If you’ve been around kitchens long enough, you’ve undoubtedly found yourself in some less than ideal situations. Prepared food is sitting in the walk-in for God knows how long — not dated and without a label. Recipes lack consistency, because no one actually follows the recipe and then eventually customers start to notice — then complain. The dynamic between the kitchen and service staff is tense and tenuous, making the work environment as a prison, instead of a refuge from the other challenges of normal, every day life.

All of these situations pile on additional, unnecessary stress to our already stressful work environments — but how do we avoid them? Sure, we should have a recipe book with a list of standardized processes, we can create systems and protocols for certain situations — the list goes on.

The problem is that rarely do us, the ones in charge, think about the relationships we have with the individuals with whom we work. Instead, it’s been industry practice to take the mind-set of, ‘this is what we need, this is how it’s done, and this is how it should look – just get it done damnit!’.

In theory, that approach should work — shouldn’t our employees listen to us? Shouldn’t they care about doing a good job and wanting to excel at the job they were hired to do? Well, yeah, but the problem is that the ones in charge have, for too long, equated one’s employment to a very specific thing — can this individual perform a given set of tasks, in order to excel in this role? That’s part of the equation, but what about the rest? Obviously, if that was the entire issue at hand, we wouldn’t have anything to worry about and things would flow smoothly — like clockwork.

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Counterintuitively, what else is at play actually has nothing to do with the actual work, but rather their relationship to the work, which is a leader’s responsibility to nurture. A healthy and successful work environment relies heavily on the higher-ups ability to enroll a group of people in a common vision that’s shared by the organization as a whole.

When we clearly articulate the bigger objective, the smaller pieces tend to take care of themselves.

When we enroll our staffs in an overarching vision for what we, as a company, represent, our employees understand that they aren’t just cooks, pot washers or servers. They are bought into the mission, thus, through their relationship to the work, they are able to contribute to something bigger than themselves — they get to do that through whatever their roll might be in the organization.

Every day I get asked, ‘How do I get my cooks and staff to do better work, to work harder and be better employees?’.

Rarely do the folks on the other side of the conversation expect for me to blame the circumstances on them. It’s their fault for not having a clear vision of what the vision might be, or for hiring people and not clearly articulating that them.

It’s not about finding people to do the work, because if that were the case, we could just operate like assembly lines, swapping one person out for another. This works fine for companies who’s success is primarily dependant on systematic execution with the goal of yielding the same result every single time. Yes, you could say that that’s how most restaurants would love to function — the problem is that we have moving parts — unexpected challenges arise every day and they can pop up at any given time in a restaurant. A true assembly line worker knows a widget rolls up to their area every 30 seconds and sure enough, every 30 seconds on the dot, that widget shows up. On the contrary, we in restaurants are constantly having to adjust, adapt and fight through challenges — ironically this is part of what gives our work meaning and excitement.

 

At the end of the day, we are a group of people working together in a hotter than hell, often chaotic environment, where the team’s success is dependent on the entire team’s ability to buy into the mission — when this happens, employees show up and do their best work, regardless of any obstacles or hurdles they have to work through in getting there.

What we do in the kitchen is an art, in a sense, because there is no exact formula that tells you how to get to where you want to go. There is no checklist or ‘if this happens, do this’ type of book, because there are a thousand of those different situations, and each version of it is unique to a given restaurant and they have to deal with it in a way that works for them.

To create this art and a dynamic where people perform at their best (and want to) has little to do with the actual, day in and day out work. It instead, has almost everything to do with the story we convey to our employees about what the organization stands for, what it means to be a part of it, and what their role is within it.

That’s how you get anyone to buy into the mission — after all, there’s plenty of time for teaching the craft and the skills along the way.

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