Chris Hill Blog: What kind of chef are you going to be?

The  Staff Canteen

The Staff Canteen

Editor 28th March 2018

How has the role of the chef evolved over the years and what kind of leader are you? Chris Hil asks what kind of chef you are and what kind of chef do you want to be. 


Back in the mid to late 1800s in France, there were restaurants, primarily in upscale hotels, but they were, for the most part, only frequented by the aristocratic and rich — these, both local and out of town, high society folks would spend up to four or five hours enjoying a meal of many courses as the chef laboured away in the kitchen with a small staff of cooks. There wasn’t much order to it, though.

When I try to envision this scene in my head — a kitchen without designated stations or authority (aside from the chef, my mind takes me to watching my parents pull together holiday dinners for the entire family that they’ve been prepping for days. Regardless, of how much they might have done ahead of time, they can’t seem to pull any order to it — there is too much to do and not enough hands. I always jump in and bring some order to the process, making sure it all comes out properly cooked and well heated.

Auguste Escoffier

EscoffierThese French restaurants, much like my parents, needed a system to make the process more efficient — that way the staff could cut these long dining times in half or more, which would generate more revenue by turning more tables.

Thus, Auguste Escoffier created a more efficient kitchen with more structure focused on:

1. Specific job titles and stations that would clarify everyone’s role, who they oversaw and or reported to.

2. Specific stations were defined in the kitchen that could be assigned to each employee so that each person would understand exactly what their role was for that day i.e. Saucier, Boulanger, etc.

Most of us in the culinary world are familiar with Escoffier, the man responsible for this kitchen hierarchy called the Brigade de Cuisine — it models the idea of the army where a chain of command leads the kitchen — rank means authority.

Modern kitchen hierarchy

Thus, the modern kitchen hierarchy emerged. Of course, this makes sense to put into practice — everyone knew their rank, their responsibilities and who to report to. This kind of system also allows for individuals to work their way up through the ranks, in much the same way that one might in the armed forces. This eliminated the organized chaos, and the inefficient ticket times would no longer be the norm. No longer were there‘. Too many Chiefs and not enough Indians’, as the expression goes.

Speaking of the word chief: the word chef stems from the French origin of the word chief dating back to circa 1300 meaning,
‘Leader or Most Important’. The term Chef de Cuisine quite literally means, ‘Chief of the Kitchen’.

Chris Hill blog march

The role of a chef

It’s interesting how the role of the chef has evolved since the days of Escoffier, especially over the last couple of decades. If you look at the definition above, it in and of itself is somewhat contradictory at least in the sense of how to interpret the words in a modern context, and I think every chef falls into one of these two opposing categories:

LEADER VS. “MOST IMPORTANT”

1. MOST IMPORTANT: A lot of us when starting out, like to think of ourselves as the most important person in the building, myself included in my early days of running a kitchen. Our egos tend to drive a lot of our decisions when we’re at that place — our menus, how we want to be perceived by the outside world and how we choose to handle conflicts with our staff. When we think about all the chefs that use their power and authority in being the chief to get what they want (from purveyors, employees, etc), we start seeing a disconnect, between them and the ones upon who they rely. A chef raising his or her voice is simply saying,

I DON’T KNOW HOW TO GET WHAT I WANT WITHOUT MAKING A SCENE, SO I’M GOING YELL AND SCREAM TO GET MY WAY — YOU BETTER LISTEN TO ME. I’M THE BOSS DAMNIT! But what they are saying is,

I am the most important person here because I’m the boss and I WILL get what I want. ‘So, you better listen and do what the boss says, or else you better have another job lined up, right? It’s such a toxic environment.

Behaviour in the kitchen

Back in the day, there weren’t that many opportunities to work in professional kitchens, so you’d better make the most of the one you have — whether your boss is a jackass or not. This behaviour, undoubtedly adds unnecessary stress to an already stressful environment really just demonstrates that the person in charge can’t connect with people in an authentic way and have to turn to scare tactics, threatening and abuse. 

In the short run, this type of behaviour might work, but over time it wears on each individual associated (including the order barker). It, without fail, takes a damaging toll on an organization. I used to yell and I used to throw fits when a crazy order came chirping through the printer –‘Tell them we don’t make it like this’. OR ‘What’s wrong with this guest walking in at closing time and ordering a well-done steak!?’It was all about me and my menu — my ego. If anything tipped the scale in the wrong direction, you would certainly be hearing from me.

