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Leadership Lessons From Top Chefs

Are you curious what you can learn from top American culinary leaders and how it can relate to your work?

This week we’re doing something different and interviewing Emmanuel Laroche, who is the host of the podcast ‘flavors unknown’. He’s going to share with us leadership lessons you can learn from top chefs, pastry chefs, and mixologists, and how they relate to you.

Emmanuel tell us about who you are, and what you do.

I am the Vice President for the flavor division of Symrise North America, a global manufacturer of flavors for the food and beverage industry. I was born in France and came to the United States eighteen years ago. Through my work, I established connections with American chefs, pastry chefs, and mixologists. In 2018, I started a podcast called 'Flavors Unknown’, featuring genuine conversations with hundreds of culinary professionals.

What is ‘Flavors Unknown’ about?

Every other week, I have genuine conversations capturing inspirational stories, successes and challenges from renowned culinary professionals and how their cultural identity shaped their creative process. I have a real appreciation for these people who have very difficult jobs and use their skills and passion to make people happy. I wanted to give them a platform where they could share their passion, talk about their creative process, describe their path to success, and inspire their peers and other food enthusiasts. I wanted to go behind the scenes, understand what new ingredients and flavors chefs are exploring and creating. The “Unknown” part of the name is a way for me to pay homage to Anthony Bourdain. I launched the podcast not too long after he passed away.

Give us a few examples of the types of chef’s you have on the podcast, and where folks can find it.

The podcast is available on my website and on all podcast platforms like Apple Podcasts, Spotify, and many others. I have had many great guests, and have enjoyed every conversation. For example, I was lucky to have Chef Edward Lee (episode #21) from 610 Magnolia and Whiskey Dry in Louisville, KY and Succotash in Washington D.C. We talked about the revival of southern cuisine and bourbon of course. I had several other celebrity chefs on the show, like chef David Burke (episode #20) from New York, chef Jose Garces (episode # 23) from Philadelphia, Chef Chris Cosentino (episode #46) from San Francisco, or Jamie Bissonette (episode # 39) from Boston. I even had the pleasure to dine with chef Gabriel Kreuther (episode 32) – 2 Michelin Stars in Manhattan. In each episode, I ask my guests about their sources of inspiration and what are their first steps in creating a new dish or new drink.

Of all the successful chefs you interview, what is the main theme you would say that they all speak about as key to success?

The two main aspects all successful culinary leaders I interviewed have in common are passion and drive. Some took classic training and went to culinary school, others started as a lowly dishwasher during a summer job in high school or college and fell in love with cooking, and another group went into the industry to survive and make ends meet. Early on in their careers, at one specific moment, they each discovered a true passion for food. Cooking was in the DNA of Chef Gabriel Kreuther from New York City (episode #32). “Since I was three or four years old, I always wanted to be a chef. I grew up on a farm, and I was lucky to have a mother who was an amazing cook. She used to go into town to cook for little weddings. People came to see her all the time for things like that, but she was an amazing cook, and I was always more involved with her than being outside in the fields on the farm. I always had a passion for cooking. I was always involved. She had a lot of cookbooks. I was always looking at cookbooks and dreaming about food.”

However, for other chefs, passion for cooking came out of adversity. Chef Brother Luck, from Four by Luck in Colorado Springs (episode # 34), got into cooking at the age of fourteen out of necessity. “It was the opportunity to eat a steak sandwich at the end of the night. It was a few dollars in my pocket for washing dishes. Working at a restaurant was a feeling of family. Passion is not enough. It doesn’t pay the bills, nor does it make young food entrepreneurs successful. That requires the enthusiasm to work harder and the drive to strive for higher standards.”

Consistency is also important as it relates to drive. “There's very little romance in becoming a professional chef, said Anthony Bourdain. “The true god of the restaurant business, of professional cooking, is not brilliance and creativity. It's consistency.” Chef Kim Alter, from Nightbird in San Francisco (episode #26), mentioned, “When you're in the restaurant every day, your head's down, you're working a station, you're doing the same thing, you're seeing the same people. You kind of get a routine going. That's how you get consistency.” Chef Tim Hollingsworth from Otium in Los Angeles (episode #51) learned two things from his mentor Chef Thomas Keller when he was at the French Laundry, “Number one, is just the constant push and drive, nothing is ever perfect; and just wanting to be better and better would be a second learning. He [Thomas Keller] has so much drive and so much passion."

That’s great feedback, and honestly very relevant as I think about larger volume foodservice as well. Now, changing the subject a bit, I’ve worked in restaurants and they can be a tough culture, has that changed over time and what are chef’s saying about that?

The era of shouting chefs is over. Most of the chefs I talked to mentioned that the hierarchy in the kitchen used to be close to the hierarchy found in sport teams, and like players on a field got yelled at by a coach, chefs endured similar verbal abuse in the kitchen.

