Tag Archives: Food

Learning Management From A Chef’s Life

It’s Foodie Friday and this week I’d like to highlight a business lesson I was reminded of while watching “A Chef’s Life.” If you’re not familiar with the show, it’s a series (now in its fifth season) that features Vivian Howard, the chef at a restaurant in eastern North Carolina, as she runs her restaurant, raises her kids, writes what is now an acclaimed cookbook, and improves her craft. I watch it both for the great storytelling as well as to learn about the local food traditions and recipes of the Carolinas

As the series has progressed and Vivian’s star has risen, she has sent some time ruminating on the fact that she spends far less time in the kitchen of her restaurant than when she opened it. She also talks about how strange it feels when she actually does go back into the kitchen, whether it’s to develop new dishes or to do a quality check. This resonated with me even though my business has nothing to do with running a restaurant.

Executive chefs are really managers. While they were once line cooks, the amount of time they spend cooking is inversely proportionate to the responsibility they have. Like any manager, their job is to make sure that the entire operation is moving in sync and that the people who do the actual work have the tools and materials they need. They teach where necessary but other than in emergencies, they don’t step in and actually do the job that is the responsibility of their subordinates.

This is probably the hardest thing for new managers to understand. I remember that when I began managing people it was extremely frustrating to watch my subordinates take more time to do projects I could do in a flash. Their work was often full of errors, mistakes I wouldn’t have made just because I had a lot more experience. But doing the work for them would have been just as big an error since they wouldn’t learn and I would not be working with the other members of the department.

On the show, Vivian remarks that show doesn’t feel as if she’s doing anything when she’s in the restaurant’s kitchen now because it runs most days without her. I used to feel the same way as I was learning that my job entailed different “doings.” Wandering around and listening, clarifying goals, working with other department heads, giving a pat on the back to someone and a kick in the butt to another are all part of the manager’s job but when you’re used to having an overloaded project list and deadlines, it doesn’t feel as if you’re doing much at all. In reality, Vivian has done a fantastic job managing since her operation runs well on its own. She can focus on the next project – new dishes, new restaurants, the next book – while knowing her business is operating efficiently. Not a bad model for any of us!

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Filed under food, Thinking Aloud

Techniques, Not Recipes

It’s finally Foodie Friday again and something I cooked last week sparked a thought. I was trying to find a recipe for a dish I liked and found several versions, each slightly different. The one thing that they had in common, however, was how they were prepared. The process of pulling the dish together was nearly identical in every example. Each used a few common terms to represent techniques: saute, fold, and others.

A cook sautees onions and peppers.

(Photo credit: Wikipedia)

This reminded me of a very basic thing I heard a long time ago: it’s learning techniques that matter, not learning recipes. One of the world’s culinary masters, Jacques Pepin, wrote a book decades ago called “La Technique” which is an encyclopedic look at everything from boning out a leg of lamb to making garnishes out of fruit. As a cook, learning technique is what frees you up to explore food and create your version of anything. It’s a process that never ends, by the way. Despite my years in the kitchen, I’ve only learned to sous vide and to use a pressure cooker in the last couple of years. Both techniques have become skills I use on a regular basis now.

Of course, this thinking doesn’t just apply to cooking. If you play a musical instrument, you’re probably aware that you spend an inordinate amount of time learning everything from how to hold the thing, the proper fingerings to produce certain notes, and what notes are in which scales. As a guitar player, I learned patterns, bends, and hammers as well. Once you understood what each of those techniques produces, you were freed up to make music: YOUR music.

Business isn’t any different. The problem, however, is that many folks don’t take the time to understand that they must learn technique before they can make their own music or create their own food. They try to produce the recipes that make for success in business without having the skills required. Without those techniques, the results will take far longer, if they’re achieved at all. Moreover, it’s nearly impossible for them to make their own music.

Which techniques? Analyzing, communicating, synthesizing, negotiating, budgeting, and presenting are good places to start. There is another dozen I could add to the list, but You get the point. In the office or in the kitchen, having an understanding of the basic techniques which underpin business or cooking, respectively, is a critical element in your success. Otherwise, just trying to duplicate someone else’s recipe will be the best you can do, and even that might be a long slog. Make sense?

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Breaking The Fast

We’ve arrived at Yom Kippur again and there is a part of the holiday’s traditions that involves food so it’s an appropriate Foodie Friday topic. Beginning this evening, those who observe the holiday will fast for 24 hours. Traditionally, the meal that follows the fast is “dairy”: bagels, cream cheese, smoked fish of some sort, a sweet noodle dish called kugel, and cakes. The thinking is that a relatively bland meal is appropriate following a fast and the dishes can be prepared ahead since one doesn’t do work of any sort on the day. Hey – if Sandy Koufax can skip work and not pitch the World Series (which made a huge impression on me back in 1965), you and your bubbe can stay out of the kitchen.

