maximize profit potential for the restaurant.  Part of the experience for the sommelier and bartender is to taste those pairings – yes, everything on the menu so they know how to do their job and at the same time build a deep appreciation for the talent of your cooks.

[]       FOR THE DINING ROOM MANAGER: Every dining room manager must work a few shifts in the kitchen.  This is essential as a team building process.  The manager is the conduit between the kitchen and the front of the house – help them to become better informed as an advocate for unity.    When the chef visits a vendor farm, tours a processing plant, takes a trip to a dockside fish monger – take the manager along.  The more they know about the extended team the more meaningful their job experience.

[]       FOR THE DISHWASHER: Now, we all know how important a conscientious dishwasher is to the operation of a restaurant.  If you are not sure, try going through a service without one.  Look at every dishwasher as your next cook in training.  Yep, even if they don’t seem to have any interest in it.  At the very least – you will help to build respect between cooks and dishwasher.  Let’s face it, dishwashing is rarely a career choice – show yours that there are opportunities to grow, to learn, to become something special.  Feed them well, treat them with respect, help them out when they are busy, make sure they get a break, and teach them about the cook’s skill set.  They will surprise you.

[]       FOR YOUR COOKS:  Every chef is only as good as his or her weakest cook.  It is your job to teach and train, to show some empathy, but be tough and have very high expectations of your cooks.  Teach them to be professional, to look sharp, to respect others, to be competent at their craft, to understand the history behind processes and specific dishes, to learn how to care for tools, to appreciate what things cost, to know the source of ingredients and how hard the farmer, rancher, and fisherman work to bring ingredients to their prep table.  Make sure they build a solid palate and appreciation for how food looks on the plate – help to MAKE THEM PROUD!  This is the experience that you owe them.

[]       FOR YOUR SOUS CHEF AND EXPEDITOR:  You would be lost without them, they are you just a few years ago so think back to that time.  What did you need, what was lacking in your training, how did you feel, what type of support or push did you need?  Be that resource for them.  Teach them to take your job!  Show them about budgets, and marketing, human resource management and inventory control, menu planning and recipe costing, and how to build their personal brand.  Be their experience.

[]       FOR YOURSELF:  Don’t neglect your own experience as a chef.  You worked hard to get here, now it is important to enjoy it.  Continue to push the owner to help you further develop skills and aptitudes that are important to the position.  Join organizations, compete, attend workshops and conferences, publish your recipes, travel, build your library, and seek every opportunity to build your brand and reputation among peers and guests.  This is your time – your personal experience too.

PLAN BETTER – TRAIN HARDER

Harvest America Ventures, LLC

Restaurant Consulting

www.harvestamericacues.com  BLOG

CAFÉ Talks Podcast

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IT’S TIME FOR RESTAURANTS TO PLANT THE SEEDS AND HARVEST THE TALENT

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Identifying problems has never been a challenge in the restaurant industry – there are many.  Making the effort to solve those problems is another story.  We have a problem right now that seems to be universal and there is no shortage of complaints and posts on social media that proclaim the effects, but little is done to point to active solutions.  A good start would be to refrain from using the word “problem” since it seems to imply that solutions are mysterious and impossible and instead rely on “challenges” as the descriptor.  A small step, but one that signifies that if we put our heads together there is a way, or many ways, to move beyond, over, or around those challenges.

The other important point is to understand that state of mind is always a deterrent to solutions or a support mechanism for the same.  In other words if we see the challenge as insurmountable then it will be.  If we see the challenge as something that has an answer if we take the time to really push our problem-solving skills, then a solution will eventually present itself. 

Third, and maybe most important – it is essential to find the cause of a challenge before it can really be solved.  Far too often we invest our time in addressing the effects of a challenge rather than the source of the roadblocks that appear.   So, cause and effect differentiation are the most important tools in your problem-solver’s bag of tricks.

Let’s look for a moment at one of those problems (challenges) and apply these three steps:

  1. PROBLEM:  The restaurant industry, universally, is having an impossible time trying to find competent, committed individuals to work in all positions.  This is defined in articles from local newspapers to the New York Times, from industry magazines and websites to social media, and from industry blogs to podcasts by the dozens – everyone states the problem, points a finger, and portrays the issue as someone else’s doing.  So, first step – let’s refer to it as a challenge.  “There are fewer, and fewer individuals interested in a kitchen career and when we find employees to fill positions, they never seem to stay very long.  The CHALLENGE is how to turn this around?”  OK, so the charge is to recognize the issue and find a way to address it.
  2. STATE OF MIND:  Many are approaching this challenge as a roadblock to success, something that is preventing restaurants from finally getting their groove back and watching cash flow exceed the cost of doing business.  What is quite interesting is that we use the state of mind method in other situations to great success, yet when something seems either out of our wheelhouse of skills, or something that might require real change, then our mind puts it in the silo called: “Unsolvable”.  When a menu item fails to perform well, we simply change it out or modify its flavor profile; when our equipment is a hinderance to production we find a different tool to change the outcome; when a purveyor fails to provide the quality of ingredients that we require – we simply find another source.  Challenges solved. 

A different state of mind: “Our current methods of finding and retaining good employees doesn’t work, let’s find a solution to this challenge even if it means throwing out our normal approach and adopting something new.”  We can do this.

  • CAUSE and EFFECT:  The effects of a challenge are what keeps us up at night.  The effect changes our outcomes, puts stress of the system, forces us to adapt by using a band aid approach, or give up and succumb to the pain that the effect inflicts.  So, restaurants close a few days a week, accept the provision of mediocre service, change their menus without ample thought, and try to get by with reduced cash flow and fewer opportunities for profit. 

So, what might the cause be?  Ask “why” several times until you get to the root of the issue and then develop a way to attack that cause.

Fewer people are expressing an interest in restaurant work, and in fact many previous employees (pre-pandemic) are choosing not to return now that restaurants are re-opening.  Possible causes:

– People have heard how demanding and unforgiving the business can be

– Pay scales are significantly lower than other industries

– Quality of life for career restaurant employees is not that desirable

Why is this the case?  Menu item profit margins are typically low, making it difficult for restaurants to find the reserves to pay better wages – why?  Restaurant waste nips away at profitability – why?  The unpredictable nature of customer buying habits pushes restaurants to maintain inventories that exceed what is reasonable – why?  The work in restaurants requires many hands so, unlike other industries that have much better productivity rates, the restaurant industry is crippled by high labor costs – why?  It is impossible to find and retain employees who are capable and willing to dedicate themselves to the operation – why?  These issues are real and need to be addressed, but are they the primary cause of the stated labor challenge?  There are loads of opportunities to make corrections – where do we start?  Let’s take one possible cause that is not on everyone’s radar: nurturing real interest in a restaurant career early on.

For a few decades we (the restaurant industry) relied on the media to push the hype about the glory of working in restaurants.  This was evident in news articles, books, television, movies, and blog posts, and a 24/7 food network.  College admissions departments had an easy time of it – make sure a program has plenty of shiny new equipment, beautiful pictures of show quality food, campus restaurants staffed with more student workers than customers, and medals hanging around the necks of chef instructors.  Lots of sizzle, plenty of wow factor.   Thousands of students who loved the idea of creating Instagram quality photos and little if any experience working in a restaurant before the “big decision” clamored to programs across the country.  It was an easy sell.  Enter reality – it’s really hard work that requires more commitment than many other businesses, and early in a graduate’s career will not provide the type of compensation that equates to payback value.

It’s time to be real with young people and start talking about the business (there are way more positives than negatives) well before they are faced with a college decision.  The future of the restaurant industry lies with those 16 and 17-year old’s looking for a part-time job or summer employment.  This is when they can get a feel for the industry – the way it is and the way it can be.  This is a role for restaurants and a way to draw people in a way to promote the skill, team environment, organization, creativity, and business acumen that is needed to be successful and have a rewarding career.  True – this will not help restaurants today, but we need to get beyond crisis management and start to think long term.  Today we are faced with putting fires out, let’s plan to prevent them in the future.  It’s time to be proactive with building a career mindset and changing the negative perceptions and the misinformation that has been propagated about an important industry that is integral to the American way of life.

We can’t fix everything at once, but we can take one step at a time and begin with truthfulness.

PLAN BETTER – TRAIN HARDER

Harvest America Ventures, LLC

www.harvestamericacues.com  BLOG

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HE COOKS REAL GOOD – FOR FREE

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I just finished listening to the latest album from David Crosby – I loved it from the first verse.  Crosby, even at his ripe old age, is a master of lyrical compositions and tonal interpretations of feelings that accompany such prose.  He hasn’t lost a beat in this regard – soulful, melodic, and entrancing.  The title track is a composition written by one of his older love interests and an inspirational writer and songstress in her own right – Joni Mitchel.  He Plays Real Good for Free offers not so subtle advice to her contemporaries in the music business – think about why you became a musician.

Food for thought – the same can be true for all of us who spend a good portion of our lives in professional kitchens.  Mitchell’s verse is not meant (from my perspective) to chastise musicians for accepting pay and accolades for their work – they earn it and are entitled to what comes their way.  But it does point to those who get so wrapped up in what is owed to them for the art that they offer that they lose sight of the joy and privilege that comes from mastering their craft and enjoying what really counts.  In the case of a musician, it might be a listener who becomes nostalgic about a song, melancholy because the music makes them “feel”, responds to the beat and drives them to move or dance, or brings a smile when those listeners chime in and sing along.  Cooks and chefs know that the greatest satisfaction comes from cooking for family, friends, neighbors, or grateful strangers.  To watch that level of enjoyment that comes from food that is beautiful to look at, smells heavenly, stimulates the sense of taste, and brings people together through a common bond and appreciation of good cooking is so gratifying.  This is where we all began, and time and again this is what we relish – the chance to make people happy through the craft of cooking.  Salary, notoriety, personal brand building and profit can never compare to the satisfaction that comes from making people happy, giving them a reason to pause and savor a plate of food.  Music and food should bring joy to those who make it and those who consume it. 

Yesterday, today, and tomorrow

A knife, a cutting board, a pan

I slice, chop and dice

Cook for you is my true vice

Mother Nature provides so many tools

Our role is to treat them with respect

To give thanks for the farmer, the rancher, the fisherman too

Working with these tools is what we do

To hold a carrot, a potato, a tomato in our hands

To scale a fish, truss a chicken, or French a rack of lamb

Saying grace in the presence of such gifts

Lifts our spirits and gives us purpose

To trim, slice, mince, and dice

To tourne, to caramelize, to sear and roast

This is the craft that others toast

I cook for you, it’s what I do

My hands, my heart, and my soul

Giving joy is always my goal

Breaking bread, listening to what is said

We raise a glass to celebrate

Life’s gift of food and all that it means

The smells, textures, tastes and sound

Of cooking for you is so profound

It gives us meaning, a purpose in life

It gives us joy, it sets aside our strife

The flavors marry in the hands of one

Who knows the craft, who does it for fun

To some it’s a job, a means to an end

A way to get by, to this I send

A message of angst, of a need for more

A way to get by, this is the lore

My hands are rough, my back is sore

It’s a job, a means to an end – no more

I cook for you, it’s what I do

My hands, my heart, and my soul

Giving joy is always my goal

Breaking bread, listening to what is said

We raise a glass to celebrate

Life’s gift of food and all that it means

We started out giving joy to some

A way to communicate

A skill that allowed

You and me to control the way

That people express some joy today

The smells, the textures, the flavors were fine

This was unique, this skill of mine

We need to survive, to pay the bills

Recognition is important of what we do

Fair pay, a pat on the back, a good review

Boosts us up and gives us pride

But in the end let’s push that aside

Remember why we started

Remember the feeling of being complete

When others said thanks with their eyes

For the food on their plate

It may not pay the bills, but it is so true

This feeling of giving is what we do

I cook for you, it’s what I do

My hands, my heart, and my soul

Giving joy is always my goal

Breaking bread, listening to what is said

We raise a glass to celebrate

Life’s gift of food and all that it means

DAVID CROSBY:  For Free

PLAN BETTER – TRAIN HARDER

Harvest America Ventures, LLC

Restaurant Consulting

www.harvestamericacues.com  BLOG

CAFÉ Talks Podcast

https://cafemeetingplace.com/cafe-podcasts

THIS IS NOT THE TIME TO DISAPPOINT

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Yes, I get it.  It has all been about survival for restaurants over the past 16 months and survival has not been easy.  Now, providing we don’t ignore the still looming dangers of Covid and the challenges of convincing 40% of the population to accept the vaccine, we might stand a chance of long-term recovery.  Hope springs eternal. 

Staffing is a bear – I know it.  I hear it from every single restaurant operator I know and even many more that I don’t – there is an acute shortage of staff. There isn’t a simple answer to this challenge, but we know that it will require a shift in how restaurants operate.  In the meantime – here we are.  Restaurants are open, and customers who have been prisoners of the pandemic are anxiously coming out of their shells and flooding to restaurants that are ill equipped to deal with the surge.  Back to survival mode – let’s just get through it.  Is this the answer?

What we can’t afford to do is allow missteps simply because we don’t have an answer to the staffing challenge.  There have been numerous articles from restaurateurs asking customers to “give us a break, be patient, we’re trying our best, it’s not our fault that the food isn’t quite right, that the service is painfully slow, that servers are not well trained, or we just seem to be disorganized.”  There is an underlying problem with this approach that tries to proclaim innocence – we cannot afford to disappoint.

One interesting thing occurred during the pandemic shutdown – people found ways to adjust.  They were forced to slow down and stay away from the typical hustle and bustle of American life.  They were at home, and they re-learned how to cook.  They opened those cookbooks on the shelf, dusted them off, and started to try new recipes, to be more creative with food, to bake and break bread around a dinner table again.  Companies like King Arthur Flour couldn’t keep up with the demand for flour and even their baking equipment.  Cookbook sales on Amazon spiked and grocery stores were challenged to keep food on their shelves.  Wholesale distributors began to ship or deliver directly to homes to compensate for minimal restaurant sales and liquor stores were deemed “essential” as people began to make their own cocktails to help forget about their isolation.  The average person may have missed going out to restaurants, but they began to realize that they didn’t really need to spend their money in cafés and bistros when they could cook well at home.

So, we are open, and customers are flocking to the restaurants that they missed only to find, in some cases, that the experience wasn’t what they anticipated.  The food didn’t seem as exciting or well-prepared, the server was less familiar with the menu than they had expected, their orders took forever, the ambience of the dining room seemed a bit off, staff seemed stressed and disconnected, prices were way too high, and many people were still nervous about being in a public place without a mask.  Suddenly, there are comparisons to eating at home.  “We can cook better than this, we are happy to be in each other’s company, we feel safe at home, that second glass of wine didn’t cost $12 (the price of a bottle in the store), and we are not looking at a bill for $100 plus tip that could have been enough for a few days groceries at home.  Hmmm..we have a problem Houston.

As challenged as restaurants are right now, there must be an all-out effort to demonstrate value and to provide a positive experience.  This is a potential breaking point for the restaurant industry.  The effort that is made right now to right the ship will define how this very important industry moves forward and how it steps back into its status as “essential” to the American experience.

This is not the time to push aside the importance of training because you are too busy.  This is not the time to turn away from quality standards from your kitchen and ignore inconsistencies in food.  This is not the time cut corners on cleaning and polishing, on uniforms and professional appearances and concentrating on the details. 

This is the time to take that deep breath and figure things out.  Start with the desired experience and value statement and work backward.  Given the current staffing environment – how do we meet those expectations?  In a previous article I talked about the importance of solid menu management right now – this is one possible solution, but it is not the only means to an end. https://harvestamericacues.com/2021/07/04/chefs-menus-for-2021-and-beyond/

 Restaurants must invest the time in training.  Training will demonstrate to employees that they are important and that you are willing to invest in them.  Training will help to build their competence and confidence.  Training will help to make them able to problem solve and make the right decisions pertaining to the customer experience. 

Don’t forget the small stuff – the small stuff is what separates the dining out experience from a meal at home.  The small stuff is what adds value to the guest experience.  The small stuff includes everything from polishing tables and making sure they are level to fresh cut flowers on the table, sparkling clean glassware and silverware, pressed uniforms and professional signage, the right background music, consistent plate presentations that are vibrant and appetizing, swept parking lots and friendly greetings when the guest arrives, It’s menus that are clean and sharp and it’s knowledgeable recommendations from a service staff who are well trained and versed on what the cooks are doing in the kitchen.  It’s the small stuff, the details that make the experience worth the money spent.  This is what will bring guests enthusiastically back to your dining room.

You may need to limit the days that you are open, the hours of service, or even remove some of the tables in your dining room to help alleviate the stress of limited staff.  You may need to cut down on the size of the menu for now until everything levels off (and hopefully It will at some point), and you will need to find a way to work with fewer employees who are paid much better than they were before.  It will be a buffet of answers that will allow restaurants to re-establish their importance and regain a level of profitability.  But failure to move forward without the experience and value formula in mind will only drive people away and reinforce an understanding that dining out is no longer necessary.  We don’t want to go down that road.

PLAN BETTER – TRAIN HARDER

Help to keep the experience of dining – alive and well.

Harvest America Ventures, LLC

www.harvestamericacues.com  BLOG

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THE CHEF’S EMOTIONS

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Let’s face it – we are prisoners of our own emotional package.  Some of these emotions are visible and some are not; some are more pronounced in certain individuals, and some are barely noticeable in others, but the fact remains that our emotional package can be, and in many cases is: in control.

Chefs, for some reason have a history of wearing their emotions on their sleeves, but I would dare to say that even in the case of the most visible emotional chef there is much that is hidden under the surface.  Sometimes, maybe most times, chefs try to keep certain emotions under wraps, hide them so that others will not perceive the chef as weak or vulnerable.  At the same time, chefs tend to put more energy into the emotions that they believe will demonstrate strength or power over others.  To this end, emotions that we try to control are dangerous and misleading.

It seems that there are just as many theories about what emotions may be part of our physical and mental make-up as there are days in the month, but most who are knowledgeable would agree on six primary emotions:  Sadness, Happiness, Fear, Anger, Surprise, and Disgust.  What seems a little grey is the emotional triggers behind each of these.   Sadness and Happiness as an example are effects of a deeper set of causes.  What is clear is that each of these six can be observed in ourselves and others.  We can see when a person is sad, happy, angry, afraid, surprised, or disgusted.

