Painted in Waterlogue

It is certainly true that those who work in the kitchen are not the only reason why a restaurant may be successful, but it is certain that if the back-of-the-house team is not competent, is unable to function as a cohesive unit, or lacks the passion to take pride in their work then the restaurant is destined to fail.

With the ever-increasing challenge of finding enough of the “right” people to work in restaurant kitchens we are all aware that it is time to take a hard look at the individuals who choose to wear the uniform and represent the restaurant industry. Some may point to changing norms and attitudes about the work and maybe even a lack of commitment on the part of a new generation of cooks, but I tend to take a different approach. Before we (those in positions of authority in restaurant settings) point the finger at others as the source of the problem it might be wise to look at ourselves first. What is the attitude and approach that owners and operators, even executive chefs, take towards those who prepare the food that restaurant guests pay for?

Not to sound like a broken record, but the shortage of eager employees and the restaurant industry’s poor track record with retaining good cooks continues to be the number one challenge facing this important, growing industry (see the following link). www.nytimes.com/2018/04/05/dining/labor-shortage-restaurants-employment.html?smid=fb-share

Here are some thoughts on how we might consider approaching cooks and young chefs who will establish how our industry is perceived for the next few decades:


Good cooks are not interchangeable parts. To be a certifiable cook requires a unique set of skills that takes time to develop, and in some cases natural talent. A good cook is organized, able to multi-task, comfortable with a wide range of cooking methods, gifted with a finely tuned palate, disciplined, confident, able to problem-solve, and fast. In other professions this breadth of skills and aptitudes would be well -respected and compensated. In the kitchen there is a tendency to view these as common and not worthy of the respect they are due.


There is a point when these good cooks look in a mirror and acknowledge that this job is their career choice, that food and everything about it is something that is worthy of their full concentration, and that continually learning how to improve their skill set is not just a requirement of the position, but more importantly, something that gives them pleasure and purpose. This is when the job of cooking becomes their passion. When a cook reaches this point the mental, physical, and emotional connection to food is so strong that it impacts on how they view themselves, their interaction with others, and their feelings about how their work is accepted and respected. Cooks become very sensitive when it comes to how others perceive the quality of their work.


Tools do not necessarily make the cook, but the tools provided signify the respect that owners/operators and chefs have for the passion that cooks demonstrate for the craft. The right tools make the job of cooking more fluid and enjoyable. The right tools send an important message to the cook that their work is important.


Assuming that “Yes Chef” (an important part of showing respect and accepting responsibility in a kitchen) means that a cook cannot have an opinion, or is incapable of contributing new ideas, is no longer acceptable. Owners and chefs need to learn to listen to those cooks who have the passion and subsequently need a forum for communicating concerns and ideas. This is one of the easiest steps that operators can take in improving recruitment and retention of good cooks.


The goal should always be to attract those cooks with the greatest potential as contributors to the success of the business and then work hard to keep them. One of the best ways to show respect for the position and demonstrate how cooks are valued is to invest in their growth. In-service training, sending cooks to workshops, making connections for cooks to stagiere with other great chefs, or sending them on educational food adventures is a surefire way of accomplishing these goals.


This is the “of course” way to demonstrate appreciation and build an environment for cook retention, however, as a whole; restaurants have not taken the time to figure out the “how to” with the issue of fair compensation. What is “fair”? Is it fair that a person with the skill set previously mentioned cannot make enough money to support him or herself or a family? Is it fair and reasonable that a majority of cooks do not receive any form of healthcare from their restaurant employer? Is it fair that most restaurants do not provide vacation or sick time for those cooks who hold an important key to the restaurants success? I think the obvious answer is “no”, even though we can easily come up with an array of answers as to why restaurants do not provide these fundamental benefits of employment. If the answer is “no” then we need to figure out a way to address the challenge, to modify the business model, and to look at new efficiencies that will allow restaurants to be successful and care for their most important resources in the process.


Just like many who are reading this article – I too worked the unpredictable, somewhat absurd hours that are required of cooks and chefs. I did so because I understood that this is what it took to be in the kitchen. Just like you, I worked through holidays and family events and knew that my schedule was always fluid – subject to change without notice. Just like you, my family and friends grew to accept this because “This is the way it is in restaurants”. Yep, I did this like many of you and at times looked upon others who did not make the same commitment as being somehow less dedicated to their work than I. Guess what – because we accepted it doesn’t mean it was right.

We will probably never see a dramatic change in the spontaneous and sometimes excessive demands of this service business, but as owners/operators and chefs we can learn to be more responsive to a cook’s needs outside of work and help them to find ways of creating a level of balance. Way beyond the meager compensation packages typically offered, it is this overly demanding lifestyle of a cook that drives them away at some point and changes those passionate cooks into bitter, tired and discontent employees.


I always think that it is important to finish with this point: good people want others to have high expectations of them. Good cooks want to be great cooks and they are fully aware that to get to that point takes considerable effort on their part, sometimes over and above what they are scheduled to do. Good cooks enjoy being pushed to get better as long as they know that their effort along the way is appreciated. Good cooks relish the rigor of a kitchen that never accepts anything but the best from each and every employee. When a chef and a property holds a cook’s “feet to the fire” it is a symbol of respect and an indication of knowing that with the right level of encouragement every good cook can aspire to be great.


Harvest America Ventures, LLC

Restaurant Consulting and Training


“Be something special – be a serious cook.”

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About Me

PAUL SORGULE is a seasoned chef, culinary educator, established author, and industry consultant. These are his stories of cooks, chefs, and the environment of the professional kitchen.


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