I know you remember the first day that you slid your arms into the sleeves of that chef’s jacket with your name embroidered under the title: executive chef. It was that first time in the lead position – the commander of the kitchen brigade. You earned this title through years of hard work, loads of unique experiences, trials and tribulations moving through positions from commis to prep, line cook to sous chef, and now having arrived at the helm. You walked through the kitchen greeting each person at his or her station finally coming to rest at a stainless table that will be your workspace. As the chef you want to make sure that you lead by example, so even though your plate will be filled with a new list of responsibilities, you want to spend time each day as a cook.
You take time to sanitize your area, firmly place a cutting board on a damp towel to keep it from slipping, draw your knives across a wet stone while honing their edge, and quickly jotting down a prep list for the next hour. You take a deep breath and smile knowing that this is where you belong, this will be a magical day.
There is something very special about working in a professional kitchen, something that is hard to explain unless you are there. From the moment you walk through that back entrance you are captivated by the dynamics of the environment, the structure of the operation, and the sensation of being enveloped by its alluring magic. The aroma of a simmering veal stock, pans of bacon being pulled from the oven, fresh coffee brewing and pastries hot from the bake shop meld together like a cacophony of sound produced by a finely tuned orchestra. Cooks are busy at work with their own preparations as breakfast orders from the dining room arrive at a harrowing pace.
As service begins to reach its peak, you set aside your prep work and jump into the expeditor position calling out orders and finishing plate garnishes. “Ordering – three eggs over-easy, two pancakes, one poached, two benedicts. Picking up – three benedicts, two French toast, one veggie omelet”. The cooks are in the zone as the orders attack the kitchen even faster now as the dining room fills and servers’ line up to make toast and refill silver coffee pitchers. You know exactly what to do, how to keep the rhythm, when to pull back or push forward, and how to keep the cooks, your cooks, calm and focused. You are now the conductor of the orchestra that is totally in sync, creating beautiful music together. This is magical.
When you stop to think about it, the process of cooking is quite amazing. You and your team are able to take raw materials, apply well-designed cooking methods, season using time-tested palates, and plate the finished product with the vision of an artist creating a delicious, aromatic, visually pleasing dish. This is not an automatic process; it requires a number of skills that are built over time. For you, the process is even more amazing. As a chef you are able to plan menus knowing how the dishes will look, smell, and taste before they are even made. You have prepared so many items in the past that your senses are internalized and able to rely on flavor memory.
You can sense what caramelization will do to those incredible Diver’s scallops the size of silver dollars, what flavor those blue and yellow flames will impart on the exterior of a steak or chop, or how that perfect sauce will respond to monte au beurre at the end of preparation. When you sit down with the sommelier with your first menu as chef you can offer reasonable comments on the selection of wines to accompany each item. Through your time in the kitchen, you embraced tasting wines, studying their source, and building an understanding of the factors that impact on flavor.
As you pan your eyes through the kitchen you are able to take in the magic that had taken place before your arrival and know how important it will be for you to continue to teach and train. Many of these professional cooks started out just like you as a dishwasher or commis to a prep cook. Over time they developed foundational skills that would allow them to progress up through various brigade positions. They developed strong knife skills, an understanding of cooking methods, the ability to identify ingredients and how they should be handled, food safety and sanitation, and how to work as part of a team. You will continue to build them and to provide opportunities for the passionate to strive for a fruitful career in the kitchen. Some will move on to other properties and find the success they are after, and you will be OK with that. This is part of the chef’s job.
Sitting later with the dining room manager you wear the hat of orchestrator of the dining experience. Together you will work to polish all of the details that will keep your food centerstage while adding those unique elements that will keep guests coming back time and again.
Dinner service pulls a different crew to the hot and cold lines. Unlike breakfast that is focused on speed and efficiency, these cooks need more time to develop flavors and paint their artwork on the plate. Speed is still important, but details and finesse are front and center. Fifteen minutes before service begins you walk through each station with the sous chef to taste and critique each cook’s mise en place and then engage the front of the house with a premeal review of features and any menu changes. It is that final staging before the curtains open to another dining performance.
As the day winds down, you spend a few moments alone in the office preparing your first presentation to the entire restaurant staff. Tomorrow will provide a brief moment for you to address this group of seasoned professionals and talk about new directions, your vision, the way that you intend to lead, and how important they all are to the mission. This will be one of those magic moments – there will be many more. There is plenty of opportunity during these challenging times to find fault, to stress over how things are not what they were, and to wonder how the restaurant business will pull through. When those thoughts creep into your consciousness, take a few moments to remember the magic of what we do. Look at those young cooks and know the impact that you can have on their future and their passion. Look at those plates of food and marvel at what takes place during cooking and remember how important your role is in creating special moments, enjoyable experiences, and great memories for those who choose to sit at a table and take in all that you and your team can offer.
PLAN BETTER – TRAIN HARDER
Harvest America Ventures, LLC
CAFE Talks Podcast