Watching exceptional and sometimes surprising football this past weekend I realized that it is not old fashioned to give it all you’ve got. It really shouldn’t matter what we are doing: work, fun, hobbies, sports, exercise, school, family, or relationships – giving it all means that you appreciate what you have, relish the skills you have required, respect those who are part of the activity, and have pride in your personal and collective performance. The rewards for this effort need not always be tangible, sometimes they are what might be referred to as “soft rewards”. These include knowing you gave more than you received, contributed to the success of others, had some level of positive impact on those who were on the receiving end of your work, and realizing you participated in something that served as a shining example for others.
I have always been a firm believer that if you give your all, every time, no matter what the task then those tangible rewards will also come your way at some point in time. One of my favorite quotes (author unknown) says it all:
“There are only three choices in life: Give Up, Give In, or Give It All You’ve Got.”
The question is: which path will we take? As I watched these players and teams that have earned the right to fight for position in the playoffs, I was moved by so many who chose the third path: “Give it all you’ve got”. Games were won and lost in the final seconds of play, points were traded back and forth as one teams successful drive motivated the opposing team to stand tall and push even harder to match that effort. Most games, including the one with my fully embraced and supported team from Buffalo, New York were addressed in the end just like the famous coach, Vince Lombardi said decades ago:
“I never really lost a football game; on occasion I simply ran out of time.”
When there is an unrelenting effort towards excellence, when each member of a team supports each other, when effort is measured in giant steps and not simply going through the motions, then a game can never be lost – you may on occasion simply run out of time.
I was inspired by the effort, by the all-out pursuit of excellence, by individuals who gave everything they had and did so in support of others. Even though the results in some cases were not what was hoped for, it is this commitment, pride, and “never give up” attitude that won in the end.
Some may say: “If I was paid that kind of money then I would give it my all”, but from my experience people either give it all regardless of compensation or they don’t. I will always believe that people want to win through extraordinary effort. They want to use their skills and ability to reach for the stars and feel good about the effort they gave. Maybe I am naïve, but I hope not. When we lose sight of being the best we can be, when we accept mediocrity simply because those tangible rewards don’t come quickly enough, then how do we look ourselves in a mirror and feel any level of satisfaction?
This Give Up, Give In, or Give It All You’ve Got choice applies just as well to what we do in the kitchen as it does those who earn millions playing on a football field, basketball court, baseball diamond, ice rink or performance stage. The ones who are successful in any endeavor perform at the highest level, every day, with every task because that is what they expect of themselves.
Those who refuse to give up or give in look at disappointment as a wakeup call and a roadmap pointing to the road of improvement. When we are unable to reach the goals, we have today, it’s time to assess, commit, and work even harder to improve. Steve Young, the retired Superbowl winning quarterback for the San Francisco 49ers had a tough act to follow. His predecessor was Joe Montana, one of the greatest quarterbacks of all time, a sports icon who was deeply loved by the people of San Francisco. Young’s motivation was to fill those shoes and he did that very well over time. He said:
“The principle is competing against yourself. It’s about self-improvement, about being better than you were the day before.”
We can all learn something important from paying attention to organized sports, especially when the team and those who mold the players into a cohesive unit are committed to giving it all they’ve got. The best restaurants, the most impressive schools, and the most effective kitchen teams will do exactly what the teams who played this past weekend will do moving forward. During the weeks and months ahead, they will focus on playing their individual roles to the best of their ability and giving it all they’ve got each and every day.
One of the many things that I find truly amazing is a person’s ability to assimilate, understand, categorize, blend, envision, and call into action thoughts from a variety of experiences and do so with relative ease. This happens progressively throughout our lives as we tap into our memories – memories that are constantly evolving. As an example, a line cook has an incredible capacity to remember and use complex actions while stacking those actions on top of each other. Just for a moment, think about what it takes to work a busy sauté station. Every dish that is part of that station portfolio must be fully understood. How the mise en place is prepared in advance, uniformity of vegetable cuts, clarification of butter, sauce preparations, and where each ingredient should be stored according to the station map. The timing of each dish must be imbedded in the cook’s consciousness, the specific flavor profile of each item, portion sizes, the steps in cooking must be second nature; caramelization, degrees of doneness, the intensity of a flame, reduction of sauces in a pan, adjustments to seasoning, how the dish must be presented on the plate, how to time finishing so that it aligns with other stations, etc. And then, the cook must be able to catalog multiple, simultaneous preparations of a number of other dishes with totally different profiles and preparations. All the while, he or she is coordinating and communicating with other line cooks and doing so as the point-of-sale printer is spitting out a stream of additional orders to catalog and process. Amazing.
As we get older and more seasoned in our role as cook to chef, our capacity matures and grows in different ways. As a 50-year-old chef we may not be fast enough to work that busy sauté station (even though we think we are), to organize all of those different a ’la minute preparations in our head and do so with incredible ease, but we are able to approach far more complex processes that fall under the heading of “the chef’s job”. At this level we are able to envision a dish without even preparing it. Our ability to plan a menu is done virtually at first. We come up with an idea for a presentation and a flavor profile and tap into our memory that has matured through experience. We can close our eyes and see what the dish will look like, how it is built, how each ingredient flavor melds with others, how the dish will smell, what its texture will be, and overall, what the flavor experience will be. This is before the protein even hits the hot pan. We are able to do this because we have years of experiences working with those ingredients that are stored in our memory bank allowing us to discover synchronicity in thought. Different parts of our brain kick into action and merge to produce those visual pictures, faux aromas in our head, an understanding of “chew”, or texture, and how all the flavors will come together and identify the dish. Amazing.
I am currently engrossed in reading a wonderful book by Dr. Sanjay Gupta entitled: “Keep Sharp”, a book that I highly recommend for everyone. Originally, I purchased it as a resource to help me maintain mental acuity as I age, but since turning the first few pages I have come to the realization that my interpretation of memory and memory loss is skewed by misinformation. As chefs we have all found ourselves in the walk-in cooler wondering why we were there, or in a hurry to get somewhere in the kitchen only to discover that our mission was not so clear, misplacing our keys or glasses, or finding it difficult to remember where you placed a file, recipe, book, or cup of coffee. The common approach is to blame it on age, but it may just be our brain trying to prioritize a pile of messages, some of which are evolving as we walk from point A to point B. We create elaborate checklists, so we don’t forget, but in reality, those lists simply help us to keep certain immediate priorities front and center as our brains move in dozens of different directions. According to Dr. Gupta, our brains contain over 100 billion cells or neurons where our every activity and thought is shipped and processed allowing us to move, breathe, think, reason, assimilate, decipher, create, speak, see, smell, touch, and taste. All of this takes place in a 3.3-pound organ that represents only 1/40th of our body mass. Unlike other organs that can be protected much more easily through diet and exercise, the brain is an enigma without a clear understanding of how to maintain its health. Yet, its health is the key to who we are, what we are able to do, and if we are able to exist. Yes, diet can help immensely and although we may not physically exercise our brain, we can still exercise it through proper use: reading, sleep, problem solving, calculations, and other forms of positive stimulation. But the brains health is often simply taken for granted – it’s there and we trust that it will continue to do its job.
The ability to visualize a dish, as an experienced chef can, is not unique to that profession. It is a process that musicians, writers, sculptors, painters, athletes, doctors, and engineers are also able to tap into and learn to control. This 3.3 pounds of mass has the capacity to multitask better than any computer made by man, yet we have failed to discipline our ability to use more than a small fraction of its ability. When you stop to think about what we are able to do with that fraction and what we might be able to accomplish if we learned how to tap into its capacity it is hard not to be astounded.
As a chef ages and matures, his or her experiences build a capacity to move from the speed of a line cook’s brain to the chef’s depth of understanding that comes in time. We move from the immediate ability to perform tasks to synchronicity where the brain is able to reference hundreds or even thousands of past experiences simultaneously as we solve problems, design and create, teach and train, and build a high level of competence and confidence.
We find it fairly easy to enjoy the physical nature of our bodies, a healthy heart, and sound digestive system, and as a chef – our palate that triggers the ability to create delicious food; but far too often we take for granted, the wonders of our brain and how it is the key to who we are and what we have the capacity to accomplish. Take a moment, now and again, to marvel at what our brains are capable of, how we have evolved and how important it is to nurture it as much as we innately rely on it. Feed your brain with interesting information and experiences, treat it kindly with ample amounts of rest and sleep, and exercise its capacity by challenging it to process, create, solve, and inspire. FOOD FOR THOUGHT.
Every person has needs that go beyond food, shelter, and clothing. Of course, we require those important things to survive, but survival to the average person is never enough. Getting by does not inspire and will never address the potential that we all have. It is the ability and desire to strive for this potential that allows us to jump out of bed in the morning and face the day knowing that we can and will contribute in some way. We want and need to make a difference, no matter how small or how large that contribution might be. As I often quote Steve Jobs: “To make a dent in the universe.”
It is this potential that results in incredible music, inspiring art, important writing, new machines, impressive architecture, medical breakthroughs, and other scientific discoveries. It is also this potential that allows teachers to change the direction of a young student’s life, a garden expert to beautifully landscape a home, a plumber to turn copper into a work of art, an electrician to properly wire a house, or a cook to prepare a perfect restaurant meal. Each person has something to offer and a need to do so. When we reach for our potential and find a vehicle for personal expression then fulfillment is within our reach.
There are times when and there are reasons why some feel this potential is out of their reach or that various factors get in the way of putting in the effort; when this happens, our lives seem shallow – even if we are able to provide for food, shelter, and clothing – the basic survival needs. Putting one foot in front of the other may be the right place to start, but inherently we all want to run.
So, it disturbs me to see an increasing number of cooks who feel stymied or who have given up on their potential while they allow themselves to be consumed by survival. I want to believe that under the façade of despair and sometimes even distain lies a person with incredible potential to be the best he or she can be, to serve and to create, and to reach for his or her personal and professional potential – to be fulfilled.
Remember those times when you felt that rush of adrenaline after a successful service, felt pride in a dish you created, or simply enjoyed a new skill you worked hard to master? Remember the feeling of belonging you experienced when you wore a clean, pressed, white uniform and apron? You were part of a team and an extension of a long history of tradition and accomplishment – that uniform meant something – it meant someone recognized your potential.
When I see cooks and chefs who now invest more time in complaining about how hard kitchen work is, how demanding and unforgiving it can be, how the heat, the hours, and the pressure are so unreasonable while they discount the opportunity to reach for their potential, I know we (the industry) have failed. We have failed to look at how we might move the conversation to fulfillment and the joy associated with cooking for others. We (the food industry) need to point to a well-known quote from Anthony Bourdain:
“When someone cooks for you – they are saying something. They are telling you about themselves: where they come from, who they are, what makes them happy.”
This is what being a cook is all about. This is how a cook can be fulfilled – knowing he or she is communicating with another person and setting the stage for happiness, even if it is for a short period of time.
So, here we are- still struggling every day to attract, retain, inspire, and encourage cooks without much success. What can we (the industry) do to fulfill our cooks and regain much of the passion and enthusiasm prevalent just a few short years ago? You remember, those days when to cook was viewed as one of the more exciting professions, a time when there were more aspiring cooks seeking positions than there were opportunities. Those days may be a distant memory, but there is still demand for restaurant food, still opportunities for new restaurants to open, and still a need to find the “right” people to represent the cuisine restaurants hope to be known for. How might we turn the tide? Here are some thoughts:
 ADDRESS SURVIVAL FIRST and STOP DENYING THAT IT IS A PROBLEM: Yep, food, shelter, and clothing are important. Until your cooks are able to provide these basic elements of survival for themselves and their families you will never be able to convince those individuals to think of anything else. Figure it out! Become more efficient so you can work with fewer staff members and pay them more. Re-evaluate your restaurant pricing for menu items to provide greater profitability and more room for higher wages. Where there is a will, there is a way. Make your employees a priority.
 RESPECT and SUPPORT: Treat your cooks the way you would want to be treated. It’s as simple as that. Be empathetic and firm at the same time. Expect excellence from them and don’t waver, but at the same time find ways to build on their competence and confidence.
 TEACH and TRAIN: One sure fire way to build competence and confidence is to invest seriously in teaching and training. Pride will result when individuals experience your investment in them and see the results in their own performance.
 LISTEN and ENGAGE: We need to stop thinking we have all the answers. You hire a person inferring you see their potential and trust they have something to offer. Engage them, ask their opinions, give them a chance to express themselves, take it all in and recognize their effort, build an understanding of their concerns, and most importantly demonstrate your desire to involve them.
 RECOGNIZE and CELEBRATE: Every person enjoys the public recognition of a job well done, a great idea, and a sound opinion. Celebrate their engagement by using the word “thanks” as often as possible, smiling, or giving a thumbs up, shaking their hand, putting their name on a menu, recognizing them as an employee of the week, etc. These celebrations cost you very little – only your time and sincere effort. THIS MEANS EVERYTHING and adds to a realization of fulfillment.
 HEALTH and SAFETY: Be concerned, especially during this time of a national health crisis, with how your employees (cooks) are dealing with their health (physical, mental, and emotional). Talk with them one-on-one, inquire about their families, and give them an opportunity to share. Make sure that your compensation package includes some level of healthcare – this is the price of admission. If they are sick, send them home but do so out of caring, not anger that they are sick. Simple stuff folks – treat people as you would like to be treated. Recognize their potential and help them on the road to fulfillment. This is how we solve our current staffing dilemma and change attitudes.
“Leadership is unlocking people’s potential to become better.”
The real question is: “Is it ever a good time to become a restaurateur?” The underlying answer stems from one simple word: “uncertainty”. Entering the restaurant business has always been like a non-swimmer jumping in the deep end of the pool and hoping that he or she will float. But now we can’t even be certain that there will be water in the pool.
Before you turn and run away or write me off as unaware of how you have the perfect formula for success, just hear me out. Since those early days of the restaurant business (I have always felt that the restaurant business in America only began the day that Prohibition was repealed in 1933) there has been a number of truths:
People who enter the restaurant business do so because they truly love to serve others and create an environment where people can converse, meet with friends and family, raise a glass, let their struggles sit on the shelf for a time, and laugh with reckless abandon. Most certainly restaurateurs want to earn a decent living in the process, but few have serious aspirations of becoming rich.
Those who think they are entering the restaurant business with visions of wealth and prosperity are more often than not setting themselves up for disappointment.
People who enter the restaurant business are typically individuals with a number of experiences working in other restaurants in positions from entry level to management. This is rarely a business for the novice – regardless of how big their bank account might be.
Those who try to become restaurateurs without this breadth of experience are in for a rude awakening.
Those people who choose to become successful restaurateurs must have a strong background in finance and financial management. They know where their money comes from, are able to analyze data, and understand how to control their pennies.
Those who do not bring a strong financial background to the table are destined to fail at some point in time.
Those who are successful restaurateurs believe in, implement, and stay focused on systems, standards, and process. In a business where profit runs between 5-7% as long as they stay in control, these systems are essential.
Those who fail to understand this need and/or do not have the background in systems implementation and analysis will likely scramble to stay afloat.
Successful restaurateurs are ones who understand the power of people marketing, of keeping the name of the restaurant in the public eye and communicating effectively with existing and potential customers.
Those who do not understand marketing are playing a guessing game.
Those who are successful in the restaurant business live and breathe service and hospitality. They are gregarious, generous, kind, and always happy to go the extra mile for internal (employees) and external (paying guests) customers.
If you do not fit into this profile of natural hospitality, then this is absolutely the wrong business for you.
Finally, those who are successful tend to be visionary, creative, and flexible. Successful operators are able to bob and weave, problem solve, and always adjust to the unpredictable climate that surrounds the restaurant business. If you are rigid and unable to change then prepare yourself for rough times.
Now these points have been universally proven true for decades. When we add an unprecedented pandemic on top of this then all bets are off. Who knows what the climate for restaurants will be like in six months or five years? We do know it will be different and the Baker’s Dozen list in this article will be only the start for those who think they are ready to take the leap.
So, are you ready to push aside the emotional tug of “owning your own” and approaching this as a pragmatic businessperson would? Are you willing to take the leap and dive into the deep end of the pool and are you equipped with proper floatation to ensure that you don’t sink to the bottom? Do your homework, seek advice from smart and experienced people, run through every scenario possible, make sure you have the right amount of financing and available funds to weather the storm, hire and train the right people, and set yourself up with a better chance of succeeding than failing. This is the only way that the restaurant business makes sense today.
Restaurants will be different moving forward, they must evolve. People need to visit restaurants and they will always find joy in breaking bread with friends and enjoying great tasting and beautiful looking food of all types. The opportunity is there, make sure you are ready to do it right.
