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I continue to hear the arguments: “Young cooks don’t want to work hard, they aren’t dependable, they lack passion, and they simply don’t have what it takes.” I have been there myself – touting many of the same woes about how the younger generation is not like us. It is easy to point a finger at others in the process of avoiding taking a hard look at what we have accepted as the norm. Just because we drank the Kool-Aid, doesn’t mean that others should accept it as well.

Now, as a point of clarification, I know a great many Generation X and Millennial cooks who are just as committed, just as over-the-top Type A as I was, and maybe even more so – so it is not fair to group an entire generation under the same umbrella. It does, however, seem a bit ironic that what many of us studied and accepted as reality for other industries is somehow exempt in foodservice. Think about some of the phrases that we have all come to accept:

  • “There’s no such thing as a free lunch.”
  • “You get what you pay for.”
  • Do unto others, as you would have them do unto you.”

So, why are those statements relatable for some, but not for those in a chef coat and hounds tooth pants?

Abraham Maslow, the well-known American Psychologist who developed a theory of human hierarchy of needs that pointed to a sequential process by which individuals lead to self-motivation. From my perspective and experience, this 1943 theory is provable and still relevant today. Take a look at his researched train of thought:

  1. SURVIVAL: The first need of all individuals is to survive – to continue breathing and functioning at a baseline level. When an individual is also responsible for others (spouse, children, parents, etc.) then this need is compounded.

So what are these survival needs? Survival includes food on the table, clothes on your back, a roof over your head, and healthcare when you are sick. Realistically, until any individual is able to accomplish this it is very difficult to convince him or her to be highly energetic contributors, even if they would like to be. Look at pay scales before pointing a finger at young staff. We want young cooks to give their heart and soul, to give up time with family, and to immerse them in the high stress business of food, knowing full well that they will struggle with survival.

I know the response: “Restaurants can’t afford to pay more and offer benefits – our margins are too low.” Yep – so let’s come up with solutions rather than continue to accept an impossible situation.

  1. SECURITY:     Once a reasonable pay is connected to a kitchen job, and                       employees are able to cover their foundational survival needs – they                            are desperately concerned about keeping the position they hold. The                            constant fear associated with layoffs, cut back in hours, unpredictable                          schedules, and even restaurant closings hang over the heads of every                          employee- even the most productive and talented. Without some                               sense that the job will be there next week, it is again challenging to                                keep young cooks engaged, and anxious to grow and contribute. This                            becomes even more troubling if the chef or manager works hard at                            creating an environment of fear rather than an uplifting environment of positivity.

Before you point the finger at an employee’s self-motivation (or lack thereof), make sure that you are helping to build an environment of trust, hope, and success. Your staff members want to be part of something that is moving in the right direction and always shows the promise that accompanies winning. As long as they are doing their job correctly then every employees wants to feel secure.

  1. BELONGINGNESS:     Now that the foundational needs of survival and security are met, we are faced with the intangible needs that, in the long run, are far more important to a young cook’s longevity and contribution. Belongingness refers to a feeling that the individual fits in the organization, is accepted by peers, and is recognized for his or her contributions. This need to belong dates back to the time when a person first begins to walk and talk. We all want to be part of the team and be respected for the role that we can or do play.

Before you categorize an entire generation as “not worthy”, make sure that you are helping to create an environment that is positive and inclusive. Are you investing enough time in building a team? Are you focused on building a work environment that is collaborative and helpful? Do you engage young cooks in the process of decision-making (menus, vendor assessment, systems re-design, scheduling)? If the answer is no, then look in a mirror and ask “why not”?

  1. SELF-ESTEEM:           As Maslow pointed to those needs that set the stage for self-motivation, he noted just how important it is for any individual to feel good about him or herself. We all need to look in a mirror and find something to smile about, we all need to have others recognize the good in what we do, and we all have a need for those              whom we report to take the time to state their pleasure with our work.

When young cooks are proud of the work they do, the restaurant where they work, the co-workers who share the line with them, and the plates that they put their invisible signature on – then magical things begin to happen. When the chef takes as much time catching an employee doing something right as he or she does investing in pointing out things done incorrectly, then an employee learns to listen and respect a critique when offered. Before you point a finger are you investing enough time in providing that pat on the back and helpful critique? Tearing an employee down rather than building him or her up rarely leads to self-motivation.

  1. SELF-ACTUALIZATION:         Although difficult to reach – this is the place where the chef needs to be with staff members and where the employee truly wants to be. This is what drives good employees to jump out of bed in the morning. Self-actualization is the opportunity to be all that you can be. This is when an employee has the opportunity to take control of his or her professional destiny.

When the chef engages good employees, gives them new found responsibility, and empowers them to make decisions on their own (after being properly trained and mentored) then that employee who treated cooking as a job now has the opportunity to view it as a calling and a career. When cooks are serial contributors and sense that their input is not only welcome, but also expected, then the operation is firing on all cylinders.

I understand that not every person is cut from the same mold, and that those who could self-motivate is nowhere near 100%, but there are many who just need the stage set. So before we write off a generation, let’s make sure that we are doing our part to make sure the environment is right for them to succeed.


Harvest America Ventures, LLC


Restaurant Consulting and Training