THE SOUL OF A RESTAURANT

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I may be in the minority, but I have always felt, and often promoted, that restaurants can and occasionally do serve a higher purpose.  Since those early days as an apprentice and maybe even before as a 16-year-old dishwasher, I saw something special in restaurant life.  Yes, life – since those who find that higher purpose will likely invest a significant amount of time in a restaurant kitchen, not because they must, but rather because they want to.  The purpose to them involves a connection to the underlying soul of the operation; a soul that highlights history, tradition, a sense of family, respect and appreciation, and an inspiring story.  Is this poetic nonsense or is there truth in this idea of soul?

Soul is likely more evident in single unit proprietorships or small multi-unit operations that are family operated, and less evident in the larger chains simply because larger creates challenges to the feel of a restaurant and a loss of on-site control over that higher purpose.  I don’t have anything against the larger chains, there are some whose mission is built around trying to protect that purpose, but it’s exponentially harder to build and hold onto that soul when hundreds of miles separate units.

Whether speaking from a spiritual standpoint, referencing soul music, soul food, or the soul of a restaurant – it is clear that each of these can “transform the moments in our day and bring us closer to living life from a place that sits well with who we are at our core”1.  In other words, something goes beyond what is apparent on the surface: personality, sound, food, or service.  “Who we are” is the foundation of our existence that includes our heritage, who we want to be, and who others believe we are and what we represent.  Soul is the definition of you and the pursuit of this will always be our most important goal in life.  Now, this is getting heavy, but bear in mind that it can and should be fulfilling and exciting.

When we listen to authentic soul music, we can feel the musician’s pain and joy.  The music is designed to open the listener up to the performer’s life and story.  When we eat authentic soul food we are transported to the environment where the cook matured, where he or she connected with ingredients, and how their socio-economic condition impacted what and how those ingredients were prepared.  We not only taste soul food; we feel it.  The same can be true in a restaurant.  Expressing this, building a team around it, and telling that story is what I refer to as that higher purpose.

As a cook or chef, we are drawn to those operations where punching a clock is replaced with joining the energy that a restaurant exudes.  Have you worked in an operation like this?  Have you walked through the door with the typical knot in your stomach being overpowered by positive anticipation?  Okay, maybe not every day, but most.  Are you excited to see the people you work with; touch the fresh ingredients delivered by farmers, fish mongers, and ranchers who are passionate about their work; and taking in the smells, sounds, and flavors of honest cooking happening all around?  If you answer yes, then you have been touched by the restaurant’s soul.

Does the place where you work have a story that everyone knows and feels; a story that resonates with every employee, owner, and guest?  Does that story take people back in time and allow them to think about the impact the place, building, people, and food had on who they are today?  If so, then the restaurant has linked with its higher purpose.

When this happens, magic occurs.  The employees work from the heart, not just a prep sheet.  When this happens, the owners feel a sense of responsibility to protect that soul.  When this happens, guests find that their anticipation and actual experience become memorable and at some level, inspiring.

Sometimes the purpose of a restaurant gets lost in the noise of defining success.  Look around in your community and you will be able to pick out those restaurants with soul and special purpose that are part of that success formula as well as those that tend to forget why they exist.  Financially successful restaurant will come and go if they fail to connect to their soul where those that have the order correct may continue to exist for generations.  That small, family-owned Italian restaurant on the corner of your neighborhood; the one that has been there for 75years, undoubtedly has soul.  There is a story there that everyone understands from the host to the dishwasher and each one respects their role in perpetuating that higher purpose. 

I was reminded of this important differentiation today through a shared article about Chef Sean Sherman’s Owamni restaurant in Minneapolis (Thanks Chef Tim Hardiman).  The James Beard Foundation recognized this indigenous operation as the Best New Restaurant in America.

https://www.newyorker.com/magazine/2022/09/19/how-owamni-became-the-best-new-restaurant-in-the-united-states

 Sean’s approach is to tell the story of the Lakota people through food and in doing so he has defined the restaurant’s soul.  This higher purpose is felt by all stakeholders in the operation; a purpose that goes beyond the food, it makes a connection to history, traditions, struggles, and perseverance.

The same has been true of operations like Alice Water’s Chez Panisse in Berkeley, California, Lombardi’s pizzeria in Brooklyn, Fore Street in Portland, Maine, Berghoff’s in Chicago, Willie Mae’s Scotch House in New Orleans, The Union Oyster House in Boston, The Tadich Grill in San Francisco, The White Horse Tavern in Newport, Rhode Island, and thousands of other neighborhood restaurants that live their higher purpose.

When purpose is defined, when teams are built with this in mind, and when the soul of the operation is evident to all, then financial success will come as well.  This is how the great restaurants are defined and where generational longevity is a result.

Note: 1 – From the movie “Soul”

PLAN BETTER – TRAIN HARDER

Does your restaurant have soul?

Harvest America Ventures, LLC

www.harvestamericacues.com  BLOG

CAFÉ Talks Podcast

https://cafemeetingplace.com/cafe-podcasts

A PROUD HISTORY FOR THE KITCHEN MAJORITY

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Yep, I know there are bruises and wounds to heal, any industry has their share.   Certainly, there are issues and things to be addressed and fixed and there is little doubt that life has not always been fair and kind when it comes to kitchen work, but like so many other businesses and industries – the positive far outweighs those scars and wounds. Take the time to think about it:

This is a profile of the restaurant business that gets lost in all the negative press.

[]       SECOND LARGEST EMPLOYER

In 2021, there were 14.5 million people employed in the restaurant industry1

[]       THE CLEAREST WINDOW TO ENTREPRENEURSHIP

80%of single-unit restaurants in the U.S. are owned by people who started as entry-level employees and 90% of managers started in the same way.1

[]       THE LEADING “FIRST JOB” INDUSTRY IN AMERICA

1/3rd of all Americans had their first job in restaurants and nearly ½ of all American workers have had a job in restaurants at some point in their life.1

[]       A BENCHMARK BUSINESS THAT DEFINES A VILLAGE, TOWN, OR CITY

“Local restaurants are an impactful gathering place for communities, where relationships form, and memories are made.  They preserve agriculture and food preferences and styles of cooking from generation to generation and are the lifeblood of regional food culture.”2

[]       THE HALLMARK FOR TRADITIONS AND ETHNICITY

The neighborhood restaurant is often the soul of micro cultures.  It is the repository of recipes, cooking methods, traditions, and the power of our melting pot country.

[]       A UNIVERSAL REWARD SYSTEM FOR CUSTOMERS

Dining out is more than a need for nourishment, it is a reward for hard work, a place to celebrate success, a way to recognize others, a mecca for friends to enjoy each other’s company, and a place where the important topics of the day find a home in discussion.

[]       THE REAL CONNECTION BETWEEN FARMERS AND CONSUMERS

The farmer is oftentimes the unsung hero of our communities.  Without them, we would not be able to enjoy the bounty of the earth.  The restaurant is the forum where farmers can see the fruits of their labor come to life.  Restaurateurs are ambassadors for the regional agricultural community.

[]       THE HIGHEST PERCENT OF WOMEN MANAGERS & OWNERS OF ANY

INDUSTRY

47% of all restaurants in the U.S. are owned by women.

[]       A SAFE HAVEN FOR CREATIVE PEOPLE

No other art form has such an impact.  No other art form appeals to all human senses.  No other art form provides the artist with instant feedback on the quality of his or her work.  No other art form connects so many stakeholders through the process of growing, processing, transporting, preparing, serving, and enjoying a product.

[]       THE HEART OF THE ECONOMY IN TOURIST COMMUNITIES

All other aspects of tourism rely on the restaurant to punctuate an experience.  What is travel, a hotel, or a center of entertainment without the provision of quality food?

[]       AN INDUSTRY THAT THRIVES ON TEAM ENVIRONMENTS

Although many industries require teams to accomplish their goals, very few are so closely inter-dependent and focused on teamwork, as the restaurant business.  It is the concept of team that attracts people to a career in food and it is the action of the team that allows a positive guest experience to come to fruition. 

Let’s fix our problems, but not forget just how valuable and important the restaurant industry is to our way of life – a quality life.

PLAN BETTER – TRAIN HARDER

Harvest America Ventures, LLC

Restaurant Consulting

www.harvestamericacues.com  BLOG

(Over 800 articles about the business and people of food)

CAFÉ Talks Podcast

https://cafemeetingplace.com/cafe-podcasts

More than 50 interviews with the most influential people in food

CHEFS – SIGN YOUR PLATES

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Push it out, how many covers, lock, and load, finish strong, over the hump, wrap it up: this the language of the kitchen during service, these are the timestamps like the number of quarters in a football game or innings in baseball.  Get it done, no mistakes, and pick up the pace are all directives that help line cooks make it through another day or night.  When all is said and done, we can wipe our brows and sigh in relief.  We made it!  I get it, I’ve been there, I know the adrenaline behind this and the sense of accomplishment when the rail is free of dupes – it is a race against time, an impossible goal that somehow, we manage to reach.  Mission accomplished. But what about your food, what about the guest’s reaction, what about creating memorable experiences, what about your connection to the plate?

Don’t get me wrong, I understand the need for numbers and the gratification that comes from exceeding expectations in this regard, but, if I might ask: “how do you feel about that plate?”  In the moment gratification from taming the volume beast is short lived.  Tomorrow there will be a need to do the same.  “How do you feel about that plate?”   Compromise may be a legitimate goal in negotiations and diplomacy, but not so much when it comes to quality and the meaning of your work. 

Take a moment to assess, to line up the results of your work with your vision of the plate, the guest experience, and the brand that you are trying to build.  I’m not a big fan of quick service restaurants, but I would be willing to bet that the menu items originally created by their corporate culinary team doesn’t translate to what is served in restaurant number 953.  Can they meet the crowds and even exceed budgeted customer counts on a given day?  Probably.  But what about that quality translation?   How does that corporate chef feel when he or she visits a random restaurant and sees how a 16-year-old on the grill has no vision of excellence in execution?  Isn’t it the same reality in a full-service operation where pushing the numbers is priority number 1?

Where is the happy medium, the commitment to those quality stakes in the ground?  Can quantity, speed, and quality coexist?  The answer, of course, is YES!  “But, but, but surely compromise is necessary if we are to turn tables and reach our numbers.”  Compromise in diplomacy means that both sides win at some level.  When we compromise with quality in a restaurant where is the win?  We filled the dining room, and everyone was served, but what was their experience?  Did they sense that the value was there?  Were they wowed into coming back again and again?  Will they write a great review on Trip Advisor?  When we compromise on the quality of cooking, taste, and presentation then we suffer trying to win unhappy customers back and you, the chef, must look in a mirror and see the face of compromise.

So, how do we find that space where quality is maintained, where the customer is wowed, and where the chef feels great about that plate of food while still turning tables and maximizing sales?  Okay, here’s a start:

TEN STEPS TO SIGNING YOUR WORK:

[]       SHARE YOUR VISION, INSTILL A SENSE OF PRIDE

Let everyone know exactly what you expect, get excited, show them how it should be done, and celebrate every act of excellence.

[]       BE THE EXAMPLE FOR OTHERS TO FOLLOW

Make sure you are always on top of your game, never falter from doing every task to the highest caliber.  You set the tone for others to emulate.

[]       TEACH AND TRAIN

Invest in them, engage them, show them, work through problems with them, and measure their performance against your standards.  Help them to become the best they can be.

[]       PUT YOUR STAMP OF APPROVAL ON EVERY PLATE

Be present, watch what goes out, inspect plates, taste everything, let every know that you intend to sign each plate, and, in your absence, you expect that they will do the same.

[]       CELEBRATE EXCELLENCE IN EVERYTHING

Right down to their station set-up, organization of pans, cleanliness of cookware, uniforms, the way they cut vegetables and fillet a whole fish – excellence is a habit – make it so!

[]       SHOW NO TOLERANCE FOR MEDIOCRITY IN ANYTHING

Once excellence sinks in then mediocrity will have no home in your kitchen.  Until then, make it very clear that you expect the best from them and will not tolerate a “good enough” approach.

[]       LET YOUR COOKS BECOME GUESTS

Give your cooks a chance, now and then, to dine out front.  Let them see what the guest sees, taste what the guest tastes, and feel the level of excellence that you are trying to promote.

[]       BUILD IN QUALITY SYSTEMS

Don’t assume that quality will happen build it in beginning with selection of vendors, inspection of ingredients when they arrive, proper storage in coolers and dry storage, the right tools to do the job, chip free plates, spotless glassware, plate presentations designed to wow, and palate building among your cooks so that they know when it is right.  Recipes are not enough; they need to understand great cooking and then they will be able to problem solve.

[]       MEASURE QUALITY AND SEEK FEEDBACK

Find ways to assess quality: chef tastings, peer tastings, pre-meal critique, post-meal assessment, guest comment cards, etc.

[]       SWEAT THE SMALL STUFF

Everything is important – groom your staff to develop “restaurant eyes”.  Require cooks to dress professionally on the way to work, have them enter through the front door so that they can look for any slip in excellence, train them to line up items in the storeroom and coolers with excellence in mind, labels pointing out, FIFO inventory management, proper covering, and HACCP labeling, be insistent that floors be cleaned frequently, show servers how to help the dishwasher with proper scraping and stacking, etc.  The list is long – it’s all important.

Act as though everyone, including yourself, is required to sign their work.  Teach your staff to be their own worst critic so that job doesn’t fall on your shoulders alone and then allow yourself to become the cheerleader for excellence.

Celebrate those nights when you break records for guests served or revenue projections that were broken, but never allow compromise of quality to be a reason why those goals were met.  Excellence begins with the person who holds the position of chef, but it comes to fruition when everyone is committed to it.

PLAN BETTER – TRAIN HARDER

Harvest America Ventures, LLC

www.harvestamericacues.com  BLOG

CAFÉ Talks Podcast

https://cafemeetingplace.com/cafe-podcasts

A RESTAURANTS HIGHER CALLING

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I have always loved the restaurant business.  My professional life has been dedicated to the kitchen, the people of restaurants, the ingredients and their source, the process and the adrenaline, the service and an opportunity to make people happy, and of course those plates as they slide down the pass.  There are, of course, restaurants and there are restaurants.  I have been impressed and disappointed in many from those exclusive fine dining establishments with food that should be admired for its beauty to greasy spoons with the best burgers you will ever find.  I have been dismayed by some who attempt to be something they are not, or who feel that a name or location are enough to lead to success.  They are all part of my passion for the preparation and service of food.

I have worked in and in my later years consulted for operations where it was the hope of profit that drove all decisions and been part of those who aligned with a higher calling, a calling that led to success on a whole different level.  These are the restaurants, the chefs and cooks, the servers and bartenders, and the owners who knew that what they did for a living was really important.  “Build it and they will come” was more than a cute phrase from the movies – to these folks, a higher calling meant that cooking is a privilege, service is a way of life, and the chance to work with others and express their own love of restaurants was paramount.  Ironically, in so many of these operations – financial success comes because of this higher purpose.  When profit drives all decisions then a restaurant will lose its character, its soul, and its potential.  Profit is not the means to an end, it is the end brought about by the means, the heart, the soul, and a love of that plate.

Whenever I take the time to pause and reflect on my time working in restaurants and participating in restaurant experiences, I tend to categorize them as wow experiences, surprising experiences, and special experiences.  Hands down, it is the special experience that is most memorable – the operation that moves to the beat of a drum that keeps time with the higher calling objective.

So, what is this higher calling?  Well, it’s not one thing, it’s not something that can even be outlined in a business plan, or for that matter predicted at all.  It’s more a realization than an objective.  It happens when those involved in a restaurant stumble into the life of service, the importance of tradition, the sense of community, and the connections that are possible over a plate of food.  Maybe you haven’t thought about this before, but I have.  It is very likely that you have experienced it, supported it, enjoyed it, but never gave it much reflection, but I have. 

It’s that local apple orchard that decided to offer warm cider and fried apple and pumpkin donuts to people lined up to purchase a peck of MacIntosh, Cortland, or Honey Crisp apples.  Happy customers told their friends, and their friends told their friends.  Suddenly, more family members are joining in to help sell the donuts and add pies and quickbreads to the menu.  Slowly, but surely the grab and go becomes a sit and enjoy hand carved sandwiches on homemade breads, with a glass of cider as a few neighbors, smiles on their faces, joined the family in an effort to meet the demands of a growing business.  People in line are laughing and connecting with others from town as this apple orchard becomes the place to be on a Saturday or Sunday.  This is a place with a higher purpose.

It’s the corner Italian restaurant that has been around for three generations with a menu that rarely changes: it’s predictable, consistent, and fabulous.  The sauce has been handed down from great grandmothers and the bread doesn’t come off the back of a delivery truck – it is made on premise every morning starting at 3am.  IN the back of the kitchen the owner’s mother, now in her 70’s came back to work, to help, and to be a part of the music of the kitchen.  She is hand forming meatballs and rolling out linguini, tortellini, and ravioli.  The same flavor profile used for the past 60 years.  When you walk in the restaurant as a patron you can smell the Bolognese simmering, the meatballs caramelizing, and the salt water used to soften cheese curd for fresh mozzarella.  Nothing fancy, plates are not overly manipulated, the servers are not pretentious, and you can buy a bottle of wine for less than $50.  This is memorable, this is what it means to enjoy a meal at a restaurant where people care about those who work there and those who raise a glass full of hope and good cheer.  This is a place with higher purpose.

It’s the neighborhood food market that has controlled a corner of your town for decades.  You know, the one where the isles are too narrow for people to cross paths, the produce looks like it was picked a few hours ago, the meat case is bright and clean packed with beautiful red steaks and roasts, vivid pink pork loins, chickens with a few pin feathers still intact, and sausages that were made on premise by a butcher with a well fed belly, white bib apron, straw hat, and hands that are big enough to palm a basketball.  It’s a place where the dry goods shelves are filled only with the best of the best, the fish is packed in ice and you know that it was pulled from the ocean that day or the day before, and the cashier, owner, and deli slicer all know your name.  “Try a slice of prosciutto, it will melt in your mouth.”  This is a special place where quality, service, and sincerity are always on the menu and price is judged in relation to value.  This is a place with a higher purpose.

