The U.S. today is largely a “service economy,” a statement we all heard so often over the last two decades that it sounds like a cliché. It reflects the fact that more than 50 percent of the labor force in the country is in the service sector, as opposed to industries like agriculture or manufacturing. It also refers to the relative importance of service in product offerings. When you think about it, you realize that virtually every product today has some kind of a service component to it…
But the idea of how the service economy has evolved began to change in 1999 with the publication of a book by B. Joseph Pine II and James H. Gilmore, titled The Experience Economy, subtitled Work is Theatre, and Every Business a Stage.
Every onsite operator reading this magazine can identify with these authors' basic premise, which is that the nature of service changes when companies go beyond pure service and also seek to provide an “experience” that engages customers in a memorable way.
Here's an example. I was dining at Kendall College in downtown Chicago recently where Kendall operates a white-tablecloth restaurant called The Dining Room that's open to the public. It doubles as a real-life classroom for culinary-arts students.
Chef Peggy Ryan was menuing a lentil soup with peppered creme fraîche and fried celery leaves.
When I was served, the student server placed a bowl in front of me that contained only the crème fraîche and the celery leaves. So the initial offering wasn't soup when I received it at my table.
It became freshly-prepared soup in front of my eyes when the student poured the remaining components into the bowl. As a guest, it was a little lagniappe for me, a little something extra, as they say in New Orleans, that heightened my dining experience.
The same kind of experience is what we want to happen every time a customer orders or selects a meal at action and “out front” servery stations in hospitals, colleges, B&I and other foodservice locations throughout the onsite market. And face it — delivering a high quality experience in a high-volume dining environment can be much more challenging than doing so in a white tablecloth one.
It entails a lot more than simply carving a roast in front of the customer's eyes. It means adding a little theatre and engagement to every customer interaction and ensuring that there is actually a continuum of experience that takes place during the time that the customer visits your location.
That takes planning, management and a different way of looking at how an organization interacts with its customers from the start to finish of their visits.
The title of this article, “The Chef as Showman,” suggests the key role chefs and other frontline personnel need to play in assuring the kinds of experiences your customers have in your dining facilities. Later in the article, we'll consider some of the best practices several onsite operators have employed to create these kinds of experiences. But before doing so, let's take a closer look at how much more effective exhibition cooking can be if it is undertaken in the context of a broader experience-management approach.
Enhancing the customer experience as a way to improve price point or margins always sounds good when concept planning takes place, but these discussions often overlook three main reasons a customer experience is apt to fail:
Mission statements with broad concepts like “caring,” “helpful” and “professional” are great for ad copy, but terrible for creating great customer experiences. The same goes for a display cooking experience.
Customers have specific time frames, information needs and communications requirements. Companies that subscribe to the experience philosophy without attending to the details will deliver a compelling customer experience only in intention — not in reality.
Many operators seem to hope that service concepts hammered out in the office are taken straight to the frontlines and put into practice 100% of the time. But when PEOPLE are involved, a high rate of variability is inevitable UNLESS a solid, quality program is in place. Many managers forgo this oversight, or assume that staff and supervisors have execution covered.
Often companies rely exclusively on metrics that gauge the operational, and not the actual, perceived qualities of the customer experience. As business guru Peter Drucker so famously said, “that which cannot be measured cannot be managed.”
Even as the philosophy behind the “Experience Economy” has taken root with marketing strategists, a new way of creating value via loyalty rather than premium price is beginning to emerge. In 2008, InterAction Metrics introduced the term “Customer Interaction Management” and the idea that customer interactions offer a distinct kind of value that can work for or against a company's bottom line.
The assumption is that well-designed, consistent and regularly audited interactions lead to increased productivity. Many such interactions likely involve your own staff, and offer a different model for creating value and collaborating with customers.
Whereas an Experience Strategy uses excellent experiences to justify premium pricing, an Interaction Strategy seeks to engender high rates of loyalty. The idea is that increasing the number of high-frequency customers is almost always more profitable than just selling products at top price.
In practice, it is difficult to imagine a café successfully charging one customer six times the regular price for its services or products. On the other hand, it is possible to imagine an enthusiastic customer returning to buy 6, 7, 8 or more times. With an Interaction Strategy, the objective is not to get customers to pay more for a great experience, but to use a better experience to create perceived value that encourages return frequency.
Interaction Strategyis not limited to listening to customers at a few points in the customer life-cycle or to the demo station. Instead, interactions are planned, controlled and integrated into every touchpoint with the customer.
