“Welcome to the camp, I guess we all know why we’re here.” These opening lyrics by the Who in their dramatic album “Tommy” referred to an underlying understanding of purpose. Anyone could interject numerous scenarios that point to common beliefs, direction, misunderstandings, reflections, or transitions in a persons’ life. One of those transitions is finding…
Pride is defined in both a positive and a negative manner. To some, pride is something to avoid: “An irrationally corrupt sense of ones personal value, status or accomplishments.” – Wikipedia – Or as some would label it: “ego”. On the other hand, pride can be viewed in a positive sense: “A humble and content…
What was the moment, the event, the restaurant, the dish, that changed your life? Can a meal or a restaurant experience really change a person’s life? Maybe it wasn’t in a restaurant after all, maybe it was a memorable experience created through the hands of a parent or grandparent. In any case, there are those…
It takes many years for a good cook to become a great cook, to become a chef. There is an enormous amount of experience that leads to the ability to lead a kitchen, to create a vision and set the tone for consistently excellent performance. Aside from a strong understanding of foundational cooking technique, the chef must have accumulated an understanding of purchasing, menu planning, human resource management, inventory management, cost control, artistic presentations of food, sanitation and safety, public relations, wine, as well as communication and brand building. Yes, this position is a culmination of a lifetime of skill and aptitude development, however, chefs must never lose sight of the role that line cooks play in the daily successful operation of a kitchen.
Line cooks are the lifeblood of any professional kitchen operation. It is, after all, the line cook who has the responsibility to prepare, develop flavors and consistently execute the menu under what outsiders would consider – inhumane conditions. The chef may be in the driver’s seat, but the line cook is the engine. A driver without a well running engine would not get too far.
I am currently finishing another terrific, accurate book on “a day in the life of a kitchen” that truly depicts the intensity, challenges and incredible skill that a line cook must possess. In this portrayal (Sous Chef, by: Michael Gibney); the author, while living the role of the second in command pays true homage to the line cooks who make his success possible. From experience there are a few realities that drive me to acknowledge the significance of the young, upwardly mobile and sometimes satisfied to stay where they are, pirates of the line.
1. Let’s face it being a line cook is more often than not a younger person’s sport. The physical demands of working the line are only surpassed by the mental acuity that is required as line cooks attempt to keep track of multiple a’ la minute preparations, timings, plating’s and interconnections with other cooks on the line. In my last position as a chef I knew that I could work as hard and longer than most of the cooks in the restaurant (I paid for it with aches and pains that rarely went away), but the older I got the harder it was to process the rapid fire mental activity that is the routine of a line cook. Bending over hundreds of times, 120 degree heat, burns, cuts, clanging of pans, and the speed with which a line cook must act and react is way too challenging for most over the age of 40.
2. Each station on the line is a private entrepreneurship. The set-up, calculated mise en place, position of each ingredient from sliced garlic to clarified butter, from minced shallots to pour bottles of white wine and olive oil and from tongs (a line cooks most important tool) to neatly folded side towels is uniquely that cooks. True, the chef may initially train a cook how to set-up a station, but once they have grown into the position they will inevitably treat that area as if it were their own business. This “seasoning” as a line cook is absolutely critical for the efficient operation of a kitchen and once it is set, it needs to be that way – always.
3. Although a good portion of the pre-work for the line may be done by an earlier prep shift (stocks, mother sauces [where they are still relevant], peeled shallots and garlic, braised meats, fabrication of steaks and chops, filleting of fish, trimming and blanching of vegetables, etc.), it is the line cook who must know how to cook as completely as he or she knows how to breathe. He or she must know how to cook a perfect steak, when to turn a fish on the plancha, the right time to add a splash of wine, how to season items in a pan by holding that salt and pepper above the dish and allowing it to evenly forecast, how much time is left in the cooking process so that the plating of a table’s order can be orchestrated and most importantly; how to taste (a great line cook MUST have a well define palate). The line cook needs to have an eye for plate presentation even though the layout may have originated from the chef and must know how important it is to take a few extra seconds to show the finesse to place each item at its perfect spot on the plate. Maintaining the discipline for all of this to take place is hard to imagine.
