This appears to be one of those times of reflection – a time when those hard working people in kitchens around the country are asking a simple question: “Why am I doing this?” The pandemic is not the cause of this period of questioning – it simply brought it to the forefront. Everyone that I know in this business has asked that question a few times in their life, and rightfully so. To not question is to ignore the possibility that maybe, just maybe there is something that you are better suited to do. That’s OK – we should all strive to find our niche – a place where we are happy and where we can make a difference. Of course we need to earn a living and support ourselves, and possibly a family, but beyond that we all have an innate desire to find our place.
I for one have been and will continue to be very happy with my career choice and the opportunities that continue to arise as a result of my decision to focus on food. I feel fortunate to call many of my friends – equal advocates for a great decision in this regard. There have been moments when that decision wasn’t clear, and there have been moments when I considered looking in a different direction, but those moments were fleeting and I jumped right back in. I have always found that being methodical about career decisions served me well, so why not share my approach with others? So, here is a good exercise that will allow you to assess where you are and where you might turn.
Do you spend more days looking forward to kitchen work or do you constantly dread another day?
Do you look forward to the chance to work with other talented people who have the ability to create on the plate?
Do you find working with people of different nationalities, races, cultures, and beliefs to be inspirational?
Do you feel privileged to work with the ingredients that come from farmers, fishermen, ranchers, and artisans?
Do you find satisfaction in creating something tangible each day that reflects on the skills that you have acquired over time?
Do you enjoy cooking for the benefit of others?
Do you find physical work to be gratifying?
Are you a person who relishes organization and planning?
Are you proud to wear a uniform that represents a history of cooks and chefs who came before you?
Do you relish an environment where there is a need for structured discipline?
Do you consider yourself to be artistic and a person looking for a medium to express yourself?
Do you enjoy accomplishing goals as part of a team?
If you answer yes to all or most of these questions then it is very likely that working with food is something that will always satisfy you. If you feel forced to step away because of the negatives that certainly do exist: long hours, unpredictable schedules, far too modest pay scales, a lack of benefits, etc., then know that any other choice of career will leave you a bit empty. My advice is to look around and seek out the numerous opportunities to work with food in different operations or in related fields that can satisfy your innate, intangible needs as well as those tangible ones that help with the physical requirements of life. Don’t give up on what you are destined to do.
We can, and maybe should unite in finding ways to help the restaurant industry finds its groove and finally address what drives good people away. It is a challenge that we all must share. We can all help to find ways for operations to become more efficient and profitable so that some of the challenges listed can be addressed. Let’s think about making 2021 and beyond a time when we collectively own the problems and commit to finding solutions. Let’s not give up on what we are meant to do with a career. Hang in there!
My first real job at the age of 15 (unless you count being a paperboy) was washing dishes and helping out the breakfast cook at a local diner. By the time I graduated from high school I had worked at a few restaurants and found myself holding down a line position dropping fries and fish fillets into 375-degree oil. At this point working in a kitchen was all that I knew. I somewhat reluctantly applied to colleges to appease my parents, but really had no idea what I wanted to do with my life. I finally settled on attending school for hotel management – why not – right? Little did I know, at that point, that working in kitchens was what I would do for the rest of my career.
Had I built a long-term plan at that point – what would I have done differently? For years now I have preached how important it is to establish your goals and then create a roadmap to get to your eventual destination. I had no such plan at the age of 16, so like many who will read this article I was stepping out day after day without any direction. Even while in college there was no real desire to figure it all out – I just took life as it came my way. Looking back I wish that someone had given me the advice that I so freely now give to others. So, what if that “someone” had been around to point me in the right direction –what would he or she have advised me to do? Here are my thoughts (in hindsight):
 STUDY THE POSSIBILITIES
What lay beyond the dishpit and breakfast griddle? At the age of 16 I had no idea what the possibilities might be. Searching for a career and a life at this age was not front and center in my thinking– yet had I known then maybe, just maybe I could have developed a plan. What is a chef, what restaurant experiences are there beyond grilled hard rolls and eggs over easy, and what does a really great meal look and taste like?
 FIND YOUR BENCHMARKS
Cooking for a living would certainly be different than becoming a doctor, lawyer, or rock and roll star, but I had no idea about any of these ways to make a living – nor did any other 16 year old. My idea of a great meal was fried chicken at KFC. Cooking methods were not even on my radar and thinking about plating a beautiful dish was foolish because I didn’t know that this was a “thing”. There were no life-changing meals, no a’ ha moments, and no reason to think that food was anything more than fuel. Maybe if I had the opportunity to “experience” something more then I would have charged my batteries earlier and built a portfolio of moments filled with: “I want to learn how to cook like that!”
 IDENTIFY A MENTOR(S)
Sure, Millie the short order breakfast cook took me under her wing and because of that I had a chance to flip pancakes, grill hard rolls, make a few omelets and try my hand at eggs over easy, but I never felt the need to ask her more, nor did she offer. If I had worked with someone who pushed me harder at that age, a person who would challenge me, critique my work, and set my standards at that age – who knows where my career would have gone.
 PICK YOUR EMPLOYERS WISELY
At that early age everyone is impressionable. We establish our standards and set our sights on a level of excellence based on the environments and the people we work with. Instead of looking for a job it would have been wise to look for the right job, a place where I could learn, a place that I would respect and a place that would help to form the cook and chef that I would become.
 PICK YOUR FRIENDS WISELY
Fact: 16-24 – now that is a dangerous age. Boys, in particular are not terribly discriminating about the company they keep as long as “fun” is part of the formula. These early relationships build your character and help to determine the type of person you will become. It is also the time when your early brand starts to develop. Thank goodness the internet was not yet a thing back then – so there is little record of the bad decisions that I made and that all of my friends made as well. A mentor would have helped me to be a bit pickier at times. At that age you are whom you hang out with.
 KNOW WHAT COUNTS
A career is built on a few core attributes that are developed in a person early on. Individuals who work on these are destined to be successful at whatever they pursue. I learned the importance of these a bit later on in my life and they have served me well, but I can only imagine how much more could have been if I had been guided in this direction. These attributes are dependability, being prepared, remaining organized, completing tasks, and a commitment to excellence no matter how small or large the task.
 YOU WILL NEVER KNOW ENOUGH
As much as you think you know – you will never know enough. Realizing early on that a total commitment to learning your craft is essential to success can be humbling and energizing at the same time. Successful people are always seeking to find the answers to how, why, and when. Your education is always in need of a boost – it will never end. This is what keeps people reaching higher.
 LOOK AND ACT PROFESSIONAL
Try telling this to a 16 year old. Look sharp, act like you care, treat others appropriately, use language properly, write in complete sentences, check your spelling and sentence structure, and respect the chain of command. Yes – these things are important and they work together to build perceptions of who you are and what you might become.
Talk less, listen more – these are great rules of thumb. This is how we learn, this is how people learn to trust you, and this is how you set the stage to eventually lead others.
 PRACTICE, PRACTICE, PRACTICE
As hard as it may be to swallow – you will never become exceptional at anything unless you repeat an act or process many, many, many times. Do you want to become an exceptional free-throw shooter in basketball? If the answer is yes – then practice 100 free throws everyday – FOREVER! Do you want to become noteworthy with your culinary knife skills? If the answer is yes – then practice those skills and measure them against a standard many, many, many times – FOREVER! Do you want to become a well-rounded chef? If the answer is yes –then make sure that you work every possible position in the kitchen many, many, many times –and never allow yourself to stray away from those skills – FOREVER!
 BE YOUR OWN WORST CRITIC
There will be many people who will critique your work: employers, peers, employees, and customers. In the end, the most important critique should come from you. Am I living up to my own set of standards? Could I improve on this process? Is there room for improvement? These are the questions you need to ask every day.
 TAKE IT SERIOUSLY
Take the work that you do seriously. Cooking is a very important profession that services the physical, emotional, and even spiritual needs of the people for whom you cook. Don’t ever lose sight of how high everyone’s expectations are of your commitment to doing things correctly, of always striving for excellence. While you should never take yourself too seriously – your work and its impact is another story.
 IDENTIFY YOUR STAKES IN THE GROUND
During your early years in the kitchen be observant and collect those ideas, processes, and beliefs that establish who you are as a person and a food professional. These will become your stakes in the ground – the things that you are never willing to sacrifice, never willing to put aside. At some point in your career this is how people inside and outside your circle will identify you. Know how you want to be identified and stick to your guns.
 RESPECT, RESPECT, RESPECT
You have heard it many times before – treat others, as you would want them to treat you. We are part of a fantastic industry that is filled with diversity – this is one of the most important aspects of working in the business of food. Honor this opportunity by respecting others for who they are and what they believe. You may not agree with them, but you can respect them for their own beliefs just like you would expect them to respect you.
Respect the ingredients that you work with and know how hard a farmer, fisherman, rancher, cheesemaker, bread baker, or salt miner works to bring those ingredients to your table. If possible – walk a day in their shoes to feel the passion that exists in their work.
Respect the equipment that you work with and treat it as if it were your own. Respect the business that pays your wages and how fragile their profit margins are. Do this by controlling waste, being frugal with energy and water, and staying efficient with the tasks that you perform.
 PRACTICE SAYING YES
Another tough one for a 16-year old, but if you want to chart a course for a career in food know that you are entering the service business. This means that you should always begin your thinking with the word yes. “I need you to step aside from your line position for a few hours and wash dishes. We are getting backed up in that area.” Your response: “Yes chef”. “The guest at table 23 says that this steak is over cooked – we need to fire a new one.” Your response: “Yes chef”.
 DON’T LET MEDIOCRITY SLIP IN
As much as excellence should be your goal in everything that you do, it is just as important to never succumb to the temptation of mediocrity brought about by time, lack of assistance, or changes in environment. Stay strong.
 MAKE MISTAKES AND LEARN FROM THEM
Don’t dismay – you will make mistakes, you should make mistakes, everyone makes mistakes. It’s OK, just learn from them and don’t make the same mistakes again. This is where real learning takes place.
 ALWAYS WORK ON YOUR BRAND
Finally, young grasshopper, remember that everything you do contributes to your positive or negative brand. How you look, how you act, who you associate with, how you talk, what you say, how you set-up your station, how sharp your knives are, how well you follow established cooking methods, the beauty of your finished plates, how dependable you are, and your commitment to constant improvement are the components of your brand. Your brand is what opens doors to your success. Be the brand you want to become.
Sometimes I get a bit lofty in my reflections of kitchen life and the cooks who spend time behind the range. This is probably one of those times – yet oftentimes I can’t help myself. Take the analogies for what they are worth to you.
Being a professional cook or chef is such a contradiction of the human condition. When you walk through a typical kitchen you will see individuals intent on their work, dressed in clean, crisp white uniforms that attempt to hide the tattoos, burns, stitches, crustiness, sometimes vulgar personality who can in one moment lift an 80- pound stock pot from the stove or carry a 100-pound sack of flour the length of the kitchen and in the next moment – carefully and strategically place a delicate cluster of herbs atop a carefully caramelized slice of foie gras mounted on a perfectly cooked filet of beef, complemented by a white china plate painted with a meticulously reduced demi glace. Who is this person?
I was listening the other day to the lyrics of Ann Wilson from the group Heart when she referred to the contradiction and quest of the dog and butterfly. She described the song in this manner:
“When you’re an earthbound creature you’re always jumping and reaching for things we can never really catch, but you try anyway. And that’s the point of the song, you’re always trying to grab at something higher.”
Could it be that the hard work of the dog is all an effort to try and become the butterfly. Is it possible that the hard work of the cook is all in quest of reaching for the perfection of the plates’ art? The dog will be exhausted at the end of the day as it reaches for the butterfly just as the cook will end the day with cuts, burns, sweat, sore muscles and physical exhaustion all in search of that plate perfection.
There are so many contradictions of this type in the kitchen when cooks are viewed from that 10,000 – foot vantage point. Anger and finesse are evident in the intensity that takes place as a cook attacks a relentless list of preparations for service. There is the pressure of time, the need to meet standards, the variables that inevitably come from working with nature’s ingredients that are consistently inconsistent, and the need to depend on others for your own success. At the same time there is that finesse that must come into play when finish cooking demands a level of organization and calm that must be separated from the anger derived from all of those pressures. If a cook is unable to separate the two then the result will be chaos and a finished product that does not reflect what is intended. Angry food will taste angry, yet finesse without the intensity of physical and mental preparation fueled by a touch of anger will often times fall flat.
Anxiety is part of the cook’s chemistry. Stress is a fragile beast that at some level is an important driver sparked by adrenaline, but too much will cause the body to decay and plans to fall apart. When a kitchen is void of anxiety it will appear to be unprepared for the intensity of service and the peace that comes from a well-executed meal service and beautiful plates of food. The contradiction of anxiety and peace seems to be present in every kitchen that reaches for the butterfly.
Despair is present in the eyes of cooks who are within striking distance of those allusive first orders clicking off the POS printer. It is that feeling of impending doom, that mental checklist that reviews all the details of preparation leading to this point, that flood a cooks consciousness. “Did I peel enough shrimp, cut enough steaks, blanch enough vegetables, chop enough parsley or clarify the right amount of butter? Will I run out of anything at the peak rush and if so how will I find the time to prep more when tickets are lining up on the board?” Every cook, at some point, has felt this despair – the sense of everything falling apart. Yet, hope springs eternal, because that mental checklist will, more often than not, lead to a level of confidence: “I’ve got this!” The contradiction of despair and hope is an everyday reality in professional kitchens and although cooks may feel this, they rarely express it – it is internalized.
The visible toughness of a professional cook, the effort that it takes to never show weakness and to tough things out is the sign of the hammer – when things get really difficult cooks just swing the hammer harder and faster. Work through the heat, the back pain, the burns, and the sweat because we are tough – we are the hammer. Sometimes those who do not live the life of the cook become the nail and thus view the cook as irrational, insolent, or simply angry. But then, there are the moments when those same cooks take an extra second to paint on the plate, to express themselves with beautiful and delicious presentations of food that reflect their artistic and caring side. Any respectable cook ultimately cares deeply that the guest who purchased that meal is satisfied and even impressed. It is the contradiction of the hammer and the artistic brush that confuses others and inspires career cooks and chefs.
Work hard, push yourself, attack that prep list, use a hammer if necessary to be ready when the printer starts to talk and then take a deep breath, make sure you are organized, and play your instrument in such a manner as to portray calm, confidence, and true art. The dog will leave the day tired and somewhat dissatisfied in his or her inability to fly, but tomorrow that same dog will try just as hard once again. It is the pursuit of the butterfly that makes the dog complete. The cook will work until he or she is exhausted from the physical, mental, and emotional demands of the job and the ongoing pursuit of excellence. But knowing that excellence is hard to achieve the cook will arrive the next day to try once again for perfection on the plate. He or she will work just as hard again – leaving everything they have on the playing field. It is the nature of the person who chooses to be both that tattooed crusty individual underneath with the finesse of the butterfly in crisp, clean white uniform that signs every plate leaving the kitchen.
The first question is always: “Do you want to be great?”, followed by: “Are you willing to put forth the effort to be great?”
Let’s assume that the desire to be great is innate – a desire that we are born with – a desire that can either be nourished or squashed. This desire is a spark of enthusiasm to accomplish goals, exceed expectations, know no barriers to entry, and reach for the stars. We possess this desire universally but experience has shown us that it can be pushed aside by parents, friends, supervisors, peers, and even by our own lack of confidence in potential outcomes.
“There is no greatness without a passion to be great – whether it’s the aspiration of an athlete or an artist, a scientist, a parent, business owner (or chef).”
I have spoken oftentimes about the disease of mediocrity and the joy of an attitude of excellence. It is this attitude that sets a course toward greatness. Greatness can be achieved in the simplest of tasks or the overwhelming impact of a project, process, discovery, or “win” that might elude those who choose not to reach for the stars and adopt excellence as their standard.
As cooks and chefs we spend our days in a business that allows ample room for greatness or mediocrity and in some cases both are rewarded with financial success, but only one will make you whole. Greatness is realized both in the moment and through strategic planning, but greatness is still greatness no matter how small or how lofty the task. You must have an unrelenting passion to be great and a total unwillingness to put it aside and accept mediocrity.
So what is the path to greatness for a chef? What can we all do today, right now, to move in this direction? Where do we begin?
Greatness has its roots in knowledge. Chefs should not only know process and methods, but also the why, where, and who behind everything that is done in the kitchen. Understanding the culture behind a cuisine, the people and the ingredients they worked with, why those ingredients were used, and how they work together to create a dish is essential if a chef is to truly represent a cuisine or a dish. This knowledge must be constantly fed – so great chefs are reading and researching, inquiring and visiting, and absorbing all that they can so that everything can be shared with the team.
Greatness stems from a chef’s vision and goals – what sets a path for the restaurant today and into the future? Copycat operations can certainly thrive, but greatness comes from uniqueness and excellence in executing that uniqueness.
Greatness tends to surround those who dedicate themselves and much of their lives to the pursuit of excellence. Think of the analogy of breakfast: “The chicken is involved – the pig is committed.”
Great chefs and great operations know that there will be times when they need to change or at least bend. The willingness to change is as important as the ability to do so.
Certainly the foundations of cooking will always rise to the top of any cook’s skill set, but to assume that cooking will always remain as it has been is foolish. Equipment and technology change and our understanding of the process of cooking will forever evolve. Great chefs are constantly working on adding to and enhancing their skills.
 VARIED EXPERIENCE:
Chefs who are at the top of their game are individuals who have committed themselves to building a portfolio of unique experiences in all aspects of cooking from a’ la carte fine dining to street food, from large scale catered events to formal seven course dinners for groups of 20, and from a’ la carte breakfast to classic formal buffets – everything adds up to a basis for greatness.
 THE ABILITY TO LISTEN:
If a chef believes that he or she is the only person in the room with a useful thought, then learning will never take place, teams will never truly form, and excellence will rarely be achieved. Listen to others.
 DECISION MAKING:
When a cook reaches the level of chef it is expected that this person will be confident and competent enough to make the tough decisions and delegate those that others are able to make.
 PROBLEM SOLVING:
The experiences that a chef brings to the table create a repository of solutions and the preventative medicine that will help an operation avoid many problems in the first place. The chef in an operation is the ultimate problem-solver.
Great ideas, helpful experiences, and important decisions will fail to meet objectives unless the chef is able to effectively communicate verbally and in writing. This communication must represent a professional approach and be structured under the heading of: “The Proper Use of the English Language”. Communication is core to greatness.
 A NETWORK OF INFLUENCE:
Greatness is rarely an individual effort. The best chefs have built a network of associates over years of working in kitchens. This network is there to help, advise, critique, support, and sometimes stop a chef from making a decision. It takes a village to raise a great chef.
 TEAM BUILDING:
First and foremost – great chefs are incredible team builders. Chefs must know how to identify, hire, train, mentor, coach, evaluate, and sometimes cut a team member loose if his or her presence has a negative impact on the team. Teams need leaders and leaders need followers – the chef must build a cohesive group with common vision, a comfort level in speaking their mind, but a desire to contribute to the team effort.
Gone are the days when a chef can hide behind the swinging doors. Greatness is also measured in a chef’s ability to interact with the community of guests, leaders, and influencers.
Above all else – greatness is measured in a chef’s ability to look, act, interact, and consistently model professional behavior. Treating everyone with respect is the price of admission. Acting the part of a leader is expected. Being a role model is the basis for followership attitudes from others. This is what great chefs do.
There has never been a more important time for culinary schools than right now. Sure, I know how much the restaurant/foodservice industry is suffering and how many operations are shutting their doors as a result of avoiding decades of challenges brought to a head by the pandemic, but believe me when I say that this will change. Everything will change for the better if we (the food industry and the culinary schools that provide the talent) change as a collective group.
Just as the restaurant industry evolves, so too must the industry of education. When this change does not occur then the strong shall survive and the weak shall perish. There are ample examples of culinary school failure over the past ten years with the lion’s share since 2016. If you understand that one way to avoid failure is to know why others wave the white flag, then a course might be set to do just the opposite: succeed.
So here are my 20 observations pertaining to why culinary schools fail:
ENROLLMENT DEPENDENCE/ENROLLMENT DECLINE
All culinary schools are businesses as well as altruistic institutions for the betterment of mankind. This means that the top line drives the bottom line (more students equals the ability to continue providing their products and services). When enrollment declines then colleges must make decisions to trim services, increase class sizes, eliminate content, reduce investment in supplies, or shut their doors. Programs need to either find ways to stabilize enrollment or come up with some other source of funding to support their efforts. When schools seek to solve the challenge by lowering standards to attract a broader base of incoming students then the entire system begins to crumble.
