Two weeks ago I ended my role as head chef at Stafford Road. I have often thought about how my understanding of the role has changed, since I stepped up into that space. I used to define a head chef in terms of actions: someone who led a team, created dishes and handled the administrative business of a kitchen. Based on my recent experience, and with hindsight gained from the head chefs I have had, my current definition is based on attitude and values.
A great head chef is…
My experience has shown me what I aspire to. I will always strive to be the best cook I can be, but I also recognise the professional and personal development I need to achieve to be a better leader.
A great head chef is:
– consistently creative with a desire to try new things
– motivated and motivating
– someone who maintains standards to their highest ability no matter what
– respectful of everyone and their role in the team, and manages their team in a way that earns respect
– knowledgeable of every factor in the kitchen and costings
– someone who holds positive relationships with owners/investors
– humble about not knowing everything
– appreciative of suppliers and their connection to produce.
Lessons from the past
I want to honour the lessons some of my former head chefs taught me. Time and time again I returned to these lessons for guidance.
Systems – Sid Sahrawat taught me this and Mike Meredith reinforced it. A kitchen needs to be disciplined because it gives focus and brings consistency. Kitchens that run like clockwork, serve better food.
Camaraderie and connection – in Sid’s kitchen, every day begins with “hello”, ends with “goodbye” and a “please” follows every order and request. Etiquette begins in the kitchen and flows through into customer service. Teamwork and a shared sense of pride is cultivated in the smallest moments. I’ve been amazed at how many work places don’t have a culture of greeting one another, sharing staff dinner or basic politeness.
5 days a week – Fine dining teams work at such a high level, they know when to take a rest. Sharing days off and not having erratic rosters means a team can truly develop. A seven day operation means fluctuation, changing rosters, stretched resources, and a lack of cohesion which impacts the quality of food, service and ambiance. I understand why places need to open 7 days for financial reasons, but I know that in the future, I would like to choose two days of rest.
Unlearning – my days in London also taught me a lot, but mainly how not to do things. I learnt how not to behave towards your team and how not to treat your fellow chefs. I never want to run a kitchen where people hide the best equipment so as to disadvantage their co-chefs. Small teams are best. Teams that uphold manners, respect and helpfulness are conducive to producing the best food we can.
Mutual respect – I don’t want to operate in militaristic model where chefs obey and operate out of fear that they will receive violence and abuse. I have worked and led best when respect goes both ways.
A ‘head chef’, so now what?
In August last year I remember feeling lost without my former leaders to guide me on an everyday basis. This loss of security was one of the best things that could have happened to me.
There is undeniably an artistry and creative finesse to cheffing, but the fine balance of constructing dishes takes practice, failure and persistence. There were so many dishes which sounded amazing in my mind but didn’t translate into dishes that ate well and appealed to my audience. Resilience and pursuing flavours through many forms and failed arrangements is part of the journey. I have learnt to be better with perceived failures.
My reliance on commentary or feedback from diners undermined my confidence in my skills and I began to doubt my ability to satisfy customers. I found this especially hard when crossing genres from fine dining into a wine bar context. I questioned what I sent out… Surely a safe burger on a white bread bun would have won over on nights when people turned over my food, complained and then ordered fries? But I’m glad that I chose to follow making food which is imaginative, creative and different. My integrity and values were questioned, and I still hold them.
Even though I took a lot of negative and unthoughtful feedback to heart, I pushed on. Some days that meant disposing of dishes, but pursuing the concept in flavours or ingredients. I stood my ground because I have a philosophy and style, which can’t always bend to what customers want.
I can’t imagine a career where cooking what excites me won’t eventually meet the audience that appreciates it. Cooking anything and everything you think people want dilutes presence and personality. There is so much competition for a relatively small foodie population in Auckland – it is an even bigger incentive to stay true to your core, and believe people will notice that.