It was one of those famous lines in a movie that survives for decades, that is used, and reused by many to make a point – sometimes unrelated to its original intent – a statement for the ages. Clint Eastwood in Dirty Harry challenged a criminal to question his moxie and lack of control by encouraging him to push “Harry” over the edge and allow justification of radical action – “Make my Day”.
Now, Harry was the classic good guy/bad guy – one who we can support and reject all in the same breath; a hero and villain all wrapped into one. To some in the restaurant business, especially from days gone by, Harry and the chef are pretty close brothers from different mothers. Some might make the comparison stating that from experience a chef might be the savior of the kitchen and a restaurants reputation in one moment and an out-of-control “Make my Day” kind of lunatic the next.
Today’s restaurants can ill afford this type of “fly off the handle” type of chef, yet we all know that some still do exist. I can tell you that even those who do not visibly demonstrate those traits of the temperamental chef are likely still holding those Clint Eastwood style ranting’s inside. So, if this is the nature of the beast, why is it so? Is there a course in culinary school or a segment of the apprenticeship model that teaches how to be Dr. Jekyll AND Mr. Hyde?
I certainly do not condone the ranting and “on fire” temper of chefs who think that Hell’s Kitchen is the way it ought to be, but I do acknowledge that the environment can easily trigger the craziness of the rough and tough, screaming, pot throwing, and cursing person in the tall hat. So, for the purpose of understanding, but not condoning this behavior I thought it might be interesting to look at the triggers that can set the chef off on a tirade.
THINGS THAT BRING OUT A CHEF’S INTERNAL WEREWOLF:
 UNDEPENDABLE VENDORS:
Chefs take pride in their ability to produce consistently great food, in a timely fashion, that exceeds the expectations of the guest. This is, after all, the core of their job description. This is difficult to accomplish if vendors fail to produce the right food, at the expected quality level, at the time requested. When vendors fall down in this regard the chef’s system falls apart. Now, chefs are not likely to fall on the sword like Gerard Depardieu in Vatel, but they will likely lose their temper.
 SALESPEOPLE WHO DON’T KNOW THEIR PRODUCTS:
Although I do hate to generalize – far too many salespeople today do not understand the chef, the kitchen, or the product that they are trying to sell. “Where is it from- what farm – what part of the country? How was the animal raised? What is the flavor profile of that pork? What is the typical yield from a case of…? What is the shelf life of that cryovac meat? When was the fish caught and how was it handled?” These are not unusual questions, nor are they unrealistic expectations of a person whose job it is to sell a product. When a salesperson is unable to answer these questions accurately – the chef will lose his or her patience, every time.
 BEING LATE:
We have talked about this before (15 minutes early is one time, etc.), but the real test to punctuality is whether or not the person is present, at the scheduled time, and fully ready to work or engage. Failure in this regard is the quickest way to experience the wrath of a chef.
 NO CALL/NO SHOW:
This one is simple – unless you are in the hospital, or are in the midst of a real family emergency, if you do not show up, or call to explain why, you are done in the chef’s mind. Some chefs lose their cool over this while others simply write the person off. The real tragedy here is the impact that this has on the person’s teammates.
 DULL KNIVES:
To a chef, this is the most basic requirement of a cook – take care of your tools! When a chef sees a cook with a knife that is unable to perform because there is no proper edge – well, let’s just say that the cook will not have to wait too long to feel the presence of the chef.
 A LACK OF RESPECT FOR INGREDIENTS:
Everything that a cook works with has value – not just monetary value, but even more importantly a connection to the hard work and passion of the person (farmer, fisherman, rancher, cheese maker, charcutier) who toiled over the process of growing, raising, or preparing that ingredient. When a cook fails to show respect for this – the chef views it as an affront to all of those individuals, the chef, the restaurant, and the guest who will eventually consume the finished product. Chefs have no patience for this lack of respect.
 NOT LABELING AND DATING:
Everybody knows how important this is – label and date, first in-first out. These rules are imbedded in every employee’s subconscious in an effort to preserve the quality of ingredients, minimize waste, and make sure that costs are controlled. So – why is it that so many fail to follow this simple rule that takes but a few seconds to accomplish? This drives a chef crazy – can you understand the frustration?