This is the time of year when far too many of us put together a list of new year resolutions only to find them on the shelf collecting 365 days of dust. I thought that rather than go through that futile exercise I would simply list a sampling of life-changing experiences that would merit an add on to your bucket list. Each has particular meaning to me and may not fit your goals, however, hear me out:
*Visit the DUOMO in Florence, Italy. Quite possibly the most breathtaking architectural work of art in all of Italy and beyond. When you first turn the corner in Florence and experience this church coming into view you will think that it is an otherworldly encounter. Trust me when I say that it will change your perspective and make an indelible mark on your life.
*STAND AT THE BASE OF EL CAPITAN the center of the mountain climbing universe. 3200 feet of granite extending straight up to the heavens. This is something to behold. Climbers consider this the most perilous ascent in the world and a prime example of the wonders of nature. I am not a climber, but I stood at the base, put my hand on the giant rock, looked up and became dizzy simply thinking about how and why someone might expect to climb its face.
*THE CULINARY OLYMPIC EXPERIENCE. If you are a professional chef, I would encourage you to establish one goal of competing in the culinary Olympics held every four years in Germany. With thousands of the world’s best chefs putting their skills on the line the adrenaline rush is impossible to describe. Win or lose, this is a benchmark experience.
*STAND AT THE TOP OF AN OLYMPIC SKI JUMP. There are only a few in the world, but one sits in my backyard of Lake Placid, New York (home to the 1932 and 1980 Winter Olympic Games). Standing at the top of the 90-meter ski jump and looking down will form a knot in your stomach. Television will never do it justice. I stood at the top in 1979 when they were pouring the last few feet of concrete (the entire structure was a continuous pour until it was done), with just a 2 x 4 railing. The experience made my heart skip a beat.
*FLY INTO THE NICE, FRANCE AIRPORT. There are airports and there are airports but access to the one in Nice includes a low flying pass over the Mediterranean as the pilot steadied a descent – simply spectacular.
*GO TO A DEAD CONCERT. Yea, I know, you either love or hate the Grateful Dead, but before you pass judgement, buy a ticket to the latest version of the Dead without Garcia, and live the experience. There is nothing like it.
*STANDING ON TOP OF THE HIGHEST PEAK SOMEWHERE. Whether it is The Eiger, Mt. Hood, Everest, or New York’s Mt. Marcy – when you stand on top of the highest peak in a state, country, or the world you will be, at that moment, higher than anyone else in that area. When I stood on top of Mt. Marcy, I was higher than more than 10 million other people in the State of New York and that is exhilarating and humbling.
*STAND ON THE STAGE AT CARNIGIE HALL. To a musician, Carnegie Hall is the epitome of venues. To be there means that you are a master of your craft and as such are part of a unique club of individuals who have earned the right. Well, everyone can be part of a tour that allows you to stand on that stage and look out at the magnificence of this theater. Do it!
*HAVE DINNER AT A MICHELIN 3-STAR RESTAURANT. To many, the cost of a Michelin dining experience is far too extravagant and excessive. That is until you experience it. If you want to know what the big deal is, then save up your silver dollars and make a reservation at a three-star mecca for the culinary arts. Crazy money, but worth it.
*WORK A DAY IN A VINEYARD. Do you enjoy a nice glass of wine, but are you at a loss to understand how the beverage gets to the bottle? Spend a day bent at the waist either weeding, tying vines, or picking grapes, sit down with the crew for a meal prepared by the vintner, take a few ibuprofen to calm the back pain, and raise a glass in awe of the winemaker.
*VISIT A MEAT PROCESSING PLANT. We take for granted the fact that that beautiful steak, roast, or chicken come from an animal that gave its life for you to enjoy a meal. It’s not enjoyable, but it is important for everyone to visit a meat processing plant so that you can fully appreciate the animal and show it respect the next time you cook or consume.
*SPEND TIME ON A COMMERCIAL FISHING BOAT. Depending on the type of fishing, this can be one of the most dangerous jobs to be found. Some commercial fishermen travel a hundred miles offshore to catch the haddock, flounder, tuna, or swordfish that you enjoy on your grill or in your sauté pan. Prepare for an uneasy stomach but spend a day or even a few hours on a fishing boat, or even a lobster boat to understand the work of these blue-collar artisans.
*STAND UNDER THE EIFFEL TOWER AND LOOK UP. You have seen the pictures, read the stories, and maybe you have even visited Paris, but until you stand directly under the center of the Eiffel Tower and look up (if you are daring – lie on your back and do the same) you cannot grasp the wonder of this incredible structure.
*SPEND TIME IN THE WOODS – BY YOURSELF. There is no greater church, no more peaceful environment, no more meaningful connection with the earth than to spend time alone in the forest. Smell the pine and the musty aroma of mushrooms and decaying trees, listen to the sounds of insects and creatures of the wood, and feel the vibrations that come from noble trees standing tall for decades or generations, taking in carbon dioxide and giving us back the oxygen that allows us to live.
*WALK INTO NOTRE DAME. The fire that nearly destroyed Notre Dame came close to removing this magnificent work of art and incredible tribute to God. It is spectacular and make sure that it sits on your bucket list. Spend time there, order a few Café au Laits at a nearby brasserie and watch the people walk through its doors – it is truly special.
*WRITE A BOOK. Everyone can do it. You all have stories to tell and share. Write constantly, read even more constantly, and write some more. Listen to other’s critique of your work. You will get better. Tell your story and let it live on.
*TOUCH THE DESK OF ESCOFFIER. At the museum in the chef’s former hometown of Villeneuve Loubet, France sits the desk where he wrote his menus and memos. If you are a chef or a cook, visit this mecca and lay your hands on his desk. It is inspiring.
*WALK THROUGH THE CAVES OF MOET CHANDON. Underneath the streets of Reims, France lay miles of chalk caves that hold hundreds of thousands of Moet Chandon and Dom Perignon bottles resting and preparing themselves to grace your table a few years down the road. Experience it.
*WATCH THE MOVIE – FREE SOLO. I need not say more other than watch this movie about Alex Honnold who was the first climber to ever successfully scale El Capitan without ropes. Scarry as hell – you will shake your head in wonderment.
STAND IN THE MUSEE d’ORSAY AND STUDY A VAN GOGH OR MONET. One of the most important museums in the world – this extraordinary haven for Impressionist Art is worthy of anyone’s bucket list. You will know the paintings but fail to comprehend how beautiful they are until you stand a few feet from them.
*FLY OVER NYC ON A CLEAR NIGHT. It’s called the center of the universe for a number of reasons, but it is most breathtaking at night when lit like a Christmas tree shining as a beacon welcoming people from every corner of the world.
*SIT IN CENTRAL PARK AND LOOK UP AT THE DAKOTA WHERE LENNON LIVED. Sit on a bench, look up at the building façade, and sing “Imagine” out loud. It’s therapeutic.
*WALK THE MARGINAL WAY IN OGUNQUIT, MAINE. I have been there almost every year for the past ten and while visiting, my wife and I walk the mile long marginal way that is on the rocky edge of the Atlantic Ocean dozens of times and marvel at sunrises, the power of crashing waves, the distant view of fishing boats, and a sense of how majestic our world is.
*WATCH THE PEAK OF MOUNT HOOD FROM A PLANE. Flying to Oregon or Washington State will likely always include a pilot dipping his wings to give you an incredible view of the Mt. Hood Summit. It is amazing.
*MARVEL AT LAKE MEADE FROM THE MIDDLE OF THE DESERT. It doesn’t seem possible that in the middle of the desert there is a real oasis (albeit manmade). A body of water that nourishes much of California farmland and the opulence of Las Vegas. When you first see it, the vista doesn’t seem real.
*SKATE ON THE OLYMPIC OVAL – EVEN IF YOU CAN’T SKATE. Visit Lake Placid in the wintertime, rent a pair of skates even if your ankles (like mine) resist staying upright, and shuffle around the outdoor speedskating oval where Eric Heiden won five gold medals in 1980. It’s amazing.
*HOLD A WHITE TRUFFLE IN YOUR HAND AND TAKE IN THE AROMA. There is no other smell like it. It is Mother Nature’s hidden treasure for a reason. Order gnocchi, fresh fettuccini, or even loose scrambled eggs and have the server shave plenty of this hidden gem on top. Take in the smell and do so with eyes closed.
*DRINK A GRAND CRU BORDEAUX IN BORDEAUX, A PINOT NOIR IN OREGON, AND A DEEP RED ZINFANDEL IN NORTHERN CALIFORNIA. No bottle of wine is worth more than $20 – or is it. If you want an answer to this – try a great wine that has been stored and aged properly. Relish how it smells, look at how it coats a glass, make sure that it is a very good glass, sip a small amount and swirl in it your mouth, stick your rose right in the glass to take in all of the aroma, and let it slide down your throat. It will never become your everyday wine, but you will learn to appreciate it.
*WORK ON A BUSY LINE AT A SERIOUS RESTAURANT. The work that goes in to completing that plate of food in your favorite restaurant is mind blowing. If you are a young cook or just a person who enjoys great food, find a way to spend a full day and night in a professional kitchen and on the line even if just to watch.
*STAND ON THE EDGE OF NIAGARA FALLS. It is a wonder of the world after all.
*SIT WITHIN 10 FEET OF STANLEY JORDAN PLAYING THE GUITAR. Or it could be Tommy Emmanuel, Jeff Beck, Jorma Kaukonen, Bonnie Raitt, Eric Clapton, or a handful of other masters, but the key is to find a way to get that front row seat so that you can take it all in and feel what that musician feels when he or she bends those strings or picks a friendly tune.
*COOK DINNER FOR BELA FLECK AND THE FLECKTONES. Just because I did this. Very cool. I asked him who is favorite banjo player was and he responded, “who’s yours?” I said – you of course.
This is part of my list – yours will be different, but what is most important is that you fill your life with remarkable experiences, fill your dance card and set out to check everything off that you can.
I know you remember the first day that you slid your arms into the sleeves of that chef’s jacket with your name embroidered under the title: executive chef. It was that first time in the lead position – the commander of the kitchen brigade. You earned this title through years of hard work, loads of unique experiences, trials and tribulations moving through positions from commis to prep, line cook to sous chef, and now having arrived at the helm. You walked through the kitchen greeting each person at his or her station finally coming to rest at a stainless table that will be your workspace. As the chef you want to make sure that you lead by example, so even though your plate will be filled with a new list of responsibilities, you want to spend time each day as a cook.
You take time to sanitize your area, firmly place a cutting board on a damp towel to keep it from slipping, draw your knives across a wet stone while honing their edge, and quickly jotting down a prep list for the next hour. You take a deep breath and smile knowing that this is where you belong, this will be a magical day.
There is something very special about working in a professional kitchen, something that is hard to explain unless you are there. From the moment you walk through that back entrance you are captivated by the dynamics of the environment, the structure of the operation, and the sensation of being enveloped by its alluring magic. The aroma of a simmering veal stock, pans of bacon being pulled from the oven, fresh coffee brewing and pastries hot from the bake shop meld together like a cacophony of sound produced by a finely tuned orchestra. Cooks are busy at work with their own preparations as breakfast orders from the dining room arrive at a harrowing pace.
As service begins to reach its peak, you set aside your prep work and jump into the expeditor position calling out orders and finishing plate garnishes. “Ordering – three eggs over-easy, two pancakes, one poached, two benedicts. Picking up – three benedicts, two French toast, one veggie omelet”. The cooks are in the zone as the orders attack the kitchen even faster now as the dining room fills and servers’ line up to make toast and refill silver coffee pitchers. You know exactly what to do, how to keep the rhythm, when to pull back or push forward, and how to keep the cooks, your cooks, calm and focused. You are now the conductor of the orchestra that is totally in sync, creating beautiful music together. This is magical.
When you stop to think about it, the process of cooking is quite amazing. You and your team are able to take raw materials, apply well-designed cooking methods, season using time-tested palates, and plate the finished product with the vision of an artist creating a delicious, aromatic, visually pleasing dish. This is not an automatic process; it requires a number of skills that are built over time. For you, the process is even more amazing. As a chef you are able to plan menus knowing how the dishes will look, smell, and taste before they are even made. You have prepared so many items in the past that your senses are internalized and able to rely on flavor memory.
You can sense what caramelization will do to those incredible Diver’s scallops the size of silver dollars, what flavor those blue and yellow flames will impart on the exterior of a steak or chop, or how that perfect sauce will respond to monte au beurre at the end of preparation. When you sit down with the sommelier with your first menu as chef you can offer reasonable comments on the selection of wines to accompany each item. Through your time in the kitchen, you embraced tasting wines, studying their source, and building an understanding of the factors that impact on flavor.
As you pan your eyes through the kitchen you are able to take in the magic that had taken place before your arrival and know how important it will be for you to continue to teach and train. Many of these professional cooks started out just like you as a dishwasher or commis to a prep cook. Over time they developed foundational skills that would allow them to progress up through various brigade positions. They developed strong knife skills, an understanding of cooking methods, the ability to identify ingredients and how they should be handled, food safety and sanitation, and how to work as part of a team. You will continue to build them and to provide opportunities for the passionate to strive for a fruitful career in the kitchen. Some will move on to other properties and find the success they are after, and you will be OK with that. This is part of the chef’s job.
Sitting later with the dining room manager you wear the hat of orchestrator of the dining experience. Together you will work to polish all of the details that will keep your food centerstage while adding those unique elements that will keep guests coming back time and again.
Dinner service pulls a different crew to the hot and cold lines. Unlike breakfast that is focused on speed and efficiency, these cooks need more time to develop flavors and paint their artwork on the plate. Speed is still important, but details and finesse are front and center. Fifteen minutes before service begins you walk through each station with the sous chef to taste and critique each cook’s mise en place and then engage the front of the house with a premeal review of features and any menu changes. It is that final staging before the curtains open to another dining performance.
As the day winds down, you spend a few moments alone in the office preparing your first presentation to the entire restaurant staff. Tomorrow will provide a brief moment for you to address this group of seasoned professionals and talk about new directions, your vision, the way that you intend to lead, and how important they all are to the mission. This will be one of those magic moments – there will be many more. There is plenty of opportunity during these challenging times to find fault, to stress over how things are not what they were, and to wonder how the restaurant business will pull through. When those thoughts creep into your consciousness, take a few moments to remember the magic of what we do. Look at those young cooks and know the impact that you can have on their future and their passion. Look at those plates of food and marvel at what takes place during cooking and remember how important your role is in creating special moments, enjoyable experiences, and great memories for those who choose to sit at a table and take in all that you and your team can offer.
There is another casualty in the restaurant business – one that is far more detrimental than the loss of another corner operation. This casualty has been in the making for some time but adding point of origin supply chain issues has made the loss even more significant. We are witnessing the death of service to those who service the end consumer. The supply chain link that most vividly impacts restaurants is that connection between the manufacturer, wholesaler, and restaurant.
Restaurants, for decades, have depended on the intermediary wholesaler to identify, source, communicate, train, deliver, and support their needs. The menu cannot be driven by the chef’s desires, or the operator’s determined concept without a strong partnership with wholesalers. Once an item makes its way to the menu it is up to the wholesaler to deliver a consistent list of ingredients, at the specifications that are important to the restaurant, on time and at a price that makes sense for the restaurants price point. If any part of this service formula is broken, then the chef’s hands are tied.
Over the past few decades, restaurants have become increasingly dependent on one-stop wholesalers – providers that offer a complete line of ingredients from perishables to cleaning supplies, small equipment to frozen goods, and baking supplies to non-alcoholic beverages. “Everything you need” with one invoice makes sense in a world that increasingly looks for ways to streamline work and process. These large vendors were also able to support the restaurants financial needs with extended credit and quantity discounts when chefs committed to purchasing the lion’s share of goods from that one source. It all seemed to make sense – a service was provided.
Over time, wholesalers felt the pinch of competition from other one-stop providers, sometimes regional and not terribly large, but large enough to cut into the share of business that the larger vendors had come to expect. The only solution was to partner or purchase the little guy and minimize competition. It makes sense in a system that rewards the largest players. Big is better and getting larger equates to survival.
Suddenly choice is at a premium and restaurants no longer have the ability to look for options – if they want product, they are only able to look to a single source, or very few alternatives. The larger the vendor, the more control they have, and need to have with the product, brands, delivery times and requirements, follow-up service, and price. That neighborhood Italian restaurant that featured a homemade marinara dependent on a particular brand of canned tomato might now be forced to purchase a less desirable brand. The seafood restaurant expecting to purchase fresh langoustines from the French Atlantic coast may find that the one-stop vendor no longer finds it economical to import a product this exclusive. The smaller corner restaurateur that is essential to a community can suddenly find that minimum orders with the vendor have been doubled making cash flow an increased challenge for the restaurant. In some cases, if a vendor deems that a town or rural region is not financially viable, they can and will simply decide not to service restaurants. And the vendor that once would extend billing for 60 or 90 days during the slower season has suddenly cut the restaurants credit and now demands cash on delivery.
