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.

A LETTER TO CULINARY SCHOOL GRADUATES

A LETTER TO CULINARY SCHOOL GRADUATES

First and foremost allow me to congratulate you on accomplishing a significant goal: completing your degree. Know however that this is only the beginning of your culinary education. You have chosen to pursue a career in the greatest industry on the planet (yes, I do show a bit of bias), one that will provide you with maybe 40 years of challenges, excitement, opportunity and great satisfaction. Allow me to offer some (hopefully) words of wisdom as you cross the stage and pack your knives for this next phase in your professional lives.

1. Appreciate diversity: our industry is a melting pot of every ethnic group, race, young and old, straight and gay, tall and small, male and female, passionate artist and content job seeker, introvert and extrovert – providing you with a tremendous opportunity to experience the world every day you show up to work. Take it all in and appreciate everyone for who they are.
2. Know that every day will provide learning moments as well as opportunities to share what you know with others.
3. Remember that you must become dedicated followers first as you learn how to become the leaders you want to be. YES CHEF is still applicable.
4. Be patient with yourself and with others.
5. Be a team player – always.
6. Have your goals firmly established and choose your steps along the way with that in mind.
7. Ask yourself every day: “Is what I am doing right now bringing me closer to realizing those goals”.
8. Be in service of the potato. In other words, always respect the ingredients you work with and the effort that was made to bring those ingredients to you.
9. Every position in the kitchen is important and every person is a critical piece of the restaurant puzzle. You may have a different job than some, but every person in the kitchen is equal.
10. The foundations are always your friends. Never forget the basics that you were taught in school. They are called the foundations for a reason.
11. Shortcuts never produce the same results. “If you don’t have the time to do it right the first time, when will you find the time to do it over”?
12. Build your flavor memory.
13. Protect your tools –keep your knives sharp.
14. Sanitation and Safety is your most important job.
15. Look and act like the professional that you want to be.
16. Be a person of integrity. Be known for a person of high moral character and know that honesty is of consummate importance.
17. Be known for your dependability.
18. Seek to be trusted by all people who surround you.
19. Read and travel now.
20. Try to find balance in your life. Don’t look back and say “I wish I had spent more time with family and friends”.
21. Take care of your health. Eat right, sleep well and exercise.
22. And as Chef Michel LeBorgne would always say: TASTE-SEASON-TASTE!

Best of luck: now it is your turn to change the world.

Chef Paul Sorgule

A Letter to Culinary School Graduates

A Letter to Culinary School Graduates

First and foremost, congratulations on completing your formal education and welcome to the best industry in the world. Granted I have a certain amount of bias toward an industry that I have spent my life in, but I do truly believe that you have made a wise choice. You must, however, realize that your real education has only begun. The experiences that you will have over the next 40 or so years will be enlightening, rewarding, challenging and unsurpassed. Please allow me to offer a few (hopefully) words of wisdom as you move forward.

* Appreciate diversity. the food industry is a melting pot of every ethnic culture, young and old, every race, straight and gay, short and tall, type A personalities and type B personalities, passionate artists and complacent job seekers: they all make up a dynamic and exciting industry. Take it all in and relish the opportunity to work with others.
* Know that every day will be a learning moment and every day will provide you with an opportunity to share that with others.
* Be patient – you must become a loyal follower before you can grow into the leader you want to become.
* Every job in a kitchen and dining room is important. You may hold a different position but you are never better than anyone else.
* Have your goals firmly in place and choose the steps that you take to get there wisely.
* Be in service of the potato. In other words, always respect the ingredients you have the opportunity to work with and the effort that it took to get those ingredients to you.
* Be a team player. Your opportunities now and in the future are dependent on how will you support the team effort.
* The foundations will always serve you well. Remember the importance of proper cooking techniques and stay true to them.
* Never forget that you are in the SERVICE business.
* Protect your tools. Make sure your knives are sharp.
* Sanitation is the most important part of your job.
* Look and act like the professional that you strive to be.
* Read, travel and taste now.
* Never forget the people who help you along the way.
* Build your rolodex and your network of influence.
* Maintain your integrity, character and honesty.
* Try to find balance in your life.
* and as Chef Michel LeBorgne would say: TASTE, SEASON, TASTE!

