I have mentioned many times before how my love for the kitchen stems from the appreciation I have for the diverse types of people who work there. Every day in a kitchen is a learning experience – not just in terms of skill development, but even more importantly the opportunity to learn about the people who find a home in this environment.
Far too often we take this opportunity for granted. Look around you and take it all in – these kitchen/restaurant people are unique and complex. Their backgrounds vary, but their purpose is the same. The parallels to an effective sporting team are never lost on me, it is, for all intents and purposes, identical in nature. A common goal, a purpose, and mission that every person can align with knowing that each one has an important role to play. In the case of the kitchen or restaurant it is the plate of food and a satisfied (hopefully wowed) guest. Every member of the staff is focused on these two goals.
If we take the time to dig below the surface, each member of the team carries a unique set of characteristics, interesting and sometimes even troubled backgrounds, and unique talents that if realized can build team cohesiveness and add to the experience of the guest. Some have started their career in the kitchen as a dishwasher – looking for a paycheck, lacking in any substantial kitchen skills, but hoping for an opportunity to grow. Others, like professional athletes have experience with a variety of teams – they are “free agents” who bounce from restaurant to restaurant in search of something that remains elusive. A few may have college degrees and are not sure of any long-term direction in their lives, or maybe they hold a culinary degree and are dipping their toes in the water of opportunity that your operation provides. There are some with troubled pasts, a few wrong turns, mistakes that have limited them in the eyes of many, but not in the kitchen. A few are angry while others are sheepish and content to stay in the shadows. A few are very talented but for various reasons have been ignored when it came to advancement.
Biologically and environmentally, it is also interesting to study the ethnic heritage and geographic background of each player and what that might mean to how your team grows, learns, and expresses themselves. Where did they come from? How were they raised? What foods were part of their culture and how did those foods influence their presence in your kitchen today? Think about what you are missing if these questions are never asked?
It is this melting pot that makes your restaurant tick and builds its unique character. As a chef, these individuals do help to define the type of cook and leader you are or will become. The greater your exposure and understanding of the “people of the kitchen”, the more balanced you will become as a chef. It makes sense – doesn’t it?
I have always relished knowing more about the people with whom I work. Who are they, why are they here, what brought them to the kitchen in the first place, and what unique attributes do they bring to the table? There are so many examples of chefs who have taken the time to learn from their staff, to ask the questions and to learn just how important everyone is to the operation. In some cases, these unique players have become integral to a concept, even though this is beyond what they were hired for. A breakfast cook from a strong Italian family who has a knack for making exceptional fresh pasta, the Mexican dishwasher who learned how to make extraordinary tortilla from the age of ten, or the prep cook with a passion for fishing and boning skills that would embarrass most chefs. Ask the questions, open your mind to learn, relish the connections, and watch how engaging and passionate these employees become when asked to play a unique role and share their history.
Take advantage of the opportunity that staff meal provides to learn about each other. I remember one property that I took a lead role in and the first thing that I did was take the chefs and sous chefs out for dinner. I asked each to take a few moments to explain their background and influences, primarily for my benefit. What was most extraordinary is that the group knew very little about each other – it was an enlightening moment. Ask the questions, listen, and learn, and engage their stories in your operation – it will be incredibly gratifying. Ask those Hispanic or Ecuadorian dishwashers to prepare staff meal using the techniques that are unique to their culture and watch them beam with pride as every person on your team learns something new. Celebrate this, embrace it, and learn from it.
Like many others, I have enjoyed the opportunity to work with such a diverse group of people. Different ethnicities, cultural differences, a wide array of socio-economic differences, young, old, experienced and novice, college educated or no degree at all, tall or short, male, or female, different political beliefs, Grateful Dead followers, country music lovers, or rap enthusiasts, and career cooks as well as those who are simply looking for a paycheck – each person is a book ready to be opened and enjoyed. Take the time to read each person’s book – it will be worth your while.
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