I can’t remember who said it originally, however I have stated for years that individuals do not find a career in the kitchen, it finds them. There are hundreds of examples of chefs who when asked about how they decided to choose this profession basically said that they stumbled into it and then found their passion. It is rare that those who are successful began with a “light bulb moment” that allowed them to state, unequivocally, that they were going to be chefs. It seems that more often than not an individual winds up taking a job in a kitchen to make a few dollars, picks up a class here or there to fill in a curriculum, experiences an extraordinary food event or shares time with a friend in the business and then the hook is set.
Trying not to generalize, I can state that my experiences in culinary education would support that some of the best students are the ones who came to a college after the hook had been set by working for an inspirational chef, pushing racks through a dish machine, peeling onions in a busy operation, or being given the opportunity to work the fry station after spending a few summers mopping floors and unloading supplies from a vendors truck. When these byproducts of the restaurant environment find their way to a college program, or sometimes simply stay on the “school of hard knocks” track, they arrive with the fire, enthusiasm, and commitment to go the distance and make the business their home away from home.
Quite often, the individuals who excel in the kitchen or the kitchen classroom may not have been the most committed students in high school, but when that hook is firmly placed in their career jaw, they produce exceptional results. People are good at what they love to do. One cannot over-estimate the importance of passion for a subject or a profession. In the case of those who find that “love” we commonly refer to their choice as more than a career, it is a calling. The best chefs, the most successful restaurateurs, the restaurants that attract the biggest “buzz” are flush with individuals who have found their calling, or it has found them.
Today’s guest chef post is from Jody Winfield, Executive Chef/Proprietor at Bone Island Grill in Eatonton, Georgia. A career in the kitchen found Jody, as it has so many others, and as a result this chef has developed a reputation for excellence that is matched by his passion for food, service and creativity. He has agreed to this interview so that others might share in his enthusiasm, and stay open to the chance that a culinary career might just find them as well.
1. What or who influenced you to pursue a career in the kitchen? “When I was in high school, I had an opportunity to go to a local tech school for an open house. At the time, I looked at it as a chance to get out of some classes. After looking at the course guide, I decided to go to the culinary arts program based solely on the fact that they were sure to have some food for us. (They did) While at this open house, I learned I could take cooking as an elective, and get out of school for a half a day for my junior and senior year to cook every day. I will be honest, at the time I wasn’t thinking about pursuing a career. I was figuring I could eat lunch there every day, and I could use my lunch money to do other things. Little did I know at the time how much that class would change my life and lead me to where I am today. The professor was Kevin Lucy. He was a former restaurant/bar owner who, like many, wanted to settle down and start a family. He was the one who brought to my attention that I was naturally talented, and should look into going to a culinary college. He referred me to Paul Smiths, and his influence was solely the reason for me attending Paul Smiths. I know that I wasn’t his favorite student, but he took me aside and let me believe that I could have a future cooking.“
2. Who mentored you in your pursuit of this career? “I found most of my mentoring came from my years at Paul Smiths College. I have great respect for all of the chefs I learned from there. I tried to take away as much as I could. I remember talking with a student who chose PSC along with me from the same tech school and expressing how I was amazed at the wealth of knowledge that was shared. I never knew about the history, or the prestige behind culinary arts and the restaurant industry. I drew inspiration from the stories, shared by all the chefs, of their days as young culinarians and the steps they took to become the leaders they were. I will say making the culinary team in college was a huge confidence boost for me, and led me to believe in myself. I’ve worked for a few great chefs out in the industry. Bruce Bartz was executive chef of the Country Club of the South when I started there. I had just moved to Georgia from New Hampshire. I took the job as chef tournant in January 1999. From there, I was promoted to sous chef and later took his job as Executive Chef. I was only 23 at the time, and in the conversation we had when he told me about his resignation he told me that cooking is the easy part of the job. Oh, how those words rang true back then, as they still do today. He wrote me a letter titled “A Chef is many things.” In that letter were some great tips on what a chef is and has to be to lead a team to a successful operation. It’s a letter I still have today. I wish I had more time to learn from him, he was a great leader and loved to teach cooking. I’d like to say I filled the big shoes he left behind, but the stiff cocktail of ignorance and arrogance had me fall flat on my face. Never the less I had some good experience, and a long list of the “what not to do’s”.
