Tag: restaurants

DIGGING DEEPER: READY-SET- YES CHEF!

DIGGING DEEPER:  READY-SET- YES CHEF!

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

DIGGING DEEP: THE PRESSURE IS ON THE LINE COOK

DIGGING DEEP: THE PRESSURE IS ON THE LINE COOK

Having finished fabricating his fish for Friday prep, Jake moved on to the other proteins on his mise en place list. Venison tenders and Wagyu beef tenders were trimmed of their silver skin and portioned: three-ounce medallions on the venison and four ounces on the beef. The chain from the beef tender would be ground as part of the burger meat for the bar menu and the boot would wind up as tenderloin tips for the Saturday feature. Pheasant, airline style breasts were removed from the carcass leaving the frames for stock that the commissary-shift would use tomorrow. Finally, Jake removed the braised and chilled lamb shanks from their gelatinized braising stock and trimmed them in preparation for re-heating to order. The stock would be reduced with a caramelized mirepoix, red wine and fresh rosemary to accompany the shanks with a side of polenta. “ There”, thought Jake, “all of the proteins were set”.

It was now 3:30 and Jake knew that time was creeping up. He still had not even touched the prep for his vegetables and sauces as well as the set-up of his line station. While he washed and sanitized his table and reached for a new cutting board, he noticed that the other line cooks and interns had arrived and were busy working on their own “mise”. He felt better knowing that he had arrived early and would some how be ready for the chefs pre-meal tasting at 5:00.

Now it was time for some rapid knife work. To save time, Jake took a few minutes to write down all of the vegetables he would need so that he could make one trip to the walk-in, saving time and energy. He collected onions, shallots, garlic, leeks, Yukon gold potatoes, plum tomatoes, baby carrots with tops, chanterelle and shiitake mushrooms, Italian parsley, apples, asparagus and assorted herbs. Once again Jake drew his knives across a stone and steel, washed them and wiped them dry. He was ready.

Jake was masterful with a chef’s knife and bird’s beak. He had, after all, been going through this routine for many years leading to the point where his knives were simply an extension of his hands. Jake was focused but generally pretty easy going. Everyone liked him and respected him but also knew to stay away from his knives. These were his tools and no one else had any business using them (pretty much the rule of thumb with any serious cook). Jake attacked the vegetables dicing, mincing, cutting julienne strips from the leeks, trimming the baby carrots leaving a 1 inch length of green tops as a visual accent, pureeing the shallots so that they would actually melt in a sauté pan, trimming the stems of the chanterelles to make them tender, peeling the bottom half of precisely cut asparagus spears, picking parsley leaves for a garnishing salad on scallops, and cutting fresh herbs with a razor sharp knife into a chiffonade. In some cases vegetables (like the carrots) would be blanched and shocked in ice water so that a simple sauté movement in a pan would finish them in a few seconds at service time. While all of this was taking place, Jake found the time to start the reduction for the lamb shanks and was keeping a close eye on a beurre blanc that he was working for the fish. Time was flashing by. It was now 4:15 and he needed to finish his sauce work and set-up his station.

Moving to his set-up, Jake washed down everything again, counted out his sauté pans and moved them to a 600 degree oven for tempering, clarified his butter for sauté work, lined up his 9th pans for the roll top mise en place cooler, filled everything as per his standard arrangement (everything has a place and everything is in its place), folded a dozed clean side towels, made sure that his burners worked well, stacked plates under the lamps in his station – ready for service, filled a sanitizer bucket with water and the right amount of bleach, and once again drew his knives across a steel. The last step was to bring out his proteins to the lowboy coolers, strain his sauces, set-up his beurre blanc in a bain marie, soften some raw butter for finishing and breathe. It was 4:45 and the chef would be around in 15 minutes to check on mise en place and taste sauces. Jake scrubbed his hands for the 30th time today and grabbed a sandwich from the staff meal set-up while mentally working through his completed prep. He was ready.

