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In Kitchen Confidential, his best-selling memoir about restaurant life, chef Anthony Bourdain describes in lurid detail the mayhem behind closed kitchen doors. Bourdain’s account chronicles a ribald, adrenaline-soaked culture, painting a loving portrait of a workplace inhabited by, in his words, a thuggish assortment of drunks, thieves, and psychopaths. Wound up to the near breaking point, Bourdain’s kitchen seems always on the brink of chaos.
But night after night, the kitchen crew at New York’s celebrated brasserie Les Halles, where Bourdain is executive chef, serves a capacity crowd with speed, precision, and unwavering quality. Bourdain’s staff choreographs hundreds of dinners a night under brutal conditions. And his staff, like his customers, keeps coming back for more.
What’s his secret? While business executives increasingly embrace flat structures and employee self-actualization, Bourdain uses an antiquated command-and-control management style with a rigid hierarchy and an inviolable code of conduct. The counterintuitive result: a freewheeling and politically incorrect workplace with a tribal culture that demands—and nurtures—mutual respect, hard work, superior performance, and absolute loyalty.
Bourdain, who took time off from the kitchen at Les Halles to complete his recent book and his Food Network series, A Cook’s Tour, spoke with HBR associate editor Gardiner Morse about the paradoxical synergy of order and chaos in his kitchen. These edited excerpts of their wide-ranging conversation illuminate Bourdain’s sometimes unorthodox strategies for building and leading superior teams—and suggest that a chef uses tools that wouldn’t be out of place in the corner office.
Kitchen Confidential is on the BusinessWeek best-seller list. Why are businesspeople reading your book?
Maybe for the same reason they were reading Sun Tzu’s Art of War for a while. They sense that running a kitchen and running a business have some overlap, like business and war, so they think my book might have some useful lessons. I also think the culture appeals to them. A lot of businesspeople have worked dunking French fries or waiting tables at some point in their lives and remember that time fondly. The kitchen is one of the last true meritocracies, where you are judged entirely on job performance. And it’s also one of the last completely politically incorrect workplaces, where you can say anything at any time and behave more like an outlaw than in any other business.
It’s got that “MASH” work ethic that’s probably very attractive to businesspeople with a director of human resources who insists that they file ten management reports every time they chew somebody out. Kitchens have a shoot-from-the-hip, Wild West environment that’s probably very appealing to somebody who can’t fire the knucklehead down the hall.
Your kitchen staffs have been amazingly loyal and productive under the most brutal conditions. How do you account for that?
The old-school ethic, the hierarchy that I live by, is very much a product of Auguste Escoffier’s “brigade system.” Escoffier served in the army during the Franco-Prussian War, and he ran his famous kitchens with military precision.
The brigade system divided the kitchen into functional areas. Each one had a command structure like the army’s. Every station was led by a chef de partie, and that person was in charge of his unit of sous chefs, cooks, and assistants. Orders and information moved down the chain of command and were spread around to the staff as each “officer” saw fit. And the workers were responsible not just to their superior officer but also to the chef. In that way, the many, many tasks of a large, busy kitchen could, even in the heat of the dinner rush, be managed and coordinated by one person—the chef.
The military model is no accident. When people are working under difficult and even degrading conditions, it’s very useful to make everyone concerned feel like a member of the elite, however debauched. The very things that are hardest and most uncomfortable and make your job appear unbearable to outsiders are the ones you take the most pride in. The negatives become a plus. So if you had the harder, more degrading day—that makes you better.
I don’t try to cultivate it, but I take full advantage of the us-versus-them psychology. There’s us—the kitchen crew—and then there’s everybody else: the patrons, management, owners, waiters. Everybody should be so lucky as to be us. We’re the best.
You find the same kind of intimacy, loyalty, dependence on your coworkers, and teamwork in a kitchen that you find whenever good people are forced into a crisis situation. And it’s always a crisis in a kitchen. People from very different backgrounds form close tribal units, and they desire to do well and to be seen doing well. You can’t be seen as a clock puncher in a good restaurant. You have to care. If you don’t, you lose your status in the little society. You’re seen as a traitor and a liability.
There’s been a trend in business to move away from hierarchies and empower workers, but you’ve embraced a very rigid staff structure and an old style of management with great success. Why do you think it works?
I always lead from the front. Cooks always like to see their chef come in before them, leave after them, and always work at least as hard, or better yet, harder than them. And they want their chef to be capable of doing anything they’re able to do. Because you’re going through what they’re going through, there’s camaraderie.
It’s important that the crew knows that I care about them and will take care of them. I take pleasure in personal details. I take pleasure in their lives. And I protect them. If someone from another department—a waiter, a maître d’, an owner—has anything to say about anyone in my kitchen, they’re not allowed to communicate that directly.
