Tag: cooks

A CHEF’S DAY IN THE LIFE – Part One

A CHEF’S DAY IN THE LIFE – Part One

“Woke up, fell out of bed, dragged the comb across my head. Made my way downstairs and drank a cup and looking up I noticed I was late.” We all remember these lines from the Beatles storyline in: “A Day in the Life”. They are lines that most anyone can relate to for they represent the beginning of our time yesterday, today and tomorrow.

Each of us move in a different direction as our story unfolds, but one thing is clear: we may anticipate that the day will be predictable, yet in our hearts we know that this will likely not be the case. The day of a chef begins just as it does for everyone else – the major difference is the structure, demands and enormous number of unpredictable events that follow. So here is a chefs’: “Day in the Life”.

It is 5 a.m. when the alarm clock cuts through a restless nights sleep. Jake fights the initial urge to grab the clock and fling it against the bedroom wall, but he simply doesn’t have the energy after all. Last night’s service at the restaurant didn’t end until midnight and the standard couple drinks afterwards with his team ended at 1:30 when he finally touched down on his still unmade bed. As he recalled this sequence of events he realized that his clock was still screaming out as a reminder. He reached over and hit the 15-minute snooze button. The shower could wait a few more minutes.

Jake lay in bed with crusty eyes as he now waited for the 15-minute reminder to sound off. Finally, he gave up, shut off the alarm, stumbled to the kitchen and plugged a Peet’s Coffee pod into his Keurig.

Black coffee and 10 minutes of CNN later he was in the shower washing off the smell of fish, onions and garlic from the night before while clearing that crust from his eyes and cobwebs from his foggy brain. Jake had already begun to think through the day ahead that would begin a little after 7 a.m.

The chef’s major comfort at this point was that the phone had not rung yet. This meant that Lester and Marie had both made it in for the breakfast shift. Jake hated those rare days when he had to cover for an absent breakfast cook.

Jake tipped back another cup of coffee, popped 3 Ibuprofen, grabbed his iPhone and headed out the door. The chef’s apartment was only 15 blocks from the restaurant so he usually enjoyed walking (his only exercise) to clear his head and loosen his stiff muscles. At 6:55 he walked through the back receiving door and into the kitchen – his domain, a home away from home.

As usual his first task was to change into a crisp, clean chef’s jacket and apron, grab his clipboard and legal pad, another cup of coffee, look in the mirror (damn, he forgot to shave this morning) and touch base with his early team. The smell of bacon, onions and home fries filled the kitchen. This aroma never got old – it was the smell of a kitchen coming to life. Jake said good morning to Lester and Marie, grabbed a piece of bacon and started his morning walk through. Lester called out: “chef- do you want some breakfast?” “Sure” came Jake’s reply as Lester gently flipped two eggs over easy and set the plate with bacon, home fries, a grilled tomato and his signature fresh fruit garnish. Jake stopped for a cursory 10-minute breakfast at the end of the line, mopped up the egg yolk with a fresh biscuit from Marie’s bakeshop and quickly returned to the task at hand. “Thanks for breakfast” was always a comment from the chef that was well received by these two dependable cooks.

The chef pulled down the BEO (Banquet and Event Order) clipboards for the next few days to review production and any last minute orders that might need to be placed: Three coffee breaks with pastries today, a small luncheon for 12 in the boardroom, a picnic lunch in the courtyard for a business group of 35 and a wedding rehearsal dinner tonight for 25. A relatively light function day giving everyone plenty of time to concentrate on prep for a’ la carte this evening and maybe allow Jake a chance to catch up on some paperwork.

Jake moved on to his daily visual inventory of coolers and storerooms to ensure that product was properly rotated, labeled and dated and assess what shape standard prep was in. Prep cooks would be arriving at 8 and Jake wanted to have their day mapped out. They would need to prep both a chicken and veal stock, fabricate tenders and strip loins for the next two days, fillet 100 pounds of snapper scheduled to arrive from Florida this morning, peel asparagus, concasse tomatoes, cut pommes frites, wash all of the greens for garde manger, chop a case of parsley and the list went on and on. It would be a very busy day for his single prep cook and culinary school intern.

After making notes on production he reviewed orders scheduled to arrive and made a few notes regarding some last minute items that his vendors and local farmers would need to forage for him. His iPhone buzzed with a reminder about the Sales Office meeting scheduled for 9 a.m. This would still give him plenty of time to review with the prep staff and contact vendors on those last minute orders. Jake had a few minutes before the prep staff arrived so he pulled his knives from the office, removed that beautiful Sabatier 10 inch French knife from it’s holster and drew the blade down the surface of a wet stone to bring back the edge. He washed the knife (his pride and joy) and started cutting vegetables for a stock mirepoix. Carrots, onions and celery were easy prey for this razor sharp blade as Jake flew through the cutting process in a few minutes. The veal bones were already in the oven and he pulled them out, placed them in a stockpot and used the pans and drippings to caramelize the mirepoix. He was just deglazing the vegetables with an inexpensive Cabernet when his two prep cooks walked in, ready to work. Jake left the remainder of the stock preparation in their hands and quickly reviewed their prep sheet for the day.

Jake had total trust in this small crew and was quite impressed with the intern that he brought on for the season. This was a young girl who was totally passionate about cooking, had great knife skills, understood process and always did things exactly as Jake had requested. He felt that she would go very far and had every intention of moving her to the line within the next few weeks.

Jake checked in with Marie about the pastries for the scheduled coffee breaks and made sure that Lester was set with breakfast and the details for the picnic lunch. The chef was now off to his Sales Office meeting (chef’s hate meetings because they have so many immediate tasks on their plate and meetings always seem to be an un-necessary distraction). The meeting focused on a review of current banquets and events and details about activities on the books for next week. Jake would need to plan a half-dozen different menus for parties coming up and, of course, the Sales Office needed them ASAP. Fifteen minutes into the meeting a call came into Jake from the kitchen; it was his young intern. “Sorry to bother you chef, but the seafood order just arrived and I think you need to come down and check it out”. Jake excused himself and returned to his kitchen, he knew that he was not going to be happy.

In the kitchen Jake found that his 100 pounds of Red Snapper had arrived from Florida, flown overnight. The fish had cloudy eyes and the gill sacks had been removed (a trick some vendors use to disguise the age of the fish). The fish was still OK by most standards, but not by Jake’s. The chef prided himself in always sourcing the best quality; freshest ingredients and he had no intention of ever shifting from that standard. Jake gritted his teeth wrestling with the desire to bang his fists on the table and release a tirade of expletives on the phone with his vendor, but he knew that this typical reaction was no longer acceptable in a politically correct world and his tone would set the mood in his kitchen. Instead he called the purveyor, lodged his complaint, said he would discard the fish and that his bill should be adjusted and that if he experienced this again he would stop buying from them and find another source. The Snapper would come off the menu for tonight and he would need to find a substitute.

It was only 9:30 a.m., another 12 hours to go and his day was already taking a turn for the worse.

{Follow part two of Jake the Chef – A Day in the Life, coming next week).

PLAN BETTER – TRAIN HARDER
Harvest America Ventures, LLC
http://www.harvestamericaventures.com

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THE IMPORTANCE OF DOING THINGS WELL

THE IMPORTANCE OF DOING THINGS WELL

Years ago, a friend offered a statement, maybe even a mantra that has echoed within me ever since. It is one of those over-riding beacons of light that sets a course for how you live and how the world views what you do. This “mantra” is simple and succinct; it is obvious, yet profound. The statement is one that truly separates those who have a fulfilling and successful (how ever you interpret it) life from those who seem to simply “get by” and it is the focus of this article. “Anything worth doing is worth doing well.” Think about the importance of this sentence and how it might shape who you are.

Every time I pause to reflect on these words I cannot help but wonder how everything would be different if each of us lived by the significance of this charge. What if every person were to approach any task, any opportunity, any challenge with a commitment to tackling it with an attitude of doing it well? We have all had experiences with poor performance whether it was ours or someone else’. How would everything change if each of us took that extra minute or two to do it correctly? How many times have you been faced with the need to re-do a task because it was not correct or even require someone else to revise their work for the same reason? Another great statement should be printed as a poster in every place of work and classroom: “If you don’t have the time to do it right the first time when will you find the time to do it over?”

