As of the time of this publishing, I will have just served my last day as the Executive Pastry Chef at the Langham, Chicago. I spent five years at the property, beginning as part of the opening team in 2013. Initially I thought I’d be able to write this post pretty quickly, summing up my thoughts and feelings handily. It was naïve of me to assume that, and I was really touched by the goodbyes of my work family, which made writing this harder than I thought. As the impact of leaving the Langham hit me, I realized I’d need a bit more time to process my experience. I’ve had a few days to reflect, and I wanted to share with anyone interested some of what I learned during my time as the hotel’s Executive Pastry Chef.
1. You’re not paid to make friends.
Boy did I say this a lot over the years at the hotel, and I know more than a few of my colleagues didn’t understand what I really meant. I’m not saying what it sounds like on the surface: that it’s ever ok to be mean or rude to someone at work, or that you should go into the kitchen every day with a callous attitude about those you work with, a chip on your shoulder, and looking to isolate yourself or pick a fight. Quite the opposite, I always meant that at the end of the day, the job of managing is filled with difficult decisions, many of which can personally impact others, but your ultimate responsibility is to the success of the company, and so sometimes those decisions are the ones that need to be made.
I never reveled in disciplining someone (unless they were a total ass and deserved it. You know exactly what I mean), or letting someone go, or calling out a fellow manager for dropping the ball, but it’s what the job demanded so that’s what I was going to do. And I damn well expected others to do the same to me. I was quick to call someone on a mistake to get it fixed (and quick to apologize when the mistake was mine), and I was always straightforward in what I said because passive aggressive communication is disrespectful and inefficient. That mentality won’t always make you popular, but it makes you effective, and you’re not paid to make friends.
2. It’s a chef’s responsibility to take the blame in failure and give the credit in success.
This attitude isn’t the kind of thing you can do for long if you’re faking it. You really have to believe you’re at fault when something goes wrong in your kitchen, not just go through the motions of taking the blame. And it doesn’t matter if you we’re directly involved in the error, or were even there when it happened. Mistakes were made in my department when I was in another zip code, but they were still my fault because ultimately the pastry kitchen is my responsibility. If a cook ruined a product, it was my fault for not doing a better job in coaching and training them. Don’t get me wrong, it’s not like that kind of mentality doesn’t get frustrating sometimes, but living the attitude that you’re responsible for failure in your kitchen helps you to focus on solutions rather than problems.
On the other side of the coin, I think it’s just good practice in humility and leadership not to take credit for the good work of your department, even if you’re directly responsible for it. If you were able to succeed, it was only because your team was behind you in support and out of the limelight. The life of a cook is too often thankless, and every team deserves the accolades for their sacrifice.
3. A good leader looks for ways to help their weakest link thrive, not ways to let them go (no matter how bad they may be).
Here’s the truth: all managers have, at some point in their career, some truly shitty employees (just like all employees have had some truly shitty managers). I absolutely have. And if you’ve had one, then you know how hard it is to put in the work to help that employee out.
Your best employees are part of what makes the job so rewarding, and they’re the easy part of coaching. They aren’t the ones we’re concerned about here. No, I’m talking about that one person that just doesn’t get it. It doesn’t matter what you say or how you say it, or how many times you give them feedback, they’re seemingly hopeless, and they’ll blame everyone but themselves for their failures. It’s easy to write that kind of person off, to give up on them and let them hang themselves until they have a thick enough file in HR to get the boot. But that’s not what being a leader is about.
No matter how inept a cook might have been, or how much I may have disliked someone personally (although I always did my best to be objective, I’m only human), my role was to help my team succeed. To give up on anyone under your direction is a failure in leadership and a betrayal of the non-verbal contract between a Chef and his/her cooks. You are always there to coach and mentor your team, and that doesn’t include setting them up to fall down. The best part is once in a while that someone you thought could never make it proves you wrong.
4. It’s a marathon, not a sprint.
This isn’t just advice for chefs or managers, it’s advice for everyone. A career spans a lifetime, and that means going at it like a sprint is only going to lead to bad things. For the first decade of my life in the pastry world I went at a full sprint. There’s no denying that in many ways it accelerated my career, but I burned out once, nearly burned out a second time, and stood at the end of it all without feeling nearly as fulfilled as I thought I’d be. Something had to change.
There’s a mentality in the food and beverage industry – and I’m sure it’s pervasive over most of the working world – that you should spend as much time as possible slaving at your job, and anything other than that level of sacrifice is a lack of drive, or a lack of teamwork, or whatever. I lost count of how many times I would work something less than a 10 or 12 hour day, and when I got ready to leave, my tasks for the day complete, colleagues would make the obligatory joke about “working a half day.”
The idea is to make anyone that isn’t working as long as you are feel guilty as hell for leaving work when others can’t. Any of you out there who’ve worked hospitality know exactly what I’m talking about. Let me tell you something from the bottom of my heart: F*ck. That. It is time to move beyond this antiquated idea that a life in the kitchen has no room for anything else. First of all, yes, sometimes you have to work a marathon shift to get out of the weeds. Sometimes. But those chefs or managers that can’t seem to work less than 80+ hours in a week no matter the business level, it seems pretty clear to me that they haven’t learned how to delegate properly or organize their day and tasks well. Second of all, and most importantly – life is short, it’s reasonable to assume it’s the only one we get, and working incessantly doesn’t seem to be the pinnacle of living it fully.
After so much time chasing my career as I’d always assumed I was supposed to, I made a “radical” decision. I would be at work when I needed to be, and I’d go home when I didn’t. Crazy, right? The best part is I got just as much done – if not more – following this very rational plan of balance. I was more refreshed when I was at work, physically and creatively. I didn’t feel guilty when I was spending time away from my job which made that time all the more valuable. Overall I was, and am, just happier.
Anyone who tells you that working in food and beverage means completely sacrificing your personal life is flat out wrong. Yes, it’s a career that requires sacrifice, and it means adapting to a different type of schedule, but that doesn’t mean it should consume you. Demand balance, allow yourself rest, don’t let anyone tell you what is or isn’t the right way for you to follow your career. Life is a marathon, give yourself every opportunity to enjoy each step.
Cheers – Chef Scott