4. The chef will undoubtedly know how all of this is done and he or she probably taught the cook early on how to manage these steps, but most chefs, once they reach that position would find it very difficult to step in and do the job as well as a line cook.
5. Finally, the line cook, as I pointed out in a previous article (Life Lessons from a Line Cook) https://harvestamericacues.com/2014/04/11/life-lessons-from-a-line-cook/ must be a consummate communicator and in most cases “listener”. The chef, on a busy night sets the cadence for the line and is the sole voice in the kitchen. Service staff will use the chef/expeditor as the portal for communication with cooks, but line personnel know that it is that voice that they must tune into. When a directive or question is posed, the line cook must zero in on the command, acknowledge it and then network with other stations as they execute the directive. Sometimes this networking is handled with simple eye contact and a nod, other times it will be succinct words like “fire, plate, garnish, sauce, hot, pick-up, hold, etc.”. All of this takes time to develop, but once it is there, the line can hum on all cylinders like each station entrepreneur is electrically connected to each other station and the chef/expeditor. This invaluable relationship is magical and goes way beyond the importance of the chef as an individual.
The dining room may be full of people who have heard of, know about, met or would like to meet – the chef. They may, in fact, have come to the restaurant to try the “chef’s food”, but rarely do they truly understand that the chef was probably never involved in the actual cooking of the dish. The chef is in the limelight and he or she has earned that position through many years of extremely hard work, but the chef could never function without the efforts of the team of line cooks who stay behind those swinging doors. The chef knows this all too well and although he or she may not thank the line enough until there is a gap in staffing, this knowledge that they are where they are because of the dedication and seasoned entrepreneurial spirit of the hourly paid line cook is always present in a chef’s subconscious.
It may seem that I spend an inordinate amount of time talking about cooks, even more than chefs, it is because having experienced a return to a great and reasonably busy chefs position in the later part of my career I learned very quickly how much I depended on these crucial members of the team.
PLAN BETTER – TRAIN HARDER
Harvest America Ventures, LLC
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READ THIS EXCELLENT PORTRAYAL OF KITCHEN LIFE:
New York City has been called the center of the universe. For chefs and restaurateurs it is the mecca for the best talent to be found and a place for aspiring professionals to earn their chops, refine their talent and build their personal brand. New York is also very tough on cooks. The best restaurants are in such demand by young cooks that many agree to work as a stage’, dedicating countless hours for little or no money in exchange for knowledge and a resume builder. Thousands of cooks look to cut their teeth in New York while others might enter the New York landscape having built their skill set elsewhere and now seek approval from a very discriminating dining public. There are nearly 25,000 options in the boroughs of New York for guests to find a restaurant meal – an incredible amount of competition. In this type of environment the strong survive and the weak shall perish.
I find that it is always fascinating to follow young cooks who have the passion, the commitment and the patience to set a path from learning how to cut an onion to plating some of the most sophisticated food to be found on any table. The shear dedication and determination necessary to ride the train from point A to point Z can be hard to imagine with many bumps along the way. Those who make it – deserve it.
I have had the pleasure to watch many young culinarians reach their goals and feel for even more who falter along the way leading them to seek a different career path. One who has followed his dreams and continues to impress all who know him and enjoy his food is Chef Tyler Scott. He agreed to this interview as an opportunity to demonstrate a path for others. He is an inspiration to me.
1. What or who influenced you to pursue a career in food and beverage?
“I would have to say my mother and aunt. Growing up, even though she was working full time, my mother still made time to produce bread, and pastry items from scratch as well as can jams from all the summer berries. We didn’t have many traditions or family rituals but I always looked forward to cinnamon rolls at Christmas and strawberry short cake well into long Western New York winters.
My aunt, on the other hand, taught me the importance of being specialized and that if you are liberal with the use of anything let it be butter. She only cooked three things: French toast, Snicker Doodles, and city chicken, but all of them were uniquely hers in some fashion and delicious”.
2. Who mentored you in your pursuit of this career?
“I worked for a number of talented chefs over the years but two really guided me: Brian Skelding and Michael Powell. Chef Skelding instilled the foundations of cooking in me. Then later in my career Chef Powell schooled me on management and leadership”.
