Tag: cooks

DIGGING DEEP: THE LIFE OF A LINE COOK

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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.

PLAN BETTER – TRAIN HARDER

Harvest America Ventures, LLC

http://www.harvestamericaventures.com

COOKS and CHEFS NEED to TAKE CARE of THEMSELVES

COOKS and CHEFS NEED to TAKE CARE of THEMSELVES

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.

http://www.amazon.com/Smart-Chefs-Stay-Slim-Americas/dp/B00B1L7FT6/ref=sr_1_1?s=books&ie=UTF8&qid=1382351462&sr=1-1&keywords=Smart+Chefs+Stay+Slim

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.

ATTRACTING CAREER LINE COOKS

ATTRACTING CAREER LINE COOKS

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.

MY OCTOBERFEST – MEDALS BEFORE BEER

MY OCTOBERFEST - MEDALS BEFORE BEER

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.

MY OCTOBERFEST 1988 WITH TEAM NEW ENGLAND

MY OCTOBERFEST 1988 WITH TEAM NEW ENGLAND

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”.

IS YOUR RESTAURANT STRUGGLING TO MAKE A PROFIT? LET’S LOOK AT THE MENU.

IS YOUR RESTAURANT STRUGGLING TO MAKE A PROFIT? LET'S LOOK AT THE MENU.

The restaurant business is built on very narrow margins. We are constantly faced with decisions that nip away at the pennies that operators try to make on every dollar in sales. Let’s look at some basic facts that have placed us in this position:
* We deal with highly perishable raw materials
* Many restaurants have succumbed to the feeling that bigger is always better
* If we are concerned with quality, then labor cost will be looming very large
* Many restaurants have also fallen victim to the belief that in order to satisfy customers they must adhere to a list of menu items that are extremely costly to the operation
* With rare exception, there is a ceiling to what we can charge for the items we produce
* Waste, theft and spoilage are curve balls that seem to always cross the plate (no pun intended)
* Even with a plethora of culinary school graduates on the market, the majority of restaurant cooks are technicians trained to follow steps rather than express themselves through cooking. This requires the operation to plan menu items that are easy for technicians to execute consistently.

So, all of this being said, even the noblest restaurateur must realize that they are in business and will only remain in business if they are profitable. I have been around so many chefs and restaurant owners who work incredibly hard, producing very good food, keeping customers happy, only to lose money. This is so discouraging to those involved and ultimately results in closure. How can restaurants make money?

The formula is not easy and the guarantees are never very solid, however, it would make sense to look at the menu first. The menu is the center of the business operation. Everything else: staffing, equipment, facilities, advertising, vendor selection, table top appointments and decor, marketing and advertising, and operational image are all based on the product design and delivery. How many restaurant menus are flush with items such as: Angus Filet Mignon, Foie Gras, Morels and Fresh Chanterelles, Extra Virgin Olive Oil, Lobster, Crab, Pacific Halibut, Rack of Lamb, Fresh Berries in February, Asparagus out of season and Twenty-year old Balsamic Vinegar? Now, don’t get me wrong – I love all of these items and thoroughly enjoy eating them with reckless abandon. The fact is, they make it very difficult to make money. How many restaurants, after all, can charge the $45 they should for the 8 oz. Angus Filet or $30 for that Lump Crab Cake appetizer? There is a ceiling in pricing (with rare exception) and most restaurants are unable to price those items for profitability – yet they continue to put them on their menus, fill their dining rooms with eager guests who have come to expect that Fillet for $19.95 and would raise hell if the restaurant charged what they should.

As an aside, these items are built for technicians who can be trained to produce an item as expected, time and time again, but who more often than not are not trained to really cook. Please don’t take offense, I have great respect for that seasoned broiler cook who can grill steaks perfectly throughout the night, or the saute’ cook pan frying that beautiful crab cake to a crisp, golden brown and artistically placing it on a plate with remoulade and frisee. The problem is that neither item is destined to make a healthy profit unless you are buying sides, hanging them in your temperature/humidity controlled meat lockers, cutting your own steaks and grinding the beef, making gallons of stock every day, buying your shellfish dockside, picking the meat from shells and reducing the stock from shells for beautiful fumet.

