Justice Neal, Executive Chef of Esplanade Golf & Country Club, strives for excellence, not only because members expect it, but because it’s the standard he holds himself to.
I began my career at the age of 15 when I worked as a busboy at a local country club. The hustle-and-bustle of the dining scene was incredibly attractive to me. I learned that, while the front of the house had an obscured speedy tempo to keep the members relaxed, the back of the house was where the adrenaline-fused magic happens.
I worked my way into the kitchen picking up dish shifts. I remember being very intimidated by the blistering pace of the culinary world. From the chef yelling at the cooks and I to the fierce boil of the stock on the stove. I was attracted to all of it. It was the wild west of our age. A satisfying frontier to be subdued and mastered.
I knew as soon as I started washing dishes that I wanted to move into the cook position. I scrubbed away in the dish pit for a little under a year, dropping hints here and there that I wanted to give cooking a shot. One Friday night the fry cook did not show up and Chef looked at me and said, “Are you ready to cook, son?”
I wasn’t ready, and I was fearful of making mistakes on what is always a busy night. But here was my wild frontier; Ride now, partner, or get out of the rodeo.
I took the challenge head-on. I tamed the adrenaline beast and from that point on I have taken great pride in my craft, not just because others expected it of me, but because that is the standard I hold myself to.
My first restaurant job outside of my hometown was in an Asian-fusion restaurant. I worked for the chef who hired me for three years and then again when I moved to Chicago. He was fierce and he drove me harder than any other chef I have worked for. He instilled, sometimes by force, that passion and dedication are the only way to make it in this business. Every day he would teach me to be a better cook than I was the day before. It was exhausting, to say the least. But the satisfaction of gaining new skills daily, mastering time, and infusing flavor into everything I did was intoxicating. Because of him, I have a passion and fire inside of me that, to this day, drives me to love this business.
I have been an Executive Chef for seven years in diverse settings. I have run small farm-to-table independent restaurants and I’ve run large multi-unit multi-million-dollar venues. Through it all there is one thing I have noticed declining in our industry, pride in a job well done.
These days, it’s challenging to find cooks for a myriad of reasons. But tying to find cooks who exhibit pride in the quality of their work is getting even more challenging.
For everyone trying to run a busy kitchen, it’s a daunting scenario. I am the Executive Chef of a country club willing to shell out some serious coin in an effort to get ANY cooks through the door. I have received literally no applicants. Nothing. We even have a hefty sign-on bonus if they stay 90 days.
An industry that I love, that I was once so excited to be a part of, is floundering. That, combined with lots of other challenges, has diminished the old bootstrap ideal of “start at the bottom and work and earn your way to the top of the ladder through hard work and sweat.” It has also inhibited a sense of pride and mastery of your craft.
The Millenial workforce wants higher pay, fewer hours, and benefits. It’s a rock and a hard place scenario. The public demands inexpensive food that tastes like upscale dining and foodservice workers want to be compensated at a much higher rate.
We all know that the only cooperative way to fix this is the cost of a night out. I fear the backlash, but this is reality. We learned the laws of supply and demand in economics class. We are seeing it played out before our eyes. The demand for higher minimum wage is already causing a ripple that will become a tidal wave that will land squarely on the plate of the diner.
Pride in the craft has no seat at the table these days. We hire anyone who can hold a knife and walk at the same time and are willing to give them a bonus if they show up for 90 days in a row. This is putting an unprecedented strain on all foodservice workers like never before. In an industry that has one of the highest substance abuse rates in the country we now see kitchen employees and leads pulling 80+ hour weeks with no end in sight. Exhaustion is rampant and the only fix will be a drastic adjustment to compensate at a higher level.
Albert Einstien said, “The measure of intelligence is the ability to change.” This is true in all areas. Survival is dependent on how successful you are at adapting. We will watch this be played out over the coming years. Maybe, once the dust has settled, pride in a job well done will, once again, be a worthy goal.