Tag Archives: Chef

Seeing vs. Doing

It’s Foodie Friday, and the topic today is culinary school. There is an ongoing debate in food professional circles about the value of, and need for, culinary school educations and I think it’s a discussion that has broader implications for those of us not in the food business.  Basically the debate boils down (should I say “reduces” since we’re discussing cooking?) to this:  is it preferable for new cooks to learn in school or learn by working?

Some very high-profile chefs have weighed in or either side of the question.  Some such as Daniel Boulud feel that a formal culinary school education is indispensable.  Other such as David Chang think that path is overrated and that the time is better spent working in a professional kitchen.  Or as he puts it:

If you look at all my heroes, the chefs around the world, most of them never went to cooking school. What they did is they had a great mentor. You name a chef that’s awesome and people want to work for him, I’d say a majority of the time they never went to cooking school.

He goes on to make a point that culinary school students will learn skills in a very elementary fashion without any frills or shortcuts that they might learn in a professional kitchen, which is also a great broader business point and that’s my focus today.  I’ve worked with people who went to business school and with those who spent the time working.  While there was no question that the B-school folks knew what to call certain types of analyses, many of them had a totally unrealistic view of what business was about.  As many of you know, it’s not exactly as it appears in textbooks.

Technical training is valuable.  I think, however, it’s most valuable in fields such as law or medicine where there are standards to be met.  Most other businesses have no such standards – the food world certainly doesn’t.  I think a young person is better served working in a profession and, and Chang says, finding a great mentor.  Coming out of a culinary school or a B school laden with debt affects how you can approach your career – and life – every day going forward.  Is it really needed?

I suppose it’s Twain‘s reference to schooling vs. education or maybe it’s just seeing vs. doing.  I come down on the side of doing.  Where do you stand?

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Chefs And Cooks

Ah, Foodie Friday!  The gateway to the weekend.  One of the things I like most about the weekend is that I can spend time in the kitchen and not feel as if I’m neglecting work.  I suppose for those folks for whom the kitchen is work – on both an amateur and professional basis – that’s not such a treat but it is to me.  There are, of course, an awful lot of differences between what I do in the kitchen and what a professional does.  The biggest difference, aside from the skill level, is that I’m usually there working by myself as both chef and cook.  If you’re not clear as to what the main difference is, read on – there’s a business point in it as well.

English: White House chefs, directed by Execut...

.(Photo credit: Wikipedia)

Running a business is similar to running a kitchen.  The key in both cases is for the person in charge – the chef – not to get too caught up in doing the grunt work but instead in spending their time and energy supervising and helping the line cooks.  Any great chef will tell you that the hardest part of their work isn’t  creating the dishes they serve.  Instead, it’s in taking those menu items  and putting them into a system that will work efficiently.  You must produce each dish in a timely manner and at a consistent level of quality.  Managing a business staff is the same – the art is in creating a system that produces consistent work in a timely, efficient manner.

Another point to consider is the complexity of those dishes or the projects you assign to your staff.  I used to play music with a lot of extremely talented musicians.  However, there were a few pieces that were just too difficult for us to pull off and in the interest of our audience we didn’t try to play them publicly.  Knowing the limitations of a staff or your business to produce something is an important part of the management mix and the creative process.

Most chefs have no problem stepping into a station on the line if need be.  Most great managers can step in and help with the grunt work as well.  The ones who aren’t worthy of their titles are the ones who think it’s beneath them or who don’t have the focus on the customer’s immediate need for the work.  Which are you – a chef or a cook?  Which role should you be playing?

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Leading By Keeping Quiet

If you’ve been reading the screed for any period of time you know that I’m a huge fan of Top Chef.

Top Chef Middle East

(Photo credit: Wikipedia)

This week’s episode provides us with the raw ingredients for our Foodie Friday Fun.  It was “restaurant wars” week, in which two chefs each conceive of and open a restaurant in 48 hours.  The chef selects other contestants as team members to serve as their staff and it’s not unusual for the losing head chef to go home.  What happened this week made great television, but it also demonstrated a fantastic business point for anyone who wants to lead a team.

One of the team captains selected a contestant who probably should have gone home several weeks ago.  It’s obvious that her talent and work ethic are not up to the standards of the other remaining contestants, much less up to those of the woman who chose her for her team (and no, she wasn’t a top pick).  Over the course of the prep day and the service day, the slacker chef delayed preparing a critical part of a dish which resulted in the dish not matching the head chef’s vision for it.  At judges’ table, the head chef did not complain about the other chef’s refusal to work as instructed. The judges had no way to know what had caused the offending dish to come up short.  All they knew is that the head chef said she was responsible, both for the dish and for the overall meal.  She went home.