Such an approach entrails three steps. While each step is valuable in itself, if you forfeit any one of these areas, you will fail to reap the rewards of a true Interaction Strategy. Those steps are:
The approach also entails an effort to clearly understand your customers' motivations. A solid customer listening program digs beneath customers' experiences to identify the range of their expectations, needs and aspirations.
While many companies seek to listen to their customers (step #1), the vast majority delegate the job of overseeing actual customer interactions to frontline employees.
Customers respond at conscious and unconscious levels to every aspect of their interactions with staff. And in most cases, these interactions have a greater cumulative impact on them than any page on your website or slick promotion you might create.
Let's say, for example, that you have a staff member positioned near the entrance to your student dining hall to scan debit cards and manage entry flow. That individual can also be trained to serve as a greeter. But rather than simply ask “How are you doing today” (for a standard, “I'm fine, thanks” response) a more effective greeting might be, “Thanks for coming in; can I point you in a direction?”
Of course, there are many variations on this statement, but the point is to use the moment to further the brand and sales objectives of your operation.
Many hospital foodservice directors have sought to implement this kind of approach when they develop various scripts for the employees who work the front lines in room service programs.
The point is: don't leave such interactions to chance and don't limit your involvement with employees to policies and procedures. And don't leave it to your demo chef to carry the full responsibility for creating the customer experience. Every staff member shares this role. Be clear about your customer interaction objectives for every possible positive and negative point of contact between your staff and customers. It can often be helpful to brainstorm (and when applicable, role-play) with employees as a group to find ways they can help improve such touchpoint experiences while still maintaining their personal styles.
To explore how some of these ideas work out in practice, we spoke to Ted Faulkner, senior associate director for dining services at Virginia Tech. While only 9,000 of its 30,000 students are residents on a mandatory meal plan the university sells many more than that number of meal plans to voluntary, non-resident students who have a lot of other choices.
Faulkner credits that success to creating loyalty among guests, much of it through interaction with his culinary personnel at the action stations that today operate at virtually every a la carte location on campus. It also has meant “a service model that means customization at all hours of the day and at every opportunity,” he says.
An important part of the department's move to this model was to recognize that not every existing staff member had the ability to provide the kind of interactive service VT wanted to deliver. When it closed an older dining hall and opened its very popular West End Market a decade ago, it did not automatically move all of the existing staff to the new facility. Rather, it held an open interview process and selected those individuals it believed were best prepared to fulfill a defined level of service that would be expected at the new facility.
To do their best, the chefs who staff such stations also need a flexible equipment setup that permits them to be creative from meal to meal and to deliver some theater and excitement. The best station designs will use lighting to bring focus and attention to the chef's work. Ensuring that the individual behind the station is dressed in proper chef attire is also important, and conveys a sense of culinary ability to do justice to the level of service and experience that you're providing.
Faulkner also points out that it has taken years to refine the department's operations to deliver at the current level. His point is that moving to deliver a high-quality, interactive experience is a journey that doesn't have to be all or nothing at the start. The important thing is to address the basics and to refine one's ability to deliver it as one goes along.
For an example of how this plays out in a much different environment, we spoke to Chef Michael Sabo. Sabo is the director of hospitality services at Southern Maine Medical Center who oversees all patient and employee dining at the facility as well as at the hospital's café.
A CIA graduate, Sabo spent a dozen years in B&I before joining Southern Maine and still likes to wear his chef's coat. Southern Maine's goal is to offer healthy options that are flavorful and healthful, but not associated with deprivation, he says. “To do that, we are using retail strategies that traditionally helped operators increase transaction size or extra impulse purchases,” he says. “The secret is to look at how people experience food overall to be successful in this.”
Exhibition stations are important to that effort, he adds. It's not only about the service provided, but “also about the way the food and service makes people feel,” he says.
In his case, facility limitations mean that much of the food is primarily cooked in back and brought out for assembly in front of the guest. So if they're doing a lettuce wraps plate or a grilled salmon salad, culinary staff in the back are batch-grilling salmon, bringing it up front where it is then assembled to order.
Even with that constraint, the intent of the stations is to offer an enhanced experience. It means food assembled and finished off with some customization if necessary and merchandised to highlight its best attributes.
Well managed staff interaction helps take the mystery out of the food preparation and the use of small-footprint equipment for finishing, such an impinger oven for breads and tortillas, with components added to order, put the focus up front.
