Finding the sweet spot.
According to award-winning author, Simon Sinek, “Very few people or companies can clearly articulate why they do what they do. By why I mean your purpose, cause, or belief - Why does your company exist? Why do you get out of bed every morning? And why should anyone care?”
Despite falling in love with fine dining restaurants from the very first day I stepped foot in a kitchen, a couple of years back, I began to question their relevance. Categorically speaking, if restaurants are an impactful gathering space for communities, with the power of positive societal change, how do fine restaurants contribute positively to this description, if at all? I wondered if morally this a concern or do chefs and their prized institutions care about anything other than their own personal success? Understanding a restaurant’s mission is a valuable exercise in learning about its values and culture.
Compounded with the current state of the planet, inflation and not to mention a relentless pandemic, the fragility of restaurants’ financial model has been exposed like never before, and with that, their very worst characteristics revealed. Exposing stories of abuse, exploitation of staff, poor working conditions, withholding of tips, and countless hours of unpaid work has shed light on why today there are so many staff vacancies within the industry, with nothing to entice workers back. Within this article, we seek to unearth exactly how the industry imploded on itself, delving into why these fundamental cultural flaws have become so widespread. More importantly, it aims to offer a solution.
A couple of weeks ago while on a research trip to New York, I met up with an old friend and talented waiter, who until this point had pursued a career in hospitality his entire working life. His account, I had heard all too often before. He was leaving the industry, having walked away from the restaurant concept he had been on the opening team of, because of burnout. This is someone I had seen effortlessly grace the floors of a three Michelin star restaurant. I thought anyone should be grateful to employ and more importantly do everything in their power to keep him. Despite pouring months of work, time and every ounce of energy into the project, a matter of weeks into the opening, the kitchen had turned on him, isolating and holding him accountable at every given opportunity. In a state of turmoil, he chose to hang up the towel, exchanging a career and passion in hospitality (and with that, a lifelong dream to run his own dining room) for a stock management job that he had never previously shown any affection for. Coincidentally, his friend in the company, who had become a tattoo artist since the beginning of the pandemic after the restaurant he had worked in had let him go, told a similar story. Downtrodden, underappreciated and presented with an opportunity for change, meant a career redirection in one of the world's most expensive cities (a sandwich costs between 15-26 dollars and that’s before the service charge). He had swapped one vocation over another, albeit one that might allow him to go home happier, healthier and live longer.
It emerged through this conversation (and similar to ones I have had with others) that in most cases, it was not that hospitality employees disliked their work - they love their work - they have just never felt any love back. What causes this is the abuse of leadership and power. People don’t leave their jobs; it’s the management style that drives people away. That evening our conversations ebbed and flowed, we shared moments of anger and frustration, but also fond memories of times spent working together at the highest level. The camaraderie, that reliance on one another, the mad nights out, the produce and wine we sampled, the incredible furniture, the hilarious moments and devastating mistakes, and of course all the terrible managers… For good or for bad, overwhelmingly, these were experiences in restaurants that they might never experience again. However, when I presented them with my idea, involving a restaurant whereby peoples’ wellbeing took precedence, plus all of the great aspects they cherished about the industry, for the first time that night I saw the light in their eyes.
Meet the problem.
In my articles, Sustainability Overload and The Dream Has Forgotten the Employee, I break down what contributes to the abuse of power within restaurants. In more cases than not, it is due to one uncompromising dream for the success of one individual. Within this dream are many systems that enforce and ensure that Plan A goes accordingly (in most cases this is because there is no plan B). Within this parameter, the most efficient method of achieving success is by implementing what is known as a ‘brigade system’. Unfortunately, it is also the most aggressive one.
In 1888, George-Auguste Escoffier, chef at The Savoy in London, created a kitchen system that was intended to free up time for his chefs to engage in leisure activities. Having served in the French army, Escoffier transferred his experience with the clearly defined structure and duties of a military brigade into the kitchen, assigning over 20 specific cook positions throughout the kitchen. The purpose of the brigade was to ensure every cook had a clear purpose and the kitchen could work to maximum efficiency. Instead, his system, which has been adopted by almost every kitchen throughout the world to this day, contributes to long-standing problems. Although it was never Escoffier’s intention, the brigade system instils an uncompromising hierarchical chain of command and with that, a top-down breed of leadership. Admittedly, the system works at ensuring consistency by instilling complete control. In fact, it’s brilliant at it. Most prestigious and lauded restaurants around the world work with this militant chain of command, where for the most part, it’s dog-eat-dog, and there's no one more important or feared than management.
