Lettuce Life: Lessons in Leadership with Executive Chef/ Partner Janet Kirker
Welcome to Lettuce Life, a behind the scenes look at what makes Lettuce Entertain You special: our people. Meet Chef/ Partner Janet Kirker, who is one of the culinary geniuses behind restaurant brands including Beatrix, Beatrix Market, Foodease, who after six years at Lettuce Entertain You, now oversees a total of 5 restaurants, 3 of which opened within a 365 day period!
It’s more than tenure that makes someone a good leader and Chef Janet shares lessons she’s learned throughout her career from a passionate cook to an executive chef and partner.
“I could have gone in many different directions and would have done just fine. But the need for combining all types of experiences within the restaurant industry, I believe is what allowed me to grow into an executive chef position,” explains Chef Janet.
Here are Chef Janet’s lessons in leadership:
It’s the passion for what you do that is something you can’t teach.
“All I ever wanted to be was a chef. I was surrounded by a passion for food throughout my childhood. I had a cheesecake making business in high school and during my time at the University of Illinois, I worked for a local catering company to pay my way through school.”
Educate yourself as much as possible and embrace mentorship from those you admire.
“My decision to go to college and not straight to cooking school may seem unconventional for an aspiring chef. Getting this education taught me business skills. During my time in college, I worked for a local catering company and the owner taught me about the importance of starting from the bottom up – I started as a dishwasher and worked my way up.”
Have confidence in your craft, but never stop learning.
“The Culinary Institute of America (CIA) was the logical choice after U of I. I wanted to do fine dining because I loved beautiful, fancy food and I knew that I needed to understand the technical pieces to cooking.”
Chef Janet mastered her craft; she learned the techniques needed in the kitchen, when and why they worked, the history of cooking and more. Right out of culinary school, she landed a 14-hour cooking stage with famed Chef Charlie Trotter. At the end of the job at 2AM, he offered Janet her dream job.
In an industry that isn’t known for discipline, be disciplined.
Chef Charlie Trotter ran a tight kitchen. For Chef Janet, it was a blessing and a curse.
“When I look at the lessons that I’ve learned in my life, one thing that you need to be in order to be successful in this business is disciplined. I was lucky that right off the bat, there was discipline. There was no way around it and no excuse not to have it.”
Be open to trying new things.
Chef Janet’s career pulled her to the East Coast to join award-winning restaurateur Danny Meyer, founder of Union Square Hospitality, to open Tabla in New York City in 1998.
“To be a part of a restaurant opening is a critical moment in one’s career. Construction was not yet finished when I moved and I learned to understand what it takes to literally build a restaurant and a team from the ground up.”
At Tabla, Chef Janet worked alongside Executive Chef Floyd Cardoz.
“I learned so much about Indian culture with Chef Cardoz. I had the freedom to incorporate Indian spices into pastry, which fascinated me. Fast forward 15 years, and I’m in the test kitchen at Lettuce Entertain You doing a tasting for founder, Rich Melman and I decide to make Kulfi, an Indian ice cream dessert, and he loved it.”
To be a great manager, you must also be a great teacher.
As a chef instructor at the Chopping Block, one of the largest recreational cooking schools in Chicago, Chef Janet taught classes, planned curriculum, trained other chef instructors and really helped to grow the business.
“At Chopping Block, it occurred to me just how much teaching overlaps with being a good manager. To have constant interactions with people who always wanted to learn and to be constantly challenged to come up with new recipes, curriculum ideas… it was some of the most valuable times in my career.”
Team work really does make the dream work.
Chef Janet joined the Lettuce Entertain You team at Foodease and then went on to open Beatrix and Beatrix Market alongside her team of chefs and partners.
“So much of what we do and how we succeed depends on collaboration. Everyone on my team brings different ideas and what I’ve learned is that when we all work together we’re able to give our guests the best experience possible.”
Want more behind the scenes of life at Lettuce? Follow us @LettuceLife on Instagram for exclusive job postings, behind-the-scenes of restaurant openings, events and more.