What are commandments as they relate to anything and everything in life? We are all familiar with the stone tablets that Moses carried down from Mount Sinai that has, for all intents and purposes set the tone for what it means to be a Christian, the teachings of the Bible which have been interpreted in numerous ways by various faiths or the Koran and Bhagavad Gita that for centuries have defined what it means to be a devote follower of Islam or Hindu religions, but what do commandments have to do with specific fields of study, professions or work environments? In fact, these occupational commandments are meant to serve as universal standards of understanding that define how serious professionals within those professions or work environments – act and perform.
If you were to Google “kitchen commandments” you would find numerous iterations (1,960,000 options to be exact) of what individuals believe to be the “standards” by which all professional cooks and chefs must carry themselves. The problem is that most of these are focused on one persons view of what is important and frequently this being the case, I thought that I would take a stab at it from the perspective of this view is not truly connected to what one would consider “universal thought”. So, a person (me) who can now step back and look at the kitchen from the 5,000 foot level (since I am no longer spending 70 hours a week in the kitchen), from the perspective of a person who has been a cook, a chef, a manager, a teacher and a student of food and food service. Take it for what it is worth the following is the “old” commandments compared to a more relevant “contemporary” counterpoint.
1) OLD RULE: THE CHEF ISN’T ALWAYS RIGHT, BUT HE IS NEVER WRONG. There are so many things wrong with this statement that it is difficult to decide where to begin. First, “HE” infers that the chef is always male. There are many incredible women chefs holding this ultimate position in highly respected restaurants today. Second, the belief that the chef is somehow endowed with the ability to always be right does not allow room for true collaboration and teamwork in the kitchen.
NEW RULE: THE CHEF ISN’T ALWAYS RIGHT, SO HE OR SHE MUST LEARN TO SOLICIT INPUT FROM HIS OR HER TEAM. IN THE MOMENT, THE CHEF MAY NEED TO MAKE AN EDUCATED DECISION, BUT SHOULD NEVER AVOID TAPING INTO THE POWERFUL BANK OF IDEAS AND SOLUTIONS THAT EXIST AMONG KITCHEN TEAM MEMBERS.
2) OLD RULE: THE CUSTOMER IS ALWAYS RIGHT. This assumes that a customer’s base of knowledge and understanding is so broad that we cannot nor should not ever question their requests or demands.
NEW RULE: THE CUSTOMER ISN’T ALWAYS RIGHT, THUS OUR RESPONSIBILITY IS TO SERVICE AND EDUCATE. EDUCATION IS POWER AND WE HOLD THE KEY TO BUILDING A CUSTOMER’S KNOWLEDGE BASE AND SETTING THE STAGE FOR A BETTER GUEST EXPERIENCE.
3) OLD RULE: A RESTAURANT’S MENU SHOULD REFLECT WHAT THE CUSTOMER WANTS TO BUY. This, of course, is the basic premise of “safe” marketing. With so much competition in the marketplace it is no longer acceptable to simply “play it safe”. Chefs and restaurants must create a niche for themselves and then constantly evaluate its relevance. Mass customization is the rule of thumb for a new breed of restaurant and chef. Plain vanilla is rarely the flavor of choice when it comes to selecting a restaurant in today’s economy.
NEW RULE: A RESTAURANTS MENU SHOULD BE EXCITING, INTERESTING, UNIQUE, FILLED WITH FLAVORFUL ITEMS, CONSISTENTLY EXECUTED AND VALUE FOCUSED.
4) OLD RULE: FOOD IS A LOSS LEADER IN RESTAURANTS – THE BAR IS WHERE YOU MAKE MONEY. No restaurant can afford to take this approach anymore. There is little question that alcohol can be profitable and the effort and costs involved in bringing it to the guest are minimal in comparison to the effort and expense incurred in preparing and presenting food that is created in the kitchen, however, chefs MUST run profitable operations, they must control costs, buy right and plan menus that can contribute to the overall success of the restaurant business.
NEW RULE: RESTAURANTS ARE PROFIT CENTERS AND EACH AREA, INCLUDING THE KITCHEN MUST FOCUS ON HOW TO CONTRIBUTE TO THE PROFITABILITY OF THE RESTAURANT.
5) OLD RULE: HIRE THE BEST PEOPLE. It would be hard to argue with the logic behind this statement, however, the competition for the “best” people would drive their worth up to the level of your regional professional athlete. The other interesting thing about the “best” people is that they are often times high maintenance with more than ample conditions and excuses (sorry for the generalization). It is much more realistic, rewarding and economical to hire good and energetic people and develop them into great employees.
