What Our Schools Can Learn from Chef Eric Ripert and One of the Greatest Restaurants in the World
The August 2014 edition of Wine Spectator Magazine features a profile of Chef and Philanthropist Eric Ripert and his seafood temple, Le Bernardin, which many consider to be one of the finest restaurants in the world. If one can get past the drool inducing photographs and vivid, near sensual descriptions of revelatory dishes like the tuna carpaccio with fois gras and examine the text through the lens of leadership, it is clearly evident why Le Bernardin has remained at the summit of culinary experiences in the greatest food city on the planet and why Ripert is viewed by many as one of the most gifted chefs to ever put on an apron. In what might seem like an odd comparison between a world-class restaurant and our schools, there is much that we as school leaders learn from Ripert. What does he, as successful leader, do differently?
Be Present Where It Matters Most
At the outset of each day in the restaurant, Ripert walks through the kitchen with a plastic spoon which he uses to taste everything from stocks, to sauces down to the tiny garnishes that adorn each plate that enters the dining room. He visits the stations of each of the 20 or so chefs taking part in the night’s service and examines their “mise en plas,” or the building blocks of each of the dishes they are responsible for preparing. It is here when he provides feedback to his cooks instead of waiting until each dish is fully prepared and plated. His feedback is given immediately, salt is added, levels of acidity are tweaked and preparations continue. It is not until this ritual is completed that Ripert travels to the office and meets with his personal assistant to address the business aspects of running multiple four star establishments and to deal with other pressures associated with celebrity chefdome. As school leaders, we must learn from this as too often we find our priorities out of balance. We cannot let the business aspects, (i.e. parent phone calls, compliance issues, discipline problems, etc) of running a school building keep us from getting into classrooms. We need to give feedback in the moment instead of waiting until a “formal observation” or after the Superintendent visits, or worse yet when we are delivering the overall rating to a teacher at the end of the school year. Daily, we must ask ourselves, “Are we present where it matters most?”
Having Eric Ripert taste something that you, an aspiring chef, have prepared on a daily basis must be beyond intimidating. In fact, it must be nearly as terrifying as a walk through during the nerve-wracking experience that was/is The Quality Review in the NYC Department of Education. Remarkably, it is not. As detailed in the article, the kitchen at Le Bernardin is described as a collaborative, respectful atmosphere where Ripert’s acknowledgements and suggestions are the welcomed norm. For any of us who have commented on a student’s writing or who are in the position that requires reviewing another’s performance, we know that giving feedback is difficult. If our strategy for school improvement centers on meaningful feedback and we understand that “culture eats strategy for breakfast,” how we develop a culture where criticism can be seen as truly constructive? The answer is in relationships.
Quickly leafing through the article, it is somewhat surprising that Ripert is not center stage in every photograph – in fact he is not even represented in all of the pictures therein. A highlight is a picture of Ripert standing with his brigade where he has elected to fade into the background as his team is smiling in the foreground.
Another image that speaks to Ripert’s leadership is a photo of Justo, a prep chef who is responsible for butchering every piece of fish that enters the kitchen and preparing it for service. In Ripert’s cookbook, Avec Eric the chef describes him as a vital member of the organization and refers to him as a true craftsman. As Anthony Bourdain writes about Ripert in the Forward, “His eagerness to share the credit – specifically to point out who does what, and how, acknowledging every part of a large, ever grinding, complicated but (always) smoothly running machine – is unprecedented.” As school leaders, how often and how do we show that we value the members of our organization? If we did this more, how would the feedback that we give be perceived?
Be Transparent… Be Collaborative… Be Reflective
Even in this seeming eutopia, the article notes times when chefs in Ripert’s kitchen disagree with one another and even with Ripert’s assessments of a dish. While most chefs, and principals for that matter, might end a difference of opinion like this with a “It’s my way or the highway” response, Ripert and his team instituted a system that would help them collectively calibrate their palates so they can evaluate a dish together. Ripert shares how pieces of Kraft Swiss are made available to every chef in the kitchen for this purpose. Ripert notes that Kraft was chosen for its straightforwardness and it’s consistency as “it always tastes the same.” After each chef takes a bite of this cheese, a common taste emerges and the team reexamines the dish in question before revisions are made.
In it’s intended form, The Danielson Rubric was meant to be the Kraft Swiss for educators and used so a common understanding of what good teaching is could be established. How unfortunate it is that this exquisite document has been demonized by the APPR process? How refreshing would it be if we could alter this reality so it could be used to ensure we were all on the same page before we began conversations about next steps? For real reflection and honest dialogue to occur, the relationships described above must be well in place. Once these are established, we must begin asking questions like “How are standards of excellence established in our organization?” “Are all stakeholders aware of the expectations and does a uniform understanding of what these expectations look like in the classroom exist?”
Foster Innovation and Celebrate Failure
To remain at the forefront of the ever evolving landscape that is the New York restaurant world, you must continue to innovate and challenge yourself, your chefs and maybe even your customers to move out of their comfort zones. Ripert understands this as new dishes emerge on his menus constantly and join classics that celebrate pristine ingredients and the flawless techniques that have brought Ripert his fame. To his credit, Ripert invites his team of chefs to play critical parts in the creative process and there is even a room in the restaurant dedicated solely for research and development. Hundreds if not thousands of cookbooks are available to chefs and the freedom to experiment with new ingredients and flavor profiles from a variety of cultural influences is encouraged. In the article, Ripert notes that as dishes are conceptualized, they are carefully scrutinized and typically go through twenty or thirty iterations before they make to the restaurant menu.
As school leaders, there is much we can learn from this. How and how often do we encourage our teachers to take risks? Is there a safe, nearly sacred room in our buildings where staff can come together to discuss ideas and reflect on their trials and partial successes? Do we view failure as a something negative instead of what it truly is, a first attempt in learning? In his work titled, School Principals and Virtual Learning: A Catalyst to Personal and Organizational Learning, Dr. Bill Brennan, Lead Innovator of Farmingdale Public Schools on Long Island, NY, writes, “One of the most well-known antecedents to innovation is failure.” He notes the pivotal role of principals as we, “hold the ability to establish a culture of risk-taking.” As leaders, we must work diligently to cultivate and maintain a culture where people feel safe to “put themselves out there” as they strive to create and further develop what Hargraves and Fullan call “next practices” in their book Professional Capital. Elements of Ripert’s work where he has created a hub for innovation within the restaurant would be highly touted by Dr. Brennan as he believes that “every school in this country should design an “idea lab” where key people come to share and test ideas in a grassroots leadership manner.” While space is a luxury in many of our buildings, we need to create this venue in order to keep our organizations moving forward.
In summation, how do we take elements of Ripert’s leadership and bring them to our schools? First and foremost, we must be present where it matters most and continue to develop relationships within our buildings that breed trust and inspire collaboration. As feelings of mutual respect permeate the organization and an understanding that “this is a safe place” emerges, individuals will be more likely to take risks which will inevitably lead to innovation. With thoughtful feedback, honest reflection and frequent celebrations of the products and techniques that result from the collective creative process, perceived failures will become breakthroughs. When we add these “next practices” to the “best practices” which comprise the menu that is the learner’s experience in our classrooms, there will be no limit to the number of stars our schools will earn.