Updating Restaurant Etiquette for a Modern Age, Part I

by Emily Bell
February 2010

In order to flesh out terms of etiquette for a modern age—when knowing how to place one's napkin and whether to tip on wine service is no longer enough—we're developing a series on etiquette with industry professionals who've helped set (and challenge) the standards of etiquette for the next generation. And we're starting where every restaurant concept starts, with ten tips on restaurant etiquette in the back of the house.

It may seem like a concept better suited to the genteel South than to the complex dynamics of the working restaurant, but etiquette is the secret fuel of the restaurant industry. From Danny Meyer's hospitality-happy restaurant empire to the structured kitchen practices of chefs like Thomas Keller, shining examples of the success of etiquette abound, beacons of best practices for other restaurants to follow, incorporate, or amend as they see fit.

But where does etiquette belong in a restaurant? Most restaurant etiquette guides speak exclusively to the diner, advising on topics like dress codes, corking fees, and tipping policies. Guidelines like these are surely useful, as any beleaguered, under-tipped waiter can testify, but they relegate the concept of etiquette to a kind of consumer-oriented manners guide. Real etiquette extends beyond the diner, and even beyond the conduct of the front of the house, to the essential culture of the restaurant itself.

Back of the House

Modern restaurant kitchens span the gamut from church-quiet culinary laboratories to raucous playgrounds for adrenaline-pumped foodservice professionals. Even in an age of chef-driven restaurants and menus geared to express the style and unique persona of a restaurant's kitchen, the back of the house is relatively uncharted territory, a closed system whose efficiency is tested mostly by its output. But for good or ill, the restaurant kitchen can set the behavioral standards for the rest of the restaurant. And while the classic French set-up—with chefs de cuisine, sous chefs, chefs de partie and their attendant commis—is still influential, many chefs and restaurateurs are adapting old school practices to the needs and conceptual idiosyncrasies of the modern restaurant kitchen.

The Team Mentality Chef Daniel Humm

"We that are in the kitchen must treat each other with respect and courtesy, especially being in such tight quarters with high heat!" says 2005 San Francisco Rising Star Chef Daniel Humm, of Eleven Madison Park, the three-starred outpost and fine dining jewel in Danny Meyer's resatuarnt crown. And for many chefs, the inviolable standards of good etiquette in the kitchen boil down to this key philosophy. After all, the crew that behaves as a team succeeds as a team. Fostering an environment of mutual respect is the first step a chef can take to harness the potential of the back of the house, making etiquette an important factor in kitchen efficiency.

At Bouchon Bistro, a newcomer to the Thomas Keller family and 2010 Los Angeles Rising Star, Chef Rory Herrman still abides the code of conduct laid down by Chef Keller in the early days of his restaurants, a code that emphasizes teamwork and can be as simple as a handshake. "Before you start your shift and before you end it, you shake in and out. You say hello and goodbye to the entire team. This is not always easy," says Chef Herrmann, "especially in a large property, but this is one of the ways we help build community and culture and establish collaboration."

A Strong Vision Facilitates Universal Standards Chef Michael AnthonyChef Danny Meyer

"Every restaurant starts with a vision," says 2007 New York Rising Star Chef Michael Anthony of Gramercy Tavern, "and in our case that would begin with Danny Meyer. His original vision is upheld by each and every person in the organization. The Executive Chef and the General Manager are the keepers of those ideals, our job being not only to teach people how to do their jobs well but to teach them what we love about the job."

Meyer might be the grand master of etiquette—he literally wrote the book on it, Setting the Table—but this doesn't mean that etiquette will look the same for every restaurant, or that Meyer's practices will suit every restaurant concept. "There is a certain etiquette in every type of restaurant," Anthony explains. "Each establishment fosters its own style, in which some are more or less polite." Chef Anthony is a shining example of the kind of intuitive understanding a restaurateur should place at the helm of the kitchen. "I believe this industry shares a fascinating customary code of behavior," says Anthony. And at Gramercy Tavern, his job is to adapt that code to the restaurant's unique contours.

Dress the Part, Be the Part

In the kitchen of Eleven Madison Park the standards of etiquette are classically straightforward. "We have a code, or a way of doing things,'" says Chef Humm, in line with traditional fine dining. "Attire and appearance mean a lot," says the chef, nor for superficial reasons. "It shows that you have pride in what you are doing, what you are cooking, your station, and where you work," the chef explains. "It shows that you are focused and aware of what you look like and have attention to detail."

Across the country at Bouchon Bistro, Chef Herrmann feels much the same. "I think that it falls along the same lines as coming to work with a sharp knife and a sharp mind," he says of good attire. "You must be dressed to do the job and be clean while doing it. It is hard to produce clean food and keep a clean atmosphere when your attire does not match."