In my kitchen, no one will have two bosses. All orders will come from me. If something bad is coming down the pike, it will hit me first, and I will disseminate that information. I will fight fiercely to make sure that criticisms of my crew, from the floor staff or elsewhere, come through me. And if something goes wrong, whether I’m in the kitchen or not, I will never, ever blame anyone else. I delegated a job to them. If they’ve screwed up, it’s my fault. I return loyalty with absolute loyalty.
At the same time, I explain to new employees that I won’t tolerate certain behaviors, and maybe I remind them about that once a year. By establishing lines that cannot be crossed and by responding the same way every time they are crossed, I let people know what is expected of them.
You know the line from The Godfather? “It’s nothing personal—it’s business?” That’s exactly wrong. Everything is personal in my kitchen. If you show up late or slack off or slop food out uncaringly, you have screwed your chef. You have insulted and inconvenienced the coworkers who had to cover for you. You have shamed the person who recommended you. The reverse is true when you do a great job. Then, you bring honor to the clan.
I see enforcing arrival time as the most important way to set the tone and reinforce the understanding that I give the orders. If people know that I will not accept their being five or even three minutes late, that on a second offense they will lose their job, their reflex to follow directions will very likely carry through to other requests and show itself in their generally high level of attention to details.
They know that they can come to me and say, “I got drunk last night and smoked crack and got into a fistfight with somebody, and the police are after me,” and that I will help in any possible way. I’m not judgmental. I’ll contribute bail money if I can. But if that’s coupled with, “That’s why I’m late,” it’s not going to work. You’re defined by the job you do, not by whatever hideous predilections you may have.
Treacherous behavior—even not getting along with another cook—is also forbidden. And to have any delusions that you’re better than anyone else, however true that might be as far as your technical skills are concerned, is not allowed. Your commitment is to the team effort. Everyone lives and dies by the same rules.
It’s surprising that such a structured environment would permit—actually promote—the tight, outlaw culture.
You have a tremendous amount of personal freedom in the kitchen. But there’s a trade-off. You give up other freedoms when you go into a kitchen because you’re becoming part of a very old, rigid, traditional society—it’s a secret society, a cult of pain. Absolute rules govern some aspects of your working life: obedience, focus, the way you maintain your work area, the pecking order, the consistency of the end product, arrival time.
You must never do certain things, like put your hands on another employee in anger. But because of its very rigidity and clarity, the hierarchical system allows you to speak your mind in an environment where there’s no ego allowed or needed. The kitchen’s a place where you spend so much time with the same people that everyone knows everything about you. You’re totally exposed but also protected by the highly structured work relationships, so you can honestly be yourself. Men and women can relate as equals without preening for each other or posturing. There’s no pretense. That’s an enormous relief to a lot of people.
If people in any work situation understand that it truly is a meritocracy, that doing a good job is all that matters, then a lot of the political correctness, the restrained language and behavior, suddenly seems unimportant. In my kitchen, the intricacies and anomalies of one’s love life are generally common knowledge—and often openly discussed. Resentments are not allowed to simmer. You have to get it out, get it over with, and move on.
One of the wonderful things, traditionally, about the restaurant business is that it attracts people from wildly diverse backgrounds and forces them—by working together in hot, confined spaces for long hours—to get along, to cooperate, to come to understand one another. The pressure is so intense that any cultural baggage they bring along has to be jettisoned.
I think the mix of informality and order can be useful in team building. When people feel comfortable being themselves, they can focus on their work, whatever the pressures. It’s very comfortable. It’s one of the things I hear most from people who are no longer in the business. They miss that camaraderie, the casualness, the sense of accomplishment at the end of a hard shift, sitting at the bar enjoying a free drink and reviewing the evening’s events. It’s golden. I’ve heard that a thousand times.
Restaurant kitchens are pretty chaotic. How does any work get done?
Most of us feel in our bones—and we know from experience—that if there’s not a crisis now there will very likely be one in a few minutes. We’re anticipating a crisis every minute. That’s why a lot of us are pretty high-strung and have a taste for melodrama. And we like it. We’re adrenaline junkies. That’s a common thread. People who’ve left the business get misty looking back on it because of their taste for the high highs and the low lows.
The religion in kitchens is your mise en place, your setup, knowing where everything in your station is. There’s layer upon layer upon layer of people thinking about what might happen and how they’re going to be ready for it. And things go wrong, a lot. You don’t know how many people are going to arrive when. You don’t know what might break, what supplies might not show up. It’s a dodgy business. We can’t rule the universe. So we tend to try to control that tiny little corner of the kitchen we can control. Kitchens look and sound chaotic, but most of the time there’s actually extreme order.
Besides the ferocious planning, what makes kitchens work?
The best situation, the one in which chefs are the happiest, is when the staff is self-motivated. Then, sheer peer pressure and the desire to do well and be seen doing well drive people to do their best. A lot of peer pressure goes on in kitchens. Of course, it’s important for them to please me, but it ain’t going to work if they’re not pleasing each other. That goes for chefs, too. As soon as you’re not working as hard as your cooks, as soon as your level of commitment is seen to wane, then you really start hemorrhaging credibility.
