On this Bring It In podcast episode, 1Huddle’s CEO and Founder Sam Caucci sat down with Ken Hom, Michelin Star Winning Chef, Author, TV Host, Cookware Producer, Restaurant Consultant, and Ambassador for Action Against Hunger.
Ken has been a chef for over six decades starting at just eleven years old in his uncle’s restaurant and has traveled all over the world. His most recent work at the Copacabana Palace in Rio de Janeiro earned him and his team a Michelin Star. In addition, he has written forty books on cooking. He focuses on the importance of what it takes to create an environment with a dedicated and motivated team.
On this episode of Bring It In season four, Chef Ken Hom sat down with Sam and discussed the importance of training and mentorship in the wake of the pandemic where many felt the restaurant industry had been neglected.
Audio available on Apple Podcasts, Google Podcasts, and Spotify.
Below are some of the insights Chef Ken Hom shared during our chat, edited for length and clarity. You can find more Bring It In podcast episodes here.
Sam Caucci: Chef, I guess to start, I don’t want to ask you to start at the beginning and tell us who you are, but, I guess can you share a little bit about yourself and your journey to start?
Chef Ken Hom: Yes. My name is Ken Hom, and I’ve been a chef for over 60 years. I’ve been cooking since I was 11, so you can figure out how old I am. I’ve done many things over the years. I’ve written 40 books on food and cooking, et cetera. The smartest thing I ever did was not to have a restaurant. And, but I have cooked all over the world. I’ve cooked, for instance, Cafe Pacific Airline did my food, for three years, in 35 ports. I’ve cooked at all the top hotels, in Asia, like the Peninsula.
The Langham in London. Just everywhere. The Mandarin Oriental in San Francisco, for example. So I’ve done a lot, I’ve done a lot of consulting. I did a recently, my most recent project was a restaurant in Rio de Janeiro at the Copacabana Palace. And, eight months after it opened, it got a Michelin star.
So I’ve worked, and actually I taught professional chefs for a number of years. One of my students, for example was, Charlie Trotter, for example, taught at the Culinary Academy in San Francisco. So I’ve done a lot of work in the hospitality food industry, worldwide actually. And, it’s been a fun ride and what a journey it’s been.
Sam: 40 books. You got a few more coming? What’s the next one?
Ken: Oh my God, actually the next one is quite interesting. I have a proposal that a publisher wants to do. It’s on cutting food waste. This is from my latest rant, all this wastage of food and I always tell restaurants, for instance, I go into the kitchen, I look, I say, what’s in the bin?That’s where all the profits are.
And you have to be conscious of not wasting food. If you want to make money, that doesn’t mean you cut corners, but you have to be really aware of what you’re throwing away. And there’s such wastage. It’s amazing and it’s destroying the planet and we really have to get a grip with that.
Sam: I wanna ask you, I’d love to be able to ask, there’s so much focus today, not just in the restaurant space, but in all industries around talent development and coaching and developing individual into a role that they may or may not have the skills for at this moment. I’d imagine that in many of, in your career in restaurants, you’ve walked in and out of, you see this front and center in the kitchen.
What are the observations or perspectives from your side on how you develop an environment where you can create pathways for maybe someone who’s working one end of the line to move across the line? How do you think about coaching and development that, or what are the trends you see of the best restaurants in the world or the best chefs, or the best teams?
Ken: Well, you know, Sam, the, the whole thing is, in any business, it’s all about mentoring. And what I mean by that is, you get people excited about something. You fill them with passion, but also, you have to treat them with respect. And, at the same time, listen, let’s not get too serious. You have to have a sense of humor and you know, you can’t teach people something like that.
You either, I think you either feel that or you don’t. I think some of the best chefs I’ve seen in the kitchens. You go in the kitchen and you can see a vibe of everybody’s happy, what they’re doing. They want to grow. They’re passionate, and it’s all about teaching as well. I think above all, I would call myself a teacher more than anything.
I’ve done television, I’ve done, a number of BBCs, a major series on food and cooking. So I’m a teacher first and I want to share, see, the thing is, if you’re management, you know how people wanna keep everything to themselves. Well, that doesn’t help the environment and the ambience of what people want.
When you want to give, everybody wants to say, “okay, I want to learn this.” I love it when I’m cooking. And chef said, “Chef, what are you doing?” How are you doing that? Why does it taste this way? And what I try to encourage them is to smell, use your senses. How did I learn how to cook? Because people taught me, they mentored me.
