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Everything you want to know about gastronomy but were afraid to ask ChatGPT

The Car in the Kitchen

Or how taylorism may have found inspiration from Escoffier, the king of chefs

I was dipping strawberries in melted chocolate. Using only one hand, I was bathing each fruit in the pool of warm the warm liquid, entranced by how the surface would depress, ever so slightly, as the berry was lowered into the bowl. The smooth dark nectar would cling to the berry as it was drawn out, streaming, then dripping off the fruit. I was mesmerised by the shiny chocolate fading dull as it cooled and hardened.

While I was in my trance, the pastry chef had been increasingly losing his mind. Watching the activity in the pastry shop, his eyes flicked between the clock, the delivery time written on the order ticket, and the box next to me full of strawberries waiting to be robed in a chocolate mantle. I was working at a tortuously slow pace, blissfully languishing in the chocolate pool. My inefficiency was driving him mad. He finally broke. “Sue, let’s call today your last day.” That single sentence was it. I was fired.

Crushed, I kept my watering eyes down for the remainder of the shift. I left dejected. I had dropped out of university to follow my pastry chef dreams. I was 20, this was my first pastry job, and I felt like an abject failure. All weekend I sulked. That Sunday, at the laundromat I encountered my co-worker from the pastry shop. He brushed off the “firing” saying “I get “fired” all the time! Just show up to work Monday and don’t say anything. If he’s serious, he’ll fire you again.” Well, I didn’t get fired again on Monday.

This was my first taste of the demanding pursuit for ever increasing efficiency. As I gained experience, the fundamentals of kitchen operations became my default habits. Gaining the skills to work fast and clean were mandatory to thrive in this hectic environment. Striving for ever greater efficiency is key to not losing one’s mind in the chaos and demands of high-volume, fast-paced kitchens. Regardless the size, cuisine, or customer, profitability relies on continually improving a kitchen’s operations.

At the beginning of the 20th century, Auguste Escoffier, the renown chef, defined the framework by which kitchens are managed today. He organized the chaos by introducing the regimentation of the kitchen brigade, wherein each person’s role in a kitchen is discretely defined and a strict hierarchy characterizes the chain of command. Standardization of kitchen management made day-to-day work more predictable and regular. His seminal work, Le Guide Culinaire, is still used today as the standard for French cooking. Focused management, clearly defined techniques and recipes make kitchen work more efficient. Greater efficiency in the kitchen supports greater successful execution of complex menus and refined dishes.

A contemporary of Escoffier, Fredrick Winslow Taylor, also had quite the obsession for chasing efficiency. Taylor spent his time in steel mills and heavy industries determining the factors that lead to greater labor productivity. Taylor’s theory of Scientific Management set out to use empirical methods to improve manufacturing flow and profitability. He spent tedious hours observing manufacturing operations, timing with his watch every process step, noting each movement the operator made. Continuous improvements to manufacturing processes enable increased production.

Escoffier and Taylor are products of their era, when mass production and standardization were becoming the norm for profitable operations and the demand for increased productivity was driving factory floors to eliminate wasted time, effort, and resources. Their theories were developed in this climate and shared across industrialized nations. Henry Ford was leading the way in manufacturing standardization during this time. The groundwork laid by Taylor, Ford, Escoffier and others of this era are the baseline of today’s manufacturing principles. Lean manufacturing, Six Sigma process analysis and control methods, Toyota Management System, 5S organization, Just-In-Time production, and numerous other philosophies can trace their roots to concepts introduced during the Efficiency Movement of the early 20th century.

When I started working as an engineer supporting manufacturing operations and learned about the concepts of Lean manufacturing, 5S organization, standard work, etc., I was struck by how all of these concepts were so familiar to the fundamentals I had learned working in kitchens. While the terminology was different, the concepts were the same. What had become second-nature to me in kitchen work, now had definition and refinement where I could base my intuitions on scientific methodologies. I came to realize how innovative Escoffier was to bring together the concepts of Scientific Management with the classical techniques and language of fine French cooking.

Standardization is a key driver for manufacturing efficiency. Variation kills productivity. Production processes must be clearly defined to limit variation. Standard work is a primary tenant of Taylor’s work. Standard work is the driving force behind automated production. Standard work instructions to fabricate a part include a list of materials, build instructions, and quality checks. Recipes are the work instructions of the kitchen. In his eloquent style, Escoffier codified many ubiquitous recipes in French cuisine, including the five mother sauces, and described the refined techniques of preparing haute cuisine. Escoffier wrote Le Guide Culinaire not only for the professional but also to develop aspiring chefs. A well-trained staff of highly skilled cooks make complex menus and ambitious dishes seem effortless.

