My Best Mistake: Chef Bartley Plays Mr. Fix-it During Dinner Service

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Chef Robert Bartley is the senior director of Food and Beverage (Air Canada Centre) and executive chef for Maple Leaf Sports + Entertainment (MLSE) in Toronto. Bartley also oversees all culinary programs under the MLSE umbrella, including Real Sports Bar & Grill Toronto — which was named the number-1 sports bar in North America by ESPN — Real Sports Bar and Grill Ottawa and E11even restaurant. Before joining the MLSE team in 2008, the toque held the executive chef position at the Four Seasons Toronto. Here he talks about his best business mistake, which began in an unlikely place — under the kitchen sink.

What was the  best mistake  you made in your culinary career?

When I was a young chef in charge of my own kitchen for the first time there was a small plumbing issue with a prep sink in the back kitchen area. Acting stubborn and youthfully cocky, I proclaimed to my young cooks: “never fear I will fix this issue, no problem.” I proceeded to work on the sink, and, in a fit of frustration, — because I didn’t really know what I was doing — I snapped the main water feed into the faucet, causing a stream of water to flow onto the floor and into the dining room. Reacting quickly, I scrambled to find a water shutoff without success. The water kept running and running until the manager reported the dining room needed to be cleared out on a busy Thursday lunch period.

As the flooding became very serious, eventually leaking into a tenant’s space below, I became panic-stricken. We ended up having to call the fire department to locate the water main and assess the water damage caused to neighbouring properties.

What began as a small problem quickly escalated into a very serious and costly issue. We ended up having to recover more than 100 people’s bills for their lunch. Damage to our space and our neighbours’ space amounted to more than $15,000. And, to think, it all started with a young chef, ignorant about his responsibilities and refusing to seek help.

What did you learn from your mistake?

Firstly, you don’t have to be the expert in everything. A good leader knows his or her ability and that includes knowing when to seek advice or counsel. In fact, it’s a sign of weakness if you don’t ask for help. It’s vital you understand critical operational disaster protocols. And, when you are responsible for other people’s lives and investments, you better ensure you know how to manage a worst-case scenario.

How has this mistake shaped your future decisions?

Ever since this happened, the first thing I do when entering a new workspace is find out where the water, gas and electrical shutoff are, then I read and understand the emergency protocols.

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