With minimum wage hikes and rising costs across the board, restaurants are getting creative in how they think about staffing. Take Chef Phillip Frankland Lee, who opened Scratch Bar & Kitchen in Encino, California about a year ago. At the time, he told us all about his plans to bridge the divide between the front and back of house by having his cooks do everything, from greeting guests at the door to taking orders to running the food. Oh, and actually cooking.
So — how is it going? We caught up with Phillip in honor of Back of House Appreciation Month, an event that offers free meals at Scratch Bar & Kitchen to all restaurant cooks and back-of-house staff during the month of February. When they bring a pay stub (or other proof that they are a BOH employee) they will receive a complimentary nine-course tasting menu, and 50% off for a non-BOH guest dining with them.
“When I started cooking, it was a different landscape: restaurants were thriving and the economy was booming,” he says. “I ate for free most of the time, because if I went to a restaurant my chef would call and make me a reservation. It was nurturing. Nowadays, that doesn’t exist anymore — with the price of restaurants and the wage gap, cooks cannot afford to go out and eat. This is a way of saying, thank you for working so hard.”
With appreciation for hard-working cooks across the country in mind, he gave us an update on the staffing model at Scratch Bar & Kitchen: challenges, rewards, and now guests are reaction. Here are a few takeaways.
It’s a constant juggling act.
A typical day in the life of a sous chef at Scratch involves prepping food in the morning, setting up the dining room in the afternoon, and then serving dishes throughout the night that are prepared by cooks in the back. And the sous chefs are constantly jumping in and helping out the cooks on the line when the kitchen gets backed up, too. Combine that with the fact that Scratch only offers 16-course tasting menus, and the job is a true balancing act.
“At any given second you may have one steak on the grill, another steak that your plating, and you’ve got to run this steak to table five,” says Phillip. “You drop the steak, give an explanation, refill their waters while you’re there, and maybe somebody wants another beer. All while you’re still watching your steak on the grill. You can’t neglect your guests, but you also can’t neglect the steak.”
Hospitality and personality speak louder than service steps.
“Most cooks have zero service knowledge,” Phillip admits. Many don’t know where to place the water glass and where to place the wine, and they don’t know how to deal with grumpy customers or special requests. Scratch has an open kitchen, so guests have a clear view of everything happening behind the scenes — there’s no hiding. That’s been difficult for some cooks. “You’ve got to work clean, smart, efficiently — and you’ve got to be having a good time,” Phillip says, since no one has fun dining out when their server is in a bad mood.
When it came to training the team in matters of the front of house, Phillip and his wife/co-owner Margarita focused on “hospitality and personality,” not step one and step two. It’s all about welcoming guests to your home, he says.
“It was less about the rigors of, if the fork drops dive for it, and more about, make sure everyone’s happy and they have what they need. If you train them to make sure people are happy, then they’re going to have a clean fork.”
Guests crave connection with the people cooking their food…
On the guest side, Phillip says the new model has been a huge success. Most people tip 10 to 15% on top of the existing 18% service charge shared amongst all of the restaurant employees. “The guests build a rapport, a friendship — people here become family. Also, people enjoy in this day and age meeting the chef. Here, everybody is a chef.”
Throughout the course of a night at Scratch Bar & Kitchen, a guest may meet up to 12 different people. That’s because whoever makes the dish is going to be the person that brings it to you. By the end of the night, most guests build a rapport with at least a few of the staff members. “At the end of service a lot of people get up and high five, shake hands, come around and hug us. The idea here is every night we get to go to work and meet the public and hopefully make lasting relationships and bonds with strangers over dinner.”
…and they feel taken care of.
Another added bonus of cooks working extra hard in an open kitchen is that diners see it, and they get it. If their food hasn’t arrived yet, they’re not wondering why — they can see exactly what’s happening, and they feel part of the action. As a result, they’re happy to pour their own wine or make room on the table for the next dish.
Phillip is sensitive to the fact that asking guests to pay $95 for a tasting menu in which they have no idea what they’re getting (the menu changes every night) is a big ask. “Having the ability to chat with the chef for five minutes about your likes and dislikes — it makes people feel more comfortable doing that. If you come in on a date and you’re vegan and gluten-free and your date can’t eat shellfish but loves red meat, you’re both going to do the 16-course tasting menu and don’t have to be affected by each other’s preferences.”
A versatile team is an efficient team.
At Scratch, all 10 of Phillip’s cooks prep together every day and work service. “You can’t do that with a normal server,” says Phillip. Instead of a server waiting for a dish to be ready to run to a table, at Scratch they can get in the kitchen and cook it themselves.
“If we’re in the weeds and four servers jump back there and double our cooking team to push us through a rush, we have double the staff to get through it and we can divide and conquer again. Instead of having my team compartmentalized, I have a bunch of guys who can do everything.”
He believes his team is twice as efficient as a typical one, because cooks work clean and smart and are trained to follow direction “as quickly as humanly possible.”
A restaurant’s success starts with its culture.
Phillip will open two more restaurants next month, followed by more concepts in Montecito at the end of the summer. All of his full-service restaurants will follow the same server-less model he has developed for Scratch Bar & Kitchen. He sees growth as an opportunity to expand a community and culture he’s passionate about, by giving opportunities to up-and-coming cooks in his kitchen. “There’s longevity in this,” he says.
That’s the inspiration behind Back of House Appreciation Month, too. “As a young cook you need to be exposed to more food, culture, restaurants, kitchens. Young cooks and chefs will hopefully be inspired to go back and be part of something, and there will be more of a camaraderie around the city and country. I attribute a lot of what I do today to the culture, to falling in love with the culture of what it meant to be a young cook or chef. I don’t see that anymore.”