9 ways to engage your line cooks

by Chef Paul Sorgule of Harvest America Ventures

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With the current labor challenges faced by restaurants across the country it may be time to think differently about how to attract, excite and retain quality culinary staff members.

If we begin with an assumption (yes, I know the danger in assuming too much) that most individuals who are interested in cooking have aspirations of one day assuming the role of sous chef, chef or chef/owner, then it is possible to build a uniquely attractive employment model for your kitchen. In the vein of the apprenticeship model we might assume that cooks have a real desire to learn, grow, build their skills and enhance their resumes. The question is, how much value is placed on the ability to move in this direction?

Most chefs, if asked, would be quite content to know that they had the ability to attract enthusiastic and committed cooks who were willing to invest three or four years in a restaurant. So, how might a property manage to attract and retain this level of cook?

Pay and benefits are important issues that must be addressed, but a package of solutions will have a more significant long-term impact. Here are a few examples:

  • UNDERSTAND WHAT IS NEEDED

It is very important for the chef to be part of the labor solution and avoid being part of the problem. The perception by a growing number of young cooks is that the kitchen takes a lot more than it gives. On the surface they may seem to focus on rates of pay, but a longer-term answer needs to address the deficit of investment in each cook’s future. Part of the chef’s job must be to develop young cooks into tomorrow’s kitchen leaders. This must become an integral part of the chef’s job description.

  • COMMIT THE TIME

Any investment that a chef makes in his or her staff will pay back tenfold. Cooks who feel appreciated — who know that the chef is committed to developing them, improving their skills, and building their brand — will be more inclined to give 100 percent and stay the course. The chef needs to look at his schedule and plan employee investment time as a regular commitment. In-service training, counseling, providing shadowing opportunities to learn about the processes surrounding the management of a kitchen, and even visits to vendors, farmers, cattle ranchers and artisan producers are effective ways of demonstrating a chef’s commitment to staff.

  • INVEST IN MENTORING

Being a mentor to young cooks is, by far, the most important and rewarding part of a chef’s job. As chefs, we all share a responsibility to prepare the next generation for kitchen operation. To paraphrase William Arthur Ward:

“The mediocre chef tells, the good chef explains, the superior chef demonstrates, and the great chef mentors and inspires.”

Help the cook define his or her short and long term goals, work on defining a path to get there and help keep the cook on track. There are few things more rewarding in life than helping someone else reach his or her professional goals.

  • BUILD A PROGRAM AND STICK WITH IT

Whether formal apprenticeship or simply mentoring cooks through skill development, professional brand building, character building experiences, or occasional attitude adjustments, chefs need to take the time to build a manageable program for staff development. Become your own human resource department!

  • REWARD PERFORMANCE

What gets measured gets done and what gets rewarded helps to inspire. A chef must find ways to recognize a cook’s effort and make it part of his or her routine. The days when chefs simply viewed performance as an expectation without the need for some level of recognition are over. The program might be as simple as thanking a cook for a good service, giving a thumbs up for a well prepared dish, pulling your team together at the end of an event and talking about what they accomplished, or even sharing positive comment cards about a restaurant’s food. As simple as these ideas are, they demonstrate that a chef recognizes good work.

  • BE THE DIFFERENCE

The feeling that cooks work for a restaurant is oftentimes misguided. A professional cook works for the chef or the owner — a chef or owner who inspires, who demonstrates a concern for the employees professional and personal well-being, and who is consistently firm but fair. The retention of cooks, then, is clearly in the hands of the person who wears the tallest hat. Understand this and take the responsibility seriously. Be the difference.

“More than half of people who leave their jobs do so because of their relationship with their boss. Smart companies make certain their managers know how to balance being professional with being human. These are the bosses who celebrate an employee’s success, empathize with those going through hard times, and challenge people, even when it hurts.”

