HUCK'S RANT: Of chefs and mice

Our resident Gourmand, Anthony Huckstep, champions the well-oiled kitchen and argues that a tightly run operation should function effectively with or without its head chef.

Back when I was sharpening my incisors editing this ‘ere august tome, I’d eagerly peruse the views of those penning reviews and suffer a most irritable vowel syndrome.

Critics annoyed the hell out of me. Actually they still do – in a pleasingly, bewildering kind of way. It’s not that I don’t respect their opinion, it’s that I don’t always share it (which is kind of the point, right). No doubt they’re scratching their skulls about my perspectives too.

Restaurant critics were probably the original brunt of ‘opinions are like assholes’ rib-tickler. Anyway, back before I became an asshole myself I used to get annoyed at reviewers who’d make a fuss about the head chef not being in the kitchen. Insinuating that an establishment couldn’t function properly without Grand Poobah on the pans.

Knowing the team sport aspect of hospitality, where every cog in the wheel plays a role in completing a perfect circle of consumer satisfaction, I found it perplexing that such a blanket theorem was rolled out so often. Chefs got a public whipping and some even lost hats on the basis. 

Of course I wasn’t considering the entire picture, or the point, properly.

Over the last year I’ve eaten at numerous venues where the ‘talent’ or poster child wasn’t in the house on the evening, and I’ve drawn a different conclusion on the stance of my contemporaries that set the standards before me.

Whether it’s a name chef spreading themselves over multiple venues, consultants coming in to add oomph, or simply signing off on dishes but rarely behind the line, or the leaders taking a night in lieu – it’s not the fact that they’re not there that causes the issue.

Well, not directly. It’s the lack of attention to detail to cookery or lax in service standards that result. Obvious yes, but delegation relies on all parties – particularly those passing on the load, not just the will of those stepping up to the plate.
The best leaders have even better staff, with the best in-house training, backing them.

At one establishment where the well-known was on vacay, I enquired about the cut and breed used for steak frites. The waiter replied with ‘beef’. When pushed for more information beyond the obvious he said, “I don’t understand sir, it’s beef.”
After asking to check with the chef he returned and postured, “The chef said its not wagyu.”

Indeed.

Anyway, I still think its not necessary for any operator to still man the pans or manage the floor, what matters, is whether the restaurant delivers on its promise without their presence. The truth is consumers, in most instances, couldn’t care less who the chef is. What they care about is a great night out with people they like.

The best venues don’t rely on such a top-heavy influence every service, they’ve trained their staff to make every night as seamless as the last, irrelevant of who is on the pans or on the floor. It means as a diner we’re not left thinking , ‘It’s often better when you’re here’, and instead, ‘I hadn’t noticed you weren’t’.