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Management by Fire: A Conversation with Chef Anthony Bourdain

Reprint r0207c

July 2002

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D i f f e r e n t Vo i c e

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A Conversa t ion wit h Chef Anthony Bourdain

n Kitchen Confidential, his bestselling memoir about restaurant life, chef Anthony Bourdain describes in lurid detail the mayhem behind closed kitchen doors. Bourdains account chronicles a ribald, adrenaline-soaked culture, painting a loving portrait of a workplace inhabited by, in his words, a thuggish assortment of drunks, thieves, and psychopaths. Wound up to the near breaking point, Bourdains kitchen seems always on the brink of chaos. But night after night, the kitchen crew at New Yorks celebrated brasserie Les Halles, where Bourdain is executive chef, serves a capacity crowd with speed, precision, and unwavering quality. Bourdains staff choreographs hundreds of dinners a night under brutal conditions. And his staff, like his customers, keeps coming back for more. Whats his secret? While business executives increasingly embrace at struc-

tures and employee self-actualization, Bourdain uses an antiquated commandand-control management style with a rigid hierarchy and an inviolable code of conduct. The counterintuitive result: a freewheeling and politically incorrect workplace with a tribal culture that demands and nurtures mutual respect, hard work, superior performance, and absolute loyalty. Bourdain, who took time off from the kitchen at Les Halles to complete his recent book and his Food Network series, A Cooks Tour, spoke with HBR associate editor Gardiner Morse about the paradoxical synergy of order and chaos in his kitchen. These edited excerpts of their wide-ranging conversation illuminate Bourdains sometimes unorthodox strategies for building and leading superior teams and suggest that a chef uses tools that wouldnt be out of place in the corner ofce. 5

Copyright 2002 by Harvard Business School Publishing Corporation. All rights reserved.

D I F F E R E N T V O I C E M a n a g e m e n t b y Fi re

Kitchen Confidential is on the

BusinessWeek best-seller list. Why are businesspeople reading your book?
Maybe for the same reason they were reading Sun Tzus Art of War for a while. They sense that running a kitchen and running a business have some overlap, like business and war, so they think my book might have some useful lessons. I also think the culture appeals to them. A lot of businesspeople have worked dunking French fries or waiting tables at some point in their lives and remember that time fondly. The kitchen is one of the last true meritocracies, where you are judged entirely on job performance. And its also one of the last completely politically incorrect workplaces, where you can say anything at any time and behave more like an outlaw than in any other business. Its got that MASHwork ethic thats probably very attractive to businesspeople with a director of human resources who insists that they le ten management reports every time they chew somebody out. Kitchens have a shoot-from-the-hip, Wild West environment thats probably very appealing to somebody who cant re the knucklehead down the hall.

Your kitchen staffs have been amazingly loyal and productive under the most brutal conditions. How do you account for that?
The old-school ethic, the hierarchy that I live by, is very much a product of Auguste Escofers brigade system. Escofer served in the army during the Franco-Prussian War, and he ran his famous kitchens with military precision. The brigade system divided the kitchen into functional areas. Each one had a command structure like the armys. Every station was led by a chef de partie, and that person was in charge of his unit of sous chefs, cooks, and assistants. Orders and information moved down the chain of command and were spread around to the staff as each ofcersaw t. And the workers were responsible 6

not just to their superior ofcer but also to the chef. In that way, the many, many tasks of a large, busy kitchen could, even in the heat of the dinner rush, be managed and coordinated by one person the chef. The military model is no accident. When people are working under difcult and even degrading conditions, its very useful to make everyone concerned feel like a member of the elite, however debauched. The very things that are hardest and most uncomfortable and make your job appear unbearable to outsiders are the ones you take the most pride in. The negatives become a plus. So if you had the harder, more degrading day that makes you better. I dont try to cultivate it, but I take full advantage of the us-versus-them psychology. Theres us the kitchen crew and then theres everybody else: the patrons, management, owners, waiters. Everybody should be so lucky as to be us. Were the best. You nd the same kind of intimacy, loyalty, dependence on your coworkers, and teamwork in a kitchen that you nd whenever good people are forced into a crisis situation. And its always a crisis in a kitchen. People from very different backgrounds form close tribal units, and they desire to do well and to be seen doing well. You cant be seen as a clock puncher in a good restaurant. You have to care. If you dont, you lose your status in the little society. Youre seen as a traitor and a liability.

