Secret chef: sweat the small stuff

It’s been a full-on month packed with long working weeks, which has left Chef realising why it is the little things that blow their fuse

In a kitchen it is the little things that make a difference. I like to think that most of the time I’m pretty cool-headed – if something isn’t right then we’ll fix it, all together if necessary. I don’t point fingers or apportion blame or believe in stand-up dressings-down or humiliating anyone. It’s passé and unnecessary and not the environment that leads to creativity or getting the best from people. My crew know when I’m disappointed and their own sense of pride is enough to ensure that it doesn’t happen again. In fact, they tend to be harsher on themselves than I am on them.

Right now I’m at the tail end of a month-long stretch of 80-plus-hour weeks. Staff holidays, group bookings and some great reviews have led to a chaotically busy period. Margins are so tight though that booking agency or temp staff to fill in the gaps would see any profit disappearing into a miserable dark chasm. Instead I, and others, have been working longer. I try to cook every service. That’s ten a week so I clock thirty hours without even thinking about it. Add to that mise-en-place, cleaning, paperwork, staff meetings, briefings and dish development and it leaves little time for anything else. My sous chef and I put together the latest tasting menu in snatched 10-minute conversations. By the time launch night came round we’d cooked just three of the nine dishes on the menu. Our dress rehearsal was a fully-booked Saturday night which equates to 400 plates. Plus canapés. The post-service beer tasted even better than usual after that shift.

It’s during times like this that fuses get short, tempers tend to fray and I get angry over what might seem like the most trivial of things. This paradox confuses many, including I think my own staff. While I fail to lose my temper over seemingly large problems or issues – we had to throw out a whole batch, about 70 portions, of pie mix because we discovered that a trigger bottle of surface sanitiser had leaked into it) over which it might be expected for a chef to get cross, I see red over the fact that the egg wash was left in the fridge overnight, complete with pastry brush.

It is these tiny niggles that are the bedrock of a functioning kitchen. Most of the time I am able to brush them off and either put them right myself or mention it as a casual request for it to be put right next time. But when the tank is nearly empty it is harder to adopt such a laissez faire approach and I find myself snapping at the small stuff far more often – things many others would let slide.

Why does it matter that the garlic hasn’t been taken out of the plastic bag before being packed away in the walk-in? Surely it’s not such a big deal if the coffee machine has been left on? If you’re chopping it all up anyway, why get cross about being sent curly parsley instead of flat-leaf? So what if the trays of mise haven’t been wrapped in exactly the same way you do them?

Well, plastic makes fresh produce sweat, decreases its shelf-life and quality, and torn plastic bags make the walk-in look messy. The coffee machine being left on is a needless waste of money and energy. I rely on my suppliers to provide me with the best produce available to my own specifications and standards, and when these aren’t met it impacts on my ability to cook at my best. I double plastic wrap my gastros of prep at the end of the day because if they aren’t then the wrapping pulls away at the sides, leaving exposed items that will dry out.

Former mayor of New York City Rudy Giuliani knew the ‘broken windows theory’ and so do I – it can be seen in full effect in any and every kitchen. So that is why I get cross when deliveries aren’t packed away properly, checks aren’t completed at the end of the shift, suppliers fail to do their job and chefs don’t listen to me when I tell them to double-wrap – not because it is precisely these issues that make me cross, although they do – but because they are indicative of larger principles and modes of practice that I stand by if I want my restaurant to run to the very best of its capacity. At least, after I’ve had some sleep.

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