Nancy Silverton is likely best known for introducing the country to La Brea breads. From meager beginnings as a small artisan bread bakery, La Brea grew to become a national representative of the craft bread movement in America. No longer involved in the company she sold, Chef Silverton, is owner and operator of Mozza Restaurant where exceptional Northern Italian dishes are highlighted on the menu. But it is her sporadically offered grilled cheese on her crunchy sour dough bread that draws crowds and calls for a label of “perfection”. When offered, it quickly sells out because people are always drawn to perfection. It is elusive, hard to define, impossible to reach, yet easy to relish when it is almost achieved. You know it, when you see it, feel it, smell it, or taste it.
Anyone who is passionate about their craft is always in pursuit of the A++ result. The best cup of coffee, best omelet, best burger, best barbeque, or most outstanding steak is the carrot dangling in front of every chef or cook. By best, what is meant is “perfection”. We seek it without really knowing how to define it. We attempt to set a course to arrive at perfection but are unsure of the direction to go, where to start, or where we will end up. Is perfection a thing or is it a mindset, a motivator leading to a dead end. Or might it simply be an attitude of wanting to always push the envelope and get better. Good is not good enough, we must be great. Great falls a little short until we reach excellence, and excellence – well we know what comes next; or do we mean – what comes last?
Maybe perfection is not a thing, it is the pursuit that excites and gratifies. If you get there, what comes next? Do we move from that perfect grilled cheese sandwich to another menu item? Is perfection the same as complex or is it really connected to simplicity? Are chefs with a focus on perfection simply like a dog chasing its tail, or are they setting a course towards something that can be grabbed and celebrated? Lots of questions without answers.
Vince Lombardi, considered by many to be the greatest football coach of all time said:
“Perfection is not attainable, but if we chase perfection, we can catch excellence.”
So then, if perfect is not attainable, why chase it? Well, as Lombardi inferred it is a way of approaching anything, not necessarily a goal. Attainment is a mindset rather than an end game. It is that carrot just a bit too far out of reach that it can’t be grabbed, but in the process of pursuit we push ourselves as far as possible with that goal in mind.
Chef Charlie Trotter may have offered the best rationale:
“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 truly significant, excellence must become a life plan.”
Elusive as perfection might be, so many chefs jump out of bed in the morning with their sights on the prize. They work to find the best purveyors of ingredients, develop relationships with farmers, ranchers, fishermen, and cheesemakers to stock their shelves with the right raw materials. They hone their skills through trial and error, repetition, and the pursuit of knowledge. They hire and train the most dedicated professionals to execute the plan, and they are always focused on the details. Taste is coaxed out of ingredients through dedication to process, aromas are built with an understanding of how they marry together, and plate presentations represent an appreciation for the visual arts; the beauty of fresh, natural ingredients; and the symmetry of food on a well-designed canvas – the plate. In their mind is always that pursuit of the carrot.
It’s only food to some, it is a focus on purpose for chefs. It makes little difference what type of cuisine, whether it is fine dining or your local pizza shop or if the price point is under $10 or over $200 – the pursuit is the same and the end result of this focus is excellence; and then they can sleep at night knowing that tomorrow it will be time to start all over trying to get just a little bit better than today.
From this pursuit comes failure and failure is a great teacher. From failure comes new ideas and flaws that make a product or process interesting. If perfection were to be achieved, then what would be left to do? Some of the greatest products, processes, and art have come from the flaws that are a biproduct of the pursuit of perfection. To this end, the process is what is most important. Without this pursuit we would not have cell phones, computers, light bulbs, airplanes, incredible wines, or restaurants that take our breath away. It may be elusive, but perfection is the inspiration that pushes us forward.
“Perfection is impossible, but you don’t stop aiming for it.”
An honest day’s work for an honest day’s wages is an American colloquialism that has been a call to arms for generations. What does it imply, what does it really mean, and how does it apply to today?
On the surface this statement of fact implies that if you put in the effort, and do what is expected, then you can and should expect a fair wage for your effort. But it infers the reason for work is to earn money and little more. On the surface, this statement does not allow for the enjoyment and fulfillment that comes from being good at what you do and investing in quality work – work that can and should provide a sense of accomplishment. We spend fifty years, or more, working to earn a living; that’s 70% of our lives putting in an honest day’s work for an honest day’s wages. Shouldn’t it be more meaningful than what this statement implies?
Let’s first define what “work” means?
To many, work is a means to an end, something we do because it is necessary to survive, a process at some level, is painful or a thing to dread. Far too many people put in their time, punch a clock, do what is necessary to grab that check at the end of the day. No question, this is a goal we all have, one of critical importance. But is this all there is?
On the other hand, it has been said: “Find what you love to do and never work a day in your life.” I understand the point being made, but this again points to “work” is normally something to dread, something involving sustained pain or anguish at some level.
Work is a noble pursuit, something to relish rather than regret. I much prefer the definition by Val Kinjerski:
“The spirit in work is about finding meaning and purpose, beyond self, through work. It involves profound feelings of wellbeing, a belief that one’s work makes a contribution, a sense of connection to others and common purpose, and an awareness of a connection to something larger than self.”
-Val Kinjerski, Ph.D.
This may seem obscure and even a bit naïve to some, but it is an approach that gives back in so many other ways than just financial compensation. It is an approach that provides an opportunity to greet the day with excitement rather than remorse.
Rather than focus on the word “work” as associated with something we must do, I prefer to emphasize the words “effort and impact”. To make a difference in our world, to find satisfaction and feel good about ourselves knowing we are purposeful, we must invest in our effort and our impact.
When we do this, the positive results will be felt by all who surround us, and we will be able to look in a mirror and say: “what I do is important”. To get there we need to INVEST in ourselves and our craft. Whether what we do is physical, mental, emotional, or all the above – it is this investment that allows us to be impactful. When this happens then work becomes energizing rather than exhausting; inspiring rather than depressing; and fulfilling rather than discouraging.
“To fulfill a dream, to be allowed to sweat over lonely labor, to be given a chance to create, is the meat and potatoes of life. The money is the gravy.”
-Bette Davis (actress)
To some, it is rest that they seek. Not just those closing in on retirement, but even those of the most productive years – middle age. Is it rest that gives us a feeling of purpose? Is it rest that brings happiness? Is it rest that allows us to make a difference? Dylan Thomas the American poet said it well:
“He who seeks rest finds boredom. He who seeks work (as it is described above) finds rest.”
So, as a cook, a chef, or any other restaurant employee how does this apply? How can we find fulfillment in work and truly make a difference? Try this on for size:
 Assuming we all want to reach a level of confidence drawn from competence, every restaurant employee owes it to themselves to seek excellence in their craft. INVEST in yourself, seek ways EVERY DAY to improve, to learn, to be inspired, and to grow. Ask others how to improve, connect with resources that allow for this to happen. Approach each day as an opportunity to add something new to your bag of tricks. The better you become at your craft, the greater the impact on others, and trust me: THE HAPPIER YOU WILL BECOME.
 Know that every task you perform is important. No task is pointless and certainly no task is worthy of anything less than your best effort.
 Relish the opportunity to work with others, share ideas, seek their guidance, and share yours, celebrate their accomplishments and be thankful when they celebrate yours.
 Be humble and hungry. Know where you need to improve and seek out those ways to do so. Be a sponge and soak up all you can.
 Sweat the details and know everything counts.
 Take pride in how you look, what you know, your willingness to learn, who you are, and the craft you are associated with.
 Sign your work. Look at every task you are assigned as something that carries your signature: “I did this!” Take pride in the effort and invest in being extraordinary at the work. It makes no difference if it is mopping the kitchen floor or presenting a beautiful plate of food in the pass – it all counts, it all carries your signature, it is your way to be impactful and fulfilled. Be excellent – make it your habit, not your goal.
“If a man is called to be a street sweeper, he should sweep streets even as a Michelangelo painted, or Beethoven composed music or Shakespeare wrote poetry. He should sweep streets so well that all the hosts of heaven and earth will pause to say, ‘Here lived a great street sweeper who did his job well.”
-Martin Luther King, Jr.
If you do all of this, then you will be on the path to fulfillment, and, by the way – your approach, your skill level, your competence, and your confidence will pay off financially. Let work be something you look forward to, part of your purpose, your contribution to your own self-worth and your “difference maker”.
There is another side to the challenges of labor in the restaurant business. From a cook’s perspective there has never been a better time to work in a kitchen than right now. This may seem contrary to all the clamor around an acute shortage of help, a loss of sizzle for those considering a life in front of the range, and all the one-sided press that depicts restaurant work as too demanding with little payback. From adversity comes opportunity.
The real joy of cooking comes from a person’s ability to express their history, their life experiences, their family heritage – on the plate. Your best cooking is never contrived. It doesn’t come from a recipe book, or a menu designed to appease a restaurants clientele – it comes from the heart and soul; it is cooking you connect with. The plate represents who and what you are and how you got to this point in time.
When the restaurant cycle is stressed by poor economics or over saturation of competition, when there are more cooks than there are kitchen positions; cooks accept employment to survive. When there are more opportunities than there are available cooks, then those who are strong representatives of who and what they are, are in a much better position to be selective of those opportunities and even impact what restaurant serve, and the type of food they represent. This is exactly where we are today.
This is a time when restaurants who want to thrive and move from good to great must seek out the very best, passionate, accomplished, serious cooks – ones who are looking for an opportunity to represent themselves on the plate. Those restaurants must thus consider giving some latitude for cook’s and chef’s to be who they are and cook what they know. This is the time for cooks to be themselves, to be authentic and express their love of the craft.
If your heritage is growing up on a farm, then your style is drawn from ingredients that were on the vine, the tree, or in the earth a few hours before they wound up on the plate. Relationships with farms and the source of those ingredients is essential, anything less is contrary to who you are. If you grew up in the Carolinas, Georgia, or Alabama then grits, heritage beans, bitter greens, bacon, game birds, pork, and all things barbeque are the essence of your identity. This, in many cases, will be you, your background, the food that you grew up on, and the food that gives you pleasure. This is what you need to cook and what defines the cook you are.
If you had the opportunity to travel then each of those travel experiences builds your portfolio of skill, but also the heart that drives your cooking. It is the travel and connections with different cultures that defines your style. If you were raised in New England then it’s all about lobster, cod, oysters, clams, and scallops. This is you, this is part of your core, and this is how you cook best. You cook in the same manner that you breathe; it is second nature; to step away from this is to lose your uniqueness.
With this opportunity comes responsibility. What are you trying to say with your cooking. Without your voice and your experiences behind it – cooking can be quite shallow. You need to decide if you are serving food or bringing guests into your story. To be authentic you must immerse yourself in everything that defines your life, your family’s life, your point of origin, and those life experiences that are part of your time on this planet. Find your story, know your story, live your story, and tell your story to the world through your food. It’s that important for serious cooks. It is your opportunity and your responsibility to study, to get to the roots of that heritage, to know the people that surround it, and to become one with that background. Only then will you be authentic.
This is the time of the serious cook and chef. This is the time when you can shine and when others must listen to who you are and how you need to cook, to represent, to be expressive.
We cook what and who we are. Anything less is simply not right for the serious cook. Be that person and others will respond with a smile; and by the way guests will line up to share in your story.
When was the last time you bought a product, listened to a band, read a book, took in a view, or enjoyed a meal that gave you pause? When was the last time you stopped and said: “WOW?” How many times has an experience with service, a view, a phrase, a lyric, or a plate of food literally taken your breath away? Isn’t this what we hope for? Isn’t this what provides excitement in life and helps us to jump out of bed in the morning? Aren’t we all after those WOW experiences? Hopefully, you can point to a few of those moments in recent years, those moments when an experience brings a smile to your face, a sense of awe and wonder, and maybe even a tear of sheer joy, but it seems that they are rare unless you are on a focused mission, a dedicated pursuit to find them.
That first iPhone was a wow – something only dreamed of at the time, revolutionary in its power and potential. The Concorde that was able to fly from New York to Paris in two hours was a real wow for business travelers. Michael Jordan, Kobe Bryant, and LeBron James were a wow. Thomas Edison was a WOW inventor who changed the world. Jeff Beck and Jimmy Hendrix were a wow, and Charlie Trotter, Thomas Keller, and Ferran Adria were all a wow with their unique interpretations of food. Why is it so rare? Why is a wow experience isolated to a few crazy innovators who also charge loads of money to see and feel what they are capable of offering? Why can’t more experiences be of the WOW caliber?
All of those listed came about because certain individuals chose to invest the time, and effort to excel, to push forward, to bring groundbreaking ideas to fruition. Sure, there is talent involved, but talent without dedication and hard work rarely leads to wow products or experiences. Talent is never enough. Ironically though, hard work and dedication can, in some instances, make up for a lack of extraordinary talent. So, what gives? Do people give up too quickly on the pursuit of “over the top” excellence? Never forget that Michael Jordan practiced relentlessly. He threw 100 free throws before every game so that he could be one with the zone. The iPhone was imagined before anyone had the expertise to build it – but it was the vision and hard work that brought it to completion. Trotter, Keller, and Adria worked relentlessly to define and execute their vision on a plate and push their team members to have the same level of dedication. You too can be part of WOW.
When in pursuit of WOW, we must embrace a model of engagement that breaks free of the barriers to excellence. We must push aside doubt and a can’t do attitude and look at anything and everything as “possible”. Here are twelve thoughts, a few traits each of the visionaries/companies possessed:
Those involved in creating WOW are always dreaming of what could be, how to make the impossible-possible, how to improve people’s lives or re-define what excellence looks like. They color outside the lines and never allow tradition to define limitations. They never stop dreaming.
 NEVER SAY NEVER:
Those involved in creating WOW are adamant about finding solutions and getting to that point of excellence that dreams are made of. A few words are erased from their repertoire: can’t, won’t, impossible, no, and surrender.
 TEAM BUILDERS:
Those WOW aficionados know the only real way to arrive at excellence and WOW is to build a team of people just as committed to excellence but willing to challenge the thoughts currently on the table.
They work at it. Repetition is the key to exceptional skill development. Try, correct, repeat; try, correct, repeat.
 ACCEPT FAILURE AS AN OPPORTUNITY:
WOW advocates embrace failure because they know that failure is a learning opportunity. Success will rarely come without some failure along the way. Thomas Edison is known for remarkable innovations that changed the world, yet few remember that he failed hundreds of times in the process. Babe Ruth hit 714 home runs in his career, but he also struck out 488 times.
 DO THE WORK:
Ambassadors of excellence put in the effort – ALWAYS! They know that excellence never comes easily, it requires time and effort – more than most are willing to give.
 PUSH ASIDE WHAT PEOPLE WANT AND THINK ABOUT WHAT THEY WILL WANT:
WOW never happens when we simply fulfill needs. WOW happens when we provide the totally unexpected; when we knock people’s socks off; when we re-invent the wheel; when we bring something to the table that no one else has even thought about.
 NEVER BE SATISFIED:
Those individuals or companies that have changed something in their market have done so because they looked at what they were doing and said: “This is not good enough. This doesn’t excite or give people pause. I need to totally rethink everything.”
 SEEK PERFECTION EVEN THOUGH IT CAN NEVER BE REACHED:
There is a story about a high-end auto manufacturer whose new television ad showed their car tooling down a city street with the windows closed in near complete silence. The ad stated: “When you drive our car the only thing you will hear is the ticking of the clock.” With his top management around the table, the CEO asked: “So, what are we going to do about the clock?” Never accept “good enough”.
 LOOK IN A MIRROR AND ASK IF YOU ARE WORTHY:
We all take up space and put in our time, but a few choose to make that dent in the universe. The movers and shakers who re-define a market are the ones who look in that mirror and ask: “Am I worthy of this time spent?” Make a difference– be excellent.
 HAVE FUN AND LET IT BE KNOWN:
As hard as they work, as driven as they may be – the WOW engineers enjoy what they do. Why else bother?
Your name is, in many respects, a reflection of the person you are, your personal history, and a proclamation of respect for those who came before you. That word represents your life and all that has been invested in bringing you to this point; it is how you are known and how you hope to be remembered. Your name is an expression of your individuality, an affirmation of your skills, a statement of pride. You use your name freely but do so knowing the way it is used is important. Putting your name on or next to something means it represents all that you are. So, use it wisely – grasshopper.
When you were in school, signing your work was a requirement. “Who did this?” You were required to write it prominently in a specific spot on the page so anyone who read it knew the person responsible. Good, bad, or indifferent – this was YOUR work. If it wasn’t up to par, not your best effort, or below standards then YOU felt the shame in not being “all-in”. No one wants to feel this way, so hopefully you used it as motivation to improve, to put forth greater effort and reach for the carrot of accomplishment. Others – peers, parents, or even teachers might label you as not having what it takes which was incredibly painful. But, as hard as that was to swallow, you knew such is life and you could either retreat and accept their judgement or step forward, put in exceptional effort, and prove them wrong. Your name is very important and depending on how it is used – incredibly powerful.
After school is complete, the power of your name continues to hold on to your sense of worth – sometimes driving you to improve, other times serving as a sign of your lack of effort or ability. The name is mighty! Yet, in too many situations this power is lost to those around us. It lies dormant, uninspired, and diminished. What if that were not the case? What if those around us – peers, neighbors, friends, employers, and even competitors unleashed the power of your name, and like many years before, required it to portray the person behind the work, the statement, and the opinion? What if you were required to sign your work: “I did this!”
For the cook or chef – what if every plate leaving the kitchen carried a business card with your name and contact information? Remember those clothing companies that use to have the name of the employee who checked the garment for quality before it was sent to market? “This garment was inspected for quality by John D.” What if the same was insisted upon in restaurants? Now, this is not literal, I’m just making a point. Think about it.
