The Power of Teamwork in the Kitchen

A great piece written by Paul Sorgule, for the American Culinary Federation, which absolutely sums up the importance of teamwork. Particularly in a kitchen. You need a good team in the kitchen. I hope you enjoy. 

By Paul Sorgule, M.S., AAC

The parallels to sports are everywhere. Although the kitchen brigade was based on a military model, I find that there is even more commonality to an effective sporting team. There certainly is a hierarchy in the kitchen; yet there is also a vivid understanding that each player is equally important in the execution of a service. It is the concept of “team” which allows any group to reach a level of success.

“The way a team plays as a whole determines its success. You may have the greatest bunch of individual stars in the world, but if they don’t play together, the club won’t be worth a dime.” – Babe Ruth

We have witnessed countless examples of so-called “teams” in sports that boast a few exceptional individual athletes, yet no cohesive structure or common goal. In the end, this individual talent is unable to result in success.  On the other hand, there are also individuals with average natural talent who, brought together under a common philosophy and shared goal with a willingness to accept each person’s role towards the common good, achieve incredible results.

As in sports, this is absolutely true in the kitchen. Success is less about the individual talent of cooks and much more about how well everyone plays together in the sandbox. So, how does a chef or restaurateur build such an organization?

“Finding good players is easy. Getting them to play as a team is another story.” – Casey Stengel

The challenge for a chef is not only to attract young, energetic, talented and focused cooks and support staff but also to identify those who want to work as a cohesive unit and are aligned with the chef’s or restaurant’s philosophy. There are no tasks more important than identifying, selecting, training and building a team of kitchen workers ready to win as a collective unit.

“Teamwork makes the dream work, but a vision becomes a nightmare when the leader has a big dream and a bad team.” – John C. Maxwell

So, what is it that brings a group of individuals together with the intent of becoming that cohesive unit, and what role does the chef or restaurateur play in building this team?

Here are some universal and essential components of a team. It is the job of the leader to build the environment for a team to form.

  • TRUST – Without trust, a group will never become a team. Trust that coworkers have each other’s backs, trust that everyone will pull his or her weight and trust that the leader will support the decisions and actions of the team.
  • RESPECT – Teams gel when there is mutual respect. Each person who is part of the kitchen team is important to the success of the operation and must be given due respect for his or her role. This means that everyone is willing to jump in and help when needed because they are cognizant of the importance of every link in the chain.
  • EXCELLENT COMMUNICATION – Complete, honest, consistent and timely communication from the top down and the bottom up is the number one rule used by successful teams. Keep the information flowing, or rumors turn into perceptions of reality that may not resemble the truth.
  • TEACH AND TRAIN – This is a constant in great teams. The best are never satisfied to say that they are as good as they can be. Great teams and the individuals who are part of the team are always striving to improve. Even the best football teams rely on weekly practices to work on their weaknesses and solidify their strengths. Individual players do the same. Michael Jordan was arguably the greatest basketball player of all time, yet he practiced 100 free-throws before each game so that his team could trust that he was ready to perform. They depended on him, and he had no intention of letting them down. Every cook and every chef can benefit from ongoing training and the opportunity to learn from others.
  • WIN AND LOSE AS A TEAM. NO FINGER-POINTING  Watch the consistently great teams, and you will notice that they rarely point fingers outward. If the team fails, it is because the unit fell down in the process.  This is the work environment that must be created in kitchens. If someone is off his or her game, it becomes the group’s challenge to step up and help. If they don’t, then the finger needs to be firmly pointing inward.
  • SHARE  Successful teams share knowledge, share success, share in each other’s pain and joy, and share the blame and the opportunities that stand before them.
  • ENCOURAGE  Chefs need to encourage cooks and support staff to reach for that dangling carrot and tell them, “be better, I know you can be.” Pat them on the back and then offer whatever opportunities might exist to raise the bar once again.
  • SET HIGH EXPECTATIONS AND DEMAND NOTHING LESS – I remember Chef Marv Levy stating once that he had no role in motivating his       team. “They are paid very well, they know what is at stake, they are professionals and talented players. I expect that they will perform to the absolute best of their abilities.” Expect the same from your cooks; no excuses.
  • WORK ETHIC BEATS EXPERIENCE – Great teams know that there is no substitute for hard work. This is the foundation of a team, an expectation of all involved and a unifying factor that will help a team exceed expectations, every time.