Theres been a trend in business

to move away from hierarchies and empower workers, but youve embraced a very rigid staff structure and an old style of management with great success. Why do you think it works?
I always lead from the front. Cooks always like to see their chef come in before them, leave after them, and always work at least as hard, or better yet, harder than them. And they want their chef to be capable of doing anything theyre able to do. Because youre going

through what theyre going through, theres camaraderie. Its important that the crew knows that I care about them and will take care of them. I take pleasure in personal details. I take pleasure in their lives. And I protect them. If someone from another departmenta waiter, a matre d, an owner has anything to say about anyone in my kitchen, theyre not allowed to communicate that directly. In my kitchen, no one will have two bosses. All orders will come from me. If something bad is coming down the pike, it will hit me rst, and I will disseminate that information. I will ght ercely to make sure that criticisms of my crew, from the oor staff or elsewhere, come through me. And if something goes wrong, whether Im in the kitchen or not, I will never, ever blame anyone else. I delegated a job to them. If theyve screwed up, its my fault. I return loyalty with absolute loyalty. At the same time, I explain to new employees that I wont tolerate certain behaviors, and maybe I remind them about that once a year. By establishing lines that cannot be crossed and by responding the same way every time they are crossed, I let people know what is expected of them. You know the line from The Godfather? Its nothing personal its business? Thats exactly wrong. Everything is personal in my kitchen. If you show up late or slack off or slop food out uncaringly, you have screwed your chef. You have insulted and inconvenienced the coworkers who had to cover for you. You have shamed the person who recommended you. The reverse is true when you do a great job. Then, you bring honor to the clan. I see enforcing arrival time as the most important way to set the tone and reinforce the understanding that I give the orders. If people know that I will not accept their being ve or even three minutes late, that on a second offense they will lose their job, their reex to follow directions will very likely carry through to other requests and show itself in their generally high level of
harvard business review

M a n a g e m e n t b y Fi re D I F F E R E N T V O I C E

attention to details. They know that they can come to me and say, I got drunk last night and smoked crack and got into a stght with somebody, and the police are after me, and that I will help in any possible way. Im not judgmental. Ill contribute bail money if I can. But if thats coupled with,Thats why Im late, its not going to work. Youre dened by the job you do, not by whatever hideous predilections you may have. Treacherous behavior even not getting along with another cook is also forbidden. And to have any delusions that youre better than anyone else, however true that might be as far as your technical skills are concerned, is not allowed. Your commitment is to the team effort. Everyone lives and dies by the same rules.

Its surprising that such a

structured environment would permit actually promote the tight, outlaw culture.
You have a tremendous amount of personal freedom in the kitchen. But theres a trade-off. You give up other freedoms when you go into a kitchen because youre becoming part of a very old, rigid, traditional society its a secret society, a cult of pain. Absolute rules govern some aspects of your working life: obedience, focus, the way you maintain your work area, the pecking order, the consistency of the end product, arrival time. You must never do certain things, like put your hands on another employee in anger. But because of its very rigidity and clarity, the hierarchical system allows you to speak your mind in an environment where theres no ego allowed or needed. The kitchens a place where you spend so much time with the same people that everyone knows everything about you. Youre totally exposed but also protected by the highly structured work relationships, so you can honestly be yourself. Men and women can relate as equals without preening for each other or posturing. Theres no pretense.
july 2002

Thats an enormous relief to a lot of people. If people in any work situation understand that it truly is a meritocracy, that doing a good job is all that matters, then a lot of the political correctness, the restrained language and behavior, suddenly seems unimportant. In my kitchen, the intricacies and anomalies of ones love life are generally common knowledgeand often openly discussed. Resentments are not allowed to simmer. You have to get it out, get it over with, and move on. One of the wonderful things, traditionally, about the restaurant business is that it attracts people from wildly diverse backgrounds and forces them by working together in hot, conned spaces for long hours to get along, to cooperate, to come to understand one another. The pressure is so intense that any cultural baggage they bring along has to be jettisoned. I think the mix of informality and order can be useful in team building. When people feel comfortable being themselves, they can focus on their work, whatever the pressures. Its very comfortable. Its one of the things I hear most from people who are no longer in the business. They miss that camaraderie, the casualness, the sense of accomplishment at the end of a hard shift, sitting at the bar enjoying a free drink and reviewing the evenings events. Its golden. Ive heard that a thousand times.

The religion in kitchens is your mise en place, your setup, knowing where everything in your station is. Theres layer upon layer upon layer of people thinking about what might happen and how theyre going to be ready for it. And things go wrong, a lot. You dont know how many people are going to arrive when. You dont know what might break, what supplies might not show up. Its a dodgy business. We cant rule the universe. So we tend to try to control that tiny little corner of the kitchen we can control. Kitchens look and sound chaotic, but most of the time theres actually extreme order.

Besides the ferocious planning,

what makes kitchens work?
The best situation, the one in which chefs are the happiest, is when the staff is self-motivated. Then, sheer peer pressure and the desire to do well and be seen doing well drive people to do their best. A lot of peer pressure goes on in kitchens. Of course, its important for them to please me, but it aint going to work if theyre not pleasing each other. That goes for chefs, too. As soon as youre not working as hard as your cooks, as soon as your level of commitment is seen to wane, then you really start hemorrhaging credibility. Certainly, the perfect moment for the chef, as for most any cook, is when he makes a really beautiful plate of food and puts it up in the windowthe pass to be taken into the dining room. The satisfaction doesnt come when the customer says, That was really great. It comes just before the food, the product, leaves the kitchen. It doesnt get any better than that.