NEW RULE: HIRE INTERESTING, HARD WORKING, ENERGETIC AND TEAM ORIENTED PEOPLE, INVEST IN THEIR TRAINING, SUPPORT THEM, CRITIQUE THEM, CHALLENGE THEM AND BUILD THEM INTO EXCEPTIONAL COOKS, CHEFS AND LEADERS.
6) OLD RULE: COMMIT 100% TO COOKING AND THE KITCHEN IF YOU WANT TO GET AHEAD. What has been interesting to watch over the past three decades is a new breed of chef who brings an open mind and worldly view to the kitchen and the restaurant. Chefs are visiting the source of inspiration, becoming historians and scientists, agriculturalists and ecologists, painters, writers, musicians and magicians as they seek to identify what it means to be a kitchen leader today. A chef who has limited his or her fluid approach towards life’s experiences is at a disadvantage in the 21st century.
NEW RULE: COMMIT 100% TO AN INTERESTING AND DIVERSE LIFE AND APPLY THOSE EXPERIENCES TO THE KITCHEN, THE PLATE AND THE RESTAURANT.
7) OLD RULE: COOKING IS AN ART, BAKING IS A SCIENCE. We have discovered that the art and the science have begun to blur when it comes to cooking. Harold McGee would certainly disagree with this old rule as would Ferran Adria, Grant Achatz, and Wylie Dufresne. The art in cooking always relied on the chef’s experience to adjust a recipe or procedure to compensate for inconsistencies in raw materials, seasonality and customer preference. Today we know that much of that “chef intuition” can be explained and even controlled with an understanding of the science behind cooking.
NEW RULE: ART AND SCIENCE ARE SYMBIOTIC WHEN IT COMES TO COOKING. GOOD CHEFS UNDERSTAND THE “WHY” WHEN IT COMES TO COOKING SO THAT THEY CAN DETERMINE THE “HOW” NECESSARY TO ACCOMPLISH THE GOALS ASSOCIATED WITH A PARTICULAR DISH. THE ART COMES FROM AN UNDERSTANDING OF BOTH HOW AND WHY.
8) OLD RULE: GREAT CHEFS MAKE GREAT RESTAURANTS. This may be one of the greatest misunderstandings associated with the food business. It is teamwork, a shared passion, on-going training, high standards, terrific raw materials and a commitment to excellence that make a great restaurant.
NEW RULE: GREAT TEAMS MAKE GREAT RESTAURANTS.
9) OLD RULE: THE CHEF IS THE LEADER OF THE KITCHEN AND THUS, THE MOST IMPORTANT PERSON IN THE OPERATION. As chefs we certainly want to believe this, but it would be similar to stating that the coach is the most important person associated with a sporting team or the CEO is the driving force behind a company’s success. These individuals certainly play a significant role and at times maybe the MOST important role, but even the most noteworthy leader would admit that the MVP role changes frequently and maybe moment to moment. In restaurants it could be argued that the dishwasher is the most important person. If you don’t understand this just walk into a busy restaurant any night when the dishwasher is late, doesn’t show up, or calls in sick. The operation falls apart.
NEW RULE: LEADERSHIP IN A KITCHEN EVOLVES AND ALLOWS ANY INDIVIDUAL EMPLOYEE THE OPPORTUNITY AND CHALLENGE OF BEING THE FORCE THAT KEEPS THE SHIP AFLOAT.
10) OLD RULE: GREAT FOOD IS THE BACKBONE OF A CONSISTENTLY SUCCESSFUL RESTAURANT. If this were only true then there would be a much greater success rate among restaurants. It is the “experience” of dining that feeds a successful restaurant. That experience certainly involves great food, but also relies heavily on service, ambience, location, uniqueness, hospitality and timing.
NEW RULE: IT IS THE EXPERIENCE THAT BRINGS CUSTOMERS BACK TIME AND AGAIN. CHEF’S NEED TO SHARE THE RESPONSIBILITY FOR SUCCESS WITH EVERY PERSON INVOLVED IN THE DELIVERY or RECEIPT OF THAT WONDERFUL PLATE OF FOOD.
Your commandments might differ to some degree, but I would challenge anyone to find fault with these new realities. We must never forget the commandments that got us to where we are today while keeping an open mind to those changes that are molding the restaurant industry of today.
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