If that plate of food were to carry your name and contact information, would you approach it differently? Would you take care to make sure it was prepared perfectly? Would you take that extra few seconds to make the presentation of ingredients was beautiful? Would you invest the time to ensure the flavor profile was right and the ingredients used were the best representation of the farmer who grew the vegetables, the fisherman who risked his life miles from shore to net the freshest product, or the cattleman who cared for that Black Angus steer? What if you, with your name stitched on the face of your uniform had to deliver that plate of food to the guest and introduce yourself in the process: “May name is Jack Jones, and I prepared this dish”? I dare say, you would make sure it was a perfect reflection on your name and your history. When a person’s work is anonymous then they can easily relinquish responsibility and point the finger elsewhere.
The idea for this article began years ago when I was helping a friend come up with a name for her restaurant. I knew the name would be important because it would or at least should be a statement and a reflection of what the guest could expect. I read through countless restaurant names – ones of prominent operations across the country as well as small neighborhood operations in villages and towns within her region. Some reflected ethnicity, others historical significance; many reflected a focus on specific dishes while others made the connection to a street address. None stood out more than those with the name of the owner emblazoned on the marque. At first, like many, I thought a restaurant called Chef Pierre’s, or Jack’s Diner seemed to be egocentric, but the more I thought about it, the more it seemed to be brilliant. Chef Pierre was making a statement and in essence providing a guarantee. “This is MY restaurant, it carries MY name, MY history, and reflects MY commitment to what I do. If you need to applaud anyone, applaud me. If you need to blame anyone, blame me.” So, think about it – powerful, right? Pierre is putting himself out there and signing his work. Risky, but powerful.
I thought of Daniel Boulud, Dominique Crenn, or Jean-Georges Vongerichten, whose names sit prominently on their restaurant awnings. Now they, their employees, and guests know everything that happens in those restaurants is a prominent reflection on them. For this to work, that chef/operator must instill that importance in their staff. Every person must proceed with their work understanding every work detail in their hands reflects on the reputation of that chef. They must train, teach, respect, trust, and lead all those employees so they believe in this mission and follow through as if it were their own signatures. From the guest’s perspective it is the closest thing to a guarantee. Brilliant, yet incredibly difficult to pull off. This is not egocentric; it is a sign of real commitment to doing things right.
Do not ever underestimate the power of a person’s name – it is the single most important statement about an individual. Use this knowledge in all you do as a chef, manager, or owner. Everyone, yes EVERYONE relishes that first chef jacket received with their name EMBROIDERED on the pocket. Not a clip-on name tag, a part of the uniform. It means accomplishment, trust, and respect. It signifies belongingness to something great and recognition of responsibility. Anyone who claims this is not important is hiding their real feelings. It’s no different than that fingerpainting from kindergarten that a parent attaches to the refrigerator door. It is a statement: “this is great work, we are so proud, you have so much potential.” Learn their names and something about their history, address them with their names, put their names on your menu, do everything you can to help them understand those plates of food represent their history and their family. Help them sign their work. This is a key to excellence.
Everyone loves to cheer on a champion. I live in a community that has been host to two Winter Olympic Games (and more homegrown U.S. Olympians than most any other part of the country), University and Empire State Games, Can Am Hockey tournaments, Ironman competitions, Lacrosse Tournaments, and National Rugby Tournaments. This, of course, doesn’t even take into consideration the love that many residents have for their favorite professional baseball, basketball, hockey, soccer, or football team. You could say that champions and those who love to cheer them on, are at home here. What is it about our passion for the highest level of success – even if it is the success of others?
To so many people success breaks free of the boundaries of “satisfied”, or “good”. There is a desire to be around and to relish the feeling of “greatness” and the ability to push the limits beyond what seems likely. Fast leads to a desire to be faster; creative must be pushed to reinvention; and excellence must naturally move on to perfection. Most people want to make that dent in the universe – some sit back and hope for it to happen, while a few choose to put in extraordinary effort to make it happen. It is to the latter group that this article is offered. Champions don’t happen organically, they are made, usually self-made, by people who are willing to be: “All-in”. This applies to athletes, artists, academics, scientists, doctors, businesspeople, and yes – COOKS and CHEFS.
What does it mean for a cook or chef to be a champion? We typically associate champions with being uniquely exceptional or different in one or many areas. In the kitchen this might relate to how a cook functions at a particular station (broiler, sauté, garde manger, etc.) or in a specific approach towards the job (organization, speed, efficiency, plate presentations, palate). In the case of a chef, it could very well refer to excellence in all or most of those areas with an added caveat for creativity, cost control, leadership, or persona in the eyes of the guest. No matter how specific or broad the list of performance skills – the way professionals in the kitchen approach their craft is very similar. Champions act universally, like other champions do. So, for those cooks and chefs who have visions of being champions in their field – here is a BAKER’S DOZEN of attributes and efforts that can lead to the prize.
Champions are positive people. They always see the bright side even when circumstances appear to be bleak. Champions almost never say “Can’t or Won’t”, but instead find a way to boast “Can” or “Will”.
Champions know they will find a way to get things done at a very high level; they understand they can and will solve the problem before them and find a way to win. They possess this confidence because they worked hard at becoming COMPETENT.
 A DESIRE TO LEARN:
Champions are excited to learn and grow. They seek out opportunities to improve through learning experiences. They never feel as if they know it all, but rather are humbled by how much is still left to learn.
Champions are totally focused on the task at hand, the job they are scheduled to perform, the people around them and how their work intertwines, and the expected results. “Being there” physically, mentally, and emotionally is the only way they approach their work.
 BEING PREPARED:
Champions make it their responsibility to know what lies ahead and to prepare for what might occur. They also prepare for what they don’t know is ahead realizing life sometimes throws a curve ball. Measure twice and cut once is not just a rule of thumb for carpenters – it applies to the kitchen as well and champion cooks insist on thinking things through. If it can go wrong and you don’t prepare for that outcome, then it will definitely go wrong.
 GRACE UNDER FIRE:
Champion cooks and chefs are able to keep their cool regardless of how busy it might be, how many different directions they are being pulled, and even when situations begin to unravel. They know that others depend on their coolness and know if they succumb to panic, then panic and chaos will result.
Champions believe in the Japanese commitment to constant improvement, or kaizen. However good they become at a certain task or job; they always know they can be better. Champions are never totally satisfied with their own work.
Champions act in a manner others can depend on. They are disciplined in how they look, act towards others, approach their job, implement proper procedures, and align with standards of excellence.
It is always obvious that champions love what they do. For cooks and chefs, it is total immersion in the craft, the ingredients and their source, flavors, presentations, and how their work impacts the dining public.
 YOUR OWN WORST CRITIC:
Championship cooks and chefs never need to be critiqued for their performance – they have already done so themselves. However, a supervisor or guest might point to how a dish might be improved upon, the champion cook has already dived into self-critique and poked and prodded until he or she has a plan for improvement.
 WORK ETHIC:
Hard work is always a given with champions. They put the time and effort in and rarely need to be told to do so. They practice and review, practice and review, practice, and review until it gets as close to perfection as it seems possible and then they go back to it and work even harder to find that elusive goal.
Champions are never self-proclaimed winners – they know that their success is attributed to others, and they show respect for those who are part of the process, the ingredients that make their work possible, the tools that give them leverage, and the work environment that brings it all together.
Finally, but not to infer championship ends with this list, the respect champion cooks have is closely aligned to the existence of and connection with a team of equal caliber champion teammates.
“A true champion is one who sweats from exhaustion when no one is watching.”
Here’s is a wakeup call, a piece of information everyone should pay attention to. It’s simple and poignant – cooks are essential. Let’s look at the hard data first: In the U.S. there are 1.3 million active-duty members of the U.S. military, 1.3 million lawyers (scary), 1.1 million doctors, 1.6 million truckers, 1.2 million performers/musicians, 3 million teachers, and well over 2.5million cooks. We are a force!
From a purely economic perspective – cooks have a real impact on the national economy, the quarterly jobs reports, and the operation of more than 1 million restaurants that are part of the economic pulse of communities from New York to California and Chicago to New Orleans. We are a force!
We wake people up in the morning and provide the energy to start their engines, help them think clearly, stimulate creative work, and fire up the millions of businesses that make the country tick and drive America forward. We provide the platform for discussion and a vehicle that pulls people together as they seek to find common ground over a plate of food. We slow the pace at the end of the day and provide a forum for those same individuals to raise a glass, admire a plate of food, relish flavors that excite and give them hope for a bright future. We are a force!
Few things in life are more important than breaking bread, celebrating tradition, family, friends, accomplishments, and milestones over food that has meaning; food that represents history, culture, and good times. It is hard to remember any significant events in peoples’ lives that did not involve sitting at a table and breaking bread. This is where cooks come in, this is when cooks are there to help make a difference, to support the good times and provide common ground and calm when the storm takes over. We are a force!
With the realization of how important we are to the American way of life comes a responsibility to represent the best of our craft, to know that doing our job correctly is essential, being good at what we do is paramount, and holding our heads high as ambassadors for the proud history of cooking is an expectation. We cannot allow a few to demean what we do, disrespect that proud history, or represent the job of cook in anyway deemed unprofessional. This job is more than an exchange of time spent for a paycheck; it must be more than that if we are to remain a force.
Look in a mirror and ask the question:
“Am I representing all that a professional cook can and should? Do I not only realize but also act out the importance of the position and the impact what I do has on the profession? Do I wear the uniform with pride and am I committed to learning and growing as I master the craft?”
When you step into your kitchen is it with a sense of obligation to represent the very best, to become better at the job every day, and to respect those with whom we work and those who we serve? Let’s be that force.
To cook is to pay tribute to the person who grew or raised the ingredients we work with. To cook is to represent our own personal history and that of those who first thought of the processes and combinations of ingredients we work with. To cook is to be an ambassador for the millions of other cooks who hold the title.
Cooking is a noble craft, a set of skills that can never be fully mastered because there is so much to learn, and an art form that allows the cook to paint on the plate – his or her canvas. The canvas should be approached with care and the ingredients with a commitment to represent them well. Our art will be consumed and will nourish the body, mind, and spirit eventually becoming part of who the consumer is as a human being. No other art form can make this claim and witness these results. Yes, we can be a force if we take what we do, seriously.
Look at your job this way. Step into that kitchen with a sense of pride and wonder. Commit to being the best that you can be as you impact all who come in contact with the cook that you are. It is your opportunity, and it is your responsibility. Be part of the millions who will tie on an apron today and strive to make a difference in the world.
Represent the profession. Be that force! Do it today!
I am happy to share a commonality with many of the professional cooks and chefs with whom I have worked over decades in the kitchen. It is this commonality that drives us to do what we do, and it is this commonality that is in short supply nowadays. The commonality is our voice through food; a voice that is built through years of practice, history and tradition, environment and experiences, family and friends, and a cumulative portfolio of all these influences. What you see on the plate is who we are. What you experience in our kitchens is a mix of what life has presented us – some not so great, but mostly wonderful and even remarkable.
It’s interesting how much of this may not be apparent initially – like a great stock it takes time to develop. There is a foundation that is universal, but then the chef takes over and adds his or her signature to the mix. Underneath the years of trial and error, wins and losses, memorable days, and ones to forget – each of these culinary professionals relies on the basics to form a blueprint for expression. Knowledge of the foundations of cooking are essential just like the foundations of music theory are necessary for any expressive musician, or an understanding of color, shape, and texture set the stage for a painter or sculptor. We all begin there, and we all fall back on that understanding every day that we cook, play, or paint.
This is what keeps a cook in the game, this is what sets the stage for consistency and familiarity, this is the baseline that keeps a cook employable. From there a cook or chef is in control of where they go next, what their food will look, smell, and taste like – this is where a culinary professional goes to find their signature. The best cooks are always looking to build on those foundations, to find their voice. The best cooks are always aware of the opportunities that life brings to learn, grow, experience, and become a channel for each step of their journey. This is what inspires a person to stay the course and build a life in the kitchen.
You can see it in a menu, you can see and taste it on the plate, and you can feel it when you walk in their kitchen. The chefs who have found their voice, who have found a way to take what life has offered and use it as their inspiration, and then mold everything into who they are, are obvious to every stakeholder in the restaurant experience. Yes, they (we) can be sometimes obsessive and even eccentric, but you can’t deny that the result is interesting. You know this voice is present the minute you walk into a dining room or step foot in the kitchen – there is an energy hard to deny; an energy that permeates every part of the operation. The cooks who work there know it, the vendors who sell raw materials know it, the owner knows it, and every guest feels it before they even sit down for service.
That voice is the magic of a very good or even great restaurant. Once the voice is determined, all parts of the restaurant begin to fall in place. If the chef has grown in highly professional restaurants where structure and preciseness are the rule, then his or her kitchen will now look and feel that way. Uniforms will be pristine, the demeanor of cooks will be professional, knives will be sharp, and pans scrubbed clean. The coolers and storerooms will be organized, and prep sheets methodically built each day, and of course each plate of food will be designed with consistency in mind. The dining room will follow suit with standards of excellence in full swing. Place settings measured from the edge of the table, glassware lined up like soldiers in full dress, and the approach service staff members take in addressing a table will be tight and professional.
If the chef worked with inventive, inquisitive, never satisfied professionals, then his or her kitchen will thrive on the energy of stepping outside the lines. The menu will be unique with an approach that makes some question what is going on and others applaud at how exciting it might be. Each cook will feel comfortable straying a bit from the standardized approach while still paying due respect to those foundations. The voice of the kitchen will drive the voice of the dining room and the experience of the guest.
If the chef has worked with traditionalists who connect with farmers, fisherman, ranchers, and wine makers, then the operation will evolve around those relationships of respect for the ingredient and the work that the provider does. You will find an enthusiasm for what each cook has on their cutting board is evident in how materials are handled and stored, cared for, and prepared – showing reverence for the privilege of working with them. This will extend to the dining room as well where servers are just as knowledgeable and committed to the source as the chef and cooks.
When entering a restaurant, you will see and feel immediately how serious everyone is about food and beverage. This feeling is in the air because it relates to who the restaurant is – a living and breathing vehicle for the voice of the chef.
I have spent my career working with and admiring chefs and cooks like this. If asked why I chose a decades long life in front of a range, I would immediately talk about the individual and collective voice of this type of cook and chef. We appreciate each other, refer to each other, respect each other, and constantly learn from each other. What is interesting to me is how much our voice does evolve because of the openness we have to learning from each other. We rarely look at what we do as a job, it is who we are. The kitchen is our studio, our library, our musical score, and the plate is our canvas for expressing the life we have lived, the people we have known, the experiences that have come our way.
There are still many cooks and chefs who are seeking their voice, but far too many who have lost the inspiration to take the journey and collect what life has to offer. For them, the position of chef is a demanding job; for those who take the road towards their voice, the position is an opportunity to make a dent in the universe using food as their vehicle.
I am excited when I walk into an operation where that voice is evident. I want to be part of it, to see, smell, touch, and taste it. This is the place I want to be – with people who grabbed on to the opportunity to speak through their work. When I walk into an operation where this is not evident, I feel profound sadness over missed opportunities. Find your voice and know what it means to be all that you can be as a chef.
Let’s face it – everyone likes to win, and nobody likes to lose. I’m not sure if it is genetic or environmental, but our mental, physical, and emotional state is connected to the result of winning. Some of us know that winning takes loads of hard work, conditioning, and focus, while others hope they can win without the effort. But, regardless of the level of commitment to the end, we all try to avoid losing.
There are so many parallels in life that evolve around the reality of winning and as such it may be wise to try and learn something from it. So, here it is – the mantra to live by and the importance of this topic to those of us who spend a lifetime in kitchens: PEOPLE WANT TO ALIGN WITH WINNERS AND WORK FOR WINNING ORGANIZATIONS – PERIOD! It sounds nice to espouse the cliche: “It’s not whether you win or lose that matters, it’s how you play the game”, but if how you play the game leads to losing – there is little inspiration in the noble approach. The reality is it DOES matter if you win or lose AND it does matter that you play the game fairly, honestly, and with integrity. Winning feels good, losing does not.
Okay, so maybe how we define winning needs to evolve. In some instances – winning is not always based on a score: “He who accumulates the most points wins”, but we do know when a “win” has been achieved no matter how it is measured. Sometimes it simply means how you feel – whether you are satisfied with the results. But then we need to more clearly define the word “satisfied”. Did you meet yours or someone else’s expectations? Were your standards met, goals achieved, was progress made? In some way, shape, or form, there is a carrot at the end of the stick; something that either you established, a peer defined, or a boss/leader imposed. Reaching for that carrot may be enough to keep you going, reaching that carrot will help to fulfill you, and pushing the carrot even further out will either inspire or frustrate you. Measuring how the “carrot rule”, is applied is the job of the coach, manager, or in our case chef.
THE OWNER IMPACT:
The role of the owner – whether he or she owns a football, baseball, hockey, or basketball team is to provide the necessary tools towards the vision of winning and define how far out the initial carrot is held. “We expect to win a Superbowl, World Series, NBA final, or Stanley Cup”. Now, what will it take, in terms of people and materials to reach that goal? In terms of a restaurant, it might be: “We expect to grow our business by 20%, win the James Beard Award for Best New Restaurant, earn a Michelin Star, or reach a profit after taxes of 9%”. Now what will it take in terms of staff members and resources to reach that goal? The “winning carrot” is what drives all decisions, attracts the best people, defines how outsiders will perceive the business, and creates interest in what the business is doing. No one – I repeat – NO ONE – will ever be excited about a business (sporting team or restaurant) with lackluster goals, or none at all. The most exciting and attractive businesses begin with BIG, BODACIOUS GOALS of WINNING!
