Why The Chef Makes The Biscuits
And other meditations on leadership from Aaron Hoskins of Birds & Bubbles.
June 30, 2016
I didn’t grow up in the South. The only biscuits I ever knew rolled off the production line at Pillsbury.
My mother makes the best sausage gravy on the planet, but the biscuits were always something left to the can. I loved — and still love — covering those Pillsbury biscuits with the gravy my mother learned to make from my grandmother, in the cast iron skillet one inherited from the other. It makes me smile ear to ear just thinking about it. In all my years of cooking I still haven’t managed to duplicate it.
My memories of biscuits are tied so closely to that gravy that when I fell in love with The Biscuit, singular, it was a revelation. It wasn’t just flour, butter, buttermilk, salt, baking powder, and baking soda. It wasn’t just another thing to be covered in gravy. I fell not just for its fluffy perfection, but for what it stood for.
Biscuits are the perfect metaphor for what you do as a cook, and why you do it. They are so easy to screw up, to over-work, or under-season. They are a labor of love. The most important lesson I learned about the biscuits, though, was that the chef makes them.
At Birds & Bubbles, making the biscuits and frying the chicken are the two tasks usually reserved for the most trusted and senior cooks. The reason is because the kitchen lives and dies by the execution of its simplest items; teaching someone to care about something as simple as a biscuit gives you a good look into their work ethic, sense of pride, desire. Taking ownership of such an item and setting that example is a requirement of being a leader — and no one tells you that when you're learning to cook and moving up through the ranks.
I have personally failed at this more times than maybe I really want to admit. I’ve failed to be the the guy that shows up early and stays late. I’ve failed to be a good teacher. I’ve failed to stay organized or work as hard as the job required. There are still days, or weeks, where I feel like I’m failing the team because the example I’m setting isn’t good enough. Those are the days I find my faith at the Church of the Details and Simplicity. Those are the days when the biscuits remind me and my team why we're here.
You see this, over and over. Chef Alon Shaya still handles his legendary pitas. Chef Missy Robbins still gets down and dirty with her prep cooks cranking pasta. Chef Ryan Hardy works the pizza oven at Pasquale Jones. Being the person that not only is expected to make the biscuits but WANTS to make them is a clear indicator of how a chef values their job.
If the chef doesn’t make the biscuits, then the chef probably isn’t helping to deep clean the kitchen or hoods or scrub out the walk-in or help the porter run trash at the end of the night. They probably aren’t tasting every item on the line before service or staying after hours to help the sous chef detail the pots and pans.
A kitchen’s core values are set on the items that have the highest margin of error, be they the most or least complex. It’s those core values, that when skewed or lost, begin to break a place apart. There is a lot of pressure on the biscuit-person.
If the chef doesn’t make the biscuits, then who does?