Jake popped open a Red Bull and grabbed another double espresso. He would need to be on fire in a few minutes and welcomed the double jolt. While he waited for the chef he looked around at the other line cooks and interns, still a bit behind. He smiled to himself still realizing that in a few minutes he would need to jump in and give them a hand leading up to the restaurant opening at 5:30. He thought to himself again how lucking the interns were to have the ability to go to school for culinary arts. He wondered how much they really appreciated the opportunity and were willing to do what it took to become a great cook. He knew that if he had the chance, he would give 100% to every opportunity to learn. Unfortunately, it was not in the cards for Jake. He then thought about the chef as he left his office for the pre-meal check. Jake thought the world of this chef, the best he had worked for. The chef was talented, professional, totally committed and very hardworking. He was tough but fair, someone that Jake would certainly try to emulate. He did wonder if the chef still remembered what it was like to be a line cook.

Time to focus. The chef was at his station. “Jake are you ready”? “Yes Chef”! As he tasted his lamb demi and beurre blanc, Jake was confident and although the chef didn’t say anything, the fact that he simply moved on to the next station was a way of saying that Jake was spot on. The chef did bark at a few of the other staff members who were clearly not ready so Jake jumped in to give them a hand. Cooking was, after all, a team sport. It was now 5:15 and tickets would begin to spit from the printer any minute. Jake grabbed another Red Bull while helping others in these final minutes.

Game time!

DIGGING DEEP: THE LIFE OF A LINE COOK

KCP_1263

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

The Chef’s New Essential Cookbook

The Chef's New Essential Cookbook

There are hundreds of cookbooks released every year (I know because I am addicted to amazon.com), yet very few can be revered as “essential” A book that will appear on every serious chef’s desk, must be one that defines a new standard, is the reference most used, carries the beauty and soul of the food that the author considers his or her signature, and approaches food in a timeless way.

Daniel Boulud’s new cookbook (actually much more than a cookbook) is just that. I do order way too many cookbooks, but in this case I had very high expectations and found myself excited when it finally arrived.

This book does not disappoint in any way, in fact it offers some value added information that was quite unexpected. I have been around for a while and was trained in kitchens that were fairly classical in nature. Many of those dishes and preparations are long forgotten, yet to a professional they become an important part of the history of the profession.

The first 260 plus pages are dedicated to spectacular dishes that you might find on Daniel’s menu. The recipes are accessible and user-friendly and the photographs are fabulous. Having had the fortune to dine at Daniel in the past I can attest to the fact that what you see in the book reflects the same quality that you will find at this superb NYC restaurant.

The next 100 pages focus on what Daniel refers to as “Iconic Sessions”, demonstrating the very complex process of preparing those items from the past that were the staples of Classic French Cuisine during the times of Careme and Point (and to some degree the first hotel kitchens that I worked in). I am not sure that many of us could replicate the dishes offered, but again, I found it refreshing to have an opportunity to look back.

The book finishes with some basic recipes for foundational items and reference terms. All-in-all a tremendous, beautiful book that can serve as a coffee table focal point, a challenge for the serious home cook, but most importantly a book that will likely be worn out in a professional chef’s office.

This is a “must have” book for all of my chef friends. Rush out to purchase it or put it on your Christmas list!

http://www.amazon.com/Daniel-My-French-Cuisine-Boulud/dp/145551392X/ref=sr_1_1?s=books&ie=UTF8&qid=1382452412&sr=1-1&keywords=Daniel+Boulud

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.

RESTAURANTS NEED TO GET PAST THE EARLY ADOPTERS

RESTAURANTS NEED TO GET PAST THE EARLY ADOPTERS

We oftentimes depend on the complexity of marketing principles to build our business. These principles have created a new generation of chef’s and restaurateurs who are consumed by innovation and pushing the envelope, simply because they misinterpret the statistical data that is behind what is known as the “customer bell curve”. The concept of the bell curve is built on five categories of customers (applicable to any industry): Innovators, Early Adopters, Early Majority, Late Majority and Laggards or Late Adopters. Statistically, it breaks down like this:

Innovators: 2.5% of the customer base
Early Adopters: 13.5%
Early Majority: 34%
Late Majority: 34%
Laggards: 16%

**from an article by: Morgan Gerard in Idea Couture: “Noodle Play”
http://www.ideacouture.com/blog/innovation-early-adopters-beyond-the-bell-curve/

Innovators are typically people who jump at the chance to try whatever is new and proclaim: “I was first”. Early Adopters are close behind and believe that their role in life is to define what is fresh and start the next trend. Most businesses would agree that attracting this audience is important if you are interested in creating a “buzz” around your business. Buzz does equate to new customers and many feel that the Early Adopter is the key to getting close to a new audience. Morgan Gerard dispels the belief that Early Adopters are the opinion leaders. He states: “this is only true if the Early and Late Majority actually follow their lead.” This points to the premise of this post.