LACK OF COHESIVE MISSION
What is the program’s purpose? What are they trying to accomplish and what are the standards that they insist living by? How will they measure their success as aligned with these standards or objectives? If this is not clear then the organization is left without direction – a surefire way to fail.
LACK OF COMMUNICATION WITH THE BUSINESSES THEY SERVE
Do you really connect with restaurants, hotels, resorts, food manufacturers, retail, food research and development and other groups to make sure that your program is in line with their needs? If not, how will you be able to create a clear career path for your graduates? The businesses that will hire your students need to be vested in your effort – this is how success is defined.
STUBORN ADHERENCE TO THE WAY IT HAS ALWAYS BEEN DONE
When program administrators and faculty believe that they have all of the answers, when they design a culinary program to match the way that they learned or the way that everyone else delivers a culinary education – then those stakeholders are missing out on the natural evolution of the craft and the people who are inclined to seek a place in the system. What the industry needs today is different than a few years ago and the young people entering the trade are different in the way they learn and what their priorities might be.
POORLY DEFINED BRAND
Who are you? How do potential students, businesses, the community, current students, faculty members, and program alumni perceive your program? Perceptions become reality and how you support these perceptions defines your brand. Make sure that it is clear and positive.
LACK OF REALISM
Is what you are teaching real? If you teach in a live restaurant environment on your campus is it operated with five times as many cooks in training as would be possible in a real restaurant? If so, what are students learning about cost effectiveness, efficiency, speed, and effective menu execution? How will they be able to function when faced with that first job? If your teaching kitchens are filled with every cool piece of kitchen equipment on the market how will graduates function in a real kitchen when there are not limitless supplies of combi-ovens, sheet pans, Robot Coupes, Vitamix blenders, and sous vide circulators? Until students realize that the one kitchen Robot Coupe must be shared by the entire crew – they will never learn how to communicate and work as a team.
LACK OF AWARENESS ON THE PART OF FACULTY
A chef instructor’s learning curve does not end when they accept the job. Yes, even faculty members need to continue to engage in the learning process. Volunteer for a stage at a great local restaurant, take an occasional sabbatical to re-enter the industry, attend conferences and workshops, take a class on a new method of preparation, and belong to professional organizations. You can’t teach what you don’t know.
NOT ABLE TO TEACH A SENSE OF URGENCY
One thing that I hear constantly from chefs who are asked about their opinions of culinary school graduates is that young cooks do not understand “sense of urgency”. They must be able to multi-task and complete work at the highest level of quality with speed and dexterity. When there are 100 reservations on the books – you don’t have the luxury of spending three hours to turn six-dozen potatoes. No matter what – you need to be ready!
LACK OF REPETITION
How do you get better at any task in the kitchen: knife skills, making stocks, filleting fish, trimming beef tenders, shocking oysters, or peeling shrimp? The answer is simple: you invest the time in doing the task over, and over, and over again. When a program spends two days on teaching classic sauces – the student will never become competent at making any of them. When a stock is something that you do in week number four of Foundations of Cooking, then you will never be confident and competent at making stocks. Exposure is nice – repetition is how we really learn.
UNWILLING TO REALLY STRESS THE FOUNDATIONS
The foundations are only relevant if they become habits. A recipe that takes two pages of dialogue to explain how to braise a veal shank does not make a cook a master of braising. When we stress methods and practice them constantly then they become habits and all that a recipe need do is direct the cook to “braise”. Everything else is imbedded in a cook’s subconscious.
INABILITY TO TEACH STUDENTS TO THINK
What drive chefs crazy are the foolish questions that abound when cooks are not taught to think things through. Give a young cook a list of six tasks to perform in a shift and watch to see how many will prioritize those tasks by the amount of effort required and the time involved in their completion. Ask a student to follow a recipe and watch to see how well they think through the organization of their workstation to accomplish the task. Think before you act – this is what builds confidence and ability.
INABILITY TO TEACH STUDENTS TO PROBLEM SOLVE
What happens when an emulsion breaks? How can it be fixed? What can be done if a particular ingredient fails to arrive in time – can it be replaced with something else? How will you act if one of your fellow cooks fails to show up to work – do you just ignore his scheduled work or do you accommodate that into your production? Your sauté pans are sticking – do you wait for someone to walk you through the process of polishing those pans, do you ask the chef to solve the problem for you, or do you take the initiative to make it work?
LACK OF DISCIPLINE
What are the most primal expectations that a chef has of any cook? Most would say: show up, be prepared, listen, work well with others, work fast and efficiently, and work to the standards of excellence that are established for the business. These are disciplines that rank very high on an employers list, yet do we adequately emphasize them in our programs?
INABILITY TO TEACH TEAMWORK
Our students will more often than not – seek to earn the best grades for their individual work. When we set the stage for students to strive for that grade we oftentimes lose sight of the fact that individual effort on the job will always pale in comparison to the team effort. It is much more difficult to learn to depend on others and support them than it is to put forth the best individual effort. Cooking is a team sport!
LACK OF COST CONSCIOUSNESS
Restaurants are businesses that operate on profit measured in pennies. Every product that a student handles in class should carry a price tag. What are the raw costs of the materials, what is the production costs associated with seasoning, oils, flour for dredging, etc. What would it cost, from a labor perspective, to produce that dish and what selling price would need to be attached to maintain a reasonable profit? Aside from taste and appearance – this is what we should be teaching.
A POORLY DEFINED OVERALL EXPERIENCE
Are you building in experiences that complement the learning curve? When you talk about the beautiful raw materials that a cook is able to use in restaurants – the meaning of that becomes much more vivid if it is accompanied by a visit to a farm, dockside fishing vessel, cattle ranch, or cheese making facility. This is an essential part of learning in schools that have “success” as part of their vocabulary.
NOT COMMITTED TO THE LONG HAUL
Schools that put a timeline on an education are missing the chance to embellish their brand and help support a graduate through the stages of his or her career. Developing and presenting ways of enhancing their degree through continuing education, on-line resources, short training videos, and other communication pieces such as blogs and a resource center that students might contact once they graduate is a great way to become a partner in student success.
LACK OF PARTNERSHIPS WITH INDUSTRY
Developing internships and externships that are measureable, training chefs how to continue a student’s education while on a work program, inviting chefs and restaurateurs to visit the campus, speak with students, work alongside them in classes, or present a demo will build partner relationships that are bonding.
INABILITY TO EXPLAIN VALUE
When a guest leaves a restaurant and is most concerned with how much the meal cost – then the restaurant has failed to demonstrate value. When a student graduates from a culinary program and spends years complaining about the cost of his or her education – then the school has failed to demonstrate value. Know what it is that you uniquely offer to justify the investment of money and time.
NOT PREPARED TO BE A COMPLETE RESOURCE FOR INDUSTRY
Finally, schools will have a difficult time succeeding if they do not find ways to support the needs of the businesses that hire graduates. This might mean simply serving as an information resource, offering refresher courses for their employees, or even providing consulting services that will help food businesses survive the ups and downs of serving the public.
Those schools that “get it” will find that the years ahead will be very bright and students, employers, and alumni will want to connect with them and become a part of their success.
We have all heard the phrase: “If you can’t stand the heat – get out of the kitchen”. To many it defines what it is like to work in a restaurant kitchen – toiling over cherry red hot flat tops and char broiler flames that rise up to surround steaks and chops seeking those perfect grill marks, a deep fryer spitting hot oil back at the fry cook, and pans so hot that they would polish the palms of a cook if touched without a proper dry towel. Those who have held a station position on the line know what it’s like to feel sweat run down your back, chef hats soaked at the end of the night, feet swollen from the heat, and dinner plates almost too hot to handle. The temperature in front of the sauté station is likely in excess of 150 degrees and the broiler even higher. Ovens are cranked up all the way during service so that opening and closing of doors does not drop the temperature too much, and if you have a wood fired oven for pizza it is likely tipping the scales at over 700 degrees. It’s hot!
But….there is another part of the kitchen where this is not so. A part of the kitchen that is home to cooks and chefs who are just as hard working and just as talented as those on the line. This is a place where the pressure of the clock still exists, where orders off the POS seem to stream just as relentlessly, and where impatient servers tap their shoes and stare just as mercilessly as they do on the hot line. This is the home of Garde Manger, or pantry, or simply – the cold kitchen. This is where cold appetizers, salads, terrines, pates, cheese plates, and likely desserts are presented with a high level of artistic expression and where, in many cases, the profit in restaurants reside.
Don’t dismiss this area of the kitchen. While the hot line may be home to the adrenaline rush and the machismo associated with a bit of suffering to accompany the excitement – the cold kitchen is a place of a methodical approach towards design and structure. The person who is dedicated to the cooking methods used and the complexity of design will find that the cold kitchen is a place where cooks learn about ratios and formulas, the exactness of flavor building that is sometimes replaced by an educated palate on the hot line, and where the layout on the plate can be comprised of an inventory of flavors that are both separate and unified akin to planning out what clothes you might wear signifying the uniqueness of each piece and the symmetry of the whole package.
When an appetizer is planned appropriately it is a vivid introduction to a meal, a piece that starts the process of leading up to the entrée and foretells what the guest can expect. The flavors should be full and tempting causing the person to both salivate and anticipate what will follow. The garde manger must be conservative with portion sizes while affording the greatest impact on the dining experience. Additionally, the cold appetizer that arrives from the garde manger must be so striking as to cause the guest to stop and admire the dish from different angles before experiencing the flavor, aroma, and texture. Finally, the cold appetizer should be such that the guest is hoping for more, but knowing that the stage has been set for subsequent courses to complete the package.
If it is a pate, terrine, or galantine; rillettes, plate of canapés, or even the before the meal amuse bouche – the Garde Manger must understand composition, the role of and ratio for fat to meat, the impact that temperature has on the flavor profile of the item, the best way to use space on the plate, the right complements or sauces that will enhance the flavor of the item while not attacking the palate leaving it unreceptive to the next course. It is a fine line to walk – one that requires the planning of the menu to be such that all courses are designed to marry with others. Chef Grant Achatz of Alinea Restaurant in Chicago refers to it as “Flavor Bouncing” where everything on a plate marries with every other ingredient and every dish on a menu does the same with other dishes.
When the Garde Manger approaches salads- he or she does so with the same enthusiasm that a Sauté Cook or Grillade does with a dish from their station. There can be no “utilitarian” salad in a true garde manger department. The salad, even one described as a “side”, should be able to stand alone in terms of its flavor blending, and visual presentation. Salads from this department are designed to accent the components of construction to include a base, body, garnish, and dressing. Nothing on the salad plate is superfluous – everything has a purpose. The ingredients must reflect the height of freshness, the colors and flavors of the season, the application of height and breadth on the plate, the textures that excite the palate, and a dressing that is noticeable, yet reluctant to hide the natural flavors of the primary ingredients. In a true garde manger department the salad dressing is applied by the cook, not by the server, and the dressing used is specific to the integrity of the dish.
Oftentimes the cold kitchen is also the place where the work of a pastry chef or baker is assembled for the guest. The ingredients of gelato, sorbet, cakes, tortes, pate au choux, Bavarian, mousse, coulis and hippenmasse, and tuilles and savarin may have been prepared earlier that day, but the Garde Manger at night is assigned the responsibility of pulling everything together in an orchestra of color, height, structure, texture balance, and exciting flavor. This is, after all, the end of the meal and a memory that guests will carry with them.
On buffets it is the Garde Manger who stands tall and steals the show. Those platters of charcuterie, relishes and chutneys, exotic cheeses presented as if someone measured the precise distance between pieces and placed them as a river might flow within the boundaries of its banks. Standing tall on risers, or tilted toward the guest as if waiting for a camera to capture the art, these platters signify the commitment to quality that exists in the kitchen and how proud every cook is of the work done.
The first course and the last course are in the hands of the cold kitchen and as such become the basis for memories of the dining experience. It is this combination that affords the restaurant an opportunity to earn a profit. Those items that guests need not purchase, yet if presented properly are highly desired, are the ones that signify whether a restaurant will be able to remain viable or not. This is the role of the garde manger and the value of the cold kitchen. Don’t underestimate the importance of the person who calls this area of your kitchen – home.
It was 1969 when the acclaimed “super group” – Blind Faith with Steve Winwood, Eric Clapton, and Ginger Baker caused a stir with their self-titled album. Although the group was short lived, they did leave us with an applicable lyric:
DO WHAT YOU LIKE:
“Do right, use your head, everybody must be fed Get together, break your bread, yes, together, that’s what I said Do what you like”
Well, to a significant degree chefs have been working on blind faith for decades. The hope was that by doing more, working harder and longer, making more complicated menus, and pushing the envelope of creativity the restaurant industry would rise up to new levels of success. Menus became encyclopedic, the skills to execute these menus were over the top, the equipment that allowed for this level of creativity was space age and expensive, the intensity and stress in the kitchen was as heavy as lead, and the number of staff members required to execute this complexity was painful.
Chefs and those aspiring to become chefs gave up any semblance of balance in their lives to be part of this madness, dozens of vendors were required to meet the ingredient needs of complex menus, dining room table tops were plagued by extraordinarily expensive inventories of Riedl glassware, bone china and sterling silver flatware; and wine cellars became museums for wine selections from around the world that rang up hundreds of thousands of dollars in rare vintages to support the menus that chef’s felt compelled to design.
At the end of service when the lights were finally turned off over the $50K combi ranges, bank of sous vide set-ups, All-Clad pots and pans, Vitamix blenders, Paco-Jets, and anti-griddles – chefs were left exhausted, bruised, angry, desperate to keep the line cooks that they had just belittled for placing fresh herbs with stainless tweezers at 3 o’clock instead of 5 o’clock on the plate, and discovering that although the dining room was full of 4-hour dining patrons, and wine was served at every table – the restaurant was still not profitable.
Down the street – a cadre of small independent restaurants with smaller staff requirements and tasty rustic menus would have been profitable except rents on their space had gone through the roof ever since this high end, 8-course menu, mecca restaurant opened its doors. These small restaurant operators opened and closed their doors at an alarming rate simply because they couldn’t afford the space.
Any reasonable person would look at these situations, scratch his or her head and wonder what in the world was everyone thinking. This was the restaurant world, or at least part of it, prior to the pandemic. This is a restaurant world that is not sustainable. This is the restaurant world that must change – and it will.
Chefs and restaurateurs need the freedom to “do what they like” and find success in terms of restaurant profitability, life balance, happy guests, and fulfilled employees. This is what needs to happen and this is what will happen – chef’s and restaurateurs have permission to change.
In a recent article about Danny Meyer – NYC restaurateur extraordinaire, he talks about his epiphany over the past year – an opportunity he had to truly assess everything about his restaurants and the accepted approach towards operation.
“Never again in our careers will we be able to take the boat out of water and put it in dry dock for a year to inspect every inch of its underbelly and make it seaworthy again,”
“We want to make sure when we put the boat back in the water, it’s a sounder boat and does business in a better way.”
Danny Meyer is giving all of us permission to change the accepted approach towards the restaurant business and the way that we measure success.
Fairness, equality, respectable pay, balanced lives, manageable menus, fair third-party fee structures, and operations that stand a better chance of earning a profit must be key to a formula for success moving forward. This is an opportunity and an absolute requirement moving forward – we must embrace this and more.
Menus that reflect excellent ingredients and seasonality, menus that offer less choice, but the highest standards of quality, presentations that are naturally beautiful but that do not require an army to assemble, flavors that excite and satisfy, service that is real and filled with honest to goodness hospitality, dining rooms that are comfortable, cheerful and fun, and prices that allow for profitability while making sense to a larger swath of guests – this is what we have permission to focus on.
Let’s keep our standards high with fewer, well-paid employees who have the ability to engage in exciting careers and balance a life beyond the kitchen or dining room. We can do this and there has never been a better time to think about how we move in this direction.
It would be difficult to find a more sinister, demoralizing, harmful, or self-destructive word than mediocre. Mediocre sucks the lifeblood out of an individual or an organization – it is the dark side of the moon, the harbinger of discomfort and pain, and the salt in the wound that saps your energy and leaves you hardened and embarrassed. Am I over-dramatizing it – maybe, but then again – maybe not.
When we settle for mediocre we relegate ourselves to a life of not good enough, also ran, and didn’t care enough to make it. Is this where you want to be? Look around you – identify the companies, businesses, or individuals whom you admire – you know, the ones that seem to win a lot and fit into that category of “successful”. Even more important – these are the companies, businesses, or individuals that seem to enjoy what they are all about. These “successful” players are there due to one very important reason: they never accept mediocrity. In fact, just the opposite – they constantly seek excellence and always know that as good as they may be – they can always be better. Mediocrity has no place in their vocabulary.
These are the Ritz Carlton’s of the hotel business, the Tesla’s of electric autos, the Wegman’s of the grocery business, the Apple’s of computer hardware and electronics, the Harvard’s of business schools, and the French Laundry’s of the restaurant industry. We know them by name, we oftentimes buy their products and services, we read about their success, and we aspire to be like them in some small way. Look deeply into these businesses and the people who own and operate them and you will see an unrelenting effort towards achieving excellence in design, product quality, efficiency, value, and service. The culture of these businesses insists on the relentless pursuit of greatness. The Japanese would refer to them as companies focused on “Kaisen” (a pursuit of constant improvement).
Now here is the kicker – excellence has very little to do with the price you charge or the type of product or service you provide. The big misconception is: “You get what you pay for”. This is an excuse that allows a person or a company to accept being mediocre. “It’s only a hot dog” – so excellence is not an option: WRONG. “It’s only a plate of spaghetti” – so excellence is a pipe dream – WRONG. “It’s only beer” – so why even focus on excellence – people will drink what you pour – WRONG. “This isn’t the French Laundry” so why even invest the time in plate presentation and cooking it properly – WRONG.
Take a simple hamburger – the second most popular item on American menus (a close second to pizza). Ground beef, lettuce, tomato, onion, and a bun – simple right? Walk through the steps toward excellence:
What blend of meat and what fat content make the most flavorful and moist burger?
What method of cooking will yield the best opportunity for caramelization and deliciousness?
What piece of equipment will be most successful in reaching your goals of deliciousness?
Which type of lettuce will provide the freshness, the crunch, the mouth-feel, and the flavor balance with that perfect burger?
Which type of tomato will present the most pronounced flavor of fine ripened, deeply refreshing acid/sweet balance on the sandwich and how can we ensure this consistently throughout the year?
Which bun sits best in the hand, has the balance of crust and soft interior, toasts well and holds its shape while absorbing the juice from that perfectly cooked burger?
What type of onion provides the aroma, sweet bite, and intensity that cuts through the fat of the burger to offer the perfect package of flavor and texture?
Should the fries offered on the side be hand cut or frozen? If hand cut – which potatoes offer the right balance of starch and sugar to brown properly and hold their shape? What type of fat and what is the best temperature for producing the perfect fry?
Should pickles be sliced in coins, sliced lengthwise, cut in wedges, or left whole. Should we pickle our own or buy them? Should they be sour dills, half dills, bread and butter pickles, or intensely spicy? What works best in creating excellence?
If you walk through these questions and answer each with excellence in mind it is easy to see how the simple acceptance of mediocrity will never set the stage for success, but an all out assault on mediocre decisions with an over-riding intent to make “the absolute best burger in the history of mankind” can lead a restaurant of any type to be superior and to create loads of “WOW” experiences for guests.
Create a similar checklist for every product on your menu, regardless of the type of operation or the prices on you charge and you will find a path from mediocrity to excellence.
Now, here is the bonus: when mediocrity is replaced with excellence then every person who works in an operation feels the power of earned pride. Excellence will eventually become the norm with everything that they do – on the job and off. At some point their work stations will be better organized, their uniforms will look a bit more pristine, their knives will be sharper, their attitude toward others will be brighter, and their acceptance of mistakes or slips towards mediocrity (from themselves or others) will not be tolerated. As the movement towards excellence becomes the standard – everyone and everything will begin to rise up. At some point excellence will no longer be a destination – it will become a habit and an essential part of a business culture.
When excellence is the standard method of operation for the business then purveyors will work extra hard to make sure you receive the best ingredients, the best potential employees will be knocking on your door for an opportunity to join the team, the regional press will notice and be more inclined to tell your story, and occasional customers will become steady customers and eventually ambassadors to spread the word about a GREAT restaurant (or school, car dealership, shoe store, or insurance agency).
Now this doesn’t happen overnight – it is a process that takes time, but it starts with the small stuff. It is your job to SWEAT THE SMALL STUFF. It is your job to make sure the equipment in the kitchen is in good working order, the store rooms are organized, uniform appearance is monitored, the dining room tables are steady, employees are constantly being trained, the dish pit procedures produce spotless china, glassware, and flatware; the windows are clean, the parking lot swept, the signage is maintained, and the bottles on the back bar are dusted with labels facing forward. All of the details from the mix of beef in your hamburger to the polish on the flatware will lead the operation away from mediocrity and pointed in the direction of excellence. This can work for the hot dog stand that attracts customers from 20 miles away to the fine dining restaurant picking organic fresh vegetables from their roof top garden. The formula is the same – it’s all about your interest and commitment to make it happen.
