Since the days of Careme, Point, and Escoffier, there has been a military approach to how a kitchen is run. We have learned, rightfully so, that this type of order and control is essential if cooks are able to accomplish their daily goals. This, of course, doesn’t always mean that cooks enjoy the focus on…
The foundations of our country stem from the concept of democracy or as clearly stated by Abraham Lincoln in the Gettysburg Address: “a government of the people, by the people and for the people…” a bold, and noble statement that most Americans take to heart, appreciate and support. We have the right and the obligation to vote for representatives who, at least in theory, have our best interests at heart and who stand tall to lobby on our behalf. In truth, we have seen this work at some level, but realize that a true democracy, where everyone has a say in decision-making is far from realistic. Yes, the compromise is to vote in representatives and if they disappoint us, vote for their replacement. We have also seen how representing multiple thoughts, ideas and beliefs can drag on for extensive periods of time without, in many cases, any resolution. This is the price that we pay for the freedom to speak our minds and have independent opinions. Democracy is not always perfect, yet it is still the best system around.
This freedom does not fit every situation, thus the focus of this article. I am a firm believer in participative environments where individuals have an opportunity to be expressive, but from experience still support the need for kitchens to run very similar to the military. This may seem like a contradiction – I don’t believe it is. There is a time for debate and a time for action. Kitchens are environments where a need for action is the one constant. I read once where there is a need for chefs to make decisions multiple times in any given minute. It is his or her experience leading to holding that title that allow for calculated decisions that keep the machine in full motion. Furthermore, just like in any company, it is the vision of the leader that keeps the ship on a constant course, provides stability, sets the environment for positive movement and provides a level of predictable trust in the minds of consumers. But what about the need for change?
We should not feel that democracy be constantly present for positive change to occur. I have been an advocate for change for decades and have promoted a need to look at things differently in restaurants and in culinary education; however, I also realize two key realities:
1. As much as anyone might promote the need for change, very few people are actually comfortable with the concept
2. All successful change stems from an effective leader who creates an environment of trust, helps to educate an audience along the way, and is not afraid to make decisions even if they go against public opinion
Apple Computer (still my favorite company) lives by a mantra that many of us are quite familiar with:
“Here’s to the crazy ones. The misfits. The rebels. The troublemakers. The round pegs in the square holes. The ones who see things differently. They’re not fond of rules. And they have no respect for the status quo. You can quote them, disagree with them, glorify or vilify them. About the only thing you can’t do is ignore them. Because they change things. They push the human race forward. And while some may see them as the crazy ones, we see genius. Because the people who are crazy enough to think they can change the world, are the ones who do.”
― Apple Inc.
The interesting thing is that the company, during its most incredible surge from near bankruptcy to becoming one of the largest, most profitable and still most admired brands in the world was run by a person who hired the best and brightest, yet ran the company like a crazed dictator. He had the vision and no intention of allowing anyone to waiver from that vision while at the same time giving them incredible autonomy to ideate and create. Is this a contradiction? Maybe so, but it really is how the concept of democracy has any chance of being successful in business.
In kitchens, it is always important to hire, nurture and encourage young cooks who have creative minds and fresh ideas. At the same time, if these same individuals are unable or unwilling to follow the lead of a chef who has the responsibility to make the right decision in any given moment and who must ensure that a consistent, quality product is present to the guest, time in and time out, then that young cook will not find an avenue for their ideas. There is a time and a place for expression and a time and a place for following the lead. This is something that far too many young cooks do not realize or are willing to accept. The result in a kitchen can be chaos. It is the “yes, chef” model that must prevail when the kitchen is in battle mode, when the dining room is full and guests are anticipating a dish that they have high expectations of.
The ideation opportunities for young cooks must still exist, but it needs to happen when the time is right. Chefs must create those opportunities for interaction and idea sharing or tomorrows kitchen stars will eventually become discouraged and look for better opportunities elsewhere. Failure to ever provide those times when ideation and change occur will inevitably result in missed opportunities for growth and competitiveness in a very intense marketplace.
At the same time, it is the chef who must separate a fresh short-term trend from something with staying power that might eventually shift the course of the ship; this is also something that experience can control.
“Fashion changes, but style endures.”
― Coco Chanel
It is the chef’s job to ensure that the “style” of the restaurant and of cooking in general is never lost in the fever of keeping up with “fashion”. A kitchen “of the people, by the people and for the people”, may not provide the answer for long-term success, but it will, to a degree, keep things interesting. The challenge is always maintaining a balance of democracy and reasonable dictatorship.
I would be willing to bet that the most influential chefs and restaurateurs of the day are masters at this balance. I would almost guarantee that Thomas Keller, Gary Danko, Danny Meyer, Daniel Boulud, Grant Achatz and numerous others know when to provide those opportunities for creativity and when to reel it in when situations dictate the need for a “yes chef” response.
A word to young cooks working their way through the kitchen brigade: “learn to respect the chefs experience, vision and need to control. In the early days of your career, one of your primary jobs is to do what is necessary to make the chef and the restaurant look good. If you do this, I would almost guarantee that the opportunities to express your ideas and opinions would find a home. I would also guarantee that when you find yourself in that eventual position of leadership – balance in democracy is what you will choose as well.”
PLAN BETTER – TRAIN HARDER
Harvest America Ventures, LLC
Restaurant and Culinary School Consulting, Training and Coaching
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.