In an industry where longevity is an oxymoron and staffing is revolving door notorious, Executive Chef Michael Garbin, CEC, AAC, ACE, HGT, celebrated his double decade tenure at the Union League Club of Chicago this year.
He has had but one Thanksgiving off in twenty years, has a scholarship fund in his name and is quick to shrug off any mention of “writing a book”. We sat down with Chef Garbin to pay homage to his work and share his insights.
Having served dignitaries and celebrities, what VIP event made you the most nervous in your career?
CMG: Prior to coming to Chicago, the most pressure I ever felt was a Mobil 5 Star weekend long event. Absolutely everything had to be perfect. We worked from 5 a.m. to 11 p.m. each day, it was the highest anxiety I’ve ever felt. That is an example of where everything is heightened; you have to plan for what could, what might…if…you have to anticipate everything. I was extremely relieved when it was over.
Did you ever consider opening your own restaurant?
For many years, work always came first. But then at some point, I wanted to achieve more balance. When I came to the Union League, my son was five years old. Over time I was able to go see his football games in high school and college. I have an amazing boss and a great staff – we support each other.
Rick Bayless, Jimmy Bannos and other chefs get asked to do a lot more public events than me because I work in a private club. However, at the Union League Club we have our foundations and other special events that support our commitment to community and country which is the motto of the ULC.
Some of your staff have been with you almost as long as you’ve been here. Why do you think that is?
CMG: A couple of them have been here even longer than I. These people have evolved as long term quality members of our staff that can be counted on to meet our preparation standards with minimal direction. I have also left personal events to come in to help with a shift when I know we’re short-handed. If one of us needs something, we all pitch in.
When someone interviews for a job here, they come in and do a little work with us, so we can see if they’ll be a good fit. If my team feels they lacked enthusiasm for any task given to them, we usually don’t hire that person.
Having a great culinary team allows the guest to experience more when it comes to dining in the same location, different flavors, different presentations, different experiences, every time they dine.
Chef Garbin is equally devoted to education. He is on the ACF Certification Commission, an Accredited Certification Examiner and Trainer and President of the ACF Windy City Professional Culinarians. Garbin believes sharing his knowledge and that of his teams’ with young culinarians helps make them successful.
What is the best advice you can give to culinary arts students and new chefs?
CMG: It’s all about the ‘5 P’s’: Proper Planning Prevents Poor Performance – I learned it when I first started. Know what your customers like – not what you like.
What does it take to be a great chef today?
CMG: Education, certification and networking. Culinary school is just the beginning; it is the first step to become a culinarian.
Being a chef is so much bigger today; we can use tools for exposure, knowledge, and recognition. It wasn’t until 1974 or 5 that the Federal Government first made the recognition shift for chefs, from servant position to culinary professional.
Food shows, etc. have helped to bring the profession to the forefront but, young people have to realize it’s not at all like it is on TV. Some culinary students don’t understand they have to establish their ground game.
What do you mean exactly by, ‘ground game’?
CMG: You learn one way. You have to learn what the chef wants, how they want things done. You do this over and over again [learn one way] to build your expertise. This is how you develop your own personal technique and tastes to build your knowledge and ultimately apply for ACF certification to demonstrate your hard work.
Find the right environments to learn. Whoever you cook for, what you do and don’t do is why it’s so important.
What else do young chefs need to know?
I believe in the opportunity to train and educate my team to doing things a new way and making the effort to always make money for the bottom line. If I find a product or recipe that hits the mark, I carry it with me forward.
You also have to be honest with your local purveyors. Your food suppliers will take care of you, and you must treat them in kind. You can’t go from one vendor to another just because something is 10 cents a pound cheaper. Talk to them; what do they know? They can help you find alternatives to use.
Young culinarians need to be exposed to these kinds of things. They need to find a chef who’ll mentor them.