“The traditional French way was that you have your section. You don’t leave your section. You look after your section. And nobody is going to help you if you start going down,” says Ben Shewry, Head Chef at Fine Dining restaurant, Attica.
In these kitchens, if preparation is under-par, it’s accepted that the head chef comes down on the sous (kitchen’s number two). This then transcends onto the chef de parties, who take it out on the commis chefs. It's a relentless downward spiral, whereby everyone's stress is placed on someone else. There's no support network to speak of. The organisation refers to you as a team or family, but really, you're all just individuals, fighting to survive, vying for recognition and self-worth. What is so damaging about these facts is that those who learn this form of management, inherently adopt it. In the 90s, inspired by the French kitchens he had trained in, Gordon Ramsay created an empire of excellence, fuelled by anger and control, bringing with him a whole troupe of followers, who would later carry on a similar path of ill-treatment. Inspired by one of Ramsay’s protégé’s, I staged in London as a 17 year old. In the heat of service, the chef headbutted a chef de partie against the walk-in fridge, his head rebounding against the door, all because he had failed to be told that the lunch menu had changed. Needless to say, I never returned to work in London again... These stories are a reflection of how we become a product of our learnings and although this level of control delivers a consistent product, what it does not achieve is strong working bonds. People who work in environments like these are miserable. Despite loving their craft, they resent their working environment. They become institutionalised, marginalised and socially inept. It was always easy to spot a chef who had spent their most formative years working in kitchens with bad cultures. They always had concrete views, compiling contagious energy onto anyone they could possibly touch. Unfortunately, when there is no other obvious solution that can rectify the atmosphere such as this, without sacrificing the quality and consistency of the restaurant, nothing ever changes. It explains how an outdated brigade system continues to prevail.
When I tell people I have ambitions of opening a restaurant, it always surprises me that their reaction is one of uncompromising excitement. Despite the extremely high failure rate, the public find the idea of opening a restaurant engrossing, to the point that they might fantasise about a restaurant of their own one day. This is undoubtedly because restaurants are environments we can all experience. They are accessible and culturally important to society. They are homes of memories, capable of moments of magic, like simply changing a person’s humour and providing a connection that lasts a lifetime. Tell your barber you're a chef and prepare for 30 minutes of conversation surrounding restaurants, be it a burger at Shake Shack or Bunsen, or high end meals at Chapter One or Noma. All are relevant. Each has their role to play. But, ask restaurant employees how they feel and most will tell you about their disillusion. When I picture hospitality staff, I often imagine proud and passionate people and despite how strong willed they might appear, they feel underappreciated, fighting for self-worth and meaning. It's desperate. In order to achieve success, hospitality staff really need to be respected by their own. So how can restaurants, unwilling to embrace this broken system, respond differently to staff who have such a critical responsibility in society?
Culture either attracts or repels.
If a company is reliant on people rather than a person, it makes sense that companies must place people first to achieve better organisational stability. Humans must be brought together for common cause. It’s about considering how your ambition affects other people. We need to be considerate when considering our own ambition. Restaurants should not be about one person. They are complex ecosystems that would implode without the work of tens and sometimes hundreds of unseen workers. Therefore as leaders, we have a responsibility to remind hospitality staff how important they are and how important their role is… For that reason, when employing, it's absolutely crucial that we get recruitment right. Danny Meyer, founder of Union Square Hospitality Group (Shake Shack, formerly Eleven Madison Park) states that, “Culture is the sum of all the behaviours that we champion and all the bad behaviors we accept. If you want to have an intentional culture, you need to name and champion the behaviors you want and that you are not going to accept the ones you don’t want.”