Those underlying emotions that lead to the six are the ones that many people, chefs, try to hide. 

So, why is it important to look at and talk about these underlying emotions?  Simply put – if we can understand what is driving the six, then we might be able to understand, work with, and even help chefs deal with the complexity of their job and thus nurture a more productive and “user-friendly” work environment.

As an example, A chef’s ANGER or SADNESS may be a result of anxiety, confusion, or awkwardness that are ever-present in a chef’s life.  Anxiety over the complexity of required job outcomes that include product quality, timing and efficiency, financial performance, personal brand control, dependance on others, etc.  Anger over a realization that a kitchen did not meet expectations can often be associated with a realization that the chef failed to properly train or communicate.  Lashing out can be a result of not knowing how to admit his or her own shortcomings – anger with oneself turns into pointing the finger at others.  So that roller coaster emotional ride that is associated with many chefs is not necessarily who they are, but rather the challenges of the tasks that are before them.  Any way that an operator, or co-workers might help to relieve some of these pressures could result in a much better emotional outcome.  So, if cooks were fully cognizant of how they impact the cost of operation through minimal waste, portion control, and other efficiencies will help to change the dynamic of anger or sadness that is observed in the chef. 

Now, of course, it is part of the chef’s job to train cooks to be conscientious about costs, but you get the general idea.  It’s never as simple as saying: the chef is a jerk who can’t control his or her temper: cause and effect.

If you can assume for one moment that most individuals want to be happy, want to be free of fear, and abhor losing their tempers then it could be time to look into a chef’s eyes and seek out the connections to emotions that are kept below the surface.  When a person is allowed to bring these emotions to the surface then the results can be very positive.  When a chef is shown that expression of these emotions is not a sign of weakness, but rather a sign of strength and a connection to others, then a dramatic change in personality might be the result.

EXCITEMENT in the chef’s success or others who work in the kitchen is natural – celebrate it.  ADMIRATION of others who have demonstrated a high level of proficiency or who are stellar examples of humanity is an emotion to be fed.  Admiration of others does not signal that the chef is inferior to them, it shows that they recognize what “is” and feed their own soul with the promise of using this as a benchmark for their own performance.

EMPATHIC PAIN and SYMPATHY – feeling another person’s failures or loss, challenges and physical pain is an essential strength of a true leader.  EMPATHY and SYMPATHY lead to followership – a necessary component of leadership.  It’s OK to feel another’s pain. 

NOSTALGIA is an underlying emotion that points to lessons learned, those who helped us along our way, reflections on past pain and how we recovered, and memories that helped to build us into the person we are today.  Warm thoughts about our past are a sign that we care and that we learn – nostalgia is an essential part of being human – feed it.

The human mind and spirit are an emotional powder keg – a formula for success or failure.  Leaders, if they are to be effective, must try to understand the emotional cocktail that each employee and co-worker drinks, daily, and every follower has a role to play in trying to understand what the chef carries on his or her shoulders.  The functioning of a successful team can only be realized when these emotions are understood and embraced.

PLAN BETTER – TRAIN HARDER

Harvest America Ventures, LLC

Restaurant Consulting

www.harvestamericacues.com  BLOG

CAFÉ Talks Podcast

https://cafemeetingplace.com/cafe-podcasts

THE RETURN OF THE LINE COOK

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Look around – they’re slowly, but surely coming back.  You know – the individuals who found their mission as a cook – they have been tucked away since March of 2020 waiting for an opportunity to open that knife roll bag, draw their essential tools across that water stone and hone the edges on a steel and counting the days when they could once again find the rhythm of the line.  They may have insinuated that they wouldn’t return, but let’s face it – working in kitchens, with all its rough edges, is invigorating and fulfilling.  These warriors of the kitchen remember the heat, the aching muscles from standing on their feet for a 12-hour shift, the pressure of timing, the polished hands from grabbing too many scorching hot pans, and the staccato sounds of the POS printer ticking off countless orders.

Yep, I get the reflection time that was the hallmark of the pandemic shutdown, those moments when every cook and chef took inventory and wondered why it is that they work under adverse conditions, invest way too many hours, and do so for wages that never compete with other professional careers.  I know that there are plenty of reasons why it would make sense to walk away and find something, anything different to do for a career, but a day or two back on the line, back to creating beautiful, delicious food, back to working with a team in total sync, and back to the adrenaline rush of a full board of dupes and plates sliding in the pass – and you are hooked again.

Of course, you will feel the pain once again, the aching back and throbbing feet, the sweat running down your back, and the sting from an occasional burn or finger nick from that extra sharp knife – but then again, there is that feeling of accomplishment, the ability to push yourself to get better, faster, more proficient, and totally tight as a team member that brings you back day after day.  Do you really want to give this up?

If any line cook really wants to become a property chef – they can, in time, with dedication, with a commitment to learn, and with the patience and resilience that is necessary to build a skill set and the aptitude that must accompany a future chef.  You can do it, and deep inside you know it.  Find people to learn from, attached yourself to a culinary mentor, study, and practice, learn from your mistakes, go the extra mile, and build a methodical plan to move from line cook to sous chef, to working chef, and on to the executive position in a volume, high quality operation.  It can be done.  This is a career that affords anyone the opportunity to define their destiny, to work at it and move forward.

Look around – there are plenty of chefs in the making – they are the cooks who after wrestling with those questions” “should I return to the kitchen or not”, said: “of course – I must”.  Are you one of these cooks, or did you hang up your apron for the last time?   Is that knife roll collecting dust and the experiences that you had only exaggerated stories now?  How long before you miss those stories, miss the energy, or miss the creativity?

If you decided to hang it up and you are fine with moving on – more power to you.  Find your passion, look for your destiny, be happy and fulfilled – this is what life is all about.  If you were pulled back in by the magnetic field of the kitchen – then make a commitment to move forward.  Don’t delay – say “I will” today! 

The smells of the kitchen are intoxicating.  Bacon lardons rendering in a pan, fresh bread cooling on a rack, that thin crust pizza with fresh mozzarella and basil being peeled from a woodfired oven, shellfish sauteed in lemon butter, fresh rosemary lending its perfume to a roast, garlic and onions simmering till they are golden brown and sweet from reduction and caramelization, or a Black Angus steak dripping through the grates of a chargrill – adding fuel to the fire and sealing in the goodness of that incredible cut of meat.  This is what welcomes a cook every day throughout his or her shift.  The feel of a perfectly balanced chef knife in your hand – the blade that is honed to the sharpness of a razor blade is a tool that feels like an extension of your hand.  The rapid-fire sound of cooks who are in complete control of this knife cutting piles of perfect dice, brunoise, julienne, and chiffonade.  How do you feel when that plate is assembled as it should – perfect balance of color, texture, height, and marriage?  When the sauce is the final touch just before a cluster of appropriate herbs that tie the plate together – you know that you have just painted another masterpiece – one that a guest will take a picture of and share with the world – one that they will remember and tell their friends about.  HOW COOL IS THAT????

As you step back into that kitchen you remember what it was like to look to your left and look to your right and know that you can trust those individuals at their stations to work just as hard, care just as much, and dedicate themselves to playing their role in making sure that the collective work of the team is memorable.  If you could have someone video tape the work of this team and put it to music, it would be a symphony, an intriguing interplay of artists working individually and collectively at the same time – a work of art.  You remember this now – don’t you?

The orders start to arrive as the team acknowledges they are ready.  Mise is tight, everyone knows what needs to be done, pans are lined up, plates are stacked, side towels are folded and the expeditor calls everyone out – “are we ready?”  Ordering, order fire, pick up, refire, give me an all day, yes chef!  This is the language of the line and for the next four hours the commands and responses will come in relentlessly.  The energy will peak around 7 pm when the board is full, and everyone is in the zone – it is a point of time when things can go either way – towards excellence or over the cliff.  This is where you thrive, this is what you live for, this is where great cooks are made.  You make it through, the adrenaline stays full bore, the orders start to dwindle, a smile comes to your face, and you nod to your teammates, give a few high fives, and start to plan for tomorrow.  You have missed this, you know you are good at what you do, and you are able to look in a mirror and say – “this is what I was meant to do.”

So, for those who return to the kitchen – start today to solidify your future where the responsibility and authority coalesce, where the pay begins to match the skill, where you are more in control of what you invest in time and effort, where your talent is recognized, and where every day you will have a chance to help mold the future of another young cook – a place where you began.

PLAN BETTER – TRAIN HARDER

Harvest America Ventures, LLC

Restaurant Consulting

www.harvestamericacues.com  BLOG

CAFÉ Talks Podcast

https://cafemeetingplace.com/cafe-podcasts

THE AGE OF RESTAURANT FREE-AGENCY

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Well, I suppose desperate times call for desperate measures.  If there is stability in the restaurant business – I’m not quite sure where it is.  With a real need to try and make-up for a lost year and an overnight demand for dining out – restaurants are faced with a new pressing issue: where do we find the staff and how do we keep them?   When demand exceeds supply in any situation – businesses know that prices inevitably go up.  The strong survive and the weak shall perish.

So, the reaction now is to pay whatever is needed for staff positions in your local restaurant.  This knee-jerk reaction is true with positions from dishwasher to chef, and server to manager.  Restaurants are panicked with a need to operate at a high level with bare bones staffing – oftentimes with underqualified individuals.  “We need to fill schedules or reduce hours of operation and cut back on services.”  Those empty tables in restaurants are now a result of inadequate staffing rather than fewer than needed customers.  How many of your local restaurants are down to five-day weeks out of necessity?

So, here we are – the battle lines are drawn and as challenging as competition has been in the past – it is now becoming brutal.  Forget about local restaurants working together to try and find solutions – it is becoming every man for himself.  The unwritten agreement for many had been to never actively pirate good employees from a neighbor, but it seems as if that is out the window.  Survival instinct is a funny thing – it over-rides everything else.  It is human nature to pull out all the stops when it comes to taking your next breath – the same applies to business.

Necessity has driven a stake in the heart of “we’re all in this together” and replaced it with do or die.  It can be seen in every community, every town and city, and every state from New York to California – restaurants are throwing money at decent staff members to lure them over to their team.  A local business (with a high-profile clientele) is offering upwards of $60,000 a year for line positions that previously paid less than half of that.  No one can blame a line employee for jumping at the offer and waving goodbye to their current employer – it would be foolish to turn that down.  This is the exact same scenario that led professional sports to adopt free-agency and allow players to jump from team to team and the highest bidder.  It is suddenly a seller’s market for restaurant employees and as such restaurants find themselves in a bidding war.

Now, these same restaurants realize that their most important asset (great employees) is always in the market for something better.  Once this reality hits home then restaurants will be less likely to try something new and invest in an employee’s creativity and ideas.  If there is always fear that they may be here today and gone tomorrow, then the restaurant cannot afford to give the employee this kind of latitude.  Investing in training will also fall by the wayside as it is viewed as a wasted investment of time and money.

I remember throughout my career the line that local businesses tried not to cross: “thou shall not pirate a competitor’s employees.”  Now this might seem unfair to the average employee who has a need to look out for his or her own interests and find an employer who values what they bring to the table but hear me out when I say – this is a slippery slope.

First, and maybe most important from a business perspective:  THIS IS NOT A SUSTAINABLE PRACTICE.  Certainly, we all know that many restaurant employees are under-valued and poorly paid.  This is a challenge that must be faced and corrected, but it does not mean that “whatever is needed is right”, will work.  Right now, restaurants are trying desperately to survive and get through the day.  Hopefully, they can meet the demand and find their way to profitability, but right now it’s all about survival.  Being pushed into survival tactics rarely yields the best long-term solutions.  When businesses REACT rather than think things through and ACT from a point of understanding and planning then they will ultimately find a need to correct what they did.  When things settle down, when restaurant owners take a deep breath, when accountants look at the financial statement for the month, and when customers have had their fill of making up for lost time – then what?  How long before that $18 per hour dishwasher or $30 per hour line cook no longer makes sense?

When that time comes, I am not happy to tell you that those higher paid positions will be rejected by ownership, when staffing positions will be cut to help stop the financial bleeding, and suddenly those golden horse positions that seemed too good to be true will be just that.  Maybe even more important – the relationship between competing restaurants, between managers of those operations, and between chefs from property to property will be doused in anger, disrespect, lack of trust, and an eye for an eye mantra.

So, for the restaurateur here are my thoughts to consider:

[]          Think this through.  Do you really want to alienate your competitors?

[]          Know that once you start a bidding war for employees – someone will always be willing to outbid you.

[]          Do you really want employees to work for you just because you offered them more money than another restaurant?  Wouldn’t you rather have them choose you because your operation is one that they can align with and respect?

[]          How long can you afford to pay wages that are not in line with what your business requires?

[]          Those who currently have great employees – make sure you give them a forum to offer their ideas and express their concerns.  Determine what you can afford to pay them and discuss that with each employee.  Make sure that you celebrate the culture and the teams that you have created – people want to work where they feel part of something bigger than themselves and where it is apparent that they make a difference.

[]          Don’t become angry when a great employee leaves for a better offer.  Tell them how you feel and how they will be missed, make as good a counteroffer as you can, and then stay in touch with them after they leave.  Who knows – they might be back once they see what they have left and what they are faced with.

For the employee seeking the best opportunity and the most lucrative offer:

[]          Money is important, and you should always seek to find an employer who recognizes your worth but know that “too good to be true” has a short lifespan and you may find that the opportunity disappears sooner than you expect.

[]          Just because an employer pays higher than expected wages does not mean that they will be great to work for.  Check out the work culture before you are swept up in the excitement of the offer.

[]          Don’t burn any bridges.  Give plenty of notice, keep an open mind to any counteroffer, and don’t leave a good employer hanging in the middle of peak business or without any prospect for a replacement.   They invested in you, and you should always recognize this.

I hope that we see our way through this time and remember that we are part of a business that shares common challenges.  Free-agency continues to break up the most promising organizations from professional sports to colleges, tech companies, and not-for-profits.  Let’s try to avoid going down that path.

PLAN BETTER – TRAIN HARDER

Harvest America Ventures, LLC

Restaurant Consulting

www.harvestamericacues.com  BLOG

CAFÉ Talks Podcast

https://cafemeetingplace.com/cafe-podcasts

CHEFS – MENUS FOR 2021 AND BEYOND

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By now, everyone is aware that there are enormous challenges with the supply chain – brought on by the pandemic and post pandemic rush to return to normal.  It is another perfect storm of realities that seem to have brought this about:  scaling down of production from the farmer, rancher and fisherman during the time when American restaurants were shut down, interrupting the cycle of growth and production as a result, a dramatic re-opening of said restaurants without time to gradually scale up to meet demand, a significant short fall in staff for a plethora of reasons that warrant a separate study (this includes farm workers, meat cutters, warehouse employees, commercial fishermen, and truck drivers), and a scary change in the attitude of hospitality workers who are not inclined to return to the industry that failed to listen to many of their concerns.  So, here we are facing overnight demand (it’s like everyone turned on the open switch at the same time) that exceeds supply and our ability to deliver.

Prices of raw materials and labor, of course, have gone through the roof and there is no end in sight.  Beef, poultry, pork, seafood of all types, fresh produce, dairy products, and paper supplies are, in some cases, double what they were a year ago!  On top of this – restaurants are offering wages that were unheard of pre-pandemic and still employees are not inclined to return to kitchens and dining rooms.  There is obviously a need for some type of systemic change, but no one seems to know exactly what that might be at this time. 

How does a chef or restaurateur approach the challenges of a public that wants to return to restaurants that are unable to meet the rapid growth in demand and a supply chain that is making it nearly impossible to get the ingredients they need and afford the ones that are available?   The quick fix may just be a dramatic change in how we plan and present our menus.  This may be something that will self-correct in a few months, or it could very well be the way that we operate from this point on.  The important reality is that we MUST MAKE CHANGES NOW!

CHANGE #1:

The days of the fixed menu for restaurants should come to a halt.  Without a clear understanding of where ingredient costs are going tomorrow and next month restaurants cannot afford to be shackled to a menu that is out of control.

It may make sense for restaurants to switch directions and move towards a fluid menu that relies on a style of cooking rather than fixed, specific menu items.  Chefs may very well need to plan menus that change every week or two, or in some cases even daily based on availability and price.  This will, of course, make it far more challenging to control quality and consistency, but with a movement towards on-going training and quality assurance – it can be done.

Forget the beautiful menus printed by a local craftsperson or laminated to build in easy re-use; if you are not already printing menus in-house then it is time to invest in some software and a quality printer for your office.

CHANGE #2:

Prices will also be fluid because they MUST reflect a restaurants ability to maintain its margins.  So weekly menus and appropriate changes to pricing will need to tie in with solid menu planning and purchasing that allows a pricing structure to stay within a range that your guests are accustomed to.

CHANGE #3:

It may also mean that certain menu staples that everyone accepts as “always present” need to be pushed aside for the time being.  A menu that depends on limited supply, higher end ingredients may need to look to a different model.  Less beef and more chicken, fewer shellfish items and standards like cod, haddock, sole, or halibut may need to lean more towards farmed fish or less popular species.  There are also even more reasons to work with local farmers, at least in-season, to find the produce you need to execute a fluid menu. 

CHANGE #4:

Big menus are far too difficult to manage at a time when the supply chain is challenged, prices are not stable, and the labor market is stretched.  Smaller menus with changing content are the way to go.  Instead of eight appetizers – look to three or four.  Rather than a dozen or so entrée choices – rely on six or even less.  Make sure that everything is focused on hitting your essential categories so that most guests can find something they like.

CHANGE #5:

Changing a restaurants dependance on large kitchen teams or a full cadre of servers is something that will be very challenging, but necessary.  Since these employees are simply not available, restaurants will need to find ways to do more with fewer hands and not rely as much on a high level of talent to do so.  This means that the menu will become the key to success.  Setting up systems for the pre-production, preparation, finishing and plating of beautiful and delicious food that can be executed consistently and quickly will be the way to go. 