There was a time, not too long ago, when a sales rep would visit the chef of even the smallest operation and physically take an order, communicate specials, answer questions that a chef might have about products, and serve as an advocate when orders were short, timing was critical, or credit extensions were in need. That time is long gone. Chefs may not know of short orders until the minute the delivery arrives. Oftentimes orders are made on-line without any face-to-face interaction, and don’t even think to ask a question about a product ingredient and its benefits. It is likely the chef will always know more about the vendor’s ingredients than any salesperson (if one ever visits an operation). Extended credit? Not a chance. Pay now or we cut your service.
What was once a symbiotic relationship between vendor and restaurant is now adversarial and lopsided. Once upon a time it was the restaurant who sat in the chair of “customer” and was in control of the relationship. Now, the vendor has the upper hand. My how things have changed.
This is the environment that restaurants live in today. Their menus must be fluid since availability and affordability of ingredients will always be in question. Unless a restaurants’ cash flow is positive twelve months of the year, then it will be either at the mercy of a bank line of credit or unable to service its guests.
There was a time when it was in the best interest of the vendor to help ensure that their restaurant clients were successful. This meant doing whatever they could to boost a restaurants business savvy, go the extra mile to make sure the chef had what he or she needed in a timely manner, or guiding the chef through the next menu change. Not anymore – the vendor has become a means of getting a product from point A to point B.
There was a time when a sudden change in business meant that a chef needed extra product on the fly. A call to his or her sales rep would result in a salesman driving his or her own vehicle in search of the needed product. Chefs could depend on this when challenging situations arose. Not anymore – sales reps are not allowed to engage in this level of service.
So here we are, at a time when pandemic related shutdowns are always on the horizon, staffing is very challenging, seating limitations are enforced, and customers are leery about leaving their homes – vendors are suddenly no longer on our side. What is the solution?
When our faith in the supply chain is at an all-time low there is a real case to be made for buying local and regional, buying directly from the source, and moving back to where we were just a few decades ago. Maybe the convenience of buying from one source is no longer ideal and counter-productive for the small to medium single unit proprietorship. Maybe, just maybe, the solution to move to a “producer-to-table” business model makes sense and trumps the convenience that the large vendor had provided for some time. Maybe, just maybe, the set menu model that restaurants and consumers grew to expect is no longer viable and a constantly changing menu must make a comeback.
If this is the death of service-to-service, then maybe it’s time to adjust and not succumb. The end consumer is always best served when a collaborative service environment exists behind the scenes. Chefs need to depend on the ingredients they buy to produce the food that carries a restaurant’s signature. The small business that our country has always held high as its strength needs a symbiotic, dependable relationship with the supply chain if it is to survive. When the system no longer works it’s time to change how we view the system. Let’s rebuild those relationships with regional providers and create a workable business ecosystem again.
The trials and tribulations associated with the restaurant business are many – it is not an endeavor for the faint of heart. Finding the right concept, building in the right location, finding, and training the best staff, nurturing the team, and creating a menu that reflects the needs of the guest and the passion of the cook is only the beginning. This is a profession for those with a need to express, but it is also a business with very slim profit margins so oftentimes the artist and the accountant are part of a tenuous relationship. For some reason the industry tries to convince the artist and the accountant to be one and the same. To owners and operators, the cook for all ages must be both.
I have occasionally been asked what is the composite skill set of the chef or what should a graduate of a culinary program be able to do? What is that cook for all ages like, what list of attributes make up the ideal person for the job? The answer is not what you might think – in fact, from my perspective many of the attributes of the ideal cook/chef will not be found in a training manual or a college curriculum. The ideal cook or chef is no different than the ideal doctor, marketing expert, real estate agent, or entrepreneur.
First, allow me to address the dichotomy of the artist/accountant. Every chef, and for that matter every professional cook hoping to one day become a chef, MUST understand the business component of operating a restaurant. He or she must relish viable analytics, well designed budgets, and profit/loss statements. The chef must also appreciate marketing, the importance of social media, human resource management, business law, and how to be an effective communicator. This does not mean that the chef or professional cook must be expert at any of these processes or skills, or that he or she be the designer and driver of these important pieces of the business puzzle. A chef must be able to read and use analytics in the process of operating a kitchen, and he or she must learn how to contribute to the marketing efforts and always represent the property in alignment with the marketing strategy. Additionally, the chef must operate the kitchen as is dictated by labor laws to ensure fair treatment of all employees, and the messages that come from the chef’s desk must be professional, well designed, and reflective of the standards by which the restaurant operates. HOWEVER, this cannot take the chef or cook away from the primary duty of engagement with food, understanding the history and traditions associated with cooking, and being elbow-to-elbow with his or her kitchen team. This is paramount!
Now – down to the attributes of a cook for the ages – the cook who stands out as timeless and always to be admired and followed. This is what it takes to be truly worthy of the title by any real definition of “successful”:
 A PERSON OF INTEGRITY:
What spells out your ability to function as a member of a team and lead others rests with those character traits that make up your integrity as a person: dependability, honesty, trustworthiness, and your consistent adherence to those stakes in the ground that define your style and beliefs. People follow those whom they can count on.
 A HUMBLE PERSON:
The very best may know they are but they have little need to tell the world that it is so. These are the cooks and chefs, doctors, musicians, athletes, artists, business leaders, and educators who simply focus on constant improvement and always give their best because it is who they are.
 AN INDIVIDUAL WHO PRACTICES EFFECTIVE LISTENING:
Those who are successful in life, especially those in leadership positions share a commitment to listening to what others have to offer. There is a definitive difference between hearing to respond vs. listening to learn. Others will respect you if they sense that you are tuned in to their thoughts, concerns, and ideas.
 A PERSON WHO IS TRUE TO HIM(HER) SELF:
The very best know what is important to them and stay the course – making sure that they never sacrifice who they are when life’s pressures attempt to push them off course.
 A PERSON WHO SETS THE TONE FOR EXCELLENCE:
Giving your best, knowing your weaknesses, and working hard to improve is one of the most attractive attributes of a successful person. Approaching every task, every opportunity, and every problem with the intent of reaching for excellence is a trait that others will gravitate toward.
 A PERSON WHO RESPECTS OTHERS:
Demonstrating that every person has something to offer, that they are due your respect as a human being regardless of their age, gender, ethnicity, personal beliefs, level of education, or financial status will set the tone for your business and your home. Be this person and know that a world of opportunity will come your way.
 A PERSON WHO RELISHES THE HONOR OF WORKING WITH FOOD:
Respect for the ingredients that a cook has the chance to work with, the people who grow the food and those who distribute it, and those who have an impact on that finished, plated meal is paramount to holding the title of chef. Know just how privileged we are to tie on an apron.
 A PERSON WHO NEVER SACRIFICES OTHERS FOR PERSONAL GAIN:
If you commit to excellence, if you respect others and the food that you work with, if you seek to constantly improve, listen to others, and help them reach their own level of excellence then you will succeed. Trying to succeed at others expense will never work in the long run – your role is to help others to grab opportunities and succeed, not get in their way.
The cook for all ages will rise to the top – the cream always does.
My grandfather came to the United States from Norway at the age of 17. He worked his way over on a ship as a carpenter and set his sight on the fortunes that would await him on our shores. Like so many in the early 1900’s, he entered the land of the free through Ellis Island, and with a wing and a prayer headed for Minnesota and the rush to lay stake on a piece of land. He did and soon after took a one-year job as a ships carpenter in South America. When he returned, his land was lost to another claimant so he shuffled off to Buffalo where he would stay and raise a family. My grandfather was proud and determined to become American. All through my early years he never shared a story about Norway, nor did he say much to my father, his son. He wanted to be American, to speak only English, and to set aside his heritage. Such a shame.
Many of those early immigrants to our soil felt the same. A few hung on to their cultural heritage, but after time more and more of this would be lost. My parents (Norwegian and Irish decent) never shared a story about their roots, their parents rarely shared anything with them. Those wonderful traditional dishes from Norway and Ireland never graced our family table as the 1950’s gave way to ease and convenience. TV dinners, box mixes, frozen and canned goods, and restaurant take out became the basis for the new American food culture. Some pockets of ethnicity remained – my friends from strong Italian, German, and Polish neighborhoods still carried on with the traditions of their original homeland, but so many others enthusiastically embraced the American Way. Within a few decades the U.S. became a cultural desert, a homogenized country without much historical perspective.
This homogenization has become an obsession. To try and hold on to cultural backgrounds is somehow less than American. It is often expected that we only use the English language, we dress as American fashion dictates, and we eat what is assumed to be American food. So, what is American food and where is its story? We are a melting pot nation of people from every corner of the world and with them come the traditions, beliefs, and food that encapsulated their culture. It is this culture and all that it encompasses that gives their food meaning and flavor.
What is most interesting is that FLAVOR is far more complex than it may seem on the surface. We commonly accept that flavor is a composite of taste, smell, and touch but there are many other factors that play a role that is just as significant as those three senses. Of course, the visual impact of food is important as is any connection to sound (the sizzle of a metal plate, the crunch of a fresh apple or potato chip, the snap of a green bean or the chew of a bagel or crusty artisan bread), but we rarely associate CONTEXT as an element of taste, yet it may be the most important.
Context refers to whom you are enjoying a food with, the environment where eating takes place, your connection with the person who prepared it, the source of components, the history of the dish and its ingredients, memories connected to the item, or the ceremony that may be part of enjoying that dish. All these factors play into how a dish tastes, and how it will be remembered.
This being said, take a look at the restaurant where you work and begin to dissect the experience. Talk with the service staff and inquire about their knowledge of those contextual factors associated with items on the menu. How much do they know? What have they been taught? What have they experienced and how are they able to build a customer experience with the knowledge that they have? For that matter, go through the same exercise with the culinary staff. I would be willing to bet that even the cooks real understanding doesn’t go very far beyond taste, smell, texture, and plate presentation. The question is: “can they really own a dish and express their craft without a deeper understanding of context?”
I remember an experience decades ago when I had the privilege of dining at Andre Soltner’s Lutece Restaurant in New York City. In my mind, Soltner has always been the consummate example of a professional chef. The food, of course, was exceptional – classic French executed to the highest level. What was even more impressive was our waiter. He was certainly in his mid to late 70’s, maybe even older, but he knew as much about the food, the source of ingredients, the way it was prepared, and the historical significance of each menu item as Soltner. Beyond this, he was excited about the food and the opportunity to serve it to us – CONTEXT.
The point is – homogenized restaurant and family menus have left us stranded in a cultural desert. There is a place for “filling station” food in support of legitimate hunger, but the experience of dining must be much more than this. There is something lacking in experience when a seafood restaurant is located in a strip mall, a northern Italian restaurant offers food prepared by cooks who have never been to Italy, never studied the culture, or never been part of the important rituals of Italian family life. There is something lacking when a rich culinary culture like that from Mexico and the Yucatan peninsula is expressed on a menu that portrays the cuisine as pinto beans and melted cheese and there is something confusing about a healthy spa or vegetarian influenced menu when it is prepared by those who have never personally engaged in the lifestyle that accompanies it. Context.
So, what should be done? If restaurants propose to be authentic in any way, regardless of the concept, ethnicity, or influence portrayed, then we all have an obligation to teach, train, engage, and embrace all stakeholders in the context that is so important to real flavor. If you are a chef – what are you doing to teach and train and create real contextual experiences for staff? If you are a dining room manager – the same question applies to you. The people who represent the food and the experience of the restaurant must have real understanding to accompany the process of doing their job. It is the context that will make their jobs more enjoyable and more rewarding. Make sure that you invest in becoming a learning organization that talks as much about culture, history, and the people who influenced a dish as you do in the steps associated with preparing, plating, and serving the finished dish. When this is accomplished then the flavor experience will be unique and sought after and quality staff members will see the value gained in being part of your team.
It seems as if our society is on the threshold of decay. That is an awful opening sentence, but there are numerous indications that it is true. Differences of opinion are to be cherished, but this expression never crept into our psyche and functioning as a society to the extent it has right now. Expression and even bold argument had always been part of our culture – debate was a way of presenting what we knew and/or believed in an effort to gain support or stimulate thought, but it had never spiraled into hate and negative action as it is today. The extent to which it is occurring and growing is a new phenomenon for all of us; and it is frightening to say the least.
This unrest and lack of reason has crept into every corner of our existence – separating family members, neighbors, organization members, schools, and the American workforce. When consideration of whom we might interact with is determined by beliefs that are based on fiction or fact, then we have a disease that will grow with reckless abandon.
Civility, or politeness as our parents and grandparents would have proclaimed, is an essential ingredient in life. Respectfulness is something that was engrained into our being from an early age and was a cardinal rule. We can have our opinions, but they should never interfere with treating others the way that you would like to be treated. Where has civility gone? The positions, people, and systems that were always respected by our ancestors are now constantly attacked or demeaned. Pick an example – there are many: doctors, business leaders, teachers, police, fire fighters, entrepreneurs – they are no longer held up as role models, they are blamed for the woes of a community. Of course, there are examples where this mistrust and ire are well-founded, but why are the majority painted with the same brush? In restaurants, the chef who was quite recently held up with admiration and respect is now often dismissed and criticized for his or her passion and work ethic.
There were always cooks who would call out sick on occasion, but the thought of simply not showing up – that was just not something that we did. Sure, work scheduling needs to change, and life-balance must be addressed – but to show your dislike for a schedule by not showing up and putting extra stress on your teammates was just not done. This is disrespectful and not worthy of the uniform that you wear. If change does not come and you are unhappy, then give your notice and look elsewhere. There are plenty of restaurants looking for talented cooks – maybe your ideal job is somewhere else.
Kindness, being considerate and empathetic were traits that always stood out, and to a large degree were the common traits of Americans in the eyes of the world. I grew up in kitchens where equality was always evident, where we might have critiqued and poked fun, but never with malice or ill-intent. We may have raised our voices on occasion but would always “have the back” of the person next to us. Where has this environment gone? Bullying is not something that we want to encourage whether it be in schools or on-the-job. The lack of kindness that occurs in our society has grown exponentially with the availability of social media. It is hurtful and destructive, un-called for and cancerous in an organization. Yet, it occurs at an alarming rate and is far too often ignored in so many environments. How hard is it to be kind? Where is the thrill in making someone else feel insignificant?
I remember how important it was to my family to be law abiding. Order is something that helps a civilization function. We have laws to protect members of a society and if the laws are deemed unfair, then we have the right to choose different representatives and work to change them. In the meantime, we follow the laws or suffer the consequences. I have watched in horror as mobs break into stores and steal merchandise, terrorize employees and customers, and do so without any consideration of the harm being done, or the laws that are designed to protect. I shake my head when I watch citizens and some law enforcement officials ignore or manipulate the law to justify their hate or misunderstanding. I cringe when those in the retail business refer to theft in their stores as “shrink” (an anticipated and accepted about of theft) that they are unable to control, but instead pass on the cost to law abiding citizens. And I shake my head when items disappear from coolers and storerooms in restaurants where I have worked – knowing that it may have been the person that I worked next to who was responsible.
What type of society do we have if even those elected to represent us ignore the law and/or manipulate it for personal gain? Why is it less important to be law abiding today?
There is a problem in our country that is growing by the day, it is a problem that must be addressed, cannot be ignored, must not be accepted, and will only continue to eat away at everything that our communities were built on. The problem must be addressed by everyone and cannot simply be relegated to law enforcement and legal battles over “hostile work environments”, or discrimination lawsuits. It is OUR problem to solve. It must be addressed in the home by parents who take the time to reflect on past generations attitudes. It must be addressed by business owners and managers – not just by writing an employee manual, but more importantly through their actions as leaders. It must be addressed by local, regional, and national governments who need to focus on the root issues of building a society that is knowledgeable, civil, kind, law abiding, and professional. It must be addressed by educators, the media, police, firefighters, chefs, clergy, and neighbors. If left to fester and grow – this will destroy our country from within, destroy our restaurants and other businesses, eat away at the integrity of our educational system, and change the way the rest of the world views the American democratic experiment.
We can fix this, but we cannot simply expect someone else to fix it for us. We need to start today – where we are. It is our challenge and our problem to solve.
