I believe in the world there are three types of chefs. The popular Food Network television program Chopped recently had an episode featuring teen chefs. The program included 13-year-old barely teenagers cooking in the usual format. This, in my mind, is not very different from the scores of applications I get from recent culinary school graduates for Executive Chef positions. In both cases it causes me to scratch my head and wonder why I've spent the better half of my career developing my craft and earning my title. -but enough of that for now, the entitlement of unqualified cooks calling themselves chefs is another blog post entirely. Case in point, these two categories of "chef" embody the realization that there is a subset of our craft in the industry who are just names on a jacket, or simply filling an open role.
In fairness however, many who are successful in the industry today cut their teeth in such a way, myself included. My first Executive Chef role was at a time in my career in which I was neither prepared -for from a culinary standpoint, or have had the experience -from a leadership standpoint, yet nonetheless I was handed the jacket. Still, the pomp and circumstance of having the title doesn't necessarily guarantee that the person filling the role is equipped with the skills necessary to be a true Chef. Words on a jacket does not a Chef make.
That brings me to the second category of "chef." This is the person whom we've all worked for in the industry; the person where all we can say is "OUI CHEF!" -a phrase that can be taken one of two ways, however in my experience more often than not it's with a sarcastic disrespect for the person who it is directed toward. As if to say you're wrong and we have no idea what you're talking about, but my job is to follow you nonetheless. There is perhaps no truer a representation of lack of confidence in their leader or worse, a complete disrespect. It behooves a chef to move through this stage of his career as quickly as possible. Frankly some never leave it. I know I've worked for them. Others quickly understand that leading by example is the quickest way to gain the confidence in the team they lead.
Now our last category. The category which I will call the professional chef. This is the person who, in all respects, has reached the true nature of what it means to be a chef. It is necessary for this person to demonstrate not only the technique and confidence in cooking ability but also in display a steady composure in the kitchen with their ability to energetically lead and direct their kitchen brigade. It is in my humble opinion that it is the necessity of these two qualities combined in a single person, which makes the pursuit of this particular caliber of chef, increasingly difficult to find in our culture today.
I've recently had the opportunity to coach and train four chefs for the completion of their CIA ProChef Certification. This is an opportunity for chefs to attend an exam session lasting a week to demonstrate their abilities and techniques of professional cooking. Completion of this exam, by no means is an easy task in itself. However, I would be remiss in saying that once the exam is complete the chef truly embodies ALL the qualities. There is no question that aptitude has been tested and skills verified, but the true color of the chef is taking those skills and abilities back to the teams that they lead. The completion of the exam, followed by the commencement ceremony signifies truly that -the beginning.
In a recent interview author Tim Ferriss interviewed four-star general Stanley McChrystal. In this interview the General indicated that for any professional you must keep always three people in your sights at all times. This leads to the ultimate professional development and trains leaders to remain objective. Here is a paraphrase of the three individuals he suggests:
#1: A subordinate who is previously doing a job that you once had, and more importantly, doing that job better than you did when you had the job. It's important to have someone like this in mind to ensure that we as individuals have both the humility and the objectivity to recognize greatness around us. More importantly is the understanding that key to a truly successful team is building strength at all levels, it is not successful as a result of the talents of the leader. If this particular person is a subordinate then it is indeed our responsibility to develop that person. We should be striving for that mentality of "the student exceeds the teacher." This and only this will help strengthen and make your team better than it has ever been before.
#2: A peer in your industry that's doing the current job that you currently occupy, either in another facility or for another company. What makes that person more successful than you are in your present capacity. What learnings can you derive from that person's success and how can you implement them in meeting or developing your own team and personal brand? It is in our nature as humans to want to be the best at anything. I think all of us are competitive to some degree. In other words if you're not already exceeding your peer group then to some degree you're competing against them.
#3: A superior you admire as a mentor or role model who exhibits the qualities of leadership or management that you hope to proficiently emulate someday. For the first half of my career this was always something very easy for me to do. When I worked in the pantry making salads and desserts I always carefully watched the fry station, once promoted to fry station I always wanted to sauté, on the sauté station I wanted to broil, on the broiler I wanted to expedite. Just as important as it is to identify people do you want to emulate, it's also important to identify people you do NOT want to emulate. This was also clear and evident in my early career. Nothing makes these two groups of people more distinct then when the entire team is in the weeds. The only way out is by working together. Half the team is bitching and whining and throwing their tongs about the line, the other half of the team is yelling ticket numbers and calling fires. If someday you want to be the chef which side of the pass are you on?
Only a few talented chefs reach this pinnacle of their careers and have both the culinary technical aptitude and accreditation as well as -when looking down at their jacket, the letters of Executive Chef. At this point you should realize that now YOU have become the leader and role model. The prerequisites have been met, the table has metaphorically been set, the expectation now is to execute on that vision we spoke about. Leadership in this industry is not an easy thing to get your arms around. The dynamic and personalities of many culinary workers is very unique.
A message to those chefs who became certified today -heed the call, that this is just the beginning. This is NOW the time for YOU to take the responsibility, indeed the DUTY to give back more to the industry, more than it has given you.