Chefs and Servers with Different Motivations

When chefs and service staff are not on the same page the guest experience is confused and disjointed. When I have referenced the importance of team in the kitchen I am concerned that some might think that if that “culinary island” is in sync then the guest experience will be great. Team refers to a cohesive effort on the part of all staff members to create that exceptional dining event.

What motivates your staff on a daily basis (keeping in mind that you, as a manager or chef, cannot motivate another employee. This is something that they must do for themselves)? What can you do to help insure the right customer event?

Your official job is to create the environment for positive self-motivation. This, of course, begins with selecting the individuals with the “right stuff”, orienting them to the operation and its philosophy, training with gusto, investing in providing the right tools, creating forums for open communication between all team members, empowering people to make decisions, recognizing people for their role and thanking them for going the extra mile, setting the example for others to follow, providing honest critique and when necessary demonstrating how to correct areas that need attention. The most important piece is creating ample opportunities for open communication.

Chefs are typically motivated by the creative process. Their motivation is the tactile process of work that brings an idea to fruition on the plate. The hard facade that often accompanies the image of a chef is really just a protective crust that hides the fragile artist underneath who takes real pride in bringing out flavors, presenting their art on a canvas (plate) and seeing clean plates return from the dining room. That mis-step that brings excellent food to ordinary, incredible ingredients to ruin, fresh food to something that is dry and inappropriate or a smiling guest to the unhappy recipient of a plate of food that is below their expectations is devastating to a serious cook or chef. Self-loathing happens on a daily basis among cooks and chefs who are serious about their craft. As “up” as they may be when things go right, the lows are pretty severe when they don’t. They eat, drink and sleep “food”, their closest professional companion. They relish incredible ingredients and bow to those who are able to make magic food out of what they are given to work with.

Servers are certainly pleased when guests are happy with their experience, however, the compensation system that restaurants have adopted for waiters drives them to work for the reward of a great tip. In the end, it is the gratuity that demonstrates to the server that they have performed at an acceptable or greater than acceptable level. It is rare to find a server today who is just as pumped about food as the chef. You rarely see a service staff member blurry-eyed from reading cookbooks until 2 a.m. or spending their day off hanging out at other restaurants to help refine their craft. We (restaurants) have not created the community of food lovers who know as much about the ingredients, cooking and flavor profiles as the chef. This is not the fault of the server, it is the fault of leadership not paying attention to how critical it is for chefs and servers to share a similar passion. Without this passion and commitment, the guest experience is disjointed.

On those rare occasions when I have experienced a restaurant in complete sync, it is incredible to sit back and watch what transpires. Cooks and service staff carry on conversations about food, other restaurants, as well as wine and food/wine pairings they have experienced. The staff meal is a collaborative event with front and back of the house laughing, sharing stories, quizzing each other on tonight’s preparations and truly enjoying each other’s company.

The end result is always a better customer experience because service staff and cooks are truly interested in how the food is perceived, how the flavors marry with that wine that the sommelier suggested, and how many times the guest pulls out their smart phone, not to talk, but to take pictures of the food.

When chefs and servers share the same inspiration, the guest can feel it. These rare restaurants are always first on everyone’s list when it comes time to make a reservation.

Onions – The Most Important Ingredient

Two things occurred in the same week a few years back when I was the Executive Chef at a four-diamond resort. A server approached me when I was expediting and stated that a guest was allergic to onions and wanted to know what items on the menu he could eat. I thought for a few moments and had to respond “nothing”. I, of course, prepared something special for the guest, but up to that point I had not realized how important onions, and those ingredients in the onion family were to my cooking. That same week I was interviewed on a regional radio show as the host asked me what ingredient I liked to cook with more than any other. Without hesitation I said “onions”. He was a bit taken back until I explained how essential these ingredients were.

Onions are part of the Allium species of vegetables and include: brown skin onions, white onions, Spanish onions, purple onions, scallions (immature onions that have yet to form a bulb), Vidalia (sweet onions), cipollini, leeks, shallots, pearl onions, ramps, garlic and chives (there are numerous varieties of most items listed) .

I use brown skin onions in mirepoix for my stocks, soups and sauces; purple or Spanish onions for pickling and an accent in salads; Vidalia for those Bistro Burgers that everyone craves; scallions in stir fry and marinades; garlic in dressings, pesto, various saute dishes and bruschetta; cipollini in stews and with various braised items; ramps as an accompaniment to organic chicken in the Spring; shallots in just about everything that I can think of; and chives in numerous salads and maitre’d butter for steaks. The thought of cooking without Allium vegetables would be very difficult.