Alex Honnold may very well be the greatest climber of all time. Although he has climbed many of the most serious mountains in the world, he is best known for his free solo climb of El Capitan in Yosemite National Park. This 3,000-foot granite icon stretches strain up and is considered the most radical climb to be found anywhere in the world. The Captain is on the bucket list of any serious climber, but few have ever attempted it without ropes or assist (free solo). In most cases, the climb (even with ropes and assist) is something that can take 2-3 days, but Alex not only succeeded in climbing this monster “free solo”, but he accomplished it in three hours and fifty-six minutes! The confidence and competence that he displayed is unparalleled. The adrenaline rush must have been through the roof.
Now, it will seem a stretch to compare what he did with the work of a professional cook, but that un-nerving, sometimes euphoric rush of adrenaline is still there. The first few times that a line cook works “free solo”, that experience of being fully responsible for a busy station without a guide is just as intense in the moment (without the fear of sudden death).
Working free of support, in any profession, requires dedication, practice, understanding, a healthy dose of fear, confidence through trial and error, and a willingness to go for it. Through the fear there is always a sense that you can do it. Jumping in without a reasonable amount of fear mixed with the confidence that comes from competence would be the equivalent of attacking a mountain with an uncontrolled fear of heights.
If you are a professional cook or a chef, you remember that first free solo flight on the line. It had been some time in the making – maybe starting off as a young dishwasher, that first job. You started by helping the breakfast cook work pans of bacon in the oven, setting up plates with garnishes, and flipping a few orders of pancakes. Then you learned how to hold a knife, build an edge on a wet stone, and cut perfect dice, julienne, and oblique vegetables. Team members drilled in the importance of sanitation and properly setting your workstation – working clean and staying organized. Then one day you had your chance to work the fry station – guided by the cook next to you – learning timing, the flow, listening to orders, and getting that proper doneness on items that hit that 375-degree oil. After a few weeks you were good at it and needed little guidance, but you always knew it was there – right next to you.
All along the way you were paying attention, learning the terminology, watching the steps that each cook had mastered, tasting everything, and building your palate, studying methods of cooking, and watching how plates were assembled for proper eye appeal. Every now and then, the sauté cook would let you jump in and prepare a dish start to finish – nothing too crazy, just a single dish when it wasn’t too busy. When sauté mise en place was running short – you jumped in to cut, mince, clarify, or portion – things were beginning to come together.
Then, one day, it happened without warning. The sauté cook called out sick. There was no time to bring in a replacement – the chef turned to you:
“Time to see what you are made of. You have been watching and learning for quite some time. Tonight, the station is yours. We are here to jump in if you need help, but it’s time for you to swing for the fences.”
Gulp – you felt that knot in your stomach, the tingling in your fingertips, the dryness in your throat, and deep, down FEAR. You knew the station set-up, you had practiced the methods, your palate was still young, but you had a decent understanding of the flavors of each dish, and you had plated every item from that station enough times. Beads of sweat formed on your forehead, and there was a slight tremor in your hands. The chef looked at you and said:
“Are you ready?”
You returned his stare, straightened your back, took control and responded:
Tonight, you were flying free solo on that sauté station.
It has been that way throughout your career: from sauté to broiler, roundsman to sous chef, sous chef to working chef, and on to executive chef if your career has advanced that far. Each time there was or will be a “free solo” moment. A time when your metal is tested, a moment when competence transitions into confidence. If you prepare yourself properly, and if the next step is always in your sights, then when the time comes you will be ready. That knot in the stomach never ceases to arrive, the dry throat, sweaty palms, tingling fingers and light tremors that accompany an adrenaline rush, but in a short moment all of that turns into a smile and a determination to conquer another peak, to jump through another hoop, and move past the fear.
You know what I am talking about – you have been there and will be again.
Nearly every professional cook or chef will agree that discipline in the kitchen and adherence to certain rules and methods is critical to success. Kitchen careerists live by these rules, imbed them in their subconscious, and rely on them every day. There are certainly more to adopt, but this is a start. Follow a serious cook or chef around for a day and watch how they instinctively fall back on these “rules of the professional kitchen” and fully understand why they are important.
 LONG SLEEVES ON A CHEF COAT
In an era when tradition seems to fall by the wayside and relying on the way things have been done for decades is oftentimes frowned upon, this is one that is designed to protect a cook’s wellbeing. Long sleeves on a chef coat may seem to get in the way of comfort, but they are there to protect arms and wrists from splattering grease, the immediate burn from boiling liquids, and the heat of the oven and grill. You may want to show off those cook’s tattoos, but this will help from showing off those burns and welts.
 HOT PAN FIRST
A seasoned chef can tell if a cook is preparing a dish correctly simply by the sound of the pan. Hot pans before a sear, sauté, or pan fry will set the stage for the Maillard Reaction that reduces protein and natural sugars into that beautiful golden color and the umami flavor of savory that is so important to the integrity of a dish. An added bonus is that a properly heated (seasoned) pan is far less likely to stick during cooking – this is the natural way to create non-stick surfaces.
 SEARING FIRST
Preparing a perfectly grilled steak, grilling an exceptional burger, setting up that lamb shank for braising, building a beautiful sea scallop, or preparing a 109-rib roast for tonight’s prime rib feature all begin with a proper sear. It is this cooking step that unlocks the texture, color and flavor that is so satisfying. Some may argue that it is not necessary or that it does not lock in the moisture within during the balance of cooking, but my experience points to the opposite.
 TEMPER BEFORE ROASTING/REST AFTER
Allowing meat to set out at room temperature for 30-60 minutes prior to roasting or braising will cut down on the time of cooking and the shock of a cold product in a very hot environment. Failure to temper is one of the reasons why meats will oftentimes fail to reveal that beautiful, even pink color from just below the exterior to the center. After cooking it is critical to rest the meat (whether a steak or chop or a full roast) at room temperature allowing the pool of internal moisture to be reabsorbed throughout the product. Meat that rests for a few minutes will retain more of its juice and flavor once sliced.
 WHEN TO SALT
There is considerable debate over when to salt foods, especially meats. Salting before cooking (anywhere from 30 minutes to overnight) will allow the magic of salt to permeate the entire product. At the same time, salt will draw moisture from the product which may in turn make it drier (the way that curing does). Salting after cooking provides that immediate salt blast to your senses – one of the more impactful tastes in your mouth. Too much salt will alter the natural flavor of the dish while the right amount can enhance those natural flavors. We can become salt immune if our first reaction in cooking is to always “add salt”. The more you use it, the more you need to retain the same flavor reaction. Always keep in mind that the guest may not have the same salt immunity as you and you can always add more, but you can’t take it away. Learning this balance is part of the art of cooking.
 RAPID CHILLING and REHEATING
Aside from the importance of chilling and re-heating rapidly for food safety issues, rapid chilling can slow down or stop the cooking process (as is the case with blanching and shocking fruits and vegetables for later finishing) that will retain the texture, flavor, and nutritional value of foods – and rapid re-heating will refresh a product to its intended texture and flavor without further cooking that might change the character of a dish.
 FOLDING YOUR TOWELS
This may seem like a silly habit, but it is consistent with a cook’s need for organization (mise en place). Every part of a cook’s station needs to flow from a map of consistent perfection just like a pilot makes sure that the cockpit is precisely organized, or a musician ensures that his or her instruments are placed just so before a performance. The cook needs to know, without looking or thinking, exactly where everything is placed so that a rhythm can result. When mise en place, including towel folding and placement, is tight then the flow of cooking can be maintained.
 SHARP KNIVES
You have probably heard that a dull knife is far more dangerous that a sharp one. In both cases a knife is only as dangerous as the person holding it. A dull knife takes more effort to do its job, more pressure to slice or dice, and as such more opportunity to find a finger or hand. Additionally, your knives are meant, in most cases to cleanly slice through a vegetable, meat, or fish. If a knife is dull, it can bruise those ingredients and impact their appearance, cooking, and flavor.
 CLEAN AS YOU GO
Cleanliness sets the tone for everything else that a cook does. Cleanliness is a responsibility and an action that must become habit. No matter how busy a cook gets, constantly washing and sanitizing work surfaces and tools will ensure food safety and build a sense of pride in his or her methods of cooking.
The ambient temperature in front of a stove can be well over 120 degrees, the ovens on a line are probably cranked up to 500 degrees or more during service, the blue flames from a char grill can reach close to 3,000 degrees Fahrenheit, and the humidity driven by liquids in the process of cooking and the ambient air moisture from the dishwasher can make the environment of the kitchen almost unbearable. Cooks must constantly replenish their internal moisture levels so drinking WATER (not espresso, energy drinks, or soda) during work is critical to health. Your body will not tell you when it is dehydrated until it is too late – you must prevent that from happening.
 PRESSED, CLEAN UNIFORM
The uniform is a symbol of the importance of cleanliness and the respect that you have for your chosen profession. Represent this and you will find that your personal brand will be enhanced.
 POLISHED SHOES
Attention to detail – clean shoes demonstrate your desire to maintain clean floors. Polished shoes tell the world that you are a proud representative of your work. Clean shoes symbolize that you intend to work clean – it all goes together.
 LABEL AND DATE
The chef probably harps on this every day so cooks can choose to do this because they are told to, or label and date because they know that this simple step is a key to food safety and freshness, communication in the kitchen, and a standard that every health department demands. Make it a habit – not a directive.
 PUT IT BACK
Whatever it may be, food product, tool, dish or pan, piece of equipment, clipboard, or ice scoop – when you take it – return it (clean) to where it belongs so that any other person in the kitchen can easily find it. Avoid the frustration of: “Has anyone seen the blade to the Robot Coupe?”
 DRY TOWELS/WET TOWELS
Finally, back to towels. Every cook must have both dry and wet towels. Dry towels (only) are for handling hot pans and pans and removing items from the oven. Wet towels (in a sanitizer solution) are used to wipe down surfaces. Keep them separate and train your conscious mind to always distinguish between the two.
I have mentioned many times before how my love for the kitchen stems from the appreciation I have for the diverse types of people who work there. Every day in a kitchen is a learning experience – not just in terms of skill development, but even more importantly the opportunity to learn about the people who find a home in this environment.
Far too often we take this opportunity for granted. Look around you and take it all in – these kitchen/restaurant people are unique and complex. Their backgrounds vary, but their purpose is the same. The parallels to an effective sporting team are never lost on me, it is, for all intents and purposes, identical in nature. A common goal, a purpose, and mission that every person can align with knowing that each one has an important role to play. In the case of the kitchen or restaurant it is the plate of food and a satisfied (hopefully wowed) guest. Every member of the staff is focused on these two goals.
If we take the time to dig below the surface, each member of the team carries a unique set of characteristics, interesting and sometimes even troubled backgrounds, and unique talents that if realized can build team cohesiveness and add to the experience of the guest. Some have started their career in the kitchen as a dishwasher – looking for a paycheck, lacking in any substantial kitchen skills, but hoping for an opportunity to grow. Others, like professional athletes have experience with a variety of teams – they are “free agents” who bounce from restaurant to restaurant in search of something that remains elusive. A few may have college degrees and are not sure of any long-term direction in their lives, or maybe they hold a culinary degree and are dipping their toes in the water of opportunity that your operation provides. There are some with troubled pasts, a few wrong turns, mistakes that have limited them in the eyes of many, but not in the kitchen. A few are angry while others are sheepish and content to stay in the shadows. A few are very talented but for various reasons have been ignored when it came to advancement.
Biologically and environmentally, it is also interesting to study the ethnic heritage and geographic background of each player and what that might mean to how your team grows, learns, and expresses themselves. Where did they come from? How were they raised? What foods were part of their culture and how did those foods influence their presence in your kitchen today? Think about what you are missing if these questions are never asked?
It is this melting pot that makes your restaurant tick and builds its unique character. As a chef, these individuals do help to define the type of cook and leader you are or will become. The greater your exposure and understanding of the “people of the kitchen”, the more balanced you will become as a chef. It makes sense – doesn’t it?
I have always relished knowing more about the people with whom I work. Who are they, why are they here, what brought them to the kitchen in the first place, and what unique attributes do they bring to the table? There are so many examples of chefs who have taken the time to learn from their staff, to ask the questions and to learn just how important everyone is to the operation. In some cases, these unique players have become integral to a concept, even though this is beyond what they were hired for. A breakfast cook from a strong Italian family who has a knack for making exceptional fresh pasta, the Mexican dishwasher who learned how to make extraordinary tortilla from the age of ten, or the prep cook with a passion for fishing and boning skills that would embarrass most chefs. Ask the questions, open your mind to learn, relish the connections, and watch how engaging and passionate these employees become when asked to play a unique role and share their history.
Take advantage of the opportunity that staff meal provides to learn about each other. I remember one property that I took a lead role in and the first thing that I did was take the chefs and sous chefs out for dinner. I asked each to take a few moments to explain their background and influences, primarily for my benefit. What was most extraordinary is that the group knew very little about each other – it was an enlightening moment. Ask the questions, listen, and learn, and engage their stories in your operation – it will be incredibly gratifying. Ask those Hispanic or Ecuadorian dishwashers to prepare staff meal using the techniques that are unique to their culture and watch them beam with pride as every person on your team learns something new. Celebrate this, embrace it, and learn from it.
Like many others, I have enjoyed the opportunity to work with such a diverse group of people. Different ethnicities, cultural differences, a wide array of socio-economic differences, young, old, experienced and novice, college educated or no degree at all, tall or short, male, or female, different political beliefs, Grateful Dead followers, country music lovers, or rap enthusiasts, and career cooks as well as those who are simply looking for a paycheck – each person is a book ready to be opened and enjoyed. Take the time to read each person’s book – it will be worth your while.
Desperation leads to ineffective decision making. This is always, always, always the case. Decisions based on panic are like the amateur carpenter who keeps making the wrong cut on a length of board until there is nothing left. It seems to me that this is where we are with our decisions about restaurant operation. Every restaurateur and chef that I know is focused on one big challenge – finding people to work. We have debated this issue for the past two years and the only solutions that most restaurant operators have come up with are to cut services and keep raising wages. Both decisions seem to make sense, but are they the right decisions by themselves?
I will always remember my early years growing up in Buffalo, New York when nearby Lackawanna was one of the steel capitols of the world. Bethlehem and Republic Steel were major employers in the area that were supported by a very strong union. I can’t even count the number of times that the union, representing thousands of steel workers, threatened slowdowns, walk outs or strikes on behalf of their membership. Inevitably the challenge resulted in a compromised raise in wages or benefits to the cheers of every employee. It wouldn’t take very long (measured in months) before there was more dissent among the rank and file and the union was back to the table with managers and operators. The fact of the matter was that the job was horrible. The heat, noise, sweat, repetition, and danger associated with work in a steel mill did not change – only the compensation. It wouldn’t take long for employees to realize this and then turn to the union for another band aid. It was a vicious cycle that never got to the root of the problem – the work environment was horrible and needed to change. The American steel industry didn’t change but their foreign competitors did. Robotics took the place of much of the repetition, danger, heat, etc. and employee jobs moved from production to quality control. Sure, jobs were lost, but those that remained were both well paid and dramatically improved. Bethlehem and Republic Steel are now shuttered wastelands in Lackawanna and Buffalo.
The point is that although better pay and benefits are part of the answer for the restaurant industry it is the larger picture that we must eventually come to terms with. A recent picture posted of line cooks sitting on the floor of a beautiful kitchen catching a five-minute meal before the POS starts spitting out orders is symptomatic of the big picture. No matter what we pay employees – if the environment where employees work and the expectations of them fails to benefit from a fresh coat of paint, then we will lose the battle. If we think that the only reason that employees have resisted coming back to work or that the endless stream of new candidates dried up is because of money, then we are very mistaken.
As an industry we need to step back, take the appropriate amount of time to study the situation, measure twice and cut once. Take the time to assess and discuss, observe, and catalog, and truly view the environment and the expectations of the job. This is the measurement phase, and it must be meticulously studied and discussed opening with those employees who had once viewed the work as noble, interesting, exciting, and worthwhile. How can we make the work valuable, respected, manageable, interesting, and healthy for those who choose to view this as a career choice?
Just like the survivors of the steel industry who decided that long term success required wholesale change – the restaurant industry must do the same. Here are some things to consider while restaurants continue to think that it’s all about the money:
Don’t sacrifice your need to find and retain GOOD people just because you are short staffed. Putting a round peg in the square hole of your team will only compound your issues. Determine the character of individual that will build your team and stick to those standards when hiring. I know you will say: “But that doesn’t help me today!” Patience – “wax on, wax off”, you are building for a long successful business cycle.
Money will be attractive, but you can safely assume that those who work for you are inspired by the people who work around them. Team is just as important as the money.
Create an environment where everyone is respected as a human being and their contributions are noted and applauded. Those who you respect and don’t return that to those who work in your operation will need to move on.
 TEACH AND TRAIN
Assume that people want to become good at their job – even great. You are in the driver’s seat and can help them reach their personal best through training, teaching, and mentoring. Invest in this – your staff will relish the opportunity to improve, and that word gets around quickly.
