Kitchen Life Lessons: Getting Past The "Fry or Die" Mentality

"Do more of what makes you happy." —Carmel McConnell, author

I have met cooks that would crawl across a desert made of mayonnaise and broken glass to help a fellow kitchen mate. I have witnessed the current boyfriend and the ex-boyfriend work shoulder-to-shoulder during a fully-racked Friday night grind that pushed sales into the outer stratosphere. I have worked with some of the fattest human beings to waddle across the street to get behind a six-burner and push out food that would make your mama cry, all with the grace of the entire Bolshoi Ballet. All for one reason.


These kitchen hooligans, societal deviants, ex-cons and culinary school darlings alike care about what they do. We don’t have the best working hours, nor drive the prettiest of cars. Hell, we can barely behave in public - or not at all - but the unique care that some cooks bring to the meal is measured in cleaned plates and out-loud smiles. How do you teach a cook to care? Once there are some guiding lights, it becomes a reality.

Cooking is a challenge. No revelation there. Often, the space is tight, the equipment can be questionable at best, and it is Death Valley hot, even in the throes of a darkened winter’s day.

Through emotional investment, cooks get better, customers are loyal spenders, and wrangling the obnoxiousness of dealing with a trembling labor pool gets manageable. Here's how:


Make it nice. A simple concept, yet infinitely difficult to teach somebody that doesn’t care. Show them the way. Put up a plate that is (gasp!) Facebook-worthy. Seriously. Take a second to wipe the rim of the plate, dispense with the errant panko crumbs, drop some crispy onions on top for garnish, do a swoosh of relevant sauce. You know, what? They will want to do that, too.

Métier, is French for vocation or profession. And like with any vocation, you want to put your best work out there and “make it nice.” Métier is part of the kitchen lexicon, right up there with ‘Heard!’ and ‘86.’ Make it so and they will replicate the intentional steps you took.

Model & Set Expectations

Cooks get pissy when they make mistakes. They get even pissier when they have no guidance on how to make the new beer-cheese sauce and aren’t instructed to make a roux for the base. Menu success isn’t just about a printed recipe with a shiny picture in some kitchen bible tucked on a shelf. Take a minute to demonstrate, allow the process to be practiced, then correct the course as needed. Revisit. It is impossible to set an expectation for — and then hold accountable — anybody not provided clear direction.


Test for comprehension, ensure the crew knows the flavor of the crab dip using a bit of tasting and analysis, then set expectations. Model behaviors, leading by example. Taste food for burnt, under-seasoned, or lackluster and then correct. Dig in with tasting spoons and engage your crew to do the same. Having the power to make adjustments is invigorating. We all like to feel important in what we do.


Incentive is not a new word, nor is the concept of a raise based on performance. This isn’t about merit, pay, nor is it about employee retention. Rather, it is about creating purpose in coming to work everyday. Gratitude comes in all forms: public praise, a namesake mention on the menu, a social media feature, or a round of shots after the shift. Money is not always a motivator. And, actually, it hardly ever is. Put your wallet away (mostly) and get creative with rewarding the hardest working crew in show business.

Did Dave just make the finest cornbread you have ever tasted? Did Carter just make transcendent alligator pie, none finer through which a spoon has ever crossed? Snap a pic for Instagram with credit to the cook. Gather the front-of-the house crew to sample. Make a fuss. Those are moments that are worthy of reward, cost nothing, and harness infinite payback.


We all pick-up on the good vibes when the boss cares about us and our growth. Send a few of the gang to a food safety class or a trade show. The staff feels the love and ownership reaps the benefit by further developing their staff. How is that not a win?

Empower & Ask

Landing a dish on the menu is a euphoria— that is, and will always be, a rush. Charging a cook with coming up with next month’s feature for the dinner menu is a big step. It is a bunch of responsibility heaped onto the shoulders of somebody that may never see the dining room. Ask for input on the fall menu and actually put worthy suggestions into play. Name a dish for the prime contributor.

Putting my name on a dish or sharing my concept with our social media audience, for instance, is a great way to keep me from that fry or die malaise of doing it just to get it done. The mindset shift is nearly palpable as the smile stretches across the face of a talented cook as “Boyd’s Sticky Finger Toffee Pudding” pops out of the POS printer for the first time.

Pride ranks right up there with skill and energy. Pride is also synonymous with care. Listen to your crew and to your cooks as individuals that are part of this alchemy we call a kitchen to instill pride.

Cooks are no different than any other segment of the workforce. They still want to use their phones from time to time. They may need an extra day off without having to fear the verbal lashing of a tyrannical general manager. They want to be fed. So listen. Caring, however, is that next-level motivation to be part of the solution.

Take the time to listen, not just hear, what makes for successful talent. Model expected outcomes and know that rewarding a job well done isn’t any type of practical magic. Rather, let’s get back to that rule of treating this cursing, bleeding, tattooed crew the way you want to be treated.

By Jim Berman, Industry Expert