After nearly 15 years, The Metropolitan was due for an update – new floors, new decor, new menu – everything got scrutinized, evaluated, and discussed. After several months of planning and consideration, Karen decided that she was done being in the restaurant business. Rather than revamp and relaunch, we were closing our doors.
Now, I’d come to love The Met. Not just the chef, and my co-workers, but Karen, the front-of-house staff, and our customers as well. Shit, I’d planned on spending the rest of my career there, working for Karen and Chef in whatever capacity I could. I was incredibly apprehensive of what this meant for my career in food service.
Karen pulled out all of the stops, and the closing of The Met was a celebration of the amazing food that had been created and served there through the years, an acknowledgement of the barriers that had been broken and the doors opened for other restaurants and the culinary community in general, and a fond farewell to all of our patrons. In those last two weeks, we created some of the best food and experiences I’ve ever been a part of.
The week after closing, I received a phone call from Christian, an old friend that owned a restaurant in Ogden, about an hour north of Salt Lake City. He was looking for a new sous chef, and asked if I’d be interested.
Now, I think it’s important to understand a few things. The Metropolitan was one of the finest restaurants in all of Utah. It had been an honor to work there, and the caliber of people there had been nothing short of exceptional in every possible way that mattered.
Christian’s restaurant, The Prairie Schooner, is a historic steakhouse. They’ve been in business for well over 40 years, and are an Icon in Ogden, Utah. All manner of celebrations involving food happen at The Schooner – birthdays, weddings, anniversaries, prom… If you’ve got an occasion to celebrate, and you’re hungry, The Prairie Schooner is the place you go if you’re in Ogden. It’s kinda kitschy, too. There are over 200 dead, taxidermied animals there. The decor inside makes it look like you’re out in the wild west under the stars, and the tables are designed like covered wagons. The menu is mostly steak, a few seafood items, and the type of side dishes you’d expect in a ranch house setting – potatoes (baked, mashed, or scalloped), hearty salads, hefty portions of vegetables, and always baskets of fresh warm bread with honey and butter. Not a bad menu, just drastically different than what I was used to. I wasn’t too excited about this opportunity, but Christian was an old friend, and so I figured I could at least stage and see how that went.
I went in, met with him, worked a shift with the chef, and afterwards the three of us talked about the potential. Chef was excited about the possibilities. He was very pleased with my experience, how I worked the line, and how I interacted with the other cooks. Christian was also very excited about the creativity and experience that I brought to the table. Me? I was only mildly enthusiastic. I shared my concerns with the two of them.
“It’s a set menu. Creativity is as important to me as the air I breathe. I don’t know how I feel about cooking the same thing over and over again for years at a time.” I said.
“You’ll have free reign on the daily and weekly specials. You can use your creativity as much as you like on the specials.” they replied.
“It’s a long-ass commute to be making each day” I said.
“We’ll adjust your pay to cover the gas and your time” they said.
“It’s not fine dining. I’m a fine dining cook, not a steakhouse cook.” I said.
“It’s Ogden’s finest restaurant. This is what we think of when we think of fine dining here in Ogden” they said.
I told them I’d give it some consideration, and drove home knowing already that my answer was a solid NO. I discussed it with Megan, and although she thought there were some definite benefit to this position, she understood how I felt and would support whatever decision I made.
The next day, Christian called. He offered me the Executive Chef position, stating that he needed to fire the current chef because of his drug use, and other resulting issues. Although I had decided to decline the sous chef position, this was something new. I had nothing to lose, so I gave him a number. “If you can pay me that much, I’m your man.” I had given the figure that I’d been making before I started at The Met. I was only slightly surprised when he agreed, and asked me to come in to start the next day at 10:00am.
Now, remember, I’d only been back in the food service industry for a little less than a year, and here I was taking an Executive Chef position. If I thought that my first stage at The Met had been intimidating, taking over this restaurant was like that first stage amplified by about 100 times. Sure, I knew how to do food cost, that’s just math. Managing a team? I learned that at UPS. Interpersonal communication? Finely tuned with my time at The Ritz-Carlton. I mean, technically, I HAD the skill set, I’d just never put it all together before. And even if I had, nothing could have prepared me for what I was about to walk in to.
As I walked through the back door into the kitchen, my kitchen, for the very first time, I was met with semi-hostile stares, curious sidelong glances, and servers furtively whispering to each other while trying not to look in my direction. You see, most of the staff hadn’t yet learned that the previous chef had been replaced. He was well-liked, and the fact that he was gone with no notice and had already been replaced was NOT ok with most of the staff. Christian came in, I gathered the cooks together, and he introduced me. He also made it known to the servers that I was the new chef, and to treat me with the same respect they’d treated my predecessor. Truthfully, this admonition was wasted breath – in the kitchen, respect is always hard earned and easily lost.
