OVERCOMING IMPOSSIBLE EXCERPT
The following is an excerpt from Robert’s forthcoming book, Overcoming: Impossible – Learn to Lead, Build a Team, and Catapult Your Business to Success. It is available for pre-order now, and releases everywhere on February 14, 2023.
MISE en PLACE
Why this old chef’s mantra applies to every project you undertake
Every culinary student learns the words mise en place. Translated from French, they mean “putting in place” or “everything in its place.”
In culinary school, it refers to the essential prep that every student needs to do: all recipe ingredients measured out, ready to be incorporated into the dish before you begin. Every cooking show you’ve ever seen does this—you know, those neat little glass bowls with a teaspoon of this and a tablespoon of that. Of course, there’s a wide gulf between doing this in theory in an educational setting and doing it every day in a busy restaurant.
In the worst-run restaurants, you’ll see that much of mise en place is skipped. I encounter this all the time on Restaurant: Impossible. The cooks will always have excuses, and of course all of them are bullshit. Because I’ve got news for you: The forty-five-minute delay that you encountered at that restaurant that you—of course—never went back to? It didn’t happen because the restaurant got too busy. It happened for one of two reasons:
1. The owner tried to cut costs by keeping fewer cooks on.
2. The kitchen just wasn’t ready because they didn’t take their prep far enough.
It doesn’t matter what you order. You shouldn’t be enduring an interminable wait to get your food. “Well, it takes a long time to put a well-done steak on the plate,” the cook will whine. Again, nonsense. The best restaurants will have a couple of steaks already cooked to medium at the ready that just need to be brought up to temperature.
Having everything prepped and in its place also makes work conditions safer. This is crucial in restaurants because kitchens are hot, noisy, dangerous places. There’s fire. Boiling oil. Sharp blades. These are the hazards of the job, hazards we gladly accept because we’re undertaking a labor of love. Every industry has its own unique hazards. If, at the end of the day, you’re able to add them all up and say it’s still worth it, then you’re in the right place.
Of course, you still work to mitigate the risk. This is universal. In the kitchen, fewer cooks running around trying to fetch items from the pantry means a lower chance of a dangerous accident. It doesn’t take much imagination to extrapolate this scenario into the wider business world. For instance, the more research you can do before crunch time, the better your big presentation is going to be. The more applicants you interview, the lower your chances of landing a dud, and the higher your chances of landing an all-star. The more time you can spend digging into the prospects of any investment, the better off you’ll be.
MISE EN PLACE RESTAURANT: IMPOSSIBLE CASE STUDY
Park Vue Soul Food Bar & Restaurant
Disorganized kitchens are a hallmark of Restaurant: Impossible, so I had plenty of examples to choose from for this case study. But few of those examples illustrate the point as well as the most egregious case I’ve come across: Park Vue Soul Food Bar & Restaurant in Buffalo, New York.
Situated in a residential neighborhood and only open Friday through Sunday, Park Vue was more of a part-time hobby for the co-owner tandem of Harrita West, a full-time banker, and her mother, Schenita Williams, a full-time teacher. But this was a hobby that lost a bundle of money and caused a ton of stress; it was $100,000 in the red—almost all of that being Schenita’s retirement fund—with no hope of a turnaround. Harrita estimated that the restaurant had six months of runway left before it faced permanent shutdown.
Park Vue looked like a run-down banquet hall, a soul food restaurant without any soul. Worse, the food wasn’t any good—and that was when you could get your hands on some. Wait times for simple dishes like fried ribs, fish, and mac and cheese were thirty minutes on the low end, and often pushed closer to an hour. How the hell is that even possible? Because prep didn’t even begin until an order came into the kitchen. Not only did the cooks have to rummage through cupboards and fridges to get what they needed, but the kitchen was set up for failure, with Harrita and Schenita bickering over who was doing what, with no system of organizing tickets—which were frequently lost, resulting in customers getting the wrong order or nothing at all.
The disorganization extended beyond the kitchen, with Harrita haphazardly storing bills in shoeboxes. “You’re a banker!” I said in shock. “If you went into the bank and asked yourself for a loan, would you give yourself one?!” Humbled, Harrita admitted, “Absolutely not.”
It was painful to see because Harrita and Schenita were two of the most delightful owners I’ve met, with a deep desire to give back to the low-income community where they lived. Indeed, Park Vue should have been a neighborhood cornerstone, not the forgotten curiosity it had become.
I helped them develop a plan to advertise with the seven area churches, tithing back 10 percent of the proceeds they got from congregations coming in after Sunday service. With a menu revamp, renovation, and a bit of training on the benefits of prep—along with hiring some experienced kitchen help—they were well on their way to turning Park Vue into everything it could be.
“Prep is the most important thing you can do in any business,” I told Harrita. “If you prep correctly, service is a breeze.
During the grand reopening, patrons didn’t wait an hour for their meals. The low-end wait time was trimmed to a mere four minutes, which, for the kind of food Park Vue offered, was about right.
As I wrote earlier in this chapter, prep isn’t just a necessity for restaurants but businesses of all kinds. When your customers walk through the door, they should be able to get what they came for quickly and easily. Creating a seamless customer experience is often the difference between having a one-time customer or a loyal one who will return for years to come. In short: Be ready. You don’t want to have to get ready, and your customers won’t wait for it, either.
