Tag: cooks

SETTING THE HOLIDAY TABLE – A New Role for Restaurants

SETTING THE HOLIDAY TABLE - A New Role for Restaurants

Good, bad or indifferent, the reality for the holidays is that they mark some of the busiest days of the year for restaurants. To our guests it may simply reflect their desire to truly relax and avoid the hustle of pulling together their largest family meal of the year, it might reflect (another whole topic) their lack of skill or desire to cook, or it might simply be a interest in the local restaurant’s interpretation of a special meal. To the restaurant employee it becomes “another day” in a busy operation and one more instance where they are unable to spend time with their family. On the business side, this might be one of the few opportunities over the next two months to generate some sales since aside from those areas that are a shopping destination, people are somewhat reluctant to spend their discretionary income on dining out when there is a struggle to find the money to buy gifts.

The question is “how do we make something very positive out of this restaurant reality”? Restaurants live in a different climate today. Our role has sped past simply providing nourishment. We are now in the business of providing appropriate nutrition, looking out for guest health, accommodation of special dietary needs, a source of entertainment, a center for food education, a resource for rewarding guests when others outside the restaurant ignore their contributions to society, a place where individuals celebrate each other, and now a substitute for the family table. This is not a burden, it is a much broader role that allows restaurants to play an integral part in people’s lives and in turn create the chance for us to survive and occasionally thrive as a business. It behooves us to add this reality to the training that we offer employees – they need to be on-board and we need to create a reward system that recognizes their efforts and sacrifices.

It is now the role of restaurants to re-create that family table that was depicted in the Norman Rockwell painting of this American tradition. This cannot be simply another dinner out – it must be special and memorable. It must be our pleasure to provide this for every guest who chooses to share his or her family time with us. This may be cliché and seemingly unrealistic, but this is our role. So – how can we create this experience and feeling in our restaurants and do so with a real sense of caring?

A quote by: Sarah Henry in her novel: “A Cold and Lonely Place” sums up the answer to this question: “Sometimes home is where you’re at, and family is who you’re with.” Restaurant people, as I have previously mentioned, are some of the most thoughtful and caring people that I know – yet when asked what distresses them most about working in the business, the answer is almost always universal. What upsets them most goes beyond the hard physical work, beyond the hours that they must commit, even beyond the 5% of guests served who can be rude; the primary stressor is an employees inability to spend quality time with his or her family – especially during the holidays. As restaurateurs and chefs we cannot ignore this fact. The employee may be physically present but their hearts are miles away with their spouse, children, parents, siblings and friends. This feeling cannot be put aside, it is there and will, without a doubt, impact on the employees’ ability to put on a smiling face and provide that exceptional guest experience. So how can we take advantage of the wisdom in Sarah Henry’s quote?

The answer should be a focus of those in our human resource worlds, a topic of discussion and planning in manager meetings, and a commitment on the part of owners. We are, after all, in the service business. James Heskett from the Harvard Business School once said: “if you are not serving the guest directly you must serve those you are”. To provide that level of guest experience that fulfills our new business reality we must insure that our employees feel good about their role and feel that their time away from family is taken into account.

There are some excellent examples of ways that restaurants can, and in many cases have built on the premise of Sarah Henry’s quote. Re-creating opportunities for the “restaurant family” to break bread and celebrate each other with great food, comfortable family meal environments with all the trimmings, toasts to this and their biological families can go a long way. This should be built into the holiday schedule and focused on with the same enthusiasm and attention to detail that we put into the guest experience. Employee turkey’s and other products as a bonus for their families to enjoy at home is a small price to pay with a big return. Thank you cards from owners and managers and even in-kind donations to local charities and people in need that carry the names of your staff members will help them to sense the spirit of the season. Scheduling staff for shorter shifts on holidays so that they can spend time with their families is a considerate approach, especially for those with young children. I am sure that with a concerted effort, each restaurant can come up with their own ideas on how to turn lemons into lemonade.

On the guest side, building that environment of celebration will become real when an appreciated staff exudes the warmth of the holidays and a sincere approach towards service. Give it some thought this holiday season as we set the table for guests in our busy restaurants.



Restaurant people are, by and large, some of the most generous, giving people that I know. In many cases, whether they think this way or not, restaurant families make a difference in people’s lives on a daily basis. Yes, our primary role would appear to be providing sustenance, for a price, for those people who walk through our doors, but in reality we are capable of, and often do, provide far more meaningful benefits to society.

An increasing number of chefs and restaurateurs are taking on the responsibility of educating the public about healthy eating, nutritious preparation of food, and the impact that these processes have on an individuals well-being and sense of self. Whether restaurants are simply relaying this information by example, taking a “soap box” stance in the press, or even offering their services as cooking teachers on site or at various locations throughout the country, this new role for professional food advocates can and is making a difference in people’s lives. I was recently involved in an on-line debate about customers today who seem to only want very basic (not necessarily healthy or interesting) foods when they visit restaurants and are only looking for a bargain. Many chefs believe (as do I) that although this may be true today, it is our opportunity and obligation to show customers what they are missing and teach them how to move away from their “safe” dining habits and look to the undeniable value associated with what quality cooks know how to prepare. This role of teacher is a different one for the chef, but one that is incredibly important and personally gratifying.

The dinner table is also a place where character, honesty, respect and family values are built. I have oftentimes referred to the demise of the family table and the impact that it may have on the way people treat each other. It is refreshing to see restaurants and some schools adding etiquette teaching to their daily routines and lesson plans. This small step in helping people appreciate and respect others was historically a part of every day life, but over the past few decades has slipped out of the mindset of family. Restaurants like “EPIC”, Jamie and Melissa Keating’s spectacular culinary mecca in Georgia, are taking the time to work with local schools, offering an opportunity for young people to learn how to act at the table. Charlie Trotter did this for many years at his namesake restaurant in Chicago and more and more culinary programs such as New England Culinary Institute have even incorporated etiquette training into their curriculum. The long term impact of this will need to be seen, however, I stand firm with my belief that respect is taught at the dinner table and without this forum we will continue to experience the negative results of a society that fails to see the good in others.