CHANGE #6:

Create excitement over “what’s next”.  People are certainly creatures of habit and ambassadors for the familiar.  This is one of the reasons why so many menus remain the same for years or even decades.  Knowing that an item that you like will always be there is comforting and let’s face it – people don’t really like change.  Unfortunately, it is change that will allow the restaurant of today and tomorrow to thrive.  For this to be effective it is necessary for chefs and restaurants to build excitement for what makes the average guest uncomfortable.  Trust becomes the most essential ingredient in the chef’s repertoire.  “Don’t disappoint” is the key objective in building a fluid menu.  The minute that a guest finds disappointment in a menu selection is the moment you lose their trust and likely their return business. 

Chefs need to understand their customers even better than before.  Menu items need to reflect protection of this trust even more than the desires of the chef to create something that suits his or her need to be expressive.  One thought might be to take a lesson from some creative wine lists that I have seen where the chef states: “If you liked (a popular item from the past on a restaurant menu) then you will love (a new item being offered).  Now keep in mind that this means that the chef is offering a quiet guarantee – but one that feeds off that “trust” that is so important.

CHANGE #7:

Finally, this is the perfect time for the chef or the restaurateur to be even more visible to the guest than ever before.  Stand up for your menu, put yourself front and center, talk with the guests, read their reactions, pay attention, answer questions, encourage stepping out of comfort zones, and making adjustments where needed – in the moment.  Impatience, confusion, indecision, and uncomfortableness can be addressed directly avoiding disappointment and late-night angry comments on Trip Advisor.

Remember – desperate times call for desperate action (not reaction).

PLAN BETTER – TRAIN HARDER

Harvest America Ventures, LLC

Restaurant Consulting

www.harvestamericacues.com  BLOG

CAFÉ Talks Podcast

https://cafemeetingplace.com/cafe-podcasts

COOKS AND CHEFS – WHERE DO WE FIT?

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Maybe this is simply way out there and not of interest to anyone but me, but here it goes.  Where do we fit in the big scheme of things?  Seriously – have you ever given thought to this question?  Look around you at the incredible intelligence, innovation, talent, and skill of engineers, mathematicians, scientists, physicians, musicians, artists, economists, product designers, mechanics, theorists, and physicists and their discoveries and inventions.  How can we compare in the big scheme of things?  These individuals started out the same way they we did – just a fairly blank slate with a hunger for life and a thirst to learn.  How did they wind up moving in the direction they did, and we stepped into the realm of the kitchen?

Is it the lifelong pursuit of answers that drives so many to jump into one discipline vs. another or are we destined to windup where we are anyway?  What determines the path that we will take and what fuel feeds the desire to be a world changing scientist who discovers the way to build a vaccine for Covid or learns how to properly braise a lamb shank? Ah – that preverbal fork in the road, that early decision to turn left or right, that fateful event that either inspired us or forced us to choose – interesting.

There are many things that boggle the mind, that are so hard to grasp that we simply put them aside and either ignore them or accept them.  How can someone be so intelligent that they are able to comprehend, let alone work with the Higgs Boson “God particle “(the basis for structure of all matter) that is so small, yet so powerful that mankind had to develop the CERN Hadron Collider particle accelerator in France and Switzerland with miles of round perimeter tunnels that accelerate atomic particles to the speed of light and then crash them together to study the concept and to even think about recognizing that it even exists?

The CERN Hadron Collider:

 How can a person be so knowledgeable and so skillful as to repair the value in a human heart or so talented as to compose a musical piece for a symphonic orchestra of nearly 100 different musicians in their mind before it is put to paper?  Yet many, just like you and me are most concerned with the proper plating technique of a classic dish first developed by Escoffier.  How can we all start out basically the same and move in such different directions and is there any equality in importance?

Plating Technique:

Yes, I think about this stuff and sometimes I am able to put the thoughts aside when it turns from question to headache – but other times it keeps me up at night.  The underlying question seems to always be: “Did I choose the right path and was it my choice anyway?”   Compare and contrast is human nature – we do this from our earliest days of existence.  So and so has something that I don’t have, or he or she receives recognition, and I did not – it is the basis for many disagreements, misunderstandings, anxieties, fights, class structures, and wars.  Does it all begin with that fork in the road?

Obviously, the environment that we are born into has a bearing on our decisions.  Without a doubt there are socio-economic factors that determine whether you turn left or right, and the influence of family and friends cannot be denied.  There is no question that some people are born with a more complex gray matter network sitting on their shoulders, and I guess we can argue that there is such a thing as born talent.  Yet, we come into this world with free will and if you consider how, we start out as a blank slate with a desire to learn and reach a level of independence – we do still have a choice.  Those born with all the trappings of wealth, those who come from caring families, and those who have parents with a commitment to education will have a certain amount of advantage, but there are ample examples of babies born without any of this who choose to take a road that leads to exceptionalism and contribution.  But, why cooking and once that decision is made – how does one reconcile the importance of that decision?

A few realities seem to hold up:

  • MANY HUMANS ARE TACTILE LEARNERS:  Cooking is very much a tactile skill with an end product that can be admired and consumed.
  • MANY PEOPLE WANT TO MAKE A DENT IN THE UNIVERSE: Ours might not change the world, but we can change the life of a person who needed to feel special, even for just a brief moment – changing everything – one person at a time.
  • WE RISE TO THE EXPECTATIONS OTHERS HAVE OF US: We want to make people happy – from that first finger painting that we brought home to our parents, to completion of that project for a teacher, or placing a perfect plate of food in the pass for the expeditor to admire.  That nod or smile says: “You exceeded my expectations”.
  • BRINGING SOMETHING TO FRUITION IS TREMENDOUSLY GRATIFYING:  Every moment of every day in the kitchen yields an accomplishment from an individual plate to a banquet for 500 – a cook’s days are filled with accomplishment.
  • GENERALLY, PEOPLE HAVE A NEED TO BE GOOD AT SOMETHING:  Yes, there are those with gifted palates or an eye for presentation that seems unique, but with lots of practice every cook can become good at what they do – even great.
  • FOR THE MOST PART – PEOPLE WANT TO BE HAPPY:  Working in a kitchen environment as a member of a team, pushing to get better, working through the heat and the sore muscles, putting together a plate of food that satisfies all the human senses, and doing all this every day is something that makes every tired cook happy.
  • IT IS HUMAN NATURE TO KNOW THAT YOU HELPED TO MAKE SOMEONE ELSE HAPPY:  A clean plate returning from the dining room, a guest’s pause to look at the plate from every angle, a few photos to add to their Instagram account, and a thumbs up from the server.  The potential is always there for cooks to make others happy in each moment.

So, how does one reconcile that they chose to learn how to master that braised lamb shank and did not go down the path to become a mathematician who plotted out the trajectory of a rocket destined to dock with a complex space station miles outside of the earth’s atmosphere?  Hmmm.  Well, obviously the path I chose did not set the stage for finding the real answer to this, but I do know that I chose the path, as did many of you, that made the most sense for me or you.  I also know, as should you, that what we all do is important in the big scheme of things because it fulfills our personal need to create, to feed our tactile learning tendencies, it makes people happy, helps them deal with their life challenges, and serves as an important reward for what they do.

Every mathematician, scientist, doctor, teacher, artist, musician, and physicist inherently need great cooks and respects the cook’s ability to feed the body, mind, and soul.  What we do is important and the fork in the road that we faced, and the direction that we chose was the right one for us.  This is a calling in life that is purposeful and meaningful and one that others depend on.  We pay respect to Mother Nature, celebrate the farmer and the fisherman; we develop skills that can take a lifetime to truly master, we paint our greatest works of art on a plate, we feed the body and give hard working people a moment to pause and be thankful and laugh over a delicious plate of food, and we bring people together even when they seem to have irreconcilable differences – we make a dent in the universe.  We may not make the cover of Scientific America, but we make people smile and that means a lot. 

PLAN BETTER – TRAIN HARDER

Choose your path wisely and know that it is the right decision

Harvest America Ventures, LLC

Restaurant Consulting

www.harvestamericacues.com – BLOG

CAFÉ Talks Podcast

https://cafemeetingplace.com/cafe-podcasts

THE THING ABOUT KITCHEN DESIGN

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Over the past few decades, I have been asked to design a number of kitchens for restaurants and banquet spaces – a task that I thoroughly enjoy.  Owners and operators will typically shake their heads at initial designs holding their ground that “chefs” like to create elaborate kitchen palaces that they really don’t need and that they (the owners) can’t afford to build.  I understand this reaction but know that this is not really the case.  “Chefs” want to create kitchens that work, spaces that are designed to correct the numerous problems that were previously faced in poorly designed kitchens.  When a designer is asked to compromise on space, flow, or equipment I know that this simply means that the operator wants to build in problems in production or service in the future.  They are either willing to accept this (believing that the chef will simply need to figure it out), or they simply do not believe the designers conclusions.

In what other industry are developers inclined to accept built in problems with design?  Are auto manufacturers fine with poorly designed assembly lines?  Are hospital administrators fine with operating rooms that are not quite right?  Are operators of meat packing plants fine with inefficient cutting lines?  Inefficiencies cost money, frustrate employees, and oftentimes set the stage for poor quality results.  Is this the objective that operators and owners are after?

Creating restaurants is an expensive endeavor.  When owners are faced with a design that will cost many hundreds of thousands of dollars their first reaction is: “Kitchens don’t generate revenue – dining rooms do.  Kitchens are cost centers and a drain on potential profit.”  This, of course, is far from the truth – kitchens are the driver of sales and potential profit, but only when they are designed to accomplish both.  When it comes to setting the stage for restaurant success – “good enough” is never good enough.

Every additional step costs the restaurant money in labor, every poorly designed storage area costs the operation money in lost opportunities for purchasing volume and in product waste, every poorly designed prep area costs money in production efficiency, and every kitchen that is poorly designed from a flow perspective costs money in timing and service efficiency.  Chefs and cooks are at their best when they have the right environment and the right tools to accomplish the work they do.  Isn’t this true in every profession?  Yet, why would you hamper an employee’s ability to complete his or her work in the time that makes sense and at the quality that any successful business demands?  Penny wise and dollar foolish is certainly applicable here.

There are established standards for space, distance, and reach in kitchens that have been time tested.  Every effective kitchen designer knows them.  When we ignore these standards, we are building inefficiencies into the system and setting the stage for poor performance.  We know that a kitchen employee requires a certain amount of space to be effective in his or her work, we know that certain floor surfaces help to reduce back and leg strain, and we know that a designated amount of lighting will reduce eye strain and headaches and reduce unwanted accidents in the kitchen.  We understand where the dish machine should be located to reduce cross-trafficking in the kitchen and cut down on accidents and broken china, we understand that an expensive combi-oven can replace the need for multiple other ovens to complete the required work.  It is apparent that banquets are far more efficient, with less waste, and a much higher consistent quality level when there is sufficient cooler space for rolling racks and pre-plating and a cook-chill system is built into production.  We know that a slow cook oven will reduce cook shrink on roasts by 15-20% and produce a much more uniform product.  Yet, operators seem content to use their erasers on kitchen design and disregard what we know and simply move to save some money up front. 

One fact is absolute, one reality is the reason why too many kitchens are poorly designed, and there is one cause of the frustration that ensues from an ill-conceived kitchen space:  people just don’t know any better.  Unless you have worked in many kitchens, worked through hundreds of busy nights on the line, serviced banquets from 50 – 1,000 guests, taken inventory in kitchens without concern for proper storage, or tried to work with equipment that is constantly in dis-repair – you just don’t know.

When an owner or operator relies on an architect who has never worked in a kitchen (the rationale that they have designed dozens of kitchens before doesn’t cut it) and decisions are based solely on cutting expenses or adding a few more tables to the dining room – then problems are sure to arise.  When that architect is told to cut 25% off the cost of a kitchen – they will do just that; little thought is given to the impact of those decisionsIf I seem frustrated – I am, but not for any personal reasons – I am frustrated because I know the chef and cooks who walk into a kitchen designed in this manner will be challenged from day one.  I know that they will be forced to sacrifice something: quality, health, efficient use of labor, or be faced with a swinging door of cooks coming in with loads of enthusiasm and quitting with a ton of angst.

Is there any room for compromise?  Of course, there is, and chefs who design kitchens can get carried away, but at least listen to them, talk the issues through and push the chef to look at alternatives that might work just as well.  Don’t simply view the space as a “chef’s palace” that is only created to be a showcase.  This is a manufacturing space as well as an environment for artistic people to perfect their craft.  The space should be designed to feed both objectives if you want your restaurant to be all that it can be.

If you don’t have the money to do it right now, when will you find the funds to fix the problems later?  I know it seems arrogant to say – “If you don’t have the money to do it right then find the money”, but that is really the answer.  If you can’t find the money, then change your concept to accommodate a budget that works for your finances and still service the important aspects of design or stay away from the restaurant business.  Please – don’t build problems into the system and then wonder why it isn’t working.  Don’t allow an architect to design your kitchen in a vacuum.  Involve a chef or a chef designer in the process, create an open dialogue, run through scenarios in the kitchen to see if your design is adequately prepared for things that can go wrong.  Invest your money in efficiency and everyone will be much more productive, the operation will be staged to reach its financial goals, and your employees will thank you.

PLAN BETTER – TRAIN HARDER

Harvest America Ventures, LLC

Restaurant Consulting

www.harvestamericacues.com  BLOG

CAFÉ Talks Podcast

https://cafemeetingplace.com/cafe-podcasts

TO BE A FATHER

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I spend a considerable amount of time writing about how important it is to be a cook and a chef and my observations of those who fit those titles.  It is important to me and to millions of others around the world.  This is what so many were meant to do with their careers – it is built into their (our) DNA.  However, noting can compare to the honor, privilege, joy, occasional pain, and humbling experience of being a father. 

Nothing can prepare you for the experience of holding a newborn, your child, in your arms for the first time.  Those moments when she or he opens those eyes for the first time, smiles and blinks with recognition of the connection, the bond of blood, history, tradition, and family.  As father’s we swallow hard, smile from ear to ear, take a deep breath and shed a tear of utter joy along with a bit of nervousness.  We are struck with awe at the living person in our arms and speechlessness at the process and the strength of the woman who bore this being for the past nine months.  “How is this possible?”

We are at a loss when it comes to what to do next.  We frantically ask: “Where is the job description?”   We try to do our best over the next handful of years – trying to be there for those special days: first day of school, birthdays, helping them to ride a bike, catch and hit a baseball, track meets, soccer games, recitals, spelling bees, and first everything’s, but as a chef we all know that some will be missed – never to be regained.  It is tough to look back at those missed opportunities and justify why we weren’t there.  Our children will probably forgive us, but we will never forgive ourselves.  This, after all is our most important job.

As father’s we can look back and remember those first steps, first words, daily hugs, and tears shed over nothing and sometimes something. We can choke up as we remember the smiles over accomplishments: graduation from kindergarten, from grammar school, high school and beyond.  There are those moments when we lost our temper but never our love and caring for those young persons who continue to amaze as they grow and experience life.  We know, in our hearts that what we are angry about is probably our own shortcomings as fathers. 

There are those times when they are sick and our hearts ache for them as we hold them in a shower to cool down a fever, wash their cuts and scrapes and press on a band aid while mom gives them a kiss to make it better.  We remember the panic that first time that we had to rush them to a doctor’s office or the hospital for something that was beyond our ability to fix.  We remember that feeling of complete relief when the doctor says they are OK. 

Monumental occasions continue throughout life as we meet their first girlfriend or boyfriend, give them a serious stare to show them that this is very precious cargo and beware of the potential wrath of dad, but in our hearts feel pure joy in our child’s happiness – that first crush.  We experience mixed emotions when they learn to drive and that first time when they do so solo with license in hand.  We watch the news daily and stress about the condition of the world, not so much for ourselves but what it means for them and their futures.  There is a point in time when we realize that their lives and happiness are far more important than our own.  It is one of those moments when we truly realize what it means to be a father. 

There is a point in time when everything seems to move too fast.  They apply for college or a trade school and are accepted and we know that they will be going off on their own for the first time.  It is this point in time when we really self-assess.  Have we prepared them for life, are they good people who are honest and caring?  Will they treat others with respect, and will others view them as we do?  Do they have the work ethic that will lead to success?  Will they make good choices of friends and experiences?  Did I do my job as a father?

When they finally leave for that independent experience we swallow deeply again, just like we did when holding a newborn.  This time the fear and pride are very real, they are based on 18 years of experience and knowing everything that could go wrong and every opportunity that could end up right.  We jump every time that phone rings late in the evening wondering what went wrong, is my son or daughter alright?  We comfort them on the phone when they had a bad day and learn quickly that they don’t really want advice, they just want us to listen.  This is one of the hardest things for a father to learn.  We resist the desire to jump in the car and drive all night just to “take care” of things for them – this is not what they want or need in most cases.

There are those moments when we must ease their soul crushing sadness over a broken relationship, or one that fails to materialize.  We tell them that this is life and there are lots of fish in the sea, but we know ourselves how shallow that response is and how painful their sense of loss is.  But then they rebound.  Their friends help them along, they find their step again, discover new people and jump back in the relationship search.  This is, as we all know, the search for happiness and sense of creating a family of their own – just like mom and dad.

As father’s we beam with pride, standing next to our partner as a son or daughter graduates once again and moves on to begin their real independent life.  That first job in a field of their choice, first apartment, first network of lifetime friends, first opportunity to be financially responsible.  Ah, we did it!  But then, we are always on the lookout – making sure that their stress is minimized, that they have enough money, that their jobs are satisfying, that they can reach their dreams, that they find a partner and oh, yes – that the stage is set for them to follow in our footsteps.

Then it happens – they find their soulmate and we pray that this is the right one.  We meet that special person and once again look them up and down and peer into their eyes to see if they are worthy.  We are cautiously optimistic and then relieved to discover that our son or daughter chose wisely.  Preparations for a wedding will ensue and it is our job to make sure that the day is right.  Mom will live her experience again through her child and everyone is focused on making the special day all that it can be.  There is a load of pride and fathers feel a real bonding with a son – “congratulations my boy you did well”.   Somehow, with a daughter it is different.  You know she is strong, smart, and balanced, but underneath it all you want to make sure she is in good hands.  That walk down the aisle is special, memorable, joyful, and soul crushing at the same time.  You are passing the hand of your little girl to another person to cherish and hold – and those memories of holding a newborn, of having total responsibility for her welfare are flashing through your head at lightening speed.  “Please let her be safe and happy”.

