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:

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

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 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.

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.

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

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.

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.

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.

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

The Unique Camaraderie Among Cooks and Chefs

by Chef Paul Sorgule of Harvest America Ventures

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.

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.

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.

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.

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.

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.

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.

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.

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.

What your food is telling your customers

By Gilberto E. Geronimo, DSL, CFM Warrant Officer 1, U.S. Army, Food Service Technician

Chef Gilberto Geronimo plates a dish

Have you ever considered how many of our interactions center on food? From first dates to family gatherings around the holidays, we usually enjoy our time with one another accompanied by good food and drink. For a chef, however, interactions involving food occur on a daily basis, from preparing food for themselves to feeding their loved ones and diners.

Communication between people occurs so intrinsically at times that we often don’t realize its occurrence. Consider the messages many Chefs and home cooks may be communicating to those that eat the food they cook. Since this form of communication is non-verbal, it can go unnoticed to even the most skilled chefs, home cooks and food service professionals.

One form of nonverbal communication that derives from cooking is Gustoric communication. Our sense of taste carries content based on the foods we eat to the brain. It sends messages of pleasure or displeasure the moment our palates come in contact with food. Gustorics communication is not limited to the sense of taste, but is also tied to the visual perception of a plate that has the proper eye appeal, colorful components, height and proper balance of ingredients — not to mention the aroma left by perfectly cooked foods.

Unknown to many in food service (particularly those who cook intrinsically or for their loved ones as part of their nurturing routine), a lot of information is communicated to someone via a plate of food’s taste and presentation. Someone who is served a savory, well presented, flavorful, colorful and nutritious meal that appeals to the senses of sight, smell and taste is receiving several messages. A beautiful plate of food has the potential to communicate that the chef is passionate, talented, skilled and knowledgeable in the artistry of cooking and cares about the quality of food that others consume.

Sitting around the dinner table with loved ones, it is likely that the message received by a family member will be an indication of love. A meal with all the proper components can communicate that their loved one cares for their well-being and health, based on the quality of food they were served. Additionally, the plate can help identify when the cook may be upset, or not in their usual frame of mind, if the food is not to the same standard or quality that he or she normally provides.

Mediocrity communicates the exact opposite to someone being served by a chef. “Reactions, either good or bad, are extremely important to a Chef, as they are like an after action review,” says Chef Adam Berry, a Staff Sergeant in the United States Army currently serving as the sole 2018 Training with Industry candidate in the Culinary Institute of America. “It gives the chef an opportunity to correct mistakes made and achieve a good consistency in items served.”

Courtesy of SSG Adam Berry

Although feedback proves to be beneficial for the chef, what does a substandard product communicate to the customer or loved one? Based on the aforementioned interpretation of positive Gustorics communication, the lack of effort (or negative Gustoric communication) can communicate the lack of passion, lack of skills in cooking and the absence of care in the nutritional quality of foods provided to diners.

However, the messages received can vary. What one person perceives as mildly spicy and delicious may be hot and distasteful to another, which can result in two different people receiving two distinct messages from the same plate. Palates and senses of taste differ due to geographic locations and the type of foods that they are accustomed to eating, making Gustorics communication a complicated yet beneficial tool in kitchens all over the globe. It can provide the chef with an overview of how they communicate through food, and can improve a chef’s skills in interpreting how others react when they pour their artistic talents onto a plate.

Of course, it can also aid and strengthen communication between loved ones at home.

Courtesy of Chef Jose Garcia

All in all, Gustorics, The Study of How Taste Communicates, is an area of great interest to health care providers because proper nutrition is essential to human health and survival. Gustorics should be of great interest to professional chefs, too. It can be used to improve the quality of food we prepare and continue to grow the food service industry through passion, dedication to food service and customer satisfaction.

10 techniques that a chef or home cook can employ to improve his or her Gustoric Communication skills:

1. Know the audience you’re cooking for.

2. Accept feedback (good, bad or indifferent) as constructive criticism to positively improve cooking skills.

3. Exercise creative flexibility that will allow you to shape your products to the palate of the customer, not the other way around.

4. Insert passion in every aspect of cooking, from mise en place to plating and everything in between.

5. Pay attention to details: those of the customer, those of your food and those of the techniques used to prepare every bite.

