I recently saw a Facebook post directed to the chef of a newish popular restaurant. A patron was enthusing about a meal he’d had at the restaurant the night before. I’m paraphrasing, but the exchange went something like this:
“Hey, Chef, we ate at your place last night. It was wonderful. I didn’t manage to catch a glimpse of you, unfortunately. I wanted to say hello. But I’m sure you were busy; the dining room certainly was!”
“I’m glad you enjoyed yourself,” the chef replied. “Actually, I had taken the night off. My sous chef and the whole team were holding things down for me, though.”
It’s astonishing what a well-trained village of motivated kitchen employees can accomplish in the leader’s absence. But they must be trained to precision, and she has to be an excellent leader.
We students were asked in culinary school one day to speculate as to why McDonald’s is one of the most popular and successful conglomerations of eateries worldwide. Certainly, it’s not that its menu is filled with culinary masterpieces. And it can’t be just because it’s affordable; cheap, ready-to-eat food is fairly easy to find in most first- and second-world countries, but that dirty-water hot dog cart you love to patronize isn’t pulling down McDonald’s level money.
The answer is: consistency.
Everyone knows that a Quarter Pounder with Cheese will taste the same whether you’re at the airport in Des Moines on a Tuesday afternoon, or at a Mickey Dee’s in Bangkok at 3 a.m. The components and techniques used to assemble the menu items remain the same all over the globe. Same bun. Same meat patties. Same seasoning. Same exact cooking time. All due to a strict training regimen and an unwavering commitment to product sourcing by management, and an overarching big brother-style rulebook that franchisees are absolutely required to adhere to if they wish to remain in the fold. And, while I’m sure some would argue that McDonald’s food is garbage, its success is difficult to dismiss out of hand.
Restaurant patrons (and, really, customers of almost any business) love consistency. Even if you’ve ordered a different dish on this visit than the last time you dined there, you’ll expect consistency in the level of quality of the food, and — almost as important — the style of service.
So let’s imagine that Chef has a doctor’s appointment, and his rock star omelet cook is manning the range in his absence. Any restaurant cook can have a bad service, or even mis-cook a single dish due to distractions, equipment problems or 1,000 other factors. But if rock star omelet cook somehow overcooks the omelet on one side, here’s where we separate the great crew members from the merely good ones: A well-trained cook will ask a server to apologize to the guest and beg patience while they begin again. A nonchalant, not-so-invested cook will simply turn the omelet over on the plate, brown side down, and hope for the best. Whereas, if Chef was there, there’s not a prayer you’d slide that plate past him to be served. And while the customer might not send that brown-side-down omelet back to the kitchen, she may reconsider next time someone suggests brunch at that particular place. “Last time we went it wasn’t as good as the other times. Let’s try somewhere else.”
So when you find a restaurant, especially an independent one, that constantly hits on all cylinders, keep it in your regular rotation. Know that the chef and management team there have a strong work and training ethic. While most head chefs work upwards of 65 to 80 hours per week, they simply can’t be there every moment of every service. Knowing that their crews will execute their menu according to their exacting standards allows them some occasional, rare time off for themselves and their families, and allows you to know you’ll always have a quality experience there. They deserve your support.
Speaking of support, APRON Inc.’s fifth annual Dine Around is coming up Wednesday, Feb. 8. A portion of the proceeds collected at many independent metro-area restaurants that day will be donated to APRON Inc. to assist in charitable efforts to help restaurant workers who are in temporary financial distress due to illness or other unforeseeable circumstances. For more information, and to keep up with the growing list of participating restaurants, please visit aproninc.org or search for APRON Inc. on Facebook. •
Marsha Lynch has worked at many Louisville independent restaurants including Limestone, Jack Fry’s, Jarfi’s, L&N Wine Bar and Bistro, Café Lou Lou, Marketplace @ Theater Square, Fontleroy’s and Harvest.