Finally, restaurants can and have always viewed their success as an opportunity to help others. Chefs and restaurateurs are oftentimes the first to volunteer their time and product to help those in need. A family suffers property loss, restaurants are their to help with their nutritional needs; a staff member is injured and unable to work, restaurants will help their own; a disaster strikes a town or a region, restaurant folks roll up their sleeves to help feed the masses. In recent years I have found great pride in seeing and participating in such events. Hurricane Katrina saw hundreds of chefs and food vendors stop what they were doing and travel to New Orleans to help. In 2001, when New York was attacked by terrorists, restaurants inside and outside of the city were setting up temporary operations to feed the workers and provide for the stricken. In Vermont, when devastating floods damaged and wiped out family homes, local restaurateurs, chefs and culinary students were their to try and bring a smile to the faces of those who had lost so much.

These examples do not even take into account the daily task of providing a reward system for guests after their busy days at work; the place of celebration for birthdays, anniversaries, engagements, graduations and weddings; or even that safe haven from the elements when people just don’t feel like cooking at home. Early in the day, late at night, weekends and holidays, restaurants are open and their staff is ready to be at your service. Restaurants are many things to many people.

You will never find these new roles outlined in a book on what it takes to be a restaurateur or chef. You will never hear those same culinary professionals brag about how much they do to help communities and their people. You may rarely even hear about the countless other services that restaurants provide for a community that go way beyond sustenance for a fee. These are the things that restaurant people do that give their efforts meaning. These are the things that make restaurant people some of the finest human beings I know. This is how they define success, way beyond a profit statement or a paycheck. This is who restaurant people are.

As we begin to approach the holiday season and a time of giving thanks, I would encourage you to look to your local restaurant and give them a nod of appreciation for their important role in American life and note that they are so much more than simply a place to find a good meal at a reasonable price.



How important are the details? Make no mistake the “small stuff” does add up when building an experience for your guests. First impressions help to draw people into your business, set the tone for the experience, build guest expectations, define your concept, demonstrate your commitment and establish the measurement for value. How are your first impressions?

I remember a great story that I heard years ago about SAS airlines. The story was titled: “cattle calls and coffee stains” and referred to the way that many airlines board planes and their lack of attention to detail. In the story reference is made to the guest who once seated, pulls down the chair tray only to find coffee stain rings from a previous passenger. As small a detail as this might be, the guest immediately wondered if they could safely fly the plane if the airline couldn’t even clean their chair trays. Details do matter!

Consider some of the more remarkable retail companies and their approach. Apple Computer draws people into their stores by using simple, clean lines that highlight the product. This is accomplished with dramatic use of light and glass, minimalistic décor and attention directed to the brand and the product. As a result they own the largest dollar sales per square foot of any retail company.

Anthropologie pulls customers in by creating one of a kind window displays that tell stories and tie the product into those stories that entice and educate at the same time. This company accomplishes this through a team of artists in every one of their stores, a home office department dedicated to research and design of these windows and a decision to forego traditional advertising for the uniqueness of their first impression strategy.

Restaurants can learn a great deal from these and other effective models focused on first impressions that are visual, textural, aural and in some cases even involve olfactory senses. Restaurants can even add the sense of taste to their first impressions.

Walk through your restaurant as a customer. Be aware of first impressions: “sweat the small stuff”!

1. Begin with your curb appeal. How does the restaurant look from the vantage of a car seat? Is it sharp, clean and inviting? Does the exterior need paint, better lighting, more appropriate signage or better landscaping? Is your parking lot clean, well lit, freshly paved and free of views of dumpsters and discarded equipment?
2. When you approach the entrance, is it inviting? Are the windows clean and does the entrance subliminally say: “welcome”?
3. As you enter the restaurant are you immediately greeted? Is the transition lighting such that your eyes adjust immediately from being outside?
4. What are the visuals? Are they related to the restaurant concept? Is the restaurant décor interesting, warm and free of unnecessary clutter?
5. Are the colors conducive to a great food experience (warm earth tones are best)?
6. Pay attention to the distinction between pleasant sounds and noise. What is the noise level (a comfortable level of customer chatter is a positive, acoustics that do not allow the sound to dissipate can be very unpleasant and will oftentimes ruin an otherwise positive experience for guests)? If you pipe in music of some type is it appropriate for the concept of the restaurant and it’s menu? Are there kitchen sounds drifting into the dining area? Are these sounds adding or detracting from the experience?
7. Look at your tabletop. Is the table covering, glassware and china, silverware a match for the value experience you are trying to create? Do you have flowers on the table? If so, are they fresh and vibrant?
8. Is the table lighting sufficient for reading the menu and viewing other people around your table? If not, this can dampen conversation and make menu decisions frustrating.
9. Are your service staff members professionally dressed and does the uniform (formal or informal) match the concept and the value experience? How about the staff members grooming (hair contained, body tattoos, jewelry and make-up) – is it appropriate for the concept?
10. Are your bathrooms attractive, well lit and most importantly spotlessly clean and free of offensive odors?
11. What are the smells in your dining room? Some food aromas are appropriate and may even add to the experience (the smoky smell of barbeque in a restaurant that features that product, the smell of fresh bread in a bakery, the aroma from a char-grill in a feature steak house), while others may turn people off (old oil in a deep fryer, too much garlic, burnt toast in a diner, etc.).
12. Look at your menu document. Is it clean, free of stains, torn corners, etc.? If not, replace them.
13. Finally, the restaurant has a unique opportunity to continue building positive expectations for a great meal and increase sales through the sense of taste. Consider the use of an amuse bouche (1-2 bite complimentary morsel from the kitchen) to encourage people to stand at attention for the flavors to come and even become more receptive to upselling. Make sure that your drinks, appetizers and soups help to build a positive picture for the overall experience.

