I always find Mickael's energy so positive and it was a pleasure talking to him for this interview for which he has my grateful thanks.
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Mickael worked at Coq d’Argent (CdA) for 15 years and during his tenure there, it flourished. It was the place to eat in the City and the food there was, in my view, comfortably at the one Michelin star level. But what was so impressive about Mickael’s achievement is that CdA, being in the Conran/D&D stable, is a mega-restaurant. The restaurant seats 140, the brasserie a further 100 or so, there’s a huge outside terrace that is rammed whenever the sun shines and on its busiest ever day, Mickael and his team served 637 covers. If you need a case study on how to manage a restaurant monster, a peek inside CdA is surely it.
Military analogies come up at several points in my conversation with Mickael because first and foremost, such a large kitchen needs regimental discipline as a buffer to the ever present risk of chaos. In addition, there needs to be a clear structure to the operation and of course, clear lines of communication. What’s more, with a large brigade of young chefs, add to the mix elements of helping these mostly young men develop emotionally as well as technically. It’s a big ask and not for the faint-hearted.
Mickael himself entered cooking at an early age, and was working in a professional kitchen age 15 doing a 12 hour daily shift. He had focus and passion - this was not a job he simply drifted into - and worked hard at every position that came his way. He also took every opportunity afforded to him and landed his first Head Chef job aged just 24. What, I ask him, did he know about management at that point?
‘Nothing, absolutely nothing’ he says, ‘I didn’t even know what an invoice looked like. The only time I saw an invoice was when I was checking the food coming in.’
He had of course managed people, and had been significantly influenced by Head Chefs he had worked under, most notably Peter Kromberg of the InterContinental Park Lane, now sadly deceased, but a father type figure in the restaurant in his time:
His office was always open for example and that’s something I’ve kept up, an open office, people can come in and out whenever and that’s something I’ve learned from chefs like Peter, very nice, friendly. I find that stress in the kitchen is quite high and to work with people like this settles the team and a lot of his chefs had been with him a long time, and that’s the style I really learned and wanted to carry on.
When running CdA then, Mickael saw his role in the kitchen as:
Trying to be there for people, and trying to relieve the pressure from wherever it was felt, not worrying about getting my hands dirty, and to be part of the team as well as their boss.
But there’s an important point to make on what he says here about being part of the team. Within the work environment, this gets things done and shows that you’re all moving to the same goal, a unifying force, whereas outside of work, Mickael generally would not socialise with the staff. This is right in my view, for a leader needs to be separate from those he leads providing benefits for his authority, keeping an ability to exercise discipline and one might argue also, retain a little mystery to his persona.
But to avoid chaos in a kitchen of this size, structures have to be in place, and staff members know exactly what is expected of them. Mickael describes the what is expected of his kitchen team:
Your mise en place, which is getting your food ready, pre-cutting, blanching vegetables and all the little bits you do before the actual cooking of a dish have to be done by 11 o’clock. And then you need to spend between 11 and 11:30 what I call setting up your section. Even if your mis en place is not ready you stop at 11 o’clock and set up your section. From 11:30 you have food, you then spend the rest of your time doing your mis en place so that when the first check comes in you have an organised clean surrounding. Clear surrounding means clear thinking in the kitchen I feel. If you start the service and you’ve got crap everywhere, it’s literally impossible to cope, you cannot find anything and it’s a sort of panic state. If a knife is supposed to be on the right, it’s on the right.
And when the service is on, you focus and do the job, you are at that point like a well-trained army:
It’s all about discipline, you communicate to your staff, they listen and do [what you say], and if they have any questions they can ask that later. During service it has got to be the case because you can’t have questions in the middle of service because it creates the wrong atmosphere. It’s all about, for now, just do this, for this three hours of the day that you just do as I tell you, and that’s it, and it’s a great environment to actually work in, and it’s not nasty in any way, it’s just discipline and after service we can look into ‘we could have done this better, we could have done that better’ and we can talk about it later. But there’s no point starting a discussion in the middle of service.
