Some of you may be too young to know the band – The Moody Blues, but their lyrics always inspired me, especially during challenges that life occasionally brings. One such lyric asked us to view the story in peoples eyes – the truth behind the façade, the experiences, hopes, and dreams that lie behind a stoic or smiling face – to think beyond what seems to be common and sometimes misleading and find the story behind what you see. This applies to direct person-to-person contact as well as indirect contact through the things that they touch and create. When we pause for just a few seconds to try and understand the impact of those stories, then our perspective and our approach may change.
We are very fortunate – once we step away from the difficult nature of kitchen work and the demands that seem too often to be excessive, to work where we work, do what we do, and have the chance to interact with some damn interesting people. When we only see what is immediately in front of us then we can become jaded, pessimistic, and even angry at times. If we are not connected to the stories than our good fortune suddenly appears to be a burden.
It may seem unrealistic in such a high pressure, always changing, never predictable environment like a busy kitchen to say that it is important to pause and look for the story that lies behind everything, yet I am certain that you will find it rewarding, energizing, and helpful while you face todays challenges. It is the story that makes us who we are and it is the story that reflects the value that we bring.
I spend loads of time talking about the environment of the kitchen, and sometimes the plight of those who work in hounds-tooth pants and double-breasted white jackets, but not enough time revealing what might be behind that façade. We all talk about our passion for cooking and for creating interesting and flavorful plates of food, but not enough time about the struggles, hard work, and passion that go into the ingredients that make those dishes possible. Yet, to be a great cook or chef must mean more than dealing with what is simply in front of us – greatness comes from understanding the story in those eyes.
What makes a person tick? Why are they the way they are? What brought them to this point or what holds them back? What moves them and what haunts them? Once you know a person’s story you become part of it and as a result can impact their performance and their future. This is the core of what makes kitchen work so interesting and dynamic. This is what drives people to the profession and keeps them coming back for more.
Here is a sampling of some stories that I have grown to be a part of (names have been changed to protect their privacy):
- DON THE BANQUET CHEF: On the surface Don seemed to be a wreck – physically unfit, a quiet alcoholic, crusty and void of any type of social decorum. But, he worked 80 hours a week, was always on time, could put together a function for 200 all by himself and could facilitate one for 1,200 like it was just another day at the office. To some chefs he was a person who should be fired, while to others he was an incredible asset. What made Don the person he was? What I learned painted an interesting picture: he had 10 kids (that’s right – 10), his mother-in-law also lived with his family and Don was the sole income earner. Don had the skills to be the chef in a property, but his life pressures, subsequent heavy drinking, and lack of care for his personal wellbeing kept that carrot out of his reach. He was overworked, stressed about home, angry about his career limitations, and unable to pull him out of bottle dependence – what we saw at work was a reflection of his environment. Once you understood his situation it was easy to at least find some empathy to override what was on the surface.
- PETE THE DISHWASHER: People tend to stereotype others based on what they see on the surface. In the case of Pete – he was a 45 year old, well-kept career dishwasher. While some might write him off as simply being lazy – I saw something else behind those eyes. Pete was very intelligent – in fact he would spend his break time reading the New York Times or the Wall Street Journal. Conversations with him were always enlightening when you realized that he had a grasp on the world at large. As it turns out Pete had a bachelor’s degree in business, but simply grew to have a lack of trust in those around him, so he retreated into a job that allowed him to push aside this mistrust and angst about society and just live his life. He was happy.
- TERRY THE OCD LINE COOK: We all know that good line cooks are organized and structured, but Terry was obsessive about mise en place, his station, the steps that he took, and his observation of others who were not as focused. He was an exceptional cook with great taste buds, a passion for exact plate presentations, and a willingness to work those extra shifts and longer hours as long as no one messed with his system. He made some people uncomfortable with his exactness and critique, but they all seemed to admire the quality of his work. On the surface he seemed over the top, but when you understood that he came from a family of doctors and lawyers and his decision to become a cook did not sit too well with the rest of his kin, you began to see a person who was focused on being as precise as a doctor, and looked upon as successful as a lawyer. He was always working to make others proud of his choices. Look into those eyes and you will be intrigued by what you see.
