Tag: restaurants

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.

SOUP’S ON!

SOUP'S ON!

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Enjoy!

SORGULE’S TUSCAN BEAN SOUP

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

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

LABOR DAY THOUGHTS

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Happy Labor Day!

SHORT ORDER COOKS WERE MY HEROS

I can still remember that day in my hometown of Buffalo, New York. I was 10 years old and on a shopping trip downtown with my mother as we came upon that restaurant with a full picture window framing in the vision of a short order cook preparing lunch for a growing crowd. His movements were synchronized as he easily moved from the remaining breakfast items on the grill to sandwiches, fries, blue plate specials, and appropriate side dishes. No movement was wasted as he pivoted, grabbed plates, flipped burgers and rolled omelets in pans. Waitresses were lined up and did not seem to marvel at the poetic motion of a man in control of the situation – I guess they were simply accustomed to this daily routine. I was mesmerized.

Five years later I had my first job (working papers in hand) as a dishwasher in a busy restaurant in the Central Park section of the city. It was the summer, so without the pressures of school I was free to work and rub elbows with the cook. She was about the same age as my mother, maybe a few years older, and had recently lost her husband who was a real chef. When it became busy she would ask me to help by buttering danish to be grilled, toasting bread, cracking eggs and setting up burger garnishes. I watched as construction workers came in early to order coffee and danish or grilled hard rolls (apparently a big thing in Buffalo at the time). I marveled at how the cook was able to keep track of everything, still smile and carry on conversations with those sitting at the counter. Servers would call out: “2 scrambled, eggs over easy, 3 cakes with syrup, another grilled danish,1 western omelet, and as it approached lunch time – various sandwiches including the house burger”. This was the original “fast food” restaurant concept and my hero was at the helm. By the end of the summer she let me take over the grill during slower times so that she could prep for the next day.

I wanted to be a rock drummer (didn’t everyone), but my parents were smarter than me and strongly urged me to go to college. What should I do? My only other love was that job working the grill, so when I heard about colleges that taught hotel management and cooking, I knew that this would be choice #2.

Fast forward a few years and I found myself working in kitchens that were a bit more sophisticated than my first experiences at the short-order grill, yet it was that early training that allowed me to apply organizational skills and personality to working on the line. My responsibilities were to prepare items from the dinner menu in a 1,200 room hotel for an audience willing to wait a little longer and spend quite a bit more. This was invigorating, yet I still would marvel at watching our breakfast cook prepare food at the same speed and with the same grace as that first cook in the window of a downtown Buffalo storefront. I always had respect for the breakfast cook.

Throughout my career as a chef, a sign of stability in the kitchen was finding a breakfast cook who had the same passion, speed, grace and organizational skills as that guy in the window. Whenever I found myself without that stable force in the kitchen, things just didn’t seem to work well. First of all, I might need to arrive before 5 a.m. to cook breakfast which unless your body is in that cycle can be torture; and second, as you age it becomes much more difficult to wrap your head around the speed with which breakfast orders come in and fly into the “window” for pick-up. Still, there is nothing more rewarding than smelling bacon come out of the oven at 6 a.m., home fries on the grill, fresh brewed coffee long before most reasonable people are awake, and the crack of egg shells with one eye still closed. This is the time of day when even the restaurant kitchen is struggling to wake up.

After four decades of a food service career, I still remember that cook in the window and marvel at his skill. I don’t know his name but would love to thank him, if he is still with us, for introducing me to a business and starting the wheels in motion for a 10 year old without a clue what he wanted to do with his life.

Short order cooks rock!

The picture in this article was taken by Harold Feinstein, a professional photographer able to capture the spirit of people on film.

100 IDEAS A WEEK, IS ONE OF THEM BRILLIANT?

So here is the dilemma – I can’t turn it off! I can’t stop designing the next great restaurant concept in my head. Is this a problem? A good friend of mine, in a totally different field, suffers from the same disease: always thinking about the next great concept. His spouse told me once: “he has 100 ideas a week, and one of them is brilliant”. Are we all living under the delusion that the next great idea is just hiding under the surface and with a little nudge we can build the next Microsoft?

