Reflections from a global year exploring leadership and service in the restaurant industry
I can’t tell you how many times I’ve started and stopped writing some sort of reflection to wrap up my final thoughts from this past year on the Watson Fellowship. I’ve been back in the US nearly 6 months now (probably closer to 7 by the time I actually post something) and each time I sit down to write, I see the year from a different angle. Some drafts have been compilations of personal anecdotes, while others focus on specific dynamics within the restaurant industry. Each one has had its own tone – some wide-eyed and dreamy, some empowering, some theoretical, and a few even critical and cynical. But throughout all the drafts, I keep finding myself coming back to two constant themes – leadership and service.
My project started from the beginning about leadership. Specifically, female leadership in the restaurant industry. I was interested in questions of representation, treatment, and growth. Why are there fewer women in positions of leadership than men? Why are women paid less than men? Why are women underrepresented or misrepresented in food media, food awards, and food festivals? Why are restaurants historically and currently hostile places for many women to work? Finally, what does it take to become a leading female chef in an incredibly male-dominated, testosterone-filled restaurant industry?
Gender was a thread throughout the year, but as my project unfolded I realized that I wasn’t just interested in questions of representation and what it takes to be a female restaurant leader. At the core of my curiosities were the basic questions of, whether a woman or not, what is the significance of the chef as a leader? And, what are the different ways chefs and restaurants can be leaders?
Chefs as Leaders
Chefs are no longer just leaders in their own kitchens (though this is an important topic I will come back to later). This year, I experienced how they can be leaders in celebrating an underrepresented indigenous culture, like Chef Monique Fiso in New Zealand. Chefs can be leaders in promoting an environmentally sustainable food system, by sourcing directly from producers and reducing food waste, like Chef Jess Murphy in Ireland. Chefs can empower an entire cohort of women to become self-sufficient and independent in a culture where women are less respected than men, like at Amal Women’s Center in Morocco. Chefs can redefine the boundaries between gastronomy, scientific research, and native cultures, like at Mil Centro and Mater Iniciativa in Peru. Finally, I came across chefs who are leaders in issues of immigration, gender rights, and food security, to name a few more.
Some chefs are even leading global celebrities being featured on popular Netflix and TV shows like Chef’s Table, The Final Table, Gordon Ramsay’s Uncharted, and more. They have just as many followers on Instagram and Twitter as other TV and movie stars.
But whether high-profile celebrities or not, chefs have the power and influence to impact people, environments, and cultures both within and beyond their restaurant doors. This is where service comes in. Service brings out the important questions about how a person’s leadership impacts or affects others. Service is hard to see and even harder to measure, but leadership without service is a selfish endeavor.
Service is traditionally thought of in the restaurant industry as the act of providing a service to the customer. Providing a service of prompt, delicious food. In the past, it was understood that it was the chef’s and the restaurant’s responsibility to provide just this service. But now, chefs and restaurants can serve so much more than just food. They can serve communities. Which leads me to my next question: How can chefs serve more communities than just those dining at their restaurants?
In this question, service is not a process of providing an expected product to a customer. Service is the action of doing something to benefit or help others. As a leader, how can chefs help others? How can chefs ensure that their actions are benefiting or serving the communities they say they’re leading? This is where it gets tricky and sensitive.
As a chef, you are leading a community, a culture, a gender, a social issue, an environmental cause, but are you serving them?
This year, I was inspired to see how the chefs and restaurants I partnered with are indeed serving certain communities. In most places, you don’t see it right away and you have to dig and talk to people to realize the true impact of their work; but, behind the Michelin stars, raving reviews and articles, TV shows, Instagram posts, and mind-blowing dishes, these chefs and restaurants are on their way to showing how chefs play a bigger role in society than just cooking food.
In New Zealand, Chef Monique Fiso seeks collaboration with local Maori chiefs and elders and cultural institutions to ensure she is representing Maori culture in a respectful way. In Morocco, Amal Women’s Center follows up with its students after they have been placed in a job to make sure they are flourishing in the way they hoped. In Ireland, Chef Jess Murphy visits each producer she uses to understand who they are as people and how her restaurant supports them. Finally, in Peru, restaurant Mil Centro and its research wing, Mater Iniciativa live and work alongside the two local Andean communities of Kacllaraccay and Mullak’as Misminay to discover new projects (culinary related and not) that provide jobs and resources to the communities, and create a stronger bond of trust between the fine dining restaurant and its neighbors.
Each restaurant, each chef serves a different community – its producers, its environment, its local culture and peoples, or its students, to name a few. What community they served depended on several factors like location, size of restaurant/business, and style of food.
