TEACH, DON'T TRAIN
My first impression of my first restaurant kitchen was…WOW! It was a bright, organized, almost serene place. The glassware twinkled and the dinner plates squeaked when you ran your finger over the rim. The silverware was stacked in precise military piles and mirrored your image when you looked closely at the bottom of a soup spoon or ladle. The pots hanging overhead were polished to a sheen that made them all appear new even though they were well used daily in this popular restaurant on the shores of the Great South Bay.
As I roamed the kitchen waiting for the chef who had hired me, I was immersed in the distinct smell of fresh food cooking in an immaculately clean kitchen. It reminded me of the soothing aroma that greeted me in the local bread and cake bakery early on a Sunday morning. I knew, at that moment, that I was home.
“How do I do in this busy place?” Chef Vanders intoned as he pushed through the swinging doors that led to his dining room. “This is your thought; no?” He extended his arms embracing the entire kitchen area and rotated in a 360 degree circle. “Magnificent, no?” he said, smiling.
“Magnificent, yes,” I replied. “How do you keep it all so orderly and immaculate?”
“I don’t,” the chef, answered. “My sanitation supervisors do. Come, we will meet.”
Chef Vanders hired all his scullery help from the local Catholic home for the mentally handicapped. All the “sanitation supervisors” in his kitchen were developmentally disabled. Dressed in immaculate white kitchen uniforms, each was diligently going about his scullery task with vigor and focus. The chef greeted them warmly as if they were restaurant patrons rather than dish and pot washers.
“You must first hire people who are proud to do the job you offer. Only then can you teach them to be excellent,” he remarked as we entered his walk-in box. The produce was fresh, crisp, clean, labeled and colored in the deepest reds, greens, and yellows I had ever seen.
“Everyone who works in my kitchen contributes to our excellence,” he said, “I teach them to understand why they do what we ask them to do. They are all specialists, you see. We are professionals. Professionals working together to achieve one goal can only create excellence.”
I worked for Victor Vanders for five years at every cooking station in his kitchen. I watched him teach, with great care and sensitivity, a steady stream of “sanitation engineers” who all became professionals.
He took the time to teach me the difference between locally-grown produce and produce that had been picked in a foreign country and shipped thousands of miles in cold storage.
He taught waitresses to love customers because the customer was contributing to the welfare of their children.
He taught us all that we were responsible for one another’s success. He taught that kindness, sharing, joy and respect for one another was how professionals achieved great things.
But most of all he taught me that if you start with disdain, you train. When you start with respect, however, you teach.
“Teaching is very different from training,” he said. “Teaching respects the person and the job equally. I welcome people into our family of professionals. I teach them to become someone who will be very important to our efforts.”
I helped create thousands of carefully-prepared meals over the five years I worked with Chef Vanders. Every creation was a joy. I was anxious for the customer to see and taste every meal. The chefs, waitresses, and even the busboys, watched the customer’s reactions with expectation, almost like watching little children unwrap surprise presents under the Christmas tree. When the customer would “ooohh” or “aaahh” or chew their first bites with a look of delight, the servers and chefs would give one another a knowing smile and a satisfied nod.
Excellence begins with respect. Hire only people you respect and who respect you and your restaurant. They are easy to teach because they are eager to learn.