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The choreography of the kitchen

Ruth Gresser
Ruth Gresser is the owner and executive chef of Pizzeria Paradiso , which has locations in Georgetown and Dupont Circle. She is interviewed here by Washington Post intern Fahima Haque.

What makes a great leader? Or a great chef? Is there a difference?

Leadership is a big part of being a chef. You're the head of the kitchen. You're in charge of determining what that direction is. So it works both ways. You need to be a leader in order to be a good chef. To know how to cook is only one aspect of it.

What makes a great chef?

Having a great culinary instinct is the first element, and being able to execute it is the second. So leadership comes into the second part: accomplishing the goal.

What is the hardest part of leading a kitchen?

There are a lot of different things that have to come together. You have a staff that you have to guide, you have the perishable quality of food preparation, and it's all very much on a deadline, a constant deadline. There's a lot of pressure.

What has been your biggest failure as a leader?

It's taken me a good deal of time to learn the balance between wanting to be in charge of everything and allowing people to take charge themselves.

What does it mean to be an 'executive chef?'

If you're an executive chef, then you're working for someone else who lays out the direction of the kitchen. You don't have to determine it yourself. But if you're a chef-owner, as I am, then you are responsible for developing the cuisine as well as executing it. You have to do both things, and that means developing the direction of the kitchen. Basically you have to lead the staff in producing and achieving your vision.*

Who do you admire as a leader?

My mentor and teacher is a woman named Madeleine Kamman, who I think is a brilliant chef and is one the smartest people I've ever known. And right now I am a big Barack Obama fan. I think he is extremely comfortable and self-possessed in his leadership role. I see his integrity and his seeming lack of egocentrism. All of this combines to, in my view, make a great leader.

Would you ever entertain the idea of competing on a show like 'Top Chef?'

I like the idea of being able to demonstrate my skills. But I think 'Top Chef' does a lot more than demonstrate your skills as a leader and a cook -- that's the TV part of it, the entertainment part, and that's why I would prefer to stay away from it. I think I'm a very competent chef and that I have good leadership skills, but the third part of it -- whether or not I'd make good entertainment -- would probably prevent me from venturing in that direction.

How do you keep cool when things get hot in the kitchen?

I'll tell you about how I feel about the kitchen when it's working. It's a dance, it's a performance, with a coordination and a choreography. All the different people play their part in creating the food you're putting out for the customer. And so even when it's very busy, if that feeling of the dance is there, it's wonderful. It's my favorite part of being in the kitchen.

When things are not running as smoothly, the important thing is to go back to those fundamentals and reestablish the coordination. You just have to breathe through it and trust that all the pieces are there and try to get back into the flow of the dance.

*Editor's note: After this Q+A was published, Ruth Gresser contributed this clarification on the role of the executive chef:

"An executive chef is, simply put, the head of the kitchen. She may be working for herself as the chef-owner, or she may be working for someone else. She may also be in complete control of all facets of running the kitchen including, setting the culinary direction of the kitchen, or she may work at the owner's culinary direction.

The main differentiation between the Executive Chef and other chefs or line cooks in the kitchen, is that the Executive Chef as the ultimate leader of the kitchen brigade and has responsibilities outside of her cooking responsibilities, such as hiring and supervising staff, ordering supplies and food, managing costs, etc.

This terminology developed from the French kitchen structure which was fashioned from military hierarchy. The Executive Chef is the equivalent of the French Chef de Cuisine which translates to chief of the kitchen, thus, truly the leader."

By Fahima Haque

 |  April 27, 2010; 2:31 PM ET |  Category:  Women in leadership Save & Share:  Send E-mail   Facebook   Twitter   Digg   Yahoo Buzz   Del.icio.us   StumbleUpon   Technorati  
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Please email us to report offensive comments.

1. A great Chef must teach his commissary steward how to bet.

2& 3 Choreography
2.a Expediting
2.b too many cooks, Prima donnas...

4. Picking winning horses
4.a running out of vanilla ice cream
4.b out of date kosher

5. Please see 2&3

6. singer /songwriter, she showed me hope and a higher calling

7. no

8. it's all about the intensity in the kitchen. heat contributes.

Respectfully, Rosecroft (800 seat)and Freestate (600 seat) 82-84

Posted by: EarthCraft | April 29, 2010 10:33 AM

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