Chef tips: Managing stress

24 Jul, 2017

Managing stress chef

As professional chefs we work in an inherently stressful environment. Our daily routine is a constant grind to meet deadlines and reach for perfectly prepared and presented cuisine. For the restaurant chef it is the grind of meeting that 15 minute ticket time over and over again for hundreds of customers in a shift. For the banquet chef it’s putting out multiple events for hundreds or thousands of people all scheduled at virtually the same time. And for the catering chef it’s the ability to prepare food off-site for a multitude of people, with the realisation that the off-site equipment will probably not work.

Our stress comes from the drive to meet these deadlines while delivering plates which we are proud of. Every hour of every service we are either praised or criticised by every dining guest…over and over again. Add to this the business stress factors of budgets, food cost, staffing, and all the “joys of being a manager”…it’s a wonder that so many of us thrive under the duress.

As we mature in the industry, we learn the skills/tricks which help to minimise our stress. Here are a few:

After hours stress relief
In our industry we can have good, bad, and downright bloody ugly days. We’ve all experienced a shift after which we simply wanted to go home, crawl under a rock, and @#%$! die. Everyone, especially chefs, need a way to unwind outside of work. And although alcohol may help us unwind, it is not a legitimate pastime! Scheduling time to relax is just as important as scheduling time to do your inventory. It is a necessity for your continued success.

Anything you enjoy doing which takes your mind off work is a worthwhile stress relief. It could be an outdoor activity, watching movies, karaoke, video games, enjoying good conversation, reading, working in the yard, chess, working out, or anything else which you enjoy doing.

Mise en Place is everything
Proper mise en place is the foundation of success in the kitchen. The better your mise en place is organised the better your day will be. Poorly organized mise en place on the other hand can turn a hard day into a living hell. Training our crews to be properly prepped increases their speed during service, decreases their stress, and results in consistently more successful service periods. And mise en place is more than just the food prep. It also includes all your utensils, plates, towels, pans, platters, your mental frame of mind, and having a “plan B” for the things which can go wrong. Mise en place is everything which is needed to have a successful service.

Seconds save minutes
This is related to mise en place, yet different in that it helps define some things which should be part of your mise en place. If you can shave five seconds off the service time of every dish on your menu your speed of service increases while the stress level on the Line decreases. Saving five seconds on 300 covers eliminates 25 minutes of time during service! That’s 25 minutes less work that your crew needs to do in order to produce the same number of covers. Seconds save minutes

For instance, a burger restaurant can do this by simply pre-making all their burger sets. By pre-assembling the lettuce, onion, tomato, and pickle into one unit the Line saves a few seconds on every single order during service because they only have to touch the plate once instead of 4 times. Less touches equals more time saved.

Hope for the best, plan for the worst
Many of my best laid plans have been dismantled by Murphy’s Law. It’s never enough to make a plan solely based upon what you need to accomplish. Your typical plan of action covers what needs to be done on a normal day…here’s my menu, here’s my prep list, and this is who’s responsible for each station. Your next step should always be to evaluate how that bastard Murphy could show his face and screw everything up. Always have a “plan B” to cover the things which could go wrong. Plan B provides a solution for things such as when ovens go down, guests arrive late/early, being short staffed, and the hundred other things which could go wrong. This is especially necessary for banquets/catering and off-site events. Hope for the best, plan for the worst.

Manage them up or out
The single most important ingredient for managing your stress is to have a well-trained, reliable crew. Knowing that your crew have both the ability and professionalism to reproduce your menu according to the recipe, standards, and presentation which you have established goes a long ways to reducing a chef’s stress.

If your staff does not prepare food according to your standards, you need to first train and educate them how to do it correctly. But then, if they are either unwilling or unable to perform, it’s time to swing the ax. They need to “step-up”…or get out. Get rid of the non-performers because they are like a cancer in your crew, causing strife, apathy, and resentment among the rest of your staff. The same principle applies to those good cooks who are constantly calling in. No matter how good their skills are, they are of no use to you if they don’t show up for work…get rid of them. The rest of your staff will love you for it.

Only work for management whom you respect
All of us have worked for that imbecile manager or corporation who sets un-achievable budgets or goals and then tears you up for not being able to achieve it. Endure them only as long as you have to because their arrogance and stupidity will not change.

There are other types of poor upper-level management as well. The bottom line is, if you are unhappy in your current position because of those in authority over you then it’s time to move on. Put in your year (for CV history purposes), do your job to the best of your ability, don’t burn bridges, and get out.

Deal with problems… in a constructive way
Do not ignore problems… they rarely go away and usually only get bigger. Every chef has their own challenges based upon their own unique personality and operation. If you see a problem, deal with it immediately. Decide what needs to be done, when you will do it, and what type of follow-up is required.

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