What makes a chef successful at his or her job? It certainly takes many years for an accomplished cook to rise to the position of chef, but what should they have learned along the way? Just as with restaurant owners there are many factors that lead to success, but just as many, if not more, that lead to failure. Most advisors focus on what these individuals need to do to succeed, but few spend time pointing out those things that every food professional should avoid – that is unless they are intent on failure.
This list could be a good reference point as chefs assess their own performance as well as a checklist for operators taking a hard look at the person who holds the key position in the back-of-the-house. There are no guarantees in business, but an understanding of and avoidance of the following will certainly help to put a chef on the right path.
SUREFIRE WAYS TO FAIL AT THE POSITION OF CHEF:
- DON’T LISTEN TO YOUR GUESTS
Far too many chefs relish reaching the position of “person in charge” so that they can demonstrate their skill and convince the guest to like what the chef prefers to make. This can work, but creating an environment where the chef engages the guest and designs a menu to reflect some of the chef’s signature items with a core of what the guest truly wants to buy makes the best business sense.
- IGNORE IDEAS AND CONCERNS FROM YOUR COOKS
Chefs need to remember how they felt as cooks working up that career ladder. Serious cooks have a desire to express themselves, their ideas and their observations. Chefs who ignore listening to their cooks are missing a prime opportunity to engage them, learn from them, and improve.
- DISREGARD PERSONAL NEEDS OF YOUR EMPLOYEES
Cooks are employees who must be at the service of the property – right? Certainly, this statement makes sense, but on the other hand, if a chef is ignorant of the personal needs of the cook (time off for important family events, doctor’s appointments, legal matters, etc.) then he or she is much less likely to attract loyalty and commitment from those same cooks. Chefs need to be aware and flexible when possible.
- AVOID TAKING PHYSICAL INVENTORIES
“What is your food cost?” This is a simple question that any person assessing a restaurants financial performance will ask. Food cost is a measurement that helps to determine a property’s ability to succeed. Although inventories are a nuisance, there is no legitimate way to judge food cost performance without investing the time in a physical count. Some properties take inventories monthly – I always recommend that it becomes a weekly process. Identify potential problems before they get out of hand.
- ESTABLISH SELLING PRICES BASED ON GUT FEELINGS
Determining selling price is a mathematical process that involves control over portioning and determination of ingredient costs. This is a “must do” exercise that should happen fairly frequently throughout the financial cycle. With such small margins in restaurants the chef cannot afford to guess at selling price – it needs to be dealt with as a science and an art.
- DON’T CHALLENGE PRICES FROM YOUR VENDORS
Assuming that your vendor is working in your best interest is a very dangerous method of operation. Always assume that your vendors are looking first after their own best interest, challenge them, hold their feet to the fire, verify what they do, and shop around to help keep them honest. If you do find a vendor that you can trust unconditionally, then by all means do business with them and relish the relationship that you have.
- DON’T HAVE A PLAN FOR THE FUTURE
Living in the moment is nice, but every business, especially those with low profit margins like restaurants need to have a longer-term strategy when it comes to staffing, marketing, menu concept, pricing, growth, and profitability. The chef must participate in building this strategy and sticking to a method geared towards reaching those strategic goals.
- RESIST CHANGE AT ALL COSTS
Chefs should resist change for simply the sake of change, but listen closely to what works and doesn’t work, seek out critique from guests, closely follow the competition, analyze trends, and when appropriate be willing to move in a different direction. It is also wise at times to consider creating the next big thing rather than simply waiting for change to push you in a new direction.
- CRITICIZE YOUR COOKS WORK IN PUBLIC
No one enjoys criticism, especially if in earshot of others. Chefs need to learn that pointing out areas of weakness should always be done in private and even more importantly done with two keys elements in mind: make sure that you add a dose of positive and always use it as a teaching moment to demonstrate how the employee can improve.
- DON’T CHECK COUNT, WEIGHT, AND QUALITY OF INCOMING DELIVERIES
Take the time to check on your investment. Keep your vendors on their toes by validating weight, amount, and quality – this is the best way to ensure that future deliveries will be on point. As Wolfgang Puck once said: “I buy the best ingredients and try not to screw them up.”