In a restaurant, the “re-fire” of a dish that was incorrectly executed will bring a teams cooking rhythm to its knees. That extra minute (or less) to make sure the item is correctly cooked, sauced, plated or garnished will keep everyone happy, build loyalty among a restaurant’s guests and increase pride among those who cook for a living. This commitment to “doing it right” starts way before the steak is placed on the char-grill. Doing it right applies to all of the details building up to, during cooking and at the time of plating and service. Here are a few examples of a “doing it right” mindset:

1. Did the line cook study the menu and become comfortable with the cooking methods used
2. Does the line cook understand why certain techniques are important
3. Did the line cooks get enough sleep before work and have they attended to ensuring that they are healthy and well-nourished before going to work
4. Is their uniform clean and pressed
5. Are they properly groomed before entering the kitchen
6. Did the dishwasher properly clean and sanitize all of the pots, pans and utensils
7. Did the restaurant’s maintenance staff ensure that the ovens and stove tops were in perfect working order and all heat sources properly calibrated
8. Were all received supplies checked for quality, freshness and quantity
9. Did the distributor take the time to ensure that everything shipped met the standards of the operation and their own defined standards of excellence
10. Were the temperatures in storage areas and refrigeration maintained to hold all ingredients at their peak levels of quality
11. Did the line cook make sure that his or her knives were properly maintained and sharp
12. Did the morning prep cooks follow recipes and procedures to provide the best pre-production for those working the evening line
13. Were members of the service staff properly trained and subsequently informed each day about the items on the menu, where the ingredients came from, how the items were prepared and what other items on the menu were complementary
14. Did the housekeeping staff properly vacuum, wash and press linens, dust and polish, clean and sanitize restrooms, wash windows, water plants and level tables to set the stage for evening service
15. Did the wine steward make sure that all wines on the house list were in stock, properly stored and assessed for their complementary nature to the menu
16. Did the maintenance crew take the time to make sure the parking lot was swept, all exterior lights working properly, building exterior washed and painted, signs properly hung and lit and landscaping impeccably maintained
17. Is the host and all of the service staff properly uniformed and groomed
18. Are the physical menus in perfect condition
19. Did an assigned person thoroughly clean the coffee maker to be able to make that perfect cup of coffee
20. Has an assigned person checked all POS printers to make sure there is enough printer paper and ink to last through the shift
21. Has an assigned person determined that the ice machine is working properly
22. Has the ware-washing team organized the dish area with soak bins set for silverware, all racks clean and in place, fresh trash cans ready for service and the wash and rinse temperatures up to code
23. Are the line cooks set with their mise en place a good 15 minutes before service begins
24. Does everyone have enough side towels
25. Has the chef tasted all ingredients and checked temperatures before service to maximize efficiency, safety and flavor
26. The list could go on and on, but all of these steps are critical if the line cook and the service staff is to do their job right

Everyone has an important job to do. Everything impacts on everything else. The job that each of us does on a daily basis is a true reflection of who we are. This job, no matter how large or how small is equally significant. Doing a job well builds pride and makes a clear statement to others that you care. Chef Charlie Trotter, when he stood at the helm of his famous restaurant was viewed by some as obsessive and “over the top” when it came to expectations of himself and others. It would be very easy to pick apart some of the details that appeared important to only him, but in the end two things were important: he was proud of his restaurant, the staff and the product and for 25 years “Trotter’s” was considered to be one of the greatest restaurants in the world. This came from a commitment to doing it right. Did he really need to dust the backs of the pictures hanging on his dining room walls every day; did the bottles on his back bar need to be lined up alphabetically; did service staff really need to measure the distance that all flatware was placed from the edge and ends of the table? The answer to all of these questions is “yes”. Doing it right is not a part-time approach. Doing it right means doing everything right, all of the time, or at least striving for that end result. Good enough – never is.

“If you strive like crazy for perfection—an all-out assault on total perfection—at the very least you will hit a high level of excellence, and then you might be able to sleep at night.”

Charlie Trotter

The question that everyone should ask when it comes to every task is” “could I have done this better”? If you are committed to doing it right then the answer to this question will always be: “it could have been better”. In the end, the most important critique that people receive should be from them. Be your own worst critic and strive to constantly improve.

The student should take the time to never turn in a paper that has failed a serious personal critique. The sign that a entrepreneur places in the window of his or her store should be professionally printed and reflective of the experience or product quality that he or she wants to sell. The general contractor should always take that extra 30 minutes at the end of each day to clean their work area. The farmer selling CSA shares should make sure that every subscriber receives the freshest ingredients each week. The server should ensure that the table his or her guest sits at is level and well appointed. Doing it right applies to everything for everybody, all of the time.

Imagine the impact. “Anything worth doing is worth doing well.”

PLAN BETTER – TRAIN HARDER

Harvest America Ventures, LLC
Restaurant and Culinary School Consulting, Training and Coaching
http://www.harvestamericaventures.com

Follow our blog at: http://www.culinarycuesblog.wordpress.com

WANTED: SUCCESSFUL RESTAURANT OPERATOR

WANTED:  SUCCESSFUL RESTAURANT OPERATOR

Here it is – the formula for a successful restaurant – almost a guarantee. There still are many people, for some strange reason, who continue to dust off their entrepreneurial suit and turn to restaurant ownership as a way to personal fortune or at least an opportunity for expression and public service. For all who fit this mold this is my best effort at providing a road map to potential (if you are lucky) success:

[] IDENTIFY A TARGET MARKET: Many believe that the starting point is concept development, however, building a concept restaurant without understanding who your potential market is would be the quickest way to failure.

[] KNOW YOUR TARGET MARKET: Qualitative and quantitative studies will help to determine what your potential market is willing to purchase, when they are likely to purchase, why they are likely to purchase and how you might best deliver the product message to them.

[] IDENTIFY YOUR COMPETITION: Surprisingly your competition goes beyond the obvious. A French concept is not only in competition with other French concepts, but rather with any other restaurant in close proximity to yours.

[] KNOW YOUR COMPETITION: Study them, follow their website and Facebook page, visit their operation as a guest, talk to others who patronize that competition, observe the clientele who spend time and money there and catalogue their strengths and weaknesses.

[] BUILD A CONCEPT THAT ADDRESSES YOUR TARGET MARKET AND COMPETITIONS AREAS OF WEAKNESS: This is not to state that an operator and chef should avoid creating something unique and stretch the food perceptions of their anticipated customer, however, your research should reveal those items that customers are prepared to order. Success is best realized when customer needs are addressed.

[] HIRE THE RIGHT KEY PLAYERS: The Chef, Restaurant Manager, and lead service staff is initially the most important hires. These individuals will become your organizers, communicators, expeditors of the company vision and the driving force as you move forward. They should be creative and talented in their respective disciplines, but most importantly business savvy.

[] SPEND TIME BUILDING A TEAM WITH OPERATIONAL CHEMISTRY: Work ethic, attitude, dependability, humility, service orientation and a passion for the restaurant business are the real keys to your success as a restaurateur. There is nothing more important than building this team with your key players.

[] BUY THE BEST RAW MATERIALS THAT YOU CAN: Wolfgang Puck said it best: “Buy the best raw materials and try not to screw them up.”
[] ENSURE THAT YOU HAVE STANDARDS AND THEY ARE ALWAYS OBSERVED: Food preparation, plating, service technique, cleanliness, cost controls, tracking customer reactions, problem solving – all of these processes should have definitive standard operating procedures that every staff member understands and follows.

[] OPENING A RESTAURANT IS MORE EXPENSIVE THAN YOU THINK: Make sure that you have the funds to open and cover expenses for your first year (at least). As you build up to opening you will spend many difficult days writing checks. What ever you budget for the opening is never enough. Watch your pennies, but know the expenses will add up quickly.

[] TRAIN, TRAIN, TRAIN: Training must be on going. Formal orientation for new employees, technique training, wine tastings, food plating demonstrations, regular staff meetings with review of operations, daily pre-meal presentations and end of service recaps are all critical components of an effective staff development program. It pays off tenfold!

