There is a tremendous amount of pride that is churning in professional kitchens. Every cook who is serious about their job is committed to making that picture perfect, properly prepared, and delicious food that is represented on a restaurant menu. Although it may not always seem evident, cooks are happy when their food brings enjoyment to others.
Early in a cook’s career he or she is focused on building strong foundational skills, learning as much as possible, and executing the chef’s vision and style through the food prepared every night. Receiving approval for a job well done, even though it may only be a nod from the chef, carries significant importance. Each cook is evaluated every day based on the last item he or she prepared. This is part of trial by fire, a probationary period that can last a few weeks for some and many months for others.
Underneath this desire to get it right and receive that nod of approval lays a frustrated artist. All cooks want the opportunity to put their signature on a dish or a menu. This is how each cook will begin the process of moving from prep to line work, to sous chef, and eventually the helm of their own kitchen some day. Every chef needs to build up to his or her signature; it is what defines their personal brand.
“Creativity is a great motivator because it makes people interested in what they are doing. Creativity gives hope that there can be a worthwhile idea. Creativity gives the possibility of some sort of achievement to everyone. Creativity makes life more fun and more interesting.”
Restaurant chefs who do not see this, or simply refuse to relinquish any responsibility for planning what a restaurant’s food flavors or presentation might be are simply denying those frustrated artists an opportunity to grow.
Now, I do need to clarify that giving cooks a chance to define a portion of the restaurant’s menu and execute their own creative dishes must still require a high level of competence, trust, and trial and error, but if the chef is to mentor great cooks and keep them as part of the team, then this process of building up to a signature must take place.
Let’s take a moment and look at the reasons for and the requirements necessary for this artistic expression to take place:
Allowing and encouraging a cook to be creative must be based first on a level of earned trust. The cooks peers must trust that the individual will enhance the team’s image and not drag it down with poorly executed ideas. The chef must trust that his or her brand will not be tarnished by an ill-prepared cooks performance. The service staff must trust that the cook can deliver on the promise of well prepared and exciting food (the server’s gratuity depends on it), and the customer must trust that the item they select will provide the same level of satisfaction that they are use to.
 BECOMING A MENTOR:
Every chef, if he or she is to build a team and develop a positive reputation for the restaurant, must invest a significant portion of time to mentoring, teaching, training, and guidance. Creativity always follows this commitment on the part of the chef. All competent chefs are teachers and mentors.
If a chef is to develop an environment of creativity and trust, he or she must learn the distinction between critique and criticism. It is very easy, and quite destructive, to simply point out mistakes (CRITICISM), it is another thing all together to build a cook up, point out areas where there are issues and then work with him or her to improve (CRITIQUE).
 EMPOWER AND ENCOURGE:
Once trust is earned, training is second nature, and communication is provided and well received, then it is time for the chef to allow the cook to take responsibility for creativity. Give cooks the chance and cheerlead their effort.
 PUSH AND CREATE BENCHMARKS OF EXCELLENCE:
Know excellence, demonstrate what excellence looks like, practice excellence, and expect excellence from every cook. When excellence is the benchmark then it becomes the only way to proceed.
When a cook takes a stab at creativity, make sure that everyone knows that this is his or her work. If the menu item works well then applaud the effort, if it doesn’t work well then offer critique and encourage them to try again, and again.
Restaurants have done an excellent job of creating predictable menus that are designed to be comfortable for guests and staff. Predictability leads to control and control leads to a better chance of success, or maybe less of a chance for failure. Predictability is however somewhat boring. Predictability creates routines and routines lead to habits that are difficult to break. Unpredictability makes many people uneasy, uncomfortable, and concerned about failure. On the other hand, unpredictability can be interesting, exciting, challenging, and fulfilling once the task is complete.
People do inherently resist change, especially when they have been programmed to act or work a certain way for so long. This is why some cooks and chefs have a very difficult time when a guest asks for an exception or modification to a menu item. Those who are use to unpredictability tend to relish the opportunity to waiver from the norm and even view special requests as a positive challenge to their skill set.
Once a person truly understands cooking and how it works, successfully builds a palate that is based on a full library of flavor memory, and has a repertoire built from life experiences filled with food benchmarks, the creative process is no longer daunting – it is challenging and fun at the same time. Great chefs see this potential in their cooks and work to nurture, push, and challenge them to exceed everyone’s expectations. Great chefs encourage cooks to build their brand and put their signature on a restaurant menu.
There are many ways that this can be done, but whichever way chosen, I implore every chef to integrate creative opportunities for your cooks, opportunities that push them out of their comfort zone and can, as a result, launch your restaurants reputation.
 LET YOUR LINE COOKS DEVELOP THE NIGHTLY FEATURES AND AMUSE BOUCHE. Ask them to map out the item(s) on paper first and have them explain their approach to a dish before testing it. If the item makes sense, have them prepare a sample for tasting and involve all of your cooks in this phase. Give everyone an opportunity to offer suggestions and them let them fly.
 LET YOUR LINE COOKS PLAY A SIGNIFICANT ROLE IN BUILDING SPECIFIC MENU ITEMS BASED ON THE CHEF’S OVERALL VISION. Have a menu taskforce that brainstorms, tests, and presents suggested items. This way every cook will own the menu as if it were his or hers.
 PROVIDE AMPLE RESOURCES FOR COOKS TO USE AS BENCHMARKS. Build your kitchen library of books from other outstanding restaurants and chefs. Encourage line cooks and prep cooks to study them and ask questions about how a particular dish is made. Challenge them to implement another chefs item or method as a feature item on the menu.
 COOK FOR ME AS AN INTERESTING OPTION IN THE RESTAURANT. One of the more interesting approaches that I took in an operation where I was the chef was to offer a menu choice entitled: “Cook for Me”. This was a choice for adventurous diners who would opt to turn over the entire menu decision-making process to the sous chef or me. This was a five-course dinner for one price without any parameters (unless the guest had food allergies). The server would explain the option and the guest would simply say: “Tell the chef to cook for me.” Either the sous chef or I would then turn to each station cook and ask him or her to create a dish that fit into a general flavor theme.
It was, at times, very challenging – especially on a busy night to slip out of the zone and be creative, but it certainly did push cooks to think differently. I would equate this to being given a market basket of ingredients and a timeline to quickly design a menu and execute it to a cook’s highest standards.
I know that you can come up with countless other ways to prepare and push cooks to be creative. This is an exciting and incredibly rewarding part of a chef’s job. Give cooks a chance to sign their work, build their brand, and light the fire under each and every member of a kitchen team.
“Every job is a self portrait of a person who does it. Autograph your work with excellence.”
PLAN BETTER – TRAIN HARDER
Harvest America Ventures, LLC