What an honor, a pleasure, a responsibility, and an experience it is to be a father.  It is our real purpose in life – a job without a job description.  We learn as we go – on the job training.  And then, one day you receive that phone call when your son or daughter says through broken words – “dad, you and mom are going to be grandparents!”  Ah, such a feeling – and now it starts all over again.

On this day, I wish a happy Father’s Day to all the dads and granddads out there.  To all the chefs who are struggling to figure out that balance in life, I offer this advice: “Don’t find yourself regretting too much.  Life is short and your real job is far more important than those beautiful plates of food in the pass.  Figure out a way to train others to cover for you when you need to hold a hand, applaud an accomplishment, hug in support, or simply smile and shed a tear for that little person that you once held in your arms in pure wonder.

To my children and grandkids – thanks for giving me a chance to be there:  Erika, Jessica, Leif, Alex, Addie, Johan, Espen, Oliver, and Jack.

Happy Father’s Day.

PLAN BETTER – TRAIN HARDER
Being a father is the ultimate opportunity in life

Harvest America Ventures, LLC

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/

THE VALUE OF THE SCHOOL OF HARD KNOCKS

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

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

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

[]       IT MUST BEGIN WITH WASHING DISHES:

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

[]       DIVE FOR PEARLS:

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

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

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

[]       THAT FIRST KNIFE MUST BE EARNED:

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

[]       PEEL 500 POUNDS OF ONIONS FIRST:

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

[]       DICE A BAG OF CARROTS – PERFECTLY:

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

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

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

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

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

 diner’s attention.

[]       WHAT – YOU NEVER HAD A PAPER ROUTE?

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

[]       WASH AND IRON YOUR OWN UNIFORM:

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

[]       OF COURSE, THOSE SHOES MUST BE POLISHED:

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

[]       SHOWER AND SHAVE:

Simple – look the part of a professional.

[]       NO ONE IS ABOVE CLEANING:

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

[]       ON TIME REALLY IS 15 MINUTES EARLY:

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

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

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

[]       SPEND THREE DAYS ON A FARM:

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

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

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

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

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

[]       YOUR NAME ON A CHEF COAT MEANS SOMETHING:

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

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

PLAN BETTER – TRAIN HARDER

Learn by doing

Harvest America Ventures, LLC

www.harvestamericacues.com – BLOG

CAFÉ Talks Podcast

https://cafemeetingplace.com/cafe-podcasts

FINDING YOUR WAY AS A COOK AND A CHEF

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

PLAN BETTER – TRAIN HARDER

Make a dent in the universe – start today

Harvest America Ventures, LLC

Restaurant Consulting

www.harvestamericacues.com BLOG

CAFÉ Talks Podcast

https://cafemeetingplace.com/cafe-podcasts

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

PLAYING WITH FIRE

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

-Julia Child

PLAN BETTER – TRAIN HARDER

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THE CHARLIE WATTS OF THE KITCHEN

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

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

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

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

PLAN BETTER – TRAIN HARDER

Respect the Grillade

Harvest America Ventures, LLC

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THE TERRITORY AHEAD FOR CHEFS

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It’s time to accept where we are, listen and understand where we might be going, put aside our frustrations and begin to establish a working strategy that is based on what is inevitable.  Yes, I’m talking about what it will be like in our restaurants from this point on and into the foreseeable future.

I know, I know – we all want things to return to normal, and we want the industry we knew to come back just as it was.  In the profound words of David Byrne: “Same as it ever was, same as it ever was.”  But the fact of the matter is: it will not likely ever be the same as it ever was.  So, take a deep breath, kick a few empty five-gallon buckets around the kitchen (make sure they are empty), release a string of expletives if it makes you feel better, and take a few ibuprofens to address that constant headache.  Sometimes, things start to feel better when you know that the decisions are much clearer now than they were a few months ago – even if the clarity is not what we hoped for.

So, here is what we know and what we must learn to work with:

[]       COVID PROTOCOLS WILL LIKELY BE WITH US FOR SOME TIME:

You’re tired of it, your employees are tired of it, and your customers are tired of, but it is the second-best tool in your toy chest (next to the vaccine) to help keep this pandemic under control and keep everyone safe. Many indicators point to Covid as a constantly mutating virus that comes back in a different form every year.  This means that booster shots, like the flu vaccine, will be an annual reality and masks and other internal protocols will probably be either recommended or required at some level for months or even years to come (sorry to burst your bubble).

[]       SOME OF YOUR BEST EMPLOYEES WON’T BE COMING BACK:

They stepped away while you were shut down, they had time to evaluate and take a hard look at the pros and cons and concluded that working in restaurants just wasn’t worth it.  The pay was not the best, the benefits not so great, the hours and uncertainty of schedules frustrating, the physical work demanding, the environment stressful, and working evenings and holidays quite anti-social.  So, they decided to look for a change of career.  We didn’t address all those issues when we should have and now the pandemic made it all too obvious that it was time for them to cut the apron strings.

[]       FINDING NEW STAFF WILL BE A CHALLENGE FOR QUITE A WHILE:

The same media that made our industry exciting and attractive (unrealistically attractive) for decades has now invested in pointing out on social media, in newspapers and magazines, in expose books, and on television that working in restaurants has a dark side.  Combine this with the cost of a culinary or hospitality education and the 30-year payback to become debt free and many young students are turning their backs on a restaurant career.

[]       LABOR WILL BE MUCH MORE EXPENSIVE

Those employees that you are able to attract, especially the good ones, will be able to demand significantly higher wages and much broader benefit packages.  Yep, we might actually have to pay people a fair wage for the work that they do.  Ouch! 

[]       WE DO NEED TO ADDRESS WORK/LIFE BALANCE FOR EVERYONE:

It is absolutely true that when you find something that you enjoy doing, time investment is far less a concern, but try telling that to a good employee who has a family that also demands his or her attention.  When the stress of the job, especially the demands for excellence, poise, teamwork, service mentality, and competence, become over-bearing then everyone loses.  We (all of us) need to see these roadblocks, listen to our employees, and find ways to create a more accommodating environment – one that treats people with respect and works to create a user-friendly space where employees can perform well and feel good about themselves.

[]       CUSTOMERS ARE ANGRY WITH THE WORLD AND THEY SEEM TO ENJOY TAKING IT OUT ON YOUR STAFF – DON’T TOLERATE IT!

Of course, we all get it.  Life has been very challenging of late, and everyone is tired, on edge, frustrated beyond belief, and just DONE.  We are all ready to own our lives again and enjoy the simple things – like going out for a meal.  When the frustrations that a person feels translates to treating our employees poorly, placing blame on their shoulders for the protocols that they are required to enforce, and ignorance of the unique staffing challenges that continues to shoot holes in our delivery systems – then chefs and restaurateurs need to step in to protect the well-being of their employees.  The customer isn’t always right when they look down on our staff and try to make their lives unbearable.  Don’t allow it – there is no space for that crap in our places of work.

[]       THE SUPPLY CHAIN IS BROKEN AND WILL BE FOR A WHILE:

This is the straw that broke the camel’s back.  Staffing is difficult, customers are sometimes miserable, everyone is tired, and many are afraid, but now we can’t even depend on receiving the supplies that we need to conduct business.  Reminds me of that telling moment in the movie Network, when people hung their heads out of their apartment windows and yelled: “I’m mad as hell and not going to take it anymore.”  Well, the supply chain is bigger than all of us, very complex, and apparently – very fragile.  We can’t find staff, but neither can farmers, processors, supply ports, trucking companies, and even air carriers who bring that beautiful fresh fish to your door or wild mushrooms from Washington State.  So, it’s time to build contingency plans with this in mind – the problem will not be fixed overnight.

[]       SMALLER MENUS ARE A MUST, AT LEAST FOR NOW:

Chefs do like to strut their stuff.  We do like to show what we can do through our menus, train our staff how each should be prepared, how they should taste, and how they must be presented on the plate.  Unfortunately, staffing and supply issues make large menus impossible to maintain.  Get accustomed with smaller menus and fluid ones that change in an instant based on what is available.

[]       RIGHT NOW, VALUE IS FOCUSED ON SAFETY, TRUST, AND EFFICIENCY – EVENTUALLY IT WILL TURN BACK TO QUALITY AND PRICE:

We need to be ready to wow our guests again with exceptional, interesting, flavor packed, beautiful food and warm, friendly, comfortable service.  This never goes out of style so don’t be coaxed into thinking that a safe and efficient restaurant can survive without the magic of the kitchen and its cooks.

[]       LESS COMPETITION DUE TO RESTAURANT CLOSURES IS NOT A GOOD THING FOR YOU: 

Less competition means less interest in those related careers.  Less competition means less incentive to always stay on the cutting edge with product and service, less competition means that fewer people in your community will view a lunch or dinner out as the “thing to do”.  We should applaud competition, welcome it, and learn from it.

[]       DON’T PUSH ASIDE FOOD TO GO, FOOD DELIVERY, GHOST KITCHENS, OR CURBSIDE PICK-UP JUST YET:

Yep, it saved many restaurants and our customers embraced it – now we can’t forget it.  We need to become incredible at food to go – figure out ways to maintain quality, package it beautifully so that it looks fantastic, and create a “to go experience” that is comparable to in-person dining.  A tall task, but necessary.  To go is here to stay.

[]       SURVIVAL IS THE FIRST THING ON A CHEF’S JOB DESCRIPTION RIGHT NOW:

All hands-on deck!  We can’t afford to close, and we can’t afford to open – UNLESS – everyone in your operations is part of the solution.  Survival means the right menu, perfectly prepared and presented food, real service that includes the cooks desire to always say YES, clean, and upbeat dining rooms, with staff who offer service with a smile, and cost control on everyone’s mind.  It means, more than ever before that every guest is important AND it means that if, in your position, you are not serving the guest directly, then you must serve someone who is.

[]       FORGET THE EXECUTIVE CHEF TITLE – WORKING CHEF IS MUCH MORE REALISTIC RIGHT NOW:

It may be some time before the chef with a clipboard is back.  If you haven’t done so for some time – be prepared to occasionally work a station, engage in prep, push a few racks through the dish machine, and yes – help to bus tables and mop an occasional floor.  This is a good thing – roll up your sleeves, the chef won’t always have the cleanest uniform in the kitchen.

PLAN BETTER – TRAIN HARDER

Prepare for the New Reality

Harvest America Ventures, LLC

www.harvestamericacues.com  BLOG

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I AM A COOK, HEAR ME ROAR

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At this time, when it seems so easy to complain, to point fingers, to question, and sometimes even to bail on a career in the kitchen – I offer these insights for a professional cook: 

I am a cook, hear me roar

*I am proud to be a cook, and to be a caretaker of beautiful ingredients from the land, the sea, and the air.

*I am proud to wear the uniform of the cook and know that it represents a proud tradition of one of the world’s oldest professions.

*I am protective and proud of the tools I use.  My knives are an extension of my hands and I respect and care for them making sure that they are sharp and clean and used for their intended purpose.

*I am fully aware that my future as a cook or chef lies in my hands.  I can be whatever I hope to be – the world is and always has been my oyster.

*I know that success results from hard work, it is never a given.  My future depends on how hard I am willing to work to get there.

*As a proud cook I know that my skills are important but will fail to result in a great product without collaboration with others.

*I know that organization is paramount to success.

*I understand that my role is to respect the ingredients I use and coax out the flavor and nutrition that is already there.

*I know that great cooking comes from an understanding of the culture, traditions, methods, trials and tribulations, and celebrations behind a cuisine or a dish.

*I know that the only way to become truly masterful at my craft is to practice, practice, practice.

*As a cook I understand the importance of respect for others, respect for the chain of command in the kitchen, and respect for the foundations of cooking.

*I know that cooking and giving people a chance to break bread is a gift that keeps on giving.

*I know that hard work and smart work must go hand-in-hand.

*As a cook I understand that my growth to the position of chef will take time, experience, wins and losses, joy and sorrow, and a willingness to listen and learn.

*I know the satisfaction that comes from a dish well prepared and presented.

*As a cook I understand the importance of a well-rounded palate and know that it will take time to develop, even if I seem to have the gift of developed taste buds.

*As a cook I respect those who have been able to benefit from a formal culinary education but realize that they too will need to experience day-to-day kitchen intensity before they can celebrate their ability.

*As a cook I understand just how important every person in the kitchen and dining room is to our collective success.

*As a cook I will never discount the importance of the dishwasher.

*I live to work clean and am proud of the fact that no one ever need remind me to clean as I go.

*I understand that mise en place is the key to success on the line.

*I understand that serving the food that I prepare is also stressful and demanding so I respect those who do so with enthusiasm and professionalism.

*As a professional cook I know that everyone is equal, some simply have different jobs.  Whether white or of color, young or old, male, or female, college educated or from the school of hard knocks, short, small, tall, thin, or heavy, American born or from any of the hundreds of countries around the globe – as long as you work hard and respect others – I will respect you.

*I am an artist who uses the plate as a canvas.

*I have burns, cuts, sore muscles and backs, and many insecurities that I try to work out daily, but so do you – so I shouldn’t invest too much energy in complaining.

*I know that with all the challenges that cooks face, all the perceived inequities, all of the scabs that cover the cuts beneath, this is a rewarding profession like no other.

*I know that a kind word goes a long way toward understanding and respect.  I also know that vicious talk and demeaning attitudes will tear a team apart and leave far too many people without the confidence to perform well.

*As a professional cook I relish the opportunity to learn something new, to try a new food, to build my palate and advance my skill proficiency – this is what makes me stronger.

*I know the difference between critique and criticism.  I embrace the prior and reject the later.

*I accept critique but feel that if others need to point out my mistakes it is because I was not paying attention.  I know when I haven’t lived up to my own standards and when I fall short of the necessary skills required.  Tell me what I need to do but show me how to do it and I will listen and learn.

All of this I know with certainty.  This is the same as it always was and how it will always be for those who view working in a kitchen as a chance to grab the bull by the horns, determine where they want to be in the future, create a roadmap to get there, and stay the course.  I ask myself every day: “Is what I am doing right now bringing me any closer to reaching my goals?”  If the answer is “no” then it is time to self-correct.

PLAN BETTER – TRAIN HARDER

Why do I cook – because it’s who I am

Harvest America Ventures, LLC

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LET’S NOT ALLOW EVIL TO WIN

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Twenty years ago, yes twenty years, our lives changed forever.  When those terrorists without a soul, with evil and hate in their hearts chose to attack innocent people who were just going about their lives and sent a message to America and the world that life is not precious and never guaranteed.  We all remember, at least those who were born before 1995, where we were, when we heard, and how much fear was infused into the air that we breathe.  It remains one of the most tragic, heart wrenching, stomach churning, and depressing, events of our lives.  Something that we never will and never should forget. 

It is likely that each of knows someone who died on that day, whether on a plane, in an attacked building, or doing their job trying to save others.  Those memories are branded into our subconscious.  One of my former students, Chris Carstanjen, was on the second plane that was flown directly into the twin towers.  I still think of him and what must have been going through his mind at that moment.  He was simply in route to the west coast for a well-deserved vacation. 

The emotions that we collectively felt became a unifying introduction to twenty years of a changing America.  At first, we came together to share in our grief and to help everyone make sense of the act and find a way to breathe again.  Then that unity opened the door to anger, a need for revenge, political divide, a lack of trust, a tendency among some to find blame in conspiracy theories, loads of hate and calls for isolation.  To a large degree, the challenges that we face today had many of their roots in this one day in history.  Is our great divide whether political, spiritual, ethnic, or social somehow connected to the fear, anger, and uncertainty that was sparked on a day of national trauma?  

We are a country so divided that America is somewhat hard to recognize.  This is not the country that I remember as a youngster, this is not the country that my parents would have recognized and certainly not the country that my father, grandfather, uncle, and father-in-law fought to protect and defend in the first two world wars.  This is certainly not the country that those who built our democracy would remember. 

After twenty years of continued fighting, disruption of countries, trillions of dollars spent, and countless lives lost – we finally recognized that ending the fighting was the only logical outcome.  All the fighting, all the tragedy of 20 years did not really change anything.  So, on this anniversary of 9/11 we must all wonder what are we doing?  If America continues to entrench in individual beliefs whether based on fact or contrived fiction, where will we end up?  Is it possible that our collective mistrust of everything, our collective belief that there is something sinister going on behind everything, our collective willingness to push aside the conclusions and work of highly competent, world-class scientists in favor of idiots spewing conspiracy theories on social media, our total distrust of our democratic system by many average Americans and even those who represent us, can be connected to that date in 2001?

Did 9/11 uncover the worst of us or the best of us?  It remains one of the most tragic days in our history – a day when our guard was down and evil triumphed, at least for a moment in time.  The question is – are we going to allow that evil to change what America is(was) all about?  This great country was always a beacon of light for others, a place where the magic of the people and where sound majority beliefs determined how we would act.  A place where we all had an opportunity to express our beliefs knowing that the scrutiny of the truth would prevail, but also relishing the opportunity to have an opinion.  America has always been a place of civilized discourse but also where facts were accepted, where educators were respected, where experts in a field of study were admired, where the news was the news and not filled with a table full of talking heads, where what was in print could be trusted because we had controls in place and ethics aligned to make sure that before it was said, it was verified.  I remember that country – do you?

This week I will shed another tear for those people who lost their lives on September 11, 2001 – especially Chris Carstanjen.  I will remember, with respect, all the firemen, police officers, and volunteers who risked their lives to search for others and who continue to die today because of the toxins they were exposed to.  This week I will remember all the young men and women, military and civilian who lost their lives as a direct or indirect consequence of 9/11 and the wars that followed.  This is a week to remember and respect, but it should also be a week where we self-assess and ask the question: “Are we going to let evil win?”