[] FEEDBACK IS THE BREAKFAST OF CHAMPIONS: At first, it is human nature to resist soliciting feedback, but once a program is in place (comment cards, on-line surveys, encouraging employees to speak their mind during meetings, management open door policy and walking the dining room to observe guest reactions are effective ways to stay in tune with your collective performance).

[] EDUCATE YOUR GUEST: Customers are interested in food and beverage like never before. A well-trained staff can and should provide opportunities for guests to discover more every time they dine in your operation. Recommendations on wine, describing exceptional menu items, telling the story of food rather than listing ingredients and sharing interesting information about the restaurant’s history will go a long way towards building guest relations and return business.

[] CREATE A RESTAURANT PERSONALITY: Whether it is you, your manager, the chef, an entertaining bartender or a designated host – every successful restaurant has an identified personality; someone who becomes synonymous with the restaurant name – a person that attracts a return clientele. A restaurant without a personality is just a business.

[] WORK AT BUILDING A RESTAURANT EXPERIENCE: A memorable meal is more than just great food. The experience includes the sights and sounds, unique hospitality, food presentation, bar showmanship, building ambience, and personality of all who work for your restaurant. It is the experience that brings them back.

[] CONTROL, CONTROL, CONTROL: Buying right, taking scheduled inventories, portioning ingredients, following recipes and formulas, scheduling employees efficiently, tracking your advertising expenses, watch waste, lock coolers and storerooms, track sales abstracts and adjust menus when certain items do not sell, budget and assess any variances – these are some of the most important processes that an owner can implement and measure. Without them it is impossible to reach your financial goals.

[] ESTABLISH ACCURATE SELLING PRICES: Selling price determination cannot be a guessing game, nor can it simply reflect a price that compares with that of the competition. Prices are based on knowing all of the costs associated with the building of a dish, using a simple formula of Plate Cost/Food Cost % and then assessing the impact of competition and what the threshold for prices might be in the current market. Pricing is a science and an art.

[] TURN THE EXPERIENCE INTO A VALUE STATEMENT: Value should not be solely about price – if it is then you have failed. If the experience is strong than so is its perception of worth. To this add an emphasis on effective upselling to build check averages and your formula is beginning to reach its intended solution.

[] COMMUNICATE EFFECTIVELY: Use all of the available tools to communicate your message internally and externally, but be cautious of those that cost money without any measurement of effectiveness. Your website, Facebook Page, Blog and email blasts cost very little and approach a defined market. Internally, the best communication is face-to-face, but consider using payroll stuffers, newsletters and email communications for this audience as well.

[] SWEAT THE SMALL STUFF: Everything in the restaurant is important. It is all in the details: a clean parking lot, well appointed signage, spotless windows, floors, walls, bathrooms, kitchen, china, glassware and flatware, beautifully detailed plate presentations, flavors and aromas, greetings and sincere service, appropriate alcoholic beverages that are geared towards your target audience, a great cup of coffee and spectacular desserts – this and so much more are essential if you are to build a successful brand.

[] BE REALISTIC: No matter how good you are, even if every aspect of the formula is firing on all cylinders, the likelihood that your restaurant will be immediately profitable is very low. You should anticipate that the first year may be breakeven at best, year two should be better and if you stay focused year three will be the turning point. BE PATIENT!

[] BE RELENTLESS: Don’t let your guard down. Every minute, every day, every season this formula cannot waiver. This is the task of the owner: keep everyone focused – ALWAYS.

[] HOPE FOR LUCK AND BE GRATEFUL WHEN IT IS PRESENT: When all is said and done, there are far too many details and variables for any formula to be consistently effective.

I wish you well.
PLAN BETTER – TRAIN HARDER
Harvest America Ventures, LLC
http://www.harvestamericaventures.com
psorgule@hotmail.com

FOLLOW our blog at: http://www.culinarycuesblog.wordpress.com

THINGS THAT EVERY CULINARY SCHOOL GRADUATE MUST REMEMBER

THINGS THAT EVERY CULINARY SCHOOL GRADUATE MUST REMEMBER

This is the time of the year when culinary schools pass out diplomas and send their graduates out into the world of professional cooking. These young culinarians are eager, full of energy and loaded with ambitious ideas about who they are, what they are capable of today and where will be in a short period of time. Many are ready and some are not, but with that degree in hand they step outside in pursuit of their dreams. As graduates begin the process of starting their career I always feel compelled to leave them with a checklist that will, I am sure, serve them well in the years to come. These are not my thoughts alone; they represent the collective feelings of chefs, managers, fellow cooks and restaurateurs with whom I have had the pleasure to work. So..I would encourage each graduate to read and re-read these thoughts or lessons, fold them and keep them in your wallet for reference multiple times during your career with food.

