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Chef Laura: Rising to the occasion


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When I was a little girl, I loved to hear my grandmother’s stories about the “olden days”.  My favorite was the milkman story (no, not that story).

She’d explain that as soon as he delivered the glass bottles of milk to her doorstep, she’d carefully pour off some of the top layer of cream and set it aside.  The rest of the cream was gently shaken into the below nonfat milk to produce something of today’s 2 percent.

At eight years old, knowing little about molecular chemistry, I was naturally intrigued.  My local Stop & Shop had homogenized milk in plastic jugs.  We shook our Tropicana, Polaroid pictures and sometimes our groove thang, but never our milk.

“The cream rises to the top” is part cliché, part science.  Fat is less dense than the skim milk, so voila! – it floats.  As Grandma Betty explained, the cream was the “good stuff” reserved for her coffee and whipped topping on strawberry shortcake.

Employees are a lot like that old-timey milk. 

Companies would be wise to learn from my Grandma.  Get what you need out of your work force and don’t agitate the mix too much.  With a lighter management hand, your employees will naturally separate themselves into various performance layers. 

  • Heavy Whipping Cream (36 percent milk fat) - Exceptional employees.  They consistently go the extra mile and make significant contributions.

The remainder is the milk; this category is too broad, so let’s break it down:

  • Whole Milk (3.25 percent milk fat) – Above average employees.  Reliable, trust-worthy.
  • 2 percent Milk – Average.  Doing what is asked of them.
  • 1 percent Milk – Mediocre.  Predictably unpredictable. 
  • Nonfat Milk - Below average. Barely skimming by.

It would seem ideal to have all “cream” employees, right?  In cooking, it’s a chef’s magic “go-to” ingredient.  A splash of cream adds depth and glossiness to sauces and soups.   Substitute cold cream for water in pie dough and you’ll get unbelievably tender crusts.  Fold a spoonful of cream into cooked scrambled eggs for a velvety texture that prevents “The Dr. Seuss Effect” (eggs held on a steam table sans cream turn green).

But if a chef relies too heavily on cream, problems rise to the top: food cost is out of control and recipes are overly decadent - prompting guests to “BYOD” (Bring Your Own Defibrillator).

The same goes for hiring all cream employees.  They’d cost too much and have the potential to turn into sour cream if not handsomely compensated or relentlessly told how “peachy” they are.

Maybe – just maybe - you can get by with some “milk”.  Hire and hone a healthy employee mix (1 percent and nonfatters need not apply) that gets the job done and keeps labor cost in check. 

And managers, no need to rack your brain during performance reviews trying to asses and rank your employees. Put down the whisk, step back and allow the coveted cream to rise to the top. It always will.

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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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