“It was the best of times, it was the worst of times.”
-Charles Dickens- from a Tale of Two Cities
It was Charles Dickens’ – A Tale of Two Cities that portrayed life in London and Paris during the times that led up to the French Revolution and in reflection, served as the impetus for this parallel of life in the kitchen.
From my experience, there exists a unifying attitude among cooks that allows for consistent execution of a restaurant service and in some cases, a glimpse at greatness. However, under the mask of unity lie two opposing realities among those who wear the chef uniform.
“It was the age of wisdom, it was the age of foolishness.”
On one side, professional cooks are just that – professionals with an important job to do; a responsibility to respect ingredients, processes, and procedures; a responsibility to ensure that the business remains financially successful; and a critical responsibility to help create great customer experiences. On the other side, after hours, these professionals take that pent up adrenaline from a busy service, let their hair down, and play with reckless abandon as rarely seen in other professions. These, sometimes professional, individuals push the limits of reason in pursuit of extreme foolishness.
“It was the season of light, it was the season of darkness.”
There are many extraordinary reasons to take pride in kitchen work. This portal for creativity and the sheer enjoyment of building something that guests find rewarding and a catalyst for coming together, is incredibly gratifying for the cook. When these intense pirates of the range are able to put together a perfect dish with an eye on all of the human senses, there is a noticeable magic in the air. Those who work in a kitchen day in and day out know exactly what I mean. This magic is a combination of pride and a sense of true accomplishment. When the magic dissipates, those same professionals are faced with the realities of a cook’s career that are hard to swallow. Mediocre pay and benefits, isolating and undependable work hours, and the physical drain of a 10-12 hour work shift, all tend to kill the buzz of the creative experience. This is why the after hours Dr. Jekyll and Mr. Hyde syndrome comes to life.
This is the environment that a chef lives in, the challenge before him or her, the dichotomy of attitude that continues to exist in kitchens, and the opportunity that is present that can allow the person in charge to bring two different kitchens together – every day and every service.
Try to visualize these three examples of dichotomy in a typical kitchen:
Jake is 22, single, full of energy, recently graduated from a reputable culinary school, anxious to learn and grow quickly in his pursuit of becoming a chef. Many people have told him that he shows great promise, has exceptional taste buds, and makes stunning plate presentations from the simplest ingredients. He approaches every day with a desire to hit it out of the park. Jake arrives at work early (off the clock), volunteers for anything that falls under the heading of “special”, works whenever the chef needs him and plays hard with his coworkers when the shift is over. He is excited about his job, views every day as a positive opportunity, and truly has fun at work. Jake doesn’t make very much money and benefits don’t exist, but he looks to the future and knows that that will change if he works hard.
Don is 40, married with two young children, has been working in kitchens since he was 17, never went to college, has a body that is aging way too fast for his 40 years, still lives in a small apartment with his family and drives a car that is past its useful life. Don is highly skilled as a cook and is able to prepare just about anything the chef throws his way. His spouse is working as a loan officer in a local bank and because of the difference in job requirements she and Don are rarely home at the same time. Don can’t count how many times he has missed birthdays, anniversaries, holiday gatherings, and school plays or meetings with his kid’s teachers. He has worked his way up to an hourly pay ceiling and understands that the chef can’t afford to give him another raise. If it weren’t for his wife’s health insurance through work, he would be in really rough shape as a provider. Don works whether he is well or sick simply because he can’t afford to miss out on the pay. His early enthusiasm for cooking has waned over the years settling into just a job except for those rare nights when everything in the kitchen just clicks and he feels a surge of short-term pride in what he does.
Annette is a highly skilled sous chef. Like Jake, she did attend culinary school, but since she didn’t have the means, chose a community college without the resources or reputation of the more noteworthy institutions. She has built her career on the back of hard work. Starting as a prep cook eight years ago she moved through every line position until a few months ago when the chef chose her to fill the sous chef role. A dilemma is weighing heavily on her shoulders. Recently married, Annette and her husband want to start a family, but can’t seem to rationalize how she could be a mother and keep the job that she loves. This promotion has finally come with a respectable raise and some benefits for the first time, so her financial security is no longer such a big issue. She can’t afford to lose this job that she worked so hard to earn. Additionally, she is quickly realizing that as a cook she counted everyone in the kitchen as her friend and would play just as hard after work as any other cook. Now, in a leadership role, she must back away from this type of interaction. Her once friends suddenly view her differently. She is becoming disillusioned.
These are the typical dynamics that exist in kitchens everywhere. So, how does a chef help to create the magic in a kitchen, unify the two kitchens and focus on energizing the staff to view their jobs as “The best of times”?
Here are a few skills and traits that might help:
 EMPATHY and UNDERSTANDING:
Chefs cannot afford to ignore the challenges that crewmembers face on and off the job. You may not be able to, nor would cooks expect you to, fix their problems, but lending an understanding ear will always go a long way. Show that you care.
 SUPPORT and MENTORING:
Make the work environment a place where your cooks can sense your desire to help them improve. Make your kitchen a place where cooks feel they belong. Take staff members under your wing.
 TRAIN and DEVELOP:
Each cook comes to you with a different level of skill, know where their weaknesses are and build in a training regimen that addresses those areas. Train them for job performance, but also to help each individual reach his or her professional goals. This IS A CHEF’S JOB.
 BE FAIR WHENEVER POSSIBLE:
Scheduling is the great equalizer. Try rotating cooks during holidays so that everyone has a chance to be with family, involve cooks in the scheduling process by allowing them to request certain days off in advance, and whenever possible try to maintain some consistency in scheduling so that they can plan the rest of their lives.
 PUSH THOSE WHO ARE READY:
Some of your cooks may be content with being competent followers and that is fine. Others may have visions of greatness and expect to move up the career ladder. Be cognizant of both, and push them when needed – people respond well to this since they know that it demonstrates that a chef cares.
 CELEBRATE EVERY WIN:
It costs nothing to offer a positive word or a pat on the back for a job well done. Everyone responds well to recognition.
 TREAT EVERYONE THE SAME, AND EVERYONE DIFFERENTLY:
The chef must act from a defined list of standards that all employees are expected to adhere to, and in this case they should be applied consistently. However, every employee is different in numerous ways and any action in relation to individual cooks must be measured from a point of understanding this difference.
“It was a spring of hope, it was a winter of despair.”
Be the spring of hope for your team.
PLAN BETTER – TRAIN HARDER
Harvest America Ventures, LLC