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Leading by Inclusion: 10 Tools You’ll Need in and out of the Kitchen
Chef Joshua Karther of Water's Edge at Hyatt Lodge talks about his passion for the restaurant industry and the lessons he's learned about leadership. He shares the changes he's noticing in the kitchen environment and how management should adjust, and the importance of portion control and food waste.
- People are more conscious about what they’re eating and where their food’s coming from. They are trying to have a more healthy health and wellness lifestyle.
- A good leader will make others feel cherished and valued. Effective leaders will also emphasize the importance of teamwork and collaboration during stressful situations.
- The more you listen, the more you’re going to understand what your guests are asking for, the more you’re going to understand what your team is looking for in leadership, and the more you’re going to understand any of the concerns in both of those areas.
Joshua Karther: I see the change coming very swiftly. Chefs and managers are either going to be on board with that, or they're not going to have any staff to work with.
Matt Levin: Inspirational stories, actionable business tips, and real-world strategies. Join us as today's guest shares how you can make your business more resilient in an unpredictable world.
Hi everyone. I'm Matt Levin and you're listening to The Resilient Restaurant podcast. Today, I'm joined by Chef Joshua Karther of Water's Edge at Hyatt Lodge. We discussed his passion for the restaurant industry, the lesson he's learned about leadership, changes he's noticing in the kitchen environment and how management should adjust, and the importance of portion control and food waste.
Journey from Concession Stand to Head Chef
Matt Levin: Joshua, thank you so much for joining us today.
Joshua Karther: Thank you very much for having me. I'm really excited to be here.
Matt Levin: To get us started, can you tell us a little bit more about your background and what you're doing currently?
Joshua Karther: You know, my background, I really started very young. This is honestly probably the only industry I've ever known.
I started off working in fast food when I was 16. And actually, even before that, I was working at a skate center at the concession stand when I was 14, in Missouri. As I was going through my high school time, my junior, senior year, I went to a vocational school half the day and that vocational school was a culinary program. And I did it so I could get out of school half the day but I fell in love with the idea of culinary and what this industry brought and just basically constantly on the move. So that's really what started my love for the industry.
From there, I just really worked through the ranks. I went from the fast-food restaurant to another small, diner-type place where I was a dishwasher and busboy. And then from there, transferred to a busy hotel kitchen at an airport in Kansas City, Missouri and really just worked my way through the ranks. I traveled a bit to South Carolina, San Antonio, and ultimately here in Oak Brook, Illinois.
Every time an opportunity arose and somebody gave me a chance for a promotion, I really worked to make sure that that person never regretted the chance they took on me and also that I was continuing to learn every step of the way from not just my supervisors, but also from my peers that I worked alongside with.
As you've traveled around the country a little bit, or worked from hotels to restaurants, to a diner and even a private club, you come around different ethnicities, different backgrounds. And there's just so much depth of knowledge you can gain from people through food and just experiencing their culture through food. And it's just something that I really enjoyed and loved every step of the way.
Prioritizing Health and Portion Control
Matt Levin: So you're a complete hospitality industry lifer and I think that, of course, gives you a ton of perspective. If you look over your time, looking across the industry, what have been the biggest changes in the way that the hospitality industry has operated from when you were just starting out to now?
Joshua Karther: I would say the biggest change is probably health-conscious menu items or even portion control. When I first started coming into the industry, especially at the fast food places or the diner, it was all about filling the plate. You didn't want any space on the plate, you would cover it. Seeing that and then fast-forwarding to where we are now, people are more conscious about what they're eating, where their food's coming from, just basically trying to have a more healthy health and wellness lifestyle. It's really cool to see because what we were doing when I first came into the industry, it wasn't healthy by any means.
Learning to Listen
Matt Levin: If you look internally and you think about your own changes, what have been the biggest lessons that you've learned or changes that you've made in terms of your own way you operate, as you've matured from, the 14-year-old at the skate park to the head chef now?
Joshua Karther: It's been crazy. And in all honesty, when I look back, I could wring my own neck for how I led the operations before. When you first come into industry, there's a pride factor, for sure, when you get certain promotions because you work really hard and, like I said, you had people that took a chance.