1. TREASURE TRADITIONS: The profession of cooking has a long and arduous history. Many, many chefs came before you and tirelessly worked to build a place for cooking in the halls of serious professionals. How they looked, acted, approached others, relished food and the processes that they developed over decades will always and should always have a place in your consciousness and in your actions as a serious cook. Don’t forget what came before.
2. BE PATIENT: Your career is a journey, not a destination. It will likely take you 5 years or so to get to that first sous chef position and maybe another 5-10 before reaching Executive Chef. This is an investment you must be willing to make.
3. STAY PROFESSIONAL: Yes, there are numerous examples of unprofessional kitchen environments to choose from. There are those who yell and scream, belittle and undermine, treat others with contempt, fail to thank but rather choose to always find fault; those who are careless with product and do not respect their commitment to the source, the place or the guest. Do not fall into the trap. You have been taught to take the high ground. Stay there and be the example for others.
4. RESPECT OTHERS: One of the most beautiful things about working in kitchens is that they are some of the most diverse working environments to be found anywhere. This is a fantastic opportunity for you to learn about other cultures and beliefs. Remember that at least in the kitchen everyone is equal. Respect others for who they are and they will respect you.
5. YES CHEF: As much as you think you know, there is so much more to learn. The person who holds the title of chef has invested many years to reach the position that he or she currently holds. It is his or her kitchen! The best way to learn and set a path for professional growth is to respect the chain of command and know that if the chef expects something done a certain way, your response should always be YES CHEF (unless it violates rule #3 and in that case still say Yes Chef but start looking for a new environment).
6. THE FOUNDATIONS WILL NEVER DO YOU WRONG: All those hours that you spent in your foundational classes in school were the most important parts of your education. How to hold a knife, vegetable cut dimensions, the basic cooking methods, how to caramelize, the proper way to build a stock, etc. are relevant no matter what style of cooking or type of food that you will work with.
7. KEEP YOUR KNIVES SHARP: Each day before you start your shift make sure that your tools are in order. Use a stone and keep that chef’s steel close to your work area. A sharp knife makes the work much easier, reduces the opportunity for injury (as long as you respect the knife) and is kinder to the product you are working with. A serious chef will check your knives and know how serious you are as a cook.
8. SANITATION AND FOOD SAFETY IS YOUR OBLIGATION: Nothing is more important than proper food handling and your commitment to the safety and well being of your guest. Don’t ever forget those rules of operation that were taught in Food Sanitation.
9. RESPECT THE SOURCE: Food is not something that simply appears off the tailgate of your local or regional food vendor’s truck. A farmer, producer or manufacturer somewhere dedicated their passion to preparing those raw materials for your hands. It is the dedication of the farmer that makes a carrot delicious. Your job is to protect, nurse and define those natural flavors.
10. BE DEPENDABLE: You will quickly learn that the most important trait of a kitchen employee is being dependable. Will they show up on time, with the right attitude, prepared to work and consistent in their approach to their responsibilities? Be the example. The chef can work with any other shortcomings, but a lack of dependability has no place in a kitchen.
11. LEARNING NEVER STOPS: The diploma in your hand is not an end game. Walking across that stage was just the beginning of your formal education. Every day in the kitchen provides a new opportunity to learn something that was not part of your repertoire before or improve on something that you are familiar with. Grab on to every opportunity to learn and know that SOMETIMES THAT MIGHT MEAN “OFF THE CLOCK”!
12. LOOK CHALLENGES SQUARELY IN THE EYE: “I can’t”, just doesn’t fly. When a person says, “I can’t” what they really mean is: “I won’t”. If you don’t know how then ask or research the answer. You will never further your career unless you understand that the only answer is YES, I WILL.
13. STAY HEALTHY: You will be of little use to a chef if you are not in good health. Eat a balanced diet, exercise, maintain a healthy weight, see a doctor yearly, drink in moderation, get enough sleep and maintain those important relationships with friends and significant others. It is the WHOLE person who will become that successful chef in the future.
14. TAKE CARE OF YOUR FEET: You may think that this is a redundant statement after #13, but your feet are SO IMPORTANT to your well being as a cook. Buy the right shoes, change them during long shifts, wear white socks when working, soak them after those twelve -hour days and never take them for granted.
15. RESPECT THE EQUIPMENT IN THE KITCHEN: You will quickly learn that equipment will not hurt a person; it is the person who does not respect the equipment who will hurt him or herself. Meat slicers (if I see another person cleaning a slicer while it is still plugged in I will go ballistic) are only dangerous in the wrong hands, pressure and convective steamers will only burn those people who don’t use common sense, wet towels and hot pans do not work well together, liquids and hot oil in a pan are not friends, 10 gallon stock pots full of liquid that is not properly lifted and carried will be unforgiving to your back, and that great tool: the mandoline will do the same things to your fingers that it does to a zucchini (use protective gloves or a guard when slicing). Then there is the cost of all that equipment that must be shown respect. The blade from the Robot Coupe does not belong in the pot sink (you use it – you clean it), the dicing blade for that same machine falls under the same rules. Each piece of that equipment will cost the operation hundreds of dollars to replace because of your carelessness.
16. WE ARE ALL DISHWASHERS IN GOD’S EYES: An idle moment in the kitchen is a chance to jump in and help someone else. That dishwasher has an awful job, but one that is absolutely crucial to the restaurant. Help him or her out! Ten minutes jumping in on the dish machine or washing some of your own pots will show that person that you care and be reflective of point #4.
17. BECOME A SERVICE PIONEER: We work so that others may play. The guest is the guest and your task is to allow them to have an exceptional experience in the restaurant. Don’t fight their requests, learn to adapt and WOW them with your desire to go the extra mile.
18. READ, TRAVEL AND INVEST IN BUILDING THE RIGHT FRIENDS: Great chefs are worldly individuals who understand other cultures either through hands-on experiences or at least by reading as much as they can about them. Broaden your horizons, associate with other cooks who are equally interested in this endeavor and make the investment in this important part of your life.
19. BUILD YOUR NETWORK OF INFLUENCE AND STAY CONNECTED: Join professional organizations like the American Culinary Federation, Retail Bakers Association, National Restaurant Association, Chefs Collaborative, Slow Food, USA, Women Chefs and Restaurateurs, etc. and make a list of those individuals and groups that would be beneficial to your career. Seek them out, introduce yourself and stay connected. Most importantly – find a mentor who is willing to take you under his or her wing and offer you honest and sincere advice along the way. All of these connections may be integral to your future.
20. INVEST IN BUILDING YOUR BRAND: How do you want people to view you? When individuals call your references how would you like those people to portray you? What words would accurately describe the type of person and cook you are? Spend the time and invest the effort in clearly defining and maintaining this image. It is your brand that will be important in the future. Remember it is hard work to build a positive brand, but only takes a single mistake to ruin it. Be aware of this, even with the little things like: the message on your voicemail, the posts of you on Facebook, what you say on Twitter, how you dress and groom yourself, the language that you use and so many other things that will set the tone for your brand. Do what you want, but be aware of how you may be perceived.
21. GIVE BACK: You are fortunate to have a degree or the experience to hold down a significant job. Others have helped you along the way. You are able to work at a job that gives you immense satisfaction. Your career, if you set the stage properly, will have very few limitations. Knowing this should occasionally give you pause. Take that minute to do something for others. Volunteer at a soup kitchen, teach a class, help a farmer, donate to a worthy cause, work on a fund raising dinner, take the time to thank your teachers and give back to the college or school of hard knocks that brought you to this place. Food people are very generous – be one of them.

You have chosen a fantastic career. Foodservice will provide you with a great deal of satisfaction, some trials and tribulations, opportunities to grow and experience other parts of the country or world, meet interesting and passionate people, serve others and bring sunshine to their day and create beautiful food with your own hands. It is a truly special career track and you should feel fortunate to be part of it. Best of luck –make your success – it is in your hands.

I would recommend two essential books for your early library. Rush out (I am serious) today to purchase them. This is your first “post graduate” investment in your future.

Letters to a Young Chef by: Chef Daniel Boulud
http://www.amazon.com/Letters-Young-Chef-Art-Mentoring/dp/0465007775/ref=sr_1_1?s=books&ie=UTF8&qid=1399926450&sr=1-1&keywords=daniel+boulud+letters+to+a+young+chef

Tasting Success by: Chef Charles Carroll
http://www.amazon.com/Tasting-Success-Guide-Becoming-Professional/dp/0470581549/ref=sr_1_2?s=books&ie=UTF8&qid=1399926528&sr=1-2&keywords=Chef+Charles+Carroll

PLAN BETTER – TRAIN HARDER
Harvest America Ventures, LLC
http://www.harvestamericaventures.com

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LINE COOKS ARE THE ENGINE THAT DRIVE A RESTAURANT

LINE COOKS ARE THE ENGINE THAT DRIVE A RESTAURANT

It takes many years for a good cook to become a great cook, to become a chef. There is an enormous amount of experience that leads to the ability to lead a kitchen, to create a vision and set the tone for consistently excellent performance. Aside from a strong understanding of foundational cooking technique, the chef must have accumulated an understanding of purchasing, menu planning, human resource management, inventory management, cost control, artistic presentations of food, sanitation and safety, public relations, wine, as well as communication and brand building. Yes, this position is a culmination of a lifetime of skill and aptitude development, however, chefs must never lose sight of the role that line cooks play in the daily successful operation of a kitchen.

Line cooks are the lifeblood of any professional kitchen operation. It is, after all, the line cook who has the responsibility to prepare, develop flavors and consistently execute the menu under what outsiders would consider – inhumane conditions. The chef may be in the driver’s seat, but the line cook is the engine. A driver without a well running engine would not get too far.

I am currently finishing another terrific, accurate book on “a day in the life of a kitchen” that truly depicts the intensity, challenges and incredible skill that a line cook must possess. In this portrayal (Sous Chef, by: Michael Gibney); the author, while living the role of the second in command pays true homage to the line cooks who make his success possible. From experience there are a few realities that drive me to acknowledge the significance of the young, upwardly mobile and sometimes satisfied to stay where they are, pirates of the line.

1. Let’s face it being a line cook is more often than not a younger person’s sport. The physical demands of working the line are only surpassed by the mental acuity that is required as line cooks attempt to keep track of multiple a’ la minute preparations, timings, plating’s and interconnections with other cooks on the line. In my last position as a chef I knew that I could work as hard and longer than most of the cooks in the restaurant (I paid for it with aches and pains that rarely went away), but the older I got the harder it was to process the rapid fire mental activity that is the routine of a line cook. Bending over hundreds of times, 120 degree heat, burns, cuts, clanging of pans, and the speed with which a line cook must act and react is way too challenging for most over the age of 40.
2. Each station on the line is a private entrepreneurship. The set-up, calculated mise en place, position of each ingredient from sliced garlic to clarified butter, from minced shallots to pour bottles of white wine and olive oil and from tongs (a line cooks most important tool) to neatly folded side towels is uniquely that cooks. True, the chef may initially train a cook how to set-up a station, but once they have grown into the position they will inevitably treat that area as if it were their own business. This “seasoning” as a line cook is absolutely critical for the efficient operation of a kitchen and once it is set, it needs to be that way – always.
3. Although a good portion of the pre-work for the line may be done by an earlier prep shift (stocks, mother sauces [where they are still relevant], peeled shallots and garlic, braised meats, fabrication of steaks and chops, filleting of fish, trimming and blanching of vegetables, etc.), it is the line cook who must know how to cook as completely as he or she knows how to breathe. He or she must know how to cook a perfect steak, when to turn a fish on the plancha, the right time to add a splash of wine, how to season items in a pan by holding that salt and pepper above the dish and allowing it to evenly forecast, how much time is left in the cooking process so that the plating of a table’s order can be orchestrated and most importantly; how to taste (a great line cook MUST have a well define palate). The line cook needs to have an eye for plate presentation even though the layout may have originated from the chef and must know how important it is to take a few extra seconds to show the finesse to place each item at its perfect spot on the plate. Maintaining the discipline for all of this to take place is hard to imagine.
4. The chef will undoubtedly know how all of this is done and he or she probably taught the cook early on how to manage these steps, but most chefs, once they reach that position would find it very difficult to step in and do the job as well as a line cook.
5. Finally, the line cook, as I pointed out in a previous article (Life Lessons from a Line Cook) https://harvestamericacues.com/2014/04/11/life-lessons-from-a-line-cook/ must be a consummate communicator and in most cases “listener”. The chef, on a busy night sets the cadence for the line and is the sole voice in the kitchen. Service staff will use the chef/expeditor as the portal for communication with cooks, but line personnel know that it is that voice that they must tune into. When a directive or question is posed, the line cook must zero in on the command, acknowledge it and then network with other stations as they execute the directive. Sometimes this networking is handled with simple eye contact and a nod, other times it will be succinct words like “fire, plate, garnish, sauce, hot, pick-up, hold, etc.”. All of this takes time to develop, but once it is there, the line can hum on all cylinders like each station entrepreneur is electrically connected to each other station and the chef/expeditor. This invaluable relationship is magical and goes way beyond the importance of the chef as an individual.

