How your Reputation Builds Good or Bad Currency

How Chefs Build a Good Reputation
Image courtesy Tulalip Resort Casino

What is the value of your professional reputation as a chef or aspiring chef? Would your immediate supervisors/boss say that you have a good, neutral, or poor reputation in regards to your work and your interactions w/ fellow staff? Do you know how to build a good reputation? Should you care?

As a Chef I am both a boss to some, and a subordinate to others. The concept of reputation impresses itself upon me daily as I strive to meet and beat the expectations of my superiors, while simultaneously trying to earn the respect of my crew. It is a complicated balancing act of weighing how to accommodate the needs of your restaurant/business, the expectations of your guests, and the needs/requests of your staff. Every Chef faces these same challenges.

To complicate things even more, every chef is evaluated based upon the reputation they have earned in a variety of skill sets including:

  • Culinary Reputation
  • Business & Budget Reputation
  • Staff Leadership Reputation (do they respect you)
  • Guest/Customer Reputation
  • HR Reputation (do you adequately follow and implement HR rules)

The value of your professional reputation in each of these skill sets lies in the amount of political or reputational currency/influence/persuasion/credibility you have earned based upon your successes and mistakes in each skill set. In a nutshell, have you earned the reputation of making consistently good, reliable decisions in each skill set? Do your culinary talents benefit the food and reputation of your restaurant? Do your business decisions benefit the company, the staff, and the guests…or do many of your decisions incorrectly benefit one while neglecting the others? Or worse, do your decisions revolve around your ego or your mood? Consistently good decisions which balance the needs of the business, the guests, and the staff lead to building a great professional reputation and earning you reputational currency.

How to Build a Good Reputation

A concept which I was taught a long time ago, and which I now embrace is this…
My job is to make my boss’s life easier, and to make them look good.
And my Sous Chef’s job is to make my life easier and make me look good!

NOW HOLD YOUR HORSES! This does NOT mean that I’m suggesting that you should be a lazy brown nosing kiss ass, mamby pamby doormat wimp or spineless sycophant sucking up to your boss while you put down everyone around you! No, that is a worthless, soulless shell of a “person” who has not learned how to be an effective leader, and certainly has not learned how to be a Chef.

I was taught (and continue to teach) that the meaning of “My job is to make my boss’s life easier, and to make them look good” revolves around the best qualities of a good leader and includes the following objectives:

Excel with Food!

As a Chef, our first and most important job is to build a good reputation when it comes to food. Regardless of whether you are working at a burger joint or a Michelin Star restaurant you consistently serve the best quality food possible for the type of operation and budget you are working in.

  • If you are a Chef or Chef de Cuisine then you excel at creating great food, balancing flavors & textures, and creating presentations which match the style of food you are preparing.
  • You teach your staff to serve great food and to do so consistently, regardless of stress levels, moods, business or slowness, or time of day
  • You serve food which matches your venue
    • If you run a family diner operation you do not try to serve fine dining food
    • If you run a fine dining operation you do not lower standards during a hard rush and serve sub-standard food or presentations just to clear the board
  • Similarly you are creative…and your creativity is well received by your clientele
    • Just because you like it (or think it is cool) doesn’t mean that it will be well received by your guests
  • If you are a kitchen manager or lead line cook then you maintain the highest possible standards for the food which leaves the kitchen, meeting or beating the company standards

Excel with your Numbers and Business Sense

Creating and serving fantastic food is not enough. Successful Chefs must also build a good reputation when it comes to their budgets, their numbers, and their business sense in general. If you do not grasp the numbers and earn a profit then your restaurant will be nothing more than a flash in the pan. Here are some key business elements to know and manage.

  • You know and understand the Forty Thieves of Food Cost
  • You manage your time effectively, prioritizing projects and hitting deadlines
  • You manage your labor, schedule, and labor costs effectively
  • You know how to handle yourself in a P&L meeting and can answer questions truthfully with both intelligence and confidence
  • You understand Sales Mix and how it impacts your food cost
  • You manage your budget in a responsible, ethical manner

Choose Companies with Admirable Priorities which Match Yours

  • ALWAYS/ONLY work for companies/people which you believe are mostly good and who do their best to balance the needs of business w/ the needs of staff & customers
    • If your company/boss ONLY values the bottom line and routinely ignores or abuses the crew then get the hell out!
  • Remember that there is no “perfect employer/boss” and it is the responsibility of the business to make money. After all, if the business fails because it is “too nice” then the employees lose their jobs as well. It is not the role of business to be mama or welfare…meaning you are expected to put in a hard day’s work for your hard earned cash.

