This is the third in a loose series of pieces summarizing the most widely applicable conclusions I have made about what makes for career success in restaurants. The “Don’ts” are generally extracted from the most common termination causes I have witnessed or behavior that throws up career obstacles.
“Road Dirt” means that none of this is in any way wisdom, but a collection of the second hand mud splatters I’ve been hit with over the last 25+ years. You might want to read Road Dirt 1 and Road Dirt Redux, as well.
There is, of course, no guarantee that following all of these will make you a great chef, or that not agreeing with a few will not. You need skill, some talent, some intelligence and a spattering of good character plus a little luck to get the gold ring off the Merry Go Round. None the less, I hope you will find them worth at least considering.
18) Never argue mad. Adrenaline is infectious, and arguing with your levels raised only incites the other guy. In the end nobody gets anywhere, and you both carry away a piece of grudge. (Fact: A high adrenaline level prevents people from hearing and comprehending what the other person is saying. ) Get out of a high energy exchange – put it off until everyone has cooled down. If your subordinates are angry and excited, give them a time out, then readdress the issue when they are not about to explode.
19 ) Treat visionaries with care and caution. Don’t waste your valuable time on someone else’s dreams. Realistically assess the value of new projects.
20) At some point you may have to decide between money and your soul. I frankly see nothing wrong with money (as long it’s honest) but I know of chefs who have regretted the tradeoff.
21) Keep out of kitchen politics. Do what you do and let others smack talk each other.
22) Travel. Travel young and work in another country. It doesn’t have to be France. Stage. Work abroad. You will learn things that won’t be clear to you until years later.
23) Keep contact with the people you work with. Learn their last names. Get to know them. You will all need each other at some point or other.
24) Write. Record everything. Don’t worry about grammar or spelling – you can correct that later. Keep a ledger of what happens at the restaurant, your menu items, your recipes, your problems, your achievements, your failures and your triumphs. If you don’t need this to document an incident or your behavior, you may want to use it in a book (lots of authors don’t spell well, either, so don’t let that stop you). Failing that, you will find it fascinating reading later as will your progeny. Mostly, however, keep it for documentation.
25) Kindness and graciousness have a great deal to do with the careers of the truly grand chefs. I can’t think of one I know who doesn’t possess both qualities. If they don’t come naturally to you, work on them.Here’s the tip: You are never the most important person in the room. The most responsible, yes. The lynch pin, for sure, but from your perspective, the person you depend on to get things out, to get things done or your customer takes the top dog title.
26) Talent is only the beginning. It provides you the opportunity to be a great chef, but it doesn’t make you one. The rest is a mixture of knowledge, skill, character, commitment and experience, which takes years to acquire.
27) Just because one kind of job is prestigious or popular doesn’t mean it’s right for you. Celebrity is far from being much let alone everything. For most of us there is or should be life beyond the kitchen and the food media. On the other hand, however, if your goal is a recognized and celebrated location, possibly your own, then you need to start by working in them.
28) Put dignity at the top of your goals. That’ s not pride. It’s the ability to deal with unpleasant situations with your chin up, not to lose face by “flipping out” at tough moments, to leave without baring your emotions if you must. Afford it to everyone in your kitchen.
29) Don’t ignore problems. Listen to your people but not continually (ie, don’t let whiners whine). Defuse or deal with their issues. If you do not, they become your issues.
30) Understand the difference between pride and arrogance. Know your value and insist on dealing and being dealt with accordingly, but don’t be dismissive of those you might think of less importance than you assume for yourself.
31) Take care of your brand. Don’t sell it early to projects that offer good money but will reduce its value later on. Don’t diminish it by behavior that plays into stereotypes. You are your brand. It is what you can sell until you retire. It is what will put you in the desired positions or keep you from them.
32) Manage your career by keeping the long view. Always think of how your decisions will impact the long term. There are few situations where you an sit back and take the easy way out in the food industry. If you go towards industrial food service, you will probably not be able to return to fine dining. Hotel chefs are rarely hired in restaurants. Five years in domestic service sends chefs back to the beginning of the restaurant queue. These are generalizations, only, but generalizations are true for most people. Most of us are most people and not the exception.