Change is Needed and Change is Coming

By | December 20th, 2017

Edward Leonard, CMC, Director of Culinary Operations and Executive Chef of The Polo Club of Boca Raton (Fla.) believes chefs need to offer their cooks a better work-life balance.

So you want to be a cook, a chef, run a restaurant, own a restaurant, or perhaps work in the kitchen of a club, resort or hotel. You went to culinary school or maybe you apprenticed. Maybe you worked your way up the ladder.

From the start, you were warned of the long hours and long days ahead. You were told you will have no life outside of work. You nodded and accepted that this passion of yours was your calling and the sacrifice is all part of the gig. You were enamored by food channels and reality cooking shows. You plan to make your mark as the next big star.

You land a gig in a kitchen. You begin working for a talented chef or in a large volume operation and reality sets in. “Damn, they weren’t kidding,” you think. “This is hard work and it takes more time than I planned.”

You keep at it, though, hoping the balance will come. You eventually find your way into a top restaurant, maybe even a Michelin property. You find yourself working from 1 PM until 1 AM five or six days a week. You are at work while all of your friends and family are off, having fun and enjoying holidays together. Something clicks and you begin to question whether this career is what you want. You love to cook. You have a passion for it. But having no balance between work and life is wearing you down.

Take the Time

by Ed Leonard, CMC

Take the time to cook and bake from the heart with care;
It is the source of why you are here.

Take the time to reflect every day
and have a passion for our craft in a big way.

Take the time to always learn and grow.
You must always expand on what you already know.

Take the time to truly believe in yourself and what you can do.
If you don’t at first then who will.

Take the time to respect the foods of our land.
Besides cooking properly, it is the true secret to a great dish at hand.

Take the time to treat all you meet with respect along the way.
You never know when you may have to call on them someday.

Take the time to teach and share what you know.
The reward back is two-fold.

Take the time to make a difference in all that you do.
It is a rare privilege experienced by few.

Take the chance to do what they say can’t be done.
Achieving such odds is the real fun.

Take the time to always be the best you can be.
That is the only measure anyone should see.

Take the time to laugh and have fun.
A day is complete when this is done.

Take the time to balance your life and as you reach for the stars.
Do not forget those who have helped from afar.

For all the accolades that will come and go your way.
They will mean nothing at all if there is no one there for you at the end of the day.

Take the time and always be true for the only meaning of success is what pleases you.

At the same time the chefs, managers, and GM you work for wonder what your problem is. “This is what you signed up for,” they say. “You knew the drill.”

And perhaps you did. But that’s not enough.

So maybe you leave the kitchen to do something else. Or maybe you venture out to find a kitchen that gives better work-life balance. Maybe it’s at a smaller property where you work only five days a week. Or maybe you work at a property that closes during the slow season.

You’ve learned the hard way that this job isn’t easy. It’s all-consuming. But we need you. So we must change.

I have been cooking for more than 40 years. I love my profession and I am consumed by what I do. I live it 24/7. Those who know me well can attest that I walk the walk and I do not let up.

I have been fortunate to have had many opportunities. And I have achieved what some might call success. But when I reflect on my life, I wish I had been smarter about spending more time with my family or taking more time for myself. Maybe the things I left behind would not be as they are.

I was taught to work hard, not question the hours, and give it all I had and then some. My hunger and appetite for knowledge and travel were all-consuming. I wanted to make a difference through food. When I think back at the pace of my career, my job, my role on culinary team USA for 10 years, my position as ACF President, my position as WACS vice president, and how I authored cookbooks, I realize how crazy it’s all been.

I continue to mentor, teach and develop, but I have noticed that many of the individuals coming into my kitchens are not willing to give up their lives for their career. They want balance. They want a weekend night or day off. They want to attend family and social gatherings even if they’re held on a weekend. They want two days off, not one.

In each of the 12 interviews I held for chef positions this year, I was asked what the schedule would be. I have never been asked this before. Some of these individuals left the property excited, but when they returned home to digest and talk the opportunity over with family, that excitement faded and was followed by a morning email apologizing, thanking me for the opportunity, and explaining how they are unwilling to sacrifice their lives for their job no matter what the opportunity might do for their career.

I got a text not long ago from a close friend and colleague. He told me how he put up a schedule and one of his chefs came to him in the office and told him that he simply couldn’t work 14 days straight. He promised to work hard and give it his all when he was there, but 14 days straight wasn’t possible.

Of course, as Executive Chefs, we’re upset when a member of our team comes to us and says no. But I told him to take a step back. That individual wasn’t wrong saying he needed time away. Even as leaders, we shouldn’t schedule ourselves like this. We need to be smarter. We need to find a way to offer balance. We need to be part of the change.

If we as club chefs do not change, the labor issue we face will get worse. The talent pool will get even smaller. The next generation of cooks and chefs is different than older generations. They crave instant satisfaction, instant results and they’re plugged in all the time. They would rather have less money and less overtime in exchange for a better work-life balance.