Here is an example of how relentless the process can be:
* I am oftentimes unable to sleep because I am planning a concept that came to me while I was having that last cup of tea before bed.
* I finally bought a pocket digital recorder so that when ideas came to me while driving, I could store them for later planning.
* I plan my part of family vacations around the restaurants I want to visit, not just to enjoy the food but rather to stimulate more ideas.
* I have more cookbooks than I will ever read, but they are there primarily to stoke the fires of creative thought: “how could I tweak this idea and make it unique to me”.
* I read quite a bit, but the majority of my books are written by chefs and restaurateurs about their daily routine. I am constantly using a highlighter throughout these books to point to ideas I might use later on.
* I walk through stores, not to purchase, but to look for ideas on restaurant decor, systems for delivery, service tips, etc.
* I have framed pictures in my office, not of scenery, but of restaurants, kitchens and chefs.
* When dining out, I always frustrate my wife when I am taking pictures with my cell phone.
* I walk 2-3 miles every morning and oftentimes find myself lost in thought about an idea. If only I could remember to bring that digital recorder with me.
* Even in the shower, I find myself drifting off with an idea about a restaurant concept.
* Empty buildings and stores are always fuel for the concept planning fire. “Just think what could be done with this space”!
* When in a restaurant with friends I need to work hard at keeping my focus on them and not spinning around looking at how they execute their system and how I might make it better.
* Although I am coming to the later part of my career and rarely cook in restaurants anymore, I still make my daily prep lists and market orders for meals at home.
* I even take pictures of my own food at home and post them on Facebook!

The whole process is like that annoying ringing I used to get in my ears after attending a rock concert in the 60’s. No matter how hard you try, it just won’t go away. How many ideas have come and gone? How many of them were brilliant or will the next one be the real winner? Fortunately, or unfortunately, I have never invested my bank account in one of these ideas. Then again, what if I had and it really was brilliant? I guess I will never know, but it is still fun thinking about and developing a cool idea.

Does anyone else suffer from perpetual idea overload? By the way, the photo is from “The Big Night”, a movie that I consider as great as Casablanca.

Chefs and Servers with Different Motivations

When chefs and service staff are not on the same page the guest experience is confused and disjointed. When I have referenced the importance of team in the kitchen I am concerned that some might think that if that “culinary island” is in sync then the guest experience will be great. Team refers to a cohesive effort on the part of all staff members to create that exceptional dining event.

What motivates your staff on a daily basis (keeping in mind that you, as a manager or chef, cannot motivate another employee. This is something that they must do for themselves)? What can you do to help insure the right customer event?

Your official job is to create the environment for positive self-motivation. This, of course, begins with selecting the individuals with the “right stuff”, orienting them to the operation and its philosophy, training with gusto, investing in providing the right tools, creating forums for open communication between all team members, empowering people to make decisions, recognizing people for their role and thanking them for going the extra mile, setting the example for others to follow, providing honest critique and when necessary demonstrating how to correct areas that need attention. The most important piece is creating ample opportunities for open communication.

Chefs are typically motivated by the creative process. Their motivation is the tactile process of work that brings an idea to fruition on the plate. The hard facade that often accompanies the image of a chef is really just a protective crust that hides the fragile artist underneath who takes real pride in bringing out flavors, presenting their art on a canvas (plate) and seeing clean plates return from the dining room. That mis-step that brings excellent food to ordinary, incredible ingredients to ruin, fresh food to something that is dry and inappropriate or a smiling guest to the unhappy recipient of a plate of food that is below their expectations is devastating to a serious cook or chef. Self-loathing happens on a daily basis among cooks and chefs who are serious about their craft. As “up” as they may be when things go right, the lows are pretty severe when they don’t. They eat, drink and sleep “food”, their closest professional companion. They relish incredible ingredients and bow to those who are able to make magic food out of what they are given to work with.

Servers are certainly pleased when guests are happy with their experience, however, the compensation system that restaurants have adopted for waiters drives them to work for the reward of a great tip. In the end, it is the gratuity that demonstrates to the server that they have performed at an acceptable or greater than acceptable level. It is rare to find a server today who is just as pumped about food as the chef. You rarely see a service staff member blurry-eyed from reading cookbooks until 2 a.m. or spending their day off hanging out at other restaurants to help refine their craft. We (restaurants) have not created the community of food lovers who know as much about the ingredients, cooking and flavor profiles as the chef. This is not the fault of the server, it is the fault of leadership not paying attention to how critical it is for chefs and servers to share a similar passion. Without this passion and commitment, the guest experience is disjointed.

On those rare occasions when I have experienced a restaurant in complete sync, it is incredible to sit back and watch what transpires. Cooks and service staff carry on conversations about food, other restaurants, as well as wine and food/wine pairings they have experienced. The staff meal is a collaborative event with front and back of the house laughing, sharing stories, quizzing each other on tonight’s preparations and truly enjoying each other’s company.

The end result is always a better customer experience because service staff and cooks are truly interested in how the food is perceived, how the flavors marry with that wine that the sommelier suggested, and how many times the guest pulls out their smart phone, not to talk, but to take pictures of the food.

When chefs and servers share the same inspiration, the guest can feel it. These rare restaurants are always first on everyone’s list when it comes time to make a reservation.

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