Chefs seem to always lament about the difficult task of finding the right staff to fulfill the mission of their kitchen. “Where can I find good cooks who will show up to work prepared, who have a strong foundational knowledge about process, and who will give me a good days work for a good days pay”?
Turnover rates in restaurant operations seem to be significantly higher than in other professions with the average shelf-life of a cook oftentimes less than a year and dishwashers – well, sometimes we measure their likely time with us in months or even weeks. A good chef friend of mine once told me to just keep hiring cooks and dishwashers because if you don’t need them today you will tomorrow. Where are we going wrong? Is it the business and should we just continue to accept this as “the way it is”? What is missing in the formula for building a great team? Is it the hours that kitchen employees work? Is it the pay and or benefits (or lack there of)? Is it the conditions that people work in (heat, on their feet, burns and cuts, heavy lifting, pressure of impossible time constraints)? Is it all of the above?
There are certainly ample books and articles written about these aforementioned conditions yet young people continue to flock to culinary schools for a jump-start on a career in food. Tens of thousands of those students graduate each and every year, yet chefs still complain that they cannot find “good cooks who will show up prepared to work, who possess a strong foundational knowledge about process and who will give the chef a good days work for a good days pay”. Something just isn’t right, there must be an answer.
Having worn a number of hats that are part of this story (employee, chef/employer, culinary instructor, school administrator) I have searched for the answer for many, many years. Here is my conclusion broken down into three parts:
1. There is no question that we need to look at the conditions, pay and benefits afforded kitchen employees if we want to hang on to them. Health care, respectable pay based on the skill set for a particular job and the ability to advance are all pretty basic needs that people have. Without them, any employee will begin to look elsewhere.
2. Hire passion and expect to train those who have it. Passion is not something that is as common as one might think. Chefs can certainly build passion, but there needs to be a spark to begin with. Passionate people are always looking for something to take to heart and dedicate their energies to.
Aldous Huxley once wrote: “I want to know what passion is. I want to feel something strongly.”
If a chef wants to build that team focused on the larger objectives defined for the restaurant, he or she must seek out people with that spark – that need to know passion. One might assume that if a young person chose to attend culinary school and invest the time and money to attain a degree then the passion must be there. Unfortunately, I have found that this is quite often – not the case. When a person has that spark of passion they realize that they must be willing to give in to it, to sacrifice much in its pursuit, to make choices that could very well be difficult. Far too many young people are not ready to make that commitment, to sacrifice things in pursuit of a dream. Those who have the spark can be easy to filter out from the pack, but it must be something that the chef looks for, insists on, and makes a top priority. In building a dynamic team there is no substitute for the spark of passion.
“There is scarcely any passion without struggle”.
Albert Camus, The Myth of Sisyphus and Other Essays
If the passion is there, then the chef has an opportunity to set the young cook on a course for success – a course that will, in time, benefit the restaurant and even more importantly – benefit that young cook as he or she proceeds to build a career. The chef must take this spark of passion, encourage it, keep it in check, teach and train and help the cook to build a solid path. Even that dishwasher who might typically only stay a few months at a property can be developed into a great employee, maybe a prep cook, line cook and eventually, with the right coaching, a chef in his or her own right.
“Persistence, Perfection, Patience, Power, Prioritize your passion. It keeps you sane.”
Criss Jami, author of Venus in Arms
3. Discipline is the hallmark of success in a professional kitchen. Uncontrolled passion can lead to chaos and although kitchens may often appear to be chaotic, they are typically controlled chaos. These young cooks and team members must understand that a kitchen runs most efficiently when it is modeled after the military structure that served as its beginnings under chefs like Escoffier, Careme and Point. There is a reason for this that most who had experienced an efficient operation would understand and agree with. Kitchens operate under sometimes impossible deadlines with each individual player responsible for a plethora of minute preparations before the onslaught of orders clicking their way into the kitchen from the dining room. This pre-opening pressure is accompanied by a cacophony of sounds including banging of pots, pressure steamers, interplay between cooks, pounding of meats in preparation for station work and the rumble of speed racks and Queen Anne carts thundering down the narrow paths between stoves, coolers and dining rooms. To keep the pace, ensure everyone remains on task, and maintain a level of safety it becomes imperative for there to be a respect for chain of command and attention to the many details facing each cook. This again is where “yes, chef” becomes the most important response, one that all cooks, especially those just starting out, must adhere to. With all of their preparation in class, many young cooks out of school do not understand or appreciate this. The result of too much deviation from this plan will bring down the ship, something that a chef cannot allow to happen. When there is discipline, there is focus. When there is focus, there is calm. When there is calm, there is efficiency and success. This is the job of the chef and this is what keeps a team together and allows that passion to take form.
“Discipline is the bridge between goals and accomplishments.”
Jim Rohn – entrepreneur, author and motivational speaker
“Confidence comes from discipline and training”.
A chef who understands and implements a plan for addressing those foundational needs of his or her team, hires individuals with a passion to learn and a love of food and who establishes a system of professional discipline in the kitchen will build that team that is so desperately needed.
PLAN BETTER – TRAIN HARDER
Harvest America Ventures, LLC
Restaurant and Culinary School Consulting, Training and Coaching
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