THE LEADER/COACH IMPACT:
The leader is responsible for creating the game plan and the learning organization that makes a win possible. Without a game plan a business is simply hoping for the best. That NEVER works! The leader/coach will study the competition, analyze the environment around the organization, inventory the individual and collective talent of his or her players/employees, and structure an approach geared towards grabbing the carrot. The structure is based on logic and a touch of gambling. Mostly methodical once an understanding of the playing field is in hand, it is always inspiring when a coach/leader throws in a curve ball, a trick play, or an unexpected new menu item or style of service – something that makes the competition scratch their heads, and fans jump out of their seats. It is a game of chess where the most effective leaders are thinking four or five moves ahead trying to figure out how the competition is most likely going to react. When played correctly, everyone is stoked with anticipation of that next move, a change in strategy – the trick play. This is what pulls people in and keeps them engaged. This is what inspires people to jump on board and give their best.
THE PLAYER/STAFF MEMBER IMPACT:
It was Coach Belichick whose message to players was: “Do your job”. Of course, this is what they get paid to do, but does this truly make them jump up and feel that adrenaline course through their veins? Now, in all fairness, I assume the coach offered more inspiration than simply do what you are told, but it is an approach so many leaders and coaches run their organizations with. The players or employees need to feel it, they need to be part of the plan for grabbing the carrot, they need to feel properly prepared to perform at the highest level and, they need to be told how they are doing along the way. It is, after all, the player or in the case of the restaurant – the cooks, dish washers, servers, and bartenders who will do the actual work of reaching for the carrot.
One of the most important statements about leadership and management I ever heard has stuck with me for decades: “If you are not serving the customer (fan) directly, then your job is to serve the person who is.” The leader’s/coach’s job is to make sure players and staff members have the tools, the skills, and the shared vision to reach the carrot. It is the job of the player/staff member to use the skills and tools provided in pursuit of the organizational goals. This is likely what Coach Belichick means by: “Do your job.”
THE FAN/GUEST IMPACT:
Often referred to as the 12th man, the fan or guest has a role to play in grabbing the carrot and pushing it even further out after it is in hand. Cheering on those members of the team and their coaches, serving as vocal ambassadors, continuing to support their efforts with reservations or ticket sales, and standing tall as a loyal fan, is the fuel that keeps the organizational engine running and everyone on track. “Let’s do it for the fans, for the loyal customers”, is damn powerful motivation.
There are many parallels between sports and what we do in restaurants. Owners are owners, coaches are chefs and managers, players are cooks, servers, dish washers and bartenders, and fans are loyal guests. Each of these stakeholders is driven by a desire to be part of a winning formula. Even when the goal isn’t quite reached, if the commitment to the strategy is alive, they will stand in agreement: “There’s always next year.”
Never stop reaching for the carrot, STAY INSPIRED. It is this attitude and process that attracts the very best.
Support your local restaurant/team in pursuit of the carrot. Go Bills!
Whenever we (chefs) look back on our time in the kitchen, we’re able to categorize experiences in one of three silos: a learning experience, mission accomplished, or inspiration. Each experience is a moment in time, something that we might want to replicate or forget, but something that will never appear in the exact same manner again. It is just one of those flashes of inspiration or disappointment occurring for a reason, a reason that changed your approach even just a little bit, something added to your portfolio, a portfolio that defines the person, the cook that you are or will become. The reasons are usually easy to define after-the-fact: improper planning, not paying attention, stepping away from your standards, poor mise en place, lack of teamwork, or just the opposite for those experiences that result in mission accomplished or inspiration. Sure, luck can be involved, but luck is rarely something to depend on or take credit for.
The important thing about those moments in time is their value as a reference. The ones that resulted in disappointment provide an opportunity to learn and grow, to make adjustments, to reflect and regroup, and to find a way to store the “ouch” of the experience as a reminder. “I never want to be in that position again, so what have I learned?” We all have those moments and man do they sting. Running out of prep on a busy night, losing your grip on multiple preparations, the burns and cuts during battle, a team member who falls apart and starts that cascade of problems as a result, a slip on the floor, plates crashing and muscles strained, a fire breaks out on the char grill because you failed to keep an eye on it, that forgotten pan of bacon in the oven, or a roast that somehow slipped your mind and went an hour too long…..The list goes on and on. We have all been there – RIGHT?
On the other hand, there are those moments when you and everyone else is in the zone. Everything works as it should. Every plate is perfectly executed, no returns or re-fires, the roast is a perfect medium rare, the grill marks are well-defined, that fish fillet is caramelized beautifully, and you never run out of prep. The rhythm between front and back of the house is seamless, tempers are in check, and the night ends with everyone sharing fist bumps and high fives. We have all been there as well – it is what brings us back to try again for excellence.
Moments in time are the basis for the stories that allow us to gain strength and share what inspire us. This is how we learn. The stories of those moments are what make us interesting and good at what we do. Without the moments, without the stories, we would be boring as hell and never able to stand tall and show what time has created – an accomplished cook, a seasoned chef, a teammate or a mentor and leader.
It is the moments in time that allow us to be good at what we do and help us find a way to succeed, even on those nights when there are many indicators that we won’t. Somehow, we pull it off and in the back of our mind we knew we would. We don’t crumble in the corner accepting failure, no, that is never an option. We turn back to those moments in time and think: “I’ve been here before, this is what I (we) did, and this is how that moment was turned around, or this is how the moment rose to the level of inspiring. Nothing can take the place of those moments – they are the real teacher. These are the elements of your education that can only be gained by being there. You can’t prepare for them initially you must simply accept them and rely on your instinct or the instinct of those around you to soldier through. You can, however, prepare for them when they occur again. Without these moments an average line cook will never become a great line cook and a great line cook will never become a successful chef. This is what greatness is made of – not a chapter in a book – a moment in time.
You know all of this if you spent any amount of time in a kitchen. I know there were (are) times when the look in your eyes spoke volumes. Looking to your teammate or expeditor, sous chef, or mentor – those eyes signaled:
“help, I’m in trouble, I don’t have those moments to draw inspiration or answers from. Tell me what to do so that I can just make it through this moment, learn, grow, and store another reminder of what or what not to do next time. Just bail me out now before it all goes sideways.”
Ugh, what a feeling, but you make it through and next time the answers will come, next time you’ll be ready, next time will be different.
Many, over the years, have asked me what’s the difference between a cook and a chef. My answer is simple: moments in time. The more you fill your silos with moments, the easier it is to find answers. This is what your cooks look to you for. The difference is not just your sophisticated palate, or the repertoire of dishes that you are able to prepare from memory. The difference is not how fast you are with a knife, or skilled you are at filleting fish, or piping decorations on a birthday cake. The difference lies in the experiences you bring to the table and the answers you are able to find in the moment.
Don’t ever push aside the opportunity to have those moments, to build those silos, to celebrate the wins, and learn from the disappointment. This is your education, your real education. This is what separates the good from the great and the cook from the chef.
It’s the fire in the belly waiting to take charge, the anxiety being held in check, cold sweat running down your back even though it’s 120 degrees where you stand, and the nervous chatter of tongs clicking to the beat of a cook’s rhythm. It’s been building up for hours now, ever since each cook arrived around 1:00 to start pulling together their mise en place. Blanching and shocking vegetables, clarifying butter, mincing fresh herbs and shallots, pealing, and deveining shrimp, pounding out chicken breasts for various saute dishes, portioning and oiling tenderloin filets, boning fresh fish, folding side towels, and stacking pans, double-checking prep lists, and tasting, tasting, tasting. “What else do I need, what am I missing.”
Time check – 5:15, the chef just walked through, tasted sauces, and reviewed mise. Everything looks good. The dining room opens in 15 minutes and the adrenaline is starting to churn. Line cooks had been busy prodding and busting on each other, laughing, and pushing each other to break the tension. Now everything is quiet except for the clicking of tongs. Music had been part of the kitchen atmosphere all through prep, but now it was silent waiting for the ticking of the POS printer. The air was thick with anticipation. Cooks kept wiping down their stations, running the edge of their knives down a steel, and re-folding side towel. The pass was empty for the moment, but soon that would change. The sous chef is set at the expeditor station, ready with fresh herb garnishes, gaufrette potatoes, fried leeks, and delicate finishing sauces. The service staff members are gathered by the coffee station downing last minutes shots of espresso and the dish crew is calm and waiting for that first wave of plates and flatware at the turn of tables. Someone laughs to break the silence; it is a nervous laugh that points to the absurdity of the moment. Soon the silence will be filled with a cacophony of sound: banging pots and pans, the clink of fine china plates, the staccato of French knives hitting cutting boards, the roar of flames as they lap around steaks on the open char grill and the barking of the expeditor: “ordering, fire, picking up, all day”, and the expected response from each station line cook: “yes, chef”, or “heard”.
At 5:30 the dining room doors open, and early bird diners begin to arrive. Cooks are now bouncing from foot-to-foot waiting for the chime of the printer as orders in the dining room are being taken by servers who put on a show face that projects calm. Underneath it all, “calm” is hardly a good descriptor. Ready, yes, calm, not really. Then the printer begins to talk to cooks as the first orders arrive. Usually deuces at this time of the night. Seniors tend to arrive right when the restaurant opens. In and out before the crowds, this is what they like. This first 45 minutes or so is a good way to shake off the nerves and start to get into a rhythm. If mistakes are made in the kitchen, this is typically a time when they occur. It’s like a football team on the first possession. Everyone knows what to do, but sometimes it just doesn’t click right away.
Slowly, the team pulls together, and the night begins to flow. The orders are coming in at a steady pace now, moving quickly up to the witching hour: 7:00. This is peak time – the rush. The dining room is full now and there are a dozen parties waiting for tables to free up. The board is filled with orders for deuces, four-tops, and an occasional large table of six or eight. Everything seems to blur together, but in the midst of it you get that boost of adrenaline. This is what you were waiting for, this is the fuel that keeps the cook’s internal fire going. To many cooks, it is the rush of adrenaline that calls them back every day. It’s funny, but at the peak of craziness, when there are way too many things to keep straight in your head, the whole scene starts to slow down for the cook. You’ve got this! It’s like an NFL quarterback who at the height of his game can see plays develop in slow motion and make decisions based on his ability to measure the field. “Ordering: three filets mid-rare, two chops medium, four shrimp, two piccata, and snapper – remove the head.” “Yes, chef!” Order fire – four pasta, two rib – rare, and a strip – medium.” “Yes, chef.” Pick-up on table 25.” The response: “25, chef”. Everything seems well-orchestrated; it flows like a well-oiled machine.
If things start to blur, if a cook begins to drift away from the moment, he or she only needs to look at the expeditor and call out: “Can I get an all-day?” The expo responds with eye contact that beams: calm down – you’ve got this. He lists all the items on that station and waits for the cook’s focused response. “Yes, chef.” Focus is back and everyone moves on. The orders are relentless from 7:00 till 9:00, this is when 75% of all the business comes and goes. The witching hours are also the money hours for a restaurant. Adrenaline in the back and front of the house is flowing freely and everyone works at their peak knowing that they are walking on the edge of the cliff. If they can stay focused and control the adrenaline then they will be triumphant, but just as easily things could fall off the edge and crash. “Living on the Edge” was probably written for line cooks.
By 9:00 everything has slowed down. Reminiscent of that early bird hour, cooks are comfortable, smiling and even laughing at those minor mistakes that no one noticed except them. Time to start cleaning and breaking down. Time to roll up the floor mats, sweep up the remains of crumbs on the floor, wash stove tops and stainless tables; time to jump in and give the dishwasher a hand, and time to start the prep list for tomorrow. Those last few orders trickle in and cooks need to concentrate so that mistakes are not made. That adrenaline is still rushing through their system as if the dining room were still full and orders were flying in with reckless abandon. But they are not. As the kitchen starts to come to a rest, cooks are still bouncing from the rush. Time to change, punch out, and hit the local watering hole for a cocktail or two while the adrenaline begins to dissipate. Time to put that anxiety and energy to rest. Tomorrow is another day.
I have long embraced this philosophy when it comes to restaurants, but it also can apply to any business. How we greet and welcome people into our fold does have an impact on the quality of the product and experience we offer. Let me explain:
A few years ago, (50 years ago) I had a conversation with a wonderful woman who owned and operated a successful neighborhood restaurant. She wasn’t a chef as we might describe that person today, but she was a terrific cook and a savvy businesswoman. Customers would like up, sometimes around the block, hoping for a seat in her rather small restaurant where she featured, what we called – blue plate specials. If I remember accurately, she prepared roasts, meatloaf, chicken dishes like fricassee and chicken and dumplings, omelets, and even liver and onions. Nothing fancy, just good old – stick to your ribs comfort food. I asked her what made her food so special?
She smiled and walked me into the kitchen and pointed to a jar on the shelf:
“This is my secret ingredient”.
I said I was confused since the jar was clearly empty. What was the ingredient? She looked me in the eye and said:
“My secret ingredient is love. I love my customers, I care about them, I am happy to see them, I want to know more about them, and I am grateful that they put their trust in my cooking.”
She used this secret ingredient as she greeted guests, checked on their experiences during the meal, worked hard to make sure that their meal was excellent, and sincerely thanked them for coming. This may have been the most important lesson I ever received, and I have carried it with me through more than 50 years as a chef, manager, educator, and consultant. This love is what we call “hospitality”. Hospitality is not something you do; it is who you are. Hospitality is what makes the experience of dining special, and it is most definitely what brings people back. In fact, when done from the heart – hospitality is your greatest advertising tool because your happy guests will pass along the word.
Hospitality, if it is to be true, must happen with guests, with your staff, with your vendors, with your bankers and accountants, with the health inspector, the plumber and electrician, and with anyone else who encounters your restaurant or your department.
We tend to focus on other essential skills and outcomes while forgetting to acknowledge that people will gravitate to you or your business if hospitality exists. Hospitality needs to be our most important essential ingredient that is used freely throughout the organization. When we care about people, when their experience is important to us, when we communicate the very best of what hospitality means then the whole feel of the business falls in line. Happy, welcomed employees produce happy food. Happy employees and guests want more of that experience and will return. Happy people, resulting from your hospitality, will go out of their way to bring along friends and family the next time they walk through your door.
Do you want the very best ingredients and service from your vendors? Then treat them with hospitality – care about them, care about their experience in dealing with you and your operation and acknowledge how important they are to you. Try it, you may be very surprised with the results. Do you want your employees to feel good about their jobs and come to work excited about exceeding expectations? Then try treating them with hospitality – show that you care about them and the quality of their work experience, listen and be empathetic, acknowledge how important they are to you and thank them for the effort they put in. Try it! Do you want your customers to write great reviews, boast about how fantastic their meal was and share that enthusiasm with others? Then focus on hospitality. The food and service still need to be there, but it will be that hospitality effort that makes the experience unique. Try it.
Here’s the thing – very few restaurants understand this, very few businesses understand this, so if you buy in, your will stand out from the pack. It will be automatic, and it will be dramatic.
So, build hospitality into everything you do. Make a New Year’s Resolution that makes sense. Give it three months and see the difference it WILL MAKE. Guarantees seem to mean less and less, but for what it’s worth – I guarantee you will be happy with the results. Remember, this is not something that you do – hospitality must become part of your culture, it must become second nature because it will be who you are.
BE “hospitality” and learn to be great.
“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.”
“Hospitality is present when something happens “FOR” you. It is absent when something happens “TO” you. Those two simple propositions – for and to – express it all.”
I scratch my head when cooks proclaim that they are held prisoner to a job that isn’t going anywhere. Sometimes they are very explicit and state that their job sucks or that they can’t get ahead. A number, after the pandemic, chose not to return to the kitchen claiming that it was either a dead end or they were not valued. Okay, so there are certainly employers out there who probably don’t deserve good employees, and, in those situations, I can understand some level of discontent, but not to the extreme of stating that being a cook is a dead end. My question to those cooks is: “What are you investing in your career as a cook?”
That’s correct, I asked: “What are you investing in your career as a cook?” Really, there isn’t any such thing as a free lunch when it comes to building a career. You must give and invest in order to receive. The more you know, the more you are able to do, the more competent you are, and the more diverse your skill set – the greater the opportunities. Invest, push yourself, learn, grow, and take a chance – this is the formula on which great careers are built. You want greater pay and benefits – then bring more to the table. If you do and the employer still won’t pay, then go elsewhere – you are marketable if you are great at what you do. Greater pay and benefits don’t come just because you are present. The only time when pay is strictly related to the job title is when you only give back what is expected. Exceed expectations! Trust me – when this occurs, great opportunities will come your way, but not before.
Argue with me if you like, but I’m telling you the truth. Your future is in your hands. The opportunities are limitless if you take responsibility for your own upward mobility. So, let’s assume that you are at least somewhat intrigued by my theory – what should you be doing to get on this yellow brick road to success? Here are eleven to consider:
COMMIT TO LEARNING: Read articles, food history books, professional cookbooks, stories of chefs with their words of wisdom (see list at end of this article), volunteer to work with accomplished chefs after hours, ask for additional responsibilities that provide a chance to learn something new. DON’T STAY IDLE! Commit to learning something new every day – yes, EVERY DAY! It might be something small such as how a vegetable is grown or why you caramelize a mirepoix, or the best potato for hand cut French fries – something that methodically builds on your base of knowledge.
ASK QUESTIONS: The chef you work with or for is in the position because he or she has done something to earn it. They probably know more than you about something in the kitchen – ask them how they do it and ask them to show you how. Be eager for a change, I doubt there are many chefs who would turn you down. Be the one who obviously wants to learn – they will take notice. Maybe inventory is not part of your job, but it will be if you want to become a chef someday. Ask the chef if you can help – even if you do so on your day off without pay. This is how you build your bag of tricks and broaden your value.
VOLUNTEER: Is there a fundraising event in your community that engages chefs in the preparation of a meal? Volunteer to help. You might just learn something, AND you will start to build something important – your network.