3. How would others describe your style of management?
“I believe that others would describe me as being fair and understanding with a strong emphasis on educating the people we employ”.
4. Do you have a business philosophy that drives your operational decisions? If so, can you describe this philosophy?
“Teamwork – I strongly believe that working as part of a cohesive unit is a crucial part to being successful”.
Chefs quickly realize that there is less room for individualism in kitchens than one might think. There are way too many tasks to accomplish, far too many variables that can distract and enormous pressure to be ready for anything and everything to even attempt to work without the complete cohesive nature of a team. This goes beyond “teamwork” and parallels the relationship that a successful sports team would encounter. All for one and one for all is the motto that kitchens live by.
5. Can you name a particular food experience in your life that was your epiphany? An experience that stands out as the moment when you said, yes, this is what I need to do.
“My first job after graduating from Paul Smith’s College was at The Greenbrier Resort in White Sulphur Springs, West Virginia. I worked more and with more intensity during my time there than I ever had before in my life, but the first time I really held down a station on the main line and felt that rush of adrenaline I was hooked”.
6. What is your pet peeve about working in the food and beverage industry?
“The never-ending debate over meat temperature correctness drives me nuts. It is comical as well as irritating, especially in an age where chefs are so popular and information so accessible. This may appear to be a small thing, but it seems impossible to find two people (cooks or guests) who can agree on what medium rare looks like”.
7. Who are your most valuable players in the operation where you currently work?
“Hands down Oscar. We have a small staff at Ze Café and it is easy to see when someone is not pulling their share. Oscar is young with no formal training prior to this job, but you can see that he understands the foundations of what makes you successful as a cook on a daily basis”.
8. If you had an opportunity to provide some guiding light to young cooks, bakers or hospitality students looking to make their mark in this business, what would you tell them?
“Hard work pays off – period. Also, when the time comes and someone gives you a shot – have a clear idea of what it is that you want to do and how you are going to do it”.
9. When you hire people to work in your business what traits are you looking for?
“I look for a positive outlook on life, adaptability, and a willingness to learn. A positive outlook is huge for me in the work place, I try to smile and keep a bright mind set. This attitude helps with productivity and creates a more pleasant work environment. So I try to employ people with a similar attitude”.
10. If you were not working in food and beverage, what would you choose to do for a career?
“I would choose something that would keep me in close contact with the outdoors. I am an avid fly fisherman so maybe a guide”.
11. What would you like people to know about your current business and the products that you produce or sell?
“Ze cafe is a small restaurant with a French influenced menu. We focus on freshness and quality of product. During most of the year we are privileged to receive fruits, vegetables, and eggs from our owners farm just south of Albany, New York”.
I had the pleasure of watching Tyler grow from his early days as a culinary student and captain of our student culinary team. Tyler’s experiences since then brought him from the Greenbrier, America’s premier American Plan Hotel to his current role as Sous Chef for Ze Café. Along the way, he followed his culinary dreams from coast to coast as defined in this bio from Ze Café website:
“Born in Buffalo New York, Chef Scott spent his pre-college years working in restaurants. Upon graduating high school he attended Culinary Arts and Service Management at Paul Smith’s College.
While at Paul Smith’s Tyler was the Co-captain on the school Cold Food Team, which received two gold and silver medals at the New York City Food Show.
Shortly after graduating he was selected for the apprenticeship program at the Greenbrier Resort in West Virginia where he was immersed in the world of Classical French Cuisine.
Returning home after three years, he worked as a Sous-Chef to Chef Scott Bova at The Athenaeum Hotel in Chautauqua, NY for the summer season of 2008. The following fall, Tyler moved to Portland, Oregon where he was able to pursue his interests in farm to table dining, butchering and Charcuterie working as a Sous -Chef under Ryan Bleibtrey at Urban Farmer Restaurant.
Tyler returned to Western New York to work for Chef Jonathan Haloua at La Fleur a Four Diamond Award Restaurant in Mayville, NY. After working at La Fleur, Tyler was offered the Chef de Cuisine position at the Oklahoma City Golf & Country Club where he worked for 4 years. He returned to work with Chef Jonathan in the summer of 2013 at La Fleur and joined the Zé Café team Fall of 2013.”