My family generally had whitefish salad, egg salad, and tuna salad available as well. I know that blintzes are big with some families, although my family was never patient enough to cook them (listen, when you’ve not eaten for 24 hours, even another 10 minutes is an eternity). Everyone would generally grab whatever was available to eat immediately, breaking the fast while their bagel toasted.

Obviously, there is a much more important aspect to the holiday than food. Last year I wrote that:

Most people think of the day in terms of atoning for one’s sins. That’s not quite right in that it’s an incomplete statement. That atonement is only a part of the equation. There is a broader focus on other things as well. One is charity, one is repentance and the other is prayer. Those things can also be interpreted as trying to embody high ideals, returning to those values and ideals if we’ve strayed from them, and self-reflection.

Whether you’re Jewish or not, taking a day to think about that three-legged stool is a valuable thing, both personally and with respect to your business. Since this is a business blog, let me focus on the business aspect. Every business needs to give back somehow. Whether it’s mentoring on a pro bono basis or sponsoring a Little League team, it’s not only smart marketing. It’s the right thing to do.

Atoning in business is simply reflecting on the times over the past year when you missed the mark and determining to do better. It may be a badly handled customer service issue or it may be treating an employee badly. Identifying those instances and improving the future is a fundamental part of being a good businessperson.

And prayer? I’ll leave that to you. I was always taught that prayer is not about you and shouldn’t focus on your wants. I think even atheists can pray since, as Emerson said, “Prayer is the contemplation of the facts of life from the highest point of view.” Not a bad place for any businessperson to be.

Happy New Year!

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Unintended Consequences

It’s Foodie Friday and I have unintended consequences on my mind. What spurred that were a couple of food-related things. I went to do some research about an alcoholic product and of course, I was asked to verify my age before being allowed to read the brand’s website. I assumed that was some sort of regulation imposed on beer, wine, and booze makers since it’s the sort of thing I caution clients about doing all the time: preventing the user from completing their task as seamlessly as possible. As it turns out, there is no rule requiring alcohol brands to do this. What it might do, however, is deter the very people who should have more information about alcohol – young people – from getting educated. This is an unintended consequence. If they lie about their age to gain access, you’ve also caused them to violate the Computer Fraud and Abuse Act, and making them break the law is another unintended consequence.

I also read a piece on the growth of restaurant delivery services:

As mobile food delivery apps like Seamless, UberEats, Caviar, and Postmates steadily expand their delivery zones and their customer bases, many restaurants are increasingly relying on delivery orders as a significant source of revenue — and they’re having to adapt operations accordingly to keep up with demand.

The unintended consequence here is that restaurant personnel are often spending so much time servicing the take-out business that the customers seated in the dining room have a lesser experience. Putting aside the fact that there is the potential for a restaurant’s reputation to suffer when the product delivered is way inferior to the product in the dining room, a failure to properly prioritize the kitchen to service the folks who have journeyed to the dining room could set up a lose-lose situation, with neither the folks eating at home nor the people eating out being satisfied. There is also the stress caused by having to refine the operations plan to support the take-out business.

We see unintended consequences all the time. Kudzu went from being an ornamental plant to a menace. When the British governor of Delhi, India addressed a cobra infestation by putting a bounty on cobras, they got more, not fewer, snakes, as people raised them to collect the bounty. I’m sure you’ve seen examples in your business of this, whether it’s a different response to a price change than what was anticipated or a sudden wave of popularity of a brand or product based on some bit of social media madness.

Whatever it is, it’s incumbent on all of us to think about every decision in the context of what the effects of a course of action might be. Who is affected and how? How will it affect competitors and what might their possible responses be? Do this more each alternative you’re contemplating and your odds of avoiding an unintended consequence will improve. You with me?

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A Mustache On The Mona Lisa

It’s Foodie Friday, and I want to relate an experience I had the other night while dining out. It got me thinking about some dumb things folks in the food business do and how any of us in business can be smarter than they seem to have been. I went to get a burger at a local bar that serves excellent food.

The Mona Lisa (or La Joconde, La Gioconda).

(Photo credit: Wikipedia)

They grind the burgers themselves out of a combination of several cuts of beef and they cook it nicely. It’s perfectly seasoned and is served on a bun that absorbs the juices without falling apart. I order mine with bacon and a runny fried egg (why not have breakfast with your burger?) but they offer many other options. It’s a work of art: the Mona Lisa of burgers.

When the burger came the other night, I asked the server for some mayo to dress the bun. They used to serve a lovely house-made truffle aioli but the menu has changed and now it’s just mayo. What I got was a handful of packets of mayo. You know – the shelf-stable, room temperature stuff you’d get tossed in your bag at a deli for your take-out sandwich. I was shocked and felt like whoever made the decision to serve their condiments as if we were in a concession line someplace was disrespecting the customer, not to mention their own product. They had put a mustache on the Mona Lisa.

