I still remember that day in downtown Buffalo. I was probably 10 or 11 years old on a shopping trip with my parents when we walked by a diner window with full view of their short order cooks. I was instantly mesmerized by their motions, their intensity, their speed, and their control. The grill was full, visible sweat was rolling off their foreheads, smoke was billowing off the burgers caramelizing from the intense heat, a line of green and white order slips were posted on a rail just at eye level, servers were calling out more orders as plates were filled with food and slid onto a shelf toward a person who seemed to inspect every plate before it was picked up and delivered to a guest; yet through all of this seeming chaos the cooks remained calm and almost poetic in the steps they took and the organized motions they made. It was amazing!
I’m not sure that was my “a ha” moment, you know that point in time when you think: “This is what I want to do for a living”, but it did leave a lasting impression, one that I still recall 60 years later. This was my first observation of controlled hustle.
Since that day, and throughout my career in the kitchen I experienced both controlled hustle and the absolute opposite: uncontrolled chaos. One is incredibly gratifying and the other completely mortifying. The difference between the two happens before the first order is received. The difference is a culmination of knowledge, skill, experience, confidence, and preparation. There is a statement that I remember from my early days in kitchens that sums it up: “If your mise en place is right you can handle any amount of business.” Each of those factors: knowledge, skill, experience, confidence, and preparation are part of a cook’s mise en place. We tend to believe that “mise” is all about the right amount of prep and how it is organized, but in terms of controlled hustle, it is so much more.
As I look back, those short order cooks in the Buffalo diner window had it all together. Watching them in amazement the depth of what I witnessed didn’t fully sink in until I realized what it took to get to where they were. Hustle is an attitude, but even deeper than that it is an achievement that comes from knowing the job, the product, and timing; development of a high level of skill in cooking to ensure the product is properly cooked and presented; accumulation of a mountain of experience that allows the cook to anticipate challenges and mentally prepare for them; the confidence that comes from competence – you know that attitude of “bring it on”; and, of course, the right amount of ingredient prep, pans in place, towels folded, utensils within reach, knives sharpened, and plates counted and stacked so that nothing can get in the way of the cook’s rhythm. This is what I saw that day, and this is what I sought to emulate throughout my career and what I hoped to teach staff members to model their work after.
Uncontrolled chaos, the opposite of hustle, comes from ignorance of any or all of the factors that lead to controlled hustle. The workflow of those short order cooks was not an accident, it was not instinctive, and it was not solely the work of the manager or chef who hired them. That mesmerizing workflow was a result of total commitment on the part of the operational management, the chef, and each one of those cooks. Everyone needs to take responsibility for setting the stage. The result of this commitment is a thing of beauty and the result of a lack of commitment is painful to watch.
When uncontrolled chaos takes hold, you can see in in the eyes of the cooks and service staff, you can feel it in the air, your gut hurts as you watch everything quickly fall apart leading to missed orders, improper cooking, long customer waits, and angry guests leaving and intending to never return. That sweat on a cook’s forehead looks different, their eyes reveal the first signs of panic, the fight or flight reflex is looming, tempers begin to rise, and that sense of hopelessness is right around the corner. If you have worked for any length of time in restaurants, then you have been there. This is a place that you never want to visit, an experience that you never want to repeat, a dreaded outcome that keeps cooks up at night. Once you have been through this you either want to walk away and find a different career or buckle down and do whatever is necessary to not end up there again.
I suppose uncontrolled chaos is something that needs to be experienced – a teaching moment that serves as a right of passage. It doesn’t have to occur, but then again, maybe it does. If the result is a total commitment to “the hustle” then maybe there is a positive life lesson to be had. A chef who has never felt that chaos will likely never be able to adequately prepare to avoid it. A chef who fails to invest the time to help cooks understand and prepare for controlled hustle will, without a doubt, see many of those chaotic nights on the line.
Beyond the controlled and the uncontrolled lies the most serious of problems in restaurants: the “I don’t care malaise”. I can look back on that short order cook experience with fondness and admiration – this is what drove me to constantly improve over the years and try to avoid chaos. I cringe when I think of those moments when things slipped out of control but know that each moment when that occurred gave me more resolve to avoid it in the future. Each of those moments of being out of control is still so vivid; I can remember each one, and there are a few dozen that I keep in my mental catalogue. Each experience still wakes me up on occasion and I have been removed from daily kitchen life for some years now. The haunting continues. I never want to be in that position again. But now I see with increasing frequency, too many operations and far too many cooks who suffer from malaise. They live in a different segment of the uncontrolled chaos community – they are part of the fall out that results from a lack of control and they don’t seem to really care. I am not sure where this comes from or how it is allowed to continue, but it is tragic to watch. The hustle is the source of positive adrenaline, that juice that so many cooks and chefs from my generation and before, sought. This is the energy of the kitchen, its enticement, its magic, and the charisma that confident cooks portray. When it is lacking then a restaurant has little heart and very little soul.
Chefs need to build an environment where the hustle is expected and where cooks anticipate being part of it. A truly successful restaurant is not driven solely by a menu or by the ambience of the dining room. It is not a result of great marketing or a brand with sizzle and it certainly is not simply determined by the right location. A successful restaurant embraces the hustle and all that helps to build the confidence for that to occur. It doesn’t end with great hiring practices – this is simply where it begins. Chefs need to inspire, teach, train, support, show, critique, and reward the hustle – this is the lifeblood of a great restaurant.
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