Good luck. Now it is your turn to change the world.

RESTAURANTS NEED TO PAINT OUTSIDE THE LINES

What ever happened to creativity and the fun associated with developing something new, exciting, delicious and trend defining in restaurants. Certainly you could cite those handful of unique restaurants that grace the cover stories in trade magazines, win James Beard Awards and Michelin stars, and are home to chefs with names that are present on the tip of everyone’s tongue, but what about the other 950,000 restaurants in the United States along with business cafeterias, college cafes, and health care facilities? Are there exceptions to the rule, you bet, but they are few and far between.

Playing it safe is the rule of thumb, until someone creates that “ah ha” moment in restaurant dining that reinvents a segment. Do we really need another shop that serves Pizza Margherita, Ameri/Mexican restaurants with burritos and Chimichangas, white tablecloth operations with Shrimp Scampi or Veal Piccata? I have found myself many times referring to how important the classic dishes are and that they are always great to fall back on because after all – they sell! The problem is not their acceptability or the taste profile; the problem is that the industry is too boring. Did I really say that? Yes, the restaurant business is boring.

Customers play it safe, just like restaurants do, and thus the cycle continues. Those chefs and restaurateurs who try to break the mold gain notoriety among journalists, young chefs looking for excitement and that 2% of the population referred to as innovators, but walk down the street and you will find dozens of restaurants who are content (or stuck) with doing the same thing that everyone else does.

I am not a fan of what has been referred to as “molecular cuisine”; however, I am fascinated by those chefs who are head-over-heals committed to pushing that envelope. Grant Achatz, Ferran Adria, Wylie Dufresne are part of the pack of rebels who (forget what you think about the food) are trying hard to pull us out of our shells and learn to “think different”.

Steve Jobs was a genius. Some loved him and others despised him. Say what you will, but as the soul of Apple Computer he embraced creative thought above everything else. He had the uncanny ability to go beyond what people wanted or needed, he anticipated what they were going to need before they ever thought of it. So too is the case with a few contemporary chefs and restaurant owners/operators.

If Achatz, Adria and Dufresne are too radical for you, consider some who have been with us for a long time, treasure the classics, but who interpret those items in a way that breaks the barriers of “playing it safe”. Eric Ripert, Thomas Keller, Charlie Trotter, Alice Waters, Charles Carroll, Daniel Boulud, Gavin Kaysen, Marcus Samuelsson and Cat Cora all continue to move their creative ideas to the forefront of restaurants that carry their signature while 950,000 others continue to ignore the need to be just a little unique.

Part of our job as chefs is to educate the staff members who work with us and the guests who choose to grace us with their presence. Of course, I am fully aware of the fiduciary responsibilities that go along with taking the helm of a restaurant and the fragile nature of restaurant economics. It is also our responsibility, however, to grow our business, attract new customers, and most importantly: exceed guest expectations with a food experience that is far greater than the sum of its parts.

To quote a culinary friend of mine from the past: “There is little talent in cooking a steak. Certainly there is a skill that goes along with timing and organization of a char-grill, but the talent is in preparing a chicken leg or inexpensive cut of meat in such a way, and presented with such unique grace, that its value far exceeds that of even the best steak.”

Please do not misinterpret what I am saying: I love classic Italian, French, Asian, German, Polish, Irish, Norwegian and every other traditional ethnic food. I sometimes salivate just thinking about that perfectly cooked steak, but how often is it that a restaurant experience truly excites and builds unforgettable memories?

Creativity is not exclusive to high-end restaurants. Starbucks was a real “wow” when they first began. The quality, the variety, the atmosphere were game changers. When was the last time that this type of change has taken our breath away in the coffee business? I would dare say that there is little difference between the Starbucks of 1990 and the one of today. Remember the first time you experienced an Au Bon Pain or Panera Bread and how it was fun to take it all in? Where is the next game changer hiding?

Playing it safe has a price. The price is complacency and transition of unique concepts into commodity restaurants. I am waiting for the next Steve Jobs in the restaurant business to catch everyone else off guard. Every once and a while we need to paint outside the lines.