CHEFS and RESTAURANT STAFF – THE IMPORTANCE OF PERFECTION

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What drives people to obsess about seeking perfection? Is it a disorder to be scoffed at or is it simply meant to confuse others? With all of the attention being paid to a relatively small segment of the restaurant market, this is certainly a topic that makes many people, including some in the restaurant business, shake their heads. Thomas Keller seeks perfection, so does Eric Ripert, Ferran Adria, Gary Danko, Daniel Boulud, Joel Robuchon, and Alaine Ducasse. Danny Meyer and Joe Bastianich – restaurateurs extraordinaire are focused on perfection in their fine dining restaurants and in their markets and quick service operations. Are these individuals the extreme or are they simply an exception to the rule? What makes them tick?

“Be a yardstick of quality. Some people aren’t used to an environment where excellence is expected.”

Steve Jobs

From my experience, the quest for perfection is something that nearly every professional cook, server, sommelier, and restaurant manager aspires to and practices at some level every day. The question of “why” can be understood by anyone and everyone who has ever stood next to a range, faced with 120 degree ambient heat, burning eyebrows and scorching skin while being totally focused on a multitude of preparations as the POS spits out ticket after ticket, or standing tall beside tables draped in linen and topped with Riedl glassware and Villeroy and Boch china.. The pursuit of perfection is not a lofty goal for these professionals, it is a necessity.

“Gentlemen, we will chase perfection, and we will chase it relentlessly, knowing all the while we can never attain it. But along the way, we shall catch excellence.”

Vince Lombardi

Think about these almost unconscious actions and processes that are part of the daily routine of each and every cook, server, wine steward, and dining room manager:

[]         ESTABLISHING A DEFINITIVE LOCATION FOR MISE EN PLACE AT EACH         STATION:

There is little difference in organization between a pilot, a musician, and a line cook. In all cases it is essential that they know where everything in their station or on their instrument resides without even looking. Mastery of their job depends on this familiarity, especially when stress levels are high. PERFECTION

[]         FOLDING SIDE TOWELS:

Side towels are one of a cook’s most important tools. Most line cooks will tell you that having enough dry towels, organized and folded properly, located where they are needed, allows the cook to maintain a clean station and handle blazing hot pan handles, char grills and oven doors. When the towels are folded and stacked you know the cook is ready. PERFECTION

[]         CHECKING THROUGH STACKS OF PLATES:

The plate is a cook’s canvas. It is critically important to a professional cook that the canvas is spotless, and free of nicks and scratches. The perfectionist cook wants to make sure that this canvas does not detract from the food that he or she painstakingly produced. It is very common to see line cooks checking through all of their stacks of plates before service so that nothing gets in the way of painting their food on the plate. PERFECTION

[]         TURNING THE HANDLES OF PANS TO A CERTAIN ANGLE:

This is a part of mise en place. Knowing where to reach a pan without even giving it a second thought helps a cook keep his or her rhythm when they are in the zone. PERFECTION

Painted in Waterlogue

[]         TRIMMING VEGETABLES TO THE SAME LENGTH:

The vegetable is a complement to the center of the plate and in that role the attention that a cook pays to it is just as critical as ensuring that the steak is perfectly cut and marked, or the scallop is caramelized for flavor and presentation. PERFECTION

[]         HEATING PANS JUST BELOW THE SMOKE POINT:

One of the single most important factors that contribute to the flavor of a dish is caramelization. A properly heated pan is essential in this regard. Some line cooks will store their pans in a very hot oven so that they are ready when needed. PERFECTION

[]         INVESTING QUALITY TIME EACH DAY WORKING A KNIFE EDGE ON A WET   STONE:

To a serious cook the knife is an extension of their hand. A sharp knife is the workhorse of the kitchen and as such the most important tool in a cooks kit. PERFECTION

[]         KNOWING THAT A BRUNOISE IS 1/8 INCH CUBE AND ONLY BEING SATISFIED WHEN THOSE VEGETABLE GARNISHES FOR TONIGHTS CONSOMME WOULD STAND UP TO A RULER:

Cooks understand that precise knife cuts are not only visually important, uniformity is essential to ensure even cooking and the right flavor profile whether it is a dice, julienne, or mince. PERFECTION

[]         MEASURING THE DISTANCE FROM THE END OF A TABLE TO THE BOTTOM OF POLISHED FLATWARE:

A friend of mine was a maitre’d in a top tier hotel. I visited one afternoon about 30 minutes before service and his service staff members were measuring the distance for flatware placement and lining up glassware with a straight edge. This was part of their pre-opening routine. PERFECTION

service team

[]         TURNING EVERY BOTTLE LABEL ON THE BACK BAR TO FACE THE GUEST:

Charlie Trotter was known to insist that his bartender turn every bottle label as such and even place the bottles by type of liquor – in alphabetical order. Was this obsessive or did it serve a purpose? PERFECTION

“If you are going to achieve excellence in big things, you develop the habit in little matters. Excellence is not an exception, it is a prevailing attitude.”

Colin Powell

[]         STEAM POLISHING GLASSWARE TO REMOVE ANY WATER SPOTS:

There are few details in restaurants more important that impeccable cleanliness and the showmanship that goes along with it. It’s all in the details. PERFECTION

[]         HEATING ESPRESSO CUPS BEFORE ADDING THE COFFEE, CREMA AND FROTHED MILK FOR A CAPPUCINO

The two most important rules in a restaurant are and always have been: “Hot food hot, cold food cold”. When you think about it – pouring hot coffee or espresso into a cold cup just doesn’t make sense. PERFECTION

So… why all the fuss? Is this necessary, especially in restaurants that are not so enamored about seeking that AAA fourth diamond or a Michelin star? The necessity of seeking perfection is based on a basic truth:

If you start a shift with a focus on perfection, there is little doubt that as business continues to grow during that shift, everything will slip (the plating in the kitchen will not be quite as refined, the cooks station will begin to look a bit worn and slightly disheveled, the flatware on the table will begin to lose that perfect placement, and bottles behind the bar may not be aligned as they should. All this being true, when every employee starts with an attitude of perfection, they will take that extra second even during the busiest rush, to try and maintain something close to that standard. When things slip from perfection, they typically stay pretty close to that standard that has become the employee’s signature. If perfection is not sought in the beginning, then it won’t be long before the food and service are failing.

“The quality of a person’s life is in direct proportion to his or her commitment to excellence, regardless of the chosen field of endeavor.

Vince Lombardi

Doesn’t it make sense that the pursuit of perfection, whether or not it can ever be reached, is and should be the goal of every food professional?

“At the very least you will be able to look yourself in the mirror.”

Charlie Trotter

Painted in Waterlogue

PLAN BETTER – TRAIN HARDER

Harvest America Ventures, LLC

www.harvestamericaventures.com

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