I know the legitimate response to this title is – “cooking is a science.” There is a chemical and physical change that takes place during the application of heat or the process of fermentation that scientifically transitions food from one product to another. This process, when understood, is quite predictable and controllable. Understanding and control…
There is a tremendous amount of pride that is churning in professional kitchens. Every cook who is serious about their job is committed to making that picture perfect, properly prepared, and delicious food that is represented on a restaurant menu. Although it may not always seem evident, cooks are happy when their food brings enjoyment…
A common thread, a core philosophy on life, and a shared heartbeat can make you believe that cooks and musicians may be twins from different mothers. The similarities of their craft, the dedication required, and the innate talent that must be present point to an uncanny understanding, one that might easily demonstrate that if a…
My son, a technical education teacher once said, “There are two types of workers in the world; those who shower before work and those who shower after.” I thought this was quite profound and a way to categorize the type of work people do and the mentality of those who do it. Having been around…
It was inevitable. As cooks and chefs grew into the role of artist so too did they join the ranks of talented expressionists who use a multitude of mediums. If the chef is truly an artist, then it would make sense that he or she would be and should be inspired by those who write, draw, paint, sculpt, sing and play musical instruments. I have long viewed cooks as frustrated artists who are in search of a vehicle of expression that also pays the bills. When thought of in this regard, cooking is the ultimate art form. Where other forms of artistic expression may appeal to one or two human senses, cooking appeals to all of them.
Writers, poets, sculptures, musicians and painters draw their inspiration from life and from things that stimulate their sensory perception. To deny them access to these stimuli would be to deny their art. It would thus be easy to apply the same rules to kitchens and cooks. To deny cooks access to sensory stimuli would be to deny their ability to create for the plate.
Many chefs, (I was one for many years) are opposed to music in the kitchen. There are legitimate reasons for this stance: music could be considered a distraction, musical tastes will differ in a kitchen causing potential friction among team members, and music will limit the necessary verbal communication that must take place in a kitchen throughout the day. All of this is very true, however, there are benefits.
Music has an emotional, spiritual, physiological and psychological effect on people; in this case, cooks. The temperament of a kitchen is critical to success and when people are happy, they produce happy food. Controlling the type, volume and sequence of music can be used to reinforce all of those positive emotional and physical feelings.
Calm, soothing music in the morning can be used to set a positive tone for the day as the kitchen comes to life. Fast paced music that reflects on good times can be used to keep an effective pace during prep when the sheer volume of work needs a healthy push. At service time, the music must be replaced with the cadence of the kitchen. Focus on orders, the expeditor, the chatter from the service staff, sizzle from a sauté pan and clink of china on the pass are the only sounds that have a place during this critical time. Finally, at clean up a good dose of musical energy will help to inspire the team to get through the final phase.
Does music actually inspire cooks to create? There have actually been numerous studies to try and prove or disprove this theory.
“Both Schellenberg and Levitin agree that music will have different effects on your brain and behavior depending on how it makes you feel. Want to be alert and focused? Try an upbeat song that puts you in a good mood, whether it’s Mozart or Miley. Want to step away from a problem and relax in order to find a solution? Play anything you like — and don’t dismiss those sad songs you like to mope around to.
“When we hear sad music, it allows us to empathize with the composer and the musician and makes us feel connected to them,” said Levitin. This empathy, he said, can allow individuals to glean creative insights they wouldn’t otherwise have.”
Here’s Proof Music Can Do More Than Just Make You Feel Good
There are mixed feelings on the part of chefs. Eric Ripert does not allow music in his kitchen at Le Bernadin. His rationale would be hard to argue with and the end result is a restaurant that most aspiring chefs would kill to work at. Rated as one of America’s few Michilen starred restaurants and one of the finest in the world, pushing him on this issue would seem to be fruitless.