The dining room may be full of people who have heard of, know about, met or would like to meet – the chef. They may, in fact, have come to the restaurant to try the “chef’s food”, but rarely do they truly understand that the chef was probably never involved in the actual cooking of the dish. The chef is in the limelight and he or she has earned that position through many years of extremely hard work, but the chef could never function without the efforts of the team of line cooks who stay behind those swinging doors. The chef knows this all too well and although he or she may not thank the line enough until there is a gap in staffing, this knowledge that they are where they are because of the dedication and seasoned entrepreneurial spirit of the hourly paid line cook is always present in a chef’s subconscious.

It may seem that I spend an inordinate amount of time talking about cooks, even more than chefs, it is because having experienced a return to a great and reasonably busy chefs position in the later part of my career I learned very quickly how much I depended on these crucial members of the team.

PLAN BETTER – TRAIN HARDER

Harvest America Ventures, LLC
http://www.harvestamericaventures.com

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READ THIS EXCELLENT PORTRAYAL OF KITCHEN LIFE:

Sous Chef
by: Michael Gibney
http://www.amazon.com/Sous-Chef-24-Hours-Line/dp/0804177872/ref=sr_1_1?s=books&ie=UTF8&qid=1399828125&sr=1-1&keywords=Sous+Chef

WHY DO PEOPLE OWN RESTAURANTS

WHY DO PEOPLE OWN RESTAURANTS

Having worked in the restaurant field for more than four decades, I have often wondered why it is that people take the leap into restaurant ownership. There are numerous documented reasons why this is not a good idea, yet thousands of people each year choose to plop down their life savings, convince family members to chip in and somehow manage to take out a bank loan (banks typically shy away from restaurants) because: “they have an idea for a restaurant” that can’t fail.

At last count there were in the neighborhood of 990,000 free standing restaurants in the United States. This does not include Business and Industry operations (offices, plants, hospitals, schools, etc.) or catering companies that dot the American landscape. Total freestanding restaurant sales in the United States last year topped $475 billion with another $205 billion from those B and I segment operations. 70% of those freestanding restaurants are single-unit operations.

(data from the National Restaurant Association – Pocket Fact book)
http://www.restaurant.org/Downloads/PDFs/News-Research/research/Factbook2014_LetterSize.pdf

What few can seem to agree on is the failure rate for those restaurants. Some figures are as high as 66% failure rate in the first year, but that is debatable. In any case, the failure rate is significant. From my experience, those who remain in business tend to struggle and depend more on positive cash flow than they do on actual profitability. So, the question remains: “why do people own restaurants”? I felt that it would be important to look at some of those reasons: a few are admirable, some are funny and others just plain sad. Since I have spent many years preparing others to enter this field I felt that it was only fair and right that these realities be placed squarely on the table.

First, let’s keep in mind that every serious cook and chef that I know, in his or her heart, would love to own their own restaurant. In fact, I have wrestled with this urge for the full length of my career, but have never taken that leap (maybe the smartest thing that I have NOT done). This may be part of that “American Dream” to own your own, be your own boss, answer to no one except yourself and hope that anyone can create the next “big thing”. We admire those who make a go of it and do so with great success and feel for those who try and fail. What are people thinking when they jump to become a restaurateur and what is the formula for success?

These are my observations (un-scientific):

WHY DO PEOPLE OWN RESTAURANTS:

1. OWNING A RESTAURANT LOOKS LIKE A QUICK WAY TO GET RICH: well, those of us who live it day in and day out know that this is a pipe dream. Some may look at the prices on menus and the cost of that steak in their local grocery store and come to an immediately conclusion that restaurants make money hand over fist. The truth is – if a restaurant is on their game, controlling costs, training staff and managing vendors they might make 5-6% net. Unfortunately, most restaurants are not that astute. Restaurants are faced every day with waste, spoilage, theft, rising prices of raw materials and a struggle to convince their staff that every penny counts.
2. IF I OWNED A RESTAURANT I COULD ENJOY HAVING MY FRIENDS VISIT AND BE DAZZLED BY MY HOSPITALITY: Owning a restaurant is where you are able to clearly separate TRUE friends from people who are looking for an opportunity for a “deal”. “I know the owner” are four words that every server, bartender and chef dreads hearing.
3. I LOVE COOKING AND HAVE BEEN TOLD BY MANY PEOPLE THAT MY FOOD IS SO GOOD THAT I SHOULD OPEN A RESTAURANT: wow – there is a significant difference between cooking for family and friends and bumping those numbers up to 100 plus every night of the week. If you are the owner – no matter how much you like to cook, you will not have the time to do so, nor should you. Cooking is the fun part – you are an owner now and must dedicate your time to running the business (marketing, accounting, hiring and evaluating staff, customer relations, problem solving, training, etc.).
4. IT WILL BE SO MUCH FUN BEING A HOST AND WELCOMING GUESTS TO MY RESTAURANT EXPERIENCE: Yes, hospitality can be enjoyable, but first and foremost it is hard work. You must be bright, positive and understanding every minute of every day. Most guests are nice people who appreciate what you and your staff do, but there is a 5% group that will eat up most of your time and energy. These are the ones who always find fault, know more than you, start with a negative attitude and leave with an even greater one. They still need to be served with a smile.
5. I LOVE FOOD AND WILL HAVE AN OPPORTUNITY TO EAT LIKE A KING OR QUEEN EVERY DAY: You might for a short period of time until you see how much that food is costing the operation. A month into it and you will be happy with rice and beans with the rest of the staff. Besides, after a while you won’t even want to look at those beautiful items on your menu.
6. I AM A PEOPLE PERSON AND WILL ENJOY HIRING AND WORKING WITH PEOPLE WHO HAVE DEDICATED THEIR LIVES TO FOOD AND SERVICE: There are many who are those dedicated disciples of the restaurant business. These are the people that I have always tried to hire and develop, but finding them is not always easy. Additionally, no matter how focused a person is on food and service – they will have bad days and guess what: their attitude becomes your problem to solve. As a restaurant owner you will spend as much if not more time on human resource issues than you do on serving the guest.
7. OWNING A RESTAURANT IS A PUBLIC SERVICE THAT GIVES GUESTS AN OPPORTUNITY TO ENJOY AN EXPERIENCE THAT MIGHT NOT BE AVAILABLE OTHERWISE: well, yes – you are in the business of creating an experience and this is what people do seek out. It will be that “experience” that brings them back and builds your reputation as a restaurateur. This is a noble objective, but never lose sight of the fact that you are running a business, not a non-profit organization. The experience is your responsibility, but so is maintaining a financially successful business that allows the experience to continue.

The restaurant business provides ample opportunities for creative people, individuals who love to serve, passionate cooks, budding entrepreneurs, food and wine lovers and gracious hosts, but the restaurant forum for these activities must be treated as any other business if it is to support those dreams and aspirations.

