OP-ED // The Modern Chef’s Role As Compassionate Mentor

Bardia Ilbeiggi is an Iranian born Vancouver-based chef and culinary consultant, with a love for seasonal and local food. He is currently working with Feast Consulting.

My first job in the kitchen was right after culinary school, in a small modern bistro in Paris. After finishing my training, I was very eager to get out there and learn whatever there was to know about cooking. So I chose a small restaurant, where it was only me and the chef in the kitchen, which provided me with a great opportunity to learn from the man himself. I liked the chef, a talented young guy who’d worked really hard to get where he was, and we established a good personal relationship with one another.

Everything was good, but I would see glimpses of extreme behaviour from the chef when something started to go wrong: a customer complained about a dish, staff made a mistake, or even the chef himself forgot to finish the roasted lamb dish with the pickled mustard seeds before sending it out. I remember finding his reactions very over the top: swearing, yelling and annoyingly slamming a spoon on the counter, saying: “Where is my garnish? I needed it yesterday!” In my pre-cooking life, I had finished my engineering degree and worked at a big tech company for a few years. Office environments have their own stories of mistreatment, but as my first insight into the kitchen life I found it a stark difference to what I had ever experienced. It certainly made me question my decision to follow my passion for cooking.

I have been lucky that in the restaurants I’ve worked in, treatment of the staff has been for the most part “acceptable”. But I have heard many horror stories from my friends and coworkers about the abusive behaviour that is used in some kitchens as a tool to get the “best” out of cooks. I struggle to believe that this is an effective way to run a kitchen, and surely, we can all do better.

As a chef with the goal of having his own restaurants one day, I have thought a lot about the issue of staff treatment. I’ve always wondered why chefs go down the path of anger and bullying. Some don’t know any better; they were bullied as young cooks and this has led them to believe that the only way to train your staff is by pushing them to their physical and mental limits. Some of these angry instances initiate from the financial stress that the chef/owner is under: every mistake eats into the narrow profits. There is also the chef’s ego that makes him think it’s okay to tell his staff things like: “you’re not good enough to be a cook” or brag about having made a “weak cook” cry.

In 2016, I started a 3-year tenure at Vancouver’s Farmer’s Apprentice restaurant. The restaurant’s chef and owner, Dave Gunawan, had different ideas on how to run his kitchen. This was reflected in his cuisine and his dedication to supporting local farmers, but also in the fact that I never saw him get mad or yell at someone, ever. We definitely disagreed on many things, but the way we resolved our issues was through conversation, either privately or in a group. Once Dave gave me the responsibility of running the kitchen, we set up weekly meetings, in which we would all bring up whatever was on our minds. We tried our best to give junior cooks a voice and got them to suggest ideas for new dishes. We designed the menu in a way that cooks wouldn’t need to work 13-hour shifts, and encouraged everyone to maintain a healthy lifestyle outside of work. We prioritized making delicious staff meals and giving everyone a long break to sit down and actually enjoy their food. Our main goal wasn’t to gain accolades or nominations, but to create an environment in which people enjoyed working, while serving great food to our customers. As a result, staff turnover was pretty minimal and our coworkers could get through the day without feeling too stressed.

Rene Redzepi, chef of Noma restaurant in Copenhagen (one of the most influential restaurants in the world) has written about the culture of the kitchen, including the harsh treatment he witnessed in his early days of cooking and later his own similar behavior. He talks about the fact that he has chosen a new path and is addressing these issues in his kitchen and asks other chefs to do the same. “When we started trying to change the culture at Noma, we did it for the sake of our own happiness. I didn’t expect that it would also make us a better restaurant. But it did. This has worked for us. I genuinely do see the improvement in the staff’s morale, in our guests’ satisfaction, in the quality of our creativity and execution.”

In the cutthroat industry of hospitality where hours are long, salaries are low and the lifestyle is generally physically and mentally tiring, chefs need to take on the role of a compassionate mentor, in which they can harness talent and lead their team to success, day in and day out. This doesn’t mean disregarding discipline and order in the restaurant. Direction is needed so kitchen staff are clear on who is doing what. Mistakes have to be prevented as much as possible, while understanding that anger and resentment don’t resolve anything. But chefs, as leaders, need to know that they have to pay a great deal of attention and invest time in training their staff and answering their questions. And once the staff show growth and excellence, their efforts must be acknowledged and appreciated.

In a modern kitchen, chefs need to create a sustainable environment that enables people to express their individuality and feel like they are an important part of the team. Everyone in the restaurant needs to take ownership of the main goal, which is to serve people good food and make them feel welcome. A kitchen will always be a challenging place to work, but with the right leadership it can also be fun, rewarding and a home away from home.

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