Dec 312012
 

I just received a resume from an old friend in the industry. He is interested in one of my positions. I haven’t got a clue if I can hook him up or not for a very simple reason:

Like so many experienced chefs, that is, chefs with over twenty years under their belts, he has chosen to place what he feels is the most impressive information at the beginning of the resume and sort his previous positions accordingly.

This leaves me as an employer or recruiter with the job of figuring out the puzzle..in which direction has he guided his career, what is his current track record, etc.

None of us in the people industry really like playing connect the dots.

Therefor let’s do a snappy summary of the best practices for presenting your job history on paper.

1)      State your most recent job on top. List previous positions historically going back in time.

2)      If you are currently in your position and have been there  for at least three years, you  have no need to give the months, although I still prefer them. Shorter positions, however, should be presented with the months of employment. (10/04 – 9/06 for instance)  This will usually work in your favor.  Your job history is a history.

3)      Positions going back more than seven years or so do not need months, with the exception of positions in prestigious or celebrity restaurants. These should always show exactly how long you worked there.

4)      If you worked at different branches of the same company, you should list the entire time you worked for the company with the separate locations indented with months and years below.

5)    You can (and should) also use this trick if you followed one chef mentor or restaurant owner through more than one property. The point you want to make is stability or commitment.

6)      Simultaneous positions can be listed in succession with a mention that they were both at the same time.

7)      If you interrupted an ongoing position to take a stage elsewhere or attend formal culinary training, there is no reason not to list the entire period of your employment there with a note that there was a six month interruption for whatever reason.

To summarize, my clients and I, or anyone who is hiring, is more interested in your current career trajectory than  your illustrious distant past.

The best you can hope for if you try to put shine on your career by placing the cherries on top is mild exasperation. It is more likely that  you will disqualify yourself for trying to get something past them. In other words, we don’t appreciate being messed with.

To quote a very smart client regarding this situation,  “I don’t care where he was..I want to know what he did with it, what he is doing with it, and where he’s going now.”  Let that guide you.

 

Jo Lynne Lockley

Nov 072012
 

This is for the few of you who have the good fortune to work in the best kitchens and are disheartened.

I’ve had a run of very desirable jobs recently including openings in Orange County, New York and the Bay Area. All of these require background in high discipline kitchens, which means by definition high visibility, quality and usually celebrity locations.

The result of  my outreach for candidates has been the usual dreaded flood of “could have beens”, that is chefs who started out in in the most respected kitchens and then left them early in their careers. The classic resume shows half a year at some place like Daniel, perhaps a couple of years at one of Joe Bastianich’s kitchens or Cyrus, then a move to a less known hotel  kitchen, possibly a restaurant popular outside of the white hot fires of New York, Chicago or San Francisco, then a choice for something perhaps off shore, but not on the general radar,  or possibly  industrial food service,  a retirement home, a school kitchen, an Embassy  Suites restaurant. These chefs because they have once been in the best kitchens now feel they  have the background to give them entry to a Michelin or some five diamond property. They couldn’t be more wrong.

They started with a full bag of chips, and they cashed them in too early. The thing about top level dining is that it demands top level focus and top level discipline. The word for that is “rigor”. Careers are like knives – they have to stay sharp. If you leave them dull to long, they lose that original edge. You can re-sharpen knives. Careers are much more difficult.

I understand why these chefs did this – the next step offered more money, a better title, promises of more freedom. That’s easy enough – the price for sticking in the top level of the industry is a longer path to fulfillment. You will not be a sous chef in five years. Your opinion will not be asked or even tolerated before you have been involved for at least seven or eight. By bailing on the demands and lack of early rewards chefs prove that they are better than the kitchens suppose them to be. Or maybe not.

Some rethink their priorities. Perhaps fiancés or partners insist on more attention. Some young chefs do not have the patience for the nit picking and hard standards of the top kitchens, and if that is the case, they should not be there. The top kitchens cull their staff by not promoting those who do not stand up to what some consider abuse. For them to leave is not only appropriate, it is intelligent. There are a lot of satisfying places to work in the A- down leagues.

