Awesome Idea: Pig Roulette

How gamifying menu creation keeps Louis DiBiccari's kitchen engaged.

March 10, 2016 ● 5 min read

Louis DiBiccari is the chef-owner of Tavern Road and the adjoining lunch counter, TR Street Food, in Boston, MA. (Also, he is the best.)

When you're always cooking someone else's food, it doesn't matter how many menu changes there are. You still feel like you’re regurgitating the same stuff over and over again.  

I started at Sel de la Terre very young in my career, and spent 12 years with them. The longer I was there, the more it began to feel stagnant, but I really liked the restaurant and didn't want to leave. So I started looking for ways to keep myself engaged; I was aware of the things in the walk-in that needed to be used, so I'd make a to-use list and find a creative use for whatever was on there and bring it to the chef. I'd find myself on the train, thinking about what I was going to do off my station that night, and that's why I was always walking through the door with my hair on fire.    

Generally, the rule is: after a year, keep your eye on somebody, because they're probably starting to get the itch. So now I start to look around at Tavern Road, and everyone's been here for over a year. I can't have the whole restaurant turn over at once, so let’s start getting people motivated. Let's find new ways to make them a part of the process, give them more of a sense of ownership over what they do, give them a reason to think about what goes on in the restaurant and think about food even when they're not here.  

I already buy tons of books. I have this huge library at the restaurant; I use it, and I see them looking at it, but they're not applying that knowledge in any way. So the idea for pig roulette dawned on me the other day when I was fabricating a pig I got in. If I were to give them a simple homework assignment — here's a leg, here's a belly, here's loin — they could go back through those books and come up with something to run in the restaurant. Keep it in-line with our brand, keep it cost-effective, and figure out as a team how to time this so that we can preserve this whole pig and use it over the course of the next few weeks. You've got Sunday to think about it. 

They came back on Monday, and had it all worked out. Jackie said she'd do her dumplings first. Ses says he's going to do cannelone, and he can freeze his meat, grind it into a sausage and hold it that way. And then Adam says he's going to do a coppa, in a more traditional country ham style. He needs eight days to brine it, and then a day to smoke it, another day to dry it. Once it's smoked, it can hold as long as long as we need it to. Okay, great. Then Derek is doing pork bellies, pressé-style, which are confit, which means we can hold them indefinitely; there was a lot of strategy in how they broke it all down.    

Phase one and two of Pig Roulette: at left, Jackie's pork dumplings with bamboo-steamed smoky lemongrass broth, mushrooms, Thai basil, and chiles; at right, Ses's cannelone with spiced sausage, winter squash puree, and whipped ricotta. | Images courtesy of Louis DiBiccari on Instagram

We're in the middle of it right now, and what I'm seeing are the same things that got me stimulated back in the day — to that point where I really wanted to take on more of a leadership role and more of the creative element of what went on at Sel de la Terre. They're tasting each other on their dishes, and offering each other criticism very constructively. Everyone in the kitchen gets along really well, but to see them working on a different level other than just, can I help you prep your station, changes the dynamic a little. It brings them just a bit closer, and that's what you really want. That culture — if you can keep them in a culture where they really feel like it's a family — they don't want to walk out on it. The more you can find the team that makes that happen, the longer you're going to keep your cooks around, because the hardest thing to do is to leave a kitchen where you have a tight bond with a lot of people. That's what we're continuing to work towards.    

I'll see a cook at whoever's restaurant, and a couple months later a restaurant opens and I'll go check it out, and there's that same cook standing there in the new kitchen. You can't do that. You can't just jump around, because no one's ever going to take you seriously. You're not developing any kind of relationship with the restaurant, and if you don't have a relationship with the restaurant, your career's not going to grow. “What's on my prep list today” becomes very robotic after a while. But when it's coming from you? When you're conceptualizing it and worrying about it and thinking about how it's going to work, it encompasses everything you do. You start to think differently about how you manage your station, how you manage your time. You start to learn about kind of what kind of chef you're going to become later on. 

You can't just say, well, you know, the chef doesn't give me specials. Or he never asks me to do this, or that. No one's ever going to do that, because they didn't get to where they are that way. They got to where they are because they took control of their own career.

We hire smart people here for a reason. We want you to be thinking at all times. You're on your feet, you're moving. You have to be applying knowledge all the time. It's mandatory policy here that if you have an opinion, you offer it. If you have ideas, you're vocal about them. But, we're also not going to give you an extra day on the schedule to do your testing. This isn't El Bulli; we've got a very tight business with small margins to run, so you have to find time within your day where you can still operate this way. If you can do that, you can be a great sous chef, because that's what sous chefs do. They manage people, but mostly they manage time, and projects. 

Last night, I grabbed the board and said, "Guys, make a to-use list." And they went into the walk-in, and totally attacked it. If you can find a place where you can plant your feet, where you really believe in what the place is doing, you can always find ways to keep yourself stimulated and moving forward. You don't have to leave to make that happen. You can manage yourself into a situation where you are eligible to be a leader in that place. You just have to be creative about the way you go about what you do every single day.

As told to Cassandra Landry | Photo courtesy of Louis DiBiccari