NETWORK: Make your list of accomplished cooks, chefs, managers, entrepreneurs whom you would like to emulate. Make contact, introduce yourself, ask if there is a way you can talk with them, help them out, cook with them, wash dishes, whatever – connect and start adding them to your list of mentors. You never know when they might help with your career.
JOIN: Become a member of the local chef’s chapter of the American Culinary Federation, join the Bread Bakers Guild, Slow Food, USA, or the State Restaurant Association. Commit to learning from others, finding out what’s going on in the industry, attend workshops, take on-line courses, or simply attend local meetings to network and get your name out there.
LEARN ABOUT WINE AND BEER: This is where the profit is in restaurants and long-term, those cooks who know these products will be more balanced as a chef. Take an in-person or on-line class, participate in tastings, ask your restaurant manager or sommelier for some pointers – it is not only a good career move, but it can also be fun!
PAY ATTENTION TO PROFIT: talk to your chef about this. This is a business of pennies so buying right, storing properly, planning correctly, following procedures and recipes, portioning, controlling waste, and designing effective menus are essential tools in leading a restaurant to profit. In demand chefs are not only masters of cooking, but they’re also smart businesspeople.
STUDY PEOPLE: This is a people business – those who we work with and those we serve are your key to success. Learn to listen to them and seek to discover how to follow first and then how to lead.
TRAVEL AND TAKE AN INTEREST IN CULTURE: If you want to be a great Italian, French, Mexican, Asian, German, Cajun, or Southwestern cook then study the people of those regions, their traditions, their history, their ingredients, and their passion for who they are. This is an essential ingredient of any cuisine.
Be professional – ALWAYS! Look like a professional, wear the uniform with pride, groom like a professional, talk like a professional, learn to write properly like a professional, approach others in a professional manner and build your brand. When in a position to do so – insist that others follow suit. Promote a workspace that is the benchmark for everywhere else.
WATCH YOUR ON-LINE PERSONA: what you post is there FOREVER! Every potential employer will look at your social media presence – what will they find? Bragging about your latest drinking spree, posting pictures of marijuana leaves, obscene gestures, or political rants, or inappropriate comments will haunt you. Clean it up – this is part of your resume now.
Do this and I guarantee that others will notice, opportunities will come your way, you will be proud of who you are, your results will speak for themselves, the money and benefits will come without asking, and you will have loads of fun. INVEST IN YOUR SELF AND STOP FEELING SORRY FOR YOUR CURRENT STATE. BE THE SOLUTION.
It is impossible to not be inspired by this photo. Zelenskyy and Andres, brothers in spirit, leaders who inspire; stellar human beings who humble us, show incredible courage and strength, and who give of themselves for what most of us see as right and just. Americans are so incredibly fortunate to live where we live, and to enjoy the opportunities that abound if we invest of ourselves and work to reap the benefits of a nation that understands and relishes the responsibility to protect its citizens. This is not the case throughout the world, as is noted in Ukraine. While many Americans prepare to celebrate over the holidays and chefs and cooks test their skills in restaurants from coast to coast, many people in Ukraine and in other oppressed parts of the world wonder where their next meal will come from, if there will be heat in their homes, and if they will have homes and jobs to return to at the end of the day. On the streets of many cities throughout our own country there is an increasing number of homeless people, including children who struggle to make it through another day of living on the streets, and in nations ruled by dictators and religious zealots, many wonder if their lives will be taken for speaking their mind or refusing to conform to restrictions based on gender, race, or political beliefs.
Then, as has been the case throughout history, a few incredibly focused and honorable individuals rise up to show us the way, to try and make things right, to show respect for others and raise the flag of democracy and equality. Such is the case with Volodymyr Zelenskyy who from unlikely beginnings as an actor and comedian, won a democratic election defying the odds to do so. He turned out to be the right person at the right time – a leader of and for the people of Ukraine, a spokesperson and ambassador on the world stage, a heroic symbol of hope and determination who cheers on a strong people willing to give everything to protect their rights as human beings. When he spoke before Congress he did not chastise those who have so much when his people have so little during a time of war; instead he praised our lifestyle because we too fought to get to where we are and continue to support what needs to be done to protect what was gained through the blood, sweat, and tears of our forefathers, our military strength, our compassion as a country, and our unity through a democratic process. This is what he and the people of Ukraine are fighting for.
Throughout the world there are too many examples of tyranny, despair, hate, and destruction imposed by a few who seek power. There are daily examples of tragedy and destruction when Mother Nature chooses to raise her fist with the might of hurricanes, fires, earthquakes, and floods. Sometimes it is hard to watch the news or read the daily paper. When many of us turn the page and shake our heads, a smaller number of heroic individuals stand up and ask: “What can I do to help.” Such is the case with Chef Jose Andres and his incredible organization: World Central Kitchen. Before a military can be activated to help, before the Red Cross arrives on the scene, and before the media can fully develop a story, World Central Kitchen is there, setting up kitchens, hosting volunteers, welcoming chefs, and cooks, and finding ways to navigate the feeding of tens of thousands who are impacted by violence or the wrath of the elements. It’s hard to contemplate. Even the most accomplished chefs scratch their heads and wonder how it is possible to organize and effectively navigate all the challenges that are presented, yet they do and Jose Andres, like President Volodymyr Zelenskyy manages to be that guiding light, the voice of inspiration, and the world ambassadors to make things happen when others view the task as impossible.
While many of us shake our heads and sigh at the plight of the homeless, or those who simply struggle with their human condition, there are always those who stand up and say: “What can I do to help.” The problems will not self-correct unless we all are aware and willing to do something to help. Zelenskyy praised every American for helping Ukraine for it is our tax dollars that help to provide what the Ukrainian people need. There are many more who give additional when they can, just as there are many who write a check and help to support World Central Kitchen. Not everyone needs to push aside their jobs and family and get on a plane to help feed the needy in Europe, Africa, the Islands, or anywhere where people suffer; but we do need to find a way to help. It might be a check for $10 or at the very least mental, emotional, and spiritual support for what is needed. It might be a few hours before the holidays helping out in a soup kitchen or giving an older winter jacket, scarf or gloves to a homeless person or buying a few extra groceries for a family who may not be able to afford tonight’s meal.
It’s hard to look at this photo without being inspired to help, or without marveling at the decency and generosity of some and the innate ability to lead that a few possess. It is impossible to ignore what real leadership is and know that this is what the world needs.
When you sit around your table this holiday season or before you open the doors to your restaurant and welcome in those guests seeking the chance to celebrate all that they have, take a moment to think about this photo, what it means, and how in the days to come, you can find your own way to help and give thanks for our good fortune. Take a moment to thank those who have made it possible for us to celebrate as we do, to breathe fresh air, to work and earn a living, to enjoy a warm house and a well-prepared meal, and to know that we have the ability to make our own choices, speak our minds, and live the life of freedom.
There was a time when the major holidays, those times of the year when we relished the chance to spend quality time with family, were sacred and protected. These special days: Thanksgiving, Christmas, and New Year’s Day were set aside as times to be with those we love – regardless of a person’s career obligations. These were the days when our home kitchens were filled with mothers, fathers, grandmothers, grandfathers, children and even grandchildren. We cooked together, laughed, reminisced, raised our glasses, ate way too much, and gave thanks for all that we had. We all looked forward to this tradition and hailed these days as our most treasured of the year.
Some traditions change, they evolve for various reasons; they remain, but they are different. Over time the challenges and yes – stress of the holiday gathering led many to relax and let someone else deal with the cooking and the details. Those days in restaurants that were once recognized as a time to close and let traditions thrive are now some of the busiest business days of the year. It made perfect business sense to take advantage of this opportunity to boost a restaurants’ bottom line and fill a need expressed by restaurant guests. Most of these guests view this as an essential service and those operations that still choose to close and allow their employees to enjoy family are viewed as somehow negligent. “Why aren’t they open? Are they crazy to ignore this valuable business?”
This is not a complaint; it is the reality of the day and has been now for a few decades. What is worth stating, however, is the folks with whom I have worked and others whose business has changed in a similar fashion are working on those days to help others enjoy their day. Restaurants will be full and service staff will put on a smile and do their best to make your holiday special. Cooks will be standing in front of stoves throwing off their intense heat, arriving early in the morning and staying late at night to prepare those meals that once took place in your home with a kitchen filled with family members. Managers will do their best to keep morale up while the families of those workers are home without one of their sons, daughters, mothers, or fathers present. They will celebrate on another day – a way to compensate for the absence. But it won’t be the same. They all sacrifice for the business of hospitality.
So, what can the average person do? Be kind. Thank the person serving your family meal, write a positive comment card recognizing the quality of your meal, leave a generous tip, peak in the kitchen and say thanks, write a great Trip Advisor comment, take a minute a day or so after your meal to write a note to the staff of the restaurant saying how much their work and hospitality meant to you and your family – it will cost you 60 cents for a stamp – the impact when shared with the staff of that restaurant will be priceless. If service is a little slow on Christmas eve or day in that totally full restaurant – take a deep breath, relax, and smile. Only kind words please – think about those people who are trying to do their best while struggling with what they are missing at home.
Sure, those of us who are in the hospitality business signed up for this and some might say – deal with it. Got it, we do try and find satisfaction in celebrating with our team, but it’s not the same. We soldier through and sometimes even wear a badge of honor as a service provider, but it is still difficult. So, be kind, be grateful, say thank you and please, and relish the opportunity that you have to be with your family and enjoy a great meal.
Merry Christmas, Happy Hanukah, and raise a glass to 2022 and the new year to come.
I find it interesting that the classic definition of flavor is so shallow, so lacking in understanding, yet so sought after at the same time. Flavor is the quest of every cook and chef and is the expectation of every diner. Flavor is, according to most who seek it, paramount when assessing the quality of a meal. Flavor is how those who consume assess the value of a meal and flavor is how others assess the competence of the cook. Yet, it is so poorly defined and so misunderstood. If you seek to find the definition of flavor, don’t rely on your dictionary or even most cookbooks where flavor is assumed to be synonymous with taste. Let me be clear – when flavor is the goal, taste is not nearly enough to get you there!
But that’s how flavor is defined and has been defined by most for generations. When asked for flavor descriptors you might encounter words like tasty, appetizing, tangy, sour, salty, bitter, savory, or sweet. Or in the formal structure of what we assume flavor to be we speak of salty, sweet, bitter, sour, and umami (savory). However, this is not flavor – it is taste, one of the essential senses.
Why am I so hung up on this? Well, if in fact, flavor is the ultimate quest of every cook and chef and if this is what restaurant guests, or even those at your home table seek, then shouldn’t we have the whole picture in hand? To quote Lewis Carroll in Alice in Wonderland:
“If you don’t know where you are going, any road will get you there.”
What is the road to flavor and how do we get there? This is the question that requires a full answer if the cook or chef really hopes to achieve success.
So, here it is this is how your dictionary, every recipe, every restaurant menu, every cook and chef, and every consumer should define flavor:
FLAVOR IS A COMBINATION OF ALL THE HUMAN SENSES PLUS SOMETHING SPECIAL. Great flavor is achieved when each of these senses is approached effectively and that something special is understood. What are these elements of flavor then?
How a dish, or an ingredient looks; how it is offered on the plate; how the ingredient colors, shapes, and symmetry are presented; how the physical plate itself looks; how the space where the plate sits is lit; and how the plate is presented to the guest by a server impact the eventual flavor of the food. You don’t believe me? Well, how many times have your eyes sent a message to the brain saying: “This doesn’t look good, I’m not going to eat that.”? After all, it must get past the eyes before it gets to the mouth.
Exceptional cooks and chefs understand how important it is to present a beautiful, recognizable, balanced, and functional plate of food, but they may not realize that how it looks impacts its flavor. Menu planning must include an understanding of this and the selection of the plates and vessels you use to present food must be as important as how it is cooked.
What are the sounds of food and how can that impact flavor? Part of the experience of eating a potato chip is hearing the crunch when you bite down. Part of the joy of eating a fall apple is the snap of a tart apple as you bite off a chuck of that juicy, crisp, fresh MacIntosh, Honey Crisp, Jonathan, Granny Smith, or Red Delicious apple. Eating a well-prepared filet mignon is always enhanced when it is presented on a metal sizzle platter and the hiss of cooking meat is still present. The pop of the cork on a bottle of champagne creates anticipation, and the crack of caramelized sugar on top of a crème brulee is worth the price of the dessert. The sounds are everywhere, and an accomplished cook knows how to use them to his or her advantage.
Human beings have approximately 400 olfactory receptors that have the ability to distinguish (if they are their peak efficiency) about one trillion different scents. We made not be able to identify each, but the receptors know they are there. We tend to separate them into pleasing and not pleasing, narrowing down the field. The important point to note is that what you taste can be altered by what you smell. Many common food items are difficult to identify if you take away the ability to smell and see what you are trying to identify. As an example, a peak season apple and first harvest potato have very similar textures and water content. If blindfolded and your nose is pinched shut, it would be difficult to distinguish one from the other when chewing.
Touch is a process; texture is the feeling. Touch runs the gamut from the quality of linen on the table, the feel of the plate or glassware, the comfort of the chair or the depth of a rugs pile to the texture of cooked vegetables, tenderness of meat, flakiness of fish, mouth feel of a sauce or a glass of wine, crema on top of your espresso, chew of a Long Island bagel, or the creaminess of that crème brulee. How the item and the other elements surround the plate of food feel will again impact flavor. Tasty, but tough does not inspire. Tasty, but the chair is so uncomfortable will detract from flavor, etc.
No one can take away from the importance of those five taste factors of sweet, sour, bitter, salty, and umami; but it is so difficult to separate them from the rest of flavors essential components. Somehow a perfectly cooked steak served on a paper plate lacks real flavor appeal. That same steak without a steak knife would seem less than exceptional, and fresh sauteed vegetables that were cut haphazardly and overcooked without texture would leave anyone disappointed in its flavor.
Ah, the secret ingredient. Context is a tough one because it is somewhat out of the control of the chef, the cook, or the restaurateur. Context can mean the story that the restaurant tells and the sincere service mentality of all who work there (something that can be controlled), but often it is the people with whom the diner enjoys the meal and the occasion that is being celebrated. Food tastes better when cheering the success of a partner or mate, when celebrating a birthday or anniversary, or simply getting together with friends to laugh and raise a glass. If a restaurant can create a welcoming environment for these encounters to flourish, then whatever is served will resonate positively with those who are dining. As much as cooks and chefs want to believe that it is all about the food when it comes to real flavor the act of hospitality and the encouragement to celebrate is the key to rave reviews.
Working on the experience of flavor is much more complex than many understand, but now you have the key to unlock that mystery. Go to work!
“We must never forget that we are cooks.” That was a quote from Chef Andre Soltner when he addressed the audience attending an ACF Convention in, I believe Phoenix a couple decades ago. That statement, in its simplicity was a benchmark for how each of us who works in a kitchen should address our careers. Push aside the pomp and circumstance that the media has tried to create over the past few decades, a message that many of us have embraced; a media message that somehow chefs are to be held on a pedestal that is far removed from the job we do, a job that drew us to the kitchen in the first place – to cook. In this role we have a chance to create incredible, important, and lasting memories that are far more important than stars, diamonds, and accolades from Trip Advisor or Yelp.
Of course, there are many wonderful benefits that came from the attention given chefs and their position for some time now, but in the end, it will be this connection to the job of cooking and the ability to create memories that will serve as our legacy. It need not be award winning menus, although it might – what is most important is the impact of that meal. Think about those food memories that are imbedded in our subconscious: it could be a wonderful tasting menu that was themed and connected to a guest or organization. A menu where each component, every preparation, and each presentation make that connection. That menu and the meticulous way that it was designed and executed will live with guests and those who prepared it for an eternity. It might be a much simpler farmer’s dinner where each ingredient was still warm from harvest and the person who nurtured those ingredients is given a stage to showcase his or her caring work. Maybe it was that incredibly simple sandwich in a brasserie across from the Louvre in Paris – a sandwich unlike the complex ones we tout as excellent in the U.S. – just extraordinary bread, probably a fresh baked baguette, with cultured butter, and paper-thin slices of jambon (ham). The crunch and chew of the baguette, the slightly sweet and creamy fresh butter, and the appropriate saltiness and “melt in your mouth” texture of the ham give you pause. Now this sandwich, in its simplicity, will be remembered as one of the best you ever consumed and represents the pride of the farmer who raised the pig, baker and the sandwich maker. Quite possibly, it could be an order of frog legs dredged in flour, and lightly sauteed in clarified butter, garlic, and lemon from Andre Soltner’s former kitchen at Lutece and served by a gentleman waiter who had been proud of his craft for more than 50 years. All memorable.
Maybe, it was a perfect bowl of Bolognese and Bucatini with grated parmigiana presented at your table in a tiny Montepulciano, Italy trattoria with a glass of a young, vibrant Nebbiolo. Or an order of three handheld tacos of braised goat and queso fresco at a cantina counter in Mexico City with a shot (or two) of Mescal tequila. That cappuccino that you relished from a coffee shop in the North End of Boston, the heart of the Italian neighborhood was the best you ever had; a cup of coffee so extraordinary that after twenty years you still talk about it. A bowl of gumbo from the French Quarter in New Orleans is always on the top of your list as is an order of Blue Point Oysters in a small oyster shack somewhere on the New England coast. All memorable.
