I just finished listening to the latest album from David Crosby – I loved it from the first verse. Crosby, even at his ripe old age, is a master of lyrical compositions and tonal interpretations of feelings that accompany such prose. He hasn’t lost a beat in this regard – soulful, melodic, and entrancing. The title track is a composition written by one of his older love interests and an inspirational writer and songstress in her own right – Joni Mitchel. He Plays Real Good for Free offers not so subtle advice to her contemporaries in the music business – think about why you became a musician.
Food for thought – the same can be true for all of us who spend a good portion of our lives in professional kitchens. Mitchell’s verse is not meant (from my perspective) to chastise musicians for accepting pay and accolades for their work – they earn it and are entitled to what comes their way. But it does point to those who get so wrapped up in what is owed to them for the art that they offer that they lose sight of the joy and privilege that comes from mastering their craft and enjoying what really counts. In the case of a musician, it might be a listener who becomes nostalgic about a song, melancholy because the music makes them “feel”, responds to the beat and drives them to move or dance, or brings a smile when those listeners chime in and sing along. Cooks and chefs know that the greatest satisfaction comes from cooking for family, friends, neighbors, or grateful strangers. To watch that level of enjoyment that comes from food that is beautiful to look at, smells heavenly, stimulates the sense of taste, and brings people together through a common bond and appreciation of good cooking is so gratifying. This is where we all began, and time and again this is what we relish – the chance to make people happy through the craft of cooking. Salary, notoriety, personal brand building and profit can never compare to the satisfaction that comes from making people happy, giving them a reason to pause and savor a plate of food. Music and food should bring joy to those who make it and those who consume it.
Yesterday, today, and tomorrow
A knife, a cutting board, a pan
I slice, chop and dice
Cook for you is my true vice
Mother Nature provides so many tools
Our role is to treat them with respect
To give thanks for the farmer, the rancher, the fisherman too
Working with these tools is what we do
To hold a carrot, a potato, a tomato in our hands
To scale a fish, truss a chicken, or French a rack of lamb
Yes, I get it. It has all been about survival for restaurants over the past 16 months and survival has not been easy. Now, providing we don’t ignore the still looming dangers of Covid and the challenges of convincing 40% of the population to accept the vaccine, we might stand a chance of long-term recovery. Hope springs eternal.
Staffing is a bear – I know it. I hear it from every single restaurant operator I know and even many more that I don’t – there is an acute shortage of staff. There isn’t a simple answer to this challenge, but we know that it will require a shift in how restaurants operate. In the meantime – here we are. Restaurants are open, and customers who have been prisoners of the pandemic are anxiously coming out of their shells and flooding to restaurants that are ill equipped to deal with the surge. Back to survival mode – let’s just get through it. Is this the answer?
What we can’t afford to do is allow missteps simply because we don’t have an answer to the staffing challenge. There have been numerous articles from restaurateurs asking customers to “give us a break, be patient, we’re trying our best, it’s not our fault that the food isn’t quite right, that the service is painfully slow, that servers are not well trained, or we just seem to be disorganized.” There is an underlying problem with this approach that tries to proclaim innocence – we cannot afford to disappoint.
One interesting thing occurred during the pandemic shutdown – people found ways to adjust. They were forced to slow down and stay away from the typical hustle and bustle of American life. They were at home, and they re-learned how to cook. They opened those cookbooks on the shelf, dusted them off, and started to try new recipes, to be more creative with food, to bake and break bread around a dinner table again. Companies like King Arthur Flour couldn’t keep up with the demand for flour and even their baking equipment. Cookbook sales on Amazon spiked and grocery stores were challenged to keep food on their shelves. Wholesale distributors began to ship or deliver directly to homes to compensate for minimal restaurant sales and liquor stores were deemed “essential” as people began to make their own cocktails to help forget about their isolation. The average person may have missed going out to restaurants, but they began to realize that they didn’t really need to spend their money in cafés and bistros when they could cook well at home.
So, we are open, and customers are flocking to the restaurants that they missed only to find, in some cases, that the experience wasn’t what they anticipated. The food didn’t seem as exciting or well-prepared, the server was less familiar with the menu than they had expected, their orders took forever, the ambience of the dining room seemed a bit off, staff seemed stressed and disconnected, prices were way too high, and many people were still nervous about being in a public place without a mask. Suddenly, there are comparisons to eating at home. “We can cook better than this, we are happy to be in each other’s company, we feel safe at home, that second glass of wine didn’t cost $12 (the price of a bottle in the store), and we are not looking at a bill for $100 plus tip that could have been enough for a few days groceries at home. Hmmm..we have a problem Houston.
As challenged as restaurants are right now, there must be an all-out effort to demonstrate value and to provide a positive experience. This is a potential breaking point for the restaurant industry. The effort that is made right now to right the ship will define how this very important industry moves forward and how it steps back into its status as “essential” to the American experience.
This is not the time to push aside the importance of training because you are too busy. This is not the time to turn away from quality standards from your kitchen and ignore inconsistencies in food. This is not the time cut corners on cleaning and polishing, on uniforms and professional appearances and concentrating on the details.
This is the time to take that deep breath and figure things out. Start with the desired experience and value statement and work backward. Given the current staffing environment – how do we meet those expectations? In a previous article I talked about the importance of solid menu management right now – this is one possible solution, but it is not the only means to an end. https://harvestamericacues.com/2021/07/04/chefs-menus-for-2021-and-beyond/
Restaurants must invest the time in training. Training will demonstrate to employees that they are important and that you are willing to invest in them. Training will help to build their competence and confidence. Training will help to make them able to problem solve and make the right decisions pertaining to the customer experience.
Don’t forget the small stuff – the small stuff is what separates the dining out experience from a meal at home. The small stuff is what adds value to the guest experience. The small stuff includes everything from polishing tables and making sure they are level to fresh cut flowers on the table, sparkling clean glassware and silverware, pressed uniforms and professional signage, the right background music, consistent plate presentations that are vibrant and appetizing, swept parking lots and friendly greetings when the guest arrives, It’s menus that are clean and sharp and it’s knowledgeable recommendations from a service staff who are well trained and versed on what the cooks are doing in the kitchen. It’s the small stuff, the details that make the experience worth the money spent. This is what will bring guests enthusiastically back to your dining room.
You may need to limit the days that you are open, the hours of service, or even remove some of the tables in your dining room to help alleviate the stress of limited staff. You may need to cut down on the size of the menu for now until everything levels off (and hopefully It will at some point), and you will need to find a way to work with fewer employees who are paid much better than they were before. It will be a buffet of answers that will allow restaurants to re-establish their importance and regain a level of profitability. But failure to move forward without the experience and value formula in mind will only drive people away and reinforce an understanding that dining out is no longer necessary. We don’t want to go down that road.
PLAN BETTER – TRAIN HARDER
Help to keep the experience of dining – alive and well.
Let’s face it – we are prisoners of our own emotional package. Some of these emotions are visible and some are not; some are more pronounced in certain individuals, and some are barely noticeable in others, but the fact remains that our emotional package can be, and in many cases is: in control.
Chefs, for some reason have a history of wearing their emotions on their sleeves, but I would dare to say that even in the case of the most visible emotional chef there is much that is hidden under the surface. Sometimes, maybe most times, chefs try to keep certain emotions under wraps, hide them so that others will not perceive the chef as weak or vulnerable. At the same time, chefs tend to put more energy into the emotions that they believe will demonstrate strength or power over others. To this end, emotions that we try to control are dangerous and misleading.
It seems that there are just as many theories about what emotions may be part of our physical and mental make-up as there are days in the month, but most who are knowledgeable would agree on six primary emotions: Sadness, Happiness, Fear, Anger, Surprise, and Disgust. What seems a little grey is the emotional triggers behind each of these. Sadness and Happiness as an example are effects of a deeper set of causes. What is clear is that each of these six can be observed in ourselves and others. We can see when a person is sad, happy, angry, afraid, surprised, or disgusted.
Those underlying emotions that lead to the six are the ones that many people, chefs, try to hide.
So, why is it important to look at and talk about these underlying emotions? Simply put – if we can understand what is driving the six, then we might be able to understand, work with, and even help chefs deal with the complexity of their job and thus nurture a more productive and “user-friendly” work environment.
As an example, A chef’s ANGER or SADNESS may be a result of anxiety, confusion, or awkwardness that are ever-present in a chef’s life. Anxiety over the complexity of required job outcomes that include product quality, timing and efficiency, financial performance, personal brand control, dependance on others, etc. Anger over a realization that a kitchen did not meet expectations can often be associated with a realization that the chef failed to properly train or communicate. Lashing out can be a result of not knowing how to admit his or her own shortcomings – anger with oneself turns into pointing the finger at others. So that roller coaster emotional ride that is associated with many chefs is not necessarily who they are, but rather the challenges of the tasks that are before them. Any way that an operator, or co-workers might help to relieve some of these pressures could result in a much better emotional outcome. So, if cooks were fully cognizant of how they impact the cost of operation through minimal waste, portion control, and other efficiencies will help to change the dynamic of anger or sadness that is observed in the chef.
Now, of course, it is part of the chef’s job to train cooks to be conscientious about costs, but you get the general idea. It’s never as simple as saying: the chef is a jerk who can’t control his or her temper: cause and effect.
If you can assume for one moment that most individuals want to be happy, want to be free of fear, and abhor losing their tempers then it could be time to look into a chef’s eyes and seek out the connections to emotions that are kept below the surface. When a person is allowed to bring these emotions to the surface then the results can be very positive. When a chef is shown that expression of these emotions is not a sign of weakness, but rather a sign of strength and a connection to others, then a dramatic change in personality might be the result.
EXCITEMENT in the chef’s success or others who work in the kitchen is natural – celebrate it. ADMIRATION of others who have demonstrated a high level of proficiency or who are stellar examples of humanity is an emotion to be fed. Admiration of others does not signal that the chef is inferior to them, it shows that they recognize what “is” and feed their own soul with the promise of using this as a benchmark for their own performance.
EMPATHIC PAIN and SYMPATHY – feeling another person’s failures or loss, challenges and physical pain is an essential strength of a true leader. EMPATHY and SYMPATHY lead to followership – a necessary component of leadership. It’s OK to feel another’s pain.
NOSTALGIA is an underlying emotion that points to lessons learned, those who helped us along our way, reflections on past pain and how we recovered, and memories that helped to build us into the person we are today. Warm thoughts about our past are a sign that we care and that we learn – nostalgia is an essential part of being human – feed it.
The human mind and spirit are an emotional powder keg – a formula for success or failure. Leaders, if they are to be effective, must try to understand the emotional cocktail that each employee and co-worker drinks, daily, and every follower has a role to play in trying to understand what the chef carries on his or her shoulders. The functioning of a successful team can only be realized when these emotions are understood and embraced.
Look around – they’re slowly, but surely coming back. You know – the individuals who found their mission as a cook – they have been tucked away since March of 2020 waiting for an opportunity to open that knife roll bag, draw their essential tools across that water stone and hone the edges on a steel and counting the days when they could once again find the rhythm of the line. They may have insinuated that they wouldn’t return, but let’s face it – working in kitchens, with all its rough edges, is invigorating and fulfilling. These warriors of the kitchen remember the heat, the aching muscles from standing on their feet for a 12-hour shift, the pressure of timing, the polished hands from grabbing too many scorching hot pans, and the staccato sounds of the POS printer ticking off countless orders.
Yep, I get the reflection time that was the hallmark of the pandemic shutdown, those moments when every cook and chef took inventory and wondered why it is that they work under adverse conditions, invest way too many hours, and do so for wages that never compete with other professional careers. I know that there are plenty of reasons why it would make sense to walk away and find something, anything different to do for a career, but a day or two back on the line, back to creating beautiful, delicious food, back to working with a team in total sync, and back to the adrenaline rush of a full board of dupes and plates sliding in the pass – and you are hooked again.
Of course, you will feel the pain once again, the aching back and throbbing feet, the sweat running down your back, and the sting from an occasional burn or finger nick from that extra sharp knife – but then again, there is that feeling of accomplishment, the ability to push yourself to get better, faster, more proficient, and totally tight as a team member that brings you back day after day. Do you really want to give this up?
If any line cook really wants to become a property chef – they can, in time, with dedication, with a commitment to learn, and with the patience and resilience that is necessary to build a skill set and the aptitude that must accompany a future chef. You can do it, and deep inside you know it. Find people to learn from, attached yourself to a culinary mentor, study, and practice, learn from your mistakes, go the extra mile, and build a methodical plan to move from line cook to sous chef, to working chef, and on to the executive position in a volume, high quality operation. It can be done. This is a career that affords anyone the opportunity to define their destiny, to work at it and move forward.
Look around – there are plenty of chefs in the making – they are the cooks who after wrestling with those questions” “should I return to the kitchen or not”, said: “of course – I must”. Are you one of these cooks, or did you hang up your apron for the last time? Is that knife roll collecting dust and the experiences that you had only exaggerated stories now? How long before you miss those stories, miss the energy, or miss the creativity?
If you decided to hang it up and you are fine with moving on – more power to you. Find your passion, look for your destiny, be happy and fulfilled – this is what life is all about. If you were pulled back in by the magnetic field of the kitchen – then make a commitment to move forward. Don’t delay – say “I will” today!
The smells of the kitchen are intoxicating. Bacon lardons rendering in a pan, fresh bread cooling on a rack, that thin crust pizza with fresh mozzarella and basil being peeled from a woodfired oven, shellfish sauteed in lemon butter, fresh rosemary lending its perfume to a roast, garlic and onions simmering till they are golden brown and sweet from reduction and caramelization, or a Black Angus steak dripping through the grates of a chargrill – adding fuel to the fire and sealing in the goodness of that incredible cut of meat. This is what welcomes a cook every day throughout his or her shift. The feel of a perfectly balanced chef knife in your hand – the blade that is honed to the sharpness of a razor blade is a tool that feels like an extension of your hand. The rapid-fire sound of cooks who are in complete control of this knife cutting piles of perfect dice, brunoise, julienne, and chiffonade. How do you feel when that plate is assembled as it should – perfect balance of color, texture, height, and marriage? When the sauce is the final touch just before a cluster of appropriate herbs that tie the plate together – you know that you have just painted another masterpiece – one that a guest will take a picture of and share with the world – one that they will remember and tell their friends about. HOW COOL IS THAT????
As you step back into that kitchen you remember what it was like to look to your left and look to your right and know that you can trust those individuals at their stations to work just as hard, care just as much, and dedicate themselves to playing their role in making sure that the collective work of the team is memorable. If you could have someone video tape the work of this team and put it to music, it would be a symphony, an intriguing interplay of artists working individually and collectively at the same time – a work of art. You remember this now – don’t you?
The orders start to arrive as the team acknowledges they are ready. Mise is tight, everyone knows what needs to be done, pans are lined up, plates are stacked, side towels are folded and the expeditor calls everyone out – “are we ready?” Ordering, order fire, pick up, refire, give me an all day, yes chef! This is the language of the line and for the next four hours the commands and responses will come in relentlessly. The energy will peak around 7 pm when the board is full, and everyone is in the zone – it is a point of time when things can go either way – towards excellence or over the cliff. This is where you thrive, this is what you live for, this is where great cooks are made. You make it through, the adrenaline stays full bore, the orders start to dwindle, a smile comes to your face, and you nod to your teammates, give a few high fives, and start to plan for tomorrow. You have missed this, you know you are good at what you do, and you are able to look in a mirror and say – “this is what I was meant to do.”
So, for those who return to the kitchen – start today to solidify your future where the responsibility and authority coalesce, where the pay begins to match the skill, where you are more in control of what you invest in time and effort, where your talent is recognized, and where every day you will have a chance to help mold the future of another young cook – a place where you began.
Well, I suppose desperate times call for desperate measures. If there is stability in the restaurant business – I’m not quite sure where it is. With a real need to try and make-up for a lost year and an overnight demand for dining out – restaurants are faced with a new pressing issue: where do we find the staff and how do we keep them? When demand exceeds supply in any situation – businesses know that prices inevitably go up. The strong survive and the weak shall perish.
So, the reaction now is to pay whatever is needed for staff positions in your local restaurant. This knee-jerk reaction is true with positions from dishwasher to chef, and server to manager. Restaurants are panicked with a need to operate at a high level with bare bones staffing – oftentimes with underqualified individuals. “We need to fill schedules or reduce hours of operation and cut back on services.” Those empty tables in restaurants are now a result of inadequate staffing rather than fewer than needed customers. How many of your local restaurants are down to five-day weeks out of necessity?
So, here we are – the battle lines are drawn and as challenging as competition has been in the past – it is now becoming brutal. Forget about local restaurants working together to try and find solutions – it is becoming every man for himself. The unwritten agreement for many had been to never actively pirate good employees from a neighbor, but it seems as if that is out the window. Survival instinct is a funny thing – it over-rides everything else. It is human nature to pull out all the stops when it comes to taking your next breath – the same applies to business.
Necessity has driven a stake in the heart of “we’re all in this together” and replaced it with do or die. It can be seen in every community, every town and city, and every state from New York to California – restaurants are throwing money at decent staff members to lure them over to their team. A local business (with a high-profile clientele) is offering upwards of $60,000 a year for line positions that previously paid less than half of that. No one can blame a line employee for jumping at the offer and waving goodbye to their current employer – it would be foolish to turn that down. This is the exact same scenario that led professional sports to adopt free-agency and allow players to jump from team to team and the highest bidder. It is suddenly a seller’s market for restaurant employees and as such restaurants find themselves in a bidding war.
Now, these same restaurants realize that their most important asset (great employees) is always in the market for something better. Once this reality hits home then restaurants will be less likely to try something new and invest in an employee’s creativity and ideas. If there is always fear that they may be here today and gone tomorrow, then the restaurant cannot afford to give the employee this kind of latitude. Investing in training will also fall by the wayside as it is viewed as a wasted investment of time and money.
I remember throughout my career the line that local businesses tried not to cross: “thou shall not pirate a competitor’s employees.” Now this might seem unfair to the average employee who has a need to look out for his or her own interests and find an employer who values what they bring to the table but hear me out when I say – this is a slippery slope.
First, and maybe most important from a business perspective: THIS IS NOT A SUSTAINABLE PRACTICE. Certainly, we all know that many restaurant employees are under-valued and poorly paid. This is a challenge that must be faced and corrected, but it does not mean that “whatever is needed is right”, will work. Right now, restaurants are trying desperately to survive and get through the day. Hopefully, they can meet the demand and find their way to profitability, but right now it’s all about survival. Being pushed into survival tactics rarely yields the best long-term solutions. When businesses REACT rather than think things through and ACT from a point of understanding and planning then they will ultimately find a need to correct what they did. When things settle down, when restaurant owners take a deep breath, when accountants look at the financial statement for the month, and when customers have had their fill of making up for lost time – then what? How long before that $18 per hour dishwasher or $30 per hour line cook no longer makes sense?
When that time comes, I am not happy to tell you that those higher paid positions will be rejected by ownership, when staffing positions will be cut to help stop the financial bleeding, and suddenly those golden horse positions that seemed too good to be true will be just that. Maybe even more important – the relationship between competing restaurants, between managers of those operations, and between chefs from property to property will be doused in anger, disrespect, lack of trust, and an eye for an eye mantra.