First impressions are lasting impressions. Your goal should always be to create memories. Memories that are positive will bring customers back – the customers that allow your business to thrive are the ones who return on their own accord.

**NOTE: The picture in this post is of Alfred Portales Gotham Bar and Grill in New York City. This has consistently been one of my favorite restaurants in the country and one that truly understands how important first impressions are to their success.



Everything seemed to be in order at the end of service. Jake’s station was spotless, his knives were cared for and locked up, his dirty uniform replaced by jeans and a sweatshirt, and his prep list for tomorrow was on his clipboard. Time to unwind.

Jake was never attracted to the drug culture that some of his fellow cooks subscribed to, but he had, over the years, acquired a taste for really good wines and craft beer. He always seemed to wind up at his favorite late-night café after work to enjoy a drink or two (or sometimes more). As Jake was leaving the restaurant, his fellow cook on apps (her name was Sara) asked if she could tag along. “Sure” was his immediate response. He would always wind up mingling with cooks from other restaurants so one more from his shop would be just fine. The Café was his social outlet, his only social outlet.

While walking the five blocks to his favorite after hours establishment Jake thought to himself: “Why did Sara want to tag along? His experience was never positive when it came to relationships built on co-workers. Is this what was starting to happen?” Sara was pleasant, high energy, attractive and really competent as a cook. In the 10 minutes it took to walk to the Café he discovered that she was 27 (Jake was 31), had dropped out of college as a history major because it was just too boring, had grown up in a restaurant family so knew kitchens from the age of 10, and had been cooking again for the past three years. She loved the intensity of line work more than anything and shared Jake’s love of great wine.

In the Café, Jake was immediately welcomed by cooks from a handful of other local restaurants, all sharing stories of the night’s drama behind the line. Sara immediately fit in with her outgoing personality and mastery of the conversation subject matter. One cook turned to her and asked: “so what do you think of Jake’s art?” She had no idea what he was talking about, but quickly learned as he pointed out the three paintings of Jake’s hanging on the Café walls. “Wow, this must be Jake’s great secret, no one at PLATE knows that he paints”! The work, in her opinion was quite good and colorful depicting scenes of nature (the absence of people in the work was very noticeable). She was impressed and smiled when she looked Jake’s way.

Jake passively admitted that he had enjoyed painting, but no longer had the time. The only canvas that he had touched in the past eight years was a plate in whatever restaurant he was working. Food, after all, is the ultimate art form that appeals to every human sense.

While Sara was joking with other cooks in the bar Jake surveyed the room and made a mental note of the artistic sub-culture of kitchen workers. There were musicians, writers, other painters, a goldsmith, world traveler vagabonds, intellectual college dropouts and even a poet. He wondered, as he did most nights, why these folks wound up in the kitchen and if the trade tends to attract frustrated artists.

Everyone in the room shared a passion for quiet self-expression. In a mix of their own kind, these culinary pirates were extremely outgoing and full of self-confidence. In the presence of people from outside this sub-culture, they would shut down and become the social introverts that seemed to have no interest in interaction. These folks were strange for sure.

Jake was on his third glass of David Bruce Pinot Noir (every time he turned around someone had bought him another) and was now carrying on a pleasant discussion with Sara (drinking Sangiovese) about the complexities of social media as an art form. Jake had put aside the polenta issue for the time being, but it would no doubt return to his conscious mind in the morning. Tomorrow was another day, busier than Friday and full of challenges just as unique as the ones he experienced today. He made a mental note to go home soon and get a good night’s sleep. He would once again make every attempt to exercise in the morning and build up his stamina for a night on the line.

In between conversations with Sara and his friends Jake wondered if he could make a go of a real relationship with her. He instantly liked Sara but feared the consequences of a relationship at work. Maybe he was just destined to be single like most of his colleagues. Relationships and the job of line cook seemed to be something that was unrealistic.

Two more glasses of wine and Jake hailed a cab for Sara and paid the driver to get her home safe. He walked the additional seven blocks to his apartment and crashed at around 3 a.m. The 11 a.m. alarm came as a shock. Jake reached for another cigarette, clicked a K-cup in his Keurig coffee maker, stared at Robin Meade on HLN News and realized that exercise was again out of the question. First things first – he needed to shower, shave and get to work by 12:30 to get ready for the Saturday rush. The cycle of life for a line cook continues.

Thanks for reading this mini series on the life of a line cook. I would assume that many who took the time to read these passages have experienced the life cycle of a line cook first hand. To you, I tip my hat. Line cooks are the backbone of the kitchen, but they oftentimes live a life that is consumed by the craft and the energy it takes to make it all work. For those who read the series and have not had the pleasure of working in a professional kitchen I hope that you have a better understanding of what it takes to present that plate of beautiful, well-prepared, flavorful food in your local restaurant.

My intent is to use this theme (including Jake) as the basis for my next book – publishing date to be determined. ☺ In the meantime, you may find my first piece of partial fiction to be amusing. In the Shadow of Cooks is available through amazon.com. A nice gift for a food friend this Christmas.




It was now 5:15 and the chef was out in the dining room going through pre-meal with the service staff. All of the other line cooks were caught up so Jake surveyed his station one more time. This time of the night was similar to a quarterback waiting for his center to snap the ball: high anxiety waiting for the action to begin. Everything looked good: proteins, vegetables cut and blanched, beurre blanc was stable, pans were hot, and the…”oh man”, he forgot to make the polenta! How could he forget something that was part of his routine every day and on his mise sheet as well? The polenta will take 30 minutes at least to prepare and now it was nearly time to open the doors. Jake was in the weeds before the first order even arrived, a feeling that he was not use to. No time to fret about it, get moving and hope that there were no early orders for lamb shanks. Polenta requires constant attention; something that is in short supply once tickets start flying.