It may not always be from the list of extraordinary ingredients or exceptional kitchen execution, sometimes the meaning goes much deeper than that. It could be an attempt to replicate that chicken and dumplings that your grandmother prepared with such love and dedication. The chicken “had to be young”, the stock rich, and the dumplings dropped gingerly into the cast iron Dutch oven at just the right moment to protect their tenderness. A cook may spend his or her lifetime trying to replicate that for restaurant guests. Or it might just be that moment in time when food and survival are closely linked. Where hope was as much on the table as the food served. It could be that simple cheese sandwich and piece of polished fruit handed to a refugee fleeing Ukraine and landing inside the border of Poland. That sandwich prepared by volunteer cooks working for Jose Andres World Central Kitchen, an organization that knows in the darkest of times, it might just be a simple meal that helps those impacted feel that it’s going to get better. Or a bowl of minestrone served to a homeless person at a local soup kitchen as the cook who volunteers on his day off to simply give a hand, smiles and offers a greeting. The look in a person’s eyes when handed the sandwich, or bowl of soup is powerful and incredibly memorable for both parties – the one receiving and the one giving. This is what it means to be a cook.
When we tie on an apron, we take on the responsibility to create memories for others. It is incredible to think that what we do is so important. We provide a chance to find hope, to feel good, to enjoy life, and to register memories for a lifetime. Each of you has a portfolio of those memories and each of you has been responsible for building them for others. This is what we do, this is why our job is so important and so fulfilling. Making memories – the job of a cook.
Well, here we go. I haven’t slept much at all over the past few days and certainly won’t until the weekend is over. The anxiety building up to a full house in the hotel packed with a series of food events has made it impossible to relax. The preparation has been mind boggling, now we just have to execute. Ironically, the work beforehand is more nerve-wracking than the actual production and service. Once we kick things off, I know I can depend on the team to do their work at the highest level.
It is the chef’s job to set the stage. Hours and hours of work went into planning menus, making sure that the best ingredients are ordered and in-house, scheduling staff, testing recipes and teaching others how to execute them, confirming that the right China plates are in place, and most importantly – the timing of every minute is thought thru. What can be done ahead, what items must be a ’la minute, when should ingredients arrive to ensure the best quality at time of service, how will they be plated, and can any plating be done in advance? It is the orchestration that relies on a chef’s previous experience – this is where his or her real skills are tested. The battery of cooks and service staff are the extended hands of the chef – the people who will execute a meal, an event, as it has been envisioned. This is what happens behind the scenes, this is what the rest of the team depends on.
I arrived in the kitchen way too early this morning, the first day of marathon events. There was no reason to stay at home, I had been awake most of the night anyway, might as well be awake in the kitchen where I might do something to help get the work underway. Over the past two days our kitchen crew had done as much in advance as was possible, but so much had to be done in the moment. All the meat and fish fabrication had been done yesterday, stocks were made the day before and volume sauces were well underway. The prep team had sorted, cut, trimmed, and blanched the stalks of jumbo fresh asparagus, blanched and peeled Roma tomatoes for salads, turned two hundred pounds of russet potatoes, trimmed mountains of haricot vert, and peeled 300 perfect cippolini onions for butter poaching. Today the cooking and finishing work will begin.
It was 5am and I had been in the kitchen for nearly two hours. The hoods were turned on, and ovens in the pastry department were up to temp. The morning baker had already arrived, and we were hard at work before Emmett the breakfast cook arrived. Coffee was on, Danish dough was being rolled through the sheeter, bacon and breakfast sausage was panned up and ready for the oven, and I was methodically reviewing all the production sheets and BEO’s one last time making sure I hadn’t missed anything. I walked through the coolers once again checking off advance prep and verifying the quality of ingredients. Things looked good.
Emmett arrived at 5:30:
“Morning, chef. You’re here early.”
“Good morning, Emmett. Are you ready for this?”
“I was born ready, chef.”
Normally, Emmett worked on his own. He could easily handle 125 breakfasts by himself. He really is amazing – some people are natural breakfast cooks, a job that requires speed, accuracy, confidence, organization, and the ability to dance when others would fall. Emmett had it all. This weekend, because the house was full and everyone would be coming down for breakfast, Emmett would have an assistant. Sally was not scheduled until 6am, but she walked in shortly after Emmett. She was working with us as an intern from a regional culinary program. Sally was full of energy and enthusiasm and had worked enough with Emmett over the past month that he was confident in her ability. They hit the ground running, rarely spoke, and only used eye contact to direct next steps. The dining room would open at 7am and we expected over 300 for breakfast with most arriving around 8am – crunch time. When things got intense, the morning sous chef, Scott, would expedite, and if necessary, I could jump in as well.
The event wall was filled with clip boards, each holding the food function of the day. Coffee hours, luncheons, break set-ups, and elaborate dinners for groups from 10 to 300 were on deck. At 7am, breakfast was underway, and the early crew of additional cooks were beginning prep and set-ups for additional functions that began at 10. All our ingredients were already in-house, only a produce ordered remained and we expected the truck around 9. By 8:15 the dining room was full. We had seating for 150 and there wasn’t an empty chair. A line of people was waiting for seats, so we knew that service was now on fire. Emmett and Sally were in the zone, Scott was on expo serving as liaison between front and back of the house, calling out orders, wiping the rims of plates, and setting garnishes in place. I jumped in for about 20 minutes to finish plating orders with bacon or sausage, making sure not to get in Emmett’s way, and then gracefully stepped aside when I saw they were in the zone.
Function prep was well underway by 10am. Since the house was full for one conference group, normal restaurant business had been suspended for the weekend. Lunches for the three-day conference were to be buffets so two cooks were dedicated to this. A variety of salads, poached salmon served cold with fresh mayonnaise, grilled shrimp, a different potato each day, and alternating carved meats including roast beef tenderloin with bordelaise, roast turkey with lingonberry relish, or roast loin of pork with pan gravy and fresh applesauce were accompanied by a variety of breads and desserts from our bakeshop. Since the group would fit lunch between breakout seminars, we only had a little over 90 minutes to serve 300. We offered two seatings that filled our dining room and set two buffet lines serviced by a carver at each and three food runners to keep everything stocked. While luncheons were taking place, the evening crew arrived to jump into prep for our high end, four course plated dinners in the evening. At peak time during lunch service there would be a kitchen crew of fifteen – from cooks and sous chefs to dishwashers and baking staff. Part of my job was to help keep everything moving smoothly, make sure that everyone was conscious of workspace, a clean-as-you go mentality, and focus on organization and quality assurance. As much as I would like to jump in and actually cook, these tasks were far more important. The team is good at what they do, aware of our standards, and serious about doing things right no matter how small or large the task.
Out front, the service staff is just as methodical and organized. Under the direction of our dining room managers, the service staff were busy setting and re-setting tables, clearing and serving beverages, helping our runners keep the buffets looking sharp, and attending to the needs of the guest. Once the last lunch was cleared it was all hands on-deck along with the housemen to tear down the room and re-set for more a formal, white tablecloth dinner each night. For this, silverware would be measured from the edge of the table and glassware for wines lined up using a string plumb line. Tablecloths were doubled up with a silencer cloth to keep noise down, and centerpieces were set with fresh flowers that arrived throughout the day. Selected white wines were chilled and reds were opened in advance to properly breathe.
In the kitchen, cooks were blanching and shocking vegetables, finishing sauces, making clusters of herb garnishes, searing meats, poaching shellfish, portioning desserts, and reducing coulis for Bavarians, house made ice cream and delicate cakes. At 5pm every station offered a tasting of prepared items for the evening sous chef, and I followed by a pre-meal with service staff where descriptors of dishes were offered and questions from service staff were answered.
At 7pm guests were seated using our ballroom and all ancillary restaurant space allowing us to seat the 300 hungry diners. Each place setting included a pre-set amuse bouche (single bite palate teaser). Like the conductor of a symphonic orchestra, the maitre’d signaled the start of service while her assistant helped me orchestrate the steady flow of plates from the kitchen. The amuse bouche was cleared as a fish course began to leave the kitchen. If you could put the kitchen scene to music, it would flow like a Bach concerto. The fish course was fully served within fifteen minutes giving the kitchen just enough time to clear the staging area, set new stacks of plates for the entrée and start the plating process all over again. In the pastry shop, the beautiful complex desserts that each night included something fresh, something sweet, something with texture, and a sauce were being assembled. Beautiful Bavarians with piped chocolate filagree garnishes, fresh berries, and spicy apricot coulis on the first night and cream puff swans with warm crème anglaise on the final night were being pre-set at a makeshift staging area in the hotel lobby. It was a picture of organization that took on a life of its own.
After three days of coffee hours, cocktail receptions, formal dinners, a ‘la carte breakfasts and buffet lunches. The weekend came to an end as guests checked out after their final workshop and lunch. The kitchen crew was immersed in deep cleaning mode as everything was scrubbed down, coolers re-organized, everything labeled and dated, and inventories taken so that we could begin to place orders and restock for normal business on Monday. I sat in my office with our two sous chefs, and the dining room managers as we toasted with a glass of wine. Another crazy piece of business under our belts. A team effort that most guests will never see or understand. This is what we do, it is in our DNA. Now maybe I can catch a little sleep.
The chef’s job is complex; success depends on the experiences that he or she brings to the table and the passion needed to seek excellence, always. The ability to pull off all the planning rests on the shoulders of dozens of individuals who all share that commitment to excellence. Every step, every job is important, and each person is essential.
It’s 5:30am when the alarm clock screams “it’s time!” My bare feet hit the cold floor while the muscles in my legs resist with a creeping cramp that brings me quickly to my knees. “Crap!!”, I shout while frantically rubbing my calf trying to work out that Charlie horse pain. I can feel the knot in that muscle move slowly from the top of my ankle to the back of my knee. Finally, the leg tension starts to subside, and I’m able to stand and limp my way to the apartment kitchen. I heat a cup of stale coffee from the night before and set the brewer up for another pot. This is going to be a three or four cup morning just to get my body ready to start another day.
I turn on the news as background noise (there’s never any good news) and I faintly catch the key points about another mass shooting, climate anomalies, political battles, the lingering pandemic, and the rising price of goods. It has all become too commonplace and as such has little meaning. My focus will soon be on whether staff members show up as scheduled, will deliveries be on time and what will they short me today, how many reservations on the book, and moving through the day – one plate at a time. I spend 15 minutes on the stationary bike still trying to work out that leg cramp, rush through50 sit-ups, take shower and shave, and down two more cups of coffee. I’ll catch some breakfast when I arrive at work.
By 7am I am walking through the back door of the kitchen. Sunrise is still 15 minutes away and I realize that unless I step outside at some point, I won’t see sunshine again today, or for that matter, until sometime in March. Of all the things about winter- the cold, snow, freezing rain, slippery roads, and heavy coats – it is the lack of sunshine that bothers me the most. As usual, the early team has been at work for a couple hours and I am greeted by the smell of pastries fresh from the oven, bacon, mirepoix caramelizing for a veal stock, and fresh coffee. The sous chef, Carl, smiles when I walk to my office: “Mornin chef -another dreary day in the neighborhood.” I nod and give him a thumbs up. Before I can turn on the computer, Emmett has my usual breakfast in front of me: eggs over easy, bacon, home fries, and a side of salsa. “Here you go chef, coffees on the way.” I pull on my chef coat and say: “Thanks Emmett”.
I quickly scan my computer for any urgent emails and pull the clip board with all the BEO’s off the wall. Two emails catch my attention: an emergency manager’s meeting at 9am and one note from my most experienced evening line cook: “Sick today, chef. Can’t make it in.” I polish off breakfast in record time, kick back another coffee, tie on an apron, and walk through the kitchen with clipboard in hand. There are a few coffee hours, a lunch for 40, and a rehearsal dinner tonight for 25. A light day in terms of events, but the restaurant is capped on reservations. We will likely top 200 for dinner. The hotel restaurant doesn’t serve lunch (except for special events) which gives us a chance to catch our breath. Emmett is flying through breakfast orders (he always amazes me), pauses to give me a thumbs up and turns back to the flat top filled with egg pans, a handful of flapjacks on the griddle, and home fries ready to turn. I set down my clipboard and jump in to give him a hand garnishing and assembling plates. I don’t dare try to move his egg pans or disrupt his system. Ten minutes of sliding plates down the pass and he is back to a comfortable pace. I give him a high five and move on to the bakeshop.
This is a busy hotel kitchen and because of our size we can afford the luxury of our own full-time bakery department. Jeanette is our pastry chef and is supported by Jack the bread baker and a part time assistant (an intern from a regional culinary school). Jack is the early guy and Jeanette typically arrives around noon and stays through dinner service.
“Morning, Jack.” “Morning, chef.”
We review the bakery components on the special menus for the day and typical inventory of baked goods for restaurant service. As usual, he was on top of everything. While we talked, he peeled a dozen loaves of sourdough bread from the oven hearth. The smell never gets old. Finally, I checked in with Dean, our early prep cook, as he finishes checking in the morning produce order.
“Any shorts on the produce order, Dean?” He finished signing the invoice and said: “Everything’s good today chef, except for the raspberries. They looked like crap, so I sent them back. We have enough to get through today.”
He returned to building his veal stock that will simmer for the next six hours and then reviewed his prep list for the day. Dean is also the guy to take care of any early breakfast or lunch special events, so he was all over the lunch scheduled for 40.
He gave me a taste: “Lobster salad, chef. A nice lunch with warm potato and leek soup, lobster salad, and a strawberry Bavarian from the bakeshop. I’m all set.”
Next, I check in with Julio, our dependable dishwasher. I bring him a cup of coffee (part of my routine) – one creamer, two sugars. “How’s it shaking, Julio.” He smiles and says:
“Another day in paradise, chef. Thanks for the coffee.”
Julio has worked for me for three years. He is always on time, never complains, keeps the dish area organized and clean, and takes care of the dish machine like it was part of his family. He is quite simply – awesome.
“Let me know if you need anything, Julio.”
“Will do, chef.”
This is my morning routine. I swear by it and never waver from taking the time to touch base with everyone. Each person is essential, and I want them to know that I feel that way. Today, like most days, I think to myself, “such a great team.” It’s hard to understand why it is so hard to attract new staff. We pay well, and the team environment here is top shelf. It’s a different world today, hopefully things will change soon.
It’s just a few minutes before 9am as I break away for the meeting. Turns out, it was nothing too serious, a few complaints from an event last week that I will need to deal with and early information about an important conference on the books for next month. A group has booked the entire hotel for three days including all meals, coffee hours, and a reception with live entertainment. It will be all consuming, I’ll need to get to menu planning today.
When I return to the kitchen I jump on the phone and start calling for a line cook replacement for tonight. I have three cooks off today, so hopefully I can pull one of them in, otherwise it will fall on my shoulders. In the old days people worked even if they were sick. That’s no longer acceptable, especially during a pandemic. Unfortunately, it will mean overtime for someone, but such is life.
The luncheon goes off without a hitch, breakfast ended up topping 120, Emmett was cleaned up and prepped for tomorrow before noon, and as the clock hit 1pm, the dinner team began to arrive. The complexity of the menu is such that most of the prep is handled by individual line cooks. Dean, the prep cook, takes care of the heavy lifting: stocks, soups, bulk sauces, meat and fish fabrication, and salad dressings, but the detail work falls on station cooks. They will be working at breakneck speed from the minute they walk in until 5pm when we have pre-meal check-in. The sous chef will check everyone’s mise en place, taste everything, and then review features with the dining room staff. I managed to find one of the cooks on her day off and she agreed to come in and cover the open station – that’s relief.
The evening sous chef took the lead in the kitchen while I returned to the office to build menus for the three-day conference next month, process invoices, and put in more work on next year’s budget. I stopped to join the sous chef during pre-meal and then stuck around until 7pm to make sure they made it through rush hour and help plate the rehearsal dinner. I took off my chef coat, hung up my apron, made a list for tomorrow, and enjoyed a plate of pasta and glass of wine. At 7:30 I checked out heading home until tomorrow. Check off another day – tomorrow will be busier but the team will take it in stride. It’s dark outside, just as it was when I arrived this morning. Ah, the joy of life in a winter kitchen, bright and filled with action inside while outside it is cold, snowy, and dark. I love what I do, but as I walk-through ankle-deep snow, I find myself humming an old Beach Boys song and wondering how many more days until summer.
Stay tuned for the next article – FULL HOUSE -ALL HANDS-ON DECK
I may be in the minority, but I have always felt, and often promoted, that restaurants can and occasionally do serve a higher purpose. Since those early days as an apprentice and maybe even before as a 16-year-old dishwasher, I saw something special in restaurant life. Yes, life – since those who find that higher purpose will likely invest a significant amount of time in a restaurant kitchen, not because they must, but rather because they want to. The purpose to them involves a connection to the underlying soul of the operation; a soul that highlights history, tradition, a sense of family, respect and appreciation, and an inspiring story. Is this poetic nonsense or is there truth in this idea of soul?
Soul is likely more evident in single unit proprietorships or small multi-unit operations that are family operated, and less evident in the larger chains simply because larger creates challenges to the feel of a restaurant and a loss of on-site control over that higher purpose. I don’t have anything against the larger chains, there are some whose mission is built around trying to protect that purpose, but it’s exponentially harder to build and hold onto that soul when hundreds of miles separate units.
Whether speaking from a spiritual standpoint, referencing soul music, soul food, or the soul of a restaurant – it is clear that each of these can “transform the moments in our day and bring us closer to living life from a place that sits well with who we are at our core”1. In other words, something goes beyond what is apparent on the surface: personality, sound, food, or service. “Who we are” is the foundation of our existence that includes our heritage, who we want to be, and who others believe we are and what we represent. Soul is the definition of you and the pursuit of this will always be our most important goal in life. Now, this is getting heavy, but bear in mind that it can and should be fulfilling and exciting.
When we listen to authentic soul music, we can feel the musician’s pain and joy. The music is designed to open the listener up to the performer’s life and story. When we eat authentic soul food we are transported to the environment where the cook matured, where he or she connected with ingredients, and how their socio-economic condition impacted what and how those ingredients were prepared. We not only taste soul food; we feel it. The same can be true in a restaurant. Expressing this, building a team around it, and telling that story is what I refer to as that higher purpose.