Because another of the hospital's goals is to keep employees onsite during meal times, extra efforts are encouraged to make sure guests get food customized the way they want. Employees lead stressful lives, and Sabo wants the café to offer respite.
“We need to provide the experience, set the stage and put on a show,” he says. To that end, his training centers on teaching staff how to most attractively assemble foods in front of customers, group and garnish them effectively, and make sure the displays look bountiful and fresh.
“It's about people feeling welcomed personally and not having to wait for fresh, good-tasting food,” Sabo says. “It's about warmth and comfort. Exhibition assembly in the cafe, he adds, is one of the chief ways that Southern Maine meets that demand.
Operations that and that while many orceptions, all expressed by a single word, that I want you to consider. Because delivering on these perceptions successfully to your customers is the fulcrum of your operational success with action stations. Now, I call them emotions here. They are perceptions, not emotions. But they elicit strong emotional response in customers. So without arguing semantics, let me give you the first one.
When it openedwith explore how several employ demo stations to effectively many of these customer engagement goals. And as we'll see, variations on these strategies are also helping these operators achieve other operational goals at the same time: managing food costs, encouraging more heatlhful meal choices and celebrating the increasing racial, cultural and geographic diversity of employee groups.
Fresh. Feel the love. Just say this word to yourself. Fresh. Let's all say it. Fresh. It's a beautiful-sounding word. It's almost like onomotopaeia, you know, those words that stand in for sounds or feelings like brrrrr when you're cold or moo if you're a cow. Well, fresh is a perception that carries strong emotion. A few years ago some science was published that the muscles in your face are directly connected to neurons in your brain. It's the reason that, when you're happy, you grin or smile, and when you're sad, you frown. The revelation behind the science is that the reverse effect is also achievable. In other words, if you're feeling a little blue or down, force a smile. That upward pull on the muscles at the corners of your mouth triggers the brain to release endorphins, which makes you feel good. Okay, let's try it. Everyone smile. (wait) Do you feel it? I do. It might be imperceptible at first, but trust me, practice it, and over time you will have a profound, positive perception when your face forms a smile. Well, the perception of fresh has that same power in people when it's used as part of strategy. Fresh road kill or a fresh pile of dot-dot-dot does not elicit the happy response. But fresh is absolutely a power arrow in your customer-satisfaction quiver. Think of your culinary personnel at your action stations as your ambassadors of fresh.
Here's a second one. Trust. It's a part of value, and one of the biggest trends in foodservice. Late last year, The Web site foodchannel.com, based on research conducted in conjunction with CultureWaves®, listed food vetting among its top 10 food trends for 2010. What's leading this trend is our constant need for assurance that we are eating the right things, that our food is safe, that we are not ingesting pesticides or anything that will someday prove harmful. The issue is that people are asking where their food comes from. Meanwhile, the New York-based Joseph Baum & Michael Whiteman Company, which creates high-profile restaurants around the world for hotels, restaurant companies, major museums and other consumer destinations, identified 13 food and dining trends for 2010, and said that fresh equals local equals hand-made equals safer equals better. People are looking for edibles they can trust, and for food communities that stand personally behind their products. With action stations, there's an inherent trust on my part in the individual who's assembling my mashed-potato bowl, or my Frito pie or my tossed salad to order. I trust those ingredients to be wholesome and fresh, and because I see them for myself, I believe they are. I trust them to be safe for me, and because I routinely see the same person putting them together, I trust they are. Because I can see that this food didn't grow on trees, and is being assembled for me by a real-life human being who, like me, probably has the same concerns that his or her food is fresh and safe.
Mystery. I call this perception the good, the bad and the ugly, because mystery in your operation can either be very titillating for the customer or very scary. We'll talk more about the strategy of mystery perception as we go one.
Finally, ownership. This is a perception with particularly high emotional equivalent in the economic times we find ourselves in. So many people have lost valuable things they recently owned, like jobs and homes, and virtually everyone knows someone who has lost one, the other or both. In your operation, the perception of ownership is communicated by letting me have it my way.
