, ,

Painted in Waterlogue

To a serious cook, the prize is to reach the pinnacle of his or her career – reaching for the position of chef in a property. Becoming the person with the embroidered jacket, the office with a nameplate, the business card that proclaims “executive chef”, the one who claims ownership for the menu, is the goal, the crystal skull that Indiana Jones sought for his entire life.

Of course, with the position come many benefits: better compensation, the feeling of kitchen ownership, the respect of peers, the signature on the menu and the restaurant for all to see, and the chance to make the decisions. It all sounds great, certainly what one would expect as the culmination of a career in food, well deserved. So why would I say that becoming this person sucks?

Believe me when I begin by admitting that as much as this statement is true, there are ample moments when the position offers a feeling of accomplishment and fulfillment, however, if one were to chart the pros and cons of being the one with the pen, it would be time for another dose of extra strength Excedrin.

Here are some of the realities associated with the position of chef (by the way, you could pick any career and apply these same or similar realities to the position of authority):

[] OTHERS EXPECT YOU TO BE RESPONSIBLE FOR THEIR MORALE: “You’re the boss – motivate me.” Or even worse – “I have a bad attitude at work because of the chef.” The truth is that the only person who can take charge of your morale, the only one who might stand a chance of motivating you, is YOU.   Motivation is an interesting topic, one that will chew up a significant portion of a chef or managers day. The only thing that the person in charge might do is to create an environment for self-motivation. In these work environments the chef takes on the role of communicator, teacher, and facilitator. The chef’s task is to focus on providing the tangible and intangible tools necessary for staff members to do their job, but if an employee is not inclined to exhibit positive attitude, there is very little that a chef can do except help them to find another place to work.

[] YOU MIGHT THINK THAT THE MENU IS YOURS, BUT…if it doesn’t sell it doesn’t stay. There are two ways to develop a restaurant menu: design a menu based on what you want to prepare, or build a menu based on what customers are willing to buy.   If you choose the prior, there is a good chance that the menu will eventually evolve to the later.

[] I CAN BE IN CHARGE OF MY OWN SCHEDULE: Hmmm… I guess you could say this is true. Simply put yourself on the schedule as “On” for six days a week and be prepared to work the seventh anyway. At the very least, the chef should be present for most of every meal period served. Oh, and if one of your cooks calls out, you might very well be working a station tonight.

[] YOU ARE THE DECIDER: Just as President Bush proclaimed during his administration, the buck does stop with you. As the chef, everyone will expect you to be the problem solver, the person with the answers, the knight in shining armor who will save the day. Look to your left, look to your right, there are very few others to turn to, and no one left to pass on the decision-making responsibilities to. The ball is in your court – be ready!

[] TEAM BUILDING IS SUCH A JOY: The single most important task that you will take on as the chef, is to build your team. This means determining what you need, seeking out and hiring the individuals with the “right stuff”, training them effectively, and figuring out ways to keep them. The best chefs also take on the role of mentor and as such should always take pride in those situations when a great cook says, “Thanks for everything you have done for me chef, but I have accepted a position with more responsibility at another restaurant.” Part of your role is to develop others, and if you do, they will eventually leave. This means that team building will become an ongoing, every day project. You will always be in a position to train new members.

[] YOU CAN’T RULE WITH AN IRON FIST ANYMORE: There was a time when fear and intimidation were the methods of operation adopted by most chefs. The only way to get the job done through others was to yell, demean, and pound your fist. This is NOT possible today. Today’s DEMANDING attitude equals tomorrows HOSTILE WORK ENVIRONMENT claim. Treating your employees with respect is the rule of thumb today, and PATIENCE is a virtue that all chefs must exhibit.

[] IT’S LONELY AT THE TOP: In an effort to create an environment of perceived fairness and not cloud a chefs decision about staffing issues, chefs and managers can be friendly with employees, but cannot afford to be their friends. This, for younger, first-time chefs, is very difficult.

[] EXPECT LESS TIME ACTUALLY COOKING: Once you reach the position of chef, you can expect that the majority of your time will be spent with the business side of operations. Ordering and negotiating with vendors, processing invoices, taking inventories, reviewing sales abstracts, scheduling and monitoring labor cost, planning menus for the restaurant and special events, training and sometimes disciplining employees, building and managing budgets, establishing item selling prices, and involvement in public relations and other forms of marketing will take up 85% of your day. Cooking, when it happens, becomes your release from stress, not your job anymore.

[] SO YOU THINK THAT IT IS YOUR RESTAURANT AND YOUR REPUTATION: Everything that leaves the kitchen carries your signature, yet, for the most part, you will have very little to do with the preparation. To this end, your signature is in the hands of every cook and server who works for the restaurant. Your reputation is in their hands. If the food isn’t right, it will always be your fault. If it is great, you will take the honors even though you know that your staff members made it happen. It will become critical for you to create an environment where everyone shares the vision, is well trained, and recognized for their part in the process. Your brand as well as that of the restaurant is at stake.

Not every cook who works in a restaurant has the desire or even the ability to become the chef. On any given day, they may feel that they could do parts of your job better than you, and they are probably right. You will be admired for success and demonized for failure, accept it. Those who know they could do parts of your job with greater success are free to work their way up to the position. Just as it is important for chefs to never forget how important the prep cooks, line cooks, sous chef, pastry cooks and bakers, servers, bartenders and dishwashers are to success, all of those important players must understand what it is like to walk a mile in the chefs shoes.


Harvest America Ventures, LLC


Restaurant and Culinary School Consulting and Training