5 Ways to Bulletproof Your Back-of-House Brigade

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I’m sure by now that the writing is on the wall for all to see, and the message is clear: The culinary industry is in danger. The perfect storm is bearing down on all of us and it’ll take all of us, together, to shift the prevailing winds and have our fraternity – our family – come out of the current crisis leaner, stronger, more congruent, and much more grounded.

As David Chang pointed out in the latest issue of GQ, the looming “restaurant apocalypse” is coming for us and the resulting effect will be indiscriminate — lives, careers, and operations will be forever changed. We can take steps now to bulletproof our operations. We have a unique opportunity to shift the culture of our craft and finally heed the call of change that has been ringing in our collective ears for the last three decades.

This storm has been fueled by ego, fortified by lack of consciousness, and driven in large part by our shared belief that things would go on much as they’ve always gone — plenty of diners coming in the front door willing to part with their hard earned money, and a steady stream of prospective employees coming in the back door with stars in their eyes, reverence for us in their hearts, and dreams in their soul for a place of their own one day.

Those days are long gone, my friend. There are too many restaurants driving down menu prices, profit, and wages. There’s outdated, out-of-touch ownership and management structures. There’s too much avoidance and not enough conversation; too much food porn and not enough food policy.

5 Lessons of Bulletproofing

In this article, we’re going to address the most pressing problem that many of us face in our day-to-day lives: a diminishing labor pool as a result of many of the factors listed above. You might not be able to control the amount of resumes that come in, but you can do something about the associates you have now.

All of us can take small actions to ensure our crews are made stronger and more resilient by emphasizing tools that assist in building a better team. This will allow your operation to become a factory of excellence, breeding mature professionals that can go out into the marketplace and make a difference.

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1. Create a culinary covenant.

Two issues dogging the industry right now are the perception that the kitchen can be a brutal place to work and the reality that most of our operations don’t provide a living wage. It’s easy for a prospective culinary associate to consider other opportunities in light of these realities.

Consider this: Millennials will make up about 50 percent of the workforce within the next five years. Much has been written on their disregard for established power structures, distrust of anyone who will take their power away, and their desire to work at something that means something — to them and the broader community. They want to know, upfront, what they’re in for, how they’ll be supported, and where they’re headed.

Hence, the Culinary Covenant. This is an agreement, partnership, and promise from you, as the employer, mentor, and coach, to the associate. It frames your working relationship and forms the boundaries, expectations, and benchmarks for them and for you. It gives clear guidance for you as their mentor and for them as someone who leans in and gives it their all. A fair exchange of value.

Next, draw up a succession plan for all associates and management staff. It can give clarity to the mission and ease the stress of knowing where the next replacement for sauté will be coming from.

Then, communicate it — post it on the wall, be transparent. Knowing where one is headed is half the battle and can give the associate some perspective beyond the prep list for tonight’s service.

2. Train and mentor as a way of being.

The Culinary Covenant is just a piece of paper; give it some teeth by making training and mentoring a daily, consistent activity — a mantra, if you will. Nothing will convey care for an individual’s future more concretely than training them on something new and giving them context where that skill set comes into play. One chef I know creates monthly game-like training sessions that the whole kitchen participates in, dishwashers included. One month they might break down a whole pig and the next month they may butcher a whole swordfish, running specials from the whole animal.

By conducting these trainings and having some fun around them, you are inadvertently modeling the best of mature professionalism in the clearest possible way: inclusive, grounded, joyous, and contributory.

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3. Share informational intelligence.

We work in a data-rich environment. However, most information is jealously guarded and sometimes for good reason. I don’t know about you, but I’ve always been able to reverse engineer a recipe based on its end result. And I always found it a bit odd that someone would make it their life’s mission to keep it a secret. With few exceptions, there is little new under the sun.

Want to build a stronger, more flexible, more committed team? Share informational intelligence with them. Gather, analyze, and disseminate all the intelligence you can about your business. I know of an organization so secure in its position that it posts the monthly P&L on the bulletin board for all to see: How much is going into capital reserve? When will it be spent? How much is our labor cost and when will it become a problem? Post cover/time graphs culled from the last five Saturdays so that everyone can see peaks and valleys of business and how time compression will affect their readiness. Sure, you can post recipes, but how about the deeper cut, primers on procedures and cooking techniques, or sous vide guides with associated temperature/time requirements for different proteins and applications?

Lastly, it’s probably more impactful to share the thinking behind such statistics so that they can learn from their own critical thinking skills and deductive reasoning.

4. Practice emotional intelligence.

Everyone is watching how you handle things. Practicing mindfulness in all situations pays huge benefits because, as you stay neutral and are unaffected by the stressors that come hand in hand with our business, your associates and coworkers will exemplify similar behaviors and attitudes. One can still be passionate about what they do and be grounded in their ways of being. To those looking for a role model and a mentor, this becomes a natural aspiration. Have a bad track record so far? So what! You are not bound to your history. If you’re determined to change, there are some great resources out there. Read or listen to “Do the Work” or “The War of Art” by Steven Pressfield. Learn Aikido or yoga. Watch this video by Eric Ripert about how he changed his ways of being.

5. Commit to 1,000 conversations a day.

This is more of a principle than an actuality, so don’t trip on me just yet. We as culinary professionals have been taught that we are the ones to shoulder the load, keeping close counsel. While I don’t advocate that we share all the bloody details, I’m suggesting that if you consider yourself to be in the “relationship” business rather than the food business, most of your actions will be around building and strengthening your relationships with vendors, customers, or associates.

There’s an old management principle that states 80 percent of your results come from 20 percent of your efforts. If we apply that to a typical work day — say, 12 hours — then where would you spend that 2.5 hours that statistics predict will yield 80 percent of your results? In the office? On the back dock? Or would you be spending three hours a day in relationship with your associates, actually laying the groundwork to building a stronger, more flexible, and responsive team? If you did that, would they ensure that they performed at peak levels? Wouldn’t they make it a priority to pay back the emotional investment and trust that you have placed in them? Wouldn’t that go a long way toward bulletproofing your brigade?

Previously Published @

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