The Mashed Potato Manifesto: A Lesson from Wolfgang Puck

By Donald Burns, Foodable Industry Expert

Mashed Potatoes

The chaotic symphony of a restaurant during service is a melody that only those who work in the industry can truly appreciate. To a chef, the cadence of kitchen language is a familiar friend. “Fire two trout, one ribeye mid-rare for table five!” The order echoes, “Yes Chef, firing two trout, one ribeye mid-rare for table five.” There is something mindful to be learned while working in the restaurant, even when things seem out of control. There are lessons all around us to tap into and appreciate, if we choose to see them.

Some lessons can have a life changing impact on you. One of my greatest lessons I learned came from my time spent as an executive chef for Wolfgang Puck. It was early 2001 and I was recruited to help Wolfgang expand his catering company across the United States after he sold part of it to Compass Group USA.

Wolfgang Puck is an incredible chef and an even more amazing entrepreneur and businessman. The main secret to his restaurant empire success is this – he hires the very best. At that high level of play, errors are few and far between. It is like the difference of going from AAA baseball to the major leagues. The mistakes made in the minor leagues are not as common in the big leagues, especially if you are on a world champion team. Wolfgang's right-hand man was Lee Hefter, a stout chef with a dynamic palate and a passion for excellence. His nickname was “The General,” and for good reason. 

The Mashed Potato Lesson 

One day, I was doing some menu development for a new restaurant concept that was going into the Walker Art Museum in Minneapolis. Chef Lee asked me to make some mashed potatoes. An easy task, I got right on it. First time, overcooked. Do them again. Second time, undercooked. Okay third time is the charm, right? Nope. I made them four more times to get it exactly how Chef Lee wanted them.

I went through a range of emotions from ashamed, to pissed off, to finally having clarity. That day, I learned to drop the ego and to look at the lesson in front of me. So many times we let our ego get the best of us and foolish pride rises up to stop any chance of growth.

In the kitchen, Chef Lee was teaching me to “respect the ingredients.”  To overcook or even undercook potatoes was a tragedy. At first I thought, “They’re just potatoes”. Then, I saw the truth. It was a Zen-like moment. Like the Buddhist monk who said there is a universe in a grain of rice. When I transcended my ego, I saw that I was preparing a gift for someone else.  What an insult to not give them my very best.

Restaurant Service

Why We Run Restaurants

I ask clients all the time “What do you sell?” 

The most common answer is food and drink.

I would offer an argument that a restaurant exists not only to sell food and beverage, but in fact to sell memories for the guests. We gather around the table to celebrate so many things: birth, work promotions, love, sorrow, family, friendship, life.

Let's take a look at the origin of the word restaurant. It was in 1765 that a Monsieur Boulanger opened a shop selling soups. He actually inscribed on his window a line from the Gospels: “Venite ad me omnes qui stomacho laboratis et ego vos restaurabo." (Come to me, all who labor in the stomach, and I will restore you). Originally the word restaurant comes from the old French word, restorer, which later became the word restaurer, which means “to restore or refresh.” Monsieur Boulanger had a run in with the caterers’ guild, which at the time had a monopoly on serving food to the public. In the end, Monsieur Boulanger won a judgment and the word restaurant became synonymous with shops that sold food that restores your health.

When you look at the big picture, can you see your restaurant as more than just a place that sells food and drink?

Know Your Why

It's been about twelve years since that day in the kitchen with Chef Lee. I tell that story often when I am working with clients and especially young cooks. I find that when I “explain the why,” a light turns on and they understand the reasons behind the actions. Culture flows down, not up. It is the responsibility of the leaders in a restaurant to set the standards high and keep them there. I have always been a believer that restaurants get better when the people in them get better.

So, what is your “why?” When you sit with that question and let it roll around in your brain for a few days, you might just be surprised at the answers.