Gangsters, Hackers, Misfits, Pirates and Kitchens

As I mused recently after listening to the song by Three 6 Mafia from the movie Hustle n Flow, I was unable to prevent myself from plagiarising the words to become “it’s hard out here for a chef”

Most of the better, talented cooks that I’ve worked with were able to perform and work under the gun, as it were. They were people who could think outside the box, apply the principles of System D or left (of centre) mid-field generals. Healthy, deviant minds are an asset to a kitchen. And, as always, their mis-en-place was pristine.

It was these guys, crafty in their craft, that made me wonder about chefs and their environment. More importantly, what could I take away from it.

It seemed to me that the criminal underworld had something to share. My thoughts centered on certain characteristics…….hustle, hack, copy/improve, and provoke. If it was for the greater glory of the restaurant, kitchen or menu, then I was all for it.

I thought of Mexican/Latin american narco-trafficantes and the detailed planning that went into their creative prison escapes. That led to a meditation of imposed barriers, whether it was a prison wall or a national boundary. And, just how is it that these criminal organisations manage to stay in business. Most restaurants that I have worked for are no longer in business. What does a chef require for business longevity besides creative thinking, long term planning and perseverance. The lesson for me was how do I respond to change. It seems that lots of restaurants fail because they are unable to adapt to changing market forces.

The micro detail for me was that criminal organisations have improvisation built into their daily behaviour. Kitchens can learn from this. As an independent chef, I could see that I held an advantage over chain or corporate restaurants because at my scale, innovation is not a set process.

Small kitchens are usually cash strapped so in order to build up your from scratch kitchen up from scratch, this exercise in innovation and creativity is borne out of neccessity.

The notions of questioning authority, acting outside the status quo of the normal system and the ability to see other cleverer ways of doing things are all fine with me. There are also lots of examples in the corporate world…….Blockbuster Video fell through the gaps and went out of business. Napster established itself by operating in grey areas to re-invent a business. In the nether world, Somali pirates brokes the rules to find solutions to their business problems, as did pirates in other times. When I was hired for a job as executive chef and told to run the kitchen like the US Marines, I knew in my heart of hearts that I could not work in that environment, especially since it seemed that my experience felt like I had been working on pirate vessels. I refused the job politely. And that restaurant is no longer with us.

For a small kitchen to survive, the recognised established order of the classical kitchen model needs to be streamlined. The dish-washer is press-ganged into prepping. your cold station needs to be more than a Garder-Manger. The line cook needs to be an Entremettier, Poissonier and Rotisserie. Your Sous Chef has to be more than a Saucier or Tournant. And you, as Chef, need to be more than all that …..and then some.