To Each Restaurant, Its Own Etiquette Chef Graham Elliot Bowles

2005 Chicago Rising Star Graham Elliot Bowles turns etiquette on its head, borrowing the French term "bistronomic" to describe his comfort-centric Chicago restaurant, graham elliot. The term is meant to emphasize the approachability of fine dining at the restaurant. "We're getting rid of the pretension that comes with a four-star restaurant," said Bowles in an interview with StarChefs.com. The graham elliot kitchen functions with less emphasis on rigidity of station and more exchange of ideas—and places. "Why can't cooks go out and serve the food? Why can't servers come back and work a station?," says Bowles. And to lessen the traditional front and back of house dichotomy, Bowles is dressing them the same way: "Uniforms for front-of-the-house and back-of-the-house staff are the same: Chuck Taylor tennis shoes, 501 Levis, and brown tee-shirts with a bib apron."

Enabling Creativity in a Well-Structured Kitchen

Chef Grant Achatz

At Chef Grant Achatz's Alinea, with "approximately 20 chefs in the kitchen including myself" during service, it's important that each person in the kitchen know their proper place. "We have an expediter who controls flow and the firing of food and that's the front-of-house person," Chef Achatz explained in a recent interview, and "depending on who they are and what their station is, the cooks' main focus is to cook, pass, and then we assemble."

Not only does hierarchy allow Chef Achatz to devote the majority of his time to invention instead of prep, it enables his staff to optimize their creative time. "The chef de cuisine and the sous chefs' main responsibility is about 60% creative and 40% production," Achatz explained, "so they are devoting over half their time to creating new dishes versus prepping an existing dish." By maintaining classical structure in his kitchen, Chef Achatz enables creativity, the lifeblood of the restaurant.

Know the Boss's Pet Peeves–and Avoid Them at All Costs

Chef Brandon Sharp

At Solbar in Calistoga, Chef Brandon Sharp considers lying (e.g. purposely fudging timing) to be "the worst kitchen behavior," the chief source of the kind of miscommunication that can riddle a healthy kitchen with difficulties, delays, and distractions. Another golden rule for Sharp? Clean up after yourself! Whatever your stature in the kitchen, Chef Sharp demands you "leave your station cleaner than you found it."

At Boston's Gargoyles on the Square, Chef Jason Santos identifies "chewing gum, [playing the] radio during service, [and] leaning," as among the worst behaviors. "I personally would not allow these." A young cook or sous chef looking to survive a while in a kitchen might do well to find out the head chef's pet peeves before getting too comfortable.

Waste Not, Want Not

For Chef Rory Herrmann of Bouchon Bistro, wastefulness is as much a violation of kitchen etiquette as anything. "Wastefulness and careless use of products is something we do not tolerate," he explains. "We are very conscious of our products and the way we use them. We are respectful to the farmers and growers of all of our products." A bonus to green-minded thinking? The kitchen that incorporates a sustainable mentality will most likely operate the most efficiently and productively.

Etiquette and Attitude: The Good, the Bad, and the Fired

Chef Eric Hara Chef Lawrence Klang

For 2007 New York Rising Star Chef Eric Hara of The Oak Room at The Plaza, a bad attitude is easily the worst kitchen behavior. "You could ask the many cooks I have kicked out of my kitchen for [having a] negative attitude," says Hara, "even if they were good." A bad attitude is contagious, and can infect the kitchen and front of house.

At Gramercy Tavern, a good attitude enables a substantial learning experience. "Etiquette in my kitchen is equally based on concentration for the job at hand (cooking) and maintaining a naturally curious, friendly nature," says Chef Anthony. "When you walk away from the experience having learned something new—and I try hard for that to be the case everyday—there is no better feeling."

Chef Lawrence Klang's kitchen at Natalie's in Camden, Maine, also prioritizes attitude. "It's not like some kitchens where you might stand by and watch someone get buried," Klang explains. "I don't allow that here. You can't let someone crash and burn. That's just selfish." Maintain a sense of the key responsibilities of the kitchen, so you can save a fellow chef—and be saved yourself.

Music–a Kitchen Privilege, Not a Right

Many chefs will allow music in the kitchen during prep, because it keeps morale up and helps pacing, especially during busier periods. But once service comes around, iPods and radios are generally shut off, both to facilitate communication and create a tone of serious concentration. Of course the exceptions abound. At graham elliot, the renegade chef not only allows music in the kitchen, he even has his own guitar playing pumping into the dining room. "If I'm going to put my name on the door," says Bowles, "I want it to be what I'm all about." Other kitchens don't allow music at all. "I stay more focused on the food and the people in the kitchen by trying to keep the outside distractions to a minimum," says Chef Anthony of Gramercy Tavern.

When in Doubt, Imitate Your Superiors

At Eleven Madison, the tone of conduct in the kitchen is set by everyone, but emanates from the top down. "In some senses the sous chefs have higher standards to uphold because they are more often representing the restaurant, and have the responsibility of teaching each other," says Chef Humm. But, he adds, "line cooks who emulate the same standards are more often than not the ones who succeed." And at Bouchon Bistro, says Chef Herrmann, "we try our best to lead by example." So any kitchen newbie looking to advance should emulate the conduct of his most successful superiors.