I remember that little bistro in a quaint French village where the owner was the host, the server, and the cook.  Where six tables were all that could fit and they were always full.  Where the menu was there, but rest assured, if you wanted something different and they had the ingredients, it was a pleasure to cook for you.  I think back to that Greek breakfast operation tucked away in a storefront in mid-town Manhattan for fifty years where your morning eggs were cooked to ordered and delivered to your table before you could read the headlines on page one of the New York Times.  This is the place where your coffee cup was always full, where the check was delivered before you had to ask, where after a few visits the waiter remembered what you wanted and placed the order for you.  I remember the twelve-seat operation in the French Quarter of New Orleans that served only gumbo, but man was it extraordinary.  The staff was a husband-and-wife team, with help from parents, children, and even grandkids who learned to clear tables before they made it to high school.  How could I ever forget the takeout only pizzeria that prepared incredible Neapolitan style pizza, throwing dough, and stretching it into perfect circles, spreading sauce made three times a week, virgin olive oil drizzled over fresh pulled mozzarella, sauteed wild mushrooms and thinly sliced prosciutto, topped with leaves of fresh basil and a sprinkle of crushed red pepper.  A father and son and lone dishwasher/box folder were able to crank out hundreds of extraordinary pies every day while carrying on conversations with nearly every customer. And I will always remember that eighty-year-old artisan bread baker whose wood-fired oven bakeshop was tucked away on a farm that was impossible to find unless you had a guide.  A place where baking bread was a religion that took center stage in his life.  A few hours of sleep were interjected at various times throughout the day in between, mixing, feeding the starter, bowl proof, shaping, tending the fire, and baking those crisp crust round loaves with rich, sour dough centers, filled with fermentation holes, as they were pulled from a 500-degree hearth.  He sold 280 loaves of one kind of bread, six days per week.  The bread was delivered by neighbors to local grocery outlets in exchange of a loaf or two to take home. These are places with a higher purpose.

There is so much to love about the restaurant business, but it will always be those operations and operators with a higher purpose who win my heart and my on-going support.  They do it for the love of cooking and baking, and in honor of the farmers, ranchers, and fishermen who supply exceptional ingredients.  They do it to bring the family together, and they do it for the joy of being important to the community where they sit. This is that higher purpose.

PLAN BETTER – TRAIN HARDER

Harvest America Ventures, LLC

www.harvestamericacues.com  BLOG

CAFÉ Talks Podcast

https://cafemeetingplace.com/cafe-podcasts

CHEFS AS DIPLOMATS

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At a time when it seems as if we all suffer from irreconcilable differences, it may just be the chef and a great plate of food that can bring us together.  This is not a new thought; food has been used in mediation for centuries.  It was even Escoffier who once stated:

“The art of cooking is perhaps one of the most useful forms of diplomacy.”

From government “State Dinners” that bring world leaders together to the cafeteria in the United Nations building and from restaurant meccas for traditional business lunches to your home dinner table – food is a common denominator and great food is a vehicle for bringing people together. 

The key is to find common ground, something that allows people with differences to set them aside in the moment as they appreciate the act of breaking bread.  Ah…what a responsibility and what an opportunity we have as cooks to give people a chance to see each other as people first, not just representatives of an ideology, not simply a person with whom we disagree.  Restaurants are destinations that provide hope for reconciliation and agreement. They are neutral territory where food and drink can demonstrate what people have in common rather than what pushes them apart.  To this end, the chef is the consummate diplomat.

The chef’s diplomatic strategy is complex and specific.  The diplomatic meal is one that considers the diners state of mind, history and traditions, and openness to an experience that educates as well as satisfies. Paying respect to each person’s background while spicing up the plate with flavors and presentations that break new ground, surprise, and invigorate is a formula that only the well-seasoned chef can pull off.  Sometimes an existing menu can accomplish this while at other times there is a need for the chef to go “off menu”.  In either case, having the knowledge to prescribe a meal puts the chef in control of the situation – a position that any true diplomat would enjoy.

It was 2002 when the Economist Magazine coined the word: “gastrodiplomacy” to describe the Global Thai initiative that was focused on improving the image of Thailand and expanding the reach of its cuisine.  As a diplomatic effort used numerous times since, this was described as: “winning hearts and minds through stomachs.”1

Food is a universal language, one that anyone can appreciate and embrace as a way to discover more about a culture and the people who represent it.  On the international stage this is very commonly used as an effective tool.

I wonder if gastrodiplomacy and the chef’s skills can be just as effective in helping us all put aside our differences, take a breath, break bread, and see each other as people first.  We are people with different opinions, but still the same, nonetheless.  The cook’s table is a place of commonality, a sacred environment where we can re-think how we approach each other, push aside those points of disagreement, smile, laugh, raise a glass, and enjoy what is on the plate in front of us.

Is food the answer to this downward spiral of disagreement and labeling as “with me or against me”?  Pandemic concerns aside, is it time for more community tables in restaurants, more opportunities for chefs to simply cook to unite?  Think about those times in your life when you celebrated others; those times when you enjoyed the company of others without judgement or comparison; those times when it was fun to simply be part of another person’s space. I would guess that most, if not all those experiences involved food.  Food is the catalyst, the magnet that pulls people to the table and the glue that allows them to bond.

We may not agree on politics, we may be over-the-top partisan when it comes to our favorite sporting team, our views on education, the type of music we listen to or books that we choose to read, but we can all agree on a great tasting plate of food. Why not start there and learn to appreciate what we can agree on?  Maybe then, we can grow to listen to others’ opinions without viewing those with whom we disagree as enemies on the other side. 

Every day that I think about the career in the kitchen that I chose (or that chose me) I see just how important the work is, just how much opportunity there is for this work to make a difference.  Think about it.

PLAN BETTER – TRAIN HARDER

Harvest America Ventures, LLC

Restaurant Consulting

www.harvestamericacues.com BLOG

CAFÉ Talks Podcast

https://cafemeetingplace.com/cafe-podcasts

*1 – Fabio Parasecoli – Professor of Food Studies- New York University

CHEFS – ARE YOU READY FOR WINTER

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More than anything else, when I was in restaurant kitchens I looked forward to planning and testing the next set of menu changes.  A stale menu is not cost effective, ignorant of quality issues with ingredients, uninspiring for employees, and just plain boring.  It is a menu change that tests a chef’s ability to understand the seasonality of harvest, the connection that menu items have with the concept of the restaurant, executive cost-effective items, push the kitchen crew to enhance their skills, and excite the customer.  Are you up to it?

Winter is, by far my favorite season to plan menus.  This is where “real cooking” comes into play; where a chef demonstrates his or her ability to pull flavors out of seasonal ingredients and marry flavors to match the weather outside.  Braising, Roasting, Barbeque, Stewing, Poaching, and any item that engages “low and slow” is appropriate in the winter months.  Depending on where you live this season might last three months, or you could be in for the long haul.  Northern New York State where I spent my career looks ahead to nearly six months of cold, snow, and an occasional ice storm. 

Winter is the time when red wines jump to centerstage, when hearty IPA’s and sour ales are in demand, when hard cider, bourbon, single malt scotch, and barrel aged whiskeys take up much more shelf space behind your bar.  It is the time when guests seek out restaurants with a fireplace, open wood fired kitchens, and the rich, deep smell of charred meats and fish, roasted crispy birds, sweet oven baked garlic, caramelized onions, and short ribs and shanks coming from a six hour braise.  It is the season of butternut, acorn, delicata, and spaghetti squash roasting with plenty of butter and brown sugar, of roasted walnuts, pecans, and marcona almonds added to your salads, and in-house pickling finding its way onto your appetizer boards.  Late season root vegetables like carrots, beets, and parsnips are on everyone’s list.  This is the time for brussels sprouts to jump to a lead role on your menus, roasted, blanched and sauteed, char grilled or smoked – these former “second-class citizen” vegetables are now peaking in popularity.

For the chef interested in helping the bottom line – winter provides an opportunity to work with lesser cuts of meat and poultry, less frequently ordered fish, and dramatically enhance their perceived value through alternative cooking methods that draw out and combine flavors. 

How are your menu planning skills?  What experiences can you draw on in building this menu that moves quickly away from light and piquant to heavy and robust?  There will always be room, even in the winter, for lighter menu items, complicated salads, grilled fish and steaks, and a load of tasty sauté dishes, but in the winter your guests will pull their chair up to a table ready, willing, and able to touch that fabulous, braised pork shoulder that falls off the bone.  Are you ready?

Whenever I dove into the menu change process I worked with the following simple, but effective way to get from concept to plate:

[]       DECIDE ON A DIRECTION

What will be the foundation of your menu?  Will it be consistent throughout the seasons, or will it change at some level as the seasons do?  As an example – Thomas Keller has a sign on his kitchen wall that says: “finesse”.  Although there is no specific cuisine that stems from this, it does set the tone for every menu item, every preparation, and every moment of service.  Epic restaurant in Georgia follows suit with “Culinary Pride” on their kitchen wall – again a driving concept that requires every person to ask themselves – does this dish, its flavor, the presentation, and the manner with which it is delivered reflect “Culinary Pride?”

I took a different approach in kitchens that I directed.  Every menu and every menu item were drawn from a simple idea of “elegant comfort food”.  I expected that every dish, no matter its origin or influence must reflect that feeling of familiarity and exceptional execution.  Decide on a direction.

[]       LET YOUR COOKS KNOW

A common mistake that chefs make (I have been there myself in the early days) was to assume that the menu is the chef’s, and only the chef’s responsibility.  It must be, at some level, collaborative.  If you want your cooks to be excited, your service staff to be proud, and your guests to receive exceptionally well-executed dishes, then everyone must feel like they had some input.  Always be willing to listen to their ideas on how a dish might be prepared or presented better.

[]       PULL TOGETHER RESOURCES TO STUDY

Never feel that it is somehow “cheating” to research through cookbooks, visiting other restaurants, or talking with professional peers and then re-creating an item that inspires you.  Everyone does it at some level – that’s why cookbooks are around.  I have a significant collection of books from all types of restaurants.  Some I have not yet even paged through, but I know that at some point there will be inspiration for a dish or concept inside.

Keep in mind that a “recipe” is nearly impossible to protect under law (copyright, patent, trademark, etc.) so restaurants can and do freely use menu items that another may have “invented”.  But be professional about using established items.  If you add a named classical dish on your menu, then make it as it was originally developed, list it as “inspired by”, or make it uniquely yours.  This is not required but it is the right way to conduct yourself as a chef.

[]       LIST THOSE INGREDIENTS THAT WILL BE IN-SEASON & AVAILABLE

Restaurant chefs have become accustomed to accessing nearly any ingredient year-round.  We know that every ingredient has a season unless we travel around the world to get it.  The best menus take advantage of what is in season where you are.  Asparagus is a spring vegetable, strawberries in June, apples in the early fall, Pacific halibut from June to September, spring lamb in May and June, etc.  So, put together a chart of ingredient seasonality and hang it in your office.  Let this be one of your important guides in preparing menus.  Reference the Monterey Bay Seafood Watch research on seasonality and environmental challenges with certain types of seafood as well.

[]       ATTACH A COST TO CENTER OF PLATE INGREDIENTS

Costing out recipes is time consuming unless you have support staff who can track that for you, however, you can keep a handle on a menu items’ cost by simply charting what your center of plate proteins cost and staying seasonal with their selection. Know that based on your concept there will always be a pricing ceiling that you should avoid.  No matter how well the item is prepared and how exceptional it might be, if you exceed that price ceiling people will shy away from buying it.

[]       PREP, TASTE, SEASON, TASTE

As a seasoned chef you may understand what a menu item will taste like simply by working it through your mind’s eye, but there are far too many variables that impact flavor when an original dish is created.  Make sure that you include a trial-and-error phase to menu development and involve different people in the tasting process.

[]       THINK COLORS AND TEXTURES ON A PLATE

Yes, taste is the ultimate attraction to a dish, but if it doesn’t look good on the plate then a guest’s flavor receptors will reject it.  Any menu that is designed must also consider “plate presence”.  Invest the time in beautiful as well as tasty menu items – the eyes play a role in determining flavor.

[]       WORK IN YOUR SIGNATURE DESIGNS

This is where a chef can build his or her style as uniquely marketable.  If you have a signature, then use it and build it into the menu conversation with your cooks and service staff.  My “elegant comfort foods” had to focus on natural presentations.  In other words, I expected that everything would flow in a natural fashion and would not be too contrived.  I could “do contrived” but chose to avoid it with hot foods in particular. 

[]       THROW IT OUT TO YOUR KITCHEN CREW TO PLAY WITH

When you think that a menu item is “ready” then pass it off again to your kitchen team with the goal of making it better.  You might be surprised at what will evolve.

[]       COME UP WITH THREE VARIATIONS FOR EACH POTENTIAL ENTRÉE

If you want eight entrees on your new menu, then start by developing twelve with two or three slight variations for each.  Through trial and error and a bit of democracy you will come up with the best of the best and everyone has some level of buy-in.

[]       GIVE CREDIT WHERE CREDIT IS DUE

If one of your cooks came up with the idea that put a menu item over the top, then make sure they get loads of credit.  You might even state on the physical men that the concept and specific menu items were a collaboration of ideas and put the names of your kitchen crew on the document.  This simple act will really charge up your team.

[]       MAKE SURE THAT IT HITS ALL OF YOUR STAKES IN THE GROUND

Whatever you hold close as essential to your philosophy of cooking must be adhered to, otherwise your buy-in will wane. 

[]       EDUCATE YOUR SERVICE STAFF

Your service staff members are on the front line.  They interact with guests, they are the key salespeople, and they will suffer the most if a guest is unhappy.  Take the time to explain the concept, the menu choices, the process used in development and require them to taste everything.  Have your bar manager or sommelier offer a pairing tasting so that they know what beverages to recommend.  Make them part of the whole process.

[]       GIVE IT A TRY AND BE WILLING TO DELETE OR ADD IF NECESSARY

Finally, whenever a menu is developed, in this case for that time of the year when robust flavors are so exciting and ever-present, know that all your work may not lead to acceptance.  If the guest doesn’t respond well then write it off as a learning experience and make adjustments to your menu.  It must always be fluid until the guest says: “WOW”.

PLAN BETTER – TRAIN HARDER

Harvest America Ventures, LLC

Restaurant Consulting

www.harvestamericacues.com BLOG

More than 800 articles on everything about food and food people

CAFÉ Talks Podcast

https://cafemeetingplace.com/cafe-podcasts

Listen to more than 60 interviews with leading chefs, restaurateurs, and food influencers

PHOTOS:

  1. Chefs Charles Carroll, CEC – Executive Chef – River Oaks Country Club -Houston
  2. Chef Michael Beriau, CEC – Semi-Retired (waxing his skis for another winter)
  3. Chef Herve Mahe – Chef/Owner – Bistro de Margot – Burlington, VT

WRESTLING WITH BREAD AS A CONDIMENT

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So, this is something that I have been perplexed about for the past few months: more and more restaurants are beginning to charge for bread.  At first, I was really put off by this.  Come on – is this the way to address your food cost woes?  But after I settled down, I started to think about it.  What is the role of bread in a meal?  Has bread, in the past, been relegated to condiment status? 

Well, maybe, this is exactly the case when like salt, pepper, and butter, the rule of thumb has too often been – give it away but find the least expensive options to buy.  Ah…but what if the restaurant takes bread seriously?  What if they invest in either an in-house artisan baker or buy from a seriously talented Boulanger?  What if the butter on the table is cultured from a high-end dairy or cold pressed extra virgin olive oil is poured tableside for dipping?

Now the formula changes, doesn’t it?  Those beautiful, hard crusted, perfectly handled sour dough loaves or crunchy French baguettes with their fragrant artisan grain chew that make your jaw work overtime to experience the whole product just might deserve more attention.  Should we elevate the bread to course status?  Is it time for restaurants who take bread seriously to add breads to their appetizer menu, or a separate menu course all-together?

I wonder if menus from those serious restaurants should talk more about their bread, just like a chef might talk about the farm where beautiful organic produce is harvested, Angus steaks shipped directly to a restaurants’ salt lined rooms for 18-24 days of dry aging, or seafood that adheres to the Monterey Bay Seafood Watch.  Why not?

If in the early morning bakeshop, a crew of passionate artisan bakers are nurturing a 12-hour proof for dough that will become incredible whole grain boules that smell rich, sweet, and nutty when peeled from a wood-fired oven, then how can we deny the bread superstar status?  When a baker comes in on his or her day off to check on the status of a sour dough “mother”, feed it, and watch over it as if it were a child, then we might just need to re-think the status of bread on the menu.  It’s not just bread, just like a sauce is not simply a coating, or incredible raw milk cheeses are not Kraft singles.

Ah, but here’s the kicker: what if that bread that you charge for is tasteless and untouched by human hands?  What if it didn’t come from that bakeshop in the corner of your kitchen, but rather from the back of a full-service vendor’s delivery truck?  What if you care about as much for the quality of that bread as you do the brand of ketchup you keep on a server’s station for young kids ordering chicken fingers for dinner?  And, what if the butter you buy to accompany this bread is delivered in foil wrapped squares tossed in a wicker basket just before a bus person drops it at your table along with poured iceless water.

There again, I’m going off on a tangent.  Where were we – oh, yes, now I remember – why are restaurants beginning to charge for bread?  As long as I can remember – bread was relegated to condiment status or worse, thought to be better than it is because our bread palates just weren’t developed.  “Waiter, can I have more bread?”  Sure, why not – just open another plastic bag, tear off a few rolls, pass them through a microwave oven to warm them and suck all the moisture out, toss in a few of those foil wrapped butter pats and drop them off at the table without fanfare.  No different than asking for sugar packets, more salt in the shaker, or added non-dairy creamers for that coffee you serve. 

