What drives you and your kitchen? What compromises are you willing to make and how often do you slip from your own expectations? Is there a point at which you simply believe that what you are doing is “good enough”? Are you willing to put aside marketable standards for reasons within your control?
These are questions that every cook and chef faces on a regular basis — how you respond establishes the type of cook or chef you are or will become. Don’t believe for a moment that you can turn your standards on and off — once you accept compromise for yourself or others there is no turning back. Excellence is a habit, not a goal to reach for. If you want to be excellent, then be excellent — always, every day, in every moment, and with every task that is before you. It’s that simple — it’s a behavioral decision.
COOK WITH HEART and SOUL
Excellence is a habit, but it is also a feeling, a driving force, something that is part of the individual — a feeling that resonates throughout a person’s being. Cooks who believe in excellence practice at the highest level because they need to. They have to. When you cook with heart and soul you sign every plate with pride knowing that those around you will feel your commitment. In this environment the food produced becomes a reflection of who you are as a person.
MAKE EXCELLENCE a HABIT
The interesting thing about excellence is that once a person experiences it they have little tolerance for anything but. This is true of those who produce as well as those who receive. When a person sees excellence as a habit then he or she works to apply the principles of excellence with even the smallest task.
“If you are going to achieve excellence in big things, you develop the habit in little matters. Excellence is not an exception, it is a prevailing attitude.” -Colin Powell
RELENTLESSLY PURSUE PERFECTION
Cooking becomes personal when it is a result of perfect execution, consistent in flavor and outstanding presentation. Even in these situations, the professional cook is rarely satisfied. Knowing that a dish is very well executed allows the cook to ask: “How can it be better?” Those professional cooks are on a journey to find out how to consistently produce a perfect dish.
“Perfection is not attainable, but if we chase perfection we can catch excellence.” -Vince Lombardi
TEACH and PRACTICE DISCIPLINE
One incredible lesson that we learned decades ago from Escoffier was that a true professional is a person who embraces the discipline to perform at the highest level, and to look the part and earn the respect of others in the process. This discipline takes place in the kitchen through the execution of established cooking methods, the understanding that even the simplest task must be approached with the discipline of consistency. That means how we dress as a cook, how we approach the requirements of sanitation and food safety, the uniformity of our knife cuts, how we sharpen a knife, the time established steps in cooking, the way that a plate is presented, how we interact with co-workers, and our commitment to service. Discipline and order defines the professional environment where a cook works. A lack of discipline will eventually lead to chaos.
“Discipline is the bridge between goals and accomplishment.” -Jim Rohn
HAVE HIGH EXPECTATIONS of YOURSELF and OTHERS
Cooks and chefs who understand the importance of excellence as a habit know that they must always hold themselves accountable to that standard. The expectations of others around an excellent cook or chef pale in comparison to the expectations that they must have of themselves. The chef or cook must always insist that those with whom they work follow this lead. When you expect more of yourself and others then everyone understands the mission before them.
“High expectations are the key to everything.” -Sam Walton
NEVER REWARD MEDIOCRITY
With this expectation of excellence the door is closed to any positive recognition of anything less. There should be no trophies for mediocrity. If a process, action or product fails to meet the standards of excellence for a business then training becomes the medication necessary for a full recovery. “This is not the standard that we expect of each other — now let’s work on how to correct the situation so that it doesn’t occur again.”
LEARN from YOUR MISTAKES
A pursuit of excellence is not free of shortfalls. Excellence as a standard will always require assessment, identification of mistakes and actions to make the necessary corrections. Cooks and chefs will and do make mistakes, but those committed to excellence learn from them and set a course moving forward. Mistakes are always learning opportunities and they only become truly problematic if the individual fails to take the opportunity to move through it and improve.
“A person must be big enough to admit his or her mistakes, smart enough to profit from them, and strong enough to correct them.” – John C. Maxwell
BE the BENCHMARK for OTHERS
Those who believe in and practice excellence must also carry the weight of being a benchmark for others. Chefs, in particular, cannot simply pass on the requirement for excellence to others; he or she must accept the position of role model for others to follow. A true advocate for excellence must also walk the talk. In the best situation a chef should create an environment where every cook thinks before he or she attacks a project or acts on a situation with the question “What would the chef do,” not “What would the chef say?”
“It is a wretched taste to be gratified with mediocrity when the excellent lies before us.” -Isaac D’Israeli