If I Had Only Known

Night Before Culinary School Started

Taken the night before I started at the Pearson School of Culinary Arts. At the time I dubbed this my “Iron Chef Pose”.

Dear Greg,

It is me, you, from the future. It is 2012, you have been out of school for less than a year and already you have been offered your first job as Sous Chef! Great work, you deserve it. You proved yourself by showing up at day one ready to go, taking initiative, working with confidence, and proving that you were someone to be trusted to lead the kitchen staff. Before you embark on this next adventure though, I have to warn you about a few mistakes you are about to make in the hopes that you may avoid them.

Yes, you are in charge, but that does not mean you know everything. You will do a good job of listening to your superiors, but you need to do a better job of listening to those you are managing. They have more experience than you do, and all come from different backgrounds. Following their suggestions, or at least trying them, is not a sign of weakness and will not lead to them undermining you.

That brings me to my next point: as the saying goes, respect is not given, it is earned. The fact that you were groomed for and then given the title of sous chef means very little to anyone but you. You will be so worried that people will not respect that you are their chef that you will hand out orders for people to do anything you don’t want to do. The hope will be that by your cooks seeing you giving orders and people listening and carrying them out will make them listen when you talk. Nothing could be further from the truth. The real way to have people respect what you say, and respect your authority, is to get in the trenches and work elbow to elbow with them. Show them you are there for them, not for you, that you are not above any task.

Chef Life

A picture of me at the first Sous Chef position I had.

This next one is incredibly important: put your damn phone away. Yes, your future fiancee is just a text away, and you have just fallen in love with her, but being on your phone all the time under the guise of it being work related is transparent and infuriating to your cooks, servers, chefs, and managers alike. While you are at work you owe it to everyone to be present. You expect your cooks to leave their phones alone while they work, and for them to focus on the task at hand. Why would they respect that requirement if they see you are not?

It is not your job to bark orders, but to inspire people to want to work for you as hard as they can. What you present to your staff is what you will get in return. Yes, they are unionized, not an easy first-time-management role for you, but what I just said is true for any workplace, in any line of work. If you want your cooks to move faster, you have to move faster than they are. If you want them to respect you, you have to respect them. If you want them to take pride in the dishes they present then praise them when they do well, and be meticulous when you are cooking. You represent the expectations you have for them.

Finally, praise in public, coach in private. You will hear this a number of times while you are there, but please take it to heart. There are going to be those among your staff that really challenge your authority. Be patient and always kind. Challenging them openly in front of your staff will have the opposite effect than desired, weakening your position. Keep cool, let them freak out and they will be the ones who look silly. Later, once everything has calmed down, have a constructive conversation in private with them. Address their concerns, and express yours. Create a common goal to work towards and they will become allies.

You will learn lots in the next few months. I realize that having you read this may not change how you are going to handle the new position, maybe you need to learn by making mistakes. Just remember that you are a great chef, there is a reason why you have been given this responsibility, and have fun.

Future Greg

P.S. Being on salary sucks, not being on salary sucks. Just deal with it.

The Chef Life

Me currently, at our house in the country, not dreaming for a living but just living the dream.

4 Responses to “If I Had Only Known”
  1. Such an insightful post…sounds like your present self has learned so much. Congratulations!

  2. hgaloska says:

    Super good advice.

  3. Kram says:

    Reminded me of Unk in “The Sirens of Titan”

  4. Greg – loved reading this post, not because I am a chef, but because I am married to one. Over the years I have heard these things from my husband many times as he is working long hours alongside his crew, setting an example, encouraging, training and leading, all at the same time. They truely respect him because of this as I’m sure your crew does as well. I hope many young chefs read your words of wisdom (and their wives or significant others as well so they know what lies ahead).

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