This week chefs and cooks can pay respect to all those who have suffered and perished directly or indirectly from the trauma of 9/11 and help to bring people together in the spirit of the America that the world held so high, for so long. We can do this by preparing food from the heart and the soul and breaking bread with others.  Do so with respect for all people and in direct defiance of evil.  We hold in our hands, the means to bring people together of all walks of life, all nationalities and beliefs, and all traditions and perspectives.  I can think of no better way to honor all whom we have lost.  I will cook for the memory of Chris Carstanjen this weekend.  What will you do?

PLAN BETTER – TRAIN HARDER

Never forget

www.harvestamericacues.com  BLOG

HARVEST – IN SERVICE OF THE POTATO

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It has been around for centuries, oftentimes held high as a somewhat mystical crop, a tuber that fed the poor, protected against the scourge of scurvy, became a type of currency, and amazed everyone for its variety.  The potato is an incredible marvel of Mother Nature that remains the centerpiece of many cuisines, a centerpiece that gives the chef plenty of poetic license for nurturing its qualities and celebrating its ability to morph into so many unique dishes that are influenced by tradition and context.

To the cook and the chef, the potato is a clean slate.  A product so essential, so versatile, packed with nutrition, and cost effective that sometimes it is taken for granted.  The potato has become a commodity, an ingredient that is too often purchased with more concern over size and shape than by the uniqueness of its countless varieties and flavor profiles.

“Not everyone can be a truffle. Most of us are potatoes. And a potato is a very

good thing to be.”
– Chef Massimo Bottura

Chef Bottura makes an important comparison but falls into the habit of inferring that the potato is common and simple.  It is prevalent and sometimes dismissed in comparison to other ingredients just as far too many excellent and talented people are pushed aside if they fail to stand out as unique.  The potato is so much more robust as an ingredient and so much more significant in the kitchen than those ingredients that have a limited appeal or function even though they may be revered.  Think about the possibilities:

THE FRENCH FRY: Potatoes are the number one vegetable consumed in the United States and French fries are top of the list when it comes to potato choices.  When done well they are crisp and golden on the outside and creamy and satisfying on the inside.  Served piping hot with just the right amount of salt – they are hard to beat and not only a classic, but an essential item on nearly every restaurant menu regardless of the pricing structure.  Sometimes served with cheese curd and pan gravy as poutine or enhanced with truffle oil and Himalayan salt; or rosemary, lemon and cracked pepper; thin and crunchy as pommes frites, or thick planks with prime steak – there are limitless choices for any palate.

THE MIGHTY BAKED POTATO: Few menu items are easier to prepare, yet more rewarding than a properly baked potato.  Russets are best for the perfect baker since their coarser skin can withstand the 400-degree heat necessary to build a crust and protect the soft texture of the interior.  Slice through the crunchy skin at service, pinch both ends to reveal the steamy hot interior and insert ample amounts of butter and/or sour cream, a pinch of salt and pepper and you will find a centerpiece for the plate that is impossible to resist.  Watch guest approach their plate and note that in most cases it is the baked potato that welcomes the first bite and not the steak. My favorite is the crunchy skin lathered with butter and a sprinkle of salt and pepper.

WHIPPED OR MASHED WITH LOADS OF BUTTER: So, inviting are mashed potatoes (pommes puree) that Chef Joel Robuchon, at one point the most revered chef in the world, created his signature version that was so sinful that it became the most important dish on his menu.  A time-tested method of preparation and equal parts of potato and butter led to an item that drew customers from across the globe.

https://guide.michelin.com/us/en/california/article/features/joel-robuchon-pommes-puree

HASH BROWNS TO START THE DAY: If you are a restaurant chef, chances are one of your first jobs in the kitchen was working breakfast.  Waking up at 4 a.m. to be fresh enough to walk through those kitchen doors at 5:00 took quite an effort.  But quickly your energy level would rise as you smelled fresh brewed coffee, bacon being pulled from the oven, finished pastries from the bakeshop filling the air with their sweetness, and the caramelization of potatoes on the griddle.  Hash browns and home fries with their sweet crunchiness as the butter and potato starchiness combined to form that delicious crust would always make you salivate.  What better way to start the day than a plate of hash browns, bacon and two eggs over easy?

DON’T FORGET THE CHEESE AND CREAM: A somewhat lost menu item in restaurants that deserves to reemerge is the scalloped or au gratin potato.  Potatoes are cooked till they nearly fall apart and then tossed with salted cream, maybe a few egg yolks, and if au gratin ample amounts of cheddar, baked till a crust forms as a package to protect what is inside – what a treat. 

POTATOES ANNA – A STEP ABOVE:  When simplicity meets elegance – magic occurs.  Thinly sliced potatoes, overlapping and assembled in a cast iron pan with copious amounts of butter and salt, baked until they are golden brown and crunchy on the outside while still creamy once the seal is broken.  The lowly potato can be elevated to the most revered fine dining establishment with this potato pie.

“Pommes Anna is a famous French preparation of white potatoes, borne in the mid 19th century.  The story goes that the dish was named for Anna Deslions, a well-known Parisian courtesan who frequented Café Anglais where Chef Adolophe Duglere invented the dish to honor her and the wealthy clientele that she brought into the popular restaurant.”

-The Domestic Man

https://thedomesticman.com/2015/09/08/pommes-anna-potatoes-anna/

VICHYSOISSE – REFINED AND ELEGANT:  The soup of kings that intrigues and dismays.  Chilled puree potato and leeks with cream, and salt and chives mystify many by its simplicity and elegance.  There seems to be no end to the stories of its creation, the most common is that Louis the XV was so paranoid about being poisoned that a series of tasters were employed to test everything that he would eat.  This potato soup had to be tasted so many times that by the time it got to the king it was cold.  He enjoyed it that way, so it became a staple in his diet.  The more likely origin is through the hands of Chef Louis Diat who, as chef at the Ritz Carlton New York, invented the soup in 1917 for the hotel’s roof top garden restaurant.  The chef built the dish to help cool diners during the hot summer months.  In any case – it is a classic.

OVEN ROASTED – A HOME FOR ROSEMARY: All chefs know that there are foods that seem to naturally pair well.  We know that Stilton Cheese is easily married to a good port, foie gras to sauternes, mint with lamb, and rosemary with roasted potatoes.  The aroma of rosemary and butter as they caramelize on the surface of potatoes is intoxicating.

YAMS AND SWEETS: Oftentimes associated with holidays, sweet potatoes can be a differentiated item on any menu.  Sweet and soft in texture, the sweet potato can find its way into a blend with traditional mashed, a uniquely different pommes frites, or pan caramelized in butter as a complement to chicken or pork dishes.  Yams are a completely different root vegetable that are somewhat tasteless on their own.  They have a dark brown outer skin and are NOT what most of us buy in the store.  Louisiana sweet potatoes have long been marketed as yams to differentiate them from the other choices on the market- but they are not real yams.

ANGLAISE – SIMPLY BOILED: Sometimes the simplest version is still the best.  Peeled and boiled white skin potatoes tossed in butter, salt, and parsley is hard to top.

POTATO SALAD – THE SUMMER TREAT:  When we think of summer foods it is impossible to talk about barbeque without mentioning the importance of potatoes (with or without skins) boiled, diced, and chilled, tossed in mayonnaise and sour cream, salt and pepper, fresh chives, maybe a few slices of robust radishes, scallions and celery, a touch of paprika and a cold beer or iced tea on the side.  This is a dish of July and August, one that is universally American.

FINGERLINGS WITH SOUR CREAM AND CAVIAR:  Chefs looking for that interesting finger food passed at hors d’oeuvre receptions – a food that will excite the palate and demonstrate the chef’s ability to create flavor explosions that can become a point of conversation among guests, will find this simple dish a perfect fit.  Boiled, chilled and split fingerling potatoes topped with a dollop of sour cream and a generous amount of quality caviar are such a surprise that guest will spend the evening in search of just one more.

THE MIGHTY POTATO CHIP:  Invented in Saratoga, New York as the Saratoga Chip by a cook: George Crum, who out of frustration over a customer who kept sending back his fried potatoes as too soggy.  As a reaction, Crum finally sliced the potatoes very thin and cooked them until they were hard, salted them generously and sent them out to the guest as a reaction to his complaints.  As it turned out – the guest loved them – the rest is history.  Today, nearly 1.5 billion pounds of potato chips (originally Saratoga Chips) are consumed in the US each year.

Potatoes are an integral part of world culture.  They appear, in many forms, in nearly every cuisine and serve as a source of nutrition and enjoyment.  To some like the Irish, they were salvation during famine, and others like the Incas and Aztecs – a tuber that had mystical properties.  For chefs – they are an all-year essential ingredient, but one to celebrate even more during harvest when they are tilled from the soil, washed, sorted, and prepared for chefs to work their magic.  Like any other ingredient from nature that has its season – this is the best time to hail this root vegetable and put yourself in SERVICE OF THE POTATO.

PLAN BETTER – TRAIN HARDER

Enjoy the potato harvest

Harvest America Ventures, LLC

Restaurant Consulting

www.harvestamericaventures.com  BLOG

CAFÉ Talks Podcast

https://cafemeetingplace.com/cafe-podcasts

HARVEST TIME

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Late summer and early fall are very exciting times for chefs.  Summer heat is winding down, the colors of autumn are beginning to highlight trees and plants, and gardens are presenting kitchens with some of the most dynamic fruits and vegetables to grace restaurant menus.  Over the next few weeks – Harvest America Cues will highlight five of those ingredients that offer robust flavor, loads of versatility, and a seasonal presence that can change the focus of a chef’s menu. 

We will take a deep dive into the world of tomatoes, potatoes, corn, apples, and root vegetables like parsnips, carrots, and beets.  Although best when harvested and used immediately, many of these fall gifts are able to store well either under refrigeration or canned for later use.  First up – the mighty tomato.

Growing up in the 50’s and 60’s the tomato was a fruit (yes, a fruit) that was easy to identify.  A tomato was round and somewhat red, off the vine, uniform, often mealy and typically tasteless.  I still loved tomatoes and found them to be a welcome addition to salads, burgers, and even part of those grilled cheese sandwiches with American slices (cheese food), layered between two slices of Wonder bread.  Those were the days before we “discovered “(re-discovered) great tomatoes, real cheese, and whole grain rustic breads.  Oh, how things have changed and how wonderful that transition has been.

It wasn’t until much later in life, still before I entertained a career in the kitchen, that I was exposed to the real thing.  I still remember that first fresh, ripe tomato picked from the farmer’s vine in the middle of July.  The sun had warmed the fruit that was nearly bursting with luscious seeds and drenched with moisture and flavor – flavor that I had not experienced before.  I took a bite of that warm tomato, just as I would from a fall apple and was amazed at the powerful flavor as the seeds dripped down my chin and the full intensity of Mother Nature’s gift was firmly entrenched in my sub-conscious.  Whoa, that was incredible!  From that point on, my absolute favorite summer sandwich was (and still is) a fresh, sun warmed tomato, sliced thick and sandwiched between two slices of wheat toast with ample amounts of mayonnaise, sprinkled with pepper and salt.  Just writing about it now makes me hungry.  Later, of course, I changed the bread to a rustic, crusty sourdough, that beefsteak tomato to an heirloom varietal like a dark Cherokee, sea salt, and fresh cracked pepper – and sometimes a handful of fresh basil leaves as well. 

The mighty tomato is an absolute thing of beauty and a gift from late summer harvest.  We now understand that there are hundreds, maybe thousands of heirloom varieties from the tiny grape and pear tomatoes to San Marzano (great for canning and sauce), to Brandywines, Ribbed varieties, and those incredible Cherokee’s.  From simple seeds nurtured in rich potting soil during the early spring, to robust plants with fruit that is too heavy to be held up to the sun without some support, the tomato comes to life from seed to bud, to green pearl, and with the right amount of care, water, and sunlight – grows to a fruit beyond compare.

As a chef, the tomato, if truly appreciated, can serve as a supporting character or a centerpiece on late summer menus.  For that window of time, a chef can push aside those somewhat tasteless, uniform tomatoes that have become a boring commodity, and feature the breadth of heirloom varieties that come from local farmers.  Wonderful tomato tarts with fresh ricotta and pignoli crust as an appetizer, the classic Caprese salad with tomato, fresh mozzarella or burrata, basil, virgin olive oil and aged balsamic; a truly fresh marinara made with fruit that was picked a day or two before; baked tomatoes as an entrée side, a Salsa Fresca to flavor those simple tortilla chips and guacamole, or sauteed grape tomatoes to add sharpness to ratatouille.  The options are only limited by the chef’s creativity.

Yes, it takes more effort, certainly the process of bringing these ingredients to your kitchen requires far more communication with farmers than it does to place an order with a large box vendor, but the benefits for the guest are worth the extra work.  When we work with Mother Nature and do our best to celebrate the seasonality of the ingredients that we work with, our menus sing, our cooks learn to take on the role of caretaker, and the guest is thrilled with the results. 

Hold a tomato in your hand and know the care and passion of the farmer, relish the work of the summer sun, enjoy the hard work of the soil that fed the plant, and know that our job as chefs and cooks is less about manipulation and far more about celebrating the flavors that we are given to work with.  Tomatoes deserve to be warmed by the sun, not chilled into submission.  Tomatoes have earned our respect and as such must be handled with care as a sign of respect for the farmer’s work.  Give tomatoes a chance to stand up as the leading character on your menu – give them their day in the spotlight; it will be 11 more months before you will have another opportunity.

For these few short weeks, we have a unique chance to participate in a seasonal ritual – a ritual of celebration just as important as that of the grape ready for harvest, the apple ready to drop from the tree, or corn at the peak of its sweetness.  This is the time to celebrate the tomato.

PLAN BETTER – TRAIN HARDER

Celebrate the Tomato

Harvest America Ventures, LLC

Restaurant Consulting

www.harvestamericacues.com  BLOG

CAFÉ Talks Podcast

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BEFORE THE DINING EXPERIENCE TRY THE KITCHEN EXPERIENCE

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The goal of every restaurant and every chef is to create memorable experiences for the guest.  Somewhere in our internal job description is a desire, and even a need to build an environment of WOW!  Wow visuals on the plate and in the dining room, wow views from every seat, wow service, and of course – wow flavors on the plate.  We may complain about the guest who is taking loads of pictures of their food and posting them on Instagram, but deep inside we get a bit of a rush when it happens.  Guests will return when the effort expended to create memorable complete dining experiences is front and center. 

What we seem to forget sometimes is that those memorable experiences are due to a collective effort of every person involved in creating a dining event.  That Instagram picture was possible because of the farmers, ranchers, fishermen, and vendors who brought the ingredients to your receiving dock.  Internally, the guest experience owes a great deal to the housekeeping staff, the dining room servers and managers, bartenders and sommelier, dishwashers, prep cooks, bakers and pastry chefs, line cooks, expeditor, sous chef, and chef who holds the lead position in the kitchen.  It is, and must be, a team effort.  So, what are we doing to create a memorable experience for this team?  Does this seem farfetched?  After all, these folks get paid to do their part in creating guest experiences – why in the world would we put any effort into creating the same for them?

The answer is obvious – if those involved directly or indirectly with your team feel the magic of your operation, feel it in the same way that the guest does, then they will perform better, look forward to their work, engage better with others on the team, and feel part of something special.  These team members will go out of their way for the guest because you do so for them.  Chefs, managers, and owners should live by a simple rule – “If you are not serving the guest directly then it is your job to serve those who are.”  Take care of your employees and vendors and they will take care of your paying customers.

Think about it for a moment:  If you create a positive experience with your vendors then they might just go the extra mile for you.  If you recognize the farmer, the rancher, and the fisherman, then they might be so inclined to set aside those extra special ingredients for your kitchen.  If you create an educational, supportive, uplifting, and inclusive environment for your staff from dishwasher to line cook, and server to sommelier then they will feel great about their job and in turn build those experiences for a guest – every guest.  So, here are a few thoughts on creating those behind-the-scenes experiences:

[]       FOR THE VENDOR: Give them a tour of your operation, introduce them to the staff and the ownership, put their name on your menu (if they do an excellent job), give them an opportunity to talk with your cooks about their ingredients, take your cooks to tour the vendor’s facilities, drop them a note on occasion thanking them for the quality products they deliver to your door, invite them to dinner once a year to see their ingredients on the finished plate.  Make them feel as if they are part of your mission – they are!

[]       FOR THE SERVICE STAFF: Training, teaching, and tasting are all part of the program.  They can’t sell a product that they don’t know.  Let them kick the tires and take the menu for a spin.  Put an apron on every server and let them shadow and help your cooks for a good part of a shift – you will be amazed how far this will go towards building understanding and appreciation on both sides of the kitchen doors.  Let them taste wines on your list and help to build an understanding of the process and the product.  Make it fun!

[]       FOR THE SOMMELIER AND BARTENDER: Food and beverage pairing is a fast road to customer satisfaction and a great way to maximize profit potential for the restaurant.  Part of the experience for the sommelier and bartender is to taste those pairings – yes, everything on the menu so they know how to do their job and at the same time build a deep appreciation for the talent of your cooks.

[]       FOR THE DINING ROOM MANAGER: Every dining room manager must work a few shifts in the kitchen.  This is essential as a team building process.  The manager is the conduit between the kitchen and the front of the house – help them to become better informed as an advocate for unity.    When the chef visits a vendor farm, tours a processing plant, takes a trip to a dockside fish monger – take the manager along.  The more they know about the extended team the more meaningful their job experience.

[]       FOR THE DISHWASHER: Now, we all know how important a conscientious dishwasher is to the operation of a restaurant.  If you are not sure, try going through a service without one.  Look at every dishwasher as your next cook in training.  Yep, even if they don’t seem to have any interest in it.  At the very least – you will help to build respect between cooks and dishwasher.  Let’s face it, dishwashing is rarely a career choice – show yours that there are opportunities to grow, to learn, to become something special.  Feed them well, treat them with respect, help them out when they are busy, make sure they get a break, and teach them about the cook’s skill set.  They will surprise you.

[]       FOR YOUR COOKS:  Every chef is only as good as his or her weakest cook.  It is your job to teach and train, to show some empathy, but be tough and have very high expectations of your cooks.  Teach them to be professional, to look sharp, to respect others, to be competent at their craft, to understand the history behind processes and specific dishes, to learn how to care for tools, to appreciate what things cost, to know the source of ingredients and how hard the farmer, rancher, and fisherman work to bring ingredients to their prep table.  Make sure they build a solid palate and appreciation for how food looks on the plate – help to MAKE THEM PROUD!  This is the experience that you owe them.