 CRITIQUE NOT CRITICISM
Part of your job is to hold an employees’ performance to the standards of the operation. This should always be front and center. There is a way to do this and way not to – critique, unlike criticism is all about pointing out areas for improvement and then showing the person how to do so. Start with a compliment and demonstrate how you expect them to grow in the position.
Everyone enjoys being part of a winning team. They typically relish the opportunity to work for a restaurant that has earned the recognition of others or the success of entrepreneurship. When you run a well-oiled machine that teaches and respects employees and a restaurant that is financially viable then your staff will proudly state that they are part of that success.
 LIFE BALANCE
Respectful scheduling, empathy and acknowledgement, the desire to listen and support, and flexibility whenever possible will go a long way towards attracting and retaining great employees.
Be professional, teach professionalism, expect professionalism, and celebrate when it happens. This involves personal appearance, dependability, respect for ingredients and equipment, respect for people, service attitudes, and a commitment to excellence with the work that everyone engages in.
Certainly, now and for the foreseeable future – your employees will expect that their safety is at the top of your list. Following pandemic protocol, building a work environment that puts their wellbeing first, supporting their professional interactions with guests and maintaining a zero tolerance with those guests who do not treat your staff with the same safety in mind is and will remain essential. Do it and promote it.
Make sure that your staff has the tools to do the job and that those tools are maintained so that performance is never hindered by poor maintenance. It may seem like a small thing – it isn’t!
A little bit of tension in a kitchen and dining room can be beneficial, but too much can spiral out of control. It is your job to maintain some equilibrium so that people understand that sense of emergency but do so with the ability to calmly pursue answers to challenges.
Don’t hide things from your staff – let them in! The more you can share with them about decisions, business performance, and the challenges that you face as an operator, the more they will sense that they are valued.
 CREATIVITY INSPIRES
Yes, you are the chef or the manager and many decisions, including menu, procedure, and presentation are part of your job description, but cooks tend to be inherently creative people who need an outlet for that creativity. When denied an opportunity to express themselves – cooks will begin to look for a different environment that supports this need. Let them contribute.
 UPWARD MOBILITY
Many cooks will have a desire to someday become the chef of a property or even own an operation. When there is a path to move up, or support to move on, there will always be a line of competent professionals who want to work for you.
 EFFICIENCY – TOO MANY HANDS, THE PIE IS ONLY SO BIG
Work on becoming efficient through systems and training. If you can reach your standards with fewer people and accomplish your business financial goals with fewer, highly competent hands, then the pie of money to support employee needs will go a lot further.
 FAIR WAGE AND BENEFITS
And yes, this is not last because it is less important EVERY ONE OF THESE POINTS IS IMPORTANT, but let’s at least understand that money without addressing the core challenges of working in restaurants is no different than increasing the wages of steel workers without taking a hard look at the environment where they work and the nature of the job.
Measure twice and cut once before you reveal your plan to address staffing issues.
This is one of those reflective moments – we all have them – a time to think back rather than forward and simply wonder how the future will compare and who will hold the keys to progress. I was reading an article from the blog: www.blog.cheapism.com titled: “33 of the oldest chefs in America”, when that flame of nostalgia kicked in. At first, I thought isn’t it great that these incredible chefs and ambassadors for cuisine in America were still doing what they love at the age of 62-85? Then it struck me: “What will the American Food Scene look like when these trailblazers are no longer around?” What happens after Lidia Bastianich, Thomas Keller, Patrick O’Connell, Jacques Pepin, and Rick Bayless? Maybe, this is morbid thinking (sorry to all of the chefs on the list), but it is something that made me really wonder.
As is often the case, one series of thoughts leads to another, and I started to apply the same questioning to other professions. I watched a video clip of the Tedeschi Trucks Band with guest guitarist Jorma Kaukonen – a terrific example of American R and B with the former guitarist from Jefferson Airplane and Hot Tuna (in my top five greatest bands list). Kaukonen has mellowed over the years but has also refined and enhanced his skills as a picker using a wide range of genres – he is 80 years old. Looking deeper I found that Carlos Santana is 74, Keith Richards 77, Eric Clapton 76, Jeff Beck 77, the grand-daddy of them all – John Mayall is 87, Grace Slick of White Rabbit fame is 82, Joni Mitchell is 78, and the grand master – Bob Dylan is 80. I can still remember the first time I heard Blowin in the Wind and Big Yellow Taxi and knew that these musicians were changing the world.
If you are an avid reader, like me, then you have been entertained for decades by authors like James Patterson, John Grisham, or Agatha Christie all who range in age from 66-85. Who will take their place on the best seller lists?
The same is true for business leaders who built the standards of excellence for American products and service. It was Steve Jobs of Apple, Bill Gates from Microsoft, and a plethora of others who built the new economy in America. Jobs would have been 66 this year if he had not passed in 2011, Gates is 66, Larry Ellison of Oracle is 77, Richard Melman of Lettuce Entertain You Restaurant Group turned 79, Danny Meyers of Union Square Restaurants is the youngster at 63, and the investment genius Warren Buffet is 91. Who will make up future clubs of business innovators?
Of course, the answer is: there are always plenty of new and exciting leaders to take the place of innovators in every genre, but what will they be like, where will they take their respective industries or what new industries will they create? In so many cases it was the curiosity of the leaders listed that helped them to invent or reinvent a business formula or a product that everyone needed before they even knew that they needed them. It was the need for perfection and innovation that nurtured the work of Charlie Trotter and Thomas Keller who gave birth to the American Tasting Menu; the desire for authenticity that allowed Rick Bayless to envision Frontera Grill and Topolobampo, an understanding of what real service means to bring Danny Meyer to NYC restaurant prominence, a vision of the impossible for Steve Jobs to reveal the first smart phone, and finding a formula for holding reader interest to allow James Patterson and his partners to write or co-write 114 books to date.
I continue to reflect on that article of the 33 oldest chefs in America and appreciate all that they have done. I am part of their generation and have enjoyed working under their influence but at the same time know that there will be others to follow. They will not be the same, but they will be great. Their methods will differ, but they won’t be wrong. Their products will never be the same as Keller, O’Connell, Bayless, Bastianich, Waters, Tower, or Morimoto, but they will be inspiring and delicious. One thing that history has taught us is curiosity is always present and the need to ask: “why and why not” will drive future generations to push the envelope and make that dent in the universe.
There were many that came before this aging generation of great leaders and there will be many that are ready in the wings, sitting on the bench and waiting for their chance to become part of the first string. I will continue to reflect on the past, admire the present, but always look forward with excitement to the future. It is time to pass the torch and welcome a new generation of cooks and influential chefs.
Sitting is the chef’s office, or what some might refer to as a storage room with a desk, it is always enlightening to look out on the kitchen and watch the motions of those who have found a home in double-breasted white jackets and skull caps. Any day can be a day of reflection for a chef – a day when life assessment is always close at hand.
“What is my purpose, why am I here, how did I wind up sitting in this chair, and what value do I bring to the environment I am in?”
Chefs think about the product that they are proud of, the system and organization that has been put into place, the control of those small margins of profitability, or the special menus that are occasionally developed for events and holidays.
“This is my purpose and look at the results!”
Well, this is certainly a major part of a chef’s job description and probably what your paycheck is based on but is this really a chef’s purpose?
Look around the kitchen again and focus on the people rather than that list of measurable objectives that you have committed to. It’s the people who represent your real success in the position of chef – they are your purpose. This is the altruistic side of being a chef, and this is the aspect of your character and value that will be remembered. It is through these individuals that you will be acknowledged as a chef.
What many chefs neglect to understand is that they are teachers, mentors, and life coaches. These cooks may very well become the individuals who will fill your shoes or those shoes of solid chefs somewhere across the country. How they turn out, not just as accomplished technicians, but more importantly as human beings and citizens of the world is partially based on the role that you play in their lives. WOW, now that is a responsibility.
Look around that kitchen. For many cooks, the kitchen is a safe haven, a place where they can breathe deep and know that they are in friendly territory. They are in a place where their value is based on performance and commitment to the team, a place where a certain amount of discipline is necessary and welcomed. Some may have shady backgrounds, maybe their past was riddled with bad decisions, many are loners or otherwise angry at the world. But here, in this place, they have purpose, they are good at what they do, their skill is respected, and they are able to produce delicious, beautiful food. This is a place where no matter how others may label them, the kitchen only sees them as dependable, focused, competent, and willing to work together for a common goal. This is your place chef – a place that you have developed, a place where different people can come together and produce while they learn to feel good about themselves.
These cooks, through your effort, build life skills that go beyond mastery of a chef knife and the foundations of good cooking.
They learn how important it is to be dependable, to show up, suit up, and come to work ready to play their role.
This is a place where they learn to act professional and look the part.
This kitchen is where they build a lifelong commitment to organization because it is essential for their job. Once accepted, those organizational skills become a part of who they are.
This is a place where standards of operation are at the core of everything that they do.
This kitchen is clean – it must be so. These cooks learn to work clean and pay attention to this in every moment.
These cooks develop the ability to multi-task because the environment is too fast and too complex to survive in unless they can do many things at once. Whether they know it or not, this ability to multi-task will become one of their greatest strengths.
This is a place where even the angriest individual learns to depend on the person next to him or her and where they quickly learn to be there for others. When a fellow cook is in the weeds – they jump in and help.
This is a place where details are critical. The cook learns, under your mentorship to never accept mediocrity – to always strive for excellence.
This is a place where these young cooks build an appreciation for the ingredients they work with and the equipment they use. They take responsibility for this every day.
In the right kitchen, these cooks will learn to view each other as equal – whether young or older, tall or short, male or female, white or a person of color, liberal or conservative, straight or gay, college educated or a product of the school of hard knocks – they are all equal when that apron is tied on.
All of this happens because you chef – set the stage and encourage it to be so. All of this happens because you chef – teach and train, critique, and support, and hold them to high standards and show them how to do so. This happens when you, as the chef, understand your purpose. Your long-term responsibility and the basis for your legacy will extend way beyond accomplishments with cuisine or the profit that you generate for a restaurant. Your name can become viewed as that of a person who spent the time to develop others.
Look no further than out your office window at those cooks who are serious about their craft, who show up to work on time and ready to put their signature on a plate. Look no further than those individuals who respect the persons next to them, support those who need it, take that extra second to set up a plate just right, and who relish the opportunity to serve your food and theirs with a sense of pride and accomplishment.
Kitchens are great equalizers – it is the place where individual talent and exceptional intellect can be less important that dependability, organization, focus, and teamwork. The kitchen is a place where those who are successful come to the realization that those later aptitudes are enhanced through experience – the more you do, the better you become. Some talented people are not the best cooks and chefs and quite often the most intelligent (using commonly referred to scales of measurement) are lacking in common sense.
As a teacher, chef, cook, and initially – dishwasher, I have been witness to those with incredible natural talent, many extraordinarily intelligent individuals, and far more “Rudi” type individuals who compensated with plain old hard work and dedication. Some from each group have been (are) quite successful while others stumble along not quite sure what steps to take next. In the end, from my perspective, the ones who exceed their own and other’s expectations are the ones that find strength in the school of hard knocks. These are the people who worked their way up, failed countless times along the way, stumbled and picked themselves back up, were humble and grateful, and realized that contrary to the organization of the dictionary – work does come before success.
I was thinking the other day how we may be taking away from the opportunities that the school of hard knocks provides. Is it possible that we have become a society determined to make everything easier – assuming that easier is better? Have we dedicated ourselves to minimizing disappointment, push aside fear, eliminate steps that in the past helped us to grow, take away pain, and shorten the distance between a beginning and our end goals? I may be wallowing in my own opinions and readily admit that there is no real science behind my thought process – but here it goes:
 IT MUST BEGIN WITH WASHING DISHES:
Every, yes, EVERY cook with a desire to become a chef someday must begin by washing dishes. This is a must! You will learn how important this job is, how a chef must ensure that the dishwasher is treated with respect, and how much you can learn about the kitchen through the eyes of this position.
 DIVE FOR PEARLS:
If it is a separate task from dishwashing – every cook, yes, EVERY cook who wants to be a chef someday must wash pots. This will teach him or her the importance of organization, how to become a more efficient cook someday, how important clean equipment is to the chef, and the pot washer’s role in mise en place.
 LET ME SHOW YOU HOW TO MOP A FLOOR:
This is a skill to be learned. Don’t think for a minute that how to mop is an innate process – you must be taught. Sweep well, hot water with the right amount of the correct soap, change water frequently, rinse mop and in some cases dry mop afterward to avoid falls. Make sure the mop head is clean and changed frequently. Clean floors are happy floors. Happy floors help to build happy cooks.
 THAT FIRST KNIFE MUST BE EARNED:
Something important is lost when the parents or relatives of an 18-year-old purchase a $600 set of Henkel knives for this inexperienced apprentice before he or she has earned the right to hold a high-quality knife in hand. Ideally, that first knife is something that the young cook saves money for, learns to cherish and respect, and care for like a musician cares for a musical instrument. This is important!
 PEEL 500 POUNDS OF ONIONS FIRST:
So, you want to cook? Begin with an appreciation for the basics – practice until you are very good at the basics. Learn to respect the foundational ingredients and the importance of repetition. Start with onions, learn accuracy, speed, and routine. Cry a lot – this is how the onion wants to be remembered.
 DICE A BAG OF CARROTS – PERFECTLY:
Practice large, medium, small, and brunoise dice. Measure your cuts, look at your waste – improve every day until you are fast and ALWAYS accurate.
 TURN 300 POTATOES PERFECTLY, THEN ASK AGAIN IF YOU CAN WORK THE LINE:
Why is it important for a potato to have seven equal sides? The potato is a
beautiful part of the meal – present it as a prized gem that cooks evenly,
browns on the edges, and graces the plate as a competitor of the entrée for the
 WHAT – YOU NEVER HAD A PAPER ROUTE?
There is something about that first job at the age of 15 – working papers in hand, bike all tuned up, rain or shine, moving from house to house making sure that morning paper hits the front door before breakfast, and taking home that weekly paycheck that sets the tone for a 50-year career ahead. Learning to be responsible and earning what is in your pocket – the school of hard knocks. You know how it feels to not want to get out of bed in the morning but realize that you have a responsibility to others – learn dependability and trust early on and you never forget.
 WASH AND IRON YOUR OWN UNIFORM:
Wash and iron, make sure that it is spotless and pressed, sharp and proud – now the uniform means something and you know that your appearance is a reflection of a profession that dates back many centuries. When you are responsible for it then it means so much more.
 OF COURSE, THOSE SHOES MUST BE POLISHED:
A friend of mine used to say clean shoes, happy shoes, happy cook. Just like in the military – polish them until you can see your reflection. Those clean shoes mean something, and you will take extra care to make sure the floors are clean so that those shoes stay sharp. It’s an entire ecosystem of caring.
 SHOWER AND SHAVE:
Simple – look the part of a professional.
 NO ONE IS ABOVE CLEANING:
One of the great aspects of working in a kitchen is that typically job silos don’t exist. Everything is everyone’s job. At the top of the list is cleaning! Respect for fellow workers, for the safety of the guest, for the image of the operation, for pride in work, and for the traditions of the profession begin with cleaning. The school of hard knocks will not allow prima donnas to find a home in the kitchen.
 ON TIME REALLY IS 15 MINUTES EARLY:
This is a chant of many chefs, and some have viewed it as an abuse of power – but the gist of this statement is that your start time in the kitchen should be when you are able to be productive immediately. For this to happen you need to get a lay of the land, button up your uniform, determine the state of work, the breadth of responsibility on a shift, and grab that first cup of coffee before the “start” button is hit. The school of hard knocks is all about discipline.
 THERE ISN’T ANY SHORT CUT TO STOCK:
I have preached the importance of stock before, but to summarize stock is the heart and soul of a soup or sauce, it is a vehicle for using core ingredients such as onion peels, carrot trimmings, and celery tops that might otherwise become waste, and it brings an aroma of commitment to doing things right in the kitchen. Stock is as much symbolic as it is functional. There is no shortcut when the school of hard knocks demands that we do things right.
 SPEND THREE DAYS ON A FARM:
When we walk a mile in a farmer’s shoes, we learn to pay adequate respect for their work and pay homage to the ingredients that cooks are privileged to use. The school of hard knocks teaches us that those carrots and onions are more than a commodity that is tossed off the back of a delivery truck.
 OF COURSE, EVERY COOK MUST LEARN TO SERVE A GUEST:
The friction that is an ongoing story of life in restaurants typically exists because one department fails to understand what the other one does and the challenges that they face. When a cook is scheduled to spend some time, in any capacity, in the front of the house where teamwork is just as important as in the kitchen and where the individual must learn to interface professionally with a guest, then understanding takes place and that friction is less likely to find a home. The school of hard knocks requires understanding and appreciation.