What is ironic is that members of the onion family are rarely thought of as a primary ingredient. We too often place all of the emphasis on the protein and rarely give credit to those ingredients that give the protein a unique flavor profile.

Onions and garlic define the most vivid aroma memories of life in the kitchen. The smell of caramelized onions can make you salivate. I recall working in a food operation once that was part of an office complex. The manager always made us throw onions on the grill just before lunch to fill the cafe with that sweet, intoxicating aroma. He was convinced that this smell increased sales.

The rich flavor of a perfectly made onion soup granitee’ can best be described as rich and full of umami (the taste of savory). Onions rings on a steak, lightly sauteed garlic in Pasta Vongole, Cipollini caramelized and served with a perfectly grilled veal chop, creamy shallots blended with the rich flavor of Osso Buco, and sweet ramps with roasted organic chicken change a dish from good to spectacular.

I suppose the reason that onions make us cry is a reflection of the onions disappointment in how they are treated in comparison to the more expensive proteins that take center stage. Treat those onions with care for they are the ingredients that define all of us as cooks.

The Spark of an Idea – A Restaurant is Born

Are you an idea person? Maybe you are more of an implementor. Or are you a bit of both? Does this picture represent you:
* I can’t stop my brain from working overtime
* I have lists of ideas everywhere
* I have many sleepless nights while new business ideas keep me awake
* I think about the next great restaurant while in the shower, driving to work, having dinner at another restaurant, preparing my mise en place at the restaurant where I am currently employed, or just walking through a number of unrelated businesses and seeing something that sparks that creative thought process.
* How many times have you designed that next killer restaurant on the back of a bar cocktail napkin?
* Do you scribble business ideas on a legal pad while suffering through another pointless business meeting?
* How often have you said, “you know what would work great in that building”?
* Maybe a friend, lecturer, announcer, business colleague says something that sends you into “another creative thought utopia” never to return to the original conversation.

The question is, what do you do with these ideas? How do you focus your creative thought process and move beyond idea to concept and bring that concept to fruition? What keeps you from being the next wildly successful entrepreneur?

When I was in the classroom I would ask young culinary and hospitality students how many wanted to own their own restaurant. The vast majority would raise their hands. I would always follow up with “I hope to convince you not to take that route”. Why would I ever say that? I felt justified because of the statistical data that demonstrated incredibly high failure rates among entrepreneurs. My job, I thought, was to help them put these thoughts of owning their own on the shelf and concentrate on becoming successful employees. Well, I was wrong!

Every decent chef that I know has or had a dream to be a restaurateur. It is, after all, the great American dream. Entrepreneurship is a right of every citizen and no country in the world is more open to welcoming private business than the U.S. What was terribly wrong with my classroom approach was attempting to stifle that creative gene that so many chefs have. That desire is an itch that needs to be scratched.

No one ever really gets ahead by playing it safe. A few will succeed and some will fail, but everyone should have an outlet for those ideas that keep them up at night.

So what keeps you from taking those ideas and running with them (hopefully it is not just teachers who are trying to help you to play it safe)?

Here are a few classic responses and solutions:
* I don’t have the money (find a partner who does and who believes in you)
* It is too risky and I am afraid (no pain, no gain). The beauty of being in the restaurant business is that if you fail at entrepreneurship, you can always go back to working for someone else.
* I don’t have the time right now (sooner or later you really won’t have the time – act on the idea now)
* I have too many current commitments (that will never change unless you begin to adjust some of your priorities)
* I have a well-grounded life-partner who tells me to chill and be happy with what I have (if they are truly your partner it is time to have that “I need to do this” conversation)
* I don’t have the business knowledge (go back to school and build that knowledge base)
* I lack the confidence to follow through (take the leap, learn as much as you can, practice and you will be impressed with how your confidence with change).
* I am too old (Please!!! There are many examples of entrepreneurs who started in their seventies.)

As I sit in front of the TV and watch another episode of “Shark Tank” I am really disappointed as the “Sharks” step on another dream and watch the rejection on their faces. To many, that great idea is what helps them to be complete. It needs to find a home or those sleepless nights will continue until they find an idea that sticks and builds enough traction to fulfill their creative dreams.

Do you have that next great restaurant concept tucked away in your subconscious? Light a fire under it, do your homework, find answers to those roadblocks and take that entrepreneurial plunge. Capture the excitement, it is what makes this country great.

