What makes a good kitchen leader?

Listening, teaching and communication are vital to leading a team of chefs

The ability to knock together a decent dish and menu is just one aspect of a head chef’s role in the kitchen. Knowing how to handle and lead a team is another. So what makes a good leader?

People in charge need lots of different qualities, and it’s certainly not a standard template; different operations will require markedly different approaches.

At a recent Restaurant magazine Roundtable discussion, all 12 attendees agreed that a leader is someone who can inspire and motivate their team, but how can head or executive chefs do that in a kitchen’s hectic environment?

Understand your staff

Stuart Gillies, head chef at Gordon Ramsay’s Plane Food at Heathrow Terminal 5, and chef patron of the soon-to-open Savoy Grill, says the key to being a good leader is ‘confidence and knowledge’ - confidence to talk to your team and knowledge to understand what makes each member tick.

“You have to get to know them and its essential to know their limitations because otherwise you’re asking for trouble,” he said. “A lot of kitchens in London are such high pressure areas. The team often make mistakes because they’re nervous and so keen to impress and do well that they fuck up the whole thing. A lot of it is about calming them down and getting the best out of them.

“Because your team ranges from people who are very confident without ability, unconfident with ability, and some who are introvert or extrovert, you need to know hoe to handle them individually. It’s not one rule for all; you have to know the individuals to get the best out of them.”

Having extensive knowledge of working in a Gordon Ramsay kitchen, Gillies is a supporter of the group’s notorious regimented kitchen day, but he says that while allowing chefs to be creative may work for some kitchens, for Plane Food the regime brings order and calm.

“The problem is that if everyone has the chance to express their creativity, where’s the structure? When you’re running a busy operation with food to that level, it’s like any other team with many players, everyone needs to do a specific job and do their job well. When they start varying their job spec and change things around it just falls apart.”

Allow room for creativity

Batting for the creativity corner however is Simon Cottard, executive chef of Le Café du Marche, who believes it is vitally important for kitchen leaders to encourage a chef’s creativity, which in turn improves their confidence.

“A lot of restaurants don’t give chefs any leeway and they can become a bit like a machine. There needs to be a way for chefs to express creativity, because they are naturally creative beings, and the last thing you want to do is squash that by dominating them. One thing we do is guide them through creating dishes and putting them on our specials menu and that gives them confidence.”

Cottard adds that to handle your team effectively, you need to approach them in a kind manner, as an alternative to a Ramsay-style ear-bashing, and in doing so you will earn their respect.

“A lot of chefs make mistakes sometimes, but we all mistakes. Be nice to them, don’t bash them down too much and kill their confidence. You should just tell them they’ve made a mistake and get on with it.”

The best approach he says is to listen to your staff and, if you’re still young and new to a leadership role, ‘stop being pigheaded’.

Listen and respond

Mild mannered executive chef of The Cinnamon Club and Cinnamon Kitchen Vivek Singh, puts his capacity for listening down to why six out of eight chefs are still with him at the Westminster restaurant, 10 years after opening.

“In job reviews, which we undertake every quarter on an individual basis, I ask my staff what it is that they want from their careers and try to help them achieve that, but the initiative needs to come from them.”

Listening to and understanding the level each member of his kitchen brigade is at, enables Singh to ensure each individual is constantly learning, a point he says is vitally important to keeping staff happy in their job roles.

“One thing I found is that so long as people learn one thing new each day, like how to season a piece of fish or how to present something, it goes a long way to keeping them hungry for more. It is hard to find things to teach them after a certain period, and even though they may have been around for a long time the challenge is not to get their minds into a stage where they think they can’t learn anything new.”

Singh also recommends that a good leader is one who shares the business’s bigger picture and core values with every member of staff, to allow them to understand how they fit in.

For more ideas on how to lead a kitchen team, watch our video of the Restaurant magazine Roundtable, part of our week-long special feature on Leading and Inspiring a Team.

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