As a consultant for restaurant operations I am constantly faced with the dilemma of the chef’s need to be creative and “test the waters”, versus the need to create a business model with staying power. Now, I personally love to try new restaurant concepts and unusual dishes. When I travel I tend to seek out those unique experiences and check them off my list. This is the challenge with Early Adopters (I consider myself to be one). Once they have experienced something new the need is to move on to the next breakthrough. Restaurants that have the ability to survive and thrive must appeal to the Early Majority (they don’t usually jump at new things until they are truly proven) and the Late Majority that move to a new concept kicking and screaming. These two categories of consumers represent nearly 70% of the potential customer base. To be successful, long-term, this is where restaurants need to be.

The challenge, of course is getting to that point. Certainly, restaurants need to evolve at some level and try new things, but it is imperative not to stray too much from what works: well prepared food, great flavors, consistent outcomes, attentive service and stellar hospitality.

I just finished filling out the annual ACF/NRA survey of “what’s hot” that will become a benchmark for chefs as they plan the next iteration of menus for their properties. What was interesting is how many niche (what I might consider short-lived) products or preparation concepts were offered as choices. There are restaurants, in large urban markets, that can take on the role of “innovator” and do well for a long time, but they are few and far between. I will leave this role to Grant, Ferran, Rene and Heston. To try and emulate these unique, highly sophisticated concepts, would be dangerous for most restaurants to attempt and likely lead to business failure.

Attention to ingredients, serious cooking, building on great flavors and beautiful presentations with the right amount of friendly service will always trump those restaurant concepts that come and go. If restaurants and chefs used the parallel of investing 2.5% of their menus and time to pushing the envelope and stay focused 97.5% of the time on cooking well, serving well, paying attention to customer needs and building a base of return guests they would have a much better chance of weathering the storm, surviving and thriving for the distant future.

Keep the innovation going, watch what the highly creative few are doing, experiment cautiously with your own operation, integrate ideas when that Early Majority feels compelled to “buy in”, build on constantly improving the great food and consistent overall experience that 70% of consumers are seeking, and enjoy the best of both worlds.

The picture attached is of Duck Confit resting after a few hours in duck fat. Serve this with flageoulet beans, or polenta, sautéed kale and a robust glass of Cabernet Sauvignon or Zinfandel. All the innovation in the world would have a tough time competing with this flavor profile.

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.

HOSPITALITY: BE THE REASON FOR THE RESERVATION

HOSPITALITY: BE THE REASON FOR THE RESERVATION

There is an old statement that still holds true for restaurants that are consistently successful: “The handshake of the host determines the flavor of the roast”. As a chef by career choice, I certainly spend a great amount of time focusing on the value of food in creating a restaurant buzz. As a person who oftentimes had responsibility for the successful operation of a restaurant business I am acutely aware of how the sincerity of service and the commitment to making people feel at home is critical to the overall financial success of the restaurant.

I have been a part of training thousands of students and entry level cooks who aspire to be the next great chef and find it frustrating to note that very few of these “next generation” restaurateurs really get it. The FoodNetwork, a plethora of beautiful cookbooks, trade magazines and culinary schools continue to focus, almost exclusively, on the product. It is rare to find any serious talk about hospitality and the role it plays in building that next great restaurant.

Drew Nieporent talks about this as a contributing writer in “The Art of the Restaurateur” by: Nicholas Lander. Drew infers that the days of the restaurateur have come and gone with the focus on the chef. The shame of this is that the restaurateur was, for decades, the reason for the reservation. People wanted to go to that person’s operation, to meet them, shake their hand, laugh a bit and feel like they were uniquely welcome to dine. The new generation of restaurant that is chefcetric, can be successful “if” the chef is also the visible, gracious host. Guests will come initially for the opportunity to try the food, and may return a few times if the food is special, but they will only become loyal return customers if the operation is a mecca for unique hospitality and a personality who personifies this trait.