As a cook or chef, we are drawn to those operations where punching a clock is replaced with joining the energy that a restaurant exudes. Have you worked in an operation like this? Have you walked through the door with the typical knot in your stomach being overpowered by positive anticipation? Okay, maybe not every day, but most. Are you excited to see the people you work with; touch the fresh ingredients delivered by farmers, fish mongers, and ranchers who are passionate about their work; and taking in the smells, sounds, and flavors of honest cooking happening all around? If you answer yes, then you have been touched by the restaurant’s soul.
Does the place where you work have a story that everyone knows and feels; a story that resonates with every employee, owner, and guest? Does that story take people back in time and allow them to think about the impact the place, building, people, and food had on who they are today? If so, then the restaurant has linked with its higher purpose.
When this happens, magic occurs. The employees work from the heart, not just a prep sheet. When this happens, the owners feel a sense of responsibility to protect that soul. When this happens, guests find that their anticipation and actual experience become memorable and at some level, inspiring.
Sometimes the purpose of a restaurant gets lost in the noise of defining success. Look around in your community and you will be able to pick out those restaurants with soul and special purpose that are part of that success formula as well as those that tend to forget why they exist. Financially successful restaurant will come and go if they fail to connect to their soul where those that have the order correct may continue to exist for generations. That small, family-owned Italian restaurant on the corner of your neighborhood; the one that has been there for 75years, undoubtedly has soul. There is a story there that everyone understands from the host to the dishwasher and each one respects their role in perpetuating that higher purpose.
I was reminded of this important differentiation today through a shared article about Chef Sean Sherman’s Owamni restaurant in Minneapolis (Thanks Chef Tim Hardiman). The James Beard Foundation recognized this indigenous operation as the Best New Restaurant in America.
Sean’s approach is to tell the story of the Lakota people through food and in doing so he has defined the restaurant’s soul. This higher purpose is felt by all stakeholders in the operation; a purpose that goes beyond the food, it makes a connection to history, traditions, struggles, and perseverance.
The same has been true of operations like Alice Water’s Chez Panisse in Berkeley, California, Lombardi’s pizzeria in Brooklyn, Fore Street in Portland, Maine, Berghoff’s in Chicago, Willie Mae’s Scotch House in New Orleans, The Union Oyster House in Boston, The Tadich Grill in San Francisco, The White Horse Tavern in Newport, Rhode Island, and thousands of other neighborhood restaurants that live their higher purpose.
When purpose is defined, when teams are built with this in mind, and when the soul of the operation is evident to all, then financial success will come as well. This is how the great restaurants are defined and where generational longevity is a result.
Yep, I know there are bruises and wounds to heal, any industry has their share. Certainly, there are issues and things to be addressed and fixed and there is little doubt that life has not always been fair and kind when it comes to kitchen work, but like so many other businesses and industries – the positive far outweighs those scars and wounds. Take the time to think about it:
This is a profile of the restaurant business that gets lost in all the negative press.
 SECOND LARGEST EMPLOYER
In 2021, there were 14.5 million people employed in the restaurant industry1
 THE CLEAREST WINDOW TO ENTREPRENEURSHIP
80%of single-unit restaurants in the U.S. are owned by people who started as entry-level employees and 90% of managers started in the same way.1
 THE LEADING “FIRST JOB” INDUSTRY IN AMERICA
1/3rd of all Americans had their first job in restaurants and nearly ½ of all American workers have had a job in restaurants at some point in their life.1
 A BENCHMARK BUSINESS THAT DEFINES A VILLAGE, TOWN, OR CITY
“Local restaurants are an impactful gathering place for communities, where relationships form, and memories are made. They preserve agriculture and food preferences and styles of cooking from generation to generation and are the lifeblood of regional food culture.”2
 THE HALLMARK FOR TRADITIONS AND ETHNICITY
The neighborhood restaurant is often the soul of micro cultures. It is the repository of recipes, cooking methods, traditions, and the power of our melting pot country.
 A UNIVERSAL REWARD SYSTEM FOR CUSTOMERS
Dining out is more than a need for nourishment, it is a reward for hard work, a place to celebrate success, a way to recognize others, a mecca for friends to enjoy each other’s company, and a place where the important topics of the day find a home in discussion.
 THE REAL CONNECTION BETWEEN FARMERS AND CONSUMERS
The farmer is oftentimes the unsung hero of our communities. Without them, we would not be able to enjoy the bounty of the earth. The restaurant is the forum where farmers can see the fruits of their labor come to life. Restaurateurs are ambassadors for the regional agricultural community.
 THE HIGHEST PERCENT OF WOMEN MANAGERS & OWNERS OF ANY
47% of all restaurants in the U.S. are owned by women.
 A SAFE HAVEN FOR CREATIVE PEOPLE
No other art form has such an impact. No other art form appeals to all human senses. No other art form provides the artist with instant feedback on the quality of his or her work. No other art form connects so many stakeholders through the process of growing, processing, transporting, preparing, serving, and enjoying a product.
 THE HEART OF THE ECONOMY IN TOURIST COMMUNITIES
All other aspects of tourism rely on the restaurant to punctuate an experience. What is travel, a hotel, or a center of entertainment without the provision of quality food?
 AN INDUSTRY THAT THRIVES ON TEAM ENVIRONMENTS
Although many industries require teams to accomplish their goals, very few are so closely inter-dependent and focused on teamwork, as the restaurant business. It is the concept of team that attracts people to a career in food and it is the action of the team that allows a positive guest experience to come to fruition.
Let’s fix our problems, but not forget just how valuable and important the restaurant industry is to our way of life – a quality life.
Push it out, how many covers, lock, and load, finish strong, over the hump, wrap it up: this the language of the kitchen during service, these are the timestamps like the number of quarters in a football game or innings in baseball. Get it done, no mistakes, and pick up the pace are all directives that help line cooks make it through another day or night. When all is said and done, we can wipe our brows and sigh in relief. We made it! I get it, I’ve been there, I know the adrenaline behind this and the sense of accomplishment when the rail is free of dupes – it is a race against time, an impossible goal that somehow, we manage to reach. Mission accomplished. But what about your food, what about the guest’s reaction, what about creating memorable experiences, what about your connection to the plate?
Don’t get me wrong, I understand the need for numbers and the gratification that comes from exceeding expectations in this regard, but, if I might ask: “how do you feel about that plate?” In the moment gratification from taming the volume beast is short lived. Tomorrow there will be a need to do the same. “How do you feel about that plate?” Compromise may be a legitimate goal in negotiations and diplomacy, but not so much when it comes to quality and the meaning of your work.
Take a moment to assess, to line up the results of your work with your vision of the plate, the guest experience, and the brand that you are trying to build. I’m not a big fan of quick service restaurants, but I would be willing to bet that the menu items originally created by their corporate culinary team doesn’t translate to what is served in restaurant number 953. Can they meet the crowds and even exceed budgeted customer counts on a given day? Probably. But what about that quality translation? How does that corporate chef feel when he or she visits a random restaurant and sees how a 16-year-old on the grill has no vision of excellence in execution? Isn’t it the same reality in a full-service operation where pushing the numbers is priority number 1?
Where is the happy medium, the commitment to those quality stakes in the ground? Can quantity, speed, and quality coexist? The answer, of course, is YES! “But, but, but surely compromise is necessary if we are to turn tables and reach our numbers.” Compromise in diplomacy means that both sides win at some level. When we compromise with quality in a restaurant where is the win? We filled the dining room, and everyone was served, but what was their experience? Did they sense that the value was there? Were they wowed into coming back again and again? Will they write a great review on Trip Advisor? When we compromise on the quality of cooking, taste, and presentation then we suffer trying to win unhappy customers back and you, the chef, must look in a mirror and see the face of compromise.
So, how do we find that space where quality is maintained, where the customer is wowed, and where the chef feels great about that plate of food while still turning tables and maximizing sales? Okay, here’s a start:
TEN STEPS TO SIGNING YOUR WORK:
 SHARE YOUR VISION, INSTILL A SENSE OF PRIDE
Let everyone know exactly what you expect, get excited, show them how it should be done, and celebrate every act of excellence.
 BE THE EXAMPLE FOR OTHERS TO FOLLOW
Make sure you are always on top of your game, never falter from doing every task to the highest caliber. You set the tone for others to emulate.
 TEACH AND TRAIN
Invest in them, engage them, show them, work through problems with them, and measure their performance against your standards. Help them to become the best they can be.
 PUT YOUR STAMP OF APPROVAL ON EVERY PLATE
Be present, watch what goes out, inspect plates, taste everything, let every know that you intend to sign each plate, and, in your absence, you expect that they will do the same.
 CELEBRATE EXCELLENCE IN EVERYTHING
Right down to their station set-up, organization of pans, cleanliness of cookware, uniforms, the way they cut vegetables and fillet a whole fish – excellence is a habit – make it so!
 SHOW NO TOLERANCE FOR MEDIOCRITY IN ANYTHING
Once excellence sinks in then mediocrity will have no home in your kitchen. Until then, make it very clear that you expect the best from them and will not tolerate a “good enough” approach.
 LET YOUR COOKS BECOME GUESTS
Give your cooks a chance, now and then, to dine out front. Let them see what the guest sees, taste what the guest tastes, and feel the level of excellence that you are trying to promote.
 BUILD IN QUALITY SYSTEMS
Don’t assume that quality will happen build it in beginning with selection of vendors, inspection of ingredients when they arrive, proper storage in coolers and dry storage, the right tools to do the job, chip free plates, spotless glassware, plate presentations designed to wow, and palate building among your cooks so that they know when it is right. Recipes are not enough; they need to understand great cooking and then they will be able to problem solve.
 MEASURE QUALITY AND SEEK FEEDBACK
Find ways to assess quality: chef tastings, peer tastings, pre-meal critique, post-meal assessment, guest comment cards, etc.
 SWEAT THE SMALL STUFF
Everything is important – groom your staff to develop “restaurant eyes”. Require cooks to dress professionally on the way to work, have them enter through the front door so that they can look for any slip in excellence, train them to line up items in the storeroom and coolers with excellence in mind, labels pointing out, FIFO inventory management, proper covering, and HACCP labeling, be insistent that floors be cleaned frequently, show servers how to help the dishwasher with proper scraping and stacking, etc. The list is long – it’s all important.
Act as though everyone, including yourself, is required to sign their work. Teach your staff to be their own worst critic so that job doesn’t fall on your shoulders alone and then allow yourself to become the cheerleader for excellence.
Celebrate those nights when you break records for guests served or revenue projections that were broken, but never allow compromise of quality to be a reason why those goals were met. Excellence begins with the person who holds the position of chef, but it comes to fruition when everyone is committed to it.
I have always loved the restaurant business. My professional life has been dedicated to the kitchen, the people of restaurants, the ingredients and their source, the process and the adrenaline, the service and an opportunity to make people happy, and of course those plates as they slide down the pass. There are, of course, restaurants and there are restaurants. I have been impressed and disappointed in many from those exclusive fine dining establishments with food that should be admired for its beauty to greasy spoons with the best burgers you will ever find. I have been dismayed by some who attempt to be something they are not, or who feel that a name or location are enough to lead to success. They are all part of my passion for the preparation and service of food.
I have worked in and in my later years consulted for operations where it was the hope of profit that drove all decisions and been part of those who aligned with a higher calling, a calling that led to success on a whole different level. These are the restaurants, the chefs and cooks, the servers and bartenders, and the owners who knew that what they did for a living was really important. “Build it and they will come” was more than a cute phrase from the movies – to these folks, a higher calling meant that cooking is a privilege, service is a way of life, and the chance to work with others and express their own love of restaurants was paramount. Ironically, in so many of these operations – financial success comes because of this higher purpose. When profit drives all decisions then a restaurant will lose its character, its soul, and its potential. Profit is not the means to an end, it is the end brought about by the means, the heart, the soul, and a love of that plate.
Whenever I take the time to pause and reflect on my time working in restaurants and participating in restaurant experiences, I tend to categorize them as wow experiences, surprising experiences, and special experiences. Hands down, it is the special experience that is most memorable – the operation that moves to the beat of a drum that keeps time with the higher calling objective.
So, what is this higher calling? Well, it’s not one thing, it’s not something that can even be outlined in a business plan, or for that matter predicted at all. It’s more a realization than an objective. It happens when those involved in a restaurant stumble into the life of service, the importance of tradition, the sense of community, and the connections that are possible over a plate of food. Maybe you haven’t thought about this before, but I have. It is very likely that you have experienced it, supported it, enjoyed it, but never gave it much reflection, but I have.
It’s that local apple orchard that decided to offer warm cider and fried apple and pumpkin donuts to people lined up to purchase a peck of MacIntosh, Cortland, or Honey Crisp apples. Happy customers told their friends, and their friends told their friends. Suddenly, more family members are joining in to help sell the donuts and add pies and quickbreads to the menu. Slowly, but surely the grab and go becomes a sit and enjoy hand carved sandwiches on homemade breads, with a glass of cider as a few neighbors, smiles on their faces, joined the family in an effort to meet the demands of a growing business. People in line are laughing and connecting with others from town as this apple orchard becomes the place to be on a Saturday or Sunday. This is a place with a higher purpose.
It’s the corner Italian restaurant that has been around for three generations with a menu that rarely changes: it’s predictable, consistent, and fabulous. The sauce has been handed down from great grandmothers and the bread doesn’t come off the back of a delivery truck – it is made on premise every morning starting at 3am. IN the back of the kitchen the owner’s mother, now in her 70’s came back to work, to help, and to be a part of the music of the kitchen. She is hand forming meatballs and rolling out linguini, tortellini, and ravioli. The same flavor profile used for the past 60 years. When you walk in the restaurant as a patron you can smell the Bolognese simmering, the meatballs caramelizing, and the salt water used to soften cheese curd for fresh mozzarella. Nothing fancy, plates are not overly manipulated, the servers are not pretentious, and you can buy a bottle of wine for less than $50. This is memorable, this is what it means to enjoy a meal at a restaurant where people care about those who work there and those who raise a glass full of hope and good cheer. This is a place with higher purpose.
It’s the neighborhood food market that has controlled a corner of your town for decades. You know, the one where the isles are too narrow for people to cross paths, the produce looks like it was picked a few hours ago, the meat case is bright and clean packed with beautiful red steaks and roasts, vivid pink pork loins, chickens with a few pin feathers still intact, and sausages that were made on premise by a butcher with a well fed belly, white bib apron, straw hat, and hands that are big enough to palm a basketball. It’s a place where the dry goods shelves are filled only with the best of the best, the fish is packed in ice and you know that it was pulled from the ocean that day or the day before, and the cashier, owner, and deli slicer all know your name. “Try a slice of prosciutto, it will melt in your mouth.” This is a special place where quality, service, and sincerity are always on the menu and price is judged in relation to value. This is a place with a higher purpose.
I remember that little bistro in a quaint French village where the owner was the host, the server, and the cook. Where six tables were all that could fit and they were always full. Where the menu was there, but rest assured, if you wanted something different and they had the ingredients, it was a pleasure to cook for you. I think back to that Greek breakfast operation tucked away in a storefront in mid-town Manhattan for fifty years where your morning eggs were cooked to ordered and delivered to your table before you could read the headlines on page one of the New York Times. This is the place where your coffee cup was always full, where the check was delivered before you had to ask, where after a few visits the waiter remembered what you wanted and placed the order for you. I remember the twelve-seat operation in the French Quarter of New Orleans that served only gumbo, but man was it extraordinary. The staff was a husband-and-wife team, with help from parents, children, and even grandkids who learned to clear tables before they made it to high school. How could I ever forget the takeout only pizzeria that prepared incredible Neapolitan style pizza, throwing dough, and stretching it into perfect circles, spreading sauce made three times a week, virgin olive oil drizzled over fresh pulled mozzarella, sauteed wild mushrooms and thinly sliced prosciutto, topped with leaves of fresh basil and a sprinkle of crushed red pepper. A father and son and lone dishwasher/box folder were able to crank out hundreds of extraordinary pies every day while carrying on conversations with nearly every customer. And I will always remember that eighty-year-old artisan bread baker whose wood-fired oven bakeshop was tucked away on a farm that was impossible to find unless you had a guide. A place where baking bread was a religion that took center stage in his life. A few hours of sleep were interjected at various times throughout the day in between, mixing, feeding the starter, bowl proof, shaping, tending the fire, and baking those crisp crust round loaves with rich, sour dough centers, filled with fermentation holes, as they were pulled from a 500-degree hearth. He sold 280 loaves of one kind of bread, six days per week. The bread was delivered by neighbors to local grocery outlets in exchange of a loaf or two to take home. These are places with a higher purpose.
There is so much to love about the restaurant business, but it will always be those operations and operators with a higher purpose who win my heart and my on-going support. They do it for the love of cooking and baking, and in honor of the farmers, ranchers, and fishermen who supply exceptional ingredients. They do it to bring the family together, and they do it for the joy of being important to the community where they sit. This is that higher purpose.
At a time when it seems as if we all suffer from irreconcilable differences, it may just be the chef and a great plate of food that can bring us together. This is not a new thought; food has been used in mediation for centuries. It was even Escoffier who once stated:
“The art of cooking is perhaps one of the most useful forms of diplomacy.”
From government “State Dinners” that bring world leaders together to the cafeteria in the United Nations building and from restaurant meccas for traditional business lunches to your home dinner table – food is a common denominator and great food is a vehicle for bringing people together.
