Kevin Walker, CMC, Executive Chef of Ansley Golf Club, lays out a typical day, elaborating on the many intricacies and responsibilities of Executive Chefs.
I started cooking at age of 15 in Mom & Pop operations, though I consider my professional career to have started when I began working at the Arizona Biltmore in Phoenix at age 20. I was hired there as a banquet prep cook and had been working for about a month when we received a postcard from the Executive Chef. He had gone back to Austria to work in a friend’s restaurant for six weeks. I remember wondering why a chef would go on vacation to cook. It made no sense to me at the time at the time.
Flash forward 14 years to when I got my first Executive Chef position. I had been there for almost 9-months and was filling four empty positions—purchasing agent, breakfast cook, PM sauté and banquet chef—all the while having to fulfill all the duties of my own position as Chef.
I remember, clear as day, sitting at my desk at 1:00 a.m., inputting invoices for end of month inventory when it struck me and I understood why Chef Wendler went away to cook on his vacation. The thought of worrying over just the mise en place for one station and 5-8 menu items was so enticing. I found myself dreaming of just cooking. No phone calls to answer, menus to write, or meetings to attend. There were no schedules, inventories, or any one of the hundreds of other items that take up the day. It was just cooking.
Very rarely does anyone ever explain to you the “other side” of being a chef when you start out. Sure, if you go to school, they teach you management, costing, etc., but no one sits you down and draws out what a typical day for the chef looks like. If you learn the industry on the job and come up through the ranks, you see what the chef does. But if that chef is good at what they do, you are never directly impacted by the load they carry, except maybe some extra prep for the “Chef’s Table” because they are in a meeting for three hours prior to the dinner.
Don’t get me wrong, I would not change one step of my career, nor is this just a gripe session. I love what I do. I like being in charge. But are there responsibilities I would gladly give away to make more time for cooking? Absolutely.
Hopefully, if you are reading this, you are a cook aspiring to be a chef or you are the chef and will share this with those with the drive the be in your seat one day.
Have you ever looked at your chef and wondered what they are thinking? Please indulge me and let me walk you through a “normal” day for your chef and what is running through their head, if it is anything like mine.
A Day In the Life
The alarm generally goes off at 6:30 a.m. I always say the hardest part of the day is getting out of bed, which is aided by three dogs harassing me for their morning walk. This, along with my drive in, is valuable time for me to get my head straight. Dogs walked, showered and out the door by 8 a.m. before leaving I quickly scan the Manager’s Report from the prior evening for anything I may need to know immediately. I have a 30-45-minute drive to work every day, which is perfect. This time is spent mentally organizing my day, catching up with colleagues, and walking through the inevitable “what if” scenarios.
When I arrive at work. I try not to enter the building the same way all the time. This gives me the ability to have a fresh perspective. You see your world in a different light when you change your view, even if it’s just from the loading dock to the front door. If I come through the loading dock, I can check on its condition. Are the garbage or cardboard containers overflowing? Did the stewards roll the up the hose after cleaning the mats last night? Are the coolers locked? What about the smoking area? Is there something that has been just dumped, perhaps an old office chair, and needs to be cleared away.
I like to get in and get changed before I start my rounds and sometimes getting from the door to my office is like running a gauntlet. Change, update my voicemail message so people know I am in the building for that day. Step out into the kitchen and make my rounds.
I try my best to say hello to every employee, every day and spend at least a few minutes checking in on them. During this time, I try to focus on them and not so much on work. Generally, if you do this consistently, you will garner information that will always give you follow up questions for future conversations. Family, transportation, second jobs, school, things they may need to do their job better. Basically, are they ok? Is there anything I can do to help them? Inevitably, during this time, someone will ask about or for something I can’t answer or provide right then. Day off request is the big one. “Please submit it through the payroll app, I won’t remember it,” I tell them.
After that, I stop by and see the purchasing agent. I ask if there are any issues with the morning orders. I ask if there is an event or a special dinner on the horizon. I ask if they remembered to order for it and if there are areas they are concerned about.
Next, I check with our garde manger cook. Will she need help plating the party for tonight? Did she get the updated tennis count or the addition from last night? We talk through anything else that maybe going on.
