Every person has needs that go beyond food, shelter, and clothing.  Of course, we require those important things to survive, but survival to the average person is never enough.  Getting by does not inspire and will never address the potential that we all have.  It is the ability and desire to strive for this potential that allows us to jump out of bed in the morning and face the day knowing that we can and will contribute in some way.  We want and need to make a difference, no matter how small or how large that contribution might be.  As I often quote Steve Jobs: “To make a dent in the universe.”

It is this potential that results in incredible music, inspiring art, important writing, new machines, impressive architecture, medical breakthroughs, and other scientific discoveries.  It is also this potential that allows teachers to change the direction of a young student’s life, a garden expert to beautifully landscape a home, a plumber to turn copper into a work of art, an electrician to properly wire a house, or a cook to prepare a perfect restaurant meal.  Each person has something to offer and a need to do so.  When we reach for our potential and find a vehicle for personal expression then fulfillment is within our reach.

There are times when and there are reasons why some feel this potential is out of their reach or that various factors get in the way of putting in the effort; when this happens, our lives seem shallow – even if we are able to provide for food, shelter, and clothing – the basic survival needs.  Putting one foot in front of the other may be the right place to start, but inherently we all want to run.  

So, it disturbs me to see an increasing number of cooks who feel stymied or who have given up on their potential while they allow themselves to be consumed by survival.  I want to believe that under the façade of despair and sometimes even distain lies a person with incredible potential to be the best he or she can be, to serve and to create, and to reach for his or her personal and professional potential – to be fulfilled.

Remember those times when you felt that rush of adrenaline after a successful service, felt pride in a dish you created, or simply enjoyed a new skill you worked hard to master?  Remember the feeling of belonging you experienced when you wore a clean, pressed, white uniform and apron?  You were part of a team and an extension of a long history of tradition and accomplishment – that uniform meant something – it meant someone recognized your potential.

When I see cooks and chefs who now invest more time in complaining about how hard kitchen work is, how demanding and unforgiving it can be, how the heat, the hours, and the pressure are so unreasonable while they discount the opportunity to reach for their potential, I know we (the industry) have failed.  We have failed to look at how we might move the conversation to fulfillment and the joy associated with cooking for others.  We (the food industry) need to point to a well-known quote from Anthony Bourdain:

 “When someone cooks for you – they are saying something. They are telling you about themselves: where they come from, who they are, what makes them happy.”

 This is what being a cook is all about.  This is how a cook can be fulfilled – knowing he or she is communicating with another person and setting the stage for happiness, even if it is for a short period of time.

So, here we are- still struggling every day to attract, retain, inspire, and encourage cooks without much success.  What can we (the industry) do to fulfill our cooks and regain much of the passion and enthusiasm prevalent just a few short years ago?  You remember, those days when to cook was viewed as one of the more exciting professions, a time when there were more aspiring cooks seeking positions than there were opportunities.  Those days may be a distant memory, but there is still demand for restaurant food, still opportunities for new restaurants to open, and still a need to find the “right” people to represent the cuisine restaurants hope to be known for.  How might we turn the tide?  Here are some thoughts:

[]       ADDRESS SURVIVAL FIRST and STOP DENYING THAT IT IS A PROBLEM: Yep, food, shelter, and clothing are important.  Until your cooks are able to provide these basic elements of survival for themselves and their families you will never be able to convince those individuals to think of anything else.  Figure it out!  Become more efficient so you can work with fewer staff members and pay them more.  Re-evaluate your restaurant pricing for menu items to provide greater profitability and more room for higher wages.  Where there is a will, there is a way.  Make your employees a priority.

[]       RESPECT and SUPPORT: Treat your cooks the way you would want to be treated.  It’s as simple as that.  Be empathetic and firm at the same time.  Expect excellence from them and don’t waver, but at the same time find ways to build on their competence and confidence.

[]       TEACH and TRAIN: One sure fire way to build competence and confidence is to invest seriously in teaching and training.  Pride will result when individuals experience your investment in them and see the results in their own performance.

[]       LISTEN and ENGAGE:  We need to stop thinking we have all the answers.  You hire a person inferring you see their potential and trust they have something to offer.  Engage them, ask their opinions, give them a chance to express themselves, take it all in and recognize their effort, build an understanding of their concerns, and most importantly demonstrate your desire to involve them.

[]       RECOGNIZE and CELEBRATE:  Every person enjoys the public recognition of a job well done, a great idea, and a sound opinion.  Celebrate their engagement by using the word “thanks” as often as possible, smiling, or giving a thumbs up, shaking their hand, putting their name on a menu, recognizing them as an employee of the week, etc.  These celebrations cost you very little – only your time and sincere effort.  THIS MEANS EVERYTHING and adds to a realization of fulfillment.

[]       HEALTH and SAFETY: Be concerned, especially during this time of a national health crisis, with how your employees (cooks) are dealing with their health (physical, mental, and emotional).  Talk with them one-on-one, inquire about their families, and give them an opportunity to share.  Make sure that your compensation package includes some level of healthcare – this is the price of admission.  If they are sick, send them home but do so out of caring, not anger that they are sick.  Simple stuff folks – treat people as you would like to be treated.  Recognize their potential and help them on the road to fulfillment.  This is how we solve our current staffing dilemma and change attitudes.

“Leadership is unlocking people’s potential to become better.”

-Bill Bradley


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