They say that hindsight is 2020 – that being so, there is plenty for us to reflect on and determine how we might have done things differently. The fact is, we can’t go back, but we can look forward. At this point we are all hoping that 2020 will just fade from our memories. In the moment, however, there are loads of things that we miss, things that make us shake our heads in disbelief, things that we long for – a return to a time when our greatest concern as a chef was our reservation list and daily mise en place.
The prudent approach would probably be to put the past behind us and lay a course for the future, but when the future is so uncertain there is some solace in looking backward and reminiscing about those things that had put a smile on our face. There is always a level of comfort in reflection, even if there is “no turning back”. It’s history, as they say, but history is important. History is a great teacher and, if nothing else, we can reflect as a way to learn.
So, what do chefs miss in this crazy environment where employees and guests float around in masks, keeping their distance, and eyeing each other with concern? What do chefs long for in a world where restaurants are closing left and right – even the most established ones? What do chefs crave when protocol becomes far more important that the flavor profile of a dish? Here are a few things on my list:
That moment in the early morning when a chef steps out of bed with the knot of mixed emotion in his or her stomach is – yes, something that is missed. There is a bit of fear regarding what might be faced when stepping through that back kitchen door, yet at the same time there is always a twinge of excitement about the same. The minute a chef’s feet hit the floor from a restless nights sleep – adrenaline is pumping. After time, this is a highly anticipated feeling. Chefs miss that in 2020.
 POSITIVE ANXIETY
Anxiety in small doses can be that spark that starts the human engine. Too much anxiety has just the opposite effect, yet if a chef can control it at some level, then anxiety can be used to fuel the energy needed for the day. Positive anxiety can keep us on our toes, helping us to prepare for the expected and the unexpected. This positive anxiety gives the chef a bounce in his or her step – the bounce of confidence that the kitchen team depends on. Chefs miss that in 2020.
 THE SPIRIT OF WINNING
It is always more than “how you play the game” – every person ultimately wants to win at whatever they attempt. Some put the time and effort into helping that happen, while others may simply hope that it occurs without their active involvement. Chefs tend to put the effort in. When the chef has the winning spirit then it rubs off on the team, setting the stage for achievement. To a kitchen team it is all about the basics – efficiency, great tasting and looking food, a clean operation, meeting the timing demands of orders, clearing the board of orders, no re-fires, no injuries, and happy guests sending back empty plates. This is what the chef and the team work for; this is what brings about fist bumps, high fives, and a smile at the end of service. Chefs miss that in 2020.
 APPROPRIATE BANTER
There is certainly no place in today’s kitchen for hurtful or inappropriate banter that demeans or makes people uncomfortable, but that harmless banter that yields a laugh or a re-energized staff is simply a part of the environment that cooks and chefs look forward to. Chefs miss that in 2020.
 INTERACTION WITH STAFF
Walking through that back kitchen door – the chef grabs a cup of coffee and invests the time to walk the kitchen and connect with prep cooks, breakfast line cooks, bakers and pastry chefs, dishwashers, and service staff. This is the first opportunity to touch base and connect with the people who are at the heart of a restaurants success. Throughout the day it is the sometimes serious, oftentimes light conversation that pulls chefs and cooks alike into the environment of the kitchen. People are interesting, they all have stories to tell, they all bring something special to the team, and they validate why a chef chose to do this work for a living. Chefs miss the level of this interaction in 2020. Instead of a smile and a resounding “yes chef” response from cooks, 2020 brings a look of uncertainty and a less than enthusiastic “yes chef”, wondering what tomorrow may bring.
 INTERACTION WITH GUESTS
Many chefs look forward to the opportunity to occasionally “ walk the dining room” and interact with guests, engage in short conversations about food and maybe a suggested wine pairing, check for those smiles of satisfaction from diners, and feel the energy of the front of the house. Somehow this just doesn’t work when everyone is wearing a mask and looking over their shoulder for a person walking too close. Chefs miss that in 2020.
 BEING FOOD CENTRIC
Of course chefs always worry about food cost, training, labor cost, vendor dependability, and the next health inspection, but what brought a person to this position is a love of food and a desire to learn more and create for the plate. When menus become utilitarian out of necessity, when a diminished labor pool is the driving force for menu design, and when survival is the focus – that food centric energy is in short supply. When the focus is not on creative food that is the signature for the restaurant – chefs miss that.
 A FULL DINING ROOM
One of the measures of success that is most exciting in restaurants is looking through those swinging doors and seeing every table full of happy guests – eating, raising glasses, and laughing with reckless abandon. This is what we strive for in restaurants. When tables are 6 feet apart and capacity is limited due to pandemic protocol – that dining room energy is far less noticeable. It is really difficult to relax, enjoy a dining experience, celebrate, and laugh when the fear associated with Covid is always present. Chefs miss those full dining rooms in 2020.
 THE ENERGY AND BEING ON THE EDGE
That knot in a chef’s stomach, that nervous energy that a line cook feels just prior to those first orders clicking off the POS, that uneasiness that servers experience just prior to opening the restaurant doors is, when in control, very similar to that anticipation felt before an exciting football game, cross country race, or rush to fill the stands at a rock concert. Sure it is a nervous energy, but it only feels dangerous until the gates open, the kickoff starts the game, the starting gun is fired, or those first orders signal – let the fun begin. Chefs miss this in 2020. It may exist, but at a much more subdued level.
 THE SMELLS, SOUNDS, AND TASTES OF A KITCHEN ON A PATH TO SUCCESS
As that chef walks through the back kitchen door and grabs a cup of coffee – it is always the familiar sensual experience that reminds him or her that there is no other job more physically and emotionally rewarding than cooking. The smell of breakfast bacon, fresh baked bread, Danish pastries, caramelizing onions, and roasted garlic somehow completes the aroma package with the nutty, deep roasted smell from a cup of coffee. The sounds of sizzling pans, clinking of plates being stacked from the dishwasher, cooks barking out warnings like “behind” or “hot”, and the resounding cadence of the POS printer and expeditor barking “ordering, fire, or pick-up”, are part of the music of the kitchen. When this is muted or felt to be less indicative of a warm kitchen – then- yes, the chef misses that.
 THE FREEDOM TO CREATE
Menus need to be streamlined, costs need to be watched very closely, limited staff must be considered, and efficiency must rule the day. Creativity takes a back seat during times of crisis and uncertainty. This is what charges up a chef and when it is lacking then chefs truly miss that.
 KNOWING THAT TOMORROW WILL BE BETTER THAN TODAY
Most significantly, when the restaurant business is healthy then there is little energy invested in worrying about your position or that of your team members. The impact of the pandemic is intense and all consuming. Tomorrow is always a question. Whether it be new protocols, or expenses that can’t be met – when tomorrow is uncertain then the chef certainly misses the comfort of knowing that doing things right will take away that fear.
Yesterday is gone, today is challenging, but tomorrow will come and with it will be a restaurant industry that is different, but robust, challenging, and once again – exciting. Today is tough, but reflection and optimism will help us all to chart a course for success. Chef’s should remember the past, miss what is lacking today, but think about tomorrow with a smile of optimism.
PLAN BETTER – TRAIN HARDER
Harvest America Ventures, LLC
CAFÉ Talks Podcast
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