Chemistry is by far, the most important ingredient in building a successful kitchen team. When a chef is able to bring a group of seemingly opposing forces together into a functional, well-orchestrated team then great things happen. This, however, is no easy task given the different dynamics that exist among the players.
Kitchens tend to be extraordinary melting pots that attract a wide array of characters who, despite their differences, seem to rally around a few common traits: they like food, they are somewhat competitive, they enjoy the adrenaline rush, and they are a pretty proud group.
So, in giving some thought to the different types of individuals who stumble or rush head first into a kitchen career, I came up with ten categories of cook types (you may have a few others to add on your own) – see where you fit.
Ah…the kitchen pirate. These are seasoned veterans of the line with all the battle scars to prove it. They have fantastic stories to tell (some of them might even be true). The pirate is crusty, seemingly uncaring about anyone who doesn’t tie on an apron, impatient with others, and always ready to walk out if things start to go sideways. On the other hand – these are the battle veterans who can pull you out of a jam when the team would otherwise crash and burn. They probably won’t stay with you very long, but they will make their mark while they are with you. They have likely worked at nearly every busy restaurant in the area and are known to all.
- MYSTERIOUS UNKNOWNS
Most cooks are pretty transparent – they tell you more than you really want to know about their past, present, and future; who they like and why, and who is not on their Christmas Card list. The mysterious unknown is different. They are quiet and reserved, no one in the restaurant seems to have a clue about them and as a result there is no shortage of illicit theories of shady pasts, possible criminal records, and worries about when they might snap. Ironically, they are usually there when they need to be, prepped and ready, and consistent in their work – so, we gladly hire them (whomever they might really be).
- CULINARY CAREERISTS
Usually, a recent graduate or a current school intern with starched white uniforms, polished shoes, and perfectly sharpened knives. They want to do the right thing and are quick to tell more seasoned cooks how to “do the work properly.” What they know is untested, and speed is typically not their forte. They have lots of books, know all the hot chefs, have a well thought out career path, and want to be the star. Typically, the more seasoned staff will find ways to temper their unbridled enthusiasm, prod them when they get behind, and even try to get them to stumble and become humble. They mean well, they just don’t know any better. They will learn from their mistakes and unless they lose that enthusiasm along the way – will probably reach the position of chef some day (it just doesn’t seem like that is possible right now).
- DEPENDABLE LONERS
Always at work on time and ready to go, always properly prepped, and always on top of presentations – the dependable loner is an important part of every team. When another cook calls out sick – the chef knows that he or she can call in the loner to cover a shift. They do not socialize with the rest of the group, they rarely engage in conversation, they never have a joke to share – but they do their work, and do it well. Who knows what ghosts are in their closet.
- ANNOYING PERFECTIONISTS
Obsessive/compulsive cooks seem to find their way into every kitchen where I have worked. They are usually great cooks, and very dependable. Their base of knowledge is typically better than most, and their execution is flawless. Their methods evolve around very structured approaches to the work, an exactness that they try and impose on others, and obsessive behavior that works in strange ways. Their mise en place is precise and they will correct everyone else’s if given the chance. When they see something out of place they can become distraught and even unraveled. If that towel isn’t folded just so, the knife placed in the right location each time, the handles on pans pointed in a particular direction, or plates assembled precisely each time – they can become abusive to others or at least to themselves. They are a strange lot, but in some respects – the standard bearer for others.
- THE CHEF’S PET
Occasionally, “yes chef” goes beyond a simple communication that everyone understands, and a sign of respect for the position – sometimes “yes chef” comes from that individual always seeking extra attention from the chef and being needy for recognition. Cooks deal with them, but roll their eyes.
- SIMPLY CONTENT TYPE “B”
The simply content are just solid cooks. They know their work, they can do much of it without even breaking a sweat, they are astute technicians, and they are always there when scheduled. Type B’s have the ability to work their shift, immediately decompress from the chaotic adrenaline rush of a busy restaurant, and forget about the job until they tie on an apron tomorrow. They have little interest in hanging around to laugh about a good service, have no interest in working an extra shift, and have little to no desire to move up the kitchen career ladder. They just want to do their job well, receive a paycheck, and go home.
- IN NEED OF ANGER MANAGEMENT
You know them – every restaurant has at least one. The cook in need of anger management walks into the kitchen with a black cloud above his or her head. Their eyes are steely and cutting, the frowns are pronounced, and the aura around them says: “don’t mess with me today.” After a while other cooks, and even chefs tend to just avoid them and hope that they can get through another shift without an incident. The black cloud cook can grate at the chemistry that holds a team together and create negative work environments for others. Even if they are very good at their job – this type of cook may need to go for the good of the team.
- EVERYBODY’S CHEERLEADER
Then there is the person who tries to be the sunshine in everyone’s day (sometimes successfully). The cheerleader enters the kitchen with a smile and a good word, looks for every opportunity to give a high five or a fist bump, complements others for quality work, and gets excited when the team tops another record for covers served, or check averages beat. When things get tough, the team looks to the cheerleader for a little encouragement.
- DEEPLY PARANOID
The conspiracy theorists are alive and well. Whatever the reason is for a change, they are uncomfortable with the methods used and leery of anyone who makes a decision. When someone pays them a complement, their reaction is: “why are you complementing me?” They are always looking over their shoulder for someone to find fault or something to go wrong. They look at every successful night as one more where they didn’t face disaster.
Ironically, this is what I have always enjoyed the most about working in kitchens. The chance to work with, and find common ground with all of this diversity is fun and invigorating. On the surface it may appear that synergy is impossible, yet with common goals and a chef who understands the complexity – chaos can turn into harmony.
What kind of cook are you?
**By the way, if you are one of those cooks enrolled in a culinary program and wondering what course will be of greatest benefit to your career – try psychology and sociology.
PLAN BETTER – TRAIN HARDER
Harvest America Ventures, LLC