When chef Phillip Frankland Lee and his wife and pastry chef Margarita Lee opened Scratch Bar & Kitchen in Encino, California, in 2015 they took a radical approach to service. They decided not to employ any front-of-house servers. Instead, they hired twice the usual number of cooks and had them serve the guests. The Lees’ move was a bold solution to the challenges of growing minimum wages and a deep divide between the front and back of the house.
Here are five reasons Phillip and Margarita reimagined the dining experience.
Cooks will earn a decent wage.
Phillip started as a dishwasher a decade ago and worked his way up as a cook, sous chef, and chef, so he’s well aware of the disparity in pay between the front and back of house. At the last iteration of Scratch Bar & Kitchen, and at the couple’s now-shuttered The Gadarene Swine, he implemented a service charge so he could evenly distribute the money to everyone in the restaurant.
His past restaurants have also had open kitchens, so chefs were already taking care of guests and running food. That’s what got Phillip thinking about employing his cooks as servers. That way he could have twice the kitchen staff, serve better food, and keep morale positive.
He admits this structure is more expensive than the traditional way of doing things because he pays cooks more than minimum wage. However, he says, “My return on investment is tenfold.”
The whole staff will work as one team.
At Scratch Bar & Kitchen, cooks take guests’ orders, make the dishes, interact with guests, and pitch in with cleaning—literally, they touch every aspect of the business. Phillip is passionate about building a culture that’s not about money, but about hard work with plenty of heart.
When cooks are the servers, there’s never a situation in which cooks are working 16 hours a day and servers show up for four hours at night. Instead, everyone works together as a single, cohesive team.
Passion comes first — then training.
We asked Phillip if he looked for anything different when hiring cooks for this new service model. Did he hire a different kind of cook knowing they’d be interacting with guests? He says no. As always, it’s the passion that matters most to him. Everything else can be taught.
To train the cooks to be servers, he asked some of his best servers from the past into the Scratch Bar & Kitchen for a few days before opening to show the cooks how to pour wine and speak to customers. And that’s about it. “I didn’t want a stuffy service staff,” he says. “I want my cooks to be cooks.”
Cooks get feedback and guests have a better experience.
The unusual style of service at Scratch Bar & Kitchen means that cooks have plenty of face time with guests. Phillip says cooks (including himself) really enjoy the validation of seeing first-hand how much a guest loves the food they made. “Cooks are so bogged down in the backroom in the dungeon. Now they get to go out there and get immediate validation for the 15 hours they just worked. All that does is give them more motivation to be better,” he says.
The cooks’ expert knowledge of the food and menu is an asset to diners. In addition to a set tasting menu, the restaurant offers an a la carte menu based entirely on the ingredients they have in the restaurant and what the guest is in the mood for. No one knows these ingredients better than the cooks who prepare them. If you come in asking for a salad, they might suggest one with the salmon and farmers’ market vegetables they just bought. If you love potatoes, they can incorporate those, too.
Who would you rather recommend a dish for you? “The guy making it or a part-time actor who’s there because there’s nothing else for them to do today? Absolutely no question,” says Phillip.