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When Seven Chefs Run The Restaurant Kitchen

Meghan Lee is the owner of Heirloom restaurant in Lewes, Delaware. When she parted ways with the restaurant’s executive chef in July 2021, Lee opted not to replace him. Instead, she delegated those responsibilities to the seven-member kitchen staff, who now cook, plan, and manage the kitchen as a collective in collaboration with Lee.

When our chef departed, it never occurred to me to find someone to replace my team. I knew even though we were in the middle of the summer—the height of our season—they were used to the routine. They had been with me anywhere from two and a half to five and a half years by then.

I was very open with them. I sat them all down and was like, “He is no longer with us. As a group, we can start to interview and bring in a new executive chef. Or I can turn to you guys, and we can do this together.” Some of them had these terrified looks on their faces, and some were just like, “Let’s do it. We know this kitchen like the backs of our hands. We know this menu. We know our guests. We know how to do everything. If you give us your support, we’ll do it.” It was a Sunday afternoon, and we were all sitting at our farm table. I had knots in my stomach, but there was never this sense of doubt. It was just so natural, and it was the right decision.

Our first couple of weeks of making sure everybody was on the same page was a little hard. But we instantly set up these biweekly meetings. Also, with the chef’s departure, I dropped down to five days a week. We were grinding at this seven day week in the middle of the summer, and I ended up calling up the next month’s reservations for Sunday and Monday and rerouting them all to a different day, because I could foresee that we were going to burn out really quick. If I didn’t make a quick business decision, everything was going to fall apart.

The Heirloom kitchen staff. Top row, from left: Frank Bruffey, Ben Soyka, Tommy Heffernan, Asher Truitt. Bottom row, from left: Beau Fazio, Maira Young, Rachel Diener. Photo: Courtesy Meghan Lee.

So that was my deal to the team as well. It was like, “Okay, you guys are going to run the kitchen. In return, we’re all going to have two days off. We’re all going to get our mental health back together.” In hindsight, it was the most intense decision I’ve made to date. But what I got in return was a group—there’s seven of them, all in their twenties—that are more creative, more ambitious, and more hard working. They’re more vocal.

Everybody got a raise. When I flipped everything, I reevaluated everybody and where they stood. A lot of them are still on their parents’ health insurance because they’re so young. Two have individual policies, and I give them money to apply to their monthly bill. There were more group excursions. When we closed for the pandemic, I fundraised a ton of money, and that money went directly to them. I was giving them extra projects to do. We were closed, but if they wanted to help me power wash the patio and paint stuff, I was giving them cash to do stuff like that to keep them around.

Even before all this, I had been cross-training staff since day one—since I opened my doors. I feel like jobs gets done faster, quicker, more efficiently if you don’t have to, say, find someone who can seat guests. The kitchen knows all the table numbers. When we have wine dinners, everybody runs food. I just felt like there were so many places I had worked in where someone’s like, “Well, I don’t know how to do that.” I never wanted that option here. I never wanted to say the words “I can’t” or “I don’t know.” Those words don’t exist.

For me, it’s worth the investment to teach my crew how to do everything and not have to backtrack in the moment, because restaurants are so fast, and decisions have to be made so fast. I have bussers that plate cheese boards. I mean, they’re like 15, 16 years old. In that instant, those 30 seconds can save 10 minutes.

Heirloom restaurant owner Meghan Lee. Photo: Courtesy Meghan Lee.

Some things have actually gotten more organized in the new arrangement. I was writing the back of house kitchen schedule before, and I no longer have to do that. Some orders would get in on time, some wouldn’t. We tightened everything. But nothing changed. It was just that my one go-to person became my seven go-to people. I still have those natural leaders in the kitchen. When I know I need something done efficiently and fast and immediately, I go to those top one, two, or three people.

As opposed to one chef testing last dishes and expediting, we created a shift in the kitchen, and we continue to rotate. We do it every couple of months. We just closed in January for a couple of weeks and I shifted everybody. So not only are they relearning and restocking a station, they’re changing it up for themselves. Ben moved on to fish, where he hadn’t worked sautee in our kitchen yet. So we put him on fish. Rachel moved back over to cheese and charcuterie. Maira, who’s one of the quietest people. I put her on XO. So she now has to call the tickets and run the pace of the line. She’s a redhead, and she gets so bright red. And I’m like, “Maira, where’s this ticket?” And she’s like, “Argh!” She’s fine. It’s nothing she can’t handle.

I’ve thought about losing people all the time. What if they choose to move on and grow in a different capacity? I’m okay with that. Obviously, I’ll do anything I can to keep them. But that’s why I’m always trying to keep them on their toes, like flying them to Charleston, and taking them to tasting-menu dinners in DC and Philly. I’m trying to keep them young and vibrant and alive. At the end of the day, I’m more comfortable now. I’m not afraid of that transition. I think I’ve been through the worst of it. But I’ll just cross that bridge when I come to it.

When we do group meetings, we set the tone before the meeting of what we’re bringing to the table. At today’s meeting, we knew what we were talking about prior to sitting down. We have another meeting on Friday, and we’ve set our itinerary of brainstorming and recipes and new dishes already. So they already know that in the next couple of days, this is what I have to research, this is what I have to work on, and this is what we have to do to move forward.

We’re in a group text, so there’s constant communication. We have a group Instagram where we’re always sending different pictures and inspirations and cookbooks. I try not to send anything on Sunday and Monday. I try to let them do their own thing with their girlfriends and boyfriends and not bother them. Once Tuesday hits, it’s a flood of texts and meetings and communication. Then it tapers off, and we go back.

I still get a lot of reactions from guests who aren’t aware of what we’ve been doing. My regulars are in the know, but people that are still discovering us or are coming from DC or Philly are like, “Oh, who’s your executive chef?” And I’m like, “Well, we have seven, and we’re running a group kitchen.”

I don’t think this would be possible everywhere. You’ve got to know what culture you want to create, and know your team. It works here because I know these kids, and I know their capabilities. I put the time in. We’re on year six. I’m here every single day for every service. I’m mentally here, physically here, emotionally here. I can only speak for myself, being a crazy restaurant owner, but if they’re willing to do the same—that’s a special kind of crazy, in a good way.

I just had a guy from Long Island, he was down visiting a son, and he was like, “I need to know everything right now. I am blown away by what just happened at our table. Have you been in the kitchen? Do you cook? How do all these seven people figure it out?” I was just laughing. It’s a fun story to tell. He was like, “I worked in country clubs for 30 years. This would have never worked.” And I was like, “You’re right. It might not ever work in another restaurant, but in this one it works.”