Think about the restaurants that are consistently profitable (and delicious) and look at their menus: homemade pasta (flour and egg), braised meats (shoulder and shanks), artisan pizza (flour, water, salt and yeast), roast whole chicken (still a very reasonably priced product), sustainable, regional flat and round fish restaurants (haddock, cod, smelt, anchovies, bluefish, catfish, trout, flounder, etc.) that offer delicious fish broiled, sauteed, pan fried, and baked en papliotte. All of these restaurants plan menus that are driven by great raw materials that are seasonal, reasonably priced, and that beckon the talents of a person trained to cook and make in-expensive items taste expensive.

Look at your menu. Is it designed to use all of the ingredients that you buy (Chef Marc Meneau once told me that restaurants don’t make money on onions, they make money on the onion skins)? Are the items on your menu seasonal and only used when they are at their peak of freshness and lowest in price? Are your listed items driven from recipes that challenge cooks to draw flavors out from an understanding of proper cooking techniques? Is your staff trained to properly promote these exceptional items to guests who are typically focused on the high cost items that you cannot afford to sell? Are your plates balanced with a variety of vegetables, flavor accompaniments, and proteins that can stay within the 4-6 ounce range rather than 12 ounces or more? If the answer is no – then begin there. Profitability in restaurants is a science and an art, but it is most importantly a reflection on your understanding of the product and how to make flavor sell above familiarity and portion size.

More than 2/3 of the restaurants that open today will be closed in a year and the vast majority that survive year one will likely close in the next five years. Don’t be a statistic – start with a plan for profitability, select and train staff to nurture flavors, buy right and educate the guest through their palate.

SOUP’S ON!

SOUP'S ON!

The air is crisp, fog sits on the lake every morning, leaves are turning to vibrant colors, sweaters come out of hiding, the sun burns off the fog but still leaves a chill in the air, and cooks are busy combining a variety of ingredients for the soup of the day. This is my favorite season on the year. Working in professional kitchens becomes a bit more tolerable since the humidity has dropped and temperatures are manageable and menus have transitioned from lighter preparations of grilling and chilling to most cooks favorite preparations of braises and roasts. Most important is the soup.

Soup is a real test of a professional cooks skills. Yes, many restaurants have standardized recipes, but the “soup du jour” provides an opportunity for cooks to demonstrate their ability to work from a blank slate and build on their palate.

Michael Minor of Minor Foods once told me that when he enters a restaurant for the first time he always orders the soup of the day before he even looks at the menu. If the soup is good then he knows that the kitchen has skill. If the soup is a disappointment, he pays the bill and moves on. It is soup, after all, that provides the opportunity to demonstrate knife skills, understanding of ingredients and how they marry, how well tuned a cooks taste buds are, and an understanding of stocks and broth. These are the foundations of every proper kitchen.

There are very few foods that are more satisfying than flavorful, interesting, hot soups on those crisp fall days. We all have our own soup memories, but few who grew up in America would deny the nostalgia surrounding the greatest comfort meal: Tomato Soup and Grilled Cheese. This constitutes one of the first “a ha” food memories that most of us have. We did, after all, grow up as part of the Campbell’s generation. What was unfortunate was the creation of a generation that was less inclined to cook and enjoy the opportunity to test basic skills in the kitchen. Today, that has begun to change as more and more people are finding the process of preparing soup an integral part of life at home.

Soup, through history, was at first a basic source of sustenance. A food product that came from broth and bread and helped the poor survive. Today, the symbolism is not lost on the unfortunate who find it difficult to provide a meal and lean on soup kitchens for foundational nutrition. To others of varying socio-economic groups, soup is a reflection of ethnicity and interest in a cultural food experience. Most regions of the world have their benchmark soup that defines their cuisine: French Onion, Italian Minestrone, Chinese Won Ton, Gazpacho in Spain, Gumbo in New Orleans, Chowder in New England and Borscht in Russia to name a few.

Soup has even become part of our entertainment culture. Even the show Seinfeld is likely most remembered for the “Soup Nazi” who held customers captive with his antagonistic rule: “you-no soup, one year!”

One of my favorite soups is a version of Tuscan Bean and Kale. This recipe takes a little time, but provides tremendous flavor memory and if you have the freezer space, can be a backup dinner when your schedules become too complicated to cook every night.

Enjoy!

