Sensory Management: Why Chefs Should Manage Their Kitchens From their Kitchens

News flash: Nobody went to culinary school to learn how to manipulate formulas in spreadsheets. Instead, chefs spent years training in schools and kitchens because they want to butcher, grill, poach, slice and dice, recreate classical dishes with a twist and do creative things with new equipment like anti-griddles (yep, it’s a thing). They spend hours learning how to figure out the perfect steam to heat ratio on that new fancy oven controlled from their phones. They thrive in the action, and when they are relegated to a back office, it is like entering sensory deprivation chamber.

Chefs are tasked with staying on the cutting-edge of emerging culinary trends, all while directing a team of people who work at lightning-fast paces to deliver memorable dining experiences. The restaurant world is not for the faint of heart, and it takes a passionate individual to successfully lead a team day in and out. The chef is the ringleader of the farm to table circus — with a special emphasis on that “to” part in the middle that everyone seems to forget about. After all, it’s not as if terroir is still clinging to the carrots on your plate and the tenderloin shows up perfectly portioned and pepper-crusted from the pasture. No, it’s the chef and his team of well-trained and organized cooks who demonstrate the skill and creativity needed to transform ingredients and resources into the dishes the public lines up to enjoy and promotes on their social media accounts.

To most individuals a chef’s job is an unenviable one. Standing at the helm of a chaotic kitchen and a seemingly calm front of house, it is the chef’s job to choreograph the dangerously fast, precise, and, yet, elegant dance of shepherding ingredients through the kitchen lines and onto the plates of patrons who are eagerly waiting to offer their reviews and ratings. While it may sound intimidating, it is here, in the middle of the madness, where chefs are the most comfortable. To put them in front of a screen and a spreadsheet is to watch them suffer. These aren’t luddites (well…not always), they’re just not interested. Too often their talent and passion is misallocated in favor of, wait for it…data entry — the most mundane of entry-level tasks.

The restaurant industry is a notoriously difficult industry to turn a profit. To help manage accounting, chefs are now forced to play an increasingly larger role in the data collection process. Some of the highest skilled people in restaurants are forced to spend hours and hours away from their kitchens and teams to type line items into spreadsheets. In some cases chefs are spending an accumulated six ‘regular’ working weeks per year in their offices completing sky high stacks of manual data entry transfer. After years of schooling, staging, working exhausting hours, and offering their blood sweat and literal tears, many chefs have become the highest paid yet in most cases least skilled data-entry clerks around.

Here’s the thing: chefs can, and do, manage food costs without ever touching a keyboard. A good chef does better food cost management on his feet, with all of his senses clocked-in and on the job. The longer chefs are taken out of the kitchen and into the back office, the less efficient their kitchen becomes. When chefs are forced to relegate a significant amount of their time at a desk, they miss what’s really happening in their kitchens and by extension in their dining rooms, which ultimately ends up at the all important customer satisfaction.

A chef’s senses are highly tuned and among their strongest skill sets; and an astute chef relies on all five to successfully run his kitchen. A computer screen doesn’t speak up if the butcher is only getting six (instead of eight) portions of chops out of a loin (see), or if a case worth of Brussels sprouts is getting over roasted. Who’s going to notice the sauce that was finished with salted butter instead of sweet (taste)? Or the waitstaff talking around the corner about how a customer isn’t happy with their dish (hear…maybe it was the burnt Brussels)? What about those lobsters that just arrived and seem a little under weight (feel)? The more time a chef spends away from their kitchen, the more disconnected they can become from it and the numbers become a reflection of what is happening, instead of what should be happening. The resulting data should be the byproduct of the control a chef has in the kitchen, and a perfectly filled out spreadsheet isn’t control in and of itself. Chefs are ultimately responsible for food expenditures, and, of course, need to understand their kitchen’s numbers, but should be released from the responsibility of simply recreating invoices on a daily basis. For the same reason a controller doesn’t show up at the restaurant each morning to check in the deliveries as they roll in on top of each other, a chef should not be forced to manually enter receipts. As is the case with any line of business, a proper division of labor is key to success.

Listen, the restaurant business is hard enough, but when you remove your talent from the true lifeblood of the business you position yourself for failure, rather than success.

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Tony Aiazzi spent 20 years in back-of-house roles and has experienced firsthand the innate value that chefs provide when they are given the reins to work in their element: the kitchen. In 2013 he co-founded ChouxBox a ‘hands free’ data extraction tool designed specifically to help hospitality operations work better, faster, and more seamlessly.