 MASTER THAT KNIFE – EARN THE RIGHT TO A PROCESSOR:
Shortcuts are oftentimes viewed as a path to efficiency, less stress, and profitability. This may be true, but appreciation of tools that allow this to occur is more pronounced once the individual understands how the task is done without it. We appreciate a bike after we are relegated to walking everywhere and relish owning a car even more when our previous mode of transportation was that bike. The school of hard knocks teaches us to crawl before we run.
 YOUR NAME ON A CHEF COAT MEANS SOMETHING:
Finally, let’s talk about symbols of accomplishment. A criticism of younger generations has been that everyone expects a trophy no matter how they perform. I’m not sure how true this is but do know that the symbol of a cook’s name on his or her chef coat has always meant that he or she has demonstrated the skill and knowledge to warrant their name embroidered on the jacket. It may seem trivial, but it is important – a real sense of pride that should not be diminished by automatically providing that without associated accomplishment. Give them a name tag but reserve the embroidery for a right of passage. To a cook enrolled in the school of hard knocks, this is a certificate of accomplishment.
Whether a chef who began as a dishwasher and never pursued a formal culinary education or a college graduate with a culinary degree – that indoctrination through the school of hard knocks is the most effective manner of building skills, knowledge, pride, and trust that the individual is capable, competent, and confident.
To make a difference – this is something that many of us seek and so few of us think that we accomplish. At some level we all make a difference, even if only in one person’s life, one situation, one community, or even one business. We should all take some level of comfort in this – there is a reason why we are here. A few seek to only make a difference in their own lives while others are far more concerned with the impact they have on others but in both cases, there is a cause and effect. We make a difference through the effort that we are willing and able to give.
I often quote Steve Jobs of Apple Computer who proclaimed that certain people are determined to “make a dent in the universe”, no matter how large or small that dent might be. Starting out in a kitchen as a dishwasher may not feel like a path to making a difference, but it is a door that can open to incredible opportunity, a lifetime of learning, and immense satisfaction through creativity and making someone else’s day. If we look at those little steps as the start of something extraordinary then the effort that we invest and the patience that we exhibit can, and likely will pay off.
It is so true no matter what you choose to do with your life – that first open door will show you the way. When a young Eric Clapton received his first guitar, Michael Jordan embraced his first basketball, Steve Jobs and Steve Wozniak built that first computer in their garage, Michael Phelps dove into a pool for the first time, Tiger Woods swung a club and connected with a golf ball for the first time, or Claude Monet touched a canvas with his first brush stroke they were starting a path to greatness – setting the stage to make a dent in the universe.
Who would have guessed that Chef Jose Andres would wind up one of the world’s great humanitarians with the skills of an accomplished chef and the heart of a saint? Who would have guessed that the primitive computer built in Steve Jobs garage would wind up creating the worldwide market for personal computers? Who would have imagined that the first song co-written by Paul McCartney and John Lennon would light the spark that continues to resonate throughout the world? And who would have ever thought that the idea for a book written on a paper napkin could have created a global interest in J.K. Rawling’s series around Harry Potter and his wizardry adventures? These individuals made significant dents in the universe, but what about you and me?
Stacking and scraping dishes, pushing rack after rack through the conveyor machine, and restacking hot, clean dishes at the other end may seem like a mindless, boring task, but it is a start – an important start. Who would ever consider that a 19-year-old working the fry station on a kitchen line could ever aspire to run a kitchen or own a restaurant someday, but thousands, upon thousands have done so? Talk with those who command busy kitchens, talk with Jose Andres, Stephanie Izard, Daniel Boulud, Sean Brock, Danny Meyer, and Dan Barber about their start and their vision for making a dent in the universe and they will likely reflect on their time in the dish pit – that first open door.
Gavin Kaysen – chef/owner of Spoon and Stable Restaurant and past competitor in the Bocuse d’Or – one of the world’s most challenging culinary competitions, started out as a sandwich maker at Subway. He knew that if he approached that job as if it were the most important thing that he could do; if he treated his steady customers as if they were special; and if he made every sandwich with the same care as a chef would approach an award-winning entrée in his or her restaurant – that he could step out and go as far as he wanted with a career in food. He knew he could make a dent in the universe.
Every time that we (cooks or chefs in any type of restaurant) approach our position with the same vigor and commitment that Chef Kaysen shows, then we will always make a difference. We will make a difference in the comfort and stress level of the chef, put our teammates at ease knowing that they can depend on us, help the restaurant reach its goals, and help the guest enjoy the experience of food and forget about their problems for that one moment when they take a bite of the food that we prepared.
I have enjoyed opportunities beyond my wildest dreams. It was that first job washing dishes and then on to helping a breakfast cook work through the daily rush that solidified my interest in the kitchen. It was that desire to keep opening doors and stepping through that energized me and demonstrated that I might make a difference. You can do this as well. There is nothing to stop you except any self-imposed roadblocks that you let get in your way. Here are some ways to set the stage for making a dent in the universe:
If you don’t know how to do something in the kitchen – ask
If you are serious about learning – volunteer
If you see something that needs to be done – do it
If you see a fellow cook in the weeds – jump in and help
If your eyes are set on becoming a chef – find a mentor
If you are not given adequate opportunities to learn at your current job – find another property with a chef who will teach and train – give adequate notice where you are and open another door
If you don’t make enough money right now – be patient and show every day that you are worth more – do so by constantly improving
If you are too slow – practice
If the chef at your property looks stressed out – ask him or her what you can do to help
There are doors everywhere and you never know which one will lead to an opportunity to make a difference. Don’t shy away from them – take a step forward and view your next footfall as the most important in your career. Your dent is based on your effort. Your confidence is based on your competence. Your competence is based on your willingness to open the next door and commit.
Most of us tend to gravitate to what we can control. We have an innate desire to do what we’re good at and avoid what we are not. It is the fact of control that differentiates comfort from a lack thereof. We invest the time and the energy in a process of skill development, and of knowledge building for some very specific reasons: we want to be good at what we do, we want to be respected, we need others to depend on us, and we have a real desire to be comfortable in our own shoes. Being uncomfortable is un-nerving; it makes our palms sweat, our stomachs churn, our mind wander, and others around us lack the necessary trust in our outcomes.
So, as cooks we focus on the processes, the systems, the equipment, and the recipes that allow us to be in control. Sauté cooks know that a burner can be controlled by the right mix of oxygen and gas, or the thermostat on an electric range. The fry cook can rely, to a large degree, on the thermostat that controls the temp on a deep pan of high temperature oil, and as long as the oil is cleaned and skimmed and changed every few days, they can depend on the results. The banquet cook can set temperature, time, and moisture in a slow cook oven to ensure that a roast is cooked to the proper degree of doneness every time. But then there is the grill station – the place where fire controls everything and the cook is subservient to its inconsistencies.
Fire feeds on oxygen and the dripping of collagen fat melting through the marbling of steaks and chops. Fire, even in the most sophisticated equipment has the upper hand and for a cook to manage it he or she must respect the power that exists in the blue, orange, red and white variances in the character of the flame. The heat varies, the sizzle from contact with fire varies, and the ability to coax the fire into doing what you want is as challenging as hitting a golf ball into 30 mile per hour wind gusts and expecting it to do what you want. A good cook must respect these facts and work every day to try and understand the complex nature of open fire preparations.
Today, the vast majority of the nearly 8 billion people around the world still cook with open fire. Although most may use available wood, twigs, and brush for their fires – in America we were attracted to a new method of fire starting and tending, with the invention of charcoal briquets. It was actually Thomas Edison and Edward Kingsford who perfected the process of pressing sawdust, wood scraps, tar and cornstarch into the magical fuel that many still use today. Kingsford perfected the chemistry and Edison designed the plant for manufacturing. Combining this invention with the work of the Weber Brothers Metal Works in the Chicago area drove the creation of a new industry and a great American pastime. (National Geographic – A Brief History of Cooking with Fire) https://www.nationalgeographic.com/culture/article/a-brief-history-of-cooking-with-fire
Today’s chefs have reinvigorated the ancient process of cooking with open fire. With more sophisticated wood fired grills and ovens, they are opening “Live Fire” restaurants from coast to coast. The comfort of being in control of the process is steadily being replaced by the art of embracing the unpredictability of fire along with the flavor benefits that are a result. Learning to cook in this manner involves a willingness to put aside what a chef thinks he or she knows and be willing to re-learn how to turn over much of the control to the flame. The cook must be willing to tag along for the ride and learn something new every time the coals are stoked.
Starting the fire, selecting the right wood, curing an oven, building the coals, monitoring temperatures that can reach 1,000-degree Fahrenheit, and staying focused on the product that may cook in a few short minutes is far less a science and much more an art form that takes considerable time to understand and begin to master.
The heat is intense, the sweat will pour down a cook’s back, the view of the flames is intoxicating, the sear is breathtaking, and determining degrees of doneness is completely different than working with traditional char broilers and ovens. Neapolitan pizzas take 90 seconds on an 850-degree wood fired hearth, artisan breads bake at 500 degrees, chickens and game birds’ nest in cast iron Dutch ovens as they absorb the flavor of hardwoods like cherry or oak, and steaks and chops take their direction from the deep blue and golden yellow flames that jump from the embers that sit just a few inches from the steel grates designed to take the heat.
If you felt that being a line cook was physically hard before – hang on to your hat when you first enter the world of open fire cooking. This is how cooking was meant to be – a challenge, a way to pit the intelligence of the cook against the all-consuming power and unpredictable nature of fire.
“The comforts of life’s essentials – food, fire, and friendship.”
I have been following the current Rolling Stones Tour without Charlie Watts for the first time in 59 years. He was, like so many drummers, far more important to the band than many would have thought. He wasn’t flamboyant, didn’t invest too much energy in building rapid fire fills in all the Stones songs, and wasn’t one to seek out the limelight, but he was the energy, the force, the stability behind the music that carried the band for an unbelievable number of years (and still going). When you stop to reflect back on the dozens of albums and hundreds of songs that make up their catalog you start to hear the power and unique character to what he said through his instrument. A short catchy rhythm here and there, a short staccato accent, or a strategically placed rim shot and you suddenly had a Stones song that played in your head over and over again. He was always there, keeping the others in line, and being consistently present. Never underestimate the importance of that piece of the machine.
In the kitchen, like in a band, there are players who grab the microphone and the spotlight and some who add a flashy solo now and again to take centerstage and seem to be most important to the sound of the kitchen, but it really is one person, one station that consistently serves as the drummer keeping the engine churning and holding everything together. In most kitchens it is the person working the chargrill. This is the line cook who works with fire, the one cook who allows the flame to touch the product directly and as such must learn to control the uncontrollable. The steaks and chops are a consistent centerpiece on nearly every menu. The muscle that when properly marbled or blended with the right amount of fat, feeds the flame as it laps up its energy from the moisture that drips into the soul of fire as it wraps around a strip, filet, chop, ribeye, or beautifully blended burger.
Yes, every cook can be trained to determine degrees of doneness and after a period of time get pretty good at it, but it is the accomplished grill person, the Charlie Watts of the kitchen, who can sense when it is time to give that steak a quarter turn to highlight those perfect grill marks, or flip the steak (only once), when he or she knows that it is time. The grill cook always dances on the edge of knowing just when to make a move so that the protein will caramelize on the outside, building that incredible carbon crust while still ensuring that a perfect rare, or medium rare is maintained inside. The Charlie Watts of the line knows just when to pull that steak or chop from the fire so that carry over cooking never leaves the meat overdone and to allow adequate time for the meat to rest before slicing to ensure that the juice stays in the meat and not on the plate. A perfectly cooked steak is a work of art just like those steady beats from the drummer in a band.
The grill keeps the rhythm of the kitchen, sets the pace and defines the tone. All timing from other stations: sauté, fry station, and plate set up is built around the work of the grillade. Building flavors on the sauté station takes a sophisticated palate and the ability to keep multiple preparations organized as tickets come screaming into the kitchen where as the grillade typically only works with salt and pepper – leaving the flavor up to the quality of the meat and the magic of the flame. One adds to the flavor profile, while the other protects what is present from the beginning. It is the steady beat of the grillade that defines how successful a line of cooks will be during service. He or she is the commander of the flame – fire and man or woman – the most primal of cooking techniques, the most admired, the most intense. Everything about the position exudes power, determination, and the ability to work in an environment of extremes. It is physical, mental, and emotional; it is independent and collaborative, but most importantly it is the beat that other cooks depend on. Just like Charlie Watts – the grill cook is the soul of the band of cooks.
It’s time to accept where we are, listen and understand where we might be going, put aside our frustrations and begin to establish a working strategy that is based on what is inevitable. Yes, I’m talking about what it will be like in our restaurants from this point on and into the foreseeable future.
I know, I know – we all want things to return to normal, and we want the industry we knew to come back just as it was. In the profound words of David Byrne: “Same as it ever was, same as it ever was.” But the fact of the matter is: it will not likely ever be the same as it ever was. So, take a deep breath, kick a few empty five-gallon buckets around the kitchen (make sure they are empty), release a string of expletives if it makes you feel better, and take a few ibuprofens to address that constant headache. Sometimes, things start to feel better when you know that the decisions are much clearer now than they were a few months ago – even if the clarity is not what we hoped for.
So, here is what we know and what we must learn to work with:
 COVID PROTOCOLS WILL LIKELY BE WITH US FOR SOME TIME:
You’re tired of it, your employees are tired of it, and your customers are tired of, but it is the second-best tool in your toy chest (next to the vaccine) to help keep this pandemic under control and keep everyone safe. Many indicators point to Covid as a constantly mutating virus that comes back in a different form every year. This means that booster shots, like the flu vaccine, will be an annual reality and masks and other internal protocols will probably be either recommended or required at some level for months or even years to come (sorry to burst your bubble).
 SOME OF YOUR BEST EMPLOYEES WON’T BE COMING BACK:
They stepped away while you were shut down, they had time to evaluate and take a hard look at the pros and cons and concluded that working in restaurants just wasn’t worth it. The pay was not the best, the benefits not so great, the hours and uncertainty of schedules frustrating, the physical work demanding, the environment stressful, and working evenings and holidays quite anti-social. So, they decided to look for a change of career. We didn’t address all those issues when we should have and now the pandemic made it all too obvious that it was time for them to cut the apron strings.
 FINDING NEW STAFF WILL BE A CHALLENGE FOR QUITE A WHILE:
The same media that made our industry exciting and attractive (unrealistically attractive) for decades has now invested in pointing out on social media, in newspapers and magazines, in expose books, and on television that working in restaurants has a dark side. Combine this with the cost of a culinary or hospitality education and the 30-year payback to become debt free and many young students are turning their backs on a restaurant career.
 LABOR WILL BE MUCH MORE EXPENSIVE
Those employees that you are able to attract, especially the good ones, will be able to demand significantly higher wages and much broader benefit packages. Yep, we might actually have to pay people a fair wage for the work that they do. Ouch!
 WE DO NEED TO ADDRESS WORK/LIFE BALANCE FOR EVERYONE:
It is absolutely true that when you find something that you enjoy doing, time investment is far less a concern, but try telling that to a good employee who has a family that also demands his or her attention. When the stress of the job, especially the demands for excellence, poise, teamwork, service mentality, and competence, become over-bearing then everyone loses. We (all of us) need to see these roadblocks, listen to our employees, and find ways to create a more accommodating environment – one that treats people with respect and works to create a user-friendly space where employees can perform well and feel good about themselves.
 CUSTOMERS ARE ANGRY WITH THE WORLD AND THEY SEEM TO ENJOY TAKING IT OUT ON YOUR STAFF – DON’T TOLERATE IT!
Of course, we all get it. Life has been very challenging of late, and everyone is tired, on edge, frustrated beyond belief, and just DONE. We are all ready to own our lives again and enjoy the simple things – like going out for a meal. When the frustrations that a person feels translates to treating our employees poorly, placing blame on their shoulders for the protocols that they are required to enforce, and ignorance of the unique staffing challenges that continues to shoot holes in our delivery systems – then chefs and restaurateurs need to step in to protect the well-being of their employees. The customer isn’t always right when they look down on our staff and try to make their lives unbearable. Don’t allow it – there is no space for that crap in our places of work.
