There are many things in life that can only be prepared for if you have experienced them first. In other words, experience is truly the best educator. So..in an effort to help all those newly anointed chefs with a first gig at running a kitchen, here are some survival pointers that might save a few headaches and anxiety attacks.
To begin with, the over-riding reality is: “ASSUME NOTHING. Anyone else’s failure to do anything as expected is still the chef’s fault.” There – this sums up one of the primary reasons why not everyone wants to take on the key role in a kitchen. The buck does always stop with the chef.
CHEF SURVIVAL 101:
 Just because you spent considerable time building your weekly kitchen staff schedule and posted it at the designated time, don’t assume that all of your staff members read it and took note of what days and times you expect them to show up. Personally review schedules with each cook and dishwasher to ensure that they understand.
 Before you leave the kitchen each day, double check with each employee to verify that they remember the schedule for the next day or two. Trust me – this is important and necessary.
 If you change the schedule before or during the week (it happens), make sure that each employee impacted by the change is fully aware. Don’t ever assume that cooks check the posted schedule every day.
 Create a phone number log and phone tree for your kitchen. Make sure that every employee has a copy of important peer and supervisor phone numbers to call when necessary. “I wanted to call out, but I didn’t have any numbers to call” should never be an excuse.
 VERY IMPORTANT – make sure that the dining room supervisors and lead servers have the numbers for all breakfast cooks and dishwashers in case it is 6 a.m. and the breakfast cook calls out or doesn’t show. This way they might actually solve the problem without having to call the chef.
 Create a shift logbook and require sous chefs and/or first cooks to jot down any issues that occurred on their shift. This will become the first thing that you read every day and will give you a heads-up before the GM or owner confronts you with a problem that you are unaware of.
 After you read the logbook, check all BEO’s for the day and the following day for any changes and to provide a “feel” for production. Don’t ever assume that all involved parties are up-to-date. Review the BEO’s with prep cooks and sous chefs after you check with the sales office to verify any changes in count, menu, etc.
 Whenever possible, make sure that you are involved in banquet and event menus. Allowing the sales office to make decisions with clients without reviewing potential issues with you is an open door for disaster.
 Touch base with each employee on duty making sure to say “Good morning or afternoon”. This simple step demonstrates that you actually care about them.
 Walk through your coolers and storerooms to visually check product quality, make sure that items are labeled, dated and rotated, and look for any blatant shortages in inventory.
 Always assume that today is the day that the health inspector will arrive and check for compliance on all critical points. Remember – what gets measured, gets done. If your staff members understand how important these health code issues are to you, they will make sure that those same issues are important to them.
 Never unconditionally trust your vendors to deliver the right product at the right time. Always be prepared for the unexpected. If you need a product delivered today for tonight’s service – there is a chance it won’t arrive. Plan ahead and have a Plan B just in case.
 Maintain a product seasonality chart in your office and study it whenever planning menus. Placing items on menus that might not be available is not wise. Anytime that a server needs to tell a guest that an item listed on the menu is unavailable (86), is a sign of your failure to adequately understand the market and plan.
 Take a few minutes, every day, to check all of your equipment. Range tops work, pilots are lit, ovens work, doors close properly, sinks do not drip and drains work well, griddles don’t have any obvious hot spots, the dish machine wash and rinse temperatures are spot on, and all cooler temperatures are where they should be. Any signs of problems should be addressed quickly because failure to do so will almost ensure that things will breakdown in the evening or on weekends when repair service is unavailable.
 Make sure that every line station and the prep cooks have production sheets that are filled out for their shifts. Have standard lists of everything that is required for normal business and that cooks check off items when they are complete. Everything is important on that list – right down to chopped parsley and clarified butter. Leave nothing to chance.
 Have someone count and check plates before banquet events and a ‘la carte service. Don’t assume that stacked plates are all spotless and free of dings and cracks. If a plate has a chip or crack – dispose of it. Never let imperfect plates into the dining room. When plating a banquet it will be that accurate count of china that tells you how to pace service and control portions.
 Pre-meal is one of the most important parts of the day. Check with every line cook by walking through their prep lists and checking quality and quantity of their work. Once the kitchen is set, then pre-meal review with the front of the house will help to ensure solid communication and important details about the product that you are proud to serve.
 Always make sure that you have crisis supplies on hand. This might include some IQF seafood, quality stock bases or frozen glace de veau and glace de poulet, back up peeled root vegetables in water, etc. Although there are ways to predict business volume, there is always a margin of error that is unpredictable. Be prepared.
 Hire more dishwashers than you need. If you don’t need them today you probably will in a week. When someone applies for that type of position – hire him or her! When they are hired – train them and take care of them. The most important people in your kitchen – trust me on this.
 Spend a good portion of your day training others. This investment of time will always pay off. All chefs are teachers and trainers if they expect to be successful.
 Jump in and help. If a cook is behind – give him or her a hand, if the dishwasher is backed up – jump in and stack some plates. The chef needs to know every position in the kitchen and be willing and able to cover those positions when needed.
 Prepare yourself for Acts of God. Remember that Murphy’s Law is the primary law of the kitchen. “If something can go wrong, it will.” Will the power go out on a Saturday night when the dining room is full? Yes! Will you run out of propane for the kitchen at 8 p.m. on Christmas Eve? Yes! Will there be a massive snowstorm when your hotel is full of guests and your staff is unable to make it in to work? Yes! All effective chefs must expect the unexpected; scenario plan solutions to problems that may or may not occur and respond without panic when they do.
 Buy smaller garbage cans. A wise chef told me once that this was a critical step in controlling food cost. For some reason, cooks look to a garbage can as a goal – fill it up in a shift. Smaller cans might make them think twice about throwing something out. Not sure if it really works, but it can’t hurt.
 Stay calm. The chef sets the tone for the kitchen. If you lose it, so will they.
 Finally, a chef will always be judged by the quality of the food that he or she produces, but there are two other factors that will determine how much longevity he or she has in the position: 1. Profitability 2. Team Leadership. A simple, but effective rule with regard to food cost is that you don’t make money on the onion, you make it on the onion skin; you don’t make money on the shrimp, you make money on the shrimp shells. In other words – focus on total utilization and minimal waste. In terms of leadership, the chef must always set the example, build trust among team members, train, and critique without criticizing, and create an environment of support.
These pointers are, by far, not complete, however, each will help the new chef adapt and set the stage for success.
PLAN BETTER – TRAIN HARDER
Harvest America Ventures, LLC
Looking for that Christmas gift for a cook? Don’t miss adding this book to his or her collection: “The Event That Changed Everything” by: Chef Paul Sorgule. Available on amazon.com and barnesandnoble.com