So, for the restaurateur here are my thoughts to consider:
 Think this through. Do you really want to alienate your competitors?
 Know that once you start a bidding war for employees – someone will always be willing to outbid you.
 Do you really want employees to work for you just because you offered them more money than another restaurant? Wouldn’t you rather have them choose you because your operation is one that they can align with and respect?
 How long can you afford to pay wages that are not in line with what your business requires?
 Those who currently have great employees – make sure you give them a forum to offer their ideas and express their concerns. Determine what you can afford to pay them and discuss that with each employee. Make sure that you celebrate the culture and the teams that you have created – people want to work where they feel part of something bigger than themselves and where it is apparent that they make a difference.
 Don’t become angry when a great employee leaves for a better offer. Tell them how you feel and how they will be missed, make as good a counteroffer as you can, and then stay in touch with them after they leave. Who knows – they might be back once they see what they have left and what they are faced with.
For the employee seeking the best opportunity and the most lucrative offer:
 Money is important, and you should always seek to find an employer who recognizes your worth but know that “too good to be true” has a short lifespan and you may find that the opportunity disappears sooner than you expect.
 Just because an employer pays higher than expected wages does not mean that they will be great to work for. Check out the work culture before you are swept up in the excitement of the offer.
 Don’t burn any bridges. Give plenty of notice, keep an open mind to any counteroffer, and don’t leave a good employer hanging in the middle of peak business or without any prospect for a replacement. They invested in you, and you should always recognize this.
I hope that we see our way through this time and remember that we are part of a business that shares common challenges. Free-agency continues to break up the most promising organizations from professional sports to colleges, tech companies, and not-for-profits. Let’s try to avoid going down that path.
By now, everyone is aware that there are enormous challenges with the supply chain – brought on by the pandemic and post pandemic rush to return to normal. It is another perfect storm of realities that seem to have brought this about: scaling down of production from the farmer, rancher and fisherman during the time when American restaurants were shut down, interrupting the cycle of growth and production as a result, a dramatic re-opening of said restaurants without time to gradually scale up to meet demand, a significant short fall in staff for a plethora of reasons that warrant a separate study (this includes farm workers, meat cutters, warehouse employees, commercial fishermen, and truck drivers), and a scary change in the attitude of hospitality workers who are not inclined to return to the industry that failed to listen to many of their concerns. So, here we are facing overnight demand (it’s like everyone turned on the open switch at the same time) that exceeds supply and our ability to deliver.
Prices of raw materials and labor, of course, have gone through the roof and there is no end in sight. Beef, poultry, pork, seafood of all types, fresh produce, dairy products, and paper supplies are, in some cases, double what they were a year ago! On top of this – restaurants are offering wages that were unheard of pre-pandemic and still employees are not inclined to return to kitchens and dining rooms. There is obviously a need for some type of systemic change, but no one seems to know exactly what that might be at this time.
How does a chef or restaurateur approach the challenges of a public that wants to return to restaurants that are unable to meet the rapid growth in demand and a supply chain that is making it nearly impossible to get the ingredients they need and afford the ones that are available? The quick fix may just be a dramatic change in how we plan and present our menus. This may be something that will self-correct in a few months, or it could very well be the way that we operate from this point on. The important reality is that we MUST MAKE CHANGES NOW!
The days of the fixed menu for restaurants should come to a halt. Without a clear understanding of where ingredient costs are going tomorrow and next month restaurants cannot afford to be shackled to a menu that is out of control.
It may make sense for restaurants to switch directions and move towards a fluid menu that relies on a style of cooking rather than fixed, specific menu items. Chefs may very well need to plan menus that change every week or two, or in some cases even daily based on availability and price. This will, of course, make it far more challenging to control quality and consistency, but with a movement towards on-going training and quality assurance – it can be done.
Forget the beautiful menus printed by a local craftsperson or laminated to build in easy re-use; if you are not already printing menus in-house then it is time to invest in some software and a quality printer for your office.
Prices will also be fluid because they MUST reflect a restaurants ability to maintain its margins. So weekly menus and appropriate changes to pricing will need to tie in with solid menu planning and purchasing that allows a pricing structure to stay within a range that your guests are accustomed to.
It may also mean that certain menu staples that everyone accepts as “always present” need to be pushed aside for the time being. A menu that depends on limited supply, higher end ingredients may need to look to a different model. Less beef and more chicken, fewer shellfish items and standards like cod, haddock, sole, or halibut may need to lean more towards farmed fish or less popular species. There are also even more reasons to work with local farmers, at least in-season, to find the produce you need to execute a fluid menu.
Big menus are far too difficult to manage at a time when the supply chain is challenged, prices are not stable, and the labor market is stretched. Smaller menus with changing content are the way to go. Instead of eight appetizers – look to three or four. Rather than a dozen or so entrée choices – rely on six or even less. Make sure that everything is focused on hitting your essential categories so that most guests can find something they like.
Changing a restaurants dependance on large kitchen teams or a full cadre of servers is something that will be very challenging, but necessary. Since these employees are simply not available, restaurants will need to find ways to do more with fewer hands and not rely as much on a high level of talent to do so. This means that the menu will become the key to success. Setting up systems for the pre-production, preparation, finishing and plating of beautiful and delicious food that can be executed consistently and quickly will be the way to go.
Create excitement over “what’s next”. People are certainly creatures of habit and ambassadors for the familiar. This is one of the reasons why so many menus remain the same for years or even decades. Knowing that an item that you like will always be there is comforting and let’s face it – people don’t really like change. Unfortunately, it is change that will allow the restaurant of today and tomorrow to thrive. For this to be effective it is necessary for chefs and restaurants to build excitement for what makes the average guest uncomfortable. Trust becomes the most essential ingredient in the chef’s repertoire. “Don’t disappoint” is the key objective in building a fluid menu. The minute that a guest finds disappointment in a menu selection is the moment you lose their trust and likely their return business.
Chefs need to understand their customers even better than before. Menu items need to reflect protection of this trust even more than the desires of the chef to create something that suits his or her need to be expressive. One thought might be to take a lesson from some creative wine lists that I have seen where the chef states: “If you liked (a popular item from the past on a restaurant menu) then you will love (a new item being offered). Now keep in mind that this means that the chef is offering a quiet guarantee – but one that feeds off that “trust” that is so important.
Finally, this is the perfect time for the chef or the restaurateur to be even more visible to the guest than ever before. Stand up for your menu, put yourself front and center, talk with the guests, read their reactions, pay attention, answer questions, encourage stepping out of comfort zones, and making adjustments where needed – in the moment. Impatience, confusion, indecision, and uncomfortableness can be addressed directly avoiding disappointment and late-night angry comments on Trip Advisor.
Remember – desperate times call for desperate action (not reaction).
Maybe this is simply way out there and not of interest to anyone but me, but here it goes. Where do we fit in the big scheme of things? Seriously – have you ever given thought to this question? Look around you at the incredible intelligence, innovation, talent, and skill of engineers, mathematicians, scientists, physicians, musicians, artists, economists, product designers, mechanics, theorists, and physicists and their discoveries and inventions. How can we compare in the big scheme of things? These individuals started out the same way they we did – just a fairly blank slate with a hunger for life and a thirst to learn. How did they wind up moving in the direction they did, and we stepped into the realm of the kitchen?
Is it the lifelong pursuit of answers that drives so many to jump into one discipline vs. another or are we destined to windup where we are anyway? What determines the path that we will take and what fuel feeds the desire to be a world changing scientist who discovers the way to build a vaccine for Covid or learns how to properly braise a lamb shank? Ah – that preverbal fork in the road, that early decision to turn left or right, that fateful event that either inspired us or forced us to choose – interesting.
There are many things that boggle the mind, that are so hard to grasp that we simply put them aside and either ignore them or accept them. How can someone be so intelligent that they are able to comprehend, let alone work with the Higgs Boson “God particle “(the basis for structure of all matter) that is so small, yet so powerful that mankind had to develop the CERN Hadron Collider particle accelerator in France and Switzerland with miles of round perimeter tunnels that accelerate atomic particles to the speed of light and then crash them together to study the concept and to even think about recognizing that it even exists?
The CERN Hadron Collider:
How can a person be so knowledgeable and so skillful as to repair the value in a human heart or so talented as to compose a musical piece for a symphonic orchestra of nearly 100 different musicians in their mind before it is put to paper? Yet many, just like you and me are most concerned with the proper plating technique of a classic dish first developed by Escoffier. How can we all start out basically the same and move in such different directions and is there any equality in importance?
Yes, I think about this stuff and sometimes I am able to put the thoughts aside when it turns from question to headache – but other times it keeps me up at night. The underlying question seems to always be: “Did I choose the right path and was it my choice anyway?” Compare and contrast is human nature – we do this from our earliest days of existence. So and so has something that I don’t have, or he or she receives recognition, and I did not – it is the basis for many disagreements, misunderstandings, anxieties, fights, class structures, and wars. Does it all begin with that fork in the road?
Obviously, the environment that we are born into has a bearing on our decisions. Without a doubt there are socio-economic factors that determine whether you turn left or right, and the influence of family and friends cannot be denied. There is no question that some people are born with a more complex gray matter network sitting on their shoulders, and I guess we can argue that there is such a thing as born talent. Yet, we come into this world with free will and if you consider how, we start out as a blank slate with a desire to learn and reach a level of independence – we do still have a choice. Those born with all the trappings of wealth, those who come from caring families, and those who have parents with a commitment to education will have a certain amount of advantage, but there are ample examples of babies born without any of this who choose to take a road that leads to exceptionalism and contribution. But, why cooking and once that decision is made – how does one reconcile the importance of that decision?
A few realities seem to hold up:
MANY HUMANS ARE TACTILE LEARNERS: Cooking is very much a tactile skill with an end product that can be admired and consumed.
MANY PEOPLE WANT TO MAKE A DENT IN THE UNIVERSE: Ours might not change the world, but we can change the life of a person who needed to feel special, even for just a brief moment – changing everything – one person at a time.
WE RISE TO THE EXPECTATIONS OTHERS HAVE OF US: We want to make people happy – from that first finger painting that we brought home to our parents, to completion of that project for a teacher, or placing a perfect plate of food in the pass for the expeditor to admire. That nod or smile says: “You exceeded my expectations”.
BRINGING SOMETHING TO FRUITION IS TREMENDOUSLY GRATIFYING: Every moment of every day in the kitchen yields an accomplishment from an individual plate to a banquet for 500 – a cook’s days are filled with accomplishment.
GENERALLY, PEOPLE HAVE A NEED TO BE GOOD AT SOMETHING: Yes, there are those with gifted palates or an eye for presentation that seems unique, but with lots of practice every cook can become good at what they do – even great.
FOR THE MOST PART – PEOPLE WANT TO BE HAPPY: Working in a kitchen environment as a member of a team, pushing to get better, working through the heat and the sore muscles, putting together a plate of food that satisfies all the human senses, and doing all this every day is something that makes every tired cook happy.
IT IS HUMAN NATURE TO KNOW THAT YOU HELPED TO MAKE SOMEONE ELSE HAPPY: A clean plate returning from the dining room, a guest’s pause to look at the plate from every angle, a few photos to add to their Instagram account, and a thumbs up from the server. The potential is always there for cooks to make others happy in each moment.
So, how does one reconcile that they chose to learn how to master that braised lamb shank and did not go down the path to become a mathematician who plotted out the trajectory of a rocket destined to dock with a complex space station miles outside of the earth’s atmosphere? Hmmm. Well, obviously the path I chose did not set the stage for finding the real answer to this, but I do know that I chose the path, as did many of you, that made the most sense for me or you. I also know, as should you, that what we all do is important in the big scheme of things because it fulfills our personal need to create, to feed our tactile learning tendencies, it makes people happy, helps them deal with their life challenges, and serves as an important reward for what they do.
Every mathematician, scientist, doctor, teacher, artist, musician, and physicist inherently need great cooks and respects the cook’s ability to feed the body, mind, and soul. What we do is important and the fork in the road that we faced, and the direction that we chose was the right one for us. This is a calling in life that is purposeful and meaningful and one that others depend on. We pay respect to Mother Nature, celebrate the farmer and the fisherman; we develop skills that can take a lifetime to truly master, we paint our greatest works of art on a plate, we feed the body and give hard working people a moment to pause and be thankful and laugh over a delicious plate of food, and we bring people together even when they seem to have irreconcilable differences – we make a dent in the universe. We may not make the cover of Scientific America, but we make people smile and that means a lot.
PLAN BETTER – TRAIN HARDER
Choose your path wisely and know that it is the right decision
Over the past few decades, I have been asked to design a number of kitchens for restaurants and banquet spaces – a task that I thoroughly enjoy. Owners and operators will typically shake their heads at initial designs holding their ground that “chefs” like to create elaborate kitchen palaces that they really don’t need and that they (the owners) can’t afford to build. I understand this reaction but know that this is not really the case. “Chefs” want to create kitchens that work, spaces that are designed to correct the numerous problems that were previously faced in poorly designed kitchens. When a designer is asked to compromise on space, flow, or equipment I know that this simply means that the operator wants to build in problems in production or service in the future. They are either willing to accept this (believing that the chef will simply need to figure it out), or they simply do not believe the designers conclusions.
In what other industry are developers inclined to accept built in problems with design? Are auto manufacturers fine with poorly designed assembly lines? Are hospital administrators fine with operating rooms that are not quite right? Are operators of meat packing plants fine with inefficient cutting lines? Inefficiencies cost money, frustrate employees, and oftentimes set the stage for poor quality results. Is this the objective that operators and owners are after?
Creating restaurants is an expensive endeavor. When owners are faced with a design that will cost many hundreds of thousands of dollars their first reaction is: “Kitchens don’t generate revenue – dining rooms do. Kitchens are cost centers and a drain on potential profit.” This, of course, is far from the truth – kitchens are the driver of sales and potential profit, but only when they are designed to accomplish both. When it comes to setting the stage for restaurant success – “good enough” is never good enough.
Every additional step costs the restaurant money in labor, every poorly designed storage area costs the operation money in lost opportunities for purchasing volume and in product waste, every poorly designed prep area costs money in production efficiency, and every kitchen that is poorly designed from a flow perspective costs money in timing and service efficiency. Chefs and cooks are at their best when they have the right environment and the right tools to accomplish the work they do. Isn’t this true in every profession? Yet, why would you hamper an employee’s ability to complete his or her work in the time that makes sense and at the quality that any successful business demands? Penny wise and dollar foolish is certainly applicable here.
There are established standards for space, distance, and reach in kitchens that have been time tested. Every effective kitchen designer knows them. When we ignore these standards, we are building inefficiencies into the system and setting the stage for poor performance. We know that a kitchen employee requires a certain amount of space to be effective in his or her work, we know that certain floor surfaces help to reduce back and leg strain, and we know that a designated amount of lighting will reduce eye strain and headaches and reduce unwanted accidents in the kitchen. We understand where the dish machine should be located to reduce cross-trafficking in the kitchen and cut down on accidents and broken china, we understand that an expensive combi-oven can replace the need for multiple other ovens to complete the required work. It is apparent that banquets are far more efficient, with less waste, and a much higher consistent quality level when there is sufficient cooler space for rolling racks and pre-plating and a cook-chill system is built into production. We know that a slow cook oven will reduce cook shrink on roasts by 15-20% and produce a much more uniform product. Yet, operators seem content to use their erasers on kitchen design and disregard what we know and simply move to save some money up front.
One fact is absolute, one reality is the reason why too many kitchens are poorly designed, and there is one cause of the frustration that ensues from an ill-conceived kitchen space: people just don’t know any better. Unless you have worked in many kitchens, worked through hundreds of busy nights on the line, serviced banquets from 50 – 1,000 guests, taken inventory in kitchens without concern for proper storage, or tried to work with equipment that is constantly in dis-repair – you just don’t know.
When an owner or operator relies on an architect who has never worked in a kitchen (the rationale that they have designed dozens of kitchens before doesn’t cut it) and decisions are based solely on cutting expenses or adding a few more tables to the dining room – then problems are sure to arise. When that architect is told to cut 25% off the cost of a kitchen – they will do just that; little thought is given to the impact of those decisions. If I seem frustrated – I am, but not for any personal reasons – I am frustrated because I know the chef and cooks who walk into a kitchen designed in this manner will be challenged from day one. I know that they will be forced to sacrifice something: quality, health, efficient use of labor, or be faced with a swinging door of cooks coming in with loads of enthusiasm and quitting with a ton of angst.
Is there any room for compromise? Of course, there is, and chefs who design kitchens can get carried away, but at least listen to them, talk the issues through and push the chef to look at alternatives that might work just as well. Don’t simply view the space as a “chef’s palace” that is only created to be a showcase. This is a manufacturing space as well as an environment for artistic people to perfect their craft. The space should be designed to feed both objectives if you want your restaurant to be all that it can be.
If you don’t have the money to do it right now, when will you find the funds to fix the problems later? I know it seems arrogant to say – “If you don’t have the money to do it right then find the money”, but that is really the answer. If you can’t find the money, then change your concept to accommodate a budget that works for your finances and still service the important aspects of design or stay away from the restaurant business. Please – don’t build problems into the system and then wonder why it isn’t working. Don’t allow an architect to design your kitchen in a vacuum. Involve a chef or a chef designer in the process, create an open dialogue, run through scenarios in the kitchen to see if your design is adequately prepared for things that can go wrong. Invest your money in efficiency and everyone will be much more productive, the operation will be staged to reach its financial goals, and your employees will thank you.
I spend a considerable amount of time writing about how important it is to be a cook and a chef and my observations of those who fit those titles. It is important to me and to millions of others around the world. This is what so many were meant to do with their careers – it is built into their (our) DNA. However, noting can compare to the honor, privilege, joy, occasional pain, and humbling experience of being a father.
Nothing can prepare you for the experience of holding a newborn, your child, in your arms for the first time. Those moments when she or he opens those eyes for the first time, smiles and blinks with recognition of the connection, the bond of blood, history, tradition, and family. As father’s we swallow hard, smile from ear to ear, take a deep breath and shed a tear of utter joy along with a bit of nervousness. We are struck with awe at the living person in our arms and speechlessness at the process and the strength of the woman who bore this being for the past nine months. “How is this possible?”
We are at a loss when it comes to what to do next. We frantically ask: “Where is the job description?” We try to do our best over the next handful of years – trying to be there for those special days: first day of school, birthdays, helping them to ride a bike, catch and hit a baseball, track meets, soccer games, recitals, spelling bees, and first everything’s, but as a chef we all know that some will be missed – never to be regained. It is tough to look back at those missed opportunities and justify why we weren’t there. Our children will probably forgive us, but we will never forgive ourselves. This, after all is our most important job.
As father’s we can look back and remember those first steps, first words, daily hugs, and tears shed over nothing and sometimes something. We can choke up as we remember the smiles over accomplishments: graduation from kindergarten, from grammar school, high school and beyond. There are those moments when we lost our temper but never our love and caring for those young persons who continue to amaze as they grow and experience life. We know, in our hearts that what we are angry about is probably our own shortcomings as fathers.
