CHEFS – THINGS JUST AREN’T WHAT THEY USE TO BE

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Looking back over the past 18-months it is hard to grasp just how much things have changed in the restaurant world. It made me wonder if all of this change (some planned, some unexpected) is good for the culinary world or not. Having long been an advocate for the importance of change, I find myself, like many others wondering if my logical approach towards the need to move on and forward is still applicable.

“Change can be frightening, and the temptation is often to resist it. But change almost always provides opportunities – to learn new things, to rethink tired processes, and to improve the way we work.”

-Klaus Schwab

The reality is that no matter how much we may advocate for flexibility and a willingness to move in new directions – everyone tends to resist moving away from his or her comfort zone. I have even talked quite a bit about being a traditionalist in previous articles and hanging on to the classic concepts and preparations that still work in so many operations. I have pointed to the need to maintain professionalism and the structure that got us to where we are today and to support the grand history of cooking and the art of food. Am I simply hanging on to the past and contradicting my own advocacy for change? I thought that I should take a hard look at myself and point to the changes – good, bad, and indifferent that we (the people of the food industry) have faced in recent months.

[]         THE LOSS OF ICONS:

Paul Bocuse, Joel Robuchon, Antonio Carluccio, Roger Verge, Benoit Violier, and even Antony Bourdain – (just to name a few) all chefs who were prominent in the culinary world, who made a difference and defined their place in food history have passed away in the past few years. Each one helped to define the business of cooking and point to the joys and sorrows of working behind a range. Will their influence survive a new wave of change?

[]         THE NEW FACE OF FINE DINING:

Formal fine dining has been dying a slow death for many years, but one could easily promote that in the last few years it finally took its last breath. Sure, there are still a few operations that hang on and even a small number that actually continue to thrive, but the formality of high cuisine has taken a back seat to fun dining with great food. The intense structure to quiet dining rooms and technically perfect service have given way to loud, informal, casual service with food that still carries the mark of excellence. Personally, I think that this was long overdue and truly relish the opportunity to enjoy terrific, well-prepared and presented food in an atmosphere where laughter and conversation are perfectly acceptable. Nevertheless – it is different.

[]         THE RUN AWAY SUCCESS OF FOOD TRUCKS:

Some restaurateurs will complain that food trucks break the rules – that they are not encumbered by the challenges of brick and mortar and pay less attention to the “rules of the game” that established restaurant storefronts must live by. Complain if you like, but food trucks are probably here to stay. On the positive side – food trucks are concept incubators and occasionally lead to brick and mortar operations; food trucks are able to overcome the challenges of attracting customers by simply driving to where the customers might already be; and food trucks allow nearly anyone to avoid the high start-up cost of a stationary operation. Finally, food trucks give young culinary entrepreneurs a chance to be creative and test the market with something new. Whatever your position – food trucks are changing the face of the restaurant industry.

[]         DINNER THROUGH THE MAIL:

Still one of the primary reasons why people choose to dine out is for convenience and from a lack of understanding how to cook. Suddenly companies like Blue Apron, Hello Fresh, and Magic Kitchen are making it much easier for people to stay at home, build some basic skills, and prepare reasonably good food without the help of a neighborhood restaurant. Who knows what amazon will eventually do with their new Whole Foods Division. We need to wake up to a new, viable competitor.

[]         THE TRUTH ABOUT FARM TO FORK:

Farm to Fork should be the standard that every restaurant lives by. It is a chef’s philosophy that demonstrates appreciation for ingredients and their source and respects the flavor of fresh, regional goods. Unfortunately, in far too many cases, Farm to Fork has simply become a marketing initiative that could easily come under “truth in advertising” scrutiny. How many restaurants that claim to be farm friendly, truly are?

[]         THE AWAKENING OF CULINARY EDUCATION:

This topic is worth a few hundred pages of discussion – let’s just say that the wave of culinary education serviced by more than 1,000 schools from coast to coast, has hit a wall. High costs and questionable results have put this very important part of the food business in jeopardy as more and more schools close and others struggle to meet enrollment goals. How will we attract and train cooks in the future? Will culinary schools adapt to change and even drive the change that is needed?

