What makes a chef great? Is it Michelin stars? Is it a successful restaurant? Or is it something intangible like their ability to nurture talent and bring the best out in others?
Chef Paul Sorgule writes in his blog Harvest America Ventures about what makes a chef great and how every aspiring chef can get there.
We previously published Sorgule’s list of eleven steps to excellence in the kitchen, however the chef has been working on another list and they are equally useful.
Sorgule claims that there are “chefs and there are chefs. Some hold the title, others earn it”. That’s worth thinking about. A chef is a natural leader, someone we will go the extra mile for, work with care and attention to detail and take inspiration from. Almost every chef can recount tales from their career when they worked under someone who failed on one or more of those characteristics.
Chef Sorgule is a vastly experienced chef who writes about working in a kitchen, the challenges facing old and young chefs alike and how a changing industry can be navigated. In the kitchen, there is one thing that can’t be learned, but only earned and that’s experience and Sorgule certainly has that. We’re lucky enough that he chooses to share to with us.
1. Learn something new every day
There is so much to learn about food, service, operating a business, people and traditions, and leadership. If we let a day go by without adding some bit of information, new process, or insight on what makes people tick – then we miss an opportunity to improve.
2. Teach something new every day
As a chef, you have the opportunity and I would promote – the responsibility to pass on what we know and guide others through the process of learning and growing. Great chefs take this opportunity seriously and plan the time for this to happen, at some level, every day. It might be an in-service training session, a one-on-one demonstration to a young cook, a pre-meal session with front-of-the-house, or even a simple “words of wisdom” post on the employee bulletin board. Don’t allow a day to pass by without exercising your responsibility as a teacher.
3. Have a plan
Know what you intend to accomplish each day, write it down, review it frequently, share the plan with others, and measure your success every day. Don’t allow the day to simply be a surprise – strategize and set a course.
4. Never succumb to mediocrity
Time, finances, and business volume will always threaten your standards of excellence – don’t take the bait! Your standards define who you are, how the business will be perceived, and the level of respect that your staff will have for you. Greatness involves perseverance and loyalty to your stakes in the ground.
The best leaders shine as great communicators. Work on this – improve your communication skills that include vocabulary, confidence with public speaking, writing memos and proposals, spelling, the tone of your communications, well thought –out statements, critique, and even your body language. Your employees, peers, and guests are always watching and learning to anticipate how you will communicate.
Never confuse respect for a sign of weakness – it is the greatest sign of strength. Respect your vendors and they will take care of you, respect your ingredients and farmers will show their gratitude and your employees will follow suit, respect all employees as people even though you may need to point out their mistakes and shortcomings, respect those whom you work for and demonstrate your understanding of how difficult their job is, and respect the guest even when their requests may create some angst in the kitchen. Respect is a sign of greatness.
7. Move the bar
However successful your operation may be, however happy your guests may be with the product that comes from your kitchen, and however perfect a service might unfold – it can always be better. Great chefs are always reminding their stakeholders about this and leading them in the direction of excellence.
8. Look in a mirror
Every morning, look in a mirror and ask: “Am I ready, do I have direction, do I like what I see?” At the end of every day, look in a mirror and ask: “Did we exceed expectations, did we stick to the plan, did I learn something new, did I help someone else improve, and did I show proper respect to all involved in today’s work?” Great chefs ask those questions and always intend to answer: “Yes – I like what I see.”
9. Catch people doing something right
It is so easy to point to problems and mistakes. It is so common to find managers looking for opportunities to recognize others shortcomings. It is much easier to invest the time in finding people doing something right – no matter how small the task. What does it really take to give a thumbs up, pat someone on the back, say: “nice work”, or even a smile and “thanks”? The power of catching someone doing something right and giving them recognition for this is limitless. Pointing out mistakes after a complement is even a great way to bring home the importance of improvement: “Jack, I am always impressed at the organization of your station and the quality of your mise, we do, however, need to work a bit more on building your palate when adjusting seasoning. I’ll spend some time with you this week on refining that palate of yours. Thanks for doing great work.”
10. Take care of yourself
If your physical or mental health is challenged, then you will never be able to function at peak efficiency as a chef. Every person needs balance and personal care. Eat right, get plenty of sleep, find a stress reliever, take a day off every week, visit your doctor, and delegate some of your work through training and trust building. Great chefs take care of themselves.
11. Be the kind of person you would want to work for
In the end, treat others the way that you would have them treat you is one of the greatest statements pertaining to how you conduct yourself as a leader. Have empathy, speak as a professional, critique and don’t criticize, complement when you can, support and train, and show respect. This is what you want for yourself – be the example of this to others.