[]       FOR YOUR SOUS CHEF AND EXPEDITOR:  You would be lost without them, they are you just a few years ago so think back to that time.  What did you need, what was lacking in your training, how did you feel, what type of support or push did you need?  Be that resource for them.  Teach them to take your job!  Show them about budgets, and marketing, human resource management and inventory control, menu planning and recipe costing, and how to build their personal brand.  Be their experience.

[]       FOR YOURSELF:  Don’t neglect your own experience as a chef.  You worked hard to get here, now it is important to enjoy it.  Continue to push the owner to help you further develop skills and aptitudes that are important to the position.  Join organizations, compete, attend workshops and conferences, publish your recipes, travel, build your library, and seek every opportunity to build your brand and reputation among peers and guests.  This is your time – your personal experience too.

PLAN BETTER – TRAIN HARDER

Harvest America Ventures, LLC

Restaurant Consulting

www.harvestamericacues.com  BLOG

CAFÉ Talks Podcast

https://cafemeetingplace.com/cafe-podcasts

IT’S TIME FOR RESTAURANTS TO PLANT THE SEEDS AND HARVEST THE TALENT

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Identifying problems has never been a challenge in the restaurant industry – there are many.  Making the effort to solve those problems is another story.  We have a problem right now that seems to be universal and there is no shortage of complaints and posts on social media that proclaim the effects, but little is done to point to active solutions.  A good start would be to refrain from using the word “problem” since it seems to imply that solutions are mysterious and impossible and instead rely on “challenges” as the descriptor.  A small step, but one that signifies that if we put our heads together there is a way, or many ways, to move beyond, over, or around those challenges.

The other important point is to understand that state of mind is always a deterrent to solutions or a support mechanism for the same.  In other words if we see the challenge as insurmountable then it will be.  If we see the challenge as something that has an answer if we take the time to really push our problem-solving skills, then a solution will eventually present itself. 

Third, and maybe most important – it is essential to find the cause of a challenge before it can really be solved.  Far too often we invest our time in addressing the effects of a challenge rather than the source of the roadblocks that appear.   So, cause and effect differentiation are the most important tools in your problem-solver’s bag of tricks.

Let’s look for a moment at one of those problems (challenges) and apply these three steps:

  1. PROBLEM:  The restaurant industry, universally, is having an impossible time trying to find competent, committed individuals to work in all positions.  This is defined in articles from local newspapers to the New York Times, from industry magazines and websites to social media, and from industry blogs to podcasts by the dozens – everyone states the problem, points a finger, and portrays the issue as someone else’s doing.  So, first step – let’s refer to it as a challenge.  “There are fewer, and fewer individuals interested in a kitchen career and when we find employees to fill positions, they never seem to stay very long.  The CHALLENGE is how to turn this around?”  OK, so the charge is to recognize the issue and find a way to address it.
  2. STATE OF MIND:  Many are approaching this challenge as a roadblock to success, something that is preventing restaurants from finally getting their groove back and watching cash flow exceed the cost of doing business.  What is quite interesting is that we use the state of mind method in other situations to great success, yet when something seems either out of our wheelhouse of skills, or something that might require real change, then our mind puts it in the silo called: “Unsolvable”.  When a menu item fails to perform well, we simply change it out or modify its flavor profile; when our equipment is a hinderance to production we find a different tool to change the outcome; when a purveyor fails to provide the quality of ingredients that we require – we simply find another source.  Challenges solved. 

A different state of mind: “Our current methods of finding and retaining good employees doesn’t work, let’s find a solution to this challenge even if it means throwing out our normal approach and adopting something new.”  We can do this.

  • CAUSE and EFFECT:  The effects of a challenge are what keeps us up at night.  The effect changes our outcomes, puts stress of the system, forces us to adapt by using a band aid approach, or give up and succumb to the pain that the effect inflicts.  So, restaurants close a few days a week, accept the provision of mediocre service, change their menus without ample thought, and try to get by with reduced cash flow and fewer opportunities for profit. 

So, what might the cause be?  Ask “why” several times until you get to the root of the issue and then develop a way to attack that cause.

Fewer people are expressing an interest in restaurant work, and in fact many previous employees (pre-pandemic) are choosing not to return now that restaurants are re-opening.  Possible causes:

– People have heard how demanding and unforgiving the business can be

– Pay scales are significantly lower than other industries

– Quality of life for career restaurant employees is not that desirable

Why is this the case?  Menu item profit margins are typically low, making it difficult for restaurants to find the reserves to pay better wages – why?  Restaurant waste nips away at profitability – why?  The unpredictable nature of customer buying habits pushes restaurants to maintain inventories that exceed what is reasonable – why?  The work in restaurants requires many hands so, unlike other industries that have much better productivity rates, the restaurant industry is crippled by high labor costs – why?  It is impossible to find and retain employees who are capable and willing to dedicate themselves to the operation – why?  These issues are real and need to be addressed, but are they the primary cause of the stated labor challenge?  There are loads of opportunities to make corrections – where do we start?  Let’s take one possible cause that is not on everyone’s radar: nurturing real interest in a restaurant career early on.

For a few decades we (the restaurant industry) relied on the media to push the hype about the glory of working in restaurants.  This was evident in news articles, books, television, movies, and blog posts, and a 24/7 food network.  College admissions departments had an easy time of it – make sure a program has plenty of shiny new equipment, beautiful pictures of show quality food, campus restaurants staffed with more student workers than customers, and medals hanging around the necks of chef instructors.  Lots of sizzle, plenty of wow factor.   Thousands of students who loved the idea of creating Instagram quality photos and little if any experience working in a restaurant before the “big decision” clamored to programs across the country.  It was an easy sell.  Enter reality – it’s really hard work that requires more commitment than many other businesses, and early in a graduate’s career will not provide the type of compensation that equates to payback value.

It’s time to be real with young people and start talking about the business (there are way more positives than negatives) well before they are faced with a college decision.  The future of the restaurant industry lies with those 16 and 17-year old’s looking for a part-time job or summer employment.  This is when they can get a feel for the industry – the way it is and the way it can be.  This is a role for restaurants and a way to draw people in a way to promote the skill, team environment, organization, creativity, and business acumen that is needed to be successful and have a rewarding career.  True – this will not help restaurants today, but we need to get beyond crisis management and start to think long term.  Today we are faced with putting fires out, let’s plan to prevent them in the future.  It’s time to be proactive with building a career mindset and changing the negative perceptions and the misinformation that has been propagated about an important industry that is integral to the American way of life.

We can’t fix everything at once, but we can take one step at a time and begin with truthfulness.

PLAN BETTER – TRAIN HARDER

Harvest America Ventures, LLC

www.harvestamericacues.com  BLOG

CAFÉ Talks Podcast

https://cafemeetingplace.com/cafe-podcasts

HE COOKS REAL GOOD – FOR FREE

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I just finished listening to the latest album from David Crosby – I loved it from the first verse.  Crosby, even at his ripe old age, is a master of lyrical compositions and tonal interpretations of feelings that accompany such prose.  He hasn’t lost a beat in this regard – soulful, melodic, and entrancing.  The title track is a composition written by one of his older love interests and an inspirational writer and songstress in her own right – Joni Mitchel.  He Plays Real Good for Free offers not so subtle advice to her contemporaries in the music business – think about why you became a musician.

Food for thought – the same can be true for all of us who spend a good portion of our lives in professional kitchens.  Mitchell’s verse is not meant (from my perspective) to chastise musicians for accepting pay and accolades for their work – they earn it and are entitled to what comes their way.  But it does point to those who get so wrapped up in what is owed to them for the art that they offer that they lose sight of the joy and privilege that comes from mastering their craft and enjoying what really counts.  In the case of a musician, it might be a listener who becomes nostalgic about a song, melancholy because the music makes them “feel”, responds to the beat and drives them to move or dance, or brings a smile when those listeners chime in and sing along.  Cooks and chefs know that the greatest satisfaction comes from cooking for family, friends, neighbors, or grateful strangers.  To watch that level of enjoyment that comes from food that is beautiful to look at, smells heavenly, stimulates the sense of taste, and brings people together through a common bond and appreciation of good cooking is so gratifying.  This is where we all began, and time and again this is what we relish – the chance to make people happy through the craft of cooking.  Salary, notoriety, personal brand building and profit can never compare to the satisfaction that comes from making people happy, giving them a reason to pause and savor a plate of food.  Music and food should bring joy to those who make it and those who consume it. 

Yesterday, today, and tomorrow

A knife, a cutting board, a pan

I slice, chop and dice

Cook for you is my true vice

Mother Nature provides so many tools

Our role is to treat them with respect

To give thanks for the farmer, the rancher, the fisherman too

Working with these tools is what we do

To hold a carrot, a potato, a tomato in our hands

To scale a fish, truss a chicken, or French a rack of lamb

Saying grace in the presence of such gifts

Lifts our spirits and gives us purpose

To trim, slice, mince, and dice

To tourne, to caramelize, to sear and roast

This is the craft that others toast

I cook for you, it’s what I do

My hands, my heart, and my soul

Giving joy is always my goal

Breaking bread, listening to what is said

We raise a glass to celebrate

Life’s gift of food and all that it means

The smells, textures, tastes and sound

Of cooking for you is so profound

It gives us meaning, a purpose in life

It gives us joy, it sets aside our strife

The flavors marry in the hands of one

Who knows the craft, who does it for fun

To some it’s a job, a means to an end

A way to get by, to this I send

A message of angst, of a need for more

A way to get by, this is the lore

My hands are rough, my back is sore

It’s a job, a means to an end – no more

I cook for you, it’s what I do

My hands, my heart, and my soul

Giving joy is always my goal

Breaking bread, listening to what is said

We raise a glass to celebrate

Life’s gift of food and all that it means

We started out giving joy to some

A way to communicate

A skill that allowed

You and me to control the way

That people express some joy today

The smells, the textures, the flavors were fine

This was unique, this skill of mine

We need to survive, to pay the bills

Recognition is important of what we do

Fair pay, a pat on the back, a good review

Boosts us up and gives us pride

But in the end let’s push that aside

Remember why we started

Remember the feeling of being complete

When others said thanks with their eyes

For the food on their plate

It may not pay the bills, but it is so true

This feeling of giving is what we do

I cook for you, it’s what I do

My hands, my heart, and my soul

Giving joy is always my goal

Breaking bread, listening to what is said

We raise a glass to celebrate

Life’s gift of food and all that it means

DAVID CROSBY:  For Free

PLAN BETTER – TRAIN HARDER

Harvest America Ventures, LLC

Restaurant Consulting

www.harvestamericacues.com  BLOG

CAFÉ Talks Podcast

https://cafemeetingplace.com/cafe-podcasts

THIS IS NOT THE TIME TO DISAPPOINT

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Yes, I get it.  It has all been about survival for restaurants over the past 16 months and survival has not been easy.  Now, providing we don’t ignore the still looming dangers of Covid and the challenges of convincing 40% of the population to accept the vaccine, we might stand a chance of long-term recovery.  Hope springs eternal. 

Staffing is a bear – I know it.  I hear it from every single restaurant operator I know and even many more that I don’t – there is an acute shortage of staff. There isn’t a simple answer to this challenge, but we know that it will require a shift in how restaurants operate.  In the meantime – here we are.  Restaurants are open, and customers who have been prisoners of the pandemic are anxiously coming out of their shells and flooding to restaurants that are ill equipped to deal with the surge.  Back to survival mode – let’s just get through it.  Is this the answer?

What we can’t afford to do is allow missteps simply because we don’t have an answer to the staffing challenge.  There have been numerous articles from restaurateurs asking customers to “give us a break, be patient, we’re trying our best, it’s not our fault that the food isn’t quite right, that the service is painfully slow, that servers are not well trained, or we just seem to be disorganized.”  There is an underlying problem with this approach that tries to proclaim innocence – we cannot afford to disappoint.

One interesting thing occurred during the pandemic shutdown – people found ways to adjust.  They were forced to slow down and stay away from the typical hustle and bustle of American life.  They were at home, and they re-learned how to cook.  They opened those cookbooks on the shelf, dusted them off, and started to try new recipes, to be more creative with food, to bake and break bread around a dinner table again.  Companies like King Arthur Flour couldn’t keep up with the demand for flour and even their baking equipment.  Cookbook sales on Amazon spiked and grocery stores were challenged to keep food on their shelves.  Wholesale distributors began to ship or deliver directly to homes to compensate for minimal restaurant sales and liquor stores were deemed “essential” as people began to make their own cocktails to help forget about their isolation.  The average person may have missed going out to restaurants, but they began to realize that they didn’t really need to spend their money in cafés and bistros when they could cook well at home.

So, we are open, and customers are flocking to the restaurants that they missed only to find, in some cases, that the experience wasn’t what they anticipated.  The food didn’t seem as exciting or well-prepared, the server was less familiar with the menu than they had expected, their orders took forever, the ambience of the dining room seemed a bit off, staff seemed stressed and disconnected, prices were way too high, and many people were still nervous about being in a public place without a mask.  Suddenly, there are comparisons to eating at home.  “We can cook better than this, we are happy to be in each other’s company, we feel safe at home, that second glass of wine didn’t cost $12 (the price of a bottle in the store), and we are not looking at a bill for $100 plus tip that could have been enough for a few days groceries at home.  Hmmm..we have a problem Houston.

As challenged as restaurants are right now, there must be an all-out effort to demonstrate value and to provide a positive experience.  This is a potential breaking point for the restaurant industry.  The effort that is made right now to right the ship will define how this very important industry moves forward and how it steps back into its status as “essential” to the American experience.

This is not the time to push aside the importance of training because you are too busy.  This is not the time to turn away from quality standards from your kitchen and ignore inconsistencies in food.  This is not the time cut corners on cleaning and polishing, on uniforms and professional appearances and concentrating on the details. 

This is the time to take that deep breath and figure things out.  Start with the desired experience and value statement and work backward.  Given the current staffing environment – how do we meet those expectations?  In a previous article I talked about the importance of solid menu management right now – this is one possible solution, but it is not the only means to an end. https://harvestamericacues.com/2021/07/04/chefs-menus-for-2021-and-beyond/

 Restaurants must invest the time in training.  Training will demonstrate to employees that they are important and that you are willing to invest in them.  Training will help to build their competence and confidence.  Training will help to make them able to problem solve and make the right decisions pertaining to the customer experience. 

Don’t forget the small stuff – the small stuff is what separates the dining out experience from a meal at home.  The small stuff is what adds value to the guest experience.  The small stuff includes everything from polishing tables and making sure they are level to fresh cut flowers on the table, sparkling clean glassware and silverware, pressed uniforms and professional signage, the right background music, consistent plate presentations that are vibrant and appetizing, swept parking lots and friendly greetings when the guest arrives, It’s menus that are clean and sharp and it’s knowledgeable recommendations from a service staff who are well trained and versed on what the cooks are doing in the kitchen.  It’s the small stuff, the details that make the experience worth the money spent.  This is what will bring guests enthusiastically back to your dining room.

You may need to limit the days that you are open, the hours of service, or even remove some of the tables in your dining room to help alleviate the stress of limited staff.  You may need to cut down on the size of the menu for now until everything levels off (and hopefully It will at some point), and you will need to find a way to work with fewer employees who are paid much better than they were before.  It will be a buffet of answers that will allow restaurants to re-establish their importance and regain a level of profitability.  But failure to move forward without the experience and value formula in mind will only drive people away and reinforce an understanding that dining out is no longer necessary.  We don’t want to go down that road.

PLAN BETTER – TRAIN HARDER

Help to keep the experience of dining – alive and well.

Harvest America Ventures, LLC

www.harvestamericacues.com  BLOG

CAFÉ Talks Podcast

https://cafemeetingplace.com/cafe-podcasts

THE CHEF’S EMOTIONS

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Let’s face it – we are prisoners of our own emotional package.  Some of these emotions are visible and some are not; some are more pronounced in certain individuals, and some are barely noticeable in others, but the fact remains that our emotional package can be, and in many cases is: in control.

Chefs, for some reason have a history of wearing their emotions on their sleeves, but I would dare to say that even in the case of the most visible emotional chef there is much that is hidden under the surface.  Sometimes, maybe most times, chefs try to keep certain emotions under wraps, hide them so that others will not perceive the chef as weak or vulnerable.  At the same time, chefs tend to put more energy into the emotions that they believe will demonstrate strength or power over others.  To this end, emotions that we try to control are dangerous and misleading.

It seems that there are just as many theories about what emotions may be part of our physical and mental make-up as there are days in the month, but most who are knowledgeable would agree on six primary emotions:  Sadness, Happiness, Fear, Anger, Surprise, and Disgust.  What seems a little grey is the emotional triggers behind each of these.   Sadness and Happiness as an example are effects of a deeper set of causes.  What is clear is that each of these six can be observed in ourselves and others.  We can see when a person is sad, happy, angry, afraid, surprised, or disgusted.

Those underlying emotions that lead to the six are the ones that many people, chefs, try to hide. 

So, why is it important to look at and talk about these underlying emotions?  Simply put – if we can understand what is driving the six, then we might be able to understand, work with, and even help chefs deal with the complexity of their job and thus nurture a more productive and “user-friendly” work environment.

As an example, A chef’s ANGER or SADNESS may be a result of anxiety, confusion, or awkwardness that are ever-present in a chef’s life.  Anxiety over the complexity of required job outcomes that include product quality, timing and efficiency, financial performance, personal brand control, dependance on others, etc.  Anger over a realization that a kitchen did not meet expectations can often be associated with a realization that the chef failed to properly train or communicate.  Lashing out can be a result of not knowing how to admit his or her own shortcomings – anger with oneself turns into pointing the finger at others.  So that roller coaster emotional ride that is associated with many chefs is not necessarily who they are, but rather the challenges of the tasks that are before them.  Any way that an operator, or co-workers might help to relieve some of these pressures could result in a much better emotional outcome.  So, if cooks were fully cognizant of how they impact the cost of operation through minimal waste, portion control, and other efficiencies will help to change the dynamic of anger or sadness that is observed in the chef. 

