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Tyrant or tenderheart: What’s your management style?

Watching episodes of Hell’s Kitchen, the average viewer comes away thinking that cursing, screaming and ruthless bullying is the only way to run a successful restaurant kitchen. True, many chefs are as hellish as Gordon Ramsay appears on TV, routinely leaving their staff quaking in their clogs. But some industry veterans are embracing a kinder, gentler management style—and finding it has its place.

Seasoned chefs/restaurateurs Daniel Boulud, Paul Liebrandt, Alfred Portale and Marco Canora shared how they currently run their domains in a spirited panel titled “In the Kitchen: Old School vs. New School,” presented by Bullfrog & Baum at this fall’s Food Network New York City Wine & Food Festival. Subtitled “Screamers, Sadists, Quiet Types, Micro-Managers and Buddhists,” the panel, moderated by Eater co-founder Ben Leventhal, explored the evolving kitchen paradigm. Although none of the participants classified their kitchens as Zen-like temples of calm, they did admit to becoming “hybrid managers”—a blend of old-school despot and new-school nurturer.

Here are some glimpses into the panelists’ management styles.

Portale: My style has evolved over the [25] years I’ve been in business. I recognize that my staff is one of the most valuable commodities in my restaurant [Gotham Bar & Grill] and I need every one of my 120 employees to be highly motivated. Typical French kitchens, where I trained, are war zones, but I’ve found it hard to work passionately with that kind of conflict. That experience tempered my style, and I realized that being firm and demanding but fair and respectful is the best strategy.

Boulud: A restaurant kitchen is a lot like a soccer field or basketball court—and the chef is like the coach. You have to react to the pressure and be firm but not abusive. There’s no screaming in my kitchen unless there’s a f**k-up. I don’t consider myself old school or new school—more like “good school.” Energy and passion define my style.

Canora: I’ve come full circle from when I started at Craft to today, in my own restaurant, Hearth. As you get more comfortable in your skin, your management style changes. Maniacal micro-managers who scream because it empowers them are not effective and are never going to grow. As a chef, you have to learn to trust people.

Liebrandt: I worked for Marco Pierre White in London—a screamer who runs his kitchen like the military. He comes from a military family, so it’s natural. In my kitchen [Corton], I present my team with a common goal and work with them to achieve that goal. I sometimes yell but it’s more about expressing my passion—yelling never predominates and isn’t an end in itself. When I get angry because something is done wrong, I always show a young cook how to do it the right way.

Canora: Sometimes yelling has validity—when it’s the only way to get your point across in a busy kitchen. There are logistical issues; there’s no time to say, “let’s talk about this…” when you only have minutes to clear the appetizer course and get the entrées on the table.

Boulud: There’s really not as much need for yelling now as when I started out. We no longer have to shout orders; there are printers in the kitchen that spew them out. That cuts down on a lot of the noise.

Liebrandt: There’s also a new guard of talented workers who are less willing to put up with yelling. That change drives my management style—you have to take a different approach.

Canora: I learned from Tom Colicchio; he gave me a lot of trust [as chef at Craft]. Tom has a great ability to delegate and motivate.

Portale: There’s no workplace where you should be allowed to berate your employees. Berating will not motivate them. But you have to find ways to ignite their passion—by teaching rather than screaming. Thomas Keller is an excellent role model.

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