At the 2019 Food & Wine Classic in Aspen, Senior Editor Kat Kinsman sat down with industry leaders to talk about the most important lessons they learned from being a boss. 

By Maria Yagoda
Updated July 02, 2019
Marc Fiorito/FOOD & WINE

At the 2019 Food & Wine Classic in Aspen, a series of American Express Trade panels brought together the restaurant industry's brightest leaders to talk shop, reflect on mistakes, and brainstorm ways of improving restaurant culture for staff, guests, and the world at large. In one panel moderated by Senior Editor Kat Kinsman, chefs shared how they built their restaurants to reflect cultures of hospitality and inclusivity for every member of their staff. Here, chefs Marcus Samuelsson, Traci Des Jardins, Cheetie Kumar, and Nina Compton share the most important lessons they learned about being the kind of boss their employees could trust and succeed alongside.

Don't shy away from language barriers

"Whether I speak the language or not, our common language is food. Even if a job in a kitchen is a means to an end for some people, you can still instill a passion ... If you love what you’re doing, I think it’s really communicated how you show somebody a recipe. I always ask cooks how they ended up cooking, what their family life was like when they were growing up ... We have people in the back who can barely speak English, and people in the front who’ve had wine training and worked in fancy restaurants, but it doesn’t matter. The equalizer is food." — Cheetie Kumar

Use family meal to learn about your team

"In family meal, figure out why these people are really here—my staff—and figure out what are their true passions and talents. What environment do you want to create?" — Marcus Samuelsson

Learn Spanish, if you don't already speak it

"Language and communication is pivotal. I started ESL classes and was pretty fluent in Spanish. I was a lot closer with the dishwashers and bussers, [because] if they needed something, they knew they would ask me and they would be understood ... They came to me for all kinds of things—how to negotiate their lives, if they had a question around insurance. It became obvious to me that they really needed that resource to have a connection to the community and people who were really going to help them." — Traci des Jardins

Hire differently

"[When I moved to Harlem], from a hiring practice, I had to almost throw away everything I learned in Midtown. We hired differently. We hired people who had spent time in jail, for example. We looked at not traditional cooks. When everyone said, 'I can't get cooks anymore,' those were not my issues." — Samuelsson

And adapt to the neighborhood you're in

"There's a lot of coded language—how do we take reservations, price point, all of that stuff. From day one, we had to change it in the middle of everything. A third of the restaurant can never be booked. It has to be walk in. If we had taken all the reservations, we would have been like any other restaurant—super fun and hip in the beginning, and then nowhere a few months after that." — Samuelsson

Believe in the power of training

"I’m a strong believer in training somebody. I have a girl I met at a supermarket; she said, 'Can I come work with you?' She’s been with me since day one. She had no culinary training. She actually did construction. Now, she's a sous chef. We just jelled together. I believe in training somebody. If you have a diamond in the rough, and if you spend the time and invest the time with somebody, you get a longer time with that person because you trained them." — Nina Compton