Meghan Lee started working in the industry when she was 15 years old, quickly drawn to the way restaurants bring communities together. After decades of working in front and back of house in restaurants along the northeast, Lee decided it was time to open her own spot.
In 2015, she created Heirloom, a two-time James Beard award-nominated restaurant tucked inside a Victorian home in Lewes, Delaware, known for its ever-evolving menu of seasonal fare. Leading up to Heirloom, Lee says her 20-plus years of industry experience helped her not only shape her vision, but also uncovered exactly what she didn’t want to create – a culture filled with toxicity and negativity.
Since the start, Lee has mindfully worked to select staff who show notable enthusiasm about working in a team environment. And last July, when her executive chef parted ways with Heirloom, she put the idea of teamwork truly to the test. Rather than replacing the empty role with a single new hire, Lee asked her existing kitchen staff if they wanted to take over, together as a team. Pretty soon, Heirloom’s kitchen was being led by seven different chefs.
We sat down to chat with Lee about the transition to a group-run kitchen, and what she’s discovered since shifting to the new operations model.
I’d love to first hear more about your initial inspiration for Heirloom.
We live in Lewes. It’s this small, super tiny town. Our main street is three blocks long. And everywhere here was serving the crab cake, the fish, the same coastal-style cuisine, which is great, but there wasn’t anyone working hands-on with farmers and creating this evolving seasonal menu. That’s what I wanted to do, especially because of where I grew up [in Chester County], and to bring it to a beach town. I wanted it to be this place where we’re changing the menu as much as we can, and highlighting some of these men and women who are farming and don’t often get that recognition.
Tell me about the culture you set out to build with your staff.
I’d been a part of so many restaurant cultures, and I learned a lot along the way. However, there were definitely years of toxicity and negativity. And so I just knew what I wanted to build, and that started with me, picking the right staff and collectively creating a team based on the culture I wanted.
As far as hiring, I’ve always been extremely picky. We go through this process where they meet with me and my general manager. I show them the dining room, we go through the kitchen, and I show them what we’re working on menu-wise. What’s also really important is the question of, “What do you do in your spare time?” I always ask, “Do you play sports?” People who play sports know what it’s like to be part of a team, and know the level of expectation and anticipation of what’s the next move.
If the interview is back and forth, and there’s good energy, I’ll invite them to come in and take in each component of the restaurant. They’ll hang out at the host stand and behind the bar, follow a server, and then they’re in the kitchen as well. It’s more about intuition – do I feel a full connection with this person and is this going to be a long-term investment? Once I make that decision, I want to invest in these people. I want to put my best foot forward to give the best and safest environment to work in, and know it’s a mutual agreement where we’re here for the right reasons.
We’ll go on field trips. I just flew all [my kitchen staff] to Charleston – some of them hadn’t left Delaware before. None of them went to culinary school. But I’m constantly giving them cookbooks, taking them out to dinner and having them pay attention to food, flavors, and how things are delivered, so everyone can learn.
When your executive chef left the restaurant, did it stem from a cultural mismatch? And how did you come to the decision not to refill that role?
We came to a point of not seeing eye to eye on things. Our visions changed. There wasn’t really drama behind it for me, and he now owns his own restaurant, so everything happens for a reason.
This is July, and July and August are my busiest months. It’s insane. So the crew that was with me at that time – I just remember peering over and watching them, and knowing they’ve been with me for anywhere from two-and-a-half to almost six years, and thinking they are just so capable of this.
All of this happened within less than two days. It was a Sunday, and I sat down with all seven of them, and I said this is what’s happening, and these are the options moving forward. I can look for an executive chef, and we can interview them together and make a joint decision. Or we can do this on our own, and I will offer you the support and the tools you need to succeed at doing this. For some of you, it’s going to be total growing pains. It’s going to be hard, especially in July, but we can do this. You guys know this kitchen. You know the food. You already know the expectation level and our clientele.
What was their reaction?
It wasn’t even a split second – they said, “Let’s do it”. With this, I said we’re going to start closing on Sundays. I had to call people to reroute reservations. And then I added Mondays. I knew we weren’t going to make it just grinding and grinding through the summer with a crew of seven [people]. But with that, I got busier Tuesday through Saturday. I was beating out my weekly numbers on a five-day workweek, and everyone got two days off.
