Almost a year ago I wrote a post giving some advice for young line cooks. Today I would like to take a moment and give some advice for chefs who are still somewhat new to their positions. To say it is a huge step going from line cook to sous-chef to Chef is an understatement. I took over my first kitchen at the ripe ol' age of 24, which is much, much to young to be in charge of a professional kitchen. I had only one sous-chef position before my first Chef position. Boy, O' boy, was I lost. Needless to say my learning curve was a steep one at that. I really didn't get a good hold on my position until I had ran two or so other kitchens. So, with that said, here is some advise I wish I would have been given:
1) Be passionate that borderlines on the obsessive. The passionate part goes without saying. If you are not passionate about your food, get out. You are doing no one any good; not yourself, not your employer, not your cooks, not your guests. A chef with no passion is worthless. Now, as to the borderline obsessive part, this is where good chefs and great chefs part ways. It's easy to be a good chef. It takes a rabid, obsessive, single-minded, maniac to be a great chef. In his memoir's, Escoffier said it would be difficult to recount the number of hours he spent in the kitchen after everyone had gone home trying new flavor combinations and new dishes. Great chefs live food and nothing gets in the way of this obsession. It is entirely up to you just how far you go and how well you do in your career.
2) Get used to being tired. A chef who is not tired, is a chef who is not doing his/her job. Eight hour days? Those went out of the window when you were a line cook. Now your average day is 12-15 hours. Sleep is optional. There is never enough time to do all that needs to be done. Your to-do list is never finished. You will go home tired and you will wake up tired. That is what the kitchen demands. If getting your 8 hours sleep is important, you might want to consider another career path. Personally, I live on an average 4-6 hours and am doing just fine.
3) Never stop learning. Now that you have attained the coveted position of Chef it does not mean in anyway that you have "arrived". No, you still have a long way to go. I look back at my early days as Chef and just can't believe myself sometimes. Keep reading cookbooks. Keep learning from other chefs. Don't tune your cooks out, they can often times teach you a thing or two. A chef who doesn't read cookbooks is like a writer who read other novels. You cannot advance in your position in a vacuum. Keep up on current trends. Learn new techniques. Push yourself everyday to learn something new.
4) Stress. It's best to become its friend now, otherwise it will be your nightmare later. I read an article some years ago that was discussing the most stressful jobs in the United States and professional chef was up in the top five, right alone side of air traffic controllers, tramua doctors, and police officers. The stress you felt as a line cook and sous-chef is nothing to the stress you are going to feel now. Now, everying is your problem and your fault. The customer wants what they want, when they want it. It is your job to give it to them. Are you up to it?
5) Do not hang around with your crew. Your are the boss now. You are the taskmaster whose job it is to crack the whip. Those working for you are no longer your friends. They are your cooks. You cannot maintain the respect of your crew if you go out with them. There has to be a gap between you and your crew. It is the job of your sous-chef to fill that gap, but you must remain somewhat aloof.
6) Be firm. Disicpline is not an option in a well ran kitchen. It is the job of the Chef to set the standard and it is the job of the Chef to make sure that standard is met with each and every plate. You can only do this if there is a firm disicipline in place. Get it known right away whose standard they, the cooks, are to follow. YOURS. Firm dicipline does not mean abuse. Mario Batali was once asked about his opinion of chefs who spend their time yelling and screaming at their cooks. His answer was spot on. He said that a chef who finds they have scream at their cooks is a chef who has not properly trained them. There is no place in a kitchen for abuse or personal attacks, no matter what you may see on T.V. or have personally seen in your own training. Being abused by a chef in your early career does not give you the right to abuse. The cycle of abuse stops with you.
7) Be firmly in control of your kitchen. The buck stops with you. If the food is brilliant, it is because of you. If it is a flop, it is because of you. You are the leader. Your cooks will only go as far as you lead. If you don't lead, then the assylum is under the control of the inmates, and that is never a good idea. See everything. Hear everything. Nothing should get past you. Learn to pay attention to every detail. Not a plate leaves the pass with you tasting it and seeing it; and it doesn't leave the pass if you don't approve of it. You tell the cooks what to do, not the other way around. Every kitchen has it's own pulse. It is your job to find that pulse and use it to conduct your cooks in their jobs. I let it be known that my kitchen is NOT a democracy. It is a theocracy, and I am god. If you are young, this is not as easy as it sounds. My first few kitchens found me as the youngest cook, and it was tough. It will take sometime to gain respect from your older cooks, but stay with your guns. Listen to the older cooks, but don't let them tell you how to run your kitchen. You are going to make a lot of mistakes, so make them with authority.
8) Trust your crew, but have a plan B ready. Some chefs micro-manage, I don't. I trust my crew to do their jobs. I've trained them the right way and they know not to deviate from the path. BUT, always have a plan B at the ready. Trust your crew to do their jobs, but have a plan if they don't.
9) Make yourself a place of sanctuary. I cannot overstate how important it is to have a place you can go to and get away, if only for a few moments. My office downstairs is my place. It's a hoval, but it's mine and I go there often when I just need a moment away. Ever wonder why the Chef sometimes disappears into the walk-in cooler for extended periods of time? Because the cooler often provides a quick repose from the chaos outside.
Good luck. You're going to need it.