How I Go Big
Why the growth of your business shouldn’t send your operation into a frenzy
If you come into my kitchen at service time, it’s always going to look the same. People moving with speed and purpose, but nobody running around looking crazed or lost or trying to do a million things at the same time. This is true if we’re cooking for fifty people, five hundred, or five thousand (as we’ve done at a few troop benefits). Cooking for more people is obviously more work, but most of that work is absorbed in the prep phase and responsibly disbursed by my executive chefs to line cooks and sous chefs, who they’ve trained to deliver the same product every time.
I mention this not just because I take great pride in the harmony of the kitchen no matter how big we go, but because there’s a lesson here for all businesses. Scaling up should not be a question of forgoing sleep and putting in endless hours as the deadline approaches. Once you’ve truly mastered your craft, you’ll be able to take the goal and break it down into manageable tasks that can be delegated to team members who may not have mastery but do possess competence.
Here are some of the biggest mistakes I’ve seen restaurateurs make. Again, you needn’t be in the restaurant industry to see the parallels to every other type of business.
Their menus are too big, forcing them to keep more inventory, increasing the risk of spoilage and waste, which in turn leads to…
Panic shopping, where members of the kitchen staff will have to go out to shop at local markets and grocery stores to get enough fresh protein and produce on hand for that day’s service.
Lack of weekly prep, which increases the time it takes to get a plate in front of a diner.
Their recipes are not written out, which hurts consistency of the product delivered to the table; this problem increases exponentially as staff turns over and institutional knowledge is lost.
Recipes are not tasted regularly after being initially delegated by the executive chef. Recipes need constant inspection, tasting, and visual examination as ingredient quality can vary and sourcing can change with the seasons. Produce, of course, can vary wildly in terms of taste, freshness, and size (don’t say a recipe requires two apples or one onion when “½ cup chopped” is a much more accurate measurement), but proteins also have a wide amount of variance as no two cows, pigs, or chickens are ever exactly alike.
There are too many conflicting egos. It’s hard enough when you’ve got a tyrannical owner or executive chef. Now imagine you’ve got both, as well as an egotistical bartender, host, and server. It’s enough to sink even a restaurant that people love.
Each mistake hurts the business in its own unique way, yet there’s a common thread that runs between all of them: lack of foresight. In each situation, the owner has chosen to forgo action that could put the business ahead and instead decided to take things day-to-day, treading water and only addressing the most immediate concerns. This might work for a while, but it would only take a single, unexpectedly busy day to break the operation.
Ten times out of ten, I would always choose to be overprepared than risk just scraping by or failing a stress test. When my chefs go in to prep for a massive event—such as the aforementioned troop benefit to feed a few thousand—the prep phase begins months in advance with designing the menu, pre-planning purchase orders for all the food we’ll need (which requires a lot of math, hence all my chefs are pretty good at handling a spreadsheet), and securing enough kitchen volunteers to get all the prep work done.
By the time the day arrives, the prep has paid off and has all been worth it. An army of volunteers works with precision and harmony, and it’s truly breathtaking to see all the plates go out and watch such a large number of people all receive hot, gourmet food in a matter of minutes. That’s where the right prep can get you. Thousands fed in seamless fashion. Harmony out of chaos.
Now, let’s focus on the last item on the list—conflicting egos.
My name is on the ticket and the menu, my face is on the billboard, and the recipes are mine, hence it’s a “Robert Irvine” event. But let’s not be ridiculous. I’ve illustrated that you can’t do this kind of work by yourself and shown how many helping hands and skilled lieutenants you need to pull it off. So when I step into the kitchen on the day, I don’t say to my executive chefs, “OK, I’m here, so you can step aside now.” I say, “How can I help?” And I mean it—if there’s something that needs prepping or taste-testing to help keep us on schedule, I’m at their disposal.
So many leaders would think that a move like that would be a sign of weakness. Bullshit. Checking your ego and not being threatened by your subordinates is not only a sign of strength; it’s a vote of confidence in the people you hired that empowers them and invests them in the outcome. When they succeed because you put them in a position to succeed and then got out of their way, they become more self-assured, ambitious, and—best of all—more capable of handling bigger and bigger projects. I cannot impress upon you enough how important it is that as you scale your operations, you’re giving your lieutenants room to learn and grow. They will be your most valuable assets going forward. Be certain to treat them as such.
Training staff for restaurants is more than a matter of making sure that each cook possesses the necessary skills for a specific job. You also need to make sure they can pay attention—specifically to the unique nature of every new batch of ingredients that’s delivered. Take steak, for example. We know that no two steaks are ever exactly alike. You might be purchasing the best of the best—Kobe beef or USDA prime—but each one of those pieces of meat will have its own unique marbling, texture, and, ultimately, flavor. The same goes for a head of lettuce, a basket of mushrooms, or a bushel of corn. These differences can sometimes be subtle, and they can sometimes be significant. What the well-trained cook recognizes is that all these differences are meaningful and that all of them can be worked with. The effect of an inferior product can be mitigated. The effect of a superior product can be enhanced. What matters in the end is the overall dish.
Customers will never see what the cook had to do to bring them the final plate—be it staying out of the way of the perfect cut of meat or working their ass off to make a subpar cut more palatable. All they see is the finished product. This has a direct analog in every other type of business, and I’m certain that learning to be flexible in the face of so many variables in the kitchen is what made me a better businessman. The ability to see obstacles not as a random occurrence of misfortune but as an opportunity to learn, grow, and improve is essential if you’re to have any hope of succeeding in the long term.
Overcoming Impossible: How to Lead, Build a Team, and Catapult Your Business to Success is available for purchase at booksellers everywhere. Click HERE to order.