Sunday, April 24, 2011

Brigade System

The brigade system is the classic French approach to organize the hierarchy of the kitchen. Often you will hear titles like Executive chef, Chef de Cuisine, Dinner chef, Banquet chef, Pastry chef, Sous chef, etc. My roll in the kitchen is as the Sous chef, sous being the French word for "under".  In a perfect brigade the executive chef is the boss, bar none. As the sous chef I run the kitchen in the absence of the executive chef, but I run the kitchen in his way. We never argue, and I offer advice as needed but always in a closed door situation, then the decisions are up to him and I back him up on them. Always. It is not odd for me to answer questions in a meeting with- I will see what (blank) wants to do. It is all kitchen discipline really. We cannot afford to come at things with a different approach, and I am there to see his vision through. He dreams big, and I focus more on the execution of things. In return for all of this work a sous chef gets one on one time with a chef that is more experienced or older, on a mentoring basis. When I am struggling to break a sturgeon down on the prep table I know I can count on a good chef to help me through it. Even long after that relationship is over good Executive chefs offer support and advice to past sous chefs. Often chef teams leave and arrive at different restaurants together, when that relationship is formed, especially if it works well, all have strengths and weaknesses that the other understands and can capitalize on.

In almost any kitchen the Executive chef is boss, sometimes a corporate chef is involved and there is always someone else to answer to, but as far as fundamental execution of the food he rules.  Young cooks are taught to answer only with the term "yes chef". Really there is no other reason for anything else. There is no maybe, if i get to it, or no. In a really big kitchen operation there may be an Executive chef, a chef de cuisine (usually means that the executive chef sits in an office all day doing administrative stuff) and he is the boss regarding the actual execution of food, he may also have multiple sous chefs, or maybe especially in a hotel a banquet chef to execute banquets, and then a dinner chef (also sometimes called a lead dinner cook). A corporate chef usually oversees the purchasing of and pricing negotiations with different purveyors, and sometimes spends time at the different locations on a daily basis. In the fast food, and chain restaurant settings there is always research and development chefs who do much more number crunching then cooking. I watched something on the Discovery channel once about ice cream and there was a chef for Dryers (about 60 yrs old, wearing a huge gold Rolex) who had the really rough task of taking quarts of ice cream off of the production line and then splitting them in half to check for equal swirling and placement of the flavors, and then testing the ice creams with (not joking) a gold spoon (something about how anything but gold would add off flavors to his work). A gig like that I can only dream of having one day. If you are ever in a situation with a chef one on one it is always good to call them "chef" until you have been instructed not to. It is a term of respect that they have worked hard to earn, and never hurts either in or out of the kitchen.

Hopefully that answers some of the questions that arise when we get technical about the "chef" title, because this last week I was offered the Executive chef job at the restaurant I work at. While I haven't officially accepted it yet, we hopefully will hash out some details tomorrow and then attempt to get it all in motion with various press releases, articles, announcements, etc. My feelings are hard to put into words about all of it, but understand please that this hasn't been easy for me. I have been working in restaurants since I was very young, and especially in the last 7 years have tried to put my head down to work for this title. While you could argue it is not much more than a different name on my jacket, I know that i have literally poured blood, sweat, and tears into this. When I think, or talk of its repercussions I cant help but get emotional. The year I spent at culinary school was the hardest of my life. It took a huge toll on my family and I. The commute, the birth of our second son, the homework, and the horrible financial situation it put us in were at times unbearable. The hours and the work load I assume in the restaurant is enough to break most people. The stress is relentless, the relationships strained, and the environment is at times the most intense you can imagine. While there are other 30 yr old chefs running kitchens in our area (a fact I have been very jealous of) they are all running relatively small operations. This puts me at the helm of a 3.4 million dollar a year enterprise, that feeds 800 ppl some days, there is not a better or even bigger restaurant anywhere around. In the long community history of the restaurant it has never been trusted to chef my age. This will wear with pride and respect on my resume for as long as I continue to cook, and ideally my title will never return to sous chef. It is a huge opportunity, one I have no doubt in my mind have earned. I have not only fulfilled but surpassed any expectation set in front of me for the five years I have been with them, and this pays for all of that work ten fold. I am on cloud nine with the chance to prove my strength, and leadership abilities to the company, and my staff. We will strive to be better, and I am committed to pushing harder then ever before. We wont tell customers "no", we wont bring bad attitudes or complacency in any of its cancerous forms into my kitchen or my dining room. As a vital part of a well qualified group of people that run that restaurant I will push them to be better, and expect them to push me harder then ever before. More than anything I am so ecstatic that my work and efforts haven't gone unnoticed. I cook because I can't see myself doing anything else, and I work hard at it because I have to go home every night knowing I did everything I could. I am fortunate those morals were instilled into me from an early age, and I have a wife, and family who understand that, and respect it. All of them deserve this as much as I do.

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