Decades of working in or focusing on kitchens and kitchen life have led me to wonder, and sometimes question what I really know.  Our resumes never really tell the story, at least not the important story.  A resume may reflect on where you have spent time, the title that you have been given, and the scope of the business, but what do I (you) really know after all this time and all of those positions?

We may have been exposed to much, experienced a great deal, and have been through a great number of bumps in the road – but what have we taken away from that?  This really is an interesting assessment of time in the kitchen, time in the life of a chef.  This is a reflection, a deep reflection on what the answer might be to the question: “what do I know?”  So here is my assessment:

[]       As much as I think I know about food and operating a kitchen there is so much more that I don’t know.

Just when we think that we might be good at our jobs – something new stares us down.  A new technique, a new way to measure, a different type of presentation, a different challenge in operations, a higher cost, product unavailability, more competition to keep us on our toes – it is never ending.  If nothing else, over the years, I have found that there is so much more that I don’t know.  The question is always – how will I respond to this?  Will I make an effort to learn and grow, or will I accept that a “new thing” is beyond me?  Will I profess to have mastered my craft or will I admit that this will never be possible?

[]       I love to cook – always have, always will.

This is something that I can always trust, the love of the craft, the enjoyment of working with the ingredients, the thrill of a well-prepared plate of food, and a smile on the face of the person who enjoys it.  During the most challenging times as a chef – this is something that I could always take enjoyment in.

[]       What cooks and chefs do is meaningful.

I have always been able to look in a mirror and feel good about what I do.  I have always been able to talk with cooks about the importance of their job.  We cook to pay homage to those who grow, raise, catch, and produce the ingredients we are privileged to work with; we cook the make people happy, to give them a break from their challenges and problems, to reward them when others fail to do so, and to bring them together with friends and family, business associates, and even those who they disagree with.  This is what we do.

[]       As a chef I am only as good as my team.

My reputation as a cook and a chef is really my team’s reputation.  I am nothing but a reasonably competent cook without them.  This is something to always remember, to never forget.  There is no place in the kitchen for a chef’s ego.  The chef is the orchestrator who brings together and hopefully leads an incredibly talented and dedicated team of marvelous technicians.

[]       Training and supporting the kitchen team is my primary responsibility.

Yes, there are numerous lists of responsibilities that accompany a chef’s job description, but none is more important than investing in that team.  Every minute spent in teaching, training, mentoring, and lifting up that team is an investment in the future of the restaurant.  This is job number one!

[]       What I learned in school pales in comparison to what I learned on the job.

A formal education is an essential part of a person’s growth and preparation for life and a career.  This being said – until those lessons are applied in the unpredictable environment of life, they will remain theoretical and un-tested.  For a chef, there is no greater teacher than the school of hard knocks, the environment where each day we face the opportunity to succeed and the chance to fail. 

[]       Even the predictable is unpredictable in a kitchen.

We work with ingredient seasonality that challenges the value of a recipe without the understanding of how to compensate for variance in quality.  We work with employees who have their own set of challenges on and off the job, so how they approach their job is always unpredictable.  And we serve customers who also bring their challenges to the table – how they feel in the moment will impact their experience and the experience of serving them. 

[]       My reputation will always be based on the last meal served.

Hard as it may be to accept – 99 exceptional meals and 1 that misses the mark will not result in a grade of 99, but rather a failing one for that individual who was not happy.  In a world where dissatisfaction is projected to thousands on social media, instantly, a chef must work extra hard to strive for 100% or at least recover very quickly when the opportunity to “wow” is missed.

[]       My actions on and off the job impact the restaurant’s reputation.

Maybe, a line cook can step in the wrong direction and still keep those actions from impacting their job and the reputation of the restaurant, but this is not the case with the chef.  Ironically, the actions of the chef, like the actions of any manager, are connected by the general public, to the reputation of the restaurant.  There is little room for error here.  The chef is always an ambassador of the operation.

[]       My actions set the tone for the working environment of the kitchen.

As a chef, I am (you are) the role model for others.  This is not something that chefs tend to ask for, but it is the fact of the matter.  How you treat others, the consistency of your attitude, your grace under fire, your dependability and how you embrace the trust that others want to put in you will be exactly how others will in turn act.  You are the parent of the operation – act like it.

[]       If I am not trusted then I have nothing.

Unconditional trust is reserved for family members, a spouse, or best friend, but outside of those individuals (and sometimes even they push the limits of trust), individuals only trust actions that are consistent and predictable.  Trust needs to be earned every day and can be lost in an instant.  If you violate the unwritten pact of trust between co-workers, owners, or the general public then it is extremely difficult to regain it.

[]       Mediocrity has no place in the kitchen – ever.

No matter how small or large the task, no matter if it is part of your job description of simply an everyday task that we tend to take for granted – excellence needs to be the goal.  Be excellent in how you look, act towards others, how you sharpen your knives, how you organize your coolers, plan menus, train your staff, how you approach the foundations of cooking, build flavors, or stay true to how you care for ingredients, or how each plate looks when it hits the pass – never allow mediocrity to take control.

[]       Quality and consistency are the foundations of success.

Quality is the reputation of a chef.  Quality is the reputation of the restaurant, and the consistency of that quality is what brings people back and what sets the stage for a chef’s career.

[]       If any one of my cooks fails then I have failed as a teacher and mentor.

Keeping in mind that the primary responsibility of a chef is to train and support his or her cooks – if a cook is unable to execute or uncomfortable with the responsibilities assigned, if he or she fails to deliver a dish properly or present menus items as they were designed, it is a representation of how well or poorly the chef addressed training and mentoring. Point the finger at yourself before chastizing others for their mistakes.


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