For the rest, however, leaving them wastes an investment of time and energy, because you can only trade on the credibility those restaurants lend you for limited time. Once you are out of the loop, it expires.  There are back doors to be sure – old colleagues who stayed the course and are willing to pull you back in to their openings in a subordinate level or just the occasional accident, but they are iffy.

There is nothing wrong with bailing from the top.  Working in less demanding and more approachable locations is a pragmatic and appropriate choice. For one thing there are more people willing to spend their money there, and the rewards can be great. But starting at the top and then turning away generally means losing some of the value your energies created.

Anyone who has left the upper echelon did so for a reason. Not everyone can succeed in them. Those who left need to remember that reason and determine where their best options within the available jobs lie. Being the best food service director is better than struggling to stay above water as a hopeful subordinate in the Michelin leagues. Those still in the arena, however, will do well to think hard on the long range opportunities they may sacrifice by taking the more comfortable or flattering route.

What if fine dining is not what you really feel you want to do? Consider this: I have the privilege of knowing some of the chefs in top chain and food corporation positions, all earning well into the six figures. None of the kitchens or products they oversee require exceptional culinary rigor, but the chefs all have long careers in demanding, will recognized restaurants and occasionally celebrity status, because the corporations who have hired them require that their leaders are infinitely better qualified than their products require.  Nobody who ever accepted a better salary or a better title at a less demanding location gets these plum positions. Think about it.

Good luck to you all.

Oct 292012
 

Every so often a resume claiming the distinction of “Master Chef” flops up on the screen.

Most of them are  full of baloney.

“Master Chef” is one of those titles that sounds impressive and in all but a few cases means nothing. PBS started this when Julia Childs, who was not in truth even a chef  launched her show of American Master Chefs.

Julia Childs was a visionary culinarian and possibly the best cook and one of the finest instructors ever to stand in front of a camera, and since she taught us all, she was ironically a “master” and definitely masterful, but not really a chef, because she did not manage a kitchen full of cooks.  (Chef essentially means “boss”)  Of course sine she was Julia as far as I am  concerned she could have called herself Queen, and that would be all right.  Most of the chefs she dealt with, however, were not Master Chefs, but the press picked the term up and has been abusing it like a terrier shaking a dead rat ever since.

The problem is that nobody knows what a Master Chef is, assuming it to be just another American hyperbole (exaggeration) in the style of “Top Chef” or “Culinary Passion”. It’s not.

“Master Chef” is a certified career station which comes from the European guild system and still exists there. The certification process lasts two years if done concurrently with work or four months in a full time course, and it requires at least five or six years of experience as a “journeyman” cook and sous chef or chef de cuisine – possibly more. “Master” (Maitre, Meister) means “teacher”. It does not address flavor or creativity but the ability and right to teach.

The purpose of the Master Chef certification is to certify apprentice masters, who thus can train aspiring cooks. Chef owners reap great benefit from the process, as they can keep and develop low wage and increasingly skilled  staff for two to three years. Hotel Executive Chefs and chefs with training responsibilities also profit from the title.

The certification guarantees that the Master Chef knows everything about products, production, technique, food safety, numbers, science, and all of the vast knowledge you would want your teacher to have. It does not guarantee fabulous food or talent or culinary brilliance.

Several years ago Ferdinand Metz and the Culinary Institute of America joined forces to create a Master Chef certification in the United States. This differs somewhat from the European model, as it does not require as much hands on experience prior to certification. I  have seen it more as an MA degree in food, and from those candidates I have worked with, a career choice which frequently takes the bearer out of the kitchen into the more intellectual areas of the industry.

The American as well as the European Master Chef / Meisterchef processes are demanding, and the certified chefs are recognized as experts. Those chefs celebrated for five star cuisine – those running the most  highly acknowledged kitchens – are  most likely not certified.

