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Kitchen teams are intense and tight knit – bonds are forged under high heat and high pressure. As a new cook, whether entering a kitchen for the first time, or joining a new team, it can be difficult, at first, to break into the club. The rest of the team need to know that you can be relied upon and won't sink them, and that you can get on board with their unique kitchen culture.
How best to achieve acceptance in a new kitchen is the subject of a another fantastic blog post penned by chef Paul Sorgule over at Harvest America Ventures, informed by his decades of experience in professional kitchens. He has some sound advice for new cooks: essentially, get your head down and take it slowly, treat everyone with respect and don't annoy anyone.
1. LEVELS OF TRUST
We would all like to believe that there is unconditional trust among team members, but this is quite rare. In all likelihood a new cook will enter a kitchen right in the middle of mistrust and unconditional trust. In other words every other team member is guarded with his or her feelings of trust – they will watch the new cook for any signs of violating the pact of the kitchen. It only takes one misstep for the team to write off the new cook as untrustworthy.
2. SKILL ANXIETY
Even the most seasoned cook is cautious about a new team member: “Are my skills as good or better than the new cook’s?” “ Will the new cook be able to work consistently at the same level as our team?” This anxiety of competence will be prevalent equally among existing and new members of the team. The new cook should do what he or she does consistently well, admit when his or her skills are lacking with a particular task, ask for help, offer help when others may ask, and by all means never try to correct an existing team member’s skills until the transition time is over.
3. DON’T REARRANGE MY ROUTINE
Every cook learns a definitive way of approaching his or her job; they apply certain steps and procedures that are unique to them, but that after trial and error work (for them). It is always important to note that a cook’s routine impacts, at some level, everyone else’s routine. So… a new cook who intends to interject his or her routine into an already established kitchen flow will incur resistance. Sometimes it is best, at least in the beginning, to listen and adapt to how things are currently done. This accommodation until trust is built among team members will serve a new cook well.
4. SYSTEMS MAY BE DIFFERENT
It would be a mistake to state that there is a right or wrong system for the operation of a kitchen, and in particular – a line. There are dozens of ways that chefs and cooks adapt established methods to work in a specific operation. Equipment, kitchen layout, staff expertise, and menu will always drive the system that evolves over time. The system that a new cook may be use to might not work in his or her new kitchen home. Be open minded and willing to listen to the how and why things are done a certain way in your new environment. Your thoughts might be better, but remember it is ultimately important to win that trust from the team first.
5. RESPECT ABOVE ALL ELSE
First and foremost every kitchen team is looking for respect. They are where they are as a result of trial and error, refinement, investment in skill development, communication, definition of flavour profiles, and trust among all of the players. A new cook who respects this will go a long way towards acceptance and the end goal of “fitting in.”
6. HANG ON TO THOSE GREAT IDEAS
There is a great deal of truth to the statement that “a new set of eyes can help a business improve.” Your ideas are important to you and may become a catalyst for positive change in a kitchen. It’s all about timing. Once that team trust is gained and you have been accepted as a member of the kitchen unit then your ideas will likely find a receptive audience. Standing on a soapbox too early will kill the best ideas.
7. CRAWL, WALK, AND THEN RUN
Patience is a virtue whether you are brand new to kitchen life or a seasoned veteran moving to a new restaurant. If your hope is to become a leader then realise that the most important attribute of a leader is that he or she needs followers. Look behind you, take your time, listen, support others, demonstrate your dependability, and you will begin to find more team members listening to you and choosing to follow your example. Leaders are born from trust and consistency.
8. HAVE OTHER TEAM MEMBERS’ BACKS
The brother and sisterhood of the kitchen are born from the realisation that everyone is in it together. If there is a weak link then others will step up to help, if someone is off a step or in the weeds then others will pick up the slack, if mistakes are made then the team takes responsibility and chooses not to point fingers. When this environment is present then the kitchen will thrive and win, when it is absent then failure will raise its ugly head. This is always true! As a new cook you need to learn this “code of the kitchen” – we are in this together – all for one and one for all.
9. YOU’RE EITHER DEPENDABLE OR NOT
Ask a chef what trait is deemed most important in a kitchen and after careful thought I am confident that he or she will point to dependability. I am not referring to occasional dependability, but rather dependability as part of a person’s character. Cooks – new or seasoned – must be 100% dependable. Will you show up to work on time, take care of your station, always prepare enough mise en place for whatever comes your way, consistently address each dish the way it was meant to be prepared, insist on impeccable sanitation, cut those vegetables just right, take the time to follow cooking procedures to the letter of the law, show up to work fully focused on the job, approach the job with professionalism, refrain from putting others down, and remain totally committed to customer service – ALWAYS? That is what is meant by dependability.
10. BE HONEST, JUST NOT BRUTALLY HONEST
If the kitchen is to succeed as a cohesive unit then honesty must be the baseline. Tasting other’s food – be honest, critiquing a plate presentation – be honest, reflecting on how service went – be honest, and commenting on how others run their station – be honest. The caveat is that there is a difference between honesty and brutal honesty – it is the same as the difference between critique and criticism. Critique is honesty with assistance – showing the individual how to make things better without being demeaning. Criticism is the opposite and almost always leads to misinterpretation, embarrassment, and anger. Choose your words wisely.
11. ONCE ACCEPTED, THE OPPORTUNITIES TO CONTRIBUTE WILL INCREASE EXPONENTIALLY
In the end, if you take the time to observe, mentally catalogue, listen, reflect, and focus on becoming a member of the kitchen team first then there will be countless opportunities to contribute and offer your unique talents to the ongoing success of the kitchen. Learn to fit in first.