Pulling Weight- Leadership in the Kitchen

Good evening, friends and neighbors.

I’ve mentioned before that I’m not comfortable using the term “chef” for myself even as a joke, and that I tend to correct others when they address me by it.

It’s not because of modesty or humility- false or otherwise. It’s because, by my own criteria, I have not earned that title.

Roughly every couple of weeks, someone on an online cooking group will pipe up with:

What makes a chef a CHEF?”

or some other navel-gazing, masturbatory variant- and the responses tend to vary from the crude to the judgemental/equally navel-gazy, to my personal reaction:


“Oh for f***’s sake, here we go…”

You see, the answer is in the name. “Chef” literally means “chief.” “Boss.” “Head of Operations.” 

It means “LEADER.”

How you got about leading is the real discussion that should be going on, rather than faffing about over what’s stitched on your jacket.

THAT’S In A Name

It really does come down to that. If you:

  • Run a kitchen.
  • Make the managing decisions for a kitchen (decide the menu, price, inventory, scheduling, etc.)
  • Have a team of people working under you, even if it’s just one person

then congrats- you are a chef. A chef is just a cook that leads other cooks- who manages them, guides them, inspires them, provides a vision for them, and looks after them.

A team without a chef is a rabble.
A chef without a team is a guy screaming at himself in a kitchen.

This is why nearly every actual chef I know expounds on the fact that cooking is not the hardest part of being a chef. It’s not always inventory or menu-planning or the office work either (though those are definitely a bear.)
Almost every single one of them says that the hardest part is training, motivating, and leading their team.

It’s ridiculously hard, simply because there are so many right ways to do it. And so many wrong ways. And all the right ways don’t always work in the right way. And it’s different for every person, at different times in their life, and at different stages in their development.

And a good leader should be able to handle them ALL.

giphy (3).gif

“Follow Me Boys!”

I got my first lessons in leadership through Scouting (read: “taught how to hang myself with the reins of power”) and then built on them in Wood Badge Training.
Wood Badge is the course designed to help adults become better leaders- of groups of kids that they want to become leaders themselves. It goes several steps beyond your typical “management training course” by that very reason- although several Fortune 500 companies have sent managers and executives for it all the same.

The logo of Wood Badge from the BSA

In (very) brief and gross overview, Wood Badge sends adults out into the woods for two weekends and:

  • Makes them experience the full Scouting career- from Cub Scout up to an “Eagle” project.
  • Has them live, function, and cooperate in the “patrol” method their Scouts do- Patrols cook for themselves, have their own sites, manage themselves, and work on projects together.
  • Undergo regular lecture and training exercises- including lecturing on some in order to learn communication.
  • Culminates in a “ticket-” a final project where they return to the “real” world and must use all they have learned to execute some project within their role in Scouting.

During my time, even with my “leadership” role amounting to “you’re an adult in the Scouting program- teach the kids something,” I still managed to pick up quite a few little tidbits that I try to remember when I’m training others in the kitchen, or trying to settle disputes:

  1. You literally can’t make anyone do anything they don’t want to do. Even with threats, all you are doing is making a worse alternative for what you want.
  2. Generational differences in leadership- When working with people of different age groups, you may as well treat them as coming from different cultures- because they ARE. What motivates or inspires respect in an 18-year-old student may NOT do so in a 50-year-old veteran
  3. The “EDGE” Method of Teaching- This one I try to remember whenever I’m training a new baker or a student. “Explain, Demonstrate, Guide, Enable.” Between this, gentle encouragement and engagement, and my adamant refusal to give hands-on help unless asked, most of my trainees have picked up the knowledge and physical skills needed very quickly.
  4. The Four Stages of Team Development– This one I haven’t been able to capitalize on much since I haven’t been in charge of hiring at any of my recent jobs. In brief, those stages are:
    1. Forming – The team assembles and their ideas and energies aren’t aligned.
    2. Storming – Conflict arises as differing energies and ideas smash into each other.
    3. Norming – The members move toward the same goal, but piecemeal- doing their best to line up their work with others.
    4. Performing – The team is united, operating as a unit with a single will, and meeting their goal.
Animated GIF from Avengers: Age of Ultron

If you didn’t think I was going to include something from the Avengers… you don’t know me very well. I mean… it was a snap.

I may not currently be in a management position, but simply knowing how to train people, how to deal with different age groups, and get to what motivates them has made just working with my coworkers in nearly every job considerably easier. I can only imagine what this oh so simple two weekends of camping could do for a stressed-out chef.


Bonus Reading Material

Over the last few weeks, I’ve been reading “Seven Pillars of Wisdom” by T.E. Lawrence, also known to the Western world as “Lawrence of Arabia.”

While Lawrence’s autobiography of his efforts to inspire a united Arab revolt against the Turkish government in World War I are historically fascinating, more and more I find myself highlighting and noting passages about leadership skill- his and those of the Arab leaders he encounters.

In addition to my previous reading, it certainly can’t hurt the aspiring chef to see what others have written about leading others- even if one’s own endeavors don’t include warfare.

“He was accessible to all who stood outside his tent and waited for notice; and he never cut short petitions, even when men came in chorus with their grief in a song of many verses, and sang them around us in the dark. He listened always, and, if he did not settle the case himself, called Sharraf or Faiz to arrange it for him. This extreme patience was a further lesson to me of what native headship in Arabia meant.”

“His self-control seemed equally great. When Mirzuk el Tikheimi, his guest-master, came in from Zeid to explain the shameful story of their rout, Feisal just laughed at him in public and sent him aside to wait while he saw the sheikhs of the Harb and the Ageyl whose carelessness had been mainly responsible for the disaster. These he rallied gently, chaffing them for having done this or that, for having inflicted such losses, or lost so much. Afterward, the curtain for privacy was drawn, and Mirzuk was brought forth. I feared a harsh reprisal, but Feisal sat the man beside him and said ‘Come! Tell me if the battle!'”

“I never saw an Arab leave him dissatisfied or hurt — a tribute to his tact and to his memory; for he seemed never to halt for loss of a fact, nor to stumble over a relationship.”

“…they taught me that no man could be their leader except he ate the ranks’ food, wore their clothes, lived level with them, and yet appeared better in himself.”

To Sum Up…

A chef is more than a fancy shmuck in a hat with job security. A good chef needs to lead and manage as well as cook, and the leading is the hard part. There are so many different ways to go about it, and no one can say which will be effective and which won’t until you try. Even if you aren’t in a management position, knowing how to lead and guide others is an invaluable skill.

What do YOU think?

What parts of leadership do you struggle with? Think YOU could handle two weeks of lecture hall in the woods and cooking your own meals off a campfire?
Let me know in the comments and let’s help each other out!

Stay Classy,

The BHB's Top Hat Logo Signature

One thought on “Pulling Weight- Leadership in the Kitchen

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