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Chef Laura: Bobby's unspoken rules of the kitchen

How one boss created a sense of urgency


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When I was a young line cook, I had a brash sous chef named Bobby who expedited breakfast.  “Bobby” sounds like a boy whose hair you might tousle, but an adult “Bobby” in their 40s is usually a bit of a badass with a slight chip on their shoulder. 

Check, and check.

With attitude to spare, Chef Bobby pushed his team to the limits.  All line cooks need to be fast and precise, but breakfast line cooks are the masters.  Just grab a front row seat at Pete’s Kitchen at 1 a.m. and watch those guys in action.  Their choreography rivals the Ohio State University marching band.

Every chef worth their salt has done a stint as a breakfast line cook.  If culinary school is like boot camp, then orchestrating a griddle full of flapjacks, hash browns and eggs is a cook’s first tour of duty.  Newbies have been known to cave under the pressure of poaching perfect eggs, rip off their aprons and go AWOL.  So unless you have a “Bobby” at the helm, the whole system is one broken yolk away from collapsing.

Bobby would scream, “Fire a Benny SOS, fry two, flop two, wreck three – make ‘em cry, heart attack on a rack, and give it wings!” 

If Miss Manners were our sous chef, that same sentence would read: “Ordering please: Eggs Benedict with hollandaise sauce on the side, two fried eggs sunny side up, two fried eggs over easy, three scrambled eggs with sautéed onions, and an order of biscuits and gravy.  And would you mind making that quickly, we’re in a terrible hurry?  Thank you.”

As we feverishly followed his commands, he’d yell words of encouragement like “turn ‘n’ burn, ladies!” (I was the only female cook of the five person staff).  And he’d end every pep talk with “Make it happen!”

When Bobby flared his nostrils in our direction, we could get pretty creative. That sense of urgency he instilled in us not only made us a well-oiled machine, it also made us resourceful. 

Forgot the toast?  Place two slices of bread under the salamander for ten seconds.  Running low on bacon?  Throw a few slices in the fryolater to crisp up quickly for the next order. Although we were making breakfast, not piloting Apollo 13, failure was not an option. 

In addition to a creating a sense of urgency, Bobby had three unspoken rules in his kitchen:

Rule #1: Be honest and accurate

If I couldn’t “make it happen” immediately, promising “it’s coming soon” didn’t cut it.  He wanted precision.  “Give me 60 seconds,” I’d say, and that short stack was in the window in a minute, so help me God. 

Rule #2: No excuses

Bobby didn’t want to hear why the pancakes weren’t ready.  He wanted to hear the solution, not excuses.

Rule #3: A helping hand

“They grow high and they grow fast!” Bobby barked at me one morning. “What does, Chef?” I yelled back, while mixing batter to order because I hadn’t prepped enough before service.  “The weeds!” he’d cackle sliding up next to me, spatula in hand, expertly flipping each hot cake onto a plate like a cartoon character. 

As the captain of our boat, he’d never let us sink.  Sure, he’d give us a hard time about it, but somehow, we always stayed afloat.

I can’t say that Bobby was the sweetest boss I ever had, but his sense of urgency has stuck with me and served me well.  “Make it happen!”  turned the impossible into possible.

If failure isn't an option, what could you make happen?

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Laura Cook Newman

Laura Cook Newman is a professional Chef and Training Manager for a Fortune 500 food manufacturer. She earned her chops at Johnson & Wales University, has an MBA in Marketing and hosts a blog for behind-the-scenes insights on the food service industry. Contact her at www.ThreeHotsAndaCot.net

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