A PIZZA NATION

Originally posted on Harvest America Ventures:
Most Americans probably realize that pizza (in some form) is the number one entree in our country. Last year alone we consumed 4 billion fresh-made pizzas and another billion of the frozen variety. Many, unfortunately, look to pizza as the ultimate family-friendly convenience food and have thus turned their…

A PIZZA NATION

A PIZZA NATION

Most Americans probably realize that pizza (in some form) is the number one entree in our country. Last year alone we consumed 4 billion fresh-made pizzas and another billion of the frozen variety. Many, unfortunately, look to pizza as the ultimate family-friendly convenience food and have thus turned their attention to the plethora of chains that produce a product that is not always true to the origin of pizza.

Although pizza began as a peasant food in Naples, Italy (the baker credited with the first pizza was Raffaele Esposito) in 1889, it was intended to be an end product that was a result of using fresh, local, high quality, flavorful ingredients (great flour high in gluten, nature’s water, virgin olive oil, fresh mozzarella, seasonal tomatoes and fragrant garden basil and oregano). When first consumed by the Italian King Umberto and Queen Margherita, pizza quickly transitioned to a wonderful food ready for every socio-economic group. In fact, the original version still carries the name: Pizza Margherita.

The first American pizzeria was opened by Gennaro Lombardi in 1905 and except for a short respite and subsequent move, Lombardi’s has been open for business on Spring Street in NYC ever since. Lombardi’s continues to fire their ovens with coal producing the super-hot environment for their crispy, thin crust New York style pizza.

Ira Nevin, after returning to the U.S. from WWII (stationed in Italy), worked with his family to produce the first gas-fired ceramic deck ovens that made it possible for pizzerias to open in every town across America. There are now over 70,000 pizza parlors in the US (according to the National Restaurant Association) with total annual sales in excess of $36 billion.

So, why is pizza so popular? I have not found any scientific data to support my theory, however, I will stick by my purely subjective beliefs:
* pizza is fun, a conversation driver, intense with aroma, balanced with multiple textures, regionally ethnic and adaptable to any cuisine and it comes with it’s own built in plate (the crust).
* pizza is one of those unique products that drives as much local passion and loyalty as professional sports. Don’t ever try to tell a Chicago native that NYC makes the best “pie” or vice versa. In fact, don’t even try to say that Manhattan pizza is better than Staten Island!

PIZZA HAS A RE-BIRTH

“What goes around, comes around” and those of us who believe that food is far more than just sustenance, can relish in the fact that “great” pizza is back! It is so refreshing to see the underground of true pizza wizards who are passionate about great crust, fresh tomatoes, beautifully fresh mozzarella, fresh grated Italian parmigiana, first press olive oil and pungent fresh herbs, take the limelight away from the big box chains. Above all else, is the oven: wood-fired if at all possible, but at the very least, gas-fired with a stone or ceramic hearth. Add whatever else you like, but I will take a simple, classic Pizza Margherita anytime.

I feel fortunate to have many excellent pizza shops within driving distance (it may not be NYC but I am just as loyal to these as a resident on Spring street is to Lombardi’s). If you are in my neck of the woods (the Adirondack’s of New York), try the following:
* Verita in Burlington, Vermont
* American Flatbread in Waitsfield, Vermont (the original)
* Caffe Rustica in Lake Placid, New York

or, MAKE YOUR OWN! Try this simply perfect pizza dough recipe as a base:

– Unbleached all-purpose flour 2/3 cup
-Unbleached bread flour 1/3 cup
-Extra virgin olive oil 2 tsp.
-Active dry yeast 3/4 tsp.
-Warm water 1/3 cup
-Salt 1/2 tsp.

Mound the flour in a bowl, form a well and add the olive oil in the middle. In a separate bowl add lukewarm water and yeast. Allow the yeast to begin to bubble. Add the salt to the yeast and combine with the flour and olive oil. Fold together with your palms and then keeping your hands floured, knead the dough for 15 minutes. Place in a bowl (brush the top with oil and cover) and allow to double in size at room temperature. Punch the dough and allow to double again.

On a floured board, pull and stretch the dough to the shape you want. Place on a baking stone dusted with cornmeal. Top with fresh tomato sauce or fresh tomato slices, olive oil, mozzarella, parmesan and fresh herbs.

Bake in a pre-heated 500 degree oven until crisp.

HOW TO FAIL AS A BUSINESS LEADER

It occurred to me this morning that my blog posts are always directed at ways to enjoy success. In fairness to the other side, I thought that I would outline the quick and easy steps that lead to business failure. After all, I want to be an unbiased equal opportunity writer.