Ze Café receives exceptional reviews as a top tier French inspired restaurant in New York. The next time you are in “the city” stop in for dinner and ask for Chef Tyler. Satisfaction guaranteed! Visit their website at:
PLAN BETTER – TRAIN HARDER
Harvest America Ventures, LLC
Restaurant and Culinary School Consulting, Training and Coaching
Follow our blog at: http://www.culinarycuesblog.wordpress.com
Today is a momentous day for the U.S. restaurant industry. On December 5, 1933, Prohibition was repealed. That marked 14 years of illegal manufacture, distribution, sales and consumption of alcoholic beverages and a law that was literally impossible to enforce because the majority of American’s were not in favor of the mandate. That day in 1933 really marked the beginning of the restaurant industry in the U.S.
Granted there were restaurants before Prohibition and there were restaurants during Prohibition, but the scope of the industry to come, the connection that restaurants would have with the American people, and the role that restaurants would play in our lives had it’s first real spark as a result of Prohibition’s repeal.
Think about some statistics first before I explain why I believe that repeal was the watershed moment for restaurants. The alcoholic beverage industry in the U.S. generated over $400 billion in sales in 2010, There are 60,000 free standing bars in the U.S. (not including restaurants that serve alcohol or retail stores that sell directly to consumers), There are well over 600,000 restaurants in America, a majority of which sell alcohol; 340,000 of those restaurants are independently operated; in 2012 Americans visited restaurants 60 billion times; the industry as a whole employs 13 million people which is about 10% of the U.S. workforce and places the industry as the second largest employer within our borders. How much of this would have been possible without the legal production, distribution, sale and consumption of alcoholic beverages?
Now, some will refer to the negatives associated with alcohol: it’s potential addictive nature, the impact it may have on the psychological state of some, it’s contribution to crime, the impact of drunk driving, and the debilitating impact it has on so many who have become physically and emotionally dependent on the beverage. I cannot disagree with any of these facts and it is not my position to defend or criticize, however those who are able to drink in moderation, use an occasional alcoholic drink as part of socialization with friends (without using alcohol to make you social), and never get behind the wheel of a car with more than one drink under your belt, then alcohol certainly has its place.
Now, back to why the Repeal of Prohibition was the start of the restaurant business in the U.S.: my grandfather owned a speakeasy (he was also a local town supervisor which helped when the revenuers came to town). From family lore, I have discovered much of how this environment worked. He bought his liquor from Canada and in some cases even made some of his own “bathtub gin”. He was fortunate in that his was the only speakeasy in town so there was no competition like in larger cities. In order to keep his patrons happily drinking for periods of time it became necessary to serve some type of food, so he began offering sandwiches and soup. This was the case with nearly all speakeasy operations across the U.S. As a result, this illegal bar was where people went to socialize, discuss the issues of the day, and nourish themselves.
When Prohibition was repealed, the speakeasy, in order to maintain their business and a competitive edge, had to increase their menu offerings and create additional reasons for guests to continue their tradition of socialization in the operation. From the foundations of the speakeasy rose the modern restaurant where now the food would take center stage and alcohol would solidify the partnership with guests.
The restaurants and bars of America have a social, historical, moral and ethical responsibility to serve alcohol with care, respect the importance of the beverage and how it marries with food and on December 5th each year give thanks for the wisdom that was shown when an illegally produced beverage became a legal one for better or for worse.
*The historical photo is of a bar on June 30, 1919 – the day before Prohibition went into effect. It is part of the archives of the Library of Congress.
The cadence of orders in a busy kitchen seems unrelenting. A staccato clicking from the point of sale printer sends out a drum roll of orders while the expeditor calmly, yet seriously calls out tickets in kitchen lingo to the battery of cooks on the line. They in turn signal back receipt of the order by either repeating it or simply saying “yes chef”. Ordering, fire, picking up, re-fire, I need an “all-day”, is part of the script that every professional cook understands and responds to with surgical precision. Orders are pre-fired and finished, plated as per the accepted design, edges wiped, placed in the window, inspected and finished by the chef/expeditor and passed on to servers in a seamless stream of syncopated and rehearsed activity.