Real Master Chefs list the certification with date note that it is certified. The rest of the “Master Chefs” are pretenders or poor souls naïve enough to believe the blather bandied about by an increasingly ill informed media.  In other words, “Master Chef” is in most cases simply tacky resume bling. Not to be impressed.

Jul 212012
 

This is the third in a loose series of pieces summarizing the most widely applicable conclusions I have made about what makes for career success in restaurants. The “Don’ts” are generally extracted from the most common termination causes I have witnessed or behavior that throws up career obstacles.

“Road Dirt” means that none of this is in any way wisdom, but a collection of the second hand mud splatters I’ve been hit with over the last 25+ years. You might want to read Road Dirt 1 and Road Dirt Redux, as well.

There is, of course, no guarantee that following all of these will make you a great chef, or that not agreeing with a few will not. You need skill, some talent, some intelligence and a spattering of good character plus a little luck to get the gold ring off the Merry Go Round. None the less, I hope you will find them worth at least considering.

18) Never argue mad. Adrenaline is infectious, and arguing with your levels raised only incites the other guy. In the end nobody gets anywhere, and you both carry away a piece of grudge. (Fact: A high adrenaline level prevents people from hearing and comprehending what the other person is saying. ) Get out of a high energy exchange – put it off until everyone has cooled down. If your subordinates are angry and excited, give them a time out, then readdress the issue when they are not about to explode.

19 ) Treat visionaries with care and caution. Don’t waste your valuable time on someone else’s dreams. Realistically assess the value of new projects.

20)   At some point you may have to decide between money and your soul. I frankly see nothing wrong with money (as long it’s honest) but I know of chefs who have regretted the tradeoff.

21)   Keep out of kitchen politics. Do what you do and let others smack talk each other.

22)   Travel. Travel young and work in another country. It doesn’t have to be France. Stage. Work abroad. You will learn things that won’t be clear to you until years later.

23)   Keep contact with the people you work with. Learn their last names.  Get to know them. You will all need each other at some point or other.

24)   Write. Record everything. Don’t worry about grammar or spelling – you can correct that later. Keep a ledger of what happens at the restaurant, your menu items,  your recipes, your problems, your achievements, your failures and your triumphs.  If you don’t need this to document an incident or your behavior, you may want to use it in a book (lots of authors don’t spell well, either, so don’t let that stop you). Failing that, you will find it fascinating reading later as will your progeny. Mostly, however, keep it for documentation.

25)   Kindness and graciousness have a great deal to do with the careers of the truly grand chefs. I can’t think of one I  know who doesn’t possess both qualities. If they don’t come naturally to you, work on them.Here’s the tip: You are never the most important person in the room. The most responsible, yes. The lynch pin, for sure, but from your perspective, the person you depend on to get things out, to get things done or your customer takes the top dog title.

26) Talent is only the beginning. It provides you the opportunity to be a great chef, but it doesn’t make you one. The rest is a mixture of knowledge, skill, character, commitment  and experience, which takes years to acquire.

27) Just because one kind of job is prestigious or popular doesn’t mean it’s right for you. Celebrity is far from being much let alone everything. For most of us there is or should be life beyond the kitchen and the food media. On the other hand, however, if your goal is a recognized and celebrated location, possibly your own, then you need to start by working in them.

28) Put dignity at the top of your goals. That’ s not pride. It’s the ability to deal with unpleasant situations with your chin up, not to lose face by “flipping out” at tough moments, to leave without baring your emotions if you must. Afford it to everyone in your kitchen.

29) Don’t ignore problems. Listen to your people but not continually (ie, don’t let whiners whine). Defuse or deal with their issues. If you do not, they become your issues.

30) Understand the difference between pride and arrogance. Know your value and insist on dealing and being dealt with accordingly, but don’t be dismissive of those you might think of less importance than you assume for yourself.

31) Take care of your brand. Don’t sell it early to projects that offer good money but will reduce its value later on. Don’t diminish it by behavior that plays into stereotypes. You are your brand. It is what you can sell until you retire. It is what will put you in the desired positions or keep you from them.

