Dear Food Fanatic

Seasoned advice on the front and back of the house

Q: The owner of the restaurant where I'm the chef keeps trying to dumb down my menu, telling me I need to do more with chicken tenders or he’ll kick my (expletive) out the door. How can I keep my dignity and my job?

A: Ah, we’ve all been there. Nothing hurts more than an owner with great business sense, but no kitchen creativity. That’s where the magic of a daily special comes in handy. Here, you can play around with seasonal items, divert from your usual offerings and flex your culinary muscles—while giving a subtle jab to your boss. Before you get too power hungry, just don’t forget who signs your paychecks.

Q: Everything is so friggin' expensive these days! Between labor costs and the rising price of commodities, keeping food costs low is choking my bottom line. How can I get a handle on my food costs?

A: You can boost sales and stay thrifty by working with under-utilized cuts of meat that require a little extra love, such as pork shoulder, beef brisket and lamb shank. Not only do these cuts often cost less, they're  trendy ingredients that are perfect for this time of year. Also consider whole animals, such as chicken, and use every part (even the carcass for stock).

Q: My business is seasonal—and booming—but because of this ebb and flow, I can never find enough good cooks. What can I do about this?

A: During seasonal turnover, look to recent culinary graduates for a steady supply of eager, unemployed cooks fresh on the market. Social media sites are also great for getting the word out about job openings. Consider Twitter, where shout-outs from local publications can help your listing travel faster. And if you’re still without an extra pair of hands, pre-packaged goods provide an easy shortcut; stocks, stuffed pastas, par baked breads and quality-made desserts can help expedite your line.

Q: What’s up with cooks and bad habits? How can I get across the way I want them to hold down their station?

A: Sometimes, young cooks aren’t shown the importance of keeping a clean station or using a spatula to get every last drop of dressing out of a mixing bowl. As the chef, you must mentor—repeatedly. Make sure you show your cooks how you want things done. Don’t assume. And remember to catch them doing things right every now and then—and acknowledge it.

Q: Eco-guilt is getting the best of me. What are some ways for us to be more sustainable and earth-friendly without costing an arm and a leg?

A: Think baby steps—you don’t have to implement measures all at once. The easy ones include recycling cans and bottles, changing lighting to the energy-efficient variety and installing switches that turn off lights to the walk-in when employees walk out. Seek earth-friendly cleaning supplies and take-out containers made of recycled paper products. To relieve landfills of plastic bottles and to add some cachet to your restaurant, install a water filter and serve your brand of water out of carafes.

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Email challenges, comments and suggestions to ask@foodfanatics.com. Follow Chef Todd Pearson, our Austin, Texas-based US Foods Food Fanatic, for all things culinary and foodservice related.