Like many others I follow the great success stories: Alfred Portale and his staff are celebrating the 30th anniversary of Gotham Bar and Grill in New York City. This has consistently been rated one of the top restaurants in America and one that continues to dazzle guests with wonderful food and hospitality. LeBernadin is a Michelin rated restaurant in New York that recently made the list of the best restaurants in the world. Chef Eric Ripert runs a tight ship that ensures that this is consistently the case. Thomas Keller is world renown for the “finesse” offered at The French Laundry and Per Se and his warm “down-to-earth” offerings at Bouchon and Ad Hoc. His relentless pursuit and insistence on perfection is common knowledge among those in the field. Mario Batali has elevated Italian Cuisine and the “fun” connected with dining in his catalog of restaurants from Babbo to his collaboration with Eataly in New York and Chicago. Restaurateurs like Drew Nieporent from the Myriad Group, Danny Meyer from Union Square Hospitality Group, Richard Melman from Lettuce Entertain You and Jean-Georges Vongerichten from Jean-Georges Restaurants continue to reach new pinnacles of success. So what is their secret?

Most restaurateurs would agree on a simple list:
INCREDIBLE WORK ETHIC
THE RIGHT LOCATION
CONSISTENCY
SUFFICIENT CAPITAL
SUPERIOR STAFF
INVESTMENT IN TRAINING
A GREAT PRODUCT
EFFECTIVE MARKETING
TIGHT CONTROLS
A SERVICE MENTALITY
and… A LARGE DOSE OF LUCK
_______________________________________________________________________

**NOTE: The picture in this article was taken using the “Waterlogue” app

PLAN BETTER – TRAIN HARDER
Harvest America Ventures, LLC
Restaurant and Culinary School Consulting, Training and Coaching
http://www.harvestamericaventures.com

FOLLOW this blog at: http://www.culinarycuesblog.wordpress.com

SO GOD MADE A CHEF

SO GOD MADE A CHEF

A Most Noble Profession
© Copyright 2014

This article was written in recognition of the wonderful piece that was done by Paul Harvey paying homage to American farmers. This version is a tribute to chefs and cooks who care for the crops and livestock that the farmer nurtures and in turn build flavors and textures to allow cooking and eating to rise from a process to an art form. In the words of Robert Bulwer-Lytton:

“We may live without poetry, music and art;
We may live without conscience and live without heart;
We may live without friends;
We may live without books;
But civilized man cannot live without cooks.”

SO GOD MADE A CHEF

Adaption by: Paul Sorgule

And on the ninth day (after making a farmer), God looked down on his planned paradise and said: “I need something to eat.”

So, God made a chef.

God said, “I need somebody willing to get up before dawn, pan the bacon, crack the eggs, brew the coffee, warm the Danish pastries and prepare to work all day in a hot kitchen until the last guest is served.”

So, God made a chef.

“I need somebody with a strong back, callused feet, hands that look like swollen and wrinkled tree stumps and arms that are covered in burns, but who can show enough finesse to delicately place a few snipped herbs on a perfect plate of food. Somebody who can swear like an angry sailor, yet care for his or her staff as if they were off springs. A person who could stare down a line cook with piercing eyes and in the next breath – smile as a passing guest says: thanks for a great meal.”

So, God made a chef.

God said: “I need somebody who will handle baby carrots received from the local farmer as if they were family heirlooms, fillet a fresh fish with a knife so sharp that it cuts through the skin and flesh like they were butter, trim the silver skin from a tenderloin without leaving the slightest trace of meat, pound out veal tenders with the power of a blacksmith and turn foie gras in a hot pan so gingerly that even the liver doesn’t know it is being cooked.”

So, God made a chef.

God needed someone who would work 24 hours in the first two days of a week that would certainly exceed 80 and do so with vigor and passion that is hard to describe. A person who knew at any given time what it cost to produce yesterday’s cup of coffee, could negotiate with salespeople who could barely tell the difference between a turnip and a potato and was obsessed with cleanliness and sanitation.

So, God made a chef.

God said: “I need somebody who is confident enough to handle hundreds of reservations, smart enough to know how much to prepare of each item, cautious enough to keep guests with allergies in mind, talented enough to build menu items that were able to create a buzz for the restaurant and strong enough in belief to always focus on the quality of the ingredients used.”

So, God made a chef.

God needed a person who was true to him or herself; focused – no matter how busy the restaurant became to not EVER sacrifice quality while making sure that each item contributed to the financial success of the business. He needed a person who was able to find a way to keep a family while giving 150% to the business and doing so without the need for accolades except – clean plates returning from the dinning room.

So, God made a chef.

God said: “I need someone who isn’t always right, but is never wrong; someone who never eats, only tastes; someone who respects heat and sharp objects and abhors anyone who doesn’t respect them as well. I need someone who would rather cook than anything else; someone who is comfortable wearing white jackets, hounds tooth pants and tall pleated hats and who considers his or her feet the most important part of their body.”

So, God made a chef.

“Somebody who is compassionate, but firm; caring and always giving; a mentor, psychiatrist, medic, big brother or sister, fair and honest, hard working and filled with passion for food and service. Someone who would laugh and cry when his or her son or daughter says they want to spend their life doing what dad or mom does.”

So, God made a chef.

________________________________________________________________________

A tip of the toque to all who work in kitchens, those who came before and set the standards for us to follow, those who aspire to become the next generation of cooks and most importantly – those family members who put up with us along the way.

**WATCH FOR THIS PIECE COMING OUT ON YouTube THIS SUMMER!

PLAN BETTER – TRAIN HARDER

Harvest America Ventures, LLC
http://www.harvestamericaventures.com

Follow our blog at: http://www.culinarycuesblog.wordpress.com

FOOD IS THE UNIVERSAL LANGUAGE

FOOD IS THE UNIVERSAL LANGUAGE

Once you brush away all of the superficial things that we accumulate in life and begin to prioritize those that are important it is remarkable to see that everyone shares the same list. It all boils down to family, faith, health, companionship, meaningful work, how we treat others and how they treat us and those things that allow us to continue to survive: food, water, basic shelter and clothing. Unfortunately, people tend to get caught up in those things that feed our desires outside of the foundations of a good life. This article will focus on one common denominator that addresses nearly every one of those foundations and can even stretch to encompass a few desires outside of the basics in life. That common denominator is food.

There is little doubt that we all face demons every day. People can easily get caught up in our differences whether they be political, territorial, religious beliefs, relationship disagreements, or even work related friction and as we see by watching the news, these differences can become the center of our attention. If there is anything that we can agree on – it is a good plate of food. So, how important is food beyond the basic need for sustenance? Let’s take a look at the role that food can and does play in life.

A baby is born and the first thing that he or she does is cry. What does the baby cry for? Is it attention, affection, discomfort or fright? Those who have watched the miracle of birth will quickly note that it is hunger that draws the first sound from a new born. There is an association that a baby quickly develops: “I cry and I get fed.” Food becomes a comforting crutch in life that we carry with us forever. We may not cry for food as we get older, but we realize that food is a friend when it is sometimes hard to find one. When we are happy –we eat. When we are sad – we eat. When we are lonely – we eat. When we are stressed – we eat. Food is comforting, it is fulfilling, it is a reward when we need it and a memory of people and things that we have encountered through our lives. Food is important.

We now know, although not everyone practices it, that “we are what we eat.” Selecting the right foods and preparing them well is the most significant contributor to a healthy body. Many of the health issues that plague mankind are preventable if we would only follow some simple rules of selection and preparation. Diabetes, heart disease, cancer and obesity are, to a large extent, preventable if we understand how important food is.

The once cherished “family table” was a time to sit down as a symbol of reverence for tradition and a time to share in each other’s day. The family table was a time to celebrate the small things and to comfort each other when our day takes a negative turn. The meal was a time to pass down the values of the family and to teach each other how to live, respect and cherish each other. The common denominator was a plate of food that was prepared with love, care and a sense of obligation to those things that keep a family strong. We have strayed from this over the years with the advent of a microwave oven society and the ease with which fast food and convenience items take over the traditions of old.

