The Biggest Threat to Kitchen Success

Employing a crew of trained kitchen killers means you need brain power as much as cooking firepower.

So how do you get your cooks to think, troubleshoot, and work critically? Or do you?

Asking members of the biz for their insight on how they get their cooks to think, the responses fell shockingly silent. This quiet is surprising because we ask our kitchen crews to work harder, work faster, work cleaner.

“Work smarter, not harder” is cliche and familiar. But what are we doing as leaders in the kitchen to be a catalyst for thinking?

Historically - and depending on with whom you are talking to - restaurant failure rate within five years is somewhere in the neighborhood of 80%. Poor product? Sometimes. Location? Maybe. Fiscal mismanagement? Now you are getting warmer. Off-mission? A resounding yes.

Having a mission and actually understanding how to keep the train on those tracks requires intellect. And that is where we aren’t stirring the pot.


The stereotypical grungy cook, grease-stained apron, and sideways drawl that always pulls laughs in sitcoms is often deemed as acceptable in our industry. But that anti-intellectualism is killing the operation, especially those without standard operating procedures in place.

For cookie-cut operations with kitchen playbooks and centralized production, most of the thinking is done on the mothership. For independents and burgeoning regional groups, the bulk of command and control is in the field. Purchasing decisions involving multiple vendors, for instance, can teeter seeing red with your eyes closed or running into the black.

Extra Responsibilities

A lot like homework, getting Chef Dave to look beyond the day-to-day operations can be a challenge, both for you and Dave.

Is Dave being asked to explore solutions or grow projects outside the confines of the kitchen?

We want the focus to be on a great product but don’t necessarily provide an opportunity to grow brain power. How are you empowering Dave to experience new trends? How is Dave keeping up with food safety innovations? What cutting-edge thinking is Dave using to teach Buddy and Carter how to manage their stations better? Getting kitchen leadership on board as thinkers to remedy issues and reflect on their own work is much more complex than, say, instructing knife skills.

Vanessa Iantorno of Peninsula Yacht Club in North Carolina says that to “be an inspiring mentor and work people within their personal strengths... it’s easy to spot the ones who still read and research new trends and recipes and methods and try to put them into practice even in their own home as many cooks aren’t allowed too much freedom in the workplace.”

Professional Development

Experienced kitchen staffs are asked — directed! — to grow their teams. Training a replacement to open doors for promotion makes sense.

Are we encouraging attendance at food shows? Supporting visits to bakeries, wholesalers, or markets? Development is the evolution of whatever comes next.

Are we sending Sous Chef Tim to a wine dinner to learn more about pairings?

wine pairing class

Computer skills

Other than keying the Sysco order, are we asking our crews to get behind the keyboard to do trends research? Are we asking them to drill down for recipes that may work for our operations? Menu development and (gasp!) menu engineering are in Chef Brandi’s portfolio. Are we empowering her to engage online resources for correct pricing, placement, descriptions with accurate spelling, and seasonality? Are the reports that the POS so handily dispenses being analyzed to drive efficiencies?

Benchmarking and Critical Thinking

How does your operation measure up to the place around the corner? How is the new burger place filling so many seats? Are they social media wizards? How are they recruiting a great staff while we are languishing with excessive overtime covering the latest round of unemployment? Are we examining what we are doing by auditing our own performance?

Brian Steinkomph, a chef with regional titan Iron Hill Brewery, says “working critically is a tough one. I believe this comes with time and working with passionate people around you. As the chef, you need to push back dishes in the rush that are not up to par…. They need to know right from wrong. Acceptable and unacceptable. There needs to be a set standard. If you have follow-through as a chef and you stay on top of this, you will have a critical thinking team behind you.”

Declawed critical thinking, subpar problem solving, and a great big disconnect will sink a kitchen operation.

Just because kitchen brethren are great at duct taping the door back onto the dishwasher or rigging the fryer thermostat to get through Saturday’s push doesn’t mean the right tools are not needed. Just the opposite. Without exception, every operation must provide the right tools for the job.

Those tools include technology platforms, timely reports, workspace, and opportunities to marinate mental fortitude.

Chef with tablet

Books matter. Brainpower matters.

Providing free range for aptitude is as important as marketing free range chickens. Shouldn't we consider the notion of growing cleverness and guile as much as we value an eight-minute ticket time?

Because knowing the difference between a peanut, seeds, and tree-nuts can mean the difference between a glowing Yelp review or a less than favorable review that will take more than deafening silence from which to recover.