But, simply having it my way isn't enough to ensure a successful interaction that results in repeat business. If you're 35 or older, you probably remember that old TV jingle that went “Have it your way, have it your way, have it your way, at Burger King.” Well, Burger King doesn't sing that song anymore. Oh, you can still have it your way. But if you drive through, you'll either park a couple of paces forward, so that customers behind you stare at you as they leave with their orders, with looks on their faces that suggest astonishment at your selfishness by requesting extra mayo on your original chicken sandwich, or, you're banished to the 7th circle of hell in the parking lot, which looks just like any other parking space in which you're parked with your back to the restaurant, as if the people at Burger King are ashamed to gaze upon the face of someone with the audacity to request a Whopper with extra tomato and no pickles. So in your operation, although you may give it to me my way, I still want that personal interaction at the action station. I still want that connection with that individual making it my way. Whatever that looks like.
Finally, we're at the part in my presentation that I was actually asked to speak about today. Best practices in action stations and chef demonstrations. And I looked at five exemplary examples of successful action stations and/or chef demonstrations at work. What's interesting about every one of these five interviews I conducted is that the individual I spoke to thought he was living the epitome of the experience economy. In fact, as it turns out, each operation is excelling in delivering on the interaction economy. But as I mentioned earlier, because the concept is only a couple of years old, these operators, being experienced, capable and savvy, realized what was missing in their operations on their own, and took steps to make positive change that benefits the brand and results in more repeat customers.
Let's start with Swedish Medical Center in Seattle. I spoke with Eric Eisenberg, corporate executive chef, about the three healthcare facilities that operate retail, catering, conference services and operations and all patient meals. The acronym CARE, listed here, is a personnel-training program that stands for Connect, Anticipate, Respond and Engage. More on that in a minute.
At Swedish, a variety of action stations exist in the cafeterias of all three facilities, and in the smallest of the three, a community hospital that at one time had only a grill featuring burgers is now a series of stations that include a build-your-own subway-sandwich station, an updated grill station where foods are cooked to order and what Swedish calls Taqueria Fresca, which is an action station serving soft and hard tacos, burritos and taco salads. The two larger facilities have these stations plus the main entrée station, which Swedish calls “global,” which isn't a cooked-to-order station, but every entrée is customizable. Additionally, what Chef Eisenberg says was the boldest move in the last year, the two larger facilities at Swedish got rid of their salad bar altogether and replaced it with a tossed-to-order station that Swedish calls, understandably, Tossed with a capital T. Tossed has all the ingredients of the salad bar, but salads are now made to order.
If you operate a salad bar and you sell salad by the pound, you can relate to the challenge that was facing Swedish. The cafeteria had a major problem with weighed salads at the cash register, when people who thought they were buying $6 worth of salad would ring up $10 worth. Chef Eisenberg called it a real dissatisfier with customers, a constant service-recovery issue. Customers would always blame the scale, not their eyes. So that was one reason for ditching the bar in lieu of an action station. But the other reason was food safety. Customers had a habit of pawing through the salad bar while waiting for something to be ready at the grill. They'd reach in and grab a cherry tomato or a handful of goldfish crackers. And, of course, there was the ubiquitous shredded cheddar in with the sliced mushrooms and the garbanzos mixed in with the peas and people using one salad-dressing ladle to serve themselves another salad dressing, and personnel were constantly having to clean up the bar and make it look more attractive. So a salad station instead of a bar provides another way for Swedish to provide service and make the experience of a salad more pleasant as well as interactive. Of course, the Tossed station also enables portion control.
So now at Swedish, every station has someone behind it. And culinary personnel who previously were hidden in back of the house are now in the front. I asked Chef Eisenberg about the extra salaries he has to pay now that there's so much interaction with a customer, and he said that, in fact, the restructuring to all manned stations reduced his overall staff need. Yes, kitchen staff normally behind the scenes are now out in front to serve, but gone are the retail staff required to upkeep the salad bar and restock retail areas. Instead, a cook now mans and stocks.
On the heels of this move, Swedish implemented significant training in customer service. Let's face it: not everyone can come out from the kitchen and be a star. In fact, Chef Eisenberg admits that not all of the people brought to the front from the back have been able to fully rise to the occasion. They weren't hired on the basis of their ability to interact with customers, after all. But moving forward, when Swedish recruits, they look for people who are very highly focused on the customer experience. The way Swedish teaches that, is to have employees think of themselves as customers and create a sense of empathy. It's that do unto others mentality that stops turning things inward. Chef Eisenberg calls it the 90-degree perspective — that the people in front of you and the people to the side of you are equally as important as you are. So if you're the axis and you look directly at the customer in front or the coworker to the side, you realize that you're all in this together and having the same experience. It's not all about GIVING to the paying customer, because you really need to rely on that customer to help you to serve him or her. According to Chef Eisenberg, at Swedish it's a real egalitarian sense of customer service. It's not that the customer is always right, but even when he or she is wrong, culinary personnel address the issue positively so that if they have to say no to something, the result is still positive so customers understand and accept it and then go on their way. The other result is that, while Swedish might not have superstars at every turn, they're at least creating the experience, and no one walks up to a messy salad bar anymore.
