9 Productivity Secrets From Hard-Working Chefs
Then there are the tips that come from places you might not expect: good restaurants. Chefs and their staffs must be creative and meet expectations under time-sensitive conditions, while keeping customer satisfaction up and costs down. Here are some great practices that I've seen used by fine restaurants over the years as a customer, a food aficionado, and someone who spent a fair amount of time working in the industry.
Set exacting standards
Being demanding may seem like the opposite of productivity; you spend more time trying to meet the standards. But, as with planning, the apparent loss of time upfront is more than made up by the time you save. In a restaurant, the demands are to bring in customers, keep them happy, preserve the brand, justify higher margins, get more positive organic PR, reduce waste, and fend off potential competitors. Just what the demands are in any business.
A warning, though: Most entrepreneurs haven't the slightest idea of how demanding exacting standards can be, because they're unlikely ever to have experienced them. Here is a trailer for a movie called Jiro Dreams of Sushi. It's about Jiro Ono, who is widely considered to be the greatest sushi chef in the world. He's also the first whose all-sushi restaurant received three Michelin stars. For those who don't follow the food industry or fine dining, this means that even restaurant professionals are in awe of what Jiro's been able to accomplish with rice and raw fish. The movie is one of the more instructive works I can think of about the possibilities of greatness in a field.
Learn classic techniques
Want to know what happens when people untrained in culinary work decide to operate a restaurant? Watch episodes of the reality show Kitchen Nightmares, with Gordon Ramsay. Good chefs and cooks learn how to master skills that most people assume they already know. Think you can cut an onion? If you haven't learned the professional's approach, you can't--at least not at the speed and scale necessary for a restaurant business.
But any industry has some common professional practices, such as accounting, customer service, logistics, inventory management, and production, and you and your staff need to know how to undertake them. You may find better ways of doing things (more on that in a bit), but first you need command of the basics. Any existing practice should be open to question, but only after you understand it and recognize the demands and benefits that might have brought it about after decades, or longer, of trial and error.
Find the right vendors
You're only as good as the people you deal with. In Jiro Dreams of Sushi, the master sushi chef has specific vendors he deals with for certain ingredients. There's the guy who sells Jiro rice (a variety the vendor won't make available to any other restaurants, because they wouldn't cook it right), the one who sells tuna, the shrimp vendor...you get the idea. Any restaurant chef worth his salt is picky about who gets to supply ingredients, equipment, or other materials. You want someone you can trust to provide the best quality and to make things right, on the off chance that something goes wrong.
Anthony Bourdain tells a story about a chef he worked for, whose supplier gave him substandard fish. The chef put the screws to the supplier, forcing him to make up for the cost and inconvenience until the chef was satisfied that things were square. That means you need to know as much or more than your vendor about quality, and that you must be adept at managing relationships.
Train your staff
No self-respecting chef or restaurateur would let an employee step into the kitchen or onto the restaurant floor if they weren't properly prepared. Test people, and provide training to get them up to snuff in the way you do things. You might be tempted during periods of rapid growth to bring in new employees and immediately get them productive. If they aren't ready, their mistakes will force you to fix things and make good. I remember once taking an order for broiled sole--a no-no, because the sole shriveled up and it required more fish to fill the order than would have been necessary if it had been fried. I didn't know any better, but no one had thought to tell me what should or shouldn't be done, because the restaurant was brand-new and going through opening pains. How much money and time were wasted because others missed basic training for that operation?
Trust employees but verify
Micromanaging is a big mistake in any business. You waste time better spent elsewhere and demoralize the staff, because they learn nothing and don't reap the satisfaction of accomplishment. Restaurant chefs have a general reputation of being tyrants, and many are. They'll tell staff when things aren't right. But that's just verifying that standards are being met. Otherwise, staff members are responsible for their duties and are expected to fill them. The station chefs and cooks actually cook your meals. An executive chef doesn't have time to hover over every step of preparation. Learn to delegate, and rely on training and verification to ensure that standards remain high.
As Bourdain writes, fine restaurants need to bill triple what their food costs to be financially sound. They can't afford to waste food. It's one reason a good restaurant will run out of items. They won't keep too much of a perishable on hand only to send it to the trash. And yet, a chef doesn't want to be caught short-handed, because that means more customers are disappointed. It's a balancing act, which constantly changes with the seasonal availability of quality goods and consumer demands. Your company will need to find its own balance, recognizing that doing so is not easy if you are to satisfy customers but keep enough capital available for other needs.
Many people probably associate culinary innovation with unusual flavor combinations or architectural arrangements of ingredients. All that is true. And yet, there is a more fundamental creativity that goes into any restaurant. I remember one chef who was head of operations for multiple restaurants in a major metropolitan museum. He constantly looked for new ways to efficiently prepare individual meals, as he was responsible for banquets for as many as several hundred people, all of whom expected formal service. I remember a single length of sausage at least six feet long we prepared for a breakfast, which could be cooked all at once, and then cut into individual servings. The chef also converted a cart into a smoker to make smoked salmon for a third of the market price. These are great examples of someone who had mastered classic techniques and then improved upon them for a given operation.
Organize your workspace
National Public Radio had an interesting piece on using the restaurant concept of mise-en-place to improve productivity. (Hat tip to Twitter user Geri Seiberling.) The term, which translates from the French as "put in place," refers to having all the tools and prepared ingredients you need together in one place to do your work.
But it's more than an orderly arrangement of things. True mise-en-place means you know exactly what you have to accomplish and where things are. You arrange your world to work as efficiently as possible so that you can minimize what might go wrong and open up time to deal with the inevitable problems that arise. Clean your mess as you go, in order to avoid distractions and improve focus. Strong focus and discipline can take your business a long way.
Leverage your brand
You know brand is important for marketing and customer relations, but it also has practical implications for productivity. A strong brand gives you more leverage with customers and suppliers. It sets their expectations for what they can expect from you, but also what is expected of them. Top restaurants can charge top prices and make top margins because of their brands. Brand becomes synonymous with the high standards, trained staff, preparation, focus, quality, vendor relationships, and every other aspect of your operation. It helps define you, which makes marketing more effective and efficient. Improve your brand, and it helps improve your productivity and operations, which in turn reinforce your brand.
ERIK SHERMAN | Columnist
Erik Sherman's work has appeared in such publications as The Wall Street Journal, The New York Times Magazine, and Fortune. He also blogs for CBS MoneyWatch.