Lessons from a Restaurant Kitchen

The world around us is full of inspiration. I was reminded of this last night when I ate at Cockscomb, one of my now-favorite places in San Francisco. Unlike my last visitation, I was alone. Thus I found myself eating at the bar, watching an incredible orchestra perform in front of me in their open kitchen. I couldn’t help but think of some takeaways that product teams would do well to remember.

Focused on Execution

There is only one word that I could use for the entire kitchen staff: focused. While some kitchens are known for egos and conflict, I could not see any in effect at Cockscomb. They were all in the zone, individually and as a team, entirely focused on putting out one great dish after another. There was no room for anything less than excellence. They didn’t have the option to dawdle about. They did their work, they did it well, and then they were done.

Clear Leadership with Attention to Overall Quality

While there were probably 8 people working the kitchen, they were very focused on their own work, whether that was prep or firing a dish. But there was always an expediter acting as the leader, making sure that the entire process was running properly. The expediter called out the orders and approved the plates before they went out. However, I saw three different people rotate in the expediter position. Most of the time, it was one of the chef-owners, but when he got pulled away, one of the senior chefs seamlessly moved from behind the counter to in front, and held down the fort. The team adjusted without a hiccup, and just as seamlessly re-integrated the senior chef when the owner returned.

There was always someone in charge, and different members of the team stepped up to make sure that someone was always in charge. And there was always someone watching the big picture — not just each individual dish, but the food for an entire table, and even how the entire kitchen was running.

Over-communication

While communication was in short-hand and very efficient, you could see that it was very important to everyone that they communicated and that understanding was clear. This was evident in communication from the leader to the team, and between the team. When the expediter shouted “5 chops, all day” the key person executing the dish shouted back, “5 chops, all day.” That way everyone knew that something was said, and something heard. If they had questions, they would ask immediately. You could also see it with the team, communicating their movements and needs (especially important in a small space with an abundance of fire and hot metal). Someone working a pan might shout “I need X!” with urgency and abruptness, but there was no resentment from the team. They were in the moment, focused on the customer, not their own egos.
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They Pushed Each Other

As the restaurant got more busy, you could feel the dance speed up another notch. They weren’t afraid to push each other — across the staff and the leader. I heard the head chef shout, “come on guys, move!” No one took offense. They moved! But like a good leader, the head chef paired this with kudos to the team. He would shout “thank you guys!” to the team, and give an “awesome job!” to an individual.

Teach As You Work

Directly in front of me, I watched a chef integrate a new guy into the mix. Whether it was prepping the coals for the wood-burning grill or oven, or prepping meat with salt and dry rub, the experienced chef would show a process just once by doing it and simultaneously talking through his actions. Then he let the new guy do it once while he watched and commented. Once satisfied (and it seemed to only take one go), the new guy was allowed to work without the experienced chef hovering or interfering. However, he was there as support if needed.

This was all done in shorthand and with a great deal of trust, demand, and yet forgiveness as well. What was clear was that this was no kitchen for a total novice. You needed experience to be able to pick things up quickly and immediately work at the level this kitchen demanded.

Everyone was good at their job, and I imagine that if you couldn’t cut it quickly, you were gone. Some people think that notion is mean. Those are the people who care more about having “a job” than actually creating excellence with their teammates.

Attention to Process and Environment

The open kitchen was small, and yet they accomplished an amazing amount. The only way this was possible was that they had spent a great deal of time thinking through not just the physical location of things and people (where did the grease go? where did the meat rest?) but the actual process.

I had come early, and watched as they did their own version of a standup with one of the chef-owners, who prepped everyone for the evening ahead and then set the tone and pace as expediter for the first 30 minutes before his colleague took over.

The care for process was evident. Multiple people needed to work together to put each dish on a table, and the timing had to be done right. Everyone knew their roles. They knew where to stand and how to move, and yet they had enough experience and confidence to roll with uncertainty, such as an avalanche of orders coming in at once, the remaking of a particular dish, or rotating a chef to the expediter spot and back again.

When it came to process, they didn’t just pay attention to the moment of production. They were also extremely clever with their prep work. My bacon chop was brined, then sous-vide, then grilled, then finished in the wood oven. Every step increased flavor, but the sous-vide step not only decreased cooking time at the moment of the order, but it vastly increased the odds that they could deliver a perfectly-cooked chop every time.

The work was both carefully planned, yet completely flexible to the inevitable chaos. There was no brittleness to the process or the team.

Great Equipment

Part of the quality was not just in the team, but in the equipment and infrastructure that allowed the team to function so well. The sous-vide machine, while not on display, allowed them to create a product of consistent quality. The wood-burning oven and grill delivered a heightened flavor.

They Cared About the Customer

I was a bit shocked that the chef stationed right in front of me would periodically check in on how I was doing, or if I had any questions. I tried not to abuse this, because I could see how busy they all were. But he clearly cared about the customer. He didn’t view customer experience as a job merely for the front of the house. It was his too. And he was clearly pleased that I was enjoyed the output of his work.

The open kitchen not only gave the restaurant a more exciting feel for the diners, but it also exposed the chefs to the actual diners. It was a good reminder that all product teams need to find ways to get in front of the curtain, and expose themselves to real customers. To make product personal.

Amusingly, the chef admitted that most people didn’t like sitting where I was. They wanted to just focus on their meal, he said. But for me it was thrilling — not just to watch such professionals execute their craft, and have a phenomenal meal in the process, but also to think through the reminders that their work triggered for my own.

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Cockscomb is on 4th Street and Freelon St in San Francisco

  • Great post! I’ve had a similar, but half-assed, draft for multiple years now based on my experience watching the team at Hearth in NYC from the Chefs table in a post tentatively titled “Agile lessons learned from the kitchen pass”. You nailed my thoughts much better then how I could have written!

    • Thanks Josh. Nice to hear from you across the pond 🙂 I love Chef’s table — particularly the last one with the swede in the middle of nowhere. The obsession across all of them with craft and excellence… just great.