-Travis Bradberry

  • HAVE HIGH EXPECTATIONS

Being fair and committed to the employee need not mean that a chef should let things slide or overlook inconsistencies. The best chefs, the ones that cooks admire the most, are the ones who never sacrifice quality and the need for excellence. The best chef mentors will always expect the highest level of excellence from employees — from the simplest task to the most complicated. Excellence is a habit and as such must be the standard by which all work is measured.

  • PROMOTE PROFESSIONALISM

Chefs who are focused on attracting and retaining good employees must always be the example for others to follow. Professionalism must be as important as product quality. Chefs must promote by encouraging proper uniform, treating other cooks with respect, the expression of good attitudes towards all other employees and guests, as well as quality of work regardless of task assigned. Be the example and then expect and demand the same from your cooks.

  • CELEBRATE SUCCESS

Finally, know that the success of the restaurant, the reputation of the chef, and the image that the operation enjoys is directly connected to how committed and focused your staff members are. When the restaurant wins then the chef must work hard to ensure that all members of the team know that it was due to their effort. Find ways to celebrate this. Reinforcing the importance of a cook’s involvement will help to make sure that the same effort becomes commonplace.

“Celebrate what you want to see more of. “

-Tom Peters

The Chef’s Most Important Job

by Chef Paul Sorgule of Harvest America Ventures

Sitting down at a tucked away desk in the back of the kitchen, a chef begins the process of planning the next seasonal menu change. There is an over-riding thematic core to the restaurant with an emphasis  on those comfort foods that people are familiar with, but always with a touch of flair — a unique signature that is drawn from the chef’s experiences.

The chef always approaches the process with a list of those ingredients that are at the peak of maturity over the next few months, an understanding of general perceptions by the dining public regarding which foods make sense during this time of year, and of course, the ability of the restaurants’ cadre of cooks.

For the three years that the chef has held this position, she has invested time with training her cooks’ palates. This has been one of the more challenging, yet enjoyable parts of the job. When a line cook “got it” — when he or she reached a point where the flavor of an ingredient and a completed dish could be envisioned and the process of cooking adjusted to reach that goal, then that cook really did have a handle on his or her craft.

Cooking, as the chef often said, is much more than a process of assembling ingredients and following a recipe. Great cooking is intuitive, flexible and based more on problem-solving than most cooks realize. The variables to effective cooking are immense. There are so many factors that come into play: ingredient maturity, point of origin, how the ingredients were stored, cooking process, time, etc. etc. A solid cook knows that the recipe is a guide, one of the many tools at his or her disposal, but using recipes without a real understanding of what impacts flavor, and how to build toward an understanding of how the dish should taste, is far too shallow.

The chef returns to her planning for the fall menu with all of these factors in mind. Even with the breadth of great fall ingredients — late season squash, root vegetables like beets, parsnips and carrots and local heirloom potatoes and onions — there will still be a need to integrate some of those items that come from a greenhouse, hydroponics or cold storage. The flavor that those secondary ingredients bring will always be unpredictable. This is where that understanding of flavor comes into play. Knowing how to work with these ingredients is just as important as understanding how the finished dish should taste.

Whenever possible, the chef cooks for her staff, demonstrating how the finished product should be developed and embedding flavors along the way so that they can begin to understand how to problem-solve and work towards the eventual flavor goal. Nothing can substitute for a sun-ripened July tomato, but what can be done to recover some of that experience with a hydroponic tomato in December? The chef knows that oven drying those commodity tomatoes with a touch of quality olive oil and pinch of sea salt can convert a flavorless, box ripened tomato into one that is sweet, pleasant and acceptable in a recipe.

From her experience the chef can call up solutions to challenges as they arise, but she can’t be on every station helping with every dish. So as the menu comes into shape, she makes her side notes on the training and teaching that need to be at the forefront of menu transition. She knows that it will take time, but it will work.

The chef has seen the palates of her cooks improve every season, and along with that, their confidence. It thrills her to watch the line on a busy night as each cook takes the time to taste and adjust seasoning throughout the cooking process. They are learning how to build flavors, how to problem-solve variances in ingredients and reach the goal of consistently great cooking every time.

