rawtalks

A chef has to be able to create and effectively maintain open channels of communication with producers, suppliers, & farmers;  the kitchen team and between kitchen and front of house; and, of course, the restaurant (its philosophy/objective) and its patrons.

If these channels are closed it is almost certain that, in due time, the restaurant will be too.

Bad communication between chefs and producers will weaken the supply link of quality ingredients coming into the restaurant.  A chef can’t create integrity and so all of the potential virtue is lost if the building blocks of said creation are compromised.  

If the lines of communication are down between restaurant staff (kitchen to kitchen and/or kitchen to front of house) it invariably leads to increased staff turnover.  This doesn’t help anybody.  Those that leave are unhappy and consequently out of work and those that remain are left scrambling to fill the gap.  Either way the work environment suffers both residual and newfound stress and, pretty much, everybody loses.

Restaurant patrons are the enablers of the industry.  If the food and service suffers the consequences of bad communication the transparency of the situation will invariably jeopardize the atmosphere of the restaurant and the spoil the dining experience for the guest.  More importantly, it is imperative that the restaurant is able to communicate both the mission and philosophy of the establishment to its diners.  If the objectives aren’t clear in the first place, then the restaurant runs the risk of it all becoming a colossal waste of time, supplies, ideas, and, most of all, money.

Communication is everything.  It is a notion that can be applied to almost any medium that involves people working together to execute various tasks.  Within the confines of a restaurant there must be open channels of communication to facilitate a seamless operation.  

So, how do you know if you’re a good communicator?  Last #rawtalks we asked participating chefs to share what they think are the key attributes to being a good communicator.  Certainly, part of being a good communicator means being able to establish open lines of communication in the first place, and this is often best demonstrated by individuals who can both give and receive criticism.  An empathetic chef can easily acknowledge another point of view and it is this open-mindedness that can help to create a ‘communicative comfort-zone’ as opposed to an ‘intimidation station’ between employer and employee.  Accountability and humility are attributes in a person that can make them more approachable to staff, and approachability in an employer ensures that lines of communication are kept open.  

Probably the most important attribute to being a good communicator is being a good listener.  Communication is a two-way street and it is not possible to communicate effectively if you can’t hear what people are trying to say.

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[Clockwise from top left: Brandon Baltzley, Sasu Laukkonen, David Santos, Connie DeSousa & John Jackson]

In the first of what hopes to become a weekly event, Cook it Raw launched its inaugural #rawtalks last Monday. By initiating a live conversation on Twitter, the aim is to address topics related to the industry in conjunction with the principles of the Cook it Raw vision.  This week the forum focused on the subject of cooks, collaboration, and building a strong international community.  We invited a select group of Cook it Raw Community members to engage with other industry professionals in an online discussion – to collaborate on the topic of collaboration, if you will.

Active participants from the Cook it Raw Community included Brandon Baltzley (@BrandonBaltzley), Sasu Laukkonen (@sasulaukkonen), David Santos (@umsegredony), Nicholas Wilkins (@chefnwilkins) and Connie DeSousa & John Jackson (@charcut).

The conversation kicked-off with the question: What does community mean to you as a chef?  Responses were energized and overall unanimously in support of the idea that a strong community is built on the idea of like-minded chefs working in collaboration with other chefs, producers, and farmers.  Furthermore, this collaboration will promote creativity and help expand the current culinary boundaries and effectively perpetuate the industry in a forward sense.

The conversation also showed enthusiasm for the opportunity to learn about foreign ingredients and new techniques as a result of a global network of communication.   The momentum continued with interesting points citing collaborative efforts in relation to bringing attention to the community as a whole and not just that of an individual.  One comment took to the other side of the fence and presented an argument on the risks of a creative saturation point resulting from too much collaborating.  An interesting angle, it brought the fury of posts to a brief halt.  After two minutes of ‘rawsilence’ – the longest pause in the hour-long event – it was countered on the grounds that there is a lot of room for interpretation between shared ideas and the finished product of a plated dish.

It would appear from the overwhelming response to our first online conversation that we are all on board with the opening statement that christened #rawtalks: Collaboration is the secret ingredient that will spice up our community.  Let’s keep talking!

I once worked with a chef who used to say “why would I plan something today when I’m going to wake up tomorrow with a different idea?”  It’s a notion that might not work for everyone but I think most of us would agree that over-planning can sometimes kill creativity.  