If restaurants want to charge for exceptional bread with a story, if they feel that artisan bread is part of their formula for success, and if they want to offer it to guests with the same pride exhibited when appetizers and entrees are presented to the table – then they should.  Great bread is worth it, commercial, tasteless bread is not.  Make a choice, but you can’t have it both ways without turning guests off.  Make your bread a big deal, make it a signature for your restaurant, talk to your service staff about the bread: the flour used, the skill of the bread baker, the advantages of hearth baking, and the flavor profile of this exceptional product that you take care of.  Then charge for it with a clear conscience. 

“The smell of good bread baking, like the sound of lightly flowing water, is indescribable in its evocation of innocence and delight.”

– M.F.K. Fischer

For decades I have judged restaurants by the quality of their bread and how it is presented.  Bread is important to me; good bread is a celebrity in my mind.  A great meal without great bread is, to me, always subpar.  I will go out of my way to find and patronize a restaurant based on their bread and YES, I am happy to pay extra for it.

On the other hand, if you want to turn me off and keep me from returning, then continue to serve “bread like” product that was extruded from a machine, proofed without contact from a human being, pumped full of CO2 , conveyor baked in a tunnel oven, blast cooled or frozen, packaged by machine and shipped to your restaurant in the deep freeze section of a 18-wheel truck alongside those breaded chicken fingers, and curly fries.  Go ahead and charge for it on your menu, just don’t expect me or anyone else who appreciates the bread baker and his or her product that is filled with heart and soul to return for another meal.

Sorry folks, that’s my opinion.  Let’s get it right.  CHARGE FOR GREAT BREAD, just make sure that it is great.

“Good bread is the most fundamentally satisfying of all foods; and good bread with fresh butter, the greatest of feasts.”

– James Beard

PLAN BETTER – TRAIN HARDER

Harvest America Ventures, LLC

www.harvestamericacues.com  BLOG

CAFÉ Talks Podcast

https://cafemeetingplace.com/cafe-podcasts

Deepest appreciation for the passionate artisan bread bakers of the world.  Bread is the staff of life, something to revere, something to embrace, and something to support.

TURN YOUR LIFE AROUND AS A COOK

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BEING A COOK IS MORE THAN THE PROCESS OF COOKING

If you are a cook who is happy working just for a paycheck – more power to you, but you can probably save some time and not read this article.  If, however you have the sense that cooking is more than that and you have your eyes on many years connected to the professional kitchen, then read on.  Moving forward in search of doing something meaningful and growing your position into a career may require some adjustments and a definite plan.

So, here are some golden rules that will help you to move in the right direction.  Maybe this is who you already are, but if not, then view these as some “food for thought” that can turn your professional life around. 

[]       BE POSITIVE:

Simple, right?  Pushing aside the challenges and problems cooks face every day and resisting the tendency to find fault and complain is not easy.  We can always find things to disagree with and people who frustrate us, but very little good ever comes out of this approach.  As is often said – learn to become a problem-solver and not a finger pointer, build people up instead of tearing them down, and reap the long-term benefits of a positive attitude.  People will notice.

[]       INVEST IN YOURSELF:

Self-improvement is the ticket to competence and confidence.  Don’t wait for someone else to build your skills and knowledge – take charge of your own growth.  Join, engage, read, learn, practice, connect, experience, and volunteer – this is how we improve.

[]       BE A TEAM PLAYER/LEADER:

Start by becoming an exceptional follower and an advocate for playing your part in a team effort.  Look at your current role as the most important in the success of the operation and the power of the plate.  Master your role and support those around you.  Share, teach, and train others – this is the fuel that drives your own leadership engine.  Every good leader understands how important great followership is and how the leader’s role is to give them all the support he or she can muster.

[]       DEFINE YOUR BENCHMARKS:

Find those cooks, chefs, restaurants, companies, or inspirational leaders who define excellence and learn from them.  Study how they work, why they are so committed, and how they approach their work.  Use all of this as your roadmap to success.  Push yourself to be better and use their performance as a guiding light.

[]       WORK WHERE YOU CAN LEARN:

As you build your skill set make sure you select employers who are willing to invest in you; places where mentorship, training, and helpful critique are part of their method of operation.  Everything else will come to you as you fine tune those skills and the knowledge to be exceptional at what you do.

[]       BE YOUR OWN WORST CRITIC:
Don’t wait for someone else to critique your work – assess your performance and compare it to those benchmarks.  If you can improve then set a course to do so.  Find out the best way to improve, seek out those individuals who have mastered a particular task and connect with the intent to accept critique.

[]       FIND A MENTOR/BE A MENTOR:

Set your focus on finding a person who will be honest in their critique and willing to show you how to improve.  Don’t settle for a person who always seeks to compliment – you will only improve if someone is honest and helpful at the same time.  Finding a mentor is the most important step you can take to change your professional life.

[]       THIRST FOR EXPERIENCES:

Be willing to step outside your comfort zone if there is an opportunity to learn.  Seek out unique opportunities to experience great food, the source of that food, the people who dedicate their lives to it, the service that accompanies exceptional dining, and the commitment to excellence that very successful cooks and chefs are a part of.  Immerse in experiences whenever they are available.  Spend a week working on a farm, tour a meat processing plant, work on a fishing boat, save your money and dine at extraordinary restaurants, work the crush at a local vineyard, help the best ice carver in your area, stage at the best restaurants on your days off, shadow a coffee barista and learn their craft, attend food shows and culinary organization workshops – everything helps to build that base of knowledge, improver your resume, and change your professional life.

[]       FIND A WAY TO BALANCE:

If there is a lesson that most seasoned chefs will point to is finding balance.  All work and no play make any cook rather dull and positioned to fail as a friend, sibling, spouse, or parent.  Make sure your plan includes diet, exercise, free time, family time, travel, and relaxation.  Work hard but know how to step away.

[]       CONNECT:

Be part of something larger than you, join groups of cooks, restaurateurs, bakers, and food enthusiasts who can offer a different perspective, cutting edge changes on how we cook and present food, or the best way to ensure financial success in the restaurant business.  This will feed your competence and confidence and provide a network of resource experts who will be there when you need an answer.

[]       RESPECT OTHERS:

Remember the rules of thumb for teamwork and leadership.  They all evolve around a commitment to respecting those around you who share a stove, grow the ingredients you use, carry your food to a guest, and manage the operation to ensure that it remains financially healthy.  Respect for others leads to the respect you receive in return.

[]       RAISE THE BAR:

As good as you may be today, you should never accept good as the best you can become.  Always push that carrot a little out of reach and then work like crazy to grab it.  Just when you think you are there – push it out a little further.  Remember, excellence is a journey, not a destination.

[]       ALWAYS BE IN SEARCH OF EXCELLENCE:
Use the concept of excellence, even perfection as the goal knowing that it will never be reached.  Again, the journey towards excellence will always result in constant improvement – a chance to “wow” those around you.

Stay the course, enjoy the ride, and know that when your sights are on excellence your life will constantly change for the better.

PLAN BETTER – TRAIN HARDER

Seek to be all that you can be.

Harvest America Ventures, LLC

Restaurant Consulting

www.harvestamericacues.com  BLOG

(Over 800 articles about the business and people of food)

CAFÉ Talks Podcast

https://cafemeetingplace.com/cafe-podcasts

More than 50 interviews with the most influential people in food

CIVILITY LOST

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When did civility (or lack thereof) become only referenced when considering political discourse?  The left and the right may, to some, reference liberal or conservative political beliefs, but when it comes to acting in a civil manner – examples go way beyond politicians and their evolving platforms.  Civility is deeply connected to how we treat each other, the level of respect that we show for the person or people next to us.

Where has civility gone, why is it in such short supply, and what is the impact on our way of life?  Opposing views become disagreements; disagreements become battle; battles define opposite poles that shall never come together; and polarization leads to deep misunderstanding and hate.  This is where we are, and it doesn’t stop with left and right.  It seeps into every aspect of our daily lives and trickles down to our family, friends, children, and grandchildren.  It draws people together into silos of belief and imbeds feelings of right or wrong without any gray area.  People clamor to find those who agree with them whether right or wrong, truth or lie, beneficial or harmful.  A lack of civility is a communicable disease that grows and spreads like a virus from host to host, infecting as many people as possible.  What is most distressing is that once you are accepted into the silo it is nearly impossible to change a person’s position on any topic even when indisputable facts are presented.

“My hope is that we would begin to have a dialogue in this country about the importance of civility.  We can have strong differences, but it does seem to me that most of the country believes it’s gone to critical mass in what I would call the professional class across the political spectrum – left and right.”

-Tom Brokaw

The examples we present are impactful, especially when we are in a position of power (politician, parent, alpha friend, employer, celebrity, writer, strong personality, teacher, or religious leader).  People want to believe in something and someone, there are far more loyal followers than civil leaders, so the one who speaks the loudest, with authority, attracts the largest number of followers – new recruits for the silo.  It may not involve formal membership (although there are numerous examples of silo membership), but those who follow tend to be quite loyal. 

It starts simply, maybe too simply:  Never looking people in the eye, or failing to smile and express “good morning, good evening, thanks, have a nice day.”  It moves on to never holding a door for the person behind you, choosing to jump ahead in line, always finding fault with others and pointing out those faults to anyone who might listen, and misconstruing different opinions as elements of hate and disrespect.  “You don’t like my football team – I hate you.  You like that type of music – I hate you.  You voted for that candidate, get out of my life.  You own those type of kitchen knives – you are a shoemaker.”  The list goes on and on.  It is truly a disease that is creeping through every nook and cranny of our existence.  I can only imagine what it must be like to build a relationship with another individual nowadays.  Soon we will need to fill out a profile of beliefs before going on that first date.

“Civility is not about dousing strongly held views.  It’s about making sure that people are willing to respect other perspectives.”

-Jim Leach

It happens in every community, every place of work, and every industry.  It happens in kitchens where an interesting breed of civility always existed in the past.  As rough and tumble as kitchen life has always been there was an unwritten rule of civility that basically inferred: respect your co-workers, respect the ingredients, respect the chain of command, respect the customer, and by all means respect your skill set.  As long as this was in place, and you worked hard everyone would show you respect once you tied on an apron.

Civility meant that you would never fall down on the job and put your co-worker in a difficult position.  You would never violate the honor of working with ingredients that farmers, ranchers, and fishermen risked everything to put at your disposal, and regardless of how they acted, the customer was respected because they put their trust in you.  Is this still the case?  How many restaurants suffer from employees not showing up to work, failing to step in the kitchen ready to work, failing to respect the standards of excellence that a restaurant is basing its reputation on, or failing to do a job to the best of their ability?  Doing your job as you should is an act of civility; failure to do so is just short of anarchy.  Yet, this is where we are.

A lack of civil behavior exists in healthcare, education, the legal profession, politics, retail operations, head-to-head business competition, law enforcement, the military, and kitchens.  Acting without thoughts of kindness, when being rude and antagonistic becomes the rule and not the exception, when failing to treat others with any level of respect is considered “the way it is”, then how do we continue to categorize ourselves as a civilized society?

Happiness and success come from an environment of respect and caring, not from one where anxiety and blatant hostile discourse are prevalent.  As human beings we crave acceptance and support and when it does not exist, we feel lost and demeaned. 

Kitchen work, as an example, is a team sport.  Those who spend time in front of a stove know in their hearts and minds that working together, supporting one another, and having each other’s back is essential if we are to thrive and succeed.  When acceptable decorum is in short supply then support is replaced with caution and mistrust – this is not the fuel for success or a way to create an environment that breeds unity of purpose.  The same is true in any other environment between co-workers, operators and employees, or employees and guests. 

Civility still exists, but it is in short supply.  There are still businesses and social circles where the rules of civility flourish, but there is a growing presence of discourse, disrespect, and lack of kindness wherever you turn.  You can see it in person-to-person encounters that revert to anger and hate, rude interactions between business employees and customers, news commentators and business associates who interrupt each other during conversation, a lack of respect shown to those once considered professionals worthy of acknowledgement, and even a lack of honor paid to society’s elders. 

Holding doors for others, saying thank you, offering a good morning or afternoon welcome, giving up a seat for a person in need, sharing, and paying respect to those who give of themselves for the betterment of others is just good behavior – something that civilized people do.  You can still see all this pent-up civility pushing to find a home when disasters occur.  Americans are very generous when hurricanes, floods, fires, criminal behavior that impacts others, and family tragedies happen, but in the normal course of a day this quickly seems to fade.  We know that civility is still present, we simply need to embrace it, acknowledge it, and practice it.

Give it a try.  Approach today with conscious civility.  Be kind, welcoming, and supportive.  Pause a moment before you lash out in a hurtful manner and take a breath.  Begin today to condition your behavior towards civility and refrain from giving the finger to others knowing their reaction will be the same.  When we are kind, others will as well.  When we approach a situation with friction then friction you will receive.  Be the example.

PLAN BETTER – TRAIN HARDER

Civilized: “An advanced stage of social and cultural development. The act of showing regard for others”

Harvest America Ventures, LLC

www.harvestamericacues.com BLOG

CAFÉ Talks Podcast

https://cafemeetingplace.com/cafe-podcasts

RESTAURANTS – SWEAT THE DETAILS

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Separating the good from the great becomes more difficult when your competition is seeking to do the same.  In a field where mediocrity reins strong it is quite easy to stand out as better – but is this where you want to be?  Average or better than average, good enough, acceptable, not bad, and fine are not terms that inspire loyalty, enthusiasm, or lines waiting to get in.  If you are in it, then be in it to win.  The first characteristic of those who want to be great and those who are great is that they want to be there, and they will do what it takes to arrive at that outcome.

When you line up the great ones (in this case restaurants or even the people who work there) there’s a trait that is common among all – they sweat the little stuff, the details that may be easy to pass off as not that important, but when you add them up, they define how you will be perceived.  This is what separates the good from the great. So, ask the question right now, in this moment, and do so with the understanding that your answer will define your level of success as a cook, chef, manager, server, or restaurateur:  Do you want to be great or are you satisfied with good?  Simple question requiring a simple answer: GREAT or GOOD.

Think about the implications of your answer and then take a deep breath and exhale slowly knowing that you have defined your future, established the reputation of the restaurant, determined who will pay to experience what you offer, and determine where you fit in the marketplace.  GOOD or GREAT – yes, it’s that simple.

If the answer is good then your job is simple – maintain, do just what is necessary, push aside the pressure of the details, and hope for the best.  There are thousands, maybe hundreds of thousands of GOOD restaurants out there – welcome to the pack.  There are, however, a small, elite percentage of restaurants, cooks, chefs, servers, and managers who will never be satisfied with good – they are on a lifelong pursuit of excellence – they want and NEED to be GREAT!  Is this you?  Is this where you want to sit or where you want your restaurant to be?  If it is, then I applaud you and implore you to SWEAT THE DETAILS. 

So here is a starting point – make a list of every single detail associated with your restaurant experience, your employee experience, your personal and professional goals and then begin the process of assessing how well you are doing with each.  No detail is too small – it all counts – it is the path to being GREAT.  It might begin like this:

[]       Is your website fresh, attractive, exciting, and informative

[]       Is the website easy to navigate

[]       Can guests make reservations online

[]       If there are pictures of the restaurant and your food, are they professionally done and do they reflect the experience you are trying to create

[]       If guests call for a reservation, are they treated in a welcoming manner

[]       Is the process of making a reservation user-friendly and do you offer a confirmation number

[]       Is the parking lot clean and well-lit

[]       Is the exterior signage in perfect shape, properly lit, detailed properly and easily noticed from the road

[]       Is the landscaping attended to, are the shrubs, trees, flowers, etc. healthy and well maintained

[]       Are the windows spotless

[]       Is the exterior lighting functioning properly

[]       Are the eaves and soffits free of spider webs

[]       Is the exterior of the building, the grounds, the parking lot free of litter

[]       Is there transition lighting in the entranceway as guest move from outside to inside

[]       Are the initial smells when a guest enters – enticing

[]       Is it apparent where the guest should go upon entering

[]       Are guests greeted with a smile as soon as they arrive

[]       If a reservation was made, is it managed properly and executed seamlessly

[]       Is your host friendly, professionally attired, and at ease with guests

[]       What is the first impression of the restaurant: lighting, wall and ceiling materials, floors, music, temperature

[]       What is the tabletop like – are tables attractive, appropriate flatware, china, and glassware – is everything spotless

[]       Are the chairs comfortable

[]       Does the host pull chairs out for guests to make seating easier

[]       Are menus presented and is the document explained for easy navigation

[]       Are the menus spotless

[]       Are the menus easy to read under the restaurant lighting

[]       Is the table server introduced

[]       Is water poured within the first minute or two of seating

[]       Is there ice in the glass

Now, this is just the beginning of the list, we haven’t even reached any part of

the product experience, but you begin to see what it takes.  Every detail must be

established, assessed, and managed – every day.  Every employee must “buy in”

to the importance of the details – it is not the manager’s or the chef’s job, it is

everyone’s job and everyone’s passion if greatness is to be achieved.  Are you in?

If you want to start the journey today from good to great, then begin with your

checklist and see where you sit right now.  Don’t shy away from the details –

own them.  Find out where you sit and then delegate every detail to someone,

measure their performance regarding those details and celebrate how well

they do as a team.  Don’t accept being part of the GOOD marketplace, stand out

 as a benchmark for others to respect and wonder about.  As Chef Charlie

Trotter once said:

“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.”

PLAN BETTER – TRAIN HARDER

Harvest America Ventures, LLC

Restaurant Consulting

www.harvestamericacues.com  BLOG

(Over 800 articles about the business and people of food)

CAFÉ Talks Podcast

https://cafemeetingplace.com/cafe-podcasts

More than 50 interviews with the most influential people in food

THE GIFTS OF FOOD AND COOKING – DON’T TAKE THEM FOR GRANTED

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We need to stop viewing food as an indulgence, as something that is somehow sinister, or worse – something that is utilitarian and consumed simply out of necessity.  These are the extremes of consumption – feelings that we either celebrate or hide – feelings of guilt or annoyance that permeate our everyday lives.  To some – the pleasures of eating are somehow breaking a pact with our body and can only be enjoyed if we violate some established code of what is acceptable.  We indulge in eating chocolate, butter, cream, steak, cheese, or dessert and are relegated to feeling somewhat guilty when we do.  It seems to taste better when we go against this pact and test our will power to resist or succumb.  We feel satisfied and somehow sinister for consuming and enjoying the experience of eating luscious foods and believe that in doing so we will: “pay the price”. 