Cooking is an art and a science and it is impossible to become a great cook without understanding how to blend both disciplines. The best cooks must always taste, taste and taste again. They must understand the ingredients and how season, soil, rain, sun and other terroir factors impact on their characteristics.

The best cooks visit farms and taste that ear of corn right when it is snapped off the stalk (no cooking required), savor the early June strawberry right from the plant, taste a carrot pulled directly from the soil, fry an egg an hour after retrieving it from the hen house, and get overwhelmed by the smell of fresh herbs when harvested minutes before use. The best cooks learn constantly until, like the chef, that process of building and working with a menu is second nature. They can envision how a dish will turn out while factoring in all of those environmental variations.

The best chefs know that training and building this level of confidence with the process of cooking is by far their most important job.

10 ways to create a culture of excellence in your kitchen

by Chef Paul Sorgule of Harvest America Ventures

Are you a chef in a Michelin-starred restaurant, a AAA-four-diamond operation, a family style neighborhood café, a decades-old hamburger diner on a major U.S. highway or a busy breakfast restaurant serving those hungry blue collar tradespeople en route to a hard days work? It makes no difference whatsoever as long as you are committed to excellence. Each one of these operations is an important representative of what the American restaurant is all about, how we are perceived as an industry, and how respected our craft.

Excellence has little to do with the size of the guest check, or, should I say, it need not be connected. Those four-diamond operations live by a set of standards that calls for no mistakes, but if they occur it is critical that the operation recover beyond the guests’ expectations. Why would this be any different in that breakfast operation or hamburger joint? The overused adage “you get what you pay for” no longer carries any weight in an economy where competition is fierce. Restaurants, more often than not, fail based on their lack of commitment to excellence. This connection is more important than location, more important than the money spent on décor, more important than their efforts with marketing, and far more important than the size of the guest check.

Excellence and value are inextricably connected. When excellence is pervasive through the operation then guests see value in what is offered. “Is it worth it” is the most important song that a restaurant guest sings.

So how can a restaurant strive for excellence regardless of price tag? Here are ten simple ideas to implement in any operation with an eye on excellence:

THE HANDSHAKE OF THE HOST DETERMINES THE FLAVOR OF THE ROAST
We should never forget that we are in the hospitality business. Our primary job is to be consistently welcoming. This means that every employee is a host who has the opportunity to bring a ray of sunshine to a guest’s day. This hospitality must be evident in how employees treat each other as well as the guest. Make people feel like they are important and they will return time and again. This is the first step in creating an aura of excellence.

“Excellence is not a skill, it’s an attitude.” – Ralph Marston

IT’S ALL IN THE DETAILS
Excellence never works if it is isolated to a portion of the restaurant experience — it must be evident in all of the details. The attention to landscaping, parking lot cleanliness, lighting, signage, spotless windows, quality menus, the greeting at the door, the friendly approach by a server, the flavor and presentation of the food, the attentiveness of the server throughout the meal and the warm “thank you” at the end of the encounter are essential elements of an excellent experience. It’s all about sweating the details.

REAL SERVICE
Real service is not synonymous with proper technical service. Technical service is only a part of the experience — to be real, service must be sincere. Teaching your staff to relish the opportunity to serve and understand how important their role is in bringing customers back is a good start, but to be pervasive the service attitude must be part of everyone’s make-up from the cook to the dishwasher.