Last week on #rawtalks, we asked participating chefs to share their thoughts on planning and creation. The one keyword that kept popping up was ‘flexibility.’  Certainly, planning is important, even necessary, for success but flexibility means being able to embrace change.  Ingredients change, ideas change, people change, and our creative edge is often at it’s best when we find ourselves in that ‘grey area’ that was never part of the original plan.  Try and operate without any plan whatsoever and you will experience that grey area giving way to something that can either run itself completely off the rails, or, in some cases, transpire into total brilliance.  Either way, it’s risky.  And while some of our finest creations may be spawned in moments of sheer panic and total chaos, it shouldn’t always have to be that way.  A lot can be said for a paradigm shift in favour of guidelines and having the kind of plan that can recalibrate ‘on the fly.’  A built-in contingency, if you will.  Always have a contingency.

The title of ‘chef’ today is more and more frequently becoming synonymous with the ‘owner-operator’ distinction.  As if running the day-to-day operations of a kitchen production isn’t enough, today’s chefs are taking on the whole package.  This week on #rawtalks we asked our community of industry professionals, why?

 

It seems that most chefs have worked their way up the tumultuous ranks of the kitchen stations.  It’s only natural to want to work towards the top spot and beyond.  Once a chef feels like it’s the right time in their career to branch out on their own, it all comes down to finding the right location.  

Certainly, some market analysis is required to determine feasibility.  In a booming metropolis like NYC the market is decidedly saturated and a chef needs to find a niche in order to succeed.  David Santos (@umsegredony) took to the West Village and created something he felt NYC was missing – quality driven food in a relaxed and affordable environment.  Todd Perrin (@toddperrin) is in St. John’s, Newfoundland where the market there is ripe and ready to further the current economic growth.  And then there are those that take to the hills and push the envelope on market trends.  Brandon Baltzley (@BrandonBaltzley) literally ‘bought the farm’ forty miles outside of Chicago to create something that will push patrons to make that special journey.

Commodity prices, consumer patterns, and economic trends will invariably affect the bottom line of any business.  And as long as there are people who need to eat and an economy that can enable people to afford to eat, an increasing number of new restaurants will only push the success of the industry.

The leaders in today’s culinary industry have created a global arena that extols seasonality and the benefits of quality ingredients.

 

As the intimacy of the relations between chef and farmer grow, an increased respect for food is borne.  More awareness of the time and energy that it takes to grow, maintain, and harvest food makes a chef a better custodian of fresh produce.  There is less tolerance for food waste, and it helps to propel innovative techniques and a more resourceful approach to food preparation.

 

Shortening the travel-gap of produce from field to table undeniably presents an increased freshness factor.  It’s only natural that the integrity of the whole food will directly translate its superior quality into a plated dish.

In addition to working more closely with seasonal availability, today’s chefs are increasingly working together with artisan growers before the seeds are even sown. These off-season collaborations result in customized harvests and perpetuate an inspired and passionate approach to menu composition.  

 

Symbiosis, mutualism, any way you look at it, it is two communities uniting on common and fertile ground for the benefit of all. It serves to sustain the planet, ignite the passion and creativity of our chefs, support the growers both financially and emotionally, and deliver renowned tastiness and unrivaled deliciousness to the masses.

Every aspect of a restaurant is an extension of its owner.  It’s in the details.  From the garnishes that are gently tweezed onto a plated dish, to the art that hangs proudly on the bathroom wall, these choices are a reflection of an overriding philosophy. This week we asked our #rawtalks participants to talk about their restaurant philosophy and list the top three things that are needed to succeed.

There appears to be a departure from the starched white linen and waiters who stand ‘at ease’ in the shadows.  The industry is seeing a shift in favour of flavour that secedes from the stuffiness of haute cuisine and serves quality driven fare in a ‘back to basics’ (@CHARCUT) style in celebration of ‘freedom of expression’ (@MarcLepine).  Abandon the smoke and mirrors and give patrons a backstage pass to witness the rigors of service.  A casual atmosphere and an open kitchen facilitate the transparency between civilian and soldier and today’s dining experience effectively delivers the dinner and the show.

Most importantly, “when you commit to a philosophy, stick with it at all costs.  As soon as you start to change, it makes the public nervous.” – Matthew Orlando (@Lando4361).

