Paul Sorgule, MS, AAC
Many of us start off a new year with the best of intentions—a series of goals for self-improvement and changes in our approach toward our profession. As is the case more often than not—those promises take a back seat to the realities of the moment and rarely come to fruition. Maybe this year will be different.
This past year brought a significant number of challenges to the table for chefs and for restaurants. These challenges collectively may very well represent a paradigm shift in how we operate in our position as chef and how restaurants address the needs of employees and guests. When this type of shift presents itself we must pause, assess and decide whether to change proactively or succumb to a world that changes without us. This is what we are faced with in 2018.
If chefs are interested in taking the correct fork in the road, then what might their list of change resolutions look like? Here is a partial list:
By far one of the greatest challenges that chefs faced in 2017 was the difficulty surrounding identifying, hiring, and retaining employees. There have been hundreds of articles written by chefs and outside assessors that focused on expressions of dismay. Chefs pointed to a workforce that no longer seemed to have the passion and stamina that they had and a change in attitude toward the commitment to a very demanding industry. Outsiders compared the restaurant industry to others and inferred that the business of food was way behind the curve when it comes to the treatment of staff members; and employees stood their ground reflecting on a business that demanded far more than it was willing to pay for. In the end, 2017 provided a stalemate with everyone standing their ground and no one willing to carry on a constructive dialogue. In 2018, this must change if chefs are able to attract and keep great employees.
Product and Menu
Tastes are changing at a rate that is only surpassed by our awareness of the connection between what we eat and how we feel. Classic menu items may always have a place on menus and are likely essential if restaurants are to remain financially viable. However, chefs and restaurants have an important role to play in helping Americans maintain a healthy and productive lifestyle. This cannot be an either or, but rather a process that includes acceptance of responsibility, ways to marry food that is good for you with food that tastes great and satisfies, an emphasis on educating cooks and guests about healthy eating and cooking, and designing menus that provide adequate choice.
Working with vendors must return to being viewed as a partnership rather than a transaction. The best restaurant food begins with the best raw materials. Relationships with vendors, farmers, ranchers and small producers must yield a common agreement on each player’s role in building a successful restaurant that exceeds the expectations of guests. Eric Ripert will gladly state that the designation of Le Bernadin as the best seafood restaurant in America begins with an extraordinary amount of trust that he places on his vendor relationships. The best seafood restaurant begins with the best fresh fish.
In the kitchen “Yes chef” is of critical importance when the business demands immediate decisions and responses, but “Yes chef” without an opportunity (later on) for cooks and service providers to talk openly about their opinions, questions and assessments will be wrought with growing problems, mistrust and dissatisfaction. Open communication with guests (communication includes listening) will help to remove much of the dependence on social media as an outlet for frustrations giving chefs and restaurateurs the opportunity to problem solve while the guest experience is still taking place.
If nothing else, 2017 made it abundantly clear that the environment of the kitchen that has been pervasive for generations is no longer acceptable. Innuendo, inappropriate banter, brutal language, physical abuse, demeaning behavior and old school bullying of new employees constitute a “hostile work environment.” We must collectively insist that this change and that chefs and restaurateurs invest the time, training and example setting that helps to breed a positive place to work that encourages respect and equality. Of course, there are many restaurants where a positive environment has existed for quite some time, but far too many that fit the definition of “hostile.”
Training and Coaching
Chefs need to take back the responsibility for training and coaching young cooks who enter the kitchen with a desire to learn and grow. We can no longer relinquish this responsibility to schools alone and must embrace our primary responsibility of building skills, knowledge, confidence, and positive attitudes. In 2018, chefs need to invest the time and effort in building these training initiatives, aligning with apprenticeship models, and creating an environment of learning that will help to resolve many of the staffing challenges that they faced in 2017.
Chefs cannot live in a vacuum—they must take the time to know what their immediate competition is doing, what new trends are on the horizon, establish benchmarks as a point of reference, and define goals that build from this understanding. To fail to find the time to do this will certainly impact negatively on a restaurants future.
The restaurant business has historically been very generous with those in need. In 2018 we must continue to be willing to give of our time to help those in the communities where we live. It is this connection and sincerity that separates admirable professionals from the pack. Look no further than those chefs who turn out to help during national disasters from coast to coast and even abroad. This image of the restaurant business is important.
Profit is critical if a chef and a restaurant are to remain viable. Chefs owe a commitment to profitability to owners, employees, and guests. In 2018 part of a chefs time should be dedicated to waste management, buying right, controlling consistency through well-developed recipes, portion control, and loads of training geared towards allowing employees to realize how important their role is in ensuring profitability.
Every chef will have his or her own list of priority resolutions, but it is important to understand that these issues are coming together as a paradigm shift that will establish where our industry is headed and how viable we will all remain in years to come. This might be the year when we collectively work at keeping those resolutions.
PLAN BETTER – TRAIN HARDER