HOW TO FAIL AS A BUSINESS LEADER:

1. Ignore all of the signs that point to problems in your business.
2. Make sure that you make most of the important decisions in a vacuum.
3. Hire great people, give them lots of responsibility but avoid empowering them with the authority to make change.
4. When your management team is starting to make progress, re-arrange the organizational chart and shuffle people around. Divide and conquer worked for early Nomadic tribes, why not in your business?
5. Take those same great people and through a process of slow and painful steps, give them every possible reason to leave.
6. At all costs, avoid developing delineated job descriptions. Let people figure it out for themselves.
7. Jerk your vendors around through delayed payments and avoid communicating with them at all costs. Maybe they will just go away.
8. Believe in yourself and avoid watching your competition. You have the right formula so why even monitor what they do.
9. Trust no one, especially those who organizationally are closest to you.
10. Read everything you can about Machiavellian style management.
11. If your product or service worked in the past, do not change it even if the environment that you operate in has changed.
12. Don’t advertise whether it be through traditional print medium or social media. Advertising is really a waste of money.
13. Keep doing the same things but always expect better results.

For those who own, operate or work in restaurants, I am sure you have experienced working for or with individuals who follow these steps with reckless abandon. There is little doubt that the owner/leader will eventually reach their pre-determiend goal: failure.

If, however, you would prefer to succeed, then post these thirteen steps on your office door and do just the opposite.

The Problem with College for Everyone

As a person who spent 30 years as a teacher and administrator in higher education I have often thought of the dilemma we have created in the U.S. The term “education” is drawn from the Latin root word: “Educo” which somewhat literally means to draw forth. This attacks the premise that our goal as educators is to “give knowledge” and assume that the end result will be an individual ready, willing and able to function effectively in society. The intent of those who gave the process a name was to provide an environment where the “student” becomes aware of his/her own potential and calling and that they should have as much to offer in the classroom as the person orchestrating the class. What further complicates the problem that we have created is the feeling that without a college education, any individual will have a difficult time in life fitting in, making a living and making a difference.

I must state that I have no scientific study to support my theory except my observations as a teacher and as a chef and restaurant manager. Let me ramble on….

What about the trades? It was the craftsmen who made this country great; the doers, those people who made great things by using their innate creativity and their hand skills. When I watch great carpenters, plumbers, electricians, sculptors, painters (commercial and artistic), line cooks, mixologists, computer wizards, photographers, farmers, cheese makers, wine makers, etc. I find a greater sense of amazement and wonder than watching the most highly credentialed person directing the functions of an office. All of these trades and professions are important and everyone who is good at what they do should be admired. When we infer that one type of career is more valuable than another to our young people then we have participated in the worst form of bigotry.

Colleges have convinced families that a college education is the only real track for their son or daughter’s success and as a result we have many students misplaced in a program that is not for them, is outside of their ability or is simply too expensive in the long-run placing students in decades of debt.

As we have pressed the issue for college as the portal for any success (we even promote statistical data that demonstrates life-long earning power of those with various degrees vs. high school diplomas) more and more colleges have been built, college programs have been designed when the degree makes little difference with their success in that field, admissions criteria has become lax in an effort to fill seats and cover the cost of delivering these programs, and more and more students are either pushed through as a result of lowering standards, or fail to complete because it was not the right fit for them.

Every culinary school allows their graduates to believe that students will be noteworthy executive chefs or restaurant owners soon after graduation thus leading to significant disappointment, specialized degrees result in graduates with an expensive document and likely some good memories, but no prospect of a career in that field, and a debt load that parallels buying a house.

In the meantime, those wonderful craftsmen who amaze everyone who watches (carpenters, metal workers, great plumbers and electricians, line cooks, cake decorators, mechanics, and computer hardware builders) wonder where the next generation of craftspeople will come from.

College is not, nor should it be for everyone. Trade programs and apprenticeships should be restored to prominence and should participate in a program of educating guidance counselors, parents and students about the joy and oftentimes lucrative nature of the trades. I know many carpenters and electricians who have much nicer homes (paid for) than those in the professions that were defined by a college degree.

As an aside, these trade people actually use math, science and communication skills on a daily basis. Just watch a gifted carpenter figure out the angles for an addition to a house or a piece of furniture, watch a cook wrestle with the design of a new recipe or simply expand a recipe to yield a certain amount of finished product.

I support the president’s administration and their effort to promote community colleges and trade programs. Apprenticeship, which is still alive and well in Europe, should receive support from the federal government and trade schools should be a focus of an intensive PR campaign.

If America wants to restore it’s economic prominence in the world we must begin to make things again. Craftsmen are the backbone of a respected economy. Service economics is something that I promote and have always focused on when in the classroom, however, service without a proud product to serve is the basis for a subservient economy.

It really is time for a revamp of not just how we teach our young people but what we teach them and how we present their options in life. As with the meaning of Educo, our job is to draw forth and learn from each individual what will make their life full, enjoyable and financially rewarding.

I imagine many of you will have an opinion about this article. Fire away.

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.