Taking care of members is top priority for Executive Chef Drew Tait, but taking care of the team that takes care of the members is the most important job of a leader.
Last year we lost one of our line cooks to cancer. It has been challenging to deal with his loss from an emotional and operational level. He was a great guy who had worked at the club for over 5 years. He was well-liked by his fellow team members and well-liked by the membership as he was our main buffet carver. He had a lot of face-time with our members and established relationships with them over the years. On top of this, he was also our full-time lunch cook. When he got sick it sent a ripple of change through the team and we had to be flexible, emotionally intelligent and compassionate to deal with it.
Fortunately, most of our core team members are crossed-trained on all of our different stations, so we were able to react instantly to plug the holes in the schedule, but we had to think about what we were going to do long term. Dealing with a challenge like this while emotions are running high from a loss can be a tough thing to do. You’re asking someone to step out of their comfort zone into a new station while dealing with different emotions. This is a difficult task for anyone. My sous chef and I had to be the rocks in the storm. It was very important to be a strong, have a consistent presence and guide the team while also being a shoulder to cry on and a place to vent frustrations.
Being able to handle these swings in emotions along with the regular stress of working in the kitchen was a test of leadership we had to rise to. Being that bulwark for your team while ensuring that none of the challenges effect the membership is even more critical to handle correctly.
While our associate was sick but before he passed away, we joined team members who wanted to go see him on visits to the hospital. We checked in with his wife and family to see if there was anything we could do for them and we kept a very close eye on the on-goings in the kitchen to be able to respond quickly to any emotionally charged situations. It was also a busy time for the club around the holidays, so we had to make sure we kept the quality and consistency of the food at the forefront of the conversation, even though we had just shuffled the team into new stations.
Overall, my sous chef and I were dealing with leadership during a critical moment. This situation can make or break a chef in the kitchen. It is not something you can train for and not every situation is the same for each leader. But when they arise, it’s imperative that you step up to the plate when your team is in need. You can have a big impact to each individual and to the overall team by leading them through something exceedingly challenging.
For us, we wanted to inform the members of what happened, but also wanted to control the impact on our employees and shield them from fielding delicate questions from the members. The day after our associate passed away, we setup a small memorial with his photo next to the prime rib carving station in the dining room. I personally stayed at his memorial for the entire evening to be able to answer questions and share the news gently with our members. This took the burden off our associates and let them focus on their job and the food.
Mental health has been a focus of our industry lately and emotional intelligence is also an extremely important contributor to positive mental health. We were able to weather the storm that overtook our team while ensuring quality, consistency and service. Taking care of our members is our main priority—but taking care of the team that takes care of the members is always one of the most important things we can do as leaders.