We do (thanks from everyone in the restaurant business) lean on restaurants now for much of that attention to tradition. Restaurants are a place where we can celebrate birthdays, graduations, weddings, anniversaries, promotions, first dates, breakups, business deals and even the lives of those who pass away. In all cases, it is good food that serves as that common denominator. We break bread to remember and even to forget. Food is a powerful catalyst that ties two ends together no matter how far apart they seem initially.

When it comes to appreciating great food there is no language barrier. The experience surrounding dining can and does go way beyond that typical biological family. State dinners sponsored by governments are used to create a common ground for discussion, compromise, support and understanding. No matter how deep the differences are between two people or even entire countries, we can always appreciate a great meal. This simple foundational need and pleasure can become the basis by which differences are put aside, maybe long enough for there to surface a spark of understanding and agreement. Food is important.

There are so many examples of the power of food as a communication tool – examples that each of us knows and holds close to our hearts. Here are a few:

One of the most difficult jobs on earth is farming. I have had the wonderful opportunity to visit farmers in the wine regions of France, California, Oregon and Washington State. During harvest, workers are pressed with the need to pick the grapes when they reach the correct sugar content and do so during a very short window of time. It is backbreaking work requiring those involved to bend at the waist, snipping bunches of grapes from the vine from row to row for many hours at a time. With the sun beating on their backs, hands that are rough and cut from the vine knife used and grapes weighing down on their frame it becomes work that would surely be considered intolerable by many. At the end of the day in most vineyards, something magical happens. The crew will sit down together to a meal prepared by the vineyard, break bread, clink glasses filled with the vineyards wine, laugh and truly enjoy telling stories about how many aches and pains they have. The next morning the process starts all over again. Food is a powerful and magical substance.

Restaurant work is, simply put, hard. Ten or twelve hours on your feet, the pressure of the clock, lifting, chopping and dicing, heat that is intense enough to cook a person, burns, cuts and aching muscles – this is the life of a cook. Service staff must attend to every detail in the dining room: polishing glasses and flatware, making sure that their station is impeccably clean, memorizing the art of the kitchen and the complement of wine and focusing on a state of mind that exudes service excellence and in some cases tolerance of unruly guests. At 4:30 in most restaurants all of this stops for 20 minutes or so while both sides of the swinging door get together for staff meal. When done correctly, this stress reliever goes way beyond nourishment. It is a time to talk, to share, to set aside tension, take a breath, laugh and set your mind at ease for the onslaught of business just around the corner. For the moment, everyone is equal around the plate. Food is incredibly important.

Each professional cook that I know has experienced that epiphany in life – that moment when a certain food, or food event has allowed them to pause and say: “wow, this is something that I want to dedicate my career and a good portion of my life to.” It is that first oyster with warm salty ocean brine that says “it doesn’t get any fresher than this;” it may be that hand picked heirloom tomato that is still warm from the July sun and eaten as one would an apple or sliced and simply drizzled with good olive oil and a pinch of sea salt that turns an average person into an explorer of food experiences; or it might be the first time that they enjoy a meal prepared by a serious chef who knows how to delicately handle those foods and take them to a new level of significance. In all cases, the power of food can move a person from a desire to find a career to defining a “calling in life.” Food is important.

Food allows us to maintain traditions and celebrate them with others, it allows us to pass down a gift of a treasured family recipe that becomes part of the family’s heritage, it is the one thing that we can freely give to others with a smile and a sense of understanding and appreciation.

I remember many years ago visiting with a woman restaurateur in Saranac Lake, New York who owned a business called the Blue Gentian. It was a neighborhood restaurant of great renown. People would line up around the block to wait for a table and enjoy her “blue plate specials,” as they were called. Nothing elaborate: roast chicken, meat loaf, and even a few casserole dishes. I asked her one-day what her secret ingredient was. She pointed to an empty jar in her kitchen and said that that was it. When I looked puzzled she said that the ingredient was love of people, love of life, and appreciation of others. This was what tasted so good at her tables. Food is important.

Over the past few Sunday’s I have watched the new Anthony Bourdain series on CNN called: Parts Unknown. No matter what you think about Tony, the series is brilliant because it shows the human bonds that are formed around food. It is a personal show that opens your eyes to other cultures and traditions and the honest purity of the human spirit once you focus on the foundations of life. He demonstrates both directly and indirectly that food is important.

Chefs, and cooks (both domestic and professional) have extremely important jobs. If we could just peel away the superficial stuff that gets in the way of life and just learn to “break bread” and appreciate our differences, we might be able to enjoy the human condition a bit more.

Photo by: Kristin Parker – Kristin Parker Photography

PLAN BETTER – TRAIN HARDER
Harvest America Ventures, LLC
Restaurant and Culinary School Consulting, Training and Coaching
http://www.harvestamericaventures.com

Follow this blog at: http://www.culinarycuesblog.wordpress.com

COOKS IN THE WEEDS – GASPING FOR AIR

COOKS IN THE WEEDS – GASPING FOR AIR

There are times in a restaurant kitchen when things go terribly wrong. Every cook, every chef faces those moments that can only be described as desperate and out of control. There is so much truth to the theory of Murphy’s Law: “If anything can go wrong, it will”. There are many corollaries to this theory that point to variable approaches:
“If anything can go wrong, it can.” – Dr. Allen Roberds
This provides an opportunity to escape the worst- case scenario.

“If anything can go wrong, it should”.
This points to an understanding that you deserve what you get.

“If anything can go wrong, it will be all your fault and everyone will know it”. – Dean Izett
Noting that when things go wrong it is the “cover your ass” approach that allows others to feel less of the pain, passing on the full brunt of the results to one person (other than themselves).

The most important lesson from Murphy’s Law lies in understanding how important it is to plan, work through a variety of “worse case” scenarios, and focus always on being prepared. In kitchens one of the Cardinal Rules is to always make sure your mise en place is tight. Chefs always live by the theory that if your “mise” is in good shape, you can handle anything.

There is a certain level of comfort that comes from having your mise en place in order. I would consider it parallel to being lost on a desert road, but feeling OK because you have a full tank of gas. Great mise, like a full tank of gas gives you some elbowroom.

What the typical restaurant guest will never understand is the pressure that cooks face on the line every day and how dramatic it can be when they wind up “in the weeds”. So, what does this term mean? How can anyone adequately describe the feelings that are present when this happens? What can drive a line cook to this point despair and how can they, do they get through it?

The Urban Dictionary defines “in the weeds” as:

“When someone or something, usually in the food or beverage industry, becomes overwhelmed and falls behind.” Such as: “Hey chef, can you plate up those two fish for me?? I’m in the weeds….”

Honestly, this definition does not do justice to the situation or the feeling. When a cook is truly in the weeds he or she starts to lose track of what is going on. The dozen or so dishes that have been fired are now just a blur and the cook can no longer keep track of where each dish is in the cooking process. He or she starts to get that glazed over look, fails to respond to directives from the expeditor, becomes pale and may even start to tremble a bit. The cook can even break out in a cold sweat even though it is well over 100 degrees behind the line and will likely just stop in his or her tracks with a sense of hopelessness. A solid line team will begin to notice the signs a little bit earlier on and nod to the chef/expeditor that things are about to go south. Sometimes the line cook who is rubbing elbows with this individual at the next station might be able to bring things back by stepping in to help – that is “if” his or her station is under control. It will likely be the chef/expeditor who holds the key to recovery. Sometimes the line cook can be talked through the situation or in some cases the chef might need to pull him or her off the line for a time to get a grip. The chef would need to step into that role which may or may not bring the line out of “train wreck mode”. More often than not, the whole line will simply need to slow down, dinners will be slower coming from the kitchen, servers will need to temper the impatience of the guest by offering a free intermezzo or cocktail “on the chef” and the host will be instructed to hold back on seating anymore guests until the kitchen has a chance to recover.

For a time, the kitchen will become quiet as everyone tries to make sense of what has happened, find the cause, catch its breath and get the rhythm back. This may only take a few minutes, but while the kitchen is in this state it seems like time drags on forever.

