Thursday, October 22, 2009

Menu Identity – Navigating The Chef [vs.] Owner Relationship

I was sitting in a restaurant SBA class the other night and one of the seemingly most innocuous and non sequitur questions of the night came from a prospective restaurant owner who posed this to the instructor:

“How do I find a good chef out there?”

The instructor went on for 5-10 minutes about poaching a sous from a great restaurant or stealing a #3 from somewhere. I’m perfectly sure he was right, but my brain tuned him out because I was envisioning a dozen of chefs that I could imagine being successful with their own kitchen regardless of whether they were a sous at this moment or not.

I initially dismissed this as more of a comedic and pointlessly irrelevant question, but then I began to think about it in more detail. Wouldn’t it be infinitely more interesting if the question was phrased from the chef’s perspective:

“How do I find a good owner out there?”

For many diners, one of the more mysterious and inconspicuous aspects of their dining experience is the relationship of the chef and the owner. The big question for the diner from this train thought is: “how does this affect my meal?”

And, like all good questions that require proper articulation, the answer is “yes, it does” and “no, it doesn’t.” Listen, I’m not about to start blaming what shows up on the plate on how good/bad the a owner chef relationship stands. The execution of your dish has nothing to do with that because a perfectly cooked piece of meat/fish definitely has more to do with the cook than the administration. But… have you ever thought about the menu?

Many chefs have great minds and possess great talent, but there are plenty of situations where that brain is never properly on display. In many kitchen situations, there are often chefs that are stymied by unnecessary meddling from their owners and constant setbacks due to this constant need for trend evaluation and concept change (which involves mass menu changes). I’m not saying that concept change isn’t necessary, especially during these times, but I will note that an even hand (when it comes to requesting changes) and proper menu cultivation/trust with a chef is important. It sounds stupid, but yes, working together in this crazy world of ours is THAT hard.

You’d be surprised by how many sad stories often come about in regards to responsible chefs who complain about being needled night and day by a disrespectful owner. It is the type of owner who disappears when everyone is digging deep and can’t seem to disappear fast enough when truly informed management decisions are needed. Sometimes the most important aspect of ownership is giving the chef the proper respect to perform the work they were hired for. Included in the haystack of issues regarding poor ownership are: constant worker policy shifts, poor/unpaid vendor management (without notifying kitchen staff), last second menu demands for change or service adjustments, uninformed requests based on number figures [not management] and constant business hour adjustments. Ultimately, the owner has the power, but it is the mismanagement of that power that ends up hurting the chef, the staff, the bottom line and eventually the food.

There are plenty of great owners out there and there are plenty of chefs that appreciate them, but when a chef owner situation turns negative in a kitchen – the enthusiasm is deflated and it takes a very good chef to prevent the food from suffering. All things being equal, the chef versus owner model can be a good example for the basic need for faith and trust. Please don’t apply this situation to every chef turnover reported on eater.com because every situation is inherently different and not every chef is a responsible, understanding and talented individual. Everyone has had an annoying boss in their lives, but quitting in the restaurant industry just happens to be more high profile I guess.

I was intrigued to blog about this because I felt like it was a slice of the industry underbelly worth identifying from time to time. That and it might be fun to throw a curveball into your dining experience because there are certainly many things that the common diner would never begin to perceive as having an effect on their food.

I’m not saying chefs don’t need to trust or understand owners when they properly address changes and operating problems, but in the same breath, I think owners need to trust that their chefs have the pride to work through those issues with concern, cooperation and, of course, ownership.

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