At Gramercy Tavern in New York City—consistently rated as one of the top restaurants in the country—Executive Chef Michael Anthony (right), 44, oversees a kitchen staff of nearly 70 people and knows a thing or two about leading a team in a pressure-filled environment. He recently spoke with business writer Susan Caminiti about learning to delegate, the best ways to motivate employees, and why it’s important for the boss to occasionally disconnect from the action.
SC: Running a kitchen is often portrayed as such a command-and-control way of leading. Is that accurate?
MA: It can be, but my style is actually a bit counter-intuitive to the restaurant industry, where the golden rule is that the guest always comes first. The number one goal at Gramercy is to take care of each other. When I first came here in 2006 and met [owner] Danny Meyer, I felt like we had a number of things in common when it came to managing people, and I felt drawn to his sense of respect and devotion to his employees. That business philosophy felt attractive and comfortable to me.
SC: How does it play out in your management style?
MA: When it comes to managing people, there’s no such thing as one size fits all. It’s one size fits one. Each person brings individual talents and needs to be motivated in a different way. By recognizing that, I’ve become a better leader and we’ve become a better team. I feel confident in my ability to cook great food and to teach people how to be great cooks, but we are a much better restaurant when we tap into the individual talents of the people I’ve chosen to be part of the staff.
SC: That sounds incredibly time consuming. How do you manage it?
MA: You’re right—it takes an enormous amount of time, attention, and energy but that’s part of the mission of being a good leader. Certainly half of my job is creating and cooking great dishes and serving them in a wonderful way. But the other half is effectively managing the folks that I work with. In my line of business we are bound by the hours of the restaurant and in our case it’s from noon until the end of the evening, sometimes midnight or later. Some of that meaningful conversation with my staff happens after the dinner service ends at midnight or 1 am. That’s challenging, so as a good manager I’m always trying to balance what’s best for the restaurant with what’s best for that individual.
MA: As a young chef I made the mistake of believing that I could do it all. The problem with that is that you can’t sustain it. I realized through lots of guidance and time that if I don’t have energy to give to my team, I really don’t have much to offer.
SC: How did you overcome that desire to do it all?
MA: First, I’ll say it wasn’t a matter of not trusting people. It was simply a selfish decision on my part—I love cooking so much and I didn’t want to miss one moment of it. I wanted to be in the center of it at every moment. I think a lot of leaders are like that. In order to change I had to learn: How do I formulate my ideas, share them in a clear, poised way, and make sure that I create realistic and ambitious expectations for the people who work for me? I have to be able to take a step back to make sure we’re putting our top managers in a position to respond creatively to issues and problems that come up every day. It can’t always be me. And that’s one of the benefits of making employees feel understood and valued: they look forward to coming to work and appreciate those ambitious expectations. Champions want to be challenged.
SC: What if someone isn’t meeting those expectations?
MA: We have something at Gramercy called “continuous gracious pressure.” In practical terms that means if there is an issue with an employee, it sometimes takes active coaching on my part or on the part of one of my sous chefs. So if there is someone on our staff who is falling short and just not understanding something that’s important, it requires more individual contact and dialogue.
SC: How do you balance the time needed for big picture thinking and the daily obligations of running a very busy kitchen?
MA: I used to call that big picture time “walk-in time” because it would happen late at night when I would stroll through the prep and walk-in areas of our kitchen and hold ingredients, just waiting for those moments of inspiration to come up with dishes for the next day or week. It just wasn’t sustainable. I would find myself in the restaurant until 3 a.m. and then not in a good position to be back in the next day for morning prep time.
SC: How did you fix that?
MA: I figured out how many hours a day I needed to be productive in those creative areas and made it part of my schedule. So there are now 2½ hours in my week that are as important as any meeting or any lunch or dinner service. They are ‘do not book’ hours and they are sacred. Sometimes I’ll spend it in my office; other times I’ll actually be in the middle of the busy kitchen working on menu development and nothing else.
SC: What’s the benefit of doing it that way?
MA: What could be more important than taking the time to develop the cooking that we do? However, I had to learn to be disciplined about it. I had to communicate ahead of time with my staff to remind them what I was working on without getting frustrated. When I communicate well people are actually happy I’m doing this because there’s a payoff for them: new dishes, better organization, a better-run restaurant. So while it could feel a little off-putting in the beginning because it looked like I wasn’t responding to questions, people quickly understood and actually rallied around it.
SC: What is still the biggest challenge for you?
MA: All of it! But seriously, if I say no to something, then I better be able to be honest and open about why I’m saying no. And if I say yes, then everybody needs to understand why I said yes. If the reasoning is murky then it’s very difficult for people to turn around and offer creative ideas. They don’t understand what makes an idea successful or valid. In a highly creative environment, leaders have to make sure they’re not allowing their emotions—whether that be pride or insecurity—get in the way.