It might be time to retire the concept of a job description. For all intents and purposes a job description is limiting and fails to address the unique characteristics of individuals and those intangibles that separate an average line warrior from an extraordinary one.
“A list of the responsibilities that you have and the duties that you are expected to perform in your work.”
-The English Dictionary
Where job descriptions fail is in limiting a person’s view of his or her job and the opportunity to problem solve/use creative thought. Job descriptions provide a framework that, if taken literally, serves as a border not to be crossed. “It’s not my job” is the most abhorred statement ever to be spoken in a kitchen. We (those who work in kitchen operations) have long lived by the philosophy that everything is everyone’s job in the kitchen. There may be different position titles used, but no task is below or above any individual who ties on an apron.
So, times have changed – if we discount job descriptions – what should take their place? I prefer to view the position of cook as one that is defined by the unique characteristics or profile of an individual who will be successful in that role. This being the case, what is the profile of a modern line cook in a professional kitchen operation?
PROFILE OF A LINE COOK:
One of the traits that never escape the cook’s profile is physical stamina. This is not defined by age, gender, or size, but rather by the conditioning of the individual. The job is physical in nature. Standing for extended periods of time, lots of lifting, repetitive motion, heat and humidity, as well as lifting and reaching are all part of the game. It would be wise to always be upfront with candidates for a cook’s position and ask them to respond to their ability to meet this requirement.
 MENTAL AGILITY
Today’s line cooks must be mentally sharp and have the capacity to sort multiple tasks in their head and multi-task constantly. This ability is absolutely critical in the fast-paced, decision in the moment environment of a busy kitchen.
 EMOTIONAL STABILITY
The stress of working in a busy kitchen where every minute may bring a new challenge can be difficult to handle unless the individual is able to approach every situation through the eyes of a seasoned professional. If a cook is easily flustered, if his or her temper is always on the edge, if anger is the typical method of coping, then the cook will bring a kitchen team down very quickly. Cool and even is the rule, not the exception.
Knowing how to cook, how to use the right tools for the right job, understanding and appreciating ingredients, having the “buds” that allow for perfect matching of flavor profiles, and being able to consistently apply this ability in the heat of the moment is the price of admission for a line cook.
Dependable, ready to work, clean and crisp, respectful of others, customer focused, honest, and supportive of teammates – these are the components of professionalism that define the best cooks.
The best kitchen teams thrive on group effort, but also grow through the individual creativity of its members. When everyone has the capacity, desire, and chops to offer creative additions to menus and creative solutions to problems, then everyone benefits.
 SPEED AND DEXTERITY
Time is of the essence. Speed, efficiency, and consistent accuracy are essential traits. Coordination and the ability to anticipate the next move must be second nature to an effective line cook.
 INFORMATION PROCESSING
A line cook’s conscious mind is filled to capacity during service. Multiple dishes, all with their unique ingredients and processes, must be sorted, organized, timed, and executed with precision. Taking in information is secondary to knowing what to do with it.
An effective line cook must be able to push everything else aside and give 100% focus to the tasks at hand. A person who lacks this ability to stay laser focused on what is in front of him or her will quickly lose the ability to accomplish the work of a line cook.
Competition can be healthy if managed correctly and approached for the right reasons. Being the best at what you do, exceeding previous goals, trouncing past customer numbers, being the recipient of consistent and positive Trip Advisor reviews, and meeting the sales and profit goals for the restaurant are all examples of positive competitiveness. A restaurant needs cooks who feel the importance of this.
The ability to give that extra push, to exceed expectations, and to approach each day with a new level of enthusiasm and energy – this is the drive of a line cook.
Some may call it swagger while others mistakenly group it under the heading of “ego”, when in fact, confidence comes from the knowledge that a cook has the skills, has the experience, and has the ability to meet and exceed expectations. Confidence that is backed up with ability is a desirable trait.
 UNIQUENESS AND CONFORMITY
This may seem like a contradiction, but an effective line cook must have the unique ability to add something extraordinary to the restaurant, but must be strong enough to know when, in the moment, the best approach is to simply say “yes chef” and perform as the chef requests.
If an applicant fits this profile – hire him or her. The beauty of those who “fit” is that they rarely need the detail of a job description or the openness of that descriptions intent (exp. – or anything else that the chef requires), since this profile is one of a person who is, for all intents and purposes, self-motivated and driven to excel. This is the line cook that will help any restaurant and any chef succeed. Put aside your standardized job descriptions and start looking for the right characteristics of a great hire. Each and every day, this individual will adapt to the needs of the operation and attack the job with a unique vigor that would defy the borders created by a job description.
So how do you determine if the “fit” is there? A typical interview and review of a resume just doesn’t seem enough. Checking references is always appropriate, but with current labor laws most operators are reluctant to say anything negative; besides, one operator’s experience with an individual may not be yours. The best way is to bring an individual on for a stage’ or a short probationary period beginning with a list of tasks that will point to some of the profile attributes listed in this article (demonstrate how they organize a station, have them prepare a dish from your operations recipe file, give them a few scenarios involving stress to see how they react, etc.), and above all else, ask your existing staff to assess how well the individual acts with the team.
There is one caveat to hiring the “right” people who fit the profile above – you must take care of them, give them the latitude of self-expression, recognize their contribution, occasionally forgive their over-zealous approach towards work, and pay them appropriately.
PLAN BETTER – TRAIN HARDER
Do you fit the profile?
Harvest America Ventures, LLC
Restaurant Consulting and Training