There are those times when they are sick and our hearts ache for them as we hold them in a shower to cool down a fever, wash their cuts and scrapes and press on a band aid while mom gives them a kiss to make it better. We remember the panic that first time that we had to rush them to a doctor’s office or the hospital for something that was beyond our ability to fix. We remember that feeling of complete relief when the doctor says they are OK.
Monumental occasions continue throughout life as we meet their first girlfriend or boyfriend, give them a serious stare to show them that this is very precious cargo and beware of the potential wrath of dad, but in our hearts feel pure joy in our child’s happiness – that first crush. We experience mixed emotions when they learn to drive and that first time when they do so solo with license in hand. We watch the news daily and stress about the condition of the world, not so much for ourselves but what it means for them and their futures. There is a point in time when we realize that their lives and happiness are far more important than our own. It is one of those moments when we truly realize what it means to be a father.
There is a point in time when everything seems to move too fast. They apply for college or a trade school and are accepted and we know that they will be going off on their own for the first time. It is this point in time when we really self-assess. Have we prepared them for life, are they good people who are honest and caring? Will they treat others with respect, and will others view them as we do? Do they have the work ethic that will lead to success? Will they make good choices of friends and experiences? Did I do my job as a father?
When they finally leave for that independent experience we swallow deeply again, just like we did when holding a newborn. This time the fear and pride are very real, they are based on 18 years of experience and knowing everything that could go wrong and every opportunity that could end up right. We jump every time that phone rings late in the evening wondering what went wrong, is my son or daughter alright? We comfort them on the phone when they had a bad day and learn quickly that they don’t really want advice, they just want us to listen. This is one of the hardest things for a father to learn. We resist the desire to jump in the car and drive all night just to “take care” of things for them – this is not what they want or need in most cases.
There are those moments when we must ease their soul crushing sadness over a broken relationship, or one that fails to materialize. We tell them that this is life and there are lots of fish in the sea, but we know ourselves how shallow that response is and how painful their sense of loss is. But then they rebound. Their friends help them along, they find their step again, discover new people and jump back in the relationship search. This is, as we all know, the search for happiness and sense of creating a family of their own – just like mom and dad.
As father’s we beam with pride, standing next to our partner as a son or daughter graduates once again and moves on to begin their real independent life. That first job in a field of their choice, first apartment, first network of lifetime friends, first opportunity to be financially responsible. Ah, we did it! But then, we are always on the lookout – making sure that their stress is minimized, that they have enough money, that their jobs are satisfying, that they can reach their dreams, that they find a partner and oh, yes – that the stage is set for them to follow in our footsteps.
Then it happens – they find their soulmate and we pray that this is the right one. We meet that special person and once again look them up and down and peer into their eyes to see if they are worthy. We are cautiously optimistic and then relieved to discover that our son or daughter chose wisely. Preparations for a wedding will ensue and it is our job to make sure that the day is right. Mom will live her experience again through her child and everyone is focused on making the special day all that it can be. There is a load of pride and fathers feel a real bonding with a son – “congratulations my boy you did well”. Somehow, with a daughter it is different. You know she is strong, smart, and balanced, but underneath it all you want to make sure she is in good hands. That walk down the aisle is special, memorable, joyful, and soul crushing at the same time. You are passing the hand of your little girl to another person to cherish and hold – and those memories of holding a newborn, of having total responsibility for her welfare are flashing through your head at lightening speed. “Please let her be safe and happy”.
What an honor, a pleasure, a responsibility, and an experience it is to be a father. It is our real purpose in life – a job without a job description. We learn as we go – on the job training. And then, one day you receive that phone call when your son or daughter says through broken words – “dad, you and mom are going to be grandparents!” Ah, such a feeling – and now it starts all over again.
On this day, I wish a happy Father’s Day to all the dads and granddads out there. To all the chefs who are struggling to figure out that balance in life, I offer this advice: “Don’t find yourself regretting too much. Life is short and your real job is far more important than those beautiful plates of food in the pass. Figure out a way to train others to cover for you when you need to hold a hand, applaud an accomplishment, hug in support, or simply smile and shed a tear for that little person that you once held in your arms in pure wonder.
To my children and grandkids – thanks for giving me a chance to be there: Erika, Jessica, Leif, Alex, Addie, Johan, Espen, Oliver, and Jack.
Happy Father’s Day.
PLAN BETTER – TRAIN HARDER Being a father is the ultimate opportunity in life
Anthony Bourdain once inferred that cooking is one of the most personal things you can do for another human being. This statement allowed me to think deeply about the significance of this process that we do day in and day out. What a wonderful skill that can, through certain people, go way beyond the process or technique used. Cooking need not be perfect to be expressive and caring, but when it is – oh what a gift. To cook for another person is to express love, respect, personal history, generations of caring, and the willingness to risk it all – to put it out there and say: “This is what I can do for you in this moment”.
We can readily think back to that special dish that a grandmother prepared for her family. Maybe it was an Italian grandmother who spent every Saturday preparing that Bolognese sauce for the family Sunday dinner that would last for hours. In the time that those tomatoes were blanched, peeled, crushed, combined with onions and garlic, beef and pork, and fresh herbs from the garden and then carefully simmered and stirred for hours on end – that wonderful woman was pouring her heart and soul into an expression of love for the family that would sit around the table. Maybe not a sauce, but quite possibly it was that perfect apple pie cooling on the windowsill – tempting everyone with its deep aroma of apple and spice and flaky butter pastry; or a pot roast that was seared and braised with carrots, onions, and celery until it fell off the bone. Cooking was not a chore to these individuals – it was a gift that was offered to people, a gift that considered family history and generations of passing down a special recipe or technique – it was as uniquely personal as anything could be.
Maybe we can reflect on that “early in life” Mother’s Day or Father’s Day when as a five or six- year-old child we prepared toast and jam with a glass of orange juice and carried it haphazardly into a parent’s bedroom for breakfast, a breakfast that you had prepared as a true act of love and gratitude – a very personal gift that came from your heart. It may not have been technically perfect, yet to that parent it was the most incredible meal they had ever been served – it was as personal as anything could ever be and maybe it even brought a tear to their eyes. “This is what I have to offer and all that it means is present on the plate.”
It could have very well been the neighbor who during a tough time in your life, took the time to prepare a meal and deliver it to your home. That knock on the door and presentation of a dish that he or she knew would be tasty was a way of saying – I am so sorry that you are having a tough time and I truly hope that this will let you know that I care, and I am here to help. When you look into that neighbors’ eyes you can feel the personal nature of the gift and know the healing power that it brings.
When friends, throughout your life gather to celebrate, to connect, to cheer each other on, or to simply recognize the importance of friendship – they do so with food that is prepared in a manner that attempts to express just how important those things are. It could be a simple burger on a backyard grill, or a complex multi-course dinner with that special bottle of wine that had been saved for just this event. In all cases it was a deep expression of caring, of dedication, of connection, and of love. When those glasses were raised and clinked with each other, when that first bite was enjoyed and when stories and laughter ensued long into the night – each person knew just how personal and special the moment was.
A relationship with another person may begin with a physical attraction, but it is solidified that first time that one cooks for another. Of course, there are other moments that lead to building a relationship including numerous meals at restaurants, but that first time that a person makes an omelet, prepares a plate of pasta, roasts a chicken, or removes the cork from a bottle of wine during a meal prepared just for that other individual is the time when a relationship moves to another level. It is so personal, so fulfilling, so expressive of how the other feels that it can literally take your breath away.
We decided at some point in our lives to become cooks and maybe chefs. To some it may be a job, while for others it was a calling. To those who view it as a job it may be rote and somewhat impersonal, a process with steps to memorize and plates to assemble as the picture dictates. To those who see it as a calling it is an opportunity to recall our past experiences where food was a unifying force, a means of expressing what is sometimes difficult to put into words. To those cooks who see the potential, this craft is a way to perpetuate the history of their family, to pay homage to a parent who passed down a recipe from two generations before, to remember just how everyone felt when that Mother’s Day or Father’s Day breakfast was presented by a six-year-old, and to give back to all who choose to accept a plate of food.
The cook or chef who understands how personal cooking is, who feels the power of expression through food and who knows that every plate carries with it a tradition of caring is a person who has found one of the most personal ways of communicating with others. The way that a cook handles ingredients, pays respect to time tested processes, maintains his or her tools, buttons up a starched white chef coat with pride, maintains a clean and organized station, caramelizes a cut of meat before braising, trusses a chicken, gingerly opens an oyster, or simmers a stock that will be used for soups and sauces is a way to build the gift that will be offered on the plate to every special guest. Throughout the process – a serious cook is engaged in an incredibly personal process of giving back, of thanking a guest for choosing his or her restaurant, of maintaining the trust that a guest invests in the cook, and of saying thank you for being a part of my life. It is that personal.
We should never take for granted how important food is and how significant the process of cooking can be. We may not have the gift of words, of music, or art, but we have a lifetime of history, of caring, of tenderness and tradition that through our hands, heart, and soul is prepared for the plate. This is what we do.
“Cook for me” is such a wonderful request, such an incredible opportunity, such a tremendous gift. Think of this every day that you draw a French knife across a wet stone to build an edge, set-up a cutting board in preparation for your shift, fold your side towels, build your mise en place, check the edges of plates, stoke the fire of your grill and line up those sauté pans for another service – this is the moment when you offer yourself to others. Cook for me, cook for you.
*Picture is from 1970 – apprentice with the Statler Hilton Hotel in Buffalo
Words are powerful, stories even more so. They can make us aware, lift us up, change our minds, give us hope, shock us into a new way of thinking, give us pause, inspire us, right the ship, record our memories, and set the stage for change. Words can differentiate the free from the oppressed, the informed from the naive, the warm from the cold, and the inspired from those who feel hopeless. Words are a gift and can be a curse – it is all up to the application of truth and the confidence of the writer. Musicians, poets, chefs, authors, speech writers, and journalists are the historians of a time and gatekeepers to awareness. When we read those words, we are free to think and grow – the words are a gift and writing a platform for happiness and knowledge.
Words that are well thought out, from our memory and filtered through the heart can bridge any gap that might exist between people. Strategic words can right a wrong, mend old wounds, and help people to start fresh. Words that fail to pass through that filter can separate those who seek to come closer, hurt and stoke the flames of fear and the bruises that result from animosity. Words can build friendships or end them just as easily.
When words reflect on past experiences and stimulate positive memories, they can form stories that build interest, paint pictures, engage others in your shared experiences, and align those who listen with your intent and objectives. Words are that powerful.
As chefs it is important to understand the power that words provide. It is critical that we understand what we say and how we say it can make all the difference in how those around us feel, respond, and grow. The right word, at the right moment can earn you respect and followership, while the wrong word can destroy trust, bruise egos, alienate workers, push aside friends, and infuriate those whose support and friendship are needed most.
When we allow the stress and frustration of the moment to erode the filter of the heart and release a word, a phrase, or a story before it has been through the process of impact analysis – then we relinquish our leadership to the sting of negative emotion. We have all been there – that moment when words are used to attack and sting while at the same time our mind and heart is thinking: “this is wrong”. Too late – the damage is done, and recovery is ever so difficult. These are the times when it seems that words flow directly from emotion and are able to defy what we know to be right or wrong. Been there – done that.
To be a leader is to learn how to control those words and those stories – to work at keeping those filters in place and give emotions a chance to settle down before we speak. Too many times that word, the one that avoids filtering, is so destructive that the results are beyond repair. We all need to accept the power of what we say and stay in control.
At the same time, a strategic word or story that is cognizant of the power it wields, can be used to build trust, define followership, move people to a different, positive place and unite those around us on a common mission. When we are in control, when those filters are working as they should, then we can emerge as true leaders worthy of followership.
A simple: “great job, thank you, spot on, terrific effort, delicious, beautiful plate, outstanding work, etc.”, can raise an individual’s or team’s spirits, help to push them to new levels of excellence, elevate them through a difficult service period, and bridge the gap between impossible and possible. The right use of words can be more powerful than any other attempt at motivation – including compensation. You see- everyone craves acknowledgement and encouragement – it is the fuel that stokes the human motor and drives people to perform well.
Even critique can become a positive motivator when words are used effectively. “You know you do really exceptional work, your food is flavorful and on point with my expectations and plate presentations are beautiful, however, this particular dish misses the mark. Let’s work together to figure out how to make it better.” A statement such as this demonstrates to a co-worker that the chef thinks highly of a cook’s work, talent, and desire to perform at a very high level, but points to a unique situation when something just doesn’t live up to that standard. The statement is free of emotion but focused on correcting a misstep. The approach with the right words demonstrates that the problem is not personal but rather a collaborative one that the chef shares responsibility for and intends to collaborate to fix. A chef without control of the filter might simply say: “This dish is crap – fix it!” In both cases the problem is identified, but one is based on positive action and the other will embarrass and alienate the employee. When the filter is in place and the right words are strategically put together as a story – the challenge will most likely be resolved. Attacking people with biting words may relieve the immediate frustration that you feel, but at what price? Sometimes the lesson learned from this type of release cannot be repaired.
“Lessons learned are like Bridges burned You only need to cross them but once Is the knowledge gained Worth the price of the pain? Are the spoils worth the cost of the hunt?”
Chefs can be great teachers when they understand the importance of communication, filtered words, and great storytelling. People are unlikely to appreciate, learn from, or even remember words that are meant to sting, but will readily learn from effective stories that show the nature of a problem, an action or solution, and the results – good or bad. Learn to become a storyteller, build your positive vocabulary, discover how to use those filters, take a deep breath and coach your response to others – even when it is difficult to do so. Teach through those stories that depict examples of past situations, previous actions, and what you personally learned from it.
A chef might pull together his or her team at the end of service and relay a story that can become a reflective lesson for cooks – something that points to what took place and how the experience might be used to simply get better:
“Well, we made it through service tonight – and it wasn’t all that pretty. This is a great team and I know that your standards are very high, so tonight was not typical and not what you normally expect of yourselves. This happens to the best of teams, it is not uncommon, but at the same time it is not how we operate. I remember many examples in my own past as a cook where things just seemed to get out of hand. I have had my share of nights when it just didn’t seem to click when my timing was off, things got backed up, my mise en place wasn’t tight, and far too many dishes came back for a re-fire. It is easy to get down on yourself, to think that somehow it is all your fault, but keep in mind that you are each part of a team and team means that you collectively own the not so perfect night and together we hold the opportunity to be better tomorrow. Yes, I am part of the team and share in the responsibility for tonight – it is just as much on my shoulders as yours. This is not a time to beat ourselves up, it is a time to analyze the cause and work as a team to help each other fix things for tomorrow. We are not perfect, but we are pretty damn good. Tomorrow will be great – let’s all learn from tonight. Thanks for being great at what you do.”
Guaranteed, each cook will remember that story, will reflect on what went wrong and how they can improve, and they will all respect the chef for talking about his or her own past mistakes and owning up to what just happened. Years from this date they will still remember the chef’s words and the story told. Lesson learned. This is what can happen when a chef understands the power of words and keeps that filter working as it should.
Success doesn’t happen on its own – you make it happen. Yes, as a cook you may wonder when great things will come your way and the answer is – probably never. You need to seek out the opportunities and prepare to thrive when one is in your sights – success doesn’t simply appear. Every cook, or should I say every serious cook, has the ability to reach for that elusive chef’s job, discover how to make a difference, create a culinary signature that others will notice, and earn a comfortable living in the process. The difference between those who reach those goals and those who do not is almost always a willingness to do the right work to get there.
Cooks should be paid a living wage and they should be able to feel secure in their job as long as they do what is required, but beyond that each step towards the position of chef is in the individual’s hands. So, if you are ready to take the leap – here you go:
 PATIENCE: Everyone wants to reach their goals quickly – to become what he or she aspires to become without the effort and time that comes with the turf, but it just doesn’t work that way. To truly become a chef requires that you have a wealth of knowledge and experience that never comes easy, always requires extra effort, and involves a sometimes-bumpy road along the way. Be patient – it will take time.
 COMMITMENT: “I am going to do whatever it takes to prepare for the position – I am in it to win it”. Make the commitment, put it in writing, live it every day, and when you look in a mirror, do so knowing that you never waiver from what is required.
 HAVE A PLAN: Plan, plan, plan. Establish where you want to be and build a detailed road map that takes you from point A to point B. If you want to be an executive chef at a private club know that the skill set will include: a deep understanding of a full array of ethnic styles of cooking, the ability to organize complex events, human resource management skills, team building prowess, great communication skills, purchasing and negotiating skills, knowledge of wines, service techniques, cost controls, and how to build a public relations image. How will you acquire those skills? Where should you work and whom should you work with to fine tune what is needed to build your brand?
 LEARN SOMETHING NEW EVERY DAY: Approach every day with a structured plan to learn something new. It need not be monumental, but any day that goes by that you have not gained a new skill, or a bit of important knowledge is a day that fails to bring you closer to your goals.
 PRACTICE MAKES PERFECT: Proficiency comes from repetition. Seek out that new skill or bit of knowledge and build it into your routine just like an exercise regimen.
 VOLUNTEER: There is no shortage of opportunity to learn something new from someone else. You will not always receive pay for what you learn. What you gain is far more important than a few extra dollars in your paycheck.
 KNOW YOUR WEAKNESSES: Be humble and know that you are human and there are many tasks that you are not very good at. Sometimes people just avoid engaging in processes that show their weaknesses where successful cooks and chefs approach them head on and work until a weakness becomes a strength. This is how competent chefs are made.
 NOT SO SOCIAL MEDIA: Your brand can be easily destroyed through social media. Be very careful about what you say, what opinions you express, how you look, the language that you use, and the individuals and groups that you associate with on Facebook, Instagram, Tik Tok, and Twitter. One of the first steps used by employers in researching candidates for a position of responsibility is to check their social media profile.
 EXCELLENCE ALWAYS: Be the person who always approaches every task, no matter how small or large, with a commitment to excellence. Washing and stacking dishes – be a star, dicing vegetables – make them “show quality”; organizing a cooler – do so like a librarian approaches stacks of books; caramelizing a mirepoix for a stock – make sure that every vegetable is properly browned and ready to release its flavor. Every single task is a reflection of the cook you are and the chef you hope to become.
 EXECUTE AND BUILD TRUST: If you have your eyes on the chef position then start by becoming the cook that everyone else can depend on. Once you are given a task, make sure that you follow thru and complete the work as it was intended – always.
 PROBLEM SOLVE: Watch and learn. Every day in the kitchen presents challenges that someone needs to approach and deal with problems that require solutions. Watch how others solve those problems and record the process in your mental data bank. Sometimes the real hero in any situation is not the person who does everything right, but the one who can correct a misstep if and when it occurs. As a chef you will become the person whom others expect to rely on as the consummate problem-solver.
 NETWORK: Start making a list of people who you would enjoy having on your resource list. Make the effort, make the contact, show respect, communicate frequently, and build a relationship with those who can become your “go to people” when support is what you need. The best chefs don’t have all the answers, but they know who to contact when that solution is not readily at hand.
 PRACTICE SAYING YES: Along the way, one of the best ways to build steadily on your brand is to be the person who says: “bring it on”. “I need someone to work an extra shift this week” – count me in chef. “Someone from the line needs to give the dishwasher a hand for 20 minutes to push through that backlog of dishes” – I’m your person chef. Again, be the person that others can depend on. Yes, it gets in the way of life and ego sometimes, but it is part of building that brand – a brand that will lead to the chef’s position at some point in time.
