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R&IEditorial Archives2000 — May 1 — Business

New Line Order
A chef talks about the trials of taking over a kitchen created by someone else.

Conventional wisdom in the foodservice industry says nothing is harder than opening a restaurant. But ask any chef who has been hired to raise the bar at an operation that’s already up and running, and you’ll hear another story to stir a drink over.

Starting from scratch allows a chef to build the kitchen from the ground up—his or her way. Taking over someone else’s space often means an inheritance you’d rather do without. And never mind the staff that has a set way of doing business.

Here’s a typical scenario: The menu needs an overhaul or you would not have been hired. There’s a staff as tentative as you are, some standard operating forms, and a walk-in that hasn’t seen any love for weeks, maybe a month. You might be the boss of the kitchen, but you’re still the new guy. Also, you need the current staff—the good and the bad. So bring out a legal pad, a couple of sharp No. 2 pencils and start making lists.

Knowing you can’t do it all yourself, the first thing to do is evaluate the kitchen crew. Determine their level of food knowledge, skills and techniques. Then try to find out if they have bought into the impending changes, because people hate change and there will be a lot of it.

During those first couple of days, get to know the people who got the restaurant this far. This requires a lot of listening, and a lot of watching. No doubt, there will be things that make you want to dismantle the entire setup, but carry your stick softly.

After a few days of note-taking, a series of one-on-one meetings with the cooks, prep cooks and dishwashers is helpful. You want them to understand what you will do for them as a cook, leader, teacher and mentor. Communicating to them the importance of quality, commitment and what will be expected of them as professionals is essential. Once that table is set, the test begins for the entire staff, from dishwashers to sous chef. Everyone has to earn his or her stay, again. Be prepared to say, “If this isn’t for you, no hard feelings, good luck and goodbye.” You weren’t hired to make friends.

Menu changes most likely start right away, but a successful manager includes others in decision-making—building a valuable team for both the front and back of the house.Poll the staff for their thoughts on the existing menu to determine which items are first on the hit list and which can wait. Servers are catalogers of customer input, and the cooks—the good ones—know which items don’t perform technically. And remember this restaurant is already running. Unless you’ve been brought in for a complete overhaul, some menu items should be left intact.

Be careful not to bite off too big a mouthful at first. Make changes the staff can execute. Improve quality quickly but within the restrictions of a frenetic Saturday night.

As you create, clean up, organize and wonder when there will be an hour or two to get on the computer, the real picture with the kitchen crew starts to crystallize. The first batch of cooks starts the no-show, no-calling routine, so you work sauté one night and grill the next. But with every shift, you continue working with the staff, teaching them how you want it done and, more importantly, why.

Then you discover the grease traps haven’t been cleaned since Nixon was in office, and all the while you continue to lie to yourself that this isn’t exhausting. Lucky you love what you do.

You wonder if you’ll ever actually shorten that “to do” list, so time management is your only friend now. Prioritize and tackle the problems with the most impact first. Don’t get bogged down by the less consequential issues.

Eventually, the most difficult part of this transition will near its end. The crew is almost entirely new or on board with the program. The menu is nearly finished. The purveyors are in line, and they are embracing your expectations. The walk-in cooler and storage areas now resemble organizations, and even your inventory sheet matches.

Of course the daily teaching and mentoring never stops, but the fires are out and you can start looking at a real day off, time when you’re away from the restaurant but not calling in and managing via cell phone.

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