Others find that music is an essential part of restaurant life and critical to building team spirit and high levels of productivity. Many of these chefs are aspiring musicians as well. Dean Fearing from the Mansion at Turtle Creek is one of the country’s most admired culinary figures who also plays a mean guitar in bands comprised of fellow chefs. Steve Schimoler, owner/operator/chef at Crop Bistro in Cleveland is also an accomplished drummer whose band “Cream of the Crop” performs around Cleveland and at the restaurant carrying the same name.
Although the media and Food Network would have us believe that chefs are the new rock stars, it is really the influence that music has on their everyday hard work in the kitchen that is most important. So, back to the original question: does music have a place in the kitchen? This is really up to the operator to determine. We do know that music is important to people and can, in many cases, positively impact on morale, creativity and production. If a chef can control the sequence of music throughout the day and appease the team with music that universally inspires, then this may be an issue for even the older stalwarts like me to reconsider.
If I were to embrace music in a kitchen that I was responsible for, here is a possible music playlist that I could accept and use to inspire:
5 a.m – 7 a.m. – BREAKFAST SHIFT
A mix of Switched on Bach, Bela Fleck, Yo Yo Ma, Pat Methany and Early Pink Floyd.
7 a.m. – 1 p.m. – PREP SHIFT & DELIVERIES
A eclectic mix of music from the 60’s and 70’s including Little Feat, Allman Brothers, British Invasion Groups, California Groups like Quicksilver, Jefferson Airplane, and Grateful Dead as well as a touch of Hendrix and British Blues. Of course I couldn’t forget the Gipsy Kings, Los Lonely Boys and Bob Marley.
1 p.m. – 5 p.m. – CRUNCH TIME PREPARING FOR SERVICE
A bit of hard guitars like Joe Satriani, Stevie Ray, Joe Bonamassa, Walter Trout, Eric Clapton,Eddie Van Halen, and Jeff Beck (the best guitarist on the planet).
5 p.m. – 11 p.m. – SERVICE
No music, only the pleasant sounds of the the ticket printer, clanging china, service staff chatter and the chef calling out orders.
11 p.m. – close – BREAKDOWN
Line cooks choice. What ever gets them through it. I’ll close the office door.
What would your playlist look like?
PLAN BETTER – TRAIN HARDER
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Restaurant and Culinary School Consulting, Training and Coaching
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The foundations of our country stem from the concept of democracy or as clearly stated by Abraham Lincoln in the Gettysburg Address: “a government of the people, by the people and for the people…” a bold, and noble statement that most Americans take to heart, appreciate and support. We have the right and the obligation to vote for representatives who, at least in theory, have our best interests at heart and who stand tall to lobby on our behalf. In truth, we have seen this work at some level, but realize that a true democracy, where everyone has a say in decision-making is far from realistic. Yes, the compromise is to vote in representatives and if they disappoint us, vote for their replacement. We have also seen how representing multiple thoughts, ideas and beliefs can drag on for extensive periods of time without, in many cases, any resolution. This is the price that we pay for the freedom to speak our minds and have independent opinions. Democracy is not always perfect, yet it is still the best system around.
This freedom does not fit every situation, thus the focus of this article. I am a firm believer in participative environments where individuals have an opportunity to be expressive, but from experience still support the need for kitchens to run very similar to the military. This may seem like a contradiction – I don’t believe it is. There is a time for debate and a time for action. Kitchens are environments where a need for action is the one constant. I read once where there is a need for chefs to make decisions multiple times in any given minute. It is his or her experience leading to holding that title that allow for calculated decisions that keep the machine in full motion. Furthermore, just like in any company, it is the vision of the leader that keeps the ship on a constant course, provides stability, sets the environment for positive movement and provides a level of predictable trust in the minds of consumers. But what about the need for change?
We should not feel that democracy be constantly present for positive change to occur. I have been an advocate for change for decades and have promoted a need to look at things differently in restaurants and in culinary education; however, I also realize two key realities:
1. As much as anyone might promote the need for change, very few people are actually comfortable with the concept
2. All successful change stems from an effective leader who creates an environment of trust, helps to educate an audience along the way, and is not afraid to make decisions even if they go against public opinion
Apple Computer (still my favorite company) lives by a mantra that many of us are quite familiar with:
“Here’s to the crazy ones. The misfits. The rebels. The troublemakers. The round pegs in the square holes. The ones who see things differently. They’re not fond of rules. And they have no respect for the status quo. You can quote them, disagree with them, glorify or vilify them. About the only thing you can’t do is ignore them. Because they change things. They push the human race forward. And while some may see them as the crazy ones, we see genius. Because the people who are crazy enough to think they can change the world, are the ones who do.”
