We Are Chefs

8 Traits of a True Kitchen Professional

By Paul Sorgule, M.S., AAC

Escoffier was known to have a temper, but was able to control it by taking a step back, sometimes taking a walk, and really worked to maintain the type of demeanor and professionalism that he expected, and even demanded, of his kitchen employees.  It was likely this commitment to positive behavior that was the seed that grew into the Ritz Carlton credo of: “We are ladies and gentlemen serving ladies and gentlemen.”

Since the times of Escoffier, many kitchens have drifted from this standard, evolving into the stories of pirates and angry cooks and chefs who were determined to create a modern day Dante’s Inferno. It is this environment that many of today’s seasoned chefs grew up in–places where there was little tolerance for mistakes, where feelings were always on edge, service staff were cautious about what they said when entering through those swinging doors and the language of the kitchen was spiced with more than a few four-letter expletives. Although many of the stories were exaggerated, some were not. To those of us in the 1950s and 1980s kitchen brigade, the term hostile work environment was a pretty close description.

We may reflect back on those experiences with some level of crusty pride knowing that “We made it through hell,” while others chose to bail out of kitchen life because it wasn’t worth it. The long-term problem is that, just like poor parenting, if a chef allows this type of environment to exist, or if he or she creates this type of environment, their employees will grow to emulate this behavior in their kitchens, just like children reflect the behavior of their parents when they grow into adults.  If this environment exists in a kitchen, then all fingers should point directly to the chef.

Today there is no excuse for this type of environment to exist.  In fact, if a hostile environment of take no prisoners exists, be prepared for a visit from your local Department of Labor. The new generation of sous chefs and chefs are responsible for changing the perception that others have about life in the kitchen. We must ensure that future employees and the general public learn that “Hell’s Kitchen” is a bad dream–this is not what kitchens are like or should be like in the 21st century.

What are the traits of today’s kitchen professional and what should we as industry leaders expect, teach and demonstrate to those who will carry the torch of the new generation of cooks and chefs?

1. RESPECT FOR KITCHEN ORGANIZATION

One essential of kitchen life that will always remain at the top of the list is respect for the kitchen brigade that was developed by Escoffier, which was influenced by his time in the military.  Everyone has a unique set of responsibilities, yet everything is everyone’s job.  You may not like the person who you work with or work for, but it is essential that you respect the role that he or she plays. “Yes Chef” is the response that will allow every kitchen to reach down deep and accomplish the impossible. Critique of your colleagues’ work or decisions should come after the guest is served. In the heat of battle all cooks must respect the chain of command.

2. RESPECT FOR PEERS

By far, one of the great aspects to working in a kitchen is that the only real measurement of the person next to you is whether he or she is dependable and whether they give their best every day. Kitchens must always remain the example of respect for a diverse workforce–realize that everyone’s success depends on the success of everyone else.

3. RESPECT FOR INGREDIENTS

As cooks, we are privileged to work with exceptional ingredients that farmers, ranchers, cheese makers, charcutiers and butchers, vintners, fisherman and distributors painstakingly worked to bring to your back door. We owe respect for each and every one of them as well as the animals and plants that gave their existence for a great meal.

4. RESPECT FOR SPACE AND EQUIPMENT

When you are the one signing the checks, you understand how expensive it is to build and equip a kitchen. Today’s cook and chef must learn to treat the equipment with the same respect as if it were their own.  The way a cook treats his or her personal knives should be no different than the way he or she treats the large and small equipment in the kitchen where they work.

5. RESPECT FOR THE CUSTOMER

Yes, sometimes they are frustrating, but the vast majority of guests in restaurants are simply looking for a well-prepared meal and honest, caring service.  Without the guest, none of us receives a paycheck.  The rule of thumb in today’s restaurant economy is to always be prepared to say “Yes” to a guest request (within reason, of course).

6. RESPECT FOR THE UNIFORM

Professionals in other fields who have an opportunity to wear a uniform know that it represents history and pride. The cook’s uniform represents the work and dedication of the generations that came before–chefs who built our industry and defined what great cooking means.  We must, as professionals, respect that history and show our pride by ensuring our uniforms are always clean, crisp and complete.  Let the world know that you are proud of your profession.

7. RESPECT FOR ESTABLISHED PROCEDURES AND METHODS

Every cook wants to reach a point in his or her career when they can place a signature on a dish or create a style of cooking that defines who they are as a kitchen professional. You must learn to walk before you run.  Established, time-tested procedures are at the heart of every cooking style and represent the key that unlocks a cook’s ability to make a statement when the time comes.

8. RESPECT FOR THE BUSINESS OF FOOD

The restaurant business is one of the largest in the country.  There are more than 1 million restaurants in the United States generating more than $780 billion dollars in annual sales.  As a cook you are a member of a club that currently employs 14.4 million people–that’s 10% of the entire U.S. workforce.  We are important, we are essential and we are powerful, professional cooks who share the trait of pride for a business that is truly exceptional.

Paul Sorgule has been a chef and educator for more than four decades holding positions as hotel executive chef, food and beverage director, faculty member, dean of culinary arts and provost at a prominent culinary college. Sorgule is president of Harvest America Ventures, a restaurant and culinary school consulting and training company he formed in 2012. He blogs about culinary issues and finding that work/life balance at www.harvestamericaventures.com.