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How much cooking does the head chef actually do?

Wed Apr 23, 2014 4:18 pm

I've often wondered this, but seeing one of the TV chefs struggle cutting through roasted red peppers today (presumably due to dull tools) brought this question back to top of mind. Ignore the whole TV chef statement as it's not really relevant to the question. In a large kitchen putting out high quality food where there is a sous chef, grill guy, sauce guy, etc. how much actual knife work is the head chef doing either during or before service? I've always operated under the assumption that at this level the chef is more of a management layer ensuring things run properly rather than a hands-on in the weeds worker bee. Does the chef bring / keep a knife kit at the shop? How much of the kit gets used on a regular basis, possibly on menu / new meal creation? Is he/she still interested in keeping their tools at peak performance and now that they have extra coin are high quality tools something most are interested in?

This is a broad question across the smaller local places putting out quality food all the way to the Eric Ripert and Daniel Boulud types (when they are actually at the restaurant).

I'm interested in the thoughts from those ITB and others of course.

And feel free to flame me for any/all mischaracterizations on what goes on behind the swinging doors. If you knew the extent of my food service experience you'd understand. :)

BTW, there is no claim that those on top are taking it easy while the people manning the stations are putting in all the effort. The question comes from my curiosity with how much board time the chef de cuisine still logs and an interest in what goes on back there.

Re: How much cooking does the head chef actually do?

Wed Apr 23, 2014 7:25 pm

In my experience, almost none. There have been some notable exceptions, but mostly knife work is reserved for the underlings. This is for a good reason, as a cook you are already working pretty ridiculously long hours. Ive had a couple of weeks where It was 14 hours a day, 6 days a week. I can't imagine throwing on managerial and business work onto of that.

That being said, you don't get to be a chef without putting in years of knife work. So there really isn't an excuse to struggle with dicing peppers;)

Re: How much cooking does the head chef actually do?

Wed Apr 23, 2014 7:33 pm

My current chef is a James Beard winner and awesome chef. The only time I've seen him hold a knife is for teaching sessions.

It also depends on the size of your establishment. My first chef worked beside us fairly often. One of my chef instructors did the majority of work at his own restaurant (by choice). It's case by case, but the larger the outfit, the less the chef usually does.

Re: How much cooking does the head chef actually do?

Thu Apr 24, 2014 6:11 am

+1. Totally depends on the restaurant. If I had a small place, if be cooking/testing ideas a lot. On the far end I'm sure Daniel boulud isn't making the veal jus anywhere.

Re: How much cooking does the head chef actually do?

Thu Apr 24, 2014 6:56 am

Our (hotel) kitchen has an executive chef, 2 restaurant chefs - AM and PM - a banquet chef, and a chef de partie. It is no exaggeration to say that I have never seen our executive chef cook, other than when he was making his own meals.

Re: How much cooking does the head chef actually do?

Thu Apr 24, 2014 7:26 am

My executive chef is mostly responsible for paperwork and meeting with all sorts of clientele for tastings, FOH managers for the hotel's restaurant, organizing numbers (labor, costs, inventory, etc.). He only cooks in the event of a special menu for important holidays. I do most of the knife work for him. It consider it an honor.

Re: How much cooking does the head chef actually do?

Thu Apr 24, 2014 8:17 am

I worked for a spell at a famous hotel in Palm Beach, FL. There where two Austrians who ran the show. The top chef basically sat in his office overlooking the kitchens. I would see him come out from time to time to taste things, and talk to his chefs in the various departments. His #2 was basically in charge of managing the labor, and the menus. He helped me cook one day, and taught me a thing or two. These were huge intimidating people. The chefs in the various departments cooked full time. I worked in stocks and sauces, Garde manger, and one outlet restaurant when I was there.

At lot of chefs are owners, and they cook until they can make enough profit to hire an executive chef. They are the hardest people to work for because they are micro managing every aspect of the operation.

The best chef I ever worked for put in about 50 hours of cooking time and 20 hours of management time a week. If I could find him I'd work for him for free, 20 years down the line.

Re: How much cooking does the head chef actually do?

Thu Apr 24, 2014 8:42 am

I don't work in the kitchen and this is just one experience.

I have a customer (a restaurant in Brooklyn) that I go to once a month and clean draft beer lines (1.5 hrs) plus repairs and maintenance bi-monthly. Been going 6 years now. I always say hi how are you chit chat with the top dog guy (same guy 6 years) I call him chef out of respect. I see him cooking, cutting, ordering people around, and menu planning.

2 months ago I pick up a book featuring one page lay outs on Brooklyn restaurants. I see picture of owner (who I see regularly) and the chef. I had never seen the "chef" before in my life. The guy I see and call chef is the second in command. I suspect the guy I call chef does his job well and the big chef only comes in when my chef is off.


Re: How much cooking does the head chef actually do?

Thu Apr 24, 2014 9:23 am

It's the same with most businesses. The larger the operation gets, the more the leader has to delegate the work.

There is a burger chain that started in Wisconsin called Culvers. They have hundreds of fast food restaurants around the country now but we remember when they first opened their first place.
We went into their Middleton location a couple weeks ago and the owner of the company was in there busing trays, cleaning tables and asking people if they wanted refills on their sodas. Sue and I were impressed! After years of doing retail we always scope out the joints we shop in to see how they're being run, and this made a big impression on us.

Now if we went in there a couple more times and witnessed the same thing we would think this guy was wasting valuable time, but once in a while it's great to get in there and muck it up. It teaches you humility and keeps you in touch with the customers.

Re: How much cooking does the head chef actually do?

Thu Apr 24, 2014 12:27 pm

Our Executive chef can and will jump into the action if one of our dining outlets needs help.
He'll prep
get stuff from the coolers, do a store room run or even demo how a dish should be done or bail you out of the weeds if you're getting hammered.

It all depends on the establishment and the chef really. Hyatt Regency Minneapolis, the Chef will only cook new menus as a demo for the area supervisors and not touch another meal until a menu change.
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