DON’T CUT CORNERS
There is no room for varying from the standard of excellence that you establish. If your focus is the good old American hamburger, then make sure that the bun is always fresh and properly toasted; the lettuce is fresh, crisp, and free of rust; the tomato is mature, evenly sliced and flavorful; the hamburger comprised of the right mix of meat and appropriate meat to fat ratio; the patty is properly grilled; the condiments of the best quality and the pickle the best that you can buy (or make in-house); the side order just as detailed, and the plate warm and spotless. The guest should be able to hear the crunch as they bite through that toasted bun and feel the snap of the crisp lettuce as they bite into a moist, hot, and full-flavored burger. When the juice from the hamburger drips slightly down the guests chin then you know that excellence is at work. It’s is not hard — it’s what is known as pride and commitment in what you do! This same method applies to a plate of eggs over easy, or a Wagyu steak — excellence has no price tag.

BE CONSISTENT
A restaurant that is committed to excellence knows that the cardinal sin is not being consistent with this way of doing business. When excellence is a habit then the guest can trust that their experience will always be of the highest caliber.

“We are what we repeatedly do. Excellence, then, is not an act, but a habit.” – Will Durant

NEVER UNDERESTIMATE THE IMPORTANCE OF CLEANLINESS
Excellence and cleanliness go hand in hand. A clean operation is one that breathes life into the experience. From the kitchen floor to the restrooms, legs of dining tables, windows, counter tops, salt shakers, china and flatware — when the restaurant is truly clean, the quality of the guest experience is heightened.

CREATE A CULTURE OF EXCELLENCE
It always comes down to the people who wear your uniform, tie on an apron, or stand at the door as a welcoming host. The job of the owner, manager or chef is to instill in their employees a serious desire to serve, to be excellent and to never accept mediocrity as a standard. Hire right, train properly and set the example of excellence — this is how a culture is created.

PROFESSIONALISM
Treat your employees well and they will treat your guests well. This rings true in any business, but especially in those focused on hospitality. When employees are happy, proud, and well-trained, they will wear the attitude of professionalism. When management and employees treat each other with respect, just as all professionals do, a sense of unified purpose will be felt throughout the operation. This, as every other point in this article, is not related to the prices on your menu. It can exist in any type of restaurant operation.

BE THE EXAMPLE
Finally, in excellent operations it is the leadership that sets the example for others to follow. In excellent operations the guest pays attention to the cumulative examples of excellence that begin at the top. When the example is set, then the team will understand what is expected of them.

“Be a yardstick of quality. Some people aren’t used to an environment where excellence is expected.” – Steve Jobs

FDA Food Code Process and Changes: Keeping Foods (and Consumers) Safer

By Susan Algeo, MPH, CP-FS, Director of Project Management, Savvy Food Safety, Inc.
chopping

photo by Kyle Klein

Food safety is one of the most important issues in the food service industry. Restaurants, hotels, retail stores, institutions, and other food businesses need access to the most updated information around food safety so they can adjust their protocols accordingly. The United States Food and Drug Administration (FDA) Model Food Code provides regulators and facilities with the most up-to-date means of keeping food safe in food service and retail operations. By following the guidelines set forth in the Food Code, operators can help increase the safety of the foods they’re serving.

The Food Code guidelines are science-based and provide practical application for operators. As new technology, food products, preparation and cleaning procedures are being developed and researched all the time, it’s important that Food Code continues to meet these up-to-date standards. That is why the FDA releases a new Food Code approximately every four years. The most recent 2017 edition was released in February 2018.

So how are these changes made to the Food Code? The Conference for Food Protection (CFP), an organization with members from regulatory, industry, academia, and consumer groups, created a process to collaborate with each of these groups to gather input to improve food safety guidance. Issues (suggested changes that people want made to the Food Code) can be submitted by anyone. These issues are reviewed at the bi-annual CFP meeting where council members debate on the need to accept the issue. Accepted issues are sent to the FDA, who makes the final determination on changes that will be implemented in the next Food Code or supplement.

