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Culinary Student Advice from Chef David Gilbert - Developing a Winning Chef Team

We chefs are a unique species of human beings, if not gluttons for pain. Who else has the passion to spend hours upon hours in a confined hot, intense kitchen, a leader driving perfection into their heads all day?

Culinary Arts

There's a reason the saying goes, "If you can't take the heat, get out of the kitchen." It's a tough job, both physically and creatively demanding. So what makes it all worthwhile? Knowing that you're a master of your craft, and that your customers were moved by the experience you provided. Success--however you define it--drives you, but it's never been a one-man (or one-woman) show. While it's one thing to refine your own technique and push yourself over the top, you simply cannot reach true excellence alone. Everyone enjoys being part of a winning team in the kitchen. Here's my formula for creating one.

Rule 1: Every Cook Has a Say

If you want to succeed as a team, it's important to maintain open lines of communication, and that means every cook in my line is free to make suggestions and share their ideas. I do not run the typical chef dictated kitchen we're all bound to endure at some point in our careers. I only hire those I feel are going to be industry leaders. They are self-motivated, driven by passion, and they all support the vision of my cuisine. When they contribute their ideas, I know that there's an unbelievable chance that they are going to make me-make us-better at our jobs.

I am a firm believer that no idea is a bad idea. When you break into the culinary world from culinary school, remember to not allow your great ideas to simmer too long. Likewise, if you lead your own team some day, remember that (despite the executive in front of your title) you may not have all the answers. Listen to your team.

Rule 2: Set Goals in the Kitchen

I am a firm believer in surrounding yourself with great people. When every member of your team is ready to excel, learn and grow, you are all destined for greatness. As long as your team is constantly evolving and reaching new highs, you succeed as the leader. You must, however, take the time to constantly define and redefine your vision, setting realistic goals for all your chefs.

At LuQa, we spend a tremendous amount of time investing in our employees' development, from leadership positions to internships. Periodically, every cook has an opportunity to share their personal and professional goals, and it is our job to make sure both are achieved. We set short- and long-term goals and are always striving together to achieve them. It's an important lesson for a new chef. Whether you're a green newbie or a seasoned leader, remember to always evaluate and reevaluate your culinary goals-always set the bar higher. Share your goals with your team, ensuring you're all on the same page. Support one another.

Rule 3: Respect Your Fellow Culinarian

It's true that a great chef team works almost as a single machine, sharing common goals, passions and successes. Never forget, however, that we all have different backgrounds, beliefs, upbringings. Understanding where people come from and what is important to them on a personal level is invaluable. You're all, after all, sweating it out in the hot kitchen hour upon hour, day after day. The camaraderie you develop is like none other. It is critical that you always treat those you work with-from sous chefs to executive chefs-with great respect. Help them become the chefs they want to be-it can give you many miles of great performance at work.

Rule 4: Never Lose Your Passion

This is a little insight into the Luqa kitchen and the leadership philosophy behind it. We all know that being a chef takes a tremendous amount of work and dedication. While it's easy to become buried in your own expectations, never forget to have fun. Otherwise it isn't about your passion anymore-it's all just work. My team loves coming to work because they know they are a part of something more than just a creative kitchen. They are part of a team. Working with a great crew not only makes you better at what you do, but inspires you to continue doing it, even when you have those days when everything goes wrong.

A Final Word about Building Great Culinary Teams

Culinary school can teach you how to be a better chef, but only experience can teach you how to be the kind of person fellow chefs respect. If you're a culinary student or new chef, I sincerely hope you step away form this column having learned a thing or two about how to be not just a great leader, but a fantastic chef to work with. Learning how to communicate effectively with your culinary peers, constantly setting and reevaluating your goal-personally and as a team-and, above all, respecting those sweating it out on the line alongside you will not only make you a better chef, but a better rounded individual. It will certainly make you the sort of chef we at Luqa love to hire.

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            Lackawanna College is the premier, private, accredited two-year college serving the people of northeastern Pennsylvania. With a focus on keeping higher education affordable and accessible to our immediate community, Lackawanna draws 80 percent of its student population right from our own region.

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