Several months back, one of the chefs (and I use the term very loosely) featured in Series 13 of Gordon Ramsay’s Hell’s Kitchen worked with me in New York City for a very short period.  Self-styled as an “executive chef”, the term is a misnomer for something completely opposite – a fool in a chef’s jacket.

This young chef, who spent a fortune studying culinary art, proved beyond any doubt to be untrained, lacking skill, talent and an understanding of the culinary profession.   I say that with great despair, for I have incredible respect for chefs and cooks alike, and the world of cooking is my passion.

Let me say, for the record – and this is for aspiring chefs and current chefs and cooks around the country – being on television is not a path to success, but potentially a path to career collapse.  Candidates for some shows aren’t selected for talent, but for their ability to screw up, and if you do, it’s on well-publicized television.  Your mess-up on that show, whichever it may be, will be the buzz of the food world, and the topic of conversation among foodies for quite some time.  Think twice, and twice more before you dare consider an offer to appear on a competition television show.

Now about this young chef… my nerves were in panic mode when the existing employer offered this chef to my client.  Something was wrong that any restaurateur, particularly one with four properties in a major city would offer one of his chefs.  What was wrong with this chef? Something has to be amiss.  My client, blinded by attractiveness, believed this chef to be capable of bringing hundreds of new clients to the new restaurant ignored my warnings.  Ultimately, none were brought, and we lost several, ultimately all.

To make sure I identified the issues, I interviewed this chef for days, and discovered several things I did not like – chain smoking, a strong penchant for straight gin, gambling, and a habit of saying “yes” and doing what pleased this person – an an immeasurable vanity.  Any one of those weaknesses is enough to destroy a promising career.  All of them combined amount to a disaster waiting to happen.

The owner, inexperienced and naive, did not understand the concept of a soft opening or a ‘friends and family’ night.  She plowed forth promoting the premiere of this chef as if nothing else mattered.  The chef was untested in the client’s kitchen, and had failed to find a promised support staff (one of those ‘yeses’ that didn’t materialize).

The customers in the dining room waited an average of 68 minutes for their appetizers, and as long as 3 and 1/2 hours.  Nothing was prepared in advance, even though the chef had two helpers the night before.  Food that should have been prepped that day or the night before had to be prepped ‘a la minute’, which was a major mistake.  It delayed service inexcusably.

Meanwhile, as this young chef tried to cook everything in sight personally, four large glasses of gin (2/3 of a 1 1/2 liter bottle) were consumed, countered by multiple shots of espresso to keep alert.   What I had on my hands was a drunk, but wired cook, and a crowd of unhappy customers.

Of course, the chef blamed me.  Why would anyone accept the blame for their own failures?  I do take the blame for not being forceful enough to say no about this character.  The next day, he ran crying to the owner, begging for money, and blaming me for everything wrong from the wreck of the Titanic to the wrecked dinner the previous night.

As time went on, this chef, who only cooked one night a week, continued, even with a full staff (which I found for him immediately), to serve food with an average 65 minute wait time from order to first course.   Food went out cold, inconsistent, badly prepared, undercooked, overcooked and in every possible state except delicious.

Inventory was always short, solely because the chef could not understand the concept I tried to teach, of ordering to meet your needs.  As a result, every meal prepared over a seven week period was a disaster in one way or another.  Customer numbers were dwindling at what was essentially a new establishment.  Not a good thing.

As time went on, some other disturbing patterns emerged.  Two hours before service, the chef disappeared for 90 minutes and came back with alcohol on the breath.  Probably the result of my rule there was to be no drinking in the kitchen except for water, during service.  Stupid me.  All I did was drive the consumption of alcohol to be a secret. When you’ve got an alcoholic as a chef, you’re in trouble as a restaurateur.   Telling the owner elicited this response “Oh come on.  You know every chef drinks.”

My answer is “Not on duty!”  Not a professional.  Not one with dedication to their career or profession, or their food.

A few weeks of horrible dinners later, and even the owner is starting to realize the chef is a problem.  Still, she plodded on with the chef, rather than letting me find a replacement.  Every meal served was a catastrophe.  Then I discovered the problem.

