Gold Medal Leadership Lessons From The Bocuse d'Or Competition Kitchen

With 45 competition medals under his toque and a coveted spot in the culinary Olympics Bocuse d'Or, chef Richard Rosendale's learned a thing or two about leadership in a pressure cooker.

"Two cups of authoritative leadership, one cup of democratic coaching and affiliative leadership, and a dash of pacesetting and coercive leadership ‘to taste,’" may be Robyn Benincasa's recipe for successful leaders, but Richard Rosendale, award-winning executive chef and manager of food and beverage of the Greenbrier (a 700-room resort in White Sulphur Springs, W.Va.), has a slightly different formula.

Tempered by the heat of competition kitchens and restaurants all over the world, Rosendale cooked up his own deceptively simple secret sauce for success. "When you are in the kitchen, you don’t have to be the expert line cook or pastry chef, you have to be an expert leader to bring out the best of people," he tells Fast Company.

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To earn his expert chops, the 37-year-old Rosendale put himself through the Certified Master Chefs program, a title that requires intense training and culminates with a 10-day test of skills and knowledge in the kitchens of the Culinary Institute of America (CIA). He’s one of only 70 chefs to hold the designation in the country.

Further skill sharpening came through earning 45 medals in both national and international competitions. This year, he snagged gold at the Bocuse d’Or USAwhich qualifies him to compete at the international Bocuse d’Or in that capital of culinary delights, France. The event is often billed as the Olympics of cooking, as 24 countries vie to prepare the most intricate and flavorful plates they can in five-and-a-half hours while over 5,000 spectators cheer (or jeer) them on.

Giving new meaning to the old saying, "If you can’t take the heat, get out of the kitchen," Rosendale took time away from prepping the dinner menu at the Greenbriar recently to talk Fast Company through the leadership lessons he’s taken from crucible of the competition kitchen that can be applied to the head chef of any team in any industry.

Prep

Work prep goes far, far beyond just chopping veggies and herbs for the night’s dishes. "Preparation is everything," Rosendale says. "I am extremely disciplined and organized."

That includes creating an exact replica of the kitchen he will compete in for the Bocuse d’Or, including a countdown clock. "This way I will build up muscle memory for where everything is," he says, even making sure all the pot handles in all his kitchens are facing the right way for ease of grabbing while the burners are on. He also creates two calendars (one for the year, one for daily duties). Rosendale says he tracks everything in his calendar, even making appointments to exercise and "planning" for the birth of his second son. "It actually feels more comfortable to me to be more proactive than having to be reactive." 

Too Many Cooks?

Whether it’s introducing a new menu item or launching a new app, Rosendale says one thing leaders need to do first is to understand their team. "It’s important to understand the dynamic so you can communicate effectively," he says. Spending a lot of time in dialogue with his food and beverage team, he’s learned to let them speak first to facilitate buy in of new ideas. "If I start with ‘here’s how we are going to do it’ I have already failed to reach some of the team members."  Instead, he recommends asking a lot of questions about what they think so the team feels like it is their vision, too.

Only One Chef

"I’m firm, fair and consistent," Rosendale says, adding that the days of iron-fisted chefs are over.  "They realize they can’t hold all the cards whether it’s a P&L sheet or a consomme." To motivate and evolve the people around them and build a great team, the best chefs educate and nurture talent. "The [staff] can’t grow if I have all the burden, so I delegate and support," he adds.

Let Off Steam

Chefs are notoriously short fused, and Rosendale says "there is no question that there is a threshold"—being part Italian, he’s no stranger to a hot temper. "You can’t be flaky and passive," he says. But you won’t find him throwing down his apron to throttle the errant kitchen minion in front of a shamefaced staff. "That’s one paradigm that erodes peoples’ confidence," he asserts. 

Between prepping and serving hundreds of meals daily, Rosendale acknowledges he’s in a constant pressure cooker of deadlines and stress. "Chefs are human; sometimes you lose your temper, but I look at that as obsolete style of management. If the team sees me lose my composure its a weakness."

Instead, he pulls people aside privately to have a direct and efficient conversation including what needs to be done to follow through. "When you do that your staff feel like you are more in control and it’s more effective than making a scene."

Consistency

Rosendale says the competition world is a lot like being at Greenbriar every day—and the lessons gleaned from both settings are applicable to any career. "I look at it as setting standards," he says. From attention to detail to the relentless pace of setting goals, Rosendale says, "I always put a finish line to what I want to achieve, then use time management to stay committed to my schedule. That doesn’t stop when you step out of the competition; it permeates everything I do."

Rewarding Risks

Rosendale says he originally thought the experience of opening restaurants in Columbus, Ohio would be a springboard for opening a chain. "The real treasure was the experience of just getting the place open," he says. What you can’t learn from books or years of classes, Rosendale says, is often embedded in this type of real world trial and error. 

"We are often afraid of failing but many times success is a series of failures. This [previous experience] set me up to come to Greenbriar and take on all the competition stress. You have to be comfortable to take that risk and say, if I fail that’s okay. It’s what you learn from it."

[Image: Flickr user Ricardo Liberato]

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