In the past decade, commercial kitchens have become vibrant stages for creative innovation. Many of the top chefs in the world today are morphing food with science: cooking with nitrogen, deconstructing dishes into foams and jellies, and dehydrating foods and sauces in order to create powders, infused salts, and oils. Some are making their reputations by serving raw food, or dishes that are cooked at very low temperatures (called sous-vide in French). Many talented chefs are also returning to the time-honored skills of curing meats and fish, as well as preparing foods using methods that may require days or even months to complete. And in a turn toward supporting both healthful eating habits and sustainable agriculture, chefs are forming close relationships with organic farmers, artisans, and a wide variety of sustainable-food producers.
This explosion of creativity and general interest in the food world has also been accompanied by the creation of an entertainment industry around commercial cooking. In recent years chefs have been elevated to rock star status and countless aspiring food professionals are spending thousands of dollars on high-end cooking schools with the hopes of tapping into the perceived world of glamour and fame. Many chefs now have agents or spend a major portion of their time at the computer, networking for the next gig.
In truth, as most restaurateurs know, restaurant operations are largely unglamorous and the culinary profession bears little connection to its Hollywood representations. A recent poll from US News & World Report named chef as the number three most overrated career choice in America. The reason for this is painfully obvious: For every Emeril Lagasse or Bobby Flay, there are hundreds of thousands of cooks in this country working very long hours for very little money and no camera exposure.
In short, it’s a whole new world out there, and as a restaurant owner trying to hire a chef, you’re in for a challenge. You need someone who is as interested in cooking as he or she might be about becoming famous. How do you find that? What should you look for?
There is absolutely no getting around the fact that running a kitchen properly is a very demanding process, both physically and mentally. The best chefs in this country are the ones who are able to market both themselves and your restaurant while actually working in your kitchen at the same time. It requires many years of training to become a highly skilled chef, and on top of basic culinary skills a high-end chef is required to be an expert in many disciplines, from butchering to concocting sauces and pastries, including all the intricacies of properly purchasing seafood, meats, produce, and other ingredients for the business.
It’s difficult for a restaurant to be successful in the high-end dining market. The kiss of death for a restaurant is to be perceived as a special occasion restaurant. The last thing you want, unless you happen to be The French Laundry, is to cater specifically to customers who might visit your establishment only once or twice a year. The high-profile end of the restaurant business is notoriously fickle. Food is not unlike fashion in many respects — one year a certain type of cuisine might be all the rage, only for the foodie crowd to move on to the next style in the blink of an eye.
The trick for the high-end restaurateur is to select a chef who is flexible enough to flow with the currents of change. At the same time, he or she needs to be computer literate and able to turn a profit for your establishment. And the most important requirement for running a kitchen, especially in this type of environment, is focused, compassionate leadership. In order to stay on top of the curve with high-end cooking, your chef needs to hire and retain a solid crew of dedicated professionals who are ready and willing to excel on a daily basis. Cleanliness, proper food preparation, and cost efficiency are imperative. Artisan, sustainable, and organic foods can be very expensive and in order to make a profit, your chef has to be an expert at not only using each individual product to its fullest extent to minimize waste, but also in managing food and labor costing. If your chef can’t muster this level of organization, your bottom line will leak money faster than a broken pipe.
It would be easy to write an entire book on the intricacies of the process of recruiting for a high-end chef, but the basic set of criteria listed below can give you a start. These are the qualities of a chef who can give your restaurant the best chance for success:
- Culinary skillset that matches your business profile.
- Proven track record for running successful kitchens. (Always take the time to check references.)
- Willingness to be a hands-on working chef. (A high-end kitchen requires leadership by example in order to inspire motivation.)
- Charisma and the ability to help you with marketing. (The current media focus on cooking means a media-savvy chef can propel your restaurant to greater success over the long haul.)
- Genuine passion for cooking. (This must surmount the chef’s desire for ego gratification.)
When you find candidates, use these techniques to test their fit with the restaurant and negotiate an employment arrangement that will benefit you both:
- Have your prospective chef cook for you, both privately and in your existing kitchen, in order to observe how they function. Even if morale is low because of current changes in staff, a confident leader will be able to win over your crew. Employees appreciate a well qualified professional and will work hard for them.
- In order to test their business and literacy skills, have your prospect develop and cost out a small menu and set of corresponding recipes using your existing computer programs.
- Negotiate with your prospect clearly and specifically, including full job description, financial incentives, and overall expectations.
- If a good prospect does not have all of the skills required but is willing to learn, offer to support them with proper training and assistance in acquiring these skills.
- Be prepared to compensate your applicant in some way for this effort to assure that they will give you the full extent of their expertise.
Most important, take your time in order to pick the right candidate. This will save you a lot of time and money in the long run. Remember, it’s your restaurant and above all you need to feel comfortable with the people you hire to run the kitchen. If, like so many restaurateurs, you’re doing this for the first time, you might even be able to rely on a well-qualified chef to help with some of the major business decisions and guide your operation towards greater success.
Kevin McKenzie is a chef, cooking instructor, and writer who covers the slow-food movement and sustainability in his column, A Chef’s Notes, published in the Healdsburg Tribune, Windsor Times, and Sonoma West newspapers. He launched his career at the beginning of the California Cuisine movement, working alongside such notables as Jeremiah Tower and Jonathan Waxman. He spent several years in Los Angeles as a caterer and private chef for the entertainment elite, orchestrating such events as the Academy Awards Governors Ball. Kevin was also the proprietor of the acclaimed Rover’s Restaurant in Seattle. As the Executive Chef of Dry Creek Vineyard, he currently creates stylistic menus featuring latest food trends to complement the vineyard’s offerings.