 THE SUPPLY CHAIN IS BROKEN AND WILL BE FOR A WHILE:
This is the straw that broke the camel’s back. Staffing is difficult, customers are sometimes miserable, everyone is tired, and many are afraid, but now we can’t even depend on receiving the supplies that we need to conduct business. Reminds me of that telling moment in the movie Network, when people hung their heads out of their apartment windows and yelled: “I’m mad as hell and not going to take it anymore.” Well, the supply chain is bigger than all of us, very complex, and apparently – very fragile. We can’t find staff, but neither can farmers, processors, supply ports, trucking companies, and even air carriers who bring that beautiful fresh fish to your door or wild mushrooms from Washington State. So, it’s time to build contingency plans with this in mind – the problem will not be fixed overnight.
 SMALLER MENUS ARE A MUST, AT LEAST FOR NOW:
Chefs do like to strut their stuff. We do like to show what we can do through our menus, train our staff how each should be prepared, how they should taste, and how they must be presented on the plate. Unfortunately, staffing and supply issues make large menus impossible to maintain. Get accustomed with smaller menus and fluid ones that change in an instant based on what is available.
 RIGHT NOW, VALUE IS FOCUSED ON SAFETY, TRUST, AND EFFICIENCY – EVENTUALLY IT WILL TURN BACK TO QUALITY AND PRICE:
We need to be ready to wow our guests again with exceptional, interesting, flavor packed, beautiful food and warm, friendly, comfortable service. This never goes out of style so don’t be coaxed into thinking that a safe and efficient restaurant can survive without the magic of the kitchen and its cooks.
 LESS COMPETITION DUE TO RESTAURANT CLOSURES IS NOT A GOOD THING FOR YOU:
Less competition means less interest in those related careers. Less competition means less incentive to always stay on the cutting edge with product and service, less competition means that fewer people in your community will view a lunch or dinner out as the “thing to do”. We should applaud competition, welcome it, and learn from it.
 DON’T PUSH ASIDE FOOD TO GO, FOOD DELIVERY, GHOST KITCHENS, OR CURBSIDE PICK-UP JUST YET:
Yep, it saved many restaurants and our customers embraced it – now we can’t forget it. We need to become incredible at food to go – figure out ways to maintain quality, package it beautifully so that it looks fantastic, and create a “to go experience” that is comparable to in-person dining. A tall task, but necessary. To go is here to stay.
 SURVIVAL IS THE FIRST THING ON A CHEF’S JOB DESCRIPTION RIGHT NOW:
All hands-on deck! We can’t afford to close, and we can’t afford to open – UNLESS – everyone in your operations is part of the solution. Survival means the right menu, perfectly prepared and presented food, real service that includes the cooks desire to always say YES, clean, and upbeat dining rooms, with staff who offer service with a smile, and cost control on everyone’s mind. It means, more than ever before that every guest is important AND it means that if, in your position, you are not serving the guest directly, then you must serve someone who is.
 FORGET THE EXECUTIVE CHEF TITLE – WORKING CHEF IS MUCH MORE REALISTIC RIGHT NOW:
It may be some time before the chef with a clipboard is back. If you haven’t done so for some time – be prepared to occasionally work a station, engage in prep, push a few racks through the dish machine, and yes – help to bus tables and mop an occasional floor. This is a good thing – roll up your sleeves, the chef won’t always have the cleanest uniform in the kitchen.
At this time, when it seems so easy to complain, to point fingers, to question, and sometimes even to bail on a career in the kitchen – I offer these insights for a professional cook:
I am a cook, hear me roar
*I am proud to be a cook, and to be a caretaker of beautiful ingredients from the land, the sea, and the air.
*I am proud to wear the uniform of the cook and know that it represents a proud tradition of one of the world’s oldest professions.
*I am protective and proud of the tools I use. My knives are an extension of my hands and I respect and care for them making sure that they are sharp and clean and used for their intended purpose.
*I am fully aware that my future as a cook or chef lies in my hands. I can be whatever I hope to be – the world is and always has been my oyster.
*I know that success results from hard work, it is never a given. My future depends on how hard I am willing to work to get there.
*As a proud cook I know that my skills are important but will fail to result in a great product without collaboration with others.
*I know that organization is paramount to success.
*I understand that my role is to respect the ingredients I use and coax out the flavor and nutrition that is already there.
*I know that great cooking comes from an understanding of the culture, traditions, methods, trials and tribulations, and celebrations behind a cuisine or a dish.
*I know that the only way to become truly masterful at my craft is to practice, practice, practice.
*As a cook I understand the importance of respect for others, respect for the chain of command in the kitchen, and respect for the foundations of cooking.
*I know that cooking and giving people a chance to break bread is a gift that keeps on giving.
*I know that hard work and smart work must go hand-in-hand.
*As a cook I understand that my growth to the position of chef will take time, experience, wins and losses, joy and sorrow, and a willingness to listen and learn.
*I know the satisfaction that comes from a dish well prepared and presented.
*As a cook I understand the importance of a well-rounded palate and know that it will take time to develop, even if I seem to have the gift of developed taste buds.
*As a cook I respect those who have been able to benefit from a formal culinary education but realize that they too will need to experience day-to-day kitchen intensity before they can celebrate their ability.
*As a cook I understand just how important every person in the kitchen and dining room is to our collective success.
*As a cook I will never discount the importance of the dishwasher.
*I live to work clean and am proud of the fact that no one ever need remind me to clean as I go.
*I understand that mise en place is the key to success on the line.
*I understand that serving the food that I prepare is also stressful and demanding so I respect those who do so with enthusiasm and professionalism.
*As a professional cook I know that everyone is equal, some simply have different jobs. Whether white or of color, young or old, male, or female, college educated or from the school of hard knocks, short, small, tall, thin, or heavy, American born or from any of the hundreds of countries around the globe – as long as you work hard and respect others – I will respect you.
*I am an artist who uses the plate as a canvas.
*I have burns, cuts, sore muscles and backs, and many insecurities that I try to work out daily, but so do you – so I shouldn’t invest too much energy in complaining.
*I know that with all the challenges that cooks face, all the perceived inequities, all of the scabs that cover the cuts beneath, this is a rewarding profession like no other.
*I know that a kind word goes a long way toward understanding and respect. I also know that vicious talk and demeaning attitudes will tear a team apart and leave far too many people without the confidence to perform well.
*As a professional cook I relish the opportunity to learn something new, to try a new food, to build my palate and advance my skill proficiency – this is what makes me stronger.
*I know the difference between critique and criticism. I embrace the prior and reject the later.
*I accept critique but feel that if others need to point out my mistakes it is because I was not paying attention. I know when I haven’t lived up to my own standards and when I fall short of the necessary skills required. Tell me what I need to do but show me how to do it and I will listen and learn.
All of this I know with certainty. This is the same as it always was and how it will always be for those who view working in a kitchen as a chance to grab the bull by the horns, determine where they want to be in the future, create a roadmap to get there, and stay the course. I ask myself every day: “Is what I am doing right now bringing me any closer to reaching my goals?” If the answer is “no” then it is time to self-correct.
Twenty years ago, yes twenty years, our lives changed forever. When those terrorists without a soul, with evil and hate in their hearts chose to attack innocent people who were just going about their lives and sent a message to America and the world that life is not precious and never guaranteed. We all remember, at least those who were born before 1995, where we were, when we heard, and how much fear was infused into the air that we breathe. It remains one of the most tragic, heart wrenching, stomach churning, and depressing, events of our lives. Something that we never will and never should forget.
It is likely that each of knows someone who died on that day, whether on a plane, in an attacked building, or doing their job trying to save others. Those memories are branded into our subconscious. One of my former students, Chris Carstanjen, was on the second plane that was flown directly into the twin towers. I still think of him and what must have been going through his mind at that moment. He was simply in route to the west coast for a well-deserved vacation.
The emotions that we collectively felt became a unifying introduction to twenty years of a changing America. At first, we came together to share in our grief and to help everyone make sense of the act and find a way to breathe again. Then that unity opened the door to anger, a need for revenge, political divide, a lack of trust, a tendency among some to find blame in conspiracy theories, loads of hate and calls for isolation. To a large degree, the challenges that we face today had many of their roots in this one day in history. Is our great divide whether political, spiritual, ethnic, or social somehow connected to the fear, anger, and uncertainty that was sparked on a day of national trauma?
We are a country so divided that America is somewhat hard to recognize. This is not the country that I remember as a youngster, this is not the country that my parents would have recognized and certainly not the country that my father, grandfather, uncle, and father-in-law fought to protect and defend in the first two world wars. This is certainly not the country that those who built our democracy would remember.
After twenty years of continued fighting, disruption of countries, trillions of dollars spent, and countless lives lost – we finally recognized that ending the fighting was the only logical outcome. All the fighting, all the tragedy of 20 years did not really change anything. So, on this anniversary of 9/11 we must all wonder what are we doing? If America continues to entrench in individual beliefs whether based on fact or contrived fiction, where will we end up? Is it possible that our collective mistrust of everything, our collective belief that there is something sinister going on behind everything, our collective willingness to push aside the conclusions and work of highly competent, world-class scientists in favor of idiots spewing conspiracy theories on social media, our total distrust of our democratic system by many average Americans and even those who represent us, can be connected to that date in 2001?
Did 9/11 uncover the worst of us or the best of us? It remains one of the most tragic days in our history – a day when our guard was down and evil triumphed, at least for a moment in time. The question is – are we going to allow that evil to change what America is(was) all about? This great country was always a beacon of light for others, a place where the magic of the people and where sound majority beliefs determined how we would act. A place where we all had an opportunity to express our beliefs knowing that the scrutiny of the truth would prevail, but also relishing the opportunity to have an opinion. America has always been a place of civilized discourse but also where facts were accepted, where educators were respected, where experts in a field of study were admired, where the news was the news and not filled with a table full of talking heads, where what was in print could be trusted because we had controls in place and ethics aligned to make sure that before it was said, it was verified. I remember that country – do you?
This week I will shed another tear for those people who lost their lives on September 11, 2001 – especially Chris Carstanjen. I will remember, with respect, all the firemen, police officers, and volunteers who risked their lives to search for others and who continue to die today because of the toxins they were exposed to. This week I will remember all the young men and women, military and civilian who lost their lives as a direct or indirect consequence of 9/11 and the wars that followed. This is a week to remember and respect, but it should also be a week where we self-assess and ask the question: “Are we going to let evil win?”
This week chefs and cooks can pay respect to all those who have suffered and perished directly or indirectly from the trauma of 9/11 and help to bring people together in the spirit of the America that the world held so high, for so long. We can do this by preparing food from the heart and the soul and breaking bread with others. Do so with respect for all people and in direct defiance of evil. We hold in our hands, the means to bring people together of all walks of life, all nationalities and beliefs, and all traditions and perspectives. I can think of no better way to honor all whom we have lost. I will cook for the memory of Chris Carstanjen this weekend. What will you do?
It has been around for centuries, oftentimes held high as a somewhat mystical crop, a tuber that fed the poor, protected against the scourge of scurvy, became a type of currency, and amazed everyone for its variety. The potato is an incredible marvel of Mother Nature that remains the centerpiece of many cuisines, a centerpiece that gives the chef plenty of poetic license for nurturing its qualities and celebrating its ability to morph into so many unique dishes that are influenced by tradition and context.
To the cook and the chef, the potato is a clean slate. A product so essential, so versatile, packed with nutrition, and cost effective that sometimes it is taken for granted. The potato has become a commodity, an ingredient that is too often purchased with more concern over size and shape than by the uniqueness of its countless varieties and flavor profiles.
“Not everyone can be a truffle. Most of us are potatoes. And a potato is a very
good thing to be.” – Chef Massimo Bottura
Chef Bottura makes an important comparison but falls into the habit of inferring that the potato is common and simple. It is prevalent and sometimes dismissed in comparison to other ingredients just as far too many excellent and talented people are pushed aside if they fail to stand out as unique. The potato is so much more robust as an ingredient and so much more significant in the kitchen than those ingredients that have a limited appeal or function even though they may be revered. Think about the possibilities:
THE FRENCH FRY: Potatoes are the number one vegetable consumed in the United States and French fries are top of the list when it comes to potato choices. When done well they are crisp and golden on the outside and creamy and satisfying on the inside. Served piping hot with just the right amount of salt – they are hard to beat and not only a classic, but an essential item on nearly every restaurant menu regardless of the pricing structure. Sometimes served with cheese curd and pan gravy as poutine or enhanced with truffle oil and Himalayan salt; or rosemary, lemon and cracked pepper; thin and crunchy as pommes frites, or thick planks with prime steak – there are limitless choices for any palate.
THE MIGHTY BAKED POTATO: Few menu items are easier to prepare, yet more rewarding than a properly baked potato. Russets are best for the perfect baker since their coarser skin can withstand the 400-degree heat necessary to build a crust and protect the soft texture of the interior. Slice through the crunchy skin at service, pinch both ends to reveal the steamy hot interior and insert ample amounts of butter and/or sour cream, a pinch of salt and pepper and you will find a centerpiece for the plate that is impossible to resist. Watch guest approach their plate and note that in most cases it is the baked potato that welcomes the first bite and not the steak. My favorite is the crunchy skin lathered with butter and a sprinkle of salt and pepper.
WHIPPED OR MASHED WITH LOADS OF BUTTER: So, inviting are mashed potatoes (pommes puree) that Chef Joel Robuchon, at one point the most revered chef in the world, created his signature version that was so sinful that it became the most important dish on his menu. A time-tested method of preparation and equal parts of potato and butter led to an item that drew customers from across the globe.
HASH BROWNS TO START THE DAY: If you are a restaurant chef, chances are one of your first jobs in the kitchen was working breakfast. Waking up at 4 a.m. to be fresh enough to walk through those kitchen doors at 5:00 took quite an effort. But quickly your energy level would rise as you smelled fresh brewed coffee, bacon being pulled from the oven, finished pastries from the bakeshop filling the air with their sweetness, and the caramelization of potatoes on the griddle. Hash browns and home fries with their sweet crunchiness as the butter and potato starchiness combined to form that delicious crust would always make you salivate. What better way to start the day than a plate of hash browns, bacon and two eggs over easy?
DON’T FORGET THE CHEESE AND CREAM: A somewhat lost menu item in restaurants that deserves to reemerge is the scalloped or au gratin potato. Potatoes are cooked till they nearly fall apart and then tossed with salted cream, maybe a few egg yolks, and if au gratin ample amounts of cheddar, baked till a crust forms as a package to protect what is inside – what a treat.
POTATOES ANNA – A STEP ABOVE: When simplicity meets elegance – magic occurs. Thinly sliced potatoes, overlapping and assembled in a cast iron pan with copious amounts of butter and salt, baked until they are golden brown and crunchy on the outside while still creamy once the seal is broken. The lowly potato can be elevated to the most revered fine dining establishment with this potato pie.
“Pommes Anna is a famous French preparation of white potatoes, borne in the mid 19th century. The story goes that the dish was named for Anna Deslions, a well-known Parisian courtesan who frequented Café Anglais where Chef Adolophe Duglere invented the dish to honor her and the wealthy clientele that she brought into the popular restaurant.”
VICHYSOISSE – REFINED AND ELEGANT: The soup of kings that intrigues and dismays. Chilled puree potato and leeks with cream, and salt and chives mystify many by its simplicity and elegance. There seems to be no end to the stories of its creation, the most common is that Louis the XV was so paranoid about being poisoned that a series of tasters were employed to test everything that he would eat. This potato soup had to be tasted so many times that by the time it got to the king it was cold. He enjoyed it that way, so it became a staple in his diet. The more likely origin is through the hands of Chef Louis Diat who, as chef at the Ritz Carlton New York, invented the soup in 1917 for the hotel’s roof top garden restaurant. The chef built the dish to help cool diners during the hot summer months. In any case – it is a classic.
OVEN ROASTED – A HOME FOR ROSEMARY: All chefs know that there are foods that seem to naturally pair well. We know that Stilton Cheese is easily married to a good port, foie gras to sauternes, mint with lamb, and rosemary with roasted potatoes. The aroma of rosemary and butter as they caramelize on the surface of potatoes is intoxicating.
YAMS AND SWEETS: Oftentimes associated with holidays, sweet potatoes can be a differentiated item on any menu. Sweet and soft in texture, the sweet potato can find its way into a blend with traditional mashed, a uniquely different pommes frites, or pan caramelized in butter as a complement to chicken or pork dishes. Yams are a completely different root vegetable that are somewhat tasteless on their own. They have a dark brown outer skin and are NOT what most of us buy in the store. Louisiana sweet potatoes have long been marketed as yams to differentiate them from the other choices on the market- but they are not real yams.
ANGLAISE – SIMPLY BOILED: Sometimes the simplest version is still the best. Peeled and boiled white skin potatoes tossed in butter, salt, and parsley is hard to top.