At the other extreme, some believe that resisting consumption is noble and all who do not are somehow violators of an unwritten rule of good living.  To this extreme – food is only for survival.  Eating is a process designed to fuel the body with what is necessary and avoid any step into the realm of enjoyment.  Cooking and seasoning that may excite the palate are not in keeping with the rule of the food survivalist.

Food is a gift; it is a natural connection that we all have to nature and the cycle of life.  Pleasure is also a gift that is available in several forms.  To avoid the pleasure that good, tasty, well-prepared food is to ignore a gift that is precious and important. 

“Eating is not merely a material pleasure.  Eating well gives a spectacular joy to life and contributes immensely to goodwill and happy companionship.  It is of great importance to human morale.”

-Elsa Schiaparelli

When we cook food with pleasure in mind, we open the door to so many opportunities.  Well prepared food, food made with caring and good feelings towards all who brought ingredients to the kitchen table, and all who are about to consume the “end product”, is a symbol of openness and a sign of willingness to bring peace, happiness, and understanding to the plate.  It is one of the most significant things that can be done for another person – to cook is to open the heart, the mind, and the soul.  This process is a magical expression of a cook’s history and traditions, dedication to a craft, and desire to serve.  Cooking is a highly personal act.

It is over a plate of food that we begin to understand another person, to appreciate their background and their feelings.  When we break bread together, we symbolically open the door to possibility.  Great food breaks down barriers, sets aside differences, stimulates positive conversation, brings a smile to even the most somber face, and sets the stage for transitional conversation.  This is why state dinners, business meetings, weddings, reunions, conferences, workshops, holiday tables, and memorials focus so much on a plate of food.  It is food that brings people together – even those who seem to suffer from the demons of hate, mistrust, fear, angst, disappointment, and uncertainty.

The greatest travesty in the world is that millions of people are malnourished and suffer a lack of pleasurable eating.  It may very well be the root of so much dissent and anger between the haves and the have nots.  This is the most severe crime in a world where production is not the issue but rather access and greed.  If we solve the world hunger problem, we will go very far in bringing people together for the common good.

“We know that a peaceful world cannot long exist, one-third rich and two-thirds hungry.”

– Jimmy Carter, 39th president of the United States.

“Close to a billion people – one-eighth of the world’s population – still live in hunger. Each year 2 million children die through malnutrition. This is happening at a time when doctors in Britain are warning of the spread of obesity. We are eating too much while others starve.”

– Jonathan Sacks, Jewish scholar.

“The first essential component of social justice is adequate food for all mankind. Food is the moral right of all who are born into this world.”

 – Norman Borlaug, biologist, and humanitarian.

For others who are oblivious to the problem of hunger there is the dilemma of “reason”: why do we eat.  If it begins and ends with seeking fuel to exist, then our lives will be shallow and incomplete.  Eating well is a key to opening the door of understanding, of appreciating others and expanding our knowledge of differences, of stimulating the senses and understanding pleasure.

 “Eating is so intimate.  It’s very sensual. When you invite someone to sit at your table (whether your home or your restaurant) and you want to cook for them, you’re inviting a person into your life.”

-Maya Angelou

When we sit at another person’s table we are asking for a tour of their upbringing, their life experiences, their desires, the flavors of their life, and the dreams they foster – when you cook for someone else you are letting them in, dropping the barriers and opening yourself up to seeing who they truly are.  When you choose to eat what others have cooked you are also showing them how willing you are to keep an open mind and be vulnerable.

“Tell me what you eat, and I will tell you who you are.”

  • Jean Anthelme Brillat-Savarin

When a cook steps into his or her kitchen there is an understanding that this is the center of the universe during that moment.  This is a space to revere for it holds the key to their heritage.  This is where the influence of a great grandmother, a mother or father, a fellow chef or chef mentor, or experiences in eating that the cook holds close to heart, come into play.  This is where all of this is expressed through the knife, the hands, the palate, the mind, heart, and soul; this is where it all comes together in an expression of love.

“The kitchen is a sacred place.”

  • Marc Forgione

Too often, eating is a process.  The advent of convenience whether it be how ingredients are presented or the methods of cooking available, have crushed the soul of cooking and consumption.  Learning how to pay respect for eating begins with the simple rules of dining.  If we are to begin to change and see what we may have been missing during consumption of food, we must look towards a new set of habits.

“Too many people just eat to consume calories.  Try dining for a change.”

-John Walters

Here are some simple habits that can be adopted by all who prepare and consume well-prepared food:

  • Set the table.  Try using tablecloths, well set tabletop, poured water, a single flower centerpiece, soft background music, mood lighting.
  • Make sure everyone sits at the same time – no excuses.
  • Present the meal – serve well-presented plates and introduce the dish.
  • Turn off your phones – no excuses.
  • Talk about the food – the ingredients, the farmers and ranchers, fish mongers, how it was prepared, reflections on the flavors and presentation.
  • Wait until everyone has finished – don’t be rude.
  • Give thanks for the meal – need not be a prayer, just a simple: “Thanks, that was delicious.”

Of course, gluttony is different.  It is not respect for food, but rather a lack of control that seeks to turn a wonderful pleasure into a tool for self-destruction.  For some, it is a crutch to help hide frustration, disappointment, discontent, anxiety, and depression – and in those cases intervention with the cause is the only remedy that works to improve the health of the individual while maintaining the rule of moderation. 

Food should not be an indulgence or a necessary evil – it is a joy to be shared and a common denominator in life.  Food is the universal language that can bring people together and help dissolve differences.  Food is Mother Nature’s gift that we should revere, respect, and enjoy.

These past three years have provided us with many lessons about safety, disease, human nature, information and misinformation, preparedness, our fragile supply chain, and global economics.  We have also learned more about ourselves, our capacity to adjust, our families, and even our kitchens.  Out of necessity we have returned to our kitchens to re-learn how to cook and care for our families, to respect what restaurants do and how important they are to our peace of mind and our lifestyle, and just how special food can be when we slow down – just a bit.  Let’s not forget this.  Let’s continue to invest in food and dining, not as an indulgence or necessary evil, but rather as a gift and an opportunity.

PLAN BETTER – TRAIN HARDER

Harvest America Ventures, LLC

Restaurant Consulting

www.harvestamericacues.com  BLOG

CAFÉ Talks Podcast

https://cafemeetingplace.com/cafe-podcasts

SEASONS CHANGE AND SO DO I

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

“Seasons change and so did I.”

No Time – Randy Bachman of the Guess Who

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

PLAN BETTER – TRAIN HARDER

Harvest America Ventures, LLC

Restaurant Consulting

www.harvestamericacues.com – BLOG

CAFÉ Talks Podcast

https://cafemeetingplace.com/cafe-podcasts

FOOD MOMENTS THAT CHANGED YOUR LIFE

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

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

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

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

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

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

PLAN BETTER – TRAIN HARDER

Harvest America Ventures, LLC

www.harvestamericacues.com  BLOG

CAFÉ Talks Podcast

https://cafemeetingplace.com/cafe-podcasts

DO IT RIGHT

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

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

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

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

[]       START WITH KNOWING THE MARKET

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

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

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

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

[]       BUILD A CONCEPT THAT MAKES SENSE

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

[]       KNOW HOW TO RUN A BUSINESS

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

[]       BUILD IN CONSISTENCY AND DEPENDABILITY

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

[]       KEEP IT SIMPLE AND DO IT VERY WELL

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

[]       HIRE ENERGETIC, CARING, POSITIVE PEOPLE

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

[]       TEACH AND TRAIN EVERY DAY

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

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

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

[]       OFFER CARING SERVICE

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

[]       MAKE SURE EVERYTHING IS SPOTLESSLY CLEAN

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

[]       MATCH THE AMBIENCE TO THE CONCEPT

The ambience should support the product. Does it?

[]       BUILD AN APPROPRIATE TABLETOP

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

[]       SEE EVERYTHING THROUGH THE GUESTS EYES

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

[]       TREAT EVERYONE WITH RESPECT

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

[]       PROVIDE THE TOOLS TO DO THE JOB

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

[]       RECOGNIZE AND REWARD EXCELLENCE

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

[]       PAY FAIRLY, CHARGE FAIRLY

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

[]       SEEK FEEDBACK – INTERNAL AND EXTERNAL

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

[]       BE THE EXAMPLE

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

[]       BE YOUR OWN WORST CRITIC

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

[]       RESPOND TO FEEDBACK

You asked for it – act on it.

[]       KNOW YOUR COMPETITION AND FIND YOUR NICHE

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

[]       NEVER GET TOO COMFORTABLE

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

[]       STAY WILLING TO CHANGE BEFORE YOU HAVE NO CHOICE

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

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

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

Do it right!

PLAN BETTER – TRAIN HARDER

Harvest America Ventures, LLC

Restaurant Consulting

www.harvestamericacues.com  BLOG

CAFÉ Talks Podcast

https://cafemeetingplace.com/cafe-podcasts

RESTAURANT STAFF – A LABOR DAY TRIBUTE

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Happy Labor Day.

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YOU COOK WHAT & WHO YOU ARE

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

“Never serve day old pie.”

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

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

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

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

-Brach

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

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

-Brach

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

A FEW BOOKS TO ADD TO YOUR LIBRARY:

         Daniel Boulud

Marcus Samuelsson

Lidia Bastianich

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

Sean Brock

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Cook from the heart and soul

Cook like you mean it

Represent your traditions and experiences

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BRING BACK THE 20 SEAT BISTRO

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

” Good friends, good food, good times.”

-author unknown

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

Maybe it’s time to bring them back.

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

-Zachary’s

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CONTROLLED HUSTLE

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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Nurture the hustle!

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COOKING WITH FIRE

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

I am reminded of the words from Mick Jaggar:

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

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

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

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

There is nothing like cooking with live fire.

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THE GREATEST THREAT TO AMERICAN RESTAURANTS

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

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

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

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

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

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

-Jimmy Buffet (musician)

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

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

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

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

-Arnold J. Toynbee (author and historian)

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

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

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

PLAN BETTER – TRAIN HARDER

Harvest America Ventures, LLC

Restaurant Consulting

www.harvestamericacues.com  BLOG

CAFÉ Talks Podcast

https://cafemeetingplace.com/cafe-podcasts

THE END OF THE AMERICAN RESTAURANT

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

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

For the Restaurateur:

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

For the Chef and Manager:

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

For the Cook and Server:

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

For the Vendor:

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

For the Customer:

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

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

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

PLAN BETTER – TRAIN HARDER

Harvest America Ventures, LLC

Restaurant Consulting

www.harvestamericacues.com  BLOG

CAFÉ Talks Podcast

https://cafemeetingplace.com/cafe-podcasts

CHEFS – BUILD YOUR NETWORK OF INFLUENCE

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

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

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

[]       START WITH STRONG FOUNDATIONS:

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

[]       WORK WHERE YOU CAN LEARN SOMETHING NEW:

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

[]       READ EVERYTHING YOU CAN:

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

[]       EXPERIENCE RESTAURANTS:

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

[]       TASTE YOUR HISTORY:

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

[]       TRAVEL WHENEVER THE OPPORTUNITY ARISES:

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

[]       SEEK OUT FOOD FRIENDS:

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

[]       FIND A MENTOR:

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

[]       BE AN ADVENTUROUS EATER:

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

[]       PRACTICE AND EXPERIMENT:

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

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

PLAN BETTER – TRAIN HARDER

Harvest America Ventures, LLC

www.harvestamericacues.com  BLOG

(800 articles and counting)

CAFÉ Talks Podcast

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Listen to the voices of excellence

Fifty of the most dynamic people who help chefs grow

COOKING – THAT THREAD OF FRIENDSHIP

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

PLAN BETTER – TRAIN HARDER

Stay connection with those unique friends in food

Harvest America Ventures, LLC

www.harvestamericacues.com  BLOG

CAFÉ Talks Podcast

https://cafemeetingplace.com/cafe-podcasts

KITCHENS CAN BE TALENT INCUBATORS

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

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

-Steve Jobs (founder of Apple Computers)

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

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

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

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

[]       TEACH:

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

[]       SHOW (TRAIN):

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

[]       WATCH:

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

[]       CRITIQUE:

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

[]       SHOW AGAIN:

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

[]       PATIENCE:

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

[]       REPEAT:

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

PLAN BETTER – TRAIN HARDER

Harvest America Ventures, LLC

Restaurant Consulting

www.harvestamericacues.com  BLOG

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

CAFÉ Talks Podcast

Listen in to interviews with many of the leading professionals in

The business of food

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WORK HARD AND BE KIND

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

PLAN BETTER – TRAIN HARDER

Work hard and be kind

Harvest America Ventures, LLC

Restaurant Consulting

www.harvestamericacues.com  BLOG

CAFÉ Talk Podcast

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AN EVEN BIGGER THREAT TO RESTAURANT SURVIVAL

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

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

Let’s look at just a few:

[]       THE PROFESSION OF FARMING:

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

[]       CLIMATE CHANGE:

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

[]       WAR:

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

[]       GROWING POPULATION:

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

[]       AN ANTIQUAITED DISTRIBUTION SYSTEM:

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

[]       CENTRALIZED FOOD SYSTEM:

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

[]       ADDICTION TO CHEAP FOOD:

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

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

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

PLAN BETTER – TRAIN HARDER

Think ahead and learn to adapt

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KNIVES – THE CHEF’S WITNESS TOOLS

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

PLAN BETTER – TRAIN HARDER

Respect your witness tools

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THE FREEDOM TO CREATE

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Happy 4th of July!

Plan Better – Train Harder

America the Beautiful – a beacon of freedom’s light

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WHY THE SCHOOL OF HARD KNOCKS IS IMPORTANT

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

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

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

-Albert Einstein

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

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

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

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

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

-G.K. Nelson

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

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

  • DEPENDABILITY:

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

  • KNOW YOUR IMPACT:

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

  • INVEST IN OTHERS:

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

  • RESPECT:

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

  • PATIENCE:

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

  • INVEST IN YOURSELF:

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

  • FAIL BEFORE YOU SUCCEED:

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

  • AVOID MEDIOCRITY, INVEST IN EXCELLENCE:

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

  • LEAD BY EXAMPLE:

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

  • WORKING HARD FEELS GOOD:

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

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

-Mark Twain

PLAN BETTER – TRAIN HARDER

Enroll in the School of Hard Knocks

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“SOMETIMES THE PASTA LIKES TO BE BY ITSELF”

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

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

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

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

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

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

PLAN BETTER – TRAIN HARDER

Never forget the foundations – they will serve you well

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THE IMPORTANCE OF WORK

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

Henry Ford once said:

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

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

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

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

-Thomas Edison

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

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

Martin Luther King stated it so well:

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

-Rumi – Persian Poet

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

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

PLAN BETTER – TRAIN HARDER

Harvest America Ventures, LLC

Restaurant Consulting

www.harvestamericacues.com – BLOG

(Over 700 articles on the people of food)

CAFÉ Talks Podcast

(Enjoy 50 interviews with leading professionals)

https://cafemeetingplace.com/cafe-podcasts

RE-THINKING THE NEIGHBORHOOD RESTAURANT

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

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

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

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

(National Restaurant Association)

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

PLAN BETTER – TRAIN HARDER

Harvest America Ventures, LLC

Restaurant Consulting

www.harvestamericacues.com  BLOG

(Over 700 articles)

CAFÉ Talks Podcast

https://cafemeetingplace.com/cafe-podcasts

THE IMPORTANCE OF THE SECOND OLDEST PROFESSION

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

PLAN BETTER – TRAIN HARDER

Harvest America Ventures, LLC

www.harvestamericacues.com  BLOG

CAFÉ Talks Podcast

https://cafemeetingplace.com/cafe-podcasts

SUPPLY CHAIN – LESSONS LEARNED

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(an opinion piece)

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

PLAN BETTER – TRAIN HARDER

Harvest America Ventures, LLC

www.harvestamericacues.com  BLOG

CAFÉ Talks Podcast

https://cafemeetingplace.com/cafe-podcasts

BUILDING A RESTAURANT FAMILY

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

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

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

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

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

-Bob Ehrlich

(Former Governor of Maryland)

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

  1.  DEDICATE THE TIME

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

  • DEDICATE THE SPACE

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

  • COOK LIKE IT WAS FAMILY

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

  • MIX AND MATCH

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

  • EVERYONE PARTICIPATES

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

  • FOOD and WINE CENTERPIECE OF CONVERSATION

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

  • MAKE IT EDUCATIONAL

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

  • FEATURE TRADITIONS and HISTORY

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

  • CELEBRATE YOUR STAFF

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

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

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

-Anthony Bourdain

PLAN BETTER – TRAIN HARDER

Harvest America Ventures, LLC

www.harvestamericacues.com  BLOG

CAFÉ Talks Podcast

https://cafemeetingplace.com/cafe-podcasts

THE THRILL OF OPENING YOUR OWN RESTAURANT

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

GOOD LUCK!

