“We need people in our lives with whom we can be as open as possible. To have real conversations with people may seem like such a simple, obvious suggestion, but it involves courage and risk.” 

Thomas Moore

When a cook or chef enters that kitchen on the first day of work, it is as if a great test has begun. With regard to trust, there are three distinct lines of measurement: unconditional trust, no trust, or a point of neutrality and observation. Keep in mind that unconditional trust rarely happens except with siblings, best friends, parents, and spouses. Even then, unconditional trust is questionable. No trust is based on your experience with others or a pessimistic view of humankind. At best, most cooks and chefs enter on that first day to a position of neutrality.

Those who have called a kitchen their home for some time will look at new entries with guarded optimism, and those starting off will wonder to what level will those stalwarts with longevity support them, work with them, or screw them. It is a time of uncomfortable observation. Trust, after all, is earned – it is never a given.

Can this person be trusted to dedicate the time and effort to do the job correctly? Can I trust that this person’s skills are up to par? Can I trust that conversations with this person will be held in confidence? Can I trust that this individual will show up on time and be prepared? Will this person support me and “have my back”? These are all reasonable questions and very important ones. The level of trust that exists in a kitchen will have significant bearing on the functioning of the team, the quality of the product, and the experience of the guest.

When trust exists, the team is honest and comfortable dealing with situations that require problem solving. When trust exists, the team will gel and the resulting work environment will be positive and energized.   Without trust, the team will tend to work against each other resulting in an uncomfortable environment and chaos.

The single most important task that a chef has in the kitchen is the creation of an environment of trust. This is also the single most difficult task that a chef has. It is actually much easier to build this environment in a brand new kitchen with a group of perfect strangers than it is to walk into an existing restaurant with “history”. Building an environment of trust where previously there was none is a daunting task.

When a lack of organizational trust has been allowed to fester for a period of time, any new player will be automatically viewed with a questioning eye. Every decision, every step that a chef or cook takes will be measured against that festering level of mistrust. The assumption is, trust no one. Staff will either avoid interaction with the new member of the team, or even in some cases work to nurture that mistrust and stir the pot to keep the caution flags at full mast.

Learning to trust is one of life’s most difficult tasks.

Isaac Watts

This environment is very uncomfortable for all involved and will impact the restaurants ability to be successful. Staff members will not look forward to a day in the kitchen, will find reasons to call out, will lack the passion necessary to produce great food, and will always be looking for a different gig, hoping to find a better environment.

There are ways to approach this situation, but all of them will require time and are never free of a certain amount of pain in the process. To some cooks and chefs it is not worth the effort and “knots in the stomach” moments. To others, it is a challenge that seasoning of time can help the individual view as a mission.

The first step is to acknowledge that you (the cook or chef) do not know the cause of the current environment. What you see are the effects. Sometimes, the effects are all consuming and truly inhibit the operations ability to function. In those cases, the immediate solution may be painful and inaccurate. Clean the slate and start over with a new staff, in extreme cases is what needs to happen for the good of the business. It takes a hard, unemotional person to take this route, but in some cases there is no choice.

In other situations the progressive solution is to begin with a unifying task that will allow all team members to focus on their part of the overall job and, at least for the time being, put their mistrust and distaste for others in the back seat. During this time it is important for the chef to listen, observe, coach, train, and formulate a plan that will focus on the root cause or causes of the situation. Sometimes these causes are deep rooted and the solution may even beyond a chef’s pay grade. Sometimes it is a single person, a single act, an attitude, a poor decision, or a process that can be viewed as “ground zero” for mistrust. Once identified, the chef must decide how to approach “ground zero”. Readjusting organizational responsibilities, bringing players together to openly discuss the feelings of mistrust, a change in direction, an adjustment to a process or policy, or in some cases encouraging a person to seek employment elsewhere are options on the table. The key is, once the cause has been identified it must be dealt with. There is limited value in constantly putting out the fires of effect.

“The definition of insanity is doing things over and over again in the same way and expecting different results.”

Albert Einstein

Once the cause is identified and dealt with there will still be significant scars in the organization that will take time and effort to heal. After a poor environment of trust exists, people will remain skeptical of a chef’s next move. This is when a methodical process of team re-building must take place. This process never guarantees results, but in all cases is the same in any organization, any type of business, with any and every group of people.

You are probably thinking – wow, this is way too hard. Maybe the best decision is to start over with a new team or simply avoid working in a kitchen that is so screwed up. Maybe the best decision is to jump ship and find an opportunity that is not so contrary to welcoming a chef or cook with open arms. Good luck with that. Most organizations have some issues in this regard. Most kitchens nurture a history of mistrust, at some level.

So what are those steps in team re-building?

  1. TESTING: This phase involves guarded communication and honesty among cooks and as a result, performance is not that great. Fortunately, if you have already addressed the cause of mistrust and dealt with it, you have probably already carried your staff through the testing phase. Now they are at least prepared to talk.
  2. INFIGHTING: Be prepared for this phase. Things will get ugly before they get better. During infighting, people are vying for their position in the organization, their level of responsibility and respect. Players are open about their feelings and will oftentimes demonstrate these at the most inappropriate times. The chef must try to keep outbursts in check and provide opportunities requiring people to work together and forums for communication that can serve as both a pressure release and forum for teaching and training. This is the phase that will clearly demonstrate whether a team can succeed or will crumble. There are no guarantees that individuals or the group will survive.
  3. ORGANIZATION: If a kitchen crew makes it through infighting they have likely determined that every one has strengths and weaknesses and for a team to form they must not just recognize this, but also establish a model that focuses on people’s areas of strength and complements areas of weakness. Everyone has a role to play and if that becomes their focus then, and only then, will the team be able to accomplish his or her tasks. Whether the organization is a kitchen, a Wall Street office, a school, or a football team, the process is identical.
  4. MATURE CLOSENESS: Now that the crew has a purpose, individually defined responsibilities, an understanding of the role that each person plays in reaching goals, and an appreciation for each and every individual, and then a true team is formed. When a team works, as it should, then whatever challenges and goals are set before them, they can count on positive results. This is where a kitchen crew, a school, or a football team needs to be.

“When a gifted team dedicates itself to unselfish trust and combines instinct with boldness and effort, it is ready to climb.”



Harvest America Ventures, LLC

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About Me

PAUL SORGULE is a seasoned chef, culinary educator, established author, and industry consultant. These are his stories of cooks, chefs, and the environment of the professional kitchen.


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