Did that get your attention? Can you remember the last time you saw a chef owner on their own line? Oh I'm sure there are hundreds of thousands of restaurants everywhere where this is the case. But in my own 15 year career it's been rare.
I don't think it's where the chef should be all the time-- it neither makes sense for her to be on the line every night nor him to never be on the line, but it's a powerful sight to see the chef step on the line and blow everyone out of the water.
Let me tell you a story.
Many years ago I was the pastry sous chef at The French Laundry. That kitchen is insanely small. It's a little bigger now, and of course now it's part of an empire, but because the building is land marked there's not much else Thomas can do to expand what space exists. There are 3 lines and off to the side of pastry is where the cheese person stands.
The lines are like this: every station has a partner station. Fish & Amuse, Garde Manger/First Course & Meat, Cheese & Pastry. If you can count, this means that there are really only 6 people who can say they've cooked at The French Laundry. Everyone else is support staff-- and there are about 40 of those.
The year I was there (you can cross reference my resume here), an amazing person and cook named Eric Ziebold was the chef de cuisine. He was TFL's first ever sous chef and to this day I have never seen any one person work so many hours. (He, Thomas & Laura all put in 17-19 hour days, 7 days a week.) Everyone knows The French Laundry is an amazing restaurant, but few know why. It's easy to blame or praise one person, but the truth is that it takes a village.
Eric has a very interesting temperament. Read between the lines and you will see what I mean. His famous line was, "I'm an equal opportunity asshole." Or he would sidle up next to you real close and say, quietly, "Oh, is that how you do _______? Here at The French Laundry we do it like this," and then he'd gracefully move you aside and show you. It was with Eric's constant feedback that I learned how to and how not to manage. He reminded me that I had to do what felt right for me-- what was going to let me sleep at night?
do I sound like I was in love?
One day Eric did something amazing. He was frustrated at how things were going on the hot lines. Eric was not a screamer, but he could be direct in a way that made you stop dead in your under-the-breath mumblings, shape the fuck up, focus and do it right. Thomas's approach was more like Chinese water torture-- he would repeat the same sentence over and over until he had what he wanted in front of him. Something like this:
"I need an agnolotti. I need an agnolotti. I need an agnolotti. I need an agnolotti. I need an agnolotti. I need an agnolotti. I need an agnolotti. I need an agnolotti. I need an agnolotti. I need an agnolotti. Agnolotti. Agnolotti. Agnolotti. Agnolotti. Agnolotti. Agnolotti. Agnolotti. Agnolotti."
You get the point.
So this night Eric was watching the line. At the time the kitchen was trying on a new expediting model that they later employed full time when there were more sous chefs: Thomas stood at the pass and Eric helped anyone on the line who was crashing hard or getting overwhelmed.
But Eric was pacing. Trying to understand why service was going so poorly. You have to understand this: there was no "talking" at TFL. It was a "call & response" kitchen. (Yes, much like the military.) Few sentences were uttered by anyone other than Thomas, and his were quite succinct as I've pointed out. Any response from us underlings that was not, "Oui Chef, or Yes Chef" had to mean something. If anyone could be prepped for that kind of job from another career it might be the people who write newspaper headlines, or surgeons and ER professionals.
Finally Eric says something that makes us all look up from our minute, detail oriented tasks. "You heard me, get off the line, all of you, I'm going to show you how to cook."
In my first 6 weeks at The French Laundry I saw a number of people get fired. Oftentimes right in the middle of service. It would go something like this:
TK: "What? What did you say? Excuse me?
Bye. Yes, leave, you're done. Yes, bye."
And a few times I saw him walk up to the sorry cook and, is his 6 foot + many-inches-of-adamantness-you don't-want-to-fuck-with way really make sure the cook stopped cooking. he wasn't physically violent-- he didn't need to be, his look and words were enough.
So when Eric asked the line to step away from their stations they all thought they were getting fired. it was quite a sight.
"No." Eric said to calm them a bit, "Stand over here, I'm going to show you how to put out this table, I'm going to show you how to cook, how to work like a team, how to put out just one ticket."
And then he did. He cooked every single course, by himself, with not another soul on the line touching sauce pots or spatulas or garnishes. He jumped this way and that, gracefully, using every part of his body, talking, admonishing, telling, teaching, showing, explaining as he went.
It was the most amazing thing I ever saw in a kitchen.
Eric took over the entire kitchen and cooked all those cooks under the fucking table. We were in awe and I have tears in my eyes and can't type fast enough to tell you this story now, more than 10 years later.
When the line resumed their positions, every single cook knew just who they were. Cooks.
You know why Eric was the very first sous chef of TFL? Because Thomas told all his line cooks the same thing on the same day. Line cooks who had been with him for years and others who had only just arrived.
"I am going to promote one person to sous. It's going to be the person who is already acting like the sous chef."
When Thomas made the announcement, half of his line walked out.