As it turned out, the first two early tables right at 5:30 were for steaks, buying Jake enough time to get the polenta made. This mistake would bother him for quite some time, but he needed to shake it off since the chef had just started calling the first rush of tables at 6:00.

All of the line cooks were in place: grill, sauté, hot appetizers and fry cook on the hot line; garde manger and desserts on the cold station. Everyone gave the thumbs up as tickets were now arriving in quick succession. “Three venison, two mid-rare, one rare; four salmon, two mid-rare, two well done (ugh); two scallops and two lamb shanks”. Jake responded: “Yes chef”. Similar orders went to the grill station including a table in the bar for six PLATE burgers. “Ordering: three shrimp apps, five parsnip bisque, two Carpaccio, and eight house salads”. Hot apps and garde manger responded: “Yes Chef”. The race had begun.

Jake was searing the venison and salmon for finishing just as the next wave of orders were called: “Three Wagyu filets – rare, four more scallops – all medium rare, two lamb shanks and two pheasant”. Jake responded and noted that he had already put every one of his pans into use. “I need pans on sauté”, came the sharp directive to the dishwasher. Without losing a beat, the dishwasher stopped running trays through and immediately began scrubbing sauté pans. Seamlessly, the pans arrived at Jake’s station just in time and were placed in his 600-degree oven. The dishwasher grabbed any dirty pans and took them back for soaking. Jake was rocking and as expected, the lion’s share of orders was on his side already.

This cadence continued over the next 45 minutes until all of the current orders were in. The dining room was full, orders were ready for final firing and the line cooks had time to quickly re-assess their mise en place, wipe down counters, sharpen knives and fill their water bottles for hydrating. It would only be a few moments before servers would clamor to pick up their tables and then it would start all over again. Only 50 of the reservations on the books were in the dining room meaning that they already had 20 or so walk-ins and the majority of reservations would be in the next wave.

Servers began communicating with the chef who was at the expeditor station trying to keep the pace. “Pick up on table 34: Jake – that would be the three venison and four salmon.” “Yes Chef”! Jake began to finish each dish according to specifications while the appetizer cook set out plates for finishing. It would be her job to sauce the plates and set-up appropriate vegetables and/or starches. All was going great. “Picking up on table 28”. “Two strips mid-rare, two lamb shanks and two scallops”. “Yes chef” came the response from sauté and grill. The server arrived to pick up table 28 and asked what about the two barramundi features? The chef kept his cool realizing that the server forgot to punch those two items into the point of sale. This is a terrible situation that will require letting the table know that their order is delayed a bit, while throwing off the line since many of the items will have to be re-cooked to insure top quality. Order, after order came and went as the line cooks hit their stride.

An intern, as is often the case in restaurants, filled the fry cook position. Right at the peak of service, the intern grabbed a pan from Jake’s station with a damp side towel. The steam burn was immediate and the look of shock on his face was a vivid portrayal of a person in pain. The problem with steam burns is that don’t retreat very quickly. The intern ran to the sink to run his hand under cold water. For all intensive purposes, this person was on injured reserve for at least the next 30 minutes. The appetizer cook would simply have to wear two hats. She rose to the occasion, impressing Jake and the chef.

It was nearing the end of the second rush and when Jake had a second to check the clock, it was now 8:45 and things would begin to wind down. Generally, by 9:30 all of the entrée orders would be in and the line could look forward to “clearing the board”. The last station to get hit hard would be dessert, but garde manger could give this station a hand.

There were a few moments during service when things were on the verge of crashing, but as usual, this is where the chef really was at his strongest. He was always able to keep the cooks focused and temper any nerves on edge both from the cooks and servers perspective. All in all they would serve 208 tonight – not bad for a Friday.

While the other line cooks began to joke and relax while cleaning up, Jake was quietly kicking himself, still, for forgetting the polenta. Serious cooks are very hard on themselves and Jake always had to be in control and viewed as the dependable one. This small incident would wind up ruining an otherwise great night for everyone else, but not for Jake. Was he losing his edge, did he miss a step simply because of age? Is this a sample of what is to come? How much longer would he be able to do the only thing that he knew how to do: the job that made him whole, the job that was his destiny. Jake was silently beating himself up.

Fortunately, his funk was interrupted when he saw that the poor dishwasher was buried with dishes, glasses, flatware and pots. He grabbed his newfound friend on the appetizer station; they removed their chef coats and dove into the dish pit to give the most important person in the kitchen a hand. In a matter of about 20 minutes they had him caught up. Moving back to the line Jake asked the grill cook to put on a steak for the dishwasher – he deserves it!

Jake finished his cleaning, washed his knives, grabbed another espresso and spent the last ten minutes making a prep list for Saturday, the busiest night of the week. It was now 11:30 and Jake – like everyone else in the kitchen was too buzzed on adrenaline and espresso to just go home. This is when you get to see the other side of a cook’s life.

In the final episode of this mini story, we will look deeper into the psyche of the line cook and how Jake, like other typical professional cooks, deal with the personal monsters in their closet.



I thought that I would re-post an old series that was presented through Harvest America Cues a few years back.  As I continue to marvel at the focused life of line cooks I was compelled to introduce this story (one that happens every day, in every kitchen across the country) as a tribute to kitchen warriors everywhere.

This is part one of a mini series of posts on the life of a line cook. The intent is to present the reader with a better understanding of the sub-culture that is a professional kitchen, the unique traits of people who make line work, in particular, their calling and to pay homage to those unique and sometimes troubled individuals who make up the kitchen brigade. This is NOT designed to be another “portrayal of the underbelly” of restaurant kitchens, but rather a study into the drivers that make some of my favorite people who they are. Throughout the series I will tell a story using fictitious names and operations to best define the environment and those who work in that environment.