It got me thinking. How could these people compromise the excellence of their product by doing something so silly? Then again, we see plenty of examples of this. Ever notice a water bottle that claims to contain “gluten-free” or “non-GMO” water? It’s another example of a business showing their customers disrespect. You assume we’re too dumb to know that water couldn’t possibly contain those things. I’m sure you’ve seen ads for “hormone-free” chicken. Well, yeah – the law prohibits the use of hormones. It’s fake transparency or worse because it shows a contempt for the customer’s lack of knowledge.

Do I think the bar serving me a packet of mayo is as bad as misleading labeling? No, but both actions come from the same place, one we all need to avoid in business. We need to honor our products and services but first and foremost, we need to honor our customers. I get that this is probably nothing more than a cost-saving measure, but I’m also sure there is mayo in the walk-in and putting a spoonful into a little cup may cost a few cents but is more in line with both the quality of the product and the customer’s expectations. Make sense?

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Our Daily Bread

I was struck, this Foodie Friday, by an article written for the Civil Eats site about how much bread is wasted. I don’t mean financial resources. This is actual bread: loaves, bagels, even donuts. As the piece states:

There’s also the fact that, except in the most exclusive bakeries, a bare shelf is a no-no. Customers expect fresh bread and lots of it. Sugar and fat are also relatively inexpensive, so it is safer to make too much and donate the leftovers than it is to risk running out.

Apparently, it’s a worldwide epidemic, caused, in part, by the growth of factory bread. You know: mass-produced loaves that taste like nothing and are full of fat, carbs, and not much else. Putting aside the quality of the products, I hate waste in all of its forms but particularly when it comes to food. Yes, there are people in this country and around the world who are starving, but I don’t think for a minute that the food either you or I throw out is taken from their mouths. I also get that the statement is more a reminder to be thankful for what we have. What’s lost in idly tossing out food or giving away a bakery’s excess is something I learned from both my friend’s grandmother who taught me to cook and from watching Jacques Pepin on TV.

Nothing is to be wasted. Old bread becomes breadcrumbs or a panade to round out meatballs or a meatloaf. Maybe it’s even the star of a Panzanella. Top mac and cheese with fresh breadcrumbs. Veggie trimmings can be collected and used to make broth, as can shrimp shells or meat trimmings. Ground beef generally is, in fact, meat trimmings.Find some Jacques Pepin videos on YouTube and you’ll be struck by how everything he has is used somehow, even as a garnish.

Bakeries might need to do a better job of managing their dough, but so do we. The kitchen mantra of wasting nothing needs to apply to every business. I once saw the events group at the NHL dragging full garbage bins. They were tossing the contents of their closet which contained event signs and other stuff. We turned their garbage into a million dollar auction business. Nothing is wasted.

What if the bakeries and supermarkets changed the paradigm? What if empty shelves were a sign of an in-demand, high-quality product? What if they made less? Great BBQ places run out of food in hours. It sure makes projecting your P&L a lot easier when you know that you’ll sell everything you make. Sure, you’re losing a bit of upside by running out, but how does that compare with what you’re wasting? Food for thought!

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Weenies!

It’s the start of the college football season this Foodie Friday and that means weenies. You may call them pigs in a blanket but my daughter and I, who are aficionados of them, refer to them as weenies. One football Saturday several years ago we heated up a tray to watch our favorite team play (Go Blue!) and have never looked back. They are a staple of our game day experience and we’re so serious about them that we have tried just about every brand we could find. We learned a few things, some of which have to do with your business as well.

The first thing we learned was that these are one of those foods that are just as good bought frozen as making them yourself. It’s not that they taste appreciably better from the store but the effort required to roll out the puff pastry and properly size either the cut pastry or the hot dog doesn’t yield a dramatic improvement over the best of the store-bought products. That’s an important business thought as well, as we return to the old cost/value equation. For consumers to choose to use your product or service to solve their problem, you need to provide a better return on their investment of time and/or money. In this case, the final results of our homemade weenies took a fair amount of effort that wasn’t a significantly better solution.

Next, we learned that not everyone’s concept of what a weenie should be is the same. We bought versions that were bland hot dogs in buttery puff pastry. Some pastry was dense, almost biscuit-like. Some had parmesan cheese rolled in. Some folks even try to pass off a bagel wrap as an acceptable option. Ha! None were perfect. We found that we loved one brand’s hot dog and another brand’s pastry. Yes, it crossed our minds to buy both and combine the best parts, but our top choice has decent enough pastry to negate the Frankenweenie from happening. But the business point is that you can call your product whatever you want, even a fairly common name, but not everyone is going to think of it in the same way. I think the IHOP even calls sausages wrapped in pancakes pigs in a blanket. That’s definitely NOT what we have in mind to munch whilst watching college football.

Present your product clearly. Excel at solving the cost/value equation from the consumer’s perspective. That’s a dish worth eating every time.

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