POTATO SALAD – THE SUMMER TREAT: When we think of summer foods it is impossible to talk about barbeque without mentioning the importance of potatoes (with or without skins) boiled, diced, and chilled, tossed in mayonnaise and sour cream, salt and pepper, fresh chives, maybe a few slices of robust radishes, scallions and celery, a touch of paprika and a cold beer or iced tea on the side. This is a dish of July and August, one that is universally American.
FINGERLINGS WITH SOUR CREAM AND CAVIAR: Chefs looking for that interesting finger food passed at hors d’oeuvre receptions – a food that will excite the palate and demonstrate the chef’s ability to create flavor explosions that can become a point of conversation among guests, will find this simple dish a perfect fit. Boiled, chilled and split fingerling potatoes topped with a dollop of sour cream and a generous amount of quality caviar are such a surprise that guest will spend the evening in search of just one more.
THE MIGHTY POTATO CHIP: Invented in Saratoga, New York as the Saratoga Chip by a cook: George Crum, who out of frustration over a customer who kept sending back his fried potatoes as too soggy. As a reaction, Crum finally sliced the potatoes very thin and cooked them until they were hard, salted them generously and sent them out to the guest as a reaction to his complaints. As it turned out – the guest loved them – the rest is history. Today, nearly 1.5 billion pounds of potato chips (originally Saratoga Chips) are consumed in the US each year.
Potatoes are an integral part of world culture. They appear, in many forms, in nearly every cuisine and serve as a source of nutrition and enjoyment. To some like the Irish, they were salvation during famine, and others like the Incas and Aztecs – a tuber that had mystical properties. For chefs – they are an all-year essential ingredient, but one to celebrate even more during harvest when they are tilled from the soil, washed, sorted, and prepared for chefs to work their magic. Like any other ingredient from nature that has its season – this is the best time to hail this root vegetable and put yourself in SERVICE OF THE POTATO.
Late summer and early fall are very exciting times for chefs. Summer heat is winding down, the colors of autumn are beginning to highlight trees and plants, and gardens are presenting kitchens with some of the most dynamic fruits and vegetables to grace restaurant menus. Over the next few weeks – Harvest America Cues will highlight five of those ingredients that offer robust flavor, loads of versatility, and a seasonal presence that can change the focus of a chef’s menu.
We will take a deep dive into the world of tomatoes, potatoes, corn, apples, and root vegetables like parsnips, carrots, and beets. Although best when harvested and used immediately, many of these fall gifts are able to store well either under refrigeration or canned for later use. First up – the mighty tomato.
Growing up in the 50’s and 60’s the tomato was a fruit (yes, a fruit) that was easy to identify. A tomato was round and somewhat red, off the vine, uniform, often mealy and typically tasteless. I still loved tomatoes and found them to be a welcome addition to salads, burgers, and even part of those grilled cheese sandwiches with American slices (cheese food), layered between two slices of Wonder bread. Those were the days before we “discovered “(re-discovered) great tomatoes, real cheese, and whole grain rustic breads. Oh, how things have changed and how wonderful that transition has been.
It wasn’t until much later in life, still before I entertained a career in the kitchen, that I was exposed to the real thing. I still remember that first fresh, ripe tomato picked from the farmer’s vine in the middle of July. The sun had warmed the fruit that was nearly bursting with luscious seeds and drenched with moisture and flavor – flavor that I had not experienced before. I took a bite of that warm tomato, just as I would from a fall apple and was amazed at the powerful flavor as the seeds dripped down my chin and the full intensity of Mother Nature’s gift was firmly entrenched in my sub-conscious. Whoa, that was incredible! From that point on, my absolute favorite summer sandwich was (and still is) a fresh, sun warmed tomato, sliced thick and sandwiched between two slices of wheat toast with ample amounts of mayonnaise, sprinkled with pepper and salt. Just writing about it now makes me hungry. Later, of course, I changed the bread to a rustic, crusty sourdough, that beefsteak tomato to an heirloom varietal like a dark Cherokee, sea salt, and fresh cracked pepper – and sometimes a handful of fresh basil leaves as well.
The mighty tomato is an absolute thing of beauty and a gift from late summer harvest. We now understand that there are hundreds, maybe thousands of heirloom varieties from the tiny grape and pear tomatoes to San Marzano (great for canning and sauce), to Brandywines, Ribbed varieties, and those incredible Cherokee’s. From simple seeds nurtured in rich potting soil during the early spring, to robust plants with fruit that is too heavy to be held up to the sun without some support, the tomato comes to life from seed to bud, to green pearl, and with the right amount of care, water, and sunlight – grows to a fruit beyond compare.
As a chef, the tomato, if truly appreciated, can serve as a supporting character or a centerpiece on late summer menus. For that window of time, a chef can push aside those somewhat tasteless, uniform tomatoes that have become a boring commodity, and feature the breadth of heirloom varieties that come from local farmers. Wonderful tomato tarts with fresh ricotta and pignoli crust as an appetizer, the classic Caprese salad with tomato, fresh mozzarella or burrata, basil, virgin olive oil and aged balsamic; a truly fresh marinara made with fruit that was picked a day or two before; baked tomatoes as an entrée side, a Salsa Fresca to flavor those simple tortilla chips and guacamole, or sauteed grape tomatoes to add sharpness to ratatouille. The options are only limited by the chef’s creativity.
Yes, it takes more effort, certainly the process of bringing these ingredients to your kitchen requires far more communication with farmers than it does to place an order with a large box vendor, but the benefits for the guest are worth the extra work. When we work with Mother Nature and do our best to celebrate the seasonality of the ingredients that we work with, our menus sing, our cooks learn to take on the role of caretaker, and the guest is thrilled with the results.
Hold a tomato in your hand and know the care and passion of the farmer, relish the work of the summer sun, enjoy the hard work of the soil that fed the plant, and know that our job as chefs and cooks is less about manipulation and far more about celebrating the flavors that we are given to work with. Tomatoes deserve to be warmed by the sun, not chilled into submission. Tomatoes have earned our respect and as such must be handled with care as a sign of respect for the farmer’s work. Give tomatoes a chance to stand up as the leading character on your menu – give them their day in the spotlight; it will be 11 more months before you will have another opportunity.
For these few short weeks, we have a unique chance to participate in a seasonal ritual – a ritual of celebration just as important as that of the grape ready for harvest, the apple ready to drop from the tree, or corn at the peak of its sweetness. This is the time to celebrate the tomato.
The goal of every restaurant and every chef is to create memorable experiences for the guest. Somewhere in our internal job description is a desire, and even a need to build an environment of WOW! Wow visuals on the plate and in the dining room, wow views from every seat, wow service, and of course – wow flavors on the plate. We may complain about the guest who is taking loads of pictures of their food and posting them on Instagram, but deep inside we get a bit of a rush when it happens. Guests will return when the effort expended to create memorable complete dining experiences is front and center.
What we seem to forget sometimes is that those memorable experiences are due to a collective effort of every person involved in creating a dining event. That Instagram picture was possible because of the farmers, ranchers, fishermen, and vendors who brought the ingredients to your receiving dock. Internally, the guest experience owes a great deal to the housekeeping staff, the dining room servers and managers, bartenders and sommelier, dishwashers, prep cooks, bakers and pastry chefs, line cooks, expeditor, sous chef, and chef who holds the lead position in the kitchen. It is, and must be, a team effort. So, what are we doing to create a memorable experience for this team? Does this seem farfetched? After all, these folks get paid to do their part in creating guest experiences – why in the world would we put any effort into creating the same for them?
The answer is obvious – if those involved directly or indirectly with your team feel the magic of your operation, feel it in the same way that the guest does, then they will perform better, look forward to their work, engage better with others on the team, and feel part of something special. These team members will go out of their way for the guest because you do so for them. Chefs, managers, and owners should live by a simple rule – “If you are not serving the guest directly then it is your job to serve those who are.” Take care of your employees and vendors and they will take care of your paying customers.
Think about it for a moment: If you create a positive experience with your vendors then they might just go the extra mile for you. If you recognize the farmer, the rancher, and the fisherman, then they might be so inclined to set aside those extra special ingredients for your kitchen. If you create an educational, supportive, uplifting, and inclusive environment for your staff from dishwasher to line cook, and server to sommelier then they will feel great about their job and in turn build those experiences for a guest – every guest. So, here are a few thoughts on creating those behind-the-scenes experiences:
 FOR THE VENDOR: Give them a tour of your operation, introduce them to the staff and the ownership, put their name on your menu (if they do an excellent job), give them an opportunity to talk with your cooks about their ingredients, take your cooks to tour the vendor’s facilities, drop them a note on occasion thanking them for the quality products they deliver to your door, invite them to dinner once a year to see their ingredients on the finished plate. Make them feel as if they are part of your mission – they are!
 FOR THE SERVICE STAFF: Training, teaching, and tasting are all part of the program. They can’t sell a product that they don’t know. Let them kick the tires and take the menu for a spin. Put an apron on every server and let them shadow and help your cooks for a good part of a shift – you will be amazed how far this will go towards building understanding and appreciation on both sides of the kitchen doors. Let them taste wines on your list and help to build an understanding of the process and the product. Make it fun!
 FOR THE SOMMELIER AND BARTENDER: Food and beverage pairing is a fast road to customer satisfaction and a great way to maximize profit potential for the restaurant. Part of the experience for the sommelier and bartender is to taste those pairings – yes, everything on the menu so they know how to do their job and at the same time build a deep appreciation for the talent of your cooks.
 FOR THE DINING ROOM MANAGER: Every dining room manager must work a few shifts in the kitchen. This is essential as a team building process. The manager is the conduit between the kitchen and the front of the house – help them to become better informed as an advocate for unity. When the chef visits a vendor farm, tours a processing plant, takes a trip to a dockside fish monger – take the manager along. The more they know about the extended team the more meaningful their job experience.
 FOR THE DISHWASHER: Now, we all know how important a conscientious dishwasher is to the operation of a restaurant. If you are not sure, try going through a service without one. Look at every dishwasher as your next cook in training. Yep, even if they don’t seem to have any interest in it. At the very least – you will help to build respect between cooks and dishwasher. Let’s face it, dishwashing is rarely a career choice – show yours that there are opportunities to grow, to learn, to become something special. Feed them well, treat them with respect, help them out when they are busy, make sure they get a break, and teach them about the cook’s skill set. They will surprise you.
 FOR YOUR COOKS: Every chef is only as good as his or her weakest cook. It is your job to teach and train, to show some empathy, but be tough and have very high expectations of your cooks. Teach them to be professional, to look sharp, to respect others, to be competent at their craft, to understand the history behind processes and specific dishes, to learn how to care for tools, to appreciate what things cost, to know the source of ingredients and how hard the farmer, rancher, and fisherman work to bring ingredients to their prep table. Make sure they build a solid palate and appreciation for how food looks on the plate – help to MAKE THEM PROUD! This is the experience that you owe them.
 FOR YOUR SOUS CHEF AND EXPEDITOR: You would be lost without them, they are you just a few years ago so think back to that time. What did you need, what was lacking in your training, how did you feel, what type of support or push did you need? Be that resource for them. Teach them to take your job! Show them about budgets, and marketing, human resource management and inventory control, menu planning and recipe costing, and how to build their personal brand. Be their experience.
 FOR YOURSELF: Don’t neglect your own experience as a chef. You worked hard to get here, now it is important to enjoy it. Continue to push the owner to help you further develop skills and aptitudes that are important to the position. Join organizations, compete, attend workshops and conferences, publish your recipes, travel, build your library, and seek every opportunity to build your brand and reputation among peers and guests. This is your time – your personal experience too.
Identifying problems has never been a challenge in the restaurant industry – there are many. Making the effort to solve those problems is another story. We have a problem right now that seems to be universal and there is no shortage of complaints and posts on social media that proclaim the effects, but little is done to point to active solutions. A good start would be to refrain from using the word “problem” since it seems to imply that solutions are mysterious and impossible and instead rely on “challenges” as the descriptor. A small step, but one that signifies that if we put our heads together there is a way, or many ways, to move beyond, over, or around those challenges.
The other important point is to understand that state of mind is always a deterrent to solutions or a support mechanism for the same. In other words if we see the challenge as insurmountable then it will be. If we see the challenge as something that has an answer if we take the time to really push our problem-solving skills, then a solution will eventually present itself.
Third, and maybe most important – it is essential to find the cause of a challenge before it can really be solved. Far too often we invest our time in addressing the effects of a challenge rather than the source of the roadblocks that appear. So, cause and effect differentiation are the most important tools in your problem-solver’s bag of tricks.
Let’s look for a moment at one of those problems (challenges) and apply these three steps:
PROBLEM: The restaurant industry, universally, is having an impossible time trying to find competent, committed individuals to work in all positions. This is defined in articles from local newspapers to the New York Times, from industry magazines and websites to social media, and from industry blogs to podcasts by the dozens – everyone states the problem, points a finger, and portrays the issue as someone else’s doing. So, first step – let’s refer to it as a challenge. “There are fewer, and fewer individuals interested in a kitchen career and when we find employees to fill positions, they never seem to stay very long. The CHALLENGE is how to turn this around?” OK, so the charge is to recognize the issue and find a way to address it.
STATE OF MIND: Many are approaching this challenge as a roadblock to success, something that is preventing restaurants from finally getting their groove back and watching cash flow exceed the cost of doing business. What is quite interesting is that we use the state of mind method in other situations to great success, yet when something seems either out of our wheelhouse of skills, or something that might require real change, then our mind puts it in the silo called: “Unsolvable”. When a menu item fails to perform well, we simply change it out or modify its flavor profile; when our equipment is a hinderance to production we find a different tool to change the outcome; when a purveyor fails to provide the quality of ingredients that we require – we simply find another source. Challenges solved.
A different state of mind: “Our current methods of finding and retaining good employees doesn’t work, let’s find a solution to this challenge even if it means throwing out our normal approach and adopting something new.” We can do this.
CAUSE and EFFECT: The effects of a challenge are what keeps us up at night. The effect changes our outcomes, puts stress of the system, forces us to adapt by using a band aid approach, or give up and succumb to the pain that the effect inflicts. So, restaurants close a few days a week, accept the provision of mediocre service, change their menus without ample thought, and try to get by with reduced cash flow and fewer opportunities for profit.
So, what might the cause be? Ask “why” several times until you get to the root of the issue and then develop a way to attack that cause.
Fewer people are expressing an interest in restaurant work, and in fact many previous employees (pre-pandemic) are choosing not to return now that restaurants are re-opening. Possible causes:
– People have heard how demanding and unforgiving the business can be
– Pay scales are significantly lower than other industries
– Quality of life for career restaurant employees is not that desirable
Why is this the case? Menu item profit margins are typically low, making it difficult for restaurants to find the reserves to pay better wages – why? Restaurant waste nips away at profitability – why? The unpredictable nature of customer buying habits pushes restaurants to maintain inventories that exceed what is reasonable – why? The work in restaurants requires many hands so, unlike other industries that have much better productivity rates, the restaurant industry is crippled by high labor costs – why? It is impossible to find and retain employees who are capable and willing to dedicate themselves to the operation – why? These issues are real and need to be addressed, but are they the primary cause of the stated labor challenge? There are loads of opportunities to make corrections – where do we start? Let’s take one possible cause that is not on everyone’s radar: nurturing real interest in a restaurant career early on.
For a few decades we (the restaurant industry) relied on the media to push the hype about the glory of working in restaurants. This was evident in news articles, books, television, movies, and blog posts, and a 24/7 food network. College admissions departments had an easy time of it – make sure a program has plenty of shiny new equipment, beautiful pictures of show quality food, campus restaurants staffed with more student workers than customers, and medals hanging around the necks of chef instructors. Lots of sizzle, plenty of wow factor. Thousands of students who loved the idea of creating Instagram quality photos and little if any experience working in a restaurant before the “big decision” clamored to programs across the country. It was an easy sell. Enter reality – it’s really hard work that requires more commitment than many other businesses, and early in a graduate’s career will not provide the type of compensation that equates to payback value.
It’s time to be real with young people and start talking about the business (there are way more positives than negatives) well before they are faced with a college decision. The future of the restaurant industry lies with those 16 and 17-year old’s looking for a part-time job or summer employment. This is when they can get a feel for the industry – the way it is and the way it can be. This is a role for restaurants and a way to draw people in a way to promote the skill, team environment, organization, creativity, and business acumen that is needed to be successful and have a rewarding career. True – this will not help restaurants today, but we need to get beyond crisis management and start to think long term. Today we are faced with putting fires out, let’s plan to prevent them in the future. It’s time to be proactive with building a career mindset and changing the negative perceptions and the misinformation that has been propagated about an important industry that is integral to the American way of life.
We can’t fix everything at once, but we can take one step at a time and begin with truthfulness.
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.