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Painted in Waterlogue

I just don’t get it. Those with whom I have worked and enjoyed countless kitchen adventures have lived by the mantra: “Anything worth doing is worth doing well”. This is a philosophy that has lived at the core of success for individuals in numerous careers forever. Whether you work in the kitchen, manufacturing, design, art, retail, education, politics, or even the medical profession – this is a core belief. Why then is there so much mediocrity in each of these professions? I don’t get it.

What is driving me to write of such a topic? It seems like every time that I travel I am stunned by the lack of attention to so many details – especially in the field that I have invested my entire career. Decades ago I wrote a scathing rebuttal to an article offered by Andy Rooney – a television commentator who stated that in Europe it was hard to find a bad restaurant while in America is was just as hard to find a good one. I felt insulted for everyone in our industry and told Mr. Rooney that he was wrong. Now, every time that I travel I find some truth to his observation. Although there are thousands of superb restaurants from coast to coast, talented and passionate chefs, dedicated restaurateurs, and professional service staff willing to go the extra mile – there are still far too many restaurants that show no enthusiasm for food, no obvious talent or skill, a lackluster approach towards cleanliness, uninspired menus, and almost no grasp on the concept of true hospitality. What is even more frustrating is that these same restaurants are often times filled with customers. I don’t get it.

I have always believed in my heart that people want to do great work. There is tremendous value to doing things well, looking in a mirror and saying that “I gave it my best effort.” To this end, we need to ask the question: “Why is mediocrity a common dilemma? We all see it every day and at some level we might even shrug our shoulders and simply say: “That’s just the way it is.” But, is there a reason why excellence does not prevail more often than not? There is plenty of evidence to point to the value derived from excellence – the business succeeds, individual employees feel good about their performance, customers are happy and willing to spread the word, and the brand is more inclined to enjoy a long shelf-life. So, what gives? Here is some food for thought:


If mediocrity prevails in a restaurant the ultimate responsibility sits on the shoulders of the chef and the manager. Excellence starts at the top where the tone is set, the expectations are defined, and everything is measured on the basis of excellence – EVERYTHING! It is the responsibility of the chef and manager to define excellence, train for it, demonstrate it, and evaluate everyone’s performance based on it.


Start with a belief that people want to be great, but may not think it is in them. This is always where I start. Sure, I understand that there are some people who seem to be lazy and uncaring by nature – maybe even hell bent on pushing for mediocrity. If this is the case and you have done all that you can to set that tone and train, then you should cut them loose. But, first it is important to look at yourself as a chef and make sure that you have done what you should as a leader. If you believe in people they will often times surprise you.


Train Harder! Teach and train to the level of excellence that you desire and then give people a chance to make decisions and control their own fate. If you give them the responsibility for excellence then you must give them some authority to make it happen. Hold their feet to the fire but don’t tie their hands. Responsibility without authority is way too shallow.


When excellence is a way of life then achieving it becomes almost automatic. Expect and train for excellence in every area with every task. How prep cooks cut vegetables, how the coolers and storerooms are organized, how uniforms are maintained, how people in your kitchen treat each other, how the dishes are cleaned and stacked, how stations are maintained and how plates are assembled before placing in the pass. Everything leads to an environment where everyone knows that excellence is the rule.


Teach the crew in your kitchen to look for any sign of mediocrity and them own the solution. Dirt in the corner, finger prints on the stainless steel, char-grill grates that are caked with carbon, stored food without labeling, fresh fish that is not properly iced, dull knives, spills on floors, water spots on glasses or chips on plates – train the crew’s eyes to see these failures and correct them. In a house where excellence prevails – everything is everyone’s responsibility.


Treat every day as if it is the first time experiencing the product and service of the restaurant. Train service staff to see the entrance, the carpet, the table top, the chairs, the windows and the lighting through the eyes of the guest. Teach your cook’s to view each plate of food as if they were the ones who ordered it and will eventually pay for that dish. There is no excuse for an improperly prepared or presented dish – many eyes and hands touch that plate before it is delivered. There is no excuse for a table that rocks back and forth, a dirty window, or a wine glass with water spots – many eyes and hands touch those components of the guest experience.


Show your team what excellence looks and feels like. Be the example as the chef and replicate that as a cook. Expect excellence and never accept anything but excellence. This applies to every type of restaurant and every level of food experience. It applies to that container of Pommes Frites just as much as it would a Wagyu filet. Apply this to every experience, every type of food, every time you put on the uniform – excellence is a habit.


A great restaurant (diner or fine dining) is one where feedback is the breakfast of champions. Compliment excellence but at the same time expect it. Critique any sign of mediocrity by demonstrating why it is unacceptable and how to correct it. It is important that those vegetables be uniformly cut, that the grill marks on a steak are symmetrical, that carmelization at the sauté’ station is executed to perfection, that those dishes are squeaky clean, that the hamburger bun is fresh and properly toasted, and the salad greens are crisp and vibrant. It all matters.


To be number one with any concept requires that you act like you are number one. Those restaurants that are truly great are filled with cooks, chefs, dishwashers, servers, and managers who believe that what they do is important and that excellence will always prevail. Celebrate this – make every day a nod of approval and an affirmation that mediocrity has no place in the operation. When this happens pride takes over and pride is the fuel that keeps excellence at the forefront.


Mediocrity only continues if there are people who support it with their wallet. Please – don’t support the continuance of mediocrity with your patronage.


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