An exercise that I have found to be really helpful is to occasionally state/re-state what you believe in as a chef. Every now and then this can serve as a “checks and balance” activity to keep you on the right path and assess where and why you might have strayed from those “stakes in the ground” that are important to your core. This is also a great comparative process to use when seeking a new career opportunity – a chance to note if taking a different position aligns with your beliefs or if it causes you to compromise. I would encourage you to think about this and take the time to write down your beliefs as a “manifesto” and then use it as a guide moving forward.
Here is my manifesto as a chef. Full disclosure – I have drifted from these beliefs at times and have generally regretted doing so.
All people are different – they bring their own set of baggage to work and to life. They may not agree with you or you may not agree with them but they deserve to be treated with respect as human beings. You can disagree, even disagree strongly, but they deserve the opportunity to look you in the eye and know that you do not feel superior because of that disagreement.
Respect for the place where you work, those who own and operate the business and the physical property for which you are responsible is paramount. Just as is the case with the first paragraph – even though you may not agree with the actions of the business or those in charge – you should always respect that you work for them. You can disagree, take a stand, make your point, continue to have a unique opinion, but in the end – it is their business. If this violates your manifesto of beliefs and cannot be altered then look for another place to work – do not slip from your commitment to respect.
 COMMITMENT TO EXCELLENCE:
Anything worth doing is worth doing well; in fact it is worth doing at a level that lives up to your potential. Whether the task is washing pots, cutting vegetables, or setting up the most intricate plate presentation – that commitment to excellence should prevail. Writing a memo? Do it with excellence in mind. Preparing a menu? Excellence is the standard that you must follow. If you are taking inventory on a Sunday night – approach it as if it is the most important task imaginable.
Excellence should never be a goal for which you strive – excellence is a habit that is impossible to break.
There will always be decisions that you will need to make as a chef; decisions that impact people (as most decisions will) – decisions that will not sit well with some. Such is life and as hard as those decisions might be – just make sure that those who are impacted are treated fairly and justly.
If you are in a position to reward performance – make sure you are fair in how you decide to reward. If you need to punish for actions taken, make sure that you are equitable in your approach so that it is not perceived that you play favorites. In general, people can accept your decisions, but they cannot accept them if they are done with bias.
Remember, everyone has baggage that they carry with him or her to work. The old adage: “When you come to work – leave your personal problems at home” is simply not feasible. As the chef you are charged with helping your employees give a good days work for a good days pay, but to do that effectively you must understand the environmental factors that impact this work. This does not mean that you should expect anything less that good work, but you should always try to understand what might be getting in the way.
On occasion you may need to make adjustments so that an employee can work through their challenges (schedule adjustment, change assignments, send them home, offer advice, refer them to someone who might help, etc.). Employees that know that you care are always more determined to try their best and less willing to disappoint you or their co-workers.
Trust is something that goes both ways. If you expect your employees and co-workers to trust you and the decisions that you make then it is imperative that you trust them first. If employees are properly trained to perform a task then you need to trust them to do it. Some refer to this as delegation, but behind delegation of duties must lay a willingness to trust. Trust that is given leads to trust that is gained.
The irony of trust is that it is rarely given without experience and it is quickly lost when violated even once. Be consistent with your approach towards people and situations so that others can predict and depend on how you will act.
When you hide things from employees and/or co-workers then trust will quickly erode. Obviously, there are some things that are beyond the purview of others, but make it clear when that is the case. In fact, wherever possible try to share more than people would expect. You will be surprised at how much they appreciate it.
If you have a need to better control costs then begin by sharing figures and challenges with your staff. Let them know about sales, food cost, labor cost, changes in vendor prices, increases in utilities, mortgage or lease arrangements, and how profitable or unprofitable the restaurant is. What will often be surprising is that your staff members will have great ideas on how to save money and increase sales. Bring them into the fold and they will rise to the occasion and feel ownership for the challenges as much as you do.
Sometimes it is far more important to listen than to talk. As the saying goes – the best leaders listen more and talk less. Don’t pre-judge a situation until you have heard all sides. Don’t approach a challenge with a predetermined conclusion or action without inquiring into all of the factors involved.
Give your employees a forum for expressing their opinions, observations, and ideas. This can be regularly scheduled staff meetings, 10 minute post shift wrap-up sessions, or an open door policy where they feel comfortable approaching you one-on-one. Even if you don’t act or even agree – the fact that you were willing to listen is a big step in the right direction.
 STAY TRUE TO THE FOUNDATIONS:
You started out as a cook and did so because you focused on learning the right approach toward cooking. The right way to hold a knife and cut vegetables, the right way to fabricate meats and fish, the right way to organize the kitchen and a work station, the right way to apply basic cooking methods, the right way to prepare a stock or a soup, the right way to purchase and control the quality of ingredients, etc. Don’t ever lose sight of this in favor of short cuts that might interfere with quality or a consistent end result. “If you don’t have the time to do it right the first time, when will you find the time to do it over?”
 QUALITY and VALUE:
These two factors are inseparable. Quality is what built your reputation and quality is what will help to keep it. Quality quickly becomes the expectation of all involved and reputation is built on it. When quality is sacrificed then value is diminished and reputations with suffer.
Always remember that the reputation of the restaurant and the reputation of those who work there (including yourself) are based on everyone’s reliance on quality and value. Once lost, a good reputation is hard to recover.
 THINK FIRST – THEN ACT:
There is a major difference between action and reaction. The factor that gets in the way of good decisions is the emotion that you allow in. Reaction is poisoned by fear, anger, hate, revenge, and misunderstanding. Take a moment, breathe deep, and ask why did something happen that requires action, who was responsible, what is an appropriate action, and how should it be implemented and relayed to others. It is that brief moment of reflection that will make all the difference in how successful you action is.
 PLANNING TO ELIMINATE MISTAKES:
Mistakes, more often than not, are avoidable if you take the time to plan. Murphy’s Law is always applicable: “If something can go wrong, it probably will”. Your role as a chef is to think ahead, to run through scenarios that might occur, to take the time to organize thoughts and build a strategy, and then to implement all of that in an effort to eliminate the need to deal with challenges or minimize the impact of those challenges.
Ironically, there are rarely decisions made that do not impact others. Reaction without planning will uncover numerous other challenges that you failed to think through. Take the time to plan.
 OWN IT:
Everyone makes mistakes – this is inevitable. In fact, many people believe that the best overall decisions come from lessons learned from failure. Failure weighs heavy on those who realize their mistakes, but even heavier on those who fail to take responsibility. Co-workers, employees, and even customers will forgive your mistakes if you admit them and then work like hell to make sure the same mistakes are not made in the future. You screwed up – so what! Own it, ask for help, and learn how to recover.
 IF YOU ARE NOT SERVING THE GUEST DIRECTLY THEN SERVE THOSE WHO ARE:
As a chef your plate is always full. You can’t be everywhere thus you must rely on others to step up and “do their job”. Ultimately, it is the guest who must walk away satisfied, and hopefully impressed. You can’t order, organize, plan, cook the food, plate the dishes, and deliver everything to a waiting guest – so one of your primary tasks must be to properly train and provide the necessary tools for others in your organization to attend to the details and bring about customer satisfaction. “What do you need, what can I do, and where can I be to best support you” goes a long way toward achieving those goals.
 KEEP IT ORGANIZED:
Mise en place goes way beyond your personal work area. As a chef it is imperative that you set the tone by creating an organized kitchen – everything has a place and everything is in its place” is a theme that sets the stage for success.
 LOOK THE PART, ACT THE PART:
Finally, a chef must always stand out as the example for others. A clean pressed uniform, an organized office, a person who carries himself or herself as a consummate professional, a person who acts in a manner that is beyond reproach, a person who is consistent in how situations are handled, and a person who makes sure that everyone is treated fairly and respectfully is a model for others to emulate. Be that person.
Ah…now is the time for everyone to start speculating about what the restaurant business will look like when all of this craziness is over. Let’s start with what we are fairly comfortable saying: whatever “normal” is will likely not make an appearance until the end of 2021 – so…let’s begin our speculation with January of 2022 to be safe. I know what you are thinking – WHAT!!!! Restaurants cannot wait that long, no way, no how – this is the end of the world, as we know it. Sorry – just trying to be realistic. Once we have a target we might at least be able to plan effectively to either re-invent or throw in the towel. At least the real bad news is out of the way.
Now, let’s think about the purpose of restaurants so that current and potential restaurateurs and chefs can choose the direction they want to take.
THE PURPOSE OF RESTAURANTS (Where do you want to fit)
To nourish and provide sustenance
To offer convenience
To provide a forum for conversation
To create opportunities for gatherings
To reward customers
To provide an outlet for chef creativity
To complete a neighborhood or destination
To rock customers world
There may be more reasons, but these are the most common. So choose where you want to sit and lets jump on the speculation train.
 NOURISH AND PROVIDE SUSTENANCE:
Without a doubt – one of the primary purposes of a restaurant and one that supports the defined needs of a guest is to fill their stomachs. There are numerous multi-billion dollar chains along with countless mom and pop operations that do a great job on this front. Of, course the food must be tasty and appealing at some level and above all else – consistent. If this is your purpose then the field is wide open and will remain so as long as the price you charge matches the level of purpose.
 OFFER CONVENIENCE:
Quite often, the restaurant that is focused on nourishment is also great at providing convenience. In a world where everyone seems to live on tight schedules – convenience rules the day. How convenient you might ask: we barely need to slow down our cars and roll down the window when our food arrives – that’s convenience. During the pandemic – those operators who have been able to convert their operations to take out, curb side, or delivery using third party providers like GrubHub and Uber Eats have hit the nail on the head. Safety and convenience are first and foremost in consumer’s minds.
 PROVIDE A FORUM FOR CONVERSATION:
The heart and soul of many communities is a place where conversation flows freely – a place where opinions reign and where judgment of others is set aside in favor of a free flow of ideas. This was (is) the design of classic coffee houses, speakeasys, and corner cafes for generations. Whether a restaurant or tavern fills the role is dependent on many factors, but high on the list is the owner’s intent on creating a mecca for this to take place. If creating this type of environment is high on your list of priorities then there will come a time, an important time, when we are able to return to this type of interaction.
 TO CREATE OPPORTUNITIES FOR GATHERINGS:
Houses focused on catering informal and formal events whether it is that tavern where people gathered after a game to celebrate a win or commiserate a loss, the banquet hall booked for weddings, reunions, birthdays, and holidays; or simply that restaurant where you can always depend on familiar faces to clink glasses with – gathering spots are important. We have felt the pain of their loss over the past year, and will need to do without them a bit longer, but in all likelihood they will return in a very robust way once it makes sense.
 TO REWARD CUSTOMERS:
There are operators who enter the business for altruistic reasons: to bring happiness to people, to reward them when others may forget to do so, or even to allow guests to find their own reason to seek a pat on the back. Great food and drink and honest, sincere service can be the sunshine at the end of a not so terrific day. This is what hospitality is all about.
 TO PROVIDE AN OUTLET FOR CHEF CREATIVITY:
The definition of a chef sometimes includes: “frustrated artist”. Individuals who dedicate their lives to the preparation of food often view the plate as their canvas and what they do as something far more than just nourishment. This may be your priority, but know that those on the consuming end may not appreciate the chef’s art form. Restaurants are businesses as well and the customer is the other end of the restaurant tug of war. Art is wonderful, but in business it must sell to have any real value.
 TO COMPLETE A NEIGHBORHOOD OR DESTINATION:
Look at your own neighborhood and point to any common point of interest that helps to bring people together and turn a few blocks of houses into a community of homes. Chances are pretty good that the point of interest will be a restaurant. Gentrification or urban renewal almost always begins with the opening of a place of dining. Focusing on this makes both altruistic and good business sense.
 ROCK CUSTOMERS’ WORLD:
Ah, then there are restaurants, restaurant owners, chefs and cooks who see the operation as a vehicle for standing out, for making people jump up and applaud, for confusing the competition and helping people focus on food experiences that they never imagined. These are the risk takers, the individuals who push the envelope, and the ones who work like crazy because they have a goal of knocking people’s socks off. If this is your objective then know that it is hard, it involves the fickle nature of consumers, it requires superhuman effort to earn and then more to maintain a reputation for “the extraordinary”. To see this as a goal is to make a lifetime commitment to constant improvement because what rocks a customer today will become ordinary tomorrow. Many have tried, but few have succeeded.
So, what will rise to the top when the Covid Monster has gone into hibernation? Impossible to say, but there are some indications of change they just might have staying power. Here are a few to chew on:
GHOST KITCHENS are making people scratch their heads and wonder if this is the next “big” thing. Rent kitchen space, develop multiple concepts around a core of ingredients, develop a separate branding campaign including “order friendly” websites, contract with a third party delivery service and go to town. Minimal staff, no long-term lease, no property taxes, no dining room, no service protocol, and social media as your only marketing initiative. If one of those brands fails to move well then shut down the website and you are done. Much of the sizzle is set aside, customer interaction is non-existent, and the feeling of community may be lost – but it certainly is interesting and it eliminates many of the challenges that restaurants face.
FOOD TRUCKS are not a passing fad. Eliminating the need for brick and mortar and a set location give restaurateurs a chance to take the product where the customer is and move freely when customers have a need to do the same. Limited, focused menus; high impact flavors; spontaneity, and limited staff needs make this a very attractive model for chefs and owners. Add a rented commissary kitchen space (ghost kitchen) for prep and you can scale a hot concept to multiple trucks working an entire city.
POP UP RESTAURANTS give a chef the opportunity to experiment with concepts, menu items, styles of service and preparation, and even multiple locations. Running a concept for a few weeks can provide enough analytical data to support the need for a brick and mortar operation someday down the road. It makes sense to move in together before marriage.
GROCERY STORE PARTNERSHIPS provide chefs with another potential outlet for their product without the headache of dining rooms, service staff, and the pressure of the clock. Renting shelf or cooler space for your product places the merchandising, collection of cash and credit, and facilities maintenance in the hands of the store. Placing your product in a location where customers visit anyway opens the door for spontaneous sales providing your packaging and point of sale merchandising is top shelf.
BRICK AND MORTAR OPERATIONS will have a much more difficult time rising from the destruction that the pandemic is leaving behind. Lease, mortgage, utilities, staffing, and the need to convince people to visit you is even more of a challenge than in the past. There is little doubt that location restaurants will return, will service the needs of customers, and in some cases will thrive, but they’re a far greater gamble than other options – at least in the short term.
Be cautious, but through planning and the willingness to make solid business decisions you can find a market for your product and service.
Every year, a significant number of new restaurants open and almost as many close their doors for good. It is, that spark of “I have a great idea for a restaurant” that drives many people towards the leap into entrepreneurship – a leap that too many are unprepared for. Nevertheless we have always been blessed with choice when it comes to finding a place to eat. On occasion, a restaurant opens, the owners have the right idea, everyone in the operation rallies around core principles that find a home in consumer minds and hearts, and the place enjoys success for a long period of time. These are the places where memories are built and where customers become friends, and friendships last from generation to generation.
This past year has been excruciatingly brutal on restaurants that simply haven’t been able to weather this relentless storm of pandemic related restrictions and consumer concerns. The typical 30% or more failure rate has crept up to 50% and even the most established generational restaurants have locked their doors for the final time.
It pains me to see any restaurant close. I know how much time, energy, money, and heart goes into that first day when a proud operator and/or chef looks up at the front door sign that proclaims they are open for business. I know how much personal experience is expressed in the menu that is oftentimes comprised of family recipes and a chefs “best effort”. I know how many sleepless nights went into the decision to lease a space, writing a check for the kitchen equipment, filing for an LLC, hiring those first employees, receiving that first order from vendors, and wondering if there will be enough money to pay the bills each week. I know how heartbreaking it is when the dining room is nearly empty, and how invigorating it is when it is full. The decision to close, to tell your loyal employees that it is over, to file for chapter eleven, to clean out the coolers and shut off the lights for the final time is something that cuts deep – this is maybe one of the worst feelings imaginable.
To some it is a sense of failure while to others it represents the end of a chapter and the beginning of a new one. Some walk away never to contemplate ownership again, while others immediately begin to formulate the next “great idea”. In all cases, it is not something that was contemplated on that first day of opening – it is always a last resort.
To this end, I think that it is proper to recognize all who take the leap, who give it their best, who pour their heart and soul into an idea – even if the end means a lock on the door. Here are just a few remarkable restaurants that have closed this past year – many simply because the pandemic was the last straw – something that they just could not overcome – we will miss them:
 BLACKBIRD: A superb Chicago restaurant known for its innovation and passion. Donnie Madia and Chef Paul Kanan did an extraordinary job of bringing a relatively small restaurant into the Chicago limelight. Ultimately it was this small size that made it impossible to survive with the limits to capacity that the pandemic brought.
 K-PAUL’S: There were times when people would wrap around the block and wait hours for a chance to sit and break bread at Paul Prudhomme’s landmark restaurant that defined the Cajun/Creole obsession that people had for this New Orleans mecca. Even after his death, the restaurant carried on – until it just couldn’t.
 AUREOLE: For a few decades there were a handful of incredible restaurants in New York City, just a handful out of the more than 25,000 in the Big Apple that truly defined the food revolution. Chef Charlie Palmer’s Aureole was one of those operations. Incredibly creative, extraordinarily delicious food accompanied by an out of this world wine list helped to put this operation on the map as one that stood out for decades. Now the space is for rent.
 BLUE SMOKE: Quite possibly one of the most noteworthy, successful restaurateurs in America – Danny Meyer and his Union Square Restaurant group seemed to own New York City for quite some time. Blue Smoke was his foray into the Barbeque genre, and it was a star. Even the brightest stars can fade, and so Blue Smoke is no more. Still, there is little question that Meyer’s restaurants will shine again once Covid is behind us.
 THE COPACABANA: A number of owners, a variety of locations, but always recognized as the premier “club” in the Big Apple. This was the place in the city for the hip and the fun loving, for those in the know, and those who wanted that to be so. No owner had more influence on this landmarks prominence from generation to generation than Peter Dorn. He overcame many obstacles as locations were changed for various reasons from “off the park” to Hell’s Kitchen – this was the place to party. Now it is a memory.
 GOTHAM BAR AND GRILL: I had a number of extraordinary meals at Gotham – a place known for innovation, the operation that coined “vertical cuisine”, a place of elegance and lightheartedness, a place for consistent excellence for more than 25 years under the guidance of Chef Alfred Portale (originally from Buffalo, New York), and a restaurant that for quite some time was one of the top grossing operations in the city. Portale left a few years ago, but it was his standards that put the operation on the map. I will really miss this restaurant.
 THE 21 CLUB: A speakeasy in 1922 during Prohibition – Jack Kriendler and Charlie Burns made this a place that was synonymous with the New York dining scene. Hemingway was a regular, and the mob was known to hang out and even plan a hit on individuals not in their favor. It was part of the New York landscape for almost 100 years.
 FARALLON: This was a restaurant whose décor was a combination of beauty and strangeness, but its food was undeniably superb. The octopus ceiling lights may have been what reporters wrote about, but it’s the food and service at this San Francisco restaurant that everyone will miss.
 PATINA: This was Chef/owner Joachin Splichal’s first entrance into the fine dining scene of Los Angeles. Often written about, frequently compared to, and always respected – this operation grew into a small empire of restaurants within the Patina Group that would eventually include restaurants on both coasts. Now it is a memory.
 CITY TAVERN: This important restaurant opened its doors in 1773. Many of the most influential people in American history spent time in this grand operation from Paul Revere to George Washington, Thomas Jefferson, and John Adams – the halls of City Tavern are filled with history. In 1777 the 1st 4th of July celebration in our country was held at City Tavern – the most American of celebrations. Chef Walter Staib was given approval to operate the business in the now National Park that is host to America’s past and he held this position with great pride until 2020 presented the business with a challenge that it could not overcome.
 MORTONS CHICAGO and LAWRY’S PRIME RIB: Houses of beef would be the most appropriate title for these operations. Steaks, chops, and prime rib carved tableside. Although other locations remain – these were destinations.
 EVEREST: Richard Melman – owner of Lettuce Entertain You – the thematic restaurant group centered in Chicago, opened Everest as his entrance into the high-end fine dining market. Beautiful, masculine, impeccable old world service, and a menu that reflected the grand style of cuisine – now a moment in time.
