Thursday, 30 May 2013

Food for Thought

We had our first barbecue of the year at the weekend - in preparation the boys baked a loaf in the afternoon (bread-making was my father’s secret method for ensuring clean fingernails, but I’m pleased to report that my chefs washed their hands thoroughly before kneading) and they sweated over the hot charcoal, as dusk fell, while I created some salads and laid the table.  It’s good to do things together as a team and many of the rules to effective working relationships are learned initially at home.  I clearly am distracted by food as, while waiting for my supper to be cooked, I was struck by how many aspects of life (both within and outside the office) centre around food and drink.  We talk of “water cooler moments”; people wishing to provide services often suggest “meeting up for a coffee”; it is a customary in my organisation for an individual, on their birthday, to buy cakes and/or savoury treats for everyone to enjoy - it creates a wonderful sense of camaraderie as people eat and chat together in the main office kitchen; in many workplaces, the boss is often referred to as The Big Cheese (odd given that something “cheesy” is often considered to be second rate); and how many of us haven’t enjoyed after work drinks or going out for a meal with colleagues or tweet-ups with social media contacts?  Food plays an important role in our lives.
Carl Warner's Vege Head
Having started by contemplating the impact of food and drink in the work environment, I have decided to reverse my view and comment on what we, in conventional work, can learn from the experts in food and drink.  A group of academics have recently undertaken some interesting research into Michelin starred chefs and their kitchens.  The conundrum that intrigued them was how these clearly effective leaders manage to maintain consistency in their offering without stiffling change and thereby preventing fresh concepts and innovative culinary creations from occurring.  I was fortunate to attend the presentation of their findings at an event hosted by the Cass Business School.  As part of the research some of the world’s top chefs’ kitchens were observed to determine what made them effective and the chefs were interviewed.  Certain common themes emerged, supported by comments from the participating chefs, namely:
  • rigid discipline and planning is required to absorb and reduce the risk of unexpected events - “no mistakes admitted”;
  • skill is more important than creativity - “you learn the process and everything else comes later”;
  • everyone in the kitchen must understand what has to be done and why - “keep going, teaching, teaching...”
  • it is important to be able to improvise on the fly - “cook it raw”;
  • sourcing is a primary advantage - “the quality and taste required are found in very few places”;
  • esprit maison (i.e. the in-house style and culture) is key - “we have our own style and the dishes must fit/sit well within it”;
  • good chefs are constantly learning and appraising - looking inside and looking outside - “Never eat alone”, experience boosts innovation/sparks creativity; and
  • creative chefs must not be constrained by convention - “Good chefs steal, bad chefs copy" (with apologies to Picasso).

"El bodegón del cazo Azul" by Picasso, 1945
Having determined the above “key ingredients for a top kitchen”, the academics considered the processes and operational approach needed to enable the consistent reproduction of excellence.  Again, there was a high degree of similarity between each of the great chefs' kitchens.  Each was well organised with specific "stations" dedicated to the preparation of certain elements of the meal - meat,  fish, dessert, cold food preparation, etc...(an idea originated by Augustus Escoffier, who believed in running his kitchen like the military and referred to them as the "Brigade de Cuisine" which translates as the "Kitchen Brigade"). 

New recruits, starting their career in catering within a top kitchen (a privilege many would undertake for free simply to be able to experience and learn from a master chef) all have similar traits.  They are self-selecting due to the demands of being regularly rotated between the stations (usually every six months to ensure a consistency of approach and appreciation of all aspects of the kitchen) and the pressure of the job.  The work is very demanding, verging on punitive - early starts, late finishes and little chance for a social life outside work (work/life balance is not an option) - so trainees have to be:


I saw a friend this week, whom I had lost touch with for the past decade.  We met for a bite to eat and I’m pleased to say that we picked up our friendship exactly where we had left off.  It made me appreciate that strong relationships (in and outside the workplace) are forged on trust and authenticity (and are often accompanied by good food).

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