However, no matter what type of restaurant you are – from fine-dining at the most extreme level to fast-casual burger joints selling plates at $4 a pop – you can serve more than just the people eating at your restaurant. Ask yourself a few questions. Firstly, “Who and/or what am I leading?” Secondly, “Am I serving those which I am leading?” Answer honestly, and if you don’t know, it’s ok. Being vulnerable with yourself is the first step. How to serve is the hard part, and is a discussion for which I need more opinions and ideas to answer. It is also a topic that is unique to each leader and each business. I can’t fully answer all those questions for everyone or anyone, but I do know one answer that is consistent across every restaurant out there – as a chef, you are leading your team. If you don’t know any other answers, start with your team.
When I was home for a couple months after the Watson, I met up with some old colleagues from the very first restaurant I worked at in high school, Mar’sel. One such colleague was Jawad. Jawad is from Morocco but has lived in the US for decades, so aside from it being very interesting to talk to him and hear his thoughts about Morocco having lived there for 3 months this year, he gave me a new perspective on my questions. When talking about my next step and what I am doing, I told him, I’m still the liberal arts Environmental Studies major who wants to save the world, but I care about people. I want to have a positive impact on people, especially the people I work with and the people I hope to lead in the future. Jawad told me, “As your employee, if you give me a job where I make a stable income, have opportunities to learn and grow, feel safe, and enjoy my work, I can then go home and support my family. I can be emotionally and physically there to be a good father and a good husband. I can be the role model for my daughter that I want to be. That is having an impact.” Jawad’s words left a big impression on me.
From this foundation of serving your team first, you can then simultaneously and sustainably serve other communities and tackle issues beyond the immediate restaurant. To be honest, though, it’s not the sexy thing to serve. It’s harder to translate the genuine impact you have on your team into marketing or business materials than it is to post pictures of farm-fresh produce, local traditions, and rare dining experiences.
Furthermore, I’m fully aware that you can’t just flip a switch and pay your employees more, create a more hospitable work environment with opportunities to grow, and convince your employees to stay and be happy. Especially not in the restaurant business, where margins are thinner than nearly any other industry. But, your team is important, and investing in them emotionally (and a little bit financially), will pay off. I stand by it.
Fortunately, restaurant culture is not new to the hot seat. People are starting to recognize not only the horrendous behavior that happens in restaurants, but also the potential that restaurants have to be leaders in big issues. But we know, we have a lot to work on. Gender, immigration, wages, LGBTQ+, mental health, physical health, the list goes on and on of topics that chefs and restaurant leaders are trying to address in order to serve our own community. Encouragingly, slowly, more and more people and organizations are laying the foundation to make changes possible. Organizations like MAD, the James Beard Foundation, SheChef Inc, and more put restaurant culture front and center and provide tangible services to collaboratively find ways to move forward.
With all this talk about taking care of your team, I guess it is appropriate that I have now moved to New York City and joined Union Square Hospitality Group (USHG). USHG founder, Danny Meyer, is known for his idea of “Enlightened Hospitality,” in which in order to provide hospitality for your guests, you have to first provide hospitality for your own team. I can feel how this business model has spread across not only the USHG restaurants, but also other restaurants in the city. I see challenges within this model, and there is certainly room to improve, but I am happy to be at a place that shares similar values as I do. (On a side note, Danny Meyer may argue some of my points about service, that it’s not service that’s important, but hospitality. This, however, is a linguistic argument for another day).
Wrapping It All Up
What I am describing is a picture of the chef as a servant leader. The world of academia is long behind me, and I’m sure there have been philosophers and theorists and academics who have written extensively on this topic, but to me, this is the significance of the chef as a leader in 2020. Chefs are leaders, but they are also servants.
To wrap up, I once again revisit my previous questions. What are the different ways chefs and restaurants are and can be leaders? And furthermore, how can we make sure that we, as chefs and restaurants, are serving the communities we lead and not just leading for our own benefit? Is it a matter of communication? Understanding each other and each other’s needs? Distribution of knowledge and resources? Seeking what makes us uncomfortable? Many questions that lead to even more questions that I don’t know the answers to and keep me up all night thinking about.
If you have additional thoughts on any of the questions I have proposed in this post, please feel free to share them publicly or privately. Going forward, I hope to continue this discussion with chefs, restauranteurs, foodies, activists, academics, artists, and anyone else who sees the potential for chefs and restaurants to have an impact beyond taste. The possibilities are truly endless and it’s an empowering time to be a part of the restaurant world. Thank you for sticking with me on this journey, I look forward to seeing where it continues to lead.
Lastly, thank you to all the people who went out of their way to welcome this wide-eyed girl from California into their restaurant, organization, and homes this year. The generosity I felt from each of you still makes me beam to this day and I am forever grateful to have you as mentors, colleagues, friends, and family. I hope our paths cross again in the future. For now, back to the kitchen for me.