 MESA GRILL – LAS VEGAS: Bobby Flay was the guy for quite some time. His blending of American cuisine and Southwestern won him acclaim at the New York City Mesa Grill and his sister operation Vegas took it to the next level. When Vegas succumbed to the pandemic, the volumes needed to sustain many of the incredible restaurants there were forced to re-evaluate. Mesa is a victim.
This is just a sample of the tens of thousands of restaurants that have closed over the past year. Many in your neighborhood have likely fallen through no real fault of their own. Where do these operators turn to for answers? The normal: “what could I have done differently” is no longer valid. Those in the business will try to ask these questions as recovery looms closer, but the answers will be few and far between. One thing is clear – restaurants will rise again but with battle scars that will take years to heal.
Support your local restaurants when you are able, thank those restaurant owners and chefs for what they provide, and relish the memories that cafes, bistros, taverns, and restaurants have provided in your past.
One thing is for sure – we will be back. We don’t know exactly when, or what it might look like, but we will be back. A year has gone by and most cooks have now forgotten what it was like to have a full dining room, to feel the anxiety of the wait for those first tickets, of feeling that you don’t know how things will turn out. It has been a long year of uncertainty that has pulled you away from what you do best; a year that maybe even made you question whether or not this “cooking thing” is what you want to do any more.
It was the exercising of your skills, relying on your competence and confidence, of getting ready for battle and conquering the beast that made you want to crawl out of bed in the morning and face another day of craziness. With all of it’s speed bumps, curve balls, and relentlessness – this job is something that you were good at, something that brought excitement along with a touch of fear, a job that made you feel alive and pushed you to your limits. It has been far too long since you felt all of these emotions.
One day it will all return. One day customers will fill those restaurant seats, look at your menu with anticipation, test your abilities and sometimes your patience, and give you reason to click those tongs with anxious anticipation. I don’t know if it will come this summer or fall, but I do know that the day will come and I hope that you will be ready.
Consider this to be the off-season for cooks, a time to relax a bit and shed some of the stress, but also a time to get into a new rhythm of conditioning. This is the time to build your physical strength, hone your technical skills, exercise your mental acuity, and dig into more of the “why” that you cook a certain way. This is not a time to forget and lose a step, this is a time to get ready for the real season to come, and it will come.
I am certain of this because people need us, our communities need us, the economy needs us, growers and producers need us, and we need to do what we do best – it is our calling to cook. People crave the opportunity to gather again, to laugh and cheer, to break bread and tell stories, to raise a glass and toast to today and tomorrow. This is human nature and it cannot be denied forever – restaurants will rise again as soon as they are able. The time is getting near; if we all work to contain this virus and stand ready to receive the vaccine – the time will come soon.
So here are a few reminders for cooks immersed in the off-season – we are about to enter spring training camp – a time when we put aside what we have lost and bring ourselves into competitive condition.
 PHYSICAL STRENGTH
You remember – don’t you? Pulling a 10-12 hour shift off is physically demanding. You will be on your feet for most of that time, always lots of movement – turning, lifting, bending, stretching to reach, using your shoulders and back, and gripping and flipping filled sauté pans allowing the food to dance with the syncopation of orders coming and going. You will need to be ready for this. You will perform best if you are in condition. This is the time to immerse in a physical exercise regiment. Walking, running, weight lifting, sit-ups, push ups, chin ups, hand exercises, stretching and good nutrition will be the keys. Keep that weight down and hone your diet to that of one most aligned with an athlete. GREAT LINE COOKS REALLY ARE ATHLETES!
 MENTAL ACUITY
Being able to think clearly is essential if you are to win the battles on the line. Remember – those orders will come at you with relentless rapidity. The expeditor will challenge your retention skills, the steps in cooking that differ from dish to dish will test your memory, your flavor memory will be your friend once again as you taste-season-taste, and your ability to problem-solve when things go sideways will be your saving grace more times than you can imagine right now. Take time every day to walk through those steps in cooking that made you superb at your job; run through all of those problem scenarios that came your way in the past and jot down how you solved (or failed to solve) the problem, and push yourself to multi-task in your current environment – fill your head with too much to do and try like crazy to work your way through the list.
 SKILL TUNING
It will be the foundations again that save the day, that will make you valuable to an employer, that will separate you from those who don’t quite have what it takes. Knife skills, mise en place, sanitation, and speed and dexterity are all part of your bag of tricks. Practice them at home or work even when business volume doesn’t demand it. Keep your knives sharp, organize yourself every day, and keep your lists of things to do (even if not related to cooking) – all of this will pay off when that day arrives.
Read professional cookbooks, study the cuisine that you are focused on, and make a list of those processes that you followed in the kitchen – “because that’s the way you were taught” – and commit to finding out “why” those processes are important. Commit to being more knowledgeable when business returns – the more you know the more confident you will become.
 TEAM BUILDING
I know it’s hard to work on team skills when the team is not together, but what you can do is to mentally walk through scenarios in the past that can help to drive your “team savvy” approach in the future. Think about those actions of yours or others that drove a wedge between team members and think through ways of avoiding that in the future. Write down those “team defeating” actions that drove you crazy in the past and commit to working through them in a more positive way in the future. Think about “why” things might have gone sideways in the past and how honest sharing with the team can help to work through those events in the future. Don’t let correctible problems raise up their ugly head in the future and put a damper on the effectiveness of a team.
 RE-COMMIT TO YOUR COMMITMENT
Most importantly, this is a time to ask yourself a very important question: “Now that I have been forced to step back or step away from the life of a cook – do I want to jump back in when the opportunity arises? Am I willing and able to re-commit what it takes to be GREAT at what I do?” If the answer is “no or I’m not sure” – then this is a perfect time to start thinking about your next career choice. If the answer is “yes” then roll up your sleeves and get to work on your conditioning. The time WILL come when restaurants are back in full swing.
I am optimistic and realistic at the same time. I am optimistic in the ability of the restaurant business to recover and shine, to bring people together once again, to return to a position of central to the life of neighborhoods, and optimistic that this business of food will provide wonderful careers for cooks, chefs, service staff, bartenders, managers and owners – THIS WILL HAPPEN. At the same time – I am realistic and know that this will not occur without the pain of defeat for some, the anxiety of not knowing when this will occur, understanding that the financial burdens will seem unmanageable for some time, and realistic in understanding that the business of restaurants will look different a few months from now and that change is inevitable. This is the Yin and Yang of the environment where restaurants live today.
The lifeblood of success will be, as it always has been – the love that owners, chefs, cooks, servers, and managers have for what they do, the food that they have the privilege to work with, and the guests who place trust in their hands. Restaurant work is not for everyone, yet those who find their way, or in many cases – those who are drawn into restaurant work will readily say: “There is nothing else that I would rather do.” It is because of these people that I am very bullish on the future of the restaurant business.
I look at the multitude of restaurant people that I know and see interesting similarities among those who somehow manage to hang on, weather the storm, and keep an optimistic eye on the future. These individuals are inspiring and worthy of our praise – they are solid advocates for the right reasons to get involved in the restaurant business, and always encouraged by what they see as that glimmer of light at the end of the tunnel. I offer their insights as a spark that will hopefully give others a chance to breathe deep and wrestle with the realities before them.
“I feel like I’m not doing my job and staying true to myself if I put anything on my menu, or use an ingredient that doesn’t have a story behind it.” Know your source.
-Chef Tim Hardiman – The Tailor and the Cook
Great restaurants, great menus, and great chefs bring memorable stories to their tables. It is these endearing stories that help to establish the longevity and resiliency of a restaurant.
“I have always looked at it this way: if you strive like crazy for perfection – an all-out assault on total perfection – at the very least you will hit a high level of excellence, and then you might be able to sleep at night. To accomplish something significant – excellence has to become a life plan.”
-ChefCharlie Trotter – Charlie Trotters
Those restaurants and chefs – regardless of menu focus or price tags on the menu, that stem from an unrelenting push towards excellence will always find an audience. These are the benchmarks that others strive to emulate and guests can’t stop talking about.
“When you get close to the raw materials and taste them the moment they let go of the soil, you learn to respect them.”
-Chef Rene Redzepi – NOMA
True Farm to Table goes beyond buying local – it means that the chef and cook understands the farmer, respects his or her work, and know what it’s like to become truly connected to the ingredients – real cooking demands this.
“Food feeds our souls. It is the single great unifier across all cultures. The table offers a sanctuary and a place to come together for unity and understanding.”
-Chef Lidia Bastianich
What we do as cooks is important. Our craft bridges gaps in understanding and speaks to anyone willing to listen. We are communicators, ambassadors, and speakers of the universal language of food. Differences can be put aside when we revel in the beauty of a well-prepared plate of food.
“It wasn’t about mechanics; it was about a feeling, wanting to give someone something, which in turn was really gratifying. That really resonated with me.”
– Chef Thomas Keller – The French Laundry and Bouchon
Service is a noble profession. Those who understand this know that the restaurant business – front and back of the house, is the service business. When service exists business success will follow. Service requires understanding, empathy, the ability to listen, caring, and joy. Guests may come initially for the opportunity to enjoy your food, but they return time and again because of your commitment to real service.
“A great restaurant is one that just makes you feel like you’re not sure whether you went out or you came home and confuses you. If it can do both of those things at the same time – you’re hooked.”
– Danny Meyer – Union Square Hospitality
We (those in the restaurant business) are part of a family and every restaurant guest is welcome to join. Hospitality – a sense of place – is the heart and soul of a great restaurant. Operations that believe in this will always be in demand.
“We need to get into the community and understand who they are and what their needs might be instead of just giving them something without understanding what they want.”
– Chef Dominique Crenn – Atilier Crenn Restaurant
All hail the neighborhood restaurant (not just geographical) that responds to guest needs and sets aside the ego of the restaurateur and chef. When this happens – the restaurant can become the centerpiece of a community, the place of choice, and a business that sees their success through the eyes of the guest.
“It’s hard to be 100% better than your competition, but you can be 1% better in 100 ways.”
– Richard Melman – Lettuce Entertain You
It’s all about the details. Sweat those details, no matter how small, and know that the “experience” is an accumulation of hundreds of pieces of the puzzle. Become an expert at the little things from the lighting in your parking lot to the greeting at the door; from the comfort of your chairs to the temperature of the butter on the tabletop. Great restaurants sweat the small stuff.
“I realized very early that the power of food to evoke memory, to bring people together, to transport people to other places, and I wanted to be a part of that.”
-Chef Jose Andres – Jose Andres Restaurants and World Central Kitchen
The experience of a restaurant allows the guest to build a relationship with other cultures, traditions, flavors, and history. The restaurateur is the tour guide. A person may be able to cook in the style of Italy, Scandinavia, Mexico, Asia, New Orleans or France at home, but only the restaurant can provide the Italian, Mexican, Scandinavian, Asian, Cajun, or French experience.
“It’s around the table and in the preparation of food that we learn about ourselves and about the world.”
– Chef Alice Waters – Chez Panisse
The preparation and sharing of food brings all of our senses into alignment and points us to the question: “what am I capable of creating and how can I communicate what I am feeling with others through food?” Differences melt away when we engage in this most personal act of caring – the preparation of a plate of food for a friend, family member, passing guest, or individual who otherwise may differ from you in so many ways. Food is the great equalizer.
“If I have a really bad cook, manager, or sous chef – I previously would have fired them or lost my temper. But now I realize that if I’m so right, then I should be able to communicate it so clearly that they get it.”
– Chef David Chang – Momofuku Restaurant Group
The restaurants that are able to thrive again are the ones that are able to build a team – a cohesive group of well-trained professional artisans with a shared vision; individuals who take their job seriously and are given the tools to do so. Long gone are the days when the chef or restaurateur ruled with an uncaring, iron fist. To be successful in the food business you must learn to listen, to train, to support, to collaborate, and to lead.
“I take so much pleasure in seeing customers who are happy – happy with what they eat, but happy with their friends and in sharing a moment together. I think that this is more important in life than the endless pursuit of perfection.”
– Chef Daniel Boulud – The Dinex Group
Why do we cook or operate restaurants if not to bring happiness? Happiness is what we strive for among those who cook and serve and happiness to those who enjoy the chance to break bread at our table. To watch guests savor each bite, to see them smile or laugh, to watch them raise a glass to friendship or success, or to simply view them relax and shed the stress of the day – this is what we work for – this is our mission.
“Anyone can write a menu, but the ability to consistency execute (that menu) profitably is the true test of an operator.”
-Chef Keith Taylor – Chefsoul Culinary Enterprises
Yes, everything stated in this article is true, but the super-human effort of the chef or restaurateur without the discipline and understanding of how to generate sales and control costs will quickly lose energy. Restaurants are operated from the standpoint of many altruistic building blocks, but they are businesses at the same time. Those that will survive our current challenges and thrive once again in the near future are ones that understand this.
“We have a philosophy – it’s very simple – it’s called ROG, Return of Guest. Everyone, in every aspect of the operation has got to be doing something that translates into the guest wanting to return.”
-Roger Berkowitz – Legal Seafood
It’s very challenging and costly to convince individuals to walk through your door and become a guest. To not focus your energy on their comfort, happiness, and willingness to return makes no sense at all. Why would they want to return if we treat them as if they are just passing through? Set the stage for their return – turn them into raging fans and they will be at your door when the time is right.
Yes, I am optimistic and realistic, but I know that this sampling of individuals who are or were enormously successful in the restaurant business had “that something” that set them apart. It was and is a passion, a commitment to excellence, an understanding of real service, a desire to please, and a strong business foundation that created a path for natural success. We can all learn from them.
In the mid-sixties, a relatively unknown band (outside of San Francisco) released an album that would become one of the enduring recordings of the last 60 years. The Jefferson Airplane’s Surrealistic Pillow was both strange (surreal) and comforting (pillow) in its beautiful melodies (Today and Coming Back to Me) and cutting edge norm shakers (Somebody to Love and White Rabbit). This is a record that I still listen to often, but failed, over the years, to understand the meaning of the album title – until today.
After weeks of trying I was able to arrange a date to receive my first of two Covid vaccinations. Needless to say, I was excited (interesting that I was excited to get a shot). It was to be administered in Plattsburgh – a 1-hour drive from home. First, it was one of the longest trips that my wife and I had taken since March 2020. It was a beautiful winter drive through snow covered trees and the black and white panorama of winter. The roads were dry and a light snow flurry was in the air. We had planned on stopping at Panera for a curbside delivered sandwich (our first venture to a restaurant since March of last year) and had ordered our food an hour in advance with an email confirmation resting in wait on my phone.
The Plattsburgh Panera had moved from their old location (things happen while you are tucked away in your house for 9-months) and the new building was built for drive-thru and curbside service. I parked the car and hit “we’re here” on my email message. Two minutes later, our neatly packaged sandwiches were delivered to our car. Off to a similar experience at Dunkin Donuts for a cup of coffee and we found a nice parking spot for our “restaurant meal”. It seemed a bit odd that this would be my first “restaurant like” experience, after all, the business of food is my life, quick service has never been my venue of choice, and eating in my car while bundled up in winter jacket and fur hat was hardly “normal” for me. Yet, here we were, and it was good.
I plugged in the coordinates on Google maps for our next stop – vaccination central. I never knew that this part of Plattsburgh existed. It was desolate, poorly lit (dark already at 4:45 in the Adirondacks) and actually a bit creepy. This was part of the remnants of the old Plattsburgh Air force Base and our destination was a warehouse at the intersection of Connecticut and Arizona Ave. Digital signs directed us to the first stop where a State Trooper checked my ID to make sure I was eligible by age and that it matched my reservation receipt. National Guardsmen directed us to a drive thru tent where they again checked this information and provided additional paperwork to be filled out (damn – did I bring a pen?). We moved on to the next line waiting to enter an unknown warehouse space (the door would open to allow one car in at a time). We frantically looked for a pen and finally found one under my seat and I worked quickly to complete the five pages of information while holding the papers in my lap. The excitement was building while I worked to beat the clock and occasionally look up in anticipation of the door opening.
I had shed my jacket and sat with mask on and short sleeve shirt in anticipation of an event that had been wished for almost exactly one year. The garage door opened and the National Guard waved me into the large, 30 foot ceiling space – creeping along till I reached the table where two nurses were waiting. I shut off the engine and rolled down the window to a warm, friendly greeting: “you made it!” They were pleased that I had completed the paperwork and after entering some data into the computer, the nurse apologized while gently stabbing my left arm. It was a tiny bit un-nerving when she stated: “this vaccine is not approved by the FDA, it is available through “emergency designation” and that it still carries the experimental tag.” My response was quick: “bring it on”. A Band-Aid followed as she told me to pull my car into an outside lot for the required 15-minute wait and that I would receive an email message indicating the time I should arrive for my second dose in 21 days. She smiled as I pulled away. I felt a bit emotional about the whole experience – this meant that there was light at the end of the tunnel. The dangers are not over, our lives will forever be different, there are nearly 300 million more Americans that need to experience this yet, but it was the beginning of the end.
Driving home in the dark winter night, struggling to see very far down the road on this mountain trek, I suddenly understood the meaning behind Surrealistic Pillow. The album that I faithfully listen to will never be experienced in the same way. This day was both strange and comforting. The fact that what was experienced is accepted and expected meant that normal was headed in a new direction. This new normal is with us now and the world is adjusting. I felt truly blessed to have the experience and pray that others will line up soon to discover the same. Get your shot as soon as you can and don’t forget to bring a pen.
We will get through this – of this I am sure. Today, for me, was an affirmation that there are brighter days ahead. The restaurant industry will survive – Panera was an example of adaptation and an encouraging sign that great minds are carving out a new way that will only continue to evolve and improve. The chaos surrounding the pandemic, the tragedy that continues, and the questions around expediting the vaccine will be answered (I felt real comfort in how well organized the process of delivery was), we will eventually be able to shake hands and hug each other again, and life will be great at some point in the near future. As this happens we should never forget what has and continues to occur and how unprepared we were at the onset. We must not lose sight of how important it is to be ready and think through many scenarios that can and will accompany the next crisis. Let’s learn from this experience. In the meantime – wear a mask, keep your distance, avoid crowds, and wash your hands. The time will come when the good life will return if we work together.
In the restaurant business there are really only two ways to view profit: a very small amount of profit balanced by very significant volume, or a significant amount of profit on far less volume. How you approach the design of your restaurant in this regard will determine nearly everything else. How you approach profit will determine what your physical plant will look like, the scope of sophistication in your kitchen, who your vendors will be, how many employees you will hire and the depth of their experience, where you advertise and how much you invest in that, your table top appointments, and even your hours of operation. So, if you are in the process of ideation with regard to a restaurant – then start with one simple question: “How do I want to measure profit?”
In those restaurants where profit is measured in terms of smaller numbers with significant volume then concerns such as food cost percentage are of paramount importance. When profit is measured in more significant profit from fewer sales then I will make a statement that may cause many chefs scratch their heads in disbelief: “Food cost percentage is far less relevant – it’s all about contribution margin.” In both cases it is sales (the top line) that sets the stage for success.
So what is contribution margin? Simply stated it is what a menu item contributes to the financial success of a restaurant. This can be direct (the menu item itself contributes working funds) or indirect (because the item is present on the menu – other items are more likely to sell). So let’s look at this through an example or two:
Chicken Saltimbocca vs. Beef Tenderloin with Wild Mushroom Demi Glace.
The Chicken breast (6 ounce flattened) may cost in the neighborhood of $3, the additional slice of Prosciutto, Provolone Cheese, and sauce reduction another $1.50, and complementary vegetable/starch combination another $.75 for a total plate cost (not actual costs, but fair estimates) equals around $5.25. The baseline formula for determining selling price using an acceptable food cost percent of 30% would be:
The available funds left (contribution) = $17.50 – $5.25 or $12.25
________________________________________________________________________________________ The Beef Tenderloin might look something like this:
Beef Tenderloin (trimmed) (8 oz.) at around $18/pound = $9.00, the wild mushroom demi from stock to finished reduction around $1.25, mélange of wild mushrooms (chanterelles and morels) at approximately $2.00, and a standard vegetable/starch combination at $.75 for a total plate cost of around $13.00. If we use the same baseline formula for determining selling price:
SP = $13.00 / .30
SP = $43.33
The available funds left (contribution) = $43.33 – 13.00 or $30.33
Now the first question is: Can you sell this steak at $43 or does this exceed what the market will bear?
If we chose to use 50% as the desired FC% then the result would be:
SP = $13.00 / .50
SP = $26.00 (A price that guests would be more willing to swallow)
The available funds left (contribution) would be $13 or $.75 greater than chicken at 30%. But now the contribution potential goes even further if we consider general psychology and human behavior.