I took my first supervisor position when I was still in high school at a hotel kitchen. And then from there, I got my first chef position before I was 21. And there was a lot of immaturity and ego and pride there. And you forget that the people that are working with you, alongside you, in the trenches, you forget that they're there with you and you start thinking that they're there for you.
And there was a lot of mistakes I made in how I treated people and talked down to people and just would get offended super fast. Because at the time, "I'm the supervisor," or "I'm the chef," was my mentality, and you don't talk to me like this or question, that kind of thing. And that was also what I experienced myself with my own leaders.
But as I was continuing to grow, I started looking at myself internally and I started looking at what I was experiencing. And I was, I would say, probably mid-twenties. I would ask myself, "Is this what people really feel when I lash out in stressful moments?" And I had based that off of what chefs and managers did with me during the stressful times. So I would say as I started really getting into my late twenties, early thirties, that's really when it started hitting me more and more of, you know, there's a whole different leadership style that I need to adopt and adapt.
And looking at that, what I would say that transitioned to is leading by inclusion. So it's not always about me. And even to this day, I don't have my title on my jacket because I don't need it. I lead with my voice, and what I mean by that is my team knows that I'm there for them, that I am there no matter what challenges are going on. I'm going to support them through all the ups and downs. That when they make a mistake, I don't look at it as a mistake. I look at it as an opportunity for them to learn and grow, for myself as a leader to learn and grow.
One common thing that I like to tell my staff now is — and not just tell them, but I try to practice as much as possible — that there's so many talents, like I mentioned earlier, and ethnicities and cultures that I want to cherish every person that comes in and what they bring to the team, as opposed to using those talents for the benefit of myself or even just our operation.
As you probably heard, I call them my team because I don't call them my cooks or my dishwashers. We're all a team. We're all a family. We put in so many hours together and we're able to really pull off some miraculous events with the limited staffing we have.
So it's very important that everybody feels like they're cherished from me in everything that they bring to the table — whether it's just sorting silverware, washing dishes, prepping all our food, cooking everything, plating everything — from every step of the way before it gets to our guests, it's all a family that's involved with that, every aspect of that. My goal nowadays is just making sure that everybody feels that.
And even when people are starting to feel some of the stresses from just time management and just the amount of workload that we have, my goal now isn't about pushing people to get things done. It's about letting them know, "Hey, you know what? We're doing our best and I'm right here with you. We're going to do our best at the end of the day. That's all we can do," and when people hear that from me and they see the look in my eyes that I mean it, then that really calms them down and it really boosts their morale in the stressful environments.
And I always say that's probably the biggest thing that I've adapted over the years and honed in on. And it's not something I really experienced much in my career. I've had a few really good examples, but for the most part, the majority of people I've come across that was not the way they led.
And I've been really excited to hear the feedback from the team of how they have felt by these interactions and how they've also mentioned that they've never had a leader treat them the way that they're being treated here. That really pulls at my heartstrings pretty good, because that tells me that what I've tried to accomplish over the years and what I've adapted over the years, that it's all in the right pathway and I can continue to go down that path with everybody.
Matt Levin: It's a really interesting transition, right? It's like, we typically reflect the environment that we're raised in, right? And you've made, it sounds like, a really conscious decision anyways, to not reflect that kind of environment and the way that you were treated or you experienced, you said, you don't want to create that environment. I think it's a really hard thing to do, and it also strikes me as somewhat unusual and particularly in the restaurant industry.
Do you feel like that transition that you've gone on, that change, is that just becoming more common of your fellow chefs and operators, or do you feel like you're a bit of an outlier?
Joshua Karther: I feel like over the past years it was slowly showing up, as the older mentality is not necessarily going to be accepted going forward. And I would honestly say that I still feel that I'm somewhat of an outlier with it. However, I see the change coming very swiftly and chefs and managers are either going to be on board with that, or they're not going to have any staff to work with.
And I say that because a lot of generations that are coming up right now, they're not going to put up with it. I would say right before pandemic, where I saw people come in — not necessarily in my own department, but in different areas — they would come in and have a few rough conversations with some leadership and they're like, "Yeah, this isn't worth it I'm going to go somewhere else and do a different industry. This isn't for me."
If leaders don't start adapting to that sooner than later, then they're definitely going to find out that they're not going to have staff to work with because people just aren't going to put up with it.
