Learning to Lead by Letting Go

Managing is a full-time job in itself, and going from being a cook or baker to a managing is more than a promotion. It’s a shift in mentality. After years of needing to be “hands-on,” I will no longer have the time, energy or focus to give every task personal attention. Ironically, one of the hardest lessons I will have to learn as a chef is how not to be in control.

"Leadership" written in chalk on a black background.
Photo by Anna Tarazevich on Pexels.com

One of the main reasons training and apprenticeship is so crucial in the kitchen is so that the person in charge can occasionally take a day off. On a more practical level, it’s also so that a chef can do all the other parts of their job that don’t involve standing over a grill and knowing that things won’t go straight to hell as soon as they turn around.

If you don’t want to grind yourself into the dirt, having a well-trained staff you can rely on is essential. You can do anything, but you can’t do everything.

That both does and does not jive with the popular conception of cooks (and especially bakers) being “control freaks.” Some of the most famous chefs in history have been notoriously dictatorial in training and managing their teams, and the reason is simple- it’s their name on the wall. For the customers, every dish may as well have been made by the Great Chef Themselves- and that’s fundamentally impossible. Instead, they train, discipline, and whip their kitchen crews to do everything exactly as they want. I’ve used a very similar line when training new people– “Do it however it’s comfortable, as long as no one can tell which of us did it. No one can come in and say ‘Oh, I guess Matt wasn’t back there today.'”

For so much of our training as cooks, “control” is how we function. We are used to controlling our space, our time, our ingredients, our flow– everything involved in the act of cooking. Cooking is the art of control. Trusting others to take care of that for us- whether it’s just to take a break, or for the chef to finally get the inventory done and beat the deadline to get their dairy order in- is a leap of faith. Unless you have faith in your training and your team, it’s harder than it looks- and for me personally, learning to delegate has a bit more seasoning to it than just “trust issues.”

Norman Rockwell illustration of a Boy Scout and the Scout Oath

My attitude towards whatever I consider “my job” started young in the Scouts. We all had tasks and jobs to keep a campsite running, and even the Patrol Leaders had tasks like being the cook, tending the fire, or KP (“Kitchen Patrol,” a.k.a. the dishwasher.) Especially among older Scouts, there was an attitude of “if someone else has to do your job for you, you are a waste.” Culinary school doubled down on that ethos with a hearty serving of the masochism we were taught would earn us respect. “Awww, wassamatter? Little chef needs to go bandage a burn? Suck it up, crybaby- I’m not carrying your ass tonight.”

I’m as guilty as anyone of having a kitchen masochism streak- a poisonous cocktail of workaholism, the unwillingness to be a “burden” on anyone, and the determination to “carry my weight.” It’s a frank misinterpretation of servant leadership that makes me think “I need to come early, stay late, and handle everything myself.”

On top of that, I still have a problem seeing any of the work I do sitting at a desk as “real work” because I’m not getting my hands dirty. Despite being a writer and knowing just how much work goes into writing, researching, and making even a half-decent blog post, when it comes to the kitchen work always means cooking and/or cleaning. I still find myself feeling guilty apologizing to my staff for “abandoning” them at times to do work in the office- silly things like getting ordering done, setting production, or discussing the next menu with the owner. I still hand out the results of experiments for feedback, but I haven’t quite gotten rid of the “everyone’s cleaning but me, I’m a freeloader” feeling.

Several matchsticks standing upright on a pink surface. Front and center, one is burned out.
Photo by Nataliya Vaitkevich on Pexels.com

I’d also be lying if I didn’t admit that part of it was “This recipe is too complex, I’d better take care of it” and taking all the challenging work for myself. That’s just straight-up ego talking. My team can’t learn new techniques and recipes- they can’t be trained– if I’m covering all the hard stuff for them. They need to try, fail, ask questions, and screw up for them to get better if I’m ever to expect them to handle the full job.

Because that is their job, and it’s not all my job anymore.

Being in charge means it’s my job to be in charge. Writing the schedule, organizing the labor, getting the supplies, making the decisions, and handling the problems is my job now, and I can’t push off or shirk those tasks over Imposter Syndrome making me scrub pans.

It’s not that I’ve suddenly gotten “too good” or “too important” to wash dishes and mop floors. NO ONE in a kitchen is “too good” for that, and plenty of chefs actually like doing a turn in the dishpit or some repetitive prep to relax. The fact is though that there is some work that it’s my job to do, regardless of whether it “feels” like the work I’m so used to. It’s the job that needs my attention so everyone else can do theirs.

I’ll always find an excuse to jump in, help out, and get my hands dirty. That’s the baking that I love and enjoy, but I need to recognize that’s not just my job anymore. If I’m going to lead well, I need to learn to let go of the reins a bit.

Stay Classy,

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