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What 'Yes, Chef' really means

 “I know, I know, but it’s his ship now, his command, he’s in charge; he’s the boss, head man, top dog, big cheese.”

—Capt. Steve McCroskey in the movie Airplane!

One of the first things I teach my students is to say, “Yes, chef.” They think that I am acting like Gordon Ramsay, but I explain to them that chefs loved the sound of those two words long before Hell’s Kitchen reigned supreme. Actually, from day one, I teach my students that when a chef or kitchen manager asks you to do something you ask yourself three questions:

1. Is it illegal?

2. Is it immoral?

3. Is it dangerous?

If the answer to all three questions is “no,” then the only thing to be said is “Yes, chef.” (By the way, I also drill into their heads the related principle: Do what the chef says, not what you think the chef wants.)

Insistence on this practice has led to some interesting "Yes, chef" moments in my kitchen classroom. I had a student with a very bad attitude who fought everything I said. One time I told her that she was in charge of the family lunch and I wanted her to make “a plate featuring a lamb chop.” Two hours later, 20 students and I gathered around the table. She had one plate featuring one lamb chop. I was trying to conceal my horror; after all, she did follow what I told her to do. One of the students started laughing and said, “Alice, for the first time you did what the chef told you to do.” There was nothing I could say but to congratulate her on following directions. She replied, “Yes, chef.” Ironically, getting complimented for this launched her. She became an exemplary student and has worked in the industry for many years now.

A more humorous (and less stomach-churning) time came while I was working with a special needs student. He was quite functional but had difficulty understanding some of the nuances of directions. I wanted him to ice bath a four inch half pan of soup. I told him how to do it in what I thought were simple, clear and concise terms. He got a hotel pan, filled it with ice and water as directed. Holding the half pan, he gave me a confused stare and asked me what to do next. I said, “put it in the ice water.” He looked at me and said, “But, but, but…” and I replied, “The answer is not ‘but, but, but.’ The answer is ‘Yes, chef.’ Now, put the soup in the ice bath.” He looked at me and said “Yes chef” and poured the four inch half pan’s contents into the ice bath. The other students looked at me mortified. I put my arm around the student’s shoulders and started laughing so hard that tears were streaming down my face. After all, he did what I told him to do with a “Yes, chef.”

Occasionally as chefs we are challenged to practice what we preach. My personal test came a few years ago. I was working with Chef Jeff Henderson, author of several New York Times best sellers including Cooked, Chef Jeff Cooks, and Pass It On. He had called me and said that he was coming to the San Francisco Bay Area to do a benefit, and asked if a few students could help with the prep, cooking and cleanup. The nonprofit organization hosting the event was to supply the kitchen and the food, and I was going to bring all of the small cooking tools. Oh yes, my assigned job was simply to get the students back and forth to the site and to take a lot of pictures.

I am not a morning person. I need a couple of cups to get me going in the morning. I only drink two, but I need these two. For this event I had to get up at 5:30 a.m. so I could get ready and pick up my students and be at the location by 8:00 a.m. My wonderful wife set up the coffee maker with some Kauai Peaberry coffee (one of my favorites) and when I got up I turned the pot on. I poured myself a travel mug and promptly left it on the counter at home. I noticed it missing a few blocks away and thought no problem since I had to drive through part of San Francisco to get my students at their residence in Haight Ashbury. However, no coffee places were open on route at that hour! Sucking it up, I thought I would get coffee by the venue. My students, knowing me fairly well, kept very quiet for the ride. We got off the freeway at 8:05 a.m. and lo and behold there was a Starbucks right next to the freeway.

My students urged me to stop, but wanting to set a good example, I told them that work comes before pleasure and that I was going to get to the location, unload the tools and equipment, get them on task and then go out for coffee. Ah, the best laid plans of mice and chefs often go awry.

Twenty minutes after the meeting time, I called the nonprofit contact because there was no one there and the place was locked. They had been late in picking up Chef Jeff, I was told, and would be at the location in 10 minutes. They said one of the women in their office was bringing coffee for everyone. Well, when they finally arrived three minutes later we found that things were not quite as we expected. The chicken was frozen solid, ingredients weren’t broken down as promised, and overall we had a lot of work to do before the noon serving time. Any chance of me leaving was wiped out. No worries, I thought, I’ve been up for four hours, I can wait a few more minutes for the woman to arrive with the coffee. She showed up over 45 minutes later! When I asked about the coffee, she said, “I didn’t bring any. I heard that the group picking up Chef Jeff stopped on the way up and so I didn’t think we needed any.” I wanted to cry, but kept muddling through.

About 11:00 Chef Jeff asked me to find someone to make a run to the grocery store for some items that were missing. I found a willing gentleman, and gave him Chef Jeff’s list. On his way out the door, I begged that if it wouldn’t delay him more than one minute to please bring me back a cup of black coffee.

Forty minutes later, and with less than twenty minutes before show time, he returned and handed me a cup of coffee about the size of a California redwood tree. I thanked him profusely and took the lid off to let it cool down a bit. My students told me later that my eyes and tongue looked like Wiley Coyote about ready to pounce on the Road Runner. I put the coffee down on top of the hot line counter and started prepping the other items from the store. Jeff walked in the kitchen. “Whose coffee is this?” I reply nervously, with a quivering, “Mine chef.” I see where this is heading. “Get rid of it now,” he says as he walks past me. My students stare at me with shock, horror, and disbelief. They are feeling my pain. “Yes, chef,” I croak, failing to sound strong and brave. I hadn’t even had one sip!

Now, he was right of course. We had young ladies ages 13 to 15 serving with full-size trays. If one of them had knocked the coffee over the food the entire hot line would have been ruined.

Later my students told me that they knew that I was asking myself:

1. Is it illegal?

2. Is it immoral?

3. Is it dangerous?

I didn’t question the order to throw out the coffee. I wouldn’t think to question it. Jeff was the chef for that event, not me. I can’t require my students to do something that I wouldn’t do. 

There is no "team" in "chef" Saying “Yes, chef” is just part of that equation. Like the captain of a ship, or an aircraft pilot, the buck has to stop somewhere. If the buck stops with the chef, then the chef must have the authority and power to make sure that things are done her or his way.

What did I learn from the experience with Chef Jeff? I learned that any chef worth his or her kosher salt, when not in charge of the kitchen, will say “Yes, chef.” That is what you as a chef expect in your kitchen, and it's what I teach my students.

I learned one more thing: Never to forget the travel mug of coffee.

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