How Do You Create a Better Kitchen Culture?
These Philadelphia chefs are making mental health a prioritySarah Maiellano
September 10, 2019
When we say the James Beard Foundation is about good food for good, it’s not limited to sustainable agriculture, the Farm Bill, or reducing food waste. Another important aspect of our mission is highlighting the myriad hands that are helping to shape American cuisine. Below, Sarah Maiellano explores the growing group of Philadelphia chefs who are focused on making their restaurants better places to work by shifting kitchen culture, emphasizing self-care, and rethinking what leadership looks like in today's food industry.
With a $155 tasting menu and tuxedoed servers, Nick Elmi’s first executive chef job—at Philadelphia’s revered Le Bec Fin—was the height of culinary elegance. Less elegant was the back of the house, where a demanding and harried Georges Perrier created additional stress for his busy cooks. As with many fine-dining restaurants, success seemed to go hand-in-hand with an abusive kitchen atmosphere.
That’s why Elmi set out to make his kitchen the “cultural antithesis” of Le Bec Fin when he opened his first restaurant, Laurel.
“You can achieve more by educating and encouraging” says Elmi, a three-time James Beard Award semifinalist and Top Chef winner who now also owns ITV and co-owns Royal Boucherie. In an industry with high turnover, he says it starts with hiring the right people—and retaining them.
Elmi and his general manager, Jane Fryer, look for flexible, intelligent, and nice people who enjoy learning and pleasing others. “Skills and résumés are great, but we focus on hiring good people,” Fryer says.
When Sarah Dash applied to cook at Laurel, she says that she “walked in with absolutely zero experience in restaurants, [but] something clicked.” She thinks that her enthusiasm and lack of ego made her a good fit. Dash went from prep cook to line cook at Laurel to sous chef at ITV—all the while learning from Elmi how to stay cool in a high-pressure environment.
Fryer has implemented small but meaningful practices to recognize Laurel’s and ITV’s 24 employees, such as recognizing their birthdays and anniversaries. “If you’re working at [the same] restaurant for more than three years, you damn well deserve to be celebrated,” she says.
She and Elmi organize team-building activities, such as axe throwing, workouts, and an annual beach trip. At the same time, Fryer believes that having a personal life is crucial for happiness—and that’s a missing component for many.
Outside of work, restaurant workers often feel alone, says Maria Campbell, a chef and founder of Cooks Who Care. “The culture says you have to work 90 hours a week,” she says. “We were taught to forget about how you feel.”
“People in the industry feel a loneliness and think they’re the only one who feels that way,” says Jezabel Careaga, owner of Jezabel’s Cafe and Studio. She’s currently launching a non-profit to bring mindfulness workshops to food industry workers.
Ben Puchowitz, a 2014 James Beard Award semifinalist and chef and co-owner of Cheu Noodle Bar, Bing Bing Dim Sum, and nunu, theorizes that some restaurant employees are drawn to their time-consuming jobs because “it allows them to redirect their attention from their problems.”
“Immersing oneself in work is often a sign of mental instability, unless there is balance,” he says. “My job as an employer is to teach and exemplify balance and productivity.” After personally struggling with work/life balance, Puchowitz now tries to exercise, meditate, read, and write regularly. He often shares these techniques with his staff in an effort to prevent burnout and encourage employees to find satisfaction outside of work.
Eric Leveillee, chef de cuisine at Lacroix, chose to make a few structural changes—such as going from a workweek with five 8-hour days to four 10-hour days—to improve his team’s quality of life. He calls that 40-hour workweek “bizarre” compared to his previous jobs, where you “work until you drop, then get up and do it over again.”
On an emotional level, Leveillee avoids negative reinforcement tactics, such as yelling. He tries to empower and teach his cooks. “Some chefs fly off the handle when they see a mistake, [but] I will show you a technique a million times if that’s what it takes,” he says.
“I’ve never worked anywhere where the wellbeing of the kitchen staff was at the forefront and I’m trying to change that,” says Leveillee. “If we have a happier kitchen, we produce a better product.”
“The kitchen culture where the chef is the king is disappearing,” says James Beard Award nominee Eli Kulp, co-owner of Fork, High Street on Market, and a.kitchen+bar. “The challenge today for restaurants is: how do we break the mold that’s been set over generations?”
Kulp considers this question from a different vantage point than many chefs. In 2015, he was injured in a devastating Amtrak train derailment and couldn’t return to the kitchen in his full physical capacity. While serving in an advisory role to his chefs, Kulp found his next passion: studying leadership and great company cultures.
“Becoming a good leader is like learning how to julienne a carrot,” he explains. “You’re awful at it the first time; a little better the second time. Becoming a good leader takes practice, awareness, time, and energy.”
While continuing to innovate and maintain a disciplined kitchen, he says that the goal for today’s chef should be to “grow in a way that will help you gain profit down the road by investing in your employees first and foremost.” It’s an ambition that he discusses regularly with peers, including Elmi. “I don’t have all the answers,” he says. “I’m just asking a lot of questions.”
At Laurel, the big question for Fryer continues to be: how are we looking after our staff? “When we take care of our staff, the staff takes care of our guests, and the bottom line takes care of itself.”