Culinary Core Principles and Why They Matter

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I recently accepted a contract position for the summer at a large resort in the mid-Atlantic region. On my first day, a cook asked me, “So, what’s your mission?’”

There had been plenty of talk during the negotiations about what we hoped to achieve during my time there, but the cook’s question codified it for me in a way I hadn’t thought of before.

Do you know what you’re working toward? Do you know what’s important to you, your customers, your associates, or your owner? And if you do, doesn’t it make your operation more fluid and congruent having a clear-cut mission, vision, and objective?

The focus of this article will be what I’m coining as “Culinary Core Principles,” but it’s impossible to talk about these without first considering an operation’s mission, which will create the container, boundaries, and framework within which the Culinary Core Principles exist.

The Mission

Every world-class organization takes the time and due diligence to discern what they’re in business for — their mission — and crafts a concise statement to communicate it.

The resulting statement becomes their working thesis and can be brought to bear in every decision they make about their customers and their business. If you’re running a burger joint, for example, and that is your focus, then you wouldn’t put a pasta dish on the menu. Many operators, feeling the pressure of dwindling marketshare and their desire to be all things to all people, often make this mistake.

Let’s face it: If you’re going to try to be all things to all people, there will always be someone who is dissatisfied.

In the late ’80s and early ’90s, there were four or five major restaurant chains that all had the same appetizer menus and many of the same core menu items. There was no point of differentiation, nor was there any compelling reason to eat at any particular one because they all represented the same value proposition — food for the masses at the lowest possible price point with the highest possible margin for owners and shareholders. It didn’t take an economist to predict what happened next. One went bankrupt, another went into receivership, and the others consolidated. Where once there were five, there are now three, and more than one of them are on the operational ropes.

It’s not enough in this economy to be in business solely for the profit, although no organization can stay in business without it, nor is it enough to be in business for notoriety, fame, or exposure. Great companies think about what they’re about first and then back into how they can do it profitably.

Great business leaders also know that in order to be successful personally, their life’s mission must be closely aligned to that of their organization’s. We’ll return to this concept later in the article.

If the mission is the sandbox in which you exist, then your Core Principles are the toys in the sandbox with which you play. The one reinforces the other, clarifying and fortifying the standards that come from living your principles.

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Culinary Core Principles

Your Core Principles dictate a certain value proposition, which leads to operational standards and a code of conduct that can be measured, coached, and mentored.

While statements like “We Make Memories” or “We Serve the Best Fried Chicken in the South” are admirable, they are hardly quantifiable because, in the end, their evaluation is subjective.

What we’re looking for are clear, unambiguous, and measurable objectives by which we can drive operational standards. Think about words that will help clarify to customers and associates alike what you and your operation are about. Examples include:

  • Sustainable
  • Innovative
  • Traditional
  • Slow Food
  • Organic
  • Seasonal
  • Elegant
  • Classic
  • Community-Focused
  • Inclusive
  • Plant-Based
  • Philanthropic
  • Cooperative

You might be thinking this is just a marketing technique. And it would be if left only as a slogan. Recently, several restaurants in Tampa were called out because they claimed to be “farm-to-table.” Come to find out, they were getting proteins as far away as Colorado. While they were technically purchasing from a “farm” and were serving food on a “table,” the public had been duped.

The hot topic right now in marketing is a shift from marketing a name to marketing the message. And while these operators were adhering to this new paradigm, you need to be able to back up the message or you’ll be called out.

Why Culinary Core Principles Matter

“Adam,” you might say, “I have enough to worry about in my operation. Sometimes it’s all I can do to get sauté covered for service. Why is any of this important?” Simply put, because:

  • They become your point of operational differentiation for both customers who are looking for a message that resonates with them and for your prospective crew members who more and more are looking for work that is congruent with their own personal values
  • They become your focus, thereby making it very easy to make operational and menu decisions based on those principles
  • They become your mantra, keeping you on point, on mission, and on message
  • They become your way of doing business with vendors, community, customers, and crew
  • Considering a change? The only question to then ask is, “Is it congruent with our Culinary Core Principles?” If so, awesome, full steam ahead. No? Makes it really easy to toss out what would otherwise be a distraction.

The best part of this exercise is that you end up with a clearly defined and agreed upon center — immutable, consistent, nonnegotiable, and measurable.

The Center

Once you have your center, your world revolves around it instead of the other way around. Danny Meyer’s book “Setting the Table” describes his management approach as The Salt Shaker Theory:

“Your staff and guests are always moving your saltshaker off center. That’s their job. It’s the job of life. It’s the law of entropy! Until you understand that, you’re going to get pissed off every time someone moves the saltshaker off center. It is not your job to get upset.”

Here, he’s talking about more than a mere saltshaker on a table; he’s talking about his Core Principles. He goes on to say that his managerial style has become “constant, gentle pressure; returning the saltshaker to the center each time life moves it.”

Personal Values

If you’re still with me this far, let me suggest something deeper. If you resonate with your company’s, organization’s, or kitchen’s Culinary Core Principles, that means you have personal core values as well. How many of us actually look at our personal lives in such a manner? How many of us have actually taken the time to write out our life’s mission and its corresponding core values? It’s an exercise worth doing in that there will be something to discover. Maybe your family is the most important thing in your life, maybe it’s living off the grid or supporting energy neutral enterprises. How do you, and with whom do you, spend your money? That’s usually a clear indication of what’s important to you. The next question would be, “How are you living those personal core values in your professional life?” Maybe you don’t think it’s possible. Maybe being unhappy and unfulfilled in your professional life is just a well-practiced way of being.

Maybe there’s more that we can aspire to.

A Model for Us All

I recently had the opportunity to interview Executive Chef Brandon Chrostowski, the driving force behind Edwin’s Restaurant in Cleveland, Ohio. If the name rings a bell, it’s because he was recently named a 2016 CNN Hero.

Edwin’s isn’t just a standout classical French restaurant; it’s also a not-for-profit Leadership Institute.

When Brandon was young, he had a run-in with the law. After spending some time in jail, the judge gave him the opportunity to enter into an apprenticeship at a local restaurant. That judge, along with the mentor he found in the executive chef at the restaurant, changed the trajectory of his life forever.

He spent time earning his bones in other countries and cooking at amazing restaurants in France. He could have easily forgotten his good fortune and went on to culinary glory, but Brandon isn’t wired that way.

In 2004, he had a business plan for Edwin’s, with one clear mission: the restaurant was going to be a place where paroled convicts could get training and work in a classic French restaurant. He believes that everyone deserves a second chance, and he would dedicate not only his professional life but his personal one as well.

When deciding where to put Edwin’s, he consulted crime, incarnation, and recidivism rates for the entire United States. At the time, Cleveland had some of the highest.

Brandon has since built the restaurant into a highly regarded establishment in its own right, notwithstanding the reality that his crew turns over every six months, when their culinary and leadership training is over. There are over 60 restaurants nationwide on a waiting list for Edwin’s alumni and they’re in the midst of an aggressive expansion of student and alumni housing, a butcher shop, and bakery. Brandon and his team have taken over what once was a blighted street corner in Cleveland and turned it into a campus of possibility — all while turning a profit that was reinvested in his vision. His measurable results? 95 percent of applicants graduate and of those who do, 0 percent reoffend — zero!

When asked why he chose a 501C corporation for his enterprise, Brandon said, “because I want it to outlive me as a charitable organization.”

You may not have goals as lofty as Chef Brandon, but he’s a clear example of what it looks like to be committed to a vision and the Core Principles that anyone can embody.