32) Manage your career by keeping the long view. Always think of how your decisions will impact the long term. There are few situations where you an sit back and take the easy way out in the food industry. If you go towards industrial food service, you will probably not be able to return to fine dining. Hotel chefs are rarely hired in restaurants. Five years in domestic service sends chefs back to the beginning of the restaurant queue.  These are generalizations, only, but generalizations are true for most people. Most of us are most people and not the exception.

 

Apr 292012
 

The most frequent dream job for an aspiring chef is working in a small to midsized restaurant owned by a visionary who cedes full control of the menu, concept and pricing, giving the chef full autonomy and the tools to gain the visibility that will lead to his own restaurant.

Sometimes it works..
When it does not, the greatest issue appears to be the question of the chefs’ autonomy. I love the quote from mostly Martha, “You are wrong. It’s your restaurant. It’s her kitchen,” even though it isn’t really accurate. The kitchen belongs to the restaurant and its expenses and practices draw from the bottom line. It, too belongs to the owner, which however by no means suggests that the chef cedes  responsibility or that the owner is free to override the chef in substantial decisions.

Actions by the chef – hiring an inappropriate person, ignoring labor laws or food safety standards, inadequate cost controls or low prioritizing of loss – come from the bottom line. Owners who call for new chefs complain that their current chef has hired friends without work visas or does not keep adequate time records because he does not consider them important. One chef who refused to note what he an apparently unimportant and trivial “sexual harassment” incident cost the restaurant $200,000 in damages.

Successful restaurateurs know enough to be cautious with menu autonomy, possibly the top item on any young chef’s wish list, so a lot of young chefs turn down promising positions for owners who keep control over their menus and concepts,  whether that means requiring a few well received items on the menu, or that all new dishes be approved before they are tried out at the beginning of the chef’s tenure.

“He keeps second guessing my purveyors,” says one chef, who doesn’t comprehend the owner’s desire to have a hand in the costs of the facility.

He has three sous chefs, sighs the plagued restaurateur. That’s one for twenty seats. Our food cost is great, but our labor cost is putting out of business.” “I have brought in great reviews,” says the chef, and raised the volume by 45%, not considering that labor or food costs may be resulting in lowering profits to an unacceptably thin or negative margin. Restaurants are not supposed to subsidize their guests.

“Visionary,” it has been remarked (often by me), “is a four letter word.” Grand ideas of new restaurant owners often collide head first with the economic realities and demographics of a location. There are of course those truly impressive first time owners who start on point and continue to run a successful restaurant for years with a strong vision and perfect chef interaction (I would mention Mark Pastore at Incanto here..one of the restaurant owners I most respect in the industry), but many face heart rendering challenges in their new ventures.

“This is not what I signed on to do,” sighs the new restaurant’s creative chef. They’ve changed the concept. They lied to me.” Well, actually they lied to themselves, following their dreams rather than the hard facts of who is willing to pay how much money for what kind of food on their plate. Once they figured it out, they told the chef to replace the basil scented vanilla bass with a burger or a steak, and he’s understandably ticked off. “This will ruin my career!” he moans. Actually it probably won’t but he has a point. Game changing is a bummer even when it is the only option.

Money in the restaurant business is a zero sum game. That would be simple, but the quest for kitchen/owner bliss is complicated by a number of factors including “culinary integrity”, prestige desires, ego on both sides and lack of communication on both sides of the kitchen door.  Often the chef sees additional value in press and recognition, which can only be achieved through more expensive food or a higher staffing quotient than the financials will bear. Owners appreciate the celebrity, but they still have to deal with budget questions. They also unreasonably expect to receive profit from their investments, as do their investors.

Chef’s with aspirations understandably tend to resent the consequences of these realities, which is somewhat like resenting rain.

