At the Food & Wine Classic in Aspen, chefs and restaurateurs talked strategies for making their staff feel safe, valued, and healthy. 

Amex panel healthy kitchen culture

At a tense Food & Wine Classic in Aspen panel hosted by F&W Editor-in-Chief Hunter Lewis, during which Gabrielle Hamilton defended her choice to partner with Ken Friedman at The Spotted Pig, the chef and restaurateur panelists—including Hugh Acheson, Will Guidara, and Traci Des Jardins—discussed how they are working to improve the kitchen culture at their respective restaurants.

After the conversation shifted ever-so-slightly away from the controversy surrounding Hamilton, Guidara emphasized that positive reinforcement is the key to making his staff feel that they are respected.

“It’s the simplest things that have the most impact,” he said. “You might think that we are the coolest people out there, but we love being told that we are doing a good job. You have to spend just as much time telling people they are doing a good job.”

Staff retention was a major theme at the panel, as staff turnover continues to be an issue in the hospitality industry. The panelists admitted that they have all struggled to figure out how to create a space where waiters, dishwashers, chefs, and hosts alike want work there long-term.

“I think it’s a three-part thing: You need to make sure that people are compensated well, that people are cared for, and that people have enough creativity and autonomy in their roles, that they get to exercise their creative muscles, because if you’re just doing the same thing and you’re just following someone else’s playbook all the time, that stops being rewarding,” said Guidara.

At his restaurants, Acheson has found that simply talking to his employees—both current and former—and taking on the role of mentor, is crucial.

“You have to thank them for their time, become their mentor. You have to answer the phone when they are having trouble opening their place,” he said. “You have to support your people whether they work for you or not.”

Acheson hopes that in his restaurants, every staffer in every role, has room for growth. He thinks that an ever-evolving learning process is what makes his employees stay engaged and happy at work.

“Endow them with a sense of purpose, even if it's moving cheeses,” he said. “I want that person to be learning everything about that. We have to endow our places of work with a sense of curiosity. If people don’t learn, they don’t want to stick around.”

Though those challenges can be daunting, and chefs across the industry are still striving to make concrete, practical solutions to improve the working environment at restaurants, Guidara reminded the audience that the passion he and his colleagues have for restaurants and food should always be at the center of their work.

“I love what we do for a living,” he said. “Let’s stop focusing on what makes our businesses so hard, and start focusing on why it’s so awesome. We’re blessed to get to do this everyday.”

The conversation on healthy restaurant cultured filed a tense conversation that focused on Gabrielle Hamilton's controversial decision to partner with Ken Friedman, who was been accused of sexual harassment by two dozen employees in December. (He has denied the allegations, which were reported in the New York Times.)

"We might lose a lot of people, a lot of friends. I understand. What we don’t share, it seems with ... many women—we don’t share a bloodlust," she said at the panel. "I am prepared to go forward proudly."