 BE A PROFESSIONAL: Above all else – hold yourself to higher standards. Look the part, act the part, treat others with respect, remain dependable, stay humble, approach every task with an eye on excellence, and know that your brand is made through professional effort.
Nowadays a question I am often asked is: “Why is it so difficult to understand cooks and chefs?” The answer, quite simply, is – you can’t understand a cook unless you are or have been one. That may seem like a copout, but it is true. Take a look into a cook’s eyes, really look beyond the surface and you will see a complex assortment of challenges, pride, experiences, insecurities, and troubled waters which are held together by the thin strings of the apron around their waist. This may not be the case for all, but it surely is true of most.
Look past the façade – that sometimes crusty, occasionally moody, swashbuckling and seemingly pretentious person wielding sharp knives and hot pans – you know – the person who can smile one minute and then curse you out the next and try to see a bit below the surface. There is no reason for this split personality – right? People should leave their baggage at home when they walk through the threshold of a job – push aside those things that haunt them and be sharp and bright, focused and passionate, and committed and intent. This is what we would like to expect, but is it possible? Look beyond the surface and connect with the cook’s eyes – try to see what’s inside before we judge and discount.
Get over it, be in the moment, concentrate, push aside that dark cloud and be positive! Managers and owners throw these words around freely without digging past the effects and looking at the cause. Am I being too protective and not cognizant of the demands of the job and the environment of the workplace? Maybe, but I am trying to be real. In some cases, there is no excuse; some people are just miserable by nature and they use the limited power of their position to make everyone around them miserable – I get that. Some people are full of themselves and couldn’t care less about how their mood and actions impact others – I know this is unfortunately true; but there are far more people than you imagine who are simply carrying a heavy load of emotional baggage that is hard to shake off. Look into their eyes to try and see who is behind that tied apron.
This is not a scientific study, but rather a review of the fifty years I have spent around cooks and chefs, kitchen crews and service staff, food operations of all types and people from all types of backgrounds who tie on that apron or deliver a guest’s plate of food. What I have personally found among those people whom I respect and enjoy being around is an interesting case study.
 Think about the type of person who seeks the job of cook or the career of chef. He or she is typically drawn to the kitchen for some very specific reasons: It is a safe place where judgement is not the norm – if you can do the job, you belong. He or she is the type of person who either is or truly wants to be – creative. The kitchen provides an environment for creative people and a petri dish for those who want to learn to be so. The kitchen is a place where organization prevails and as such it attracts those who either are or very much need to become organized – some semblance of structure. The kitchen is a place where team becomes a reality even for those who have rarely found a way to become part of something larger than themselves. And this is a place where hard physical work allows you to feel good about what took place over a 10–12-hour shift.
 Many cooks inadvertently seek a little pain and self-abuse as a way to feel alive. They crave the physical muscle pain after standing for a full shift, working in conditions of excessive heat, constant noise, and the pressure of timing so that they can actually feel as if they paid their dues. As strange as this may seem – it is real.
 Many cooks are lonely people – sometimes by choice, while oftentimes for other reasons of fear and angst, poor self-esteem, or a history of not fitting in. While in the kitchen they find solace in the camaraderie and purpose that for a 10-hour period makes up for the loneliness that remains once they punch out. Afterall, the schedules and work hours required are socially isolating.
 A good portion of the cooks and chefs I know and worked with are terribly insecure in their abilities. They compensate by putting on airs of over-confidence, egotistical swagger, and “I can do and say what I want” musings. Underneath they know that it would be hard to back up those surface appearances.
 The job itself is difficult at best. The conditions are not conducive to bright and shining attitudes – this is not an excuse – it is reality. Heat, physical work, danger, time pressure, being judged by every plate that ends up in the pass and knowing that the success of your peers is based on how well you execute your work – all of this combined make for a pretty abrasive stew.
 Sometimes a cook or chef is there because they chose the path long ago. It was what they were meant to do and provided the incentives that creativity and purpose offer. Many others, probably the majority, found themselves in the kitchen out of necessity. The kitchen pirates and vagabonds who are good at the craft, confident in their abilities, and less than enthusiastic about their position in life do abound in the kitchens of America. Yes, we have our share of crusty misfits, the ones that could only wind up in kitchens and would be a square peg in a round hole anywhere else. These are the people that become the backbone of the operation because they are competent but may find it easy to walk of the job without notice, be insubordinate, give the rest of the restaurant the sting of their anger, and might even occasionally fail to show up to work for no particular reason. Yes, they are there, and they are part of the kitchen stew because the kitchen will always welcome them.
Look into their eyes, get past the façade and start to separate effect from cause. Try as we may to change the formula, it always comes back to those unique individuals who are willing and able to tie on the apron. It is the chef’s primary job to build a balanced team, understand the mix of people who make up a kitchen crew, look deep into their eyes and provide the empathy and structure needed to keep the band together. When we fail to understand this and lead in a manner that is people-centric, then the results will always be rocky at best. When this works, the band will play beautiful music together.
The Moody Blues once wrote:
“And the sounds we make together Is the music to the story in your eyes It’s been shining down upon me now, I realize”
When we realize what we are working with and take the time to look to the story in a cook’s eyes, we might just find a way to build something special.
Being a chef is a tough job, no matter where a person hangs his or her apron. The physical, mental, and emotional challenges are significant, and the dedication and passion required are as pronounced as one might find in any field. More often than not, chefs are able to perform their duties with the expectation that they will have the resources, the facilities, and the predictability to function with their concentration placed squarely on the process; yet in some cases this is not always the reality that is before them.
To be quick on your feet, able to adjust, focused on quality while being thrust into dangerous situations, working in temporary/not quite ideal, kitchen spaces, and knowing full well just how important your work is physically, emotionally, and psychologically to a unique group of customers is something that many chefs are able to avoid in their busy lives. This is the life of the military cook.
Today is a day of recognition for those who have put their lives on the line, many who paid the ultimate sacrifice for their country; a day when we pay special homage to those who gave their lives in combat; but also, those who served under the constant threat of the same. It is also a day for us to consider the many individuals who worked diligently to protect and serve those who chose the military path.
It is very likely that each of us has a family history that includes individuals who served in the military and unfortunately, some who never returned home. Today specifically, but every day realistically, we should show our respect and give thanks for all who made the commitment of service. It may have been a father or mother, grandfather or grandmother, sister or brother, uncle, cousin or spouse; a child or neighbor, a classmate or friend, or simply a person in our community who left his or her mark – but it would be difficult to find a person who has not been touched by the tragedy associated with military service. We bow our heads today and honor each and every person who served out of choice as well as those who were thrust into combat through the draft.
I thought, given the nature of my blog, that I would also pay respect today to those cooks and chefs behind the scenes who gave their talent, passion, heart and soul to keeping soldiers nourished and offer them a few brief moments of enjoyment and reflection through food.
The military cook or chef is a special person who possesses the same skill set as the restaurant or resort chef, the same dedication to the profession, the same passion for ingredients and the same desire to present beautiful, delicious food to their audience, just as any other culinarian. This cook or chef may be responsible for nourishing troops in training at one of the bases across the country or overseas, or possibly work out of a field kitchen in the middle of a combat zone with the constant fear of attack to accompany the demands of the job. He or she may be focused on preparing thousands of meals every day or working on special events or officer dining that provide an opportunity to elevate their cuisine further. In all cases the food, just like in a restaurant, must be nutritious, hot or cold, fresh, flavorful and attractive.
Contrary to what some may perceive – military dining can run the full spectrum from field cooking under battle conditions, to quick service, banquets and catering, and even fine dining. There are formal training environments for all branches of the military – each with a focus on standards of excellence, competency, and building opportunities for long careers in foodservice. As an example – the Joint Culinary Center of Excellence for the Army and Marine Corps graduates more than 6,000 cooks each year to support their efforts domestically and abroad. Many of these cooks, after completing their terms of service, go on to become very successful and prominent chefs in the restaurant and food related industries.
On the representative side – the U.S. Military Culinary Team has consistently earned gold medals and the highest praise from their culinary peers in international competitions such as the Culinary Olympics.
Here are a few examples of chefs who had their start as a military cook in various branches of service in the U.S. and overseas:
Chef Andre Rush, a member of the U.S. Army served as a White House Chef through four administrations: Clinton, Bush, Obama and Trump.
Chef Eric Ripert of the 3-star Michelin Le Bernadin Restaurant served in the French Military before working as poissonier for Joel Robuchon leading to his position as chef of one of the few 3-star restaurants in America.
Julia Child was too tall for the military but instead worked for the Office of Strategic Service (predecessor to the CIA) as an intelligence officer.
Chef Bert Cutino – owner/chef of the famous Sardine Factory in Monterey, CA served his country in the naval reserves.
Chef John Besh of Besh Restaurants fame and a name synonymous with Cajun cooking, was a marine who served in the Gulf War.
Even Auguste Escoffier was a member of the French Military serving as a chef during the French/Prussian War. It was in the military where he devised the structure of the Kitchen Brigade that changed the way that kitchens operated.
In my own experience there have been many friends and associates who have dedicated the early portion of their careers to serving as military cooks and bakers. Among them, and there are undoubtedly many more, are:
Certified Master Chef Bill Franklin served in Vietnam as a member of the U.S. Navy.
Chef John McBride – a former student of mine, culinary instructor at Paul Smith’s College and New England Culinary Institute, and outstanding bread baker was a member of the U.S. Navy.
Chef Robert Brown, CMB who facilitated the Baking Program at Paul Smith’s College and served in the U.S. Navy during the Vietnam War.
Chef David Gotzmer, a former executive chef and culinary instructor at Paul Smith’s College was a member of the U.S. Marines during Vietnam.
Chef Michael Garnish, executive chef and former instructor at Paul Smith’s College and served in the U.S. Coast Guard.
Chef David Russ, former military culinary team member and captain, and military chef of the year served his country as a member of the U.S. Army during the Gulf War.
Chef Travis Smith served in culinary leadership roles for the U.S. Army, participated as a member of the military culinary team, and held various positions as executive chef and chef/entrepreneur since retiring from the Army.
Francis Peroni, my first foods instructor from Paul Smith’s College served in the military during World War II.
Chef Phil Learned, former executive chef of The Balsams Grand Resort and founder of their apprenticeship program was a U.S. Marine Corps during World War II and Korea.
Chef Keith Taylor of Zachary’s Bar-b-Que served in the U.S. Army before working as chef for Walt Disney and building a very successful cadre of restaurants in Philadelphia.
Chef Jeremiah Shields, a former student from New England Culinary Institute – served in the U.S. Army.
And the list goes on and on. I often reflect on my own time as a cook in the Army National Guard and the discipline I gained in the process. I treasured the opportunity to cook for those fellow soldiers who chose or were chosen to serve. On this day and every other I give thanks to those men and women who gave of themselves, those whose lives were changed as a result, and those who gave their lives for the freedoms, democratic process, and equities and advantages that we share and must protect.
*Pictures: My dad – WWII (not a cook)
Members of the Coast Guard Culinary Team in training
Military cooks in action
PLAN BETTER – TRAIN HARDER
Give thanks to those who served or serve currently.
I find it so interesting that the concept of “line cook” is an immersion in contradiction. When I look a bit deeper into the persona of individuals who choose this career path, I am a bit confused. The typical person who fills these shoes is a true dichotomy poster child:
“A division or contrast between two things that are or are represented as being opposed or entirely different.”
This creature called “line cook” is a clear representative of opposing thoughts and actions – evident through his or her work. The line cook is tough as nails, yet gentle as an artist. He or she is committed to structure but desiring of every opportunity to color outside the lines. This unique person is able to follow precise directions while at the same time always thinking about how he or she might break the rules. The line cook is an enigma, a person who is difficult to categorize – yet easy to shape and mold.
“A person or thing that is mysterious, puzzling, or difficult to understand.”
When I watch a line cook in action and try to analyze what makes he or she tick, I am always amazed at how different the person can be in any given moment. I watch as a cook work to ignore the hellish conditions under which the work is done: the incredible heat, scorching flames, sweat rolling down every cook’s back,12-hour shifts, constant movement, lifting and reaching, sharp knives waiting to cut a finger; the constant whir of exhaust fans, clanging of pots and pans, ticking of the POS printer, and the piercing bark of orders from the expeditor – the work is hard. While all of this is going on alongside the pressure of timing and exactness of process – this same hard-nosed, crusted, and sometimes wounded individual is able to take a few extra seconds to gingerly place a delicate cluster of herbs atop a plate to sign his or her effort.
As those flames threaten to sear eyebrows and scorching hot pan handles beckon the cook to grab them with bare hands, while knees ache and feet throb from disregard, and all the while that every pain is pushed aside in exchange for executing the process of cooking under pressure – the cook takes that extra moment to polish the edge of a plate and make sure that every dish is just right. This is a different kind of person – one who is on a mission and the mission always comes first.
When I look into the eyes of a line cook, I see a person who is oftentimes troubled with what is happening outside of work, but fully focused on this job, a job that provides a sense of purpose, pride in accomplishment, and a release from everything that is happening outside of a shift. I see a person who is at home in the structure of the kitchen – a place where there is an environment of dichotomy – needed structure with lots of room to improvise. It is very much like being a member of a jazz or jam band where everything begins with structure, but improvisation is always possible when the individual is comfortable and competent enough to do so.
When I talk with line cooks, I am always impressed to find someone who comes across as rough and tumble, aloof and independent, hard core and sometimes angry at the world, yet able to talk fluently about a beautiful fish flown in from Florida; the impact of recognized chefs, past and present, who he or she admires; or how to develop a nuance of flavor in a dish whose ingredients are out of season.
I know line cooks who work together as a solid unit yet are so different in background. They may be from different countries, of different races or polar opposites when it comes to belief structures, unique in their educational backgrounds and political views – yet once that dining room is open and the orders start to flow – they are one. They may disagree whole-heartedly on music, sports, art, and literature; they may be avid readers or someone who never picks up a book; and they may care or care less about what is happening in the world outside the kitchen – yet they can relish the opportunity to talk with great admiration about a plate of food that they share. These line cooks – they are unique individuals.
At the end of a 12-hour shift, after sharing a post service drink at the local watering hole, each one of these line cooks may go his or her separate way – back to a different life, different socio-economic conditions, a life with family or a life alone, and be that other person…until tomorrow when a new kitchen shift begins. It is in the kitchen where cooks are whole, where they can open their minds and souls to something important and reveal the person they want to be. This is where opportunities exist, where each cook has a chance to strive for something a little bit lofty, a place where they can build their skills and show them off, feel the joy of competence and spread their wings, sign their plates, and know that they are good at the craft of cooking. This is where that dichotomy is ever-present.
These line cooks inspire me, confuse me, strengthen my passion, and give me hope. These are the people of the kitchen who are complex and easy at the same time – they are the heart and soul of a restaurant, filled with intrigue and bursting with promise. These are the people that I have had the pleasure to work with and study and never fully understand.
Most of us will remember those opening lines to Charles Dickens: Tale of Two Cities:
“It was the best of times, it was the worst of times, it was the age of wisdom, it was the age of foolishness, it was the epoch of belief, it was the epoch of incredulity, it was the season of light, it was the season of darkness, it was the spring of hope, it was the winter of despair.” They are, at least in part – etched into our brains from those early days in English Composition class – lines that stand out as an umbrella statement that encompasses a point in time from yesterday or today. These words can relate to our personal, political, economic, career centric, or spiritual lives – thus the reason they are so compelling and poignant.
We can easily apply Dickens profound human summary to the state of the restaurant industry today. Without a doubt, many would paint a bleak picture of troubled times for the restaurant segment. Coming off fourteen months of partial or full shut down, limited numbers of guests allowed, mask mandates, and loads of fear associated with the virus – staff in restaurants dwindled down to a fraction of what was the norm in 2019, business that had crested the wave of participation and excitement suddenly drew down to a trickle, and even the most noteworthy operations were faced with financial crisis. Now that the pandemic was beginning to come under control and state governments were loosening the grip of protocol on restaurants – customers were beginning to re-emerge, albeit with some trepidation. At the same time, many of those restaurant employees – front and back of the house, were taking their time trying to decide if it made sense to return to an industry that was unpredictable, low paying, void of reasonable benefit plans, and now a target for customer anger and angst as servers suddenly became covid policemen. Yep, it certainly seems like the worst of times even in the face of business optimism.
While the media was filled with stories of despondent employees, angry restaurateurs, and, in particular – cooks who were riding the tide of victimization – there exists a tremendous light of encouraging news. I am going to make a bold statement and profess that there has never been a better time to be an open-minded chef, cook, server, or restaurateur. That’s right, you heard me correctly – this may be one of the best times to take the leap into restaurant work and stake your claim to a career. Why would I say such a thing when so many restaurateurs and chefs are beside themselves with trying to staff their operations, culinary schools are trimming their operations or closing their doors, and restaurants are unable to find the product they need through a distribution network crippled from pandemic uncertainty? OK, so here it is:
A CHANCE FOR REBIRTH
“It was the age of wisdom” – oh, yes, it is. Wisdom is often only evident after a time of suffering, of losing what you had gained, of making mistakes time and again, but then to learn from those so that one can be reborn with new insight, knowledge, and confidence. The restaurant industry has been keeping its wounds under wraps for decades, but the pandemic brought everything to an abrupt stop. We could no longer hide what we knew needed to change – we had time to reflect and analyze and gain the wisdom from experience that has been avoided for too long. Now we have an opportunity to be reborn – to change what is wrong with how we operate and come out bigger and better in the end. The opportunity to be part of this has never been greater.
A NEED FOR CREATIVITY
To take full advantage of this opportunity – chefs, restaurateurs, cooks, servers, and managers must put on their creative hats and devise new solutions, to build ideas into actions, to bring to fruition the new and exciting ways that the restaurant industry can regain all that it has lost. The door is wide open for creative problem solvers.
AN INEVITABLE RECOVERY
“It was the epoch of belief”. Believe it – history has shown this to be true – the restaurant industry has always been one of the first industries to recover after disaster and hard times. This has occurred time and again, not just in America, but all over the world. We can depend on this opportunity as long as we are ready to adjust our methods of operation. What an exciting time to jump on board and become partner to what may very well be one of the greatest world-wide recoveries – ever!
A POPULATION READY TO CELEBRATE
The reason that restaurants recover first is because people relish the opportunity to celebrate with others. We all have an innate need to connect, to share, to enjoy, and to put aside the bad and welcome the good. Restaurants provide the vehicle for this to happen. A place where family and friends, business partners, and even adversaries can gather, enjoy a great meal, break bread, raise a glass and laugh away life’s challenges while celebrating the hope of tomorrow. Don’t you want to be a part of this?
A LEVELING OFF OF COMPETITION
“It was the age of foolishness”. I grieve for those operators who lost their life dream. When I see a restaurant closed for good – I know that behind that sign is a lifetime of saving, dreaming, working countless hours, sweating details, and struggling with paying their bills. It is heart wrenching to see dreams dashed especially when it is, to some degree, beyond their control. Yet, we should all understand that even in a system of free enterprise when anyone has the opportunity to give it a shot – you can oversaturate a market. Such has been the case with the restaurant industry. I have no doubt that eventually that oversaturation will return, but for right now we may see the right number of restaurants to service an area and a much greater chance for financial success. This is a much better environment to be in as a chef, restauranteur, cook, or server.
