It is certainly true that professional cooks and chefs live in a tactile world. The kitchen is attractive to many as a vehicle for working with your hands – building and creating dishes and presenting them with flair that inspires others. But in reality a chef is a person with a highly developed intellect that feeds this tactile environment.
The silo mentality that believes that white collar and blue collar are separated by physical work vs. mental work is far from the truth. Spend time with a carpenter, plumber, or electrician and marvel at how integrated math and science are with their daily work and this misconception will evaporate quickly. The same is true in the kitchen – the balance of understanding, problem solving, and planning with the physical work of cooking is apparent every day with nearly every task.
A cook’s career path is a process of building physical skills and broadening his or her ability to truly understand and apply intellect to the steps in cooking a perfect dish. Those who have a desire to reach the position of chef must invest the time and effort in developing this intellect. Let’s look at some vivid examples:
 UNDERSTANDING AN INGREDIENT AND A DISH
What makes a tomato an incredible fruit? Is it season, soil, temperature, the right balance of water and sun, or is it maybe geography and the attention of the farmer? To become a chef is to know the answers to these questions. What makes the flavor of a braised item so profoundly comforting? Is it the amount of fat in a shank, beef shoulder, or short rib? Is it the process of braising and addressing each step appropriately, or is it the connection that a cook has with this process? Understanding is knowing the answer to these questions and securing this understanding in a cook’s subconscious.
“If you can’t explain it simply, you don’t understand it well enough.”
– Albert Einstein
 KNOWING WHY
Following a recipe fails to impart the knowledge necessary to consistently replicate the quality of a properly prepared dish. Recipes are tools, but are not the answer to becoming a great cook or a chef. Why does a cook sear meat as the first step in braising? Why is it important to caramelize proteins and vegetables prior to building the flavors in a stock? Why use a raft in the process of clarifying a consommé and how does it actually work? Why clarify butter before using it as a cooking fat on the line? The list of questions is limitless, yet each is an important part of building a chef’s intellect and ability to understand cooking and master his or her craft.
 UNDERSTANDING LEADS TO CONTROL
The beauty of understanding lies in a deeper feeling for a dish and the unique ability to problem solve and adjust in the process of reaching an agreed upon goal. Once a cook understands the flavor intensity of an organic heirloom tomato – picked in the July sun, simply sliced and served with virgin olive oil and sea salt then he or she can begin to determine what can be done with that greenhouse tomato in February to try and replicate some of that tomato experience. It might be a process of oven drying that tomato with olive oil and salt and combining it with complementary ingredients that will never exactly replicate a July heirloom but can create a pleasurable experience for the guest that far exceeds simply using that greenhouse product as delivered.
Knowing what to expect in the end can aid a chef in changing a food experience for the better. Every day in the kitchen a chef is challenged to do just this.
 SOLVING PROBLEMS
Beyond cooking itself – problem solving is a skill that is drawn from intellect and experience. A chef who determines an anomaly in food cost will tap into his or her intellect and experience to determine what might be the cause. Was it a mistake in inventory; is it time to adjust selling prices; could there be an issue with theft; or is it time to look at yield and waste in the kitchen. A chef never accepts a problem for what it is – he or she has the ability to identify the cause and make necessary adjustments.
 SCENARIO PLANNING
Chefs, through their experiences, are able to tap into their acquired intellect to anticipate problems before they exist, establish preventative measures, and when necessary – quickly tap into that mental database of solutions.
“Entrepreneurs are moving from a world of problem-solving to a world of problem-finding. The very best ones are able to uncover problems people didn’t realize that they had.”
 DIFFERENTIATING TASTE AND FLAVOR
Taste and flavor are truly intellectual. Our mind tells us what a strawberry tastes like and registers what it should taste like. Experience trains the mind to be the active evaluator of taste and flavor and our taste buds and olfactory senses are the vehicles to deliver this data to the brain. A cook will never know what a veal picatta should taste like until he or she has prepared it properly and built that taste and flavor memory. That perfect tomato flavor is determined through experience. The intellect of taste and flavor is built throughout a cook’s life, recorded in his or her subconscious, and activated through intellect when needed.
“The thing about all my food is that everything is a remembered flavor. Maybe it’s something I had as a child or maybe it’s something I had in Milan, but I want it to taste better than you ever thought.”
– Ina Garten
 BEING IN TUNE WITH PEOPLE
In the end, the chef’s primary job must go beyond cooking. The chef, through experience and commitment to building intellect and great communication skills is able to nurture an understanding of what makes his or her team members tick. Knowing what their needs, strengths, weaknesses, passions and goals are will allow the chef to be successful and the restaurant to thrive. Chefs know how to set the stage for self-motivation, when to complement and when to coach, and how to inspire others to reach for common goals. This takes intellect, experience, and a deep appreciation for the individual.
 FINANCIAL MANAGEMENT
Chefs may not need to understand the complexity of accounting, but they must understand how to analyze, compute, and use the information that is provided through solid accounting practices. Chefs will inventory, determine product cost, establish selling prices, manage labor costs, track item popularity and contribution, budget, and prepare the foundations for weekly or monthly profit and loss statements. Cooking is the soul of a kitchen, but solid financial management is the lifeblood.
 PLANNING AND ORGANIZING
The most effective chefs, especially in a very busy operation, invest a considerable part of the day planning and organizing the shop. Chefs design menus, determine amounts of product to order, build production schedules, expand recipes, build employee work schedules, establish timing for events, establish future budgets, and define how everything is done within the walls of the kitchen. Effective cooks spend years building this intellectual capital and creating a base of knowledge that will allow them to be effective at these tasks that go way beyond the tactile portion of their job.
 MARKETING AND BRAND CREATION
Just like any other business professional – the chef has a role to play in building the brand of the restaurant and getting that message out. In many cases, the chef is the brand and as such must also be the face of the operation and its promotional efforts. To this end, the chef must build the social and intellectual skills necessary to be a positive role model and spokesperson for the operation.
 A VISION BASED ON WHAT YOU KNOW AND WHAT YOU DON’T KNOW
In conjunction with owners and other managers, the chef must also acquire the intellectual savvy to be part of the visionary team for the restaurant. It is never acceptable for an operation to remain stagnant – there must be a vision for the future and a strategy to get there. This strategy must include a deep awareness of what the chef doesn’t know and a commitment to build that base of knowledge moving forward.
The primary point is that the role of chef has changed dramatically over the past few decades and the once cooking focused position has evolved into one that requires a new skill set and a highly refined intellect that allows the chef to make the right decisions for the team and the operation. So you want to be a chef? Well, the chef of today is just as concerned with becoming a knowledge worker and an intellectual leader, as he or she is a great food technician.
PLAN BETTER – TRAIN HARDER
Harvest America Ventures, LLC
Restaurant Training and Consulting
“Be Something Special – be a Chef.”
Stefano Leone said:
Brilliant article. Spot on