To watch this interplay is truly amazing. The orchestration by the chef/expeditor is possible because everyone on the line is in sync. To allow this magic to occur every cook must be on their game. They must have impeccable mise en place (prep and organization), must know not just the details of their station but that of every other station, they must have the desired flavor profile of each dish embedded in their flavor memory, and must approach each single plate as if it were their personal work of art that makes a statement about their abilities and passion for food. Each cook must accept their role and understand how important their role is to the whole. They must respect the chain of command and never question directives from the chef, and must at all costs maintain the desired quality of their work. They must support those who are “in the weeds” and be comfortable asking for help when they see the same issue creeping into their station.
When it works, the busy kitchen is a beautiful thing. WHY? Because this group of cooks has become a team, not unlike any other professional body with a focused mission. Football, baseball, basketball, hockey, the military, or for that matter any driven business adheres to the same “call to arms”: Understanding, acceptance, discipline, preparedness, practice, respect, passion and common goals = TEAM. TEAM = SUCCESS.
Contrary to what you see on these very un-realistic television “reality cooking shows”, kitchens cannot work when there is a lack of any one of the aforementioned components. Chefs who yell and belittle do not inspire great cooking. In fact, this will do just the opposite. This type of chef (and I use the term loosely here) will create an environment of winners and losers and survival of the fittest. The result will almost always be chaos, back stabbing, inconsistent food, and unhappy guests.
Effective chefs can learn from those leaders in any business who aspire to create a team environment. To do so will lead to a cohesive group of committed, proud, supportive and successful cooks. These individuals will relish the opportunity to work in such an environment and treasure their employment as a result. Great teams = longevity among a restaurants cooking staff.
Given the chance, every diner would benefit from touring the kitchen of a restaurant they choose to dine in. If the operation is clean, if the cooks seem focused, if they are able to occasionally smile and if the chef works like a coach whose job it is to support, encourage and orchestrated, then I can assure you that the food will be great.
I can’t remember where I found this jpeg, probably on FaceBook, but it really struck a chord. When I was at the helm of a kitchen my feeling was that every customer wants a dessert and should be given the opportunity to say “YES” and purchase something sweet. As a consumer, I still have that desire but find far too often that restaurants feed into the reasons for people to say no.
Let’s face it, we don’t need the calories or fat, and probably could live without spending the extra cash, yet a meal that doesn’t end with a dessert seems to be lacking.
There is a growing population of very talented, passionate pastry chefs who should receive the same level of respect and accolade that quality savory chef’s have come to expect, yet how much thought is really given to the importance of dessert to the guest experience and the ways of accomplishing a “guilt-free” sale.
Since a very early age, desserts have been a stress reliever for many. There is a sense that buying dessert is special and in some ways a departure from “being good”. Desserts do bring a smile to people’s face, provide a special reward for good times and a respite from the not so good times. In the hands of a gifted pastry chef, any guest should be able to enjoy this finish to a meal without guilt.
At some point restaurants made a decision that bigger is always better and developed desserts that were so over the top in calories, portion sizes and fat that they became intimidating to order.
Toning down the portion sizes, reflecting on the use of fresh fruits and nuts, incorporating fresh herbs and alternative spices in lieu of added sugar can result in exceptional end-of-meal desserts that excite and satisfy. Five-hundred calorie desserts that push the envelope of common sense do not help the guest, the server, the pastry chef or the restaurant.
Every dessert should be comprised of four different components (based on conversations with some of my favorite pastry chef friends):
Something Crunchy and
a Complementary Sauce
Working this into a formula that strives to create 3-4 bite desserts will help to bring a smile to your guests, pride to your pastry chef, added revenue for the restaurant and a larger base for server gratuities.
Create a “stress reliever” dessert menu rather than one that creates stress for the diner. Remember, it is the total dining experience that brings people back to a restaurant. Make sure that desserts remain a part of that experience. At the end of the meal, the diner should enjoy the way they feel, not sense that they owe their body an apology.
Pastry chefs – feel free to chime in!
As a restaurant consultant I am constantly faced with finding the right team leaders for restaurants and resorts of all types. Harvest America Ventures is thus looking to build a strong portfolio of passionate, honest, talented chefs, sous chefs and managers who are interested in opportunities that may arise. I do not charge any fee…
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.