Another great chef I was fortunate to spend 3 years under was Tom Warrell. I was hired as his sous chef at St. Ives Country Club. This was back in 2008 at the beginning of the recession. With budget cuts and layoffs, we found ourselves alone, supervising 4 kitchens, and at one point, even short a banquet chef during the holiday months. Tom was a knife and cutting board chef. He would only go to the desk if he absolutely had to. We worked side by side, and formed a relationship that will last forever. There were times I would be bouncing from the a’la carte kitchen to the banquet kitchen to help plate up a party of 100 plus guests because he was over there by himself. He would never complain, he would just put his head down and get the job done. Keep in mind, even in the recession, we were still doing 1.5 million in banquet sales. I later replaced him, and after a year, I left to pursue the Bone Island Grill with my brother and sister. 3. What style of cooking or baking best portrays your passion? “I trained mostly French and Italian, so European techniques are my strongest. My passion lies in pairing foods. I love beer, and I love pairing foods with beer. I love wine dinners, and pairing wines with themed dinners. I think one of the best meals I have served was a seven- course meal all pairing wine with chocolate influenced foods. The entire meal was focused on wine and chocolate. Need I say more, what a night! “ 4. Do you have a food philosophy that drives your menu decisions? If so, can you describe this philosophy? “Balance is the key to any menu. Balance in the products, balance in the preparations, balance in the stations. In the planning of the restaurant Bone Island Grill we wanted to design a concept restaurant that is replicable. We were going to develop a restaurant that one day might compete with the giants in the industry. We all share the feeling that chain restaurant food is lacking and has polluted the pallette of America. But the question remained. How did they get so big selling inferior products? Our thoughts were they had to be good at one point. So the foundation was laid that we would search for quality products, keep the cook in the restaurant (not in a factory somewhere), and keep the restaurant professionals making the decisions and not a group of investors. Here in lies the balance I speak of. Although I use some frozen products, I find the best ones that money can buy. Although we do have some convenience products, we are primarily a “scratch cooking” kitchen. When there is an opportunity to buy local, we buy local. We are a high volume operation. We have been open for 18 months now and have served over 120,000 guests. We are open 5 nights a week, dinner only. It is all about balance.”
5. Can you name a particular food experience in your life that was your epiphany? An experience that stands out as the moment when you said, yes, this is what I need to do. “Looking back I don’t know if it was a food experience that gave me that “epiphany.” I didn’t realize it at the time but I was the one who would eat anything. I have five brothers and two sisters, and my dad was a teacher. We didn’t have much growing up besides each other and we found entertainment in many forms. I remember sitting around the kitchen table with all my siblings watching me eat an entire can of sardines in one sitting, just to see if I would get sick. I loved sardines, and still do. (even after filleting about 80 pounds of them while in France at Chef Marc Meneau’s- L’Esperance) I was the kid that ate spinach and broccoli. I was the one who would tear into anything. I used to watch Great Chef’s Great Cities every day after school, and not once thought at the time that was the direction I was going. I feel I was meant for this, it’s in my blood, but I was very late to realize it. One moment stands out for me. It was after I won best of It was an acceptance that I could do something well. My history before cooking and even during the beginning was a kid with no direction and a really messed up set of priorities. That was the moment I knew this is who I am.” 6. What is your pet peeve about working in restaurants? “Short cuts! I am not a fan of short cuts. Now I have had to get creative in this new position that I am in. I’ll be the first to tell you I have never experienced the volume that we are doing now. And even when fully staffed in the peak of season I only have 4 full time cooks and 3 part time or seasonal cooks and just my sous chef has any formal training. I have had to scale back on some of my anal retentive procedures. But if you want to get my blood to boil, just start slapping things around carelessly, you will see my demon side. I tell my team “All good food starts with care.” If you give the burger the same care as the filet mignon, then they are equally delicious. We use all Certified Angus Beef products, and our ground beef is CAB natural. I don’t need to pile mushrooms and bacon on top to make it taste good. It already does, I just have to give it care, and try not to mess it up. (nothing against mushrooms and bacon, I love them both on a burger) I am also a stickler for cleanliness. Being a ServSafe instructor and proctor, I feel I have the added pressure to hold a 100% on every inspection. Truthfully, I see no reason why any restaurant kitchen would settle for anything less. Being a high volume restaurant, we have a great responsibility to our guests to assure them that their food is being handled properly and in a clean and healthy environment. We often have guests come into the kitchen, and I wouldn’t want them to see a sloppy facility.” 7. Who are your most valuable players in the restaurant where you currently work? “I spent many years in country clubs. I truly enjoyed the intimacy of serving a membership of guests. I left that life to pursue the Bone Island Grill to have a chance to work with my family. While all of our team members are really important to the whole, my brother and sister is my anchor. Any business is hard, especially a restaurant, but to share the day-to-day routine with family makes it great. We are oftentimes asked “how do you work with family?” The answer is easy: we all have different passions. Mine being food, where Ryan is a numbers guy, to the point I have titled him the “number nazi,” and Kara has a true passion for the guest and taking ownership of their experience. When the restaurant was at its original location, my sister Kara was hired on as a waitress. She had been a stay at home mother for years, but had restaurant management experience in her past. This was quickly recognized and she was promoted to general manager. When the idea of transferring the restaurant to the current property, and developing a concept focused on the guest, she sought out my brother Ryan who had been a managing partner with a corporate restaurant. Later, they came to me. Together, with the help of many others, we laid a foundation based on three values.
Purpose- Know your purpose, every job is important
Passion- Have passion for your purpose, take ownership
Pride- Take that pride from having a job to pride in being part of something B.I.G. Understand your purpose, have passion for it, and take pride in it.
