Culinary schools strive to cover all the topics you need to pursue a successful career in food service and hospitality. This might lead to opening your own restaurant, a unique food truck, taking a role as a personal chef, or joining a line at a convention center, hospital or hotel.
One of the most important skills you can learn at culinary school is effective communication.
No matter the size, kitchens are often chaotic, loud and fast-paced. Effective communication makes all the difference. It’s the cornerstone of any efficient and successful kitchen – whether there are two of you or twenty.
Effective communication skills will carry you a long way, no matter where you choose to take your culinary career.
So let’s break down the elements of good communication skills in the kitchen.
Acknowledge That Everyone is Different
As renowned chef and leadership expert Anne Loehr explained in her blog, some of you are visual learners, others are spatial, some verbal. You’ve all been exposed to different teaching and learning styles in your classes, and you’ve probably responded to some better than others. That’s okay. You just have to keep in mind that this will apply in the workplace, as well.
You need to work as part of a team on your line, and appreciate that everyone is coming with a slightly different approach. If you’re the kitchen lead, this will mean explaining to your team the way you plan to communicate. If you’re a sous chef or line cook, it will certainly mean asking for clarification if you aren’t following the method used by the head chef.
This isn’t a conversation to have at the height of a dinner rush, of course, but sharing your methods or expectations at a staff meeting, or in private, of how you share and receive information can strengthen your line when the noise and chaos kick in.
Give Respect to Get Respect
Clear communication – that is, listening and responding with thought – is a sign of respect. There is a chain of command in the kitchen; respecting everyone’s role on the line will foster an atmosphere of cooperation and teamwork.
Yelling is sometimes necessary in a chaotic kitchen, but you can still temper your tone of voice, so you’re simply talking loud enough to be heard over the din, not shouting in an accusatory way at a member of the line. Choose your words carefully – even at the height of a hectic service you can be educating your team rather than berating them.
Take Orders from the Top Down
The brigade de cuisine system was created by our namesake, Auguste Escoffier, and features a strong hierarchy. It modernized culinary arts, giving kitchens a military-style ethic that delivers efficient, effective service under strong leadership.
The “commanding officer” – or lead chef – is in charge of the line and is responsible for the overall success of the service. They have the experience and knowledge to lead the team, and the line will take their orders from him or her.
When your lead chef issues a command, you are expected to respond with, “Yes, Chef!” or “Heard!”, or some other short acknowledgement. When you’re asked a question, give the shortest, most concise and clear answer possible. Take a brief moment to organize your thoughts before starting a conversation, so the pertinent facts or request come out quickly and completely.
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Balance Out Communication
If a kitchen is following the brigade de service model, it’s the head chef who sets the pace, gives commands, asks questions, demands information. But a truly successful kitchen should include multiple voices during service, though this can be problematic. There’s the potential for notes and instructions to get lost in the fray, however, creating an environment in which everyone feels welcome to communicate is essential.
For example, if a member of the line is struggling to put together a dish, or it’s taking longer to prepare than expected, that cook needs to speak up immediately so the entire line can assist or adapt.
Again, effective communication is compact and clear, and provides just the facts of the situation, not a commentary. And it’s up to the head chef to listen, understanding that everyone has a different speaking style, and respond with respect.
While a chain of command is important, camaraderie is also an important element in a successful kitchen. Chatter isn’t encouraged, but a well-timed joke, a quick compliment to a member of the team or observation about the happenings in the kitchen will keep up morale, and let your team let off some steam.
If you’re new to a kitchen, be sure to take your lead from the veterans in the room so you know when it’s appropriate to pitch into the conversation.
Technology Can Be Your Friend
Some kitchens end up devolving into a stream of simultaneous shouting matches, and service suffers for it. One way to alleviate the noise is adopting an electronic ordering system.
Technology has played a big role in front-of-house and daily operations for years – business software, reservation systems, pre-ordering from suppliers. The industry is finally caught up when it comes to the kitchen, and the systems, which allow the team to receive an accurate, concise order in a timely fashion, are more and more in professional kitchens of all sizes.
For truly effective communication, have the lead chef intercept the order and then communicate the details to the members of the line – this cuts down on the number of voices shouting in an already hot and chaotic kitchen.
Electronic systems have other advantages for the head chef, and the benefits trickle down to the entire kitchen team. Daily tasks like writing out the allergens in a menu can be tracked by the software, instead, saving time that chef can better spend on cooking and guiding his team.
There’s a wide range of software options available, all with different features. Some will allow you to track the dining preferences of your guests, others can enhance the tracking of individual staff performance to identify areas for improvement. Overall, it’s anticipated that a restaurant’s logbook will improve because so much information can be captured and shared electronically with purpose-built software.
Effective communication in the kitchen is achievable if the lead chef follows a system, communicates that system to the entire team, builds an atmosphere of respect and is mindful of the different voices in the kitchen. As you study culinary arts, be sure to hang onto all the lessons you’ve learned about the tools-of-the-trade – because your communication skills are just as important as your knife skills.
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This article was originally published on July 9, 2018, and has since been updated.