6. Incorporate nutritional items into every component when possible.

7. Apply a personal signature to every plate that will communicate that you have prepared every item with pride.

8. Prepare all components so that one item complements the other, including the transitions between multiple courses.

9. Be innovative in the cooking process and experiment with new ingredients that will enhance traditional recipes whilst maintaining their original qualities.

10. Continue to study the art of cooking, its origin and rich history and the evolutionary changes it undergoes every day.

Don’t fall victim to the Peter Principle

by Chef Paul Sorgule of Harvest America Ventures

In most respects the reality of full-employment in the U.S. (everyone who wants to work has a job) is wonderful news. For those entrepreneurs who are trying to continue conducting business and grow their business, the joy of this news wears off quickly. By now, we are all aware of the “Perfect Storm” that is making landfall within the restaurant business: full-employment, rapid growth, a dampening of excitement over careers in food, less than  stellar pay and benefits and some not-so-gracious press about the work conditions in restaurants has made it nearly impossible for restaurateurs to find the right people, or for that matter – any people to fill vacant roles on their schedules.

What rarely makes the headlines is an ancillary challenge that is a direct result of this storm: Out of desperation, many employers are hiring and promoting people to positions that they are not yet qualified for. This, by definition is what has been referred to as the Peter Principle.

“In a hierarchy, people tend to rise to their level of incompetence. Thus, as people are promoted, they become progressively less effective because good performance in one job does hot guarantee similar performance in another.” – Dr. Laurence J. Peter – (paraphrase) from the Peter Principle 1969

The “Perfect Storm” compounds this problem as employers push the timeline on unrealistic promotions simply because they can’t find the right, properly prepared person(s) for the job. In other words, they throw the dice, hoping that the person will rise to the occasion.

There are numerous downsides to this type of hire or promotion. First, the performer is unable to reach anticipated goals of quality, speed and quantity of work, putting undue stress on the reputation of the business and tearing away at the customer experience. Even more significant is the negative impact that this type of move has on the employee who inherently knows that he or she is not prepared, but is still thrilled at the opportunity and the recognition. When these employees fail, they fall hard, and in some cases never fully recover.

In reality there is plenty of blame to go around. It’s on the employer, who should never put a potentially solid employee in this position; the industry, which continues to come up short when considering the training necessary for positions of responsibility; and certainly on the employee, whom despite knowing his or her shortcomings said yes to a job that they had no business taking in the first place. It is a trap without an escape route.

“A man doesn’t know what he knows until he knows what he doesn’t know.”
-Laurence J. Peter

Young cooks and chefs, beware. The job of chef is much more difficult than it looks.
The leap of skill from being a really great cook to being the person in charge is
monumental, even if your boss tries to convince you that you can do it. Think twice,
and then twice again before you agree to take the leap.

The job of chef goes way beyond knowing how to cook, having great knife skills, enjoying the wonders of a well-defined palate and being fast and sharp enough to man a busy line station during dinner rush. In fact, those essential skills are best left for the young at heart who are light on their feet. It is not common for the chef to work a grill or sauté station — not because they don’t want to do the work (although it gets more
difficult with age), but more appropriately because they have far too many other tasks on their plate. Chefs are planners, organizers, menu wizards, communicators, budgeters, human resource managers, psychiatrists, negotiators, effective public relations advocates, and team builders. Are you ready for these challenges? Do you have the time-tested experience necessary to be effective in this job?

If you think that your mastery of the skills on the line cook spectrum is transferable to the role of chef, you are mistaken. Certainly, you have to start somewhere, but before you say “yes” to the offer, ask yourself a simple question: “Is this the time for me?” If your career goal is to step into the shoes of a chef some day then make sure you build a plan focused on how to get there with a full bag of tricks.

“The great question is not whether you have failed, but whether you are content with failure.”
-Laurence J. Peter

Even the best cooks and chefs will make mistakes along the way, but they do so with the ability to recover and a plan that allows time to adjust and take guarded steps forward. In this time when there are far more opportunities than people, don’t be coaxed into a Peter Principle situation. Take a deep breath, learn to be patient and build that strategy that will provide many more opportunities to succeed and far fewer chances to fail.