SORGULE’S TUSCAN BEAN SOUP

Ingredients
________________________________________
Dried Navy Beans 2 cups
Water 2 quarts
Salt 1 tsp.
Onions 1 large (medium dice)
Carrots 2 large (medium dice)
Celery 4 stalks (medium dice)
Garlic 6 cloves (sliced)
Ham 8 oz. (medium dice)
Tomatoes (plum) 5 each (remove seeds- julienne)
Salt and Pepper to taste
Chicken Stock 3 quarts
Kale 4 cups (chopped)
Italian Parsley 1/2 cup (coarse chop)

Soak the beans in water and salt overnight.
Strain the beans and combine all ingredients except kale, tomatoes, parsley and salt and pepper.
Simmer until the beans are tender (about 60 minutes).
Add the kale and tomatoes and continue to simmer for 10 minutes.
Adjust the seasoning and add the parsley.
Serve with grated parmesan cheese and your favorite hard crusted bread.
This makes enough for 6-8 servings.

A Sad Day for Those in the Restaurant Community

A Sad Day for Those in the Restaurant Community

This is a day, as we all well know, that will always be remembered. September 11, 2001 was a day that changed all of our lives forever, a day when evil seemed to win over good. Each of us remembers where we were on that day and what we were doing. I was in a meeting when an administrative assistant stepped in to say that a plane had crashed into the World Trade Center. Each of us thought that this was likely a small private plane that went astray and proceeded with the meeting. A few moments later the same administrative assistant stepped in to say that a second plane had crashed into the Towers. We were first in shock as our thoughts immediately went to our own families and then to those who we worked with. It was quite a few hours, as the day unfolded, before were were able to grasp what was happening. I was a teacher and after calling my wife and children, turned to our students to counsel them and help to make sense of what was transpiring. Was this the beginning of the end? Who was responsible for this and how far reaching will this event become over the next few hours, days, weeks?

I would later find out that one of my former students, Chris Carstangen was on the second plane that crashed into the Towers. My heart broke for his family and friends. America, of course, acted and reacted bringing our country to a place that we would not have dreamed: 12 years of war trying to find an answer and prevent this from happening again on our soil.

As we remember that fateful day I felt that it was important to reflect on one group of people who suffered and then united as a result of 9/11. When the planes hit the Towers, one of America’s great restaurants fell target to this unthinkable attack on innocent people. Seventy-nine employees of Windows on the World Restaurant died on that day in 2001. They were serving breakfast and preparing for another beautiful day overlooking Manhattan. Chef Lomomaco, through a twist of fate, was delayed in arriving at work that morning while he was getting his eye glasses repaired. As he began his trip up through the Towers, the first plane hit and diverted people on to the street. He watched in horror as his restaurant burst into flames and the Towers eventually collapsed. Seventy-nine beautiful people who were his co-workers and friends lost their lives, leaving behind families and friends of their own.

Kevin Zraly was the director of the Windows on the World Wine School and shared in Chef Lomonaco’s grief and deep sense of loss. He too lost his friends and colleagues.

In the days that followed, restaurant workers, chefs and restaurant owners from NYC and around the country descended on Ground Zero to help feed the hundreds of firemen, police, and other volunteers who were sifting through the rubble looking for survivors and recovering those who lost their lives. It was what restaurant people do. It was the one way that we all know how to help and give some small sense of relief to those who were stunned, but committed to the awful task of recovery.

It took many years, but the New York landscape is returning to a sense of normalcy, restaurants have come and gone, but the food scene is once again vibrant, the 9/11 memorial is scheduled for an opening in the near future, and fundraisers have collected money to help the families of the restaurant workers who lost their lives on that day in 2001.

Today we remember all of the nearly 3,000 who lost their lives on 9/11, the subsequent thousands who lost their lives in Iraq and Afghanistan fighting to make sense of these events, and especially those innocent restaurant employees who only wanted to make great food, serve the public, and bring a smile to the face of those who could view Manhattan from the top of the world.

We will never forget.

LABOR DAY THOUGHTS

This picture was a perfect opening for some Labor Day musings. I am part of an industry that is interesting to many on the outside, challenging to those who own restaurants, exciting to those who find themselves in the grips of the service adrenaline rush, back breaking to those who have made it their life, unbearable to some and inspiring to many who become part of a close knit restaurant team. The restaurant business as portrayed by the new wave of reality shows, Food Network segments, Anthony Bourdain adventures, colorful coffee table cookbooks, and countless magazines on the art of cooking is really a far cry from what it is like.

On Labor Day we celebrate those who work hard every day to support their families, provide for others and make this country great. It is only fitting that I spend some time paying homage to those who work in OUR industry, the industry of food and service.

