Image by Platon
By Paul Sorgule, MS, AAC
What does it mean to be a professional? Is there a direct link between position and professionalism, or should professionalism be present regardless of title? Can a person be effective in the role of chef without consistently demonstrating the attributes of professionalism?
When you reach the milestone of becoming a chef in charge of a kitchen, you will find that many responsibilities associated with the position relate to character and how you carry yourself, rather than the technical skills that got you to this career benchmark. Character, however, is not something that exists because the job description says so–character is built over a lifetime through the environment that you mature in, the people with whom you work and the type of individual you choose to be.
Although every chef is different, I can unequivocally state that the chefs of merit, those who are not only successful in the kitchen but enjoy the respect of peers and employees, are those who consistently exhibit the rules of professionalism outlined here.
LOOK THE PART
There is a very proud history behind the chef’s uniform that is respected worldwide. Although trends in clothing may change, the care and appropriate respect for impeccably clean, pressed and gracefully worn chefs’ apparel goes a long way in showing the kitchen, the restaurant and the community the chef’s pride in this brigade. This is listed first because we all know the importance of first impressions.
ACT THE PART
A uniform without respect for the position and what it represents is a hollow statement of ego. Professional chefs carry themselves as a shining example of Escoffier, Carême, Pointe, Bocuse, Verge, Keller, Trotter, Waters, Lewis and hundreds of other chefs who came before.
BE THE POSITIVE EXAMPLE
It is very easy to become caught in the trap of emotions that many people believe represent the environment of the kitchen. Short tempers, excessive profanity, disrespect, a demeaning approach toward those trying to learn and contempt for front-of-house employees and even certain guests has no place in a modern kitchen. Professional chefs must be above this attitude and must lead people away from such behavior.
BE THE STANDARD BEARER OF DEPENDABILITY
Chefs in a kitchen, like parents in their home, are expected to be a resource for problem-solving and a solid example of dependability. The chef must “be there” even when he or she is not. With proper training and through effective establishment of standards, the kitchen team will learn to depend on those standards even when the chef is absent. One of the first thoughts that every cook should have is “What would the chef do or think?”
TREAT OTHERS WITH RESPECT
Professional chefs treat everyone with respect. While they may disagree with another person, or even feel disappointment in how others carry through with their jobs, professional chefs separate a person’s actions from their earned respect as an individual. Front or back of the house, management or hourly employees, vendors and delivery persons, and certainly guests, are all individuals who should be treated as the chef would like to be treated. Strong critique and relayed disappointment should not carry over to how the individual is treated.
TREAT EVERYONE THE SAME AND EVERYONE DIFFERENTLY
The kitchen must operate under standard policies that are developed in conjunction with the chef. These standards must be applied to all who choose to work in the operation.
Even though standards are essential, the chef must realize that every person is different and that their circumstances–as much as we would like to insist that they do not–will have an impact on performance. Professional chefs must demonstrate empathy without wavering from those standards. Listening to employees, seeking ways to help them with their challenges and still expecting them to perform at their highest level is a balancing act that the best chefs are able to master.
BE A PROUD REPRESENTATIVE OF YOUR CHOSEN CAREER
Professional chefs know that they represent not only their own personal brand and that of the restaurant in which they work, but also the entire industry. They never shy away from offering critique of a process or system that is in need of change, but stand tall in support of this magnificent industry that serves the public and provides so many opportunities for cooks, bakers and aspiring restaurateurs.
BE HONEST BEYOND REPROACH
There can be no drifting from this law of business. A professional chef never partakes in anything that might be construed as a conflict of interest and certainly nothing that violates the policies of the restaurant or the letter of the law.
LEAD FROM THE FRONT AND MANAGE FROM THE REAR
Professional chefs are leaders by example who are willing to lead the charge into battle while setting the course for his or her followers on the kitchen team. At the same time, when the chef needs to manage, they do so by training, coaxing, sometimes pushing, but always supporting employees from behind. This allows kitchen team members to take responsibility for their own actions while knowing that the chef is there as a resource.
KNOW WHAT YOU BELIEVE IN
Professional chefs have very definitive “stakes in the ground.” These stakes are the beliefs that help them to make decisions and portray their personal brand and that of the kitchen team in a way that builds pride and trust. These beliefs can focus on what ingredients the chef sources and from whom, how he or she approaches cooking, the manner with which members of the team interact and how the concept of food is portrayed to the guest. Whatever the core belief, it is important that the professional chef never compromise.
ADOPT QUALITY AS YOUR RULE OF THUMB AND NEVER ACCEPT MEDIOCRITY
Truly professional chefs know that everything that takes place in a kitchen, every interaction with a farmer or a vendor, every human resource situation that is addressed, and every bit of food that is prepared and presented to a guest carries the chef’s and the kitchen team’s signature. When quality slips, the personal and professional brand of all those involved also takes a hit.
LEARN, SHARE AND TEACH
A professional chef is always anxious to learn more, discover new ingredients, methods of preparation and exciting new plate presentations. A professional chef is excited to learn how wine and beer marries with food and is intent on discovering how to be a better operations manager. The best chefs seek out this knowledge, share it with the team and prepare to teach others how to adopt this knowledge and use it for their personal and professional betterment.
Professional chefs know that waste is a primary reason why restaurants fail. Waste of ingredients, waste of opportunity, waste of time and waste of talent must be monitored and controlled in a successful restaurant. It is a chef’s job to know this and to teach others how to keep all forms of waste in check.
Professional chefs find the time to get involved with their industry. They become active members of such professional organizations as the American Culinary Federation, Chefs Collaborative, Women Chefs and Restaurateurs, the The Bread Bakers Guild of America, Slow Food USA, the National Restaurant Association and even local Chambers of Commerce. Change only comes when individuals take responsibility for affecting that change. This is the professional example that the best chefs offer to their employees.
PLAN BETTER – TRAIN HARDER
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.