The Sous Chef

Foodie Friday! I’ve been watching Top Chef Masters (I know – huge surprise) again this season. The twist this year is the presence of a sous chef brought into the competition by each of the masters. For those of you unfamiliar with the pecking order in a kitchen, a sous chef is, literally, an “under” chef. They’re the number two person in kitchen. While the executive chef or chef de cuisine sets the menu, it’s the sous chef that make sure that menu is executed daily to the chef’s standards.  The sous chef also creates the daily specials but this is a real understatement of their responsibilities.  Frankly, the main task of the sous chef is to keep the kitchen from falling to pieces.

The competition this season revolves around how well the sous chef performs in a series of contests  among the other sous chefs.  A sous chef not doing well can dramatically impact the master chef’s chance in the main competition.  Conversely, their sous chef winning can give the master chef immunity from elimination without them having to lift a finger.  Pretty sweet when your subordinate can throw that kind of protective wrapper around you!  Which is of course, the business point.

Throughout my professional career I was blessed with incredible sous chefs.  Of course, in the business world they’re called something else – assistants, secretaries, whatever.  They made me look good when I was having a bad day, they kept me on task and on time, and when I wasn’t able to handle a task directly they had the knowledge and intelligence to step up and get things done as I would have.  In a kitchen, the sous chef’s role is to back your chef, no matter what, at least to the rest of the world. What we would discuss or fight about was for us and never (to my knowledge) made it to the rest of the staff.

The best assistants were of the rest of the team but not really in the rest of the team.  Everyone loved them but respected their positions as well as the fact that they could speak for the boss when the boss was otherwise occupied.   Why do I bring this up?

Too many executives underestimate the value of a great right hand.   It could be your assistant, maybe it’s another executive on your staff.   No matter what, every great executive I’ve known has someone who can stand in their stead and make sure things run smoothly until the boss can step back in.  If there is no one with whom you work that can do this, you need to do one of two things:  find someone, or get ready to get replaced.

Here’s to sous chefs everywhere – in kitchens and in cubicles!

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