Then, over time I started noticing how tense and unenjoyable the kitchen had become for me and the staff, versus where I was before on the line just cooking. When you start out on the line, you don’t have any responsibilities except for doing your job as best you can. But then at a certain point, as you’re working your way up the ladder, you’re trusted with more and more responsibility, until you reach the top…. Chef…. Chief…

https://www.thestaffcanteen.com/public/js/tinymce/plugins/moxiemanager/data/files/1  RTfMC6RFdeno1F48xFUFA.jpeg

What kind of leader are you?

Once you take that first role running a kitchen you realize most of the work that you did to get there isn’t really part of your job description anymore. Now, instead of cooking or prepping all day, you might find yourself in meetings and at the desk in the office typing menus and researching and scheduling.

Those are all things that can be learned and developed over time and for the most part, is, as anyone works their way up, but the one thing that isn’t taught very well is how to be a leader and run a team that people want to be a part of.

That’s the second type.

2. A leader is someone who is willing to guide people in the right direction for something bigger than themselves — they understand the needs and desires of their followers, whether kitchen, military or otherwise. A true leader is not only able to identify these needs and desires, but they also go out of their way to understand how they apply to each person. The leader understands that the organization’s success hinges on the contribution of each member of the team — the complete opposite of the chefs and bosses outlined above who makes it all about themselves. They understand the different personality styles of their team members and are able to change their communication approach on an individual basis.

To maximize the contribution from each team member, you have to put yourself in their shoes and understand what’s important to them. In other words, quite simply, you have to care.

Building trust

Once people know you care, you’re able to build trust, and they want to be a part of something versus just showing up for a job. To pull the best work out of your employees you need to first make it about them — not you. Teach them techniques and strategies that you’ve learned along the way that will help them to avoid similar pitfalls. If a cook can’t figure out how to make a sauce without it breaking or keeps overcooking steaks, it’s important to guide them, as a mentor, not just remind them of how bad they just screwed up.

https://www.thestaffcanteen.com/public/js/tinymce/plugins/moxiemanager/data/files/1 YChBZIhE2iQjEi9Qaaz28A.jpegYou want to contribute to everyone’s growth — not just to enhance their performance at your restaurant, but to enhance their career and to put them in the best situation to succeed long term.

If you can develop this type of trust and enrol the team in your vision as a chef, they can’t help but buy into it.

I think more and more of us are starting to see the benefits of embracing the later of these types of chefs — it makes work a lot more fun when you’re a part of a healthy environment when you have people along for the ride with you, and in your corner.

The problem is that it’s different for everybody — understanding how to connect with people is so dependent on the individual, so you need to figure out what works for you and your staff. You can bitch, moan, kick and scream to get what you want, but at the end of the day, let’s remember why we got into this profession — to make people happy —our customers and our staff.

Remember? You aren’t the most important person. Once you realise this and how gratifying the other type of leader can be, you’ll never go back, you’ll have more fun, probably more money and at the end of your career, you’ll be able to look back at a much more meaningful career.

In closing, I want to ask you one simple question,

WHICH TYPE OF CHEF ARE YOU GOING TO BE?— CHRIS HILL

Chris Hill
Chris Hill

Chef Chris Hill left a job in the business world to follow his heart and passion into the world of cooking and the kitchen. Chris opened his first restaurant at 28 and grew into the role of executive chef.

Having taken his experiences in the corporate world, as well as those in the kitchen, Chris has built a large social media following centred around TV appearances all over the Southeast U.S., his writing, TEDx talks, and his mission of helping industry workers to lead fulfilling successful careers.

Chris' first book came out in 2016 and is a dive into what makes for a successful career in the restaurant world, and includes exclusive interviews with some of the world's leading and most respected chefs.

You can follow Chris on Facebook, Twitter and Instagram, and read more of his work here.

Don't miss Chris' latest book 'Crush your career: A professional path to a sustainable life in the kitchen'. Available on Amazon

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The  Staff Canteen

The Staff Canteen

Editor 28th March 2018

Chris Hill Blog: What kind of chef are you going to be?