The chef had been on a soon to be televised culinary show.  I didn’t know which at this point, but discovered the chef’s ego had been so vastly inflated, that if stuck with a pin, the explosion would have made Hiroshima look like a firecracker.  I explained to the chef that an ego cannot get in the way of success.  I was told that the quality of food produced by this chef was a matter of “signature”, and of “brand”, terms used repeatedly, largely without understanding.

Calmly, I explained that either signature or brand mean nothing if customers sit waiting in the dining room for over an hour for their first course.  I pointed out that even if the finest chefs in the world cook the greatest culinary creations, if the customer has to wait that look, the brand, and signature cuisine will be worthless as customers will be dissatisfied. Naturally, the chef said “yes, understood” and continued for another week doing as pleased, with one more messed up dinner.

At this point, I was done with this project.  My client refused to listen and proved so inadequate to the job of restaurateur that it was time to go.   The day after I left, the chef cooked a dinner, keeping customers waiting over two hours for their food.  Instead of improving, there was a deprecation of attention.  Prior to the start of service, chef went out and came back almost 2 hours later, only 15 minutes before the first guests arrived, drunk.  During service, chef (I was told by servers, later on) went outside to smoke every 15 minutes, coming back without washing hands, and touching the food.

When the owner’s table waited 3 hours and 45 minutes for their food, they discovered chef had run out of almost everything they ordered.  It wasn’t that there was a big crowd, but extremely poor planning and no inventory management.  You know, a restaurant consultant can give a chef the tools, the guidance, instruction, and so much more, but if that chef refuses to learn and thinks that they’re hot stuff, both the chef and the restaurant consultant have failed.  This was one of my failures. Though I admit that freely, I must balance it with the fact that some chefs shouldn’t be allowed near a kitchen.

That night, in a fit of anger, this ‘celebrity’ chef discovered the screw up and the anger of the owner.  The menu had only spicy dishes, which isn’t fit for an audience of seniors. So everyone was upset, and disliked their dinner, when it finally arrived.  Vanity, and self-aggrandizement has no place in a restaurant.  Such things should be checked at the door. In a fit of rage, pots flying, kitchen wares were destroyed and the owner’s investment harmed in an emotional outburst.   The owner made the foolish decision to fire everyone and close the restaurant, planning to reopen at some future date.

What really stresses me is the fact that people lost jobs.  College students working as servers lost the entire summer’s work opportunity, one woman quit a job to come work at this place just before the owner closed.  Other cooks lost their jobs, too.  In all, at least a dozen people were fired because of this chef’s vanity and lack of common sense, not to mention the owner’s bad decisions.

Personally, I doubt the reopening will ever happen, but if it does, I hope they’ll start off with the premise that a chef is not selected on the basis of physical looks, but of talent and ability to manage and lead a kitchen.  I hope too, they’ll make sure the chef they hire is organized, drug and alcohol free, and smart enough to conduct an inventory. Anything less is a path to disaster.

Several months forward, and I discover this chef on Season 13 of Hell’s Kitchen and in the first episode, Gordon Ramsay throws out the team this chef is on, because it took them 53 minutes to deliver their first appetizer from the time ordered.  Vindicated, at last!

The chef’s signature dish – Ramsay spit it out on the first bite. So much for signature flavors and branding.  I won’t divulge the outcome of the show, but obviously if this chef was working for my client after the show was filmed, the position of chef for Ramsay wasn’t won.  In fact, last I heard, this young chef was working in construction, which seems a much safer field of endeavor.

There’s a lot of blame to go around in this instance, and I dare say, much of it goes to today’s culinary schools.  They teach flavors, and cooking techniques, but rarely bother to teach the fundamentals of inventory control, menu engineering, planning, purchasing, waste management, and basic things chefs should know.   I’ve held for years that the preparation of food in a commercial kitchen is no different than the manufacture of automobiles or jets.  Management and staff should know the cost of every ingredient, just as Boeing knows the cost of every nut and bolt.

Culinary students, even at the finest schools, are promised rewarding careers as chefs, when many can barely succeed as line cooks. It’s unfair to the students, but equally unfair to the restaurant industry which relies on this constant supply of talent. Unfortunately some lack talent, but make it through the schools anyway.  This was one of those cases.

If you agree or disagree, I’d love to know.  Use our Contact form to write me your thoughts.

 

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