― Apple Inc.
The interesting thing is that the company, during its most incredible surge from near bankruptcy to becoming one of the largest, most profitable and still most admired brands in the world was run by a person who hired the best and brightest, yet ran the company like a crazed dictator. He had the vision and no intention of allowing anyone to waiver from that vision while at the same time giving them incredible autonomy to ideate and create. Is this a contradiction? Maybe so, but it really is how the concept of democracy has any chance of being successful in business.
In kitchens, it is always important to hire, nurture and encourage young cooks who have creative minds and fresh ideas. At the same time, if these same individuals are unable or unwilling to follow the lead of a chef who has the responsibility to make the right decision in any given moment and who must ensure that a consistent, quality product is present to the guest, time in and time out, then that young cook will not find an avenue for their ideas. There is a time and a place for expression and a time and a place for following the lead. This is something that far too many young cooks do not realize or are willing to accept. The result in a kitchen can be chaos. It is the “yes, chef” model that must prevail when the kitchen is in battle mode, when the dining room is full and guests are anticipating a dish that they have high expectations of.
The ideation opportunities for young cooks must still exist, but it needs to happen when the time is right. Chefs must create those opportunities for interaction and idea sharing or tomorrows kitchen stars will eventually become discouraged and look for better opportunities elsewhere. Failure to ever provide those times when ideation and change occur will inevitably result in missed opportunities for growth and competitiveness in a very intense marketplace.
At the same time, it is the chef who must separate a fresh short-term trend from something with staying power that might eventually shift the course of the ship; this is also something that experience can control.
“Fashion changes, but style endures.”
― Coco Chanel
It is the chef’s job to ensure that the “style” of the restaurant and of cooking in general is never lost in the fever of keeping up with “fashion”. A kitchen “of the people, by the people and for the people”, may not provide the answer for long-term success, but it will, to a degree, keep things interesting. The challenge is always maintaining a balance of democracy and reasonable dictatorship.
I would be willing to bet that the most influential chefs and restaurateurs of the day are masters at this balance. I would almost guarantee that Thomas Keller, Gary Danko, Danny Meyer, Daniel Boulud, Grant Achatz and numerous others know when to provide those opportunities for creativity and when to reel it in when situations dictate the need for a “yes chef” response.
A word to young cooks working their way through the kitchen brigade: “learn to respect the chefs experience, vision and need to control. In the early days of your career, one of your primary jobs is to do what is necessary to make the chef and the restaurant look good. If you do this, I would almost guarantee that the opportunities to express your ideas and opinions would find a home. I would also guarantee that when you find yourself in that eventual position of leadership – balance in democracy is what you will choose as well.”
PLAN BETTER – TRAIN HARDER
Harvest America Ventures, LLC
Restaurant and Culinary School Consulting, Training and Coaching
So here is the dilemma – I can’t turn it off! I can’t stop designing the next great restaurant concept in my head. Is this a problem? A good friend of mine, in a totally different field, suffers from the same disease: always thinking about the next great concept. His spouse told me once: “he has 100 ideas a week, and one of them is brilliant”. Are we all living under the delusion that the next great idea is just hiding under the surface and with a little nudge we can build the next Microsoft?
Here is an example of how relentless the process can be:
* I am oftentimes unable to sleep because I am planning a concept that came to me while I was having that last cup of tea before bed.
* I finally bought a pocket digital recorder so that when ideas came to me while driving, I could store them for later planning.
* I plan my part of family vacations around the restaurants I want to visit, not just to enjoy the food but rather to stimulate more ideas.
