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Eating Out A Lesson For Every Chef
career centereating out a lesson for every chef
November 2002
As a chef's career progresses the learning curve begins to flatten out.

A theory that holds some truth - however if we are really honest, we all still have much to learn. As an executive chef or sous chef lessons need to come from our experiences rather than from textbooks or supervisors.

One way to gain lessons from experience is eating out. I find that every time I eat out, I probably realize more about the business in that two or three-hour period than I do in a week at work. The only draw back is that I pay for that experience as apposed to being paid for it!

Producing good food is the main job of every chef but what separates a good restaurant from a great one is not just the food but the service too. As chefs we need to cross the borderline and assist in enhancing the service our guests receive. When dining out observing and understanding what is happening in the front of the house is my first priority.

The host/hostess is the first candidate to fall under surveillance, followed by the buss boy, waiter and sommelier. The restaurant manager receives the least of scrutiny, as often they know industry people and will of course be extending their utmost hospitality - as every proud professional would to one of their industry brothers or sisters.

It is important that you understand I am not being critical or negative when watching these people but comprehending their actions and envisioning the same situations in my own restaurant. When the host does not offer you a smile or seems inconvenienced by your arrival it makes me think - does this happen in my place? When the buss boy can describe each of the breads that he is serving, refills my water or replaces the fork I dropped on the floor - without a glance from me - I wonder are my guys' doing this. As the waiter succinctly describes a dish, it makes me realize that the pre service meeting should not be thought of as a drag. The pre-service is in fact as important as preparing the best mis en place, we need the wait staff to be able to go and do a good sales job and verbally do justice to our food. We are responsible for giving them the tools to go and do that and a detailed description and taste of what we are cooking is of paramount importance.

The last time I ate out I noticed the menu mix was really heavy in fish - no big deal. I though, "the chef likes fish?" Then I tried to match wine with our choices. The wine list was pretty much a fifty-fifty split between red and white with the exception of a few rose wines but the fish heavy menu made most of the reds other than the Pinot Noirs redundant. This was a signal to me that I should consider discussing my menu with the sommelier (and actually listening to his opinion!).

A bundle of thoughts and I had not even mentioned the wobbly table, piece of gum under my chair, interesting butter presentation - all within the time it takes to drink a gin and tonic.

When the food arrives, I tend to change my mindset - it is after all my night off. I look for all the positive aspects of the kitchen's cooking. What is unique, tasty and creative? What can I take back to my own team? I don't mean steal an idea (or do I?). I mean look for inspiration. Are there ingredients I have not thought of using for a while, a cooking technique that would be nice to reintroduce to my own menu?

The thought process goes on I try not to be too intense as my first priority is to enjoy my night and secondly to be able to put the experience to good use. My final couples of observations focus on how long it takes to my bill, my coat and do they offer to call me a taxi? Probably gladly after scrutinizing their operation for three hours?

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