So I asked Chef Eisenberg about wait times and if customers ever get impatient that they have all this interaction they have to endure before they can get their food and eat it. The chef said there was always a huge line at the salad bar, and the wait at the Tossed station is no longer than it was at the bar. Plus, the quality is better and it's perceived as less expensive because a $6 salad is always $6 and never $10. Even if customers ask for a little more of something, it's always $6. The other place where Swedish is gathering efficiency and time is in a new variety of items they didn't offer before. For instance, Swedish offers a pretty major loss leader of a dollar-25 taco at the Taqueria Fresca station. What that loss leader does is pull people away from the deli or other lines during peak periods, which eases congestion and the perception of long wait times.
I mentioned Swedish's training program, CARE, which was two years in the making, and stands for Connect, Anticipate, Respond and Engage. I'm sure I'm not doing the concept justice, but the basic idea is, you make a connection, you smile, you greet, you make some kind of outward attempt to connect beyond simply asking, “What will you have,” and then you anticipate the needs of regular customers, and for non-regulars walking around the cafe not knowing where to start or how everything works, you respond to that need by interacting with them to help them find their way. If someone is going down a line, you ask if he or she wants a taste — anything to make them feel like you're anticipating their needs. You respond to requests appropriately in a positive fashion. When a customer asks if he or she can get that as a side dish, the appropriate response is yes, I'm happy to serve that to you as a side. That doesn't necessarily mean it's without an additional charge. For an example, a burrito comes with a variety of condiments, and if someone says I want avocado, sour cream and bacon wrapped in my burrito, instead of saying you can only have one of those, the appropriate response is offer other two on the side for an extra charge. And at the end of it all, you engage that customer to return, even if it's as simple as saying we appreciate your coming, although Swedish encourages personnel to come up with their own scripts so it's personalized and cookie-cutter. Swedish particularly likes to tell customers what's on the menu at lunch if it's breakfast time or what's on the next day's menu like chicken caprese or meatloaf.
My next case study is Southern Maine Medical Center, an acute-care hospital and like Swedish, a self-op. I spoke to Chef Michael Sabo, who oversees all patient and employee dining as well as the hospital's café, which is a revenue center with the goal of breaking even.
I want to move on to Harvard University Dining Services, which is committed to creating dynamic relationships between students and culinary staff.
At Harvard, every one of the undergraduate dining halls was renovated so that a good portion of the kitchen is always visible to students, who can see the chefs cooking. Culinary personnel employ a mise en place style of assembly in 15-minute batches, so that when students go through the serving line, food is presented in what it was cooked in so students can see what's happening to their food before it gets to them. According to Ted Mayer, assistant V.P., students see the freshness in a big way. They feel connected by being able to talk to cooks about what's in the food, and this creates a dynamic that is hugely important to students' feeling of well-being on campus, which contributes to their overall success in their educations.
Harvard also builds into the menu opportunities to see and experience cooking in other ways, for example, with carving stations. A whole chicken or ham or pork tenderloin that's being carved to service is a very different experience for students. Harvard also dedicates Thursday nights to what they call chefs tastings, which gives chefs a chance to show off their creativity by making some unusual dish that's not part of the everyday menu. Usually these center around an ingredients theme, and this helps engage the conversation between culinary personnel and guests. For example, one Thursday night might feature the taste sense of umami through mushrooms or the taste sense of sour with limes, or it could be a personal recipe from a staff member who hails from Haiti. It can be whatever the chef wants to do, but it's something they're cooking in the moment as a way of creating that critical bond students.
Harvard, being in Cambridge with Boston nearby, has a wealth of culinary talent in its midst, so it often invites area chefs in to do ingredient and cooking demos for students. And it also stands out with a farmer's market that serves the entire community. They'll often invite a local chef to do a one-hour demo using something available at the market. Recently Molly Katzen, a noted vegetarian expert and author, came in and demonstrated different ways to enjoy a complete vegetarian meal that stresses inclusion rather than exclusion, and she did this at three different residential halls to wide acclaim among students.
