Experiences at the International Chef's Congress

I recently had the pleasure of attending StarChefs.com’s 7th Annual International Chef’s Congress, whose theme this year was “Origins and Frontiers.” Besides getting to meet some amazing talent in the food industry, I also got to sit on a panel with some great minds: Chefs John Besh and Sat Bains (of Besh Restaurant Group and Restaurant Sat Bains, respectively) and Richard Grausman, founder of Careers through Culinary Arts Program (C-CAP). The panel was titled “Opening Restaurants for Change,” and upon sitting down, moderator and managing editor of StarChefs.com Will Blunt had us dive right in.

Being a chef has evolved beyond working in the kitchen, as Chefs Besh, Bains and I can attest to. Opening a restaurant dictates not only a number of business-oriented decisions, but as employers, we’re in a position to also make a positive impact on our community. For instance, in New Orleans, Chef Besh has been at the forefront of rebuilding a post-Katrina restaurant scene, which was ravaged by the hurricane. As he so eloquently stated, “It was not a recession, it was a devastation.” Through his restaurant group and the John Besh Foundation, he’s cultivated a culture of scholarship, diversity and stewardship, contributing not only to job creation and mentorship but also to cultural preservation, noted by Will Blunt as an important role chefs play.

On a similar note, Chef Bains invests in his staff, noting that he provides five weeks of vacation and is closed two days a week at his Nottingham restaurant. “I don’t like to think about it as losing money, when it’s something my staff looks forward to. I just think about the people who do show up when we’re open.” For him, it’s a no-brainer: treat your staff well, pay them fairly and invest in their own futures—their pursuit of their own career, mainly—and they’ll give it back tenfold in how they carry themselves in the workplace. “I believe everyone’s got an opportunity to be brilliant,” he said. “They’re just not given a chance.”

Richard Grausman’s C-CAP is an inspirational model in training students early when schools have otherwise “failed them.” C-CAP’s mission is to provide an alternative, practical education for public school students who would otherwise fall through the gaps. It was founded to impart practical training for those students who have a particular spark and knack for cooking, and expressing an interest in the hospitality industry. By starting at the high school level, Grausman believes these students are better equipped to going directly into entry-level hospitality jobs (armed with a certification in knife-skills, safety and the like) than those who enter a four-year culinary school but have never experienced real work in a bustling kitchen. “You’ve got to know how to speak to a chef, to clean your uniform and to call when you’re late,” Grausman said.

For my part, I’ve believed in Harlem, from the beginning. It’s a neighborhood with so much diversity. From the outset of building Red Rooster, I sought to hire from within the community, making sure my aspirations for the restaurant went beyond its four walls. I wanted to connect to the farmer’s market, and I realized that to have a rich, fulfilling restaurant experience—for employees and customers alike—I had to tap into the diversity that Harlem attracts. I also sought to use my web properties MarcusSamuelsson.com and FoodRepublic.com to reach out to a greater community than Red Rooster serves. It’s not about selling and marketing, all of the time; it’s about discourse and bringing everyone to the table. We keep a third of the restaurant’s tables open for the neighborhood walk-ins, so on any given night at any three tables, you’ll see a visitor, a New Yorker and a Harlemite enjoying their meals, sharing in a food tradition rooted in diversity.

Overall, the panel was a productive look into the amazing value a restaurant, or any business, can have in a community. When you cook in a magical place and serve in a magical place, that’s when magic happens.