June 22, 2020

A quality culinary school program can provide you with many of the skills necessary to succeed as a culinary professional. While these techniques will be vital to your execution in the kitchen, there are some other lessons that you’ll have to learn on the job. One of those is how to communicate well with the wait staff.

Although the front of house and back of house teams are working toward the same goal, their expertise and training are in very different areas, so they don’t always speak the same language.

Effective communication between kitchen and wait staff has always been an important and often-overlooked part of delivering a great customer experience. And as restaurants start to re-open in the wake of COVID-19, competition to fill dining rooms will be more fierce than ever. Restaurants that take steps to improve the guest experience are likely to attract and maintain a happy customer base.

With slower business, this is a great time for restaurants to invest a little time and effort on improving team communication. Here are five steps chefs can take to build a better communication machine.

1. Anticipate Guest Questions

Often, the communication breakdown between wait staff and chefs is simply due to lack of knowledge or experience. Servers who aren’t well-trained on the ingredients in each dish have to repeatedly come back to the kitchen to ask questions. Multiply those interruptions by 8 or 10 servers on a shift, and it’s no wonder chefs get frustrated.

To head this off, educate the staff about recipe ingredients. At a minimum, servers should have a cheat sheet describing which major food allergens are in which dishes. The more servers know about the food, the better ambassadors they will be to their guests.

This preemptive communication has three benefits:

  1. Guests don’t have to wait on answers to their questions
  2. Servers look more professional
  3. Busy chefs have fewer interruptions for questions and can focus on kitchen operations

2. Assign One Point of Contact

Although servers should be encouraged to ask questions and get to know the kitchen staff during off-hours, during a busy shift, any extra chit-chat on the line needs to be kept to a minimum. Kitchen staff are more likely to stay focused when they’re listening to questions from one source rather than three.

If each server is independently checking ticket times or asking about extra sides of gravy, the result could be a cacophony of chatter, adding unneeded noise to the normal din of the kitchen.

Effective communication between kitchen and restaurant staff doesn’t have to mean rampant communication. A single expediter on the line should be pulling plates and organizing tickets. And they should also be the single point of contact between the kitchen and the servers during a rush.

Servers holding two plated dishes on one hand

A well-trained expeditor will also know what add-on requests are free and which need to be rung in to cover the cost. If chefs are consistently handing out free sides of aioli rather than asking servers to ring it in, they risk hurting the kitchen’s cost of goods and thus profitability.

And since restaurants need to be more cost wary post-COVID-19, it’s more important than ever to be clear about pricing details.

3. Repair the Language Barrier

Servers and chefs often have distinct languages that they use to communicate with their coworkers. Chefs may refer to an under-the-counter refrigerator as a lowboy. Or they may call a small metal hotel pan a “nine pan.” Other terms may be short phrases that describe a particular dish or a specific preparation request.

When you spend all day in the kitchen, you’ll quickly learn how to communicate with the other chefs. But servers, especially newer ones, may not understand these terms. It can be helpful for new servers to have a kitchen training shift to learn this terminology before they start service.

If that isn’t an option due to time or labor costs, add a “kitchen terminology” sheet to the server’s training materials. Bring the front of house staff on the same page as the kitchen to prevent miscommunication and frustration.

A shared language among coworkers helps build a sense of camaraderie and collaboration.

4. Keep the Guest in Mind

The chef’s world is in the kitchen. While the Executive Chef may speak to guests occasionally, most of the kitchen staff stays safely ensconced behind that swinging door.

This disconnect can make it easy to forget that servers are intermediaries. If you find yourself feeling frustrated by wait staff requests, remind yourself that they’re trying to provide the best guest experience they can — which is a shared goal.

If a server seems to be overly particular about an order, remember that they’re relaying a message from a guest or trying to solve a problem on the other side of the door. Work with them to solve the issue. Losing your temper will just stress out the server — who will then bring that tension back out onto the floor with them.

5. Get to Know Each Other

In some restaurants, there’s a sharp divide between a restaurant’s front of house and back of house staff. The expo line can turn into a barrier that neither side crosses. This separation makes communication between the two teams even more difficult.

There are stories of chefs and servers working together for weeks or even months without ever learning each other’s names! Such nonsense leads to a poorer customer experience, lower morale in the workplace, and unnecessary stress.

Fortunately, this situation is improving. Kitchens are becoming more welcoming places for chefs and servers alike. But it still takes a bit of effort to get to know each other.

A great chef not only prepares great food, but he or she must also ensure that dishes get delivered fast, efficiently, and with a smile. Investing time and effort in building great relationships with the wait staff will help to create connections between the two groups, encouraging everyone to pull together in the same direction for a more successful restaurant.

Restaurant staff speaking with the head chef

When you’re new, introduce yourself to the servers, hosts, and bartenders. And once you’re a veteran, continue to introduce yourself to new staff with a smile. Sit with servers during all-staff meetings, and share a family meal with the new guy. Encourage the rest of the chefs to do the same!

Effective communication with wait staff is an important but often neglected part of the chef’s life. A more open dialogue between the kitchen and front of house leads to a calmer kitchen environment, a better guest experience, and a more enjoyable workplace. And that’s a win for the entire restaurant.

To get started on your own journey toward becoming a professional culinarian, learn more about our programs at Auguste Escoffier School of Culinary Arts where students can build a foundation of skills in culinary and pastry techniques, restaurant operations and management, entrepreneurship, and more.

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This article was originally published on December 16, 2015, but has since been updated.