Restaurants do more than serve food. In fact, serving food is simply the final product of a complex management process. And students of bureaucracy can learn a great many lessons from a successful executive chef.
Such a chef is Spencer O’Meara, who has run San Francisco’s Paragon Restaurant snce July, 2000.
Those who work in restaurant kitchens need a thick skin to cope with those moments when they will inevitably make mistakes–and will be brutally called to account for them.
“It’s the whole chef mentality,” explains O’Meara. “One minute you’re joking and talking a lot of crap, slapping each other on the ass, and then the next minute it’s like, ‘Here comes the buzz saw, what just happened here?’ All of a sudden something happens and it’s like ‘Bang!’ you want from the top of the mountain to under the mountain.”
Nor does the gender of the chef make any difference: “My girlfriend’s a chef. I might be a little more abrupt than her, but if you push her buttons good enough she’ll turn on you. I believe that, either male or female, we’re all in the same boat: Get the product out, make the customers happy, and let’s get through the day. You’re only as good as your last plate.
“Everybody I know—we’re all pretty similar,” says O’Meara. “You’re demanding, because you have to be. You hold huge accountability on everybody. You’re stern because you can’t let anybody get sideways on you. You’re forceful, too—if you don’t want to do what I want you to do I’m going to force you into it or I’m going to get you out of here.”
For Spencer O’Meara–and every other executive chef–there is one factor that overrides all others: Keeping costs in line.
And for this he holds himself alone accountable: “If costs aren’t in line, then the only person who needs to go is me, ‘cause that’s my responsibility.
“My line cooks do not design dishes. They don’t put a steak dish on the menu that is making no money. I put the steak dish on the menu. And if it’s not making any money, then I’m the dumb-ass who put it there. So I need to go.
“If you burn it, then I have to throw it away. So if you’re repeatedly torching stuff up…. But if you’re doing the dishes the way I showed you to do ‘em, and you’re keeping your station clean the way I want you to, there’s no reason for you to go, you’re a quality employee.”
O’Meara believes the makeup of the restaurant business has changed radically–and not necessarily for the better: “I think that now what fuels the restaurant business more than ever is people thinking they’re going to go to culinary school, come out and be huge and be a celebrity.
“The Food Network has instigated so many cooking schools in the world it’s ridiculous. And I love the Food Network and watch it all the time. But it is such a high profile job now, whereas before, back in the 70s, 80s, 90s you were just the guy in the back yelling at everybody. Now you’re the star.”
Nevertheless, there are celebrity chefs that O’Meara respects. One is Mario Batall: “He seems extremely knowledgeable and passionate about what he’s doing. I’ve eaten at several of his restaurants and thought they were all delicious.” Another is Bobby Flay: “I’ve never eaten at a Bobby Flay restaurant, but I like him as a personality and respect him as a chef, thinking he can cook.”
Usually, celebrity chefs who own restaurants hire an executive chef who is responsible for everything. “And the celebrity chef puts his name on it and then works with that chef. But on a day-to-day basis, the celebrity chef is not responsible for it.”
With so many stresses to face, who should become a chef? According to Spencer O’Meara:
“Just because you like to cook at home doesn’t mean you’re a chef. Just because you go to culinary school doesn’t mean you’re a chef. Just because you like to cook at home doesn’t mean you should go to culinary school.
“If you like to cook at home, go work in a restaurant for six months. If you like it, go to culinary school.
“A lot of people say, ‘Oh, I love to cook for my family. I’m going to culinary school.’ Culinary school is $60,000.” There’s a high washout rate in culinary schools. And if you graduate you may decide, “‘Holy shit, I never wanted to do this.’ And you’re on the hook.
“You’d better know what you’re getting into,” warns O’Meara.
“And you’d better go out and experience it before you drop the money. And it’s hard to get into it because nobody wants to hire you because you don’t know what the hell you’re doing.
“You have to go to a chef and say, ‘I think I want to go to culinary school, but I’m not really sure. Is there a way I could work with you for a little while, even if it’s for free?’
“Everybody always says, ‘Mom’s pot roast is always dry.’ You can’t say that in this business. And nobody ever looked at Mom and said, ‘Hey, my dinner’s supposed to be on the table at six o’clock—where in the hell is it?’ She’d be like, ‘Go clean the bathroom—it’ll be ready in awhile.’ So it’s different pressures.”