PLAN BETTER – TRAIN HARDER

Harvest America Ventures, LLC

Restaurant Consulting

www.harvestamericacues.com  BLOG

CAFÉ Talks Podcast

https://cafemeetingplace.com/cafe-podcasts

THE MOMENT WHEN YOU ARE IN THE ZONE – PART II

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

The dining room manager said:

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

PLAN BETTER – TRAIN HARDER

Harvest America Ventures, LLC

Restaurant Consulting

www.harvestamericacues.com  BLOG

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THE MOMENT WHEN YOU ARE IN THE ZONE – PART I

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

In the zone is defined as:

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

-Your dictionary

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

PLAN BETTER – TRAIN HARDER

Harvest America Ventures, LLC

Restaurant Consulting

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IN THE ZONE – PART II COMING SOON

THE LINE IN THE SAND WITH RESTAURANT PRICING

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

PLAN BETTER – TRAIN HARDER

Harvest America Ventures, LLC

www.harvestamericacues.com  BLOG

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

PLAN BETTER – TRAIN HARDER

Harvest America Ventures, LLC

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PART THREE OF: YOU NEVER KNOW – COMING SOON

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

PLAN BETTER – TRAIN HARDER

Harvest America Ventures, LLC

Restaurant Consulting

www.harvestamericacues.com  BLOG

CAFÉ Talks Podcast

https://cafemeetingplace.com/cafe-podcasts

YOU NEVER KNOW – PART TWO COMING SOON

A CHEF’S ADVICE TO 2022 CULINARY GRADUATES

Featured

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

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

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

[]       YOU DON’T KNOW ENOUGH – YET:

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

[]       TAKE EVERY OPPORTUNITY TO LEARN – YOUR EDUCATION WILL

         NEVER STOP:

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

[]       ALWAYS REMAIN HUMBLE:

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

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

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

[]       WE ARE ALL DISHWASHERS:

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

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

 EVERYONE’S JOB:

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

[]       TURN YOUR BACK ON MEDIOCRITY:

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

[]       EXCELLENCE IS THE ONLY APPROACH:

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

[]       NEVER FORGET WHO HELPED YOU ALONG THE WAY:

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

[]       TAKE CARE OF YOURSELF:

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

[]       EVERYTHING YOU DO IMPACTS YOUR BRAND:

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

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

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

[]       CLEAN AS YOU GO:

As has been said: cleanliness is next to godliness.

[]       FOOD SAFETY IS A SACRED TRUST:

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

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

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

[]       RESPECT OTHERS:

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

[]       RESPECT THE INGREDIENTS AND THE EQUIPMENT YOU USE:

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

[]       BELIEVE IN SOMETHING IMPORTANT and GIVE BACK:

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

[]       LEARN FROM YOUR MISTAKES:

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

[]       BE DEPENDABLE and HONEST:

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

[]       TAKE PRIDE IN THE PROFESSION:

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

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

PLAN BETTER – TRAIN HARDER

Harvest America Ventures, LLC

www.harvestamericacues.com  BLOG

CAFÉ Talks Podcast

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

https://cafemeetingplace.com/cafe-podcasts

A CHANCE TO BE ALL THAT YOU CAN BE

Featured

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

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

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

[]       START WITH A PLAN:

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

[]       BE WILLING TO TURN ON A DIME:

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

[]       COMMIT TO CONSTANT SKILL DEVELOPMENT:

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

[]       BE INQUISITIVE:

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

[]       TAKE EVERY OPPORTUNITY TO LEARN:

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

[]       EXPAND YOUR PALATE:

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

[]       THINK PAST TODAY:

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

[]       KNOW WHAT YOU DON’T KNOW:

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

[]       WORK FOR THE RIGHT PEOPLE:

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

[]       COMMIT TO IT:

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

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

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

[]       BUILD AND ENGAGE YOUR NETWORK:

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

[]       DEPENDABILITY FIRST:

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

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

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

[]       WORK ON YOUR BRAND EVERY DAY:

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

PLAN BETTER – TRAIN HARDER

Harvest America Ventures, LLC

www.harvestamericacues.com  BLOG

700 articles from the chef’s desk

Follow exceptional interviews on CAFÉ Talks Podcast

https://cafemeetingplace.com/cafe-podcasts

A CHANCE TO BE ALL THAT YOU CAN BE

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

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

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

[]       START WITH A PLAN:

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

[]       BE WILLING TO TURN ON A DIME:

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

[]       COMMIT TO CONSTANT SKILL DEVELOPMENT:

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

[]       BE INQUISITIVE:

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

[]       TAKE EVERY OPPORTUNITY TO LEARN:

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

[]       EXPAND YOUR PALATE:

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

[]       THINK PAST TODAY:

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

[]       KNOW WHAT YOU DON’T KNOW:

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

[]       WORK FOR THE RIGHT PEOPLE:

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

[]       COMMIT TO IT:

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

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

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

[]       BUILD AND ENGAGE YOUR NETWORK:

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

[]       DEPENDABILITY FIRST:

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

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

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

[]       WORK ON YOUR BRAND EVERY DAY:

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

PLAN BETTER – TRAIN HARDER

Harvest America Ventures, LLC

www.harvestamericacues.com  BLOG

700 articles from the chef’s desk

Follow exceptional interviews on CAFÉ Talks Podcast

https://cafemeetingplace.com/cafe-podcasts

FOOD COST IS NOT THE CHEF’S RESPONSIBILITY

Featured

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

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

Let’s look at how this works:

[]       SMART BUYING

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

[]       PRODUCT RECEIVING

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

[]       STORAGE AND ROTATION

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

[]       LABEL AND DATE

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

[]       FOUNDATIONAL COOKING METHODS

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

[]       RECIPES

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

[]       WASTE ACCOUNTABILITY

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

[]       STANDARDS IN PLACE, FOLLOW STANDARDS

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

[]       WATCH RETURNING PLATES

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

[]       BIGGER IS NOT ALWAYS BETTER

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

[]       MENU PLANNING WITH TOTAL USE IN MIND

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

[]       UPSELLING TO DRIVE DOWN PERCENTAGES

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

[]       RESTAURANT EYES

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

PLAN BETTER – TRAIN HARDER

Harvest America Ventures, LLC

Restaurant Consulting

www.harvestamericacues.com BLOG

CAFÉ Talks Podcast

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THE TWO TYPES OF RESTAURANT OWNERSHIP

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

PLAN BETTER – TRAIN HARDER

Harvest America Ventures, LLC

www.harvestamericacues.com  BLOG

CAFÉ Talks Podcast

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CHEFS- REMEMBER THE EXCITEMENT AND SURPRISE

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

PLAN BETTER – TRAIN HARDER

Harvest America Ventures, LLC

Restaurant Consulting

www.harvestamericacues.com  BLOG

CAFÉ Talks Podcast

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WE EAT WHAT WE ARE AND WE ARE WHAT WE EAT

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

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

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

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

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

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

It became her mission to open others to this possibility.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

THE CULINARY MEDICINE TEXTBOOK:

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

                                    Interview questions – April 2022

PLAN BETTER – TRAIN HARDER

You Are What You Eat

Harvest America Ventures, LLC

www.harvestamericacues.com  BLOG

CAFÉ Talks Podcast

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AS A CHEF – A FEW THINGS I KNOW

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

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

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

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

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

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

[]       What cooks and chefs do is meaningful.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

[]       Even the predictable is unpredictable in a kitchen.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

[]       Quality and consistency are the foundations of success.

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

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

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

PLAN BETTER _TRAIN HARDER

Harvest America Ventures, LLC

www.harvestamericacues.com

CAFÉ Talks Podcast

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THE DICHOTOMY OF THE HAVES AND HAVE NOTS

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

-Mark Bittman

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

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

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

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

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

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

PLAN BETTER – TRAIN HARDER

Harvest America Ventures, LLC

www.harvestamericacues.com

SUPPORT THEIR WORK:

World Central Kitchen

https://wck.org

Habitat for Humanity

https://secure.habitat.org/

UNICEF – Help the children of Ukraine

https://www.unicefusa.org

C-CAP – Culinary Education for underserved communities

FINDING YOUR PLACE

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

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

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

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

[]       NOURISH THE BODY

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

[]       NOURISH THE MIND

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

[]       NOURISH THE SOUL

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

[]       BRING PEOPLE PHYSICALLY TOGETHER

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

[]       HELP PEOPLE TO CELEBRATE

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

[]       HELP TO TEMPER GRIEF AND DISAPPOINTMENT

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

[]       SUPPORT ARTISTIC EXPRESSION

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

[]       RAISE SPIRITS WHEN ALL ELSE FAILS

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

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

Be proud to cook!  You have found your place.

PLAN BETTER – TRAIN HARDER

Harvest America Ventures, LLC

www.harvestamericacues.com

CAFÉ Talks Podcast

https://cafemeetingplace.com/cafe-podcasts

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

 

THE SOUL OF A RESTAURANT

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I may be in the minority, but I have always felt, and often promoted, that restaurants can and occasionally do serve a higher purpose.  Since those early days as an apprentice and maybe even before as a 16-year-old dishwasher, I saw something special in restaurant life.  Yes, life – since those who find that higher purpose will likely invest a significant amount of time in a restaurant kitchen, not because they must, but rather because they want to.  The purpose to them involves a connection to the underlying soul of the operation; a soul that highlights history, tradition, a sense of family, respect and appreciation, and an inspiring story.  Is this poetic nonsense or is there truth in this idea of soul?

Soul is likely more evident in single unit proprietorships or small multi-unit operations that are family operated, and less evident in the larger chains simply because larger creates challenges to the feel of a restaurant and a loss of on-site control over that higher purpose.  I don’t have anything against the larger chains, there are some whose mission is built around trying to protect that purpose, but it’s exponentially harder to build and hold onto that soul when hundreds of miles separate units.

Whether speaking from a spiritual standpoint, referencing soul music, soul food, or the soul of a restaurant – it is clear that each of these can “transform the moments in our day and bring us closer to living life from a place that sits well with who we are at our core”1.  In other words, something goes beyond what is apparent on the surface: personality, sound, food, or service.  “Who we are” is the foundation of our existence that includes our heritage, who we want to be, and who others believe we are and what we represent.  Soul is the definition of you and the pursuit of this will always be our most important goal in life.  Now, this is getting heavy, but bear in mind that it can and should be fulfilling and exciting.

When we listen to authentic soul music, we can feel the musician’s pain and joy.  The music is designed to open the listener up to the performer’s life and story.  When we eat authentic soul food we are transported to the environment where the cook matured, where he or she connected with ingredients, and how their socio-economic condition impacted what and how those ingredients were prepared.  We not only taste soul food; we feel it.  The same can be true in a restaurant.  Expressing this, building a team around it, and telling that story is what I refer to as that higher purpose.

As a cook or chef, we are drawn to those operations where punching a clock is replaced with joining the energy that a restaurant exudes.  Have you worked in an operation like this?  Have you walked through the door with the typical knot in your stomach being overpowered by positive anticipation?  Okay, maybe not every day, but most.  Are you excited to see the people you work with; touch the fresh ingredients delivered by farmers, fish mongers, and ranchers who are passionate about their work; and taking in the smells, sounds, and flavors of honest cooking happening all around?  If you answer yes, then you have been touched by the restaurant’s soul.

Does the place where you work have a story that everyone knows and feels; a story that resonates with every employee, owner, and guest?  Does that story take people back in time and allow them to think about the impact the place, building, people, and food had on who they are today?  If so, then the restaurant has linked with its higher purpose.

When this happens, magic occurs.  The employees work from the heart, not just a prep sheet.  When this happens, the owners feel a sense of responsibility to protect that soul.  When this happens, guests find that their anticipation and actual experience become memorable and at some level, inspiring.

Sometimes the purpose of a restaurant gets lost in the noise of defining success.  Look around in your community and you will be able to pick out those restaurants with soul and special purpose that are part of that success formula as well as those that tend to forget why they exist.  Financially successful restaurant will come and go if they fail to connect to their soul where those that have the order correct may continue to exist for generations.  That small, family-owned Italian restaurant on the corner of your neighborhood; the one that has been there for 75years, undoubtedly has soul.  There is a story there that everyone understands from the host to the dishwasher and each one respects their role in perpetuating that higher purpose. 

I was reminded of this important differentiation today through a shared article about Chef Sean Sherman’s Owamni restaurant in Minneapolis (Thanks Chef Tim Hardiman).  The James Beard Foundation recognized this indigenous operation as the Best New Restaurant in America.

https://www.newyorker.com/magazine/2022/09/19/how-owamni-became-the-best-new-restaurant-in-the-united-states

 Sean’s approach is to tell the story of the Lakota people through food and in doing so he has defined the restaurant’s soul.  This higher purpose is felt by all stakeholders in the operation; a purpose that goes beyond the food, it makes a connection to history, traditions, struggles, and perseverance.

The same has been true of operations like Alice Water’s Chez Panisse in Berkeley, California, Lombardi’s pizzeria in Brooklyn, Fore Street in Portland, Maine, Berghoff’s in Chicago, Willie Mae’s Scotch House in New Orleans, The Union Oyster House in Boston, The Tadich Grill in San Francisco, The White Horse Tavern in Newport, Rhode Island, and thousands of other neighborhood restaurants that live their higher purpose.

When purpose is defined, when teams are built with this in mind, and when the soul of the operation is evident to all, then financial success will come as well.  This is how the great restaurants are defined and where generational longevity is a result.

Note: 1 – From the movie “Soul”

PLAN BETTER – TRAIN HARDER

Does your restaurant have soul?

Harvest America Ventures, LLC

www.harvestamericacues.com  BLOG

CAFÉ Talks Podcast

https://cafemeetingplace.com/cafe-podcasts

A PROUD HISTORY FOR THE KITCHEN MAJORITY

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Yep, I know there are bruises and wounds to heal, any industry has their share.   Certainly, there are issues and things to be addressed and fixed and there is little doubt that life has not always been fair and kind when it comes to kitchen work, but like so many other businesses and industries – the positive far outweighs those scars and wounds. Take the time to think about it:

This is a profile of the restaurant business that gets lost in all the negative press.

[]       SECOND LARGEST EMPLOYER

In 2021, there were 14.5 million people employed in the restaurant industry1

[]       THE CLEAREST WINDOW TO ENTREPRENEURSHIP

80%of single-unit restaurants in the U.S. are owned by people who started as entry-level employees and 90% of managers started in the same way.1

[]       THE LEADING “FIRST JOB” INDUSTRY IN AMERICA

1/3rd of all Americans had their first job in restaurants and nearly ½ of all American workers have had a job in restaurants at some point in their life.1

[]       A BENCHMARK BUSINESS THAT DEFINES A VILLAGE, TOWN, OR CITY

“Local restaurants are an impactful gathering place for communities, where relationships form, and memories are made.  They preserve agriculture and food preferences and styles of cooking from generation to generation and are the lifeblood of regional food culture.”2

[]       THE HALLMARK FOR TRADITIONS AND ETHNICITY

The neighborhood restaurant is often the soul of micro cultures.  It is the repository of recipes, cooking methods, traditions, and the power of our melting pot country.

[]       A UNIVERSAL REWARD SYSTEM FOR CUSTOMERS

Dining out is more than a need for nourishment, it is a reward for hard work, a place to celebrate success, a way to recognize others, a mecca for friends to enjoy each other’s company, and a place where the important topics of the day find a home in discussion.

[]       THE REAL CONNECTION BETWEEN FARMERS AND CONSUMERS

The farmer is oftentimes the unsung hero of our communities.  Without them, we would not be able to enjoy the bounty of the earth.  The restaurant is the forum where farmers can see the fruits of their labor come to life.  Restaurateurs are ambassadors for the regional agricultural community.

[]       THE HIGHEST PERCENT OF WOMEN MANAGERS & OWNERS OF ANY

INDUSTRY

47% of all restaurants in the U.S. are owned by women.

[]       A SAFE HAVEN FOR CREATIVE PEOPLE

No other art form has such an impact.  No other art form appeals to all human senses.  No other art form provides the artist with instant feedback on the quality of his or her work.  No other art form connects so many stakeholders through the process of growing, processing, transporting, preparing, serving, and enjoying a product.

[]       THE HEART OF THE ECONOMY IN TOURIST COMMUNITIES

All other aspects of tourism rely on the restaurant to punctuate an experience.  What is travel, a hotel, or a center of entertainment without the provision of quality food?

[]       AN INDUSTRY THAT THRIVES ON TEAM ENVIRONMENTS

Although many industries require teams to accomplish their goals, very few are so closely inter-dependent and focused on teamwork, as the restaurant business.  It is the concept of team that attracts people to a career in food and it is the action of the team that allows a positive guest experience to come to fruition. 

Let’s fix our problems, but not forget just how valuable and important the restaurant industry is to our way of life – a quality life.

PLAN BETTER – TRAIN HARDER

Harvest America Ventures, LLC

Restaurant Consulting

www.harvestamericacues.com  BLOG

(Over 800 articles about the business and people of food)

CAFÉ Talks Podcast

https://cafemeetingplace.com/cafe-podcasts

More than 50 interviews with the most influential people in food

CHEFS – SIGN YOUR PLATES

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Push it out, how many covers, lock, and load, finish strong, over the hump, wrap it up: this the language of the kitchen during service, these are the timestamps like the number of quarters in a football game or innings in baseball.  Get it done, no mistakes, and pick up the pace are all directives that help line cooks make it through another day or night.  When all is said and done, we can wipe our brows and sigh in relief.  We made it!  I get it, I’ve been there, I know the adrenaline behind this and the sense of accomplishment when the rail is free of dupes – it is a race against time, an impossible goal that somehow, we manage to reach.  Mission accomplished. But what about your food, what about the guest’s reaction, what about creating memorable experiences, what about your connection to the plate?

Don’t get me wrong, I understand the need for numbers and the gratification that comes from exceeding expectations in this regard, but, if I might ask: “how do you feel about that plate?”  In the moment gratification from taming the volume beast is short lived.  Tomorrow there will be a need to do the same.  “How do you feel about that plate?”   Compromise may be a legitimate goal in negotiations and diplomacy, but not so much when it comes to quality and the meaning of your work. 

Take a moment to assess, to line up the results of your work with your vision of the plate, the guest experience, and the brand that you are trying to build.  I’m not a big fan of quick service restaurants, but I would be willing to bet that the menu items originally created by their corporate culinary team doesn’t translate to what is served in restaurant number 953.  Can they meet the crowds and even exceed budgeted customer counts on a given day?  Probably.  But what about that quality translation?   How does that corporate chef feel when he or she visits a random restaurant and sees how a 16-year-old on the grill has no vision of excellence in execution?  Isn’t it the same reality in a full-service operation where pushing the numbers is priority number 1?

