I recently took a trip to Ithaca, New York, my childhood hometown. I traveled there to attend a funeral but also ended up visiting and consulting with five childhood friends, who, between them, run four well-known historical restaurants. In fact, each restaurant is considered a must-see on the New York State Food and Wine Trail. Dining with them brought back many fond memories of growing up in the heart of the Finger Lakes Wine Region of Central New York and sharing meals with family and friends for both special and everyday occasions.
As it is with dear friends, we talked about old times and our upcoming fortieth high school reunion. After visiting all four restaurants over a two-day period, I had consumed great food and wine — and was equally consumed with ideas of how to help them address a common problem: My friends clearly knew how to showcase the best of the region and its food — we took an afternoon sailboat tour of the Cayuga Lake wineries and enjoyed a fantastic dinner featuring local wines for each course — but they needed some guidance when it came to the recipe for a long-term, successful and winning plan for attracting, hiring and retaining a great chef.
While there are a number of challenges to owning and operating a restaurant today, one of the more serious is the inability to attract and retain a great chef, who can equally provide the leadership in the kitchen and the branding necessary to compete in today’s highly competitive restaurant industry. Joe, Rachel, Celia, Brian and Rob openly shared with me their current human resources and marketing approaches and how they sought to retain such a chef once hired. After listening to each, I began to see underlying problems. Remaining close for more than forty years since high school graduation, my friends were well aware of my more than twenty-five years of food and beverage industry experience, in addition to my consulting work with a number of top restaurant companies throughout the U.S. and abroad. In addition to knowing my background, my friends knew that I could empathize with them, as I had experienced similar frustrations in my career but overcome them by perfecting the ingredients for success.
The Main Ingredients
Before I shared my advice, I wanted to make sure that they all realized and appreciated why searching (and not settling) for a great chef was so important. After all, hiring such a position takes time, energy and expenses. I believe that it is money well spent and the benefits can be great. First, a great chef will take charge of all kitchen operations. This alone offers a tremendous time-management benefit, as my friends would no longer have to worry about repeatedly focusing on the kitchen and losing touch with the front-of-the-house operations. The head chef would also train all of the kitchen staff and insure all safety and preparation procedures are being strictly adhered to on a daily basis; oversee all of the cooking processes and be able to operate all of the equipment him or herself, if needed; and help develop menu and marketing initiatives.
When interviewing candidates for an executive chef position, I suggested they take the following key ingredients into consideration:
Common philosophy. Employ a chef who understands your restaurant’s concept and has a similar philosophy on customer service. This will enable you to create a unique, enjoyable dining experience and avoid philosophical conflict that will divide employee loyalty and confuse customers.
Credentials. Check your potential chef’s background. There are a number of online services that, for a minimal annual fee, will allow you unlimited access to their website to complete background checks of every employee, especially your potential chef. Examples of companies that provide these services are: Instant Checkmate; HireRight; SentryLink; IntelliCorp. (This partial list represents only a few of the many companies and services available that can be contracted for a one-time background check, monthly or annually). Instandcheckmate.com is considered the number-one background screening service, as it provides a thorough, detailed check that verifies employment history, academic credentials, public records and criminal history, if any. Equally important is to insure chef candidates have attended and graduated from a reputable culinary school and have been well trained on how to prepare foods that fit your restaurant concept. Take time during the interview to assess their ability to introduce new and cutting-edge foods. Also, can they incorporate a local, regional and sustainable menu into their overall strategy for managing your kitchen?
Leadership skills. Look for a leader — your chef is the captain of the kitchen team. You will want someone who can supervise, train others, provide feedback and develop talent in your kitchen. You also want someone who is confident and has high expectations and standards, but equally someone who is not a tyrant or seeks to undermine your overall authority.
" Look for a leader — your chef is the captain of the kitchen team. "
Experience and cooking ability. Inquire with references to ensure that a potential chef can handle the volume of orders expected during a typical rush. Be upfront with your candidate if you intend their position to be a working position and how that will benefit them in a bonus by reducing overall kitchen labor costs, when and where appropriate. Many restaurants today are requiring chef candidates to prepare a signature entrée and an entrée (menu item) selected by the restaurant to prepare as part of the formal interview process. You can invite close friends or regular customers to this special tasting and ask for their feedback as part of the selection process. Credentials and leadership are all well and good, but you want to make sure your candidates can actually cook.
Speed and consistency. Preparing large quantities of food in a short amount of time is the name of the game for food-service establishments. Be sure that the chef you choose is fast and efficient in their cooking methods and is able to deliver a consistent product every time.
Cost optimization. Give your chef a “paperwork test” as part of the interview with different food-cost scenarios. See what kind of dishes they can create for a sale price that does not erode your margin or turn away frugal customers. An experienced chef will be able to produce a tasty meal without breaking the bank.
I had painted a picture of the ideal candidate … but how to go about finding them? I’ll discuss what I’ve learned in the next part in this series, “The Recipe for Hiring a Great Chef, Part II: The Search.”