1. It would not be a stretch to consider that a steak person is different than a chicken person (behavior considerations are generalized). The steak person may very well be less “price sensitive” and more willing to listen to recommendations by the server for adding appetizers, desserts, and even a nice bottle of wine. The chicken person might be of the same mindset, but could be considered more cost conscious and a tougher sell. So, in this example – even though the steak (at a 50% cost) falls outside of the norm for food cost percentage, it stands to contribute more in terms of available gross profit as well as the ability to encourage ancillary sales of other items.
If, in fact, you understand that the success of a restaurant leans on the ability to generate sales, then it becomes obvious that getting all wrapped up in food cost percentage pales in comparison to driving the “top line”.
2. The “soft issues” that go beyond measurement of dollars and cents point to a more robust overall “dining experience” when a guest is able to enjoy a broader spectrum of dishes and complementary beverages. When the “experience” is driven by turning tables to reach a desired volume then something will likely be missing. It should always be the restaurateur’s goal to encourage return business and ambassadorship when happy guests recommend what you have to offer to others.
Now, what about those operations that rely on a smaller amount of profit enhanced by some serious volume – can they create an experience that is worthy of a return? Absolutely! But, in this case you need to rely on the uniqueness of an atmosphere that also encourages shorter dine in times, signature items that create excitement and buzz (think Chick fill-A chicken sandwich), systems throughout the operation that are geared for speed (think about the order/delivery system at Panera), and the ability to maintain a high level of volume.
In the higher profit/lower volume model there will be a requirement for higher levels of skill from both front and the back of the house, a greater understanding of ingredients and their source, cost appropriate table top items (more expensive china, flatware, and glassware), and a level of finesse that rises to the level of the menu pricing.
At a time when pandemic restrictions dramatically impact typical top line initiatives for both methods of measuring profit, it is easy to see just how challenged restaurants are to find a profit scenario that works.
BRING VALUE INTO THE FORMULA
The magic of a great restaurant and one that yields profit potential for the operation lies in those factors that go beyond costs and selling price determination. These are the elements of a food experience that create “value”. Every restaurant should embrace, as part of its goal structure, a feeling among its customers of: “That was well worth what I spent.” Whether it is a $5.00 quick service meal or a $100 fine dining evening – there is always room to create experiences and in turn – great value. The most common components of the value approach are:
UNIQUE, MEMORABLE FLAVORS
It may very well be that one item or a few signature menu choices that just knock people’s socks off. Excitement around flavor is one of the most compelling reasons to support a restaurant. People come from all over the country to New Orleans with a clear commitment to stand in line at Café du Monde for their beignets.
A SPECIAL LOCATION
Those restaurants that are fortunate enough to physically sit in proximity to a breathtaking view, a center of exciting activity, or in a community of other restaurants will always enjoy a steady flow of value seeking customers. The Union Oyster House in the middle of Quincy Market – Boston; The Slanted Door on the edge of San Francisco Bay; or Spiaggia overlooking Chicago’s Magnificent Mile and a view of Lake Michigan are all prime examples of locations that create an experience for diners.
BEAUTIFUL FOOD PRESENTATIONS
A chef knows that he or she has succeeded in engaging a guest and creating visual value when the presentation of a plate of food causes the table to stop, focus on the beauty before them, and pull out their cell phones to take a few pictures to remember.
TRUST IN CONSISTENCY
Those restaurants that consistently create food flavors that are expected, presentations that are anticipated, and service that lives up to previous experiences will always be viewed as a place that offers special value.
There certainly is value in proper technical service, but it will always be those restaurants that offer that warm sincerity, the welcoming attitudes, and those friendly connections with guests that build the most important reasons to return.
Finally, when a restaurant is engaged with a community, supportive of neighborhood efforts and causes, and there to make a difference – true value becomes incredibly obvious. Why would guests patronize any other operations when yours is part of the neighborhood family? This is value.
In the end, creating compelling reasons for guests to patronize your restaurant is complex, but it can be narrowed down to building value. Building value will always lead to healthy top lines (sales) for restaurants.
There are a handful of very significant decisions that we make in life – decisions that involve tremendous commitments of time, effort, focus, and yes – money. Starting a relationship, a decision to marry, buying a house or an expensive car, opening a business, and enrolling in college are all decisions that would be considered “monumental”. The right decision can lead you to self-awareness, long-term gratification, rewarding careers, and the foundations of family. The wrong decision – of course will be the opposite. How we go about making those decisions is the real question.
Making a decision to marry another person without taking the time to understand who he or she is and what makes that person tick can lead to loads of pain and disappointment. Buying a home without researching what is available, how that location fits your life situation, and how you will manage paying for that home can weigh heavy on your shoulders. Choosing to attend a college, especially one that is focused on a very specific career path without having a clear idea of what that career path is and how it will impact your life – will oftentimes lead to heartache and years of burdensome debt.
So – you are a young (or not so young) person who loves food, enjoys restaurants, and finds the media depiction of becoming a chef to be exciting and rewarding. “This looks like something that I would love to do for the rest of my professional life.” This might be true, and if you like games of chance, maybe this is a “roll of the dice” that is intriguing. If you understand the implications of: “You can’t always judge a book by looking at the cover”, then you should understand that the sizzle may sell the steak, but the sizzle doesn’t always tell the full story.
It has been my experience that those who choose culinary school as a way to build a strong foundation for a career in the kitchen fall into one of two brackets:
Those who do so from a place of experience (they have worked in a kitchen – preferably one that is run in a professional manner)
Those who do so by placing all of their decision making powers in the hands of the media
In other words those who understand what they are getting into vs. those who don’t. Now, I do not have any statistical data to support my next observation, but I have found that those who have spent time in a kitchen before entering culinary school are more committed, more intent on doing everything they can to absorb all that is offered, hungrier to learn and apply new skills, and far more likely to succeed and stick with their career choice. Again, an unscientific conclusion, but I would bet that many culinary instructors and restaurant chefs would agree.
My plea to those who are wrestling with a decision about culinary college is to get a job in a kitchen first. If you are a high school student – find a part-time position on weekends while in school and full time in that summer period. If you are a career changer – knock on a chef’s door and tell him or her of your plans to attend school, ask for a position in the kitchen (yes starting off as a dishwasher is a good decision), tie on an apron and give it a whirl. You will learn what you need to know about the type of work, the physical demands, the stress of timing, how decisions are made, the organization of a kitchen that sometimes is chaotic, the dynamics of team, the demands of a customer, the heartache that comes from a rejected meal, the joy that comes from an occasional compliment, the exhilaration of serving more guests in a meal period than anyone thought was possible, the crush of defeat when things go sideways, and the effort that will be required to move from dishwasher to chef at some point in time. Just imagine how shocking it would be to enter that culinary school classroom or kitchen without having those experiences under your belt.
Those decisions in life that are monumental are learning experiences, but proper research will help to minimize the negative impact of wrong ones. Culinary schools understand all of this, but at the same time they are intent on making sure that enough students enroll to make a class viable. After all – everyone should have an opportunity to succeed or fail, but when students discover mid-term that this is not for them, then everyone suffers from a realization that did not have to be. When a student fails to complete a program or loses the energy to remain passionate then it hurts the instructor and the school as much as it does the student.
There was a time when prior experience was a pre-requisite to acceptance into a culinary program, but the feeling that this is somehow counter-intuitive to a persons right to choose what he or she wants took over the logic of requiring prior experience. I believe, that this is a harmful change in approach.
If a prospective student is wrestling with the college decision then there are avenues that can help. Working in a restaurant is a natural step in the right direction, but there is also the vocational education option for high school students or if all else seems to not fit your situation – at least schedule appointments with local chefs and ask if they would talk with you about “what it takes”. Spend a couple days as a stage’ (working or shadowing without pay) in a restaurant just to get a feel for the environment. Dine in as many different restaurants as you can and ask for a tour of the kitchen. Do whatever you can to paint a more accurate picture than is portrayed in the media. You owe this to yourself! Restaurant work is NOT FOR EVERYONE. Once engaged in a restaurant you will find that 98% of what you do in the kitchen is just plain hard work. You need to learn about the heat and the sweat, the physical demands, the emotional requirements, the infringements on what is considered a “normal” life/work balance, and the time that it will take to accumulate the skills, knowledge, and experience to become a chef.
Stick your toe in the water before you choose to buy the boat. You might start by reading the 650 articles in this blog.
PLAN BETTER – TRAIN HARDER
Harvest America Ventures, LLC Restaurant Consulting
Our industry recently lost a giant of the professional kitchen. Chef Phil Learned stood tall in the kitchen of The Balsams Grand Resort in Dixville Notch, NH. In its day, the Balsams was one of the finest destination resorts in the country – a place of elegant relaxation, beautiful surroundings, and most notably – exceptional food. This place tucked away in the hills of the northeast represented the epitome of culinary arts in their American Plan dining room. A stay at the Balsams included all meals – each one representative of the dining style that had a long history of classic representation.
The kitchen of the Balsams was expansive and structured in the manner of Escoffier. A separate pastry shop with Patissier and Boulanger, a Garde Manger department where elaborate platters of charcuterie, cheeses, fruit and crudité were built to complete elaborate buffet presentations; a butcher shop that broke down primal and sub primal cuts of meat and filleted the fresh fish that came from Portland, Gloucester and Boston; simmering stocks and reducing sauces from the prep kitchen; and of course a hot line that was built for speed and volume with quality always front and center.
The menu changed every night within a cycle with a full array of appetizer, salad, entrée and dessert choices for an audience that was likely staying at the hotel for a week or more at a time (many of the patrons were second or third generation Balsam’s guests) since a stay at the “Notch” was a family right of passage. Each line cook during service had one dish to prepare completely. Guests would make their selection, servers would drop off a plate cover to a cook’s station, and then the final preparation and plating would begin. Counts were tallied throughout the night and the chef/expeditor would keep everyone apprised as to how many guests had been served and how many registered guests remained. Service was swift and efficient as the 300-400 patrons were acknowledged at each meal.
What was most impressive to me was the work leading up to service. From purchasing to plating there was a commitment to communication and doing your job well. Professionalism was expected from the starched chef uniforms that were maintained by the on-site laundry, the cleaning regiment that everyone participated in, the adherence to classical techniques, and the respect that was shown everyone who became part of the team.
Prior to the beginning of service each cook had to prepare two sample plating’s of his or her respective dish. One was set for the department chefs to evaluate before service, making any last minute adjustments to the flavor profile and presentation; and the other would grace the show table in the dining room. This way, every guest who entered the dining room was able to see every menu item as they made their menu decision.
Those last few moments before the dining room doors were opened saw every member of the service staff around the show table as chefs went over the preparation, ingredients, and flavors of each dish. It was important for service staff to know the menu and be that seasoned resource for guest questions. This ritual was so important to the Balsam’s Experience.
At the core of the kitchen team were highly professional, accomplished chefs and a cadre of enthusiastic apprentices. The Balsams was one of the premier formal cook’s apprenticeship sites in the country. Supported by the American Culinary Federation, this highly structured 6,000-hour program was the passion of Phil Learned. He was always an ambassador for passing it forward – for making sure that what he had learned throughout his career, was given with enthusiasm to any who were committed and enthusiastic recipients.
Over the years a significant number of young cooks got their start in the Balsam’s kitchen as an ACF Apprentice. A number of those individuals went on to hold the top position in restaurant, hotel, resort, and club kitchens as well as those who went on to become entrepreneurs. It was easy to recognize a Balsam’s cook in their spotless, starched chef coats and professional decorum. “Yes Chef” was the typical response to any directive that was made in Chef Learned’s kitchen. After two tours in the military (WWII with the Marines and Korea as a member of the Army) Chef Phil worked his way up to his first chef position at the Balsam’s in 1966. He served as Executive Chef (the first chef to be certified at that level in the State of New Hampshire) until 1977 when he became the Director of Food Services where he stayed until 2005.
Since many of the employees at the resort were apprentices or interns from other schools – a significant portion of staff members lived on property during their season. This led to a sense of team and loads of positive camaraderie. Chef Learned, cognizant of the importance of professionalism and team dynamics always made sure that staff meals were of the highest quality and a priority of the kitchen. He also instilled a commitment to the basics of cooking. Stocks were made as they were intended, knife skills were to be exact, sauces were defined by their history, caramelization in cooking was paramount, the right pan for the right task, and mise en place ruled the day.
Chef Phil will be missed, but his legacy will live on – a legacy of giving back, of teaching the next generation, of insisting on standards of excellence, setting the stage in kitchens for professional conduct, and customer service above all else. I feel fortunate to have known Chef Learned and to call him a friend. Working with many of his exceptional leadership team: Charles Carroll, Steve James, Will Beriau, Torill Carroll, Steve Learned, Jennifer Beach, and John Carroll – I built a new level of commitment to my own work as did every young cook who passed through those kitchen doors.
It is always safe to say: “things change”. Change is an inevitable part of life and as we all know if we fail to recognize that and adapt – we can become obsolete. Throughout history there are countless examples of those who ignore or seem paralyzed by the need to change as their industries or specific job descriptions evolve. This is reality, a reality that is quite predictable although the pace of change is now much more rapid than in the past. Think about the technology sector as a prime example.
Sometimes the change curve can be mapped out allowing ample time to gear up with new skills, new products, new methods of production, and a laser focused marketing strategy, while on occasion, something environmental takes place that forces a more immediate response. Such is the case in 2021.
We all knew that the restaurant industry was in need of a structural overhaul, we (those of us affiliated with the business) were well aware of the cogs in the chain, and the years of rust that had accumulated on systems and organization, but it took the pandemic of 2020/21 to shout out: THE TIME IS NOW!
So here is the good news: there will be ample opportunities in 2021 and beyond for chefs, cooks, managers, and service staff who recognize the immediacy of the challenge and the new skill set that will be required of successful players and leaders in the field. Let’s take the position of chef as a prime example – here is a list of skills and aptitudes that will set todays and tomorrows chef apart from those who are in a state of change paralysis:
Doing more with less will be the name of the game. The labor-intensive environments that have been typical in kitchens are nearly impossible to maintain. Chefs who are able to develop systems of production that work with fewer people will find a gold star on their resume.
 STREAMLINED MENU PLANNING
To go along with efficiency – the new chef will need to find ways to develop creative menus that rely on fewer ingredients, are fluid enough to change as the market demands, cost effective, aligned with seasonal ingredients at their peak of quality, and just as exciting for customers and cooks as those expansive models used prior to 2021.
Chefs who are able to generate, assess, and use analytical data in their decision-making (menu trends, cost trends, daily labor analysis, market prices, etc.) will have the upper hand when it comes to securing those prime job opportunities.
 SOCIAL MEDIA SAVVY
Marketing no longer belongs to a department – marketing is every person’s responsibility. With the increasing relevance of social media as the primary method of getting a restaurants message out – chefs who are social media savvy (astute at using Instagram, Facebook, Tik Tok, YouTube, and Twitter) will be at the top of the “hire” list for prominent restaurants.
Of course chefs have always been trainers, but be aware that this will now become a “must schedule” part of their job. Chef’s who are able to progressively teach cooks and even service staff about the ingredient, preparations, flavor profiles, pairings, and presentations of the food that is designed and produced in the kitchen will be in high demand. With all of the challenges that culinary schools are also facing in this changing business environment, restaurants cannot depend on graduates as their primary source of trained cooks.
 LOGISTICS MANAGEMENT
Assuming that after the pandemic customers will return to a semi-predictable pattern of traveling to your restaurant is a bit naïve. Chefs who are experienced in multiple ways of connecting customers with their food (catering, food trucks, pop-up restaurants, delivery, take out pick-up, etc.) will find themselves in the winner’s circle.
My way or the highway may be difficult to maintain as a chef’s method of operation. Bending to the market, changing in an instant, adopting other people’s ideas, and seeking out new ways of preparing and presenting food will become the new norm. Can you leave your old habits behind?
 SANITATION ADVOCATE
As important as sanitation and food safety is already, look for this to become the most important signature of a chef’s repertoire. Ultra-clean and safe will be a very important way that a restaurant markets itself and the chef who has the tallest toque.
 LABOR LAW SAVVY
If you don’t have a restaurant law course in your background, now is the time to sign up. In a world where the employee will continue to have an upper hand, owners will want a chef on board who will protect them against litigation, not one who creates litigious situations.
 HR ROLE MODEL
How the parent acts is how the child will also act. The same holds true in a kitchen: how the chef acts will become the standard of operation for everyone else. Throw out all of the stereotypes of belligerent, egotistical, pan throwing, demeaning chefs – they can no longer exist. If this is your M.O. then it’s time to retire.
 SUPPLY CHAIN NEGOTIATOR
Everything, every service, every price, every vendor relationship is negotiable –especially when it comes to buying local and regional. Picking up the phone to place an order without talking about those details and negotiating the best option for the restaurant is not acceptable in the new restaurant world. A negotiation savvy chef will win the day.
 IDEATOR/PROBLEM SOLVER
Finally, more than ever before the restaurant will look to the chef for new ideas and solutions to problems. A 2021 chef must be the go-to person for that next great idea and must have the experience and confidence to find instant resolutions to the plethora of challenges that arise every day in a kitchen and restaurant.
In case you didn’t notice – I failed to mention anything about cooking skills – the act that attracted a person to the kitchen in the first place. It will always be assumed that the chef in any operation has impeccable cooking skills, understands ingredients, is a master of preparation and presentation, and owns a palate for creating flavors that draws a steady flow of customers through the restaurants doors.
This is quite the package. How does your bag of tricks fit the profile?
I have been thinking quite a bit lately about a comment made by Chef Jeremiah Tower during our recent podcast conversation. He stated: “The restaurant industry needs an Einstein Moment.” There are numerous ways that we categorize these occurrences: Eureka moments, aha moments, or light bulb moments; but what we are referencing are those points in time when we suddenly understand the solution to a problem or the need for something that no one has pondered before. With all of the challenges facing the restaurant industry today, it would seem that Chef Tower is spot on; but where do we turn for that flash of inspiration?
One thing is certain – we are overwhelmed with the problems of the moment and seem unable, or unwilling to move through the storm to blue skies that might exist beyond. Those who have confidence in their abilities will often times say: “Give me some time to think, to reflect on my experience, to chat with a few friends, and I will find a solution to the problem.” When we are able to set aside the pressure of the moment and let our imagination wander, there will be greater opportunities to find solutions and to define a new direction – one that might create even greater opportunities.
I have been struggling to dig deeper into Chef Tower’s statement and have come to a few conclusions:
I don’t have the answers for the restaurant challenges of the day
I do have a better understanding of how we might collectively approach those challenges
There are a variety of ways that people, throughout history, have approached Einstein Moments – inspiration that leads to positive solutions:
OBSERVATION – Newton supposedly observed an apple falling from a tree and thought about earth’s pull – the result was an understanding of gravity.
EXPERIENCE – Horst Shultze, a young bellman at a hotel used his experience of working his way through various positions to eventually land the position of CEO of Ritz Carlton Hotels and their approach towards Total Quality Management.
TRIAL AND ERROR – Thomas Edison had thousands of failures before he was able to perfect the light bulb – the world has never been the same.
BUILDING A DEEP PORTFOLIO OF KNOWLEDGE – Doctor Salk, an accomplished researcher and virologist was able to build on his knowledge and that of his peers to develop the first vaccine for polio.
BEING BORN WITH THE GIFT OF VISUALIZATION – Steve Jobs was always able to envision devices and services that only he knew the world would need before they came to that realization. The resulting products of personal computers, smart phones, clean and addictive MP3 players, and tablets are an integral part of our lives today.
DIGGING IN AND WORKING THEIR WAY THROUGH IT – This is the method that every professional chef has used for generations.
One thing is certain, as described simply by Albert Einstein:
“We cannot solve our problems with the same thinking we used when we created them.”
Ah – stay with me: you might be thinking that the current challenges that restaurants face are all driven by the pandemic – so, we didn’t create them. Certainly, the pandemic is a major curve ball that was not anticipated, but the effects on our businesses are crippling to this degree because of some deep seated issues that have been around for decades: a labor intensive business, low profits, high rents, ingredients with a short shelf-life, unpredictable business volume, high cost of ingredients, and the list goes on. In the end, the restaurant business did not have the resources or the wherewithal to weather this storm. Our country will get through this crisis, but there will be others, maybe not as severe, but there will be others. The Einstein Moment must begin with a realization of the “cause” so that we can find better ways to avoid curve balls in the future, or at least better deal with the “effects”.
Restaurant folks are pretty good at problem-solving when we can approach the issue in a logical manner: “business volume is down and labor cost is out of whack so we change our operating hours and reduce the amount of labor needed – problem solved for the time being.” But when the boat is leaking from a dozen different spots, then logic is far less effective.
“Logic will get you from point A to B. Imagination will take you everywhere.”
