Chef Chatter: How 1 chef relies on empathy to connect with team

Chef Chatter: How 1 chef relies on empathy to connect with team

By Dan Stoller, senior R&D Chef, The Culinary Edge

Editor's note: Chef Chatter is a series featuring chefs-authored blogs. If you'd like to write a Chef Chatter blog, send your idea to Cherryh Cansler at

"86 Cookie Plate!" I yelled down the line, stress palpable in my voice. It was first my big job out of culinary school and I had run out of cookies. For the third Saturday in a row. It wasn't exactly the hardest item on my station to prep. Our morning crew made the dough in bulk and my only job was to portion the cookies and bake them. Each day, as I rushed to get the rest of my sub-recipes prepped, I would forget about the cookies in the oven and burn them. On this particular Saturday, I opened the door of the oven and there they were: little sugary discs, toasted to an acrid crisp. After service, Chef asked to speak to me outside. I anxiously followed him, watching the door close behind me.

"You ok?," Chef asked.

"What?" I'd been expecting a lashing or at least some not-so-good-natured ribbing.

"Are you ok? You're making stupid mistakes, and you're not stupid." 

We talked for 20 minutes about the stress I was under, the difficulties in my home life, and what I found challenging about my job. He listened as I shared my feelings. He told me that he wanted me to succeed but that if I couldn't pull it together, I'd be looking for a new job soon. And, although that threat was harsh, his approach to my personal and professional growth was one of deep understanding. True empathy. 

The Oxford dictionary defines empathy as "the ability to understand and share the feelings of another." Distilled to two words: "understand" and "share". Understanding requires active listening, careful consideration and precise analysis. Sharing is the execution of those learnings. Practicing empathy means "feeling with" — and can take many forms.

Empathy is the deciding factor we can and should use in a sea of competing motivations. In the world of food, chefs are the bridge between marketing and operations, idea and execution, strategy and tactic, plate and palate. To be successful, a chef must be willing and able to understand and appreciate the perspectives of all of the key players — the diner, the bus boy, the owner. To be successful, a chef must practice empathy. 

Empathy is not something they taught us in culinary school. We weren't educated on the delicate nature of understanding and sharing the needs of another. As chefs, we were taught to excel under pressure and to be fierce and often uncompromising. So where among today's restaurants does empathy come in to play?

Today, restaurant brands are more than places that serve food. Successful brands are lifestyle leaders, influencers, "movers and shakers". They have strongly rooted values and are unwavering in the way they treat their guests and each other. These brands understand that success can only be as great as the individual pieces involved and are subsequently creating a culture that is bigger than food.

In my current role is as Senior R&D Chef at The Culinary Edge, each new project is a graduate-level seminar in empathy. A successful innovation agency, The Culinary Edge provides global companies with strategic food, brand and operations solutions. This type of work is centered around the client's vision and business goals, the needs of their guest, and the needs of their team. It is built on empathy. Throughout the ideation process, we share the experiences of the guest and we understand the capabilities of the workforce who will be serving them. As a chef, it is my duty to keep our strategic ideas linked to what the labor can execute and to think beyond the hottest trends. If creating delicious and operationally feasible dishes are the "what", then empathy is the "how". 

Understanding the challenges that face a team and treating them as your own is the surest way to shared success. When working with my team, my goal is to see the world through their eyes. As a leader, my successes and failures can be tracked back to the successes and failures of my team. This approach to leadership brings out the best in each team member, giving them the room they need to grow, the autonomy to push themselves, and the support they need to execute confidently. Restaurants have not historically managed in this way but, as our labor models change, we expect more from the most expensive workers we've ever had. And as we expect more we must also give more.
What makes food delicious is highly personal and subjective. And what makes a restaurant successful no longer relies on just food. Restaurants are constantly evolving. Systems are becoming more complex. Guests are fickle, often highly informed and strongly opinionated. Employees come from varying backgrounds with different needs. Expectations are at an all-time high. In these conditions, it can be easy to lose your way. Easy to compromise just to keep up. Empathy — the ability to understand and share the feelings of another — is more important now than ever before. It is our true recipe to success.

Topics: Operations Management

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