While downstairs I will run pass through the admin offices, check for mail and say hello to everyone. This is a good time to find out if we are up to date and make sure they’re getting our information in a timely manner.
I head back upstairs to walk the line, talk to the cooks, check with the a.m. banquet cooks and pastry. Then I go back to the office to answer emails, write needed menus, gather and send information my boss needs to their job, check the time card report from the day before, and read the Manager’s Report in more depth.
By now the a la carte sous chefs and exec sous—who is also the banquet chef—are in. What do they need? Are the banquets set? Where did we stand for the remaining of the week? Any issues with a la carte? Are we running low on anything that takes a lot of time to cook or prep? I have total confidence in my Management Team, but I purposefully assign specific tasks to certain people so we have a point person responsible for that item. One may be in charge of smoking all the brisket for the house, while another is point on all fresh pasta. This ensures responsibility and consistency.
Daily I speak with our COO and Clubhouse Manager, keeping them up to date on any ongoing issues, whether those issues concern product, human resource or equipment. This also allows for feedback they might have gained from conversations with member’s or staff.
Depending on the day of the week, there may be 1-3 meetings that I must attend, payroll to complete, schedules to write, or a myriad of other functions that keep me from doing what I love—to cook.
During lunch, I will walk the dining room, the Men’s Grill, visit stations we may have working in tennis or the turn, and during the summer, visit the pool to make sure everything is running smoothly there. I encourage the sous chefs to do the same. If we see a potential opportunity to enhance the member’s experience, we take it. Being visible is the best way the head-off a possible crisis before it happens.
I do payroll and the schedule. I could have one of my sous chefs do these things, but I would rather have them engaged in cooking and engaged in the day to day operations. By doing this I can jump in wherever and whenever needed and they can stay focused on our main priority: making great food and exceeding our member’s expectation.
Daily, with my sous chefs, we have small conversations on how best to handle service. If we do not have parties, or if they are small, I will expedite dinner service. Again, not because my staff can’t do it but because I like to have them on the line controlling the flow and touching all the plates that come out from the backside of the line. Soon we will reopen our third dining outlet, then we will need someone free to oversee that outlet as well.
I am constantly challenging my sous chefs to remove their blinders and see the entire operation. I want them to look at everything and everywhere. From the towel under the line that has been there for two hours to the straw wrapper a server dropped and everyone has walked over, to the way a cook is cutting onions. Are items being stored properly? Are cooks over producing to stay ahead and affecting quality? Was a complete line check done? Was everything tasted before service? Did we make enough bread for service? Are there any concerns with reservations, i.e. allergies, special requests, or times that are oversold?
Inevitably, a situation arises. It could be a piece of equipment malfunctioning, the pop-up needs of a member, or, more importantly, a situation in a team member’s life. There is always a situation arising affecting the wellbeing of a team member, and when they do, they need to be handled immediately with care and compassion. Your team is your family. You spend just as much, if not more time with them than you do with your own family. You need to be aware of what is going on in their lives, whether it’s illness of themselves, family members, financial assistance, or, God forbid, a death.
By 8:30 or 9, it’s time to head home. I reset my voicemail and email message letting people know when I will be back. I change, say goodnight to everyone and thank them for a good day. The 30-minute drive home helps me to decompress. Walking through the door, I cannot even say hello to my wife before the dogs are howling and jumping on me for their evening walk, so out the door we go. Though I don’t always want to do it, when we return, I am glad we did. I try not to think of anything during this time and just enjoy the quiet and their energy. Back home, I spend 15-20 minutes catching up with my wife, then it is downstairs for 30-60 minutes on the trainer riding out the day. Whatever may be left in my head is flushed away on my bike. It is very cathartic. When finished, its back upstairs to spend an hour or so with my better half to end the day.
Keeping calm and handling all the above on a daily basis is what chefs are paid to do. Making sure the operation runs smoothly, moral and relationships between departments is positive and the membership satisfaction remains high is all part of the job. You started down this career path because you love to cook and I submit that should always be your drive. All of the ancillary items that make up the job are important, though, and make up the difference between a line cook and a chef.