I have often reflected on the lessons learned and the lessons taught in kitchens. When I look back at almost five decades of involvement in the food business I do so with great respect for the environment and the people who spend their days creating experiences for others to enjoy. This is, of course, a very challenging career, but one that I give great thanks for – thanks for more than the skills developed, more than the people with whom I shared many experiences, and more than the feeling of accomplishment when a great plate of food was placed in the pass – I give thanks for the many lessons learned that can be applied throughout a person’s life.
In many cases I learned through my own mistakes – that is part of life. In some cases I discovered truth by working for those who didn’t understand while in other instances I had the privilege of learning from exemplary leaders and co-workers. In all cases – I have been able to find ample opportunities to apply these lessons as a chef, a manager, a co-worker, a friend, and even as a parent. Here are some of the things that the kitchen taught me: CIVILITY and RESPECT ABOVE ALL ELSE
Respecting employees, fellow workers, and customers is paramount to building a cohesive, productive team. Failure to do so is the demise of many restaurants. Hire for civility above all else.
“Danny Meyer, owner of twenty-seven restaurants in New York City, preaches civility and tolerates nothing less. If bad behavior from an employee at any level isn’t corrected quickly, they’re gone. Meyer is convinced that customers can taste incivility.”
-Christine Porath for Quartz THE IMPORTANCE of ORDER
Kitchens only function well when order is the predominant rule of thumb. How cooks dress, organize their stations, follow standard cooking methods, handle their tools, follow directives, and even plate their food is absolutely essential in a well run operation. There is no exception to this rule of “mise en place”. WE VS. ME
It is never about the individual when a kitchen is charged with serving the public and helping to run a successful business. Every restaurant worthy of notice and respect operates as a unified team with common goals. FEAR NEVER MOTIVATES
The old Machiavellian style of management through fear no longer has a place (if it ever really did) in an organization. Fear breeds dissent and instability, places individuals in a position to look out for themselves rather than the team, and sets the stage for missteps. Chefs need to inspire and set the example for collaboration rather than survival. Angst separates – it never unifies. PLAN FIRST
Thinking things through, anticipating what might go wrong, leaving no stone unturned, and building action scenarios where the unexpected suddenly becomes expected allows the ship to sail on stable waters and curve balls to meet the anxious batter. Take the time to think things through and plan better. RHETORIC is DANGEROUS
The chatter of opinion at the expense of others can drive a huge wedge between the individuals on a team. This wedge divides a kitchen into “us and them” and will always lead to problems. Put the rhetoric aside and insist on the same among your team members. YOU NEED to DEPEND on OTHERS
Chefs, in particular, who feel that the kitchen revolves around them, are missing the real meaning of team. Chefs need to hire civil individuals, train them well, respect them for their abilities, treat them as equals, support their efforts with the right resources, correct them when they are wrong and compliment them when they are right, and allow everyone to realize how important they are to the success of a kitchens mission. WORDS are IMPORTANT
The right words, crafted to fit the right moment, established as a support mechanism or positive action foundation can help to inspire others to exceed expectations. The wrong words will set the stage for disaster. Words are powerful – choose them wisely. COMMUNICATION is KEY
Let people know. Let them know what is going on, what their role might be, what is not going well and how to correct it, and engage them in the operation as if they really are essential – because they are. WHEN it COMES DOWN to it – WE are ALL THE SAME
One of the most important things that the kitchen taught me is that regardless of views or beliefs, in spite of orientation or cultural backgrounds, putting aside age, gender, size, and color – everyone in the kitchen is equal. We are all people hoping to do a good job, in love with cooking, and appreciative of the opportunity to learn something from each other. Chefs need to be the example of this inclusive approach. RESPECT MOTHER NATURE
Whenever I felt, as a chef, that I was in control – Mother Nature would demonstrate her superiority. Chefs can control staffing, equipment, ingredients, cooking process, and even the financial operation of the kitchen, but when Mother Nature chooses to throw in a storm, flood, snow, bitter cold, or an extended heat wave – we are all begging for her mercy. TRUST is EARNED
At the core of a successful relationship between employees, ownership, the chef, and the guest is a level of trust. When any stakeholder loses the ability to trust another then all is lost. The irony of trust is that it is never a one shot deal. Trust must be earned every moment of every day. It only takes a moment to lose all that is gained in this regard.
 PAY ATTENTION
Watch what is going on – know what is going on and understand how to address challenges when they arise. Chefs need to pay attention to the mood of employees and the cause of fluctuations in their mood, the daily costs associated with operation, waste and spoilage, changes in customer habits, the every day quality of ingredients passing through the receiving door, and the trends that may have a short or long term impact on how the restaurant functions. TAKE CARE of YOUR TOOLS
Tools in the kitchen allow a cook to be efficient and successful. Never lose sight of how important it is to care for your own and respect the tools of others. This is an individual and a group effort. EXCELLENCE is a HABIT
If excellence is the goal of the kitchen than excellence must be the rule, not the exception. Excellence in how the dishes are washed and stored is as important as excellence in how a cook follows a procedure, how taste and flavor are addressed, and how the customer is served. Peel the carrot with an attitude of excellence and the stew will draw applause. WHAT YOU DO as a COOK REALLY MATTERS
Ours is far more than a job. Cooking is an opportunity to stimulate all of the senses, to convert a bad day into a joyous one, to bring sunshine to all involved, and to celebrate the skill and pride of the cook who arranged ingredients on the plate. Cooking matters. LISTEN MORE – TALK LESS
When people know that you listen, they understand that you care. When you are open to others ideas, concerns, and observations then that freedom will unify a team and build a positive brand for the restaurant and the chef.
 LEAD, FOLLOW, or GET OUT of the WAY
The most sinful act in the kitchen is apathy. Apathy will cause the operation to stumble and one apathetic player will bring even the most positive, progressive, goal oriented kitchen team to its knees. Lead, follow or move on. OPTIMISM is MORE FUN than PESSIMISM
The old cup half full example is always pertinent. Pessimism is a drag on the culture of a kitchen just as it is with a sporting team, the military, or any other business intent on winning. Weed out pessimism and reinforce optimism. KNOW WHAT YOU DON’T KNOW
Don’t pretend – if it is beyond your current ability or base of knowledge then accept it, learn how to improve, or hire reinforcements with the skills to fill in the gaps. EVERY DAY is an OPPORTUNITY to LEARN
A day spent without learning something, regardless of how large or small, is a wasted day. Start every day with the question: “What can I learn today” and end each day with an assessment: ‘What have I learned that can be added to my bag of tricks?”
PLAN BETTER – TRAIN HARDER
Take Every Opportunity to Learn Something New
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