[]         A TATTOO NATION:

The days of Escoffier are long gone. The time in history when the chef demanded pristine uniforms and impeccable, conservative grooming and (in the case of Escoffier) even required cooks to wear a jacket and tie when they were out in public outside of the kitchen is long gone. The tattoo is a statement of independence for younger cooks and service staff. To a cook, there has always been that feeling of being outside of the norm, maybe a bit of a pirate, certainly part of a niche culture. The tattoo is a way to proclaim something about the person: who they are and what they believe in. Get use to it – this is part of the new kitchen culture.

[]         CRAFT BEER ADVOCATE VS. WINE ADVOCATE:

It was often said that a great meal without a great wine was certainly less than satisfying. To many serious diners it would be unheard of to enjoy a meal without the appropriate wine. In America that wine culture grew significantly from the late 1970’s till the end of the millennium. Suddenly, beer became as complex and as sophisticated in it’s own way, as wine. Beer pairing dinners are growing in popularity, beer lists in restaurants are beginning to rival wine by the glass programs, and chefs must now learn how to plan menus with beer in mind as well as with wine. This would have been unheard of just a few decades ago.

[]         CHANGES IN KITCHEN CULTURE:

The subservient culture of the kitchen, the autocratic style of management that was prominent from coast to coast, the level of commitment to a career in cooking, and the patience associated with “paying your dues” is crumbling. The joy of working as a team and the intensity of the job may remain, but the cultural structure of the environment is a far cry from what it was a generation ago.

[]         END OF THE HOSTILE WORK ENVIRONMENT:

The structure may resemble a military organization but the demeaning nature of a drill sergeant is no longer acceptable in the kitchen. Bullying, public displays of hostility, and relentless inappropriate behavior towards each other is “done”. It’s a different world now and just because you may have worked your way up the ranks in such a hostile environment no longer gives you the right to create that same environment for others.

[]         DUMBING DOWN OF THE FOOD NETWORK:

Believe it or not, there was a time when the Food Network was actually realistic and geared towards education and the portrayal of a noble profession. Now absurd shows that pit people against each other in a super market, show cooks tormented by out of control chefs, call untrained people with an apron “master chefs”, and build off a crowd frenzy as others are encouraged to gorge themselves with 10,000 calories while the time clock ticks, have demeaned the business of food and the profession of cooking. There is literally nothing on this network now that is worth watching.

[]         THE DEMISE OF THE WORKAHOLIC COOK:

When any cook over the age of 40 says that he or she has paid their dues, they mean that they have forsaken everything in their lives for the demands of the kitchen. They have worked 70-hour weeks as a steady diet and fail to understand people who work only 40 and have weekends off, and they think of little except anything to do with food and the process of cooking. We may have done this and probably still take pride in how we endured, but many younger cooks have little appetite for this lifestyle. This is the reality and we must figure out how we will operate without those who give up everything for the job.

[]         OUR LEADER IS A FAST FOOD JUNKIE:

The Office of President is significant in so many ways – one that is often overlooked is how the President can set the tone for the populations habits. When the President admittedly would much prefer a McDonald’s hamburger and Coke to a well executed meal of fresh ingredients accompanied by a perfectly paired wine or craft beer, then the tone is set for a new generation of food consumer. Ugh.

I don’t know – as much as I love this restaurant business and the people who tie on an apron and wield a French knife, things are changing and all of us who have built our professional lives around the traditions of the kitchen are facing a significant wake-up call. While we continue to promote, teach, train, and inspire from a foundation of culinary history, we must also be cognizant of the inevitable changes taking place and more to come. We should never allow a new generation of cooks and chefs to lose sight of the what and why of cooking and it’s proud history, but we may just need to accept that it will soon be time to pass the torch and learn to keep an open mind to change.

PLAN BETTER –TRAIN HARDER

Harvest America Ventures, LLC

Restaurant Consulting and Training

www.harvestamericaventures.com

 

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