The first question is always: “Do you want to be great?”, followed by: “Are you willing to put forth the effort to be great?”
Let’s assume that the desire to be great is innate – a desire that we are born with – a desire that can either be nourished or squashed. This desire is a spark of enthusiasm to accomplish goals, exceed expectations, know no barriers to entry, and reach for the stars. We possess this desire universally but experience has shown us that it can be pushed aside by parents, friends, supervisors, peers, and even by our own lack of confidence in potential outcomes.
“There is no greatness without a passion to be great – whether it’s the aspiration of an athlete or an artist, a scientist, a parent, business owner (or chef).”
I have spoken oftentimes about the disease of mediocrity and the joy of an attitude of excellence. It is this attitude that sets a course toward greatness. Greatness can be achieved in the simplest of tasks or the overwhelming impact of a project, process, discovery, or “win” that might elude those who choose not to reach for the stars and adopt excellence as their standard.
As cooks and chefs we spend our days in a business that allows ample room for greatness or mediocrity and in some cases both are rewarded with financial success, but only one will make you whole. Greatness is realized both in the moment and through strategic planning, but greatness is still greatness no matter how small or how lofty the task. You must have an unrelenting passion to be great and a total unwillingness to put it aside and accept mediocrity.
So what is the path to greatness for a chef? What can we all do today, right now, to move in this direction? Where do we begin?
Greatness has its roots in knowledge. Chefs should not only know process and methods, but also the why, where, and who behind everything that is done in the kitchen. Understanding the culture behind a cuisine, the people and the ingredients they worked with, why those ingredients were used, and how they work together to create a dish is essential if a chef is to truly represent a cuisine or a dish. This knowledge must be constantly fed – so great chefs are reading and researching, inquiring and visiting, and absorbing all that they can so that everything can be shared with the team.
Greatness stems from a chef’s vision and goals – what sets a path for the restaurant today and into the future? Copycat operations can certainly thrive, but greatness comes from uniqueness and excellence in executing that uniqueness.
Greatness tends to surround those who dedicate themselves and much of their lives to the pursuit of excellence. Think of the analogy of breakfast: “The chicken is involved – the pig is committed.”
Great chefs and great operations know that there will be times when they need to change or at least bend. The willingness to change is as important as the ability to do so.
Certainly the foundations of cooking will always rise to the top of any cook’s skill set, but to assume that cooking will always remain as it has been is foolish. Equipment and technology change and our understanding of the process of cooking will forever evolve. Great chefs are constantly working on adding to and enhancing their skills.
 VARIED EXPERIENCE:
Chefs who are at the top of their game are individuals who have committed themselves to building a portfolio of unique experiences in all aspects of cooking from a’ la carte fine dining to street food, from large scale catered events to formal seven course dinners for groups of 20, and from a’ la carte breakfast to classic formal buffets – everything adds up to a basis for greatness.
 THE ABILITY TO LISTEN:
If a chef believes that he or she is the only person in the room with a useful thought, then learning will never take place, teams will never truly form, and excellence will rarely be achieved. Listen to others.
 DECISION MAKING:
When a cook reaches the level of chef it is expected that this person will be confident and competent enough to make the tough decisions and delegate those that others are able to make.
 PROBLEM SOLVING:
The experiences that a chef brings to the table create a repository of solutions and the preventative medicine that will help an operation avoid many problems in the first place. The chef in an operation is the ultimate problem-solver.
Great ideas, helpful experiences, and important decisions will fail to meet objectives unless the chef is able to effectively communicate verbally and in writing. This communication must represent a professional approach and be structured under the heading of: “The Proper Use of the English Language”. Communication is core to greatness.
 A NETWORK OF INFLUENCE:
Greatness is rarely an individual effort. The best chefs have built a network of associates over years of working in kitchens. This network is there to help, advise, critique, support, and sometimes stop a chef from making a decision. It takes a village to raise a great chef.
 TEAM BUILDING:
First and foremost – great chefs are incredible team builders. Chefs must know how to identify, hire, train, mentor, coach, evaluate, and sometimes cut a team member loose if his or her presence has a negative impact on the team. Teams need leaders and leaders need followers – the chef must build a cohesive group with common vision, a comfort level in speaking their mind, but a desire to contribute to the team effort.
Gone are the days when a chef can hide behind the swinging doors. Greatness is also measured in a chef’s ability to interact with the community of guests, leaders, and influencers.
Above all else – greatness is measured in a chef’s ability to look, act, interact, and consistently model professional behavior. Treating everyone with respect is the price of admission. Acting the part of a leader is expected. Being a role model is the basis for followership attitudes from others. This is what great chefs do.
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