Working in a restaurant this size, informal feedback sessions might be useful but it’s not enough and again, some structure needs to be in place to ensure nothing is missed. Mickael would sit down daily or every other day with the senior team, and Friday afternoons with the whole kitchen team, and on Monday with the restaurant management. I wholly concur that these are necessary in any organisation that’s serious about performance, and I think that Mickael really gets the point of how these meeting should be:
It’s not about pointing out what you did wrong or what you did right, it’s about finding out what we did good and what we did bad and move on and learn and do better.
I’m reminded of a story by Ross Brawn, the Formula 1 engineer and team principal who was invited by the NHS to give his insight into what an emergency operation team in A&E could learn from a motor racing team. Brawn was invited to a simulation of an emergency operation on a critically injured patient and he recalled:
What really struck home was that after everything was finished, I said to the staff that were there, ‘when do you hold your debrief to decide what worked well, what didn’t, what problems you have and what you need to do?’ They said they didn’t have debriefs. I said, ‘But surely you must get together and discuss things?’ ‘Only if the patient dies.’
In a large kitchen, it would also be all too easy for things to get a little bit frantic when things go wrong. I ask Mickael, does he sometimes lose his temper?
I’m pretty good… [you must not] stress your staff out, if you make an issue of it, it stresses them more out… you could [shout at your staff] but what did you gain? Will you get more respect? It stresses me out to shout at people. If they’ve done it three times in a row I’m going to sit them down and say c’mon, you need focus here, but you take them aside and you tell them to focus one on one, it’s a lot more effective than grilling them in front of the whole kitchen. That’s pointless.
If you do want to upset Mickael, the quickest way to do that is to be late. I agree with Mickael on this, lateness is disrespectful to those who do make it on time. Young chefs have been known to party through the night but if you work for Mickael, best make it in on time the following day.
I want people to start at a certain time. For respect to the rest of the team, respect to themselves and the job. I am happy for them to finish a bit earlier… as long as the job is done they can go, but everybody has to start at the same time.
Fall foul of this and you might find yourself peeling 600lbs of potatoes, or spending a shift on the pot wash, or even being sent home. In any organisation, but especially one that needs to function smoothly between interconnected staff members like a kitchen, without discipline you have chaos. Top rated football manager Sir Alex Ferguson in his memoirs notes:
I placed discipline above all else and it might have cost us several titles. If I had to repeat things, I’d do precisely the same, because one you bid goodbye to discipline you say goodbye to success and set the stage for anarchy.
Discipline then, as seen by the likes of Ferguson, is the bedrock of success. In the case of CdA, the benefit accrues not only to the restaurant in any one service, but also gives the young chefs exactly what they need to grow into the people they need to become tomorrow. It returns to Mickael’s own experience, both in terms of his background, his experience of Kromberg’s paternalism, and a natural deep rooted empathy for his staff:
I’ve always looked after my staff… it’s where I want to be, I quite like it [being a paternal figure]… sometimes it’s a little bit stressful… it’s amazing the amount of social work I’ve done for a lot of them but I help a lot of young kids, because when I arrived in London I didn’t have that help, I arrived at 17 years old with fifty quid in my pocket, a job, no place to stay. With the background I had it was okay because I had that background, hardcore, hardworking, focussed but a lot of them are moving to London, they don’t have any family, they are only making a few friends from work so work becomes their family and I help them in any way I can settle into the job. The reward you get, the long term reward is amazing.
It’s little wonder that Mickael now has a network of hundreds of chefs around the world who know and acknowledge that he gave them the foundation to be not just the chefs they are today, but the people they are today. What’s more, they too are likely to carry that legacy on to their own teams.
I’ve never stopped being impressed with how great restaurants deliver amazing quality food, service after service, day after day. But in many respects, Coq d’Argent held a special place for me because on its biggest busiest days, it challenged its chefs with one of the most demanding services you could imagine. As customers, we enjoy the food, we might even reflect on the chefs who made it for us, the technical skill behind it and their passion for cooking, but rarely do we reflect on the fact that at this level, the chef’s passion for his staff sits on equal terms to all of those other factors.
I ask Mickael, can you be a great chef and not care passionately for people also?
Maybe, yes… if you like working on your own.
* Part 2 on my interview with Mickael will be published shortly.
Visit Mickael's website: mickaelweiss.com