At what I considered to be my first serious job as a cook, I was lucky to be in a kitchen where everyone cared about the food. We were all there to learn and to become the best possible cooks that we could be. We wanted to be the best kitchen in Boston and we wanted to wring every bit of knowledge we could out of the Chef in question. The food was innovative and somewhat avant-garde. I soaked in all of the details that made the kitchen so special, from the delicately sliced herbs to the variety of china employed to frame each dish. The restaurant had been open for less than a year but had received good reviews and a lot of buzz. The Chef was young, hungry and ambitious, as was his brigade. He was always on the lookout for new ideas and techniques. It was a fabulous opportunity for someone fresh out of culinary school to learn fine dining from the ground up in an innovative establishment rather than a dinosaur. We cooked for a variety of famous chefs, whose names I would not have recognized when I first arrived. I honed my knife skills and learned the importance of details and precision in cooking. I also learned that work did not end when I left the kitchen. I always loved dining out and curling up at home with some food writing. The Chef made me see the importance of a wide range of cookbooks and magazines. In order to succeed I needed to stay abreast of the culinary world at large. I needed to look beyond my own orbit and to be aware of what was going on in our world and most importantly, to learn from it.
The hardest lesson I learned from that Chef was not about cooking but about management and leadership. The lesson was that creating a strong staff is the backbone of a kitchen and of any establishment. When I began work in Boston I caught the end of a beautiful wave and when it crashed, it crashed hard. There is a fair amount of turnover in any professional kitchen. By nature, young cooks are transitory, they are out to learn as much as possible in as short a time period as possible and they are always looking to improve their resumes. The common theory is that a strong resume is the key to having your own kitchen. When I arrived in that kitchen there was a diverse spread of very experienced and inexperienced cooks. Although there was the stereotypical kitchen culture of braggadocio and bravado, underneath that was group striving towards a common goal. It was a team in the best sense of the word. Within six months we had turned about 50% of the staff. With that change came a change in culture and attitude. Raises and promotions were given within the brigade according to the Chef’s internal methodology. Unfortunately, his thinking did not necessarily jive with seniority or with the perceived hierarchy of the cooks, causing bitterness and rifts among the staff. New hires were made based upon necessity rather than skill or attitude. The friendly camaraderie and teamwork that were so much a part of the atmosphere seemed to disappear leaving behind an edgy atmosphere of competition and backstabbing. The Chef hit a slump and seemed to lose his creative edge, withdrawing from the kitchen as the environment darkened and unraveled. It was a sea change and I have heard that eventually the tide turned back. He was able to pull things together and take back the reins. I was long gone though, choosing to remember the best of what I had learned there, not the dark days before my departure.
I feel lucky to have been there and to have learned from the experience. We celebrate the details in our food using small accents to create harmonious flavors. We keep an eye on the world at large for ideas and inspirations. We’re not afraid to try new things and share the experiences. We hire everyone on a trial basis and we are not hung up on a candidate’s past experience. We evaluate equally based on enthusiasm, attitude, desire and skill. We are not afraid to let people go early on if they seem like a poor fit. I believe that it is important to protect your environment in the front and in the back of the house. People should be excited to come to work every day. It’s not an easy thing to accomplish, as staffing is always an issue. But I’d rather create a great place to work, even if I have to work harder to make that happen, than a well-staffed place where no one is happy to be there. It’s still a work in progress, but then so is our food.