IT’S ALL ABOUT TEAM CHEMISTRY

IT'S ALL ABOUT TEAM CHEMISTRY

I frequently remember a typical manager’s quote that tends to start my blood boiling a bit: “the only place where success comes before work is in the dictionary”. This, of course, is suppose to act as a harsh motivator, but it rarely meets that expectation. What is lacking in this simple formula is the word “fun”. Let’s face it, we (those in the restaurant industry) spend approximately 120,000 hours of our lives working. That is a little less than 1/3 of our time between the ages of 20 and 65! Shouldn’t this time be somewhat enjoyable?

Fun and hard work do not have to be mutually exclusive. It is possible to actually get up in the morning looking forward to your time on the job. The magic that allows this to happen comes from effective team building and great chemistry among the players within your operation.

There is no task more important in a manager’s day than seeking, finding, training and supporting a team comprised of individuals with common goals, supportive attitudes, a service mentality and a love of people.

Whenever I have had a chance to work in an operation that strives to support this type of staff, the results are always incredible. Success comes from dedication, passion, skills and an occasional laugh.

Work hard, but set the stage to enjoy the company of your co-workers. Life is way too short to spend 120,000 hours trying to succeed without a smile on your face.

THE DIFFERENCE BETWEEN A COOK AND A CHEF

THE DIFFERENCE BETWEEN A COOK AND A CHEF

A few years back I read of an interview with a prominent chef who was asked: “what is the difference between a chef and the millions of cooks throughout America.” The response, to me, was a perfect definition: “Most reasonably intelligent people can follow a recipe with mixed results, a chef can be given a basket of ingredients and is able to create something wonderful.” Although this is an over-simplification, there is a real element of truth to this statement. A chef is certainly a manager and a leader, a cost accountant and a marketer, a social scientist and an organizational guru; but above all, a chef is a passionate and accomplished cook.

The ability to “create something wonderful”, stems from a persons ability to draw from his/her flavor memory. A serious cook must be a person who has experienced a full array of flavors, taste combinations, foods at their peak of maturity, seasonings, and texture combinations. Without this “data bank” it would be nearly impossible to create magic with food. To go even further, chefs have life experiences that are filled with an understanding of history and various cultures. It would be difficult to cook wonderful Spanish foods without understanding the culture of Spain, it would be challenging to understand classical French food without studying Ferdinand Point, Larousse, Escoffier, Careme, Bocuse, Robuchon and Verge. To cook French you must feel like you are French, to cook Italian, Mexican, Scandinavian, or Thai, you must understand the culture of those countries and most importantly have cooked with those who were born into those cultures.

“A recipe has no soul…..” was a quote from Thomas Keller, truly one of America’s great chef’s of the past few decades. This should not be viewed as an endorsement for kitchens without structure; just the contrary. I am sure that Keller has his own version of the standardized recipe, however what he and most accomplished chefs know is that a recipe does not create a cook. The recipe is a reference, but the cook must draw from his/her flavor memory and understanding of culture to build the recipe into a great dish. There are just far too many variables that come into play (seasonality, maturity, size, terroir, brand, shipping, storage, etc.) to rely on a recipe as the consummate guide in cooking. Some of the best cookbooks that I have used such as: “Le Repertoire de la Cuisine”, only list the ingredients in a dish without procedure or amounts. The ingredient list is a reminder for the chef who knows, though experience, what a dish should look and taste like, and the method of cooking that is appropriate for the outcome of that dish.

Those who have a desire to become great cooks and chefs must live the following: taste everything, experience as many different cooks work as possible, travel and experience cultures, read about the history of food, learn from the best, taste again and record your experiences. Keep recipes as a guide but cook with your soul.

Kudos to Thomas Keller for getting it right.

PROFESSIONAL COOKING IS A TEAM SPORT

The cadence of orders in a busy kitchen seems unrelenting. A staccato clicking from the point of sale printer sends out a drum roll of orders while the expeditor calmly, yet seriously calls out tickets in kitchen lingo to the battery of cooks on the line. They in turn signal back receipt of the order by either repeating it or simply saying “yes chef”. Ordering, fire, picking up, re-fire, I need an “all-day”, is part of the script that every professional cook understands and responds to with surgical precision. Orders are pre-fired and finished, plated as per the accepted design, edges wiped, placed in the window, inspected and finished by the chef/expeditor and passed on to servers in a seamless stream of syncopated and rehearsed activity.

