15 Restaurant Lessons And Life Lessons to Learn From a Chef

By: Chris Hill

8 Minute Read

Jan 24, 2017

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restaurant lessons


Chefs have a unique perspective of the world. We work in blistering hot, close quarters with a bunch of folks mom would probably write off as misfits. Look at the top-notch restaurants — there’s an understanding that everything starts at the top. It’s the visionary in the kitchen - the leader, coach and empowerment guru - who's keeping things in check.

It’s the chef. This is what you can learn from them.

1. Patience.

In the kitchen, you just can’t rush things. Like the science of anything, it takes time to cook things properly. There’s a reason why they say, "a watch pot never boils." In cooking and in life, sometimes the worst thing we can do is force something that isn’t ready.

2. You get what you pay for. 

Whether it’s employees, fresh produce, or utensils, what you put in is directly proportional to what you get out. Cast iron skillets, jumbo lump crab meat and a reliable line can come at a hefty price, but rarely will they ever let you down.

3. Control the environment (as best you can).

Obviously you can’t control everything around you, but the more you focus on the things you can, the better prepared you will be for when uncontrollable situations arise. In restaurant kitchens, we call that mise-en-place, meaning "put in place." Chefs set up their stations before service methodically so that when they need a sprig of thyme, they know where it is, and so they aren’t having to scamper through the kitchen looking for tongs. Here's an example of mise-en-place:

restaurant mise en place

4. The customer isn’t always right. (However, sometimes we have to act like they are.)

This sucks, and this doesn’t mean that they are right, it just means that every now and again you just have to kiss up.

5. Teamwork.

Simply put, restaurant kitchens don’t work without a tremendous amount of teamwork. It’s built on looking out for the other guy, communication, collaboration, and stepping up to the plate because someone got sick and it’s your day off, but the head chef needs you to come, and you do come in, and then when you are sick, he returns the favor. This exact dynamic is created through relying on each other on a busy-as-hell Friday night. We all need help at some point or other; offer it, before someone has to ask for it.

6. Our most proud moments are usually born out of difficulty. 

Any good kitchen is going to get its ass kicked on a regular basis. In the midst of the "weeds," and as the chatter of the printer seems like it will never stop, sometimes you feel overwhelmed, stressed and in over your head. But like anything, the storm will pass, and you will come out on the other side, feeling fully alive,  knowing you made it and are better off for it.

7. Attitude.

It’s contagious. This can be a game-changer or your Achilles Heel depending on which side of the fence you are looking over. One thing is true, just about every chef in the country would rather hire a hardworking son of a gun with little experience, but with a contagiously positive attitude, rather than a pretentious prick who talks a big game and who maybe can cook. It just works out that way — good attitudes and good vibes are contagious. They resonate through entire groups of people. When you have it, it’s hard not to sprinkle it around. Sprinkle that shit everywhere.

8. Experience — nothing can replace it.

I screwed up hollandaise sauce hundreds of times before perfecting it, and how many times have I overcooked steak, before figuring out a reliable way to calculate it’s doneness? A LOT. Before mastering anything, effort and experience teach us the things not to do, the pitfalls to sidestep around, and the mental errors to avoid, so that once we are competent in cooking or in anything else, it becomes human nature. Experience allows us to grow into discipline, learning the tools needed to become successful.

"Experience allows us to grow into discipline, learning the tools needed to become successful."
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9. You can’t make everyone happy, so stop trying to. 

As chefs, we like to create things a certain way. It’s how we express ourselves. We are born to think outside of the box. Unfortunately, like with any form of art, or with life in general, you can’t be all things to all people. Some people aren’t going to like you, your view of the world, or your art. Who cares — just keep making art; art that’s yours. Build your own box.

10. Perspective. 

Every good chef has found a way to put things into proper perspective. When your product is ever-changing and you are in essence catering to a certain group of people, you find that things rarely go as planned. Some call it Murphy’s Law, I just call it life, and living the life of a chef, I deal with it every single day. There’s only one way to roll, and that’s with the punches.

11. Slow and steady wins the race. 

If you’ve done any barbecuing, you’ve heard the term "low and slow," which relate to the fact that tougher cuts of meat take a hell of a long time to cook at a reasonably low temperature . This allows the inter-muscular tissues to break down. You have to do it this way or your guests will hate you, and no amount of BBQ sauce can cover up your blunder. Ever been driving on the interstate, at the normal speed of traffic, and then some idiot comes shooting past you? Yeah, I thought so, we’ve all been there. Two miles later, we pass them as the red and blue lights are nestled closely behind their car. Yes, slow and steady wins the race, almost every time.

12. Give up (some) control.

This is hard. Very hard. This is probably one of the most challenging dynamics a chef faces. It’s like handing over a baby for weekend visitations with the ex, always wondering what’s going wrong in your absence. It’s hard to give up control, but you've got to. If you want to grow, and if you want the people around you to grow, there is a scary leap of faith that has to happen. We’ve got to trust in our ability to teach as well as communicate effectively to those around us what we expect, and then allow them to succeed or fall short on their own. Just be there to buy them a beer when they totally screw up. That’s empowerment, and it’s awesome.

13. Care for others first.

No one cares about you until you care about them   first. This is what it really means to be a leader. Employees can either work for a pay check, or they can work with blood, sweat and tears for something they believe in. Neither of these circumstances happen by chance — they happen by investing in and nurturing people, for their gain. Not yours. Sounds tricky, tough as hell? This is exactly why there are so few good leaders out there.

14. Desire, unwavering desire.

We are a special breed, us chefs that is. There are plenty of noble ways to make a good life for yourself, but most don’t require the time commitment and sacrifices, sheer physicality of work, and perhaps most importantly, desire. We have to show up every day, ready to bring our A-game. If we don’t, we fall behind, one customer experience at a time. As Chef Thomas Keller says, "Desire is what keeps up going - keeps us motivated - when passion fades." I think if more of the workforce had the unyielding desire to offer the best product possible, every single day, this world would be vastly different.

15. Fulfillment.

If you want to make a lot of money, don’t become a chef. Go do something else, seriously. If you choose to dive into culinary school and want to sink into 50k in debt, be aware of the fact that fresh out of school, unless you score a badass stage with an elite chef, or have a family slush fund where your old man is willing to throw down for you, chances are you are going to find yourself working the kitchen line for 9 or 10 bucks an hour. After a few years, you might be at $12.

We aren't chefs for the money. We're chefs because we get satisfaction out of creating things for people and in doing so, we have the opportunity to run our artistic fingerprint across our menus and dishes. We work when the rest of the world is at play, but this is what we love, our stadium, our time to shine. We get fulfillment out of seeing you smile at the beauty of something we created. We get fulfillment out of mentoring a sous chef, so that maybe one day he will be a better chef than we are. We get fulfillment out of creating a team of like-minded people who just love to make great food, and love making it together.

It also helps knowing beers are awaiting us in a few short hours.

This post originally appeared on Medium and has been reposted with permission from the author. 

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