A young chef in the making? 

In August, Chef Rene Redzepi of Noma wrote an opinion article in Lucky Peach #16, The Fantasy Issue, talking about the culture in professional kitchens and how chefs can change it.

In the beginning of the article, Chef Rene talks about his experiences coming up as a cook and of his chefs using “bullying and humiliation to wring results out of their cooks.”

He writes,

“I would think to myself, Why is that necessary? I’ll never be like that. But then I became a chef. I had my own restaurant…and within a few months I started to feel something rumbling inside me… The smallest transgressions sent me into an absolute rage.” 

As I read the article, I reflected on the chefs for whom I worked. As a young cook, I would have felt destroyed and would probably have my resolve shaken if a chef had undone me so thoroughly. I do find myself wondering the same that Chef Rene asks: “why is that necessary?”

I didn’t spend the decades behind the line the way some chefs have, and I approached my culinary experience differently, since I wasn’t trying to climb the cooking ranks.

The chefs I had were much more controlled, even when I made mistakes that threatened the dinner service.

I recall one chef, a famous and definitely a well-known restaurateur, for whom I absolutely would not have worked. I was working a special dinner in his restaurant, and during the prep day, we could hear him screaming at a young cook for a mistake. In the basement walk-in. And we were upstairs in a side prep kitchen. I have no idea how that cook kept going that night.

The story stays with me, and I remind myself never to let myself get that enraged, especially as a leader. Oh, I’ve had events occur that probably seem like they’ll jeopardize the event, but my fuming and sputtering has never actually led to a good result.

I’m not a stranger to getting screamed at the produce results.

My first career was in wearing BDUs, and I have had military trainers who were literally there to scream at you enough to see whether you would break. They’re there to see if you can be distracted and become flustered. It seemed more purposeful, to be yelled at while in a military training situation, because we were making war (or preparing to make war). We weren’t making dinner.

Chef Rene talks about his progression to realize that his behavior was hurting his staff, and he has slowly been changing. He is quick to state that his evolution away from being a screaming, shoving chef to being a coaching chef doesn’t mean that discipline goes away.

Rather, he writes, that it’s about making sure the staff works together for a common goal. The discipline and control stay in place, but the focus goes from individual mistakes to addressing the team as a whole. “It’s like being a coach in a time-out at a soccer match. Everyone’s on the same level. You assess the situation, and you move on,” he says.

“The choice is in front of us: … the opportunities for cooks to be active leaders in environmental and social movements are real and unprecedented in our profession. But the only way we will be able to reap the promise of the present is by confronting the unpleasant legacies of our past, and collectively forging a new path forward.”

 Read the article for yourself, Fantasies of a Happier Kitchen, 8 Aug 2015.