It’s not the wages. It’s not the long hours or the stress. It’s not even the lack of talent or skill — so drop all of those excuses off your list of excuses or reasons for failure.
I can teach anyone how to cook and there is always someone who would be willing to work for less than the average line cook. The problems with our kitchens run deeper than just the day to day — they start with us and how we approach our careers as leaders — and the difference between success and failure is completely dependent on what type of approach we choose to take, since we are the ones at the top of the food chain.
If you’ve ever worked the line of a busy restaurant on a busy night, you know how magical it can feel. Everything feels right. Employees are on time or often early. Mise en place is in place and if for some reason someone’s station isn’t quite caught up, the entire team pitches in to ensure that the team is setup for success. Service runs like a well conducted orchestra. We all know that the whole is greater than the sum of the various parts, however, those parts each must individually play their role in the machine — so, we do what we must to make it work.
But, to truly appreciate one of these kitchens, we must first understand what it’s like to know when things don’t run quite so smoothly. Employees are late for their shifts. The kitchen isn’t ready for service. Dishes are sent back by customers and nothing seems to work. There is no synchronicity to it.
What’s the difference?
What makes some restaurants succeed while others fail, ever so miserably, almost like they never had a chance?
As you might know, I’ve spent the last year of my life writing a book about what it takes to create a successful life and career in the kitchen; Making the Cut: What Separates the Best From the Rest.
Along the way, I’ve interviewed some of the very best in the business to better understand what they all have in common. It was all rooted in two very fundamental questions:
- What are the successful chefs and operators doing that the rest of the restaurant world is not?
- What are they NOT doing, that the rest of the restaurant world is?
Over the course of many conversations with these elite specimens, I found seven common character traits and attributes that these individuals seemed to embody. These aren’t tactics like “better understanding of food costs” or “having a more well balanced menu” or “knowing how to properly brand one’s self as a restaurant and chef” — all vastly important. These seven are instead, deeply rooted in one’s being and understanding of the way the world operates and how they need to show up in it.
The power of vision is important as we set out as leaders and stakeholders in an organization — if we don’t know where we are headed, how can we expect our teams to want to join us for the ride? We can’t. It starts with having a compelling vision, putting that vision into place and then enrolling people in the journey with us.
(In the book: The stories of world renowned Chef Thomas Keller and the rising star, Chef Brandon Chrostowski, a CNN Hero in 2015 who has an amazing story)
2. Connecting With the Work
When I truly understood what this concept meant, I didn’t only become a better more impassioned cook, but in the process, I made my staff and the people around me better — they could see thought and care I was putting into each component to a dish. They knew it mattered to me. We have to connect with the work and in doing so, our staff will do the same — it won’t only make them better at their jobs tactically, it will make them appreciate the opportunity that each of us has every single day, to do the work we love.
(In the book: I share the wonderful career of James Beard Hall of Fame Chef, Frank Stitt)
3. The Power of a Decision
We make decisions every single day that dictate the course of our lives. Have you ever thought about how one tiny decision many years ago led you to a certain place and then another place and another and all of the sudden — here you are! This is how it is for all of us, and the successful chefs and people of this world understand how powerful a decision can be. The choice to step out and take a chance, make a decision and then stick to one’s guns is rare in this world, but so is success. Maybe it’s regarding a hire, the direction of your menu, or even how to handle a customer complaint — how we choose to manage these situations, regardless of the stakes, inevitably translate into our success or lack thereof.
(In the Book I discuss the journeys of Chefs Gavin Kaysen and Philip Tessier who both competed on the American team for the Bocuse d’Or competition in Lyon, France — the culinary olympics — one decision Kaysen made many years ago led to the United States making history in the most recent competition in 2015 when Tessier represented the United States.)
4. Hard Fricking Work
They always say that that, “if you want something you’ve never had before, you’ve got to do something you’ve never done before,” and for a lot of that is tenacious, relentless hard work. It’s that simple. Have you created the success you want for your life? If not, ask yourself, “how am I spending my time?”. The most rewarding things in life — meaningful work, relationships, dedication to a cause are achieved, not through ordinary means, but rather through unending hard work and commitment to the task at hand.
