This post was last updated on Dec 12, 2019.
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Restaurant kitchens are confrontational. They’re hot and stressful, and it’s all too easy to lose your temper. Servers work the floor at a rapid pace with their incomes constantly on the line. Long hours, late nights, high-pressure, and available substances have, in the past, made it easy to shout and swear when things went wrong.
Previous generations of kitchens were ruled by more traditional hierarchies and power structures. Bad behavior was acceptable. With teams of mostly men running the show, aggression was tolerated as part of the job, and, in many cases, necessary to gaining status. Because of this, not all populations were motivated to excel in the restaurant industry. And television only perpetuated the angry chef persona, propping up Marco Pierre White and Gordon Ramsay as examples of how restaurants work.
But that’s changed. As an industry, we’re calling it done.
The era of the angry chef is over.
Today, restaurants everywhere are struggling to find workers. Chefs used to have aspiring cooks lining up outside their doors. Now, it’s the leaders who need to sell themselves. A new generation of could-be restaurant staff grew up watching angry chefs on TV, and as they enter the workforce, they’re not willing to put up with this type of behavior at work. In such a tight labor market, they don’t have to. So now, restaurants are working on their company culture to become more inclusive, supportive workplaces. Otherwise, this new generation just won’t work with them. The time for yelling is over.
Many chefs are banning swearing and cracking down on shouting and bullying amid fears aggression in the kitchen is putting young people off joining the industry. James Beard Award-winning pastry chef Dominique Ansel has banned swearing in his bakeries. He grew up working in kitchens where swearing was the norm, but, he told Vice, “It's counterproductive. Swearing and shouting will only cause your cooks to become intimidated and affect the quality of their work and productivity.”
Your staff shouldn't be expected to figure out everything on their own. Providing your team with comprehensive training from the start can empower them to ask questions and reinforce independence on the job. Effective training also gives your employees reasons to ask each other for help instead of always coming to you.
It takes more than kind phrases to shift a whole culture. But heck, it’s a good place to start.
Is Your Leadership Style Affecting Your Employees?
Having a say in what goes on behind the scenes is awesome. But leadership isn't about what happens behind the scenes; it's how you act on the front lines.
Consider how you respond when your team brings you questions or problems. What do you do to support your staff and show them you appreciate their work? What are some actionable things you can do to become a more communicative, empathetic manager?
To motivate your hard-working team, there are certain reactions to avoid and phrases to use more often.
What Not to Say to Restaurant Staff
Phrases that’ll hurt your team culture.
"Figure it out."
If your staff knew how to figure it out, they probably wouldn't be coming to you for help. The restaurant scene can get heated. You're doing seven different things at once, just like your servers and back-of-house staff. Being short with your employees is the easy way out.
What to say instead.
Take the time to explain a solution to someone who asks for help. You're the one in charge – it's your job to keep your staff productive. You can spare a minute to teach if it means retaining an employee. Brushing off their requests for help are contrary to that goal.
"That’s just how we do things."
These toxic phrases are often used when explaining a rule or policy to staff members. If someone asks you for clarification on an existing process or a new procedure that will change their job, you owe them an explanation.
If this is a seasoned employee coming to you to suggest a more efficient way of doing things, consider their perspective. They're probably seeing something you aren't.
What to say instead.
Basically anything. Explain how you decided on the approach and why you believe it’s the best one. Ask your team for their feedback.
"Did you see the..."
"Did you see table seven waving for you?" "Did you see the food’s up from the kitchen?"
Yes. Your staff did see that. There's just a good chance they were in the middle of something else. Staff can often perceive this phrase as passive-aggressive or disruptive to their jobs, because any experienced server or line cook knows the answer to it already.
What to say instead.
Don't say anything – listen. Your staff likely has years of combined restaurant experience. It's possible your server put down the coffee because she was carrying a large tray of breakfasts for the table in the back. 30 seconds later, that coffee cup would probably be filled to the brim. If you're saying this to a newbie, consider how well you trained them in the first place.
“Reward people for doing the right thing and continue to train them to model great behavior. And after a while, people will want to work for you.”
If you see a pattern of overlooked errors or start to get complaints, pull the employee aside, and work with them to make improvements. Remember, it's unprofessional to call an employee out on the floor in front of others unless the situation demands it.
"I don't have time."
A good leader will make time for their staff when they need a hand. To an employee, "I don't have time" sounds similar to "Helping you is a waste of time," or "I have better things to do." Telling your employees you don't have time to support them will leave them feeling undervalued.
What to say instead.
Answer their questions, show them how to fix the problem, or give them the reassurance they need.
What to Say to Empower Restaurant Staff
Phrases to make your staff happier.
“Tell me more about that.”
Listening is the most impactful action a leader can take. Many of the phrases above can be avoided by simply listening to the problems your employees have. Your team member will feel heard, and you’ll learn a lot by pausing and digging deeper into what’s going on.
You need your team just as much as your team needs you, so make it a symbiotic relationship by thanking them for their efforts. Thanking your team lets them know you're paying attention to the work they do, and it isn't being taken for granted.
If you have employees going the extra mile, acknowledge it in front of others. People like to feel appreciated.
Being a manager isn't great all the time. There are hard topics you need to discuss, sometimes daily. And occasionally, these discussions lead to policy changes that your employees won't be fans of.
Be transparent and explain your reasoning behind policy changes, hiring shifts, shift cuts, or anything else. This will help your employees empathize with your hard decisions. Phrases like, "I came to this conclusion because..." and "my perspective is based on these factors..." are better than yours being the only way.
How Chef Jacques Haeringer Motivates His Staff
L'Auberge Chez Francois and Jacques' Brasserie, two sister restaurants in Great Falls, VA, have kept many of the same employees for 10, 20, and even 30 years. Why have their staff stayed? Because Chef Jacques Haeringer has built a stellar employee culture through the conversations he has with his team every day.
"At our daily staff meeting, I encourage everyone who works for me to come up with and share their own ideas for how we can improve the restaurant and evolve. I want everyone to think like an owner," says Haeringer.
Not only does Haeringer empower his employees to share their opinions, he listens and acts on what they bring to the table.
"It's my job to take their viewpoints seriously so that they can see their ideas in action. Our business benefits from new ideas and the staff are engaged in their work. Ask your employees to think like an owner and then show them you’re listening."
It’s small acts of kindness like this that show your team you care. And this is what they’ll stick around for.