The characteristics of a chef vary as much as the people behind the titles. In most kitchens, Georges-Auguste Escoffier's brigade de cuisine provides hierarchy. But once the general foundation is there, it's up to the head chef to set the tone of the kitchen. Pop culture presents an array of stereotypes for you to expect. Some chefs are loud and yell — a lot. Others are silent taskmasters. If you're considering a culinary career, read on to see what type of chef you could be.
Some chefs enjoy being the antithesis of the throw-plates-against-the-wall stereotype. To them, being a chef is about fostering a work place to get stuff done without unnecessary drama. Grant Achatz, the modernist chef behind Chicago's award-winning Alinea, embodies silent precision (maybe too much). His kitchen is notoriously quiet. You'll hear the whir of a beater or the bubbling of water, but limited shouting or flying objects. The late Charlie Trotter's kitchen, although traditional, was also known for its head-down, no-drama rules. In these well-oiled machines of a kitchen, everyone has a job and expectations to meet quietly, efficiently and without Oscar-worthy dramatics.
The characteristics of a chef for some, however, manifest with the as-seen-on-TV loud bully (check your local Fox listings). They're the head chefs, like Gordon Ramsay, who lose it over a poorly plated dish. They smash glasses and follow with a string of expletives. Watch out for tears and possible fisticuffs in this chef's kitchen. Their motto is the ultimate cliche: "If you can't stand the heat, get out of the kitchen!" Your employees may constantly fear for their jobs in this environment, but productivity (and curious spectators) could skyrocket.
Many chefs strive to encourage. A young cook in Toronto says, "My current chef is nothing like any chef I've ever worked with or for. He runs what he calls a 'swear-free, stress-free kitchen.'" He says that when he first started on the grill, he dropped a medium-well steak that was supposed to go out. "I told the chef and he said, 'What do you think you should do?' I sent out appetizers as an apology and got to work on a new steak." His previous bosses would've gone off on him like "Mussolini from the balcony!" This young chef remarks that if the head chef sees someone struggling at a station, he'll tell him or her to get water and take a few deep breaths. "He lets you make mistakes and learn from them," he adds. These chefs lead by example and keep calm, even when things escalate rapidly. These kitchens are true learning environments.
This chef is a Dr. Jekyll and Mr. Hyde-like maniac in the kitchen who intimidates by design, belittling one minute, then is a friend the next. Watch out for mixed messages in this kitchen. Another Toronto-based chef says he originally ruled his kitchen with fear. "I was scared and unprepared for the role so I fell back on what I knew: to be the loudest and angriest, instead of a teacher," he adds. "I have reprioritized my methods but I'm still haunted by the careers I've ruined of young cooks who I told were no good only to find out they left the business altogether!"
Chefs have to consider what kind of characteristics they want to embody as the leaders of their kitchens. There's no one path to kitchen success and respect, so if you're interested, figure out how personality and tactics can elevate your specific priorities.
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