The most recent updates to the Food Code include changes to the Person in Charge (PIC) requirements, the use of bandages, finger cots, or finger stalls, updated cooking time/temperature requirements, and written procedures for emergency situations. These changes include:

  • The PIC – The PIC shall be the Certified Food Protection Manager, and needs to be designated and on-site during each shift. The PIC is responsible for food safety, so it’s critical that this person is trained in food safety and has passed an exam to demonstrate their knowledge on the topic. By having this properly trained person on-site during each shift, they can oversee other employees to ensure food safety practices are being implemented.
  • Bandages – When a food service employee needs a bandage, finger cot, or finger stall on their wrist, hand, or finger, the bandage must be covered with a single-use glove. This means that open wounds must be covered, and that a glove must be worn on top of the cover. The reason for this change (adding the glove as an added layer of protection) is to reduce the risk of a physical hazard. By wearing the glove, the bandage, finger cot, or finger stall is less likely to fall off and get into the food, creating a safety hazard.
  • Cooking time/temperature requirements – The updated Food Code includes new cooking time for ground meat, ground fish, eggs that will be hot held, poultry and stuffed foods. Ground meat, ground fish, and eggs that will be hot held must be cooked to 155ºF for 17 seconds, which was changed from 15 seconds. Poultry and stuffed foods must be cooked to 165ºF for less than 1 second, changed from 15 seconds. By cooking these foods to the proper internal cooking temperature, the potential pathogens can be reduced to safe levels. The change in time is to align the FDA guidelines with the USDA cooking times and temperatures.
  • Bodily fluids – Procedures for clean-up of vomiting and diarrheal events shall be written, so all staff members are clear on what to do during an event. Pathogens, such as the highly contagious Norovirus, can spread through vomit and diarrhea, so it is important to properly clean when these incidents occur in a food establishment. When there is a written plan, employees will be able to properly follow procedures to reduce the risk of spreading the pathogens and contaminating others. The written plan should include the equipment required, which chemicals to use, and how to contain the area, properly clean, and properly dispose of bodily fluids.

Operators need to keep in mind that the FDA Food Code is a guidance document, meant to help keep foods (and consumers) safe. However, city, state, and county regulations have the final say on the rules and requirements for all facilities in their jurisdiction. Not all local jurisdictions adopt the current Food Code as written. As of last year (and prior to the newest Food Code being released), only 17 states had adopted the most recent (2013) Food Code, 20 states had adopted the 2009 version, and 16 agencies were using the 1995-2005 version of the Food Code. Some regulatory agencies adopt the Food Code as written, others make changes to it. If changing the FDA Food Code, however, it’s recommended that these changes are to make the guidelines stricter than the Food Code to ensure the safety of the food and those that consume it.

As operators and PICs, it is imperative to stay up to date on the local requirements. This will help the facility meet standards and pass inspections. More importantly, it will keep the food safe and protect customers and the business. And get involved! CFP welcomes industry members to be a part of the process. Submit issues, attend the conference, join committees. By allowing industry members to have a voice, it verifies that the guidelines the FDA sets in the Food Code are manageable by facilities.

Susan Algeo is the Director of Project Management at Savvy Food Safety, Inc., where she facilitates food safety training classes, including ServSafe® and NRFSP®, for corporations nationwide. Susan also provides other food safety services, including food allergy training, as well as consulting, helping operators and their teams improve their standards, procedures, and overall commitment to food safety. Additionally, she conducts third-party inspections of customers’ operations to improve their health inspection results. She is also co-author of the SURE™ Food Safety series. These training manuals are aimed at improving food safety procedures for employees, managers, and trainers in food service and retail establishments.

The Unique Camaraderie Among Cooks and Chefs

by Chef Paul Sorgule of Harvest America Ventures
teamwork

photo by Kyle Klein

Sometimes it’s just a nod of recognition, maybe a handshake or a fist bump. But there’s always something that signifies unspoken understanding and respect. When you are part of the club, you are part of a unique group of hardworking, dedicated craftspeople.