Now, of course, it is part of the chef’s job to train cooks to be conscientious about costs, but you get the general idea.  It’s never as simple as saying: the chef is a jerk who can’t control his or her temper: cause and effect.

If you can assume for one moment that most individuals want to be happy, want to be free of fear, and abhor losing their tempers then it could be time to look into a chef’s eyes and seek out the connections to emotions that are kept below the surface.  When a person is allowed to bring these emotions to the surface then the results can be very positive.  When a chef is shown that expression of these emotions is not a sign of weakness, but rather a sign of strength and a connection to others, then a dramatic change in personality might be the result.

EXCITEMENT in the chef’s success or others who work in the kitchen is natural – celebrate it.  ADMIRATION of others who have demonstrated a high level of proficiency or who are stellar examples of humanity is an emotion to be fed.  Admiration of others does not signal that the chef is inferior to them, it shows that they recognize what “is” and feed their own soul with the promise of using this as a benchmark for their own performance.

EMPATHIC PAIN and SYMPATHY – feeling another person’s failures or loss, challenges and physical pain is an essential strength of a true leader.  EMPATHY and SYMPATHY lead to followership – a necessary component of leadership.  It’s OK to feel another’s pain. 

NOSTALGIA is an underlying emotion that points to lessons learned, those who helped us along our way, reflections on past pain and how we recovered, and memories that helped to build us into the person we are today.  Warm thoughts about our past are a sign that we care and that we learn – nostalgia is an essential part of being human – feed it.

The human mind and spirit are an emotional powder keg – a formula for success or failure.  Leaders, if they are to be effective, must try to understand the emotional cocktail that each employee and co-worker drinks, daily, and every follower has a role to play in trying to understand what the chef carries on his or her shoulders.  The functioning of a successful team can only be realized when these emotions are understood and embraced.

PLAN BETTER – TRAIN HARDER

Harvest America Ventures, LLC

Restaurant Consulting

www.harvestamericacues.com  BLOG

CAFÉ Talks Podcast

https://cafemeetingplace.com/cafe-podcasts

THE RETURN OF THE LINE COOK

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Look around – they’re slowly, but surely coming back.  You know – the individuals who found their mission as a cook – they have been tucked away since March of 2020 waiting for an opportunity to open that knife roll bag, draw their essential tools across that water stone and hone the edges on a steel and counting the days when they could once again find the rhythm of the line.  They may have insinuated that they wouldn’t return, but let’s face it – working in kitchens, with all its rough edges, is invigorating and fulfilling.  These warriors of the kitchen remember the heat, the aching muscles from standing on their feet for a 12-hour shift, the pressure of timing, the polished hands from grabbing too many scorching hot pans, and the staccato sounds of the POS printer ticking off countless orders.

Yep, I get the reflection time that was the hallmark of the pandemic shutdown, those moments when every cook and chef took inventory and wondered why it is that they work under adverse conditions, invest way too many hours, and do so for wages that never compete with other professional careers.  I know that there are plenty of reasons why it would make sense to walk away and find something, anything different to do for a career, but a day or two back on the line, back to creating beautiful, delicious food, back to working with a team in total sync, and back to the adrenaline rush of a full board of dupes and plates sliding in the pass – and you are hooked again.

Of course, you will feel the pain once again, the aching back and throbbing feet, the sweat running down your back, and the sting from an occasional burn or finger nick from that extra sharp knife – but then again, there is that feeling of accomplishment, the ability to push yourself to get better, faster, more proficient, and totally tight as a team member that brings you back day after day.  Do you really want to give this up?

If any line cook really wants to become a property chef – they can, in time, with dedication, with a commitment to learn, and with the patience and resilience that is necessary to build a skill set and the aptitude that must accompany a future chef.  You can do it, and deep inside you know it.  Find people to learn from, attached yourself to a culinary mentor, study, and practice, learn from your mistakes, go the extra mile, and build a methodical plan to move from line cook to sous chef, to working chef, and on to the executive position in a volume, high quality operation.  It can be done.  This is a career that affords anyone the opportunity to define their destiny, to work at it and move forward.

Look around – there are plenty of chefs in the making – they are the cooks who after wrestling with those questions” “should I return to the kitchen or not”, said: “of course – I must”.  Are you one of these cooks, or did you hang up your apron for the last time?   Is that knife roll collecting dust and the experiences that you had only exaggerated stories now?  How long before you miss those stories, miss the energy, or miss the creativity?

If you decided to hang it up and you are fine with moving on – more power to you.  Find your passion, look for your destiny, be happy and fulfilled – this is what life is all about.  If you were pulled back in by the magnetic field of the kitchen – then make a commitment to move forward.  Don’t delay – say “I will” today! 

The smells of the kitchen are intoxicating.  Bacon lardons rendering in a pan, fresh bread cooling on a rack, that thin crust pizza with fresh mozzarella and basil being peeled from a woodfired oven, shellfish sauteed in lemon butter, fresh rosemary lending its perfume to a roast, garlic and onions simmering till they are golden brown and sweet from reduction and caramelization, or a Black Angus steak dripping through the grates of a chargrill – adding fuel to the fire and sealing in the goodness of that incredible cut of meat.  This is what welcomes a cook every day throughout his or her shift.  The feel of a perfectly balanced chef knife in your hand – the blade that is honed to the sharpness of a razor blade is a tool that feels like an extension of your hand.  The rapid-fire sound of cooks who are in complete control of this knife cutting piles of perfect dice, brunoise, julienne, and chiffonade.  How do you feel when that plate is assembled as it should – perfect balance of color, texture, height, and marriage?  When the sauce is the final touch just before a cluster of appropriate herbs that tie the plate together – you know that you have just painted another masterpiece – one that a guest will take a picture of and share with the world – one that they will remember and tell their friends about.  HOW COOL IS THAT????

As you step back into that kitchen you remember what it was like to look to your left and look to your right and know that you can trust those individuals at their stations to work just as hard, care just as much, and dedicate themselves to playing their role in making sure that the collective work of the team is memorable.  If you could have someone video tape the work of this team and put it to music, it would be a symphony, an intriguing interplay of artists working individually and collectively at the same time – a work of art.  You remember this now – don’t you?

The orders start to arrive as the team acknowledges they are ready.  Mise is tight, everyone knows what needs to be done, pans are lined up, plates are stacked, side towels are folded and the expeditor calls everyone out – “are we ready?”  Ordering, order fire, pick up, refire, give me an all day, yes chef!  This is the language of the line and for the next four hours the commands and responses will come in relentlessly.  The energy will peak around 7 pm when the board is full, and everyone is in the zone – it is a point of time when things can go either way – towards excellence or over the cliff.  This is where you thrive, this is what you live for, this is where great cooks are made.  You make it through, the adrenaline stays full bore, the orders start to dwindle, a smile comes to your face, and you nod to your teammates, give a few high fives, and start to plan for tomorrow.  You have missed this, you know you are good at what you do, and you are able to look in a mirror and say – “this is what I was meant to do.”

So, for those who return to the kitchen – start today to solidify your future where the responsibility and authority coalesce, where the pay begins to match the skill, where you are more in control of what you invest in time and effort, where your talent is recognized, and where every day you will have a chance to help mold the future of another young cook – a place where you began.

PLAN BETTER – TRAIN HARDER

Harvest America Ventures, LLC

Restaurant Consulting

www.harvestamericacues.com  BLOG

CAFÉ Talks Podcast

https://cafemeetingplace.com/cafe-podcasts

THE AGE OF RESTAURANT FREE-AGENCY

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Well, I suppose desperate times call for desperate measures.  If there is stability in the restaurant business – I’m not quite sure where it is.  With a real need to try and make-up for a lost year and an overnight demand for dining out – restaurants are faced with a new pressing issue: where do we find the staff and how do we keep them?   When demand exceeds supply in any situation – businesses know that prices inevitably go up.  The strong survive and the weak shall perish.

So, the reaction now is to pay whatever is needed for staff positions in your local restaurant.  This knee-jerk reaction is true with positions from dishwasher to chef, and server to manager.  Restaurants are panicked with a need to operate at a high level with bare bones staffing – oftentimes with underqualified individuals.  “We need to fill schedules or reduce hours of operation and cut back on services.”  Those empty tables in restaurants are now a result of inadequate staffing rather than fewer than needed customers.  How many of your local restaurants are down to five-day weeks out of necessity?

So, here we are – the battle lines are drawn and as challenging as competition has been in the past – it is now becoming brutal.  Forget about local restaurants working together to try and find solutions – it is becoming every man for himself.  The unwritten agreement for many had been to never actively pirate good employees from a neighbor, but it seems as if that is out the window.  Survival instinct is a funny thing – it over-rides everything else.  It is human nature to pull out all the stops when it comes to taking your next breath – the same applies to business.

Necessity has driven a stake in the heart of “we’re all in this together” and replaced it with do or die.  It can be seen in every community, every town and city, and every state from New York to California – restaurants are throwing money at decent staff members to lure them over to their team.  A local business (with a high-profile clientele) is offering upwards of $60,000 a year for line positions that previously paid less than half of that.  No one can blame a line employee for jumping at the offer and waving goodbye to their current employer – it would be foolish to turn that down.  This is the exact same scenario that led professional sports to adopt free-agency and allow players to jump from team to team and the highest bidder.  It is suddenly a seller’s market for restaurant employees and as such restaurants find themselves in a bidding war.

Now, these same restaurants realize that their most important asset (great employees) is always in the market for something better.  Once this reality hits home then restaurants will be less likely to try something new and invest in an employee’s creativity and ideas.  If there is always fear that they may be here today and gone tomorrow, then the restaurant cannot afford to give the employee this kind of latitude.  Investing in training will also fall by the wayside as it is viewed as a wasted investment of time and money.

I remember throughout my career the line that local businesses tried not to cross: “thou shall not pirate a competitor’s employees.”  Now this might seem unfair to the average employee who has a need to look out for his or her own interests and find an employer who values what they bring to the table but hear me out when I say – this is a slippery slope.

First, and maybe most important from a business perspective:  THIS IS NOT A SUSTAINABLE PRACTICE.  Certainly, we all know that many restaurant employees are under-valued and poorly paid.  This is a challenge that must be faced and corrected, but it does not mean that “whatever is needed is right”, will work.  Right now, restaurants are trying desperately to survive and get through the day.  Hopefully, they can meet the demand and find their way to profitability, but right now it’s all about survival.  Being pushed into survival tactics rarely yields the best long-term solutions.  When businesses REACT rather than think things through and ACT from a point of understanding and planning then they will ultimately find a need to correct what they did.  When things settle down, when restaurant owners take a deep breath, when accountants look at the financial statement for the month, and when customers have had their fill of making up for lost time – then what?  How long before that $18 per hour dishwasher or $30 per hour line cook no longer makes sense?

When that time comes, I am not happy to tell you that those higher paid positions will be rejected by ownership, when staffing positions will be cut to help stop the financial bleeding, and suddenly those golden horse positions that seemed too good to be true will be just that.  Maybe even more important – the relationship between competing restaurants, between managers of those operations, and between chefs from property to property will be doused in anger, disrespect, lack of trust, and an eye for an eye mantra.

So, for the restaurateur here are my thoughts to consider:

[]          Think this through.  Do you really want to alienate your competitors?

[]          Know that once you start a bidding war for employees – someone will always be willing to outbid you.

[]          Do you really want employees to work for you just because you offered them more money than another restaurant?  Wouldn’t you rather have them choose you because your operation is one that they can align with and respect?

[]          How long can you afford to pay wages that are not in line with what your business requires?

[]          Those who currently have great employees – make sure you give them a forum to offer their ideas and express their concerns.  Determine what you can afford to pay them and discuss that with each employee.  Make sure that you celebrate the culture and the teams that you have created – people want to work where they feel part of something bigger than themselves and where it is apparent that they make a difference.

[]          Don’t become angry when a great employee leaves for a better offer.  Tell them how you feel and how they will be missed, make as good a counteroffer as you can, and then stay in touch with them after they leave.  Who knows – they might be back once they see what they have left and what they are faced with.

For the employee seeking the best opportunity and the most lucrative offer:

[]          Money is important, and you should always seek to find an employer who recognizes your worth but know that “too good to be true” has a short lifespan and you may find that the opportunity disappears sooner than you expect.

[]          Just because an employer pays higher than expected wages does not mean that they will be great to work for.  Check out the work culture before you are swept up in the excitement of the offer.

[]          Don’t burn any bridges.  Give plenty of notice, keep an open mind to any counteroffer, and don’t leave a good employer hanging in the middle of peak business or without any prospect for a replacement.   They invested in you, and you should always recognize this.

I hope that we see our way through this time and remember that we are part of a business that shares common challenges.  Free-agency continues to break up the most promising organizations from professional sports to colleges, tech companies, and not-for-profits.  Let’s try to avoid going down that path.

PLAN BETTER – TRAIN HARDER

Harvest America Ventures, LLC

Restaurant Consulting

www.harvestamericacues.com  BLOG

CAFÉ Talks Podcast

https://cafemeetingplace.com/cafe-podcasts

CHEFS – MENUS FOR 2021 AND BEYOND

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By now, everyone is aware that there are enormous challenges with the supply chain – brought on by the pandemic and post pandemic rush to return to normal.  It is another perfect storm of realities that seem to have brought this about:  scaling down of production from the farmer, rancher and fisherman during the time when American restaurants were shut down, interrupting the cycle of growth and production as a result, a dramatic re-opening of said restaurants without time to gradually scale up to meet demand, a significant short fall in staff for a plethora of reasons that warrant a separate study (this includes farm workers, meat cutters, warehouse employees, commercial fishermen, and truck drivers), and a scary change in the attitude of hospitality workers who are not inclined to return to the industry that failed to listen to many of their concerns.  So, here we are facing overnight demand (it’s like everyone turned on the open switch at the same time) that exceeds supply and our ability to deliver.

Prices of raw materials and labor, of course, have gone through the roof and there is no end in sight.  Beef, poultry, pork, seafood of all types, fresh produce, dairy products, and paper supplies are, in some cases, double what they were a year ago!  On top of this – restaurants are offering wages that were unheard of pre-pandemic and still employees are not inclined to return to kitchens and dining rooms.  There is obviously a need for some type of systemic change, but no one seems to know exactly what that might be at this time. 

How does a chef or restaurateur approach the challenges of a public that wants to return to restaurants that are unable to meet the rapid growth in demand and a supply chain that is making it nearly impossible to get the ingredients they need and afford the ones that are available?   The quick fix may just be a dramatic change in how we plan and present our menus.  This may be something that will self-correct in a few months, or it could very well be the way that we operate from this point on.  The important reality is that we MUST MAKE CHANGES NOW!

CHANGE #1:

The days of the fixed menu for restaurants should come to a halt.  Without a clear understanding of where ingredient costs are going tomorrow and next month restaurants cannot afford to be shackled to a menu that is out of control.

It may make sense for restaurants to switch directions and move towards a fluid menu that relies on a style of cooking rather than fixed, specific menu items.  Chefs may very well need to plan menus that change every week or two, or in some cases even daily based on availability and price.  This will, of course, make it far more challenging to control quality and consistency, but with a movement towards on-going training and quality assurance – it can be done.

Forget the beautiful menus printed by a local craftsperson or laminated to build in easy re-use; if you are not already printing menus in-house then it is time to invest in some software and a quality printer for your office.

CHANGE #2:

Prices will also be fluid because they MUST reflect a restaurants ability to maintain its margins.  So weekly menus and appropriate changes to pricing will need to tie in with solid menu planning and purchasing that allows a pricing structure to stay within a range that your guests are accustomed to.

CHANGE #3:

It may also mean that certain menu staples that everyone accepts as “always present” need to be pushed aside for the time being.  A menu that depends on limited supply, higher end ingredients may need to look to a different model.  Less beef and more chicken, fewer shellfish items and standards like cod, haddock, sole, or halibut may need to lean more towards farmed fish or less popular species.  There are also even more reasons to work with local farmers, at least in-season, to find the produce you need to execute a fluid menu. 

CHANGE #4:

Big menus are far too difficult to manage at a time when the supply chain is challenged, prices are not stable, and the labor market is stretched.  Smaller menus with changing content are the way to go.  Instead of eight appetizers – look to three or four.  Rather than a dozen or so entrée choices – rely on six or even less.  Make sure that everything is focused on hitting your essential categories so that most guests can find something they like.

CHANGE #5:

Changing a restaurants dependance on large kitchen teams or a full cadre of servers is something that will be very challenging, but necessary.  Since these employees are simply not available, restaurants will need to find ways to do more with fewer hands and not rely as much on a high level of talent to do so.  This means that the menu will become the key to success.  Setting up systems for the pre-production, preparation, finishing and plating of beautiful and delicious food that can be executed consistently and quickly will be the way to go. 

CHANGE #6:

Create excitement over “what’s next”.  People are certainly creatures of habit and ambassadors for the familiar.  This is one of the reasons why so many menus remain the same for years or even decades.  Knowing that an item that you like will always be there is comforting and let’s face it – people don’t really like change.  Unfortunately, it is change that will allow the restaurant of today and tomorrow to thrive.  For this to be effective it is necessary for chefs and restaurants to build excitement for what makes the average guest uncomfortable.  Trust becomes the most essential ingredient in the chef’s repertoire.  “Don’t disappoint” is the key objective in building a fluid menu.  The minute that a guest finds disappointment in a menu selection is the moment you lose their trust and likely their return business. 

Chefs need to understand their customers even better than before.  Menu items need to reflect protection of this trust even more than the desires of the chef to create something that suits his or her need to be expressive.  One thought might be to take a lesson from some creative wine lists that I have seen where the chef states: “If you liked (a popular item from the past on a restaurant menu) then you will love (a new item being offered).  Now keep in mind that this means that the chef is offering a quiet guarantee – but one that feeds off that “trust” that is so important.

CHANGE #7:

Finally, this is the perfect time for the chef or the restaurateur to be even more visible to the guest than ever before.  Stand up for your menu, put yourself front and center, talk with the guests, read their reactions, pay attention, answer questions, encourage stepping out of comfort zones, and making adjustments where needed – in the moment.  Impatience, confusion, indecision, and uncomfortableness can be addressed directly avoiding disappointment and late-night angry comments on Trip Advisor.

