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Golden Years: 17 Ways Chefs Improve With Age

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Golden Years: 17 Ways Chefs Improve With Age
Photo jmettraux/flickr

Our friend chef Paul Sorgule over at Harvest America Ventures recently turned 66-years-old and as such we find him in reflective mood. Sorgule, after many years of experience, concedes that working the line in a kitchen is a young person's game, and though there are certain qualities that he feels have deteriorated in him over the years – his palate isn't what it used to be and it takes him much longer to recover from a gruelling 14 hour shift for example – there are many more skills that he feels have improved with age.

Here then are 17 ways chefs get better with age according to Sorgule. Do you agree with this list? Any to add? Let us know over on our Facebook page.


1. Wisdom

Being smart and being wise are quite different. As we age and acquire more experience we tend to look at and use the knowledge that we have accumulated in a more profound manner. A young culinary school graduate may have an extensive base of knowledge about cooking, but lacks the wisdom to use it properly and draw full advantage from it. Those with maturity in the position are able to appreciate what they are able to do and understand their own shortcomings.


2. Patience

One characteristic of cooks and young chefs is a universal lack of patience with people and situations. This leads to the all too commonplace friction in kitchens that occasionally accelerates into some pretty intense encounters. As we age it is fairly common to find that we discover that patience truly is a virtue that reaps countless benefits. Pulling people along rather than kicking them in the ass is typically a much better motivational tool. 


3. The experience of mistakes

It would be very difficult to problem solve unless you have gone through the experience of screwing up. Everyone else in a restaurant looks to the chef to have the experience and wisdom to pull them out of a problem situation and make the right decisions. Although it is always best to avoid mistakes, some of the best decisions are drawn from those that we make.


4. Reason

“Do it because I said so” is a response from the inexperienced. Time is a great stage setter for being able to know and apply the “why” to a decision. In rare cases the young may have this ability, but for the most part – age is a great contributor to the ability to reason.


5. The ability to prioritise ideas

Chefs are able to make sense of the great ideas that float around in their heads, as well as those of their staff members – front and back of the house. This ability to prioritise as doable immediately, in time with some effort, and far fetched, but great to dream, is directly related to experience in the role and maturity as a kitchen professional.


6. More common sense

Common sense is not so common and if it does exist, chances are, common sense comes from a series of failures that allowed chefs to apply the experience to problem solving.


7. Cautious optimism

Mature chefs are never shy with a dusting of optimism, but as they age, and with the right experiences, chefs are able to temper their enthusiasm with touches of reality. This will help to minimise poor decision making.


8. A big picture approach

Age allows chefs to separate the emotion from a systematic approach towards decision-making. Chefs must look at the financial implications, impact on staff performance and morale, how the decision marries with the operation’s brand, and how the public will view a decision. Rash decisions can quickly turn a restaurant in the wrong direction.


9. A flavour memory bank

Although a cook's tastebuds may falter with age, a seasoned chef (no pun intended) can still visualise how a dish should and will taste based on quality of ingredients, cooking methods used, and how it is seasoned. [See six ways to improve flavour memory here].


10. Ability to say no and understanding to say yes

The normal inclination of a cook or chef, and the training that we all go through points to only one answer: “yes”. Although this may be the right method in a service economy – a chef will factor in the ability of the operation to deliver an exceptional product, other demands on the kitchen at that time, the cost/benefit relationship of the decision, and how an event or product fits with the brand and philosophy of the restaurant. Occasionally, the best decision is to say “no”. Only age and experience will allow this to happen.


11. Willingness to admit what you don't know

Age sets the stage for chefs to stand up and say: “This does not fit in my (our) wheelhouse. Once this statement is part of the consideration then a chef can either decide to say “no”, or find the necessary talent and skills to attempt a new task.


12. An expansive network of influence

Age and time allows the chef to build a support mechanism of advisors who can help with any and all business decisions. This network takes many years to develop.


13. Willpower that matches the physical stamina drain

All of that desire to “play as hearty as you work” is tempered by professionalism and the knowledge that chefs need to separate work and play and be the rule and positive example rather than the exception.


14. An appreciation for those still on the front lines

The further a professional chef moves from the trenches, the more he or she learns to appreciate those who do the real work of cooking and serving. A chef can’t manage a person unless he or she has done their job at the highest level. Age is the differentiator.


15. An appreciation for trying and zero tolerance for those who don't

Chefs know that even if a cook fails to meet the standards of excellence for the property – if they have the right attitude and give it their all – then the rest can be taught. If the attitude is not there, then there is little hope that the individual will be successful. This understanding only comes when a chef spends enough quality time with staff, and years of experience.


16. An inate ability to pick the right employees

Mature chefs have seen it all. They know what is required of staff members – above and beyond the talent to cook. Mature chefs have an uncanny ability to select team members with the professional chemistry to become an asset rather than a liability.


17. A desire to train and mentor enthusiastic cooks

As a chef ages, he or she begins to realise that his or her real responsibility is to teach, train, mentor, and celebrate the success of others.


More from Paul Sorgule...

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