It makes little difference if you work in a fine dining operation or a classic diner — if you cook, you belong. It’s not difficult to pick a cook out of a crowd. There is something about how he or she acts, walks, and talks. That look in their eyes, or the cuts and calluses on their hands — the signs are there. If you tie on an apron there is an understanding that the work will be hard, the hours will be long, the challenges are often unpredictable, and the stress always present. At the same time, these foodservice warriors share a passion for food, a sometimes hidden need for artistic expression, and the skill confidence that comes from being on the firing line day after day.

If you are in the club then you share a level of mutual respect. As cooks and chefs we always carry the V.I.P. pass. Cooks are welcome in most any kitchen, and as a member there is always a cup of coffee available, maybe a pastry, and always a chair in the chef’s office. Dining in a fellow member’s restaurant is always accompanied by a table visit from the chef or sous chef, an extra appetizer or dessert, and a team of line cooks extra-ready to please. When one of our own is in the house we want to be on our game.

Why is this so? I’m not sure that there are many other professions (maybe the military, firefighters or law enforcement) which cherish this connection at the same level as cooks and chefs. Here are some thoughts that might be considered part of the application for membership to the informal cook’s club.

THE SCHOOL OF HARD KNOCKS
There is no way around it: nothing can prepare you for the intensity of the work. There are no shortcuts — any cook or chef worth a grain of salt has to pay his or her physical, mental and emotional dues to become competent at the job. Every cook that carries a level of confidence has felt the pressure, has been deep in the weeds, has felt that loss of being in control and has found a way to fight his or her way out of those challenging moments that seemed to be insurmountable. Work intensity always tends to unify groups of people and cooks and chefs feel this intensity every day.

PRIDE IN THE UNIFORM AND WHAT IT REPRESENTS
It is more than a white jacket and houndstooth pants hanging in a locker room, it’s a symbol of a proud history. When you slide your arms into a white double-breasted chef’s coat you are paying tribute to Escoffier, Pointe, Careme, Robuchon, Bocuse, Trotter, Child, Waters and Keller. When a cook reaches a point in his or her career when his or her name appears on the breast of that jacket, it signifies something special. It is validation of that club membership.

BATTLE SCARS
Spending 10-12 hours a day on your feet and working with open flames, sharp knives, ambient heat and humidity and heavy stock pots yields cuts, burns, sore backs, swollen feet and strained muscles. The physical nature of the work is somehow gratifying and definitely unifying.

THE ADRENALINE CONNECTION
If you have felt the adrenaline that comes from those last 15 minutes of work to get ready for service, or the rush when you pull through that unrelenting peak of business that occurs between 7 and 9 p.m., or of being unable to calm down for a few more hours after a 12-hour shift, then you know how desirable it can become. Many cooks, especially the younger ones, live for that feeling. It is addictive.

DECADES OF BEING SECOND CLASS CITIZENS
Cooks and chefs may try to downplay the notoriety of chefs today, but in their hearts they really believe “it’s about time.” For years, the job of cook was somehow categorized as less than worthy of any level of respect. When people smile and ask a cook to talk about their work today, there is a nod of appreciation. Moving from a sub-culture to one of honor and intrigue is seen as a real victory among cooks.

THE HONESTY OF THE KITCHEN
Transparency is a good descriptor of the working atmosphere in most kitchens. Cooks are typically unencumbered when it comes to expressing their opinions and relaying their observations and concerns. This honesty leads to a connection that only exists when people respect each other’s ability to say what they feel.

THE ABSOLUTE NECESSITY OF TEAM
Maybe above anything else, cooks live in an environment where “me” always takes a backseat to “we.” Nothing works in a kitchen without reliance on the person next to you. Like any professional team sport, every member knows that his or her success is dependent on the success of the person next to him or her. Teamwork leads to respect, acceptance, support and defense of each other.

THE IMPORTANCE OF FOOD TO SOCIETY
Finally, every cook senses just how important their work is to others. What we do provides nourishment, comfort, reassurance, joy, health and a forum for people to talk and enjoy each other’s company. Cooks and chefs inherently realize that people who take the time to break bread are always at their best and cooks are able to set the table for that to happen.