Life of a Working Executive Chef

 

I am the Executive Chef at a pretty busy hotel/conference type property. We have a Ballroom, Banquet Rooms, 60,000 square feet of Meeting Space, 40 acres of potential catering venues, Restaurant and Bar Menu, Room Service etc. you know the deal.

 

In spite of our three Sous Chefs I still work the line. My day is probably like that of many chefs. Eight hours on the line and then off to the office for another 4 or 5 hours of paper work, reports, meetings and menus. I don’t mind, it keeps me in touch with the pulse of my kitchen. Knowing the challenges and tribulations first hand is invaluable. I am comfortable that I am not just a figure head, a pencil pusher and politician. When someone asks me about our food, I can answer with confidence that this was this or that was that.

 

Right now we are gearing up for Easter; in spite of the economy I have almost 600 reservations and growing. Tomorrow I will be smoking 80 pounds of seafood for the cold display as well as 80 pounds of smoked chicken. Today I netted an tied 5 cases of Turkey Breast, trimmed and marinated 2 cases of strip loin. The hams are clove studded and 100 pounds of shrimp for shrimp cocktail is ready to go. Tomorrow will be a busy day, work the line at lunch, do an Ice Bunny carving and make sure we have enough of everything in the house. Some days I work until my neck hurts and I can’t think anymore. At that point I know its time to go home. At 49 years old, I can’t imagine how many hours I’ve worked in my career, how many meals I served and how much time I have stolen away from my wife and kids. In spite of all this, I still love what I do and get a thrill out of the process.

Even Good Chefs Have Bad days

If you're like me, your cooking day is filled with many highs and lows. One moment you will experience the exhilaration associated with executing near perfection, only to be deflated moments later when something does not reach your standards.

Food is so personal. It is going to become part of the recipient's being; it may bring them pleasure, comfort, satisfaction and even joy on occasion. You don’t have to be a Four Star Chef at a high end restaurant to feel this way. Passion and pride are not exclusive to any single segment of the industry, ethnicity, gender or age; you either feel this way or you don’t.

I used to beat myself up pretty good when things didn’t work out as planned. Sleepless nights followed by stress filled days were common occurrences. Those days are lost forever! What a waste of my most precious resource, time. I know that during these challenging times, many of my fellow Chefs are feeling the strain. We are all on edge, uncertain of what tomorrow will bring and how our performance will influence our future. We sweat it out through the end of each month, hoping and praying we hit our numbers and live to cook another month.

It doesn’t have to be that way. A little extra planning, a few more hours committed to the job, and a backup plan for most everything will allow you to better enjoy your down time. You may actually have a little less down time, but it will be quality down time and definitely worth considering. Remember that even the worst day will come to an end, brush yourself off, learn from it and set yourself up for future success.

Here are a few suggestions.

* Answer all emails, return all phone calls, and read all change logs and daily reports before you go home. Ignorance is bliss until you're called on it. Know the answer; that’s what they pay you for.
* Read and know upcoming menus for at least 4-5 days in advance; run scenarios; think it through to identify and solve potential challenges.
* Plan your daily 5 minute standup meeting to provide the most useful and pertinent information, such as specials, prep lists and anything out of the ordinary.
* If you don’t have people you can trust to purchase, properly receive and store food. You need to oversee it. I can't tell you how many nights I counted steaks, not sheep, running scenario after scenario through my mind. Did we get that? Is it enough? This is not the way to recharge your batteries.
* Know your numbers before its official, run daily a daily food, labor and line item cost spread sheet.
* Don’t serve what you shouldn’t. I would rather 86 something then serve inferior or poorly prepared foods. In a preplanned banquet setting, you don’t have this option; proper planning and execution are crucial. Don’t be cheap; buy quality ingredients, and have a backup plan. You won't regret it.
* You're not running a test kitchen; cook what you know. Your customers expect a quality product for their hard earned money. Specials and new items must be researched, practiced and perfected before rolling them out.
* Being focused and professional is always required but try to have a little fun.
* As the great Emeril Lagasse says, "This Aint Brain Surgery." True, but it is hard work with thousands of details. The better prepared you are, the more you can focus your cooking, ultimately ensuring your success.
 

