In the food world, chefs are lauded for their flagship restaurants or the cuisine they personify: Daniel Boulud of Restaurant Daniel--French cuisine, Wylie Dufresne of WD-50--Molecular Cuisine, Francois Payard of Payard Patisserie-- French Pastries, Eric Ripert of Le Bernardin--French Seafood. But within the industry, cooks see chefs with a more discerning eye. Cooks judge chefs by "the type of chef they are"--by their skills, how they run their kitchen, whether they’re tyrants or mentors. But this insight only develops slowly, a function of the number of years worked and number of kitchens labored in.
I hadn’t given much thought to different management styles in the kitchen when my life meant working from one prep-day to the next, hustling to set-up my station for service, so that I could it break down again with a beer to rush, again, to the bar with my fellow cooks to drink away the sweat and pain.
It wasn’t so often that I had a moment to step back, reflect, and examine whether my chef’s management was sustainable or effective.
But it dawned on me years later when I moved to New York on a snowy January to work with one particular French pastry chef. This was my first job in the city after spending the previous five years in California kitchens. Working in New York became a rite of passage, a true test of skills. Jean-Francois, my last pastry chef told me about my new chef: “He’s very good; he was the pastry chef at Payard and Le Bernardin. He’s tough, but you will learn a lot.”
He was right. I relearned the basics – making custards, pate a choux, butter creams, meringues, and so on. I discovered how I cooked sugar – another basic method – was wrong, so he said.
“Why do you put the sugar in the pot first, and then the water?” Every question was rhetorical.
“The sugar stays at the bottom and the water sits on top. Now you have to stir it, and then wash the spatula. You’re wasting time and water that I have to pay for.”
“Water in first, twenty five percent volume of sugar.”
He taught me an extreme precision and a deranged sense of efficiency. I’m a better cook today because of him.
But he micromanaged. He trained through discouragement. He made sexist remarks and talked crap about Americans. It was the classical training I had always craved but from that classical French chef I thought was only a myth. You’ve heard of this ruthless chef, who pushes you until you crack, pauses a bit, only to push even harder. It was a training mentality learned through apprenticeships that were tradition in France. But this wasn’t France or the 19th century. It was New York and the 21st Century!
Later that month I came upon an article in San Francisco Magazine called, “The Kitchen CEO,
” written by Jan Newberry. She wrote about how executive chef Paul Canales of Oliveto in Oakland was running his kitchen a little differently. Canales became executive chef in 1995. He didn’t believe in continuing the tense and sadistic environment that he had just been through. He promoted learning and creativity. He developed a structure for advancement within the kitchen.
“He began to develop strict protocols for hiring, clear performance expectations for the first 90 days of employment, station management responsibilities, annual reviews, and offsite training programs--practices that are as common as paperclips in the corporate world, but almost unheard of in the world of small, family-run restaurants like Oliveto…The annual review for line cooks is a two-part, six-page document that evaluates employees on 25 points and requires them to come up with six goals for the year ahead and a plan for implementing those goals.”
“Where did this guy come from?” I thought. The article briefs his past life: he was marketing director at Pacific Bell who later attended Stanford Business School. His passion for cooking led him to the CIA in Hyde Park and then to Oliveto as an intern. I had read a similar article about David Myer at Sona in Los Angeles,
who incorporated Navy Seal training into the restaurant. Even the front of the house participated. Myer’s goal was to create a true team out of his employees who cooked as a team, trained as a team, played as a team, and suffered as one--different from Canales over at Oliveto but, nonetheless, inspiring. These kitchens were hardly summer camp. The chefs maintain a sense of urgency and intensity that top restaurants required, I read. The only difference was their approach.
So why did I put myself through the torture? Perhaps it was just my time. I had always wanted classical training from a French chef. But, man, does reality bite. And in hindsight, though he made my life a living hell during my first months in New York, he was the best chef I ever worked with.
It’s refreshing to know that aside from creating great food, chefs are becoming publicly recognized for their management approach. And it’s even better to know that kitchens operating under an archaic training system might be fading away. These days, especially in the United States, most people attend culinary school and then stage in the top restaurants, here and abroad. This new generation of chefs are younger and college-educated and didn’t resort to cooking because they didn’t know what else to do. They love the culinary craft and will foster that passion in others that follow. Whether chefs model their kitchens after corporations or the military, cooking is no longer just about the food.