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Painted in Waterlogue

Well-crafted thoughts and words are, at least to me, fuel for the soul, energy for the body, and thought provoking for the mind. I often find that certain quotes from people who have attained a level of success in life can have meaning for others and as such serve to help “self-motivate”. As 2017 comes to an end, I thought that it might be beneficial to share some of my favorite quotes with line cooks, aspiring culinary students, and accomplished chefs. These quotes would often find their way onto my office door as a reminder to myself and to others. Hopefully they can do the same for you. 

*          “Fire in the belly of a cook is very important. If you don’t have it – your cooking tastes old.”

Barbara Tropp (Legendary chef/restaurateur of San Francisco’s China Moon and celebrated cookbook author)

That desire and innate need to push forward, learn more and more, build your palate, execute a perfect dish, constantly improve, and create a dish that is filled with that “Wow” factor is essential if a person is to be that cook who inspires others and excites the guest. Cooking to this type of individual is not a job, but rather a calling and an opportunity to strive for excellence.

*          “If you strive like crazy for perfection – an all out assault on total perfection – at the very least you will hit a high level of excellence, and then you might be able to sleep at night.”

Charlie Trotter (Iconic chef/owner of Trotter’s Restaurant in Chicago)

Perfection is the carrot that always remains just a few inches out of reach, yet those who have this in their sights will jump out of bed each day with a mission. The Japanese refer to it as “Kaisen” a state of mind that drives a person to constantly improve. Charlie Trotter was a prime example of a chef who was never satisfied, who always pushed the envelope and who expected nothing less from every person who worked with and for him.

*          “For me, it’s the satisfaction of cooking every day; tourneing a carrot, cutting salmon or fabricating a tenderloin – the mechanical jobs that I do daily, year after year. Maintain the passion for the everyday, that’s what cooking is all about.”

Thomas Keller (One of the world’s most accomplished chef/restaurateurs owner of The French Laundry, Per Se, and Bouchon)

Seasoned cooks will tell you about the comfort that comes from the routine of doing everyday tasks at the highest level of excellence. The curve balls that are thrown at cooks every day will drive adrenaline through the system, but it is the cadence of a routine that brings the greatest satisfaction and a sense of calm within the storm and organized chaos of the kitchen.

*          “People are more important than tools. If you don’t believe so – put a good tool in the hands of a poor workman.”

John Bernet (One of America’s greatest railroad men who saved the industry)

I have a story that relates well with this quote – it zeros in on a head scratcher for me. After decades in the kitchen and much of that time in culinary education I always shook my head when an 18 year old freshman student would arrive in the kitchen on day one with an $800 set of Henkel knives or an equally awe inspiring $400 Shun French knife. At this point they had never diced an onion or drawn a knife blade across a wet stone – yet, their tools were far superior to that of the most accomplished career chef. I also recall, many years ago, seeing Judy Collins in concert in Buffalo, New York. She started her show by saying that this was the 10th time that she had performed at this particular venue and the first time that they had allowed her to use the good piano.

People and the proven skills that they own, the attitudes that they carry, and the trust that envelopes their interactions with others will always trump the tools that they have access to. The best tools are often a reward for all of those “people factors”. We have all witnessed exceptional cooking come from kitchens that were very substandard and far too many mediocre meals that came from a state-of-the-art environment. People are the key.

*          “Good attitudes among players do not guarantee a teams success, but bad attitudes guarantee its failure.”

John C. Maxwell (Author of numerous self-help and management/leadership books)

The best rule of thumb for chefs is to hire positive attitude first – you can always build the skills over time, but it is nearly impossible to change the stripes on a tiger once they are of a certain age. Design your interviews and tryouts to bring out any underlying attitudes and then make your decision to hire or not. If those poor attitudes (glass is always half empty) rear up their ugly head after the hire then point them out, counsel, and if necessary point them in the direction of the back door. The team cannot survive in the presence of a bad apple.

*          “Restaurant profit is found in the peel of the onion, not the onion and in the lobster shell not the lobster itself.”

Marc Meneau (Now retired, Chef Meaneau was chef and operator of L’Esperance one of France’s great Michelin 3 –star mecca restaurants)

The delineation of responsibility in a kitchen can be far too literal. The lines that separate duties are always grey except in the case of quality and cost control. When all cooks understand that the life of a restaurant and the success of those who work there is measured in pennies and that they have the opportunity and the responsibility to keep those pennies intact, then financial goals can be met. Otherwise, if the role of ensuring profit rests solely on the shoulders of the chef – then success will always remain out of reach. Marc Meneau was able to run a kitchen where waste was never an option, where total use of everything available to the cook was the rule, and where every person fully understood that they shared in this responsibility.

*          “You can’t always get what you want, but if you try sometime – you just might get what you need.”

Mick Jaggar

I am directing this famous line from a Rolling Stones song to every young apprentice, culinary extern, and culinary school graduate. The carrot that they all desire, the position of chef, will take time and can only be realized if they look squarely at the task at hand and complete it with 100% dedication towards excellence. I once had a young cook tell me that she wanted to work the line in a Michelin Three-star restaurant, but the chef would only allow her to wash and peel mushrooms. I asked how she felt about peeling mushrooms and her response was: “I hate it – it is a waste of my talent and experience.” My response was: “How can you expect the chef of a monumental restaurant to allow you to touch the food that will become his restaurants signature when you can’t even respect the simplest task for its importance and relish the beauty of those mushrooms?” If you want the position then do what is front of you at the very highest level and in time the carrot will be yours.

*          “Whatever is worth doing at all is worth doing well.”

-Philip Stanhope (The 4th Earl of Chesterfield England)

I know absolutely nothing about Philip Stanhope, but remember this quote as a man who, at the time, owned the most expansive record store in Buffalo and all of Western New York used it. The first time I visited the shop I was amazed at the size of the collection – there must have been nearly every record available on the market within the walls of this massive store. Many of those titles would never find a buyer, but if one existed, he or she could find it there. I asked the owner – “Why would you carry such an inventory knowing that a portion of it would never sell.” His response was classic: “My father always told me two things – first: Whatever is worth doing at all is worth doing well, and There is always room to be the best – plenty of businesses settle for mediocrity.”

Hopefully, as 2018 arrives you can find inspiration in some of these quotes – I know they will always have meaning for me.


Happy Holidays

Harvest America Ventures, LLC


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