Where is the happy medium, the commitment to those quality stakes in the ground?  Can quantity, speed, and quality coexist?  The answer, of course, is YES!  “But, but, but surely compromise is necessary if we are to turn tables and reach our numbers.”  Compromise in diplomacy means that both sides win at some level.  When we compromise with quality in a restaurant where is the win?  We filled the dining room, and everyone was served, but what was their experience?  Did they sense that the value was there?  Were they wowed into coming back again and again?  Will they write a great review on Trip Advisor?  When we compromise on the quality of cooking, taste, and presentation then we suffer trying to win unhappy customers back and you, the chef, must look in a mirror and see the face of compromise.

So, how do we find that space where quality is maintained, where the customer is wowed, and where the chef feels great about that plate of food while still turning tables and maximizing sales?  Okay, here’s a start:

TEN STEPS TO SIGNING YOUR WORK:

[]       SHARE YOUR VISION, INSTILL A SENSE OF PRIDE

Let everyone know exactly what you expect, get excited, show them how it should be done, and celebrate every act of excellence.

[]       BE THE EXAMPLE FOR OTHERS TO FOLLOW

Make sure you are always on top of your game, never falter from doing every task to the highest caliber.  You set the tone for others to emulate.

[]       TEACH AND TRAIN

Invest in them, engage them, show them, work through problems with them, and measure their performance against your standards.  Help them to become the best they can be.

[]       PUT YOUR STAMP OF APPROVAL ON EVERY PLATE

Be present, watch what goes out, inspect plates, taste everything, let every know that you intend to sign each plate, and, in your absence, you expect that they will do the same.

[]       CELEBRATE EXCELLENCE IN EVERYTHING

Right down to their station set-up, organization of pans, cleanliness of cookware, uniforms, the way they cut vegetables and fillet a whole fish – excellence is a habit – make it so!

[]       SHOW NO TOLERANCE FOR MEDIOCRITY IN ANYTHING

Once excellence sinks in then mediocrity will have no home in your kitchen.  Until then, make it very clear that you expect the best from them and will not tolerate a “good enough” approach.

[]       LET YOUR COOKS BECOME GUESTS

Give your cooks a chance, now and then, to dine out front.  Let them see what the guest sees, taste what the guest tastes, and feel the level of excellence that you are trying to promote.

[]       BUILD IN QUALITY SYSTEMS

Don’t assume that quality will happen build it in beginning with selection of vendors, inspection of ingredients when they arrive, proper storage in coolers and dry storage, the right tools to do the job, chip free plates, spotless glassware, plate presentations designed to wow, and palate building among your cooks so that they know when it is right.  Recipes are not enough; they need to understand great cooking and then they will be able to problem solve.

[]       MEASURE QUALITY AND SEEK FEEDBACK

Find ways to assess quality: chef tastings, peer tastings, pre-meal critique, post-meal assessment, guest comment cards, etc.

[]       SWEAT THE SMALL STUFF

Everything is important – groom your staff to develop “restaurant eyes”.  Require cooks to dress professionally on the way to work, have them enter through the front door so that they can look for any slip in excellence, train them to line up items in the storeroom and coolers with excellence in mind, labels pointing out, FIFO inventory management, proper covering, and HACCP labeling, be insistent that floors be cleaned frequently, show servers how to help the dishwasher with proper scraping and stacking, etc.  The list is long – it’s all important.

Act as though everyone, including yourself, is required to sign their work.  Teach your staff to be their own worst critic so that job doesn’t fall on your shoulders alone and then allow yourself to become the cheerleader for excellence.

Celebrate those nights when you break records for guests served or revenue projections that were broken, but never allow compromise of quality to be a reason why those goals were met.  Excellence begins with the person who holds the position of chef, but it comes to fruition when everyone is committed to it.

PLAN BETTER – TRAIN HARDER

Harvest America Ventures, LLC

www.harvestamericacues.com  BLOG

CAFÉ Talks Podcast

https://cafemeetingplace.com/cafe-podcasts

A RESTAURANTS HIGHER CALLING

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I have always loved the restaurant business.  My professional life has been dedicated to the kitchen, the people of restaurants, the ingredients and their source, the process and the adrenaline, the service and an opportunity to make people happy, and of course those plates as they slide down the pass.  There are, of course, restaurants and there are restaurants.  I have been impressed and disappointed in many from those exclusive fine dining establishments with food that should be admired for its beauty to greasy spoons with the best burgers you will ever find.  I have been dismayed by some who attempt to be something they are not, or who feel that a name or location are enough to lead to success.  They are all part of my passion for the preparation and service of food.

I have worked in and in my later years consulted for operations where it was the hope of profit that drove all decisions and been part of those who aligned with a higher calling, a calling that led to success on a whole different level.  These are the restaurants, the chefs and cooks, the servers and bartenders, and the owners who knew that what they did for a living was really important.  “Build it and they will come” was more than a cute phrase from the movies – to these folks, a higher calling meant that cooking is a privilege, service is a way of life, and the chance to work with others and express their own love of restaurants was paramount.  Ironically, in so many of these operations – financial success comes because of this higher purpose.  When profit drives all decisions then a restaurant will lose its character, its soul, and its potential.  Profit is not the means to an end, it is the end brought about by the means, the heart, the soul, and a love of that plate.

Whenever I take the time to pause and reflect on my time working in restaurants and participating in restaurant experiences, I tend to categorize them as wow experiences, surprising experiences, and special experiences.  Hands down, it is the special experience that is most memorable – the operation that moves to the beat of a drum that keeps time with the higher calling objective.

So, what is this higher calling?  Well, it’s not one thing, it’s not something that can even be outlined in a business plan, or for that matter predicted at all.  It’s more a realization than an objective.  It happens when those involved in a restaurant stumble into the life of service, the importance of tradition, the sense of community, and the connections that are possible over a plate of food.  Maybe you haven’t thought about this before, but I have.  It is very likely that you have experienced it, supported it, enjoyed it, but never gave it much reflection, but I have. 

It’s that local apple orchard that decided to offer warm cider and fried apple and pumpkin donuts to people lined up to purchase a peck of MacIntosh, Cortland, or Honey Crisp apples.  Happy customers told their friends, and their friends told their friends.  Suddenly, more family members are joining in to help sell the donuts and add pies and quickbreads to the menu.  Slowly, but surely the grab and go becomes a sit and enjoy hand carved sandwiches on homemade breads, with a glass of cider as a few neighbors, smiles on their faces, joined the family in an effort to meet the demands of a growing business.  People in line are laughing and connecting with others from town as this apple orchard becomes the place to be on a Saturday or Sunday.  This is a place with a higher purpose.

It’s the corner Italian restaurant that has been around for three generations with a menu that rarely changes: it’s predictable, consistent, and fabulous.  The sauce has been handed down from great grandmothers and the bread doesn’t come off the back of a delivery truck – it is made on premise every morning starting at 3am.  IN the back of the kitchen the owner’s mother, now in her 70’s came back to work, to help, and to be a part of the music of the kitchen.  She is hand forming meatballs and rolling out linguini, tortellini, and ravioli.  The same flavor profile used for the past 60 years.  When you walk in the restaurant as a patron you can smell the Bolognese simmering, the meatballs caramelizing, and the salt water used to soften cheese curd for fresh mozzarella.  Nothing fancy, plates are not overly manipulated, the servers are not pretentious, and you can buy a bottle of wine for less than $50.  This is memorable, this is what it means to enjoy a meal at a restaurant where people care about those who work there and those who raise a glass full of hope and good cheer.  This is a place with higher purpose.

It’s the neighborhood food market that has controlled a corner of your town for decades.  You know, the one where the isles are too narrow for people to cross paths, the produce looks like it was picked a few hours ago, the meat case is bright and clean packed with beautiful red steaks and roasts, vivid pink pork loins, chickens with a few pin feathers still intact, and sausages that were made on premise by a butcher with a well fed belly, white bib apron, straw hat, and hands that are big enough to palm a basketball.  It’s a place where the dry goods shelves are filled only with the best of the best, the fish is packed in ice and you know that it was pulled from the ocean that day or the day before, and the cashier, owner, and deli slicer all know your name.  “Try a slice of prosciutto, it will melt in your mouth.”  This is a special place where quality, service, and sincerity are always on the menu and price is judged in relation to value.  This is a place with a higher purpose.

I remember that little bistro in a quaint French village where the owner was the host, the server, and the cook.  Where six tables were all that could fit and they were always full.  Where the menu was there, but rest assured, if you wanted something different and they had the ingredients, it was a pleasure to cook for you.  I think back to that Greek breakfast operation tucked away in a storefront in mid-town Manhattan for fifty years where your morning eggs were cooked to ordered and delivered to your table before you could read the headlines on page one of the New York Times.  This is the place where your coffee cup was always full, where the check was delivered before you had to ask, where after a few visits the waiter remembered what you wanted and placed the order for you.  I remember the twelve-seat operation in the French Quarter of New Orleans that served only gumbo, but man was it extraordinary.  The staff was a husband-and-wife team, with help from parents, children, and even grandkids who learned to clear tables before they made it to high school.  How could I ever forget the takeout only pizzeria that prepared incredible Neapolitan style pizza, throwing dough, and stretching it into perfect circles, spreading sauce made three times a week, virgin olive oil drizzled over fresh pulled mozzarella, sauteed wild mushrooms and thinly sliced prosciutto, topped with leaves of fresh basil and a sprinkle of crushed red pepper.  A father and son and lone dishwasher/box folder were able to crank out hundreds of extraordinary pies every day while carrying on conversations with nearly every customer. And I will always remember that eighty-year-old artisan bread baker whose wood-fired oven bakeshop was tucked away on a farm that was impossible to find unless you had a guide.  A place where baking bread was a religion that took center stage in his life.  A few hours of sleep were interjected at various times throughout the day in between, mixing, feeding the starter, bowl proof, shaping, tending the fire, and baking those crisp crust round loaves with rich, sour dough centers, filled with fermentation holes, as they were pulled from a 500-degree hearth.  He sold 280 loaves of one kind of bread, six days per week.  The bread was delivered by neighbors to local grocery outlets in exchange of a loaf or two to take home. These are places with a higher purpose.

There is so much to love about the restaurant business, but it will always be those operations and operators with a higher purpose who win my heart and my on-going support.  They do it for the love of cooking and baking, and in honor of the farmers, ranchers, and fishermen who supply exceptional ingredients.  They do it to bring the family together, and they do it for the joy of being important to the community where they sit. This is that higher purpose.

PLAN BETTER – TRAIN HARDER

Harvest America Ventures, LLC

www.harvestamericacues.com  BLOG

CAFÉ Talks Podcast

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CHEFS AS DIPLOMATS

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At a time when it seems as if we all suffer from irreconcilable differences, it may just be the chef and a great plate of food that can bring us together.  This is not a new thought; food has been used in mediation for centuries.  It was even Escoffier who once stated:

“The art of cooking is perhaps one of the most useful forms of diplomacy.”

From government “State Dinners” that bring world leaders together to the cafeteria in the United Nations building and from restaurant meccas for traditional business lunches to your home dinner table – food is a common denominator and great food is a vehicle for bringing people together. 

The key is to find common ground, something that allows people with differences to set them aside in the moment as they appreciate the act of breaking bread.  Ah…what a responsibility and what an opportunity we have as cooks to give people a chance to see each other as people first, not just representatives of an ideology, not simply a person with whom we disagree.  Restaurants are destinations that provide hope for reconciliation and agreement. They are neutral territory where food and drink can demonstrate what people have in common rather than what pushes them apart.  To this end, the chef is the consummate diplomat.

The chef’s diplomatic strategy is complex and specific.  The diplomatic meal is one that considers the diners state of mind, history and traditions, and openness to an experience that educates as well as satisfies. Paying respect to each person’s background while spicing up the plate with flavors and presentations that break new ground, surprise, and invigorate is a formula that only the well-seasoned chef can pull off.  Sometimes an existing menu can accomplish this while at other times there is a need for the chef to go “off menu”.  In either case, having the knowledge to prescribe a meal puts the chef in control of the situation – a position that any true diplomat would enjoy.

It was 2002 when the Economist Magazine coined the word: “gastrodiplomacy” to describe the Global Thai initiative that was focused on improving the image of Thailand and expanding the reach of its cuisine.  As a diplomatic effort used numerous times since, this was described as: “winning hearts and minds through stomachs.”1

Food is a universal language, one that anyone can appreciate and embrace as a way to discover more about a culture and the people who represent it.  On the international stage this is very commonly used as an effective tool.

I wonder if gastrodiplomacy and the chef’s skills can be just as effective in helping us all put aside our differences, take a breath, break bread, and see each other as people first.  We are people with different opinions, but still the same, nonetheless.  The cook’s table is a place of commonality, a sacred environment where we can re-think how we approach each other, push aside those points of disagreement, smile, laugh, raise a glass, and enjoy what is on the plate in front of us.

Is food the answer to this downward spiral of disagreement and labeling as “with me or against me”?  Pandemic concerns aside, is it time for more community tables in restaurants, more opportunities for chefs to simply cook to unite?  Think about those times in your life when you celebrated others; those times when you enjoyed the company of others without judgement or comparison; those times when it was fun to simply be part of another person’s space. I would guess that most, if not all those experiences involved food.  Food is the catalyst, the magnet that pulls people to the table and the glue that allows them to bond.

We may not agree on politics, we may be over-the-top partisan when it comes to our favorite sporting team, our views on education, the type of music we listen to or books that we choose to read, but we can all agree on a great tasting plate of food. Why not start there and learn to appreciate what we can agree on?  Maybe then, we can grow to listen to others’ opinions without viewing those with whom we disagree as enemies on the other side. 

Every day that I think about the career in the kitchen that I chose (or that chose me) I see just how important the work is, just how much opportunity there is for this work to make a difference.  Think about it.

PLAN BETTER – TRAIN HARDER

Harvest America Ventures, LLC

Restaurant Consulting

www.harvestamericacues.com BLOG

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*1 – Fabio Parasecoli – Professor of Food Studies- New York University

CHEFS – ARE YOU READY FOR WINTER

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More than anything else, when I was in restaurant kitchens I looked forward to planning and testing the next set of menu changes.  A stale menu is not cost effective, ignorant of quality issues with ingredients, uninspiring for employees, and just plain boring.  It is a menu change that tests a chef’s ability to understand the seasonality of harvest, the connection that menu items have with the concept of the restaurant, executive cost-effective items, push the kitchen crew to enhance their skills, and excite the customer.  Are you up to it?

Winter is, by far my favorite season to plan menus.  This is where “real cooking” comes into play; where a chef demonstrates his or her ability to pull flavors out of seasonal ingredients and marry flavors to match the weather outside.  Braising, Roasting, Barbeque, Stewing, Poaching, and any item that engages “low and slow” is appropriate in the winter months.  Depending on where you live this season might last three months, or you could be in for the long haul.  Northern New York State where I spent my career looks ahead to nearly six months of cold, snow, and an occasional ice storm. 

Winter is the time when red wines jump to centerstage, when hearty IPA’s and sour ales are in demand, when hard cider, bourbon, single malt scotch, and barrel aged whiskeys take up much more shelf space behind your bar.  It is the time when guests seek out restaurants with a fireplace, open wood fired kitchens, and the rich, deep smell of charred meats and fish, roasted crispy birds, sweet oven baked garlic, caramelized onions, and short ribs and shanks coming from a six hour braise.  It is the season of butternut, acorn, delicata, and spaghetti squash roasting with plenty of butter and brown sugar, of roasted walnuts, pecans, and marcona almonds added to your salads, and in-house pickling finding its way onto your appetizer boards.  Late season root vegetables like carrots, beets, and parsnips are on everyone’s list.  This is the time for brussels sprouts to jump to a lead role on your menus, roasted, blanched and sauteed, char grilled or smoked – these former “second-class citizen” vegetables are now peaking in popularity.

For the chef interested in helping the bottom line – winter provides an opportunity to work with lesser cuts of meat and poultry, less frequently ordered fish, and dramatically enhance their perceived value through alternative cooking methods that draw out and combine flavors. 

How are your menu planning skills?  What experiences can you draw on in building this menu that moves quickly away from light and piquant to heavy and robust?  There will always be room, even in the winter, for lighter menu items, complicated salads, grilled fish and steaks, and a load of tasty sauté dishes, but in the winter your guests will pull their chair up to a table ready, willing, and able to touch that fabulous, braised pork shoulder that falls off the bone.  Are you ready?

Whenever I dove into the menu change process I worked with the following simple, but effective way to get from concept to plate:

[]       DECIDE ON A DIRECTION

What will be the foundation of your menu?  Will it be consistent throughout the seasons, or will it change at some level as the seasons do?  As an example – Thomas Keller has a sign on his kitchen wall that says: “finesse”.  Although there is no specific cuisine that stems from this, it does set the tone for every menu item, every preparation, and every moment of service.  Epic restaurant in Georgia follows suit with “Culinary Pride” on their kitchen wall – again a driving concept that requires every person to ask themselves – does this dish, its flavor, the presentation, and the manner with which it is delivered reflect “Culinary Pride?”

I took a different approach in kitchens that I directed.  Every menu and every menu item were drawn from a simple idea of “elegant comfort food”.  I expected that every dish, no matter its origin or influence must reflect that feeling of familiarity and exceptional execution.  Decide on a direction.

[]       LET YOUR COOKS KNOW

A common mistake that chefs make (I have been there myself in the early days) was to assume that the menu is the chef’s, and only the chef’s responsibility.  It must be, at some level, collaborative.  If you want your cooks to be excited, your service staff to be proud, and your guests to receive exceptionally well-executed dishes, then everyone must feel like they had some input.  Always be willing to listen to their ideas on how a dish might be prepared or presented better.

[]       PULL TOGETHER RESOURCES TO STUDY

Never feel that it is somehow “cheating” to research through cookbooks, visiting other restaurants, or talking with professional peers and then re-creating an item that inspires you.  Everyone does it at some level – that’s why cookbooks are around.  I have a significant collection of books from all types of restaurants.  Some I have not yet even paged through, but I know that at some point there will be inspiration for a dish or concept inside.

