Restaurants succeed when the system is firing on all cylinders. There is ample chatter today about creating the total dining experience, chatter that I am a strong advocate for. But, it is important to know that if this is the approach that a restaurant chooses then every part of that experience must be working well. The components are location, atmosphere, design, value creation, service and food. The engine that drives the working relationship of all of these parts is dedicated, caring, passionate, and competent people.
There are many instances when successful restaurants have chosen to skip the hype around experience and focus on some of the moving parts, but this only really works when those chosen parts are service and food. When you get down to it, these two essential ingredients create long-term success for a restaurant and if either were lacking then I would put money on that restaurants’ destiny being in question.
My past time in the kitchen has made me very observant, probably too critical, and far less patient than when I was younger. As a cook and a chef I invested nearly all of my energy in the restaurant where I worked in the moment. Now that I have graduated from the daily routine of kitchen life, I can use my experiences as a benchmark when I observe others. Far too often I see operations that have misfires – operations that are too accepting of “average” or even “mediocre” approaches toward some of those components of success. The misfire that is most frustrating is a lack of commitment to great food.
I know how hard cooks work in a restaurant, I understand the life because I have lived it, I know the frustrations and the challenges, and I routinely stick up for those people who sweat in front of a range day in and day out. Knowing this I am not pointing the finger at those kitchen warriors, but instead directly at the person in charge. In the end, the product that leaves the kitchen is the responsibility of the chef. This is the price to pay for the title.
When a sauce is broken, it is the chef’s fault. When a steak is over cooked, it is the chef’s fault. When a plate presentation is lackluster or the raw materials used were not as fresh as they should be, it is the chef’s fault. Accept this or don’t take the position.
Now, how a chef gets to the point where these and other problems no longer occur is complicated, but nevertheless essential to understand. The chef cannot be everywhere and he or she cannot cook every dish that leaves the kitchen. The chef must depend on others to do the right thing and execute preparations and presentations of food, as they should be.
On a current business trip I had dinner at a trendy restaurant in a city with a growing appreciation for food. The exterior was enticing, the location was in walking distance from my hotel; the staff was young, attractive, friendly and energetic; the décor was well thought out and the quality of materials used was top shelf. The place, within the hour that I was there, went from about 10% full to a waiting line while I sat at the bar eating my dinner. The bartender was sincerely interested in making guests happy, and helped me decide on a menu item. The stage was set.
The presented menu was a hodgepodge of things that I assume the owner or the chef liked, but it was, to me at least, uninventive and not cohesive. The pitch on their website and menu was that this was a true farm to table restaurant, yet that was not very clear in the selection of items (aside from a few local vegetables). When I received the dishes that I ordered (based on the bartenders suggestion) I was deeply disappointed. Portions were too large, fish was overcooked, the salad was thrown together without the care one would expect from a restaurant that was designed to be supportive of the farmer’s work, and the flavor profile was bland and lacking in any character. Everything about this restaurant had painted a brilliant picture for success, yet the food (the main character) seemed like an afterthought – treated like a commodity rather than the pride of the kitchen. This is the chef’s responsibility!
So…what needs to be in place and how does a chef correct this situation that exists in far too many restaurants across the U.S.?
“A good chef has to be a manager, a businessman and a great cook. To marry all three together is sometimes difficult.”
The chef must be exceptional at what he or she does: a great cook, a balanced manager, an inspiring leader, and a consummate communicator. A person cannot possibly hold the position of chef (earned title) without owning these skills and attributes.
In the end, the food is all about flavor. The chef should have a well-developed, vastly experienced palate and own the ability to build flavor profiles that will set the restaurant apart.
By the time a person reaches the level of chef, he or she should have matured as a competent professional, having made most of the junior mistakes that are expected of cooks and sous chefs. The position of chef is far less forgiving than those positions held prior.
 KNOWLEDGE OF FOOD
The chef should have an encyclopedic knowledge of food, the ingredients available, the seasonality of those ingredients; the methods of cooking that are most appropriate for those ingredients, and how to compensate, through solid cooking, for any character flaws that might exist in those ingredients.
“A jazz musician can improvise based on his knowledge of music. He understands how things go together. For a chef, once you have that basis, that’s when cuisine is truly exciting.”
This is a multifaceted attribute that requires the chef to respect ingredients, staff, established methods of cooking, the customer, and the business itself.
 MENU PLANNING
A menu, like a great novel, should be designed to tell a story with a strong beginning, great character development, some intrigue and surprise, a message that has staying power, and a conclusion or ending that keeps people guessing and talking about the experience. When a menu is simply treated as a list of random items that do not fit the story then there is little compelling reason for people to invest in a return visit and even less reason for exiting customers to become ambassadors.
 KNOWLEDGE OF MENU FIT
The kitchen cannot be separate from the rest of the experience. When designing the menu, the chef must work with the location, the décor, the “feel” of the operation, and most importantly = the profile of the guest who is most likely to support the operation.
Once the chef has established a supportive menu that tells an interesting story, he or she must work diligently to test recipes and plate presentations until the formula is just right. Then it is essential to teach and train both back and front of the house about the items, how they are prepared, why certain ingredients are used, how the dish should taste and look, and then constantly monitor everything to ensure that everyone adheres to the expectations.
 TEAM FOCUS
In an ideal situation, the well-trained team eventually becomes part of the menu design process, networks with vendors and growers so that a connection is made with the source, and learns to work together to reach common goals.
 HIGH EXPECTATIONS
The days of the temperamental, screaming chef are fading quickly, yet the expectations for excellence that these chefs of old had for the work of the kitchen must still be supported. Create an environment where every cook and server has to work harder than they expected to produce and serve the restaurants food. You will soon see that they find it very difficult to waiver from this commitment.
 WEED OUT THE WEAK LINKS
Staffing your restaurant doesn’t always work out as it should. Even with the right effort, the best training, and the support that competent chefs provide – sometimes a team member can’t or doesn’t want to cut it. Weed them out before they infect the rest of the team.
 PRESENCE – BE THE EXAMPLE
Respect is earned and staff will be more inclined to carry out the chef’s vision if he or she is ever-present, and investing in people, product, and results.
 SWEAT THE DETAILS
Everything in the restaurant is important. With regard to the food – it is essential that the chef insist that each employee sweats the details. Whether it is the preciseness of vegetable cuts, the right amount of time for a sauce reduction, the grill marks on a steak, the care taken to properly fillet a fish, or the methodical approach towards plating – the experience of the guest is impacted by details.
 SIGN EACH PLATE
When the chef knows that each plate leaving the kitchen carries his or her signature, his or her reputation, and clearly states to the world the passion and ability of the team, then the significance of detail really hits home.
 THE POSITION IS NOT ABOUT POWER – IT’S ABOUT RESPONSIBILITY
Yes, if anything goes wrong, it is the chef’s fault. On the other hand, whatever goes right is a result of the chef setting the tone for the kitchen, selecting and training the right staff, and being the example of excellence that others respect and want to follow.
“Rank does not confer privilege or give power. It imposes responsibility.”
PLAN BETTER – TRAIN HARDER
Harvest America Ventures, LLC
Restaurant and Culinary School Consulting and Training