Last weekend I traveled to the ACF Regional Conference in Birmingham Alabama. I was scheduled to arrive Friday, but could not leave until after I put out the Saturday Night Banquets. After driving through several tornado warnings, torrential rains and 60 mile an hour winds, I arrived safely at my destination. With no harm done, I looked forward to finding something to eat, but ended up ordering a pizza delivery. Sad to say compared to the $20 room service burger and less then desirable hotel lounge setting, I think I made the right choice.


On Sunday Morning I took part in several seminars and spoke with many chefs about the taboo subject “Are Culinary Schools Helping or Hurting the Industry”? I first of all will say that I have nothing but respect for a quality culinary education and the majority of dedicated and committed instructors. Their work is very important and crucial to the future of our industry. My problem is that I think we have hit the saturation point, too many schools, too many graduates with too few real opportunities. Where will all these graduates work? Is the $50-$100,000 cost of culinary education worth the payoff or will most graduates find themselves disenchanted finding little opportunity for advancement and eventually leave the industry?

The Total Package Chef

I haven’t written a blog in awhile. I have been pretty busy; I lost some staff, and had to tackle multiple projects at both work and home. We all go through times like this, periods of overwhelming challenges, deadlines, personnel commitments and sometimes health related issues. Thirty days ago I wondered if I would fail or could I rise to the occasion and execute at the expected level? I was reading one of my older blogs and thought it may help to motivate others toward both personal and professional success. I have seen many chefs and cooks with top notch skills and good intentions never reach their potential. An ongoing pattern of self destructive behavior and poor decision making has sidelined them from the fast track. We all need to take a look in the mirror from time to time and give ourselves an attitude adjustment. If you can change your thinking you can change your habits, that’s all it is, bad habits. If you want to be successful in today's no excuses, just get it done world you need to be a Total Package Chef, no ones going to pay you for half of the package.



 

I have been lucky enough to be temporally assigned to a new property (within my company) in Napa Valley, CA. at the Silverado Resort.  If you have ever been part of transition team at a large property you know how demanding it can be. Long days for multiple weeks combined with living out of a hotel room can be a rough and sometimes an overwhelming experience. Being away from loved ones and breaking your normal routine can take its toll if you don’t have a little fun.

Iron Chefs, Top Chefs, Hells Kitchen, its media frenzy! If cooking for a living wasn’t tough enough, our once closely guarded industry exclusive methods and techniques are now available to everyone. Grade school children can recite fundamental cooking techniques as if it were their ABC’s. Even Joe six packs can tell you the difference between a roux and slurry. What’s a Chef to do? Even the most successful chefs have got to wonder what they will need to do to stay on top of their game. Keeping yourself contemporary and your food exciting is a full time commitment.

Chefs who are getting up in age may be especially challenged and vulnerable. If you don’t cook on a daily basis or challenge yourself to develop new skills and techniques you may soon find yourself obsolete. I can tell you first hand stories of many one time successful chefs who spent too many years in the office living in denial about their own skill sets. Many lived vicariously through the abilities and successes of subordinates only to find that time has passed them by. A starched snow white tunic with an impressive line of abbreviated credentials may no longer garner the respect it once had. If you want to stay on top of your game you will need to devote time to self improvement and ongoing development. Here are a few suggestions that may get you started.

Read, surf, and study everything and anything you can get in front of you. Don’t believe what people tell you, you can’t have it all, there’s so much happening out there and only so many hours in a day. If you neglect this ever-changing information you are short changing yourself of the potential it holds.
Take a continuing education course if you can. It’s a great way to not only acquire new techniques but revisit areas of your repertoire that may need a tune up such as baking, garde mange or charcuterie.

Attend industry related vendor shows, seminars, ACF events and a whole host of other available and inexpensive resources.

 

Compete in industry contests and culinary competitions to test your skills. Each time I compete I learn something new about my abilities and weakness’s. It also introduces new products and techniques to our repertoires.

Know the competition and the expectations of your existing and potential customer base. Eat at a variety of restaurants and most importantly your competition to keep in touch with what’s happening out there.

Take advantage of the broad range of experience and diversity you probably have right in your own kitchen. Chef tables, specials and buffets are all great ways to tap into the experience and knowledge of your staff. Allowing others to contribute to the overall success of your operation builds a sense of ownership and team
Most importantly, whatever avenues you choose hold yourself responsible for your own success.