Ah, success! After all the work, you’ve finally made it. You're off to New York for a few days to cook at the Beard House, then back home to orchestrate a charity dinner for 300, then on to an event in L.A. before finally enjoying a well-deserved "working" vacation in Baja. But who's manning the stove while you're away, making sure that every one of your bill-paying customers (those who are actually financing your extracurricular activities) are being well taken care of?
This is where the chef de cuisine comes in to save your bacon. It is critical to have someone you can rely on to run the show in your absence. Here's how to cultivate that person.
As your obligations pull you out of the kitchen, it becomes increasingly important to develop and monitor your chef de cuisine's culinary talent. You may not spend as much time with every cook in your kitchen, but you must make time for your protege. Work closely to develop menus and taste everything together so that when you describe a dish or the flavor that you're aiming for he or she knows exactly what you want, even if you're across the country. Go out to eat together and evaluate dishes; try your competitors’ specials and menu items and discuss them.
Once you know your chosen number two can cook, explain to him or her how you run your business. Give your deputy a working knowledge of all costs related to your business, not just food; and don't be afraid to let him or her know if costs go off track. Share responsibility for producing positive results, and when you're in the black, share the rewards – maybe that’s the time to treat your chef de cuisine to a long weekend in some exotic locale.
Encourage personal growth.
When cooks reach the sous chef or chef de cuisine level, they should be able to inspire their chef by sourcing great ingredients or knowing effective new techniques. They also should be developing their knowledge of the front of house—wine, spirits, service, and guests’ needs—and their interest will garner them huge points with your GM, sommelier, and dining-room staff.
It takes time to develop mutual trust; there are no shortcuts. In my kitchen, those who ascend to leadership positions must have worked with me for at least a couple of years. It's a bonus if they’ve worked their way up through my kitchen. Your chef de cuisine should know everything about the way you run your kitchen, from the way you make your stocks to the way you plate a dish to the vendors you choose to work with. Identify talent early and consciously invest your time and effort to help your first mate grow and learn new skills.
Give your chef de cuisine time and space to grow. If you micromanage everything he or she does, you gain nothing and you will stifle a necessary self-confidence and mutual trust. Address mistakes—after all, it's your reputation on the line—but recognize the difference between a minor cost hiccup and a crushing blunder. Frame fixable mistakes as learning experiences; reflect on your career and how you overcame similar obstacles. And a show of support for your chef de cuisine in front of the rest of the brigade will go a long way in building your protege’s self-confidence and establishing your bond.
Talk about the future.
If your chef de cuisine has already spent a few years working with you side by side, what comes next? By discussing your big plans (another restaurant, expanding the catering business, writing a book, and so forth), you let your number two know about new and exciting avenues that could open up for him or her. If you have projects in the works, tell your second where you see him or her fitting in. If you hope to keep a strong, valued chef de cuisine on your team, you need to build your protege’s career, too, or he or she might move out of your kitchen prematurely and spoil your plans.
What better way to move into the future than to help someone close to you grow and realize his or her dreams? And benefit yours at the same time!