Monday, March 17, 2014

On being a chef today, after you buy your local, seasonal produce

Not too long ago Tony Bourdain did a guest bit on Michael Ruhlman's blog.  I was excited to see the first question he was asked was "What issues do you see facing chefs today?" I wasn't happy with his answer.

Not because it was wrong; the points he made were fine.  I just feel there is a whole massive area that was completely ignored.  The question I wanted to see answered was "What staff related issues do you see facing chefs today?"  I wanted to see how those of us who wrangle the next generation of cooks, bakers, servers, dishwashers, minor criminals and pirates are seeing the shape of the future.

Since I didn't get his answer, I wanted to share some of my own observations.  These are the things I see, the things I try to handle as best I can, the things that I cope with to varying degrees of success.

First off, my staff doesn't expect to make a lot of money right away.  Contrary to the stories people tell about kids these days, these are cooks who even if they did go to culinary school aren't expecting to be the cock of the walk right out the door - there just hasn't been the employment market for that for years now.  They are happy to have a job. And, while they are making or just barely above minimum wage, they hope they have a chef that remembers what it is like to live on that kind of paycheck, when $600 equals two weeks pay, or when that Christmas bonus meant you could pay your bills and buy a few presents.  This matters. A lot. It's why they will scrabble for hours, take extra shifts, hope for a sliver of OT, get that second or third job. Luckily for them, there are plenty of us out there that do remember, because it wasn't so long ago when we were doing the exact same thing.  And as a manager who remembers that feeling, there comes the desire, especially with your best staff members, to wish you could change that, really pay a "living wage" whatever the hell that's supposed to be.  There's a big issue right there, and it doesn't even start to cover things like health care, paid time off or, the crucial one, where the money comes from to do these things.

OK, fine, the staff doesn't expect a lot of money - hopes for it, but doesn't expect it.  So what do they expect from their chefs?  Inspiration in one form or another.  To be taught, and have the chance to learn.  To be given the chance to try new things, to have their ideas taken seriously and with open mindedness.  In a perfect situation, to have the mentor that they will remember long after they have left the place.  Notice, I didn't say they "hope for" all of this, they EXPECT it.  This part is hard.  Every chef I know has days where all they want is a team that works with robotic precision exactly to their specifications day in and day out. Those are the days where baking powder gets used instead of baking soda in the brownies, where the tray of wineglasses gets dropped, and then, at the worst possible time, someone looks up and says, "But WHY do we do it this way?".  There was a time (and some kitchens still work this way, just none that I want to be in) where just looking up could get you fired, berated, a sheet pan thrown at you, all three.  Now, chefs need to anticipate that question.  To answer it before it comes at the worst possible time.  That's the only way to get the real hustle handled with the next generation - to equip your staff with everything they need to know, including the knowledge of when to ask, and when to put your head down and do the job.   And if they learn that, and do that for you, you need to make sure it gets acknowledged. Like I said, this is hard, but more and more, it's expected.

I'm sure some lament the loss of a military like obedience in the kitchen.  But really, I think the biggest issue facing chefs today is one that has always been there - how do we get done what needs doing?  That hasn't changed.  What has changed is the definition of what it means to be a chef from the perspective of your staff.  It doesn't matter what you think it means that someone slapped a four letter word next to your name on a menu. It matters what the people you hire, the people you train, and ultimately, the people you rely on to represent you think it means.

Sorry, chef, but without them, there's only so much you can get done, and we all know there's a lot that needs doing.