If you’re reading this, then it’s likely that you seek interconnectivity through social media channels.  Given that this forum is presented on one of those channels, it’s not surprising that last weeks #rawtalks on communication happened to touch on the subject.

It’s at our fingertips - the ability to communicate with anyone, anywhere in the world on a device that fits in our pocket.  Who knew that an innocent little ‘hashtag’ would catch on the way it has.  It is an enormous tool that chefs and industry professionals can use for endless possibilities in sharing and learning.  Still, there are plenty of chefs who don’t engage, but it is impossible to ignore the fact that there are beneficial results experienced by those that do.  Exposure, for one, is probably the most obvious benefit, but nothing comes without some kind of risk.  By putting yourself ‘out there’ you are giving people an option to comment on everything from today’s special to the idiosyncrasies of your personality.  Maybe trying to propel a career solely from a social media platform is asking too much.  Certainly, it’s a fine forum for camaraderie – to share ideas and experiences both good and bad, and in turn learn from them.  At the same time, social networking is only a medium; communication is perfunctory at best, and it is no substitute for face-to-face interaction.

In preparation for the grand finale of this year’s Cook it Raw Charleston event, last week’s #rawtalks panel set out to highlight what it is that defines Lowcountry Barbecue.  

Certainly, all of us ‘outsiders’ can have an opinion on the defining traits of the traditions of the South, but it takes a seasoned southerner to give us the official lay of the land.

Bradley Taylor is a software engineer turned stockman who lives in Sylvania, Georgia and he popped up on the thread to deliver a brief and comprehensive outline of the regional variations within the broad definition of Lowcountry BBQ.  

First, it is important to consider what it is that defines barbecue in the first place and how it is distinguished from grilling.   While every barbecue is, indeed, equipped with a grill, the two cooking methods couldn’t be more different.  Grilling is a cooking method defined by quick cooking and hot heat, whereas barbecue embraces all things slow and low.  

According to the folks in the Carolinas, the distinction between the North and South of the region is defined in the base sauce used for the meat.  Bradley Taylor, our local go-to on the subject clearly defined the parameters, stating that North Carolina barbecue uses vinegar sauce over the whole hog and South Carolina barbecue uses mustard sauce with hash as a side.  He was also quite poignant when he summed it up by saying “slow and low is not just the way of cooking, but also the southern way of life.”

Bradley Taylor raises dozens of heritage breed animals and he will be joining the Cook it Raw Team for a short spell in Charleston to talk with our chefs about the origins and living history of these animals as key contributors to Lowcountry cooking.

Tradition is one of the key components that represent the guiding principles of the Cook it Raw vision.  Last week on #rawtalks we asked NYC chef David Santos (@umsegredony) and chef, activist and videographer, Daniel Klein (@perennialplate) to discuss which culinary traditions most influenced them.

While initial responses from our two guests were quick to cite personal family heritage as their main influences, other participants emphasized the importance of simply ‘knowing’ traditions before being able to use them as a foundation for new and innovative approaches to cooking. Therein lies the fine line between the interpretation of a cultural style and the misappropriation of a cultural identity.   A restorative approach to an authentic culinary tradition is not the same thing as an innovative approach to one.  That said, an awareness of culinary traditions allows an informed chef to choose whether or not to use said tradition as a platform, thereby disabling the possibility of any inadvertent misappropriation.  In other words, knowledge is responsibility.  Calgary chefs (@CHARCUT) chimed in with the effective ‘pigeon hole or platform’ metaphor in support of questioning too strict of an adherence to a cultural style at the risk of becoming complacent.

One response took directly to the fine line between interpretation and misappropriation and summed it up in a wonderfully concise way to say that it is “a balance between creativity and evolution – operating on a platform of known culinary traditions”.  Please take credit for this, whoever you are, and apologies for not being able to give credit where credit is due.

The interesting thing about creativity is that, in theory, it presents as something that is bound by nothing, but in practice, there are limitations.  Economics plays a major role, because creativity alone cannot feed an empty restaurant.  It’s a fragile relationship between these two notions and the ultimate success of a restaurant hangs in the balance.

