What I learned working in a kitchen

March 19, 2012 | by Ed Zimmerman

I had my first restaurant job at age 14 and have never left the business. It was the heyday of the early 70's when restaurants really became so much a part everyday American life. I've been in a back to basics mode lately and been thinking about my early days working in kitchens, taught by some very talented people who built skills in young people, not just worked them. Some of the valuable lessons I learned include:

Cutting onions is an art

After busing tables and washing dishes, I got a big promotion into the kitchen. My first teacher, Chef Henry, sat me down the first day and explained the way "his" kitchen worked. "When you were a dishwasher you came in here to carry out dirty pots, now you work for me and will follow my rules or you will be back in that dishroom by the end of the day." The first hour he explained about onions, colors, types, skin thickness and yield, always yield. "Now go cut those onions, just exactly how I showed you." I was Fast Eddie in those days and cut the 50# bag of onions in record time.

"OK Chef, I got that done, what's next?" Henry said, "Nothing's next, all you can learn is one thing a day, go wash dishes for the rest of your shift and tomorrow, I'll teach you about lemons."

Lesson: Today's kitchen manager does not distill enough skill, pride and culture in today's young workers. I learned how to cut onions and lemons and eventually, everything else. However, I learned slowly with Henry's patience and became a kitchen manager within a year. Henry wasn't measuring my labor cost that first week; he was building a machine, one that would permanently lower his labor cost. He was managing for tomorrow, not for the shift.

Hot food hot, cold food cold

The best expeditor in the world can only produce if the cooks are in harmony. I love restaurant technology, that's why I sell it, but bump screens do not feel what an expo feels or the pace that a kitchen produces. Team cooking behind the line is ballet with fire and knives. When the goal is to please the guest, it is easy to stay in the groove.

Lesson: Get your kitchen staff to feel the pace of your dining room; it's there if you listen. Your wait staff brings the customer pace to the back of the house. If your staff is hurried, frazzled, anxious, it's what your guests are feeling. Create an atmosphere of calm, professionalism and Can-Do, this will keep Hot Food Hot and Cold Food Cold, delivered with a smile from the servers.

If you got time to lean, you got time to clean

Keeping your pizzeria clean is everyone's job. I've worked with owners that clean bathrooms and one's that don't. The ones that do gain the respect of the staff and have sparkling clean restaurants to show for it. No one likes to clean the bathrooms ... so what. You got in the hospitality business to make your home your guest's home, at least for an hour or so. Treat them well and they will tell their friends.

Lesson: Our industry has lost the culture of skill and service. So much concern for the metrics and the math have swept away the ultimate goal. Focus on the basics and watch your numbers come in to line that much easier.

We can regain a culture of pride and become an industry of choice for young workers. You can have a profitable pizza shop and a happy staff, good food cost, and happy customers that come back often and tell their friends. Just follow the basics.

Wishing you success in foodservice – Ed

Topics: Operations Management , Staffing & Training

Ed Zimmerman / Ed Zimmerman is a pizza industry veteran and President of The Food Connector. His almost four decades of foodservice experience includes food manufacturing and distribution leadership, food industry technology, marketing services and restaurant and grocery operations management.
View Ed Zimmerman's profile on LinkedIn

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