The key is to find common ground, something that allows people with differences to set them aside in the moment as they appreciate the act of breaking bread. Ah…what a responsibility and what an opportunity we have as cooks to give people a chance to see each other as people first, not just representatives of an ideology, not simply a person with whom we disagree. Restaurants are destinations that provide hope for reconciliation and agreement. They are neutral territory where food and drink can demonstrate what people have in common rather than what pushes them apart. To this end, the chef is the consummate diplomat.
The chef’s diplomatic strategy is complex and specific. The diplomatic meal is one that considers the diners state of mind, history and traditions, and openness to an experience that educates as well as satisfies. Paying respect to each person’s background while spicing up the plate with flavors and presentations that break new ground, surprise, and invigorate is a formula that only the well-seasoned chef can pull off. Sometimes an existing menu can accomplish this while at other times there is a need for the chef to go “off menu”. In either case, having the knowledge to prescribe a meal puts the chef in control of the situation – a position that any true diplomat would enjoy.
It was 2002 when the Economist Magazine coined the word: “gastrodiplomacy” to describe the Global Thai initiative that was focused on improving the image of Thailand and expanding the reach of its cuisine. As a diplomatic effort used numerous times since, this was described as: “winning hearts and minds through stomachs.”1
Food is a universal language, one that anyone can appreciate and embrace as a way to discover more about a culture and the people who represent it. On the international stage this is very commonly used as an effective tool.
I wonder if gastrodiplomacy and the chef’s skills can be just as effective in helping us all put aside our differences, take a breath, break bread, and see each other as people first. We are people with different opinions, but still the same, nonetheless. The cook’s table is a place of commonality, a sacred environment where we can re-think how we approach each other, push aside those points of disagreement, smile, laugh, raise a glass, and enjoy what is on the plate in front of us.
Is food the answer to this downward spiral of disagreement and labeling as “with me or against me”? Pandemic concerns aside, is it time for more community tables in restaurants, more opportunities for chefs to simply cook to unite? Think about those times in your life when you celebrated others; those times when you enjoyed the company of others without judgement or comparison; those times when it was fun to simply be part of another person’s space. I would guess that most, if not all those experiences involved food. Food is the catalyst, the magnet that pulls people to the table and the glue that allows them to bond.
We may not agree on politics, we may be over-the-top partisan when it comes to our favorite sporting team, our views on education, the type of music we listen to or books that we choose to read, but we can all agree on a great tasting plate of food. Why not start there and learn to appreciate what we can agree on? Maybe then, we can grow to listen to others’ opinions without viewing those with whom we disagree as enemies on the other side.
Every day that I think about the career in the kitchen that I chose (or that chose me) I see just how important the work is, just how much opportunity there is for this work to make a difference. Think about it.
More than anything else, when I was in restaurant kitchens I looked forward to planning and testing the next set of menu changes. A stale menu is not cost effective, ignorant of quality issues with ingredients, uninspiring for employees, and just plain boring. It is a menu change that tests a chef’s ability to understand the seasonality of harvest, the connection that menu items have with the concept of the restaurant, executive cost-effective items, push the kitchen crew to enhance their skills, and excite the customer. Are you up to it?
Winter is, by far my favorite season to plan menus. This is where “real cooking” comes into play; where a chef demonstrates his or her ability to pull flavors out of seasonal ingredients and marry flavors to match the weather outside. Braising, Roasting, Barbeque, Stewing, Poaching, and any item that engages “low and slow” is appropriate in the winter months. Depending on where you live this season might last three months, or you could be in for the long haul. Northern New York State where I spent my career looks ahead to nearly six months of cold, snow, and an occasional ice storm.
Winter is the time when red wines jump to centerstage, when hearty IPA’s and sour ales are in demand, when hard cider, bourbon, single malt scotch, and barrel aged whiskeys take up much more shelf space behind your bar. It is the time when guests seek out restaurants with a fireplace, open wood fired kitchens, and the rich, deep smell of charred meats and fish, roasted crispy birds, sweet oven baked garlic, caramelized onions, and short ribs and shanks coming from a six hour braise. It is the season of butternut, acorn, delicata, and spaghetti squash roasting with plenty of butter and brown sugar, of roasted walnuts, pecans, and marcona almonds added to your salads, and in-house pickling finding its way onto your appetizer boards. Late season root vegetables like carrots, beets, and parsnips are on everyone’s list. This is the time for brussels sprouts to jump to a lead role on your menus, roasted, blanched and sauteed, char grilled or smoked – these former “second-class citizen” vegetables are now peaking in popularity.
For the chef interested in helping the bottom line – winter provides an opportunity to work with lesser cuts of meat and poultry, less frequently ordered fish, and dramatically enhance their perceived value through alternative cooking methods that draw out and combine flavors.
How are your menu planning skills? What experiences can you draw on in building this menu that moves quickly away from light and piquant to heavy and robust? There will always be room, even in the winter, for lighter menu items, complicated salads, grilled fish and steaks, and a load of tasty sauté dishes, but in the winter your guests will pull their chair up to a table ready, willing, and able to touch that fabulous, braised pork shoulder that falls off the bone. Are you ready?
Whenever I dove into the menu change process I worked with the following simple, but effective way to get from concept to plate:
 DECIDE ON A DIRECTION
What will be the foundation of your menu? Will it be consistent throughout the seasons, or will it change at some level as the seasons do? As an example – Thomas Keller has a sign on his kitchen wall that says: “finesse”. Although there is no specific cuisine that stems from this, it does set the tone for every menu item, every preparation, and every moment of service. Epic restaurant in Georgia follows suit with “Culinary Pride” on their kitchen wall – again a driving concept that requires every person to ask themselves – does this dish, its flavor, the presentation, and the manner with which it is delivered reflect “Culinary Pride?”
I took a different approach in kitchens that I directed. Every menu and every menu item were drawn from a simple idea of “elegant comfort food”. I expected that every dish, no matter its origin or influence must reflect that feeling of familiarity and exceptional execution. Decide on a direction.
 LET YOUR COOKS KNOW
A common mistake that chefs make (I have been there myself in the early days) was to assume that the menu is the chef’s, and only the chef’s responsibility. It must be, at some level, collaborative. If you want your cooks to be excited, your service staff to be proud, and your guests to receive exceptionally well-executed dishes, then everyone must feel like they had some input. Always be willing to listen to their ideas on how a dish might be prepared or presented better.
 PULL TOGETHER RESOURCES TO STUDY
Never feel that it is somehow “cheating” to research through cookbooks, visiting other restaurants, or talking with professional peers and then re-creating an item that inspires you. Everyone does it at some level – that’s why cookbooks are around. I have a significant collection of books from all types of restaurants. Some I have not yet even paged through, but I know that at some point there will be inspiration for a dish or concept inside.
Keep in mind that a “recipe” is nearly impossible to protect under law (copyright, patent, trademark, etc.) so restaurants can and do freely use menu items that another may have “invented”. But be professional about using established items. If you add a named classical dish on your menu, then make it as it was originally developed, list it as “inspired by”, or make it uniquely yours. This is not required but it is the right way to conduct yourself as a chef.
 LIST THOSE INGREDIENTS THAT WILL BE IN-SEASON & AVAILABLE
Restaurant chefs have become accustomed to accessing nearly any ingredient year-round. We know that every ingredient has a season unless we travel around the world to get it. The best menus take advantage of what is in season where you are. Asparagus is a spring vegetable, strawberries in June, apples in the early fall, Pacific halibut from June to September, spring lamb in May and June, etc. So, put together a chart of ingredient seasonality and hang it in your office. Let this be one of your important guides in preparing menus. Reference the Monterey Bay Seafood Watch research on seasonality and environmental challenges with certain types of seafood as well.
 ATTACH A COST TO CENTER OF PLATE INGREDIENTS
Costing out recipes is time consuming unless you have support staff who can track that for you, however, you can keep a handle on a menu items’ cost by simply charting what your center of plate proteins cost and staying seasonal with their selection. Know that based on your concept there will always be a pricing ceiling that you should avoid. No matter how well the item is prepared and how exceptional it might be, if you exceed that price ceiling people will shy away from buying it.
 PREP, TASTE, SEASON, TASTE
As a seasoned chef you may understand what a menu item will taste like simply by working it through your mind’s eye, but there are far too many variables that impact flavor when an original dish is created. Make sure that you include a trial-and-error phase to menu development and involve different people in the tasting process.
 THINK COLORS AND TEXTURES ON A PLATE
Yes, taste is the ultimate attraction to a dish, but if it doesn’t look good on the plate then a guest’s flavor receptors will reject it. Any menu that is designed must also consider “plate presence”. Invest the time in beautiful as well as tasty menu items – the eyes play a role in determining flavor.
 WORK IN YOUR SIGNATURE DESIGNS
This is where a chef can build his or her style as uniquely marketable. If you have a signature, then use it and build it into the menu conversation with your cooks and service staff. My “elegant comfort foods” had to focus on natural presentations. In other words, I expected that everything would flow in a natural fashion and would not be too contrived. I could “do contrived” but chose to avoid it with hot foods in particular.
 THROW IT OUT TO YOUR KITCHEN CREW TO PLAY WITH
When you think that a menu item is “ready” then pass it off again to your kitchen team with the goal of making it better. You might be surprised at what will evolve.
 COME UP WITH THREE VARIATIONS FOR EACH POTENTIAL ENTRÉE
If you want eight entrees on your new menu, then start by developing twelve with two or three slight variations for each. Through trial and error and a bit of democracy you will come up with the best of the best and everyone has some level of buy-in.
 GIVE CREDIT WHERE CREDIT IS DUE
If one of your cooks came up with the idea that put a menu item over the top, then make sure they get loads of credit. You might even state on the physical men that the concept and specific menu items were a collaboration of ideas and put the names of your kitchen crew on the document. This simple act will really charge up your team.
 MAKE SURE THAT IT HITS ALL OF YOUR STAKES IN THE GROUND
Whatever you hold close as essential to your philosophy of cooking must be adhered to, otherwise your buy-in will wane.
 EDUCATE YOUR SERVICE STAFF
Your service staff members are on the front line. They interact with guests, they are the key salespeople, and they will suffer the most if a guest is unhappy. Take the time to explain the concept, the menu choices, the process used in development and require them to taste everything. Have your bar manager or sommelier offer a pairing tasting so that they know what beverages to recommend. Make them part of the whole process.
 GIVE IT A TRY AND BE WILLING TO DELETE OR ADD IF NECESSARY
Finally, whenever a menu is developed, in this case for that time of the year when robust flavors are so exciting and ever-present, know that all your work may not lead to acceptance. If the guest doesn’t respond well then write it off as a learning experience and make adjustments to your menu. It must always be fluid until the guest says: “WOW”.
So, this is something that I have been perplexed about for the past few months: more and more restaurants are beginning to charge for bread. At first, I was really put off by this. Come on – is this the way to address your food cost woes? But after I settled down, I started to think about it. What is the role of bread in a meal? Has bread, in the past, been relegated to condiment status?
Well, maybe, this is exactly the case when like salt, pepper, and butter, the rule of thumb has too often been – give it away but find the least expensive options to buy. Ah…but what if the restaurant takes bread seriously? What if they invest in either an in-house artisan baker or buy from a seriously talented Boulanger? What if the butter on the table is cultured from a high-end dairy or cold pressed extra virgin olive oil is poured tableside for dipping?
Now the formula changes, doesn’t it? Those beautiful, hard crusted, perfectly handled sour dough loaves or crunchy French baguettes with their fragrant artisan grain chew that make your jaw work overtime to experience the whole product just might deserve more attention. Should we elevate the bread to course status? Is it time for restaurants who take bread seriously to add breads to their appetizer menu, or a separate menu course all-together?
I wonder if menus from those serious restaurants should talk more about their bread, just like a chef might talk about the farm where beautiful organic produce is harvested, Angus steaks shipped directly to a restaurants’ salt lined rooms for 18-24 days of dry aging, or seafood that adheres to the Monterey Bay Seafood Watch. Why not?
If in the early morning bakeshop, a crew of passionate artisan bakers are nurturing a 12-hour proof for dough that will become incredible whole grain boules that smell rich, sweet, and nutty when peeled from a wood-fired oven, then how can we deny the bread superstar status? When a baker comes in on his or her day off to check on the status of a sour dough “mother”, feed it, and watch over it as if it were a child, then we might just need to re-think the status of bread on the menu. It’s not just bread, just like a sauce is not simply a coating, or incredible raw milk cheeses are not Kraft singles.
Ah, but here’s the kicker: what if that bread that you charge for is tasteless and untouched by human hands? What if it didn’t come from that bakeshop in the corner of your kitchen, but rather from the back of a full-service vendor’s delivery truck? What if you care about as much for the quality of that bread as you do the brand of ketchup you keep on a server’s station for young kids ordering chicken fingers for dinner? And, what if the butter you buy to accompany this bread is delivered in foil wrapped squares tossed in a wicker basket just before a bus person drops it at your table along with poured iceless water.
There again, I’m going off on a tangent. Where were we – oh, yes, now I remember – why are restaurants beginning to charge for bread? As long as I can remember – bread was relegated to condiment status or worse, thought to be better than it is because our bread palates just weren’t developed. “Waiter, can I have more bread?” Sure, why not – just open another plastic bag, tear off a few rolls, pass them through a microwave oven to warm them and suck all the moisture out, toss in a few of those foil wrapped butter pats and drop them off at the table without fanfare. No different than asking for sugar packets, more salt in the shaker, or added non-dairy creamers for that coffee you serve.
If restaurants want to charge for exceptional bread with a story, if they feel that artisan bread is part of their formula for success, and if they want to offer it to guests with the same pride exhibited when appetizers and entrees are presented to the table – then they should. Great bread is worth it, commercial, tasteless bread is not. Make a choice, but you can’t have it both ways without turning guests off. Make your bread a big deal, make it a signature for your restaurant, talk to your service staff about the bread: the flour used, the skill of the bread baker, the advantages of hearth baking, and the flavor profile of this exceptional product that you take care of. Then charge for it with a clear conscience.
“The smell of good bread baking, like the sound of lightly flowing water, is indescribable in its evocation of innocence and delight.”
– M.F.K. Fischer
For decades I have judged restaurants by the quality of their bread and how it is presented. Bread is important to me; good bread is a celebrity in my mind. A great meal without great bread is, to me, always subpar. I will go out of my way to find and patronize a restaurant based on their bread and YES, I am happy to pay extra for it.
On the other hand, if you want to turn me off and keep me from returning, then continue to serve “bread like” product that was extruded from a machine, proofed without contact from a human being, pumped full of CO2 , conveyor baked in a tunnel oven, blast cooled or frozen, packaged by machine and shipped to your restaurant in the deep freeze section of a 18-wheel truck alongside those breaded chicken fingers, and curly fries. Go ahead and charge for it on your menu, just don’t expect me or anyone else who appreciates the bread baker and his or her product that is filled with heart and soul to return for another meal.
Sorry folks, that’s my opinion. Let’s get it right. CHARGE FOR GREAT BREAD, just make sure that it is great.
“Good bread is the most fundamentally satisfying of all foods; and good bread with fresh butter, the greatest of feasts.”
If you are a cook who is happy working just for a paycheck – more power to you, but you can probably save some time and not read this article. If, however you have the sense that cooking is more than that and you have your eyes on many years connected to the professional kitchen, then read on. Moving forward in search of doing something meaningful and growing your position into a career may require some adjustments and a definite plan.
So, here are some golden rules that will help you to move in the right direction. Maybe this is who you already are, but if not, then view these as some “food for thought” that can turn your professional life around.
 BE POSITIVE:
Simple, right? Pushing aside the challenges and problems cooks face every day and resisting the tendency to find fault and complain is not easy. We can always find things to disagree with and people who frustrate us, but very little good ever comes out of this approach. As is often said – learn to become a problem-solver and not a finger pointer, build people up instead of tearing them down, and reap the long-term benefits of a positive attitude. People will notice.
 INVEST IN YOURSELF:
Self-improvement is the ticket to competence and confidence. Don’t wait for someone else to build your skills and knowledge – take charge of your own growth. Join, engage, read, learn, practice, connect, experience, and volunteer – this is how we improve.
 BE A TEAM PLAYER/LEADER:
Start by becoming an exceptional follower and an advocate for playing your part in a team effort. Look at your current role as the most important in the success of the operation and the power of the plate. Master your role and support those around you. Share, teach, and train others – this is the fuel that drives your own leadership engine. Every good leader understands how important great followership is and how the leader’s role is to give them all the support he or she can muster.
 DEFINE YOUR BENCHMARKS:
Find those cooks, chefs, restaurants, companies, or inspirational leaders who define excellence and learn from them. Study how they work, why they are so committed, and how they approach their work. Use all of this as your roadmap to success. Push yourself to be better and use their performance as a guiding light.
 WORK WHERE YOU CAN LEARN:
As you build your skill set make sure you select employers who are willing to invest in you; places where mentorship, training, and helpful critique are part of their method of operation. Everything else will come to you as you fine tune those skills and the knowledge to be exceptional at what you do.
 BE YOUR OWN WORST CRITIC: Don’t wait for someone else to critique your work – assess your performance and compare it to those benchmarks. If you can improve then set a course to do so. Find out the best way to improve, seek out those individuals who have mastered a particular task and connect with the intent to accept critique.
 FIND A MENTOR/BE A MENTOR:
Set your focus on finding a person who will be honest in their critique and willing to show you how to improve. Don’t settle for a person who always seeks to compliment – you will only improve if someone is honest and helpful at the same time. Finding a mentor is the most important step you can take to change your professional life.
 THIRST FOR EXPERIENCES:
Be willing to step outside your comfort zone if there is an opportunity to learn. Seek out unique opportunities to experience great food, the source of that food, the people who dedicate their lives to it, the service that accompanies exceptional dining, and the commitment to excellence that very successful cooks and chefs are a part of. Immerse in experiences whenever they are available. Spend a week working on a farm, tour a meat processing plant, work on a fishing boat, save your money and dine at extraordinary restaurants, work the crush at a local vineyard, help the best ice carver in your area, stage at the best restaurants on your days off, shadow a coffee barista and learn their craft, attend food shows and culinary organization workshops – everything helps to build that base of knowledge, improver your resume, and change your professional life.