Restaurant kitchens are pretty chaotic. How does any work get done?
Most of us feel in our bones and we know from experience that if theres not a crisis now there will very likely be one in a few minutes. Were anticipating a crisis every minute. Thats why a lot of us are pretty high-strung and have a taste for melodrama. And we like it. Were adrenaline junkies. Thats a common thread. People whove left the business get misty looking back on it because of their taste for the high highs and the low lows.

What about being creative?

In the kitchen, isnt the point not to be creative, but to serve the same dish day after day?
You dont act on your creative urges without the chefs sanction. That is made very clear. I want automaton-like reproduction of an idea or a theme. But 7

D I F F E R E N T V O I C E M a n a g e m e n t b y Fi re

as people prove themselves, I allow them to express themselves, with guidance. The chance to be creative is a reward and an expression of trust. Its the carrot. I have a pretty good idea of what people are capable of, and when I think theyre ready, Ill say, Give me a sh special, using these ingredients. Then Ill let them run with it. And if they do a good job over and over again, Ill just say, Give me a sh special; do something with the sole.

What do you do when theres

a crisis you havent anticipated?
Every kitchen has one evil genius whos tolerated someone you turn to when all else fails a rule breaker, a scamp whos willing to make a hard and sometimes unlovely decision for expediency. Theres actually a name for this person the dbrouillard, the person who gets you out of a jam. When youre really in trouble say youve run out of every prepared hors doeuvre during a huge corporate cocktail party the dbrouillard will know about the case of minipizzas with frost damage that is hidden in a corner of the freezer and will be willing to go out on a limb and make something edible out of them. If you decide to go with your dbrouillard and he can pull it off, everyone shares in the satisfaction of having been able to collectively dodge the bullet. But you cant do that regularly.

do people want? Instead, they should be thinking something like, Were going to open a restaurant with a Gascony theme, and were going to concentrate on that area of France because this is what we love and do well.

When you go to a restaurant,

how can you tell if a kitchen is well managed or not?
The easy answer is that food arrives hot, on time, and in proper order. You can tell when a restaurant has its choreography together. Dishes dont lag the whole tables order arrives together. The food is consistent. But there are more subtle clues, before your orders even arrive. Do the waiters look proud? Do they look happy to be working there? Is the place clean and squared away? Do the waiters, busboys, and front-of-the-house move like they know what theyre doing? Is the place busy and, more important, do the customers look happy? You can sense a well-run restaurant just as you can sense the fear and uncertainty the smell of certain doom in a disorganized, ailing one. A clean bathroom tells you a lot, surprisingly. If the people running the restaurant cant keep it clean and this is a part of the restaurant they allow you to see you can imagine what their prep kitchen, downstairs, hidden away, looks like.

Whats an example of a disaster,

when youve had to wing it and come up with something brilliant? How has that worked?
Winging it is something you dont want to do. Its a terrible place to be. You need absolute condence. As a chef, one of the things Im most afraid of is that someone will hesitate, lose their focus. And if someone does, even for a few minutes, it can screw up the whole pace, the whole team. That radiates out to everybody else. Its toxic. And it can bring a whole kitchen down. People have to know that the chef is on top of it. That hes watching at all times. They have to see him watching and thinking. And they have to do the same as well, so that everybody is looking back, and above, and below, and to the sides. We did a badly planned New Years Eve once, and we found ourselves in that most terrible place where we were all winging it, trying to get out from under a big boulder we knew in the end would crush us. There was no screaming, no yelling in the kitchen just absolute silence as everyone tried to dig themselves out of a bad situation, doing the second- and third-best job they knew they could do. Thats what you want to avoid at all costs, for people to go home knowing that they did far less than their best, for them to feel ashamed because for whatever reason they did a half-assed job. Thats the worst thing that can happen to a kitchen crew.

What makes customers loyal?

Well, obviously, quality and consistency. People feel betrayed if they come for a favorite dish and youve suddenly changed it. And they dont want to be treated like idiots, like you tell them youre giving them porcini and you substitute something else and hope they wont notice. If every once in a while you have to pull a fast one for the common good, it is of course essential that you get away with it. When customers become regulars, even in ne restaurants, theyre looking for that familiarity, a crack in the veneer where theyre treated a bit differently, less formally. A not-so-obvious thing often overlooked is that customers need to trust your intentions and your concepts integrity the sense that you know your product and that it is the product you should be selling. So youre not all over the place, serving pasta and French food and Mexican food and trying to be everything to everybody. A lot of places open up with a menu thats oundering, because the owners are thinking, What

Youre still spending some time

in the kitchen?
I dont run my kitchen anymore. Im a spiritual leader. As soon as I started going on book tours, I didnt want to become the kind of mostly absent celebrity chef I always hated as a sous chef. Im much loved in my kitchen, but I would not be were I still running it. Reprint r0207c
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