Collaborative Redirection over Discipline
Matt Levin: It's hard to have this duality of how do you maintain discipline and high standards and have tough conversations where maybe someone isn't performing, and yet at the same time be also a welcoming, trusted, safe place to work? You have any particular tips or techniques that you've found have worked for you within the hospitality industry for managing that?
Joshua Karther: The biggest thing that I would probably say is leading the conversation, when you have to have those rough conversations, to where it's more self-realization as opposed to me telling somebody, "You messed up on A, B or C," it's really about asking the right open-ended questions like, "You know, what happened with this? Can you tell me about it?" And, "What were your thoughts?"
But let's say it's a food order, right? "If this was what you received, and this is what you paid," or if it's handling a certain situation in the kitchen it's, "I understand that you were bothered by whatever happened. How can you handle on your end differently? Do you understand where the other person was coming from?"
Because now everybody's so quick to respond. It's like, they're only listening to each other just for a break so they can respond right back with something else. Nobody's listening to understand each other. When I present some of those questions and ask them, "So do you think you understand where they were coming from or this situation?" And I keep pressing that.
In the beginning of those conversations, your typical response is going to be, "Oh, but this person or this expectation was unrealistic." I'm like, "Okay, but let's look past that and what can you do differently?" And trying to create those kinds of questions for somebody to look internally at their own actions and say, "Oh, you know what, maybe I could have done this differently."
And then at that point, it's really more about them taking the ownership, which took some time to get to lead them to that. But instead of me coming right off the bat, that's going to produce somebody that's on the defense right away.
So I like to ask more of the questions and it's really cool, too, because as I'm asking the questions and they're responding, they're slowly, slowly breaking down their barrier that they've already put up because there's already a certain expectation of how that conversation's going to go. And when that conversation is not going with what they expect in a direct manner from myself, then that's when those walls are slowly coming down.
And then I'm able to bring up more questions based on how I see that conversation going. Sometimes it's the same questions, it's just rephrased differently. Feel that the biggest way is just by asking the open-ended questions and trying to get people to have that self-realization.
Shift in Restaurant Staff Priorities
Matt Levin: If you look to the future of the way people think about jobs in the hospitality industry, and you've hinted at this a little bit, do you think the profile of who works in a restaurant is changing and is going to change? Either by changes in the industry that are happening or COVID or pandemic-induced changes?
Joshua Karther: I think so. I think they're going to see people that are going to come into the industry, that their motivations are definitely going to be different. Like some might be money-motivated, we've always had them and we're going to continue to get those guys through, but others, I feel, that we're going to get are the ones that really have a passion for it and not so much just do it just for a paycheck. I think that we're probably going to see more of that.
It's going to be less. I feel like we're going to have less staffing than any of us are used to, which will in turn, force us to adjust our menus quite a bit and streamline a little bit. But I feel like the staff, the teammates that we're going to have are definitely going to be ones that are really more focused on what we're doing and have that passion.
And then also what they're going to be doing, as well, is they're going to look for that balance. We're not going to be able to have an expectation of, "This is when you need to be here. We're not going to be flexible on scheduling. Plan on every holiday weekend working," where that's not something that we're going to be able to do going forward as well. So people are going to be coming in and expecting to have some sort of a balance as well. And that's not something that was really expected in the past.
Consumers Expect Pre-COVID Prices
Matt Levin: Have you noticed a change in consumer behavior and what do you is going to happen there? Do you think it's going to change or you think this is the new normal?
Joshua Karther: My hope is that it's going to change. However, I feel like it's going to be the new normal, at least for a while. People are just more irritable. It's everywhere and you don't necessarily see it too much in the restaurants, but I still feel like there's a lot of restaurants to this time right now that are closing their doors again for indoor dining in different areas. And so they're going just the takeout method.
But I feel that as we go forward, the expectations are going to be super high, but what people want to pay is going to be super low. I think our consumers in general are tired of hearing anything about COVID, even though they want to be safe with COVID. They're tired of hearing about COVID for staffing challenges, product challenges, supply chain issues. They don't want to hear any of that. They just want what they want and they want to pay what they paid a few years ago.
And I'm hopeful that that's going to adjust, but it's been a struggle every step of the way right now as we're continuing to build business back. And we constantly get groups in here from years ago that want the same pricing they had years ago.
