A kitchen can be like a swirling black hole that unfortunately happens to be located on the other side of a swinging double door in the back of your establishment. People, food, and orders get sucked in and disappear in the form of bloated payroll and food cost and subpar meals. Finding effective kitchen managers — individuals with the skills, experience, and demeanor to turn this void into a center of efficiency and driver of guest satisfaction — is critical to your financial success and can provide a significant competitive advantage over your competition. Unfortunately, the specific and varied characteristics required of an effective kitchen manager can seem impossible to find in a single individual. To make matters worse, you might not really know what they are.
Kitchen Manager vs. Chef
A kitchen manager is responsible for overseeing the day-to-day back of house operations and administrative tasks. They are usually responsible for controlling costs and managing labor. A chef is typically in charge of recipes, menu items and can potentially share some ordering and staff management responsibilities with the kitchen manager.
Great kitchen managers exist. You just need to know what you’re looking for to find one.
How to Effectively Manage a Kitchen
Managing a kitchen takes an individual with a variety of skills that, unfortunately, don’t often coexist. To be good at it, your kitchen manager should:
1. Be an effective and willing administrator.
This characteristic is the most important and most difficult to find. Cooks are called cooks because they cook. Most cooks got into the business to cook. Great kitchen managers understand that their duties include purchasing, inventory, scheduling, hiring and firing — for better or worse, the mundane tasks associated with being in charge.
2. Be creative.
This is a characteristic that can be difficult to find in a person who possesses the trait mentioned above. But a creative personality can drive the kind of out-of-the-box thinking that leads to food offerings that wow your customers and return visits.
3. Keep calm under pressure.
Ummm … so if you have ever been around a ranting manager in the middle of a rush, you may be wondering about how important this characteristic really is — or how likely it is that any of them have it. Screaming is different than losing it. Better not to scream, but losing it is not an option.
4. Be a detail-oriented perfectionist.
Mistakes happen, and no one can be perfect. Good kitchen managers try anyway. Great ones are personally in everything that comes out of their kitchen.
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5. Be experienced in your style of cuisine.
I am repeatedly surprised that even industry professionals fail to differentiate between different types of kitchen operations and the specific skills required of the staff working in them. Cooking banquet, high volume, or fine dining develop unique skill sets among practitioners. Those skill sets don’t always readily translate to the other styles. I have been to small banquets at some really fine restaurants that have been a disaster. Be careful not to become infatuated with candidates from establishments with a lot of stars.
6. Be a good teacher.
Cooks take care of their station on the line. They prep their own ingredients and cook what they are responsible for. For kitchen managers, their station is the line and they are ultimately responsible for everything that their kitchen produces. In order to produce what they are responsible for (everything), they need to rely on their team. That team needs to be able to make what they are responsible for as well and as consistently as your kitchen manager would. They need someone to show them how.
7. Be a hard worker.
This one should go without saying, and I think to some extent it does. At the point of being hired as a kitchen manager, a culinary professional should understand the kind of hours required to do the job. Be careful of managers, especially new managers, who get their first crack at putting a schedule together and load up on staff to get themselves some extra time off. Remind them, if you must, that the responsibilities of management far outweigh the perks.
- Beware your own biases. Almost all of my pre-management industry experience was in front-of-the-house positions. If you currently own or operate a bar, so is yours…because that’s just the way it is. The kitchen could be a very different environment than the one you cut your teeth in. You should never assume that what (or who) worked for you outside the kitchen, would work in the kitchen. See numbers one through seven above.
- Great cooks don't always make good kitchen managers. See numbers one through seven above or Michael Jordan/Charlotte Bobcats!
- Fill in the holes with complementary skills. I once had an executive chef working for me who was a great administrator but not such a great cook. His sous chef was, however, and together they ran one of the most successful kitchens I have ever managed. If your operation is large enough, consider finding two individuals who, together, possess the critical skills listed above.
- Hire a kid. Especially if your kitchen operation is small, you may need one person to handle the management and execution in your kitchen. Students or recent graduates of culinary arts programs are schooled in the kinds of administrative duties necessary to run your kitchen and often have more industry experience than you think. They are green and will likely require some direction, but they’re just starting out and will be thankful to have control over even the smallest operations.
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