My father started King Audio Visual ten years before I was born. I was a toddler playing with microphones, overhead projectors, and hanging out in a cluttered office with a bunch of technicians. I assisted with events in conventions centers and massive hotels in the Baltimore DC metro region before I had really even learned why such large aggregations of people were a boon to the companies who used our services. Some talents and techniques of the trade surely rubbed off on me while I grew up surrounded by those more experienced event professionals, but I didn't really understand many of the major aspects of what makes an event tick until after I started washing dishes and shucking oysters for a paycheck.
A chef and an event professional both work on the broader spectrum of the hospitality industry. We all serve at the whims of guests, and we're there to put a smile on their faces. However, the tensions felt in the events industry are normally sequestered to the run-up to event days rather than non-stop as in the kitchen. For me, those fast-paced, breakneck encounters at core of the kitchen experience have helped build integrity and a forward-moving, positive attitude in my approach to the stresses of event production. Here are a few lessons I learned.
Always Have Your Mise en Place -- Planning
The humble dishwashers, the efficient prep cooks, the soldierly line cooks, and the master chefs. They don't just "wing it" when dinner service comes around. They plan, and when the time comes, the kitchen brigade has every tool it needs to succeed. A kitchen doesn't operate without its mise en place. Those couple bites you take out of your table's appetizer can only happen because of many hours of multiple people planning and preparing for diners to arrive. The chef designed your dish's master plan, carefully decided on it preparation, sourced its ingredients from local farms, trained the prep cooks and line cooks on execution.
When diners arrive, the execution of every dish that gets sent out relies on line cooks having their mise en place, or all the pieces "put in place." After many, many hours of preparation and work from a whole crew of individuals, every ingredient and tool is within an arms reach, sorted, and ready to be used.
The key to a successful event isn't just a good, general idea of what's going to happen. It's not even in simply planning out the needs of an event. Success is a culmination of planning, expertise, organization, and grit. Audio visual technicians, for example live by the same type of mise en place. We set levels beforehand, diagram the flow of media, test, retest, and test again. Before that event starts, we have all the things we need. And then we have a backup of everything we might need should everything go wrong.
A Silent Kitchen is Never Good Thing -- Communication
Food would never make it to the dining room without the constant flow of kitchen lingo -- often a mixture of languages, humor, commands, cursing, and acknowledgement. Every chef knows that when their kitchen goes silent, something is wrong or about to go horribly wrong. Miscommunication from one person can bring down the entire line and grind a kitchen to a halt.
We all know about communication leading up to the event. Communication during the planning process is normally pretty smooth. When event begins, though, that's where communication truly gets tested. Here are a few basics of the kitchen that heavily influence how I approach communicating during my events:
- Answer with clear statements. "Yes." "No." "I don't know." Don't dodge someone's questions or requests. Don't try to over-explain something. All are sign that you don't know what you're doing or you don't want to be doing it, and all lead away from the answer they are looking for
- If you notice a problem, don't hide it. Be proactive in finding a solution or finding someone with a solution. Mistakes happen. Your client might not like that, but they definitely won't like a mistake that surprises them when you already knew about it. Own your mistakes and find a way to make it work and not happen again.
- Write everything down. Events and kitchens both run off of lists. Prep lists, set lists, orders, menus, whatever. Even the best of the best can forget. Writing it down is a proven way to bolster your memory even if you don't look at the list again.
- Have a sense of humor. Smiling is an incredibly important form of expression. It helps ease tensions, makes time fly, and builds relationships.
- There's always knowledge and experience you can offer to someone else and something that you can learn from them. Ask for help and offer help.
The Seasonal Menu -- There's Always Something New to Learn
As soon as you perfect your technique for that beautiful pea shoot risotto, pea shoots are out of season. It's time for a change. Move on. Stay positive. And get comfortable with whatever your chef throws your way.
In some ways, it's even more fast-paced in the events industry. We get a day or maybe two with most events. Venues change. Staff changes. Presenters change. The whims of our clients change. Some events throw curveballs on a minute by minute basis. If you hesitate to accept the change, something will go wrong. If you embrace the flux of events and learn from it, you'll grow rapidly in how you approach your entire business.
Weed-whackers -- Pushing Through
Every good cook knows what it's like to be "in the weeds," feeling so far behind that you'll never get out of it. It can happen on even the best nights. "Weed-whackers" are the people who embrace the challenge and help pull the line back from the brink of meltdown. Cooks experience the need to push through on a daily basis.
At large and small events, there's a palpable tension that can be felt once it starts. Even when it's going well, the line between success and failure is thin. Being able to push through, keep calm and communicative, and -- more important than all else -- keep everything moving even when mistakes happen is the sign of a professional.