One thing that hasn’t changed though is the need for discipline. “You need the discipline to work these many hours a week, do things correctly and not take shortcuts,” says chef and restaurateur David Burke (episode #20). “You need the discipline to understand what your function is, to taste things, and to be able to weather the storms. It's not just a mental job, it's very physical. People don't understand that. You're standing up for twelve-fifteen hours a day working. It's very hard. You need discipline and fundamentals to be ready on a daily basis.” Mark Welker, who used to be the executive pastry chef at Eleven Madison Park (episode # 38) said, “Every day is a Superbowl, so every single day we show up to work, we need to think of it like a championship game.” All my guests agreed that the future of the industry is about collaboration. First, a collaboration with their teams. Their creative process always involves a phase where they confront their ideas with the ones from their team members. Some have an informal approach to it; others have established processes or even organized structured internal competitions. The other important aspect of collaboration is with the farmers. Chefs collaborate with many farmers around the country, and each year they explore ingredients and ask the farmers if they would grow specific vegetables for them. I had a great conversation with Famer Lee Jones from the Chef’s Garden in Ohio (episode # 44) whose business is based on a close collaboration with celebrity chefs from around the country.

What amazing lessons from these chefs! Discipline and collaboration are important skills to win in sales and business development as well with the right strategy.

Next question. Where drives these chefs in their creativity and how are they constantly coming up with new and relevant dishes for their guest

In my series of conversations with chefs, I have identified multiple key sources of inspiration that chefs turn to when they need it the most. Everything can be a source of inspiration. It can come from aroma and taste with produce they are tasting at the farm or at a farmer’s market. It can come from nature, art, and association of colors. Most chefs have huge cookbook collections and they used them to refresh their memory. Nowadays, with technology, most of them use Instagram to follow what their peers are doing and get inspired. Some chefs get inspiration from music and songs. I really love a great story from chef Fiore Tedesco from L’Oca D’Oro in Austin, TX (episode # 5) about inspiration for a dish that came to him out of the ether based on a song from Neil Young from the album On The Beach. Their creative process can be as well inspired from their travels and from a cultural context. I have seen the three following scenarios with the chefs I had on my podcast: inspiration coming from the cultural background of the chef, inspiration drawn from the history of the city or the region where the restaurants were located, or inspiration resulting from the combination of local ingredients and ethnic influences.

But at the end of the day, dishes and drinks have to resonate with the customers. “Customers are the ones who help pay the bills," says mixologist Beau du Bois from san Diego (episode # 35). “When it comes to building and creating cocktails, make sure to listen to your neighborhood and to your guests. Make sure that you're not leaving the neighborhood behind!”

I love that last point especially about understanding your guest or consumer – that is so critical! Onto something I’m passionate about and that is professional development. What is professional development like for chefs, and what advice do you have for any industry chefs who may be reading this?

Culinary leaders recommend setting objectives early in your career. Define short-terms goals and long-term ones and be mindful about each move you make. Select the right mentors. Mentors will guide young chefs to define their short and long-term objectives. They will help them develop their skills and expend their horizons beyond culinary skills and become business savvy. “To be successful as a restaurateur you have to know the whole thing, not just the food,” said Chef Sam Freund from White Burch in New Jersey (episode # 17). Chef David Burke emphasizes how it is important to learn the business side from mentors. “You're learning their method of thinking and how to think like a chef, utilization management style, butchery, pastry, all that stuff, and then you start developing your own style. You start to learn about business and how to think like a businessperson. That's just as important.”

That’s excellent advice. Last question – I’m going to ask you your rapid fire questions that you always your guests at the end of the podcast.

  • What are the three cookbooks that are in your main rotation right now

    • “Chasing Flavors” by chef Dan Kluger from Loring Place in Manhattan, a pastry book called “Bachour Gastro” by pastry chef Antonio Bachour from Miami, and “The Mexican Home Kitchen” from author and blogger, Mely Martinez (episode # 66)

  • If I would open the door of your fridge or cabinets – what are some of your favorite spices, sauces and condiments?

    • Olive oil that comes from a small mill near Avignon in France, different soy sauces and fish sauces – I had a better appreciation about these after interviewing chef Trigg Brown from Win Son in Brooklyn (episode # 18) and chef Chris Shepherd from Underbelly Hospitality in Houston, TX (episode # 37), let see…, a lot of hot sauces, different maple syrups from Vermont, and anchovies (I love them!)

  • When travel is on again, what is going to be your first destination to eat?

    • I am going to Nashville, TN in August and among all the spots I want to get to, I will dine at Avenue M with chef Andrew McLeod (episode # 59), enjoy some delicious pretzels from chef Levon Wallace (episode # 69) from Fatbelly Pretzels, and Joyland from chef Sean Brock.

Thanks to Emmanuel for his time and amazing insights from the chef’s he interviews. You can find all the conversations Emmanuel had with culinary leaders on his website and on all podcast platforms like Apple Podcasts, Spotify. You can follow him on Instagram and Facebook at @flavorsunknown.

Emmanuel Laroche is the VP of Marketing, Sensory, and Consumer Insights at Symrise North America and host of the podcast flavors unknown.


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