For instance, if we use the example of wine to explain the importance of culture, then to make great wine, we must start by nurturing our soil. Healthy soil helps to produce the best grapes which equates to great wine. Therefore, in an organisation where the soil is the culture, it must be nurtured.
Healthy soil = great grapes = great wine
Great culture = great people = retention +/= great outcomes
“Great companies don't hire skilled people and motivate them, they hire already motivated people and inspire them.” – Simon Sinek.
Ben Shewry, head chef and owner of 3 hat restaurant Attica in Melbourne, hires people based on attitude, not on where they've worked before or even their skills. It's attitude that matters. He weeded out difficult staff at work who did not match the culture of the restaurant or who were not willing to cooperate and improved management and staff communication. His head chef, Matt Boyle states that, “Everyone does everything. Even Ben helps clean – he's just that kind of boss. A typical day starts at 10am, then everyone goes down to the Ripponlea gardens at 1pm where we pick the leaves we need for service. Depending on your roster, you might be baking bread, doing staff meals or spending two hours sectioning 50 g pieces of pumpkin for one dish. It's teamwork and from a sport background I love it." This system is far removed from the brigade system where everyone is isolated to their own section, sometimes spending hours upon hours completing mundane tasks, day after day. At Attica, the teams work collectively to complete large mundane tasks and rotate regularly so they each upskill and become reliant on one another. Ben states, “The team are like buzzing bees in the kitchen, everyone helps each other. The people you hire should be the best at what they do but also culture carriers for your business. Companies must be resolute about not compromising that”.
There should not be a division between staff. Attica acted on an idea that combated this division. Every Wednesday at 4pm, during the staff meeting, one person has the task to say something personal that must be positive. The tactic is that people get to know each other on a personal level. The point, concept and exercise is about empathy. It's easier to feel empathetic with each other when we know one another. An idea, a story, a passion, music, a personal account. When in the heat of service and tensions are high, and two people who might rarely cross paths suddenly find themselves in a situation of high stress, the act of learning something personal about each other has completely different effects on how they react to one another in the moment. Today I sat in on an incredible talk by the former Co-Owner of Eleven Madison Park, Will Guidara, who has published a number-one bestseller, Unreasonable Hospitality (a book I cannot wait to read). His closing few words were, “How people do things changes from restaurant to restaurant, but ultimately, what gets talked about, gets thought about, this is the stuff that is evergreen.”
Introducing servant leadership.
A proposed deviation from the brigade system is to adopt a circular operational system, where staff rotate on sections to experience all areas of their divisions. Managers operate as servant leaders, on the basis that the culture of the restaurant is of the highest importance to its success.
Traditional leaders see leadership as a rank to obtain. They use power and control to drive performance, measuring success through output. Leaders speak and believe the business is about them.
Servant leaders see leadership as an opportunity to serve others. They share power and control to drive engagement. They measure success through growth and development. They listen and understand that the business is not about them.
“We are drawn to leaders and organizations that are good at communicating what they believe. Their ability to make us feel like we belong, to make us feel special, safe and not alone is part of what gives them the ability to inspire us.” – Simon Sinek.
What this achieves:
Positive working culture
Collaboration (staff actively care for one another)
Developed and consistent learning
Empowerment and self-belief
The most memorable meal I had this year was at Kadeau restaurant in Copenhagen. I had been in contact with the sous chef who I had previously worked with at Noma. We’d spoken extensively over email as he informed me about the restaurant's culture. He just had a child, and after a couple of unsuccessful stints looking for work in restaurants that offered a better work-life balance, he missed the creativity and fulfilment that high-end restaurants offered chefs like him. Out of a bit of good fortune, he found himself at Kadeau. I had been told how wonderful an environment the restaurant was to work in. Over the 5 days in which the restaurant is open, the chefs work 4 day weeks and no more than 45 hours. The morning commences at 10.30am, the pay is competitive and culturally, there is no tolerance for ego or any of the behaviour that traditionally has haunted restaurants.
