We have all watched the plethora of award shows that focus on the main character, director, writer, and well-known centerpiece for a movie, show, play, business, or industry. From the beginning of the process, it is apparent who will be in the running. “And the winner is….” – no real surprises. Recognition is usually well-deserved, yet unless the winner points it out – the audience may not note that the winner is a representative of dozens or even hundreds of highly competent, hardworking, passionate support players who may only receive fleeting recognition for their contributions. Interestingly, it is the same in restaurants – especially the great ones.
What most restaurant customers either don’t know or never take the time to consider is the chef or operator who gains the recognition and admiration of guests and the press is probably not the person who prepared their meal, set their table, made the floral arrangements, dusted the tables, made the exceptional sauce, or chose the beautifully paired wines with the restaurant’s menu. Just like in those movies, plays, or shows, the restaurant is home to a plethora of cooks, bakers, servers, bartenders, sommeliers, reservationists, and maintenance folks who make it possible for the chef or owner to shine.
I would almost guarantee the chef did not prepare the incredible handmade corn tortillas – shaped, grilled, and served warm in your favorite Mexican taqueria. I would bet the marvelous sauce reduction that accompanies your perfectly grilled USDA Prime filet was not made by the chef, nor did he or she cook the steak at all. Chances are the chef never touched the incredible loaf of crusty sourdough bread or perfect Bavarian with delicate tuille cookie. Okay, so in support of the chef – he or she worked tirelessly to get to this point in their career. Quite possibly, all those tasks had been mastered at some point by the chef, and given the opportunity, he or she could step in and do it all over again. The chef’s job is different. In that role, the chef built the team, trained them, designed the menu concept, established the standards of excellence, set the tone for plate presentations, and took no prisoners when it came time to execute everything at the highest level. Still, the recognition, the reward of admiration should be shared by the countless hands that made the execution of the chef’s vision possible.
It was Chef Daniel Boulud who once proclaimed:
“To me, there’s no great chef without a great team.”
It is this understanding that allows a good restaurant to reach for greatness. Every restaurant needs a chief ambassador, a person who personifies what the restaurant is all about, a person who sets the tone for how the business will operate and how perceptions will be built. But, if a restaurant fails to understand the importance of the supporting cast, then greatness will elude them.
Building the team, as Daniel Boulud references, is the most important job a chef or operator can undertake. In the kitchen, the pursuit of ” fit ” cooks is at the top of every chef’s “to-do” list. So, let’s consider the four types of cooks who may knock on your door looking for an opportunity to step into those shoes:
TYPE ONE: I SHOW UP
I am not portraying these cooks in a negative way. There is a need and a place for employees who show up physically, do what they are told to do, avoid making decisions on their own, do not question what is needed, arrive at the exact start of their shift, and leave physically and mentally the moment their shift is over. The critical distinction here is they show up. If you are a chef or owner, you know how valuable this trait is.
“Showing up is 80% of life.”
TYPE TWO: IT’S A LIVING
This category continues to baffle chefs. I am sure individuals working to make a living are common in most professions, but I fail to understand how anyone can thrive under these conditions. “Making a living” is hard to swallow for those who are seeking to find purpose and, as such, fails to set the stage for personal motivation. Those cooks who view their kitchen job as “making a living” typically miss the big picture enthusiasm for food, an appreciation for how food is grown, the joy of preparing a perfectly balanced dish, and the pride in being creative. Certainly, making enough money to live comfortably is and should be a goal for anyone. Still, on its own, this is a shallow approach toward a life of fulfillment and rarely helps a restaurant make the transition to greatness.
“We make a living by what we get, but we make a life by what we give.”
Cooks who have found their purpose in kitchen life know the joy in cooking is the joy of giving through personal expression, the joy of giving to those who consume the products made, and the joy of participating in kitchen team dynamics.
TYPE THREE: THIS IS WHAT I ENJOY
Yes, these are the cooks who thoroughly enjoy their time in the kitchen and the work they do. They find real pleasure in working with the intense and sometimes borderline crazy people who deliver, prepare and serve the food that makes a restaurant truly hum. They may or may not be immersed in the culture of food, the need to understand the why of cooking, or even the source of ingredients, but they get pumped over the adrenaline of working in the kitchen pressure cooker. To these cooks, working is fun, and their time in the kitchen goes way beyond making a living – they are anxious to participate in the lifestyle. These are individuals (sometimes pirates) who are bouncing on their toes in anticipation of the flood of tickets streaming off the kitchen printer; they give high fives when they exceed projected covers on a shift and carry on their celebration of accomplishment after hours with their friends who share the same intense passion for the heat of the kitchen. The chef knows these individuals will be there tomorrow and every day afterward – they thrive on the adrenaline.
TYPE FOUR: THIS IS MY CALLING
Cooks who have determined the kitchen is their purpose in life are in a category all to themselves. They are immersed in everything about the cooking process, the ingredients they work with, the profession’s history, the process of building a sophisticated palate, and the pride of an honored profession. These cooks live to be in the kitchen, spend many extra hours on the job and off the clock, invest their hard-earned money in tools, and books, and save for an extraordinary meal at one of those “bucket list” restaurants, refuse to take a real vacation unless it involves spending time in another kitchen, a farm, or a vineyard, and take those extra minutes every day to make sure their uniform is pristine and representative of the great chefs who came before them. These cooks are serious about what they do and view their job as an extension of their personal identity. Every kitchen needs at least one, although too many of them can drive everyone else to drink. These are the cooks who know full well they will be a chef someday, command an important kitchen, and/or own a restaurant with their name on the marque. We read about them in culinary magazines, purchase their coffee table cookbooks, salivate about dining in their restaurant(s) one day, and know their bios by heart.
So, which type of cook are you, or which type do you hope to hire? Each cook has a place in today’s kitchen; each represents a different mindset and chooses their path. Some will stay in the business, while others will always be looking for a way out. A few will inspire others to take the path of a kitchen career, while others will inadvertently turn young people away. They are the industry we are a part of, and they make it what it is. Each to his or her own, they are the person they are either because of or despite the kitchen where they punch in and tie on an apron. This is the makeup of the team that Chef Boulud was referring to. The chef who takes a bow knows he or she is supported by a cast of players who make their reputation possible.
Know them, respect them, work with them, train them, critique them, show them how to improve, and acknowledge it is because of them that your restaurant can enjoy the rewards of greatness.