* I have more cookbooks than I will ever read, but they are there primarily to stoke the fires of creative thought: “how could I tweak this idea and make it unique to me”.
* I read quite a bit, but the majority of my books are written by chefs and restaurateurs about their daily routine. I am constantly using a highlighter throughout these books to point to ideas I might use later on.
* I walk through stores, not to purchase, but to look for ideas on restaurant decor, systems for delivery, service tips, etc.
* I have framed pictures in my office, not of scenery, but of restaurants, kitchens and chefs.
* When dining out, I always frustrate my wife when I am taking pictures with my cell phone.
* I walk 2-3 miles every morning and oftentimes find myself lost in thought about an idea. If only I could remember to bring that digital recorder with me.
* Even in the shower, I find myself drifting off with an idea about a restaurant concept.
* Empty buildings and stores are always fuel for the concept planning fire. “Just think what could be done with this space”!
* When in a restaurant with friends I need to work hard at keeping my focus on them and not spinning around looking at how they execute their system and how I might make it better.
* Although I am coming to the later part of my career and rarely cook in restaurants anymore, I still make my daily prep lists and market orders for meals at home.
* I even take pictures of my own food at home and post them on Facebook!
The whole process is like that annoying ringing I used to get in my ears after attending a rock concert in the 60’s. No matter how hard you try, it just won’t go away. How many ideas have come and gone? How many of them were brilliant or will the next one be the real winner? Fortunately, or unfortunately, I have never invested my bank account in one of these ideas. Then again, what if I had and it really was brilliant? I guess I will never know, but it is still fun thinking about and developing a cool idea.
Does anyone else suffer from perpetual idea overload? By the way, the photo is from “The Big Night”, a movie that I consider as great as Casablanca.
When chefs and service staff are not on the same page the guest experience is confused and disjointed. When I have referenced the importance of team in the kitchen I am concerned that some might think that if that “culinary island” is in sync then the guest experience will be great. Team refers to a cohesive effort on the part of all staff members to create that exceptional dining event.
What motivates your staff on a daily basis (keeping in mind that you, as a manager or chef, cannot motivate another employee. This is something that they must do for themselves)? What can you do to help insure the right customer event?
Your official job is to create the environment for positive self-motivation. This, of course, begins with selecting the individuals with the “right stuff”, orienting them to the operation and its philosophy, training with gusto, investing in providing the right tools, creating forums for open communication between all team members, empowering people to make decisions, recognizing people for their role and thanking them for going the extra mile, setting the example for others to follow, providing honest critique and when necessary demonstrating how to correct areas that need attention. The most important piece is creating ample opportunities for open communication.
Chefs are typically motivated by the creative process. Their motivation is the tactile process of work that brings an idea to fruition on the plate. The hard facade that often accompanies the image of a chef is really just a protective crust that hides the fragile artist underneath who takes real pride in bringing out flavors, presenting their art on a canvas (plate) and seeing clean plates return from the dining room. That mis-step that brings excellent food to ordinary, incredible ingredients to ruin, fresh food to something that is dry and inappropriate or a smiling guest to the unhappy recipient of a plate of food that is below their expectations is devastating to a serious cook or chef. Self-loathing happens on a daily basis among cooks and chefs who are serious about their craft. As “up” as they may be when things go right, the lows are pretty severe when they don’t. They eat, drink and sleep “food”, their closest professional companion. They relish incredible ingredients and bow to those who are able to make magic food out of what they are given to work with.
Servers are certainly pleased when guests are happy with their experience, however, the compensation system that restaurants have adopted for waiters drives them to work for the reward of a great tip. In the end, it is the gratuity that demonstrates to the server that they have performed at an acceptable or greater than acceptable level. It is rare to find a server today who is just as pumped about food as the chef. You rarely see a service staff member blurry-eyed from reading cookbooks until 2 a.m. or spending their day off hanging out at other restaurants to help refine their craft. We (restaurants) have not created the community of food lovers who know as much about the ingredients, cooking and flavor profiles as the chef. This is not the fault of the server, it is the fault of leadership not paying attention to how critical it is for chefs and servers to share a similar passion. Without this passion and commitment, the guest experience is disjointed.