The industry’s current situation requires imagination that can lead to a Eureka moment and a new direction that attacks the root cause of leaking from a dozen different spots.
“Knowledge of what is does not open the door directly to what should be.”
Relying on what we know may simply not be enough to pull our industry out of the weeds, build on its solvency, and set the boat right as we move forward into uncharted waters.
Somehow the restaurant industry as a whole (ideally), or at the very least small groups of community restaurants need to make the time to step back, take a deep breath, put aside the pressures of the moment and let their collective minds wander. What we are looking for is not a solution to a problem so much as it is a rethinking of how we perceive our businesses.
If we are looking for those flashes of insight it is important to define periods of time when we can “incubate” our thinking – stop focusing on the current problems and allow your mind to observe, listen, drift a bit, take in your environment, share with others, tap into other interests, and give your mind a chance to breathe and clear ample space for new thinking. It may mean that we need to engage with other stakeholders and rather than state your time-tested approach – open yourself up to their feelings, needs, and thoughts.
“The broader one’s understanding of the human experience, the better design (and longer term challenge solving) we will have.”
Think of some of the great new directions (and products) that came out of this “Eureka Moment” approach:
When asked what consumers thought about buying record albums in the 1990’s and beyond, it was discovered that they were miffed that they had to purchase an entire album to get the one or two songs that they really liked. The result was Napster – a free (illegal) service that allowed people to download individual songs to their MP3 player. The industry responded by filing lawsuits and taking Napster to court rather than listening to consumers and addressing the real issue. Along comes Steve Jobs and Apple – iTunes is born and the recording industry is suddenly re-invented.
When asked what they felt about the decades old taxi industry – customers expressed their dissatisfaction with standing on street corners trying to wave down a cab. The resulting Einstein Moment gave birth to Uber built on the technology of a smart phone. The taxi business was re-invented.
When customers were asked about the service they received from their banks – they expressed dissatisfaction with hours of operation and their ability to access service when they were not at work. The result was an Einstein Moment that led to drive-thru windows and ATM machines that were available 24/7. The banking industry was re-invented.
And when it was observed how much time and effort was involved in shopping for everyday purchases – Jeff Bezos responded with amazon.com that gave customers access to nearly everything imaginable, available 24/7, delivered to your door in a few days, and now with Prime – without the cost of shipping on every purchase. The retail business was re-invented.
This is what Chef Jeremiah Tower meant when he called for a restaurant industry Einstein Moment – a time when a major paradigm shift results in reinvention, not fixing a problem. Who will be our Albert Einstein, our Steve Jobs, or our Jeff Bezos? When will we take a step back and allow our minds to wander, to incubate, and to think clearly about what the restaurant business can and should be like in the decades to come?
When approached, as it should be – your position is very challenging, at times – almost impossible. By design you are charged with defending the Constitution, protecting the American people from harm, creating and passing laws that support the Bill of Rights, keeping other branches of government in check, lifting up the economy, being a beacon of light for other countries seeking to maintain or create a democratic government, creating an environment for private business to be innovative and cutting edge, maintaining the infrastructure of an enormous country, and doing all of this as representatives of the people. This job of representation was designed to be a public service, something that you choose to do for the betterment of the country – offering your expertise in an altruistic manner for a period of time. This is hopefully done in a manner that will leave the country better off as a result of your involvement. You are elected by the people to do just this, and they trust that you will live up to the pledge that demands it. We know that it takes time to get comfortable and understand your role more fully; we know that a few years is not enough time, but we also know that representation was never meant to be a lifetime career that bends to your need to “keep the job” and hang on to the personal benefits that it provides.
All of this is a heavy responsibility – not for the faint at heart. This should never be a position that sets aside what you know is right and what the people expect in favor of a political party’s inclination or the pressures from donors and lobbyists. The expectation is that you will stand up to this pressure and choose what is right and appropriate over what special interest groups desire. This is a position that should make it difficult for you to sleep at night, to take those long vacations, to set aside the need to read and research, to avoid challenging the norm and stand on that soapbox at times in defense of what is right for the people. Sorry, this is what goes along with the position of representation – representation that holds on it’s shoulders the lives of American people, their livelihood, their families, and their potential to live the American dream.
These are incredibly challenging times, times that none of us could have imagined just a year ago. We all know the issues: a 100 year pandemic, a crumbling economy, a threatened system of education, loss of millions of jobs, a planet crying out for help, our decaying international stature, runaway deficit spending, fairness and equality, and the demise of private entrepreneurship – such an enormous load. This is the worst of times, not the best and as a result this is the most inappropriate time to relinquish your responsibility for partisanship behavior. When times are toughest teamwork must rise to the top of everyone’s priority list. The decisions to be made must always take precedent over party desires and special interest pressure. You need to come together to resolve the critical issues of our time or we all will pay the price. Your people, the ones who placed their trust in you with their vote, are counting on you and they are watching. The world depends on you just as much as do the American people and they are watching as well, watching with bated breath.
One issue that may seem to be just another to add to the pile is the health of the restaurant industry in our country. To some, this industry may seem to be one that is far from critical. After all, people can cook at home. To some, restaurants will always be a luxury and not a necessity – something that is great to have, but not essential. I would beg to differ, and so would the millions of Americans who either work in, or dine in those establishments that have been the backbone of our economy for generations (yes, the backbone). Allow me to elaborate for your edification – first some hard facts:
According to the National Restaurant Association:
There are (were) over 1 million freestanding restaurants in the United States before the coronavirus was part of our vocabulary.
15.6 million Americans are (were) employed by the restaurant industry and to so many who live in this country – working in a restaurant was their introduction to the workforce
90% of restaurant managers started out as entry-level restaurant employees demonstrating the upward mobility from a job to a career and although I don’t have a numeric value for it – a high percentage of professional chefs got their start as a dishwasher
80% of restaurant owners started as an entry-level restaurant employee demonstrating the magic of the American Dream to become an entrepreneur
70% of American restaurants are single unit private entrepreneurships
Now on the qualitative side – the following list points to the societal importance of restaurants to the heart and soul of our country:
Throughout the last 150 years – restaurants have been that place where people gather to challenge each other, to celebrate, to nourish, and to reward. We rely on restaurants to provide these opportunities and the environment that fosters these interactions.
As our country has clawed its way through disaster after disaster: two world wars, the Korean war, Vietnam, Desert Storm, The Afghanistan War, the Great Depression, numerous recessions, the horrors of 9-11, Polio and HIV, hurricanes, fires, earthquakes, and other natural disasters – it has been the American restaurant that showed the first signs of national recovery. When these disasters occur – it has been the American restaurant Industry that came together to help with the first, most basic need – to feed those in need.
When families seek to raise their children to be active members of society and learn to care for themselves while earning those first paychecks – they turn to restaurants to teach their sons and daughters some basic skills.
When the demands placed on families because both parents need to work, or in single parent homes where survival is the first call to arms – the ability to lean on restaurants for family meals has always been a comfort.
When neighborhoods that have been plagued by decades of neglect seek to renew and rebuild – it is oftentimes expected that a restaurant will be the first business to open and show signs of life and hope for that renewal.
I could go on and on, but the essential point is that restaurants are important to America, they represent all that we envision and work to reach: a paycheck, an opportunity to become an entrepreneur, a place of gathering and comfort, a place to celebrate and raise a glass, an a sign of life and vitality for a community.
Right now restaurants are in need of understanding and help from Congress. This is not an issue that can be put aside for a while and looked at in the future. This is not a tomorrow issue – this is critical TODAY, in this very moment. The pandemic and necessary restrictions on public places like restaurants in order to protect the lives of so many are something that restaurant owners, chefs, servers, and managers understand. At the same time, this is not a normal situation that resulted from an operator’s ability to manage properly, this is far beyond our control and as a result we need help to weather the storm. Some predict that as many as 50% of the private restaurants in America will close before this pandemic comes under control – some will reopen and new ones, undoubtedly will rise up, but millions of jobs, the centerpieces of many neighborhoods, the lifeblood of far too many communities, and a significant chunk of the American Dream stand to crumble.
This is not a time for Congress to bicker over politics, to take partisan sides, to try to slide in those special interest expenditures, or to go on vacation with the job left undone. This is the time to act for the people and the country that put you in office to be a representative, to do what is right. The restaurant industry needs help in providing a paycheck for their employees, loan deferrals, rent support, and long-term advisement on how to reinvent themselves. This is what one would expect from the greatest nation in the world and from a country that promotes the American Dream as essential to its character.
To fail to do this will result in the destruction of an essential industry to the character of America. WE CAN’T WAIT – TIME HAS RUN OUT. Do what you were elected to do and do it TODAY. We are all watching what you do next.
The most challenging part of difficult times is living in the moment. Today is what gives us the most angst since we live in uncharted territory with all of the unpredictable factors that align with it. Yesterday is easy to look back on – it gives us strength and a point of reference, it provides context and the ability to analyze our actions, and it provides hope since we managed to work our way through it. Tomorrow is inspiring and energizing since it provides opportunity and possibility without the burden of reality, it lifts us up and points the way to thinking in a positive manner – a manner that demonstrates that anything is possible if we set a course and stick to our commitment. Ah, but TODAY is the tough one. “How will we get through this, what else can possibly happen, will we survive to see those brighter times?” This is where the restaurant industry is today, this is where chefs, cooks, and restaurateurs sit in the moment, and this is what keeps us all up at night – challenges without definitive answers.
There is plenty of hope and promise to be found in history – so maybe this is a good starting point. Quite possibly we can find potential answers in the things that we miss, the challenges that we have, and similar points in time when others had faced similar situations. So, as we close out on 2020 – here are some reflections and outcomes in the past that we might learn from.
 A DRAMATIC EVENT, BEYOND OUR CONTROL HAS SHUT THE DOOR ON RESTAURANT BUSINESS
Over the past 100-years our country has struggled through a number of earth shattering events that have changed the course of our lives, and re-shaped the structure of our life environment. America has moved through two world wars, Prohibition, the 1918 pandemic, polio and tuberculosis, the Korean War, Vietnam, the tragedy of 9-11, the Great Depression and the economic collapse in 2008 as well as a number of recessions along the way, Iraq and Afghanistan wars, and now another epic pandemic. It is hard to imagine how we have been able to still prosper and keep a positive outlook – yet we have and do. During each of these events small businesses like restaurants have been challenged to stay afloat, yet alone grow. Restaurants have always been, to varying degrees, viewed by many as a luxury that can easily be put aside when times are tough. In fact, when times are tough – restaurants are even more important. When we collectively are able to move past each of these life-changing cycles – it is the restaurant that helps to bring light and excitement back into people’s lives. Restaurants have always been one of the first businesses to recover – people need to gather, to lift those glasses, to break bread and to celebrate all that is good and all that is promised.
Loads of future thinkers are projecting the demise of the restaurant business after Covid -19 subsides, but just as many have done the same after each of the other earth-shattering events listed in this article. Certainly, there will be victims of these challenging times and many, many restaurants that we love will never open their doors again – but the restaurant business will evolve, adapt, regain energy, and find a way to thrive again. We hope that our government will learn to respect the important role that restaurants play in our way of life and lend a helping hand, but even if this fails to happen – the American spirit of entrepreneurship will find a way – of this I am certain.
 LIMITATIONS ARE PLACED ON RESTAURANT OPERATIONS THAT EAT AWAY AT THE POTENTIAL FOR PROFITABILITY
It is difficult to argue with safety precautions designed to keep people well and thwart the spread of the virus. At the same time it is worth noting that restaurants cannot survive at 50% capacity or worse, lockdowns that prevent any inside dining, take out or delivery only, or an environment that limits the “experience of dining out”. It is certainly not the first time that the restaurant business has been faced with these types of challenges – Prohibition as an example. Serving alcohol has always been the primary profit driver in full-service restaurants and when Prohibition took that option off the table then restaurants were hard put to find a path to profitability. Of course their answer of serving alcohol illegally is not the best approach, but the fact remains that restaurants found a way – they had to.
Fighting the common sense approach to limiting customer and employee exposure may make sense emotionally, but it is not realistic. The only viable solution is to find ways to adapt and change to discover an approach that is safe, exciting for customers, and one that provides owners with the ability to earn a living.
We have, as an example, predicted the death of fine dining through 9-11, the 2008 economic collapse, and every recession from the early 1960’s on. Just as restaurants of this caliber seem to be on the precipice – they find a way to reshape what fine dining means, reinvent themselves, and rise back to a level of prominence. If history is our guide, this transition will happen again – recognition, re-evaluation, re-invention, and revitalization.
Limitations force us to look for alternatives and workarounds. Knowing that from insurmountable obstacles come the next wave of brilliant ideas – restaurateurs and chefs can and should rely on their innate ability to problem solve and invest in resilience and creativity to find a new way.
Finally, when we relinquish our desire to truly serve, when we fail to exemplify the word “hospitality”, when we give up on that part of the experience because we feel that limitations do not allow for it to occur – then we are doomed. It has always been about hospitality and will always be so. It is this commitment to making people feel welcome, special, and thought well of is the key to a return to success.
“Hospitality is central to the restaurant business, yet it’s a hard idea to define precisely. Mostly, it involves being nice to people and making them feel welcome. You notice it when it’s there, and you particularly notice it when it isn’t. A single significant lapse in this area can be your dominant impression of an entire meal.”
 THE MAGIC OF WORKING IN A PROFESSIONAL KITCHEN HAS LOST ITS SHINE
As we ideate our way to a new business model it is important to remember that hiring passionate, creative, dynamic, excited employees will always be the way to success. Every new business model must provide a platform for these individuals to be expressive. Without this dynamic, a restaurant will be relegated to a standardized product and level of service that provides a means to an end, but will rarely entice great employees to knock on your door.
We (the industry of food) created employee attraction throughout the 80’s and 90’s by elevating the status of talented chefs to become the centerpiece of the food experience. Just as in the past, it will be important for the food industry to present kitchen work as inspiring, important, beneficial, exciting, and rewarding both professionally and financially. As long as cooks and chefs view the work of the kitchen as a job with a paycheck then the brilliance of culinary artistry will take a back seat to free agency. When chefs simply seek out the highest bidder for their skills and talent then the sparkle of a career in food will falter and fewer and fewer individuals will commit to tie on an apron and dedicate the effort.
Those of us who have spent a significant part of our lives working in kitchens, interacting with a well connected team, embracing great raw materials as we transition them into beautiful plates of food, and helping to make people smile, relax, laugh, and raise a glass in friendship – are distraught. Our purpose, and our passion have been devastated over the past 9-months and we know that it will still take time before things truly begin to improve. It may seem a bit hopeless to some and difficult at best to others, but rest assured – the environment where restaurants exist will improve, in fact it will likely improve dramatically. Life in the kitchen will change, but there is little doubt that the role of restaurants in the human experience will rise up again. The talent, passion, and ambitions that you have as a cook, chef, or entrepreneur is simply dormant right now – a period of hibernation. We will fill a void that has been gnawing at the fabric of the American experience for far too long – the need to gather, to break bread, to enjoy a great meal, and to laugh will never go away.
PLAN BETTER – TRAIN HARDER
HERE’S TO A VERY PROMISING 2021
Restaurants are the center of our American communities
There are a number of reasons why restaurants fail – some are predictable and avoidable, while others can catch a business off guard. None, however, are as devastatingly out of the operators control as this pandemic. Even the best operators are at a loss for solutions. There are short-term band aid solutions such as takeout, delivery, or even conversion into retail markets where wine inventories and local necessities take over space once occupied by diners, but they are not a replacement for a steady turn of tables. Restaurants have been relegated to outside dining or limited indoor space with loads of protocol limitations (some that are even more stringent than what is expected of other businesses) – this doesn’t pay the bills or keep a staff employed.
The pandemic is an “all hands on deck” problem that can be somewhat contained through simple precautions, but until there is mass vaccination of a population – these precautions dig at the heart and soul of a business that is essential to our way of life, our psyche, and our social health and wellbeing.
There have been well over 100,000 restaurants that have closed their doors permanently as a result of the pandemic. Many of these restaurants have been around for decades or even generations. They just can’t survive the pain of lost business for months on end. Now, this alone might not keep the average consumer or politician up at night, but what they fail to understand is that restaurants are at the center of a broad eco-system of businesses that are inter-dependent. When your favorite restaurant closes its doors it is disturbing and sad, but it is also part of a domino effect that can tumble out of control.
Here are some of the other businesses that suffer when a restaurant closes, sometimes they too cannot survive as a result:
 Regional Farmers: A significant percentage of farm crops are dedicated to restaurants. A reduction in restaurant business leads to crop waste, unplanted land, and serious cash flow problems for farmers. Already living on the edge – smaller farms cannot withstand this loss of business volume.
 Fisherman: The end consumer’s love of fish cannot sustain a fisherman’s need to catch and sell a quantity of product to offset their expenses. Restaurants account for a large percentage of a fisherman’s direct or indirect business volume.
 Ranchers: Have you noticed that the price of beef, pork, and chicken has increased significantly over the past few months? Those processing plants need to cover their substantial operational costs now that restaurant business has all but disappeared. If processing plants cannot find an outlet for their end product then this trickles down to the rancher who is saddled with cattle, pigs and chickens without a market. The end result is reduced herds, increased cost of feed, land without sufficient grazing, etc., etc.
 Cheese Makers: Cheese, although there are exceptions, is still a product with a shelf life. When restaurants fail or reduce their product needs, then cheese makers must do the same. Inventories wane, waste becomes a real concern, decreased cheese product means a reduced need for milk putting a strain on dairy farmers, and the lists goes on and on.
 Equipment Manufacturers: Restaurant kitchens are home to some very expensive equipment – when sales volume evaporates then restaurants are faced with aging equipment that they cannot replace, and delays in opening new operations that require equipment purchases. There is no other outlet for this specialized equipment.
 Breweries: Sure, maybe consumers are directing their beer purchases to their local package store, but breweries know that this direct to consumer cycle is not sufficient to support their growing expenses. It is the restaurant segment of their business that creates a steady flow of cash to support their endeavors.
 Distilleries and wineries: The same holds true for those who market distilled beverages, and of course the wine industry. Restaurants are the mainstay of business for vintners both domestic and imported.
 Table Top Manufacturers: Restaurants are constantly buying and replacing china, glassware, and flatware for their restaurants. It is a business that is predictable and dependable – until purchases stop. Every restaurant that tries to survive during these difficult times will commit to tightening their belts and deferring any purchases that are deemed non-essential. Those companies focused on tabletop have found that their business has disintegrated.
 Local Musicians: Musicians need to play. That wonderful local talent that graced the stage in bars and restaurants, and at banquets and festivals no longer has an outlet. There is literally no opportunity for them to play and earn a living. The need to survive will have a long-term impact on the availability of live music for quite some time. Musicians depend on the restaurant business.
 Florists: Sure – florist shops do very well on Mother’s Day, Easter, and Valentine’s Day – but the rest of the year involves a full-time focus on weddings, banquets, reunions, anniversary parties, and daily restaurant floral displays. When this business goes away (there are no conferences, large wedding receptions, business gatherings, or restaurant floral displays during the pandemic) then the florist is left with unsustainable cash flow.
 Linen Companies: The vast majority of restaurants do not have laundries where tablecloths and napkins, and restaurant uniforms and side towels can be laundered, starched and ironed. These restaurants rely on linen companies for this service as they rent all of the above. When business dries up in restaurants – so does business disappear for linen companies.
 Wholesalers: Those companies that collect, deliver, stock, and bill for essential ingredients in restaurants depend, almost exclusively, on restaurants for their business. Unless they can change their business model and supply ingredients directly to consumers – then wholesalers are left with a greatly diminished amount of business volume.
 Clothing Stores and Uniform Companies: Those local clothing stores take a direct and indirect hit from a faltering restaurant industry. Directly – those clothing stores that have relied on providing restaurant uniforms have found that their business model is void of customers. Indirectly, as fewer people take the risk of dining out and shelter at home during the pandemic, they also cut back on clothing purchases that they can display when enjoying a night at their local restaurant or bar.
 Coffee Growers and Roasters: The direct to consumer market for coffee roasters is certainly important, and at some level the take out business and home brew option is still strong, but still a large section of their wholesale business has dried up as restaurants fail at an alarming rate while others have seen business volume decrease by 50% or more.
 Landlords: Building owners have been a target during the pandemic as restaurants have found it impossible to meet the requirements of a lease. In the end, the landlord also has to pay bills and when a restaurant defaults – they find themselves in a very difficult situation. “Should we cancel a lease for non-payment and evict the tenant, or should we try to compromise?”
 Bakeries: Most small to medium sized restaurants cannot afford the space or talent needed to produce their own breads and other baked goods. So, they rely on local or regional bakeries for those goods. Many bakeries have built their business model on this type of wholesale as their mainstay. When restaurants fail – they take your local bakeries with them.
