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Two Lessons and a Baker’s Dozen

February 29, 2016 | Frank Bonanno

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In the late 90’s, when I wasn’t being paid to cook, I was usually staging—during culinary school and after, and later again when I landed my first exec job. I worked both in Europe and in a half dozen cities in the US, and the most overwrought experiences by far were the weeks spent under assault in New York kitchens run by French chefs. In those institutions, in those days, there was a militaristic tone to running a line, a mood of anger and intimidation, of purple faced men with mighty talent and mightier voices. I learned in those kitchens, of course I learned—the point of a stage is to learn and be inspired—but I didn’t acquire any new skills. What I took away from those restaurants was a renewed passion for camaraderie–quiet professionalism. Laughter. Those kitchens reminded me of what I didn’t want and they brought two major life lessons to my profession:

1. Keep your nose down and work.

Until you have a valid point or concern to bring to the work at hand, talking is nothing and working is everything. Chef yelling in your ear? Nose down, peeling potatoes.
Shortage of utensils? Dirty pans piling up? Schedule doesn’t look right? . . . Find your own utensils, step into the dish pit, cook the crazy hours and just keep your eyes on the work, your mouth in check. As a cook in a new kitchen, the only way to learn is to observe and respectfully question; the only way to perfect is to practice–and because nothing is ever really perfect, you’re going to have to practice some more. And then again some more after that. Let your cooking be your words. I practice cooking every day and let the food speak for itself.

2. No yelling in the kitchen

Cooking is an act of love, of giving, of sharing. Cooking is communion. Why bring agitation into the kitchen? The bluster of those 90’s kitchens was a waste of spittle and a squashing of new talent. There is no mis-step, shortage, or anger that can’t be tackled at the end of service. I love to cook, and if we’re working together, you and I, I want you to love to cook. If you’re on the opposite side of the line, I want you to love this restaurant business, our food, our patrons. I have made a conscious choice to try to guide the cooks in my kitchens—to suggest menu and recipe alterations rather than insist upon them, to demonstrate technique instead of barking at flaws, to have kitchen conversations revolve around cookbooks and articles and dining and plating instead of our clients and peers.

Those are pretty basic truths. Don’t yell. Keep your nose down. Work hard. They resonate with the type of leader I try to be—more of a coach than an owner, more of a mentor than a boss. In the fifteen years since Mizuna opened, no cook’s ever stormed off the line—or any line where I’m cooking for that matter, and I’m eight restaurants deep. In an industry notorious for high turnover rates, I’m lucky enough to have folks that stick around for 2-4 years rather than 6-12 months. Even better: people leave my restaurants to open spots of their own. How great is that?

All this on my mind as Denver heads into Restaurant Week—how nicely this city is shaping up as a Restaurant Town, how proud I am to walk into so many restaurants in Denver (or Golden, or New York, or New Zealand[!]) opened by folks who were once part of Bonanno Concepts. Jacqueline even drew out a map–tacked it to the wall above her desk as inspiration. It’s a nice round number of restaurants she took note of, too.

A good baker’s dozen.

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