It was the first week of September. Christian and I had already met to discuss the needs of the kitchen and my strategies for addressing them. His food cost was high. Like, REALLY high – 40% was his goal. By comparison, most successful restaurants average around 22%-24%. Anything over 25% is completely unacceptable. Christian had this idea that 40% was a decent goal for a steakhouse (it’s not), and so that was the goal. On my first day, our official food cost was 43%. Christian also prepared me for the upcoming holiday season. Basically, I had until November 1st to get my crew locked down and my policies and procedures fully implemented, because at the beginning of November, the parties start – every company, big or small, that’s within 30 miles of The Schooner holds their company holiday party there. The other 10 months of the year, The Schooner averaged around 200 covers a day, and as high as 350-400 on the weekends. From the first of November through Christmas Eve, we averaged between 1200 and 1800 each day, served out of two kitchens.
Pause here for a moment and imagine your own business – the daily operations, the tasks that need to be carried out each day to ensure that you can open your doors again tomorrow, the staffing, the planning, the execution, EVERYTHING that goes in to making your business run each day. Now imagine that overnight, you had to produce six to twelve times the amount that you currently do, with the same staff and same resources. That’s what I was up against.
The first few weeks were spent earning the trust of both the front of house and my team in the back of the house. There were several incidences of various staff questioning me, testing me. There were heated words exchanged. There was a ton of turnover, especially on my team of cooks, which was sort of expected. Cooks are loyal to a fault, and will follow their chef, as several of my team did. I’ve got no problem with this, as most of them we’re professional enough to give notice, and only one of them really left me in a tight spot during service. It’s just the way the industry operates. Needless to say, the first few weeks were pretty rough, but I felt pretty good about the progress that I’d made in implementing my strategies and systems, and developing relationships with the staff.
And then it was November…
I’d worked hard before in my life – long hours, physical and mentally challenging work, emotionally draining work, and so on. I felt like I was a pretty hard and dedicated worker, all things considered. But November, man, November damn near killed me, and then December came in to finish the job.
I was at the restaurant every day by 7:00am, which meant I left my house at 6:00, which meant I woke up at 5:00 every day. EVERY. DAMN. DAY. As soon as I arrived at the restaurant, I’d get prepped for lunch, and start on dinner prep alongside my crew, who were every bit as dedicated and hard-working as I was. Usually we had a few lunch banquets, always had a busy lunch service, most days we had a banquet or two between dinner and lunch, and then we had several banquets for dinner, in addition to dinner service. When all was said and done, I’d usually wrap up and head home around midnight or so, get home by 1:00, shower, and fall into bed for a few hours before doing it all again. Near the middle of December, I took half of a sunday off. I’d intended to take the whole day off, but there was a staffing issue that required my attention, so after sleeping in for a few hours, I headed in to work for a few hours. Other than that, I worked every day from November 1 through December 24. I averaged around 120 hours a week, twice what I was salaried for. I didn’t complain, there wasn’t time. My only focus was on keeping the kitchen running, and maintaining quality of food within reasonable ticket times (20 minutes if we were killing it, 30 if we were struggling). Every day, although my team performed to the best of their abilities, it seemed we just didn’t quite reach our goals. After the first two weeks of November, I was an emotional wreck, and the self-doubt attacked me like a ravenous beast, clawing to get at my insides. Every night on the drive home, I called my wonderful wife, and told her that I couldn’t do it any longer, I wasn’t the right guy for the job, it was too much for me, I wasn’t up to the task, and so on. And every night, she would talk me off the ledge, reassuring me that I WAS the right guy, that I COULD do this, and telling me all of the ways that I was the right guy for the job. I believed her, and her constant reassurance got me through those two months.
By the end of the year, we’d had a fantastic holiday season. Most of our guests, both regular walk-in and banquet customers, had been pretty happy with the experience. And I’d come out on the other side a very different man. I now handled pressure and stress very differently. I had learned how to roll with the punches and keep working, regardless of how hard I got hit. I was a better chef, a better leader, a better boss, and a better man because of what I’d been through.
You see, sometimes life forces us in directions that we might not have otherwise have found for ourselves.
I wanted to stay at The Met forever. If The Met had never closed, I’d probably be a really great line cook at a pretty awesome restaurant. If I’d never been offered the EC position at The Schooner, I’d have otherwise never subjected myself to that kind of trial-by-fire, and I’d never have learned the lessons I did, or have grown in the ways that I have. In my time at The Schooner, I brought the food cost down 8%, built a rockstar staff that stayed mostly intact when the new chef took over for me, and even played an integral role in choosing my successor.
Here’s one of the biggest lessons I learned, though – once you reach your goals, acknowledge your accomplishment, evaluate the journey and the achievement, and make new goals. When I got back into food, I thought that being the Executive Chef at restaurant was what I wanted. That was my goal. Once I got there, it turns out it wasn’t at all what I wanted. Being the Chef doesn’t involve as much cooking as I wanted. There’s a lot of paperwork, hand-holding, and other tasks that have nothing to do with the food, and I’m all about the food! So I re-evaluated what I wanted, and decided that rather than compromise what I was passionate about, it was time to move on.