The kitchen can be a hot, tight, inhospitable place to work, with oil spitting, ovens radiating, fans buzzing, pans clanging, and servers demanding. Amidst the controlled chaos, a team of cooks must pull together, remain calm, and assemble a myriad of hot, tepid, and cold dishes. At other times, the kitchen has a quiet, breezy, and casual feel. All subjects are discussed and dissected, such as family, politics, music, and sports. Mundane daily tasks, from peeling favas or cleaning shrimp to spinning greens or rolling pasta, are performed while music blares in the background.
The key to maintaining a harmonious atmosphere during both pressure- packed and laid-back times is to understand that a kitchen is all about the people who work there. Getting diverse personalities to mesh as one under a wide range of conditions is the challenge of any chef or kitchen manager.
A positive kitchen atmosphere, one in which everyone can feel comfortable, has to be created. At Il Capriccio, we strive to give all employees the latitude to be themselves. We encourage input and criticism, and in return we expect professionalism and courtesy. We eat a “family” meal together every night, taste wines together, and work to achieve a sense of the Italian family spirit. Our goal is to foster an understanding of both the beauty and simplicity of the dining experience.
My management style is like that of a football coach: I use encouragement and humor, while challenging our team to work together as offensive lineman performing the grunt work for the betterment of the entire kitchen staff. I must determine the strengths and weaknesses of all staff members and make sure they know that life is not always fair, that everyone is not treated equally at every moment. My job is to understand who may need a pat on the back, or who may need a kick in the butt and then a pat on the back.
I also allow quite a bit of autonomy in every position. If a dishwasher has a particular way he wants the plates set or the silver placed, I’ll support him while conveying that message to wait staff and bussers. I give freedom to my crew on plating, seasoning, and creating specials. I permit staff members to set their own schedules, if reasonable and pending my approval. I allow flex time and trading. If their work is done and their stations are clean, I don’t expect them to stand around and fake work. We may sit outside on a hot day telling jokes and needling each other.
The most important benefit of sustaining a positive atmosphere in the kitchen is sustainability. This is critical in maintaining the style of food preparation our customers have come to expect. People come to Il Capriccio and stay a long time. A day chef came to us many years ago as a two-week, fill- in dishwasher and prep worker before moving to the pasta station. A chef de cuisine was Brazilian and spoke no English and started as a dishwasher, then quickly moved to the salad station, showing great promise as a cook. I sent him to Verduno, in Italy’s Piedmont region, to work with a good friend. When he returned he was in charge of all the ordering and setting the menu.
At most times, the kitchen works smoothly and efficiently, and there is always a lot of chatter and banter above the sounds of merengue, salsa, or reggae. If a new person comes in, works hard, and shows an interest in food, an opportunity usually can be created. If we see special talent, we embrace and nurture that aptitude; we try to match them up with friends in various hotels or restaurants across Italy so that they can grasp the Italian style of food, wine, and life embedded within the soul of Il Capriccio.
In our kitchen, the laughs come easily and the ribbing is good-natured. The conversation can be loud, silly and intense all at the same time. There are days when nothing seems to go right (late deliveries, ovens that won’t light, fans that break, and unexpected snowstorm) but through it all, the kitchen team pulls together, and the plates go out. We hope that our patrons in the dining room enjoy the experience and come back again, just like we all do in the kitchen.
Richard Barron is executive chef and co-owner of Il Capriccio, a Santé Award–winning restaurant in Waltham, Massachusetts.