Let’s begin with the assumption that people inherently want to do great work. Now, I know we can all offer examples of those with whom we have worked who portray just the opposite, but let’s agree that they are in the minority. I say this because I do believe that pride in great work is a natural trait and those who seem to revel in mediocrity do so for one of the following reasons:
- They never had a role model to set a course toward excellence
- They were never given an opportunity to experience benchmarks of excellence that they could emulate
- They were never offered constructive critique that pointed to weaknesses while demonstrating how to improve
- They were coddled into believing that any effort was acceptable and showing up was good enough
This is not an excuse to divert responsibility from the individual; however, we are a product of our environment. Chefs can effectively implement a program of correction if the individual shows signs of willingness to improve. Chefs who push cooks to expand their knowledge; who create an environment that does not allow mediocrity to flourish; who take the time to teach and train rather than simply criticize; and who are always honest and upfront with cooks under their kitchen roof, are able to mold young cooks into advocates of excellence – focused on the details.
There was a book a few decades back that professed that individuals should not “sweat the small stuff”. It was, in my opinion, an attempt at draining a natural desire to excel from the hearts and souls of people. This book, in some regards (although I am sure that this was not the intent of the author) gave people an opportunity to find satisfaction in mediocrity. For cooks, chefs, and restaurants interested in success – mediocrity is never an option. This is why I can comfortably say that cooks and chefs need to do it right, all the time, every time, or go home and find another career (if possible) where mediocrity is acceptable.
SYNONYMS FOR MEDIOCRITY:
Adequate, Average, Fair, Iffy, Indifferent, Passable, Forgettable, etc. To me, and to most individuals, these words do not inspire and certainly have no connection to a quality dining experience.
SYNONYMS FOR EXCELLENCE:
Distinctive, Superior, Brilliant, Greatness, First Rate, Perfection, Memorable, etc. These words fit an experience or effort that does inspire and in the case of a restaurant – equate to loyalty and success.
Let’s look at what it takes to “do it right” in a restaurant kitchen and how important it truly is to “sweat the small stuff”.
 START WITH EXCELLENT RAW MATERIALS
Excellence in a kitchen begins with the development of a solid rapport and understanding of expectations between vendors, farmers, fishmongers, cheese makers, and chefs. Quality of finished dishes begins with exceptional ingredients and an understanding of the role that vendors and producers play in the process.
 RESPECT FOR THOSE INGREDIENTS
Every exceptional cook and chef must not only understand how important it is to buy the right ingredients, but must then understand and practice respect for those ingredients once they arrive. Proper storage, rotation of product, appreciation for respectful handling, and knowing how to complement the flavors and textures of ingredients through the cooking process are all critical steps leading to excellence.
 KNIFE CUTS
Most chefs would agree that an essential skill for all cooks who are focused on excellence is great knife handling. Knowing how to select the right tool for the right job, caring for those knives to ensure that they are able to perform at peak levels, and mastering all of the critical cuts is paramount. Furthermore, excellent cooks and chefs understand that the role of well executed knife cuts points to how they cook, how they taste, and the perceived value of a dish through its appearance. Precise work in this regard does matter.
 FOUNDATIONS OF SOLID COOKING
There are no shortcuts to excellent cooking. Although the approach towards cooking does evolve, there are certain steps that are time tested, that result in consistently excellence products, that if disregarded will produce sub-standard or mediocre results. Excellent cooks and chefs respect and practice these processes – always.
 BUILDING FLAVOR PROFILES
Cooks who sweat the small stuff are always looking for ways to develop and enhance the flavor of a dish. This requires a serious commitment to building a personal palate, understanding the ingredients and how they change based on season, soil, and care; and building an encyclopedic knowledge of seasoning with a goal of building towards the desired flavor.
 FOCUS ON CONSISTENCY
What is even more, or at least as important as flavor profile, is the ability of a cook or chef to consistently reach that goal. This requires that deep understanding of ingredients and how to adjust due to the hundreds of variables that exist. The guest expects this and a restaurants reputation will depend on achieving this goal.
 FINISH COOKING AND FLAVOR ADJUSTMENT
Although much of the cooking in a restaurant is addressed during advance prep, it is the ability of each and every line cook to understand that end flavor goal and adjust a ‘la minute to that goal. This is quite a task and a serious commitment given the stressful nature of working a busy line. Hire line cooks for their organization, ability to multi-task, speed, composure, and taste buds. Remember, in the end it is food flavor that brings guests back time and again.
Of course people do eat with their eyes, so cooks and chefs who are serious about excellence take the necessary critical seconds to create beautiful food that gives a guest pause. Plating should never be haphazard no matter how busy a restaurant might be. The goal should always be to create plates that guests stop to admire before they pick up a knife and fork.
 HOT FOOD HOT AND COLD FOOD COLD
The first rule of thumb in restaurants has always been this: make sure that if a dish is designed to be cold then it must be – including the plate or vessel used in the presentation. If a dish is meant to be consumed while hot, then the same applies. These are very simple rules that are adhered to by excellent cooks and excellent restaurants regardless of price point.
 SIGNING THE PLATE
Those cooks and chefs who never accept mediocrity are always happy to sign their work. This is not likely to be a literal process, but will involve that last look at a dish before it hits the pass, or the chef or expeditor’s moment to clean plate edges and strategically place a fresh herb on the plate. This is a signature that says: “I am proud of this plate – it is a symbol of my commitment to excellence.”
 COMMUNICATING THE EFFORT
The last step in that commitment to excellence, the desire to always sweat the small stuff – is in the hands of the service staff. Servers should be as proud of the food that they present, as are the cooks and chefs who signed it in the kitchen. Taking the time to properly place the dish, as is designed, in front of a guest; taking that brief moment to re-introduce each dish and the primary ingredients; and smiling with approval of the quality food coming from the kitchen is the final step in stating to each guest: “This is it; our product, the food that our kitchen staff has committed to, the food that began with a farmers commitment to caring for the ingredients, and the food that represents our very best effort. Enjoy.”
The choice is yours – mediocrity or excellence. Take pride in your work.
PLAN BETTER – TRAIN HARDER
Harvest America Ventures, LLC
Restaurant and Culinary School Consulting and Training