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It was a very special treat to be invited to lunch with Thomas Keller, the world-renowned chef and owner of the French Laundry, Per Se, and many other award-winning restaurants. He told me his story, which is why I’m writing this article. He shared six lessons he learned when he first went to work at a restaurant – as a dishwasher. Yes, he started at the bottom and worked his way up. It was part of his training.
How long does one have to stay in what Keller refers to as the “dish pit” before being promoted? Long enough to learn valuable lessons that would be the foundation of his career. After lunch, I did a little research. He’s shared these lessons before – many times. Yet, as I listened to his stories, it sounded like he was sharing them for the first time. They were fresh. That’s what he wants to accomplish as a chef. Even though there is a tremendous amount of repetition (see Lesson Five, which we’ll get to in a moment), he knows that most of his guests will be experiencing his food for the first time. It must be fresh. It must not feel like the meal is “mass produced,” and by the way, it’s not. But each meal is cooked to the exacting standards of his methods and recipes.
Okay, I’m getting ahead of myself. Here are Thomas Keller’s six lessons from his experience as a dishwasher, with my comments. Please note, these are my interpretations of his lessons – the way I heard them. As you read them, think about how they apply to what you do. Here we go:
1. Be organized: How organized does a dishwasher have to be? When you’re working at a busy restaurant where dishes are continuously coming in, it’s important to have a system. Otherwise, you get behind. It starts with knowing where everything belongs. Being organized saves time and can make the job of a dishwasher – or any other job – more effective.
2. Be efficient: This is an extension of being organized. But this is more about getting the most out of what you have. How many dishes can you clean in an hour? Have you taken advantage of space and found ways to reduce friction? Are you always ahead of the chef’s demand for more plates or constantly trying to keep up? Efficiency saves time and effort.
3. Embrace critical feedback: Most of us might think that feedback is when our manager tells us we’re doing a great job or lets us know if we’re not. Feedback can be in the form of a lesson on how to do things better – even more efficiently. But Keller suggests that you can get valuable feedback from yourself by looking with an unbiased eye at the work you’ve done. If you look at the dishes, glasses, and silverware after you’ve washed them and notice the dishes are still dirty or the glasses have water marks on them, you need to be disciplined enough to say, “I could do better than this,” and then do it. Be willing to give yourself critical, constructive feedback and then take action on it.
4. Rituals: Think of rituals as “disciplined habits.” Keller used the example of his morning routine. He does the same thing every morning, regardless of what time he gets up. If he wants to be at the restaurant at 9:00 am, when he wakes, he goes through his usual routine. If he has to wake up at 4:00 am to catch a 6:00 am flight, he still does the same things he would if he didn’t have to be anywhere until 9:00. It’s his morning ritual. As a dishwasher, he learned that there is a ritual before starting work. Each and every job he worked in the kitchen has its own rituals. Recognize what these rituals are and practice them to set yourself up for daily success.
5. Repetition: One might think repetition and ritual are the same, but they are not. A dishwasher does the same thing throughout his or her shift. Over and over – to the point of perfection. That’s what a chef does, too. A chef may sauté salmon twenty times a night, every night the restaurant is open… for years! Chefs don’t mind the repetition, which is one of the reasons they get it right every night. They never cut corners because they recognize that anything less than their best effort could result in a guest having a bad experience, which could mean the guest never returns, or worse, leaves a negative review. Someone once said, “Practice makes perfect.” Someone who disagreed with that changed it to, “Perfect practice makes perfect.” Maybe perfection isn’t reality, but the only way to come close is through repetition.
6. Teamwork: Everyone is part of the team – even the dishwasher. As a matter of fact, Keller realized just how important he was to the team. If the chef didn’t have clean plates, he couldn’t serve the food. If a dirty plate made it as far as the table and the guest noticed, that would affect the guest’s entire experience. Keller knew that even though he never saw the smiles of the restaurant’s happy guests, his actions had impact. It’s important for everyone to know their role on the team and how what they do (or don’t do) impacts the customer’s experience.
Whether you’re a dishwasher, an executive chef, a mailroom clerk, or a CEO, these lessons apply to everyone, regardless of their position or organization. Read them again and think about how any of them – or even all of them – could apply to you and help you do what you do better.
July 14, 2019 at 07:06AM
Forbes – Entrepreneurs