Certainly, the perfect moment for the chef, as for most any cook, is when he makes a really beautiful plate of food and puts it up in the window—the pass—to be taken into the dining room. The satisfaction doesn’t come when the customer says, “That was really great.” It comes just before the food, the product, leaves the kitchen. It doesn’t get any better than that.
What about being creative? In the kitchen, isn’t the point not to be creative, but to serve the same dish day after day?
You don’t act on your creative urges without the chef’s sanction. That is made very clear. I want automaton-like reproduction of an idea or a theme. But as people prove themselves, I allow them to express themselves, with guidance. The chance to be creative is a reward and an expression of trust. It’s the carrot.
I have a pretty good idea of what people are capable of, and when I think they’re ready, I’ll say, “Give me a fish special, using these ingredients.” Then I’ll let them run with it. And if they do a good job over and over again, I’ll just say, “Give me a fish special; do something with the sole.”
What’s an example of a disaster, when you’ve had to wing it and come up with something brilliant? How has that worked?
Winging it is something you don’t want to do. It’s a terrible place to be. You need absolute confidence. As a chef, one of the things I’m most afraid of is that someone will hesitate, lose their focus. And if someone does, even for a few minutes, it can screw up the whole pace, the whole team. That radiates out to everybody else. It’s toxic. And it can bring a whole kitchen down.
People have to know that the chef is on top of it. That he’s watching at all times. They have to see him watching and thinking. And they have to do the same as well, so that everybody is looking back, and above, and below, and to the sides.
We did a badly planned New Year’s Eve once, and we found ourselves in that most terrible place where we were all winging it, trying to get out from under a big boulder we knew in the end would crush us. There was no screaming, no yelling in the kitchen—just absolute silence as everyone tried to dig themselves out of a bad situation, doing the second- and third-best job they knew they could do. That’s what you want to avoid at all costs, for people to go home knowing that they did far less than their best, for them to feel ashamed because—for whatever reason—they did a half-assed job. That’s the worst thing that can happen to a kitchen crew.
What do you do when there’s a crisis you haven’t anticipated?
Every kitchen has one evil genius who’s tolerated—someone you turn to when all else fails—a rule breaker, a scamp who’s willing to make a hard and sometimes unlovely decision for expediency. There’s actually a name for this person—the débrouillard, the person who gets you out of a jam.
When you’re really in trouble—say you’ve run out of every prepared hors d’oeuvre during a huge corporate cocktail party—the débrouillard will know about the case of minipizzas with frost damage that is hidden in a corner of the freezer and will be willing to go out on a limb and make something edible out of them. If you decide to go with your débrouillard and he can pull it off, everyone shares in the satisfaction of having been able to collectively dodge the bullet. But you can’t do that regularly.
What makes customers loyal?
Well, obviously, quality and consistency. People feel betrayed if they come for a favorite dish and you’ve suddenly changed it. And they don’t want to be treated like idiots, like you tell them you’re giving them porcini and you substitute something else and hope they won’t notice. If every once in a while you have to pull a fast one for the common good, it is of course essential that you get away with it. When customers become regulars, even in fine restaurants, they’re looking for that familiarity, a crack in the veneer where they’re treated a bit differently, less formally.
A not-so-obvious thing often overlooked is that customers need to trust your intentions and your concept’s integrity—the sense that you know your product—and that it is the product you should be selling. So you’re not all over the place, serving pasta and French food and Mexican food and trying to be everything to everybody. A lot of places open up with a menu that’s floundering, because the owners are thinking, “What do people want?” Instead, they should be thinking something like, “We’re going to open a restaurant with a Gascony theme, and we’re going to concentrate on that area of France because this is what we love and do well.”
When you go to a restaurant, how can you tell if a kitchen is well managed or not?
The easy answer is that food arrives hot, on time, and in proper order. You can tell when a restaurant has its choreography together. Dishes don’t lag—the whole table’s order arrives together. The food is consistent. But there are more subtle clues, before your orders even arrive. Do the waiters look proud? Do they look happy to be working there? Is the place clean and squared away? Do the waiters, busboys, and front-of-the-house move like they know what they’re doing? Is the place busy and, more important, do the customers look happy?
You can sense a well-run restaurant just as you can sense the fear and uncertainty—the smell of certain doom—in a disorganized, flailing one. A clean bathroom tells you a lot, surprisingly. If the people running the restaurant can’t keep it clean—and this is a part of the restaurant they allow you to see—you can imagine what their prep kitchen, downstairs, hidden away, looks like.
You’re still spending some time in the kitchen?
I don’t run my kitchen anymore. I’m a spiritual leader. As soon as I started going on book tours, I didn’t want to become the kind of mostly absent celebrity chef I always hated as a sous chef. I’m much loved in my kitchen, but I would not be were I still running it.
A version of this article appeared in the July 2002 issue of Harvard Business Review.