Bear in mind that with the traditional brigade system, chefs never leave their post, militantly working each day that the restaurant operates. At Kadeau, chefs share sections, taking over on the days that other chefs are off. This gives the restaurant flexibility especially when people are on holidays or sick leave. This is a concept that the male, stale and pale, brought up traditionally in restaurants will hate the sound of. But, it must be remembered that the culture of both environments could not be more different. At Kadeau, the team works collectively. While traditionally, the process of rotating a team causes a lack of consistency (from an experience and skills point of view), in this case, the team works together as a collective to nullify weaknesses. The team is unified, working for each other not because they have to, but because they want to. Systematically, this is a bottom-up organisation where the leaders act as a support network, developing powerful bonds of trust.
Rather refreshingly, Kadeau’s head chef and owner, Nicolai Noregaard, doesn’t measure success with accolades or self-achievement, but by his staff's happiness and time off, providing conditions for connection. This is commendable and Kadeau has successfully managed to attain 2 Michelin stars in the process. Coupled with the fact that the restaurant is aesthetically beautiful, a distillation of Scandinavia and home to the perfect kitchen, dining room and wine cellar, it might still come as a surprise that Kadeau doesn't just have a waiting list for customers, but also for staff. The talent pool does not need to be replaced. Now isn’t that something.
So, sitting in my seat, marvelling at the room and watching the restaurant’s choreography unfold, I wondered if each of these factors, that in the past might be considered ‘limitations’ affect service? They did... Positively! The long answer is that not everything felt seamless, nor the horribly overused term ‘faultless’, but it was all much more powerful than either of those. The meal felt human. Any apprehensions I had regarding the quality of the food offering were quickly dissolved. The food was staggering. Each dish was incredibly thoughtful, singing with soul, with unique flavours and interpretations that filled me with admiration. At last I was discovering tasteful high end food that could be served without the constraints of a negative kitchen culture. And the delivery of each dish was even more remarkable. It was so obvious that the staff loved their environment. There was an unmistakable rapport between them, and even in moments that we or they detected an occasional error or two, the enthusiasm and respect everyone had for each other, instantly made it inconsequential. It was as if their happiness enrobed the entire restaurant.
The difficulty with the Kadeau model is that not every restaurant can operate like this. Not every chef is as gifted as Nicolai Nørregaard and capable of producing world class food and experiences. Kadeau upwards of 350 euro per person which is unaffordable for most, but still not an anomaly in Copenhagen. However, in return they treat and pay their staff what they deserve, while offering the customer a dining experience that forever remains in memory. And although the financial model might be reserved to few, the cultural model is available to any organisation determined to make positive change. An uncompromising mission statement that places the people above any individual accolade or personal goal. What speaks to performance, rather than shouting and pulling people up on errors, is speaking to them about why it matters that they don’t make that mistake, explain how that mistake affects others, why it has effects down the line and what impact these effects have on people serving. Accountability is key. However, if people are finding tasks too difficult, you give them the resources and support to achieve success. This might mean that you assess the menu and decide whether elements need to be changed to better strengthen the team's wellbeing. Staff are praised significantly and supported, and thus respond well when constructively criticised.
Ultimately, the fine dining model that has been in operation over the last century is flawed. Financially, it's a model that does not work, unless people are exploited. Just like artists will continue to produce spectacular feats of art, chefs will continue to open fine dining restaurants. Therefore, the unpopular opinion suggests that if the culture of these restaurants we support is to change, the value we as customers place on these experiences must increase. It’s true that by increasing prices, fine dining becomes less accessible and less inclusive than it already is, ultimately excluding a whole cohort of clientele. However, if we do not take accountability for our actions and reflect on the true cost of these experiences, well then, do we really deserve to dine in restaurants at all?
By publishing articles like these, I personally hold myself accountable for my future actions and dedication to implementing change. These articles take a tremendous amount of time and effort but I believe it’s crucial to share these important messages for the benefit of our hospitality and community. So, for paid subscribers, please find below an updated guide to the Ómós Manifesto, which contains a whole spreadsheet worth of culture-enhancing ideas and suggestions to improve your business organisation (which ultimately has a positive knock-on effect across society). As always, please share our message with others and anyone you believe will benefit from our resources. If you aren’t already, please also consider supporting our work by becoming a paid subscriber.
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