The Union Club of Cleveland’s Lawrence McFadden, CMC, GM/COO, explains how he manages rare and budding culinary talent.
When I joined the Union Club as General Manager, a member took it upon himself to craft this mission for me: “Our club needs better food.”
Later, while benchmarking against a local club, the General Manager introduced himself by saying, “We serve comfort food, nothing like your club’s fare.”
His description seemed to be a blend of cuisine description and quality, leaving me to wonder if he had created a safe tagline and thus left culinary definition in the hands of his members.
Honestly, I took it as a compliment of our reputation and his professional expectation based on our chef’s reputation. Having great talent in the kitchen certainly adds pressure to the general manager as food is a very subjective topic. When our members hear about our chef’s accolades, they become very engaged critics of our menu. In the beginning, he touched clubs classics, disrupted vendors, even moved from convenience products to fresh, as in the case of the soup below.
A member once asked, “Do you like the new vichyssoise?” We both knew he didn’t actually want my opinion. His question had nothing to do with me. It was a passive-aggressive comment that he thought sounded better than, “Well, we hope chef can survive this.”
During my culinary career I was a strong cook, effective executive chef, even an aspiring leader. But I was never the culinary Picasso our club’s Executive Chef is.
Master Chef Arnaud Berthelier’s palette predicts mouth feel, selects flavors best felt for the tongue, while limiting ingredients for taste clarity. He mentally conceptualizes combinations that others just hope to think of.
His personal career recipe includes one part exposure to world-class culinarians, one-part God-given, natural talent and one-part creativite application from lessons learned. Utilizing these gifts in club classics while leaving creative brilliance for his own creations.
I’ve had some great mentors. And their wisdom created a personal leadership style that is rooted in the fact that own wisdom can be time-stamped by changing tastes or employee’s views.
Chef and I came from similar culinary backgrounds with experience working with brands that dismantled talent for better efficiencies, bottom lines, and corporate consistencies. Generalized management is for the masses. Personalized understanding is for the few, but the customer will experience their impact.
The great book, The Jordan Rules: The Inside Story of a Turbulent Season with Michael Jordan and the Chicago Bulls, could be viewed completely inappropriately if not for a once-in-a-lifetime talent. Leaders often feel all staff must be treated equally, managing for consistency in the ranks, instead of individualized relationships that influence the entire organization.
Young developing managers often misunderstand reasons for these privileges. They conclude favoritism. Budding chefs are often given more responsibilities, as well as privileges, as their talents emerge. While a rare Picasso might be allowed a separate path to enhance the value of the brand.
With mid-level luxury, culinary divisions couldn’t care less about a leadership mentality. They favor a manager-centric system. This can produce a profitable direction with limited talent earning low wages, producing high profit ratios. Saving your way to profitability can be the mission, but those who earn their way through quality often employ the best in class.
For us, a luxury cook’s journey often in the production kitchens, learning key metric measurements, transitioning to café for cooking accuracy and consistency. Later, that chef moves to a signature restaurant for exposure to technics and inspiring creativity.
These budding chefs should not write the menus or recipes as their personalized interpretation has not yet developed. These formative years are for the understanding of technic, even simply copying Picasso’s work, while gaining their culinary wisdom to be free thinkers.
If a budding chef became a real Picasso our mentorship conversation would focus on customer expectation, then move to marketing the artisan’s creations. Our goal together was to effectively describe the menu, so dishes made a positive impression on the diner.
As GM, I like to influence the Picasso-like talent, while directly managing our budding potential. Directing is quicker and easier, but often repels unique talent in its generalized context. Talent always requires personal space, as often they are in the future, not the present.
My hardest part is knowing when to tinker and when simply leave alone, remaining confident even as polarized comments might be shared. I do this because I understand that identifiable, sellable cuisine is the secret to positively influencing those comments.
Our Picasso knows how to paint, he just needs help being understood. And if we are successful in helping others understand him, we won’t becoming starving artists.