How a Brigade-free Kitchen Works at Houston’s The Pass & Provisions
Several years ago, when a chef asked a group of stages at The Fat Duck if anyone was also interested in learning pastry, only Seth Siegel-Gardner raised his hand. That willingness to branch out resulted in his getting to spend significantly more time working hands-on in the kitchen than his single-minded peers, and the experience informs the division of labor (or lack thereof) at The Pass & Provisions, the dual-concept restaurant in Houston Siegel-Gardner owns and operates with co-chef/partner Terrence Gallivan.
While restaurants like Atlanta’s Gunshow and Chicago’s Schwa have eliminated the division between the front and back of house, at The Pass & Provisions, Siegel-Gardner and Gallivan completely break down the barriers within the kitchen. There is no brigade; no pastry chef, or even separation between sweet and savory.
“We get people to move around the kitchen as much as possible,” says Siegel-Gardner of how he and Gallivan organize their employees at both the casual Provisions and the fine dining, tasting-menu-only Pass. They envision their collaboration as a teaching space, incorporating both Gallivan’s culinary-school-style education and Siegel-Gardner’s learn-it-on-the-line background. It’s a system that offers employees a holistic view of kitchen life they say helps them weather the current employment landscape and economy (“For most kitchens to be successful, they’re running under-staffed,” Siegel-Gardner notes.)
Siegel-Gardner says they aim to first find good people with focus and then figure out where to put them. “Their personality and motivation are more important than their skills,” he explains, adding that even if they do find someone who comes out of culinary school raring to tweeze microgreens onto a plate on the fine-dining side, that cook will first be put to the test cooking a Saturday night at the pasta station.
“We’re giving them a pretty serious glimpse of reality. We don’t have a formula for having it all figured out, but we’re giving people a better look at what to expect. They’re not getting it at culinary schools, and no way they’re getting it on television.”—Seth Siegel-Gardner
The duo makes sure that any staff member who expresses interest in another kitchen station learns those ropes. Because the system is so informal, they have had surprise successes, like finding their most consistent and talented bread baker in the dish-pit. But Siegel-Gardner says they sometimes need to push people, particularly sous chefs. “When a cook doesn’t show up for work, [the sous chefs] need to know how to make the anglaise and get the cakes going.”
That savory/sweet crossover is evidenced on the menu; a lot of the desserts involve techniques traditionally used in vegetables and other savory ingredients, creating a symbiotic relationship of the sweet and savory sides of the menu (and increasing dessert sales), and echoing Siegel-Gardner’s experience at The Fat Duck. “Anybody who looks down on pastry is stupid,” he says. “An important part of a complete meal is dessert that makes sense.”
The system helps them attract cooks. “Employee retention is one of the hardest parts of the business right now,” Siegel-Gardner adds, but for people who buy into their program, the ability to move around the kitchen and learn is a draw, creating on-the-job-training for people who don’t necessarily know yet what their passion or career will be. It also benefits cooks who are serious about the industry and eager to stay in it, giving them a stepping-stone for managerial roles. “We’ve had some people who started in savory and ended up in pastry or got passionate about bread-baking,” Siegel-Gardner says. “There are people we pushed into head bartender roles who ended up as spirit ambassadors or, on the wine side, became sommeliers.”
The fast pace and constant introduction of new skills aren’t for everyone, and Siegel-Gardner and Gallivan recognize that it’s driven people out of their kitchen—and even the industry. But they believe they’re helping to train the next generation. “We’re giving them a pretty serious glimpse of reality,” Siegel-Gardner says. “We don’t have a formula for having it all figured out, but we’re giving people a better look at what to expect. They’re not getting it at culinary schools, and no way they’re getting it on television.”
Find out more from Kevin Gillespie about the service model at Gunshow in this interview.