Here we are – seven or eight years into a steady economic recovery in the U.S. leading to the admirable statistic of a 3.9% unemployment rate (granted this is not qualified with regard to those who have stopped looking or those who are working at less than full time) – a figure that a decade or so ago would have far surpassed what is referred to as “full-employment” (all who want to work are doing so). Feels great America! Of course every silver lining has a bit of a crusty exterior, in this case an exterior that is making it increasingly difficult for the restaurant industry.
I know – you have heard this story played out countless times over the past couple years, but the fact remains that the challenge is still there and, in fact, growing in severity. Restaurants can’t find talented, hard-working, passionate cooks and servers. This is true from coast to coast and in every sector of the food business. In recent travels I encountered quick service restaurant concepts without order takers and menu concepts that are becoming more and more automated. This is the answer that more and more restaurant operators are turning to – if they can’t find and retain workers then it must be time to streamline and automate. Another full-service restaurant had a fairly large sign out front that proclaimed: “Looking for Awesome Employees”. Good luck with that – most restaurants are looking for anyone who might show up.
THE ROBOTIC KITCHEN – Is this where we want to be?
So maybe it is OK to take one more stab at a partial solution to the challenge. We all know the reasons that go beyond full employment: low pay, weak benefits, damn hard work, battlefield working conditions, lack of upward mobility, the need to truly “serve” if you want to be part of the restaurant family, and far too many managers and chefs who fail to understand how to effectively lead and manage. Yes, these are real issues that the restaurant industry must wrap its arms around and approach as a systemic issue, but isn’t there some place where the average restaurant can start in the meantime?
From 1980-2001 or so, culinary and hospitality schools were flourishing. The overhyped excitement of working in the restaurant and hotel business drew young people by the thousands to these centers for career development. Swashbuckling, starched uniformed chefs were center-stage role models for young aspiring cooks who now carried kits of Henkel knives, Birkenstock clogs, Bragard chef coats and Thomas Keller’s latest food porn cookbook to classrooms from coast to coast. This was the career of a new generation of cooks with visions of grandeur and hopes of owning their own Michelin restaurant.
For a few, this dream became a reality; for a percentage a career in food lived up to the hype, but for a significant group the reality hit when kitchen jobs failed to be quite as glamorous as they had hoped, and the pay didn’t even come close to covering the burden of hefty college debt. Fast-forward to today and it is pretty easy to assess why we are facing such a shortage of energetic, hard-working, passionate restaurant employees.
How do a chef and the restaurateur unravel this complex problem and build a cadre of cooks and service staff who share in the enthusiasm for a restaurant concept and the art of cooking great food? Maybe, just maybe, it is time to turn back the clock a bit and identify when and why things went a bit sideways.
I would dare say that the vast majority of chefs today who are over the age of 40 probably became interested in the profession because of a chef or fellow cook who inspired them on that first job. Maybe it was washing dishes, or if you were lucky – working as an assistant on the breakfast line, but surely your initial passion for a career in food came from that first experience working with an individual with admirable skills and a willingness to take you under his or her wing. This may have been your first experience with a mentor – a person with the ability and desire to commit to you and your success. This was (I know it was for me) an exhilarating feeling that even surpassed the encouragement that your parents and teachers may have provided. It didn’t always take the form of a person who patted you on the back and told you great things about your promise as a cook; in fact, it might have been the opposite. This might have been the person who rode you incessantly; a chef who never let you take a shortcut, always told you that you could do better, and always insisted that you work harder than you thought was possible. This is, after all, what true mentors do.
The chef/mentor never let a day go by without showing you how to do more, explaining why things were done a certain way, and/or showing disappointment when you failed to live up to his or her expectations. On occasion, the chef might say – good job, but compliments were never given freely unless they were duly earned. You wouldn’t think of coming to work with a $300 French knife or any tool that was beyond your level of expertise. Tools were important, but just like position in the kitchen, they needed to be earned. On the other hand, this same chef/mentor wouldn’t allow you to step foot in the kitchen if you were not properly groomed, your uniform clean and pressed, and your shoes polished. If you wanted to be treated like a professional then your mentor would insist that you look and act like one. Maybe it’s time to look back in time and reinstate the rigor of mentorship and the honor of training.
Not everyone can afford the go to culinary school. There was a time when it was a luxury, not a right of passage. When one can’t afford the cost of tuition then the degree becomes as much of a burden as an opportunity. The chef, however, has within his or her power – the ability to teach, train, share, mentor, and demand excellence from those who have the passion but not the resources to take the college route to a career. If you can’t find the talent from outside then maybe it’s time to return to “training your own” and realize that the first and most important job of the chef is to “pass it on” and build those with desire into competent cooks with the ability to rise to a chef position in the future.
When you invest in others then you create a dynamic that far exceeds the importance of other immediate forms of compensation. Without the burden of college loans, many of those passionate young cooks might just be able to tough out those formative years before responsibility and compensation fall into line.
Here are some basic rules of mentorship that might be best served as part of the modern chef’s bag of tricks when it comes to building and keeping a team:
 BE A BEACON OF EXCELLENCE
People may select a job for various reasons: money, location, type of work, lifestyle, flexibility, etc., but they typically leave a job because of the person they work for or the people they work with. When the chef or restaurateur defines the standards of excellence in quality of work and how others are treated then there are far fewer reasons to look for opportunities elsewhere.
 NEVER ACCEPT MEDIOCRITY
The chef should set the standard, by example, for excellence and never waiver from that standard. Excellence is contagious and as such it will become a source of pride.
 PUSH OTHERS TO EXCEED EXPECTATIONS
Although there are certainly exceptions to the rule – many people rise to the occasion when it is assumed that expectations will always be met or exceeded. The chef should always push members of the team to constantly improve and strive for exceptional results.
 CREATE AN ENVIRONMENT OF RIGOR
There is something truly gratifying about working hard to achieve results. Whether it is physical, mental, or emotional – when a restaurant environment is created that challenges employees to accomplish more than they felt was possible, then the bar is constantly raised. “The difficult we do right away, the impossible takes a little bit longer.”
 DO THINGS RIGHT
Look at the truly extraordinary restaurants and you will quickly note that no matter what detail – the operation is totally focused on doing the job correctly. This is not a goal; this is simply the way that everything is approached.
 HONE YOUR SKILLS AS A TRAINER AND A TEACHER
Once a chef understands that his or her primary job is to “pass it on” and spend the time necessary to properly train, teach, and develop employees then the operation takes on a brand new energy that can be quite intoxicating.
 SET THE STAGE FOR TEAM
Concentrating on the individual will only go so far – the goal is to ensure that those individuals bond to form a cohesive, like-minded cohort that moves in unison, thinks collaboratively, and acts as if they are one. This happens when the chef is able and willing to create an environment of inclusion, focused excellence, self-critique, discipline, and results oriented effort. Great communication, high expectations, superb training and teaching, and active critique will help to build this environment.
This is certainly not the “one answer” to the restaurant industry’s labor challenges, but maybe it is a start. Invest in people and they will tend to invest themselves in you and your business.
PLAN BETTER – TRAIN HARDER
Harvest America Ventures, LLC
Restaurant Consulting and Training
**See other articles of interest in The American Culinary Federations Official Blog:
**PHOTOS: #1: Chef’s Charles Carroll and Michael Beriau (two incredible influences in my career), #2: Chef Anton Flory, CMC – my mentor