In almost any restaurant no position is more important than that of the chef. Of course other positions, such as the dining room manager and GM or owner/operator, are just as critical. But if the menu is not appealing, the food not consistently well prepared, the food costs not kept in line and staff turnover not kept to a minimum, the chances of any operation’s success recede to zero. Most operators understand this, which explains the level of apprehension, if not the genuine anxiety, that many feel when faced with the task of hiring a new chef. Let’s examine just what we should be looking for in a chef, and how to best go about finding it.
A Good Chef is a Great Manager
First, let’s identify the basic types of tasks that any chef will be responsible for accomplishing once hired. The level of competency required of the chef and the complexity and relative importance of the tasks will vary from one operation to the next, but any chef in any kitchen will have to preform each of these jobs to at least some degree in the course of his regular workload.
Purchasing, receiving, storage and keeping track of inventory are four very important tasks in every commercial kitchen. The experience needed to successfully carry out these duties and completely understand their relevance takes time to develop. An important part of your operation should be to give as many of your employees as possible an ongoing opportunity to learn and master these skills through their regular participation in these processes.
However, one of the main attributes of anyone being considered as chef should be a total fluency and comfort level with these procedures. Whether or not they themselves will carry out all of the steps involved, they need to be able to direct and assess each part of each process with a certainty derived from having done it all themselves many times in the course of their career.
These are tasks that will affect the quality and consistency of your food, your food costs, labor costs and the morale of your staff. When interviewing prospective chefs, be sure to bring up this topic – if they don’t first – and see how enthusiastic they are about it. They should be able to explain just how they’ve done it, why they did it that way, and what effect it had on various parts of their operation. Their preferred method will also help to ascertain just how tech-savvy a candidate they are; this is one area that spreadsheets can work wonders.
Food Cost Control
Food cost percent is something that every chef is very aware of. After all, for as long as anyone can remember, many operators have looked at their chefs as either a major hero or villain depending on whether or not a specified percent was attained or, hopefully, even beaten. On the one hand, this percent can indicate just how good a chef is at the above-mentioned tasks related to purchasing, as well as running a generally tight ship in terms of waste, production, portioning, security and various other kitchen disciplines. On the other hand, it might be the result of poor menu pricing or planning, an especially generous concept of entitlement in a GM or owner, or other factors perhaps beyond the control of the chef in question.
During an interview it’s easy for a candidate to throw out what he considers to be a low, extraordinary food cost percent that he has achieved at a former job. And they might think that it is even more impressive when they talk about how they lowered the food cost in the last restaurant they worked in by 10 points in as many weeks. While it may be true – and pertinent – you’ll learn more if you ask them, specifically, just how they ran their last kitchen to accomplish that figure.
If you expect your chef to price out individual menu items using regularly updated vendor pricing, it will be an advantage if he or she has done it before and are comfortable with the process. If part of their job will be to help determine your menu pricing, be sure to discuss their strategy for this process with them.
Along with food, labor is the other main cost that your chef will be largely responsible for managing. If you already have a good system in place for scheduling your kitchen staff that yields acceptable labor costs, along with an adequate kitchen staff, your new chef’s job in this regard will be much easier. If this is the case, he will have a good model to follow for scheduling, and good people available to fill up the shifts. Of course, nothing is permanent or static where people are involved, so you need a chef that will be able to access each staff member’s abilities, strengths and weaknesses, and work with them to everyone’s advantage. This is probably the hardest part of any chef’s job. Experience and past success help a lot, but a natural ability to manage and lead are also required. In most situations, this ability is at least as important as culinary skill and talent.
If one of the main things you’d like your new chef to do for you is to establish good systems and procedures for scheduling and staffing, as well putting together an appropriate kitchen crew, then a certain depth of experience, contacts and past success in doing this should be mandatory. In all cases, make sure that you give your chef all the accurate information that he or she will need to comply with all aspects of the labor laws such as overtime, exempt employees and tip pooling. Don’t take for granted that they did it correctly at their last job.
The Right Temperament
Last, but certainly not least, is a potential candidate’s temperament. Your chef needs to be good with people. It helps if they genuinely like and care about people, and demonstrate it on an almost continual basis. They’ll be setting the tone in the kitchen and leading by example, whether they realize it or not. Fair, sound judgment, maturity, a high energy level, calm under pressure and a real desire and ability to teach are traits that will serve any chef well. Some of this can be gleaned during the interview process, but almost anyone can act sane for a half hour or so. The best way to establish some idea of just what a candidate is really like in the trenches is by calling former employers and seeing what they have to say. If someone was a pleasure to have around, most employers will be happy to tell you so. If they weren’t, “not eligible for rehire” should be all you need to hear to seriously consider moving on to another candidate. And as with any employee, a good record of job stability is key.
