5 lessons about money you can only learn from a Chef

In a past life, I cooked professionally in a few of Atlanta’s popular restaurants and luxury hotels. Its a tough gig and honestly, one I don’t miss. The stretch of time between 2002 and 2008 was, by far, one of the most challenging times of my life as I sought to strike a balance between going to school full-time during the day, being a student leader and cooking full-time in the late evenings.  It sucked, but there are lessons learned from my days in a kitchen that I still use and benefit from today. Here are a few that come to mind-

1. Mise en place (pronounced meez ohn plahs)

Commonly referred to as “mise“, this is the underlying religion of chefs who view mise as a way of life. Mise en place translates to “everything in its place” in French and is a reference to ruthlessly organizing your ingredients, tools and surroundings before cooking. This means that you have everything you need ready to-go and prepared so that you can effortlessly prepare your dish. This mindset also requires you to be razor efficient with your time since every millisecond matters in a kitchen.

In personal finance, this same obsessive mindset is important for budgeting and wealth building. It is absolutely critical to track your spending AND investments so you know precisely where and when your money comes in and goes out. Our preferred tool is Personal Capital but you can also use tools like YNAB and Mint.  If your plan is to just earn more to cover up your waste, then Mrs. r & R can tell you, it’s a bad idea. You must attack your finances on both sides of the equation; income AND spending.

One of the ways we prevent waste is by using a grocery list. We rarely go to a supermarket without one because you will almost certainly make unnecessary impulse purchases. Over time, those mini-splurges add up to money down the drain every single week. By knowing what you plan on making, and building your list off of that, you ensure you only purchase what you need

2. Cross utilization

This is the “secret sauce” to many of your favorite fast casual restaurants and food trucks.  It’s also one of the reasons why those places can afford to charge affordable prices for higher quality food than standalone restaurants. Cross utilization is a tactic that Chef’s employ to use ingredients in multiple dishes so they can spread the cost of that item over multiple menu items. For example, Chipotle’s menu is super efficient because they “utilize” so many of the ingredients “across” tacos, quesadillas, burrito bowls and burritos.  There are virtually no ingredients that serve only one purpose which reduces the likelihood of having product that goes unused to zero.

At home, we do the same thing to ensure we limit food waste and therefore money on groceries. If we have a banana that is over-ripened it becomes baby food or a smoothie for big baby r & R. If there are leftover vegetables from a stir fry last week, they may pop-up in a breakfast hash or omelette on Sunday.  If there is leftover wine then…actually, there is never leftover wine 😉. The point is, by re-utilizing ingredients, the fewer new ingredients you have to buy.

3. Depouillage– (pronounced de-poo-yaajh)

Depouillage is the act of skimming a soup, stock or broth so that the impurities don’t incorporate in your food making it cloudy or fatty. For example, if you’ve ever made a soup from scratch you may see a frothy or foamy build up appear on the top of your soup as it heats up. Instead of letting it boil and blend with your soup, it’s a good practice to remove that “scum” off the top with a spoon or ladle and to let your soup simmer, not boil.

The same is true with your investments. Contributions to a tax deferred account (e.g. 401 (k), IRA etc.) are much easier to do when they come off the top automatically.  Otherwise, it’s easy for your “plan to invest” to get swallowed up and forgotten by everyday life.  It’s also key to review your investments to make sure you aren’t paying unnecessarily high fees which are often tucked into your mutual funds.  Skim that $hit, throw away those impurities and enjoy the wholesomeness of your dish as it should be.

4. Knife skills

Before any Chef learned how to cook they learned basic knife skills. It is often the very first class in culinary school and in the old school days, an apprentice would be tasked with chopping vegetables and/or washing dishes for months before they were ever entrusted with handling food.

The same is true with your money.  Managing your credit is as basic a life skill today as hygiene. In fact, I could argue that bad credit is the financial equivalent of body-odor.  Banks won’t even come close to your a$$ until you get your $hit together and those that do have built in a ridiculous interest rate to protect themselves. We use Credit Sesame to monitor our credit and since we paid off our last statement balance Mr. r & R’s score has jumped to 822!

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This means that when we shop for a mortgage, we get to be choosy and not the other way around. If we’re not happy with the rate a bank is offering,  we can get a more competitive rate elsewhere.

5. Life sucks sometimes…but don’t let it mess with your paper

Anyone that has ever worked in a kitchen knows that it attracts people from all walks of life. While working at a globally recognized luxury hotel brand I once worked next to a certified skinhead named Rudy. He had a shaved head, dead, cold eyes, wore knee high boots, army fatigues, and had a swastika carved into his wood handled spatula.

Years prior, I worked at a fine dining restaurant that was…unique. The restaurant itself was actually an old mansion from the Civil War era that was refurbished and turned into a dining destination. We grew a lot of our own produce and herbs on the grounds and while I didn’t realize it at first, the restaurant dining area was the slavemasters house sitting squarely on acres of lush plantation farmland. They even held special dinners in the restored out-house kitchen for people who wanted to ummm enjoy a little history with their grits.

Did I let any of this get in the way of me working with world-class Chefs and honing my skills? No, and neither did the crew of Mexican cooks that I worked alongside who taught me about life, hard work and how to make tamales from scratch. Would my #teamwakanda a$$ do this now?…hell naw.  The point is, I got what I needed out of each of those situations and moved on.

So if you know a Chef or see a Chef, thank them and take one out for a drink.  Tell them all the fancy cooking terms you know and ask them to tell you a crazy story but definitely don’t ask them to manage your budget!  You’ll regret it.


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