 FIND A WAY TO BALANCE:
If there is a lesson that most seasoned chefs will point to is finding balance. All work and no play make any cook rather dull and positioned to fail as a friend, sibling, spouse, or parent. Make sure your plan includes diet, exercise, free time, family time, travel, and relaxation. Work hard but know how to step away.
Be part of something larger than you, join groups of cooks, restaurateurs, bakers, and food enthusiasts who can offer a different perspective, cutting edge changes on how we cook and present food, or the best way to ensure financial success in the restaurant business. This will feed your competence and confidence and provide a network of resource experts who will be there when you need an answer.
 RESPECT OTHERS:
Remember the rules of thumb for teamwork and leadership. They all evolve around a commitment to respecting those around you who share a stove, grow the ingredients you use, carry your food to a guest, and manage the operation to ensure that it remains financially healthy. Respect for others leads to the respect you receive in return.
 RAISE THE BAR:
As good as you may be today, you should never accept good as the best you can become. Always push that carrot a little out of reach and then work like crazy to grab it. Just when you think you are there – push it out a little further. Remember, excellence is a journey, not a destination.
 ALWAYS BE IN SEARCH OF EXCELLENCE: Use the concept of excellence, even perfection as the goal knowing that it will never be reached. Again, the journey towards excellence will always result in constant improvement – a chance to “wow” those around you.
Stay the course, enjoy the ride, and know that when your sights are on excellence your life will constantly change for the better.
When did civility (or lack thereof) become only referenced when considering political discourse? The left and the right may, to some, reference liberal or conservative political beliefs, but when it comes to acting in a civil manner – examples go way beyond politicians and their evolving platforms. Civility is deeply connected to how we treat each other, the level of respect that we show for the person or people next to us.
Where has civility gone, why is it in such short supply, and what is the impact on our way of life? Opposing views become disagreements; disagreements become battle; battles define opposite poles that shall never come together; and polarization leads to deep misunderstanding and hate. This is where we are, and it doesn’t stop with left and right. It seeps into every aspect of our daily lives and trickles down to our family, friends, children, and grandchildren. It draws people together into silos of belief and imbeds feelings of right or wrong without any gray area. People clamor to find those who agree with them whether right or wrong, truth or lie, beneficial or harmful. A lack of civility is a communicable disease that grows and spreads like a virus from host to host, infecting as many people as possible. What is most distressing is that once you are accepted into the silo it is nearly impossible to change a person’s position on any topic even when indisputable facts are presented.
“My hope is that we would begin to have a dialogue in this country about the importance of civility. We can have strong differences, but it does seem to me that most of the country believes it’s gone to critical mass in what I would call the professional class across the political spectrum – left and right.”
The examples we present are impactful, especially when we are in a position of power (politician, parent, alpha friend, employer, celebrity, writer, strong personality, teacher, or religious leader). People want to believe in something and someone, there are far more loyal followers than civil leaders, so the one who speaks the loudest, with authority, attracts the largest number of followers – new recruits for the silo. It may not involve formal membership (although there are numerous examples of silo membership), but those who follow tend to be quite loyal.
It starts simply, maybe too simply: Never looking people in the eye, or failing to smile and express “good morning, good evening, thanks, have a nice day.” It moves on to never holding a door for the person behind you, choosing to jump ahead in line, always finding fault with others and pointing out those faults to anyone who might listen, and misconstruing different opinions as elements of hate and disrespect. “You don’t like my football team – I hate you. You like that type of music – I hate you. You voted for that candidate, get out of my life. You own those type of kitchen knives – you are a shoemaker.” The list goes on and on. It is truly a disease that is creeping through every nook and cranny of our existence. I can only imagine what it must be like to build a relationship with another individual nowadays. Soon we will need to fill out a profile of beliefs before going on that first date.
“Civility is not about dousing strongly held views. It’s about making sure that people are willing to respect other perspectives.”
It happens in every community, every place of work, and every industry. It happens in kitchens where an interesting breed of civility always existed in the past. As rough and tumble as kitchen life has always been there was an unwritten rule of civility that basically inferred: respect your co-workers, respect the ingredients, respect the chain of command, respect the customer, and by all means respect your skill set. As long as this was in place, and you worked hard everyone would show you respect once you tied on an apron.
Civility meant that you would never fall down on the job and put your co-worker in a difficult position. You would never violate the honor of working with ingredients that farmers, ranchers, and fishermen risked everything to put at your disposal, and regardless of how they acted, the customer was respected because they put their trust in you. Is this still the case? How many restaurants suffer from employees not showing up to work, failing to step in the kitchen ready to work, failing to respect the standards of excellence that a restaurant is basing its reputation on, or failing to do a job to the best of their ability? Doing your job as you should is an act of civility; failure to do so is just short of anarchy. Yet, this is where we are.
A lack of civil behavior exists in healthcare, education, the legal profession, politics, retail operations, head-to-head business competition, law enforcement, the military, and kitchens. Acting without thoughts of kindness, when being rude and antagonistic becomes the rule and not the exception, when failing to treat others with any level of respect is considered “the way it is”, then how do we continue to categorize ourselves as a civilized society?
Happiness and success come from an environment of respect and caring, not from one where anxiety and blatant hostile discourse are prevalent. As human beings we crave acceptance and support and when it does not exist, we feel lost and demeaned.
Kitchen work, as an example, is a team sport. Those who spend time in front of a stove know in their hearts and minds that working together, supporting one another, and having each other’s back is essential if we are to thrive and succeed. When acceptable decorum is in short supply then support is replaced with caution and mistrust – this is not the fuel for success or a way to create an environment that breeds unity of purpose. The same is true in any other environment between co-workers, operators and employees, or employees and guests.
Civility still exists, but it is in short supply. There are still businesses and social circles where the rules of civility flourish, but there is a growing presence of discourse, disrespect, and lack of kindness wherever you turn. You can see it in person-to-person encounters that revert to anger and hate, rude interactions between business employees and customers, news commentators and business associates who interrupt each other during conversation, a lack of respect shown to those once considered professionals worthy of acknowledgement, and even a lack of honor paid to society’s elders.
Holding doors for others, saying thank you, offering a good morning or afternoon welcome, giving up a seat for a person in need, sharing, and paying respect to those who give of themselves for the betterment of others is just good behavior – something that civilized people do. You can still see all this pent-up civility pushing to find a home when disasters occur. Americans are very generous when hurricanes, floods, fires, criminal behavior that impacts others, and family tragedies happen, but in the normal course of a day this quickly seems to fade. We know that civility is still present, we simply need to embrace it, acknowledge it, and practice it.
Give it a try. Approach today with conscious civility. Be kind, welcoming, and supportive. Pause a moment before you lash out in a hurtful manner and take a breath. Begin today to condition your behavior towards civility and refrain from giving the finger to others knowing their reaction will be the same. When we are kind, others will as well. When we approach a situation with friction then friction you will receive. Be the example.
PLAN BETTER – TRAIN HARDER
Civilized: “An advanced stage of social and cultural development. The act of showing regard for others”
Separating the good from the great becomes more difficult when your competition is seeking to do the same. In a field where mediocrity reins strong it is quite easy to stand out as better – but is this where you want to be? Average or better than average, good enough, acceptable, not bad, and fine are not terms that inspire loyalty, enthusiasm, or lines waiting to get in. If you are in it, then be in it to win. The first characteristic of those who want to be great and those who are great is that they want to be there, and they will do what it takes to arrive at that outcome.
When you line up the great ones (in this case restaurants or even the people who work there) there’s a trait that is common among all – they sweat the little stuff, the details that may be easy to pass off as not that important, but when you add them up, they define how you will be perceived. This is what separates the good from the great. So, ask the question right now, in this moment, and do so with the understanding that your answer will define your level of success as a cook, chef, manager, server, or restaurateur: Do you want to be great or are you satisfied with good? Simple question requiring a simple answer: GREAT or GOOD.
Think about the implications of your answer and then take a deep breath and exhale slowly knowing that you have defined your future, established the reputation of the restaurant, determined who will pay to experience what you offer, and determine where you fit in the marketplace. GOOD or GREAT – yes, it’s that simple.
If the answer is good then your job is simple – maintain, do just what is necessary, push aside the pressure of the details, and hope for the best. There are thousands, maybe hundreds of thousands of GOOD restaurants out there – welcome to the pack. There are, however, a small, elite percentage of restaurants, cooks, chefs, servers, and managers who will never be satisfied with good – they are on a lifelong pursuit of excellence – they want and NEED to be GREAT! Is this you? Is this where you want to sit or where you want your restaurant to be? If it is, then I applaud you and implore you to SWEAT THE DETAILS.
So here is a starting point – make a list of every single detail associated with your restaurant experience, your employee experience, your personal and professional goals and then begin the process of assessing how well you are doing with each. No detail is too small – it all counts – it is the path to being GREAT. It might begin like this:
 Is your website fresh, attractive, exciting, and informative
 Is the website easy to navigate
 Can guests make reservations online
 If there are pictures of the restaurant and your food, are they professionally done and do they reflect the experience you are trying to create
 If guests call for a reservation, are they treated in a welcoming manner
 Is the process of making a reservation user-friendly and do you offer a confirmation number
 Is the parking lot clean and well-lit
 Is the exterior signage in perfect shape, properly lit, detailed properly and easily noticed from the road
 Is the landscaping attended to, are the shrubs, trees, flowers, etc. healthy and well maintained
 Are the windows spotless
 Is the exterior lighting functioning properly
 Are the eaves and soffits free of spider webs
 Is the exterior of the building, the grounds, the parking lot free of litter
 Is there transition lighting in the entranceway as guest move from outside to inside
 Are the initial smells when a guest enters – enticing
 Is it apparent where the guest should go upon entering
 Are guests greeted with a smile as soon as they arrive
 If a reservation was made, is it managed properly and executed seamlessly
 Is your host friendly, professionally attired, and at ease with guests
 What is the first impression of the restaurant: lighting, wall and ceiling materials, floors, music, temperature
 What is the tabletop like – are tables attractive, appropriate flatware, china, and glassware – is everything spotless
 Are the chairs comfortable
 Does the host pull chairs out for guests to make seating easier
 Are menus presented and is the document explained for easy navigation
 Are the menus spotless
 Are the menus easy to read under the restaurant lighting
 Is the table server introduced
 Is water poured within the first minute or two of seating
 Is there ice in the glass
Now, this is just the beginning of the list, we haven’t even reached any part of
the product experience, but you begin to see what it takes. Every detail must be
established, assessed, and managed – every day. Every employee must “buy in”
to the importance of the details – it is not the manager’s or the chef’s job, it is
everyone’s job and everyone’s passion if greatness is to be achieved. Are you in?
If you want to start the journey today from good to great, then begin with your
checklist and see where you sit right now. Don’t shy away from the details –
own them. Find out where you sit and then delegate every detail to someone,
measure their performance regarding those details and celebrate how well
they do as a team. Don’t accept being part of the GOOD marketplace, stand out
as a benchmark for others to respect and wonder about. As Chef Charlie
Trotter once said:
“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.”
We need to stop viewing food as an indulgence, as something that is somehow sinister, or worse – something that is utilitarian and consumed simply out of necessity. These are the extremes of consumption – feelings that we either celebrate or hide – feelings of guilt or annoyance that permeate our everyday lives. To some – the pleasures of eating are somehow breaking a pact with our body and can only be enjoyed if we violate some established code of what is acceptable. We indulge in eating chocolate, butter, cream, steak, cheese, or dessert and are relegated to feeling somewhat guilty when we do. It seems to taste better when we go against this pact and test our will power to resist or succumb. We feel satisfied and somehow sinister for consuming and enjoying the experience of eating luscious foods and believe that in doing so we will: “pay the price”.
At the other extreme, some believe that resisting consumption is noble and all who do not are somehow violators of an unwritten rule of good living. To this extreme – food is only for survival. Eating is a process designed to fuel the body with what is necessary and avoid any step into the realm of enjoyment. Cooking and seasoning that may excite the palate are not in keeping with the rule of the food survivalist.
Food is a gift; it is a natural connection that we all have to nature and the cycle of life. Pleasure is also a gift that is available in several forms. To avoid the pleasure that good, tasty, well-prepared food is to ignore a gift that is precious and important.
“Eating is not merely a material pleasure. Eating well gives a spectacular joy to life and contributes immensely to goodwill and happy companionship. It is of great importance to human morale.”
When we cook food with pleasure in mind, we open the door to so many opportunities. Well prepared food, food made with caring and good feelings towards all who brought ingredients to the kitchen table, and all who are about to consume the “end product”, is a symbol of openness and a sign of willingness to bring peace, happiness, and understanding to the plate. It is one of the most significant things that can be done for another person – to cook is to open the heart, the mind, and the soul. This process is a magical expression of a cook’s history and traditions, dedication to a craft, and desire to serve. Cooking is a highly personal act.
It is over a plate of food that we begin to understand another person, to appreciate their background and their feelings. When we break bread together, we symbolically open the door to possibility. Great food breaks down barriers, sets aside differences, stimulates positive conversation, brings a smile to even the most somber face, and sets the stage for transitional conversation. This is why state dinners, business meetings, weddings, reunions, conferences, workshops, holiday tables, and memorials focus so much on a plate of food. It is food that brings people together – even those who seem to suffer from the demons of hate, mistrust, fear, angst, disappointment, and uncertainty.
The greatest travesty in the world is that millions of people are malnourished and suffer a lack of pleasurable eating. It may very well be the root of so much dissent and anger between the haves and the have nots. This is the most severe crime in a world where production is not the issue but rather access and greed. If we solve the world hunger problem, we will go very far in bringing people together for the common good.
“We know that a peaceful world cannot long exist, one-third rich and two-thirds hungry.”
– Jimmy Carter, 39th president of the United States.
“Close to a billion people – one-eighth of the world’s population – still live in hunger. Each year 2 million children die through malnutrition. This is happening at a time when doctors in Britain are warning of the spread of obesity. We are eating too much while others starve.”
– Jonathan Sacks, Jewish scholar.
“The first essential component of social justice is adequate food for all mankind. Food is the moral right of all who are born into this world.”
– Norman Borlaug, biologist, and humanitarian.
For others who are oblivious to the problem of hunger there is the dilemma of “reason”: why do we eat. If it begins and ends with seeking fuel to exist, then our lives will be shallow and incomplete. Eating well is a key to opening the door of understanding, of appreciating others and expanding our knowledge of differences, of stimulating the senses and understanding pleasure.
“Eating is so intimate. It’s very sensual. When you invite someone to sit at your table (whether your home or your restaurant) and you want to cook for them, you’re inviting a person into your life.”
When we sit at another person’s table we are asking for a tour of their upbringing, their life experiences, their desires, the flavors of their life, and the dreams they foster – when you cook for someone else you are letting them in, dropping the barriers and opening yourself up to seeing who they truly are. When you choose to eat what others have cooked you are also showing them how willing you are to keep an open mind and be vulnerable.
“Tell me what you eat, and I will tell you who you are.”
Jean Anthelme Brillat-Savarin
When a cook steps into his or her kitchen there is an understanding that this is the center of the universe during that moment. This is a space to revere for it holds the key to their heritage. This is where the influence of a great grandmother, a mother or father, a fellow chef or chef mentor, or experiences in eating that the cook holds close to heart, come into play. This is where all of this is expressed through the knife, the hands, the palate, the mind, heart, and soul; this is where it all comes together in an expression of love.
“The kitchen is a sacred place.”
Too often, eating is a process. The advent of convenience whether it be how ingredients are presented or the methods of cooking available, have crushed the soul of cooking and consumption. Learning how to pay respect for eating begins with the simple rules of dining. If we are to begin to change and see what we may have been missing during consumption of food, we must look towards a new set of habits.
“Too many people just eat to consume calories. Try dining for a change.”
Here are some simple habits that can be adopted by all who prepare and consume well-prepared food:
Set the table. Try using tablecloths, well set tabletop, poured water, a single flower centerpiece, soft background music, mood lighting.
Make sure everyone sits at the same time – no excuses.
Present the meal – serve well-presented plates and introduce the dish.
Turn off your phones – no excuses.
Talk about the food – the ingredients, the farmers and ranchers, fish mongers, how it was prepared, reflections on the flavors and presentation.
Wait until everyone has finished – don’t be rude.
Give thanks for the meal – need not be a prayer, just a simple: “Thanks, that was delicious.”
Of course, gluttony is different. It is not respect for food, but rather a lack of control that seeks to turn a wonderful pleasure into a tool for self-destruction. For some, it is a crutch to help hide frustration, disappointment, discontent, anxiety, and depression – and in those cases intervention with the cause is the only remedy that works to improve the health of the individual while maintaining the rule of moderation.
Food should not be an indulgence or a necessary evil – it is a joy to be shared and a common denominator in life. Food is the universal language that can bring people together and help dissolve differences. Food is Mother Nature’s gift that we should revere, respect, and enjoy.
These past three years have provided us with many lessons about safety, disease, human nature, information and misinformation, preparedness, our fragile supply chain, and global economics. We have also learned more about ourselves, our capacity to adjust, our families, and even our kitchens. Out of necessity we have returned to our kitchens to re-learn how to cook and care for our families, to respect what restaurants do and how important they are to our peace of mind and our lifestyle, and just how special food can be when we slow down – just a bit. Let’s not forget this. Let’s continue to invest in food and dining, not as an indulgence or necessary evil, but rather as a gift and an opportunity.