Are you a Chef or a Cook?

By | January 17th, 2018

For Penelope Wong, Glenmoor Country Club’s Executive Chef, cooking is the most important and best part of her job and she is often surprised when other chefs aren’t as hands on.

I am a cook. I will always be a cook. You can strip away the title from my coat. You can strip away the three certification letters behind my name. I’ll still be a cook—and that fact doesn’t bother me one bit.

I’m one of those cooks who likes to Instagram pictures of beautiful creations…A LOT. When I see other chefs, two questions I am asked often are: “Are you really making all of those pictures you post?” and “Are you really in the kitchen that much?” It always surprises me when other chefs ask me these questions. And it makes me wonder why these are even questions in the first place.

When I tell them that I am the one making all the dishes I post, I’m typically met with surprise, followed by a barrage of questions including but not limited to:

  • What is your daily schedule?
  • How big is your staff?
  • How many sous chefs do you have along with procurement staff?
  • What is the extent of your responsibilities as they pertain to paperwork and budgeting?

It seems as an Executive Chef of a major country club operation, I spend far more time in the kitchen than most. So in response to these questions, I ask: Isn’t this why we got into this business in the first place?

I can only speak for myself, but I sure as hell didn’t get into this business to babysit my staff. And I sure as hell didn’t get into this business to count how many buns I have on a shelf or to sit around writing budgets for how many buns I’m supposed to have on said shelf.

I have a staff of about twenty, including two sous chefs, one demi chef, one banquet chef, and five utility staff. I do my own ordering twice a week. I handle all invoice billing and AP issues for my department. I write the weekly schedule. I handle the fiscal year budget for the F&B department (not just my food cost and sales). I implement all new menus in both member dining as well as banquets and member events. I personally train my staff on each new menu item, whether it’s one of my sous chefs, my demi chef or my line cooks. I handle any necessary PR for my staff and our operations with the membership. I attend monthly finance committee and board meetings. But my most favorite role of them is all is that I cook on the line with my line cooks.

On any given busy Friday night service, you’ll find me working lead sauté with one of my sous chefs to help plate and back expo. Many times, you’ll see my live feed on Instagram of our Friday night sauté adventures and shenanigans.

So now it’s my turn to ask you a question: “Isn’t this what we’re supposed to be doing as club chefs?”

Recently, in speaking with a good friend while trying to set up a CMC guest chef dinner here at Glenmoor CC, the chef said to me, “Oh damn, I better step up!” I asked why. He responded, “You cook ten times more than I do!”

In a separate conversation with a different Chef, we were talking about posting on Instagram and he asked, “You’re not really cooking all these dishes, are you? Or are you taking these pictures from the pass?”

What??!?

A lot of the chefs I talk to always end up telling me the same thing: they’re jealous because I “get to” cook so much more than they do.

This is simply something I don’t understand.

But, as with anything, there has to be a flip side. I look at what these other chefs are doing and accomplishing with their lives and I think, “Wow, how great it is that they’re training for another competition!” Or “Wow, how great it is that they’re so involved with that organization!” Or “Wow, how great it is that he’s committing so much time in preparing for the CMC exam!”

Then I think to myself, “How do they find the time to commit to these other projects?”

I suppose with anything you do in life, it’s all about finding balance. Ultimately and more importantly, what matters the most is doing what you want to do. I love cooking. I love cooking at work. And I make it a point to do what I love doing at work. At the end of the day, if I were big into competitions, I’m sure I would focus my efforts on becoming a competition chef. Or if mentorship was my focus, I would become more involved with organizations outside of my operations here at the club.

Instead, I busy myself with being extremely hands-on as a cook and I recognize the value in my fellow chefs who busy themselves with these other outlets to foster their passion and creativity while running their own operations.

There is a downside to my choice, though. Being so hands-on can make it hard to let go. Rather than leaving work on a slower night at a decent hour, I find myself constantly racing home by 8:30 to put my daughter to bed.

A few weeks ago, as I was hustling to get home, I stopped by a neighboring club to drop off a piece of equipment we borrowed. It was 7:45 pm on a Thursday evening. When I walked into the kitchen, I asked if the chef was around. His sous chef chuckled and said, “Hell no! It’s almost 8:00! Chef doesn’t stick around this late!” I found myself envious of his schedule as I left to race across town to be home before my daughter’s bedtime.

Although I call myself a cook more so than a Chef, some may say this characteristic is the Chef in me—my inability to let go at the end of the day and voluntarily stick around through dinner service, just in case.

So what kind of Chef are you? Or are you a cook at heart, too?

One Response to Are you a Chef or a Cook?

  1. Lawrence McFadden says:

    The greatest compliment to most culinarians is that they are a great cook, the term Chef is part of the framing of their life. Cook is the craft all is measured. Truly only as good as your last meal… Tough because of the very subjective craft where opinions are not lacking.