Like Virginia Tech, Harvard also mandates a meal plan for resident students, but what's somewhat different about Harvard from most other schools is that students live in their houses for three years, and each house becomes a very tight-nit community. Every house has a dining hall, and the culinary staff is the equivalent of Mom. They develop tight relationships with the students and come to know what they like and don't like, so if a particular student loves pierogies, say, Harvard staff will reserve a portion for when that student comes through the line. It's very much like what Mom would do if you were late to the family dinner table. As Ted says, when someone is cooking for you regularly, it's one of the most intimate things you can enjoy, and it's a part of nurturing that is critical to the interaction experience.
Finally, I want to present as a case study Kendall College here in Chicago, which is sort of a hybrid in that it both trains future cooks as well as feeds students, staff and guests. So culinary students get real-life training in delivering the dining experience in the midst of their educations, which supplements the externships they have to complete before they can graduate.
I spoke with Thomas Meyer, who's a chef instructor in Kendall's café, which is a cafeteria-style setting that doubles as a practical classroom. Chef Meyer also works with students in Kendall's new quick-service restaurant, which gives students another level of training. In both outlets, action stations are prevalent, particularly in the areas of Asian noodle stations, Mexican fare like burritos, quesadillas and nachos, seafood stations that focus on techniques such as poaching, and a la minute desserts and sandwiches. The goal is to expose both culinary students and guests to as many different kinds of things as possible and to create opportunities for culinary students to learn how to best interact with guests to create a valuable experience. Because guests so often happen to be the same students that a cook will sit next to in another class or might be an instructor that that cook is learning from, there's already a built-in familiarity with guests, which facilitates comfort and ease of interaction. This allows for a great deal of customer feedback and measuring the success of experience delivery.
One thing that marks Kendall as unique is that it's the only college or university in the United States whose foodservice outlets are certified green by the Green Restaurant Association. Kendall maintains an organic garden on campus, and has a very strong relationship with Green City Market, which is Chicago's only year-round farmer's market. So freshness takes on critical importance at Kendall, and action stations help to communicate the importance of working with and serving fresh foods.
One of Chef Meyer's biggest tasks is to teach culinary students how to maximize communication and flow so that food is cooked correctly, quickly and appealingly. Students are taught how to play off each other so that foods that take longer to cook fire up first while other students execute remaining parts of the order, so that by the time that guest is at the end of the line, that shrimp or risotto will be ready. It a real-life exercise in the importance of listening carefully, both to the guest and to each other. To make it all work, student cooks are encouraged to talk to customers, describe what's being served that day, talk about potential allergens, where the food that day sourced from, what's unique about the dish being served, etc., as a way to engage interactive learning. Action stations on the line and separate also provide an opportunity to teach station cleanliness and sanitation, food safety, proper equipment usage, marketing through signage and merchandizing, and the importance of proper lighting.
The second part of my presentation is about chef demonstrations and what they can bring to the table, so to speak. I've already mentioned Harvard's strategic use of them to add more value to student life on campus. Chef demos can be an important part of branding not only to your customer base, but to the community of potential customers out there. To gather valuable tips for executing successful chef demos, I spoke with three expert demonstrators, and what came out of those conversations were four main target areas of mind-mapping, the importance of story-telling, which is a main tenet of any good marketing, engaging all of the senses, and capitalizing on mystery, which in this case is the good kind of mystery, not the scary behind-the-wall kind.
I spoke with Andrew Hunter, who has his own consulting company based in San Francisco, and does work for such companies as Kikkoman.
Some of this might seem like common sense, but as Chef Hunter emphasizes, with any demonstration to be conducted, the exercise of mind-mapping the presentation in advance is critical. In other words, whether it's to a group of senior citizens or at a booth at a trade show, your mental mise en place is as important as your physical mise en place. You have to be organized with your thoughts, and know that you're going to do this followed by this. If you're at all confused or a little muddled in your thought process, it's going to come across in the presentation, and your audience will be confused.
Chef Hunter always has a very clear idea of his end goal, which might mean he has a total of 10 minutes to demonstrate the complete prep and grilling of a pork chop. Practice is really important. He might have cooked 3,000 pork chops in his life in back of the house, cooking it in front of spectators is a completely different dynamic, and you will want to explain why the pork chop is rotated on the grill at a certain time to get the desired grill marks. Take nothing for granted in the knowledge base of your audience, he says, unless you're Emeril and no one will question you. So the most critical element of good mental mise en place is that you must practice before you get on that stage.