Virgin restaurateurs, that is those with little or no previous restaurant experience, complicate the equation by lacking understanding of the boundaries between of the kitchen door. Many want to have a hand in everything. Others simply overstep their bounds. A dear friend was, for instance, known for demanding a hamburger in the middle or service. He went through a list of chefs before one slammed his fist on the table and said “No!”. Another, no longer a virgin, gives his generally very talented chefs full reign of the menu but makes up for the financial drain by shorting the dining room to the clear detriment of the kitchen. Good food needs to be delivered at the pre-ordained temperature without infuriating the diners.

First time owners and and some experienced restaurateurs, furthermore, tend to be more meddlesome than necessary. Stories abound of cooks fired for theft or other inexcusable behavior being hired back (thus undermining the chefs’ authority and necessitating his departure), of family members investors demanding special service on the busiest nights, of orders cancelled without the chef’s knowledge. When some lines are crossed,  irremediable barriers thrown up between employer and chef. Pity.

There should be a moral or an answer to all this. Instead there many which begin with decision making and end with communication.  And sometimes there is none. They will be addressed in the next post. In the meantime it would very interesting to hear your own experiences and solutions from either side of this, because you surely have plenty of them.

Please note that the verification for this site is a simple math question. If you can calculate food cost, you should be able to subtract five from six.  It should not stop you.

Feb 212012
 

Following myu own advice, that the human attention span is short, I divided the collection of observations  acquired during over a quarter century of watching people shoot themselves in the foot into shorter lists . Here the second installment. They are in no  particular order.

1)   Keep your ego on a short leash, at least in an interview.  Be wary of compliments and suggestions that you are the only one who can fix a properties issues or bring back flagging numbers. That’s probably exactly what they told the last guy.

2)   New Job: Hold your own while showing respect for the existing culture. (Walk softly and carry a big stick). Get to know the culture before turning it on its head.

3)  Trust your instincts.  If you think someone is out to get you, they probably are. If you experience subversion causing staff unrest, consider the soothing effects of a public hanging.

4)   Follow policy. Really. If you can’t deal with the policy, don’t take the job. Management has a reason for policy, and they won’t let you be you, very possibly because that puts their own jobs in jeopardy.  Read the employee handbook and apply it. As you get to know the place better you may be able alter policies and write your own.  People who ignore policy get fired.

5)   Focus your career, and hold a logical career path. Find good places and stay there. Diversity and assortment are good on a buffet table. Less on a resume. Keep your career focused and follow something like a logical path.  Employers (should) always look for a history of  logical progression rather than two bursts of glory in jumble of jobs.

6) Don’t let staff issues slide. If someone is not performing now, they will not perform in five months. Document it and deal with it.

7) Document everything pertaining to running the kitchen and keep a copy for yourself. The chance that you may need it someday is too great for you not to.

8)   If you want a great career, choose opportunity and quality over geography, unless the geography leads to opportunities in quality restaurants.

9)   Marry someone who not only excites you but understands the demands of your career. Chefs are glamorous,  until partners find out that they can’t go out and celebrate with the crowd or babysit in the evening. People with nine to five jobs somehow think their partners can be celebrated chefs and be home for dinner at the same time. Even if they say they get it, they probably don’t.

10)   You can’t have it all. If you want to work five star,  you can’t have nights off.   Decide what’s important and realize that you will probably not be able to change your career trajectory once it is set. The best training spots often pay less for starting positions.

Unfortunately there are many more.  In the meantime, there isn’t a man/woman/person Jack among you, who doesn’t have his/her/their own observations. Please do share. The comment link is below.

 

Feb 102012
 

I have been doing what I do, Food and Beverage Recruiting, for over 25 years. The business has been around for over 50 – I ceased counting at the half century mark – so from my perspective in the nosebleed seats of the great chef/manager game, I’ve picked up a few tips. Some people have gone as far as to call them wisdom, but in fact, they are just road dirt, like the mud that sticks to your fenders when you do a lot of cross country driving.

