Push it out, how many covers, lock, and load, finish strong, over the hump, wrap it up: this the language of the kitchen during service, these are the timestamps like the number of quarters in a football game or innings in baseball. Get it done, no mistakes, and pick up the pace are all directives that help line cooks make it through another day or night. When all is said and done, we can wipe our brows and sigh in relief. We made it! I get it, I’ve been there, I know the adrenaline behind this and the sense of accomplishment when the rail is free of dupes – it is a race against time, an impossible goal that somehow, we manage to reach. Mission accomplished. But what about your food, what about the guest’s reaction, what about creating memorable experiences, what about your connection to the plate?
Don’t get me wrong, I understand the need for numbers and the gratification that comes from exceeding expectations in this regard, but, if I might ask: “how do you feel about that plate?” In the moment gratification from taming the volume beast is short lived. Tomorrow there will be a need to do the same. “How do you feel about that plate?” Compromise may be a legitimate goal in negotiations and diplomacy, but not so much when it comes to quality and the meaning of your work.
Take a moment to assess, to line up the results of your work with your vision of the plate, the guest experience, and the brand that you are trying to build. I’m not a big fan of quick service restaurants, but I would be willing to bet that the menu items originally created by their corporate culinary team doesn’t translate to what is served in restaurant number 953. Can they meet the crowds and even exceed budgeted customer counts on a given day? Probably. But what about that quality translation? How does that corporate chef feel when he or she visits a random restaurant and sees how a 16-year-old on the grill has no vision of excellence in execution? Isn’t it the same reality in a full-service operation where pushing the numbers is priority number 1?
Where is the happy medium, the commitment to those quality stakes in the ground? Can quantity, speed, and quality coexist? The answer, of course, is YES! “But, but, but surely compromise is necessary if we are to turn tables and reach our numbers.” Compromise in diplomacy means that both sides win at some level. When we compromise with quality in a restaurant where is the win? We filled the dining room, and everyone was served, but what was their experience? Did they sense that the value was there? Were they wowed into coming back again and again? Will they write a great review on Trip Advisor? When we compromise on the quality of cooking, taste, and presentation then we suffer trying to win unhappy customers back and you, the chef, must look in a mirror and see the face of compromise.
So, how do we find that space where quality is maintained, where the customer is wowed, and where the chef feels great about that plate of food while still turning tables and maximizing sales? Okay, here’s a start:
TEN STEPS TO SIGNING YOUR WORK:
 SHARE YOUR VISION, INSTILL A SENSE OF PRIDE
Let everyone know exactly what you expect, get excited, show them how it should be done, and celebrate every act of excellence.
 BE THE EXAMPLE FOR OTHERS TO FOLLOW
Make sure you are always on top of your game, never falter from doing every task to the highest caliber. You set the tone for others to emulate.
 TEACH AND TRAIN
Invest in them, engage them, show them, work through problems with them, and measure their performance against your standards. Help them to become the best they can be.
 PUT YOUR STAMP OF APPROVAL ON EVERY PLATE
Be present, watch what goes out, inspect plates, taste everything, let every know that you intend to sign each plate, and, in your absence, you expect that they will do the same.
 CELEBRATE EXCELLENCE IN EVERYTHING
Right down to their station set-up, organization of pans, cleanliness of cookware, uniforms, the way they cut vegetables and fillet a whole fish – excellence is a habit – make it so!
 SHOW NO TOLERANCE FOR MEDIOCRITY IN ANYTHING
Once excellence sinks in then mediocrity will have no home in your kitchen. Until then, make it very clear that you expect the best from them and will not tolerate a “good enough” approach.
 LET YOUR COOKS BECOME GUESTS
Give your cooks a chance, now and then, to dine out front. Let them see what the guest sees, taste what the guest tastes, and feel the level of excellence that you are trying to promote.
 BUILD IN QUALITY SYSTEMS
Don’t assume that quality will happen build it in beginning with selection of vendors, inspection of ingredients when they arrive, proper storage in coolers and dry storage, the right tools to do the job, chip free plates, spotless glassware, plate presentations designed to wow, and palate building among your cooks so that they know when it is right. Recipes are not enough; they need to understand great cooking and then they will be able to problem solve.
 MEASURE QUALITY AND SEEK FEEDBACK
Find ways to assess quality: chef tastings, peer tastings, pre-meal critique, post-meal assessment, guest comment cards, etc.
 SWEAT THE SMALL STUFF
Everything is important – groom your staff to develop “restaurant eyes”. Require cooks to dress professionally on the way to work, have them enter through the front door so that they can look for any slip in excellence, train them to line up items in the storeroom and coolers with excellence in mind, labels pointing out, FIFO inventory management, proper covering, and HACCP labeling, be insistent that floors be cleaned frequently, show servers how to help the dishwasher with proper scraping and stacking, etc. The list is long – it’s all important.
Act as though everyone, including yourself, is required to sign their work. Teach your staff to be their own worst critic so that job doesn’t fall on your shoulders alone and then allow yourself to become the cheerleader for excellence.
Celebrate those nights when you break records for guests served or revenue projections that were broken, but never allow compromise of quality to be a reason why those goals were met. Excellence begins with the person who holds the position of chef, but it comes to fruition when everyone is committed to it.
PLAN BETTER – TRAIN HARDER
Harvest America Ventures, LLC
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