You’ve been in the business for awhile. Maybe seen a few things that are sure to go in your memoirs one day that will turn into the next Kitchen Confidential by Anthony Bourdain. That A-List celebrity dragging his foul-mouthed girlfriend through the kitchen to escape out the back door to avoid the paparazzi. That Hollywood socialite who made you stop cooking a five-course meal because she wanted Coco Puffs. Yeah, it’s a wild ride at times.
Just remember that like any industry there are certain unwritten rules for conduct. Call it a code. There are many of these unspoken rules in our business. You might be a little shocked that we are even talking about them! Welcome to the new frontier. Time to let the cat out of the bag! Actually, I’m not sure why people would want to put a cat in a bag in the first place, but work with me here... I’m on a roll.
1. Never Touch Another Person’s “Mise”
Of all that is holy in the world of culinary gods, this is at the top of the list! Your “Mise en Place,” or ingredient preparation set-up, is so personally a part of your pride as a cook that having someone take your prep without asking is like Loki betraying Thor. You just can’t trust them after that, no matter how many times they say they will change.
The only other violation more severe that raiding another person's “Mise” is to use one of their knives without permission. Hey, chefs have a very personal relationship with their tools much like a samurai had for his sword. Take a knife with without asking and you’re pretty much dead in the eyes of the person who’s blade you took. You took their soul, be prepared for hell.
2. Move With a Sense of Urgency
You have to realize that restaurant work is really a race against time. When the guest walks through that front door, their imaginary time clock starts. You have to stay focused and alert to win the time game and that means picking up the pace. Having food come together from multiple stations to compose a plate is one challenge. Having all the plates for a table up in the pass through at the same time is another challenge.
Moving with a sense of urgency does not mean to run around like a chicken with its head cut off. It’s about moving efficiently and with purpose. Stay focused on the task at hand. Distractions are the enemy when it comes to getting things done in the restaurant business.
3. If You’re Not a Cook, Don’t Walk Behind the Line
Wandering around a cooking line can be dangerous. The last thing you want is to be back on the line where there are things that can leave a mark: hot equipment, hot pans, and sharp objects are scattered around the kitchen just waiting for someone who is not paying attention. A second-degree burn or a deep cut can become a quick trip to the ER and that is not a fun way to spend your evening.
Its part of that unwritten etiquette that many would say is just common sense. The funny thing about common sense is that it is at times, not so common. Stay away from things that can burn or cut you if it is not in your job description. Yes, those adventures exploring the line can give you an interesting story to tell your friends, it’s just a painful way to get attention.
Besides, cooks know something many who don’t work in a kitchen don’t: assume everything is hot! You think they walk around with a kitchen towel in their hand to look cool? No. They just assume that everything handed to them is blistering hot. A lesson a young Sous Chef working for me forgot one day as I reached into the oven to grab a sauté pan (using a towel) that I placed on his station. He grabbed the handle without a towel and it left a very nice brand on the palm of his hand. Ouch. That definitely left a mark.
4. Full Hands In, Full Hands Out
This is also known as working both ways. Restaurant work can take a toll on you if you don’t work smart. This involves open communication and looking out for each other on the team.
For cooks, that means if your heading to the walk-in for something you ask if anyone needs anything. For the service team, that means when you are taking out something to a table, you are bringing back dirty plates, or finding a way to assist your team on your way back through the dining room. Remember, for a restaurant to truly succeed everyone needs to be working together.
5. Clean As You Go
When dealing with food and the potential for a foodborne illness, you must work with a clean station. This is the mark of a true professional, one who can handle the pressure while maintaining a clean workstation. Many say they can cook, most can’t cook and clean as they go.
I appreciated my father who was hell on wheels as a chef. His nickname was “Wild Bill” and for good reason. He ruled the kitchen with an iron hand. If you failed to keep your station clean during your shift he would have you chant out loud, “Clean as you go. Clean as you go,” over and over again until it sunk into your head. Today, that might be considered hazing, back in the early 80’s, that was how chefs ran their kitchens. Today, I use a more subtle approach and find a way to get the team member to find their own “why.”
Remember that people are only motivated by their reasons, not your reasons. First, get them to commit, second to comply. My way is more of a “Jedi mind trick.” I calmly say, “Your workstation is a reflection of your mind. I will teach you more advanced techniques when you show me your mind is ready.”
Always Say “_______”
A restaurant moves at a fast pace and accidents can happen if there is no communication. A couple keywords are said and expected to be said often:
The trademark word called out whenever you are coming around (you guessed it) the corner. Many loud crashes heard in the dining room are a result of people NOT saying “corner”.
Remember earlier we spoke of all the hot and sharp things in the kitchen? Well, most accidents happen when people forget to tell others that they are walking behind them. A sense of urgency has professionals moving quickly and with purpose, so you turn around without warning. That can be a catastrophe when holding a hot pan or turning with your chef knife.
There are a lot more of these unwritten rules. If you want your team to understand them completely, then it’s time we drag these unspoken expectations out and talk about them with our team. All business problems are really people problems in disguise. The vast majority of those people problems stem from poor communications and undeclared (unspoken) expectations. You have the power to fix that. Just talk to your team.
By Donald Burns, Industry Expert