The Right Hand Man- How To Be A Good Sous Chef

You would think that “servant leadership” would be immediately applicable to modern kitchen life, but as a leadership ethos it has yet to see the predominance it deserves. It is not at odds with the traditional brigade system as Auguste Escoffier envisioned it- though it is certainly at odds with the bullying and barbarism that has come to be associated with being “classically trained.” Hardly a terrible thing, since that “tradition” is itself at odds with little things like “health and safety of the worker” and “being a fucking human.”

“Servant leadership” is, at its core, an ethos that changes leadership from “Do what I tell you” to “This is what needs to get done- what can I do to help you do it better?” If you would like a masterclass in what that mentality can and should be like, look no farther than the sous chef– the second-in-command of a kitchen, and the chef’s “right hand man.”

What Doesn’t A Sous Chef Do?

When I was starting out, my mentor told me that when she was younger in the field, a chef was the leader of the kitchen. They were the creative genius- the one that set the menu and created the dishes- but the sous chef was the one with their feet on the ground. In other words, the sous chef’s job was to see the chef’s will be done. They were the trainer, the bookkeeper, the taskmaster, the troubleshooter. It was the sous chef that disciplined the other cooks so that the chef themselves could stay aloof and magnanimous. Like the First Mate on a ship, the captain may chart the course- but the First Mate handles the day-to-day business that makes sure the ship gets there in one piece.

A photo of Anthony Bourdain with the quote "Having a sous-chef with excellent cooking skills and a criminal mind is one of God's great gifts."
“Listen, you can learn where I got that extra crate of eggs- or you can make your recipe and be happy that we’ll finish the order on time.”

Ideally, at any given moment, a sous-chef knows everything that is going on in the kitchen. They are a master of Systeme D and picking off little problems before they even get the chef’s attention- the chef has more important things to do.

Inventory? Sous-chef’s got their hands on the clipboard already.
Production schedule? Sous-chef knows what needs to be done and is already delegating.
The new hire just fucked up? The sous-chef has already fixed the problem, pulled the hire aside, and made sure it won’t likely happen again.

Given all that, it’s no surprise that eventually sous-chefs skills and ambition are rewarded- either by promotion to chef, or the chef opening up a new location and putting their sous-chef in charge of it. That way all the time, effort, and training involved in raising up a good second-in-command isn’t lost to them looking for greener pastures.

Why should the sous-chef wait, though? Why wait for the chef’s say-so to go find something new and start their own project? Part of it is the guaranteed support of working with someone whom you’ve served for a long time, but the other part is- as Alexander Hamiliton himself learns working under George Washington- just how far you can rise by looking after others.

“… Of His Fellows Greatest.”

I grouse about my work in the bakery a lot, and I’m not afraid to own that. I love what I do, and I know how lucky and blessed I am to have found a career in what is my calling. I am convinced I was placed on this Earth to bake, to write, and to teach others. All the same, not every day is sunshine and rainbows. Sometimes I lose my patience, come home exhausted beyond reason, and wake up the next morning knowing I’m going to have to do it again.

I would like to be paid more. I would like to have opportunities to travel and learn more. Sometimes, your Calling is going to fucking SUCK.

What makes it worth the stress and aggravation, though, has been the moments where I know I am the production lead- the closest thing my bakery has to a sous chef- and being my managers Right Hand Man. It’s the moments when I come in to the kitchen and the staff react- “Oh good, everything’s under control now.” It’s a reversal of Impostor Syndrome, where your team know that you can help keep everything under control and you start to believe it too.

In the process of learning how you can help others, you can’t help but expand your skillset. So many times, when a station I don’t know is in the weeds, I’ll learn a lot about how that station works by just stepping in next to the person and saying “What do you need done? Give me orders. When you see your leader getting pecked to death by tiny tasks, you can’t help but learn when you step in and say, “What do you need? I’ve got this.”
I’ll take care of that pesky customer order.”
I’ll do inventory- show me where to drop it off.”

We all fail to recognize just how much impact we can actually have in people’s lives because we are so busy living it. It’s dull to us. It’s boring, “our job,” our day-to-day- and sometimes others demonstrating that they have faith in us and why is what we need to realize our own competence.

Yesterday was one of my days off, but my manager wasn’t feeling well and needed to take some extra time. She asked if I’d be available to just come in for an hour or so for a health inspection. I said I would, and our lead barista (who was scheduled for that day) said that she could come in early and handle it. I agreed, but said I’d swing by just before to double check things.

It was the first time most of my team had seen me in casual clothes, and the owner seemed surprised that I’d actually come by. It turned out to not be necessary- the barista lead handled everything wonderfully and we passed the inspection easy- but the team actually thanked me for coming by just to check that everything was going smoothly and answer questions.

A quote by E. Urner Goodman reading "He who serves his fellows is, of all his fellows, greatest."

When you make your job, your calling, and your life about looking after others and helping them succeed, you don’t need to be on top to feel on top- and you rise higher than you could if you only looked out for yourself.

Stay Classy,

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