- JUAN THE ON AGAIN, OFF AGAIN CHEF: You have worked with others just like Juan – he had been employed by half the restaurants in town at some point. He always came on strong, oftentimes taking on a sous chef or chef role in a fast paced restaurant, and then would eventually start to falter and then wind up in front of the firing squad. Whenever a restaurant would hire him – others would roll their eyes – knowing what was coming all too soon. Juan had the right skills developed over a few decades of the school of hard knocks, but he never felt part of the pedigree. He came from the hood, was very streetwise, talked the language of the street and acted the part. Whenever he got close to breaking out of his environmental past he would revert back to his comfort zone and turn people off. When you got to know him it was easy to like him, even when he acted out of a scene from West Side Story. Juan wanted more for himself, but he always put on the brakes when he got too close. What Juan needed more than anything else was a mentor to help him over that hump.
- SUE THE SINGLE MOM ENTREPRENEUR: There are far too few women chefs in properties across the country – something that Sue was all too well aware of. She wanted to break down those barriers. She was talented, smart, hard working, and creative yet constantly torn between parenthood and business. She became an entrepreneur and did a good job in this regard but lacked trust in her employees – especially male employees. She compensated by working more and delegating less. She wanted to give it her all and at the same time was stressed about her responsibilities as a single mom. The kitchen would often times experience meltdowns that were directly or indirectly related to her approach towards challenges. Employees would come and go because – on the surface Sue was just plain hard to work for. When you got to really know her you would discover a successful parent who never understood her desire to be a chef/owner and one who consistently criticized her for her style of parenting. She was always faced with this critique and her own self-criticism aligned with that. Once you looked past the façade there was a talented person who needed encouragement and guidance.
- MARIO RETURNS HOME: If you understand the Peter Principle you know that there is a core belief that even the best employees will eventually be promoted to their position of incompetence. Mario felt the weight of this reality. When I knew him he had been promoted to the position of Executive Chef at a large hotel property. He was still young, but what was most intriguing was that a dozen years prior he was a young line cook at this same hotel. He had moved on in the company to various other positions until the corporate office thought he was ready to take the reins. The challenge was that the employees of this hotel remembered him as a young upstart many years before and had a really hard time viewing him as the boss. He reacted, as a defense mechanism, by taking on the role of a hard nosed chef and insisting that everyone refer to him by title. His old time co-workers resisted by viewing him as a young kid with a big ego and rather than aligning with the new chefs directions, they did whatever they could to make the job even more difficult for him. When you looked into his eyes you would see a chef just trying to find a way to prove himself and avoid the Peter Principle.
- STELLA THE ANGRY SOUS CHEF: Stella was quite a talent. She breezed through culinary school and outshone everyone else in her class. Her first position after graduation quickly bounced her from line cook to sous chef and then kitchen manager. She was organized, obsessive about how she wanted things done, hard working and willing to put in the hours. She demanded the same level of commitment from her coworkers and employees and as a result operated a swinging door for cooks that came and quickly left. She burned out all too soon and took a job at a corporate business account as a sous chef. The hours were better as were the pay and benefits, but the food was not the same. She worked hard to bring the food quality up and pushed her staff to take cooking seriously. Her temper would oftentimes rear up its ugly head as she lashed out at staff usually ending up as a human resource department meeting of the minds. Behind the crusty exterior was a person from a blue-collar family – she was the first to graduate from college, and the first to actually be in charge of a department. She wanted and needed to make her mark and felt that the best way to do so was to be strong and unbending. Although she was highly skilled at her craft, she was never mentored at being a leader. Look into her eyes and you will see a person who needs validation and just doesn’t know how to be the kind of leader that can find support rather than resistance.
Like most of you know from your own operations, these individuals became part of my story once I understood a bit more about theirs. What we see initially is not always the real truth. Taking the time to discover what is behind the façade is the only way to know how to act and react with others, and certainly the best way to learn how to serve as a supportive leader.
PLAN BETTER – TRAIN HARDER
Harvest America Ventures, LLC
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