AN INDUSTRY READY TO LISTEN
“It was the epoch of incredulity”. Necessity is the mother of invention (so goes the English proverb that had its origin in the teachings of Plato). Those changes that needed to happen – you know, the ones that restaurant employees have been talking about for decades, may have never caught the attention of owners and operators until those same operators were unable to staff their restaurants. Those who do the work are now in the driver’s seat and many of those harped about changes may actually come to fruition as a result. Step into the new restaurant industry where efficiency, profitability, better pay and benefits, and a willingness to respect life outside of the operation is front and center.
AN INDUSTRY THAT HAS NO CHOICE BUT TO CHANGE
“It was the season of light; it was the season of darkness”. So, it is time to reassess, to change the model, to find ways to become more efficient and adaptable, to be positioned to face the next big challenge (and it will come at some point), to take care of staff, develop menus and systems that allow the restaurant to reach its financial goals, to do more with less and as a result take better care of the people who make every restaurant work.
NEW MARKETS HAVE EMERGED
“It was the spring of hope, it was the winter of darkness”. Finally, it is such a great time to engage or re-engage in an industry that has seen new ways of creating product, marketing it, producing it, selling and serving it and building a brand as a result. Ghost kitchens, food trucks, curbside, home delivery, and on-line engagement will only get better. Don’t you want to be part of an industry as it finds ways to create experiences around these new business opportunities? Now is the time – “It is the best of times”.
If you are a seasoned food service manager, a chef, or serious cook looking for that next step in your career – I have great opportunities for you. Whether you are in those early stages of your career or well-established as a professional – I have found that two factors come into play when making a career decision: First, is the opportunity to learn and make a dent in the universe and second is to find a place that offers exceptional quality of life. There have been many lessons learned over the past 14-months, but in talking with friends and culinary peers nothing stands out more than these two factors.
Financial considerations are certainly important, but without the opportunity to make a difference and without a safe, secure, and balanced way of life – money becomes pretty shallow as the only decisionmaker. Keep this in mind – this is very important: people need to find something they love, something that allows them a chance to contribute and create, and something that connects with their personal stakes in the ground. At the same time – living in a place that is safe and secure, a place where you can take a deep breath and know that it is nurturing and healthy – this is ultimately what inspires and makes us whole.
I live in the Adirondacks of New York and have done so for the past forty-odd years. There is no other place where I have spent time that fits this bill better than living within this six-million-acre park in northern New York State. I have enjoyed a rewarding and robust career in the food business, while maintaining a quality of life that inspires and protects. So, listen up!
I have a number of terrific opportunities for the right people, people who want to find that career fit that helps them to grow, allows them to make a difference, embraces their creativity, and supports the quality of life that they are looking for. There are positions as Food and Beverage Manager for an expansive historic property that is on the cusp of growing into a real event destination while offering authentic foods that reflect the time and theme of the property. Additionally, I am pleased to work with a number of restaurants in the Adirondack Olympic Region looking for chefs and cooks, professional servers, managers, and even hopeful entrepreneurs. These career opportunities are perfect for the serious professionals who want it all.
I am truly excited to offer these openings to individuals who believe that a move is right for them, and that they fit the profile of the positions. IF YOU ARE ONE OF THESE PEOPLE then send me a note and let’s start a conversation. I am anxious to connect the right people with these exciting properties in the middle of one of the most pristine locations on the face of the earth. Send me a note today!
It’s interesting how people look forward to retiring from their careers – something that they spent maybe 50 or more years of their life doing. It is also confusing to see how many can do so without a thought or regret. Maybe, if that time was spent doing something that was not really that enjoyable – this reaction makes sense. For me – not so much. Don’t get me wrong, I am plenty busy in my semi-retirement and keep my foot in the water with a consulting business that is still reasonably vibrant, a fair amount of writing, and an interesting podcast – but I do miss the kitchen. I started, after all, when I was 16 years old, so for all intents and purposes it is a part of who I am. So, I thought I would take a little trip down nostalgia lane and address the things that I remember and miss.
“Memory is the treasury and guardian of all things.”
Well, working in a kitchen is a full sensory experience that is easy to embrace and hard to forget. I remember the morning smell of bacon, breads still fragrant from the night baker’s shift, fresh danish and croissant being pulled from the oven, and of course – the smell of coffee that permeates the air. I remember the aroma from a simmering veal or chicken stock – that lingering, tempting smell of roasted bones and caramelized mirepoix, the sweet aroma of candied garlic and onions browning as a coloring for the broth that would become soup, and sauce for various applications on the menu. I remember the rich aroma of a roast in the oven, the drippings from a 109 rib that would create the fond for the vibrant au jus that accents this incredible cut of meat and the smell of steaks on an open flame -searing the exterior of the muscle while the marbling of fat drips through the grate and laps up in return as golden flames. I can remember the intoxicating aroma of pommes frites frying a golden brown in a deep fryer and rosemary catching fire and releasing that intense smoke that draws you in. I miss that.
The sounds of the kitchen are ever apparent and all consuming, unless, of course, you are immune through constant exposure. The funny thing is your life never seems complete when those sounds are absent. The whir of the hood fans is hard to ignore and although many would claim that this din is annoying and hard to talk around, to those who work in kitchens it is just soothing background noise. The clanging of pots and pans as they hit metal to metal, the clink of dishes being stacked in the dishpit, and the ping of glassware – just enough to know that they are there, but not so much as to cause a break – these are sounds that are somehow comforting to a cook. That hiss when a fish fillet hits a cherry red hot sauté pan or scallops anxious for that perfect caramelization that squeak because the pan is so hot – hot enough to always release the protein as if it were a non-stick pan – these are audible signs that the right technique is at play.
The banter in the kitchen, at least until it gets out of hand, you know that competitive chatter that pushes everyone to step up their game, is somehow refreshing. The relentless clicking of the POS printer provides a rhythm that sets a tone on the line, and the orchestrated cadence established by the expeditor as he or she chants “order, fire, pick-up, or re-fire” is only superseded by the line cooks response of “Yes Chef”. The sounds of the kitchen build up to a crescendo as orders pile up and the kitchen reaches peak performance at the seven o’clock push. I miss that.
The kitchen is a visual banquet of incredible ingredients, passionate cooks, colors and exactness that culminate on the plate. I remember fondly, the beauty of fish orders flown in from Florida, opening the styro boxes that held perfectly fresh, whole Queen Snapper, Black Cod, Mahi Mahi, or Bronzini. The feel and smell of freshness was so present, waiting for the razor-sharp fillet knife to remove the flesh from bones. The brilliant red of local strawberries and their deep aroma is always something to pause and take in. Crisp greens for salad from a local farmer, perfectly marbled strip loins to be cut into beautiful steaks, sticky pink dry sea scallops or deep red tuna for sashimi is something to dream about.
A cook’s dedication to perfectly cut vegetables – batonnet, julienne, various size dice, and chiffonade attest to a passion to do things right; and that special plate that awaits magnificent turned potatoes and carrots with seven equal sides demonstrates that the cook will never sacrifice quality for quantity. When the garde manger takes the time to blanch, shock and peel tomatoes for a salad he or she is saying that every detail is important, and a demi-glace that is silky and sticky through hours of reduction and straining and finishing with raw butter points to excellence in every aspect of the word.
Finally, it all comes down to the plate. When each line cook takes that extra second or two to make sure that the plate is a reflection of the reputation of the kitchen, when each component is strategically placed on the plate to maximize the art in cuisine and this is done regardless of how busy the restaurant might be, you know that the crew is on their game. I miss that.
Mouthfeel is so important in cooking. The process of chewing, or in some cases allowing an item to melt in your mouth is so essential in building flavor experiences. A perfect braise leads to an item that melts off the bone, while still maintaining its chew and the silkiness that comes from doing it just right without drying out the dish. That perfectly cooked medium rare steak that defines chew and hangs on to the muscles full flavor, moisture and integrity is by far one of the most enjoyable dining experiences. A sauce that sticks to the inside of your palate and reminds you of its richness, moments after the item is consumed is a thing to behold and an art form in itself. And an incredibly fresh shucked oyster that promotes the brininess of the sea, the luscious nature of the muscle, and the exhilaration of enjoying seafood that has barely had time to adjust to being out of the water – is one of the most incredible sensations for a diner.
I remember the feel of a French or bird’s beak knife in my hand – the control that comes from this tool serving as an extension of your hand. I remember the feel of bread dough being kneaded on a floured board – taking shape and allowed to proof until your touch signals when it is ready for the oven. I remember the feel of cracking dozens of eggs with one hand – pulling the two shell halves apart between your thumb and index finger and allowing the yolk and white to fall gently into a bowl or separating the two parts – allowing the white to lift from its connection to the yolk when preparing to make a hollandaise or a meringue. I also think back to the sensitive touch of a steak when your fingers are able to judge degrees of doneness with the accuracy of a thermometer. I miss that.
Most of all, I remember the tastes that over decades of work built a flavor memory that allowed me, in many cases, to create a menu and various dishes knowing how items would taste even before they were built. The memory of vegetables in season, perfectly ripe fruits, fresh fish, different cuts of meat and poultry depending on what method of cooking was used, and how in combination certain foods would marry to create something totally different. I knew, not as well as some with perfect palates, but I still knew reasonably well what was lacking in a dish when it was tasted or, in some cases, how to compensate for an ingredient that was not mature or full flavored. I grew to know that those out-of-season tomatoes could take on the character of a fresh picked Roma in July if I sliced it in half, brushed it with olive oil and dusted it with sea salt as it was slid into a 200-degree oven for 90 – 120 minutes. I knew that time and low temperatures could do wonders with tougher cuts of meat – giving seasoning enough time to penetrate and transform a dish. I miss this as well.
I guess, conveniently, I choose to forget those difficult times when I was understaffed or overwhelmed. Those times when vendors were disappointing, when costs were out of line and financial performance was in question – they are not worthy of remembering. There were times when my own skills did not rise up to the occasion or the way that I handled a situation that required leadership was not what it should have been, but I learned from those situations and try to put them towards the back of the shelf. I’m good with that.
“Memories are like salt: the right amount brings out the flavor in food, too much, ruins it.”
– Paulo Coelho
The difference between cooking and some other professions is that your memories will never allow you to totally walk away. The impact on your senses will stay with you forever and for this I will always be grateful. I remain happy to remember what I miss.
Let’s put aside, at least for a short time, the antagonistic, woe is me, hard-nosed dialogue about the problems with staffing, the generation that doesn’t want to work anymore, the cheap employers that don’t want to pay a fair wage, and customers who refuse to respect us and let’s focus on what we do. Let’s focus on the passion associated with creating and what the results can be when we tap into that passion. Many of us entered the kitchen as an inexperienced person with a lack of direction in life, and as a result of the work, the people, maybe a solid mentor, and the rush of adrenaline when things went well – came out the other end as an enthusiastic cook. So, what was it about the kitchen that built pride and energy, that allowed us to find purpose, that helped us to jump out of bed in the morning and look forward to another day (yes, too many hours; yes, too little pay) even though there were aspects of the job that we would like to change?
To me, it always came down to two things: creativity with food, and the people we had (have) the pleasure to work with. The ability to build a portfolio of skills, to transfer a vision to a plate, to discover and then control flavor profiles, to experience the joy of replicating your art on a plate even on a very busy night, and the connections made with like-minded cooks was (is) invigorating and incredibly rewarding. It is all about the WOW associated with those experiences. So, let’s take a break from complaining and focus on the WOW again. The challenges of working in restaurants are there and will, eventually, change – but during the process of change, let’s not forget what brought us to tie on an apron and sweat the details.
Walt Disney – the consummate showman, dedicated perfectionist, and super talented storyteller once said:
“Whatever you do, do it well. Do it so well that when people see you do it, they will want to come back and see you do it again, and they will want to bring others and show them how well you do what you do.”
This is what turns work into something altogether different. This is what allows work to evolve into a passion and a calling. This is why those young, inexperienced, first-job dishwashers stick it out and learn the trade from the ground up. The satisfaction of doing anything really well, of having the skills that allow that to occur, and work in an operation where “painting on the plate” is the mantra that everyone follows – is hard to beat.
Don’t you remember those days in the kitchen when it all started to make sense? It wasn’t creativity first – it was foundations and understanding first. Don’t you remember that initial frustration when you couldn’t take that idea and make it work, but then that moment when your understanding of cooking and development of your palate brought everything in focus? Wasn’t that an incredible feeling of satisfaction and a light bulb moment when you realized: “I can do this”? This was a WOW moment for you – wasn’t it? We need to remember those moments, relish what they mean to each cook who reaches for those moments and eventually grabs hold and runs with them. This is why we cook, and this is what life in the kitchen is all about. We want to earn a good living, we need those benefits, and we desire a reasonable amount of work/life balance, but we also need those WOW moments and a sense of accomplishment that great work brings.
Do you remember when the chef that you admired turned to you for the first time and said: “Come up with a feature for tonight’s menu”? What he or she was really saying was: “I trust in your skills, I know you have the creative touch, and I have seen how dedicated you are to doing everything with excellence in mind – now, go ahead and show the guests in our dining room what you can do.” What an incredible WOW moment – the chef is allowing me to represent his or her reputation and that of the restaurant and put my work out there. Remember how you felt?
From that first painting that you did in kindergarten – you remember, the one that mom or dad proudly displayed on the refrigerator door, or when your teacher mounted it on a hallway bulletin board – this is what you craved: a chance to show everyone what you could do, what you were good at – a real, honest to goodness -WOW moment.
When that feature item that you created was introduced at the dining room table to restaurant guests by a server who had the job of creating positive experiences, stated: “And our chef’s feature tonight is a local poached asparagus salad with citrus supremes, caramelized cippolini onions, bacon dust, and a Valencia orange vinaigrette”, you secretly beamed with pride. When you peeked out the window to see that first order arrive at a guest’s table and the person who ordered YOUR DISH took out a camera and snapped a picture of your creation – a smile from ear-to-ear graced your face. And when that plate came back after the course was cleared and there was not a crumb left – you knew, without any doubt, that you had what it takes to create WOW experiences for the guest. Remember that?
It wasn’t easy, it took time. That simple salad required that you knew how to select, peel, and properly poach those asparagus spears, how to wield a sharp knife to remove those citrus supremes from their membrane, how to peel and caramelize those cippolini onions, and how to work all the ingredients to make a perfectly balanced vinaigrette. Moreover, you had to understand how all of those flavors and textures worked together. You knew, before ever putting the dish together that it would work – you had it all figured out in your head and you had little doubt that it would work. This took time and experience, it required a sophisticated palate, and it required a bunch of acquired skills. This was a real WOW moment for you as a cook. Does this bring back memories?
Maybe, just maybe, a few more times like this led to that same chef pulling you aside and saying: “You have built some really great features over the past few months. I am working on our next menu change and think that it’s time for you to develop a couple dishes that we can put in print. I want you to take a week and develop two items that you think would complement our menu concept and stand out as another reason for guests to choose us for their dinner.” Ok, hold on a minute – did the chef just ask me to be part of the bigger picture? Did I just take a big leap from sticking my toe in the water to jumping in for a swim? Remember that moment? What a rush, what a WOW! How much time did you take to dive into cookbooks, test different flavor combinations, and push your skill level up a few notches? Remember that feeling, the positive stress that made you sweat and smile at the same time? Remember the results of a defined dish that was ready to join the menu?
Or, how about that time when one of those dishes, you know the really creative one that was a real killer. Incredible, unique flavors and textures, and game changing presentation came together strong enough that the chef added it to one of those exclusive seven-course dinners for VIP’s. Now that was a moment of pride – wasn’t it? Do you remember standing back and directing your fellow cooks on how to assemble that dish for the greatest positive impact? Do you remember how others in the kitchen patted you on the back and took pictures of the dish for their own archives? WOW!
So, now here you are. The pandemic is showing signs of loosening its grip on everything that we do. Sure, there are issues that the industry must face, changes that must be made, but…..this is what you were meant to do and above all else you want to embrace the ability to get back to what you are destined to be a part of. This is the time to remember all of those WOW moments and get back to constantly enhancing your skills and doing what you love to do. Don’t forget just how important the WOW experience is for the guest, you, and your team of passionate cooks. This is your calling. Bring back the WOW!
History has demonstrated that people tend to have short memories. Even through the most challenging and tragic experiences, when the lessons are quite vivid – we quickly push aside the need to change in favor of a return to what is considered “normal”. Transitioning through this pandemic is one of those experiences, a life-changing time that offers a number of important lessons – but which of these lessons will result in real learning?
The restaurant industry continues to be devastated – not just as a result of the pandemic but because the pandemic brought underlying issues to the surface. The glory days of the restaurant industry have been laid to rest and they may never return to any semblance of normalcy. If the stakeholders in this important industry do not take the opportunity to learn from the lessons encountered, then a return to those exciting decades of growth and media glory will be difficult to envision.
So, what are the lessons offered and what should we learn:
FROM THE EMPLOYER’S PERSPECTIVE:
We are not prepared: Other businesses, as part of their operational strategy, build in scenario planning that helps to develop action plans for the expected and unsuspected. “What if……happens? How will we react?” As good as restaurant people are at reacting to situations – they are not typically astute at planning for things to go wrong and designing actions that will get them through difficult times. The “new” strategy must be to plan more effectively.
Our labor pool is very fragile: For decades – labor issues moved in waves. When the economy was weak then restaurants were in the driver’s seat – more applicants than jobs available led to a competent workforce that was underpaid and overworked. When the economy was strong and unemployment low – then restaurants struggled to find enough staff and the result was a less than perfect workforce that was paid more while expecting less.
The current labor shortage is different – restaurants have an opportunity to begin scaling up as the pandemic starts to come under control, but workers are less excited about returning to the same work environment. The lesson learned must be that our employees are the most important component of a successful restaurant. To attract and retain quality staff you must train well, treat them with respect, pay them a respectable wage, offer reasonable benefits, and provide them with the tools to be successful.
Our business model requires too much labor: At the same time as we step back it becomes vividly apparent that our method of operation and the menus that we provide require too many hands. This creates a domino of challenges – labor dependance, the inability to pay reasonable wages, selling price ceilings that do not yield sufficient profit, etc. The lesson learned must be to re-build the model to reflect efficiency and less dependence on excessive labor requirements.
Our menus are too large: The days when the way to customer satisfaction was through extensive variety are probably gone. Four-page menus do not reflect business common sense – inventories become unmanageable, waste is much more difficult to manage, the level of expertise required of employees grows exponentially, consistency and quality are challenging, and profit is hard to predict and realize. The lesson learned is that it’s not about quantity – it’s all about quality and execution. When menus are well researched and managed then a restaurant stands a chance of success.
Our profit model doesn’t work: Every chef and restaurateur is well aware of the tight profit margins (5-6% if you do everything right) is problematic. These margins make it impossible for restaurants to build a nest egg, pay fair wages, and reach their financial goals. Without cash reserves the pandemic cause thousands of restaurant casualties. The lesson learned is that menu items must be more profitable – this may mean re-assessing the ingredients used, how they are managed for waste, and the selling price formula used. It also means that more significant time must be spent training service staff how to upsell and create enhanced customer value. The top line drives the bottom line and restaurant management must provide employees with the tools to drive sales upward.