On those rare occasions when I have experienced a restaurant in complete sync, it is incredible to sit back and watch what transpires. Cooks and service staff carry on conversations about food, other restaurants, as well as wine and food/wine pairings they have experienced. The staff meal is a collaborative event with front and back of the house laughing, sharing stories, quizzing each other on tonight’s preparations and truly enjoying each other’s company.
The end result is always a better customer experience because service staff and cooks are truly interested in how the food is perceived, how the flavors marry with that wine that the sommelier suggested, and how many times the guest pulls out their smart phone, not to talk, but to take pictures of the food.
When chefs and servers share the same inspiration, the guest can feel it. These rare restaurants are always first on everyone’s list when it comes time to make a reservation.
Are you an idea person? Maybe you are more of an implementor. Or are you a bit of both? Does this picture represent you:
* I can’t stop my brain from working overtime
* I have lists of ideas everywhere
* I have many sleepless nights while new business ideas keep me awake
* I think about the next great restaurant while in the shower, driving to work, having dinner at another restaurant, preparing my mise en place at the restaurant where I am currently employed, or just walking through a number of unrelated businesses and seeing something that sparks that creative thought process.
* How many times have you designed that next killer restaurant on the back of a bar cocktail napkin?
* Do you scribble business ideas on a legal pad while suffering through another pointless business meeting?
* How often have you said, “you know what would work great in that building”?
* Maybe a friend, lecturer, announcer, business colleague says something that sends you into “another creative thought utopia” never to return to the original conversation.
The question is, what do you do with these ideas? How do you focus your creative thought process and move beyond idea to concept and bring that concept to fruition? What keeps you from being the next wildly successful entrepreneur?
When I was in the classroom I would ask young culinary and hospitality students how many wanted to own their own restaurant. The vast majority would raise their hands. I would always follow up with “I hope to convince you not to take that route”. Why would I ever say that? I felt justified because of the statistical data that demonstrated incredibly high failure rates among entrepreneurs. My job, I thought, was to help them put these thoughts of owning their own on the shelf and concentrate on becoming successful employees. Well, I was wrong!
Every decent chef that I know has or had a dream to be a restaurateur. It is, after all, the great American dream. Entrepreneurship is a right of every citizen and no country in the world is more open to welcoming private business than the U.S. What was terribly wrong with my classroom approach was attempting to stifle that creative gene that so many chefs have. That desire is an itch that needs to be scratched.
No one ever really gets ahead by playing it safe. A few will succeed and some will fail, but everyone should have an outlet for those ideas that keep them up at night.
So what keeps you from taking those ideas and running with them (hopefully it is not just teachers who are trying to help you to play it safe)?
Here are a few classic responses and solutions:
* I don’t have the money (find a partner who does and who believes in you)
* It is too risky and I am afraid (no pain, no gain). The beauty of being in the restaurant business is that if you fail at entrepreneurship, you can always go back to working for someone else.
* I don’t have the time right now (sooner or later you really won’t have the time – act on the idea now)
* I have too many current commitments (that will never change unless you begin to adjust some of your priorities)
* I have a well-grounded life-partner who tells me to chill and be happy with what I have (if they are truly your partner it is time to have that “I need to do this” conversation)
* I don’t have the business knowledge (go back to school and build that knowledge base)
* I lack the confidence to follow through (take the leap, learn as much as you can, practice and you will be impressed with how your confidence with change).
* I am too old (Please!!! There are many examples of entrepreneurs who started in their seventies.)
As I sit in front of the TV and watch another episode of “Shark Tank” I am really disappointed as the “Sharks” step on another dream and watch the rejection on their faces. To many, that great idea is what helps them to be complete. It needs to find a home or those sleepless nights will continue until they find an idea that sticks and builds enough traction to fulfill their creative dreams.
Do you have that next great restaurant concept tucked away in your subconscious? Light a fire under it, do your homework, find answers to those roadblocks and take that entrepreneurial plunge. Capture the excitement, it is what makes this country great.
