Posted 17 August 2003 - 02:54 AM
Yikes, I lose power for a couple of days, and I return to find this! This is the kind of thread that makes me happy to be part of this little community we have.
Where to start... I think we've split the discussion into two parts: recognition within the industry and recognition to the outside world. I don't know if these are two separate battles or one large conflict. Addressing both at once, I may at times simply summarize what others have already pointed out, but these are things that I think about and work toward and, generally, lie awake at night obsessing over...
1. Doing good work and keeping in touch. Obvious, right? Refine, refine, refine. Make your crunchy textures crunchier, your ice creams smoother, your tuiles and chocolate garnish thinner and finer. You don't necessarily have to be 'innovative'. We are all working in different markets and at different price points and for different clientele; it's a given that what sells in NYC might not go over in Alberquerque. What I can produce for a hundred covers and sell at $12 a pop, won't be practical in a hip, high volume tapas-oriented restaurant in DC. Making your stuff better than any other place in town is the only way to start. Good tasting, attractive, and consistent pastry is essential. Keeping yourself up to date with developments, be they across the street, across the country, or across the globe keeps us envious and hungry and inspired. And look beyond the surface- dismissing Adria because "foams don't sell in Peoria" is missing the point. You can integrate the ideas and concepts behind what these chefs are doing on every level of production. I don't know how else to say it, but that you must strive to make each plate, cake, or bonbon better than your last. And it does have to be a 24/7 job for as long as you can handle it. Sure, the names you see on a monthly basis- Payard, Torres, Gand, Silverton, etc.- while they don't toil away at all hours in the kitchen now, I'd bet they did at one time. And then one could argue that the remaining balance of their time is filled with phone calls, recipe development, photo shoots, and the like, but more on that later.
2. Spread your vision. So you are doing your best work, you're not spending too much money, and you are running things cleanly and efficiently. It all starts with your fellow employees. If you have assistants, make it so that they are excited to come to work every day. Whether they are making your bases or simply plating your ideas, make sure they believe in you. Care for them and teach them well, and get them to suscribe to your vision, because they will be your true legacy. As for the chef, you are still working under his or her overall vision, yet hopefully you are being given some autonomy and trust. Ask for guidelines, so you know how far to push them. Know what is expected of you, so you can exceed those expectations. When given an inch, take a mile; give them tastes on a daily basis, talk about things you've seen and want to try. Make every simple assignment a complex one. Make yourself irreplacable. Don't forget the little things- turning in your inventory early, typing up those menu changes instead of scrawling them down on a torn sheet of notebook paper. Be the golden boy/girl. I understand it can be a rare kind of relationship, but if the chemistry and support ain't there in the kitchen, you're not going to find it outside the kitchen. It's a great feeling when your chef brags about you to other chefs.
Ah yes, outside the kitchen.. the front of house. The servers are your conduit. They must taste each dessert and they must know every component and ingredient. If they love it, they'll sell it, because it is in their own best interest to increase the check average. Sure, we all know the career waitrons who'll never give a shit. Find the two or three who care, who glance at a copy of Food Arts now and then, the ones who know an Hermes tie from and Herme macaron, the ones who know the difference between fleur de sel and Maldon salt. If they like what you are doing and they buy into your vision, they are going to know why Blumenthal or Bras or Balaguer influenced that dessert and they are going to convey that to the guest. Buy them a beer or a glass of wine once a week and find out what the guests are saying about this dessert, or why that dessert isn't moving. Get over the the BOH/FOH differences; they must be your allies. And you have the benefit of learning some of the insight from the guest's perspective.
And don't forget the maitre d' and sommelier (ok, if you have them). Know what is on your wine list, make sure your somm or wine buyer knows your desserts. Heck, increase your own knowledge of wine, so that when you unveil a new dessert, you can say, "hey, I think we should order the Lustau San Emilio Pedro Ximenez sherry, because the caramel-malt-nut flavors in the dessert would work really well with it," or, "with the rhubarb component in this dessert, the acidity of a Bonnezeaux or a VT from Alsace would work better than a cloying Sauternes." Encourage your somm to put together a matching program- it doesn't have to be cheesy, just having the option and the inventory available. Feel confident and comfortable bitching and moaning if they serve a moscato with your chocolate dessert!
Perhaps only in those "elite" environments, the maitre d' can be your most valuable FOH asset. At their best they are your (and the chef's, of course) representative out on the floor. In a best case scenario, the chef, pastry chef and front man are a trio, a visible team. And as one once described his job to me, a good maitre d' simply stands in front of the food, believing in it much like a gallery owner or museum curator. Make sure you find support there too.
While you are not likely going to match the executive's chef's salary, at least try to put yourself in a position where you can command the same respect, as someone who efficiently runs their own department, and exercises creative control.
