THE MANAGEMENT ART OF COOKING
June 16, 2014 6 Comments
“Cooking is like love. It should be entered into with abandon or not at all.”
Newspaper columnist and writer Harriet Van Horne (1920-1998).
I love to cook (even though I am at best an enthusiastic beginner), ever since my wife once gave me, as a Xmas present, my first ever formal cooking course of one full week in London at the “Leiths School of food and wine” (see “Cooking tips for men” posted November 25, 2010). I loved the course, my only disappointment being that there was nothing about wine on the course, despite its inclusion in their name. I have, since that time, been back to Leiths on a number of different courses and have realised that there are a lot of similarities between being a chef (even if only occasionally) and being in a management role.
Here is how I see this:
– Do it with total commitment … Cooking takes commitment and time, and trying to prepare a great meal without focussing on what needs to be done, and when to do it and with what, will generally not result in a successful set of taste sensations. Similarly, management takes real commitment, and just “dabbling” at management while you continue with your vocational activities as your main priority will not bring success, and is the equivalent of believing you are a cook because you fry an egg occasionally, while heating up pre-prepared supermarket food the rest of the time. Management is a serious art and a vocation, and must be given your full attention.
– Learn from those who know how … I have been cooking since I was about 16, as my father’s severe ulcer limited him to mainly bland foods, and as my mother refused to cook a separate meal for me, it was a question of start to cook or live on boiled chicken for dinner every evening. I thought that I was OK in the kitchen until I went on my first course 45 years later, and realised that there were many things that I did badly, as basic as how to chop an onion. In the same way, you can choose to grow your management skills through trial and error over a long period of time, thus having a negative impact on those who have been entrusted to your care. A far better approach is to learn from others, as you can accelerate your management skills dramatically by some formal training, and more importantly by having some role models and mentors to learn from along the road to management proficiency.
– Learn to mix complex ingredients … Not all ingredients mix well, and do not suit all tastes. Quite a few French cooks use “mixed-spice” with meat in the hope that it will give it an exotic taste, but as it is really meant to be used with baking cakes, all it does is to confuse the palate. In the same vein, it is easy to curdle eggs if you do not treat them with respect or if heat is applied too quickly. The same is true with people. Not all personalities or professions mix easily, and it takes management skill and patience to bring together disparate parts of an organisation into a well-functioning business unit. It is also easy to “curdle” people if you do not treat them with respect or “heat” them inappropriately.
– Know your limitations … I came back from my first formal cooking course flushed with my newly acquired skills, and immediately organised a dinner party for 8 with no thought as to whether I would be capable of executing the menu I had chosen. Choux pastry filled with smoked trout mousse with a dill cream sauce as starter, racks of lamb with potato en-papillote and beans wrapped in bacon for the main course, store bought cheeses but served with home-made soda bread, and segmented oranges in a caramel sauce to finish. Not a beginner’s menu, which I didn’t realise until I actually started preparations and cooking, and which frazzled, frustrated and nearly ended my cooking career at the start, and which took me nearly 2 full days to prepare (and another 2 to recover) rather than the hours that a skilled cook would have taken. In the same way, it is important in management to “know what you don’t know”. Throwing yourself into elements of management such as recruitment, induction, goal setting and performance reviews without some reading, training and serious learning beforehand, so that you at least know what will be needed, will be unlikely to give you decent results.
– Preparation is key … You need to plan everything beforehand to have any chance of success. This includes analyses of the recipes of the dishes that you will prepare, making sure that you have the necessary kitchen equipment and all the ingredients and spices needed. A key element is planning the timing backwards, from when you plan to actually serve the food to your guests to when you will need to start the initial preparations. My first ever attempt at cooking for a dinner party was when I was just 22, and I hadn’t properly planned the cooking timing, so I wasn’t actually in a position to serve the starter (stuffed cabbage leaves in chicken broth) till about 11.00pm by which time we were all under a serious alcoholic haze. The dessert (chocolate mousse) wasn’t served till around midnight. This need for planning came home to me the next day when I was cleaning up and found the whole main course (roasted lamb and vegetables) still sitting untouched, if somewhat dry, in the oven. This need for close planning is also true for any business endeavours. You need to make sure that you have the right people, that they have all the resources that are needed to do the job, and plan back from when you will need to deliver an end result through all the stages back to the actual start time. You also must have regular checkpoints to ensure that you are tracking well, and that nothing and no-one is left behind.
Cooking, like management, is only worthwhile if you do it for the benefit of others and not just for yourself. The French use “Chef d’entreprise” to describe a senior executive … I can understand why it is an accurate term.