I get a lot of resumes. Most of them aren’t good. Too many of them are simply bad. The tips and the outtakes on this site are inspired by the bad ones. A number of them are heart rendering – the European trained chef who worked in some of the finest restaurants and somehow got himself recruited to Buckbutt Arkansas or the chef who worked his way through culinary school with two jobs, worked his way up with focus, then took a dream job at a restaurant which closed three weeks after they hired him.

Reading  the stories of the heroes, the solid professionals, the creeps and the unfortunates  has given me a lot of rules. I’ve written them before, but perhaps it’s time to move them here, little by little. Here a few in no particular order:

1)      Always consider the demographics of an area before accepting a job in a new location.

2)      Never try to talk yourself into or out of a job. Look at any reasonable position and weigh the advantages, possibilities, challenges and negatives objectively before making a decision.

3)      It’s not about you. It’s never about you, and don’t let the people you are working with tell you otherwise. It’s about the food, the state of the walk-in, the staff and the property.  Your talent, character and knowledge may be the deciding factor, but keep your perspective.

4)      Be excited about food, technique, people in the industry  and the people who follow it. Inspire yourself with travel, dining and reading. Without excitement chefs turn into kitchen managers.

5)      Until you own the kitchen – literally or figuratively – it is not your food (“my cuisine”). It’s my cuisine, as I am paying for it, and it’s the owner’s cuisine.  Your dishes are another matter.

6)      The great chefs have asked themselves along their paths, “what did I do right? What did I do wrong? What could I do better.?” Honest self-assessment is the basis of a great career.

7)      People who shout get fired. Gordon Ramsay gets away with it because a) it’s part of his act, b) he used to be a soccer star and c) he is married to a Spice Girl and has oodles of money independently of the restaurant industry. Until you have that together, shouting will only cause you to lose face and make the staff think less of you. Actually it doesn’t make Ramsay look good either.

8)      Never drink at your own bar. Regardless of the truth you are handing some Machiavellian creep a silver bullet. Once the word gets out that the chef/manager gets drunk at the bar, it’s nearly impossible to refute it. Drink next door or down the street.

9)      Distance is golden. You subordinates are not your friends, unless they were our friends before they were your subordinates. At least not at first. Give everyone you work with a great deal of respect and affection, if necessary, but keep some distance. The most common mistake made by first time chefs is not understanding that they were no longer playing with the other kids in the sandbox. Your primary loyalty shifts from your colleagues to your employer the moment you take a promotion.

10)   Changing things too fast in a new job is risky. Even when the management wants a drastic change, it’s a good idea to give it a couple of weeks while you assess the dining room traffic and the staff skills.

That’s just 10..stay tuned for more.   Please feel free to add your own road dirt to the collection. Our current security question is an arithmetic problem.

 

 

Jun 072011
 

Obama’s resounding campaign slogan, YES YOU CAN, wasn’t exactly original. If you occasionally watch Univision any of the Latino television stations,  you might know that it was the watch word for one of the early reality contest shows, in which a group of winsome Latino youth vied brutally and melodramatically for a place in a telenovella.  “Si, Se Puede” was written on walls, chanted and shouted at every opportunity.

It is also reminiscent of the beliefs of the seventies and eighties, may they rest in peace, which suggested that you can, just because you are you and definitely special, use passion, paper clips and chewing gum to “Follow your Bliss”, a thoroughly misunderstood statement by Joseph Campbell, one of the smartest men who ever graced Public Television.

Campbell, who meant that you should do what you like in a rational framework – possibly as a hobby -tried to explain what he meant on numerous occasions, but nobody listened, as they were all, greedy as we Americans are for the easy path, following their bliss and have their way.   I see a lot of this widely misinterpreted “Follow your bliss” line of career and business decision making.

I received a call yesterday from a woman who had left a job “in finance” five years  ago to become a caterer, trusting on her initiative and belief in her own intelligence. Five years later she isn’t making the cut and wants a job directing a catering firm.  On my assurance that I unfortunately couldn’t do that, she accused me of damaging her project by “dispiriting” her, taking the wind out of her sails. She didn’t want to be “disheartened” after getting a head of steam up to conquer the world. Apparently my job in all this was to cheer her on to glory.

