As Above, So Below

Good chefs don't just cook, they lead.

Portrait of Tammy Strobel

Good chefs don't just cook, they lead.

“Oui, chef” was the refrain I expected to hear the first time I set foot in a European fine-dining restaurant for a story. I grew up watching and reading about how kitchens – especially those at the highest level – operated like the army.

Most western chefs were French-trained. That meant they rose under the Escoffier Brigade de Cuisine system that had a hierarchy for all the positions in the kitchen. Eastern cuisine – namely Japanese and Chinese – also involved years of backbreaking, repetitive tasks before one's teeth were considered cut. 

There was none of that in that restaurant. No egomaniacal head chef barking orders or smashing plates, and everyone seemed to be working with quiet efficiency. This was a kitchen without fear that seemed to run more like an orchestra than a military facility.

Today, having stuck my nose into the kitchens of many more restaurants, I can safely say that fear is the mind-killer. Restaurants helmed by chefs with a reputation for being unpredictable and difficult never seemed to last long, regardless of whether the food was good or not. On the other hand, the restaurants with chefs who cared about their people not only flourished, but managed to retain their staff for years – virtually a miracle given Singapore's fickle F&B manpower situation. It might not make good television, but a calm, steady kitchen reverbs throughout an entire restaurant – from the front of house to the customers.

Culinary brilliance takes a back seat when it comes down to the service crunch.

Culinary brilliance takes a back seat when it comes down to the service crunch – and especially when pushing out dozens of complex dishes in the span of a few hours. 

Consider something as simple as steak with a demi-glace sauce. If executed from scratch, someone needs to make the stock for the sauce, which means chopping vegetables, roasting veal bones and watching everything simmer for hours on end. Once that’s ready, the steak has to be trimmed, cooked and rested – and the sides readied. Then, everything needs to come together on a plate at the right time. Like any other enterprise, running a well-oiled kitchen requires a team that trusts one another, and a leader to act as a North Star.

Such an experience sticks with you. It's no coincidence that some restaurants produce more successful alumni than others – many, from stagiaires to sous chefs, have gone on to start well-received ventures.

It wasn't until almost two years into my job as a food writer that I finally heard a kitchen team work with the “oui, chef”. Even then, it was always a sharp, confident utterance that showed great respect for a traditional system instead of one formed from being intimidated. 

Having said all that, the fact that restaurants have been changing the way they are being run is old news. While we've come a long way from white toques and rampant pan-flinging, there's a more important point to the story: this is a change that can be mirrored in any industry. Restaurants don't just provide pleasure. Each has a story that can teach and inspire, and that's worth far more than the price of the food.