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Amuse-Bouche: What it takes to be a chef

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By Scott Mechura EBS Food Columnist

Much like any person in a leadership role, being a chef requires certain skills (both inherent and learned), intelligence, talents, and personality traits. Leaders and managers are in the spotlight in most every situation. Each discipline comes with specific unwritten rules, and being a chef is no exception.

I have an old friend Peter who is a skier. He’s one of the best skiers I’ve ever seen, and according to people in the know, one of the best competitive powder eight skiers in the world.

Peter once told me that when he would choose his line during competition, he always chose the hardest line. That way, he was always pushing himself as well as forcing the judges to acknowledge his choice and take his difficult approach into consideration. And it occurred to me that, as a chef, I too always choose the “hard line.”

If we have to split the team into two groups to divide and conquer a project, I choose the less skilled team members. “I can make up for their inexperience,” I say to myself. As a chef, it is my duty.

Part of the day-to-day flow in a restaurant is the minutia: Did you walk by a dirty dish or pan and not take it to the dish room. When you used a roll of plastic wrap and it was tearing on the end, did you fix it or leave it? As a conscientious chef, you pick up that dirty dish and you fix that role of plastic wrap for the next team member. As a chef, it’s your duty.

Depending on the particulars of the restaurant where a chef operates, you may work the line every day. You may work the line occasionally, or during challenging situations, such as when you’re a “man down,” or someone is sick. In any case, chefs are not afforded the luxury of putting their head down and simply working their station. You still must have your radar tuned to what everyone else is doing. All day long. As a chef, it’s your duty.

I once employed a sous chef who compared line cooks and chefs to the Marines: “Last to know but first in. A constant state of readiness,” he used to say. No matter what time of day, or what you’re doing, as a chef when there’s a problem in the kitchen, your phone rings.

I was once on a golf course in the middle of a tournament when my phone began to, well, blow up. Two of our staff were suddenly out for various reasons and I was needed as soon as possible. After a lift from a groundskeeper, a borrowed car and a plethora of choice words, I whisked in to the kitchen ready to jump into one of the previously unmanned stations with a giant smile.

I greeted the staff, laughed, and went about my business. I was angry, but that is wasted energy and emotion that, as a leader, you cannot afford to access much less show. As a chef, it’s your duty.

We hold many things dear to us as chefs: a love of food and creativity; working closely with others who share your passion; trying to stay ahead of the game to keep your restaurant relevant and exciting. But the most important job a chef has is to keep engaged, educated, and ready to lead and teach everyday. As a chef, it’s your duty.

Scott Mechura has spent a life in the hospitality industry. He is a former certified beer judge and currently the Executive Chef at Buck’s T-4 Lodge in Big Sky.

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