Profit margins in a kitchen are very slim. It doesn’t take much to turn a potential profit into a loss. Profitability in a restaurant kitchen is everyone’s responsibility and a good place to start is eliminating or at least – minimizing waste. Use everything! Find a use in stocks, purees, soups, features, staff meals, etc. As a wise French chef once told me: “You don’t make money on the onion – you make it on the onion peel. You don’t make money on the lobster – you make it on the lobster shells.” This is the attitude that keeps a restaurant afloat. When cooks or other staff wastes anything they are taking away the potential for profit and endangering the life of the restaurant.
 THINGS NOT RETURNED TO THEIR PROPER PLACE:
We learn to practice mise en place at our stations, and most cooks through trial and error, pick up on this rather quickly. The same mise en place needs to take place throughout the rest of the kitchen. How much time and product is wasted because items were not returned to their rightful home? “Has anyone seen the Robot Coupe blade? How often have you heard this? “Chef – we are out of romaine.” When the chef looks confused and searches in the cooler, he finds plenty of romaine on the wrong shelf. Is this a little thing? How many times a day does this happen in your kitchen. This drives a chef crazy.
 SLOPPY COOKS / POOR SANITATION:
Cleanliness is the first rule of the kitchen. Personal cleanliness, uniform cleanliness, station cleanliness and sanitation – these are the absolutes of any kitchen. When a cook doesn’t look or work clean the chef has every right to be livid.
 BEING THE TASTE TESTER:
“Chef – taste this and let me know what you think? This is, of course, a reasonable request by a cook – one that every chef insists on until the cook has built a trustworthy palate. The typical response from a chef would be: “Have you tried it first – what do you think?” When the cook states that he hasn’t tried it yet – the chef sighs with disappointment. This transference of responsibility drives a chef crazy.
 CARE FREE ATTITUDES ABOUT BROKEN CHINA AND GLASSWARE:
It happens – a misplaced item on a shelf, an over-burdened server tray, a plate too hot to handle, or a glass rack stuck in the dish conveyor. Suddenly we have china casualties. We expect this in a kitchen, but we must try to avoid it. That tray of broken dishes might equate to much of today’s profit margin. Each dinner plate can be $12-20. Each Riedl wine glass might set the restaurant back the same amount of money. When carelessness and an aloof attitude result in breakage, or even worse, when people laugh at the broken result – the chef has to pause and collect him or herself before Mr. Hyde comes to the surface.
 NOT BEING READY:
Whatever it takes, when those dining room doors open, when the bus arrives, when the bride and groom return from the church – the kitchen MUST be ready. There is no excuse – this is the Cardinal rule. If the kitchen is not ready it is ultimately the chefs fault – when a cook or other staff is the cause, then the chef’s temperature is near the boiling point.
Learn how it should be done, ask questions, make corrections, but when you know how it should be done, it must be done that way each and every time.
 CUSTOMERS BEING RUDE AND CONDESCENDING TO SERVICE STAFF:
Many things happen inside the restaurant that create tension – we deal with this. When a guest causes this tension because he or she feels entitled to do so at the staffs’ expense, then the chef will always come to the defense of the team.
 NOT DOING YOUR JOB TO THE BEST OF YOUR ABILITY:
If you don’t know then it is the fault of inadequate training. When you know and fail to execute towards excellence, then the chef will shake his or her head in disbelief. When this happens frequently, then the chef may lose it.
 LACK OF TEAMWORK:
If a staff member fails to step in to help, if he or she is opposed to taking a few minutes to help the dishwasher, if a line cook who is caught up doesn’t see the need to help service staff by clearing trays or making more coffee, if the right hand avoids helping the left hand then a chef will find it necessary to state his or her disappointment.
 NOT MY JOB:
These are three words that can only be uttered once in a kitchen.
Do any of these things justify a chef who demeans, shouts, or shows signs of aggression towards staff? Absolutely not, however, it is pretty easy to see what might push a person to react vs. act in a more professional manner. If we all work together on these common sense issues then a positive work environment will be the result.
Help keep your chef sane. Let’s work together.
PLAN BETTER – TRAIN HARDER
Harvest America Ventures, LLC
Restaurant Consulting and Training
**PHOTO: From the line of Cochon in New Orleans – A terrific restaurant.
Photo taken using “Prisma” app.