Chef Hunter recommends not trying to be a comedian if you're not one naturally, but if you like to joke and make light of things, do it appropriately. Be yourself and know that it's okay to be yourself. Too many chefs are really good at what they do in their own kitchens, but get nervous in front of a crowd, even when they're well prepped. Start a conversation with your audience early on, rather than have a speech prepared, so you get to know the people who are also trying to get to know you. This eliminates a lot of the unfamiliarity with new faces and eases both you and your audience into a comfort zone that will allow you to excel in front of them. The most important thing is to create a bond by dispensing with formality, a distance between you and our audience. You're never that time crunched that you can't walk out from behind the station to face the crowd, say my name is Andrew and this is what I'm going to do today, and then go back behind the station and cook. The station can become a barrier between you if you let and getting rid of that formality allows you to be yourself and get down to the business of cooking and educating.
Chef Koetke is the dean of Kendall College's School of Culinary Arts, and has his own TV show on the LiveWell HD network that airs here in Chicago and elsewhere around the country. He's done countless demonstrations for various audiences and in a variety of different formats, and I chose to speak to him because I was at my local grocery store recently, visiting the seafood section, and suddenly I heard his voice over my head. When I looked up, he was on a closed-circuit monitor telling me what I could do that evening with fresh salmon.
Chef Koetke's goal in any demonstration is to effectively get the information that's in his head into the heads of his audience. How effective are you in relaying the info? To be a good teacher, you have to have that connection so that you're sharing the info to the point where your audience understands what you're saying and they grasp and own the information. The goal is not about what you know, but how you share that information successfully. For example, say you're discussing a sauté technique. What does that mean, sauté? In French, it means to jump, which is literal, and the technical definition is to move food around over high heat in a small amount of fat. So explain why to sauté is different from putting something in a pan cold and how sauté yields the desired result.
The opportunity for engaging your audience through a chef demo is the ability to both create alluring mystery and demystify at the same time. In a traditional restaurant setting, the food comes thru a door, but in exhibition cooking you're able to deconstruct what that individual is going to sample. The audience doesn't know how to prepare the dish, so he and she get to see the mystery unfold in front of them, and this creates a powerful wow. Chef Koetke calls this 360 degree cooking, where the mystique of cooking is demystified by the sight of the ingredients and their use, the aromas that develop, the proximity where the audience is nearly close enough to the action to touch, and eventually the experience of tasting the item just demonstrated. All of that together creates a connection with your audience that ensures a successful interaction.
There's a common thought among TV chefs that says you should always be talking. Says Chef Koetke, for live demonstrations, you have to give people a moment to absorb and process, and if you just keep babbling, people are likely to forget what just happened. So insinuate little pauses here and there, and learn to slow it down. Because when demonstrators talk all the time, the listener will likely say he enjoyed it afterward, but won't be able to recall what was just demonstrated. The mind needs a few seconds now and then to catch up. Also, in execution, you have to think of your station from the viewer's angle. It's harder than people realize, because everything's backwards to you. How many times have you seen people set up a demonstration with tall things farther away from you and short things closer to you? But in reverse, those tall things in your front are also blocking the audience's view of what you're doing.
Finally, I spoke to Fritz Sonnenschmidt. If you went to the CIA, you were probably taught by this chef, who was there for 33 years and touched the lives of 30,000 people over that time. If you had him as your instructor, then you probably love him as much as I do.
Says Chef Sonnenschmidt, the most important part of any demonstration is that you must adjust yourself to your clientele. If your audience gravitates toward older, for instance, you have to prepare yourself based on their understanding of food and food concepts, which usually is a past concept. You work to enact their memories and bring those alive. The other thing, you should never talk above or below your audience, but strive to bring them in until they become part of you and they're learning something. Chef Sonnenschmidt calls it entertainment with a mission.
Among his many talents, Chef Sonnenschmidt is an artful story-teller. And story-telling is essential to any successful demo because it gives life and perspective and grounding to the information you're trying to relay. And it also means being a good story-teller, being lively and animated and passionate and believable. The chef told me a joke the other day that was completely over my head, but it was hilarious because he was doing all of the laughing. Whether you've met him or not, when you encounter Chef Sonnenschmidt at a demo, you like him. And like goes a long way in ensuring a successful impression, which bottom line, is all you really want to achieve with your audience.