Keep in mind that a “recipe” is nearly impossible to protect under law (copyright, patent, trademark, etc.) so restaurants can and do freely use menu items that another may have “invented”.  But be professional about using established items.  If you add a named classical dish on your menu, then make it as it was originally developed, list it as “inspired by”, or make it uniquely yours.  This is not required but it is the right way to conduct yourself as a chef.

[]       LIST THOSE INGREDIENTS THAT WILL BE IN-SEASON & AVAILABLE

Restaurant chefs have become accustomed to accessing nearly any ingredient year-round.  We know that every ingredient has a season unless we travel around the world to get it.  The best menus take advantage of what is in season where you are.  Asparagus is a spring vegetable, strawberries in June, apples in the early fall, Pacific halibut from June to September, spring lamb in May and June, etc.  So, put together a chart of ingredient seasonality and hang it in your office.  Let this be one of your important guides in preparing menus.  Reference the Monterey Bay Seafood Watch research on seasonality and environmental challenges with certain types of seafood as well.

[]       ATTACH A COST TO CENTER OF PLATE INGREDIENTS

Costing out recipes is time consuming unless you have support staff who can track that for you, however, you can keep a handle on a menu items’ cost by simply charting what your center of plate proteins cost and staying seasonal with their selection. Know that based on your concept there will always be a pricing ceiling that you should avoid.  No matter how well the item is prepared and how exceptional it might be, if you exceed that price ceiling people will shy away from buying it.

[]       PREP, TASTE, SEASON, TASTE

As a seasoned chef you may understand what a menu item will taste like simply by working it through your mind’s eye, but there are far too many variables that impact flavor when an original dish is created.  Make sure that you include a trial-and-error phase to menu development and involve different people in the tasting process.

[]       THINK COLORS AND TEXTURES ON A PLATE

Yes, taste is the ultimate attraction to a dish, but if it doesn’t look good on the plate then a guest’s flavor receptors will reject it.  Any menu that is designed must also consider “plate presence”.  Invest the time in beautiful as well as tasty menu items – the eyes play a role in determining flavor.

[]       WORK IN YOUR SIGNATURE DESIGNS

This is where a chef can build his or her style as uniquely marketable.  If you have a signature, then use it and build it into the menu conversation with your cooks and service staff.  My “elegant comfort foods” had to focus on natural presentations.  In other words, I expected that everything would flow in a natural fashion and would not be too contrived.  I could “do contrived” but chose to avoid it with hot foods in particular. 

[]       THROW IT OUT TO YOUR KITCHEN CREW TO PLAY WITH

When you think that a menu item is “ready” then pass it off again to your kitchen team with the goal of making it better.  You might be surprised at what will evolve.

[]       COME UP WITH THREE VARIATIONS FOR EACH POTENTIAL ENTRÉE

If you want eight entrees on your new menu, then start by developing twelve with two or three slight variations for each.  Through trial and error and a bit of democracy you will come up with the best of the best and everyone has some level of buy-in.

[]       GIVE CREDIT WHERE CREDIT IS DUE

If one of your cooks came up with the idea that put a menu item over the top, then make sure they get loads of credit.  You might even state on the physical men that the concept and specific menu items were a collaboration of ideas and put the names of your kitchen crew on the document.  This simple act will really charge up your team.

[]       MAKE SURE THAT IT HITS ALL OF YOUR STAKES IN THE GROUND

Whatever you hold close as essential to your philosophy of cooking must be adhered to, otherwise your buy-in will wane. 

[]       EDUCATE YOUR SERVICE STAFF

Your service staff members are on the front line.  They interact with guests, they are the key salespeople, and they will suffer the most if a guest is unhappy.  Take the time to explain the concept, the menu choices, the process used in development and require them to taste everything.  Have your bar manager or sommelier offer a pairing tasting so that they know what beverages to recommend.  Make them part of the whole process.

[]       GIVE IT A TRY AND BE WILLING TO DELETE OR ADD IF NECESSARY

Finally, whenever a menu is developed, in this case for that time of the year when robust flavors are so exciting and ever-present, know that all your work may not lead to acceptance.  If the guest doesn’t respond well then write it off as a learning experience and make adjustments to your menu.  It must always be fluid until the guest says: “WOW”.

PLAN BETTER – TRAIN HARDER

Harvest America Ventures, LLC

Restaurant Consulting

www.harvestamericacues.com BLOG

More than 800 articles on everything about food and food people

CAFÉ Talks Podcast

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Listen to more than 60 interviews with leading chefs, restaurateurs, and food influencers

PHOTOS:

  1. Chefs Charles Carroll, CEC – Executive Chef – River Oaks Country Club -Houston
  2. Chef Michael Beriau, CEC – Semi-Retired (waxing his skis for another winter)
  3. Chef Herve Mahe – Chef/Owner – Bistro de Margot – Burlington, VT

WRESTLING WITH BREAD AS A CONDIMENT

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So, this is something that I have been perplexed about for the past few months: more and more restaurants are beginning to charge for bread.  At first, I was really put off by this.  Come on – is this the way to address your food cost woes?  But after I settled down, I started to think about it.  What is the role of bread in a meal?  Has bread, in the past, been relegated to condiment status? 

Well, maybe, this is exactly the case when like salt, pepper, and butter, the rule of thumb has too often been – give it away but find the least expensive options to buy.  Ah…but what if the restaurant takes bread seriously?  What if they invest in either an in-house artisan baker or buy from a seriously talented Boulanger?  What if the butter on the table is cultured from a high-end dairy or cold pressed extra virgin olive oil is poured tableside for dipping?

Now the formula changes, doesn’t it?  Those beautiful, hard crusted, perfectly handled sour dough loaves or crunchy French baguettes with their fragrant artisan grain chew that make your jaw work overtime to experience the whole product just might deserve more attention.  Should we elevate the bread to course status?  Is it time for restaurants who take bread seriously to add breads to their appetizer menu, or a separate menu course all-together?

I wonder if menus from those serious restaurants should talk more about their bread, just like a chef might talk about the farm where beautiful organic produce is harvested, Angus steaks shipped directly to a restaurants’ salt lined rooms for 18-24 days of dry aging, or seafood that adheres to the Monterey Bay Seafood Watch.  Why not?

If in the early morning bakeshop, a crew of passionate artisan bakers are nurturing a 12-hour proof for dough that will become incredible whole grain boules that smell rich, sweet, and nutty when peeled from a wood-fired oven, then how can we deny the bread superstar status?  When a baker comes in on his or her day off to check on the status of a sour dough “mother”, feed it, and watch over it as if it were a child, then we might just need to re-think the status of bread on the menu.  It’s not just bread, just like a sauce is not simply a coating, or incredible raw milk cheeses are not Kraft singles.

Ah, but here’s the kicker: what if that bread that you charge for is tasteless and untouched by human hands?  What if it didn’t come from that bakeshop in the corner of your kitchen, but rather from the back of a full-service vendor’s delivery truck?  What if you care about as much for the quality of that bread as you do the brand of ketchup you keep on a server’s station for young kids ordering chicken fingers for dinner?  And, what if the butter you buy to accompany this bread is delivered in foil wrapped squares tossed in a wicker basket just before a bus person drops it at your table along with poured iceless water.

There again, I’m going off on a tangent.  Where were we – oh, yes, now I remember – why are restaurants beginning to charge for bread?  As long as I can remember – bread was relegated to condiment status or worse, thought to be better than it is because our bread palates just weren’t developed.  “Waiter, can I have more bread?”  Sure, why not – just open another plastic bag, tear off a few rolls, pass them through a microwave oven to warm them and suck all the moisture out, toss in a few of those foil wrapped butter pats and drop them off at the table without fanfare.  No different than asking for sugar packets, more salt in the shaker, or added non-dairy creamers for that coffee you serve. 

If restaurants want to charge for exceptional bread with a story, if they feel that artisan bread is part of their formula for success, and if they want to offer it to guests with the same pride exhibited when appetizers and entrees are presented to the table – then they should.  Great bread is worth it, commercial, tasteless bread is not.  Make a choice, but you can’t have it both ways without turning guests off.  Make your bread a big deal, make it a signature for your restaurant, talk to your service staff about the bread: the flour used, the skill of the bread baker, the advantages of hearth baking, and the flavor profile of this exceptional product that you take care of.  Then charge for it with a clear conscience. 

“The smell of good bread baking, like the sound of lightly flowing water, is indescribable in its evocation of innocence and delight.”

– M.F.K. Fischer

For decades I have judged restaurants by the quality of their bread and how it is presented.  Bread is important to me; good bread is a celebrity in my mind.  A great meal without great bread is, to me, always subpar.  I will go out of my way to find and patronize a restaurant based on their bread and YES, I am happy to pay extra for it.

On the other hand, if you want to turn me off and keep me from returning, then continue to serve “bread like” product that was extruded from a machine, proofed without contact from a human being, pumped full of CO2 , conveyor baked in a tunnel oven, blast cooled or frozen, packaged by machine and shipped to your restaurant in the deep freeze section of a 18-wheel truck alongside those breaded chicken fingers, and curly fries.  Go ahead and charge for it on your menu, just don’t expect me or anyone else who appreciates the bread baker and his or her product that is filled with heart and soul to return for another meal.

Sorry folks, that’s my opinion.  Let’s get it right.  CHARGE FOR GREAT BREAD, just make sure that it is great.

“Good bread is the most fundamentally satisfying of all foods; and good bread with fresh butter, the greatest of feasts.”

– James Beard

PLAN BETTER – TRAIN HARDER

Harvest America Ventures, LLC

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Deepest appreciation for the passionate artisan bread bakers of the world.  Bread is the staff of life, something to revere, something to embrace, and something to support.

TURN YOUR LIFE AROUND AS A COOK

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BEING A COOK IS MORE THAN THE PROCESS OF COOKING

If you are a cook who is happy working just for a paycheck – more power to you, but you can probably save some time and not read this article.  If, however you have the sense that cooking is more than that and you have your eyes on many years connected to the professional kitchen, then read on.  Moving forward in search of doing something meaningful and growing your position into a career may require some adjustments and a definite plan.

So, here are some golden rules that will help you to move in the right direction.  Maybe this is who you already are, but if not, then view these as some “food for thought” that can turn your professional life around. 

[]       BE POSITIVE:

Simple, right?  Pushing aside the challenges and problems cooks face every day and resisting the tendency to find fault and complain is not easy.  We can always find things to disagree with and people who frustrate us, but very little good ever comes out of this approach.  As is often said – learn to become a problem-solver and not a finger pointer, build people up instead of tearing them down, and reap the long-term benefits of a positive attitude.  People will notice.

[]       INVEST IN YOURSELF:

Self-improvement is the ticket to competence and confidence.  Don’t wait for someone else to build your skills and knowledge – take charge of your own growth.  Join, engage, read, learn, practice, connect, experience, and volunteer – this is how we improve.

[]       BE A TEAM PLAYER/LEADER:

Start by becoming an exceptional follower and an advocate for playing your part in a team effort.  Look at your current role as the most important in the success of the operation and the power of the plate.  Master your role and support those around you.  Share, teach, and train others – this is the fuel that drives your own leadership engine.  Every good leader understands how important great followership is and how the leader’s role is to give them all the support he or she can muster.

[]       DEFINE YOUR BENCHMARKS:

Find those cooks, chefs, restaurants, companies, or inspirational leaders who define excellence and learn from them.  Study how they work, why they are so committed, and how they approach their work.  Use all of this as your roadmap to success.  Push yourself to be better and use their performance as a guiding light.

[]       WORK WHERE YOU CAN LEARN:

As you build your skill set make sure you select employers who are willing to invest in you; places where mentorship, training, and helpful critique are part of their method of operation.  Everything else will come to you as you fine tune those skills and the knowledge to be exceptional at what you do.

[]       BE YOUR OWN WORST CRITIC:
Don’t wait for someone else to critique your work – assess your performance and compare it to those benchmarks.  If you can improve then set a course to do so.  Find out the best way to improve, seek out those individuals who have mastered a particular task and connect with the intent to accept critique.

[]       FIND A MENTOR/BE A MENTOR:

Set your focus on finding a person who will be honest in their critique and willing to show you how to improve.  Don’t settle for a person who always seeks to compliment – you will only improve if someone is honest and helpful at the same time.  Finding a mentor is the most important step you can take to change your professional life.

[]       THIRST FOR EXPERIENCES:

Be willing to step outside your comfort zone if there is an opportunity to learn.  Seek out unique opportunities to experience great food, the source of that food, the people who dedicate their lives to it, the service that accompanies exceptional dining, and the commitment to excellence that very successful cooks and chefs are a part of.  Immerse in experiences whenever they are available.  Spend a week working on a farm, tour a meat processing plant, work on a fishing boat, save your money and dine at extraordinary restaurants, work the crush at a local vineyard, help the best ice carver in your area, stage at the best restaurants on your days off, shadow a coffee barista and learn their craft, attend food shows and culinary organization workshops – everything helps to build that base of knowledge, improver your resume, and change your professional life.

[]       FIND A WAY TO BALANCE:

If there is a lesson that most seasoned chefs will point to is finding balance.  All work and no play make any cook rather dull and positioned to fail as a friend, sibling, spouse, or parent.  Make sure your plan includes diet, exercise, free time, family time, travel, and relaxation.  Work hard but know how to step away.

[]       CONNECT:

Be part of something larger than you, join groups of cooks, restaurateurs, bakers, and food enthusiasts who can offer a different perspective, cutting edge changes on how we cook and present food, or the best way to ensure financial success in the restaurant business.  This will feed your competence and confidence and provide a network of resource experts who will be there when you need an answer.

[]       RESPECT OTHERS:

Remember the rules of thumb for teamwork and leadership.  They all evolve around a commitment to respecting those around you who share a stove, grow the ingredients you use, carry your food to a guest, and manage the operation to ensure that it remains financially healthy.  Respect for others leads to the respect you receive in return.

[]       RAISE THE BAR:

As good as you may be today, you should never accept good as the best you can become.  Always push that carrot a little out of reach and then work like crazy to grab it.  Just when you think you are there – push it out a little further.  Remember, excellence is a journey, not a destination.

[]       ALWAYS BE IN SEARCH OF EXCELLENCE:
Use the concept of excellence, even perfection as the goal knowing that it will never be reached.  Again, the journey towards excellence will always result in constant improvement – a chance to “wow” those around you.

Stay the course, enjoy the ride, and know that when your sights are on excellence your life will constantly change for the better.

PLAN BETTER – TRAIN HARDER

Seek to be all that you can be.

Harvest America Ventures, LLC

Restaurant Consulting

www.harvestamericacues.com  BLOG

(Over 800 articles about the business and people of food)

CAFÉ Talks Podcast

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More than 50 interviews with the most influential people in food

CIVILITY LOST

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When did civility (or lack thereof) become only referenced when considering political discourse?  The left and the right may, to some, reference liberal or conservative political beliefs, but when it comes to acting in a civil manner – examples go way beyond politicians and their evolving platforms.  Civility is deeply connected to how we treat each other, the level of respect that we show for the person or people next to us.

Where has civility gone, why is it in such short supply, and what is the impact on our way of life?  Opposing views become disagreements; disagreements become battle; battles define opposite poles that shall never come together; and polarization leads to deep misunderstanding and hate.  This is where we are, and it doesn’t stop with left and right.  It seeps into every aspect of our daily lives and trickles down to our family, friends, children, and grandchildren.  It draws people together into silos of belief and imbeds feelings of right or wrong without any gray area.  People clamor to find those who agree with them whether right or wrong, truth or lie, beneficial or harmful.  A lack of civility is a communicable disease that grows and spreads like a virus from host to host, infecting as many people as possible.  What is most distressing is that once you are accepted into the silo it is nearly impossible to change a person’s position on any topic even when indisputable facts are presented.

“My hope is that we would begin to have a dialogue in this country about the importance of civility.  We can have strong differences, but it does seem to me that most of the country believes it’s gone to critical mass in what I would call the professional class across the political spectrum – left and right.”

-Tom Brokaw

The examples we present are impactful, especially when we are in a position of power (politician, parent, alpha friend, employer, celebrity, writer, strong personality, teacher, or religious leader).  People want to believe in something and someone, there are far more loyal followers than civil leaders, so the one who speaks the loudest, with authority, attracts the largest number of followers – new recruits for the silo.  It may not involve formal membership (although there are numerous examples of silo membership), but those who follow tend to be quite loyal. 

It starts simply, maybe too simply:  Never looking people in the eye, or failing to smile and express “good morning, good evening, thanks, have a nice day.”  It moves on to never holding a door for the person behind you, choosing to jump ahead in line, always finding fault with others and pointing out those faults to anyone who might listen, and misconstruing different opinions as elements of hate and disrespect.  “You don’t like my football team – I hate you.  You like that type of music – I hate you.  You voted for that candidate, get out of my life.  You own those type of kitchen knives – you are a shoemaker.”  The list goes on and on.  It is truly a disease that is creeping through every nook and cranny of our existence.  I can only imagine what it must be like to build a relationship with another individual nowadays.  Soon we will need to fill out a profile of beliefs before going on that first date.

“Civility is not about dousing strongly held views.  It’s about making sure that people are willing to respect other perspectives.”

-Jim Leach

It happens in every community, every place of work, and every industry.  It happens in kitchens where an interesting breed of civility always existed in the past.  As rough and tumble as kitchen life has always been there was an unwritten rule of civility that basically inferred: respect your co-workers, respect the ingredients, respect the chain of command, respect the customer, and by all means respect your skill set.  As long as this was in place, and you worked hard everyone would show you respect once you tied on an apron.

Civility meant that you would never fall down on the job and put your co-worker in a difficult position.  You would never violate the honor of working with ingredients that farmers, ranchers, and fishermen risked everything to put at your disposal, and regardless of how they acted, the customer was respected because they put their trust in you.  Is this still the case?  How many restaurants suffer from employees not showing up to work, failing to step in the kitchen ready to work, failing to respect the standards of excellence that a restaurant is basing its reputation on, or failing to do a job to the best of their ability?  Doing your job as you should is an act of civility; failure to do so is just short of anarchy.  Yet, this is where we are.