Brick and Mortar weighs us down: Requiring customers to travel to you puts the weight of participation on their shoulders and the responsibility for push and pull marketing in the hands of the operator. When a restaurant space is leased then further control over the burden of cost is determined by the lease arrangement and the landlord. In recent years landlords have leveraged their lease power to eventually drive restaurants out of business. The lesson here is that restaurants will need to evaluate how they approach physical space. Does your model work better as a mobile restaurant or strictly on-line through a ghost kitchen? When a brick-and-mortar operation is deemed essential then how can you build a mutually beneficial, long-term financial arrangement with a landlord?
People can do without us (although they don’t want to): Previously loyal customers found ways to adapt when restaurants were shut down due to the pandemic. Americans quickly moved from spending 50% of their food budget in restaurants to spending none or a fraction through curbside pick-up and delivery. The lesson learned is that restaurant business is very fragile and not the necessity we were beginning to believe. What can restaurants do to diversify their revenue stream that allows adaptation when the environment of need changes?
We need to create a take-out experience, not just a source of food: So, we shifted from in-restaurant dining to take out and delivery. Restaurants actually did adjust, but the real experience of dining is missing. The quality factors of temperature, texture, aroma, and visual plate presentation were quickly lost as restaurants moved to selling food rather than experiences. Expectations and real experiences were dramatically altered for customers changing the perception of even the most established operations. The lesson is that take out is a market that has previously been underestimated, one that has loads of room for improvement. Restaurants should invest heavily in finding ways to adopt significantly improved packaging, and associated components that attempt to match the experience of dining in. Technology can provide ways to fill in the gaps.
FROM THE EMPLOYEE’S PERSPECTIVE:
Our jobs are even less secure than we thought: In order to stop the financial bleeding – restaurant owners were forced to furlough employees or risk ruin. Government subsidies helped to bridge the gap for some, but it was a band aid approach that created longer term issues. The lesson is to diversify revenue streams in restaurants and provide alternative job opportunities for employees if such a disaster strikes again. When there is a lack of trust in job security then employees will look elsewhere.
Another opportunity for employees is to build a skill set that is transferrable to other types of jobs that may be less impacted by an unforeseen disaster.
Why do we put up with low wages: Wages have notoriously been below standard in the restaurant business and gratuity based sub-minimum wage for service staff has always been viewed as questionable? There have always been slower seasons or weeks when staff hours were reduced, or a few weeks of unemployment were dealt with by staff members. When positions were shut down indefinitely, then the weight of the problem became far more pronounced. If restaurants are intent on reopening and building a team then they must understand that employees will no longer tolerate the inequities. The challenge is that unless some of the other aforementioned issues are corrected then the ability to pay those wages will be impossible. Review, research, discuss, correct, and realign – now is the time.
Why do we put up with horrible work/life balance: A fresh approach towards a new business model must include determining how to create a better environment for employees? Employees are leaving the business in droves – we have no choice but to address issues of more dependable schedules, stress reduction, reasonable work weeks, delegation of responsibilities, etc. Necessity is the mother of invention.
The sizzle is almost gone: We rode the crest of the wave for 30 years as working in restaurants and becoming a chef or a restaurateur were viewed as exciting and fun. The sizzle is wearing off as those engaged in restaurants know how hard the work is physically, mentally, and emotionally. It’s time to tell the truth, highlight the positive, and correct much of the negative. Ask the question: “Why would anyone want to do this work?”
Gratuities shouldn’t take the place of a fair wage: There are plusses and minuses to the tip-based environment of the front of the house. Gratuity (merit based) provides incentive linked to exceptional performance. Tip-based environments set the stage for enhanced customer service experiences which is beneficial to the server and the restaurant. On the other hand, tip-based employees are oftentimes more interested in individual performance than in teamwork – so it can create friction among staff. It’s time to have the big discussions- should gratuities go away? Is there any real justification for paying the lowest possible wage to the employee that has the greatest impact on the customer experience?
The challenges that we face in restaurants are not new, but the extenuating circumstances brought on by the pandemic has pushed everything to the forefront. There is too much to ignore and no time to hesitate. If we fail to act, we may find it impossible to bring this incredibly important industry back to where it was and should be.
PLAN BETTER – TRAIN HARDER
Harvest America Ventures, LLC Restaurant Consulting
Now, I have your attention. I hear this statement every day and receive countless calls from restaurant operators pleading for help finding employees to fill their vacant roles. I don’t believe this statement for one minute. Is there a labor shortage? You bet and it is crushing the restaurant industry just as much as the pandemic has. But is America filled with a generation of lazy people, sitting at home playing video games and waiting for a government bailout? I don’t think so.
Are there some people who are lazy and waiting for a handout – of course there are some, there always have been, and there always will be, but is it generational, is it somehow genetic? Has society created a generation of discontent, disengaged, lazy, good for nothing parasites without an ounce of energy or pride? Empathically NO! Here is the reality – a person is taught to have great work ethic, just as he or she is taught to be lazy. This occurs through both example and expectation. When parents, employers, friends, and coworkers exhibit an admirable work ethic then a young person is more likely to emulate that effort. If those same individuals expect quality work and effort, then young people will also respond accordingly. If the example is not there and if the expectation is not promoted, then the opposite results will be evident.
The situation we are in (in my opinion) is complex and it requires that we all try to move past the effects (no one wants to work anymore) and focus on the causes. First, think about the environment where Millennial and Gen Z youth have come of age and how it differs from previous generations. For decades there was an expectation that when a person reached the age of 16 (or sometimes even younger with working papers) – he or she would start applying for part time jobs (at least in the summer months when school was out). Whether a family could afford to support children without requiring they work or not was not the issue – the expectation was that learning that work is an essential part of life. If a 16 year had a job, he or she could afford to purchase things that they wanted, experiences that were presented to them, and even save some money for a rainy day. We have, in many cases, taught current generations that asking for something can take the place of working to earn it. That $600 smart phone has no real value to a person who received it as a rite of passage rather than saving to buy it. When any person is never taught how to grow, select, and prepare meals, but is simply given the opportunity to buy prepared foods or slide a plate into the microwave, then he or she will never learn to appreciate the process, the control, the joy, and the nutritional value derived from the process of cooking. When no one builds expectations of excellence in school, or set standards that are to be met before the reward of a grade is administered, then when will that person ever learn to push forward and strive to be great at a task?
We teach young people to exercise, to maintain a healthy lifestyle, to align with honorable friends, to respect others, to work hard and earn what they have, and to experience the joy of a good day’s work. We can also teach them to strive for the opposite if the example is not set and if the expectations are not in place and enforced. No one is born with a lazy gene, no one is born to avoid reaching for excellence – we all have a responsibility to create the environment to push individuals in the right direction. I am convinced that when the environment is properly set and when expectations of excellence are in place – then people will respond positively. Look at the pride on a five–year old’s face when he or she produces a picture that is refrigerator worthy? Look at the student who enters a science fair and earns the praise of judges. Watch the determination on that same student’s face when he or she is told that the project could have been improved and is then shown how to do so. Watch a young person beam with pride when the little league baseball team that he or she is a part of wins that critical game because they worked hard to build a level of teamwork that set the stage for success. These results create the environment for that same person to want to work hard and enjoy the feeling of accomplishment.
“Education is a shared commitment between dedicated teachers, motivated students, focused employers, and enthusiastic parents with high expectations.” -Bob Beauprez
This is part of the complex issue – the other sits on the shoulders of employers and industries that seek to hire employees. It was Abraham Maslow who decades ago theorized that there was a hierarchy of needs that lead to self-motivation. This hierarchy was progressive in nature – the first requirement is SURVIVAL. In other words, the individual must be able to provide for those essentials of food, shelter, and clothing before he or she can feel the joy of effort as an employee. Industries need to be aware of what that level of compensation is for different individuals if the expectation is that a person will be energized to perform – a living wage. The second requirement is SECURITY. Individuals must trust that if they work at a level that is deemed acceptable and are dependable in this regard that their job and paycheck will be reasonably secure. The top three requirements of BELONGINGNESS, SELF ESTEEM, and ACTUALIZATION are all within the power of the individual to control (at least partially), but without environmental SURVIVAL and SECURITY – they will fail to surface.
The current labor issues in America are systemic and will not be easily fixed without wholesale reflection on how we operate as a society. In the meantime, everyone struggles to find a quick fix. Is throwing government money at every individual in the country the answer? Probably not. Is over-compensating restaurant employees just to get them to show up the right answer? Probably not. Is stereotyping a generation as lazy the answer? Probably not.
The restaurant industry needs to change and find ways to adjust the environmental package for employees (compensation, benefits, work conditions, trust, etc.) and the American family needs to evaluate the stage that is being set for young people as they formulate their life habits. Work is a wonderful thing – it inspires, builds character, helps our physical, mental, and emotional health, and opens our eyes to the possibility of excellence. This is something that every person has the ability to perceive and benefit from.
PLAN BETTER – TRAIN HARDER Harvest America Ventures, LLC
I have been asked to provide potential solutions for a generations long dilemma in the hospitality industry, a dilemma that has resulted in physical, mental, and emotional burnout and even a dependence on drugs and alcohol to serve as a band-aid for the wounds that are formed.
“My question to you is, how will management of Restaurants, Clubs and Hotels try to provide a sense of balance and wellbeing for the chefs who have the history of working from dawn until well into the night, six and sometimes seven days a week. There has been much talk during the pandemic of all the hours chefs work, the drug and alcohol issues but I have not seen much if any solutions for helping to provide the balance necessary for staff to have a better mental attitude towards work and to not become dependent on the substances surrounding them. I thought you would be a great colleague to ask.”
*The reality is that there is no quick fix for a challenging situation that points fingers back to a variety of culprits. Certainly, one could say that the nature of the industry is such that excessive hours and stress are the nature of the beast. Some point to the industry itself as the primary culprit – an industry of service that rarely rests and job descriptions for a number of positions that are close to impossible to adequately fulfill – thus, chefs and managers have no real choice but to invest an obscene amount of time on the job in an attempt to meet the demands. Is there truth to this? Of course, this is true so what is the solution?
TRAINING AND DELEGATION:
Yes, the hospitality industry has plenty of responsibility for this situation that can only be resolved through teaching and training managers and chefs to be more efficient with their time, able to discover how to prioritize their tasks and learn when and how some of this work can trickle down to other staff members. Truly understanding what each position should focus on is essential rather than simply assuming that managers and chefs are responsible for everything and rely on their ability to determine how to approach the job. The best managers, and the most effective chefs are the ones who hire competent people, train them, encourage them, and delegate what is best suited to their position. The manager or the chef should, wherever possible, be the conductor of the orchestra, not a person trying to play every instrument.
*Others may point to overly demanding owners and operators who expect that a salary paid infers that managers and chefs must be present whenever the restaurant or hotel is open for business. “The buck stops here” is, in some people’s minds – carte blanche to use and abuse employees in certain positions. Is this true? Of course, there are examples of owners and operators who expect blood, sweat, and tears for the salary offered. Even though there are parameters, according to the U.S. Department of Labor, and a number of State Labor Departments that limit this type of thinking – there is no denying that it does exist. So, what’s the solution?
REALIZATION, TRAINING, DELEGATION, AND RESULTS:
Ultimately, owners and operators care about results. Whether it is product quality, brand image, smooth operation of a department, or profit to budget realities – this is what drives the train. Those operators who simply hire for key positions and allow that person to determine how to proceed without clearly defining objectives and training these managers how best to approach them will always be pushing the ball up a hill and will simply rely on chefs and managers to be present as a way to assess their effectiveness. “The quality of your food wasn’t there last night – where were you?” “You missed your budgeted profit again and your food cost was too high – why weren’t you here for every shift last week?” “Occupancy rates are way down – what have you been doing?” Effective managers need to understand the: what, why and how outcomes are determined – hire and train the right people, delegate responsibility and measure results against owner expectations.
*Some may point a finger at customers who seem to have unfulfilled expectations of excellence that require the presence of the manager or chef. If the restaurant or hotel is open, then this level of management must be present to ensure adherence to standards and solve problems when they arise. Is there truth to this? Yes, of course there is truth to this expectation – unrealistic as it may be – the customer does feel that the manager or chef must be there for the business to operate. So, what is the solution?
SYSTEMS, TRAINING, DELEGATION, AND MEASUREMENT:
Customers don’t understand how their food or how a hotel room is prepared for their enjoyment – they really only care about the results: clean room, everything in working order, key works, meal is well prepared, service is courteous and efficient, and value is evident. When this does not occur, then they are looking for resolution – this is when the presence of a chef or manager seems to be front and center in their minds.
A well-run hotel or restaurant meets or exceeds standards regardless of a manager’s presence. This is the result when there are well-designed systems in place, when everyone knows their job and how it relates to outcomes, when staff members are trained how to problem solve, and recognition of properly executed work is a standard operating procedure. Finally, measuring customer satisfaction/dis-satisfaction and building effective recovery strategies is paramount to helping managers and chefs feel comfortable when they are present or absent. When employees are allowed to own a problem, are trained to effectively deal with the problem, and are encouraged to make decisions then the need for excessive, super-human efforts from any one employee is diminished.
*Finally, there are some who point the finger directly at the people in question (chefs and managers). I have found that in numerous professions there are individuals who view what they do as being synonymous with their own self-worth. They are chefs, managers, doctors and nurses, lawyers, owner/operators, scientists, artists, financial planners and investment bankers, writers and reporters, carpenters, and administrators who do what they do because they love the work or feel the need to constantly prove themselves. These individuals rarely work the hours they do because someone schedules them to do so, they work excessive hours and take on the stress of meeting objectives because that’s who they are. These individuals do not understand how to say “no” to any request, have a difficult time accepting anything produced by another person because it doesn’t meet their personal standards. These are obsessive people who tend to gravitate to the positions that provide ample opportunity for self-abuse. As an example – I have never met a chef who works a schedule that someone else has created. They work, what they feel they need to work to be able to look themselves in the mirror and say: “I did all that I could”. Furthermore, since the answer to this mirror question is inevitably: “No, I could do more”, the cycle continues. So, what is the answer?
TRAINING, DELEGATION, TRUST, DIVERSION TACTICS:
Type A individuals (most chefs and managers) are oftentimes less confident than one might assume. They have a difficult time backing away from a request even if they know how difficult it might be to get the expected results. The way that some will deal with this situation is to simply invest more time, assuming that less will go wrong if they are there. Insecurity is rarely resolved by working harder – resolution comes from working smarter. This requires, again, lots of training, mentoring, coaching, encouragement to delegate and train others to take on many tasks and showing managers and chefs how to trust good employees to do the right thing. Even with all of these tools in place- Type A individuals will need help in breaking bad habits and learning how to step away. Helping them create other diversions in their lives will help to some degree: providing them with a gym membership, enrolling them in a class, insisting that they attend conferences and workshops, encouraging them to coach a little league team, insisting that they take days off and vacations, or scheduling them to provide some type of community service will help to take their mind away from the everyday nature of their positions.
I don’t have the solutions to these challenges that restaurants and their employees face. It is the responsibility of everyone involved to recognize it and collectively work to save good employees from the dangers of single-minded workaholism. When individuals are pushed past their threshold of tolerance then they may look for unhealthy ways of dealing with their physical, mental, or emotional stress.
We are so close to the turning point, so close that we can almost taste it. If we can just get past the vaccine hesitancy then the country, and the restaurant industry might be able to see the light at the end of the tunnel. Well, this is what we hope. As states wrestle with decisions to open everything back up and whether the timing is right or premature – the real demon remains those who deny their role in turning things around whether it is preventative measures or standing in line for their vaccination. No one is certain whether or not that last 25 or 30% of the population will do what needs to be done. If they continue to refuse then a fresh start is unlikely.
The other elephant in the room however is how will the restaurant industry approach business if we reach herd immunity through vaccination? With all of the pain and suffering that independent restaurants and their employees have gone through it appears that many are simply hoping to return to where they were pre-pandemic. This difficult time in our history has revealed significant flaws in how restaurants operate – flaws that will not only remain if we seek to return to “normal” – they will be even more pronounced. This time away from the way we operated for decades has given employees and customers a chance to re-evaluate. What they discovered is that these flaws are too significant to ignore any longer. This is why restaurants across the country -all restaurants – are finding it very difficult to pull employees back to their old positions. This quest for normal will not work anymore – we cannot ignore the flaws and expect that everyone will simply stet back in line as if nothing ever happened.
Trust has eroded and without trust restaurants will have a very difficult time regaining the ground that they lost. It is time for wholesale change – the kind of change that people know is needed, but the pain that will accompany it seems too severe to welcome. Our employees need to trust that the restaurant will have their back moving forward, they need to trust that as the restaurant succeeds – so will they. Our customers need to trust that the restaurant they patronize will be safe and that the operation will take all of the necessary steps to ensure their health and wellbeing. Until this is the standard of operation – the restaurant business will suffer.
Right now it is important that “a return to normal” be replaced with “a fresh start built on trust”. This is the chance that is offered to restaurants as we ease out of shutdown and re-open businesses. Each restaurant should approach this time as an opportunity to start over, and do it right this time.
“The entrepreneurial life is one of challenge, hard work, dedication, perseverance, exhilaration, agony, accomplishment, failure, sacrifice, control, and powerlessness – but ultimately, extraordinary satisfaction.”
-David S. Rose (angel investor)
This is the time to set the stage for ultimate extraordinary satisfaction. A time when employees are treated appropriately, paid fairly, provided with reasonable benefits, secure in their positions when they perform as they should, listened to and engaged, and treated with respect. This is a time when customers are listened to and restaurants acknowledge that service, convenience, consistency, experiences, and value equate to the formula for success regardless of the type of restaurant, product, or price range. This is a time to start fresh.
We remain addicted to normal, but with the right treatment and support – any addiction can be broken, or at least held at bay. Restaurants must replace ordinary with extraordinary; average with superior; normal with fresh; and common with unique.
There will be many who ignore the signs and hang on to normal as long as they can, but a few that will heed the call and embrace the opportunity that change can provide. It will mean that restaurants address location, the need for brick and mortar businesses, the type of service provided in the dining room, menu concepts and menu variety, efficiency, pricing and cost controls, training and skill level, the number of employees needed and how a smaller number can be expected to accomplish more but be paid accordingly, and it will mean that the old “normal” when it comes to work/life balance for restaurant employees be seriously addressed. Those few that “get it” will win.
“Bad things do happen in the world – like war, natural disasters, and disease. Out of those situations always arise stories of ordinary people doing extraordinary things.”
-Daryn Kagan (broadcast journalist)
Let’s not lose sight of the opportunity. Let’s look past the absolute need to bring restaurants back to operating capacity and let’s work to set the stage for a better restaurant industry – one that employees relish the chance to be a part of and customers stand in line to support with trust and confidence. This is not a time to despair or a time to rely on decision by reaction – this is a time to act. The ball is in our court.