It is noon on a Friday in November and John (Jake as his friends call him) is just waking up. His shift at “Plate Restaurant” doesn’t start for another two hours, but he keeps trying to live up to a commitment that he made in early January. “I need to start taking better care of myself, so I will begin to exercise every day, quit smoking, get a good night’s sleep, cut back on drinking and look for a relationship”. As Jake moved his feet to the floor he immediately reached for a cigarette, stumbled to the kitchen/living room in his two-room apartment and turned on the TV. He turned on his Keurig and inserted a K-cup for his first of many coffee’s for the day. As was the case every morning (or afternoon when he woke up) he gave thanks for the invention of the K-cup. As he smoked and drank his coffee while half watching the news, he pushed the whole exercise concept out of his mind and turned to a mental review of his prep work for the day at “Plate”.

After a long shower and haphazard attempt at shaving, Jake made another cup of coffee and decided he might as well go right to work since he had nothing else to do anyway. Fortunately, the restaurant was only 12 blocks away and he could walk (his only exercise for the day), since he had lost his driver’s license a few months back for a DUI. It really didn’t matter anyway since he couldn’t afford to keep a car in the city on his current salary.

The fresh air helped to clear the cobwebs from his brain, the residual effects of a few too many after work beers from the night before. As he walked he was beginning to form a clearer picture of the work ahead. It was Friday, so tonight would be quite busy. He vaguely remembered checking the reservation book before he left last night and there were already 120 on the books.

Jake’s station was sauté, typically the busiest in the restaurant and the most complex. He knew that he had to be sharp for tonight so even though the walk was just a few minutes long, he stopped at a Starbuck’s for a double espresso on the way. By the time he walked through the doors of “Plate” he was wide-awake, a little buzzed from the espresso, and ready to hit the ground running. Jake was once again grateful that the restaurant, as is the case with most, provided clean, pressed uniforms; he never had to worry much about doing laundry since the majority of his life was spent in cooks whites. He pulled on the hounds tooth cooks pants and crisp cooks coat, tucked his hair under the black skull cap that the restaurant provided, tied on a fresh apron and double-checked the polish on his Birkenstock’s (one of the few luxuries that he allowed himself). As a line cook your feet are by far your most important body parts.

As he walked through the kitchen offering a few fist bumps and high-fives, Jake said good morning to the chef (who had already been there since 7:30 that morning), and went immediately for the coffee machine. Another double espresso and Jake was ready to go. It was now 1:15 and Jake had 3 ½ hours to prepare for tonight’s onslaught of orders (hopefully balanced between stations – but he knew deep down that it would be all him on a Friday night).

Jake was now in his element. The kitchen is where he felt whole again, he had purpose, people depended on him, this is where he met up each day with his only friends, this is where he was meant to be. Slowly the cobwebs from this morning turned to a subtle smile and a sense of focus and contentment. Jake pulled down his mise en place clipboard, dampened a towel to keep his cutting board from sliding, removed his trusted knives from his own tool drawer, drew each blade across a water stone and steel and set out for the cooler. Today was going to be great!

Friday’s are always big fish nights so, as per notations from the chef, he immediately went to the ice bins and pulled out (3) 8-pound Pacific Salmon. Over the years (this was Jake’s 3rd year at Plate and his 8th working in professional kitchens) he had been able to master the process for filleting fish. Young apprentices who would come and go in this kitchen would always marvel at Jake’s speed and accuracy with any round or flat fish. His treasured knives would pass through the fish like butter, leaving only small traces of meat on the bone. If it was white fish like halibut or bass, the bones would be saved for fish fumet, if it were salmon – well they had not figured out any way to use the bones from this oily fish – yet. Within 20 minutes Jake had removed the heads, filleted the three sizeable salmon, tactfully pulled out the pin bones with tweezers and cut them into identical 6-ounce portions. The portioned fillets were neatly organized on silicon paper in hotel pans and returned to their ice caddy’s- ready for the line. Jake followed the same procedure with Red Snapper and Black Cod as well as tonight’s feature of Barramundi. He ended with removing the “boots” from (2) 8 pound tins of U-10 Diver Scallops, scrubbed down and sanitized his table, passed his fish cutting board on to the dishwasher and gently cared for his knives. It was 2:15 and all of his fish work was done.

Now it was time to move on to meats and poultry. The current “Plate” menu would require Jake to trim and portion venison tenders, Wagu beef tenders, Pheasant breasts and pre-braised lamb shanks ready for finishing. Once again, he prepped his table for a new cutting board, cleaned up the edges of his knives and went to work. Time was ticking and the anxiety of being ready for those first tickets was beginning to creep up.

More “Digging Deep” continued later this week.


Harvest America Ventures, LLC




The excuses are all around: “I don’t have time to eat properly; I’m around food all day, a meal just doesn’t appeal to me; I can’t watch what I eat, my job requires that I taste everything; A real meal will slow me down; I know I should eat better and exercise, but it doesn’t fit my schedule”; etc., etc., etc.

Think of it this way: professional cooking, which is a physically, emotionally, and mentally taxing profession; is similar to a professional sport. Athletes cannot perform at any level of competence without conditioning. This conditioning includes an appropriate diet, an exercise regime, and a balance of work and rest. If cooks and chefs are to perform at the highest level (what is expected every day on the job), then he/she MUST take care of their bodies. For far too long this was not the rule of thumb, in fact, we have long subscribed to the adage that” “you can’t trust a skinny cook”. Regardless of your frame size, a healthier life style will allow you to perform at a higher level and withstand the physical abuse that is oftentimes associated with a career in serious kitchens.

The typical cook or chef is rarely scheduled for an 8-hour shift. Cooks may work 10-12 hours on busy nights and chef’s even more. Your body burns excessive calories during that period of time under intense heat, constant movement, being on your feet without rest, and seemingly under attack by the stressful monsters of time and unrelenting communication. This environment can easily take a toll on a person’s body and mind. What is the typical response to the body’s need for energy replacement? Carbohydrates and caffeine are the fuel to fool the body into believing that you are responding appropriately to its needs.