What ever happened to creativity and the fun associated with developing something new, exciting, delicious and trend defining in restaurants. Certainly you could cite those handful of unique restaurants that grace the cover stories in trade magazines, win James Beard Awards and Michelin stars, and are home to chefs with names that are present on the tip of everyone’s tongue, but what about the other 950,000 restaurants in the United States along with business cafeterias, college cafes, and health care facilities? Are there exceptions to the rule, you bet, but they are few and far between.
Playing it safe is the rule of thumb, until someone creates that “ah ha” moment in restaurant dining that reinvents a segment. Do we really need another shop that serves Pizza Margherita, Ameri/Mexican restaurants with burritos and Chimichangas, white tablecloth operations with Shrimp Scampi or Veal Piccata? I have found myself many times referring to how important the classic dishes are and that they are always great to fall back on because after all – they sell! The problem is not their acceptability or the taste profile; the problem is that the industry is too boring. Did I really say that? Yes, the restaurant business is boring.
Customers play it safe, just like restaurants do, and thus the cycle continues. Those chefs and restaurateurs who try to break the mold gain notoriety among journalists, young chefs looking for excitement and that 2% of the population referred to as innovators, but walk down the street and you will find dozens of restaurants who are content (or stuck) with doing the same thing that everyone else does.
I am not a fan of what has been referred to as “molecular cuisine”; however, I am fascinated by those chefs who are head-over-heals committed to pushing that envelope. Grant Achatz, Ferran Adria, Wylie Dufresne are part of the pack of rebels who (forget what you think about the food) are trying hard to pull us out of our shells and learn to “think different”.
Steve Jobs was a genius. Some loved him and others despised him. Say what you will, but as the soul of Apple Computer he embraced creative thought above everything else. He had the uncanny ability to go beyond what people wanted or needed, he anticipated what they were going to need before they ever thought of it. So too is the case with a few contemporary chefs and restaurant owners/operators.
If Achatz, Adria and Dufresne are too radical for you, consider some who have been with us for a long time, treasure the classics, but who interpret those items in a way that breaks the barriers of “playing it safe”. Eric Ripert, Thomas Keller, Charlie Trotter, Alice Waters, Charles Carroll, Daniel Boulud, Gavin Kaysen, Marcus Samuelsson and Cat Cora all continue to move their creative ideas to the forefront of restaurants that carry their signature while 950,000 others continue to ignore the need to be just a little unique.
Part of our job as chefs is to educate the staff members who work with us and the guests who choose to grace us with their presence. Of course, I am fully aware of the fiduciary responsibilities that go along with taking the helm of a restaurant and the fragile nature of restaurant economics. It is also our responsibility, however, to grow our business, attract new customers, and most importantly: exceed guest expectations with a food experience that is far greater than the sum of its parts.
To quote a culinary friend of mine from the past: “There is little talent in cooking a steak. Certainly there is a skill that goes along with timing and organization of a char-grill, but the talent is in preparing a chicken leg or inexpensive cut of meat in such a way, and presented with such unique grace, that its value far exceeds that of even the best steak.”
Please do not misinterpret what I am saying: I love classic Italian, French, Asian, German, Polish, Irish, Norwegian and every other traditional ethnic food. I sometimes salivate just thinking about that perfectly cooked steak, but how often is it that a restaurant experience truly excites and builds unforgettable memories?
Creativity is not exclusive to high-end restaurants. Starbucks was a real “wow” when they first began. The quality, the variety, the atmosphere were game changers. When was the last time that this type of change has taken our breath away in the coffee business? I would dare say that there is little difference between the Starbucks of 1990 and the one of today. Remember the first time you experienced an Au Bon Pain or Panera Bread and how it was fun to take it all in? Where is the next game changer hiding?
Playing it safe has a price. The price is complacency and transition of unique concepts into commodity restaurants. I am waiting for the next Steve Jobs in the restaurant business to catch everyone else off guard. Every once and a while we need to paint outside the lines.