“Why isn’t my restaurant successful?” I hear this statement so many times from people who have dedicated their hard work, time, family life and talent to building a vehicle for presenting their special food. “The food is great, the atmosphere is warm and inviting, the location is perfect, but the tables are half empty.” Look to that secret ingredient: what are you doing to make people feel like they are the most important guest; guests who are have a perceived unique relationship with the owner/operator. Make everyone feel like Norm entering Cheers to the unified greeting by employees and guests at the bar. This “hospitality” always trumps price, and can even rank higher that the food. It is the experience that keeps people coming back.

This is not to say that the food, somehow is not important – it certainly is! Great food today is really the price of admission. It is the expectation of guests who know more about the product than ever before. The food must be great at any level, it is the hospitality ingredient that will make your restaurant unique.

The whole package is critical if your restaurant is to thrive in a highly competitive market. Bring back the hospitality of the restaurateur. If the business is chef owned and operated, then make sure that the chef provides the “handshake of the host”.

FULL-FLAVORED FALL and RESTAURANT PROFITABILITY

FULL-FLAVORED FALL and RESTAURANT PROFITABILITY

Well, it is definitely fall. To most people this is the beginning of close family events and memories. A time when we begin to hunker down for a winter season and start to fill our pantry with those ingredients that are unique to the season. From a chef’s perspective it is the time for “real” cooking and the best opportunity to earn a profit.

In a previous post I talked about the challenges surrounding profitability when so many restaurants focus on high cost, center of the plate ingredients. Steaks, chops and premier seafood items are not only difficult to make money with; they are also those items that truly take the least amount of cooking skill to prepare (no offense to all of those exceptional grill cooks that work in restaurants).

Fall and winter bring out opportunities for roasting; braising and poaching that require an acute understanding of seasoning, development of stocks, broths, braising liquids and marinades. Slow cooking gives a cook ample opportunity to draw out the flavor from a dish whether it is protein, vegetable or even fruit. Chefs begin to integrate compotes and chutneys as complements to the dishes they place on menus and introduce rich flavors that have been missing since the beginning of spring.

Root vegetables and squash are not prevalent so restaurants can introduce butternut, acorn and spaghetti squash; parsnips and turnips; red, golden and candy cane beets. These full flavored fall vegetables take on robust flavors when roasted, braised or stewed.

Chefs are now able to work with other cuts of meat and game as well as lesser-known varieties of fish that work extremely well with roasting, poaching and braising. These slow cooking methods of cooking are too hearty for the spring and summer months. Briskets, shoulder, and shanks have a significantly lower price point than center cut steaks and chops, and these colder month methods of cooking allow accomplished cooks to work with oilier fish, whole fish for roasting, and fish stews like bouillabaisse and cioppino. Moving away from higher cost lobster, scallops, swordfish, and tuna will open the door for restaurants to generate a higher rate of return without sacrificing quality and flavor.

The profitability of a restaurant does evolve around menu and chefs who understand how to work with the seasonality of ingredients and coax flavor and value from them is a chef who positions the restaurant for ultimate financial success. This is the chef’s job.

TO BRAISE:

*Sear the cut of meat that you choose to use. This caramelization enhances the flavor of the protein and adds depth to the fond in the pan – a flavor enhancement for your braising liquid.

*Roast a mirepoix (2 parts of onion, 1 part carrot, 1 part celery) and add to the seared protein in a deep rondo or roasting pan.

*Deglaze the pan used for searing the protein with a dry red wine.

*Add enough braising liquid (appropriate stock) to cover the meat half-way.

*Season with salt and pepper, add fresh herbs (thyme and bay work for most meats, sometimes rosemary and mint – especially with lamb), cover with silicon paper and foil and braise in a slow oven (300 degrees F.) for typically 3-5 hours depending on the size of the protein, until fork tender.

In a restaurant, this can take place a day or two in advance. The line cook would simply re-heat the protein in a small amount of stock and finish with a sauce derived from straining and thickening the liquid from the original braise.

**NOTE: The picture in this post is of Osso Buco prepared by Executive Chef Christian Kruse from Basin Harbor Club in Vergennes, Vermont.

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.

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