 Culinary and Restaurant Management Colleges: With a decrease in the number of restaurants and significantly lower volume of business – there is far less need for those young, eager graduates. Schools are experiencing dramatic declines in enrollment and challenges in job placement. Every day brings another college program closing.
The list could go on and each of these listed businesses has their own eco-system of impacted operations. The point is that that failing local restaurant is only part of the dilemma. If we allow restaurants to fail, then we allow the entire ecosystem to fail as well. If restaurants are financially healthy then the system works well. Right now the restaurant industry needs help from the Federal government. Without extended PPP benefits, bank loan deferrals, help for landlords, and business recovery training for small restaurants – this system will crumble. Restaurants cannot wait until 70 or 80% of the population receives a vaccine. Restaurants cannot survive until the fall of 2021, restaurants cannot continue to wonder from week to week whether they will be able to accept indoor customers or not and they cannot wait for politicians to find a way to talk respectfully to one another. They need help now! If this is not provided then an important part of our culture, a major employer of people, and the heart of the food ecosystem will not survive. Write to your representative, speak your mind through the media, stand in support of your local businesses and do your part. We have lost too much over the past 9-months; don’t add your local restaurants to the list.
There are chefs who have mastered the craft of cooking, chefs who have built a public brand that defines a region or exemplifies a cuisine; there are others who give to their community and as a result uplift those who call that community “home”; and there are those who push cooking in new and exciting directions. On rare occasions, there are chefs who do all of the above and more. Chef Marc Meneau was such a chef – a powerful personality who elevated the dining experience – a chef who lived excellence every day in his restaurant L’Esperance in Vezelay, France.
A small, historic community on the crest of a hill in the Burgundy stands tall as a village where thousands of worshipers and interested historians visited each year to pass through the threshold of its Benedictine monastery – The Basilica of Sainte-Marie-Madeleine built in 1120 A.D. – a house of worship where it is claimed rest some of the bones of Mary Magdalene. Walking up the cobblestone road that leads to the church and taking in the beauty of the French countryside is truly a spiritual experience. At the same time, on the outskirts of this religious mecca, sits another destination that for decades attracted worshipers of a different kind.
Vezelay is a centuries old village of less than 500 year-round residents, but throughout the year, visitors from around the world would make the trek to experience the spirituality of the area and to win a table reservation at Marc Meneau’s magnificent restaurant. Some would fly into France and make the final journey by car to break bread with friends and business clients at the Michelin 3-star L’Esperance, enjoy a memorable meal, and then fly home. It was this good.
Walking towards the entrance to L’Esperance – you could feel the stress of life leave and the anticipation of something unique and noteworthy about to happen. Chef Meneau’s wife, Francoise, might greet you at the door, as well as their dog that had free reign of much of the restaurant. A beautiful, petite gift shop on your left was reminiscent of stepping into a Cartier store in Paris, but in this case the product was not jewelry, but rather expensive wine, caviar, glassware, and reminders of your time visiting Marc Meneau’s contribution to the culinary arts.
The dining room was perfectly appointed with fresh flowers, the finest tabletop details, and magnificent views of the L’Esperance gardens. Many visitors would in fact be encouraged to walk through the gardens in between courses to take in its beauty and aid in digestion of the multiple courses to come.
As you walk through to your table you might pass young service staff hand wrapping house made caramels and chocolates, polishing silver, and nurturing the robust coffee beans that would eventually become a perfect espresso at the end of your meal.
As perfect as the dining room was – the environment was still light and comfortable. The L’Esperance experience was not pretentious at all, yet for those who make their livelihood with food – there was a reverence to this place that was quite unique.
If first impressions are truly lasting impressions then Meneau knew how to control them. While guests take in the view and passionately read the menu – the L’Esperance signature Cromesqui would arrive. Painstakingly prepared with foie gras passed through a fine mesh sieve until it was as smooth as silk, and added truffle and cognac – this mind blowing concoction was refrigerated, cut into precise cubes, coated in seasoned flour, and fried until crisp. When served the process of enjoying this amuse bouche came with instructions from your server. “Place it in your mouth, do not chew – allow it to melt in your mouth and attack your senses.” This single bite could be felt in your sinuses, on your palate, and in the process of coating your throat as it disappeared. This set the stage for what was to come.
Each course would be masterfully prepared and presented and flawless in execution. You would find yourself wanting more of each dish, but anxiously awaiting what would come next at the same time. This was dining as it could be; dining executed at the highest level. If you ever wondered why a 3-star Michelin experience was so special – you now knew.
A tour of the kitchen was to a food lover, the ultimate polish to a perfect meal. The kitchen, as you would expect, was pristine. Stainless, silver, and copper was accentuated by the natural light that flowed from the kitchen windows. Stations were set as per the same model that Escoffier had defined more than a century and a half before. Entremetier, Saucier, Poissonier, Garde Manger, Grillade, and Patissier were directed by the calm yet forceful voice of the Sous Chef/Expeditor as he called out orders in French. Everything was made fresh and from scratch – in fact, at the end of a service, the coolers at L’Esperance would likely be near empty –waiting for the early morning orders to arrive tomorrow.
Chefs and commis were in crisp whites and blue aprons. They were serious about their work and cognizant that the smallest detail was as important as the most complex. The experience that was the guest’s – began with this level of passion and commitment.
Meneau’s presence was always felt, even though he might be walking through the dining room visiting guests. He did not need to cook a dish to impact it’s flavor and presentation. This kitchen was the perfect example of a consummate team of professionals.
Meneau was never trained as a cook, yet his passion for food, for outstanding experiences, and for the significance of excellence allowed this self-taught study of the craft to rise to the culinary world’s highest perch.
For ten years, I had the distinct pleasure of sending student interns for a semester experience in France. An experience that included a stage in operations like L’Esperance. While not every student had the opportunity to work with Meneau, they did find themselves in Michelin restaurants from Paris to Sancerre. Every student knew of Meneau and what he represented, and he would often visit our home base in Entrains sur Nohain to chat with them about food, history, and the beauty of France.
Meneau was a world ambassador for French cooking and was treated as a celebrity wherever he would visit. He was commissioned to work with the producers of the movie “Vatel” featuring Gerard Depardieu as the chef who made the grand food presentations during the age of Louis the XIV. The food that you see in the movie was directed by Meneau. Sofia Coppola, in the movie: “Marie Antoinette, was surrounded by beautiful food created by Meneau and his team.
As a restaurateur – Meneau understood the challenges of being successful. Of earning a profit – he once told me: “Restaurant profit is found in the onion peel, not the onion, and in the lobster shell, not the lobster itself.” At one point Meneau suffered through the loss of a Michelin star, but- re-energized, he worked to gain it back and did so. Earning those stars is challenging, but keeping them is relentless.
On December 9, 2020 – Marc Meneau passed away at the age of 77 and the culinary world will miss him. His impact will not be lost as this chef has raised the bar and sits with a small cadre of exceptional culinarians as a benchmark that will continue to define the possibilities of great dining.
Sweat was creeping down Alex’s back. The line was just 15 minutes into the 7 o’clock push and the board was full. The pressure was on, but Alex was on his game – he was wearing an ear-to-ear smile because he knew he was in the zone. The line team was in total sync: Alex looked at his sous chef expediting on the other side of the pass – his eyes said: bring it on chef.
This has been a long haul for the eager, confident line cook who started out three years ago as a dishwasher. It was that part-time job in his senior year of high school, diving for pearls on weekends and an occasional weeknight that gave Alex a level of confidence that was lacking in his life. He would graduate from school, but not because he was a stellar student, but simply because he promised his parents that he would. School actually came easy for him, but it just wasn’t his thing. Working, sore muscles sweat, aching feet – this is what gave him a sense of purpose.
The light bulb went off the summer after graduation when he finished his third consecutive week of 50 plus hours on dishes – the chef called Alex into his office and sat him down. “Alex, I really like your work ethic, the fact that I can always count on you to be here and work your hardest is incredibly valuable to me and the team. I just don’t think that you are working to the level of your ability. You’ve washed enough dishes – it’s time to learn how to cook.” From that moment on Alex knew that his career choice had been made.
This is how so many cooks are made. Even those who have the opportunity to take the time to attend culinary school, if they are truly committed, started out just like Alex. It has been said many times that career cooks don’t choose their profession – it chooses them.
Alex spent a year as a prep cook – this is where he learned how to identify ingredients and judge their quality, proper food safety and sanitation, how to set-up a work station, sharpen and care for knives, the dimensions on vegetable cuts, how to make a perfect stock, all of the cooking methods, fabricate a chicken, cut steaks, bone out a ham, fillet round and flat fish, open clams and oysters, turn potatoes, build flavors, and create an array of sauces from the bold stocks that he made. Most importantly he discovered how to organize his work, be consistent, meet the standards of the operation, and build some speed. After a year of this important routine – he was ready for the line.
Things were a bit rough at first. Alex had become accustomed to working independently – playing his skills against the clock and the constantly expanding prep list, but now he had to depend on others. The whole concept of team was something that would take adjustment time. He started on the fry station where his focus was on a few bar appetizers, pommes frites, and an occasional deep fried entrée. When other stations depleted their mise en place Alex would jump in to chop fines herbs, portion extra proteins, clarify butter, or simply line up plates or fold extra side towels. This was a valuable experience since he had the chance to watch how every other station operated. At first it seemed impossible: “How do they keep all of those orders timed properly, seasoned appropriately, and always looking perfect at the time of plating?” After a few months he had a pretty good picture of how it all worked and his comfort level improved dramatically. Now he was pulled into the grill station on a reasonably slow night when the normal station cook was ill and couldn’t make it in for his shift. Alex understood degrees of doneness, but keeping a chargrill organized with multiple degrees of doneness, making sure that those hash marks from the grill were spot on, and taking carry over cooking into account was overwhelming. He made it through that first night with only three re-fires, but it was rough.
The chef made sure that from that point on – Alex was scheduled one night per week on the grill. Practice makes perfect and in no time he had built a high level of competence and confidence. Alex saw that the chef was determined to build him into a roundsman – a cook who could work many stations with a high level of skill. For the first time since washing that first dish while in high school, Alex saw the kitchen as a likely career – one that might even lead to the chef’s position at some point.
Another few months and the chef pulled Alex off of the hot line and scheduled him to shadow the Garde Manger. “You need to learn the cold side of the kitchen as well. Garde Manger is where we make our profit. Salads, appetizers, and desserts are the “extras” that help to turn a restaurant into a successful one. This is also where you will fine tune your skill at plate presentations.”
To Alex, this seemed like a demotion. The hot line was where the action was, where teamwork was built, and where the sweat from hard work was most evident. Garde Manger seemed too light for a cook on the rise. He would work with Sally who had been at the restaurant for three years – the last two in Garde Manger. Alex quickly saw that the shear number of components that Sally had to work with made the grill station look like child’s play. Everything had its own process, most of which fell on Sally’s shoulders unlike the hot line that was serviced by the prep cook. There were marinades, dressings, poached fruits, sauce reductions, delicate garnishes, artisan cheeses of all types, croustades, washed and spun greens, shucked oysters and clams, poached lobster, pates, and galantines, and the assembly of some pretty intricate desserts that were prepped by the pastry chef in the early morning hours. It was a lot to organize and assemble – Sally did it so well, with so much finesse. Alex’s learning curve would be steep. He dove into the challenge and learned to admire Sally’s skill more and more every day. He would later find out that she too started on the hot line, but now preferred her artistic station.
Through his on-going training rotation Alex felt himself grow into each position, earn respect from his peers, and slowly become a very good and extremely valuable member of the restaurant kitchen team. After three solid months in Garde Manger the chef called Alex in to the office. “Alex, I am very pleased to see how much you have grown and how confident your teammates are in your skill set. I want to take a step back for the next month and schedule you back in the dish room. You will start there on Monday.” The chef left it at that without any explanation. Alex was crushed and confused. “This is where I was two years ago. I thought I was doing a really good job in the kitchen – why is the chef doing this?” A bit of anger crept into Alex’s psyche and as he walked home he even gave thought to quitting this job and looking to a different restaurant. The next day, however, he returned to the kitchen thinking that he would show the chef that he was much more talented than wasting his abilities on diving for pearls.
What happened in that first week of dishwashing was both enlightening and humbling. He began to see the position differently now – he looked at the importance of the dishwasher through the eyes of the cook. It wasn’t sufficient just to wash sauté pans for the middle station – he wanted to make sure that they were stacked in line with the cooks mise en place, handles pointing a certain way, scrubbed till they glistened, and always perfectly dry before they hit the deep blue flame from the stove. He made extra sure that plates were perfectly clean, dry, and free of chips and cracks. He knew now how frustrating it was for a cook to pick up a plate and find out it wasn’t suitable for the assembly of a dish. He took the time to show servers just how important it was to properly scrape and stack dirty plates to keep the system working well, and he was always on the look out for floor spills that could endanger a cook or server. He quickly slipped into the role of an excellent dishwasher.
After two weeks, the chef called Alex into the office again. “You may have wondered why I put you back in the dish area after two years of cooks training. I think you see now that the objective was to give you a different perspective on how important that position is to the operation of the kitchen. A great dishwasher can lead to success and a poor one can bring a kitchen down. I guarantee you that from this point on you will never take the position for granted. Tomorrow you will begin to learn sauté – our most complicated line position.”
It has been three months now since Alex started on sauté. He is exceptional at the work, incredibly well organized, spot on as a teammate, and well rounded with his understanding of cooking. When his look passed on to the expeditor said: “bring it on”, it was because Alex was a confident and competent cook who learned through the school of hard knocks. He loved what he did and knew that the chef could depend on him to jump into any position where he was needed – even the dish room. Alex could see into the future and knew that it wouldn’t be long before that first sous chef position came his way.
There is no better way to learn the ropes, become excellent at your craft, and set the stage for a long and fruitful career than learning by doing. All of these steps are essential. Look for the opportunities, accept the challenges, enter each phase with an open mind, and build your repertoire in a methodical fashion. The world is your oyster.
Joe is a single guy, young and well educated, quiet yet personable enough, incredibly talented as a cook, reflective, and a closet alcoholic. From the perspective of the chef who reigns in charge of the restaurant where Joe works – this young line cook is an ideal employee. The chef knows that Joe will always be ready with his mise en place at service, always be focused on excellence in cooking, he will look the part of a professional and whenever the chef is short an employee he knows that Joe will respond to the emergency and double time it in on his day off. The chef is either oblivious to or avoiding what everyone else in the kitchen knows – Joe drinks with reckless abandon. After work – Joe can’t wait to trot to the closest bar where his alter-personality kicks in after the second drink. When he settles in to this environment he quickly turns from that quiet, reflective, talented cook to the life of the party. He has done this for so long that Joe is able to stumble home at 3 in the morning and appear sharp and focused at 1 p.m. when he arrives for another shift behind the line.
Today, something is different. It’s 1:20 and Joe hasn’t shown up for work yet. The rest of the crew is quiet and uncomfortable as the chef asks if anyone has heard from Joe – his most dependable cook. The chef has called Joe’s cell a few times – but no one answers. By 2:00 everyone is rather worried and the chef sends one of his other cooks to Joe’s apartment to check on him. After pounding on his door for ten minutes – he finally opens the door. He is in rough shape, his face is bruised and cut, his clothes are spattered with blood, and he is obviously still intoxicated from a late night of bar hopping. “Man – what the hell is going on? You’re supposed to be at work – the chef sent me to check on you.” Joe is speechless – he simply waves off his peer and says: “I’m not coming in today.” This cook has hit the wall – alcohol has taken control and there is no turning back at this point. He hasn’t been on an extended bender for quite some time – but now one is rearing up its ugly head. This isn’t the first job that he will likely lose, and it won’t be the last.
If you are working in the restaurant business then this story will ring true. Maybe you are one of the lucky ones who can occasionally over-subscribe to alcohol or other substances and not worry about the disease sinking its clutches into your every being. Even if this is the case – you have worked or are working with others who can’t turn it on or off. Statistics that measure substance abuse by industry rank food service as #3 in heavy alcohol use and #1 in abuse of illicit drugs. Joe is not an anomaly. Nearly 13% of all heavy alcohol users in the U.S. work in the food service industry! Why is this so and what can be done about it?
There are a number of tragedies associated with Joe’s situation – a number of ancillary victims whose only shortcoming is a quiet association with Joe and his problem. The chef will ultimately lose a great employee, his co-workers will suffer the impact of Joe’s meltdown, customers might even begin to notice a change in the quality of work, Joe’s family will suffer the uncertainty of his health and wellbeing, friends and relationships will deteriorate, and he will continue down this bottomless pit until he self-destructs even further. All of those connections tried to ignore the growing problem and simply shook their heads and hoped for the best.
One recovering alcoholic stated: “I think I always knew there was going to be a problem – but I thought – not me. One day a delivery driver arrived late – I was pissed! I gave him a hard time for no reason – it was not his fault. On his way out the door he said to me: ‘I wish I could give you a beer’. It was confirmed – I wasn’t hiding it well.”
Alcoholism and Drug Abuse are part of a disease category that relies on dependence. Like any other disease it needs to be recognized, accepted, and treated. This dependence will not go away on it’s own. The person or persons impacted by this disease will require a regimented treatment unlike any other debilitating disease. People impacted by substance abuse will need tough love, support, physical treatment, mental and emotional support, and a lifetime of discipline to overcome the need to lean on alcohol or drugs. As is said: “once an alcoholic or drug user, always an alcoholic or drug user.” Note that no one is ever cured of this disease – they are always referred to as “recovering” – never cured. Yet, like Joe – so many keep their problem under wraps as long as they can – never seeking help, never admitting that they are plagued by the evil hands of a monster that always tries to draw them in.
You might think: “a drink now and then is fine, it’s enjoyable, a nice release, a way to enjoy the social nature of friendship and family.” You might reflect on your own situation where a bottle of wine with a great meal is the complete package and never something that draws you in at the expense of family, friendships, mental health, or a career. That’s great – I belong to this fortunate club, but at the same time I have witnessed lives crushed, relationships shattered, careers end, and even lives lost among those who are not as fortunate to have the off and on switch. What Joe is experiencing is what tens of thousands of food service workers face every day – it is a very, very serious problem. There was a point in my career when I felt that I should become an honorary member of Alcoholics Anonymous simply because so many of my friends and co-workers built their life schedules around AA meetings. Let me reiterate – it is a very, very serious problem.
A good friend and fellow chef stated: “Most alcoholics and addicts feel all alone in a crowded football stadium – most of us think we don’t belong. A lot of people think, in the beginning, it will help them be more social, to get along better, but what you’re really doing is placing yourself where you can no longer learn – you stop growing.”
During these unprecedented times when the restaurant industry is challenged like never before, when the routine of the cook, chef, server, or manager is very uncertain, and when that typical adrenaline rush of working in a busy kitchen has, in some cases, come to a halt; there may be more individuals than ever before who are on the edge. It is so easy for alcohol or drugs to creep in and take control. We all need to pay attention to the signs, be aware, and be there to support those who are finding it difficult to cope.
It takes a village to save a friend or co-worker from the ravages of substance dependence; we can all play a role in the recovery process. First, most who are in the know will tell you that it serves no purpose to ignore or discount an alcoholic’s or drug addict’s actions. This is the tough love part – they need to be called out. Second, we can all help by talking about how their actions impact not just themselves, but also all those individuals around them. It is important that the individual come to grips with the problem. Third, we need to support them by helping the alcoholic or drug dependent individual connect with the right help. Bring the individual to the helping hands of another recovering cook, chef, friend, family member, or known AA sponsor. Know where and when local AA meetings are being held. Post it in your kitchen for all to see. Finally, be the voice of encouragement – the process out of despair is long and difficult, but never turn away from their desire to become whole again. The person may lose a job along the way; find a family member or friend who turns his or her back, or a co-worker who fails to understand the disease. From this point on – staying sober or clean is the most important action in their lives.
Words of advice from my friend: “Ask for help! You are not alone. There is so much help out there – talk with somebody before it’s too late.”
I was turned on to the following TEDTalk. It is heart-wrenching and uplifting at the same time. Everyone, whether directly impacted by substance abuse or not – should watch and listen. This is a valuable 10-minute investment of your time.
SOBER REALITY FOR THE FOOD AND BEVERAGE INDUSTRY:
PLAN BETTER – TRAIN HARDER Know that you are not alone
Is it possible to narrow down the secret of greatness to one ingredient? What could it be? Is it really that simple, or in this case is simplicity really complex? I have had the honor to work with, know, or at least meet many extraordinary chefs and cooks and my assessment is that – yes, there is one common ingredient that makes all the difference in how adept, interesting, creative, and ultimately successful a chef or cook might become. The ingredient is CURIOSITY.
