Over the last half a dozen years, I’ve had the opportunity to do some pretty cool stuff in this industry. The first event I ever participated in I got to hangout with Michael Ruhlman. I was the guest mixologist, barely knowing what to do – having to replicate the recipe from one of his books for a Manhattan – a fancy one with egg whites and such. I’ve become friends with Chef Art Smith, who has treated me to many wonderful meals at his restaurants – Southern Hospitality at its finest.

 

For my book, Making the Cut, I interviewed Fabio Viviani and Gavin Kaysen and Dominique Crenn (voted best female chef in the world a few years back), as well as industry icons Jeremiah Tower and Frank Stitt. My travels have taken me to stages at the NRA and the ACF, as well. I’ve had the chance to speak at culinary schools like Miami Culinary Institute, and believe it or not, I was hired to speak to the staff during a team building day. I was the youngest person in the room by at least a generation. Finally, when I think about the individuals with whom I’ve connected, I would be remiss to point out that over the last two years, almost to the day, I’ve interviewed some of the greatest minds of the culinary landscape – Tower (again), Richard Blais, Scott Conant, Aaron Sanchez, Michelle Bernstein, Brooke Williamson and Rich Rosendale – among others.

Here is a link to the podcast with some of those interviews – iTunes, Stitcher and here on the website – scroll through, subscribe and if you’re already a fan of the show – it would mean a lot if you’d leave a review!

The podcast is entitled Making the Cut and I host it with my buddy, Shawn Wenner and our goal is to hack into the minds of incredibly successful individuals (it’s not just chefs), and really dial in what makes them tick, and how they’ve been able to create such success in their careers. Getting to interview such talented, motivated and successful individuals is without a doubt, one of the highlights of my week.
But, to tackle what I set out to do in this article is the question – what does every successful chef have in common? First, let’s go ahead and explain some of the runners-up – these are qualities and traits that are absolutely present in many of the individuals we’ve interviewed, but they don’t hold up across the spectrum.

 

  • Believe it or not, it’s the cooking – some of these chefs are next level, while others represent very approachable cuisine. It’s not the people they surround themselves with. Yes, most successful chefs have a cadre of talented individuals around them, though even more important than that – these chefs have individuals they trust, which allows them to scale – so while leadership is damn near the most important skill you and develop over the course of your career, however – not all successful chefs are great leaders – this was hard for me to wrap my head around.
  • This might shock some, because it’s certainly one of the themes through much of my writing – it’s not perseverance either, though again, another common theme. We heard stories of Cameron Mitchell being down to the very last day of raising funds to make his dreams become a reality – if the check didn’t come in one Friday more than three decades ago, he was going to have to go get a job – who knows if his restaurant empire would have ever even happened at all. Most recently, we heard Chef Eric Levine’s story – a five-time cancer survivor, who has a beautiful story of resilience. But, while we dove into our fair share of stories like this, we also heard Adam Fleishman of Umami Burger who made his success sound freakishly easy – almost to the point where Shawn and I were nearly at a loss for words mid-interview. Each and every one of us should be striving to be better and more resilient leaders – some of the greatest paired attributes an individual can have.

But, to answer the question posed earlier – what does every single successful chef have in common?

Every successful chef has learned to adapt; they are fluid and to open to things not going exactly according to plan, most likely, because frequently that’s one’s experience in the restaurant industry. This is on a micro (or daily basis), but on a macro level as well, as they look at the big picture.

I’m guessing this makes sense as you start to think through it. We know that in the foodservice industry not a day goes by when everything goes exactly according to plan. Those days don’t exist in our industry, so if you’re going to be successful, one of the first skills you need to develop is the willingness to embrace a certain sense of openness. There is a term in metal science – tensile – a term used to refer to a metal’s ability to bend under pressure. It turns out that if a metal is too rigid and hard – once under duress and under serious tension, it is weaker and more brittle, versus a metal that tensile qualities – forgiving, willingness to bend nature actually make it stronger and the same is true for the most successful individuals with whom I’ve had the opportunity to connect with.

So, my advice? Stay on top of the important things and put things in place as best you can, BUT know that things will never fall perfectly in place. Your new line cook is going to screw up nearly every single dish on their way to getting it right. A waitress, every now and then, is going to mis-ring an order in the midst of the rush, and the hostess is going to giveaway a VIP’s table to a walk-in on a full night. Let’s avoid these situations when we can. But when we can’t? The decision you have to make it – how do I want to deal with it?

Now, as the new year approaches, maybe it’s time to think about the ways in which you’re too rigid, too easily stressed or upset and how you can better adapt so that in the moment when you need to make a snap decision you aren’t hung up on your emotions.

At the end of the day, you’ve gotta roll with the punches and make the best with what you’ve got – that’s all any of us can really do.

Free Chapter of Making the Cut!

I spent time with the world's best chefs to learn what separated them from the rest. I’m proud to share these stories and spread some good in the world and to have penned a book that needed to be written.

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