Jeremy Leinen, CEC, Executive Chef of Dunwoody CC, believes the journey to success is a continuous and progressive process.
Over the course of my career, I’ve worked in a variety of operations starting with a theme park and eventually transitioning into private clubs, where I’ve been for the past 12 years. Diversity is a great thing, regardless of whether we are talking about the people we spend time with or the type of experience we accumulate over our careers.
Working in a theme park was quite different than working in a place like The Greenbrier or even at a platinum level private club, but I look back on the experience fondly and appreciated the lessons learn.
Let’s start with SeaWorld. I generally refer to my role there as my first “serious” cooking job. Granted, it was the first job I could get when I moved away from home at 19 and landed in Orlando. I was a small-town kid from West Virginia with nothing but IHOP and Applebee’s on my resume.
Lesson 1: Volume
I spent most of my time at the park’s full-service restaurant, but I picked up a few shifts assisting in catering as well as some of the quick service restaurants. Despite what you might think, SeaWorld was largely a scratch operation. Obviously, there were limitations but we cut fresh fish on site, made our own empanadas and hand breaded more coconut shrimp than I ever care to see again—I’m talking speed racks full of it. Almost all bread was made on site, as well.
Some outlets shared their walk-in freezer with others and product and prep got shifted between outlets as needed. A busy day in the full service restaurant typically meant serving around 1,000 meals, with more on a peak day like New Year’s Eve, which topped out at around $40k in sales (and this was in 2005).
The main hot line operated entirely on a call system, which made for an interesting wrinkle. It was brutally busy and we never had enough people—a fully staffed line ran eight people deep, but we often operated with just six. The biggest thing I learned during my time at SeaWord was the importance of teamwork. Each cook had to quickly had to learn to drop their ego and ask for help, no matter how good we thought we were. The property had an Executive Chef, Executive Sous Chef, and a Restaurant Chef sharing 13 outlets including a central commissary and cafeteria, plus a Banquet Chef in charge of catering. Management filtered down to varying levels of kitchen leads or “area” leads as they were sometimes called. (In military terms, think sergeants in charge in each unit, with commissioned officers playing a bit more distant of a role.)
Another impact on my career from my time at SeaWorld was that I met my mentor there. He was a product of apprenticing at the Four Seasons in Toronto and London in the early 80s. Talk about someone with a wealth of knowledge on classical cuisine! I’d often go home and read books like Larousse or whatever else I could get my hands on and then pester him with questions every day at work. He always had answers and I walked away from every conversation learning more than I’d sought. This made a huge impression on me and helped form the kind of chef I wanted to eventually become.
Lesson 2: Leading by Example
After SeaWorld, I did a short stint at an Omni outside of Orlando. After a theme park, a hotel was a much different environment. Besides being exposed to the intricacies of life in a hotel, the biggest difference was working closer with the chefs. The restaurant chef worked shoulder to shoulder with us almost every day, as he wasn’t in charge of multiple outlets. This was big for me, and it set an example I still seek to follow. You simply can’t understate what it means to cooks when you’re in the trenches with your team. That’s what it takes. Even the Executive Sous Chef, who had a million things to do, would come and work the line with us even when he didn’t have to just to build camaraderie.
Lesson 3: Push Yourself
After two years in Orlando, the opportunity to move back to West Virginia to work at The Greenbrier presented and it was something I simply had to do. I was woefully unprepared for what I was walking into. If you’ve every been around somebody that spent time at The Greenbrier, you’ve probably heard them use the expression “push yourself.” This was pretty much the mantra in working in any of the kitchens there.
In going there, you signed up to work with the proverbial big boys, and they were going to make you better or make you quit. As a new hire, you were almost guaranteed to be pushed almost to your breaking point. You’d either snap and quit or the light would come on and you’d morph into a better cook than you realized you could be. The chefs pushed for and absolutely demanded the best out of you every minute of every day.
This level of intensity became second nature after a while. It eventually had to be somewhat “unlearned” or “deprogrammed,” as it doesn’t always translate so well in the rest of the world.
Sure, I had to calm down a bit after leaving The Greenbrier, but the experience and exposure I got while I was there was priceless. You simply can’t overstate the value in spending time in an environment like that. You’ll never know what you’re capable of until someone pushes you past your perceived limits.