Great cooks and chefs never simply accept – they are perpetually inquisitive. Those classical kitchens where cooks simply follow directives because that is what the chef demanded were never destined to nurture great chefs. Cooks need to state the most important questions if they are to grow – “why, where from, what is the rationale, what is the history, how is it made, what are the differences, and when should you choose one example over another?”
It is curiosity, the quest for answers upon answers that builds passion, understanding, creativity, and competence. When a cook simply accepts without asking why, how, what, or when, then his or her passion for the craft will be limited, his or her perspective on the job of cooking with be tainted, and the resulting cooking will be a shadow of what it might become. To nurture young cooks, to teach and train, and to build competence and confidence among those who work in a kitchen, it is essential that we (chefs and culinary teachers) establish a platform where curiosity reigns.
Think about the possibilities and the opportunities that curiosity might unveil.
SALT as a mineral and a seasoning is just salt – why question it? Yet to really know salt is to understand where it comes from and how it is extracted. Once you understand that the environment where salt is drawn from, just like the terroir for wine grapes, will have a significant impact on this magical mineral. Visiting a salt mine, a sea salt plant, or if you have the chance a French Fleur de Sel farm or Japanese soy sauce artisan producer will reveal the complexities of this simple ingredient that to many cooks is just a commodity that sits on their storeroom shelves.
CARROTS, POTATOES, TURNIPS, and PARSNIPS are root vegetables that are easily available to all cooks and are offered at very inexpensive commodity prices. Root vegetables are just root vegetables unless you understand them, visit a farm where they are grown, spend a few days in the farmers shoes, harvest the root vegetables by pulling them from the soil that has kept them in a protective blanket for months, and brushed them off and taken a bite. Curious chefs want to know what that carrot really tastes like, how the farmer plays a role in its shape, texture and flavor, and how soil and climate impact the flavor. I guarantee that if this curiosity is met – the cook will never view a root vegetable in the same manner again.
THAT STRIP LOIN COMES FROM MY VENDOR, period. This is easy to accept. Call your local meat vendor, place an order, receive it, store it, prep it and prepare it just as the chef told you. Simple directions for the cook working the grill station in your kitchen. But cooking that is void of understanding is so shallow, void of respect, and starved of meaning. To become an extraordinary grill cook and eventually a chef who plans menus using those products received from a meat vendor – a serious kitchen employee must ask those critical questions: WHERE does the product come from? WHAT part of the animal? WHY do certain cuts adapt well to high temperature, rapid cooking like grilling, while others insist on low heat and slow timing? HOW is the animal cared for? WHAT is it fed? HOW is the animal processed, fabricated, aged, graded, and packaged? WHAT is the difference between dry and wet aging and does Cryovac impact the flavor of the muscle? Think about the care, respect, intensity of attention to detail, and pride that a cook will have once he or she is able to have answers to these questions, maybe visit a cattle ranch, a feed lot, and processing plant before turning a steak on a hot grill to receive those perfect grill marks.
ORDER FRESH SEAFOOD FROM OUR USUAL FISHMONGER is a task that chefs engage in constantly. It might come from a local supplier or be flown in from different parts of the world, but what is important is the transaction and receipt – right? The styro boxes packed with ice arrives and inside are beautiful Queen Snapper from Florida, Mahi Mahi from Hawaii, Atlantic salmon from Norway, Lobsters from Maine, or Dover Sole from the coast of England. The chef unpacks, fabricates, stores, and prepares this seafood as is intended and the customer enjoys the fruits of the chefs labor. How shallow is this process that is void of any real understanding or curiosity? Why did the chef choose that Queen Snapper from Florida, Salmon from Norway, or Lobster from Maine? Is it simply because of a product specification designed to meet a standard? Imagine how the chef would approach the transaction if he or she had spent an arduous day on a Maine Lobster boat – pulling in cages? Imagine how the chef might approach the fabrication of a beautiful Norwegian Salmon if he or she had visited with those engaged in fish farming off the cost of Bergen, Norway? Imagine if that same chef had tried to overcome seasickness on a 25-ton fishing trawler positioned miles off the coast of Florida as they pulled in nets filled with the fruits of the sea? Would satisfaction of this curiosity change the way that chefs order, store, fabricate, cook and serve the fish that came through the hands of dedicated fishermen rather than those who simply move the product from point A to point B?
PURCHASING THOSE FLOUR OR CORN TORTILLAS is the most cost effective way of acquiring the ingredients for that “authentic”, Central American restaurant. After all, who has time to make fresh tortilla? This will always be the case in the absence of curiosity. Until a cook or chef has tried that first hand pressed and grilled tortilla, folded it to encompass a world of different ingredients, maybe pay a visit to Mexico, Guatemala, Nicaragua, or Costa Rica or at least spent a day with indigenous people who would never, ever use a store bought shell – he or she will fail to feel the history and the passion behind this beautiful ingredient and process. “I wonder if there is any difference between store bought and hand made tortilla, and I wonder how the item came about in Central American culture.” Inquiring minds want to know, and inquiring chefs will always learn to excel at what they do.
THE WINE LIST IS THE RESPONSIBILITY OF THE DINING ROOM MANAGER OR SOMMELIER – says a typical chef in a busy restaurant. Have enough variety and there will be something to please most guest palates, besides, the chef really doesn’t have time to engage in wine selection as well. Great restaurants and great chefs understand the connection and importance of food and wine pairing. A great chef without a solid knowledge of wine varieties, terroir, the art of the wine maker’s signature, variances in vintage, and how a particular wine enhances the experience of food presented on the menu will surely be at a loss. Chefs who delve into the winemaker’s closet of understanding will be far better at their job and will reveal a passion that rivals that of the food ingredients that bring a menu to life. It is the curiosity about this beverage that is alive and ever-changing that adds a spark of interest to a chef’s repertoire.
Whether it is a desire to learn more about the ethnic influences that create a cuisine, the indigenous ingredients that are at the base of a certain cuisine, the time-proven steps in cooking methods, or the historical environment that led to the development of a dish or a regional cooking style – it is that most essential ingredient: curiosity – that separates a good cook from a passionate great one. We must all remain curious if food is to be viewed as a life-long calling.
We are a blend of our experiences and the people whom we let in to our lives. Everyone and everything influences the personal and professional product that we become. It is important to note that to whatever degree we allow it to happen – influencers are all around us – shaping and molding the cook, chef, and person that others will see.
If you were to write your story that answers the question: “ how did I become the cook or chef that I am today” – how would you answer? At Thanksgiving time it is beneficial to stop and take note, to remember those influencers and give personal thanks for their contributions to you. So, for better or worse – here are my remembrances. I would encourage you to do the same.
Thanks to my grandmother for showing me that cooking is an act of caring, something of yourself that sends a clear message to others that you want to honor them. She also told me that when you make chicken and dumplings to make sure that you use a young chicken from the farm and to never serve day old pie.
Thanks to my great aunt who always baked her own bread. She showed me that it’s all about the crust and baking is a process of becoming one with the dough.
To Millie, my first boss at a local diner – she was the breakfast cook and, at the age of 15, I was the dishwasher. She would bring me over to her station when it was busy to flip pancakes, butter toast, and keep the home fries coming. This was my first introduction to “cooking” – I was hooked.
To my parents, who during my early teenage years, both worked – leaving me at home after school to finish dinner and get it ready for the family meal. Being a latch key kid helped to formulate my interest in the kitchen.
To Meta Bofinger, owner of the Blue Gentian Restaurant in Saranac Lake, who told me that the flavor of the food you prepare is influenced by the love that you have for the craft and the appreciation you have for the guest.
To that Hotel GM who interviewed me for a supervisor position right out of college. He took the time to point out all that I didn’t know, said no to my application and told me to spend more time in the kitchen and gradually work my way into management. I took his advice.
To the chef at the Buffalo Statler Hilton Hotel who accepted my application into the kitchen apprenticeship program. I learned about team and spent time in every department during my two years at the property.
To Frank Shores who brought me on board at his restaurant in Orchard Park and showed me that to be successful in the restaurant business you have to count all the oranges and watch every penny.
To Ed Weibrecht who hired me at his newly acquired Mirror Lake Inn even though he didn’t have an opening. He just had a good feeling about me and took a chance. He showed me that your gut feelings are important. We have maintained a strong professional relationship for 44 years. He taught me that dining in a restaurant is best when it is part of a total experience that encompasses all of the human senses.
To Dr. Woods at Paul Smith’s College who hired me as a totaling inexperienced teacher without even asking for a resume. I spent 26 years there, finished a bachelors and masters degree, started the culinary programs, and helped to build them into prominence. I never knew that this would be part of my professional destiny.
To Fran Peroni who was my first cooking skills teacher and later peer educator who helped me build the first culinary curriculum for Paul Smith’s College.
To Master Chef Anton Flory for encouraging me to compete as a chef and brought me into the fold of the New England Culinary Olympic Team. More than anything else in my career – this changed and solidified my path. We competed and brought home the gold from the Culinary Olympics in Germany.
To my teammates on the Culinary Team: Roland Czekelius, Anton Flory, Neil Connolly, Danny Varano, Michael Beriau, Joe Faria, Charles Carroll, Walter Zuromski, George Higgins, and Lars Johansson – who taught me about the power of team, the importance of honesty in critique, the dynamic of friendship, and the significance of confidence. Of course, my culinary skills improved immensely during the process.
To Dick Marecki from Rochester Institute of Technology who convinced me to pursue a masters degree and dedicate my teaching life to relaying the importance of service economics.
To Jim Jacobs who was a consummate teacher who frustrated the hell out of me, but showed me that growth comes from asking “why”.
To Mary Petersen who helped me to grow my network of exceptional educators – people who always make me realize that I still have so much to learn.
To Kenneth Weissberg who provided countless opportunities for me to visit and learn from European chefs, bakers, wine makers, cheese enthusiasts, and historians. He made the connection between French cooking and American cuisines a personal mission.
To so many cooks and chefs – many of them former students, who always helped me to question my own abilities, taught me more than they realize, and made me so proud to say that I am a chef and a teacher. To name a few: Curtiss Hemm, Kevin O’Donnell, Tim Hardiman, Tim McQuinn, Jamie Keating, Jamie Prouten, David Frocione, John McBride, Vicky Breyette, Jarrad Lang, Jody Winfield, Kris Angle, Jennifer Beach, Rebekah Alford, Jennette Siegel, Michael Garnish, Mark Fitzgerald, Robin Schempp, Steve Schimoler and hundreds of others.
To those who are masters of hospitality and know that service is as, if not more, important than the food that we love to prepare. Thanks to Tracey Caponera, Kristin Parker, Katie Welch, Christine McCoy, Anne Alsina, Noelle Weissberg, Brian Perry, and Wally Ganzi to name a few.
To David Meyers for including me in his incredible placement service allowing me to work with clubs looking for that right chef to bring their brand into prominence.
To Curtiss Hemm who encouraged me to start writing a blog. Harvest America Cues is well on the way to hitting 2 million views in the near future.
To Jack Edwards, Alfonse Mellot, Daniel Chotard, Terry Robards, and all of my fellow wine lovers who helped to build my appreciation for the beverage made from the fruit of the vine, and the passion of the wine maker.
To all of my consulting clients over the past eight years who helped me to grow in understanding and build on my portfolio of knowledge with each project that comes my way.
And, of course, to my wife of 45 years, my incredible children, and pretty spectacular grandkids who humor me, put up with my flaws, and keep me centered while giving me enough space to do what I love.
I know I have left some people out – not intentional. I appreciate you and realize more and more every day that you are a part of who I am today.
For most people this will be a different Thanksgiving, a day without the traditional celebrations of large family gatherings, a day with far too much leftover turkey as we attempt to keep some semblance of normality through the bounty of the table. Even though those we care about the most may remain spread out across the country and social distancing is measured in hundreds of miles instead of six feet – there is still plenty to be grateful for. We can be grateful for whatever health we are able to enjoy, for the memories of those whom we have lost over the years, and the prospect of a happier and hopeful 2021.
We can be grateful for faith and science that has carried us through this most difficult time and that will allow us to rise up anew – refreshed and positive as the virus is slowly brought under control. We can be hopeful that what seems to have separated us will now help us to heal and come together. When we look in a mirror there will always be more that unites us than tears us apart. We can be thankful that Mother Nature carries on with her work – the snow will be here soon, the crisp air will wake us in the morning, holiday lights will brighten our day, and the season of giving will have even more meaning this year. We can be thankful that this crisis serves as a wake-up call – an alert that allows us to remember what is truly important: family, health, friends, traditions, and that our longing to bring all of those blessings together will be rewarded soon enough.
We can be immensely thankful for those tireless individuals who risked their own wellbeing so that we could continue on with our lives during this pandemic: doctors, nurses, grocers, cashiers, first responders, medical technicians, postal carriers, farmers, fisherman, cooks and chefs, servers, FedEx and UPS drivers, teachers, and those in the trades who still managed repairs when their safety was tested. How would we have managed through this without them? We can certainly be grateful for ZOOM – this is a gift that allowed us to work from home, stay connected with our families, and even talk with our health care providers when a person-to-person visit was not possible.
For restaurants, chefs, cooks, and servers – this is a particularly difficult holiday season. Thanksgiving and Christmas Week, New Years Eve, Presidents Week, and Valentines Day are some of the busiest restaurant days of the year – especially during a season that has little to offer small restaurant businesses otherwise. This year will not be the same. We won’t see the elaborate holiday buffets, full dining rooms of families looking for a break from cooking at home, restaurants enjoying the seasonal increase in marriage proposals and planning for weddings, and of course those Santa visits to eager youngsters dressed up for the Christmas Eve buffet. There will be less need for kitchens filled with cooks working overtime, and servers hoping to receive those extra generous gratuities that will make their family holiday season a little brighter. Maybe it’s a good thing – maybe the industry needs to re-evaluate the importance of allowing their staff to be home with their own families during this time of the year and maybe those traditions of family kitchens filled with relatives trying to lend a hand at dinner will return as we collectively relish the way it once was.
Like other businesses, especially those small businesses that make up the backbone of our economy, this has been a catastrophic year. Some closed their doors and will not reopen; others have struggled to hang on with hope of a better tomorrow. Those who remain will be different when this is all over. They may look different, offer a new product or service, and will certainly be aware that how they deliver those products or services to the public will be different. They will need your support as never before. Those who could not weather the storm should know that other opportunities will arise and they will need our encouragement and engagement as well. We will be different in another year – different, but in many ways better, stronger, and more in tune with what needs to be done.
We may not enjoy those large gatherings at home or in restaurants this year, but we still know that the heart and soul of this season is all about appreciating what we have and looking forward to what will come next. This can happen in your dining room, in your local restaurant, or breaking bread via a ZOOM call that brings everyone together to smile, laugh, and enjoy the moment, even if virtually.
Next year will require that we remain vigilant and patient. It will require that we muster up the positive energy and courage to do what is right for our families, our neighbors, and ourselves. This is a time to give thanks for those connections and to remain strong while science does its work and the world collectively takes another step towards winning this battle.
After we have persevered – whether it is the Spring, Summer, Fall or beyond – it may be time to ask: “what have we learned and how will we act moving forward?” One thing for sure, we have all assessed and reassessed our priorities over the past few months – let us not forget what we learned in the process.
Happy Thanksgiving everyone; be safe, be well, love your family, cherish your friends, break bread and raise a glass, and let’s move through this as a stronger, more unified, compassionate country of 330 million people.
It seems that every time I check my email or flip through postings in social media – there is another restaurant, food business, or culinary school preparing to close their doors. It is heartbreaking to read of life visions dashed and even long-standing, viable businesses choosing to throw in the towel. I am writing this to tell you that, in most cases, this does not have to be the storyline.
There is no shortage of organizations established to support their segment of a far-reaching industry. We have organizations for bakers, pastry chefs, savory chefs, executive chefs, corporate chefs, club chefs, restaurateurs, cooks dedicated to sustainability, whole food chefs, college food service directors, culinary educators, hoteliers, club managers, dietitians and nutritionists, vegetable farmers, dairy farmers, cheese makers, servers, bartenders, mixologists, grape growers, wine makers, and sommeliers. Each has a focus on issues and opportunities for their particular group, but rarely do they talk effectively with one another.
I tend to try and separate cause and effect – knowing that nothing will truly change unless we identify cause and focus on that. Restaurants, culinary schools, producers, and those in the beverage business are suffering because of the pandemic, but there were (and still are) plenty of other crisis situations facing these segments long before Covid-19. Restaurant profits are too low, finding competent staff is far too difficult, prices of ingredients keep rising, rents are out of sight, culinary school enrollment continues to decline, competition is too expansive, cost of an education doesn’t match rates of pay, industry pay scales and benefit offerings are too low, and marketing is way too confusing in the era of technology and social media. How many of these challenges might be addressed if all of these silo groups actually viewed themselves as part of the same business and worked together?
Here are some things that I know to be true:
 Restaurants Will Rise Up Again
When WWI and WWII ended – restaurants and bars were some of the first businesses to recover. When the Great Depression came to an end – restaurants and bars positioned themselves to thrive. As we rebuilt American pride after 9/11 – restaurants stood in position to greet a reinvigorated American spirit. Following the economic devastation of 2008 – restaurants hunkered down for months and then came back refreshed and charged up. And when we are able to bring the pandemic under control – the same recovery for restaurants will be the case. Restaurants and bars will be different; their product, service, and method of operation will likely change – but they will rise up again.
 Culinary Schools Will Be In Demand Again
Those schools that self-evaluate and communicate effectively with the industry they serve will always be needed. The question is – are they willing to change? The purpose of colleges is to teach, prepare, train and connect students with the rest of their lives. The purpose is not to generate degrees. When they start to look at the relevance of products that they offer and diversify from the standard degree; and once they connect better with the industry that hires their graduates, they will stand tall and thrive. Schools cannot continue to exist in their own bubble – creating content that fails to align with the industry they serve. They cannot continue to create programs that place graduates in debt for 20-years following graduation and, they cannot remain effective unless they deliver an education model that takes advantage of industry partnerships.
 Bars Will Once Again Become a Preferred Meeting Place
People love to gather, to connect with friends and make new ones. Restaurants and bars have always served that purpose and they will again once people are comfortable with being out in public. In fact, I would dare to guess that bars, in particular, would find themselves busier than ever before.
 Smaller Farms Will Become Essential Once Again
One thing that has become very apparent during this pandemic is that our supply chain is far more fragile than we thought. Compound this with the impact of climate change on centralized production and we have a real concern that reaches far beyond the altruistic and environmental reasons for connecting with local farms. Although a very difficult business – the opportunities for smaller regional and local farms will only grow. But, farmers and chefs must work together to create this model. Neither can exist in a vacuum. The farmer needs to grow what the chef is looking for and the chef must create more fluid menus that take advantage of growing cycles and the quality derived from peak crop maturity.
 Great Bread Will Be Even More Important to Restaurants in the Future
One thing that we have learned over the past two decades is that great bread is essential to a great restaurant experience. We have also discovered that artisan style bread is preferred over the tasteless, poorly structured products that were prevalent in the American diet for decades. For those who are willing to learn and invest the intense amount of effort – artisan bread will be in much higher demand – thus a business opportunity.
 Private Entrepreneurship Will Prevail in the American Restaurant Industry
Those who have been most impacted by the pandemic are the small, privately owned restaurants in America. Tens of thousands will close their doors, yet the American dream of entrepreneurship will rise up from the ashes and restaurants that have always been, and will once again become – a first choice for those who want to leap into ownership. If banks can become more “user friendly” for restaurants and landlords more reasonable with rent, then your neighborhood restaurant will return – maybe with new owners, certainly with new concepts, and a fresh way of serving the needs of a community.
 More and More People Will Seek to Eat Healthy as They Understand the Impact on Health and Wellbeing
It is inevitable that our obsession with healthcare will lead a larger percentage of the population to work on preventative issues such as obesity, diabetes, cancer, and heart issues – all are linked to the type of food, the method of cooking, and the amount that we eat. Restaurants will need to respond, and they will.
 Profitability and Challenges with the Labor Market Will Eventually Find Common Ground
Restaurants are and always have been highly labor intensive while remaining very stingy with profit. The answer has always been to skimp on rates of pay and benefits creating an ever-challenging swinging door of employees moving from operation to operation for a few pennies more in pay. The likely answer is to change the way we look at production and service leading to more efficient operations requiring fewer employees that can be paid a fair wage with reasonable benefits. Something has to give.
Now, if we can unify our efforts around these realities, if we can connect all of those silo driven organizations to work together for common solutions, then the business of food will thrive and become far more resilient before the next crisis strikes.