By Paul Sorgule, MS, AAC
There is no denying that some have accurately pointed to problems with the chain-of-command structure. This hierarchy was initially designed to create an efficient model in manufacturing operations. In essence, everyone’s duties and objectives would stem from the top person’s vision and directives — in this case, it is to meet manufacturing goals. While there are inherent challenges with this type of autocratic approach there are also many advantages when applied in a reasonable manner.
It was Escoffier who first developed a system of order for the operation of a professional kitchen. His vision was to compartmentalize the tasks that need to be performed, identify the right person to oversee those tasks and create a communication model between the executive chef and those designated overseers to ensure the expectations of the kitchen were met. It was this “brigade” he created that still defines, to some degree, how kitchens continue to operate today, more than 140 years later.
The kitchen brigade system is based on an underlying premise that takes into consideration responsibility and authority, efficiency and employee morale.
1. RESPONSIBILITY and AUTHORITY
Escoffier knew that giving an individual the responsibility for outcomes without the authority to make decisions was a recipe for failure. To this end, contrary to the classic chain of command that he experienced in the French military, oversight positions were allowed to make many of the operational decisions in their departments as long as they supported the overall plan established by the executive chef.
Considering the scope of work in a kitchen and the immediacy of decision-making, Escoffier saw that allowing these department heads to make operational decisions was a clear way to create a high level of efficiency. The larger scope decision-making would remain on the shoulders of the executive chef.
3. EMPLOYEE MORALE
Any organization that does not engage a system of order, a designation of duties and a clear reporting structure will create an environment of uncertainty and eventually chaos. It becomes important to not only build this organizational system, but also to insist that all who work within the system abide by the order of the “brigade.”
If this sounds like a military approach, that’s because it is. Escoffier used his time as a chef in the French military to design this brigade. He saw how this type of hierarchy allowed the business on the battlefield to proceed with some level of confidence. So, how does this apply to today’s modern kitchen and why is it still important?
From my experience, individuals respond very well to an orderly, efficient and consistent system, and crave the opportunity to share ideas in a receptive environment. Today’s employee may respond positively to a system of order, but unless he or she sees an opportunity to provide feedback to a person with an open mind, the employee will eventually seek that opportunity elsewhere or become less efficient and more antagonistic to the work in front of them.
“Yes chef” is more than just a rote response to a directive. “Yes chef” helps to create pride, respect for a position and commitment to a common goal. It is a reflection of the order and unity that allows a kitchen to perform at the highest level and produce exceptional dining experiences for guests.
The title “chef” is earned over many years of incredibly hard work. It requires a focus on knowing a great deal about food, cooking and food presentation. It also requires a skill set that includes operational management, menu planning, human resource management, finance, marketing and systems efficiency. When we respond “yes chef,” we are paying homage to the skills necessary to hold that title.
Similar to pride, by responding “yes chef” we are accepting that the individual holding that title deserves our respect. This applies even if we do not always agree with the chef or we don’t particularly care for them. In this moment, when we say “yes chef,” we are saying “I respect you as the person in charge.” Without this level of respect the kitchen will quickly fall into a black hole of confusion and chaos.
6. COMMON GOAL
Every day in the kitchen is filled with a need to hang on to order while staying true to the food philosophy of the operation and the core staff. The common goal is to always produce exceptional food, exceed the expectations of the guest, build a sense of pride among cooks and service staff for the experience that they build and realize a profit that allows the restaurant to sustain itself. “Yes chef” means that we are together in pursuit of those goals and are willing and able to follow the directives of the chef who has the big picture in mind.
Finally, order will only have staying power if you hire the right individuals to be part of the kitchen team. The right individuals will always have strong cooking skills, positive attitudes and a real desire to pursue this job as a career. This means that they will have a need to interact with the chef, offer observations and ideas, see some of their ideas enacted, and feel a part of the overall direction that the chef believes in. “Yes chef” is important, but must include this level of involvement if it is to carry the operation into the future.
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.