Do nice chefs finish last? Blog by KnifeofBrian

The  Staff Canteen

Knife of Brian Cookery & Catering owner, Brian Powlett debates whether a head chef needs to be more aggressive in their approach to get the best out of their staff and earn respect.

This is a blog I have wanted to write for a while now. It is a strange one for me because, in my questioning of people about this topic, I was given a real insight into how some close friends operate. And I wasn't always in favour of their actions or behaviour.

Brian Powlett
Brian Powlett

So, what is it? It is leadership. More specifically, the negative side of being a head chef which stems from a simple question I was once asked.

“You seem like a nice guy Brian, but why are a lot of senior chefs complete dicks?”

This in turn, led me to ask other chefs questions about their management style. Having a focus on keeping a team happy and having a family feel, working environment over being a dictator overlord and master of the kitchen, who strikes fear in to all those who make eye contact.

Does one need to become a dick and be more aggressive with co-workers, in order to get the best out of them?

I know I’m using the negatives here. I am just curious to know whether the modern chef needs to be more aggressive in leadership to get the best out of their team. Should a chef rule by fear or friendship? In my own kitchens, people who work with, and for me tend to stick around a long time. Years in fact. This is rare in this trade which has a notoriously high turnover of staff. I pride myself on being calm, friendly, approachable and professional. My style is to lead through nurture and encouragement. I am very patient. Naturally, I have my darker side, but this doesn’t usually activate until several factors have been triggered. This was not always the case.

When I finished college. I was fuelled by tabloid stories of rock star chefs. Marco (Pierre White) was turning people out of his restaurant. John Burton-Race was being exposed on TV as having a bit of a temper (allegedly). These guys were alpha, macho and forthright. They were, at this time, being pricks in my opinion. And I loved it! Modelling myself on this type of leadership. Having nightly confrontations with front of house staff or junior chefs. Even though, at this time, I was still a chef-baby. I was still a little delusional. I was mimicking the big boys of the industry, but I had no substance to back myself up apart from my ego. As I got older and wiser, the realisation of my childishness became tiring. I became a father quite young and this mellowed me out too. I guess I started seeing the chef and waiters working around me as people not targets. Parenthood isn’t the cheapest form of therapy, but it worked for me.

Tim Raue
Tim Raue

I recently watched an episode of Chefs Table which focussed on chef Tim Raue. The self-confessed eccentric is regarded as one of the best chefs in Germany, Europe and the world. But is also famed for his aggression and intense personality. Yet chefs want to work with/for him. I believe the same can be said for several of the world’s best chefs?

So, getting back to my question. Is the aggression needed in the kitchen? Do we need to rule with fear? Where does the fear stop and the respect begin? I like to believe that I have the respect of my team in my kitchen. We only have a small working area (3 people maximum, 2 chefs, 1 wash up). This does not allow for being a prick. There are more jokes and banter in our tiny box of a kitchen. I take my food very seriously, but it will never take precedence over the connection I make with my colleagues. Is this the wrong attitude? There are times when I have supressed my anger for fear of upsetting a co-worker. I know that an outburst would have an effect on the environment because of our small working area. I understand that the higher profile kitchens and chefs will have way more pressure on them than I will ever get in my pub kitchen. I get that. It’s just we are still seeing and reading a media portrayal of head chefs screaming at their commis. I guess that makes a more interesting story than people all being nice to each other. Is it time for the friendly chef to stand up and be heard? Or will they just get shouted down and verbally abused by the tsunami of testosterone (that sounded better in my head)? All that being said, the scariest head chef I ever worked for was female.

In this modern era where a seven second video clip can end a career. Not to mention an ill thought out tweet or blog. We need to be careful and respectful. It isn’t the 1990's anymore, apparently!

Knife of Brian is head chef at the Greyhound Ipswich and Knife of Brian Cookery & Catering. He supports CALM (campaign against living miserably) male suicide charity and has just finished his first pop up event at the Suffolk Show and would be a gigolo if he wasn't a chef.

For more blogs like this from Knife of Brian visit his websitewww.knifeofbrian.co.uk

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The  Staff Canteen

The Staff Canteen

Editor 13th October 2017

Do nice chefs finish last? Blog by KnifeofBrian