What can cause this? There are a multitude of issues that can bring a great kitchen to a halt – most of them are avoidable. To begin with, it may be as simple as the line cook who did not have his or her mise en place together. Running out of ingredients and needing to stop and start chopping and dicing is a clear sign of disaster. It could be that the cook grabbed a hot pan, generating a throbbing burn and pulling that cooks concentration astray. It might be a disproportionate number of pick-ups on that night from one station placing undo pressure on a portion of the team, or it might be, and oftentimes is, a flaw in table management out front – seating too many people in a short period of time. Great table management is what some guests view as “why can’t I be seated now? I see you have empty tables in your dining room?” Communication between the front and back of the house can resolve most issues before they become problems.

Now you are in the thick of it. A line cook has mentally “dropped out”, the chef has stepped in behind the line to a back up of dishes and a lack of knowledge regarding where they are, the board is filled with dupes ready to be fired, and the rest of the team is waiting for direction. There are times when some cooks may wonder how the chef got to his or her position. They may question his or her ability to understand or do what each line cook does on a daily basis. The service staff is facing a crisis situation in the dining room with an increasing number of disgruntled guests waiting for their meal. This is the time when a true chef can earn respect and demonstrate why he or she is in that role. This is that moment when the chef is the chef. There is that moment when everyone holds their breath waiting for a defined course of action that will bring everyone out of deep water, gasping for breath, but knowing that things are going to be OK.

The chef takes a breath and says to the dining room manager: “For the next few moments we cannot seat anymore guests. I will be the only person who will communicate with service staff from this point on. Give us 20 minutes to right the ship and get back on track.” The chef then turns to his line staff to determine where they are with each ticket and simply states that they will take one ticket at a time until the board has been taken care of and then proceed to allow more diners to enter the fold.

Guests wait a bit longer, a few free drinks are passed their way, the dining room manager pays extra attention to those guests waiting (without placing blame anywhere), the bar is cranking as parties wait to be seated and slowly, but surely the line gets back its feeling of confidence as the board is nearly clear before a new set of clicks from the point of sale bring the kitchen back to where it was.

What is most important is that the line cook who was relieved (temporarily) is focused on re-building mise en place, brought back to the line after he clears his head, is welcomed by the other line cooks and supported by the chef. It can happen to anyone and probably will to each of the cooks working that night at some point. It likely will not happen to the line cook in question again for some time. His or her mise en place and focus will be razor sharp from this point on.

Once the night is over, a review of what happened will be important, but the incident must be behind them. Tomorrow will be another day, the crew pulled together and survived. This is what teams do.

To the guest, there was disappointment and a lack of understanding regarding what happened or why, but the front-of-the-house did what they do best: attend to the guest and make it right.

In the weeds, yes, but recovery can happen. This is a day in the life of a restaurant.

**photo by: Kristin Parker – Kristin Parker Photography

PLAN BETTER – TRAIN HARDER

Harvest America Ventures, LLC
Restaurant and Culinary School Consulting, Training and Coaching
http://www.harvestamericaventures.com

Follow our blog at: http://www.culinarycuesblog.wordpress.com

IN THE KITCHEN – HIRE PASSION, TEACH DISCIPLINE

IN THE KITCHEN – HIRE PASSION, TEACH DISCIPLINE

Chefs seem to always lament about the difficult task of finding the right staff to fulfill the mission of their kitchen. “Where can I find good cooks who will show up to work prepared, who have a strong foundational knowledge about process, and who will give me a good days work for a good days pay”?

Turnover rates in restaurant operations seem to be significantly higher than in other professions with the average shelf-life of a cook oftentimes less than a year and dishwashers – well, sometimes we measure their likely time with us in months or even weeks. A good chef friend of mine once told me to just keep hiring cooks and dishwashers because if you don’t need them today you will tomorrow. Where are we going wrong? Is it the business and should we just continue to accept this as “the way it is”? What is missing in the formula for building a great team? Is it the hours that kitchen employees work? Is it the pay and or benefits (or lack there of)? Is it the conditions that people work in (heat, on their feet, burns and cuts, heavy lifting, pressure of impossible time constraints)? Is it all of the above?

There are certainly ample books and articles written about these aforementioned conditions yet young people continue to flock to culinary schools for a jump-start on a career in food. Tens of thousands of those students graduate each and every year, yet chefs still complain that they cannot find “good cooks who will show up prepared to work, who possess a strong foundational knowledge about process and who will give the chef a good days work for a good days pay”. Something just isn’t right, there must be an answer.

Having worn a number of hats that are part of this story (employee, chef/employer, culinary instructor, school administrator) I have searched for the answer for many, many years. Here is my conclusion broken down into three parts:

1. There is no question that we need to look at the conditions, pay and benefits afforded kitchen employees if we want to hang on to them. Health care, respectable pay based on the skill set for a particular job and the ability to advance are all pretty basic needs that people have. Without them, any employee will begin to look elsewhere.
2. Hire passion and expect to train those who have it. Passion is not something that is as common as one might think. Chefs can certainly build passion, but there needs to be a spark to begin with. Passionate people are always looking for something to take to heart and dedicate their energies to.

Aldous Huxley once wrote: “I want to know what passion is. I want to feel something strongly.”

If a chef wants to build that team focused on the larger objectives defined for the restaurant, he or she must seek out people with that spark – that need to know passion. One might assume that if a young person chose to attend culinary school and invest the time and money to attain a degree then the passion must be there. Unfortunately, I have found that this is quite often – not the case. When a person has that spark of passion they realize that they must be willing to give in to it, to sacrifice much in its pursuit, to make choices that could very well be difficult. Far too many young people are not ready to make that commitment, to sacrifice things in pursuit of a dream. Those who have the spark can be easy to filter out from the pack, but it must be something that the chef looks for, insists on, and makes a top priority. In building a dynamic team there is no substitute for the spark of passion.

“There is scarcely any passion without struggle”.
Albert Camus, The Myth of Sisyphus and Other Essays

If the passion is there, then the chef has an opportunity to set the young cook on a course for success – a course that will, in time, benefit the restaurant and even more importantly – benefit that young cook as he or she proceeds to build a career. The chef must take this spark of passion, encourage it, keep it in check, teach and train and help the cook to build a solid path. Even that dishwasher who might typically only stay a few months at a property can be developed into a great employee, maybe a prep cook, line cook and eventually, with the right coaching, a chef in his or her own right.

“Persistence, Perfection, Patience, Power, Prioritize your passion. It keeps you sane.”
Criss Jami, author of Venus in Arms

3. Discipline is the hallmark of success in a professional kitchen. Uncontrolled passion can lead to chaos and although kitchens may often appear to be chaotic, they are typically controlled chaos. These young cooks and team members must understand that a kitchen runs most efficiently when it is modeled after the military structure that served as its beginnings under chefs like Escoffier, Careme and Point. There is a reason for this that most who had experienced an efficient operation would understand and agree with. Kitchens operate under sometimes impossible deadlines with each individual player responsible for a plethora of minute preparations before the onslaught of orders clicking their way into the kitchen from the dining room. This pre-opening pressure is accompanied by a cacophony of sounds including banging of pots, pressure steamers, interplay between cooks, pounding of meats in preparation for station work and the rumble of speed racks and Queen Anne carts thundering down the narrow paths between stoves, coolers and dining rooms. To keep the pace, ensure everyone remains on task, and maintain a level of safety it becomes imperative for there to be a respect for chain of command and attention to the many details facing each cook. This again is where “yes, chef” becomes the most important response, one that all cooks, especially those just starting out, must adhere to. With all of their preparation in class, many young cooks out of school do not understand or appreciate this. The result of too much deviation from this plan will bring down the ship, something that a chef cannot allow to happen. When there is discipline, there is focus. When there is focus, there is calm. When there is calm, there is efficiency and success. This is the job of the chef and this is what keeps a team together and allows that passion to take form.

“Discipline is the bridge between goals and accomplishments.”

Jim Rohn – entrepreneur, author and motivational speaker

“Confidence comes from discipline and training”.

Robert Kiyosaki

A chef who understands and implements a plan for addressing those foundational needs of his or her team, hires individuals with a passion to learn and a love of food and who establishes a system of professional discipline in the kitchen will build that team that is so desperately needed.

PLAN BETTER – TRAIN HARDER

Harvest America Ventures, LLC
http://www.harvestamericaventures.com
Restaurant and Culinary School Consulting, Training and Coaching

Follow Culinary Cues at: http://www.culinarycuesblog.wordpress.com

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