Allow me the privilege of telling the truth about the day-to-day. Let’s start at the bottom and work our way up, just like those who begin their career in either the front or back of the house. The dishwasher is one of the most important employees in a kitchen. If you don’t understand this statement, realize this: if a cook doesn’t show up everyone rallies to cover the station, if the chef is out sick (unheard of) the cooks would quietly cheer, if the manager doesn’t make it in the restaurant will likely not lose a step, if the dishwasher doesn’t show the place falls apart. Why? This is oftentimes a thankless job that involves standing on your feet for an entire shift, working around heat and steam, cleaning everyone’s dirty plates, lugging out tons of garbage, bending at the waist scouring greasy pots and pans, handing scalding hot plates as they end their cycle, lifting and pushing heavy racks of dishes and doing this to the din of demanding cooks and service staff. The dishwasher has no one to delegate to, yet he or she manages the single most expensive piece of machinery in the kitchen as well as thousands of dollars of china, glassware and flatware. An entree improperly cooked can be forgiven and re-fired, a dirty plate on which that food is placed is inexcusable and not correctable if it makes it to the guest.

Cooks come to restaurants with all sorts of baggage. My favorite people in the world are cooks. Some are vagabonds searching for a place to fit, others are introverts who need an opportunity to work with their hands without the pressure of interacting with others aside from the person standing next to them. A number are what we call “pirates” who are tough, crusty, oftentimes a bit obscene, full of pent up anger, but content working over a 700 degree char-grill; and a few are those culinary school interns or graduates who came to make their mark, learn the trade, build their chops, and aspire to become a chef. All-in-all, as tough as many of them seem, they usually love food and take pride in what they do. Snap at them and beware, tell them their food is not very good and you may need to reach for tissues to help fight back their tears and broken confidence.

Chefs, are always there. Even when they are not physically there (which is rare), they are still mentally there. A chef can expect to work 70 or more hours per week and should plan on being in the restaurant from mid-morning until the last few dinners hit the window. If they have developed a name for themselves, the guest will expect to see them there. Guests have no concept of a day off or of the effort that a chef must put in. The chef started as a person who loved to cook, but in his/her current role they are a business manager. They plan menus, hire and train staff, order food and negotiate with vendors, monitor the sanitation and safety of the restaurant, help to market the image of the place, set the tone for the kitchen and ensure that the quality remains consistent, interact with guests and guest special requests, serve as the mentor for those fragile egos in the kitchen, and oftentimes serve as a fill-in person when a station is in the weeds or a cook or even dishwasher fails to show or bails. This can be exciting and fun, but trust me, it is not as glamorous as TV would have you believe.

Servers and back waits are always on the firing line. What guests do not realize is that most service staff are paid sub-minimum wage (allowed by law) because their wages are typically supplemented by gratuities. Servers and their support are entrepreneurs who have been given the opportunity to set up shop in a restaurant. They certainly must represent the restaurant, but in essence are working solely for the guest. The guest, in turn, is expected to reward them with a gratuity that reflects the level of service provided. The vast majority of guests are nice, reasonable, polite and respectful, however, there is a smaller percentage who view service staff as subservient and fail to recognize them as people with feelings. As a chef I have spent many an hour consoling servers who have been verbally abused and offended by that 5% of guests who enjoy being abusive. People should not treat other human beings this way, but it is, unfortunately expected. To add insult to injury, some kitchens dish out the abuse to service staff making the whole experience of working the front of the house anything but enjoyable. Shame on the chef who allows this to happen.

Managers, like chefs, are married to the restaurant. They have the same responsibilities in the front as chefs do in the back with the added pressure of financial management. True the chef is responsible for food and labor cost, but the manager is ultimately responsible to keep the restaurant afloat. What guests do not realize is that the average restaurant only makes a net profit of about 5% if they do everything right. Many restaurants simply hope that cash flow is positive and ignore the fact that eventually the bills will catch up. Running a restaurant is very difficult and very expensive. Guests are fickle and rarely as loyal as you would like them to be, so the manager must always be on his/her toes. Just as the chef is responsible for the temperament and vibe in the kitchen, the manager must be on stage and insure that whatever may be going wrong is not evident to the guest.

The picture of screaming and yawning feet at the beginning of this article was a vivid symbol of the cycle of life in a kitchen. Restaurant people are always on the edge and one never knows how today will turn out. All this being said, I love this business as do many of my dearest friends and associates. My hat goes off to all who call restaurants their home on this day.

Happy Labor Day!

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