What it takes to lead a brigade

23 September 2011 by
What it takes to lead a brigade

Does today's head chef really have to be a tough-talking, no-nonsense dictator? Kerstin Kühn examines what you need to lead a brigade

We've all seen the scenes on Kitchen Nightmares: head chefs being savaged on their own turf as their flaws and vulnerabilities are dissected by "chef Ramsay". With the celebrity chef delivering his judgement at point-blank range, the two chefs are so close the tension is palpable through the TV screen. Who's going to crack first? You're shocked, but gripped at the same time - like rubber necking at a car crash.

But Ramsay's approach amounts to more than captivating TV. It gives the outside world an insight into the tense and often testosterone-fuelled atmosphere that is common in many a professional kitchen.

Of course, times are changing and, thanks to numerous awareness campaigns, there has been a cultural shift among chefs and bullying is no longer considered the norm. But the fact remains that professional kitchens are incredibly stressful, intense environments where tempers are always bound to flare.

It is up to the head chef to keep his team's emotions under control, make sure everyone's happy and working to their best ability. He's the one who has to lead by example and show his chefs how to deal with the pressure of running a busy kitchen, while at the same time ensuring his GP is met, suppliers are paid and customers are satisfied.

It's a lot of responsibility. But in an industry where talent is primarily judged on cooking ability and promotions are usually based on knife skills rather than management or business acumen, it can be hard for chefs to make the jump to becoming a head chef and being a leader.

"The hardest thing for chefs to get their heads around is management and leadership," says Andrew Fairlie, who runs his eponymous, two-Michelin-starred restaurant at Gleneagles in Auchterarder, Perthshire. Despite being the first Roux Scholar and training at some of the world's top fine-dining restaurants in the early 1990s, Fairlie made the decision to go work at Disneyland Paris. "It may seem odd on my CV, but it's where I picked up the organisational and management skills to lead a kitchen," he says. "As a chef you don't normally get that sort of training when you're coming up through the ranks."

Indeed, owing to limited management training opportunities offered to chefs, more often than not they are forced to simply learn on the job, inevitably making mistakes along the way. What's more, when young chefs are suddenly promoted to a position where they are expected to lead a brigade, they usually end up replicating the examples set by their mentors. And if your head chef used to be aggressive, then that's not a good start.

"You look at the chefs you have worked with in the past and imitate their behaviour because you think that's how you gain respect," explains Matt Gillan, head chef at the Pass restaurant at South Lodge, Horsham, West Sussex.

Having worked in Michelin-starred kitchens where shouting and bullying was as much part of service as the mise en place, Gillan introduced a similar work ethic when he became head chef at the Pass aged 25. "I became so uptight and stressed out all the time, not just in the kitchen but outside of it, too. Eventually I really lost focus," he recalls. "I realised that I didn't want to be like that. I'm not an angry person and I didn't want to be one at work."

So Gillan changed his approach and today the kitchen at the Pass - which is open to all guests to see - operates at a smooth and steady, low-decibel level that exudes peace and quiet rather than fiery noise. "It's about talking to people, not shouting at them," he says. "You get a lot more out of people that way."

Allan Pickett, executive chef at D&D London's Plateau in Canary Wharf, who leads a brigade of 20 chefs, went through a similar journey. "I used to be a screamer and a shouter," he admits. "But I have since found it doesn't really get me anywhere. Chefs who worked for me moved on faster as they could work in nicer conditions and at a higher level without the aggravation."

Treating your staff well is key to holding on to talented people, but we all know that's easier said than done. Staff retention is one of the biggest issues facing the hospitality industry as a whole - and kitchens in particular. After all, chefs can split as quickly as a hollandaise sauce, and which head chef hasn't had to face the start of service a commis chef or two short? "When I started at One Devonshire Gardens in Glasgow, I lost the entire brigade in one week," recalls Fairlie. "The sous chef got another job and took everyone with him."

While this example is extreme, it's inevitable that at some stage staff will want to move on. So how do you avoid a kitchen meltdown upon a team member's departure?

"I found the best way to deal with this is to speak to the chefs as a team, especially when they start," advises Chris Horridge, chef-director at the 10 in 8 Fine Dining Group's Chef Academy. "When they do eventually leave, they come recommended with references and the support they need."

Fairlie agrees: "When chefs start at my restaurant we tell them that we expect them to stay for at least two to three years so we can properly manage their progression. During that time they will work on each section of the kitchen. When they want to leave they can either do so in the summer or at the end of the year."

To keep talented people as part of your brigade, it is vital to motivate and inspire your team and sometimes this is achieved by sending them away, according to Fairlie. Each year, he sends each chef in his brigade on a stage at a restaurant of their choice. "They come back full of inspiration but often also realising that the grass isn't always greener on the other side," he explains.

