There is little question that most young cooks who are serious about their craft have a desire to work for the higher end, independent properties with chefs who are committed to building a name for themselves and the restaurant where they work. This is where a young cook can hone the craft of cooking, gain some pretty flashy chops, learn about cutting edge presentations, and build on a resume that has some impressive strength. What is clear, however, is that these operations typically hold limited opportunity for position growth, pay very little, expect total commitment from every cook, and rarely offer any benefits. As a short-term “dues paying” endeavor, it makes sense for cooks to take their licks in this type of operation so that they can help to qualify their worth and personal brand.
Longer term, these positions can create angst and disappointment when cooks realize that they can’t afford to live, have little to no protection if they are ill, and find growth opportunities nearly non-existent. So, young aspiring cooks are between a rock and a hard place. They want the excitement, the energy and adrenaline, the “push the envelope” creativity that exists in these operations, but find that making a living and living a life are nearly impossible. So…what to do?
In the current work environment in the U.S. and because of the diverse nature of the food business, I feel that the options have never been better. Here are some ideas for cooks to chew on:
- Every restaurant – yes, every restaurant is crying for help. Restaurants find it increasingly difficult to find and retain good employees – both front, and back-of-the-house. Everyone complains about it, but a few are beginning to realize that there is an antidote. When the situation demands action, a growing number of restaurants are ready to up the ante. Pay rates are slowly becoming competitive, introductory benefit packages are starting to creep their way into operations, bonuses and profit sharing are on some operators radar, and work hours are starting to level off with predictable days off and even a vacation built into employment packages. Granted, it is a small number of operations that see the light, but once the process of change begins then others will need to either follow suit or face the consequence of reducing days of operation or even closing their doors. For the first time in a long time – good cook’s are in the driver’s seat.
- There are more fish in the sea. Those cutting-edge, trendy restaurants with star chefs are attractive, they do help to build resumes, and there is no question that you can enhance your skill set working with an accomplished chef, but there are many, many more options out there that provide their own unique opportunities. Consider the following segments:
- CUTTING EDGE SUPERMARKETS:
Supermarkets aren’t what they used to be. With brands like Wegman’s, Publix, and Whole Foods – retail is now hiring professional chefs to operate their restaurant style, in-store outlets, bulk production for food bars and deli’s, and even catering in some cases. Pay and benefits are much better as is quality of life.
- HEALTHCARE FACILITIES:
Hospitals, retirement communities, and longer-term rehabilitation centers were typically not on a professional cook’s or chef’s radar, but today these operations are flexing their competitive muscle through quality food operations. Again, pay, benefits, and quality of life are far more in tune with balance than you will find in restaurants. Plus, this is an area where a talented cook can make a real difference in a person’s life.
- CORPORATE CHAIN RESTAURANTS:
Some, but not all chain restaurants are trying to decentralize their food operations so that they can better fit into a community. These operations are drifting away from commissary production of menu items that are simply re- constituted on premise. They know that a more discerning audience expects “made on premise”, quality, fresh, and signature dishes that fit the fabric of a community.
- CONTRACT FEEDERS:
Once a company reaches a certain size and complexity, it makes sense for them to provide an on-site foodservice option. There are numerous companies on the market that provide the set-up and management of these food operations. Some are very high quality in terms of food and service and just as focused on creating a quality environment for employees. Do some research.
- FOOD PRODUCTION:
For those interested in large-scale food production – there are numerous companies focused on quality production and distribution. Granted there is little to no opportunity for individual creativity, but if consistency and predictability is what you seek, then these positions are well compensated.
Every cook and chef has worked with a variety of vendors with different levels of success. One common complaint is that sales reps are oftentimes poorly versed in the products that they sell. There can be no better background for sales than having actually worked in an operation as a cook or chef. All vendors are in the market for great salespersons – have a conversation with them. They provide an opportunity to be entrepreneurial giving you a fair amount of control over your own financial success.
- RESEARCH AND DEVELOPMENT:
Every major food company today hosts a research chef as part of their concept development team. Those products that you see on menu boards were probably tested at length by a company research chef, standardized, market trialed, and built into a training program so that each outlet is consistent.
Although the culinary school growth curve is on the down swing, there are still over 1,000 post secondary programs in the U.S. and just as many vocation high school programs who are always looking for chefs with the content experience and the ability/desire to teach. You will be required to pursue an advanced degree, but this is a great, long-term career option.
The point is that the restaurant segment is not for everyone and it is not the only option for passionate cooks and chefs. The skills that you develop in a quality restaurant are transferrable and as such provide a greater array of career tracks that can provide a more balanced lifestyle, and in many cases – better compensation.
Think bigger, think long term, research, plan, and take action.
PLAN BETTER – TRAIN HARDER
Harvest America Ventures, LLC