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Painted in Waterlogue

In 1943 – Abraham Maslow published his theory of self-motivation in the form of a hierarchy of needs. Self-motivation is always the goal since no one else can do the job for you. Maslow’s theory focused on five sequential steps – the key being the sequential nature of each.

Considering the fact that the most significant issue facing the restaurant industry today is finding, hiring, training, and retaining great employees, it would seem important that we (the industry) spend the time to build a long-term plan to that end. Every few years I wind up reflecting back to what Maslow defined as “essential” steps and realize that what he found in 1943 is still true today. These steps, once studied, are perfectly aligned with the challenges that chefs and restaurant operators face. Careful study and application of these steps may very well be the basis for a solution.

Let’s take a look at each component of the hierarchy and reflect on how they apply to restaurants, and in this case – cooks:


The most basic needs of any individual refer to his or her ability to provide the essentials for him/herself and their family. These essentials include a roof over their heads, food on the table, sufficient clothing, a means of transportation, and the ability to care for themselves and others when they are sick. Now, the level of survival may vary from individual to individual, but the premise remains identical.

Our cooks must then be able to identify a position that will provide enough funds and benefits to address these primary needs. This, of course, is not a simple task of mandating higher employee wages; it must be a holistic process that identifies what and how to accomplish this.

I don’t profess to have that answer, but know that it will include a hard look at how we produce food, what we produce, and what guests are willing and able to pay. Restaurants and chefs must determine how their operation is going to become and remain profitable BEFORE consideration can be given to raising wages. Then, an equitable system for determining pay scales must consider skills, longevity, the essential nature of a position, and other, sometimes intangible benefits derived from keeping an individual on a kitchen team. This study MUST be done – the industry can no longer afford to simply balk at it and claim that we are unable to afford changes to pay scales and essential benefits. To avoid this is a fruitless process of delaying larger problems down the road – or government mandated changes that should have been addressed by business.

The important point to note is that until SURVIVAL needs is addressed, it is very difficult, if not impossible, for an employee to self-motivate. Employees will suffer from the stress of an inability to provide and will always be on the hunt for a better position, somewhere else.


Once an employee (cook) feels that his or her essential survival needs are met, the next step will be to find a position and employer that provides a sense of JOB SECURITY.

As long as I continue to perform at a higher than acceptable level will this job be here down the road?”

Cooks need to feel confident that they are working for a winner – a restaurant that is financially successful and is positioned to stay successful through the years ahead. Worry over job stability causes tremendous stress in a work environment and is a leading reason why cooks, in particular, are always open to another position that can provide this security.

This means that if a restaurant is to provide a secure environment for their employees they must have the business acumen to stay afloat and grow. Far too many talented chefs and restaurateurs fail not because of product quality or dedication to service, but more significantly because they do not have the business sense to ride the wave. Failure is, more often than not, a result of an operator’s lack of experience in this area.

Chefs who desire to become entrepreneurs would benefit greatly from either partnering with another individual with savvy business skills, or at least participating in business courses that will provide them with the necessary knowledge and ability.


What the restaurant business is very good at is building an environment of BELONGINGNESS for cooks. The team dynamic is what activates that adrenaline in cooks, that level of excitement that drives kitchen workers to love what they do. The problem is that if an operator fails to provide for those SURVIVAL and SECURITY needs, the factor of belongingness will be short-lived. When a cook can say: “I am making a fair wage, I have the ability to care for my family when they are healthy or ill, and I am confident that the restaurant is able to protect my job”, then that esprit des corps that exists in restaurants can be the icing on the cake.

  1. ESTEEM:

ESTEEM is a leadership opportunity. There is little doubt that people enjoy doing a good job. This is ingrained in our psyche from our earliest days of life – we want to be proud of what we do and more importantly, we want others to be proud of what we do. Chefs and restaurateurs have a responsibility to train, coach, critique, demonstrate, and reward employees when they do what is expected or exceed those expectations. This is one of the least expensive parts of doing business. Taking the time to build confidence and pride is a surefire way to create an environment where good cooks never want to leave.


Finally, Maslow listed SELF-ACTUALIZATION as the ultimate self-motivation tool. The ability to reach individual goals and, in essence, be all that you can or want to be, is a professionals dream. Not every cook wants to eventually become a chef, manager, or restaurateur, but many do. What are you doing to provide opportunities for cooks to reach for their dreams? When a chef identifies an individual with a definitive career checklist it only makes sense to serve as a mentor who will help, in some way, make this happen.

The cook that wants to become a chef will need to understand the business side of running a kitchen, appreciate the dynamics of human resource management, become a first-class communicator, and understand how to relate to others who work with or for them. Take the time to coach those employees even if the end result is their need to move on to another property. Your reputation as a mentor will set the stage for others to want a chance to become part of your team.

Take the time to know your cooks. Know who they are as people and what their dreams and challenges are. The best chefs, in the best restaurants, are great listeners and stellar coaches.


After all of these years, it seems to me, that Maslow got it right. Now the challenge is how can we (the industry) take this to heart and apply his timeless theory to how our restaurants operate. We are at a challenging point in time in restaurant evolution. Restaurants continue to grow in popularity and our population continues to rely on what we do for sustenance, entertainment, and reward. We can only continue on this road of sustainable growth if we can build teams of dedicated, passionate, and self-motivated employees. It is time for the larger discussion around HOW.


Harvest America Ventures, LLC