Greg Baker, chef-owner of The Refinery and Fodder & Shine in Tampa, Florida, is a 20-year kitchen veteran, having worked in Portland, Oregon and Austin before opening his James Beard Award-nominated restaurant in 2010. His writing occasionally appears on Food Republic.
I was an apt pupil when it came to cooking. Or at least I thought I was. But truthfully, I’ve tripped over my own dick too many times to count. I also thought that I was a humble person, never one to laud my accomplishments. I was completely happy with a third-place ribbon. But in actuality, my ego stunted my career growth in ways that I was too blind to see. It still does, at times, but hopefully less frequently.
I do not pretend to have the answers, but after years of contemplation, I’ve arrived at some points that I’d really love to tell the younger me.
You’re not as good as you think you are. Really, you’re not.
I used to take myself so goddamned seriously — I aimed for perfection and I took correction horribly, not because I could do no wrong, but because I took the correction so personally that I would beat myself up to the point of just shutting down. How is that different from a sulking child? How exactly does your team benefit from that? Suck it up.
I also used to compare myself to everyone else in the kitchen. I was better than them. I could find fault with everyone, fault that surely did not apply to me. I cared that they might make more money than me. I cared that they had better shifts, better days off. The fact was that they were all better than me at being on a team, working toward a common goal and not worrying about their personal gains.
Have you noticed that word that I’ve used a couple of times here? Team. Not crew, not staff, but team. Crews and staffs are transient, unstable entities. A team believes in themselves and the goal. A crew beats down its weakest links; a team lifts those links so that everyone succeeds.
Your food kinda sucks.
Rolling out a new menu item, spending hours or days making it just right — the first order comes in and it just looks so awesome on the plate. You ask the server what the customer thought….
“They said it was okay.”
Okay? Okay?? What the ever-loving fuck do they MEAN it’s just okay? Every one of those plate elements done so well and looking so pretty apparently aren’t done so well and don’t look so pretty. But because your own emotional investment (pride, shall we say, for lack of a better term) is so strong and you believe in the dish so fervently, you lack the objectivity to really examine the dish’s worth. It’s just food — treat it as such. Make food that is good, not food that makes you feel good. You’ll feel better about the good food in the long run. That dish you created just so you could try out that new technique and those chia seeds you’ve been reading about? Stop it. Right now. That’s a stupid way to cook. New technique is more often than not an extension of existing technique. The dish should define the cooking method and the garnish. This is a restaurant, not a playground.
Your customer service sucks.
A plate comes back in the middle of the rush: a “rare plus” steak isn’t cooked to the customer’s satisfaction. We all know that they want medium-rare and you presented a textbook example. Everyone from expo to grill examines the steak, declares it perfect and grumbles. You know what? Just get the fuck over it and give the customer what they want.
We don’t exist without our customers, and we are here to serve them. Simply because your name is on the door doesn’t mean that they’re here for you. At the end of the day, no matter how big or small your name is, the customer is not here because Chef Muckenfunch is on TV and this is his restaurant. Fully distilled, it is the expectation of the quality of food and service of that chef on TV that draws people in. So live up to that.
There was a really dark weekend about four years ago. Our tiny little place had just gotten a Beard semifinalist nomination for Best New Restaurant. Business shot up 60 percent overnight. Along with that surge in dollars was an accompanying surge of new clientele, many with preconceived expectations of what being in consideration for such an award entails. Some were assholes about it; they were the people we have never, ever wanted to cater to. I mean, we opened our own place so we could do things our own way and not have to deal with these people, right? That first weekend, we kicked 13 people out. Some were justified, cursing at the staff when things went sideways. Others? Well, we just weren’t ever going to live up to their expectations, so why bother encouraging their bitchfest? Stress levels told us that it was just easier to ask them to leave. But were they assholes? Could a good future client relationship be forged after they got used to what we were? We’ll never know, I guess.
The result of these painfully learned lessons is still processing and probably always will be. But I’ve learned to humble myself in order to understand my guests’ needs and expectations, become a better leader, and a better cook. Wait, there I go bragging again.
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