Motivation can take many forms. According to Lisa Allen, head chef at Northcote in Langho, Lancashire, kitchen management is all about individuals. "Everyone responds differently and you have to understand each member of your team to be able to lead them well," she says. Allen adds she has found the best way to motivate her team is to get everyone involved. "You have to make each member of your team feel valued and important by giving them responsibility. As long as you keep teaching people and they keep learning, they will be motivated."

As a woman, Allen had to work extra hard to succeed in a male-dominated kitchen environment when she became the UK's youngest female chef to head up a Michelin-starred kitchen at just 23. She has since grown into one of the industry's leading ladies, last year becoming the first female finalist in the BBC's Great British Menu.

"It has been tough for me to make it as a woman," she admits. "But I do believe that women are a bit more in tune with people's feelings so this has helped me."

This is echoed by Hélène Darroze, who runs two eponymous restaurants in London and Paris, and says there is a definite difference between male and female head chefs: "The difference lies in the behaviour and how we manage people. Women communicate more and they are more sensitive to people's emotions."

Managing a kitchen is no easy feat - the long hours, challenging working conditions and stressful nature of the job all conspire to make the role of head chef a particularly tough one. Leading a brigade is all about understanding each individual member of the team's needs, motivating them in the right way to get the best out of them without creating a Kitchen Nightmare scenario.

As Allen concludes: "It's important to command respect but you also have to be a role model. After all you don't want your chefs to come out of your kitchen behaving badly."


â- Send them on courses to enable them to see and learn something new.
â- Work with colleges and local schools to inspire young chefs coming through.
â- Send them on stages to work at different restaurants - your chefs will come back full of ideas that you can learn from.
â- Give your staff a way of feeding back to you. A simple coffee chat does wonders for morale.
â- Remember to take time out to manage and not just to cook.
â- Each member of the brigade is an individual, so listen and be flexible on a one-on-one basis.
â- Have a goal and communicate it vocally, visually and often to the brigade.
â- Don't over-work your team. Spread the hours evenly and fairly.


Lisa Allen, head chef, NorthcoteNigel Haworth
Over the past 10 years I have seen Nigel develop as a leader. His business has expanded from one to five outlets but he still sits down and talks to all the staff. He makes everyone feel involved and valued, which is the biggest motivation you can get from your manager.

Allan Pickett, executive chef, PlateauChris Galvin
Chris's management style is personal to each and every member of his team. He knows how to push you in the right direction. He knows when to put his arm around you and give you a pep talk, but he also wants to know you are doing your job properly. He has looked after me in many ways over the years and I respect him for that.

Alyn Williams, executive chef, Westbury hotelAngela Hartnett
When I started at L'Oranger, Angela had just been promoted to junior sous chef. Over the next few years of working with her I watched her grow into the accomplished chef she is now. I saw and greatly admired her ability to organise and command a very macho environment in one of London's most highly regarded kitchens (Pétrus) with discipline, professionalism and - importantly - humility and empathy.

Simon Rogan, chef proprietor, L'Enclume and RoganicJean Christophe Novelli
Not only was Jean Christophe a brilliant cook and trailblazer of his time, he was also true gent who became a good friend. He was hard but fair in the kitchen and his door was always open. He had the utmost respect for people and never forgot the team behind him.

Bruno Loubet, chef-patron, Bistrot Bruno LoubetRaymond Blanc
I fell into a head chef position very early, probably too early. I had to learn a lot myself, but my years at Le Manoir aux Quat'Saisons with Raymond, in the early days, have been very influential. Raymond was going around the kitchen like an electric current, charging every young chef with belief and desire to learn and strive.

Jérôme Ponchelle, executive chef, the Capital hotelMichel Bourdin
I joined Michel Bourdin and his team of 50 chefs at the age of 18. He would always remind you that the most important people to make the business successful were first the staff and then the customers. He would describe his team as "faiseurs de bonheur" (makers of happiness).

Matt Gillan, head chef, the PassJohn Campbell
I worked in some very intense kitchens but when I got to the Vineyard, John Campbell's approach was the complete opposite. He would talk to people, not shout, and allow them to make mistakes and learn from them.

Chris Golding, head chef, GaloupetDavid Thompson
David Thompson was my biggest inspiration as he made his chefs want to do well for him. He kept us interested and motivated, always taking time out to explain the logic and history behind each dish in his repertoire. At Nahm we had a low staff turnover - if he felt that you were interested in his food, he would go out of his way to keep you.


CHEFS: DON'T LOCK ME IN THE WALK-IN A 90-minute learning bite delivered by Learnpurple, designed for chefs looking to develop basic management and leadership competencies as well as enhance their people skills.
£90 plus VATwww.learnpurple.com

LEADERSHIP IN THE KITCHEN Three-day training course on kitchen leadership set to launch at the Ashburton Chefs Academy in Devon early next year. Full details of the course are still to be finalised.

BUSINESS SKILLS FOR CHEFS WestminsterKingsway College offers a number of business-related courses aimed at chefs, ranging from management and team leading techniques to financial and marketing skills.

Just what does it take to be a true leader? >>

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