To watch this interplay is truly amazing. The orchestration by the chef/expeditor is possible because everyone on the line is in sync. To allow this magic to occur every cook must be on their game. They must have impeccable mise en place (prep and organization), must know not just the details of their station but that of every other station, they must have the desired flavor profile of each dish embedded in their flavor memory, and must approach each single plate as if it were their personal work of art that makes a statement about their abilities and passion for food. Each cook must accept their role and understand how important their role is to the whole. They must respect the chain of command and never question directives from the chef, and must at all costs maintain the desired quality of their work. They must support those who are “in the weeds” and be comfortable asking for help when they see the same issue creeping into their station.

When it works, the busy kitchen is a beautiful thing. WHY? Because this group of cooks has become a team, not unlike any other professional body with a focused mission. Football, baseball, basketball, hockey, the military, or for that matter any driven business adheres to the same “call to arms”: Understanding, acceptance, discipline, preparedness, practice, respect, passion and common goals = TEAM. TEAM = SUCCESS.

Contrary to what you see on these very un-realistic television “reality cooking shows”, kitchens cannot work when there is a lack of any one of the aforementioned components. Chefs who yell and belittle do not inspire great cooking. In fact, this will do just the opposite. This type of chef (and I use the term loosely here) will create an environment of winners and losers and survival of the fittest. The result will almost always be chaos, back stabbing, inconsistent food, and unhappy guests.

Effective chefs can learn from those leaders in any business who aspire to create a team environment. To do so will lead to a cohesive group of committed, proud, supportive and successful cooks. These individuals will relish the opportunity to work in such an environment and treasure their employment as a result. Great teams = longevity among a restaurants cooking staff.

Given the chance, every diner would benefit from touring the kitchen of a restaurant they choose to dine in. If the operation is clean, if the cooks seem focused, if they are able to occasionally smile and if the chef works like a coach whose job it is to support, encourage and orchestrated, then I can assure you that the food will be great.

Every Picture Tells a Story

Ever since I came across this photo I have not been able to get it out of my mind. The photographer caught what every artist and craftsman gets up in the morning to do: move people. Music, like cooking is an art form that can, if properly applied, move people. The beauty is that everyone moves to the beat of a different drummer. One person’s memorable experience with art is another person’s sour note.

I consider myself to be a person with fairly eclectic tastes in music, art, theater, and food. My musical preferences range from Bach to David Byrne, from Zappa to Bela Fleck and from Chick Corea to Waylon Jennings. In art I may not understand modern art, but I do find Jackson Pollock interesting. I love the impressionists but can find pleasure in trying to figure out Salvatore Dali. Food is, of course, my medium and even though comfort foods are inspiring to me, I always seek out restaurants and chefs that are pushing the envelope from Keller to Adria. What I like, however, may not be your cup of tea.

This picture is so telling because this sole musician has struck a chord with the young enthusiast and in that moment both the artist and art consumer are in sync. We all strive to create this same bond with those who consume our art.

The wine maker is in business to be profitable, yet that Robert Parker review and restaurant customer response to his/her craft is far more important than just dollars and cents. I have had the pleasure to work with many chef/artists who care deeply that the end-user is happy with what they have created. I will never forget the cook who stretches their neck on the busiest night to see if any food is coming back on the plates dropped at the dish window. I feel for the cook who loses sleep over the 1 dissatisfied diner even though a hundred more were perfectly happy. I give homage to a chef who grins and gets a bit choked up when that one customer peeks in the kitchen to say “thank you” that was an extraordinary meal.

What the young girl in this photo feels is what each and every serious cook strives for, day in and day out: to create a “moving” dining experience. When it happens, the world is a better place for all involved.

To those who cook for the paycheck, I say: you don’t know what you are missing. To those who cook for the opportunity to create that unique experience that can be registered as a memorable moment, I tip my hat to you.

I remember listening to Tower of Power perform at the Bottom Line in NYC when there were only 100+ people in attendance. The band played like it was a sold out crowd at Shea Stadium. Everyone was on their feet moving to an extraordinary musical event and the band was in their glory. They certainly didn’t pay the bills that night, but they were just as moved as the audience. The same has happened to me with a top shelf list of great musicians as well as in restaurants in the hands of Charlie Trotter, Rick Bayless, Joel Robuchon, Marc Meneau, Marcus Samuelsson, Gavin Kaysen, Daniel Boulud and dozens of others. As significant as these events were, I was even more moved to watch my children perform in their school plays or play a solo at their annual high school concert. This is what floats the artists boat, an audience that appreciates their art.

I smiled when I saw this picture because I knew how the musician and the young girl felt.

Move people, it is what makes life worth living.

