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Painted in Waterlogue

I have quite a network of cook and chef friends. All of them are part of that special club of people who have been there and truly know what it means to be a kitchen warrior. Everyone is unique, yet most have similar traits as I have pointed out in the past. Regardless of their individuality, I have found it possible to group all cooks into one of three categories (you could probably use these same distinctions for most careers):

[]         GROUP A: First, are those cooks who love everything about the kitchen, the warriors who work alongside them, and certainly the food they create. These are the people who live, eat, drink and dream about food. They spend their days off and vacations (when they can get them) reading about food, networking with other restaurant people, visiting restaurants on their bucket list, and drooling over the next tool that they want to add to their collection. Whatever time their shift begins, they are there at least an hour early (off the clock) just to make sure that everything is ready, and quite honestly – just to be in the kitchen. They view every plate that leaves their station as a personal accomplishment or failure and have a real tough time with the later. What they are paid is certainly important, but it is not what stokes their fires of enthusiasm, it is the work and the environment that gives them specific purpose.

[]         GROUP B: Second, are those cooks who are OK with the whole idea of working in a kitchen. They have accepted it as their job, do what they are trained to do, typically perform the tasks involved, quite well, appreciate the pay check, and are more often than not – dependable. When they punch out, they have checked out. Rarely does a thought about the position, the skills, the challenges, or professional growth even cross their mind. These cooks are good employees, but not necessarily passionate ones.

[]         GROUP C: Third, are those cooks who feel trapped in their current job, coming to work is something that they often dread. Thoughts about their tasks at hand, the skills that will make them better employees, or even the integrity of the food that they produce is frequently clouded by feelings of mistrust, being an underappreciated employee, feeling seriously under-paid, and even distain for the whole environment that they work in and the guests who spend money in the dining room.

What is common amongst these three categories is that at some point, for some reason, they all came to that fork in the road: should I become a cook or something else. To qualify even further:

Group A would say: “Coulda, Shouda, DID!”

Group B would say: “Coulda, Shoulda, Still MIGHT.”

Group C would say: “Coulda, Shouda, DIDN’T.”

Chefs might wish that a crew was comprised of the Group A’s, but realistically, it’s pretty difficult to make that happen, and maybe not even desirable. So, what should a crew look like and what can the chef do?

There is something very predictable about human beings: we get excited about things that we are good at and we enjoy feeling good about ourselves. So, the trick is to address this in a variety of ways. Early on, we determine (usually through the encouragement or discouragement of others) that we are or aren’t artistic, musical, adept at sports, creative writers, etc. If encouraged, we tend to invest time and energy in that discipline. We gain enjoyment from that activity even if we may not make a career out of it. We have an aptitude for something and thus enjoy spending the time even if it never gets beyond a diversion. I enjoy going out on a golf course even though I am a very sub par player. As long as someone is with me who says a few times in a round that I had a “nice hit”, then I will continue to play on occasion.

There is something important to be learned from this example: encouragement can move a “trapped” employee from that state to at least one of acceptance in relation to the job. Discouragement will only serve to drive them further into a funk and farther from a chef’s objectives. Without this encouragement the cook will continue to only focus on his or her rate of pay, challenging physical conditions of the kitchen, repetitiveness of tasks, and in their mind- inconsiderate requests from guests. If the chef adds to his or her encouragement – showing the cook how to improve even more, then the process of “getting good at something” can begin to take hold.

Another approach is one that came to light after reading an older article about Chef Charlie Trotter and one of his employees (I believe it was his maitre’d). The employee was exemplary at his position for Trotter, but he was not happy. The chef, as the story goes, made it a habit to find out about what made his employees tick and in the process discovered that this particular stellar employee had a background in graphic design. He saw an opportunity here that would potentially keep this staff member engaged in his job and at the same time able to express his passion for design. He gave the maitre’d an opportunity to become involved in the design of his cookbooks while benefitting from his continued service in the dining room; a win-win situation.

So, think about the number of cooks who work in your restaurant who are passionate musicians (give them an opportunity to perform or even become involved in selecting and managing the music played in your dining room), aspiring artists (give them an opportunity to display their artwork in the dining room on consignment or offer input on the artwork used in the menu), avid sports enthusiast (consider forming a restaurant softball team, 5K runners group that represents the property, or pick-up basketball team and offer that staff member a chance to participate or even facilitate the team), wood carving enthusiast (teach him or her how to transpose those skills to ice carving and feature carvings for your buffets and special events), or writer (allow the cook to write for your restaurant blog – with emphasis on food and wine). There are ample opportunities to engage a staff members passion even if it isn’t directly with food.

As far as your Group A food stars, don’t forget them, but don’t isolate them either by ignoring everyone else. Make them a teacher so that their enthusiasm might rub off on everyone else. Press them to continue learning and growing, but to share what they discover with everyone else.

Everyone, at some point in time comes upon that fork in the road. Help your cooks, in particular, to realize that their decision at that fork was a wise one. Encourage, discover, support, share, and help them grow.


Harvest America Ventures, LLC