Leadership Lessons from a Chef

I am on holiday until August 12th; however, I could not resist sharing my very brief exchange with Rick Bayless, the award winning Chicago chef and owner of Frontera Kitchens. His web site says that Rick “…has done more than any other culinary star to introduce Americans to authentic Mexican cuisine and to change the image of Mexican food in America.”  Whenever I visit Chicago, a stop at one of Rick Bayless’ restaurants is on the top of my list.

My wife Faith and I had lunch at the Frontera Grill and Rick was there.  He was wearing a bright white chef’s jacket with the restaurant’s logo on it and I first noticed him posing for pictures.  Although he was then sitting down to his own lunch, I decided to see if I could get a quick word and found our 3 minute conversation very instructive.  My first lesson was about just how mistaken my own assessments about him could be.

Rick Bayless is by all definitions a celebrity chef, so I assumed that this was a special appearance at the restaurant.  After all, in addition to wait staff, line cooks and bar staff, there was clearly a general manager.  So, expecting a wide smiling, extroverted TV personality who, like so many celebrity chefs, was heavy on image, I asked the chef, “How often are you here?”  It turns out that the old saw is wrong- there IS such a thing as a stupid question.  It may be that I had interrupted his lunch, but in a serious, almost annoyed tone, Rick Bayless gave me an “I do not suffer fools well” look and said.  “I work here.  I am here every day.”  Luckily, things got better from there.

The term “chef” is from French, meaning chief and is more accurately chef du cuisine or chief of the kitchen.  But Rick Bayless is very hands-off in terms of kitchen operations.  He is, in his words, very hands-on about vision and development.  He described a very defined and purposeful training program involving all managerial and senior staff, including regular visits to Mexico for research and training.  There are others in the organization who translate that to the line cooks, menu design and day-to-day operations; but, the investment that he makes in ensuring that the vision and character of the restaurant is clear is remarkable.  He described a 15 minute window at 4:30 every day that “…everything stops and we do a quick training session.”  These sessions are short, intense and delivered by different people every day.  They can range from technical cooking skills to table service to wine selection.  In addition to his work in the kitchens, Bayless invests time and money into organic farming practices through his Frontera Farmer Foundation.

Although our conversation was short (I was after all disturbing his lunch) it was like an intensive on leadership.  Balanced between vision and execution, Rick Bayless showed a focus of attention in the place that a leader can have the highest impact.  And, it shows in both the quality of the food and the expertise and capability of the wait staff.