I know that there are some who cook just for the paycheck. There are plenty of opportunities for cooks without that life-commitment to the craft, and in many cases they are pretty good at what they do. There are, however, a growing number of cooks and chefs who are in it for the long haul. These are the individuals who would pause when asked: “What would you do if you weren’t cooking?”
There has never been a time in history when people were more knowledgeable about the connection between health and diet, and there has never been a time when people were more concerned about what they eat, where it came from, how it was prepared, and what impact that food will have on their physical health. Some even believe that restaurants are somewhat responsible for the health (or lack there of) of society. There is little question that many of the physical and mental ills of the human race are connected to food, yet we continue to push forward with promotion of food that is contrary to our base of knowledge.
Regardless of your feelings about responsibility, there is a growing segment of the population turning to restaurants for clarity and help. After all, 50% of the average American family’s food dollar is spent in some type of restaurant. Given this reality, shouldn’t we (chefs, cooks and restaurateurs) step up and take some of the heat for the ills of mankind?
Those who cook for the check might argue that they don’t get paid to be a principled cook, and they are probably right. It is a responsibility that starts at the top, demonstrating to those who execute the menu how important it is to work with the right ingredients, prepare food in a manner that reflects integrity, and be responsible advocates for what is right.
It is hard, sometimes, to teach an old dog new tricks. I would probably fall into that category if it were not for the young cooks and students that I continue to have contact with on a daily basis. It is this “youth with principle” environment that allows me to reflect more and more on my role, our role, as cooks and chefs. If we resist too much, today’s consumer will respond by turning towards others who understand. There are many examples of this attitude that are unfolding every day:
The larger quick service chains are suffering a loss in market share while customers turn to brands like Chipotle, Panera and Shake Shack as they promote their philosophy of organic products, freshness first, kind treatment of animals, and fair trade practices. Recently, Neil Young called for a boycott of Starbucks after they threatened to sue the State of Vermont for passing legislation against the use of GMO’s; and this week the country is up in arms as the Academy of Nutrition and Dietetics (formerly the American Dietetic Association) placed their seal of approval on Kraft Singles (a cheese food product). People care, and as such expect our industry to make decisions that are in line with new food awareness.
In kitchens across the country, a new generation of cooks and chefs is beginning to make employment decisions based on restaurants or food service operations that have a philosophy that aligns with theirs.
What are people seeking from us? It appears that these considerations are becoming the “price of admission” for serious restaurants:
- A chef and culinary team with a shared philosophy about buying right, from sources that are local or regional
- Attention to detail when it comes to food selection, storage, preparation, presentation and service
- Unwavering commitment to standards of excellence – from cleanliness to product flavor and visual presentation
- A “quality first” attitude that is never sacrificed
- Knowledge of the product from connections with the farmers and producers to how the product impacts a customer’s lifestyle, health, philosophical preferences, etc.
- Trust in information about product, trust in preparation, trust in ingredients
In an era of sellouts, worship of convenience, adaptive short cuts, reliance on one-stop vendors, salespersons who don’t know the food that they sell, concerns about the safety of the food supply, resistance to food labeling, and a lack of trust in the government to protect our health, there is an increasing need for cooks, chefs and restaurateurs with integrity.
This integrity, as has been proven of late, is no longer isolated to those in high-end restaurant operations. Integrity is not directly connected to selling price, or operational concept. Chipotle produces a product of integrity and they are being rewarded with market share. Shake Shack produces a simple product of integrity and they are rewarded with growth and profit. Certainly the Thomas Keller’s and Mario Batali’s of the world boast integrity in their operations, but so too can anyone in QSR, Family Style, or Institutional style operations. Recently, a chef whom I know competed in a quality food competition and took home first place. He is the chef in a hospital – a place where it is now possible to have food that fits a patients dietary needs and stands up to the best food that a restaurant chef can make. The source of this “anomaly”- a chef with integrity.
The strength of our industry, and the strength of our country depend, to an increasing degree, on how we approach our jobs as cooks and chefs. Let’s all vow to never sacrifice what we know to be important about our jobs. Let’s make sure that quality, excellence, trust, and the knowledge of product become our signature regardless of the type of operation we call home. Stay true to those stakes in the ground, share your passion with others, and if or when you are in a position of authority, make decisions based on what you know to be right.
PLAN BETTER – TRAIN HARDER
Harvest America Ventures, LLC