It’s not the first time this has happened:  When I told a woman living with five children in Arizona that I could never find a job for her which would allow her to support them with her background (her skills merited a bit over minimum wage at that time), I learned that Oprah said everything was possible, if you just put your mind to it. Well, that’s good to know, isn’t it?

The Mind over Job Market thought process rarely bears fruit. True, there are a few people who achieve  fame and glory through a combination of ignorance, arrogance and purest self- deception, plus the media’s greed for anything that looks like a saleable story. Today’s New York Times article about ex bankers having instant success in the gluten free bakery business against all odds is proof, as is San Francisco’s annual chocolate salon, where something less than a hundred instant chocolatiers, some producing extremely good product, prove that you don’t need a lifetime training as a chocolatier to have a business. (But not proving that you can keep it running for ten years..they follow the first innovators like Michael Ricchiuti and Joseph Schmidt, who got there first with entirely different sets of rock solid trade and business acumen and are not going to cede their market.)

Of course you should approach a job search with a positive attitude.  Undermining your efforts with undue pessimism will handicap your search.  But overestimating the value of what you bring to the market will bring little. Understanding who will appreciate your background but not waste your skills is key to a successful career.

Positive attitude and realistic  goals are not mutually exclusive.  They are the golden combination for a successful career curve.

Skills, training, provenance and experience are the basis of moving forward. The best of the best in the field, whether Michael Anthony or Jacques Pepin or Thomas Keller, spent many years working on the requirements of the job. They did not achieve their success on the basis of a positive attitude.  With the current job market including a fair number of people with solid to golden provenance, any self-made caterer or chocolatier faces very stiff competition in a supply and demand market. If your background lacks the substance sought by employers, no amount of self-delusion and motivational thinking will place your resume on the interview pile.

The belief that it can is called “magical thinking”,  the mindset that you can make something true because you think or say it is so. It’s a bit like clapping your hands and saying “I believe in fairies.” It does not work.

So: Stay upbeat in your career pursuits, but set yourself reasonable goals. Use setbacks to calibrate your expectorations, and stay grounded. Follow your passion or your bliss with the clear understanding that it will not happen without an  investment of time and learning under other professionals.

Most of all, listen.  People (me) taking the time to tell you why they cannot deal with you rather than shining sunshine up your skirt are, among other things, honest.   You don’t have to accept their opinions, but the slightest intelligence requires taking them into consideration before discarding them. They do not mean to be mean or dispiriting. They are just telling you the truth as it applies to them and their place between you and a vast industry. It is not their job to be your advocate,  your  emotional support or your cheerleader.

As for my caller, I truly wish her luck. She is going to need it.

Jan 282011
 

Career Goal: Top Chef Contestant/Media Star

If the culinary graduates or young cooks verging on sous chefs ten years ago had their eye on the five star wine country bijou or NY/SF Celebrity restaurant, an alarming number of today’s upcoming  cheflings have media ambition. Questions: “Can you get me on the Food Channel?”,  “Who do I speak to at Top Chef”?  Answers: A) Only if they happen to ask me to find you (which they have) and B) There is an annual competition and application process   Look it up on the Net. Join their Facebook pages.

Gordon Ramsay, a chef once known in Britain for bringing the refined manners of the soccer field to the world of fire, steel and boiling liquids, set the tone the second season of Hell’s Kitchen by proclaiming that a pretty girl in her early twenties was the image of the perfect chef, thus throwing oil on the burning ambition of thousands to make it to the top by shortcut. It is the only ten minutes of Hell’s kitchen I have ever watched, and my stomach went into a knot considering the consequences. My stomach was right. He changed the cook world forever.

Most if not all of the winners of Top Chef seem to have done quite well. The exposure it provides is invaluable not only for luring diners but for attracting investors, and the contestants are pre-selected for their backgrounds and abilities, so you would expect them to thrive.

