Please don’t be an asshole.
I know that the chef who trained you, or an instructor you had in school, or your first boss in a real kitchen, was a complete bag-of-dicks to you. Sure, you may have learned a lot under him (it’s always a “him”), but it was a real shit of a situation while you were in it, right? So I’m begging you, please don’t pass it along.
When you finally get some responsibility, power, influence, you’ll be faced with a decision you may not even be aware while you’re in the situation.
1. Pass along the abuse, the way you were taught and get to lord it over the “incompetent” newbie? Do you take out your resentment and frustration on someone else, the way high school seniors often treat high school freshmen?
2. Act like a mature adult, a responsible chef, and a true professional? Do you take the opportunity to teach someone the way you wish you’d been taught, with compassion and understanding?
Please, for the good of our industry, don’t pass along the immaturity and abuse. It’s not 1962 anymore and the French/European way of doing things isn’t the only game in town. Some of us have proven that there are other ways to run a kitchen. In fact, if you’ve got anger issues regarding your own training, use this opportunity to stick it to your teachers and role models by becoming the better person right now. I guarantee you that they will evolve in the same direction, you’ll just be years ahead of them.
Case in point
I recently read an article by David Chang and linked over to a similar article by Rene Redzepi about this evolution of courtesy and respect in the kitchen. Both chefs admit to being assholes in the past, but they are now calling for patience, support, tolerance, and compassion in the kitchen. It’s wonderful that they’ve both come to this realization… now.
After they’ve shit in the swimming pool for years, ruining how many cooks and chefs by passing it along? Those fuckers.
I’ve been thinking about this issue, the two types of chefs, for some time now. It’s crystalized recently, given my experience at O*, and I think the two types of chefs (asshole vs supportive) generally breaks along length of kitchen tenure (not necessarily personal age, but that does skew things a little). Most chefs with few years of actual leadership responsibilities fall into Camp 1, the Asshole Chef. And most of them grow out of it once the chickens come home to roost, after about 5-6 years of being in charge, and they’ve burned many, many bridges. Then with the wisdom of their own experiences, these Asshole Chefs evolve into Camp 2, the patient Supportive Chef. They’ve seen the light (like Chang and Redzepi) and realized they don’t have to be abusive to get the best out of their team.
There is a Camp 3, though, and hopefully more new chefs will come from here: They realize that to get the best from their team, abuse isn’t necessary, and that you build loyalty and avoid resentment by treating the rest of the kitchen and staff with the common decency all professionals deserve.
So a call to all new chefs and rising talent: You don’t have to put up with abuse and disrespect. You may be at the beginning of your career, or maybe you’re in a new job or position, learning all you can. Remember that you’re a professional. Putting up with abuse lessens you. Don’t do it. Even the newest, greenest apprentice has value and a chef who can’t even scrape together the most basic respect doesn’t deserve your admiration.
“Oh but he’s such a talented chef!” But take a second and think about how talented he would be if he weren’t such a dick? It’s proven that you become like the people you spend your time with. So choose your teachers based on what you can learn from them AND what kind of people are they.
To use Chang’s Star Wars analogy, Darth Vader may have been a bad-ass and could really teach a young Jedi the ways of the Force, but do you honestly think that same young Jedi would be able to avoid following in Vader’s path? It’s the same in the kitchen. If you work with and revere assholes, you are inevitably doomed to become one yourself. I promise you.
There are so many rebuttals, many of which I’ve experienced first-hand:
“I get the best results from my cooks when I yell at them.”
That’s bullshit. You don’t need to yell to get good results. All that means is that you as a chef have but one tool in your leadership toolkit. And what exactly does that say about you? Maybe you’re just not that good of a leader.
“If you can’t handle the heat get out of the kitchen.”
Another technique for blaming the victim and excusing your own immaturity and lack of true leadership skills.
“I don’t have time to coddle my employees.”
When did I ever suggest that? Never coddle your employees. People at every age and skill level need boundaries, it’s who we are as humans. We need a yardstick and limits against which we can measure ourselves. Anyone who says differently is lying. It’s your job as The Chef to provide such boundaries, measurements, standards, limits. This is what being an inspirational leader is actually about. But it doesn’t mean you need to or get to yell at and abuse your team.
Oh, and this one is SO common:
“They have to earn my respect.”
And so let’s examine what that really means… You don’t respect your cooks to begin with? Then what the hell are they doing on your team? Are you so stupid as to hire a cook you don’t respect? Respect is a mutual thing, starting from a common point of… wait for it… mutual respect. If you don’t start with respect, you’ll never get to respect. It may feel like respect, but it’s just fear. Fear of getting yelled at, fear of getting fired. And if that’s how you manage your kitchen, your food is really going to reflect that.
Ultimately, chefs are people too, and they have to come to this realization on their own. No one believes that the pot is hot until they touch it themselves. Fine. So be it. I would just urge all new chefs to touch that hot pot, get burned, and get over it all, as early as possible. As the common aphorism goes: Be the change you wish to see in the world.