The business lesson is critical   The leader’s taking responsibility and refusing to complain about her subordinate when she could have done so in order to save herself shows the type of character that makes a great leader. More importantly, it show that she understands that real leadership means assuming accountability to go along with your organizational authority.

That’s not to say she demonstrated perfect leadership skills.  As things weren’t going her way she got very frustrated.  Like many perfectionists she was  hard on herself and she shut down to a certain extent when she should have been more assertive. Things often don’t go the way we envision in business (in life to, come to think of it) and we  need to face the situation, adapt, and be flexible.  If we’re not confident we can’t possibly instill confidence in our teams.

The web is filled with the comments of outraged fans of the show screaming how the “wrong” chef was sent home.  Maybe the verdict was misplaced but the leadership lesson certainly wasn’t.

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Eating What You Don’t See

For our Foodie Friday Fun this week, let’s take just a minute to think about what goes into you receiving a simple plate of food at a restaurant.

English: White House Executive Chef, Cristeta ...

(Photo credit: Wikipedia)

I’ve been with many folks who order and scarf down their meals without a thought as to the enormous enterprise that went into making that dish happen. I know they thought about if the food was good and if the service was up to their standards. They didn’t really consider, however, all the other elements that go into a great meal.
Consider how much work goes into that one plate of food. Someone (the chef) has to plan the menu and order the components. When those ingredients show up at the restaurant, they need to be inventoried and broken down (by prep cooks) into products with which the line cooks can work. Primal cuts are broken down into steaks and chops. Cases of potatoes and bags of carrots are peeled. All this before the real prep work begins. It’s an assembly line of sorts although we don’t think of kitchen work as a manufacturing job.

Prep cooks give way to the line cooks who actually fabricate the dish for you. In between are the servers and the rest of the front of house folks. All these people need to be hired, trained, supervised and paid. What’s the business point?
The point is that we don’t notice, nor should we. Most of us are in the same boat.  When I was teaching I knew that for every hour of classroom time there would be another hour or two of prep that the kids never saw.  A simple budget presentation of one slide can involve dozens of people and hundreds of hours of prep yet the only time that anyone asks about the process is when something is out of whack.  That’s really the business point.  Apple is famous for doing technology that “just works.”   Web pages and sites involve thousands of hours of design, coding, and creativity but we tend not to notice that until something broken.  We don’t think about how our cars were built and designed until something is wrong.  The list goes on and on.

Cooking in a professional kitchen involves something unknown to most jobs – the physical reproduction of a product, from 50-60 times a day, presented in a seamless manner.   Like the proverbial swimming duck, there’s an awful lot going on under the water.  We might just be most successful when no one knows that but us!

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Butchering The Chance

What better food topic than the premiere of Top Chef for our Foodie Friday Fun?  The power came back on in time for the show the other night (yay!) and in addition to some intriguing food there was a great business point made right off the bat.  The competition began with far more than the usual 16 cooks and many of those who came to Texas thinking they were on the show were, in fact, fighting for one of those 16 slots.  One competitor in particular stood out for all the wrong reasons, and it’s he who provided the business point I’d like to make today.

Top Chef

Image via Wikipedia

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How To Be A Celebrity Chef

Photograph of chef Jacques Pépin at Aspen Food...

Image via Wikipedia

The end of a long week so a business thought related to food.  Actually, it’s related to the food business, and it comes from Jacques Pepin.  Chef Pepin is one of my culinary heroes, and his TV work, both solo and the series he did with Julia Child, ranks in my mind as some of the best cooking programming ever done.  He was one of the first “celebrity chefs” – after he had put in 30 years in the kitchen.  He kind of built the mold – successful restaurant career, TV, books – that many of the folks you see on The Food Network are trying to follow but he actually paid his dues.

Jacques Pepin is very different from many of them and not just because he was a pioneer.  Want to know why?  It’s a great business point for us all. Continue reading

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Training Wheels

Mario Batali, American chef and restaurateur.

Image via Wikipedia

Let’s end the week on a food note, shall we?  I know – just like every other Friday.  The sort of big news around my town this week is that Mario Batali is opening a place here.  Due to some funky zoning regulations, our town’s culinary scene hasn’t really kept up with towns around us so this is terrific news.  I’m sure you’ve all seen Mario on TV even if you haven’t eaten at one of his many excellent restaurants.  What you might not know is that his route to that success was kind of different and that’s today’s business thought. Continue reading

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