July 17, 2012 15:49 Age: 6 yrs

From Cuisine to Curriculum: Building a Culture of Excellence

Category: Chi Tschang, News, Home

I once had a brief career in the culinary arts. Before 2002, I was a notoriously bad cook. I was downright “dangerous” if you asked my college roommates. Growing up, the kitchen was my stepmother’s domain. In my post-college years, I grew accustomed to reheating frozen Lean Cuisine dinners, boiling spaghetti or picking up cheap Chinese take-out on the way home from my first teaching job in Boston. If the Food Network had aired “Worst Cooks in America” a decade earlier, I would have easily qualified. In my fourth year of teaching, however, the near-impossible happened: I took a part-time job as a cook.

One Saturday afternoon in 2002, I was doing my laundry near a small Italian restaurant that I often frequented for take-out when Ronnie Armany, the restaurant’s proprietor, asked me for a favor. He needed to run an errand and asked if I could watch the counter in his absence. Those few minutes soon turned into hours as I was roped into doing odd jobs. At the end of that day, Mr. Armany and I had reached an agreement. I would come in and do whatever needed to be done, including washing dishes, making deliveries and folding pizza boxes. In return, he would “pay” me by teaching me to cook one dish each day.

And so, for the next four months, I spent every Saturday from 11 a.m. to 10 p.m. working at the Italian restaurant in Boston’s West Roxbury neighborhood. In addition to learning how to sauté a shrimp scampi using butter and white wine, I noticed a few similarities between restaurants and schools. Both restaurants and schools are fast-paced and highly intense environments where preparation and planning play crucial and largely unseen roles. Both are places where people—motivated primarily by love of their work rather than by love of money—are serving others. And in both restaurants and schools, a team of adults creates a unique operating culture, one of excellence, mediocrity or somewhere in-between.

The culture of excellence in cooking is apparent at French Laundry, a Napa Valley eatery commonly viewed as the best restaurant in the country. In this year’s Michelin Guide, it is one of only six restaurants in the U.S. to earn three stars. To eat at the French Laundry, you have to place a reservation two months in advance. The meals themselves take between four and six hours to savor.

Reading about French Laundry in my favorite book about professional cooking, Michael Ruhlman’s The Soul of a Chef, The Journey Toward Perfection, it’s clear that the kitchen staff there fanatically cares about the details that no one else cares about. They are obsessed with seemingly insignificant details. When cooking, the chefs there are always cleaning—sometimes four times a day—including scrubbing the oil off bottles. They do this to prevent oil from getting on their fingers and leaving oily fingerprints on plates pulled from a warmer. Most restaurants store their fish in random assortment. At the French Laundry, they pack their fish in ice in the same position the fish swim. The positioning avoids unnecessarily stressing the flesh of the fish. The attention to detail there is simply incredible.

Ruhlman describes an interaction with one of the assistant chefs there: “One night during service, we left the kitchen for the office to talk. He was dressed for work and had helped prep but was not on (that night). On the way out, he stopped to wipe crumbs off a cutting board used by the cheese station to slice bread, and in the parking lot, he picked up a cigarette butt.”

Ruhlman asked the man why he cleaned up in his free time. The assistant chef told him, “Is the guest going to notice the cigarette butt in the driveway? Consciously, no…but it’s all those unconscious things that make this a beautiful place.”

Since I arrived at Achievement First three years ago, it has been one of my goals for all four of our middle schools to be among the “French Laundry of schools.” How do we foster a culture of excellence in our scholars like Chef Thomas Keller does at French Laundry?

At the end of The Soul of a Chef, French Laundry Chef Thomas Keller explains where his perfectionist drive comes from. His explanation serves to explain what makes anyone strive to do his or her best.

“In hindsight, I was very lucky to have been raised by my mother in such an ideal way as to allow me to understand the details of things. A lot of it is based on having to do certain chores around the house. You clean the bathroom, which was my job. There was only one way to do it. Everything had to shine. Everything had to be just perfect. Her definition of perfect. Which became my definition of perfect. To this day, no matter what I do, it’s kind of based on cleaning the bathroom.”

“So, I’ve taken one (lesson) she taught me and compounded it into who and what I am. (I am always) paying attention to detail and making sure that it was done and done right.”

In other words, Keller is a person who, at first, just wanted to please his mom. Yet, later on, that translated into him doing every simple task the right way, which in turn created a culture of excellence at the best restaurant in the United States.

This short example, to me, exemplifies the power of teaching. The bar that we set for our kids—how we define “good enough”—has the potential to change their lives and the lives of others. If we define “perfect” in a certain way—structured around high expectations—who knows, one of our scholars may someday start the next French Laundry.