After hours, the cook’s respite is to grab a few beers simply because the body and mind were drained but the adrenaline was mountain high, reinforced with lots of caffeine. If a cook eats a meal while on the job, it is typically something next to him or her at their station during the final few minutes before the tickets start flooding the kitchen. The thought of sitting down to a balanced meal and taking 30 minutes to replenish before cranking out 150 dinners just doesn’t happen. To many cooks, dinner might be a few bites of pasta and a cigarette out back by the dumpster.

I confess to falling into that trap. A meal to me was oftentimes a sandwich while standing over a trash can to catch the crumbs, wolfing down this quick carb meal within 2-3 minutes and moving back to work. There even was a period of time when my diet was chocolate chip cookies for a sugar boost and 8-10 cups of coffee during a 12-hour shift. I never exercised, rarely slept for than 5 hours a night, and usually forgot to hydrate (aside from coffee which doesn’t really help). The result was weight gain and a few medical issues that are fortunately now under control.

When a cook or chef refuses to take care of him or herself, the damage is cumulative and WILL, WITHOUT a DOUBT, catch up to them. Far too many of my friends and co-workers have found themselves in dire health because they lived in the moment and avoided the necessary maintenance that would allow them to be productive cooks for a long period of time and enjoy their lives at the same time.

In a recent article by Harry Kimball, a writer for Newser Staff, http://www.newser.com/story/76322/how-skinny-chefs-stay-that-way.html

reference was made to some foundational rules that will allow any professional cook to maximize their effectiveness and feel much better at the same time. These rules include:

TASTE: Yes, chef’s and cook’s do need to taste many items. “The key word is taste”, which does not take the place of building in a balanced meal as well.

EXERCISE: Every cook, just like an athlete in training, needs some type of exercise regime. It may be running, walking, biking, skiing, snow shoeing, yoga, or a workout at the local gym. Whatever you choose, it must become an integral part of your daily life.

Eric Ripert, chef/operator of Le Bernadin in New York (one of the finest restaurants in the world) walks 2-3 miles to and from work every day, regardless of the season. This is a time for his body to prepare and recover from a work shift, an opportunity to clear his mind for the day ahead, and an emotional break from the stress of the kitchen.

HAVE A PLAN AND STICK TO THE PLAN: Just like every cook lives by his/her mise en place list, so too must a successful cook live by his/her personal wellness plan. You owe yourself this commitment.

DON’T SELF-MEDICATE WITH FOOD: Just as many cooks starve their bodies of good nutrition, just as many use food, any food, as the prescription to take care of energy slumps, stress, mental lapses, and depression. “Eat when you are hungry, not freaked out.”

SIT DOWN: Grabbing a bite here and there will lead to excessive amounts of the wrong calories, too much sodium and an imbalance of nutrition that leads to peaks and valleys in performance. There are numerous cookbooks out today that focus on the staff meal in restaurants and how certain operations invest in this time to share with other members of the staff and enjoy balanced, great meals in preparation for a busy shift. From my experience, this rarely happens as it does in these wonderfully thought-out books. A staff meal that receives similar attention to the restaurant menu will help to build team work and energize cooks and service staff for a high performance lunch or dinner shift.

Allison Adato recently released a book of interviews with a handful of prominent American chefs entitled: “Smart Chefs Stay Slim” published by: New American Library. Chef’s talk about their regiments and “tricks” for balancing the demands of the professional kitchen with a healthy life. This is definitely worth the read.


Although my daily routine does not parallel what I did when full-time in a busy kitchen, I have changed my habits and created enjoyable health routines that include balanced diet, appropriate balance of calories, fat and sodium and everyday exercise. The result is a healthy weight for my age and size, comfortable energy levels, a clear mind and feeling better about my wellbeing than I have in many years. I implore every professional cook to incorporate this type of lifestyle change into their daily routine – the payback is worth the effort.



In most cases credit for a great restaurant meal goes to the chef. At least that is what most guests believe to be true. There is no question that the vision for a menu, oftentimes the recipes and plating design are a result of the chef’s experience, planning and direction, but what many guests do not realize is that the chef is probably not the person who actually prepared their meal. Unless the restaurant is a very small, mom and pop operation, the meal was probably prepared by a line cook.

There is a difference between building a menu and executing that same menu. There is even a greater difference between creating a dish and replicating it under pressure, with a hundred or so guests ordering different items simultaneously and working through a battery of service staff to deliver the message to the kitchen. Those who have never worked in a quality restaurant kitchen have absolutely no idea what goes into the facilitation of that meal they so enjoy.

The pre-preparation of a line cooks station as he/she gears up for the meal period to start involves speed, dexterity, significant planning, math, science, mental exercises, organization, and a razor sharp memory. Cooks refer to this as mise en place (everything has a place and everything is in its place). Just think of these critical steps: mincing shallots, chopping parsley, clarifying butter for sauté, slicing mushrooms, portioning center of the plate meats and seafood, softening butter for monte au beurre, julienne petite salads for garnishes, frying leeks and onion rings, marking steaks ahead in a busy restaurant, scrubbing down counters, sanitizing knives, positioning items in precise locations so that the cook can find them without even looking, burning off sauté pans so that they don’t stick, counting out plates for a stations dishes and setting them under heat lamps, folding a pile of side towels in preparation, setting up your seasoning pod, filling wine bottles and oil for cooking, heating foundational sauces for the bain marie, blanching and shocking vegetables to aid in the finishing process, and hydrating and pounding down a few espressos to get the adrenaline ready for an onslaught of tickets. This all takes place in the 2-3 hour period that cooks have to get ready for the tickets to start flying. The pace is intense.

Once service begins there will not be enough time to focus on more prep. Your mise en place MUST be ready for anything. If you run out the ship will begin to sink and that spells disaster for that cook, his/her teammates, the chef, the servers and the restaurant as a whole. It is a delicate balance that you don’t want to mess with.