A lack of civil behavior exists in healthcare, education, the legal profession, politics, retail operations, head-to-head business competition, law enforcement, the military, and kitchens.  Acting without thoughts of kindness, when being rude and antagonistic becomes the rule and not the exception, when failing to treat others with any level of respect is considered “the way it is”, then how do we continue to categorize ourselves as a civilized society?

Happiness and success come from an environment of respect and caring, not from one where anxiety and blatant hostile discourse are prevalent.  As human beings we crave acceptance and support and when it does not exist, we feel lost and demeaned. 

Kitchen work, as an example, is a team sport.  Those who spend time in front of a stove know in their hearts and minds that working together, supporting one another, and having each other’s back is essential if we are to thrive and succeed.  When acceptable decorum is in short supply then support is replaced with caution and mistrust – this is not the fuel for success or a way to create an environment that breeds unity of purpose.  The same is true in any other environment between co-workers, operators and employees, or employees and guests. 

Civility still exists, but it is in short supply.  There are still businesses and social circles where the rules of civility flourish, but there is a growing presence of discourse, disrespect, and lack of kindness wherever you turn.  You can see it in person-to-person encounters that revert to anger and hate, rude interactions between business employees and customers, news commentators and business associates who interrupt each other during conversation, a lack of respect shown to those once considered professionals worthy of acknowledgement, and even a lack of honor paid to society’s elders. 

Holding doors for others, saying thank you, offering a good morning or afternoon welcome, giving up a seat for a person in need, sharing, and paying respect to those who give of themselves for the betterment of others is just good behavior – something that civilized people do.  You can still see all this pent-up civility pushing to find a home when disasters occur.  Americans are very generous when hurricanes, floods, fires, criminal behavior that impacts others, and family tragedies happen, but in the normal course of a day this quickly seems to fade.  We know that civility is still present, we simply need to embrace it, acknowledge it, and practice it.

Give it a try.  Approach today with conscious civility.  Be kind, welcoming, and supportive.  Pause a moment before you lash out in a hurtful manner and take a breath.  Begin today to condition your behavior towards civility and refrain from giving the finger to others knowing their reaction will be the same.  When we are kind, others will as well.  When we approach a situation with friction then friction you will receive.  Be the example.

PLAN BETTER – TRAIN HARDER

Civilized: “An advanced stage of social and cultural development. The act of showing regard for others”

Harvest America Ventures, LLC

www.harvestamericacues.com BLOG

CAFÉ Talks Podcast

https://cafemeetingplace.com/cafe-podcasts

RESTAURANTS – SWEAT THE DETAILS

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Separating the good from the great becomes more difficult when your competition is seeking to do the same.  In a field where mediocrity reins strong it is quite easy to stand out as better – but is this where you want to be?  Average or better than average, good enough, acceptable, not bad, and fine are not terms that inspire loyalty, enthusiasm, or lines waiting to get in.  If you are in it, then be in it to win.  The first characteristic of those who want to be great and those who are great is that they want to be there, and they will do what it takes to arrive at that outcome.

When you line up the great ones (in this case restaurants or even the people who work there) there’s a trait that is common among all – they sweat the little stuff, the details that may be easy to pass off as not that important, but when you add them up, they define how you will be perceived.  This is what separates the good from the great. So, ask the question right now, in this moment, and do so with the understanding that your answer will define your level of success as a cook, chef, manager, server, or restaurateur:  Do you want to be great or are you satisfied with good?  Simple question requiring a simple answer: GREAT or GOOD.

Think about the implications of your answer and then take a deep breath and exhale slowly knowing that you have defined your future, established the reputation of the restaurant, determined who will pay to experience what you offer, and determine where you fit in the marketplace.  GOOD or GREAT – yes, it’s that simple.

If the answer is good then your job is simple – maintain, do just what is necessary, push aside the pressure of the details, and hope for the best.  There are thousands, maybe hundreds of thousands of GOOD restaurants out there – welcome to the pack.  There are, however, a small, elite percentage of restaurants, cooks, chefs, servers, and managers who will never be satisfied with good – they are on a lifelong pursuit of excellence – they want and NEED to be GREAT!  Is this you?  Is this where you want to sit or where you want your restaurant to be?  If it is, then I applaud you and implore you to SWEAT THE DETAILS. 

So here is a starting point – make a list of every single detail associated with your restaurant experience, your employee experience, your personal and professional goals and then begin the process of assessing how well you are doing with each.  No detail is too small – it all counts – it is the path to being GREAT.  It might begin like this:

[]       Is your website fresh, attractive, exciting, and informative

[]       Is the website easy to navigate

[]       Can guests make reservations online

[]       If there are pictures of the restaurant and your food, are they professionally done and do they reflect the experience you are trying to create

[]       If guests call for a reservation, are they treated in a welcoming manner

[]       Is the process of making a reservation user-friendly and do you offer a confirmation number

[]       Is the parking lot clean and well-lit

[]       Is the exterior signage in perfect shape, properly lit, detailed properly and easily noticed from the road

[]       Is the landscaping attended to, are the shrubs, trees, flowers, etc. healthy and well maintained

[]       Are the windows spotless

[]       Is the exterior lighting functioning properly

[]       Are the eaves and soffits free of spider webs

[]       Is the exterior of the building, the grounds, the parking lot free of litter

[]       Is there transition lighting in the entranceway as guest move from outside to inside

[]       Are the initial smells when a guest enters – enticing

[]       Is it apparent where the guest should go upon entering

[]       Are guests greeted with a smile as soon as they arrive

[]       If a reservation was made, is it managed properly and executed seamlessly

[]       Is your host friendly, professionally attired, and at ease with guests

[]       What is the first impression of the restaurant: lighting, wall and ceiling materials, floors, music, temperature

[]       What is the tabletop like – are tables attractive, appropriate flatware, china, and glassware – is everything spotless

[]       Are the chairs comfortable

[]       Does the host pull chairs out for guests to make seating easier

[]       Are menus presented and is the document explained for easy navigation

[]       Are the menus spotless

[]       Are the menus easy to read under the restaurant lighting

[]       Is the table server introduced

[]       Is water poured within the first minute or two of seating

[]       Is there ice in the glass

Now, this is just the beginning of the list, we haven’t even reached any part of

the product experience, but you begin to see what it takes.  Every detail must be

established, assessed, and managed – every day.  Every employee must “buy in”

to the importance of the details – it is not the manager’s or the chef’s job, it is

everyone’s job and everyone’s passion if greatness is to be achieved.  Are you in?

If you want to start the journey today from good to great, then begin with your

checklist and see where you sit right now.  Don’t shy away from the details –

own them.  Find out where you sit and then delegate every detail to someone,

measure their performance regarding those details and celebrate how well

they do as a team.  Don’t accept being part of the GOOD marketplace, stand out

 as a benchmark for others to respect and wonder about.  As Chef Charlie

Trotter once said:

“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.”

PLAN BETTER – TRAIN HARDER

Harvest America Ventures, LLC

Restaurant Consulting

www.harvestamericacues.com  BLOG

(Over 800 articles about the business and people of food)

CAFÉ Talks Podcast

https://cafemeetingplace.com/cafe-podcasts

More than 50 interviews with the most influential people in food

THE GIFTS OF FOOD AND COOKING – DON’T TAKE THEM FOR GRANTED

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We need to stop viewing food as an indulgence, as something that is somehow sinister, or worse – something that is utilitarian and consumed simply out of necessity.  These are the extremes of consumption – feelings that we either celebrate or hide – feelings of guilt or annoyance that permeate our everyday lives.  To some – the pleasures of eating are somehow breaking a pact with our body and can only be enjoyed if we violate some established code of what is acceptable.  We indulge in eating chocolate, butter, cream, steak, cheese, or dessert and are relegated to feeling somewhat guilty when we do.  It seems to taste better when we go against this pact and test our will power to resist or succumb.  We feel satisfied and somehow sinister for consuming and enjoying the experience of eating luscious foods and believe that in doing so we will: “pay the price”. 

At the other extreme, some believe that resisting consumption is noble and all who do not are somehow violators of an unwritten rule of good living.  To this extreme – food is only for survival.  Eating is a process designed to fuel the body with what is necessary and avoid any step into the realm of enjoyment.  Cooking and seasoning that may excite the palate are not in keeping with the rule of the food survivalist.

Food is a gift; it is a natural connection that we all have to nature and the cycle of life.  Pleasure is also a gift that is available in several forms.  To avoid the pleasure that good, tasty, well-prepared food is to ignore a gift that is precious and important. 

“Eating is not merely a material pleasure.  Eating well gives a spectacular joy to life and contributes immensely to goodwill and happy companionship.  It is of great importance to human morale.”

-Elsa Schiaparelli

When we cook food with pleasure in mind, we open the door to so many opportunities.  Well prepared food, food made with caring and good feelings towards all who brought ingredients to the kitchen table, and all who are about to consume the “end product”, is a symbol of openness and a sign of willingness to bring peace, happiness, and understanding to the plate.  It is one of the most significant things that can be done for another person – to cook is to open the heart, the mind, and the soul.  This process is a magical expression of a cook’s history and traditions, dedication to a craft, and desire to serve.  Cooking is a highly personal act.

It is over a plate of food that we begin to understand another person, to appreciate their background and their feelings.  When we break bread together, we symbolically open the door to possibility.  Great food breaks down barriers, sets aside differences, stimulates positive conversation, brings a smile to even the most somber face, and sets the stage for transitional conversation.  This is why state dinners, business meetings, weddings, reunions, conferences, workshops, holiday tables, and memorials focus so much on a plate of food.  It is food that brings people together – even those who seem to suffer from the demons of hate, mistrust, fear, angst, disappointment, and uncertainty.

The greatest travesty in the world is that millions of people are malnourished and suffer a lack of pleasurable eating.  It may very well be the root of so much dissent and anger between the haves and the have nots.  This is the most severe crime in a world where production is not the issue but rather access and greed.  If we solve the world hunger problem, we will go very far in bringing people together for the common good.

“We know that a peaceful world cannot long exist, one-third rich and two-thirds hungry.”

– Jimmy Carter, 39th president of the United States.

“Close to a billion people – one-eighth of the world’s population – still live in hunger. Each year 2 million children die through malnutrition. This is happening at a time when doctors in Britain are warning of the spread of obesity. We are eating too much while others starve.”

– Jonathan Sacks, Jewish scholar.

“The first essential component of social justice is adequate food for all mankind. Food is the moral right of all who are born into this world.”

 – Norman Borlaug, biologist, and humanitarian.

For others who are oblivious to the problem of hunger there is the dilemma of “reason”: why do we eat.  If it begins and ends with seeking fuel to exist, then our lives will be shallow and incomplete.  Eating well is a key to opening the door of understanding, of appreciating others and expanding our knowledge of differences, of stimulating the senses and understanding pleasure.

 “Eating is so intimate.  It’s very sensual. When you invite someone to sit at your table (whether your home or your restaurant) and you want to cook for them, you’re inviting a person into your life.”

-Maya Angelou

When we sit at another person’s table we are asking for a tour of their upbringing, their life experiences, their desires, the flavors of their life, and the dreams they foster – when you cook for someone else you are letting them in, dropping the barriers and opening yourself up to seeing who they truly are.  When you choose to eat what others have cooked you are also showing them how willing you are to keep an open mind and be vulnerable.

“Tell me what you eat, and I will tell you who you are.”

  • Jean Anthelme Brillat-Savarin

When a cook steps into his or her kitchen there is an understanding that this is the center of the universe during that moment.  This is a space to revere for it holds the key to their heritage.  This is where the influence of a great grandmother, a mother or father, a fellow chef or chef mentor, or experiences in eating that the cook holds close to heart, come into play.  This is where all of this is expressed through the knife, the hands, the palate, the mind, heart, and soul; this is where it all comes together in an expression of love.

“The kitchen is a sacred place.”

  • Marc Forgione

Too often, eating is a process.  The advent of convenience whether it be how ingredients are presented or the methods of cooking available, have crushed the soul of cooking and consumption.  Learning how to pay respect for eating begins with the simple rules of dining.  If we are to begin to change and see what we may have been missing during consumption of food, we must look towards a new set of habits.

“Too many people just eat to consume calories.  Try dining for a change.”

-John Walters

Here are some simple habits that can be adopted by all who prepare and consume well-prepared food:

  • Set the table.  Try using tablecloths, well set tabletop, poured water, a single flower centerpiece, soft background music, mood lighting.
  • Make sure everyone sits at the same time – no excuses.
  • Present the meal – serve well-presented plates and introduce the dish.
  • Turn off your phones – no excuses.
  • Talk about the food – the ingredients, the farmers and ranchers, fish mongers, how it was prepared, reflections on the flavors and presentation.
  • Wait until everyone has finished – don’t be rude.
  • Give thanks for the meal – need not be a prayer, just a simple: “Thanks, that was delicious.”

Of course, gluttony is different.  It is not respect for food, but rather a lack of control that seeks to turn a wonderful pleasure into a tool for self-destruction.  For some, it is a crutch to help hide frustration, disappointment, discontent, anxiety, and depression – and in those cases intervention with the cause is the only remedy that works to improve the health of the individual while maintaining the rule of moderation. 

Food should not be an indulgence or a necessary evil – it is a joy to be shared and a common denominator in life.  Food is the universal language that can bring people together and help dissolve differences.  Food is Mother Nature’s gift that we should revere, respect, and enjoy.

These past three years have provided us with many lessons about safety, disease, human nature, information and misinformation, preparedness, our fragile supply chain, and global economics.  We have also learned more about ourselves, our capacity to adjust, our families, and even our kitchens.  Out of necessity we have returned to our kitchens to re-learn how to cook and care for our families, to respect what restaurants do and how important they are to our peace of mind and our lifestyle, and just how special food can be when we slow down – just a bit.  Let’s not forget this.  Let’s continue to invest in food and dining, not as an indulgence or necessary evil, but rather as a gift and an opportunity.

PLAN BETTER – TRAIN HARDER

Harvest America Ventures, LLC

Restaurant Consulting

www.harvestamericacues.com  BLOG

CAFÉ Talks Podcast

https://cafemeetingplace.com/cafe-podcasts

SEASONS CHANGE AND SO DO I

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

“Seasons change and so did I.”

No Time – Randy Bachman of the Guess Who

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

PLAN BETTER – TRAIN HARDER

Harvest America Ventures, LLC

Restaurant Consulting

www.harvestamericacues.com – BLOG

CAFÉ Talks Podcast

https://cafemeetingplace.com/cafe-podcasts

FOOD MOMENTS THAT CHANGED YOUR LIFE

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

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

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

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

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

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

PLAN BETTER – TRAIN HARDER

Harvest America Ventures, LLC

www.harvestamericacues.com  BLOG

CAFÉ Talks Podcast

https://cafemeetingplace.com/cafe-podcasts

DO IT RIGHT

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

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

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

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

[]       START WITH KNOWING THE MARKET

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

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

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

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

[]       BUILD A CONCEPT THAT MAKES SENSE

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

[]       KNOW HOW TO RUN A BUSINESS

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

[]       BUILD IN CONSISTENCY AND DEPENDABILITY

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

[]       KEEP IT SIMPLE AND DO IT VERY WELL

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

[]       HIRE ENERGETIC, CARING, POSITIVE PEOPLE

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

[]       TEACH AND TRAIN EVERY DAY

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

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

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

[]       OFFER CARING SERVICE

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

[]       MAKE SURE EVERYTHING IS SPOTLESSLY CLEAN

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

[]       MATCH THE AMBIENCE TO THE CONCEPT

The ambience should support the product. Does it?

[]       BUILD AN APPROPRIATE TABLETOP

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

[]       SEE EVERYTHING THROUGH THE GUESTS EYES

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

[]       TREAT EVERYONE WITH RESPECT

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

[]       PROVIDE THE TOOLS TO DO THE JOB

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

[]       RECOGNIZE AND REWARD EXCELLENCE

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

[]       PAY FAIRLY, CHARGE FAIRLY

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

[]       SEEK FEEDBACK – INTERNAL AND EXTERNAL

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

[]       BE THE EXAMPLE

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

[]       BE YOUR OWN WORST CRITIC

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

[]       RESPOND TO FEEDBACK

You asked for it – act on it.

[]       KNOW YOUR COMPETITION AND FIND YOUR NICHE

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

[]       NEVER GET TOO COMFORTABLE

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

[]       STAY WILLING TO CHANGE BEFORE YOU HAVE NO CHOICE

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

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

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

Do it right!

PLAN BETTER – TRAIN HARDER

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RESTAURANT STAFF – A LABOR DAY TRIBUTE

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Happy Labor Day.

PLAN BETTER – TRAIN HARDER

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YOU COOK WHAT & WHO YOU ARE

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

“Never serve day old pie.”

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

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

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

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

-Brach

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

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

-Brach

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

A FEW BOOKS TO ADD TO YOUR LIBRARY:

         Daniel Boulud

Marcus Samuelsson

Lidia Bastianich

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

Sean Brock

PLAN BETTER – TRAIN HARDER

Cook from the heart and soul

Cook like you mean it

Represent your traditions and experiences

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BRING BACK THE 20 SEAT BISTRO

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

” Good friends, good food, good times.”

-author unknown

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

Maybe it’s time to bring them back.

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

-Zachary’s

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CONTROLLED HUSTLE

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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Nurture the hustle!

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COOKING WITH FIRE

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

I am reminded of the words from Mick Jaggar:

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

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

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

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

There is nothing like cooking with live fire.

PLAN BETTER – TRAIN HARDER

Harvest America Ventures, LLC

Restaurant Consulting

www.harvestamericacues.com  BLOG

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THE GREATEST THREAT TO AMERICAN RESTAURANTS

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

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

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

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

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

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

-Jimmy Buffet (musician)

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

I have seen respectable restaurants take tiny moves in the wrong direction: moving to artificial creamer for their coffee because it doesn’t requir