I find it very interesting how diverse the food experience is. In all cases, the process of eating is important and accomplishes similar goals. Just as all cars can move a person from one geographic point to another yet the experience that takes place in between can be totally different – so too is this true with food. Food is fuel and will help to keep the body sound, muscles developed, bones strong, digestion working properly, and brain cells multiplying exponentially – but the way that food takes a person to those goals and the quality of the end result can be monumentally different.
If we compare the food experience to a full gamut of sound and music – some food experiences are nothing more than noise, while others can approach all of the senses just as a symphonic orchestra can invigorate every one of our senses and engage a person in state of fulfillment. Food that is noise may fill our stomachs and even stimulate the sense of taste, but the total sensual experience will be lost in the process of eating. At the other extreme – an extraordinarily prepared, multi-course meal, touched by accomplished cooks, presented on a plate of fine china, in a pristine environment, with attentive service and complemented by exceptional wines will reveal all that food might attempt to be.
Those of us who are currently or had previously spent many years in front of a kitchen range also made choices regarding which type of culinary music we wanted to play. Would it be noise, folk music, country, rock and roll, or classical; would we focus on quick service, organic vegetarian, burgers and pizza, bar-b-que, full-service, or fine dining. Each has its place and each provides a different level of experience for the cook and for the guest. So, I thought it might be fun to address each comparison of food experience to musical taste so that you might see where you fit.
QUICK SERVICE: This is the food noise experience for both the customer and the employee. The over-riding objectives are fast, consistent and affordable. The nutritional objective is to fill your stomach, and to provide fuel to make it through the day. Little attention is paid to the “experience” of eating which is made perfectly clear by the incredible growth of drive thru delivery and systems designed to move people and turn tables (or cars). This, of course services a great need in our stressed out, fast paced society – a need that is met with ever-increasing efficiency. Nearly 55% of all the restaurants in the United States fit into this category – a category that to many people under the age of 21 provided their first paycheck. For the cook starting out – this can be an introduction to the field of foodservice, but the skills necessary to meet the standards of production and service are minimal. Noise, but important.
PUB FOOD: The two most significant entrees in the American diet are pizza and hamburgers. This is how the pub food segment grew to be such a significant player in the foodservice market. Those who grew up with “noise” (the quick service experience) as their primary restaurant encounter found a place of comfort in operations that simply prepared similar items at a different level. The fast food hamburger became the half-pound burger from brisket and short ribs, on a brioche or pretzel roll, with organic tomato and spicy slaw, and a variety of added toppings. The simple pizza became a wood-fired, thin crust vehicle for toppings like smoked duck, goat’s cheese, arugula, nicoise olives, and loads of fresh herbs. Add your favorite alcoholic beverage and you have the concept that accounts for the lion’s share of food experiences for those in the 21-40 age bracket.
For the cook – a certain level of skill is required, including: the ability to determine degrees of doneness, a bit of showmanship to spin pizzas, speed and efficiency, knife skills and a palate that allows the cook to adjust seasoning when needed. This is the rock and roll experience of foodservice. Loud, exciting, flashy, a great beat, fast paced, unconventional, and pure fun.
BISTRO OR CAFÉ: For those with a bit of travel under their belts and the desire to re-create those experiences – the café or bistro provides a moment to step back and connect with the food stylings of Europe. Along with the foods of French cafes, British and Irish pubs, Italian trattorias, the bistros of Belgium, or the Haufbrauhaus’ of Germany and Austria these restaurants are inspired by the authentic music of the culture or time in history. It is the whole package for those who consume or prepare these foods from Confit and Cassoulet to a plate of Buccatini, or Bangers and Mash to Pigs Knuckle and Sauerkraut, or even Etouffee to Boiled Crayfish. This is the International music crowd who listens to the Neville Brothers, a Zydeco band, the Chieftains with Van Morrison, The Gipsy Kings, or maybe an Oompah band leftover from Octoberfest – people who seek authenticity above all else whether raising a glass of ale, stemware filled with wine, or a few shots of tequila. Cooks who look to make their mark in these operations must invest the time to understand the culture and the indigenous ingredients that fill the coolers and storerooms of these kitchens.
BAR-B-QUE: Bar-b-que may be universally loved, but it is somewhat safe to say that acoustic guitars and fiddles, snake skin boots and ten gallon hats are as common in these restaurants as rich, sticky racks of ribs, fall apart brisket sandwiches, pulled pork and corn on the cob. Chances are, if you indulge in this cuisine or fancy yourself as a cook standing over a pit with a sauce mop and smoldering cherry wood smoke in your eyes – you are also listening to the Allman Brothers, Marshal Tucker, The Flying Burrito Brothers, Allison Kraus, or Keith Urban. This is the country rock crowd that would love to enjoy their food while attending a local rodeo. Now, for the Bar-b-que cook there is always time spent in the trenches to learn how to control the fire, the smoke, the timing, and the way that all work together to create the lip smacking goodness that results from time in the pit.
FAMILY STYLE: Whether a customer looking for that occasional break from cooking at home or a cook seeking the comfort of an operation that is consistently good, but never intent on pushing the envelope, the family style restaurant is a haven. Lots of food, consistent and recognizable flavors, and the informality that comes from service that is designed to be comfortable, but never too reliant on technique. These restaurants will always have a line outside waiting for the next open table. They are typically cost effective and designed to be profitable as a result of volume. Those who grace a table with parents, grandparents, cousins, and children from just barely born to disgruntled teenagers are less concerned with what is playing over the sound system than they are hearing their reservation called: “Table of 8 for Jones is ready”. The music is likely to be Top 40 pop tunes that run the gamut and have little if anything to do with the food or the experience – it is just there to fill the dead air and attempt to hide the crying of babies. Cooks that work here are happy to be part of the cadence of an unrelenting number of tickets burning off the printer. They have some chops, but are rarely known to move outside the lines – their profile is built for speed and to them the most important assessment at the end of the night is how many covers they served.
FULL-SERVICE MOM and POP: If ever there were restaurants known as an extension of the owner/operator it would be the mom and pop, full service operation. The food can be anything one might imagine, but always a reflection of the food that the owner enjoys. The restaurant is even connected to the owner through associations like: “Jim’s restaurant, Marty’s diner, or Carlos joint.” Everything about the place maintains that connection: what the menu promotes, how the place looks and feels, the style of service, and yes – even the music. Sometimes the restaurant tries to connect with a theme, but more than likely it is a reflection of the owners “play list”. The music connection falls under the heading of: “What I like to listen to”, and is probably a hodge-podge of music defined by the era when the owner grew up. Cooks who work in these operations have a connection to the owner, and might even be related at some level. Their skills were built by paying attention to how the owner likes to cook, how he or she was taught, and exactly how he or she envisions everything tasting and looking.
FINE DINING/WHITE TABLECLOTH: Now we come to the symphony – these are the restaurants where cooking is a lifetime commitment to technique, finesse, commitment to details, and the unquenchable thirst for perfection. Kitchens are serious places where only excellence is tolerated – mediocrity or a slip from standards is a mortal sin. The food is a work of art and the prices to consumers reflect the artist’s determination to seek the highest bidder. Everything about the restaurant exudes this intent to never deviate from the exceptional and never allow anyone to step out of line. While tensions below the surface run very high – the ambience is designed to reflect a level of calm that comes from a pursuit of perfection. It is very likely that the music will be classical or maybe serious jazz – the desire is to use music to reflect an aura of class and sophistication – not something that the guest will tap their foot to or raise a glass with laughter and song.
So, if my analogies are correct, if what you eat or cook and what you listen to are connected – then where do you fit? What type of restaurant best describes who you are and what type of music best determines the type of experience that you are attracted to?
PLAN BETTER – TRAIN HARDER
You are what you eat – you are what you listen to.
Every day I read articles predicting the demise of the restaurant business – in particular the inability of restaurants to attract employees. There are a number of reasons why this is true and most do point to an industry that avoided change for so long. But, this is not the intent of this article. I am directing this post to current, former, and future employees – specifically cooks. I will certainly not deny the seemingly overwhelming reasons to change careers or push aside the desire to pursue one in the kitchen, but please – hear me out.
We are only on this planet for a short period of time, so wasting that time is never a great idea. We should search for fulfillment, invest in ourselves and others, find a way to make a difference, and above all not waste a moment working without the pleasure of knowing that you are doing something that is gratifying. If you choose wisely, you might even find something that you were destined to do, something that is part of your DNA, your heart and soul, and something that charges with great energy through your entire being.
Many, if not most people find themselves searching for this destiny, but on occasion it just comes our way. I firmly believe that when this occurs it is a calling that finds you and not the reverse. This calling is very similar to that feeling when you find a mate or a great friend – when you know, you know. It is that spark of excitement; that desire to give into it, to embrace the good, the bad, and even the ugly – because it is the right relationship. If you have not experienced this yet – know that at some point in time you will – we all do if we leave ourselves open to the possibility.
There are millions of Americans who have been, or currently are engage in kitchen work. It is not for everyone, and in some cases it is simply a means to an end – a chance to earn a paycheck. But, to others this work is “it”. This is what makes you whole, what makes you want to jump out of bed in the morning, inspires you to find ways to learn more each and every day, to fire up your human engine and paint your art on a plate. To deny this is to resist part of your purpose and that would be a shame.
“It is your moments of decision that your destiny is shaped.”
This is a moment of decision for you. Cooking – real cooking that involves a commitment to learning, an investment in building a portfolio of skills, an appreciation for the ingredients you work with and the history of the craft is a gift that some of us are destined to share. Putting aside for just a moment the absolute need to make a living – it is important that how we make that living be through this gift. Whether you are a cook, a chef, a doctor, an engineer, a musician, carpenter, teacher, or a painter – the gift should not be set aside.
Restaurants do need to change – no doubt, but this will not happen unless we stay engaged with that gift that needs to find a vehicle for expression. To move away from this or to avoid quenching your thirst for a future career in food will always leave you wanting for that something that you gave up or pushed aside.
That something that you can possess, that you have the power to control, that you have a need to discover and nurture is the determination to grab hold of your destiny and find a way to give it the fuel it needs. Maybe it isn’t the restaurant where you have worked prior to the pandemic, maybe it’s not even the type of restaurant where you built your initial skill set, or maybe it’s not even the restaurant segment at all, but food and a career connected to it is something that touches many different directions in life. Don’t give up on it!
“Destiny is no matter of chance. It is a matter of choice. It is not a thing to be waited for, it is a thing to be achieved.”
– William Jennings Bryan
You have a choice to make if you are a cook or chef, or someone who aspires to those crafts – if working in a kitchen is your destiny then make a choice to find a way for that career to work for you. One of the worst feelings is to find yourself saying: “If only I had….. I could have been……It’s too late now.” Don’t let regret creep into your destiny as a cook.
This is not a time to walk away – this is a time to work even harder to be what you were meant to be. When you know, you know.
PLAN BETTER – TRAIN HARDER – CONNECT WITH YOUR DESTINY
This appears to be one of those times of reflection – a time when those hard working people in kitchens around the country are asking a simple question: “Why am I doing this?” The pandemic is not the cause of this period of questioning – it simply brought it to the forefront. Everyone that I know in this business has asked that question a few times in their life, and rightfully so. To not question is to ignore the possibility that maybe, just maybe there is something that you are better suited to do. That’s OK – we should all strive to find our niche – a place where we are happy and where we can make a difference. Of course we need to earn a living and support ourselves, and possibly a family, but beyond that we all have an innate desire to find our place.
I for one have been and will continue to be very happy with my career choice and the opportunities that continue to arise as a result of my decision to focus on food. I feel fortunate to call many of my friends – equal advocates for a great decision in this regard. There have been moments when that decision wasn’t clear, and there have been moments when I considered looking in a different direction, but those moments were fleeting and I jumped right back in. I have always found that being methodical about career decisions served me well, so why not share my approach with others? So, here is a good exercise that will allow you to assess where you are and where you might turn.
Do you spend more days looking forward to kitchen work or do you constantly dread another day?
Do you look forward to the chance to work with other talented people who have the ability to create on the plate?
Do you find working with people of different nationalities, races, cultures, and beliefs to be inspirational?
Do you feel privileged to work with the ingredients that come from farmers, fishermen, ranchers, and artisans?
Do you find satisfaction in creating something tangible each day that reflects on the skills that you have acquired over time?
Do you enjoy cooking for the benefit of others?
Do you find physical work to be gratifying?
Are you a person who relishes organization and planning?
Are you proud to wear a uniform that represents a history of cooks and chefs who came before you?
Do you relish an environment where there is a need for structured discipline?
Do you consider yourself to be artistic and a person looking for a medium to express yourself?
Do you enjoy accomplishing goals as part of a team?
If you answer yes to all or most of these questions then it is very likely that working with food is something that will always satisfy you. If you feel forced to step away because of the negatives that certainly do exist: long hours, unpredictable schedules, far too modest pay scales, a lack of benefits, etc., then know that any other choice of career will leave you a bit empty. My advice is to look around and seek out the numerous opportunities to work with food in different operations or in related fields that can satisfy your innate, intangible needs as well as those tangible ones that help with the physical requirements of life. Don’t give up on what you are destined to do.
We can, and maybe should unite in finding ways to help the restaurant industry finds its groove and finally address what drives good people away. It is a challenge that we all must share. We can all help to find ways for operations to become more efficient and profitable so that some of the challenges listed can be addressed. Let’s think about making 2021 and beyond a time when we collectively own the problems and commit to finding solutions. Let’s not give up on what we are meant to do with a career. Hang in there!
My first real job at the age of 15 (unless you count being a paperboy) was washing dishes and helping out the breakfast cook at a local diner. By the time I graduated from high school I had worked at a few restaurants and found myself holding down a line position dropping fries and fish fillets into 375-degree oil. At this point working in a kitchen was all that I knew. I somewhat reluctantly applied to colleges to appease my parents, but really had no idea what I wanted to do with my life. I finally settled on attending school for hotel management – why not – right? Little did I know, at that point, that working in kitchens was what I would do for the rest of my career.
Had I built a long-term plan at that point – what would I have done differently? For years now I have preached how important it is to establish your goals and then create a roadmap to get to your eventual destination. I had no such plan at the age of 16, so like many who will read this article I was stepping out day after day without any direction. Even while in college there was no real desire to figure it all out – I just took life as it came my way. Looking back I wish that someone had given me the advice that I so freely now give to others. So, what if that “someone” had been around to point me in the right direction –what would he or she have advised me to do? Here are my thoughts (in hindsight):
 STUDY THE POSSIBILITIES
What lay beyond the dishpit and breakfast griddle? At the age of 16 I had no idea what the possibilities might be. Searching for a career and a life at this age was not front and center in my thinking– yet had I known then maybe, just maybe I could have developed a plan. What is a chef, what restaurant experiences are there beyond grilled hard rolls and eggs over easy, and what does a really great meal look and taste like?
 FIND YOUR BENCHMARKS
Cooking for a living would certainly be different than becoming a doctor, lawyer, or rock and roll star, but I had no idea about any of these ways to make a living – nor did any other 16 year old. My idea of a great meal was fried chicken at KFC. Cooking methods were not even on my radar and thinking about plating a beautiful dish was foolish because I didn’t know that this was a “thing”. There were no life-changing meals, no a’ ha moments, and no reason to think that food was anything more than fuel. Maybe if I had the opportunity to “experience” something more then I would have charged my batteries earlier and built a portfolio of moments filled with: “I want to learn how to cook like that!”
 IDENTIFY A MENTOR(S)
Sure, Millie the short order breakfast cook took me under her wing and because of that I had a chance to flip pancakes, grill hard rolls, make a few omelets and try my hand at eggs over easy, but I never felt the need to ask her more, nor did she offer. If I had worked with someone who pushed me harder at that age, a person who would challenge me, critique my work, and set my standards at that age – who knows where my career would have gone.
 PICK YOUR EMPLOYERS WISELY
At that early age everyone is impressionable. We establish our standards and set our sights on a level of excellence based on the environments and the people we work with. Instead of looking for a job it would have been wise to look for the right job, a place where I could learn, a place that I would respect and a place that would help to form the cook and chef that I would become.
 PICK YOUR FRIENDS WISELY
Fact: 16-24 – now that is a dangerous age. Boys, in particular are not terribly discriminating about the company they keep as long as “fun” is part of the formula. These early relationships build your character and help to determine the type of person you will become. It is also the time when your early brand starts to develop. Thank goodness the internet was not yet a thing back then – so there is little record of the bad decisions that I made and that all of my friends made as well. A mentor would have helped me to be a bit pickier at times. At that age you are whom you hang out with.
 KNOW WHAT COUNTS
A career is built on a few core attributes that are developed in a person early on. Individuals who work on these are destined to be successful at whatever they pursue. I learned the importance of these a bit later on in my life and they have served me well, but I can only imagine how much more could have been if I had been guided in this direction. These attributes are dependability, being prepared, remaining organized, completing tasks, and a commitment to excellence no matter how small or large the task.
 YOU WILL NEVER KNOW ENOUGH
As much as you think you know – you will never know enough. Realizing early on that a total commitment to learning your craft is essential to success can be humbling and energizing at the same time. Successful people are always seeking to find the answers to how, why, and when. Your education is always in need of a boost – it will never end. This is what keeps people reaching higher.
 LOOK AND ACT PROFESSIONAL
Try telling this to a 16 year old. Look sharp, act like you care, treat others appropriately, use language properly, write in complete sentences, check your spelling and sentence structure, and respect the chain of command. Yes – these things are important and they work together to build perceptions of who you are and what you might become.
Talk less, listen more – these are great rules of thumb. This is how we learn, this is how people learn to trust you, and this is how you set the stage to eventually lead others.
 PRACTICE, PRACTICE, PRACTICE
As hard as it may be to swallow – you will never become exceptional at anything unless you repeat an act or process many, many, many times. Do you want to become an exceptional free-throw shooter in basketball? If the answer is yes – then practice 100 free throws everyday – FOREVER! Do you want to become noteworthy with your culinary knife skills? If the answer is yes – then practice those skills and measure them against a standard many, many, many times – FOREVER! Do you want to become a well-rounded chef? If the answer is yes –then make sure that you work every possible position in the kitchen many, many, many times –and never allow yourself to stray away from those skills – FOREVER!
 BE YOUR OWN WORST CRITIC
There will be many people who will critique your work: employers, peers, employees, and customers. In the end, the most important critique should come from you. Am I living up to my own set of standards? Could I improve on this process? Is there room for improvement? These are the questions you need to ask every day.
 TAKE IT SERIOUSLY
Take the work that you do seriously. Cooking is a very important profession that services the physical, emotional, and even spiritual needs of the people for whom you cook. Don’t ever lose sight of how high everyone’s expectations are of your commitment to doing things correctly, of always striving for excellence. While you should never take yourself too seriously – your work and its impact is another story.
 IDENTIFY YOUR STAKES IN THE GROUND
During your early years in the kitchen be observant and collect those ideas, processes, and beliefs that establish who you are as a person and a food professional. These will become your stakes in the ground – the things that you are never willing to sacrifice, never willing to put aside. At some point in your career this is how people inside and outside your circle will identify you. Know how you want to be identified and stick to your guns.