Each line cook will respond in those last few minutes to the pre-tasting of ingredients by the chef and a response to the question: “Are you ready”? The answer had better be: YES CHEF! The tickets start coming in slowly at first, but by 7 p.m. the point of sale machine is ticking them off in a steady stream.

The chef (keep in mind that most chefs will admit that they would have a tough time working on the line at their age) has now moved to the role of expeditor. In this position the chef will call out orders, wait for acknowledgement from each station cook responsible for each dish, serve as a liaison between front and back of the house staff, monitor the timing of dish preparation, inspect plates before they leave the kitchen and help to keep the stress level high enough to channel the energy, but in control so that cooks don’t crash and burn (literally). Very soon “the board” is full, plates are cluttering up “the window”, the clatter of voices is deafening, pans are clattering on the range, plates are sliding down the pass, the heat has risen to an even 130 degrees on the line and hotter when they stand over a char-grill or French top, hands and arms are being burned but everyone works through it, and great line cooks start to feel the synergy of working as a team. When it is working, it is amazing to watch. When it falls apart you can feel the tension in the air.

In today’s kitchens many line cooks are interns or recent graduates from culinary schools. This is a great learning environment for them, but typically they have their eyes on bigger fish. The money they spent on a culinary education drives them to believe that they should only be satisfied when they reach the chef position in a kitchen. There are rarely thoughts of making the “line” their career.

Any chef worth his or her salt will tell you that a goal must be to find, somehow, a core kitchen staff of line cooks who love doing just that, who are great at what they do, who relish the opportunity to work in that type of environment, and who would not dream of doing anything else. So who are these people, where can they be found, and what do they want?

It is probably not wise to generalize people, however, time has demonstrated that certain types of positions attract a very distinctive profile. Great line cooks, career line cooks, are oftentimes those who are perfectly content to follow someone else’s lead. They are deeply proud individuals who find that they feel best about themselves when they can make something with their hands. The plate is their canvas and they take the set-up of each dish very seriously. Great line cooks are night dwellers who are more often than not – single and content being that way. After work they cannot turn down the adrenaline so you will likely find them seeking out some late night food at another restaurant and usually with a drink or two in their hands. They sleep late and start the cycle all over again. Great line cooks may seem rough around the edges, but are usually pretty fragile. Much of their self-worth is tied to how well they did tonight on the line. Returned meals may seem to agitate them, but they really crush their self-confidence. They don’t always seek compliments, but are content just not to have any complaints. Unless you really screw up as a manager or chef, the great line cook is usually quite loyal and only concerned about money when they have no choice but to be concerned.

Where do you find these individuals? This is a tough question, because they are few and far between and likely already working for another chef who is glad to have them. Be there to catch them when a chef does them wrong, but never try to pirate them. This is part of the chef’s code. What do they want: they want the tools to do their job, they want food they can be proud of, they want other people to stay away from their mise en place, they want a chef to listen when they have something to say (rare), they don’t want to have to deal with anything other than their station, and occasionally they want a thumbs up at the end of the night. Not too much to ask.

In the end, know this: if the restaurant you are dining in is great, if the food is consistently superb, if the steaks come out perfect – every time, if the plates are spotless and beautiful, it is the vision of the chef but the precision of the line cook who made it happen.



The Culinary Olympics were over. Our team was exhausted, yet numb from exceeding our own expectations. It certainly felt good to walk away victorious, but what would take some time to sink in was that we were successful because we came together as a team. It had much less to do with individual talent, it was all about a group of chefs with a common purpose. A team of people who understood and supported each other. We had become the “cinderella” team to many back home and a model for each of us and others who worked with us for the years to come.

After the final award ceremony we headed down to the Saxon House district of Frankfurt (one of the only historic sections of town that survived the bombings of WWII) to a Brathouse that had been rented by Michael Minor for the various teams that represented the United States. A restaurant full of chefs eating German sausages, Sauerkraut, Pigs knuckles and toasting with tankards of German beer. It was incredible and such a wonderful release. Thank you Michael!

After our first decent nights sleep we boarded a bus for Austria. We were to be the guests of the Austrian Team that shared the kitchen with us in Frankfurt. Driving at night on the autobahn hid the wonderful scenery that we would encounter the next day. We checked into a pension later that evening and awoke to the most spectacular view of the Alps surrounding us. That day we were given the key to the city of Innsbruck by their mayor and toured this Winter Olympic community. In the evening we traversed through the woods to a Hanzel and Gretel style restaurant owned by one of the Austrian Team Chefs. We enjoyed tremendous ethnic food and were honored to be the first Americans to ever set foot in the chef’s private wine cellar. We toasted with schnapps, drank more wine and claimed our friendship for life.

It has been twenty-five years since that date in October 1988. Our team members have gone on to pursue their individual goals. We will always share in that experience that changed our lives. Charles Carroll (the youngest member of our team) has gone on to receive international recognition as one of the most accomplished chefs from the U.S. He served on subsequent ACF Regional and National Culinary teams, left the Balsams, his employer in 1988 to now serve as Executive Chef at River Oaks Country Club in Houston. He is the author of two books, frequently serves as an inspirational speaker at conferences, conventions and graduations and most recently has taken on the role of facilitator for culinary and entertainment events for our troops in Afghanistan. Michael Beriau moved on to become the Executive Chef for Dole and Bailey out of Boston and now serves as the Executive Chef for White Cliffs Country Club on the Cape. He returned to competition to serve as a team advisor for the U.S. Culinary Team in recent years. George Higgins is now one of the most revered pastry instructors at the Culinary Institute of America and turned out to be quite an accomplished drummer with a band comprised of other chefs from the CIA. Walter Zuromski founded Chef Services Group, a firm that works with foodservice companies to develop gold standard product formulations. Danny Varano continued teaching in the Connecticut School system and recently retired. Varano was inducted into the Order of the Golden Toques for his accomplishments as a chef. Lars Johannson eventually retired from Johnson and Wales as the director of the pastry school. The college named their retail bakery after this incredible pastry chef. Joe Faria left the Ritz Carlton in Boston shortly after the team returned. He is now Executive Chef at Quail Valley Golf Club in Vero Beach, Florida. I stayed at Paul Smith’s College as Dean until 2005 when I returned to industry as Executive Chef of the Four-Diamond Mirror Lake Inn. In 2008 I returned to education as Vice President for New England Culinary Institute and in 2012 formed Harvest America Ventures, a consulting company for restaurants and culinary schools.

