The foundations of our country stem from the concept of democracy or as clearly stated by Abraham Lincoln in the Gettysburg Address: “a government of the people, by the people and for the people…” a bold, and noble statement that most Americans take to heart, appreciate and support. We have the right and the obligation to vote for representatives who, at least in theory, have our best interests at heart and who stand tall to lobby on our behalf. In truth, we have seen this work at some level, but realize that a true democracy, where everyone has a say in decision-making is far from realistic. Yes, the compromise is to vote in representatives and if they disappoint us, vote for their replacement. We have also seen how representing multiple thoughts, ideas and beliefs can drag on for extensive periods of time without, in many cases, any resolution. This is the price that we pay for the freedom to speak our minds and have independent opinions. Democracy is not always perfect, yet it is still the best system around.
This freedom does not fit every situation, thus the focus of this article. I am a firm believer in participative environments where individuals have an opportunity to be expressive, but from experience still support the need for kitchens to run very similar to the military. This may seem like a contradiction – I don’t believe it is. There is a time for debate and a time for action. Kitchens are environments where a need for action is the one constant. I read once where there is a need for chefs to make decisions multiple times in any given minute. It is his or her experience leading to holding that title that allow for calculated decisions that keep the machine in full motion. Furthermore, just like in any company, it is the vision of the leader that keeps the ship on a constant course, provides stability, sets the environment for positive movement and provides a level of predictable trust in the minds of consumers. But what about the need for change?
We should not feel that democracy be constantly present for positive change to occur. I have been an advocate for change for decades and have promoted a need to look at things differently in restaurants and in culinary education; however, I also realize two key realities:
1. As much as anyone might promote the need for change, very few people are actually comfortable with the concept
2. All successful change stems from an effective leader who creates an environment of trust, helps to educate an audience along the way, and is not afraid to make decisions even if they go against public opinion
Apple Computer (still my favorite company) lives by a mantra that many of us are quite familiar with:
“Here’s to the crazy ones. The misfits. The rebels. The troublemakers. The round pegs in the square holes. The ones who see things differently. They’re not fond of rules. And they have no respect for the status quo. You can quote them, disagree with them, glorify or vilify them. About the only thing you can’t do is ignore them. Because they change things. They push the human race forward. And while some may see them as the crazy ones, we see genius. Because the people who are crazy enough to think they can change the world, are the ones who do.”
― Apple Inc.
The interesting thing is that the company, during its most incredible surge from near bankruptcy to becoming one of the largest, most profitable and still most admired brands in the world was run by a person who hired the best and brightest, yet ran the company like a crazed dictator. He had the vision and no intention of allowing anyone to waiver from that vision while at the same time giving them incredible autonomy to ideate and create. Is this a contradiction? Maybe so, but it really is how the concept of democracy has any chance of being successful in business.
In kitchens, it is always important to hire, nurture and encourage young cooks who have creative minds and fresh ideas. At the same time, if these same individuals are unable or unwilling to follow the lead of a chef who has the responsibility to make the right decision in any given moment and who must ensure that a consistent, quality product is present to the guest, time in and time out, then that young cook will not find an avenue for their ideas. There is a time and a place for expression and a time and a place for following the lead. This is something that far too many young cooks do not realize or are willing to accept. The result in a kitchen can be chaos. It is the “yes, chef” model that must prevail when the kitchen is in battle mode, when the dining room is full and guests are anticipating a dish that they have high expectations of.
The ideation opportunities for young cooks must still exist, but it needs to happen when the time is right. Chefs must create those opportunities for interaction and idea sharing or tomorrows kitchen stars will eventually become discouraged and look for better opportunities elsewhere. Failure to ever provide those times when ideation and change occur will inevitably result in missed opportunities for growth and competitiveness in a very intense marketplace.
At the same time, it is the chef who must separate a fresh short-term trend from something with staying power that might eventually shift the course of the ship; this is also something that experience can control.
“Fashion changes, but style endures.”
― Coco Chanel
It is the chef’s job to ensure that the “style” of the restaurant and of cooking in general is never lost in the fever of keeping up with “fashion”. A kitchen “of the people, by the people and for the people”, may not provide the answer for long-term success, but it will, to a degree, keep things interesting. The challenge is always maintaining a balance of democracy and reasonable dictatorship.
I would be willing to bet that the most influential chefs and restaurateurs of the day are masters at this balance. I would almost guarantee that Thomas Keller, Gary Danko, Danny Meyer, Daniel Boulud, Grant Achatz and numerous others know when to provide those opportunities for creativity and when to reel it in when situations dictate the need for a “yes chef” response.
A word to young cooks working their way through the kitchen brigade: “learn to respect the chefs experience, vision and need to control. In the early days of your career, one of your primary jobs is to do what is necessary to make the chef and the restaurant look good. If you do this, I would almost guarantee that the opportunities to express your ideas and opinions would find a home. I would also guarantee that when you find yourself in that eventual position of leadership – balance in democracy is what you will choose as well.”
PLAN BETTER – TRAIN HARDER
Harvest America Ventures, LLC
Restaurant and Culinary School Consulting, Training and Coaching