Last night, on BBC Four, there were two, back-to-back, programmes on great chefs.
The first was about Georges Auguste Escoffier (1846 – 1935); a French chef, restaurateur and culinary writer who popularized and updated traditional French cooking methods and brought them to London society. The second was about Paul Liebrandt, a British chef renowned for his hyper-modern dishes who at 24 was the youngest chef to be awarded three stars by the New York Times.
The similarities between the two men could be easily drawn. Both brilliant chefs, both embracing new ideas and challenges and both enjoying their celebrity.
However, what was most interesting to examine was what it might be like to work for the two men. As a 13 year old, Escoffier worked in the terrible conditions of his uncle’s kitchen – typical of the time. Unventilated, coal fired kitchens with few chefs living beyond 45 years. Staff fought off the heat by drinking but this produced another hazard – alcoholism was rampant and things often ended up with violent exchanges at the end of the day.
These were things Escoffier decided he would change if he were in charge. And change them he did when he was put in charge of Le Petit Moulin Rouge in Paris. There, he completely changed the working conditions of the chefs. He banned them from drinking alcohol and smoking in the kitchen. He banned them from swearing. When he was very annoyed at someone he would walk out of the kitchen, calm down then come back and explain what had made him angry without having to shout. He changed the uniform - introducing the hat and the neckerchief to counteract the raging heat and prevent beads of sweat dropping into the food during preparation. He insisted that his staff dressed smartly when they were off duty, too. He wanted everyone to “look like somebody” – buying them new trousers if they could not afford a pair. He brought a sense of pride to the industry and he wanted to bring the best out of everyone.
How would Escoffier react if he could enter a modern day kitchen? He would no doubt be pleased to see that his working practices live on to this day and he would be amazed at the new techniques being employed. Surely, though, he would shudder at the way top chefs like Liebrandt treat their staff. In last night’s programme, Liebrandt showed none of Escoffier’s restraint when he got angry. Spitting insults and threats at his staff for the food they had produced. Afterwards, one staff member excuses him, telling us that “He doesn’t throw stuff or hit you like some chefs do”. So that’s good, then!
Firstly, if this behaviour were to be seen in our offices would it be acceptable? Surely, Liebrandt would be in a tribunal by now?
Secondly, when someone is held up to be ‘brilliant’ (by their own or other people’s proclamation) why do the people around them accept their bad behaviour as a characteristic that cannot be changed and therefore must just be accepted by others?
We can all get angry, particularly when we care deeply about what we do. There are always two ways to achieve the same result. What marks a person out as a good leader is treating others with respect. Perhaps a little dollop of Emotional Intelligence?