Star Chefs Conference: Opening Restaurants for Change

“I don’t believe stewardship is limited to the rich or wealthy; we all need to be stewards of our little neighborhoods.”

The Star Chefs Conference is an annual congregation of the nation’s top chefs, pastry artists, sommeliers and mixologists, packed with culinary demos and product presentations. Cooking is about more than simply food though, and in the panel “Opening Restaurants for Change,” I was excited to hear from chefs who had a larger vision for change outside the four walls of their restaurants.

Sat Bains launched the discussion by introducing his restaurant (Michelin-starred Restaurant Sat Bains in Nottingham, England) and his philosophy on staffing. “I believe everyone’s got an opportunity to be brilliant,” he said. “They’re just not given a chance.” He looks at each employee as an investment in a new generation of chefs, drawing on each individual’s strengths, and teaching them not only how to cook but how to run a business. Moreover, he cares about the quality of life that his staff enjoys outside of work. On the long hours typical of the restaurant business, he said, “We’re stuck in an Orwellian society in the UK, where my cooks work 70-80 hours and some of them don’t even want to take time off. But just because you’re working for 80 hours doesn’t mean you’re productive!” In a remarkable move, Bains decided that he would close the restaurant for 5 weeks every year, with set dates for vacations in summer and winter. That allows his employees (many with family overseas) time to go on holiday and come back rejuvenated. “Yes, we lose money,” said Bains. “But forget the money–customers will come when you want them.” This allows his staff to avoid burn-out and fosters a culture of mutual respect.

Marcus Samuelsson, chef of Red Rooster in Harlem, is similarly committed to investing in his staff and in Harlem. He explained that the Red Rooster concept originated about 10 years ago, with the resurgence of high quality neighborhood restaurants in Brooklyn. He wanted to open a restaurant in Harlem that would showcase the neighborhood’s culinary wealth and history for visitors, New Yorkers, and most of all, Harlemites. The menu should always reflect the past, present and future, and Samuelsson’s main objective was to hire people from the Harlem community. “If I’m a singer, I want to add the Apollo Theater to my resume,” he said. “I want the Red Rooster to be that place for cooks.” Meanwhile, the underserved Harlem community comes rife with its own challenges. “How do you teach service if the person has never experienced it?” Samuelsson said. “We can’t say ‘do it the way you check into a hotel,’ if the person has never checked into a hotel before. So you have to learn to listen, and train from that point of view.”

Richard Grausman, founder of the Careers Through Culinary Arts Program (CCAP), tackles the problem from another direction. He realized that kids must be trained at an early age to expand their palates and learn the social implications behind their plates. Through CCAP, he teaches public school students the skills they need to succeed in the restaurant or hospitality industry. “What do you need as an entry level worker?” he asked. “Simple. You need to show up on time, want to learn, have the right attitude, and not be afraid to use a mop!” He is proud that many of his students have become sous chefs, executive chefs and restaurant owners. Even for students who don’t intend to go into hospitality, his programs teach “soft skills” that are important for everyone. “You’ve got to know how to speak to a chef, to clean your uniform and to call when you’re late,” Grausman said. For industry folks who want to help cultivate the next generation of workers, Grausman strongly recommended donating time and products to community colleges. “The private schools may have all the high-powered industry connections, but the community colleges have all the students and no money.”

After all, what’s at stake is not simply restaurants, but heritage. John Besh, from New Orleans’ Besh Restaurant Group, mused about the state of the restaurant industry after Hurricane Katrina. “I thought there was no way out, but at least we’d go out serving the best red beans and rice that anyone’s ever seen,” he said. In the aftermath of the storm, Besh realized that his staff was almost exclusively white, middle-aged workers, and stewardship of Creole cuisine shouldn’t be limited to people who are rich enough to afford culinary school. “I never thought of chefs as being cultural preservationists,” he said. “But people are cooking less at home, so there’s new responsibility for chefs and restaurants to be cognizant of culture.” With that new vision, Besh began recruiting minority and underprivileged youths to participate in a culinary mentorship program. To promote local foodways, he started a microloan program to provide zero interest loans to farmers and producers who can’t get capital through conventional means. He then partnered with Tulane University’s MBA program to give these producers the business acumen and resources they need to succeed.

These initiatives show again and again that in our food system, giving nets you more than you originally put in. Hopefully in coming years, many of these practices will become commonplace, fostering a culture of employee investment in every restaurant.