- LET YOUR STAFF KNOW THAT YOUR POSITION IS MORE IMPORTANT THAN THEIRS
Chefs who place themselves above those who work in every critical position in a restaurant will never gain respect and loyalty. Every position in the restaurant is important and it is imperative that a chef let each person know that.
- TAKE ALL OF THE CREDIT FOR THE PRODUCT THAT COMES FROM THE KITCHEN
The chef has a critical role in the kitchen, but he or she cannot take control of every step. The chef must trust, respect, and give credit where credit is due.
- DON’T DEVELOP RELATIONSHIPS WITH LOCAL FARMERS AND PRODUCERS
The chef can only do so much if the raw materials fail to meet quality and consistency standards. Building strong relationships with the source is as critical as executing consistent cooking methods.
- LET YOUR HUMAN RESOURCE DEPARTMENT TAKE CARE OF ALL KITCHEN HIRING
If the chef is fortunate enough to have an HR person in the restaurant then much of the legwork (advertising, screening, processing) involved in hiring can be safely passed off. This should not relinquish the chef from the most critical piece – determining whether or not there is chemistry with the rest of the team, determining a persons’ passion for food, assessing baseline skills, and starting the process of trust building.
- AVOID USING ANY STANDARDIZED RECIPES IN YOUR KITCHEN
Like them or not, standardized recipes are an essential component in ensuring consistency in cost and quality. I worry about any restaurant that fails to work from the foundations of a recipe even though they will always need to varying an approach to end with the desired results.
- DON’T INVEST TIME, MONEY, OR ENERGY IN STAFF TRAINING
My motto is always “Plan Better – Train Harder”. Training is an investment in the team, the individual, the business, and the satisfaction of the guest. One of the best ways to attract and retain great employees is to invest in their training.
- KEEP ALL OF THE FINANCIAL INFORMATION ABOUT THE KITCHEN OPERATION TO YOURSELF AND REFRAIN FROM SHARING THIS WITH YOUR STAFF
Engage your employees, share what you can and watch how they invest their own energy in offering a helping hand. Why not talk with them about sales, food cost, labor cost, check average, individual item popularity, etc.?
- ARRIVE LATE AND LEAVE EARLY – YOU EARNED THE RIGHT
Sorry to relay the bad news, but as you move into the role of chef you will spend even more time in the kitchen. This is not to infer that you don’t trust employees, but to be there for them as a cheerleader, coach, and problem solver.
- KNOW THAT STAFF MEAL IS AN ANNOYANCE AND SHOULD TAKE AS LITTLE EFFORT AS POSSIBLE
The staff meal is, or at least should be, more than a quick energy boost in preparation for an onslaught of business, this is an opportunity to bring the family together, educate, share, toast, and rally everyone around a common objective. Make the meal a short time to sit down as a team and ensure the meal is wholesome and reflective of the quality that defines who you are as a chef.
- KNOW THAT THE FRONT OF THE HOUSE IS LESS IMPORTANT THAN THE BACK AND DISREGARD THEIR NEEDS AND CONCERNS
One of the biggest mistakes that a chef can make is to fail to appreciate the significance of the service component. The food will bring new guests in initially, but it is the service that will bring them back time and again. It’s all about team!
- DISREGARD THE NEED TO UNDERSTAND THE BEVERAGE SEGMENT OF THE RESTAURANT AND ITS CONNECTION TO THE MENU
The restaurant experience is a combination of food, service, atmosphere, and complementary beverages. A chef who is well versed should always have a strong understanding of wine, craft beer, and distilled beverages and the role they play in creating a balanced experience.
- DISREGARD THE OVERRIDING IMPORTANCE OF SANITATION AND SAFETY
Never the last point, maybe the most important – sanitation and the safety associated with guests and employees is paramount. A chef’s first job is to ensure that this is addressed without exception.
PLAN BETTER – TRAIN HARDER
Harvest America Ventures, LLC
Restaurant Consulting and Training
**PHOTO: My mentor – Master Chef Anton Flory – RIP.