My industry will tell you life is black and white. It will whisper you dark nothings in the middle of the night. People have these words tattooed on their bodies. Everyone has scars that show and we all have scars that are invisible. 'This? This mark is from when I shaved off my pinkie on the mandolin but had to keep working because someone else had called in sick that day.'
But there's a lot of gray area too. Too much, if you ask me. These days I'm starting to think people should take a test before they open a restaurant.
It will be like a triathlon: you must work the line, well, if not stellar. You must understand and be able to explain one P&L statement. You must understand why raw fish and cooked meat cannot share the same bin in the walk-in. You must understand how to make cookies, one dessert with chocolate that's not a molten chocolate cake and it would be great if you knew the difference between panna cotta and creme brulee. The test would list a series of questions and you would be graded on how much responsibility you took for your own actions or the actions of those you hired. For bonus points you might have to research why all the restaurants in your location before yours failed, or cooking in and creating a menu for a kitchen with no Latinos (or your State/ Country picks for easy-to-exploit-able peoples.)
You get the drift. You? You're smart, right-- you understand that opening a restaurant means hours upon hours, days upon days, and years toppled on years ahead of you where these things will not be possible:
sleeping late, resting without a care in the world, taking on-the-fly vacations, turning off your cell phone, remaining oblivious to state, local and Federal labor laws, continuing to be absent or uncommunicative to your staff and diners, resting on your laurels or continuing to blame everyone else for your failures and weaknesses.
Opening A Restaurant is like stepping into an X-Ray machine. Are you ready? Wearing the right underwear? Did you floss the night before? Go on, buy those Altoids-- they'll fool a few people into thinking you haven't been drinking that morning.
I'm all fired up. Because it's been a long time since I worked with a chef who knew how to cook. On the line, where a chef has to spend some time, even if they don't for 45 years like our heroes.
I'm trying to get to the bottom of something: there are these "chefs" who say they're chefs because that word, that little innocuous word, means something to them that it doesn't mean to me.
Being a chef is hard work. Opening a restaurant is harder. If it's fame you're after there are easier professions to get there. Or just pull a few stunts: America loves people who are brave enough to do stupid shit.
My questions are these:
If you don't LOVE food, like head-over-heels-I-can't-see-that-you're-an-axe-murderer-love, why are you cooking? Wouldn't you rather have a 40 hour week with benefits and work in a bank?
If you don't want to taste and smell and eat and learn about every fruit and chocolate and nut and fat, then why are you pursuing a pastry career path?
If you don't want to cook and clean and solve problems and figure out new, more efficient ways of doing things and feed people you've never met and learn from everyone you've hired and challenge yourself mentally, physically, emotionally, spiritually and financially:
/There are no shotgun restaurant openings. Restaurants don't break condoms and there are no rabbit tests for persons knocked up with a restaurant.
Restaurants aren't opened in black outs and you can never ever use the excuse, "I didn't know what I was doing, I was drunk when I opened that restaurant."/
I'll leave you with this crazy thought: What if there were less restaurants in San Francisco & the Bay Area? What if these fewer restaurants hired all the cooks and exchanged them when someone wanted to learn something else, something new? What if less of these restaurants were cookie cut-outs of other long time Bay Area restaurants, and we had more kinds of cuisines and techniques employed and that way diners would be happier and so would so many of the local cooks who are leaving for other, more competitive cities because so many of the kitchens here do exactly the same formula, even if it's great? What if all these restaurants could thrive because there was just a little less competition? The cream rises to the top, right?
There aren't enough people to fill non executive chef positions in the Bay Area. There are less than 1 million people on a peninsula that has, more than once, felt and seen the effects of a devastating economic downturn. Culinary schools are, for the most part, lying to their check-signers and future graduates about what kind of job and at what pay rate they will see after spending their 40+ thousand dollars. New mandates have just been set in place in San Francisco which will, and have already begun to, have a negative effect on restaurant owner's already low (1-3%) year's pay out, net.
There are no workers because everyone wants to be the boss. Or they want to feel like the boss. Or be called the boss.
Not me, I don't want to wear a title I polish everyday, like an obsessive antique car refurbisher. I like my fitted jacket, yes, but I work in it. I don't own my own place because I know what goes along with it. I don't want to be a single parent.
Words mean nothing without elbow grease. Show me a chef who knows how to cook, how to lead, how to delegate, how to be humble and proud (not either/ or), how to keep a restaurant afloat financially, how to make delicious food, how to know when it's time to say, "Hey I need help, I need suggestions or I need this now!" and I will show you my loyalty. I will respect you and return the favor by not cutting corners, by keeping my workplace clean and organized, tasting my food and accepting criticism, costing out my plates, treating the equipment like it's not disposable, delegating, admitting when I'm at fault, and by being humble enough to say when I can't or don't understand how to do something.
This post is dedicated to the chefs who inspired it: TH, ML, TK, EZ, SB, MLH, JC, GS, JB, DK, PC, CF, HH, all of whom I have had the honor to work with and for, and some of whom I continue to know. And DC, whom I have never met, but whose words brought me both to tears and many hand gesturing exclamation points recently.