In a few weeks, Chef Phillip Frankland Lee and his wife and pastry chef Margarita Lee will open a new location for Scratch Bar & Kitchen in Encino, California, after shuttering their Beverly Hills restaurant this summer. And in the new space they are trying out a radical approach to service: they won’t employ any front-of-house servers. Instead, they are hiring twice the usual number of cooks and having them serve the guests.
The Lees’ move is a bold solution to the challenges of growing minimum wages and a deep divide between the front and back of house, and they are ready to take the plunge to ensure everyone is paid fairly. Phillip thinks a 30-seat, innovative restaurant is the perfect place to experiment.
“If I’m going to have three servers and three cooks, why not just have six cooks who are all working together, dedicating their livelihood to the restaurant and their career, and have that guy take your order? It’s better for the staff, it’s better for morale, and it’s better for the customer.”
Here are five reasons Phillip and Margarita reimagining the dining experience.
Cooks will earn a decent wage.
Phillip started as a dishwasher a decade ago and worked his way up as a cook, sous chef and chef, so he’s well aware of the disparity in pay between the front and back of house. At the last iteration of Scratch Bar & Kitchen, and at their other restaurant, The Gadarene Swine, he implemented a service charge so he could evenly distribute the money to everyone in the restaurant. 60% went to the front, 40% to the back, and he sought out servers who were in it for the culture and teamwork, and not just the money.
Since the restaurants have open kitchens, chefs were already taking care of guests and running food. That’s why Phillip started thinking: by employing his cooks as servers, he could have twice the kitchen staff, serve better food, and keep morale positive.
He admits this structure is more expensive for him, since he’s made the choice to pay cooks more than minimum wage. However, he says, “My return on investment is tenfold.”
The whole staff will work as one team.
In the new restaurant, cooks will order the food, make the dishes, interact with guests, and pitch in with cleaning — literally, they will touch every aspect of the business. Phillip is passionate about building a culture that’s not about money, but about hard work with plenty of heart.
In the new team structure, he’ll never have a situation in which cooks are working 16 hours a day and servers show up for four hours at night. Instead, everyone works together as a single, cohesive team.
Passion comes first — then training.
We asked Phillip if he’s looking for anything different when hiring cooks now, since they will be interacting with guests, but he’s adamant that passion is what matters and everything else can be taught. Cooks who have been servers before may get bonus points, but all that really matters is that the person cares deeply about making amazing food.
He plans to invite some of his best servers from the past into the restaurant for a few days to show the cooks how to open and pour wine, and how to speak to customers. And that’s about it. “I don’t want a stuffy service staff,” he says. “I want my cooks to be cooks.”
It’s validating and motivating for cooks.
Since the style of service at Scratch Bar & Kitchen will be unique, it’s all the more important that cooks have face time with customers. In addition to a set tasting menu, the restaurant will have an a la carte menu based entirely on the ingredients they have in the restaurant and what the guest is in the mood for. If you come in asking for a salad, they’ll suggest one with the salmon and farmers’ market vegetables they just bought. If you love potatoes, they will incorporate those, too. The idea is to cut out the middlemen so cooks can get creative and have fun.
“So much of this industry is counterproductive. We’re giving the wrong guys the money, we’re giving the wrong people the responsibility, and we’re tying the hands of the people trying to push the industry forward. Why not pay the people who need and deserve it and give them all the opportunity in the world to make food a better experience?”
Aside from the creative freedom, Phillip says cooks (including himself) really enjoy the validation of seeing first-hand how much a guest loves the food they made. He sees “big guys with tattoos and beards” get all giddy after presenting a dish they made.
“Cooks are so bogged down in the back room in the dungeon. Now they get to go out there and get immediate validation for the 15 hours they just worked. All that does is give them more motivation to be better.”
Guests will have a better dining experience.
And as for guests? They benefit just as much from cooks’ enthusiasm and expertise, Phillip says.
He has a sous chef friend who used to serve on his two days off, and everyone in the dining room loved him because he spoke so passionately about the food. When he brought out a charcuterie plate, he was able to tell diners how it was made — because he made it. Plus, a cook will never have to run back to the kitchen to answer a guest’s question about how a dish was prepared or what’s in it.
“Who would you rather have suggest the dish you’re going to eat tonight: the guy making it, who ordered it and knows all about it, or a part-time actor who’s there because there’s nothing else for them to do today? Absolutely no question.”