I am in the process of reading Chef Dominique Crenn’s autobiography: Rebel Chef. I have long been a fan of her style and passion for expressive cooking, but it is these three words that solidified, in my mind, how a chef should run his or her kitchen: Strength, Grace, and Dignity. Those of us who are over the age of 40 – probably worked in a kitchen or two where Strength may have always been at the core of a chef’s style, but Grace and Dignity were not part of the formula. It was the way it was, and few ever questioned the methodology.
The problem is that strength without grace and dignity does not inspire, does not rally support, and will never result in long-term positive action. Let there be no question that strength that also demeans, discounts, segregates, disrespects, and undermines others is actually the definition of underlying weakness. Chefs, by the definition of the role, are leaders of a team, the face of a kitchens integrity, and the role model for others to follow. When strength is practiced without grace and dignity, then leadership is in serious question.
I know, I have been there – there are ample opportunities every day for a chef to sense that the only way to get things done is through promotion of fear of the chef’s wrath – the temptation to move in this direction is always present. Yet, the best chefs ask: “Where does this approach get me?” Employees who are less than dependable, those who fail to understand that sense of urgency that is pervasive in a kitchen, people who are too cavalier with the ingredients they work with, cook’s who are not on top of controlling waste, those who drift away from defined cooking methods, sloppy work stations, failure to take that extra few seconds to make sure a plate presentation meets the standards of the operation, or confrontational disregard for the chain of command will also light the fires of anger in a chef. How the chef approaches these instances has everything to do with whether or not there will be a change in attitude as a result. A demeaning comment, an embarrassing quip, a vile word in view of peers, a violent tirade of expletives along with a few idle threats may have an impact in the moment, but at the same time it creates an environment of discontent, anxiety, and isolation rather than team unity.
“Dignity is one of the most important things to the human spirit. It means being valued and respected for what you are, what you believe in, and how you live your live. Treating other people with dignity means treating them the way we’d like to be treated ourselves.”
Those who promote the integration of grace and dignity in their style of leadership are also those who understand that many, if not all of those listed examples of operational realities are directly related to how the chef approaches them. The solutions rest on the shoulders of training, setting examples, equitable enforcement of operational standards, provision of the tools for employees to be successful, support of their efforts, honest critique, and all done under the umbrella of strength – a 100 percent commitment to excellence without exception.
“Grace in Business. … The dictionary definition of grace is elegance, and yet to me, in business, it is a combination of many qualities, including valuing people, being gracious and respectful, having gratitude and quiet confidence.”
-Association for Talent Development
Strength in business is a combination of power and trust. The power comes from the position, the title – not always the actions of the person who holds that position. When those around can trust the business leader to be honest, do what is right, represent the best interest of the position, the business, and those who work and support that business – then strength is viewed in a very positive light. When the person “in charge” uses power to demonstrate privilege over someone else, use it as a manipulative tool to push another individual in a direction that is contrary to his or her belief or authority – then strength takes on a whole different, contrary role. Far too many chefs in the past leaned on the power of the title vs. the power drawn from consistency and earned trust.
Those who exemplify strength, grace, and dignity in appropriate proportions live by these rules:
 STANDARDS OF EXCELLENCE (strength, dignity)
Everything that the chef and his or her team members engage in: from the simplest tasks (vegetable mise en place, organization of storage, station mise en place, cleaning plates or pots) to the most complex (finishing a delicate sauce, perfect plating of dishes even when it is very busy) is done with a commitment to excellence and constant improvement.
 TRAINING TO MEET THOSE STANDARDS (strength)
Chefs should never assume that excellence will take place – it must be accompanied by a commitment to training and teaching. Strong chefs take the time to explain, demonstrate, and follow-up with those standards of excellence that are clearly defined for the restaurant.
 CONSISTENCY (strength)
Chefs who are in control know that the importance of excellence lacks strength unless every task, every process, and every plate of food consistently meets those standards. Thus systems and procedures are expressed and solidified throughout the operation.
 REAL CRITIQUE (Grace and Dignity)
Strong chefs never criticize – they critique. In critique – the notation is not personal but rather procedural and pointing to what is wrong is viewed as shallow unless it is accompanied by showing the person how to improve and why to improve.
 PROMOTION OF A TEAM INITIATIVE (Strength, Grace, Dignity)
Strong chefs know that they are never able to accomplish the lofty goals of excellence unless every person on the team understands, appreciates, and becomes passionately involved in meeting those goals with an uncompromised commitment to excellence. It is a team effort that counts and the leaders responsibility is to promote this environment.
 RECOGNITION AND SUPPORT (Grace and Dignity)
Strong chefs give credit where credit is due. Strong chefs applaud (publically) the good work of others and always recognize their focus on meeting and exceeding standards of excellence. One of the chef’s most rewarding moments is when this happens and support is always given so that team members can feel the gratification that comes from a job well done.
 ASSESSMENT (Grace, Dignity and Strength)
Strong chefs are always giving feedback to team members as they reinforce those standards, point out where there are needs for improvement and how to achieve that, and celebrate even the smallest win. A simple “thanks for such great work” goes a long way toward building pride and confidence.
 PRIDE IN THE PROCESS AND RESULTS (Strength, Grace, Dignity)
To a strong chef – the pride that comes from his or her team members reaching or exceeding a particular goal is far more important than personal accomplishments. That five minute wrap-up at the end of service when the chef says: “Well done team – customers were thrilled and I am so proud of how well everyone did their job to the best of their ability and did so while supporting each other” – will inspire those team members to replicate that same effort again, and again.
PLAN BETTER – TRAIN HARDER
Do so with Strength, Grace, and Dignity
*Thank you Chef Crenn for the inspiration.
Harvest America Ventures, LLC
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