    BUT….measurement of a great professional is how many chef’s he or she produces… while micro-management can creep in, the biggest challenge is allowing others to grow, create and execute one’s vision. It’s best to be next to them not in front of them. The comment about when do others find time could be answer as it’s part of the job description to create a brand presence for the club and kitchen across the culinary landscape not whole proprietary access of ones talents from only special membership group. Recently, our kitchen was exposed to a off property catering, visit to farmer jones roots conference, and a down town James Beard dinner which brought new life to a public that doesn’t have the privilege of membership. Branding for most clubs is a new strategy and culinary excellence is leading the charge, creating a culinary culture not club food. The year a few of our culinary talents starting teaching at a college to demonstrate the serious requirement of our club in the discipline of decorum, leadership, organization and execution. No better way to talk about professionalism then to stand elbow to elbow with the student and be the role model, especially in this day of “duck dynasty”, tattoos, and facial augmentation.. One must belong to a “tribe” and that tribe is the American workforce. While individualism is a key part of a human make up; team, tribe and cultural acceptance is true kinship. Yesterday returning from the Greenbrier, asking the talented chefs do the apprentices self govern themselves in appearance, mannerisms, and execution. A resounding “Yes” from all 13 Sous Chefs. You can see the tribe looked the same, and the food was consistent in the 14 outlets. Something to be said for conformity. How can we teach this if we don’t leave the kitchens? How can we inspire and open doors for our staff if we don’t leave our property? The past 6 months we have hired a Michelin Star chef and visionary CMC candidate. Within two weeks we were flooded with applications, turning over 50 percent of the kitchen staff from job descriptions to career aspiration seekers. How can one recruit the best of staff if future candidates don’t experience their food and talents? 90 percent of my kitchen staff over the years came seeking my brand, not necessary working in my hotel. Those go hand and hand, Mobile 5 Star and Master Chef or Olympian. Ask any successful chef and they will tell you that they don’t want to leave the kitchen they have to leave the kitchen in order to create excellence for the very people that pay for the food. Not be confused with celebrity chefs who brand themselves on the outside shingle only never to be present.

    Years ago I would laugh and point at those who said we must “give back”, convincing myself its better to learn a new technique or topic if away from the kitchen.. So there I was 80 hours a week doing what I had been told to do by my mentors, their mentors and our culture of, “Where is the Chef at 10pm..? It wasn’t until years later that giving back meant spending time with others both personal and professional… In 2006 I chose to leave the kitchen so I could also” tuck” my children into bed knowing that they would not be staying up at 10pm for my trek home. We had a Chef in a California property who left work everyday at 4pm, and yet had the highest culinary scores in the company and produced the most Executive Chefs…. Being so intrigued by this I went to stager for two weeks to view his systems.. How could he create excellence without being on property. In fact he was a gifted artist, rock climber, musician and all the while I knew how to cook with no hobbies.. Convincing myself that only through 80 would I be accessible to fraternal acceptance. Yes a chef needs to be present, but testing the field, responsibilities and training of the staff is part of the fun. Unfortunately, for my past guests mistakes were some of my best lessons and could only have been done if my Chef didn’t leave me alone to my own demise.

    In 1995 was asked to take the CMC examination being one the youngest, but certainly not of the best… So take the examination in my twenties, or be more confident in the 30’s. Why would anyone want to know I was the youngest? Maybe my personal ego would be stroked…Why should they care? Would it distract from my talents? How does that help my brand? Who remembers ages people only remember results? One must always look at their brand as the value proposition and not the measurement. When I didn’t practice for the CMC I didn’t it right their in my kitchen, tested by my staff which created an emotional experience and pride they still talk about today… All culinary staff want to leave their lives through the Executive Chef, hence why we brag about who we work “for” Great culinary kitchen do say with, they say for.. Interesting as it goes against all leadership team building readings.. Maybe, “Sous” under had some definition of thoughts.. I certainly didn’t work “with” Chef Handke, I work “for” him… Never to be mixed in use 30 years later…. Chef and I would go to Olympic practice together over the weekends at CIA, drive all night and arrive back in the kitchen in the morning for breakfast service. That is the lessoned learned about being out of the kitchen, never take more time than necessary.. Never take advantage of the owner or establishment that pays your check.. They must go hand and hand, still to this day.. Always back the next day… Those are lesson as well for your future staff Penelope is when chef left she came back directly and worked the entire day even when “we” know she worked the entire weekend somewhere else..

    Gifting ones knowledge and time greatest motivation to step away and allow your career to influence others. This week our chef’s leave to finalize his last day of the master chef, while my stomach will be nervous for the 3 club events this weekend, my vision of a culinary culture just go brighter if he is successful. What is the 20 that give me the 80? Who is sharpening their saw? What the value proposition for the members of the club? While he will be missed those members know our Chef is making a brighter future for “Their” club.

    Penelope, wishing you best of luck in your journey for balance excellence and continued confidence in your staff. Noting my response their are many approaches and only one that matter is yours.. Culinary regards, Lawrence

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