This doesn’t mean they are not hard workers. Nor does it mean they don’t have talent or passion for what they do. Quite the opposite, actually. A cook recently asked me why he had to give up his life in order to pursue a career he loved. The thing is, he doesn’t. And it’s my job to harness that passion and find a way to cultivate this cook so that he can have both. I do this by giving my chefs two days off a week at least 60% of the year. When they are rested and happy at home, they are happy to work and give all of their effort for the program we have here at Polo.

The amount of people with culinary degrees leaving our profession is sad. Here at Polo, we have a Director of Security who is a great person and is full of life. He is a graduate of one of the top culinary schools in the industry, but he chose to be a Director of Security, was in the armed forces, and was a policeman. Yet he loves to cook. He sends me pictures of the dishes he makes at home. They sound so flavorful and he when he talks about food, you can see the excitement. Even though he clearly has talent and passion, he left the industry because of the hours and the toll it took on his personal life.

Some chefs and managers will disagree that we need to help our team find work-life balance. They still believe this is what the industry demands and is simply the way things are—but let me be the one to tell you that change is coming.

Young cooks value balance and are more open-minded. We should capitalize on this and reward them with time off.

We also need to mentor, inspire, teach and coach these individuals regardless of their level of schooling or training. We need to teach them to work quickly, to work with a sense of urgency (I have even had to say to some, “You walk around like you’re a member of the club, not an employee.”), and to master the basics.

Here is how I believe we should manage today’s staff to achieve long-term success:

  • Focus on creating educational kitchens
  • Develop a culture that coaches, inspires and motivates in a firm but fair way
  • Teach a sense of urgency
  • Place people in positions where they can succeed
  • Have empathy
  • Ensure clear communication and expectations
  • Manage the process not the person with standard operating procedures
  • Develop formulas over recipes for consistency
  • Support work-life balance
  • Demand 100% effort and commitment on the job
  • Make the times we have to work long hours the exception and not the rule

You may have to add additional staff to achieve these goals. But this path of leadership will transform our industry and the people in it.


5 Responses to Change is Needed and Change is Coming

  1. Jerry Schreck says:

    Very well stated Chef. Young chefs today do have a great work ethic, are willing to break their back for you but just don’t buy into living the job. And after 40 years like you Chef, I have to respect that. I see it in my own children as young professionals in their respective industries. They set parameters and have a better life balance that I did at their age. I find that I need more staff to accommodate a team that does not want constant overtime when it is available. Any way you look at it, labor budgets have to be affected in order to retain this very valuable commodity. Sounds like a great session at CMAA World Conference where your voice could be heard by those that approve annual budgets. Many club managers are not completely aware of the depth of the culinary staffing issue in the U.S. I have found that it is necessary to talk to chefs more about their schedules and less just posting. I have become more organized in the past few years regarding when extra hours were needed. When you are sensitive to their personal time needs it builds trust and other members of the team see that. It is our biggest challenge today as chefs. The hiring of young talent, keeping but not coddling that talent and leaving our operations way better than when we arrived. Great topic chef. Thanks for sharing and inspiring chefs like me along the way.

  2. Susan Lefferts says:

    I didn’t realize how great the demands are when working as a chef in a club. Maybe our membership needs to be made aware, so we will be more inclined to thank the staff on a regular basis for their hard work. It is a tough profession, but you are truly appreciated at Polo.

  3. Kenric Hunt Executive Chef says:

    I’ve enjoyed reading this article, as a club chef these are the issues of NOW!! I’m in a market where talent is very hard to find. (college town) While read this lets me know I’m moving in the right direction with plans similar in your outline.

    Thanks for the insight!!


  4. Mark Linden , a chef for 45 years says:

    I read with great interest the article by Chef. I agree, however I also strongly feel there is a greater issue out there and that deals with public perception and expectations. It seems it is ok for shops to close early if there are issues, it seems it is ok to be out of something, it is ok that services are suspended due to holidays. It seems ok to have your doctor be late, yet we on the other hand are required to rise above dome pretty impossible situations at times and still be ready at the appointed time, irregardless. If we are dragging due to an impossible rush, short staffed, it seems it is the end of the world and we are comping the bill. Seems like their needs to be a concentrated effort on our part to educate others as well as to close when needed. It is acceptable everywhere else. What a delimma we face.

  5. Chef you and many other Chefs have made great sacrifices to your personal life. What makes one great at work is not always what makes one great outside of work. Take time to thank those who love you and treat them kindly. They are not your work brigade.
    Balance is a struggle for many careers. What makes me happy outside work often makes me more productive when I return to work. 24/7 culinary works for some, but not all. To fill open positions in a modern brigade, I applaud Ed ifor starting a balance conversation.

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