Know, Follow, and Teach the SOPs

  • You follow the company SOPs and hold your crew accountable in a consistent, fair, ethical way
    • If an SOP is wrong or if a new/better one needs to be implemented then you make the suggestion
  • You know and understand the company HR rules and you implement them in a fair, consistent manner
  • You have a reputation of not being on HR’s radar for infractions against the staff
    • You’re not a bully
    • You don’t harass, insult, intimidate, or belittle the crew
    • You can joke with, apply peer pressure, cajole, and banter with the staff in a way which improves their skills and does not humiliate them

Make Consistently Good Decisions

  • You make most customers happy w/o neglecting the business
    • e. don’t comp a pound of king crab because the customer complained that the butter wasn’t hot enough
  • You make good business decisions on a regular basis which balance w/ employee & customer priorities
  • You make good employee decisions on a regular basis which balance w/ business & customer priorities
  • You make good customer decisions on a regular basis which balance w/ business & employee priorities
  • Your decisions are based upon what is best for the company from a long term philosophical perspective. For instance:
    • It is not good to make guests happy by giving them heavier portions
    • It is not good to make the company more money by serving smaller portions which are under the standard spec
    • It is not good to save the company money by making staff work off the clock
    • It is not good to overlook well deserved raises in order to save the company money or so the chef can get their bonus
    • It is not good to give too many cooks a Saturday off because you want to be “nice”
    • All these things, and many others, might help the company in the short term but will bring its failure in the long term

Be a Mentor

  • You teach and mentor the crew in ways which benefit them, their work ethic, their carriers, and the business. You don’t just tell the crew to “Do it because I told you to.” Rather, you explain the importance of why they should do things a particular way. Teach the lessons you have learned which make for a better end product, why things work better by doing them this way rather than that way. Teach them how you think and why you make the decisions you do so they can learn how to make the best possible decisions.

Be a Problem Solver

This is probably the biggest/best way to build a good reputation while making your bosses’ life easier and making them look good

  • You solve problems/drama/challenges rather than creating/ignoring/inflaming them
  • You solve problems rather than just bringing problems to the boss to solve
    • Never bring a problem/challenge to the boss w/o a recommended solution
    • As a person in charge you are expected to solve problems, not simply report them
  • You see potential problems and solve them before they happen (being proactive!)
  • You understand the goals of the company and you put them before your own ego
  • You fight for what you believe is right, but you also follow the direction of your superiors…if it is too far against your principles try to change the corporate stance or SOP
    • Always balance the companies’/bosses’ priorities with your own. If you cannot stomach them then make suggestions for how to improve the company SOPs. Good leaders are not afraid to debate policies or look for better policies. But don’t beat a dead horse or become a thorn in the side…learn to be persuasive, not a pain in the ass.
    • If the company refuses to change and you hate the policies then find new employment!
  • You complain/vent/commiserate only with peers or superiors but not with the crew
    • You are a leader, so lead the crew up, not down
      • Complaining w/ the staff makes you their “friend” but not their leader
      • Complaining about management to the staff weakens your ability to enforce other company rules
      • If you disagree with a policy it’s ok to say, “It doesn’t matter what my opinion is, I am here to do the job the way the company wants it done.  It is their name on the sign out front, not ours. They write the pay checks so they get to choose the rules.”
      • If you utterly disagree w/ a rule, or especially if you disagree w/ a lot of rules, and you have done your part to make persuasive suggestions for changes which are not accepted, then save yourself the aggravation and GET THE HELL OUT!
    • There are always 2 principles to honor/protect/fight for and balance:
      • Your own principles
      • The companies’ principles


What is the Value of a Good Reputation?

A good reputation is hard to earn because it requires time and consistent, repetitive success. And it requires A LOT of time…we’re talking years, not months. Warren Buffet once said, “It takes 20 years to build a good reputation and five minutes to ruin it.” A good reputation is in and of itself something which is very hard to earn, but also well worth the effort. It provides a sense of personal pride as well as personal accomplishment. It provides public recognition of your successes. But beyond recognition and a pat on the back, what is a good reputation worth?

There are a number of advantages which a good reputation gives a person compared to someone with either a neutral or especially someone with a negative reputation.

First, if you want something for your operation, your staff, or even for yourself which your superiors are uncertain or wishy washy about, a good reputation may be enough to push them over the edge with minimal persuasion. If you are recognized as someone who gets the job and makes your boss look good then when you ask for something (assuming that you don’t ask often/too much) there is a much higher chance of the request to fall on favorable ears.

Second, if you want or need something which is a big challenge for your superiors to approve then having a good reputation will at least give you more clout and credibility during the debate over the value or need for what you are asking for.

Being persuasive is key here. Again, if you have a great reputation and don’t make a habit of asking for unusual things, then when you do your reputation helps lend credibility to your request. Just don’t use your credibility to fight for frivolous things.

Third, if you put your neck out on the line to do something which you think is right but you’re not sure that your superiors would be able to support, then you are in the position to ask for forgiveness rather than permission. You give your superiors “plausible deniability” while you do something which needs to be done but which cannot be sanctioned or “blessed” by the corporate establishment. And you must be willing to bear the consequences of the decision should they not back you as hope they will.

You certainly don’t want to do this often! In fact, I don’t recommend that you ever do this except in extreme circumstances. You will lose credibility if you abuse this because you only have so much good reputation to spend, and moves like this can require that your superiors use some of their good reputation to cover your ass, which means this is a very expensive way to use the value of your reputation…chose to use this option wisely, and very seldom.

What are Your Thoughts?!

Do you agree…disagree…or have other insights about reputation? Leave a comment. Share your thoughts!


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