We lost three of our team members and a dear friend supporter over the past few years: Anton Flory, our team manager and certified master chef; Roland Czekelius our team captain; and Neil Connolly a pastry chef member of our team. Bud Matheson was the owner/operator of Dole and Bailey. Without Dole and Bailey’s help, our team would have never raised the funds to support our efforts. Bud accompanied the team to Germany and Austria. What we did not know at the time was that on the way to Austria the team was out of money. Bud pulled out his checkbook and donated additional funds for the team so that we could enjoy our accomplishments in Innsbruck. A great man.

In the years that followed, I worked with many students and tried to relay the joys of teamwork and the challenges of competition. I am always proud to note that two of my former students represented the United States on teams over that period of time. Jamie Keating as a member of the U.S. Regional and subsequently a member of the U.S. National Team and David Russ (one of my first students) who represented the U.S. as a member of numerous Army teams competing in the Culinary Olympics.

That call from Anton Flory in 1986 changed my professional life. If it were not for that moment, I would not have had the opportunities that I have thoroughly enjoyed over the past 25 years. I am sure that each team member feels the same way about their opportunities.

Twenty-five years later I tip my toque to Anton Flory, Roland Czekelius, Neil Connolly, Bud Matheson and all the suriving team members and advisors for a life-changing opportunity. Happy Octoberfest!

In January of 2014, the remaining team members will gather at Joe Faria’s shop in Vero Beach to share stories, and cook for charity.



It was October 1988 at Logan International Airport when we were waiting to board a Lufthansa airplane to Frankfurt, Germany. As we (10 team members, spouses, apprentices, manager and coaches) lined up with our tickets I started to reflect on the last 18 months of preparation for this moment. We had gone through a great deal together: learning each other’s strengths and weaknesses, losing one team member due to his work requirements but gaining an excellent replacement; Charles Carroll (the youngest member of the team at 23) struggles to raise the money to support our efforts, nearly disbanding after a dismal performance at a Boston Show, re-energizing after a training session in the Adirondack’s, coming together as a true team and now waiting to show the world what we could do. I put nearly 20,000 miles on my car going to practices over the past year and a half, and was ready to see if it would pay off.

Arriving in Germany, along with hundreds of cooks from around the world was energizing. We passed quickly through customs (only to return in another day) as the German security guards seemed very anxious to host this onslaught of chefs. Arriving at our kitchen (home for the next 7 days) we were met by the chef who welcomed us and turned over the keys. We could have the kitchen every day from 2 in the afternoon until 6 the following morning for the next 7 days, but had to share the space with the Austrian National Team. In total, there would be 15 chefs, 4 apprentices, 2 team managers and various advisor/coaches occupying the space. It would get very crowded, very quickly.

What we had learned over the past 18 months was that at this point we could only execute what we knew, we had practiced our food programs many times so we knew what to do, let’s just do our jobs and try to have fun. Easy said when we were fully aware that a panel of chef judges would scrutinize our work over the 5 days of competition, many sponsors had gone out of their way to raise the funds to support us, and we were representing the New England States and the U.S. as well.

Since this would be our only day without kitchen time, we traveled to the convention center to see our display space (paid for by Michael Minor and Minor Foods) and would sit down to a traditional game dinner as a team with our spouses and supporters. It felt right, but we were all nervous and ready to unpack and start cooking.

The team stayed at Bed and Breakfast and had the entire building to ourselves. Nice accommodations, but the owner had a tough time understanding our schedule (we would be working from 1 in the afternoon until 7 a.m. each day, needed to sleep for a few hours and wanted breakfast at 12 noon each day). It took her some time, but eventually accepted our strange hours of operation.

In the kitchen we were like a machine. Each day two chefs of the ten member team were showing in the competition. The two who were on the schedule for the next day were assigned to work on their own programs while the remaining six were assigned to help the show chefs for that day. Everyone had their assignments, we had drilled through them many times over the past 18 months, and we started to unpack, set-up our mise en place and rock the food. At 4 a.m. each day, the van was packed with the show chefs program and off they went with the advisors and our team manager. Everyone else stayed behind to clean and organize for the next day. We only had a mile or two to drive, but at 20 miles an hour (didn’t want to upset the food platters on board) it was a long ride. We entered the convention center each day and proceeded to our show table. The chefs displaying that day would supervise the final placement of platters and plates, touch things up, and direct the advisors on making sure the whole table was pristine. Judging began at 7 each day and show chefs and the manager would stay until the judges had been through our table. We would not know the results until later in the afternoon.

Off for 2-3 hours of sleep, a shower and some breakfast – we were back in the kitchen to start on day two preparations. The show chefs from day one along with the team manager would return to the convention center to get the results. We had just sat down to a family meal prepared by our advisors when the call came in. The team captain took the call and returned to the table. We waited for his news. He raised his glass and said: “can you think of anything at this point better than a gold medal?” We waited for a few seconds while he took a drink. “How about two perfect scores”! The room erupted! If we were energized before, the energy level just increased ten fold. Now the message was clear, we all had gold in sight.

Michael (Mickey) Beriau and Danny Varano had set the bar very high. It was everyone’s job to keep that momentum going.

On Wednesday and Thursday I will post the completion of this story. Stay tuned for the balance of “My Octoberfest”.

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