Archive for the Chef’s Philosophy Category

The Direction of a Knife

My first experience with truly professional waiters was in 1995, when I moved to New York City to work at La Grenouille.  La Grenouille is a very special restaurant, the last of the Grandes Dames that defined the restaurant scene in New York after Le Pavillion, the great French restaurant which came out of the 1939 New York Worlds Fair.   It was an entirely masculine restaurant, from front to back, aside from some office staff and the coat check “girls”.  The first day I tried out for the job, every waiter stopped by and introduced himself to me, and shook my hand.  It was mind-bogglingly civilized, and the experience remains with me to this day.   Restaurant people spend an inordinate amount of time together at the worst hours, and to have this introduction to service  —  simply treating others well — affected my way of working from then on.   What was interesting is that days before, I had eaten at Restaurant Daniel, the New York Times Four Star Restaurant, and had what is today still the most memorable meal of my life in terms of the food, and some of the rudest service I had ever had.   Restaurants themselves have individualized cultures, and I eventually learned that there was for me a great difference between the two restaurants.

Once, some seventeen years ago, I was interviewing at a restaurant with the Chef de Cuisine.  I spent the day with her, and she was extremely good, but exhausted to the depths of her soul.  She made a comment that has always stayed with me,  “Cooking is a selfless act”.  I think that if one recognizes that cooking is part of the whole service experience, one can say that “Service is a selfless act”.   One must get out of ones own way and be attuned towards  the other.  Kindness, caring and compassion are blended with professionalism, expertise, and putting oneself on another’s agenda.  The balance, however must be to not sacrifice one’s own well being: if you do not take care of yourself, you cannot be present for the other.  I felt her exhaustion, and something felt wrong.  I did not pursue a job with them based on the weight on her soul.   I was unconscious of it, but I intuitively knew that I could not have that experience.

What I have come to understand is that service is never just about taking care of the customer.  In my role as a chef, I view my job as making sure my employees have the skills and tools to do their job.  If they do not, that is a failure on my part.  I cannot take care of the customer if my employees do not have what they need.   So, I have a responsibility to serve the greater needs of the entire community: the customer, the employees, and my colleagues.  This is a paradigm shift: in pure service, there is no person above the other.  Service is instead a relationship.  We are all in relationship with each other, and in different ways serving the needs of each other.   There is a code to being responsible to each other.  This is why entitlement from a customer can be so frustrating.  Your money does not buy my essence, all that it buys is the transaction.   It is our common humanity, our inherent equality, that is the reason I will be generous of spirit.

I have always found the details of service to be great fun, when one knows them.  There is pleasure in knowing the essential aesthetics of a cultural norm.   My Grandmother Shewmaker would say, “The reason why the rules are there are just so that people will know what to do.”    As a woman with a mental illness, she saw that clearly.  In times of revolution — for instance, the social revolution of the  ’60’s — society is shaken because the norms are thrown out the window.   As a child I would get mad at my little brother when he set the table and didn’t put things the way they were supposed to go: the fork on the left, the knife facing in on the right, the spoon on the outside of it.  It was about meeting expectations.  People find comfort in the familiar, in knowing the rules, in knowing how to behave.  To this day I find myself frustrated when the most basic of rituals are not followed.  At the last place I worked, the silverware was set on the wrong side, and I just bit my tongue.   I remember eating at a restaurant many years ago, and they had put kosher salt in the salt shakers, and you couldn’t get the salt out.  I told the owner, who I happened to work for at another restaurant, and all he did was give a patronizing laugh.  I did not continue to work for him, because that attitude was reflected in all of his working relationships.  Why would you not care about the experience of another?  If a customer’s expectations aren’t reasonably met, there will be conflict within the relationship.    By the same token, if a waiter is clear with the customers at the outset that there might be problems with service, or know how to nip things in the bud appropriately, it is incumbent on the customer to honor that.  These things matter, because at the end of the day, it is about the rituals that we live with, the underlying rules, that give a society  structure.  It does not matter if you are in a primitive tribe, or a sophisticated nation, groups of people have basic and subtle rules that they live by. Even when one is a radical protester, there are social norms: you cannot accomplish things without being attuned to them, even if within their own group they have to design the architecture of their society.  Not having silverware when the food comes out, or not having cream and sugar already there for the coffee, is a rupture because one person is breaking the constructs by which society lives.  This is not petty nor is it what one might dismiss as a First World Problem.  It truly is about being a person in full relationship with others.  I used to tell my people, if a customer asked for mayonnaise, and we did not get it out to them immediately,  they would be sitting with food in front of them getting cold.  It does not work. It creates disharmony.