My uncle at age 11, he said, this is how you do it. This is how, taste it, do you see how it tastes? That’s how it develops. How it’s formed. And food is vitally important to taste, smell. It’s all about senses. And if you don’t convey that, it’s not something one is born into, but it’s something that can be acquired if you have the passion for it.
And if you love something, fill the people you work with with that same passion. And to me, that’s a good manager and that’s a good chef. When you go into a kitchen, everybody’s excited. They want to do their best and they want to give. And that’s really important. And I work with a lot of management of major hotels.
They would ask me after I worked in the kitchen, can you tell, you know, give us really good feedback on what you see and what can be improved.That’s part of what I get paid for.
Sam: I was in a beautiful restaurant in New York City. A few weeks ago with my wife and, my daughter is six years old and she loves to see the kitchen and there was an open kitchen concept and we got to sit at the counter and watch. And my daughter’s watching the line, and it was, she said to me they’re such a team.
Sam: She was observing the, that’s, it was a very small space, like New York City open kitchen concept, very small, and they were, moving seamlessly and communicating and not using necessarily words as they were doing it.How do you make that happen?
Ken: Well, again, it’s about teamwork. You know, the same analogy. Football, what I mean, football in Europe, which, what would you call it? America Soccer. And what makes a good team for, for example, one of the major teams in the UK is Manchester United because they had a coach named Alex Ferguson who was amazing.
He got the whole team together, he says, “No bloody star here. Everybody’s a star. Let’s work together as a team.” And it’s funny because since he’s retired, it hasn’t been the same because it all comes from the coach, which is in the same analogy as the chef. Getting everybody together to work as a team, and your daughter is very perceptive.
I mean, wow. At six years old, fantastic that she can see that. And when you see a kitchen working like that, it’s almost like a ballet company. They’re all doing this, they’re all doing that because they feel natural, and that’s really important. And you don’t have somebody shouting and all this kind of thing.
They said, “let’s hit them over the head with something”, that doesn’t work. But you, at the same time, you had to be professional. You can’t be this kind. I remember sometimes when I was in California, some of the chefs they got too, how do you say? Sort of lazy. Oh, let it happen. What? Sorry, that doesn’t happen. Things don’t happen by itself. You need guidance and you need management.
Sam: I wanna talk to you a little bit about the effects of maybe the view of workers in the restaurant industry. The pandemic in the United States had a very interesting effect on the way we viewed a restaurant and its staff.
It went from the workers became quote “essential.” And there was this moment of a tremendous amount of respect and appreciation for the dangers and sacrifices that workers navigated in service of their guest that has suddenly changed over the last year or so, as in, in the United States,things shifted to workers in the restaurant industry being, being targeted as lazy or unwilling or not willing to come back to work.
And, I’m interested in your, in how you have seen, globally because in the United States, sometimes we just, you know, obviously focus inward. How has the, the after effects of the pandemic changed for good or bad?
Ken: The lives or the way that we view workers within the restaurant industry? Well, It’s, it’s, it, it’s really interesting, Sam, because I, I see, the restaurants who have survived, the businesses that have survived are the businesses that have taken care of their workers. In other words, when the pandemic came, oh, it’s easy to chuck everybody out, and people don’t realize what a hard life working in the restaurant is.
I mean, you have to be mental. I mean, it’s 12 hour days, sometimes six days a week or more. And as you said, they were not valued. And also, I think you have to give people, not only a sense of pride, but you have to take care of them. You know, if you take, I noticed that all the restaurants I’ve been going around, all the restaurants that survived anywhere in the world, whether it be in London, Paris, Bangkok, which is I live part of the time, are the restaurants that have been really, and hotels that have been really good to their employees.
In other words, when the pandemic came, they worked with their employees to do takeaway, delivery rather than laying them off. And what they did was they worked on other things like pairing down their menu rather than having a big excessive menu. But what they told their employees, we value you, we’re gonna take care of you and your family by paying you despite the revenue being down, it’s long-term thinking. You see, the problem is about a lot of management. Sometimes it’s too short-term. You have to see where you’re going to be after the pandemic, not while you’re in it. And you have to be visionary and say, okay, we’re gonna get out of this in two years.
But the people who are loyal working with you, will they still be there? And the problem is, unfortunately a lot of people in the restaurant business, they said when the pandemic came, I go somewhere else and they said, do I really need this in my life? 12 hour days? I don’t see my family, I don’t see my friends.
Everybody’s having a good time while I’m working. But if you treat them well and value them, and I’ve noticed every single restaurant that I’ve been to that have done really well through the pandemic are restaurants that have taken care of not only their employees, but in a way they’re guests.