If you really want something, what are you willing to sacrifice, in order to achieve it? Going out drinking with friends after work? A couple hours of Netflix every night? Video games? Audit your life and see what you can take out and replace it with hard work. It’s not just about working hard alongside everyone else, it’s about working hard to get yourself better, to put yourself in a better position to succeed.
(In the Book I tell the powerful story of Fabio Viviani, the Top Chef legend and now, household brand around America that started with humble, underdog beginnings in Italy, which he turned into a quest for achieving greatness.)
5. The Willingness to Fail, In Order to Succeed
We are taught from a very young age to play by the rules, to speak only when spoken to, to follow the herd and to fit in. The problem with fitting and following the herd is that everyone does it — it’s safe. Safe is good when you need to protect yourself from being eaten by a Sabertooth Tiger, but not so much in the world we live in today — playing it safe is the surest way to discover mediocrity.
We have to continually push the boundaries of what we know is possible, to question the norm, to ask “why is this or that a certain way?”. Curiosity and the willingness to go out into the unknown to try something that might now work is how virtually any great company was started and it applies directly to how we as restaurant operators needs to approach the businesses we run.
Are we playing it safe and following the pack, or are we pushing the envelope and even if and when we fail along the way, we will have an opportunity to surprise and delight our customers with something they never would have imagined. The importance of taking calculated risks, adjusting through failure and finding our way to the other side is the magic of the world we live in and it’s what we respect most in the leading organizations today.
(In the Book, I tell the epic stories of Jeremiah Tower, the man who virtually started the Farm to Table movement, had the first open kitchen and is one of the most well-respected chefs alive today, as well as that of Dominique Crenn, the first female chef to earn 2 Michelin Stars and was recently awarded “Best Female Chef in the World”.)
6. Learning to Pivot
I can’t begin to tell you how many times I’ve had to pivot over the course of my career — at times I have been completely to blame, while other times I fell victim to the negative decisions of the people around me. It doesn’t really matter who is to blame, how it happens or even why — it happened. So, now the question is, what’s next? How can I best deal with this moving forward? How can I still be a good employee, boss or spouse, in spite of the challenges I’ve faced. It’s all about learning to pivot and adjust, because we can…. Because we have to, if we want to be successful in life.
(In the Book, I tell the story of Chef Kenny Gilbert — Top Chef Finalist, Award winning chef/restaurateur — and how in the various early stages of his career something UNTHINKABLE happened — it consumed him, as it would for any of us. It was only through learning to move on and past this tragedy in his life, that Chef Kenny was able to go on to do great things — he’s a testament to all of us.)
7. It’s All About the People
Over and over again I saw that in every single conversation I had over the course of the research for this book, that one thing was abundantly clear — of all of the various facets to success, none were more prominent nor more meaningful, than the strong, solid relationships with the people around us.
We all work so damn much and our careers consume a large part of our energy, thus it’s important to nurture such relationships in a way that builds trust and respect. It’s about understanding and choosing to appreciate the people around us for who they are, not just as cooks, dishwashers and employees… but as people.
When we create a powerful connection that’s grounded in love, respect and appreciation, it’s amazing to see how far that can take us as an organization. Our staffs, when we do right, are willing to march into war, but only if we are willing to take the first bullet and show that we have their best interest in mind, far ahead of our own.
(In the Book, I tell the story of how Chef Duane Keller and Frank Stitt has been able to create incredibly meaningful relationships with the people around him and how Union Square Hospitality Group embodies this principle at the very core of their existence, through chatting with Richard Corraine of USHG, Danny Meyer’s business partner)
I truly believe that if you master these seven concepts, success, soon enough, will be knocking at your door.
No, not because you have it all figured out, or because they make you a better cook, but then you will have a better understanding of the way the world works and how you need to show up, in order to be successful. You’ll want to work hard and treat people right, and take the chances that can pave the way for the career you’ve always wanted. But, don’t take my word for it — take it from these chefs who’ve done it for themselves.
If you read this article and it piqued your curiosity, I have no doubt that the book will fill in the missing threads — it will all make a lot more sense. But, if nothing else, I hope you can use these seven concepts as a baseline and gauge for how your life and how you are showing up, stacks up against the ones who’ve truly created success for themselves.
It’s about how we, as leaders show up and the mindset that we choose to embrace that will determine the success or failure of our restaurants. It’s that simple — yet that hard.