Awareness of the direction of the knife at a setting says volumes about a persons awareness of others.  This is why it matters.  This is what service is.

What Drives Me

Management Style: I set the tone of the work place, and am responsible for creating an environment where employees will succeed.  My role is to be responsible to the people I manage: I am there to make sure that they have the tools to do their jobs, and their success or failure falls on my shoulders.  In hiring people, I excel at finding the right position for the person, and vice versa.  I do not believe in shoe-horning a person into a job, but making the fit right for both the individual and the team.  I believe in teams.  I love building teams and witnessing the cohesion of a team develop, growing into an entity unto itself.  I believe that a customer’s positive experience, and hence the businesses profitability, starts with treating the employee first and foremost as a human being who deserves my respect, no matter the position, and investing in them by teaching, providing positive feedback,  listening to suggestions, and being clear in my communication without being condescending or dismissive.  Building a loyal team not only creates a positive work environment but a successful business.  My best work is collaborative, whether it is with my fellow managers, engaging the people who work for me, or discerning the desires of the clientele that I serve.   I love the creative experience of building with others, and I thrive on the nuances of building unique relationships.

Creative Passions:  While I thrive in being successful, having the spotlight, and love the attention that comes with making people happy, I have no desire to intrude on a guest’s experience.  What excites me is knowing that we have taken care of a guest, that we have succeeded in our task.    At my core, I believe my own success comes from the collaborative work experience, and it is something which drives my creativity, whether it be with a purveyor that has something exciting to sell me, a management team member who wants to put together a special event, a customer who has unusual requests, or an employee who wants to learn and stretch themselves.  These become challenges to engage me and excite me.   While I have come up with original ideas, they tend to be less important to me than the act of creating with others.

Culinary Philosophy:  I have one basic question that must be answered before all others:  is it yummy?  After that, I will digress into intellectual arguments for or against what I am serving (i.e.: is it local, seasonal, sustainable, cruelty free, how processed, what kinds of compromises am I making, how can I offset those compromises…).  I believe that Vegetarians mostly have it right, though not entirely.  Our environment is in danger from industrial farming.   Factory farming, mono-culture, lack of biodiversity, genetic engineering, dangerous chemicals,  ad infinitum, does  not produce healthy food.  Food subsidies that reward mono-culture, that do not support small farmers, have created a situation where we will not pay what food is actually worth.  It has screwed with our economy — remember Farm Aid?  The situation literally forces  us to eat something that is substandard and  a new invention, something that was never in the human diet and now creates its own set of problems.  I am a traditionalist in many respects, and I come by it honestly: I learned through exposure at an early age to appreciate traditional, and often conservative, cultures.  True conservatism would not embrace the horrors of what Monsanto is creating.  A set of radical business men co-opt the term…   I love the received wisdom of cuisines passed down: the techniques of cookery, food in season, the rituals of dining, and the joy of celebration.  While in my career I have come up with some original dishes and techniques, I will always be loyal to those who practiced their craft before me.   The experience of cuisine, the rituals of dinning, is central to who we are as human beings.  And in the midst of my critique,  I find that I will make compromises because, well, perhaps a deep fried Twinkie is exceptionally yummy?  Maybe it is worth cruelty for me to experience the lushness of foie gras? Perhaps, before it is extinct, I will have one more opportunity to experience the pop, the salinity, the mouth feel, the oiliness and fishiness of Beluga caviar… I cannot help but be human: a sensualist, a hedonist, a hunter.  The idea of eating something that is completely unnatural is something we look down on, and yet we do every day with guilty(or oblivious) pleasure.   The idea of eating something on the verge of extinction or consuming that which creates unimaginable suffering goes against the mores of our contemporary culture, and we view as  primitive as the peasant and his gavage.   Yet we tolerate the grossest of cruelties in our mass production.  The rituals and traditions of dining rein in our base animal hungers, and give them structure, a frame work to set us apart from “primitives”, simultaneously separating us from the true nature of our food: what it is and where it came from.   I am trusted to make those decisions for the diner, to filter it so that they may eat in good conscience.    Dining itself is a civilized act;  it is my job to harness the rituals and traditions, and thereby showcase our hungers in an acceptable form.  Thorstein Veblen, the late 19th and early 20th century Political Economist who originated the idea of “conspicuous consumption” critiques me through it all.