Because you know when you have happy chefs and happy waiters, people working. You know, the customer’s happy as well. Nothing is worse than grim. In some way have a grim face, you know, doesn’t open your appetite. Right. Happy face makes you hungry.
Sam: And I think what you’re saying is so important given the fact that I think sometimes as guests and maybe sometimes as managers or restaurant owners, you forget that the folks on the frontline of your workforce may just be a missed paycheck away from a really tough situation.
Or before they clock in and after they clock out, where they’re going to, comes back with them into work. I think that a little more empathy and understanding around those effects are important.
Do you see the same? Do you, I guess, is there a difference in the way other countries in your travels, do you see a stark difference in the way that different communities appreciate their staff and inside of a restaurant that is a, should be a best practice adopted by others?
Ken: Well, it’s interesting. I see restaurants in Asia, they tend to treat their team like an extended family. You understand? They’re not just employees. For instance, some restaurants in Bangkok, when the pandemic came and they had leftover foods, they said to the employees, you can take it home to your family.
In other words,you don’t have to pay for it. And we understand it’s a difficult situation and those that did that, have done really well. And I noticed that some of the restaurants that have closed in Bangkok are mostly, tend to be, sort of western run restaurants. That means not Thai, in other words, not Thai, or not Chinese, but, they’re either like French or Italian, et cetera.
And it’s been tough. You know what, I see a positive silver lining in this pandemic because we take things for granted, everything’s going well. It’s hunky dory. Everybody’s making lots of money. For instance, Bangkok is one of the top tourist destinations in the world. So everybody got complacent.
All this money is coming in and then we forget. I love this American expression. “Shit happens.” And you know what? I’m sorry, but, when it happens, how do you deal with it? And you deal with it by hunkering down and working with your team to deal with the situation and you see, if I had a restaurant, I would gather all my people and say, okay, guys, guys and girls, what are we going to do?
How are we going to fight this? How are we gonna survive? Come up with ideas, let’s do things and places that start doing delivery, that’s smart because people still can get good food, getting hungry, just thinking about delivery.
Sam: And you’re in Paris right now, so there’s probably, I’d imagine you’re not too far from anything really good. What is it like to be awarded a Michelin star?
Ken: Well, you know, Michelin Star, it’s a recognition about what you’re doing. It’s, of a validation, that somebody’s putting a medal on you and saying, good. But also what that does is it also intensifies what you’re doing. In other words, you don’t wanna lose the star, so you have to keep up your standards.
And so that’s important, but it’s also a very fantastic morale boosting thing for your staff when you get a Michelin star. Wow. They get all excited and driven, and they’re proud too because, and when you get a Michelin star, you say, You guys got it because it’s your work that made it, not me, the chef, but you, the team.
And that’s really important. And the pride they have when they get the Michelin Star, it’s palpable. I mean, you just feel it is, they’re proud and because they’re being recognized and so it’s important. And also there’s a standard with the Michelin Star. That means you’re, you’re on a certain level that people think everything is good food service, et cetera.
It’s everything together, not just the kitchen alone. You just don’t do it on food. If you have bad service, doesn’t make it.
Sam: Ken, I appreciate you taking time. I have one, one final question. So much about what you’re talking about and what we’re talking about sometimes gets classified as this future of work category.
I’d like to ask you, what is your hope for the future of work?
Ken: Well, my hope for the future of work is that, We can learn from our mistakes and also, how important it is to treat your worker and team as a family. You don’t get everybody involved in part of what you’re doing, which I think is the most important thing.
I imagine myself, if I’m working somewhere, what motivates me is I feel like a team, part of a team and, what I hope management can learn from all that’s happened in the last few years is how important it is to treat your people well. And it’s not only just, for instance, it’s not only about money.
It’s about, for instance, patting them on the back. Some of the best places I’ve ever worked in knows not only everybody’s name, but know about their family, their children, their partner or whatever. In other words, you know, how are you doing? You know, Sam, your little daughter, da, da da. That’s so important.
You know, somebody who’s working so hard. and I noticed that all the best places have that kind of management. In other words, they know who they’re, who’s working for them and how important they are. And guess what, you’re gonna make more money. Everybody will make more money. And you know what is also good, I think is very important when you do really exceptionally well, Hmm, spread the party around, share it.
And you’d be surprised, it’s again, long-term thinking. You’d be surprised how loyal people are if you share. Don’t be greedy.
Sam: Chef, thank you for taking time.
Ken: Thank you.
Topics Discussed: Restaurants, Hospitality, Training, Mentoring, Culture
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