We’ve got five to six chefs here everyday, and on the weekends, all seven are here. In the summer, it’s seven everyday, unless someone requests off. So everyone could plan, and everyone gained their mental health back.
In hindsight, I think some of them were shocked, but they just spoke up. I remember Rachel telling me, “It’s July, and we’re doing 300 covers a night.” So some of them were definitely nervous, but they rolled into that routine that they’re very well aware of and hit the ground running.
What about you – were you nervous at the beginning about how this would play out?
I was terrified. I rarely show emotion, but my heart was fluttering. I wasn’t eating. But once we got through week one, and then we had this ridiculous food review from the Washington Post, and it just solidified our team. He ate here without an executive chef and was blown away. And our staff was like, “We got this”.
It became the best business decision I ever made. They’re in their 20s. They’re ambitious. They’re creative. It’s just been really rewarding.
What has the overall experience been like with having so many chefs run the kitchen?
Like I said, I have seven 20-something-year-olds. There’s two girls and five guys. They all have different palates. Some are privy to sweet. Some love the vinegars and the picklings. Beau is our pasta-maker. Everyone’s really good at something. And they’re cross-training each other. But again, there's seven different palates so there’s seven different decisions and ideas at the table.
We meet twice a week, on Tuesdays and Saturdays, for about an hour. We usually change a few things [on the menu] twice a week. So Tuesdays we talk about what’s changing for the end of the week, and Saturday we talk about Tuesday changes. So we talk and we talk and we talk, and after five or ten minutes, we start to narrow everything down. I know it sounds chaotic, but they play off each other, and it works.
How does it work in the actual kitchen – are there specific roles outlined for each person?
They all have some different responsibilities. Everyone has an ordering responsibility and an inventory responsibility. Like Tommy does the Chef’s Warehouse order, which is our dry goods. I oversee the cheese program, which is kind of my baby. We do inventory everyday when they come in and before they leave. And I’m always CC’d on the ordering, or we sit down and order together. There are some learning opportunities with that, like knowing what to look for with the price and how the product comes and what to ask for. [For example,] I’ll explain, “It comes four in a case, you don’t order one piece.’’
Were there any major challenges you faced as you made that transition?
Not anything specific. There were some growing-pain challenges in just adapting to a new way of running things and having them acknowledge they now have a voice. The more they do it, the more they feel comfortable speaking up. Seven months ago, did I expect one of them to be leading a discussion on a Saturday? No, but it’s been this gradual growth of confidence.
It’s a learning curve for me, too. I know who’s sensitive and who’s not, who needs to be spoken to more. Everyone’s different, and it requires me to tune into what everyone wants and needs individually.
Do you feel like the culture that was already in place at Heirloom played a major role in the sustainability and success of running a group kitchen?
One hundred percent. Having the right people here leading up to that transition really was the only reason why I took that chance. Had it been any other scenario, or three of those seven people weren’t those people, I don’t know what I would’ve done.
How do you keep everything organized with so many players involved?
One, it’s the mandatory meetings. When you create something consistent, and the expectation level is consistent, it helps create a very structured environment. We also have a group text chain. Everyone knows the product coming in, when deliveries are coming, and the scheduling, and we have group texts where we recap every night.
Is this a model you’d like to see, or already envision, growing in the industry?
I don’t know. I am a very active owner. I only have one restaurant. This is my livelihood. And I live two blocks away. I’m here everyday in some capacity. So I think it works because I’m here and am passionate about it and am very, very involved. I’m not sure if it’d work if someone had more than one location or wanted a restaurant they just pop in and out of.
Do you have any advice for operators who might be curious about trying it?
If you’re willing to be there everyday, be supportive, and really believe in what you’re doing and your culture and your team, it could be a no-brainer. But it requires a lot of communication, and that can feel overbearing and annoying.
I also think if we were still grinding at a seven-day schedule, we would be burnt out. We’d be checked out, and there would’ve been a lot of issues of just not being staffed appropriately.
Is this a model you plan to stick with, even if one of the seven move on?
I know that one day someone will transition or move on. I’ll do my best to keep everyone here, but a couple of them want to move to a city one day, and that’s just reality. But I plan to stick with this for the indefinite future. I’m really proud of everyone. They’re in a position that a lot of people today wouldn’t be in for another 15 to 20 years. And I’m so lucky to have them.
Grace Dickinson is a reporter at Back of House. Send tips or inquiries to firstname.lastname@example.org.