And just one really quick example, some of our protein items, like steaks and stuff, have gone up over 100% in just one to two months, let alone how much it's gone up in the past few years. And that's just crazy to try to stay on top of.
The other thing that I think is going to probably suffer a little bit longer than everything else would be fine dining. Everybody wants to get out, but again, they don't necessarily want to pay that premium to do so. And I think people are going to be more self-conscious about what they're spending, because there's just so much uncertainty for the future, too, everywhere.
Matt Levin: Have you had to make any changes to your ordering practices and how you're thinking about your supply chain? Given the fact that we've got, of course, labor shortage challenges, and we've had crazy supply-chain issues, around particularly fish and meat, and managing those costs, what have you ended up doing to react and adapt?
Joshua Karther: That's just looking at the amount of different suppliers that we would get product from. For example, we would have three different cheese suppliers in the past. So now what we've done is we've just streamlined that just to order from our master food distributor that we have in the Chicagoland area.
The more and more that we've stopped ordering specialty products from certain suppliers and tried to just simplify things, especially simplifying our menus, we're able to order less from one supplier. It definitely decreases the carbon footprint because you're getting it from one supplier as opposed to multiple trucks coming out. But then also what that does is that gives us more of a discount in pricing. And then at the end of a year, or twice a year actually, we also get food credits by having our purchases increase. And they increased because we stopped ordering from so many different suppliers and we're trying to streamline it into one or just a few.
So that's been our biggest change for supply orderings.
Matt Levin: Do you think that a more cautious approach and a more consolidated approach that you've described, do you think that will change? Do you think it's like, okay, once everyone gets some comfort, that the world is back to normal and we've worked out supply chain issues? Or do you think that there's going to be a permanent change how people think about risks, just knowing that prices could spike and things could happen and there just could be this crazy existential crisis? Do you think that eventually the industry will let its guard down a little bit?
Joshua Karther: I don't think so, but that's also because we were already on a trend of monitoring food waste, just to be environmentally sustainable. We're a Hyatt hotel and we transitioned to Davidson Hotels about a year ago. So both companies have been really focused on waste management. And so I think that's definitely going to be something that will continue to be a strong push forward to make sure that we are minimizing food waste as much as possible and trying to really maximize the products we get in.
The challenge right now is definitely still trying to balance out labor shortage, too. Just really trying to butcher our own meats as opposed to ordering pre-cut steaks or chicken or seafood, trying to do our own butchering here on property and just maximizing everything that's in there. Now that we're really throwing in the cost of everything and really trying to watch that, we're really making sure that we're maximizing every possible ingredient that we have.
Advice to Chefs, Operators
Matt Levin: If you were to give one piece of advice and you could only give one thing to somebody, a fellow chef or operator, about how to be a successful restaurant operator, what would that advice be?
Joshua Karther: Honestly, that advice would definitely be just to listen. Listening is not as strong trait in our culture right now. And the more you listen, the more you're going to understand what your guests are asking for, the more you're going to understand what your team is looking for in leadership, and the more you're going to understand any of the concerns in both of those areas, but you just got to listen, that's for sure.
I've witnessed many times in my career, a lot of restaurant owners or even chefs in hotel kitchens and so on, they'll come in and they have what they feel is the best idea in the world, that they will not adapt. And next thing you know, they're not there, the restaurant's not there because they didn't want to listen to what people were really looking for. Or they found where people might've been looking for, but they wouldn't listen to their team and what their team was trying to bring to the table, and their team felt uncherished and not listened to and disrespected, so then they would get up and leave.
And so I think the biggest advice would just be to listen. It's a learned trait too, because we're so used to being on the go and rushing and just constantly moving. But when we can give ourselves and give the community around us a moment for us just to stop and listen and absorb what's being said, then we can really prep, then we can take the time to process. And those results can come out so much better when we can do that.
Matt Levin: Joshua, thank you so much for joining us today. Your insights on your journey and evolution as a leader have been really valuable.
Joshua Karther: Thanks, Matt. I really appreciate the opportunity and I just hope my passions came through. I really hope to make sure I convey all that. And I really appreciate the opportunity, again. Thank you so much.
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This podcast was produced and edited by MarketMan. Music by Joseph McDade.