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Tuesday, January 26, 2010

Knife's Edge: Multiples

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You can judge a chef on how well his team performs when he’s not in the kitchen.

That’s something I heard a long time ago. I don’t remember who said it, but for some reason I think it may have been Alain Ducasse, or certainly someone of his stature — a great chef who has multiple concepts in far-reaching cities. And as I’m now officially operating more than one restaurant in different cities, I understand the sentiment a bit more personally.

First, let me squash the idea that I think I’ve become some international jet-setting culinary rock star god. Far from it. My virgin dive into this world of multiple operations doesn’t have me flying first class in a Concord from New York to London to Shangai. Not yet.

It has me riding bitch in Aisle 38 from Baltimore yesterday, kissing my kid goodnight in Atlanta and waking up to my newfound pastime: cruising I-20. En route to spend a day and a half in Birmingham. And then it’s off to New York to deliver a graduation speech at the Culinary Institute of America, which entails a few small plane flights and a rental car.

I heard Ferran Adria came onto that campus, with entourage in tow, on a helicopter. I’ll be pushing my Ford Fusion rental into the Poughkeepsie Marriott, solo.

But the real story is taking place every minute back in my restaurants. While I’m boarding, people are ordering. Last night as I was touching back down in Atlanta, I intercepted a Tweet from our Birmingham location notifying me of a service problem. Somehow, by the genius of technology, I was a few thousand feet in the air, a few states away, but I was operating a restaurant.

Kind of.

The fact is that restaurants are teams. And teams have many players and coaches. And I’ve gotten lucky enough to have a great team of passionate, loyal chefs. I’ve always had that. I can’t explain it, especially now.

I don’t physically have the time anymore to mentor every chef that comes into my system. My companies don’t pay any more than others (my chefs reading this will probably say we pay less!) and I’m not currently operating a restaurant with the sheer avant garde ambition to attract hoards of young like-minded cooks. I mean, for the most part I’m selling hamburgers ... the anti-culinary-school dish.

Five years ago, in the heat of a crash and burn service at One Midtown Kitchen where I was chef, one of my sous pulled an incoming ticket and said that this was the last time he would cook a burger. That guy was Mark Nanna, my executive chef at Flip Atlanta.

And so for all the trust I have in my tenured staff and the technological advances that make it possible to monitor things from afar, it’s still a challenge. Focus, and the ability to extract information from snapshots, is crucial.

Thomas Keller once told me that “a good chef makes his day short.”

I have no choice but to be good then, because my day is already short. Upon arrival in Birmingham, I’ll have to make sure my chef knows I’m coming in so he can be prepared to show me numbers on food cost, labor, product mix, inventory and ordering. He has to be ready for this or it’s a waste of both of our time. New menu ideas, recipe development, staffing concerns, etc. All of this has to happen in a few hours, because I’ll want to spend some time in the kitchen observing the line chefs. Getting to know them. Jumping in and showing them how to slice chives correctly, or giving a quick tutorial on cooking sous vide, or working with liquid nitrogen.

These interactions are important to me. It’s why I cook. It’s my inspiration. The numbers are just my job.

Of course, I’ll chat with many guests — another part of my job that’s important to me. Especially in Birmingham. I don’t want to be that guy who’s never there. It bothers me to know that some people think I’m involved by name alone.

When things slow down, I’m gone. Certain communal elements of being a chef have vanished from my repertoire. I don’t have time to hang with my team and have a beer. I actually haven’t had a drink since last spring. Being social was interfering with my productivity as a professional, as a husband and a dad. I’m not chilling in the chef’s office searching the Internet to see what Rene Redzepi is up to now. Instead, I’m back to my hotel du jour for a quick three- or four-mile trot on a treadmill. Sleep. Coffee. Back on I- 20 to Atlanta for an executive board meeting.

When I pull into Atlanta and enter the packed dining room, it’s surreal. I was just here a few hours ago, but not really. Last week, I went to the hostess stand and was fishing around for a menu to see what we were running before I headed into the kitchen. The girl working there seemed very uncomfortable until she finally squeaked out, “Can I help you?”

She didn’t know who I was.

Early on in my career, when I was operating just one small place, I would often say to myself how I wish I could just run one station again. That the joy felt from being a line cook can get lost as your duties expand. And how it’s great to know that there are many rifles, but this one is mine.

Sometimes, as I build this arsenal, I just wish I had my one rifle.

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