Escoffier’s kitchen brigade style management placed the right person in the correct role with the appropriate training. Assigning individuals suited to a particular role with specific training is one of Taylor’s fundamental principles of Scientific Management. With this structure of defined roles, the chef can nimbly direct and focus the cooks to execute. Like pulling on the strings of a marionette, the chef pulls on each cook to prepare their portion of a meal and ensures that each cook delivers the dish at the same time as all the dishes for the entire table. With machine-like execution, a well-run kitchen seamlessly delivers artfully composed plates with precision timing.

Timing is at the heart of efficient production. Just-in-Time production is a manufacturing philosophy where an item is produced at the exact time the customer demands. Few industries embody Just-in-Time concepts like the food industry. For best flavor and enjoyment, a kitchen prepares food as close to the time of service as possible. A strategic chef understands the duration which each element of a dish requires for preparation and sequences the cooking steps to ensure all the elements are ready for assembly at the moment an order is received.

Taylor performed Time and Motion studies to tease out the most efficient work flow in a manufacturing environment. Likewise, a chef must intimately know the duration to prepare every item such that each dish may be fired at the right time and the entire party is served simultaneously. Ticket times are consistently monitored to ensure the kitchen is meeting the pace demanded by the guests.

Reliable production timing, on the manufacturing floor or in kitchens, is achieved through standardizing processes and operations. It may seem that with increased standardization in kitchen operations and recipes that the resulting food would be drab and boring. Yet standardizing the fundamental recipes, techniques, and operations actually increase the variety of dishes a kitchen can successfully execute. With an organized staff trained on foundational recipes and techniques, a kitchen has the flexibility to improvise and create novel dishes. The five mother sauces illustrate this concept beautifully. Each mother sauce is prepared via a particular technique and ingredient list, yet each sauce has a number of variants, or daughter sauces that modify elements of the mother sauce, yet maintain the primary preparation technique. This is brilliant! Escoffier could efficiently train a small set of cooking techniques that would cover hundreds of variants. Standardization in technique allows for product variation and customization.

Customization results in a better guest experience for which a restaurant may charge a premium. At the Ritz, Carlton, and Savoy hotels, Escoffier's guests expected to be continually delighted. They demanded novelty and extravagance, and could afford the price. Escoffier met the guests’ whimsical desires by innovating new flavor combinations and popularizing “a la carte” style restaurant service. From an a la carte style menu, a guest may choose individual items and construct their dining experience to their taste. Each dish is made “a la minute”, when the order is taken, serving the guest with the freshest possible plate. Food is only prepared when there is an order which reduces kitchen waste. In addition, providing more choices improves the guest experience and the guest is willing to pay more for individual plates. The variety of choices an a la carte style offers adds complexity to the kitchen operations.

Increased complexity is managed by maintaining a highly organized kitchen, everything must have a purpose and place. Mise en place, the activity of gathering necessary items together and putting them in place, is fundamental to kitchen operations. When everything one needs, and nothing more, is staged and within reach, a cook can work very focused and fast. This concept draws direct ties to the 5S methodology in Lean manufacturing. Developed in Japan and perfected in Toyota Production System, 5S methodology sets the stage for just-in-time manufacturing. The five S’s: seiri (sort), seiton (set in order), seisō (shine), seiketsu (standardize), and shitsuke (sustain) elegantly captures the spirit of mise en place. With everything organized and in its place, a kitchen may deftly execute complex recipes, great variation, and rapid production to the delight of the diner.

Cleanliness is paramount to organization. Regular cleaning ensures a kitchen functions smoothly. Deep cleans of equipment are also a maintenance check-up. Gas lines and ports are cleared – making for better burn, grease traps dumped – reducing fire risk, refrigerators and freezers defrosted – insurance against surprise failures and losing a walk-in of food. A clean, organized kitchen is an efficient kitchen. These operational improvements developed by Escoffier still drive the culture of efficiency in professional kitchens today and inspired campy rhymes every chef recites: “Clean as you go is the sign of a pro!” and “You got time to lean, you got time to clean.”

Whether Escoffier studied Taylor’s manufacturing management theories, or the other way around, or whether efficiency was simply the zeitgeist of the time, we'll need to dig in further. The fact is that Le Guide Culinaire and Escoffier’s innovations to kitchen management drew from the ideas of the time and created a system which is the standard by which all kitchens are managed today.

At one point or another efficiency Rules the Day.

Sue R.

Picture from Le Point

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