Let’s first separate those three types of cooks who stand tall behind a range:
- Those who consider cooking to be their purpose in life, the career choice that inspires them, and the choice that let’s them jump out of bed in the morning to face the opportunities that cooking will provide today
- Those who view what they do as a job that supports a meager lifestyle, brings them to an environment of transparent, hard-working, and fun people and a job that will be available as long as they want it
- Those who feel trapped in a job that is physically and emotionally difficult, never pays enough, offers little if any benefits, and pains them to continue to call it a career
Regardless of the level of commitment and associated joy – each of these types of individuals makes substantial sacrifices to keep those aprons tied. Years ago I completed a somewhat unscientific study of why people stay and why they leave – what drives certain cooks and chefs away and what magnet inspires them to continue to accept the bad with the good. The results of the study (involved around 200 current and former cooks) surprised me. As it turned out there was a definitive acceptance of the “cost of doing business” if one factor was in place – if it was not, then the desire to “flee” became more pronounced.
So what is the “price to pay” for chefs and cooks aspiring to that position? The challenges are many, but so too are the challenges to many other careers. It does seem, however, that chefs feel the weight of more than their fair share of complex burdens. It has been said many times before and we all know the drill, but once again let’s look at the weight of the position:
 THE PRESSURE OF TIMING:
Everything in a kitchen is measured in the immediate: the need for a custom menu –NOW, the need to prepare exceptional food for dining room guests within minutes of their arrival, the need to fix challenging financial numbers, the need to replace team members and train them TODAY, etc. Every day is a pressure cooker when it comes to time.
 THE CHALLENGES IN KEEPING A TEAM:
Considering the environment, the work conditions, the unpredictable hours, the modest pay and a lack of benefits – it is almost impossible for a chef to build and keep a unified team in place for more than a few months. Team members come and go; yet the expectation is that product and service will remain constant.
 THE PHYSICAL NATURE OF THE WORK:
Cooking at a professional level is a very physical job. Standing on your feet, little opportunity for breaks, excessive heat, loads of lifting, and of course the burns, cuts and sore feet and backs that go along with the physical environment is an every day challenge.
 THE SHORT LIFE OF INGREDIENTS:
With profit measured in pennies it is difficult to imagine how challenging it is to manage ingredients with a shelf life measured in a few days. Any loss due to waste or spoilage chips away at those meager profit percentages. This reality faces the chef every minute of every day.
 THE TIGHT ROPE NATURE OF SMALL PROFIT MARGINS:
Sales fluctuate in most restaurants and labor cost is hard to manage with these ebbs and flows in business volume. Combine this with that cost of perishable ingredient challenge and you have profit or loss staring a chef in the face each morning when he or she opens the office door.
 THE FICKLE NATURE OF GUESTS:
If menus were stationary and always predictable then the job of the chef might be a bit monotonous, but it would certainly be comfortable. Guest tastes change, product availability changes, quality varies, and cost of ingredients is as variable as the weather. All of this combines to create a highly fickle environment for building consistency and reliability in terms of planning.
 SUCCESS DEPENDS ON LAST NIGHTS SALES:
Since profitability is unpredictable and shallow, most restaurants rely heavily on cash flow for survival (the money is coming in faster than it is going out). When last nights sales failed to meet budget then the chef struggles with knowing whether or not vendors can be paid on time, equipment can be repaired, china can be replaced, or even if payroll will be met. This is a significant burden.
and most significantly:
 THE TOLL THAT THE CAREER TAKES ON FAMILY AND FRIENDS:
This is the biggest sacrifice – we all know the drill: you will work extraordinary hours, you will work nights and weekends, you will work holidays and you will certainly miss many of those special family events that other professions would deem essential. This sacrifice alone makes a case for providing a taste of entrepreneurship.
All of this factored in – what was it that those 200 study participants agreed on as the reason to accept this and keep their level of passion high enough? The answer was simple, and nearly universal: (and I paraphrase) “As a chef, I want to have the responsibility and authority to treat the position as if I were an owner and when the business succeeds financially, I want to enjoy those benefits.” In other words – chefs are willing to accept a lot, they are willing to invest incredibly hours and deal with the physical, mental, and emotional stress that comes with the turf as long as they can feel entrepreneurial. Chefs believe that they should be treated as partners who put in the sweat equity in exchange for their ownership authority and financial gain.
If owners want a chef who is “all in”, and a chef who thinks first and foremost about the restaurant and the team who supports his or her efforts, then doesn’t it make sense to view this person as a partner? How this occurs need not even be formalized legally – the chef, at least initially, only wants the ability to impact on decisions and receive as much as he or she gives. Doesn’t these seem fair and reasonable? When this latitude is not present then the owner should realize that good chefs would come and go. This is a fact. The other fact is that a chef cannot effectively do the job well without a total commitment to the business.
Every quality chef that I know has a desire and an inherent need to be an entrepreneur. Every quality chef I know realizes what it takes to be successful in the position and goes into the kitchen with eyes wide open. Every quality chef I know will tell you that the hours; the physical, mental, and emotional toll, and the passion for food and service are the price of admission. In return they expect to feel as if they have the ability to take ownership in some fashion. If you want to keep a quality chef then this fact needs consideration.
PLAN BETTER – TRAIN HARDER
Harvest America Ventures, LLC
Restaurant Consulting and Training
ARE YOU INTERESTED IN STORIES OF THE KITCHEN AND A PICTURE OF WHAT IT TAKES? Here are two books that should be part of your library:
THE EVENT THAT CHANGED EVERYTHING:
By: Chef Paul Sorgule
By: Chef Charles Carroll