Hell’s Kitchen winners  don’t appear to have the same success. A number of them are teaching rather than working in restaurants (not that teaching is undesirable, but it’s a curious thing).  Some are private chefs, some “consultants”. You can look all this up on the web.  That’s logical.  Unlike Top Chef contestants most were, of course, not seasoned chefs on entering the program, so it would be hard for them to take up their career again where they left off for the show – some however did – rather than try to get as much out of their time investment in the show while they can, and they appear to be doing well.

Of the rest of the graduates of both shows, some  appear to have new connections to and futures in media, quite a few from Hell’s Kitchen are working as private chefs for the Glitterati, and a few are missing in action or not meeting expectations. It’s a bit better across the board than one would expect from the general culinary population, with a few extraordinary opportunities thrown in.  A few of  course have shot themselves in the foot by showing their dark side to the world in general, and the introduction, “HI, I was on top chef,” is to most of the hiring public somewhat of a turnoff, but on the whole, if you have the opportunity and it suits you, why not? It could be fun, and it has definite financial benefits for some.

Actually  there are a few answers to “Why not”, but they are not conclusive. For one thing, being involved in the shows is time consuming and interrupts a normal culinary career. Your contract will restrict some of the things you can do or reveal afterwards, and you may have to interrupt your next positions to return for one or a series of episodes. For another, the temptation to let an interlude go to your head puts you in peril of being wooed by the wrong people or bungling opportunities you might have had later, but there’s  an app for that: Common Sense.

Most importantly, there aren’t nearly as many slots as there are aspiring cooks and chefs who are just biding their time in restaurants waiting to hit the pixeled screen. It’s kind of like sitting on a Hollywood soda fountain stool waiting to be discovered like Lana Turna.

The disconnect between the desire to be a television star and the industry of cooking is that it confuses two objectives.  Cooking, for which one attends culinary school, is a trade requiring endless skill and knowledge in addition to talent. Even though cooking schools correctly offer media training, they are not acting schools. You are extremely unlikely to get to television via the kitchen, and getting into media may only be a short term boon. In short, your odds at TV from cooking absolutely stink.  I think therefor, and I’ve been wrong often enough, that getting to media should be an option, not plan A.

Plan A should be becoming a great chef. I spoke with a number of the now top national television chefs before they had their shows, and their goal at that time was not to be in pictures. It was to be great chefs with great restaurants.   Being that (along with having a strong PR firm and much more)  is what got them their media exposure. Of course getting to the Food Network or on NPR requires much more, but the foundation of their success is their identity as chefs, which they continue to be. If you have an opportunity to speak to employees of chefs like Emeril Lagasse or Wolfgang Puck, you hear not hero worship but professional respect.

I have spoken to a number of thoroughly qualified chefs over the years who have quit their day jobs and were preparing pilots for their own shows. Not many are on television.  There are a few who have launched Web shows and thousands on You Tube, but does that equate to a culinary media career? That is not a redundant question. I don’t know.

What does this mean for you? I suppose whatever you want it to. Being good- no, excellent –  at what you do can get you to the media, so concentrate on being good before being famous. Your long term chances of being satisfied and successful are greater outside the media than in it, but somebody who puts it all on one number always wins the high stakes. So: If you want to get into media, pursue it. If media approaches you, listen and consider it. (I am at this point), but don’t start a culinary career with the long term intention of baiting and switching to become the next couch potato chef darling. If you want to be in pictures, go to acting school. It’s the easier path. Otherwise, carry on.

Some of the culinary schools are reportedly recruiting candidates with the lure of a career in culinary television. That is like a 4 year college promising a career as Senator. Some will certainly get there, but it’s a bizarre and unfulfillable claim. If a school dangles food shows in front of you, you, you’ll do well to keep looking.  (Media training, however, is a good idea, no matter where you take your education.)

Before you decide to embark on a television chef career, Google the contestants of the shows to see what they are doing now. Whatever you do, if you are a young culinary job hunter and think your future lies in bright lights, don’t tell anyone in an interview. It makes the hair on the back of their necks stand on end.