As cooks start to, or at least hope to, begin settling into kitchen life again, it seems appropriate to reiterate those standard rules of thumb that everyone must abide by. They may be tweaked a bit – after all, a lot has changed over the past five months, but for the most part – the rules of operation that cooks have always lived by, are still the rules.
Ah..but, here is the thing – creative people often claim that rules are there to be broken, otherwise we never discover, we never move forward. Jeff Beck, the guitarists’ guitarist once stated:
“I don’t care about the rules. In fact, if I don’t break the rules at least 10 times every song, then I am not doing my job.”
Well, if you listen to great musicians then you probably thank Jeff Beck for being radical in that regard. Steve Jobs, the household name for creativity and founder/creative genius behind Apple Computers proclaimed that we should “Think Different” and ignore the rules. Hard to argue with him – isn’t it? Yet, in the kitchen there are things that need to be done a certain way to avoid chaos and to respect each other’s role in getting the job done. Strange – maybe rules are important, or, maybe they aren’t rules at all.
President Franklin D. Roosevelt wrote:
“Rules are not necessarily sacred, principles are.”
Now we’re getting closer – maybe, just maybe, what we are talking about is not a list of rules or policies, but rather, a list of universal principles. That sounds better – the Principles of Being a Professional Cook.
Your principles, and those of the cooks who proudly wear the uniform of the kitchen, are your stakes in the ground. The very beliefs, actions, and standards that define the kind of person you are, the way that you carry yourself, the way that you want others to perceive you, and the predictable results of your actions.
We should not confuse principles with rules of conduct, or polices and procedures – principles go so much further than that – they are not dictated, they are embraced.
“Policies are many, Principles are few, Policies will change, Principles never do.”
-John C. Maxwell
So, what are those Principles of a Professional Cook – his or her “stakes in the ground”:
The first general principle of the kitchen is to live the attitude of respect for co-workers who may have different skill levels, may be of a different culture or race, different gender, and different education level, they may have beliefs that are contrary to yours, but they are all worthy of your respect. When they tie on an apron they are part of your family.
Respect applies to the established chain of command in the kitchen because it exists for a reason. You can respect the position even when the person holding that position rubs you the wrong way. “Yes chef “is not a blind commitment to the person, but rather to the need for order and organization in the kitchen.
Respect applies to the ingredients that a cook uses, the source of those ingredients: farmer, rancher, fisherman, cheese maker, processor, and distributor. It also applies to the equipment and the facilities that every cook uses – it is imperative that every cook treats these resources as if they were his or her own.
Respect applies to the foundations of cooking – the processes that are time honored and proven and the steps used to build flavors and consistently excellent products.
Finally, respect applies to the history of the proud profession of cooking. This does not infer that cooks should not move forward and create their own history, but when we honor those who came before we establish the same pattern for the future.
The second principle for cooks is to always honor the dynamics of work environments. Professional cooks know how important personal tools are to anyone who stands in front of a range. A cooks tools, the space that he or she has identified as their work parameters, the ingredient mise en place and station set-up are all sacred to the cook and to his or her ability to work efficiently and effectively. Cooks will never violate these parameters.
Cooks must also practice effective cost controls through total utilization of ingredients, minimizing waste, following procedures and where important – recipes, and making sure that perishable goods are rotated and stored properly. The financial success of the restaurant is in everyone’s hands.
The third principle relates to the interaction of all members of the crew as a true team. This means that everyone is in it together. The stronger help those who have limitations and weaknesses, those who are still learning become effective listeners, and each cook has the other cook’s back. Professional cooks avoid pointing fingers and when wrong – they take responsibility. When a team has formed – the group wins as a total unit or loses as a total unit.
The fourth principle relates to one of the most important tasks of any professional cook – maintaining the highest level of sanitation, cleanliness, and safety in the kitchen. Clean as you go must become second nature to every cook. This applies to their personal work area as well as all common areas. This is what the guest expects; this is what every cook must expect.
 TEACH AND SHARE
The fifth principle for cooks relates to the responsibility to “pass it on”. All cooking techniques and procedures are public domain. There can be no secret processes or methods in a team environment. Every cook and chef has the responsibility to share and help others build their proficiency. In a team environment there is no shame in admitting that you “don’t know how” – the only shame is in refusing to admit it. When a cook asks for help in building skills then that help is freely given in a professional kitchen.
The sixth principle is something that comes from the heart and soul of a cook. There will always be room for cooks who function effectively at the job of cooking, but to truly excel – a cook must feel that this is what he or she was meant to do. The professional cook has a passion for the ingredients, the process of cooking, and the history behind a dish, the creation of flavor, and the presentation of a dish. When it is part of a cook’s heart and soul, then cooking will produce magical results.
The seventh principle is one that is at the core of everything else. Professional cooks are always seeking out excellence. Perfection may never be reached, but excellence is a commitment to moving in that direction. From the simplest task: cutting perfectly symmetrical vegetables, trimming tenderloins, cutting steaks, filleting whole fish without leaving valuable meat on the bone, respecting the steps in preparing a perfect stock, mincing herbs, clarifying butter, or the exactness of a plate presentation – a professional cook takes each task seriously. Every step in the cooking process deserves your best effort.
The eighth principle, as basic as it may seem – sets the tone for great work and excellent cooking. When the cook looks sharp (clean, pressed uniform, neat grooming, clean shoes, etc.) then he or she is more inclined to act professional. When a professional cook treats the job and the people who work in the kitchen in a professional manner – then that cook can expect the same in return. This is how professionals reap the benefits of appropriate attitude.
 BEING ALL IN
The ninth principle is a focus on commitment. Professional cooks know that the job is never over until it is complete. To some this means investing more time than the schedule shows, while to others it means focusing on ways to improve efficiency so that the job can reach completion in the time allotted. In all cases the job must be done and done correctly.
Finally, the tenth principle pertains to building an environment of trust where cooks are upfront, honest in their approach to the tasks at hand, willing to take responsibility, able to accept critique and willing to offer that critique as long as it includes a “how to improve” lesson, and careful to respect the standards of operation that allow the restaurant to remain successful.
These ten principles are not rules – rules are demanded of those who work for a business. Principles are those stakes in the ground that each person accepts as part of who they are. When this occurs then cooks follow those principles because it is right, not because it is demanded.
PLAN BETTER – TRAIN HARDER
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