In the past four years, native Vermonter and award-winning chef Seamus Mullen has opened two acclaimed eateries in New York City: Tertulia, a James Beard Foundation Award finalist for best new restaurant, and El Colmado, a tapas and wine bar in Hell’s Kitchen. With both of those ventures, Mullen has sought to foster a collaborative and supportive work environment in what is a notoriously intense, high-pressure business. As he points out, when discussing the pitfalls of succumbing to that pressure: “If you’re in a restaurant and the chef is screaming and throwing tantrums, that’s usually a sign of a person who has no business in a professional kitchen.”
Here, Mullen shares tips on maintaining a healthy work environment; retaining talent in a competitive market; and the joys of mentoring. (“I try not to use the expression, ‘the people who work for me,'” he says, “because nobody works for me. I work for me. I work for the betterment of the whole business. And my colleagues do the same thing.”)
1. Fit the job to the person, not the person to the job.
Any decent chef can teach a trained monkey how to cook. “Heat the pan. Put meat in the pan.” It’s not that difficult. What’s much harder — and far more rewarding — is identifying an individual’s skill, and then honing it. I’ll illustrate this approach with an example from my own life. I’ve been a competitive cycler for years. I’m a big guy; I outweigh most of my fellow cyclists by a good 20 or 30 pounds, so I can’t really compete with them on the hills. But I’m a really strong cyclist. A coach once opened my eyes by telling me that, while I should certainly train on hills to maintain my form, I should know that the races I was going to be most competitive in were going to be won and lost in the sprints. That’s what I should focus on, because it’s what I was really good at. You know, basketball players aren’t tall because they’re basketball players. They’re basketball players in large part because they’re tall.
In the kitchen, I want to find a position for someone that matches their skills, so that they’re successful, and the restaurant is successful.
2. Give credit where credit is due.
I can’t tell you how many times I’ve seen a bad manager take credit for something — a successful dish, an innovation in the way the kitchen works, whatever it might be — when it wasn’t their idea to begin with. That’s something I’ll never, ever do. For instance, at Tertulia, the way we cook on the grill is different from the way anyone else might cook on a grill, just by virtue of how we learned to cook in that space. We had a sous chef in our kitchen named Marc Howard [he now works at the celebrated restaurant Betony in New York] who suggested that we create a shelf system to accommodate the way we used the grill. He handed me that nugget of an idea, and I ran with it and designed a shelf system. But I always, always give credit for that idea to Mark. He knows that whenever he comes in — and he visits often — it’s totally legit for him to brag about the idea for that shelf system, because it really was his to begin with.
3. As a corollary to Tip No. 2, make sure your colleagues know that you genuinely hear them when they speak up.
Never underestimate how important it is for people to know that they are being heard. Anyone can pay lip service to the idea of creating an environment where everyone has a say, or where “there are no bad ideas.” But in order for everyone to buy into the mission of the business, they have to know that they are contributing in some way, and the best way for that to happen is for them to see their suggestions and recommendations being put into practice. It’s a matter of respect. When people feel respected, they generally work harder, and when they work harder, chances are they’ll succeed.
4. An occasional, quick “smoke break” can pay dividends in the long run.
I’m not talking about a literal cigarette break, necessarily — I don’t smoke, I think it’s disgusting — but a conscious time-out in the middle of work can help people recharge and re-focus on problems. A famous study done a few years ago [by Tony Schwartz and Catherine McCarthy] found that taking regular breaks can make employees more productive. Standing around chatting with colleagues for 15 minutes, and not consciously thinking about what awaits you back at your desk or in the kitchen but just freeing up the mind a bit, letting it wander or play or engaging in some banter with friends — enacting that a few times a day, every day, has a positive cumulative effect. I liken it to keeping plaque off of your teeth. Chip away a little bit each day, and it won’t build up. Don’t address it all, and you’ll have a big problem next time you visit the dentist.
Take these breaks yourself, and make sure that your colleagues and co-workers do the same. I know it can be hard to find time for those breaks, especially if you work in an environment even remotely as intense as the kitchen at Tertulia, for example. But everyone benefits, and in the long run the business will benefit, too.
Seamus Mullen is the chef/owner behind Tertulia
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