Edward Leonard, CMC, Director of Culinary Operations and Executive Chef at The Polo Club of Boca Raton (Fla.), strives to be the best by following these seven guidelines.
I have been fortunate to travel the world and both work with and train under some excellent cooks and chefs who operate well above average and constantly seek to create culinary excellence in their kitchens. When I reflect on how I started leading my own culinary teams, I realize that these individuals taught me one of the most valuable lessons in my career: Leaders—not just chefs or managers—are the most successful as they making the task of striving for excellence a daily duty.
I believe that true leaders possess a handful of similar characteristics. They’re firm but fair. They have a vision and goals. They care about the team and the individuals on that team. And they go above and beyond to help those individuals succeed. This ultimately makes the team succeed and creates a foundation for a culture of culinary excellence.
It really has nothing to do with the size of your property or your team. Instead, it has everything to do with the commitment you have to being the best you can possibly be. To strive for excellence isn’t fleeting. It’s a daily task as important as mise en place. It’s having a constant desire to be the best you can be, while pushing those around you to be the best they can be. It takes passion and is a habit all your team members must embrace and practice. For it to work, it has to become part of your philosophy and identity.
Here are what I believe are the most important keys to culinary excellence. Adopt them if you’d like. Adjust them if you need.
- Excellence is a decision. Excellence doesn’t happen by accident, especially in busy kitchens. It’s a mindset that dictates how we operate and how we do what we do every single day from receiving a product in the door to the respect and methodology of preparing that product to the final dish we serve our members. It’s a commitment every team member has to make, even the stewards who clean pots and pans.
- Excellence requires strong leaders, not good managers. You must recruit and train excellent culinarians who are also dynamic leaders. The best clubs and resorts don’t have only one leader. Instead, the Executive Chefs at these properties build teams filled with quality culinarians who have strong leadership skills and can herald their vision and desire to operate at a higher level.
- Excellence must be communicated daily in a variety of ways. Try putting excellence quotes on your culinary work schedules, on signage in the kitchens, in a handout included with paychecks or in emails. Season every communication you have with your team with thoughts and measurement of excellences, good work habits and great food. The old saying, “Out of sight, out of mind” is true. Always let your team know why they are there and remind them of the standards you are collectively working toward.
- Excellence requires three things: passion, desire to be the best and follow through. People are drawn to and motivated by an energized work environment. Have you ever notice how challenging it is to manage a team during slow periods and in the off season? The daily energy of a property is at full tilt is missing during these times and the natural energy it creates isn’t there. But if you are energized, then your team will follow suit. If they see your passion, your desire to be the best and your follow through to ensure standards are met, they will mirror it and become peak performers who deliver stellar results and create outstanding member experiences.
- Excellence on a daily basis requires discipline. Achieving a standard of excellence is not easy with food. Preferences, likes, dislikes, and taste are all subjective. And so many things can go wrong at crunch time. But the more effort you put into coaching, inspiring, checking and ensuring good work habits are being consistently executed, the bigger the reward will be for you, the team and the members.
- Excellence is detailed oriented. The devil is in the details. Check mise en place. Have lineups. Taste and taste again. Coach constantly. Always try to improve your food, even something as simple as mashed potatoes. Constantly ask yourself, “Is this really the best it can be?” Challenge status quo. Ask why and ensure that the details always better the end result.
- Excellence must be practiced consistently over time. You can’t have a one-and-done dinner event at your club that everyone raves about and say you have an excellent culinary team. It’s a process. And if the burgers at lunch the next day aren’t cooked right or the turkey is dry and your members aren’t happy, you still have a long way to go.
As club executive chefs, the keys to culinary excellence are in your hands. Unlock your passion and become the type of leader who inspires everyone in your kitchen every day. Once you become that type of chef, you will see an increase in quality and consistency across all parts of your food-and-beverage operation. You’ll also develop better culinarians and have happier members and guests.