 RESPECT, RESPECT, RESPECT
You have heard it many times before – treat others, as you would want them to treat you. We are part of a fantastic industry that is filled with diversity – this is one of the most important aspects of working in the business of food. Honor this opportunity by respecting others for who they are and what they believe. You may not agree with them, but you can respect them for their own beliefs just like you would expect them to respect you.
Respect the ingredients that you work with and know how hard a farmer, fisherman, rancher, cheesemaker, bread baker, or salt miner works to bring those ingredients to your table. If possible – walk a day in their shoes to feel the passion that exists in their work.
Respect the equipment that you work with and treat it as if it were your own. Respect the business that pays your wages and how fragile their profit margins are. Do this by controlling waste, being frugal with energy and water, and staying efficient with the tasks that you perform.
 PRACTICE SAYING YES
Another tough one for a 16-year old, but if you want to chart a course for a career in food know that you are entering the service business. This means that you should always begin your thinking with the word yes. “I need you to step aside from your line position for a few hours and wash dishes. We are getting backed up in that area.” Your response: “Yes chef”. “The guest at table 23 says that this steak is over cooked – we need to fire a new one.” Your response: “Yes chef”.
 DON’T LET MEDIOCRITY SLIP IN
As much as excellence should be your goal in everything that you do, it is just as important to never succumb to the temptation of mediocrity brought about by time, lack of assistance, or changes in environment. Stay strong.
 MAKE MISTAKES AND LEARN FROM THEM
Don’t dismay – you will make mistakes, you should make mistakes, everyone makes mistakes. It’s OK, just learn from them and don’t make the same mistakes again. This is where real learning takes place.
 ALWAYS WORK ON YOUR BRAND
Finally, young grasshopper, remember that everything you do contributes to your positive or negative brand. How you look, how you act, who you associate with, how you talk, what you say, how you set-up your station, how sharp your knives are, how well you follow established cooking methods, the beauty of your finished plates, how dependable you are, and your commitment to constant improvement are the components of your brand. Your brand is what opens doors to your success. Be the brand you want to become.
Sometimes I get a bit lofty in my reflections of kitchen life and the cooks who spend time behind the range. This is probably one of those times – yet oftentimes I can’t help myself. Take the analogies for what they are worth to you.
Being a professional cook or chef is such a contradiction of the human condition. When you walk through a typical kitchen you will see individuals intent on their work, dressed in clean, crisp white uniforms that attempt to hide the tattoos, burns, stitches, crustiness, sometimes vulgar personality who can in one moment lift an 80- pound stock pot from the stove or carry a 100-pound sack of flour the length of the kitchen and in the next moment – carefully and strategically place a delicate cluster of herbs atop a carefully caramelized slice of foie gras mounted on a perfectly cooked filet of beef, complemented by a white china plate painted with a meticulously reduced demi glace. Who is this person?
I was listening the other day to the lyrics of Ann Wilson from the group Heart when she referred to the contradiction and quest of the dog and butterfly. She described the song in this manner:
“When you’re an earthbound creature you’re always jumping and reaching for things we can never really catch, but you try anyway. And that’s the point of the song, you’re always trying to grab at something higher.”
Could it be that the hard work of the dog is all an effort to try and become the butterfly. Is it possible that the hard work of the cook is all in quest of reaching for the perfection of the plates’ art? The dog will be exhausted at the end of the day as it reaches for the butterfly just as the cook will end the day with cuts, burns, sweat, sore muscles and physical exhaustion all in search of that plate perfection.
There are so many contradictions of this type in the kitchen when cooks are viewed from that 10,000 – foot vantage point. Anger and finesse are evident in the intensity that takes place as a cook attacks a relentless list of preparations for service. There is the pressure of time, the need to meet standards, the variables that inevitably come from working with nature’s ingredients that are consistently inconsistent, and the need to depend on others for your own success. At the same time there is that finesse that must come into play when finish cooking demands a level of organization and calm that must be separated from the anger derived from all of those pressures. If a cook is unable to separate the two then the result will be chaos and a finished product that does not reflect what is intended. Angry food will taste angry, yet finesse without the intensity of physical and mental preparation fueled by a touch of anger will often times fall flat.
Anxiety is part of the cook’s chemistry. Stress is a fragile beast that at some level is an important driver sparked by adrenaline, but too much will cause the body to decay and plans to fall apart. When a kitchen is void of anxiety it will appear to be unprepared for the intensity of service and the peace that comes from a well-executed meal service and beautiful plates of food. The contradiction of anxiety and peace seems to be present in every kitchen that reaches for the butterfly.
Despair is present in the eyes of cooks who are within striking distance of those allusive first orders clicking off the POS printer. It is that feeling of impending doom, that mental checklist that reviews all the details of preparation leading to this point, that flood a cooks consciousness. “Did I peel enough shrimp, cut enough steaks, blanch enough vegetables, chop enough parsley or clarify the right amount of butter? Will I run out of anything at the peak rush and if so how will I find the time to prep more when tickets are lining up on the board?” Every cook, at some point, has felt this despair – the sense of everything falling apart. Yet, hope springs eternal, because that mental checklist will, more often than not, lead to a level of confidence: “I’ve got this!” The contradiction of despair and hope is an everyday reality in professional kitchens and although cooks may feel this, they rarely express it – it is internalized.
The visible toughness of a professional cook, the effort that it takes to never show weakness and to tough things out is the sign of the hammer – when things get really difficult cooks just swing the hammer harder and faster. Work through the heat, the back pain, the burns, and the sweat because we are tough – we are the hammer. Sometimes those who do not live the life of the cook become the nail and thus view the cook as irrational, insolent, or simply angry. But then, there are the moments when those same cooks take an extra second to paint on the plate, to express themselves with beautiful and delicious presentations of food that reflect their artistic and caring side. Any respectable cook ultimately cares deeply that the guest who purchased that meal is satisfied and even impressed. It is the contradiction of the hammer and the artistic brush that confuses others and inspires career cooks and chefs.
Work hard, push yourself, attack that prep list, use a hammer if necessary to be ready when the printer starts to talk and then take a deep breath, make sure you are organized, and play your instrument in such a manner as to portray calm, confidence, and true art. The dog will leave the day tired and somewhat dissatisfied in his or her inability to fly, but tomorrow that same dog will try just as hard once again. It is the pursuit of the butterfly that makes the dog complete. The cook will work until he or she is exhausted from the physical, mental, and emotional demands of the job and the ongoing pursuit of excellence. But knowing that excellence is hard to achieve the cook will arrive the next day to try once again for perfection on the plate. He or she will work just as hard again – leaving everything they have on the playing field. It is the nature of the person who chooses to be both that tattooed crusty individual underneath with the finesse of the butterfly in crisp, clean white uniform that signs every plate leaving the kitchen.
The first question is always: “Do you want to be great?”, followed by: “Are you willing to put forth the effort to be great?”
Let’s assume that the desire to be great is innate – a desire that we are born with – a desire that can either be nourished or squashed. This desire is a spark of enthusiasm to accomplish goals, exceed expectations, know no barriers to entry, and reach for the stars. We possess this desire universally but experience has shown us that it can be pushed aside by parents, friends, supervisors, peers, and even by our own lack of confidence in potential outcomes.
“There is no greatness without a passion to be great – whether it’s the aspiration of an athlete or an artist, a scientist, a parent, business owner (or chef).”
I have spoken oftentimes about the disease of mediocrity and the joy of an attitude of excellence. It is this attitude that sets a course toward greatness. Greatness can be achieved in the simplest of tasks or the overwhelming impact of a project, process, discovery, or “win” that might elude those who choose not to reach for the stars and adopt excellence as their standard.
As cooks and chefs we spend our days in a business that allows ample room for greatness or mediocrity and in some cases both are rewarded with financial success, but only one will make you whole. Greatness is realized both in the moment and through strategic planning, but greatness is still greatness no matter how small or how lofty the task. You must have an unrelenting passion to be great and a total unwillingness to put it aside and accept mediocrity.
So what is the path to greatness for a chef? What can we all do today, right now, to move in this direction? Where do we begin?
Greatness has its roots in knowledge. Chefs should not only know process and methods, but also the why, where, and who behind everything that is done in the kitchen. Understanding the culture behind a cuisine, the people and the ingredients they worked with, why those ingredients were used, and how they work together to create a dish is essential if a chef is to truly represent a cuisine or a dish. This knowledge must be constantly fed – so great chefs are reading and researching, inquiring and visiting, and absorbing all that they can so that everything can be shared with the team.
Greatness stems from a chef’s vision and goals – what sets a path for the restaurant today and into the future? Copycat operations can certainly thrive, but greatness comes from uniqueness and excellence in executing that uniqueness.
Greatness tends to surround those who dedicate themselves and much of their lives to the pursuit of excellence. Think of the analogy of breakfast: “The chicken is involved – the pig is committed.”
Great chefs and great operations know that there will be times when they need to change or at least bend. The willingness to change is as important as the ability to do so.
Certainly the foundations of cooking will always rise to the top of any cook’s skill set, but to assume that cooking will always remain as it has been is foolish. Equipment and technology change and our understanding of the process of cooking will forever evolve. Great chefs are constantly working on adding to and enhancing their skills.
 VARIED EXPERIENCE:
Chefs who are at the top of their game are individuals who have committed themselves to building a portfolio of unique experiences in all aspects of cooking from a’ la carte fine dining to street food, from large scale catered events to formal seven course dinners for groups of 20, and from a’ la carte breakfast to classic formal buffets – everything adds up to a basis for greatness.
 THE ABILITY TO LISTEN:
If a chef believes that he or she is the only person in the room with a useful thought, then learning will never take place, teams will never truly form, and excellence will rarely be achieved. Listen to others.
 DECISION MAKING:
When a cook reaches the level of chef it is expected that this person will be confident and competent enough to make the tough decisions and delegate those that others are able to make.
 PROBLEM SOLVING:
The experiences that a chef brings to the table create a repository of solutions and the preventative medicine that will help an operation avoid many problems in the first place. The chef in an operation is the ultimate problem-solver.
Great ideas, helpful experiences, and important decisions will fail to meet objectives unless the chef is able to effectively communicate verbally and in writing. This communication must represent a professional approach and be structured under the heading of: “The Proper Use of the English Language”. Communication is core to greatness.
 A NETWORK OF INFLUENCE:
Greatness is rarely an individual effort. The best chefs have built a network of associates over years of working in kitchens. This network is there to help, advise, critique, support, and sometimes stop a chef from making a decision. It takes a village to raise a great chef.
 TEAM BUILDING:
First and foremost – great chefs are incredible team builders. Chefs must know how to identify, hire, train, mentor, coach, evaluate, and sometimes cut a team member loose if his or her presence has a negative impact on the team. Teams need leaders and leaders need followers – the chef must build a cohesive group with common vision, a comfort level in speaking their mind, but a desire to contribute to the team effort.
Gone are the days when a chef can hide behind the swinging doors. Greatness is also measured in a chef’s ability to interact with the community of guests, leaders, and influencers.
Above all else – greatness is measured in a chef’s ability to look, act, interact, and consistently model professional behavior. Treating everyone with respect is the price of admission. Acting the part of a leader is expected. Being a role model is the basis for followership attitudes from others. This is what great chefs do.
There has never been a more important time for culinary schools than right now. Sure, I know how much the restaurant/foodservice industry is suffering and how many operations are shutting their doors as a result of avoiding decades of challenges brought to a head by the pandemic, but believe me when I say that this will change. Everything will change for the better if we (the food industry and the culinary schools that provide the talent) change as a collective group.
Just as the restaurant industry evolves, so too must the industry of education. When this change does not occur then the strong shall survive and the weak shall perish. There are ample examples of culinary school failure over the past ten years with the lion’s share since 2016. If you understand that one way to avoid failure is to know why others wave the white flag, then a course might be set to do just the opposite: succeed.
So here are my 20 observations pertaining to why culinary schools fail:
ENROLLMENT DEPENDENCE/ENROLLMENT DECLINE
All culinary schools are businesses as well as altruistic institutions for the betterment of mankind. This means that the top line drives the bottom line (more students equals the ability to continue providing their products and services). When enrollment declines then colleges must make decisions to trim services, increase class sizes, eliminate content, reduce investment in supplies, or shut their doors. Programs need to either find ways to stabilize enrollment or come up with some other source of funding to support their efforts. When schools seek to solve the challenge by lowering standards to attract a broader base of incoming students then the entire system begins to crumble.
LACK OF COHESIVE MISSION
What is the program’s purpose? What are they trying to accomplish and what are the standards that they insist living by? How will they measure their success as aligned with these standards or objectives? If this is not clear then the organization is left without direction – a surefire way to fail.
LACK OF COMMUNICATION WITH THE BUSINESSES THEY SERVE
Do you really connect with restaurants, hotels, resorts, food manufacturers, retail, food research and development and other groups to make sure that your program is in line with their needs? If not, how will you be able to create a clear career path for your graduates? The businesses that will hire your students need to be vested in your effort – this is how success is defined.
STUBORN ADHERENCE TO THE WAY IT HAS ALWAYS BEEN DONE
When program administrators and faculty believe that they have all of the answers, when they design a culinary program to match the way that they learned or the way that everyone else delivers a culinary education – then those stakeholders are missing out on the natural evolution of the craft and the people who are inclined to seek a place in the system. What the industry needs today is different than a few years ago and the young people entering the trade are different in the way they learn and what their priorities might be.
POORLY DEFINED BRAND
Who are you? How do potential students, businesses, the community, current students, faculty members, and program alumni perceive your program? Perceptions become reality and how you support these perceptions defines your brand. Make sure that it is clear and positive.
LACK OF REALISM
Is what you are teaching real? If you teach in a live restaurant environment on your campus is it operated with five times as many cooks in training as would be possible in a real restaurant? If so, what are students learning about cost effectiveness, efficiency, speed, and effective menu execution? How will they be able to function when faced with that first job? If your teaching kitchens are filled with every cool piece of kitchen equipment on the market how will graduates function in a real kitchen when there are not limitless supplies of combi-ovens, sheet pans, Robot Coupes, Vitamix blenders, and sous vide circulators? Until students realize that the one kitchen Robot Coupe must be shared by the entire crew – they will never learn how to communicate and work as a team.
LACK OF AWARENESS ON THE PART OF FACULTY
A chef instructor’s learning curve does not end when they accept the job. Yes, even faculty members need to continue to engage in the learning process. Volunteer for a stage at a great local restaurant, take an occasional sabbatical to re-enter the industry, attend conferences and workshops, take a class on a new method of preparation, and belong to professional organizations. You can’t teach what you don’t know.
NOT ABLE TO TEACH A SENSE OF URGENCY
One thing that I hear constantly from chefs who are asked about their opinions of culinary school graduates is that young cooks do not understand “sense of urgency”. They must be able to multi-task and complete work at the highest level of quality with speed and dexterity. When there are 100 reservations on the books – you don’t have the luxury of spending three hours to turn six-dozen potatoes. No matter what – you need to be ready!
LACK OF REPETITION
How do you get better at any task in the kitchen: knife skills, making stocks, filleting fish, trimming beef tenders, shocking oysters, or peeling shrimp? The answer is simple: you invest the time in doing the task over, and over, and over again. When a program spends two days on teaching classic sauces – the student will never become competent at making any of them. When a stock is something that you do in week number four of Foundations of Cooking, then you will never be confident and competent at making stocks. Exposure is nice – repetition is how we really learn.
UNWILLING TO REALLY STRESS THE FOUNDATIONS
The foundations are only relevant if they become habits. A recipe that takes two pages of dialogue to explain how to braise a veal shank does not make a cook a master of braising. When we stress methods and practice them constantly then they become habits and all that a recipe need do is direct the cook to “braise”. Everything else is imbedded in a cook’s subconscious.
INABILITY TO TEACH STUDENTS TO THINK
What drive chefs crazy are the foolish questions that abound when cooks are not taught to think things through. Give a young cook a list of six tasks to perform in a shift and watch to see how many will prioritize those tasks by the amount of effort required and the time involved in their completion. Ask a student to follow a recipe and watch to see how well they think through the organization of their workstation to accomplish the task. Think before you act – this is what builds confidence and ability.
INABILITY TO TEACH STUDENTS TO PROBLEM SOLVE
What happens when an emulsion breaks? How can it be fixed? What can be done if a particular ingredient fails to arrive in time – can it be replaced with something else? How will you act if one of your fellow cooks fails to show up to work – do you just ignore his scheduled work or do you accommodate that into your production? Your sauté pans are sticking – do you wait for someone to walk you through the process of polishing those pans, do you ask the chef to solve the problem for you, or do you take the initiative to make it work?
LACK OF DISCIPLINE
What are the most primal expectations that a chef has of any cook? Most would say: show up, be prepared, listen, work well with others, work fast and efficiently, and work to the standards of excellence that are established for the business. These are disciplines that rank very high on an employers list, yet do we adequately emphasize them in our programs?
INABILITY TO TEACH TEAMWORK
Our students will more often than not – seek to earn the best grades for their individual work. When we set the stage for students to strive for that grade we oftentimes lose sight of the fact that individual effort on the job will always pale in comparison to the team effort. It is much more difficult to learn to depend on others and support them than it is to put forth the best individual effort. Cooking is a team sport!
LACK OF COST CONSCIOUSNESS
Restaurants are businesses that operate on profit measured in pennies. Every product that a student handles in class should carry a price tag. What are the raw costs of the materials, what is the production costs associated with seasoning, oils, flour for dredging, etc. What would it cost, from a labor perspective, to produce that dish and what selling price would need to be attached to maintain a reasonable profit? Aside from taste and appearance – this is what we should be teaching.
A POORLY DEFINED OVERALL EXPERIENCE
Are you building in experiences that complement the learning curve? When you talk about the beautiful raw materials that a cook is able to use in restaurants – the meaning of that becomes much more vivid if it is accompanied by a visit to a farm, dockside fishing vessel, cattle ranch, or cheese making facility. This is an essential part of learning in schools that have “success” as part of their vocabulary.
NOT COMMITTED TO THE LONG HAUL
Schools that put a timeline on an education are missing the chance to embellish their brand and help support a graduate through the stages of his or her career. Developing and presenting ways of enhancing their degree through continuing education, on-line resources, short training videos, and other communication pieces such as blogs and a resource center that students might contact once they graduate is a great way to become a partner in student success.
LACK OF PARTNERSHIPS WITH INDUSTRY
Developing internships and externships that are measureable, training chefs how to continue a student’s education while on a work program, inviting chefs and restaurateurs to visit the campus, speak with students, work alongside them in classes, or present a demo will build partner relationships that are bonding.
INABILITY TO EXPLAIN VALUE
When a guest leaves a restaurant and is most concerned with how much the meal cost – then the restaurant has failed to demonstrate value. When a student graduates from a culinary program and spends years complaining about the cost of his or her education – then the school has failed to demonstrate value. Know what it is that you uniquely offer to justify the investment of money and time.
NOT PREPARED TO BE A COMPLETE RESOURCE FOR INDUSTRY
Finally, schools will have a difficult time succeeding if they do not find ways to support the needs of the businesses that hire graduates. This might mean simply serving as an information resource, offering refresher courses for their employees, or even providing consulting services that will help food businesses survive the ups and downs of serving the public.
Those schools that “get it” will find that the years ahead will be very bright and students, employers, and alumni will want to connect with them and become a part of their success.