Three little words that guide us in every decision we make. “ 8. If you had an opportunity to provide some guiding light to young cooks and bakers looking to make their mark in kitchens, what would you tell them? “Your education starts after school. I often regret the rush I was in to gain the title Executive Chef. Such a rush, that when I did get it, I didn’t know what to do with it, or how to be it. Decide early what direction in the culinary field you want to go, and map out the course to get there. Set goals, and work your butt off to reach them.” 9. When you hire people to work in your kitchen what traits are you looking for? “Work ethic and loyalty. In the small town that our restaurant is in, there are about six other restaurants, three country clubs, (one having three properties and five different courses) a Ritz Carlton Hotel, and a couple other food related job opportunities. With a limited field of experienced employees and even smaller number of formally trained cooks in the area it very challenging to build the right team. However, work ethic is the base of every good team member. With solid training, and clear understanding of expectations, work ethic can turn a 19 -year old fry cook at a bowling alley into my sauté cook and someone I leave in charge when I am not there to see that the kitchen is cleaned properly. I say loyalty in a manner not concerning the amount of time an individual was at a job, though it is a key factor, but more on how they plan to leave their current position. I will not hire anyone who will not serve out a notice. In fact, I’ll even get up from the interview if they say they don’t need to give notice. This has burned me several times. I have had cooks show up for their shift with uniforms in their hands, saying they are getting 25 cents more and hour. Let’s do the math, if you get .25 more an hour for a forty- hour work-week, which is $10. After taxes, that financial gain equates to $6.00 per week. Is that six extra dollars’ worth burning a bridge and a reference by not serving out your notice? I just don’t get it. I do look for individuals who want to pursue a career in cooking. I offer to buy textbooks for cooks who express an interests in learning. I quiz them on their reading, and how it correlates to what we are doing at the restaurant. I follow up with references seeking information about honesty and passion. I share with them our core values and look for their response, but the traits that have served me well in the past and present are work ethic and loyalty.”
10. If you were not cooking or baking, what would you choose to do for a career? “I have always had a passion for music. Back in high school and college there were not many times you’d see me out of class when I didn’t have my guitar in hand. I even sang a few originals at the open mic nights at PSC. I haven’t played much lately, but I agree with Thomas Keller, music is a very important ingredient.” 11. What would you like people to know about your current restaurant and the food that you produce? “We are a family restaurant, owned by family and run by family. The Bone Island Grill is located in lake country central Georgia on beautiful Lake Oconee, a little over an hour southeast of Atlanta. Our philosophy at Bone Island Grill is that it’s all about the experience. During peak summer season, guests are entertained thru lengthy waits with our one acre lakefront yard where kids can play and adults can enjoy a cocktail while sitting by the lake. Once inside to dine the great experience continues with our service team, voted friendliest wait staff by our guests in Lake Oconee Living’s Best of 2012. Guests are served our signature house salad family style while their meals are being cooked to order. Our food is cooked from scratch with our guests in mind. The art is in the flavor, although presentation and delivery are equally important.”
I had the pleasure of working with Chef Jody while he was a student of mine, as a member of our Student Culinary Team and as an intern participating in a French program. He continues to impress me with his talent and passionate approach towards cooking, serving the guest and operating a successful business. He had asked me for advice a while back on how to convince kitchen staff to “sweat the small stuff” and do things not only right, but at the highest level of excellence. I have wrestled with how to approach this, so here is my attempt at an answer.
Everyone is different. As much as we would love to have staff members share our passion and commitment, it is our passion and commitment and not always theirs. Some people will never see what you see, nor will they ever understand the “no compromise” approach that Chef s Tim McQuinn and Tony Maws refer to. This is the reality that every chef and restaurateur must deal with giving more and more credence to the hiring process, the support that you provide those who do “get it”, the on-going training that great restaurants provide, and the way that we reward excellence.
Many will say, “sounds great, but I can never find enough of those unique individuals, so how do I get the job done correctly?” There are really only two ways that I know of:
• You can insist upon it, drill it in, constantly monitor and correct employees, and second-guess their every step. The problem with this approach is that it is physically, mentally and emotionally exhausting. This is what drives some chefs to act like tyrants, yell and criticize and try to manage through fear. From my perspective, in the long-run, it doesn’t work for anyone.
• You can build your core leadership team comprised of those individuals who share your passion and commitment (sous chef, pastry chef, banquet chef, dining room manager), communicate constantly and teach the team to be teachers. Employees oftentimes do not get it because they simply do not know, nor have they had the experiences that you have had that drive your passion. Every moment in the kitchen, through your leadership team, is a teaching moment; a chance to create those “aha” opportunities for staff members to build their understanding. Make sure that every task assigned includes showing them how it impacts on the final dish in terms of appearance, texture and taste. They need to see that their attention to knife skills (as an example), does make a big difference in how the dish turns out, how the guest perceives it, and what you can charge. Give them some opportunity to make mistakes, show them why it is wrong, how to correct it, and walk through the process with them. Make sure you differentiate between those who simply do not know the how and why with those who do not care. Work with those who do not know, and quickly show those who do not care – the door.
A great quote that would benefit all employees is: “If you don’t have the time to do it right the first time, when will you find the time to do it over?” Instill in your staff the understanding that it must be done right, show them how to do it, explain why, and compliment them when it is done correctly. Build pride within those who want to learn and you will see positive results.
For more information about Bone Island Grill, visit their website at: