Mentor my ass!

Well it’s been a while since I’ve had a chance to bring all of you into my twisted restaurant world. Sorry for my absence but to tell you the truth, It’s been extremely busy (high-class problem) but more to the point, I had nothing shitty to write about and these things are a lot funnier and enjoyable if you can read them and feel better about your own life. Kinda like, “Wow! am I glad I don’t have to live in that asshole’s world”!)  It makes you thankful for what ya got! You’re welcome….

This takes me to today’s topic. I’ve written in the past about a specific employee (a cook to be exact). This particular cook was in my restaurant as an intern from an area culinary school. He was, as are most culinary students, myself included at that point in my journey, useless in every regard. Needless to say this was an unpaid internship as my payroll was not about to absorb a salary that brought nothing to the table. It is now and always has been my position that an intern or other interested party that wishes to learn at the expense of my restaurant and staff should be fucking paying me. Perhaps this sounds a bit harsh but let me tell you, it’s not the least bit overstated. The rest of the team, myself included need to closely monitor what the untrained newbie is producing in order to insure their mistakes don’t make it to your table. It actually equates to double duty when the rest of the staff goes about their daily routine and out of nowhere I decide to throw a roadblock into the mix that adds insult to injury in an already pressure packed job. The Chef de Cuisine, Miguel, specifically has to double his efforts to focus attention better spent elsewhere on babysitting the new addition to the team. Not to mention, all of the mistakes made by way of trial and error, cost the restaurant both time and money. What was once a slam dunk with a solid, experienced cook is now a crap shoot at best. All of the mistakes made need to be disposed of (food cost) and re-done (labor cost). This may sound like peanuts but you would be incorrect. These pennies, nickles and dimes add up quickly and before you know it, I have to step in and smooth things over with the rest of the kitchen so they don’t collectively rise up as one and kill this guy.

All of this effort, in theory, results in the intern sticking around after their 3 month unpaid stint in a newly created, PAID position. At which point, the newly anointed “cook in training” becomes an accepted part of the team. This is where things always get sticky. The former intern/train wreak now feels they have paid their dues and deserve the respect of the rest of the team. Now the waters are muddied. The Chef and kitchen look at this situation from a totally different perspective. What they see is a chance to recoup some of the cumulative losses both in product and effort that our neofite addition has levied against the restaurant. I happen to be in complete agreement with the rest of the crew. RESPECT!??! Are you kidding me? This goofball decided at 26 to embark upon a culinary journey to stardom when most will begin this trek around the ripe old age of 18. I began when I was 13 and still didn’t believe I deserved any respect until I opened my first restaurant after 16 years of toiling in obscurity in the kitchens of those that were good enough to allow me to fuck THEIR product up. Now along comes this guy. Despite my better judgement, I decided to allow him to suck up my payroll while continuing to learn at my expense. I paid him well, very well in fact. I must admit, I felt a little guilty about having him work for free for three months so, as a gift, I gave him a strong starting salary. This provided he agree to stay for one full year and cross train his replacement upon his departure on a mutually agreed on date. All was well and so on we went. Fast forward six months and our hero has begun to turn the corner into usefulness. This is the time when I as the owner can begin to see some return on the investment of having this guy in my kitchen literally derailing us left and right for the past 9 months. So, in short, best case scenario is that I come out even at the end of his stay having contributed to the early growth of a budding future leader of my industry. Not the case as it turns out….

I promise you, I do not, by any stretch of the imagination, pretend to assume that my way is the only way for a restaurant to thrive. That being said, in MY restaurant and in MY kitchen MY way is the only fucking way! That’s it, end of story. I do not negotiate on this point and I do not apologize for this stance. Why should I? I take the credit because I take the shit. If someone, ANYONE volunteers to share in that exposure then please, by all means, write me a check and you can become a partner. At that point we can share the good and the bad. Until then, my house my rules. This is a very antiquated style of management, this much I will acknowledge, however, it is the only style I know and I am not the least bit interested in changing direction mid-stream. It has, for the most part, served me well to this point. (a few bumps and fuck-ups aside of course) It feels as if the chef is about to rant doesn’t it…….

Get ready there is about to be a curve ball thrown.

I am going to go ahead and call myself out. In the spirit of full disclosure, I will tell you that halfway through his internship I checked my big, sad, drug and alcohol soaked ass into rehab. Had to do it, no choice. The alternative? I would be writing this entry from the great beyond……It was that bad. Looking back, I can fully understand that there would be resentment on behalf of this guy. After all, he signed on to work for and directly with me right? Nope. That was not the agreement. At least not in my newly clean and sober narcissistic mind. When taking on an intern in a mentor type of capacity, I was fully aware that it came with responsibilities. On the cooks part that is. The mentor is not me alone. It’s the entire operation and all that dwell and work within its walls. The idea being, as an intern you will be allowed to walk freely throughout the restaurant wreaking havoc in your wake while absorbing the professional way in which EVERY member of the team behaves and carries on their duties.

I say this with my actual experience being the same. It’s often said that you don’t really know what you’ve learned from someone until you have moved on and been allowed to put it into practice. Doing so without the benefit of the safety net provided by that individual. This was evident to me immediately after I moved on from each of the Chefs and restaurants that I was fortunate enough to have taken me in early on. That is to say, I learned as much or more about the chef I DID NOT wish to become. Please don’t get me wrong, I have wonderful memories and still to this day, fantastic relationships with many of my past mentors. It’s part of the glory of that relationship to blossom into a respected fellow chef in the eyes of those that guided you along the path. Not only with golden nuggets of culinary wisdom but with sideways, fucked up, unthinkable behaviors that, for lack of a better choice of words, separate the boys from the men.

This is a down and dirty industry. Where do you think the phrase “If you can’t stand the heat, get out of the kitchen” came from? I tried, but clearly failed to convey this message to my novice ward. Looking back, it’s not something you can drive into a person’s head with repetitive phrases and harsh warnings. A person either gets it or they don’t. I was lucky, I got it. Boy did I get it. It took me 20 fucking years, 5 restaurants, a trip to rehab, countless girlfriends, fiances, an ex-wife and other such emotionally void and fruitless relationships  but I finally got it.

“IT” as it were, is not supposed to be about the mentor. It’s supposed to be about the student. If done correctly, both parties benefit equally over time but that balance takes a while to seek its level.     Ahhh!!!! It’s not all about me! Fuck! Who would have thought that and ex-practicing drug addicted, morbidly obese alcoholic man would think it was all about him???!!?  It is to laugh. As you see, I wrote this entry as a means to make you and my fine ex-student in training understand that I get it now. It was gonna be an epic fucking rant! But instead it is a humbling apology that took 2 months to muster the courage and clear thinking to verbalize. I did it all fucking wrong. I was supposed to be the one that guided his progress, corrected his mistakes and not only corrected them but provide a way to not have them occur again in the same fashion. I was supposed to be the one that took the blow back from the rest of the staff when errors were made by the student explaining that without these errors being made, corrected and tolerated there is no hope for the student to progress. In as much as there is no way for the industry to progress if these relationships are abandoned and the same self-centered attitude that I possessed was allowed to rule the day. I’ve said this in earlier entries, this blog has several purposes. Not the least of which is that it is cathartic for me to write. I am able to see, in writing, how silly and childish my behavior is at times. This is a tough pill to swallow. (No drug reference intended) Sorry…..  For the life of me I cannot understand what took me so long to realize that the common denominator in all of the stupid shit I’ve experienced over the years is ME!

So to wrap this up with a cute little bow, I’ll use this last of this entry to finally do the right thing. This doesn’t happen often so pay attention.

For the sake of anonymity we will call our boy Biff.

Biff , I’m sorry for not having been a better mentor to you. You have a bright future and even though I didn’t give you all of the tools you hoped to take away with you from the experience, I know you have quite a bit more leaving than you did coming in. You have a great deal of talent and I hope you apply it well. Try to take some of what you saw me go through and use it to your advantage. In the spirit of the mentor/student relationship, take that as a final piece of advice before storing away the experience in your memory to be called upon in the future. I would be proud to give you a strong reference. Despite your quitting by text with no notice. (Ya Dickhead) Okay,that one’s kind of hard to deal with. However, I did stupid shit like that as well when I was coming up so I guess I’ll have to allow it.  Kinda like breaking up with a post-it note….No, the Sex and the City reference does not mean I’m gay. My publicist gave me that one so I’m running with it. So in case my brother is reading this Shut your face.

All in all, I guess it’s fair to say that this situation taught me as much about myself as it taught Biff about the restaurant biz. In the end the message was the same for both of us. Enter into a relationship such as this with caution. Be aware that there are responsibilities that are inherent on behalf of both participants and most importantly……..                   You never quit a job by text you fucking ding-a-ling!     But again, I’m not bitter.




Is Cooking a Magic Show? I Think Not….

I am new to this blogging thing, but I think it’s an excellent way for me to reach out to a global community of chefs, restauranteurs, culinary students and lovers of food, like myself. While I am not new to is cooking. I started as a child in my grandfather’s little kitchen on Chicago’s North side and I had the priviledge of of graduating many years ago from the Culinary Institute of  America in upstate New York (CIA). You can read the short version of my story in the About section of this blog.

I figure if I am going to take the time to work on this blog in the little spare time I have, I want it to be a conversation, one that continues to teach me and perhaps those who read it as well. So don’t be shy in giving me your thoughts. I want to hear your feedback. I do not care if you live a block from Restaurant Michael here in Winnetka, IL, or if you live half way around the world. In fact, I welcome everyone who loves anything and everything having to do with cooking to join in the conversation…which brings me to the first topic for this blog.

I recently had a chat with an old friend who is closely tied to the restaurant business  It went something like this:

ML:  After many years of cooking for others and owning my own restaurants for even longer, I am getting sick and tired of seeing young chefs cycle through restaurant “trends” which represent a certain area of expertise.

HG: That seems to be a big trend now, one minute they are experts in Spanish food, the next it’s French.

ML: AND THAT is when I get crazy!  These guys have the audacity to fuck with my wheelhouse? I have spent my whole life specializing in classic French cuisine and they think because they can get a lot of investor money and open a place they suddenl become experts in French cuisine. Give me a break! These chefs need to tread lightly!

HG:Yeah, there was this article quoting a chef saying he had to fly to New York to get a certain kind of fish because no one served it locally. I got so incensed I wrote a letter to the editor because there were at least 10 places that served it in Chicago and the suburbs. It was ridiculous. He needed to be called out on that and there were many other comments just like mine.

ML: I know what you are talking about and I think that is part of the problem especially then chefs mislead the public about what is or is not available. It makes readers think he’ll be the only serving a certain dish or featuring a certain product – that is bullshit especially when someone like ME has been doing it all these years.  When Jean Banchet closed Le Francais, I was the only one left doing classic French cuisine. There are other fabulous French restaurants, but I am talking strictly classic French. AND we do it with all the bells and whistles–3 courses for a $49.50!  Unheard of!

HG: I think that with the advent of The Food Network shows, people think that cooking is akin to a magic show.

ML: That is exactly what I talking about. It’s should NOT be a magic show!  I liken it to a surgeon who studies one thing his whole life and does it to the best of his ability. I’m taking issue with chefs who think food is simply theater and cook whatever they deem the “trend du jour.” It took me 5-6 years after I graduated culinary school to even appreciate all the many nuances and stylings of French cuisine. I am still learning today for God’s sake! Every day spent in my kitchen I learn something new and hopefully those I hire to work in my kitchen are as well.

HG: Well I have personally spoken to many people who have worked for you Michael and although they say you are a tough boss in there, several have told me that they are better chefs for it today. You know, all we are really talking about is food!

ML: RIGHT! Restaurants are getting away from the fact that this is about cooking and simply that.  Food is not a damn science experiment. The fact that people want to be entertained while you dine is wrong. I simply want to feed people. I am happy when I feed people, can you tell by my size?  I love food and I want to share those tastes with those that walk through my doors . I am so passionate about this!

HG: Without a doubt you are! The funny thing is that in these trendy restaurants the food takes a backstage to the scene you know? I personally am so tired of every new place being about pigs, bacon and pork products! Maybe it’s just me, but I don’t want to eat cheeks, asses, tails, goat butt, who knows what this shit is anymore? It sounds disgusting!  If you look at all the best chefs in recent history, their food was simple and it still stands up today; people like Alice Waters, Julia Child, Jacques Pepin – even Emerill – it’s not all scientific and complicated. It’s classic and darn it, it tastes amazing!

ML: I think the trend will morph back my way. We are busier then we have ever been since we opened and now I am expanding the restaurant by a third because of it, so something I am doing must be right! At the end of the day I believe that people who pay you good money to feed them, want food that tastes good and maybe they like the fact that I come into the dining room night after night to see how everyone is enjoying the food. I am thinking that that will always be an important part of fine dining.

HG: I think others would agree with you on that one! I know it is important to me. I love when a chef comes out of the kitchen to chat with his/her guests. It makes it very personal. As you always have said, you touch every plate that leaves the kitchen and I think when you come out and put a hand on someone’s shoulder and ask how they enjoying their meal – that goes a long way. Do you feel that from your guests?

ML: I sure do and I would love to hear from others on how that affects where they dine. Is it important? I sure hope so because I am going to continue being me and I am doing what comes natural!