At peak season, we were short about 30 cooks in the middle of the summer. Failure was never an option, so we all just dug in even deeper and made it happen. That has been the biggest lesson that stuck with me: That no matter how tough it gets, there’s always a way through.
Lesson 4: Management
A year after leaving The Greenbrier, I found myself in a private club for the first time. My first official sous chef job was at the acclaimed Charlotte Country Club. Let’s just say that leadership was held to a very high standard, especially in terms of communication. How we said it was probably even more important than what we said.
In some areas in life, you can get away with being right and not saying it the best way possible, but this wasn’t the case working there. On top of that, there was an urgency to progress and corrections that would either drive you to madness or to greatness. This could be frustrating, but the message was that you only really get one chance to make an impression on a member. Simply saying that we’re working on getting better and improving didn’t mean much.
While working at CCC, I was granted the opportunity to plan and open a new secondary formal dining outlet. While it was ultimately a temporary thing, this was huge for developing organizational skills and learning to own a project from top to bottom. I also transitioned into banquets and learned a great deal about the importance of organizing production. Overall, these were what I really refer to my formative years in management.
Lesson 5: Servant Leadership
Next came the Atlanta Athletic Club. I began as the Fine Dining Chef but was soon promoted to Executive Sous Chef after about a year. While I was comfortable leading and organizing a small team, I still had to learn how to lead a large one. With a team of 40+ with sous chefs in each area, I also had to learn how to lead from a distance and multi-task in a leadership capacity. I could no longer make things happen by brute force. Instead it was about developing standards and processes with the aid of sous chefs and working with them to make things happen.
With the need to take more of a big picture view, I had to learn to understand that things don’t always happen quickly which means patience and being able to trust the process became key. This was also where I was introduced to the idea of and really had to embrace servant leadership.
I wasn’t directly in charge of an area anymore, which meant my role was to support those who were. Instead of telling somebody what I needed, I had to learn to ask questions, especially ones like “What can I do for you?”
This wasn’t an easy transition and it took a while for me to drop my sledgehammer mentality. There were a lot of hard days involved in learning that lesson. My superiors pushed me pretty hard, which I didn’t necessarily like so much at the time, but looking back on it I see what they were trying to get me to learn.
Lesson 6: Listening
All of these experiences prepared for my first Executive Chef position here at Dunwoody Country Club. I had to learn a bit more about budgeting, but for the most part I had all the necessary technical skills. The biggest thing was a continuation of what I was in transition with in my previous role, which basically came down to learning to shut up and listen.
In a leadership role, you’re often making decisions, but you need information to make them. That information comes from everyone else, and you’ll miss it if you’re too busy talking. Information overload can be stressful and learning to manage that has been an important task. Chefs don’t always have the best reputation for handling stress constructively. The examples are all over the place.
At some point, the phrase “You Can’t Pour From An Empty Cup” really hit me and it’s something I began taking very seriously. At this point, my habits changed. Instead of going home and having a drink, I’d get up early and go lift weights before work. I realized that I can’t be at my best for anyone if I’m not taking care of myself and running on empty all the time.
Yes, some weeks are just hard and self-care is less than optimal, but that can’t be the norm if you want to be at your best as a leader.
The other area I’ve worked to refine is having everything written down and optimally organized. Recipes, line check sheets, spec sheets with pictures for each dish, etc. Not that I hadn’t done this before, but I got much more serious and thorough about it. I realized how much easier my job would be if I put the time into writing all of this down and giving each station a binder with everything they needed to know in one place. Things weren’t reliant on oral communication anymore and the team was able to work on consistency.
From the beginning career to now has been quite a journey, but it’s not done. I don’t know exactly what my next real phase of growth will be. Sometimes you don’t know how far you’ve come until you look back. To that point, I may be in the middle of a breakthrough without even knowing it. Considering the average age of chefs taking the CMC exam, I clearly have not peaked yet—I’m only 35.
A mentor of mine once told me to treat every day like an investment and don’t expect to see any payoff for a solid five years. I’ll be interested to look back five years from now and see what else I can add to my story.