3. Beyond the kitchen. Is your name on the menu? Do you have business cards? How many regular guests do you know by name or by sight? If you have the opportunity to walk the dining room, by all means, clean yourself up and get out there! If you are doing the best work you can do, people will want to tell you how much they loved it and ask questions. I work in an open kitchen; it was bizarre at first. And while there are still times I just want to hide and do my thing, I see it as a unique opportunity. I'll put certain components and garnishes on the counter in full view just to impress and start conversations. Guests will want to know how that was made, and what exactly is that? This winter, if you put Buddha's Hand on the menu, keep a whole one, and see how long you can snake through the dining room, showing off this crazy piece of fruit!
Say yes to every ludicrous substitution and cater to every paranoid food allergy. Do you have a couple who dines in house on a weekly basis? A guy who drops a cool grand on that '82 Petrus? The cute couple who just got engaged? Have one or two VIP desserts- a surprise, something off the menu, two or three bites, something that makes people feel good. A pannacotta, a fruit soup... easy. Pay attention. Remember the crazy guy who only likes a Grand Marnier soufflé with extra creme anglaise, but also recognize the woman who has had everything on the menu and be prepared to whip up something new, just for her. Earn yourself some fans. At the same time, make sure they know who is responsible for it. You overhear that someone is going to Spain? Tell them they have to go to Cacao Sampaka and Espai Sucre. Give them the scoop. Tell them about that kooky eGullet website. Let them know you are down with what's up. Build a following among your regulars. They'll come to think of you whenever they think of pastry.
4. The outside world. The kitchen staff is now curious about what you'll do next, the servers are happy because the guests are buying and loving everything, and chef is happy because the percentage of covers ordering dessert is well above 50%. Word of mouth is spreading, and you even have a good amount of late tables and bar traffic coming in for dessert only. Pastry cooks at other restaurants in town want to come and stage for a day. On your one night off you go out to another restaurant and see a copy of something you did last month. You are the big PC in your town or burg.
If your restaurant or establishment has been open for awhile, chances are you are well in between the review cycle. But some local food writer catches wind of the buzz you are creating, and gives you a call... "We're doing a story on such and such..." Respond immediately. Chefs are notorious for being behind schedule and unorganized. They want one recipe, give them three. Keep your recipes on your computer- easy to access/edit and they can be emailed instantly. When the piece finally comes out, follow up with a thanks and an eagerness to work with them again in the future. Better yet, let them know when they have a story on their hands. Update your local press when you launch a new menu, or when you discover some new ingredient. Hype the local farmer who's getting you those beautiful peaches or that seedy asian market that is likely a chef's playground. You see some story in the NY Times of a chef using tobacco in desserts? Give the scoop to your local editor, saying that you can top that! They run a wire service bit on Pierre Herme using salt in his desserts, invite them into your place so they can taste something that you're doing, demonstrating why it works. It's simply about getting on their radar.
If you live in a modest metropolitan area, you could probably name a half dozen daily, weekly, or monthly publications with limited, local circulation. If you don't know the food editor or writer by name, it's time to do some homework. Know their phone numbers and email addresses; know who they think is good and not so. They need you to generate interesting copy, and you need them to get some attention. Use them. Same goes with your local radio and television stations; if you or your restaurant has something to promote, give it a shot. They all love free food- especially dessert.
4b. Take your show on the road. So you may not get an invite to Aspen or the Masters in Carmel, but once you get a fair amount of notice, you'll get asked to do all sorts of events- it might be a class for the church ladies, or a big charity gig. If your higher ups are willing to donate the food, you should be willing to donate the time. At first, say yes to everything. You'll learn a lot about setting up a demo and speaking to people the more you force yourself to do it. Doing a walk around tasting for two hundred across town will gear you up for the eventuality of shipping boxes of food to the next state to cook onsite for six hundred. It will come. And then you can be a bit more selective of the events you do. It is really important to talk to the people, and to work hard on how you present yourself. A lot of chefs phone it in with these kind of things. Challenge yourself- it will be noticed.
5. Going national. It's sad but true. If you read about a chef in one of the glossies, or even Food Arts or Nation's Restaurant News, chances are they have PR representation. I vividly remember the day my naivete and innocence were shattered when I realized that many of my chef heroes made the big time with the help of publicists. I was under the delusion that chefs acheived fame simply of their own merit. Well, merit obviously plays a major role (though we all have our own lists of famous chefs who shouldn't be!), but good PR can be beneficial in at least getting your foot in the door, and getting on the radar screens of the big boys. Even if you find yourself with those resources available, it will still require a lot of work on your part. The deadlines are shorter, the restrictions tighter, and the competition for that space is more fierce. And then you have to keep pressure on the firm that represents you, reinforcing your vision and goals. You may want to be in Art Culinaire, but left to their own devices you might be lucky to surface in Restaurant Business. Just like the local press, the national press need us too. And despite what the evidence within the industry shows us, there is a slow creep of interest from the media. Whether it will boost the profession outside the big names... I don't know.
So yeah, as Fat Guy noted, it all begins with not "sucking". I think it helps to have some kind of vision, something personal. And professionalism, both in the kitchen and out is key. There is also a lot of necessary motivation and work outside the kitchen, which I think FG meant by the word "de-ghettoize". It's not difficult, it's just a matter of commitment.