When asked how to manage this balance between creativity and business, #rawtalks contributors agreed that business is the ‘equalizer’.  It acts to curb the creative process to suit the financial realities of keeping a restaurant from going under.  Another response cited “vertical expansion and bourbon” (@willgoldfarb) as a means for maintaining this delicate balance.  While creative marketing is certainly a solution-oriented approach, self-medicating may or may not pose its own risks.

The controls on creativity were examined further when participants were asked, ‘what’s more important on the menu – creativity or deliciousness?’.  It was not surprising to find a unanimous front on behalf of deliciousness.  At the end of the day, it’s about feeding people.  

If creativity reigns and ultimately compromises the taste of a dish then ‘ego’ becomes the special of the day.  Ego is decidedly NOT tasty.  The contributions from Helsinki (@sasulaukkonen) seemed to sum it up quite nicely, “creativity should be an asset to put on top – not the base of what we do”.  

“It’s an essential part of what we do, as chefs” - James Lowe (@lowejames)

Creativity is defined as the ability to eclipse conventional rules, patterns and ideas using insight.  This week’s #rawtalks took creativity to the public forum and asked participating chefs what it means to them, and what is that ignites the creative process.

Creativity is what defines the individuality and style of a chef.  To create new ideas that embrace the delicate balance between tradition and innovation.  It was noted that the benefits of the creative process multiply in the collaborative efforts of a given team or community of chefs.

Passion ignites the inspiration, and inspiration propels the creative process.  There is no doubting the passion of today’s culinary innovators, but what perpetuates the inspiration after it has been ignited?  It seemed clear that the rigors of service, the pressure, the surprises and mistakes that happen along the way are all key contributors to the process.  But it’s also important to point out how ‘outside influences’ also play a major role.  Music, art, travel and other tangents of our lives can transcend into the culinary medium and inspire change.

It’s as if every chef should come with a warning sign that says, ‘contents under pressure’, where creativity is the inevitable release.  

Creativity is the figurative ‘refresher’ button, if you will.  If it’s not fueled, then chefs run the risk of fear and frustration taking over as the driving forces, propelling a chef into the darkness.

While last week’s #rawtalks focused on planning and creation, the conversation took a quick tangent in deciphering what it is that differentiates planning from preparation.  It’s easy to see how the two words, in some contexts, could be interchangeable, but when we look closer it becomes evident that ‘having a plan’ and ‘being prepared’ are two totally different things.  Planning is more of a projection whereas preparation is a direct measure of readiness.  

It can be said that ‘by failing to prepare you are preparing to fail,’ and it’s true.  Without a doubt, cooks live and die by the list.  General to-do lists, ordering lists, prep lists – you might say that clipboards, scrap paper, and sharpies are high on the ‘essential tools’ list in any organized kitchen.  And while these lists facilitate a smooth day-to-day operation it can also be argued that this is more about preparation than it is about planning.  Or rather, that the plan is to simply be prepared and then when the curve-balls present themselves in the throes of service a cook has to switch into intuitive response mode and therein lies the channel of creativity.

Now that that’s settled, we are ‘prepared’ to talk about ‘planning’ and how it coincides with our creativity.

With only one hour, one topic and lots of voices speaking in 140 character increments, a philosophical turn in an already charged conversation has the potential to melt brains.  That said, discussions in last week’s #rawtalks on culinary traditions got a bit ‘tangly’ when, in the context of evolution, the lines between tradition and trend became a little blurred.

A tradition is a long-established custom that is passed on through generations.  Tradition helps the evolution of a cuisine but tradition itself does not evolve.  Indeed, tradition is the antithesis of evolution – thank you @brandonbaltzley.  A trend is a general direction in which something is developing or changing.  When asked what culinary traditions our chefs would consider getting rid of, one response mentioned the ‘stacked food of the ‘80’s’.  Fortunately, this was only a trend, and yes, good riddance.  

But is there an argument for ‘old’ and ‘new’ traditions?  How does a ‘new’ tradition work itself into the definition being a ‘long-established custom’?  In a departure from all things culinary, @RutgerSchipper threw down on this with weighted words stating that, “tradition is an ongoing laggard phase in a trend curve”.  Now, if this isn’t already a title for someone’s thesis, it bloody well should be.  

“Imitation, assimilation, innovation”.  Catchy and concise, this is coming from @chris_selk in a brief but comprehensive moment on how a chef can work with tradition, have it merge with existing trends, and then evolve as a result.