It is not often that people let go when they are the leader at the top or they own a business. But for Danish chef Bo Bech, who is renowned in Copenhagen for his cooking, his bread-baking and his charisma, that seemed to be the only option.
Having decided to close his Michelin star restaurant because he did not like the direction that the fine dining scene was taking, he decided to open the restaurant Geist in Copenhagen in 2011 to replace Paustian. Last year, he again made a drastic change, this time walking away from the restaurant and deciding to manage it from a distance. Here is someone who is not afraid of change.
Today Bo lives in New York and travels frequently and has delegated the management of the restaurant to his team though he is of course still very much informed of what is going on in the restaurant.
When he decided to let go he realised that he had become the bottleneck. “People would call to ask me if I was going to be at the restaurant. They wanted me to be there. Sometimes I would go for 14 consecutive days without taking a break and guests would make me feel guilty because I was not there. And I would feel as if I had disappointed guests. I said to myself why am I afraid to let go. I had been cooking for 25 years, I had helped people to grow and they were leaving. I said to myself, to hell with my ego, I need to let the members of the team shine. The result has been a huge success,” he said.
At the W Food Festival organised by Generation W in Namur earlier this week Bo Bech gave an inspirational presentation at the first event organised by the collective of chefs from Wallonia, the French speaking region of Belgium. He spoke about how he has managed to move to New York while at the same time managing and retaining a leadership role at his restaurant Geist.
“When you open a restaurant you cook every day and what you prepare disappears. You need to start afresh the next day. I had worked in fine dining for 8 years but I wanted a change because I got bored to be honest,” he said at the W Food Festival organised by Generation W in Namur earlier this week.
“With Geist, I looked to open something which people look for when they go out to eat in a restaurant. I always felt that a restaurant needs to have both a masculine and a feminine approach. The masculine approach is going to the restaurant because they serve the best fish. The feminine approach is going to the restaurant because it is cozy, comfortable or else has a great view. Of course there are men who approach visiting a restaurant in the ‘feminine’ way and vice versa women who are interested in having the best fish. I therefore wanted to create a cozy restaurant that served great food in a relaxed environment. The answer was Geist.”
He said that the approach at Geist is to put one ingredient on a pedestal. “We take an ingredient and we lift it up with one or two supporting actors. There needs to be a stranger and guests need to ask whether it can work together. There needs to be a bit of doubt.”
The restaurant serves between 150 and 200 covers a day which is a huge difference from his previous restaurant which served 10 tables a day. “We had to go from 10 to 70 employees. When you grow in that way you need to talk to people, you need to create leaders and you need to support them”
He said that his mentor always told him that the word restaurant came from restoration, it is the place where people go to get ‘restored’. “A chef is like the gas station and the guests are like the car. The challenge is not to get them into the gas station but rather that you need to remember to go out and get the fuel.”
“When I opened the restaurant, I quickly realised that it was impossible to man all the stations. Communication is the most complicated thing in your little world. It was not easy to communicate until we found a system which we use today.”
What Bo and his team have created is a complete system of openness and transparency which breaks boundaries and secrets using the technology that is ubiquitous today. “Knowledge is essential. You cannot have secrets or small tea clubs who try to act more important than others. What we do is use groups on Facebook or WhatsApp and Instagram so that everyone in the team can see everything. What is also great is that I can see who actually saw the messages. It is not about control but rather about being honest with each other. The challenge is to constantly learn so that you can improve each day,” he says.
“At first people used to sanitise their comments because they would be there for all to see but then things started to improve when you realise that honesty is the best approach. It also helps to simplify matters,” he said.
‘You would be amazed what transformation happens when you see the service from the point of view of the customer’
Another approach I have created is that each member of the team should visit the restaurant at least four times as a guest. “The problem in restaurants is that many never sit down and become customers themselves. We send people in pairs to dine at the restaurant. It could be a waiter together with a chef, or a manager with a trainee. They visit the restaurant as if they are guests, they arrive dressed up. You would be amazed what transformation happens when you see the service from the point of view of the customer.”
Bo said that one day he realised that male and female staff were completely different in their approach. “A man will want to create his version of a dish while a women will listen and make something which would make me proud. We started to hire more women and today we have gender balance and at times more women than men working in the restaurant. The result has been magical,” he says.
He moved to New York to create something new there (more about that story in a forthcoming article on Food and Wine Gazette) and it was there that he realised things were working. “In two years, four key people left the restaurant but we still managed to increase turnover by 18 per cent.”
Bo says that he learnt that the secret to managing a team is to trust them. “Every night I receive a report in a Whatsapp group from the kitchen team, I will also receive a report from the manager. We have another group which shares recipes. When someone is sick we ask who can help replace that person. Before it used to take us ages to find someone as we had to contact each person individually. Now we can communicate with everyone instantly.”
He jokingly says that some would say they had not seen the message ‘but we all know everyone is glued to their phones’. “So now we send the message in the form of a picture because this needs to be opened. And once its opened, its seen so there are no excuses,” he said.
Bo Bech puts the customers first and says the job in restaurants is to try and figure out what a guest wants. “We are ultimately there to serve the guests. We turn problems into solutions. And when the information flows fast, you eliminate frustration,” he says.
The lesson is that communication, transparency and an open approach can lead to great results. That’s the lesson that Bo has learnt managing from a distance.