Remember – desperate times call for desperate action (not reaction).

PLAN BETTER – TRAIN HARDER

Harvest America Ventures, LLC

Restaurant Consulting

www.harvestamericacues.com  BLOG

CAFÉ Talks Podcast

https://cafemeetingplace.com/cafe-podcasts

COOKS AND CHEFS – WHERE DO WE FIT?

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Maybe this is simply way out there and not of interest to anyone but me, but here it goes.  Where do we fit in the big scheme of things?  Seriously – have you ever given thought to this question?  Look around you at the incredible intelligence, innovation, talent, and skill of engineers, mathematicians, scientists, physicians, musicians, artists, economists, product designers, mechanics, theorists, and physicists and their discoveries and inventions.  How can we compare in the big scheme of things?  These individuals started out the same way they we did – just a fairly blank slate with a hunger for life and a thirst to learn.  How did they wind up moving in the direction they did, and we stepped into the realm of the kitchen?

Is it the lifelong pursuit of answers that drives so many to jump into one discipline vs. another or are we destined to windup where we are anyway?  What determines the path that we will take and what fuel feeds the desire to be a world changing scientist who discovers the way to build a vaccine for Covid or learns how to properly braise a lamb shank? Ah – that preverbal fork in the road, that early decision to turn left or right, that fateful event that either inspired us or forced us to choose – interesting.

There are many things that boggle the mind, that are so hard to grasp that we simply put them aside and either ignore them or accept them.  How can someone be so intelligent that they are able to comprehend, let alone work with the Higgs Boson “God particle “(the basis for structure of all matter) that is so small, yet so powerful that mankind had to develop the CERN Hadron Collider particle accelerator in France and Switzerland with miles of round perimeter tunnels that accelerate atomic particles to the speed of light and then crash them together to study the concept and to even think about recognizing that it even exists?

The CERN Hadron Collider:

 How can a person be so knowledgeable and so skillful as to repair the value in a human heart or so talented as to compose a musical piece for a symphonic orchestra of nearly 100 different musicians in their mind before it is put to paper?  Yet many, just like you and me are most concerned with the proper plating technique of a classic dish first developed by Escoffier.  How can we all start out basically the same and move in such different directions and is there any equality in importance?

Plating Technique:

Yes, I think about this stuff and sometimes I am able to put the thoughts aside when it turns from question to headache – but other times it keeps me up at night.  The underlying question seems to always be: “Did I choose the right path and was it my choice anyway?”   Compare and contrast is human nature – we do this from our earliest days of existence.  So and so has something that I don’t have, or he or she receives recognition, and I did not – it is the basis for many disagreements, misunderstandings, anxieties, fights, class structures, and wars.  Does it all begin with that fork in the road?

Obviously, the environment that we are born into has a bearing on our decisions.  Without a doubt there are socio-economic factors that determine whether you turn left or right, and the influence of family and friends cannot be denied.  There is no question that some people are born with a more complex gray matter network sitting on their shoulders, and I guess we can argue that there is such a thing as born talent.  Yet, we come into this world with free will and if you consider how, we start out as a blank slate with a desire to learn and reach a level of independence – we do still have a choice.  Those born with all the trappings of wealth, those who come from caring families, and those who have parents with a commitment to education will have a certain amount of advantage, but there are ample examples of babies born without any of this who choose to take a road that leads to exceptionalism and contribution.  But, why cooking and once that decision is made – how does one reconcile the importance of that decision?

A few realities seem to hold up:

  • MANY HUMANS ARE TACTILE LEARNERS:  Cooking is very much a tactile skill with an end product that can be admired and consumed.
  • MANY PEOPLE WANT TO MAKE A DENT IN THE UNIVERSE: Ours might not change the world, but we can change the life of a person who needed to feel special, even for just a brief moment – changing everything – one person at a time.
  • WE RISE TO THE EXPECTATIONS OTHERS HAVE OF US: We want to make people happy – from that first finger painting that we brought home to our parents, to completion of that project for a teacher, or placing a perfect plate of food in the pass for the expeditor to admire.  That nod or smile says: “You exceeded my expectations”.
  • BRINGING SOMETHING TO FRUITION IS TREMENDOUSLY GRATIFYING:  Every moment of every day in the kitchen yields an accomplishment from an individual plate to a banquet for 500 – a cook’s days are filled with accomplishment.
  • GENERALLY, PEOPLE HAVE A NEED TO BE GOOD AT SOMETHING:  Yes, there are those with gifted palates or an eye for presentation that seems unique, but with lots of practice every cook can become good at what they do – even great.
  • FOR THE MOST PART – PEOPLE WANT TO BE HAPPY:  Working in a kitchen environment as a member of a team, pushing to get better, working through the heat and the sore muscles, putting together a plate of food that satisfies all the human senses, and doing all this every day is something that makes every tired cook happy.
  • IT IS HUMAN NATURE TO KNOW THAT YOU HELPED TO MAKE SOMEONE ELSE HAPPY:  A clean plate returning from the dining room, a guest’s pause to look at the plate from every angle, a few photos to add to their Instagram account, and a thumbs up from the server.  The potential is always there for cooks to make others happy in each moment.

So, how does one reconcile that they chose to learn how to master that braised lamb shank and did not go down the path to become a mathematician who plotted out the trajectory of a rocket destined to dock with a complex space station miles outside of the earth’s atmosphere?  Hmmm.  Well, obviously the path I chose did not set the stage for finding the real answer to this, but I do know that I chose the path, as did many of you, that made the most sense for me or you.  I also know, as should you, that what we all do is important in the big scheme of things because it fulfills our personal need to create, to feed our tactile learning tendencies, it makes people happy, helps them deal with their life challenges, and serves as an important reward for what they do.

Every mathematician, scientist, doctor, teacher, artist, musician, and physicist inherently need great cooks and respects the cook’s ability to feed the body, mind, and soul.  What we do is important and the fork in the road that we faced, and the direction that we chose was the right one for us.  This is a calling in life that is purposeful and meaningful and one that others depend on.  We pay respect to Mother Nature, celebrate the farmer and the fisherman; we develop skills that can take a lifetime to truly master, we paint our greatest works of art on a plate, we feed the body and give hard working people a moment to pause and be thankful and laugh over a delicious plate of food, and we bring people together even when they seem to have irreconcilable differences – we make a dent in the universe.  We may not make the cover of Scientific America, but we make people smile and that means a lot. 

PLAN BETTER – TRAIN HARDER

Choose your path wisely and know that it is the right decision

Harvest America Ventures, LLC

Restaurant Consulting

www.harvestamericacues.com – BLOG

CAFÉ Talks Podcast

https://cafemeetingplace.com/cafe-podcasts

THE THING ABOUT KITCHEN DESIGN

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Over the past few decades, I have been asked to design a number of kitchens for restaurants and banquet spaces – a task that I thoroughly enjoy.  Owners and operators will typically shake their heads at initial designs holding their ground that “chefs” like to create elaborate kitchen palaces that they really don’t need and that they (the owners) can’t afford to build.  I understand this reaction but know that this is not really the case.  “Chefs” want to create kitchens that work, spaces that are designed to correct the numerous problems that were previously faced in poorly designed kitchens.  When a designer is asked to compromise on space, flow, or equipment I know that this simply means that the operator wants to build in problems in production or service in the future.  They are either willing to accept this (believing that the chef will simply need to figure it out), or they simply do not believe the designers conclusions.

In what other industry are developers inclined to accept built in problems with design?  Are auto manufacturers fine with poorly designed assembly lines?  Are hospital administrators fine with operating rooms that are not quite right?  Are operators of meat packing plants fine with inefficient cutting lines?  Inefficiencies cost money, frustrate employees, and oftentimes set the stage for poor quality results.  Is this the objective that operators and owners are after?

Creating restaurants is an expensive endeavor.  When owners are faced with a design that will cost many hundreds of thousands of dollars their first reaction is: “Kitchens don’t generate revenue – dining rooms do.  Kitchens are cost centers and a drain on potential profit.”  This, of course, is far from the truth – kitchens are the driver of sales and potential profit, but only when they are designed to accomplish both.  When it comes to setting the stage for restaurant success – “good enough” is never good enough.

Every additional step costs the restaurant money in labor, every poorly designed storage area costs the operation money in lost opportunities for purchasing volume and in product waste, every poorly designed prep area costs money in production efficiency, and every kitchen that is poorly designed from a flow perspective costs money in timing and service efficiency.  Chefs and cooks are at their best when they have the right environment and the right tools to accomplish the work they do.  Isn’t this true in every profession?  Yet, why would you hamper an employee’s ability to complete his or her work in the time that makes sense and at the quality that any successful business demands?  Penny wise and dollar foolish is certainly applicable here.

There are established standards for space, distance, and reach in kitchens that have been time tested.  Every effective kitchen designer knows them.  When we ignore these standards, we are building inefficiencies into the system and setting the stage for poor performance.  We know that a kitchen employee requires a certain amount of space to be effective in his or her work, we know that certain floor surfaces help to reduce back and leg strain, and we know that a designated amount of lighting will reduce eye strain and headaches and reduce unwanted accidents in the kitchen.  We understand where the dish machine should be located to reduce cross-trafficking in the kitchen and cut down on accidents and broken china, we understand that an expensive combi-oven can replace the need for multiple other ovens to complete the required work.  It is apparent that banquets are far more efficient, with less waste, and a much higher consistent quality level when there is sufficient cooler space for rolling racks and pre-plating and a cook-chill system is built into production.  We know that a slow cook oven will reduce cook shrink on roasts by 15-20% and produce a much more uniform product.  Yet, operators seem content to use their erasers on kitchen design and disregard what we know and simply move to save some money up front. 

One fact is absolute, one reality is the reason why too many kitchens are poorly designed, and there is one cause of the frustration that ensues from an ill-conceived kitchen space:  people just don’t know any better.  Unless you have worked in many kitchens, worked through hundreds of busy nights on the line, serviced banquets from 50 – 1,000 guests, taken inventory in kitchens without concern for proper storage, or tried to work with equipment that is constantly in dis-repair – you just don’t know.

When an owner or operator relies on an architect who has never worked in a kitchen (the rationale that they have designed dozens of kitchens before doesn’t cut it) and decisions are based solely on cutting expenses or adding a few more tables to the dining room – then problems are sure to arise.  When that architect is told to cut 25% off the cost of a kitchen – they will do just that; little thought is given to the impact of those decisionsIf I seem frustrated – I am, but not for any personal reasons – I am frustrated because I know the chef and cooks who walk into a kitchen designed in this manner will be challenged from day one.  I know that they will be forced to sacrifice something: quality, health, efficient use of labor, or be faced with a swinging door of cooks coming in with loads of enthusiasm and quitting with a ton of angst.

Is there any room for compromise?  Of course, there is, and chefs who design kitchens can get carried away, but at least listen to them, talk the issues through and push the chef to look at alternatives that might work just as well.  Don’t simply view the space as a “chef’s palace” that is only created to be a showcase.  This is a manufacturing space as well as an environment for artistic people to perfect their craft.  The space should be designed to feed both objectives if you want your restaurant to be all that it can be.

If you don’t have the money to do it right now, when will you find the funds to fix the problems later?  I know it seems arrogant to say – “If you don’t have the money to do it right then find the money”, but that is really the answer.  If you can’t find the money, then change your concept to accommodate a budget that works for your finances and still service the important aspects of design or stay away from the restaurant business.  Please – don’t build problems into the system and then wonder why it isn’t working.  Don’t allow an architect to design your kitchen in a vacuum.  Involve a chef or a chef designer in the process, create an open dialogue, run through scenarios in the kitchen to see if your design is adequately prepared for things that can go wrong.  Invest your money in efficiency and everyone will be much more productive, the operation will be staged to reach its financial goals, and your employees will thank you.

PLAN BETTER – TRAIN HARDER

Harvest America Ventures, LLC

Restaurant Consulting

www.harvestamericacues.com  BLOG

CAFÉ Talks Podcast

https://cafemeetingplace.com/cafe-podcasts

TO BE A FATHER

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I spend a considerable amount of time writing about how important it is to be a cook and a chef and my observations of those who fit those titles.  It is important to me and to millions of others around the world.  This is what so many were meant to do with their careers – it is built into their (our) DNA.  However, noting can compare to the honor, privilege, joy, occasional pain, and humbling experience of being a father. 

Nothing can prepare you for the experience of holding a newborn, your child, in your arms for the first time.  Those moments when she or he opens those eyes for the first time, smiles and blinks with recognition of the connection, the bond of blood, history, tradition, and family.  As father’s we swallow hard, smile from ear to ear, take a deep breath and shed a tear of utter joy along with a bit of nervousness.  We are struck with awe at the living person in our arms and speechlessness at the process and the strength of the woman who bore this being for the past nine months.  “How is this possible?”

We are at a loss when it comes to what to do next.  We frantically ask: “Where is the job description?”   We try to do our best over the next handful of years – trying to be there for those special days: first day of school, birthdays, helping them to ride a bike, catch and hit a baseball, track meets, soccer games, recitals, spelling bees, and first everything’s, but as a chef we all know that some will be missed – never to be regained.  It is tough to look back at those missed opportunities and justify why we weren’t there.  Our children will probably forgive us, but we will never forgive ourselves.  This, after all is our most important job.

As father’s we can look back and remember those first steps, first words, daily hugs, and tears shed over nothing and sometimes something. We can choke up as we remember the smiles over accomplishments: graduation from kindergarten, from grammar school, high school and beyond.  There are those moments when we lost our temper but never our love and caring for those young persons who continue to amaze as they grow and experience life.  We know, in our hearts that what we are angry about is probably our own shortcomings as fathers. 

There are those times when they are sick and our hearts ache for them as we hold them in a shower to cool down a fever, wash their cuts and scrapes and press on a band aid while mom gives them a kiss to make it better.  We remember the panic that first time that we had to rush them to a doctor’s office or the hospital for something that was beyond our ability to fix.  We remember that feeling of complete relief when the doctor says they are OK. 

Monumental occasions continue throughout life as we meet their first girlfriend or boyfriend, give them a serious stare to show them that this is very precious cargo and beware of the potential wrath of dad, but in our hearts feel pure joy in our child’s happiness – that first crush.  We experience mixed emotions when they learn to drive and that first time when they do so solo with license in hand.  We watch the news daily and stress about the condition of the world, not so much for ourselves but what it means for them and their futures.  There is a point in time when we realize that their lives and happiness are far more important than our own.  It is one of those moments when we truly realize what it means to be a father. 

There is a point in time when everything seems to move too fast.  They apply for college or a trade school and are accepted and we know that they will be going off on their own for the first time.  It is this point in time when we really self-assess.  Have we prepared them for life, are they good people who are honest and caring?  Will they treat others with respect, and will others view them as we do?  Do they have the work ethic that will lead to success?  Will they make good choices of friends and experiences?  Did I do my job as a father?

When they finally leave for that independent experience we swallow deeply again, just like we did when holding a newborn.  This time the fear and pride are very real, they are based on 18 years of experience and knowing everything that could go wrong and every opportunity that could end up right.  We jump every time that phone rings late in the evening wondering what went wrong, is my son or daughter alright?  We comfort them on the phone when they had a bad day and learn quickly that they don’t really want advice, they just want us to listen.  This is one of the hardest things for a father to learn.  We resist the desire to jump in the car and drive all night just to “take care” of things for them – this is not what they want or need in most cases.

There are those moments when we must ease their soul crushing sadness over a broken relationship, or one that fails to materialize.  We tell them that this is life and there are lots of fish in the sea, but we know ourselves how shallow that response is and how painful their sense of loss is.  But then they rebound.  Their friends help them along, they find their step again, discover new people and jump back in the relationship search.  This is, as we all know, the search for happiness and sense of creating a family of their own – just like mom and dad.

As father’s we beam with pride, standing next to our partner as a son or daughter graduates once again and moves on to begin their real independent life.  That first job in a field of their choice, first apartment, first network of lifetime friends, first opportunity to be financially responsible.  Ah, we did it!  But then, we are always on the lookout – making sure that their stress is minimized, that they have enough money, that their jobs are satisfying, that they can reach their dreams, that they find a partner and oh, yes – that the stage is set for them to follow in our footsteps.

Then it happens – they find their soulmate and we pray that this is the right one.  We meet that special person and once again look them up and down and peer into their eyes to see if they are worthy.  We are cautiously optimistic and then relieved to discover that our son or daughter chose wisely.  Preparations for a wedding will ensue and it is our job to make sure that the day is right.  Mom will live her experience again through her child and everyone is focused on making the special day all that it can be.  There is a load of pride and fathers feel a real bonding with a son – “congratulations my boy you did well”.   Somehow, with a daughter it is different.  You know she is strong, smart, and balanced, but underneath it all you want to make sure she is in good hands.  That walk down the aisle is special, memorable, joyful, and soul crushing at the same time.  You are passing the hand of your little girl to another person to cherish and hold – and those memories of holding a newborn, of having total responsibility for her welfare are flashing through your head at lightening speed.  “Please let her be safe and happy”.

What an honor, a pleasure, a responsibility, and an experience it is to be a father.  It is our real purpose in life – a job without a job description.  We learn as we go – on the job training.  And then, one day you receive that phone call when your son or daughter says through broken words – “dad, you and mom are going to be grandparents!”  Ah, such a feeling – and now it starts all over again.

On this day, I wish a happy Father’s Day to all the dads and granddads out there.  To all the chefs who are struggling to figure out that balance in life, I offer this advice: “Don’t find yourself regretting too much.  Life is short and your real job is far more important than those beautiful plates of food in the pass.  Figure out a way to train others to cover for you when you need to hold a hand, applaud an accomplishment, hug in support, or simply smile and shed a tear for that little person that you once held in your arms in pure wonder.

To my children and grandkids – thanks for giving me a chance to be there:  Erika, Jessica, Leif, Alex, Addie, Johan, Espen, Oliver, and Jack.

Happy Father’s Day.

PLAN BETTER – TRAIN HARDER
Being a father is the ultimate opportunity in life

Harvest America Ventures, LLC

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