A plea to all new chefs

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.

Do you:
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.

The Sunday Roast Project

I’ve decided (late in the game, I admit) to chronicle all the places we have Sunday Roast while living in London. It’s a cultural tradition here in the UK, and one that I can fully support. Our version of the tradition, to keep things fresh and new for us, is to go out for Sunday Roast at a new place every Sunday, whenever feasible. I’m loving this tradition!

A traditional Sunday Roast has a fixed list of components: Roast meat (lamb, beef, or chicken), roasted or steamed veg, roasted potatoes, gravy (never enough!), and Yorkshire pudding.

To date, here’s where we’ve dined, along with their retroactively-posted blog notes:
3/22 – Boulevard Brasserie
4/12 – The Winchester
4/19 – The Bull and The Hide
4/26 – La Vita e Bella
5/10 – Malmaison
5/24 – The Slug and Lettuce
5/31 – The First Floor
8/16 – A real British Sunday Roast in a real British home (!)
8/23 – The Marmor Grill

The Marmor Grill – The SRP

The Marmor Grill
Bryanston Street
London, W1H 7EH

Another crazy-huge buffet with a full carvery hot line and a selection of desserts. This time, considering my lesson from Malmaison, I didn’t gorge myself as much. But I did get a good value, believe me.

The food was good, although the desserts were a little “common” and basic: Chocolate cake, meringues, cheesecake with fruit. The main spread, however, was delicious and well-executed. There were four types of meat to choose from: Turkey, chicken, lamb, beef; a delicious onion gravy, roasted veg including butternut squash and parsnips (yum!), and the requisite Yorkshire pudding.

The atmosphere felt like a regular restaurant in a nice hotel, which it was. No British pub feeling here. But that’s ok, because it was all-you-can-eat Sunday Roast!

A trip to the British Library

I visited the British Library today to see the Magna Carta before it gets put back in storage. This year marks 800 years since the Magna Carta was signed by King John, against his will. There’s too much history to put into my blog, but you can read more on Wikipedia.

In addition to two copies of the Magna Carta owned by the British Library on special display (there are only four in existence, the other two are at Lincoln Cathedral and Salisbury Cathedral), they also had one of the original Bill of Rights (a very large document, about 3′ by 3′) and one of the original prints of the Declaration of Independence (the Dunlap edition). I also got to view an original draft of Thomas Jefferson’s document, before it was edited and officially printed for good ol’ King George.

The British Library has some other cool stuff besides the Magna Carta including the only surviving manuscript of Beowulf, Beatles original notes and lyrics, Da Vinci notebooks, and two Gutenberg bibles.

Interesting trivia I picked up today:

  • There aren’t any original manuscripts of Shakespeare in existence. Everything written by him is printed, which just fuels the controversy of “did he really write all that he’s given credit for?”
  • While it took several more years for the Magna Carta to actually get adopted into early British law, only three clauses are currently on the books. All other clauses have been nullified.
  • Jefferson’s original draft of the Declaration calls for the elimination of slavery. It was struck out by Congress (of course).
  • The Dunlap copy of the Declaration of Independence owned by the British Library had been “rediscovered” in 2008 in some back fileroom. How very British.

What I learned while working at O*

It’s been a little over a week since I resigned at O* and it’s time for me to compile the “Lessons Learned” while working there. I did learn a lot in a short time, mostly about myself, and sadly not enough about pastry.

I learned that oven-baking sugar can result in a pretty nice meringue. It’s probably the equivalent of a Swiss meringue, but a hell of a lot easier to manage. The sugar sits in the oven until it’s hot, then whipped with the whites like a regular French meringue. No waterbath, no fussing to get the right temp, no direct attention needed. More stable than a French meringue, but dry and bakeable, unlike an Italian meringue.

I learned (again) the value of rote daily production. Nothing will teach you the intricacies and vagaries of any recipe quite like making it every day of the week for months on end. I’ve never been a fan of recipe memorization, but working like this you can’t avoid it. And working like this will give you the opportunity to see first-hand just how small changes/mistakes can affect the final result. You just don’t get this lesson unless you’re doing the same thing a million times.

COROLLARY: I learned (again) the truth behind the idea that mastery isn’t practicing something until you get it right, mastery is practicing something until you can’t get it wrong.

Life lessons
I learned that a workplace culture can be pretty quickly evaluated regarding its health by simply listening to how employees talk about each other and the management. Everyone gets irritated by the rest of the team at some point, that’s to be expected. In a healthy environment that’s done after work hours over a pint. In a toxic environment, it’s done right there at work, in whispered snippets and hushed gossip.

I learned that good, inspiring leaders are focused on results, inexperienced or weak leaders get stuck on process. It may be too early to say definitively, but it’s been my experience that the latter is a hallmark of European chefs and recent culinary graduates. If it didn’t follow the process, the result is automatically wrong in their minds. I’ve come to the conclusion that “Is there a better way? It doesn’t have to be like this” is particularly an American way of looking at the world.

I learned that when training someone to a new skill or routine that consistency is key. Write down the process, goal, recipe, rules, whatever and then stick to it for everyone. No exceptions, no going off script, no confusion or miscommunication. If the documentation doesn’t match the daily practice, then change the documentation!

About myself
I learned that when I ask a question I often phrase it in the wrong way. My questions are apparently perceived as coming from ignorance when in fact they’re coming from a desire to meet the local standard. I need to not ask “How do you make your caramel sauce” but instead ask “Tell me how you make your caramel sauce HERE”. I need to make sure that my questions are framed so it’s clear I know what I’m doing, I just want to find out any particular variations from the norm.

I learned that I ask too many questions. I am afraid of making mistakes and I ask a lot of questions up front so as to avoid any errors. I need to just trust my experience, training, and knowledge, then make the damn cake.

I learned that I like gaining new skills and experience, but that I hate the process of learning. I really hate feeling ignorant and fumbling around.

I learned how to work a routine and I’ve learned that I don’t think that way. Cyclical production on a weekly basis (we’re making cheesecakes again, it must be Monday!) gets really boring really quickly to me. I’m used to always evaluating the situation, even when apparently unnecessary, and I’m not accustomed to a fixed routine. Must be my catering background.

I learned to be in charge of my own self-worth and value. I know where I am in my career and I know how I got here. My experience and talent are valid and valuable. I know what I’m doing, regardless of how people talk to me or what they think. I don’t have to put up with shit like this; I learned to trust my gut and make a change when something doesn’t feel right.

Tale of the Tape
With a hat-tip to my ESPN.com roots:

  • Time put in: 3 months, or about 625 hours.
  • Favorite dessert to eat: Polenta cake. Tangy, sweet, good texture, and the orange blossom royal icing on top.
  • Favorite dessert to make: Chocolate Guinness cake because it reminded me of the good times at Starry Nights.
  • Least favorite dessert to make: Fruit crumbles. Too many steps and very time consuming.
  • What I’ll miss most: Employee discounts on breakfast (the best thing I think O* does).
  • Best thing overall: The shift drink at the end of the day. Since there are no real “open container” laws here in London, I could get my red wine to go, in a paper cup with a plastic lid. Talk about classy!