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Life happens whether we plan or not, whether we have a strategy or shoot from the hip, whether we think through the process of reaching outcomes or if we simply cross our fingers and hope for the best. Looking at life through the lens of a game can sometimes clarify how we got to where we are and whether or or not we are pleased with the results.

In the kitchen, every day is game day. There is a common objective – to prepare and present exceptional food, in a given quantity, to a demanding public who will hopefully be pleased with the results. To reach these objectives is to “win”, to fail to meet then in any way shape or form is to “lose”. In the case of the later outcome, to lose for a restaurant is something that is very difficult to recover from. As much as the chef and his or her team truly wants and expects to “win” there is an even more compelling need and mandate to not “lose”. So, how do effective kitchens plan and execute in such a manner as to not lose and to always win?

The parallels to sports are always present in a kitchen. There is little differentiation between a football, basketball, soccer, or baseball team and a motley crew of cooks and chefs who are responsible for the dining experience. If we look at the design and inner workings of sport teams, we can find a model that can work equally well behind a restaurant’s swinging doors.

Let’s identify the make-up of the kitchen staff as compared to a professional football team:

*          THE COACH:  The Executive Chef


*          THE OFFENSE:   Line Cooks

*          THE DEFENSE: Prep Cooks and Dishwashers

*          SPECIAL TEAMS: Banquet Cooks, Pastry Cooks and Bakers

The coach in a kitchen (Executive Chef) is responsible for developing a winning strategy (The Game Plan), ensuring that all of the necessary tools and supplies are in place for every team member, the assignment of duties and provision of the right players to execute the game plan, and the design of the plays to use during service (methods of cooking, flavor profiles, plating techniques). Each of these tasks, just as they are applied in preparation for a football game is essential to the success of a kitchen team. If a chef is not able to, or is inexperienced with these tasks, then the likelihood of a positive outcome is diminished.

The quarterback (Sous Chef) is the on-field captain. In this role, the sous chef is responsible for calling the plays designed by the executive chef, ensuring that each player follows his or her designated process, troubleshooting problems, and sometimes, through his or her experience, changing the play at the line of scrimmage. Changes in the dining experience environment or shortcomings in preparation may force the need to adjust. A sous chef must be experienced in leading the charge and making split second decisions when necessary. If this individual is unable to do so, then the game plan can start to unravel.

The offense (line cooks) has been trained and mentored to a point where their every motion is scripted, anticipated, formalized, and fully understood. They are guided by the quarterback through a series of plays determined by how the food orders from the visiting guests are arranged. It is a game of shifting priorities, disciplined motion, and fully committed intent to succeed. They have been through the motions hundreds of times and intuitively know what to do regardless of how a string of directives comes to them via the quarterback. These motions (plays) have been practiced and are burned into their subconscious – they always know what to do and if they start to stray, the quarterback brings them back to the task at hand. It is a thing of beauty to watch unfold.

Offense doesn’t stand-alone – it is the defense that protects the players, provides the opportunity for success, and gives the offense an opportunity to stay fresh, alert, and ready. This defense (prep cooks and dishwashers) is focused on setting the stage for success. Their relentless work at taking away the threats to success (lack of mise en place, improper storage and rotation of ingredients, improperly followed standard recipes, insufficient clean china in the right place at the right time) may not have the glamour and excitement of line work, but every line cook knows that without these defensive players their job would be impossible.

While all of this focused energy is being expended – preparation for the game, organization, and execution of the menu each and every night – there are some hidden heroes of the game who must perform with precision and purpose. These special teams (banquet crew, pastry chef, bread bakers) are adding that extra touch to the game plan, that touch that helps provide the cash flow for the operation to continue moving forward, the special opportunities to put extra points on the board through group events and increased check averages, and the reputation for exceptional experiences that impact current and future dining guests. Special teams give the kitchen that extra push, the edge that complements the every day work of executing the a’ la carte menu.

What is most interesting about the kitchen team and those in the sporting arena is that those that are effective – work together. They understand each other’s strengths and weaknesses and step in to complement each other. Even the role of leader is fluid in these operations. It is not uncommon to see an offensive lineman for a football team, a punter, center, defensive tackle, or running back fall into the lead on any given day. An individual’s confidence, enthusiasm, and commitment can change his or her role from subordinate to leader at the most unforeseen times. The same is true in the kitchen – it is not uncommon for an individual line cook, prep cook, expeditor, or dishwasher to provide the energy of leadership when it might be lacking elsewhere.

When the team clicks, when leadership is present, when everyone knows what to do and executes the game plan as designed, when the team readily excepts an “audible” change by the quarterback when there is a need, then the kitchen is destined to win.

In a busy kitchen you can feel the energy, the enthusiasm, the commitment, and the passion to win. The feeling of purpose and belief in the ability to win is all drawn from the well thought out game plan, the training and preparation, and the all for one, one for all attitude that permeates a winning organization.


Harvest America Ventures, LLC


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