“You’re Gonna Like the Way You FEEL, I Guarantee It”

I can’t remember where I found this jpeg, probably on FaceBook, but it really struck a chord. When I was at the helm of a kitchen my feeling was that every customer wants a dessert and should be given the opportunity to say “YES” and purchase something sweet. As a consumer, I still have that desire but find far too often that restaurants feed into the reasons for people to say no.

Let’s face it, we don’t need the calories or fat, and probably could live without spending the extra cash, yet a meal that doesn’t end with a dessert seems to be lacking.

There is a growing population of very talented, passionate pastry chefs who should receive the same level of respect and accolade that quality savory chef’s have come to expect, yet how much thought is really given to the importance of dessert to the guest experience and the ways of accomplishing a “guilt-free” sale.

Since a very early age, desserts have been a stress reliever for many. There is a sense that buying dessert is special and in some ways a departure from “being good”. Desserts do bring a smile to people’s face, provide a special reward for good times and a respite from the not so good times. In the hands of a gifted pastry chef, any guest should be able to enjoy this finish to a meal without guilt.

At some point restaurants made a decision that bigger is always better and developed desserts that were so over the top in calories, portion sizes and fat that they became intimidating to order.

Toning down the portion sizes, reflecting on the use of fresh fruits and nuts, incorporating fresh herbs and alternative spices in lieu of added sugar can result in exceptional end-of-meal desserts that excite and satisfy. Five-hundred calorie desserts that push the envelope of common sense do not help the guest, the server, the pastry chef or the restaurant.

Every dessert should be comprised of four different components (based on conversations with some of my favorite pastry chef friends):
Something Soft
Something Fresh
Something Crunchy and
a Complementary Sauce

Working this into a formula that strives to create 3-4 bite desserts will help to bring a smile to your guests, pride to your pastry chef, added revenue for the restaurant and a larger base for server gratuities.

Create a “stress reliever” dessert menu rather than one that creates stress for the diner. Remember, it is the total dining experience that brings people back to a restaurant. Make sure that desserts remain a part of that experience. At the end of the meal, the diner should enjoy the way they feel, not sense that they owe their body an apology.

Pastry chefs – feel free to chime in!

Escargots – So Much for Eating with your Eyes

I oftentimes find myself asking “who was the first brave person to eat………(fill in the blank)”. A long-time advocate for insuring that food looks good, I am somewhat perplexed at the exceptions to the rule. Food does have to get past the eyes before it gets to the mouth, yet adventurous individuals continue to push that envelope.

Let’s talk escargots for a moment: I happen to love the classic French version from the heart of Burgundy wine country and relish any opportunity to eat a dozen or so, but I would not have been one of the first to go that route. There is very little about the snail that is enticing (as the picture demonstrates) and alive they would hardly make a typical lover of food salivate. Yet, here we are still listing snails as one of the delicacies of the gourmet world.

If we love them in formal restaurants, the French countryside residents can eat them like we might enjoy a bushel of crayfish in New Orleans (the French consume about 10,000 tons of snails each year).

Apparently, according to Larousse Gastronomique, snails have been fodder for the table since the days of the Roman Empire. In France, one would find most of the snails that were bound for the table, clinging to the leaves of grape vines, thus very plentiful throughout this world wine capital.

Keep in mind that the habitat for snails is not very sterile and they are not discriminating eaters themselves, so I would not recommend that you pick those creeping through your garden and cook them without some methodical work. Snails have been know to eat plants that might be toxic to humans so they must be purged before cooking. Those that are raised for consumption are placed in isolation for quite a few days and fed a fiber diet that will clean their systems before being placed on the stove. If you are willing to move past the appearance, the best bet is to probably order a few cans of pre-purged and par cooked snails (French Helix preferred) from a reputable purveyor. I would avoid those from China.

With a small amount of work, you can be the gourmet hero of your community by preparing a delicious, fun and conversation provoking “Escargot tapas event”. You can add some authentic eye appeal by ordering beautiful escargot shells and snail clamps on line.

The recipe could not be easier:

SNAIL BUTTER (for 3 dozen):

Softened salted butter 1 pound
Minced garlic 8 cloves
Chopped parsley 1/2 cup
Pernod 1 oz.

Blend all ingredients.
Place a cooked snail in each shell and fill the rest of the cavity with snail butter. Place in a pan of raw rice to keep the snails upright and butter intact.
In a 375 degree oven, bake for 15 minutes.
Serve piping hot with generous amounts of your favorite wine. I prefer Pinot Noir, but if white wines float your boat, then a Sauvignon Blanc like Sancerre or Pouilly Fume would be terrific.

Close your eyes and savor.