Monday, November 2, 2009

Sometimes I [don't] just wanna scream!

Professional cooking is often characterized as a high intensity industry fueled by screaming and yelling. Not fast enough: you get yelled at. Send out a sloppy plate: get yelled at. Joking around too much: yelled at! Fuck up anything big or small: Get your ass chewed out. It's become a right of passage to regal friends and colleagues with stories of being reamed by superiors and then doing it to others once you have moved up the ladder a bit and gotten your first little taste of authority in the kitchen. The general idea behind it all is that the rough treatment will whip you into shape and make a real cook out of you. I can't argue with the reality that this works sometimes, but how often? It seems to me that most of the time screaming and yelling creates animosity. How effective is a strategy that will cause most cooks to hate you?

Yelling has no place in my kitchen. It has been deemed ineffective and cast away along with chauvinism, peer pressure, working hungover and all the other kitchen lore bullshit. I've said this before, but it can't be pressed enough how tired and unproven much of the best known kitchen imagery is. There are two reasons I choose to not yell and scream. The first I've already alluded to - it's ineffective - and will examine further in a moment. The second is more personal.

I'm not good at it. That is to say, my outwardly expressed anger falls far short of instilling fear. That's the point, isn't it? To drive your cooks towards perfection by making them fear anything less. I realized a while back that my outbursts, no matter how well planned or targeted lacked a certain venom. Perhaps they were too well targeted. Perhaps anger is a weapon best wielded unpredictably. More likely though, is that I'm sort of a dorky, meek looking individual who comes off goofy rather than intimidating when attempting to put a lollygagger in his or her place. I stopped yelling to keep from being embarrassed, but also because being angry saps all my energy. It clouds my vision and when you have a million and one things to accomplish in a relatively small amount of time, clarity is of the essence. When angry, you just go through the motions - sloppily. Only the clarity that piece (peace) of mind offers will allow you to carry out each of those motions to ultimate potential. I've worked both ways, and the difference is astounding.

Onto the more obvious reason I've chosen to not make anger and intimidation a part of my kitchen repertoire. Overall, I don't think it works. Fear based results are short lived and imperfect by nature. A cook is much more likely to perform if inspired rather than shocked. The will to never stop trying until something is perfect, is more enduring when it comes from within. You can't bully someone into feeling that. They'll walk away long before they begin to feel any sort of dedication. In the kitchen everything trickles downward. That includes organization, coolness, calmness, a work ethic and the inspiration to drive towards perfection. Instilling those values is quite possibly the hardest task a chef will ever have, but will surely pay dividends. I was asked recently asked by my cooks why I don't yell when they make mistakes. More than mere curiosity, it irks them something fierce to see me so even tempered. They explained the calmness and understanding pierces far deeper than blunt obscenities. I asked them how likely they are to repeat the action that elicited such a response from me. "Never!" "Not at all..." They carry those moments like a torch and pass them on to one another, but not because they feel shame or enjoy sharing old "war stories." They learned important lessons and are better for it, just like I learn something important with each mistake I make. I also casually mentioned to them, "If I yelled at you, you would hate me. If you hated me, your work would always be shit." So there...pretty simple if you think about it that way...

...On a side note: A recent surge in business has allowed me to fill all dishwasherless shifts with a dishwasher. For the time being, I won't be holding court at my favorite station. It's hard to keep a man out of his natural element, so I predict the scalding spray and damp sticky breezes will be calling me back to the pit some time soon, even if only for a moment here and there...hopefully!


  1. I love your writing style....sigh. So...its not all 'its cracked up to be'...being chef, cook and dishwasher? Well, somehow, I can believe it! Yelling is great for stress my position supervising six staff, I wish I could let off steam sometimes...but I realize, as you do, that ridding my stress on them just makes them stressed. Who needs a 'kitchen' or otherwise....full of stressed workers n'est pas? Have a happy weekend.

  2. Congrats on the foodie blogroll!