Match the Skills to the Concept
Of course, the importance of the actual culinary duties required of a chef cannot be overestimated. But don’t underestimate the huge differences between the skillsets required by the myriad types of foodservice establishments out there. Just as the offerings and guest expectations are worlds apart at a sandwich shop/deli, pizza parlor, family restaurant, fine dinning establishment, nursing home and large hotel banquet operation, the talents, skills and experience demanded of the chef in each of these cases don’t compare to one another.
Before you begin your search for a chef, make a very clear and honest assessment of just what he or she will need to be capable of in terms of food and its production, in your operation. Will he need to know how to make a variety of stocks from scratch, and then know what to do with them after that? Do any of your dishes even use stock? Will he make more use of the can opener or the fish poacher? Will he need to know how to distinguish a great whole fish from a merely good one, or will he be selecting frozen tilapia by which vendor is offering the best buy? Will he be managing a crew of 20 or figuring out how he and the steward will get lunch out by 11:30? None of these scenarios is inherently better or worse than the other, but they will each be better served by one type of chef over another.
Quality & Quantity
Once you have a clear and specific idea of the culinary and management skills your chef will need to succeed in your restaurant, you’ll have a much better chance of finding the right fit. In general, it’s good to have someone who has successfully done a similar job before; if not as a kitchen’s top person, then at least as a second in command. The two basic aspects of a candidate’s previous experience you’ll be looking at are quality and quantity of production. It’s reasonable to assume that a chef will be able to produce a simpler level of cuisine than they have in the past, but not a higher level. If they’ve been making every sauce and side dish from raw, unprocessed ingredients, and regularly poaching, grilling, sautéing and roasting various dishes, moving to a kitchen that opens number-10 cans of ketchup, calling it Marinara and pouring it over reheated spaghetti won’t be more than he can handle. Assuming a chef could easily move in the opposite direction is probably unrealistic.
I exaggerate to make a point, but that brings up another point. Every chef is comfortable within a certain range of cuisine and, although in some cases it’s a wide range, it’s a mistake to try to get someone to move too far from their comfort level. It’s the same with quantity. If someone is used to doing 350 covers in a shift, 75 covers of a similar menu probably won’t be an issue, but moving in the other direction very well might be.
How to Find the One: Start with Word of Mouth
One of the best ways to find appropriate candidates is by simply spreading the word among everyone you and your employees know. Good workers tend to be friends with one another, so be sure that your best managers let their friends know about the opening. Placing want ads is usually necessary, but be sure that your ads are specific about what you’re looking for. State your requirements and describe your operation clearly. If you’d like at least three years of experience at a sous-chef or higher level at a similar establishment, say so. Where you place your ads matter. Ask around to see where others have had luck recently. Besides Craigslist or Monster.com, consider your local chefs’ association newsletter, state or local restaurant associations’ resources, subgroups in Facebook and LinkedIn, and organizations like ACF or NACE.
Review every résumé you receive and set up interviews with candidates you feel are real possibilities. Be sure to send appreciative rejection letters to the others; there’s no sense in creating hard feelings by ignoring someone who may be a good fit in the future. You may want to call references and former employers before setting up an interview, but definitely make these calls before considering making an offer to anyone.
Before the actual interview, have the candidates fill out your standard employee application. To avoid any issues later on, make sure that your application has been scrutinized by your attorney, or at least get advice on just what you should and shouldn’t include. Whoever conducts the interviews should be trained on what to ask and, more importantly, what not to ask. Your local restaurant association and state workforce commission should be of help with both your employment application and interview procedures, either through printed materials or workshops that you can attend. Restaurantowner.com also has several good resources in this regard.
Many operators see a benefit in having a candidate cook a meal for a small group as part of the vetting process. While cooking a meal for a few managers and owners is certainly a far cry from the actual job the candidate is being considered for, it’s a good way to observe how friendly, creative, organized, clean, fast and calm a contender is, and to see just how good his basic skills are in regards to knife work, application of heat, seasoning and presentation.
Be sure to have a background check done before considering making an offer to anyone. This is also a good time to review your employee manual for policies on probationary periods and procedures for termination of employment. Just in case.