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Posted: August 22, 2013

Chef Laura: Rising to the occasion

Got milk? -- or cream -- in your business?

Laura Cook Newman

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.

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

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Readers Respond

This was such a fun read! I agree that "the cream will always rise to the top," with just a little encouragement. I also like the notion that milk, though it might not be as good as cream, still has value and potential. As an English major and teacher, I LOVE the analogies! On a humorous note, I'd like to add that it's very hard to take a commenter seriously, when they use terms such as "wack." The 90's were over about 13 years ago. They might want to add a little "cream" to their vocabulary By The English Teacher on 2013 08 24
I'm not an employer or employee in the food service industry but my boss is doing a hell of a good job making sour cream out of her highly productive, intelligent, and positive subordinates. That probably explains why my doctor gave me a "sick note" for 3 days off and my assitant boss time off until Labor day! If this was the wild west we'd drive a thundering herd of cows (get it...milk producers?) right through her office door! By Pamsclams on 2013 08 23
From "brilliant" to "wack"; I love how the pendulum swings. Disagree, even if all your employees were "creamy" there are still levels within that: table cream, half & half, light whipping cream, and heavy whipping cream. What a wonderful problem to have I guess. But I must correct you that it's not the "food prep business". It's the "food service industry". We lowly burger-flippers take that pretty seriously, ok? By Chef Laura on 2013 08 23
Your analogy is wack, and skewed to the food prep business. It isn't that you need to have lower performers as your employees to keep costs down, it’s that high performers are few and far between. You’d have to be an idiot to look to find mid-level preforming employees, but you may have to hire them, because that’s all there is. By Disagree on 2013 08 22
I dunno, I've worked lots of places and managed a few folks over the years and I would happily take a workforce full of "Whip Creams". If you have that many, you will be able to afford them. By I'm the Cream on 2013 08 22
I think Im already whipped!! Probably stiff peaks too...however, I believe you are so right, food analogies always get my attention. By Ruben on 2013 08 22
so basically you're calling me fat. I have never thought of this correlation - it's actually quite brilliant! From a non-management standpoint - I've been the sour cream at a job... it's not fun... it's more fun being heavy whipping cream - but sometimes easier just to be milk. By Ta Tee on 2013 08 22
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