Nov 082014
 

Ferran Adria and Tony Bourdaine each have a brand. So do you.

In case you haven’t heard yet, you have a brand. You began building it the first time you accepted a job in a kitchen and added to it every time you moved on.

Perhaps you accepted jobs in professional environments under demanding chefs who were not always kind but gave you a rigor which guarantees your next employers or investors the combination of focus and skill they need.

Or you began work in busy locations with high demands on organizational skills and strategies and continued to ascend the ladder of responsibility while you added management and crisis solutions to your tool chest.

Brands are individual. The more common word would be reputation, but you have a brand by the time you take your third or fourth job. If you are wise you have followed your best skill set to achieve and maintain your brand, most likely forgoing selling out early. Smart, I say, because you’re your brand is the cornerstone of your career, your satisfaction and your life including your success in the future.

Building and caring for your brand means giving thought to where you are going next before you have to go there and having the long view toward your final goal. It means making choices, sometimes difficult. At some time you will decide or it will be decided for you whether your brand is that of a detail oriented hotel chef or as a master of food for a small audience. If you are a grand manager and organizer but aspire to a cuisine that will put your name in lights, you need to realize that the two career directions are probably mutually exclusive. Choose one.

Some brands – bad boy chef or media monster – tend to come with karma or crafty planning, but there is always an element of fate in anyone’s career path. And, of course, there are undesirable brands such as the screamer or the coke head, but that’s  not really what we’re talking about here. We are talking about the reputation you want to project.

Most of the time your brand will not be a theme like Asian or Latino, but it can be, just as it can be comfort or modernist cuisine, although many people who begin in a tightly defined theme desire to expand at some time.

Maintaining your brand demands choices of location and title. If your goal is to be in fine dining and there are no chefs positions in the area where you want to be, then your concessions are going to have to include decisions to relocate to places where the positions you need for your profile are available, take a subordinate position where you want to be or lower your expectations.

I am opposed to the last option. I have seen too many chefs sacrifice their futures because they have a relationship requiring more free time, want to live where housing costs less, or value compensation and title over reputation. By the time we speak a few years later their chances of returning to the arena they originally chose are extremely limited. I find it a pity that some people give up something they have worked so long to develop. The industry is unforgiving.

In other words, keeping your profile and your future desirability not only requires choices but may require sacrifices. Life gets in the way of career, and I would be the last person to suggest that family – children, sick parents, just family in general – is less important than career. It’s not.

The good news, however, is that you only need about ten years to set your reputation in stone, then you can generally choose or open your own location. What you do during that period will, I promise pay off or exact payment. I am tempted to say It’s your choice, but the fact is that you have to make it your choice. Life is tough, but most of the time you can bend it to your desires.

Dec 122012
 

Just when I think I have wagged every finger about every bad decision and misconception someone comes along to remind me that there are more out there.

An acquaintance assures me that if I just meet his friend, who has been the manager of a café with lackluster reviews for the past five years, that I will see her potential and find her the back door to a better job and a better future.

I assure him that I cannot. I am in fact nothing but the extension of my clients’ desires and needs, and the fact is that my clients do not want someone with potential rather than  a proven history of activity in their segment of the industry – whether that is fine dining or high volume chain operation or bakery quality control. In other words, they don’t want someone who thinks or knows they can do it. They want someone who has done it.

My friend’s friend would, I believe, be very  happy to “take a step back” and use her skills in a better environment but at a lower position. Again, this is something I cannot do. My clients, on the whole, want someone who is working their way up not in quality but in title, not someone who has reached a higher goal in some other branch of the industry.

There are some rules to getting to where you are going. I have written them in different form before, but let’s make them clear.

1)      You have more options early in your career than you do once you have set a path.

2)      You choose the kind of place you want to work in at the start or, let me say it again, early. If you want to be in high end dining or high paying volume quality restaurants, that’s where you need to take your first jobs. You need to stay in that environment.

3)      You can’t throw in  your lot with a corner café and expect to be taken on, even as a server, in a Michelin restaurant. It doesn’t work that way.

4)      If you are trying to ratchet up your career,  few recruiters will be interested in you, as they will have to make a “sale” to a client of a product (that commodity would be you) they cannot really trust, since you have no history in the area to which  you aspire. ). I have learned the hard way that this brings grief to me and generally to both employer and employee. I suspect that most recruiters will agree.

5)      Exception: If you are very young and want to work your way up from a pretty subordinate job, you have a fair chance. Recruiters don’t figure into the algorithm, but they don’t need to.  Everyone loves puppies and is willing to train them more than they love and are willing to train unknown older dogs. There may be some begging involved, but it has been done.

6)      Employers generally want someone “on the way up”, not someone who has been up and is trying the catch him or herself on the way down then turn around.

7)      Where you start your career geographically is also important.

8)      Leaving a more desirable segment of the industry often means you will not be able to return.

To you this means? Obviously early choices are very important. That the biblical concept of “straight and narrow” also counts in restaurants. Why?

The pervasive rigor necessary in all high end properties can’t just be picked up – it has to be in muscle memory.  Employers suspect, generally correctly, that someone in a more casual or smaller environment than theirs will not have developed the habits and  “moves  required to fit in with the flow or their kitchen or dining room.

The good news is, as usual, that the culinary industry is a field where rules and generalizations apply, but only mostly. There are not a lot of exceptions but enough of them to make it worthwhile trying to get into a better niche. (Assuming that you think it is better. There are a lot of high end chefs and managers who back out to  open that neighborhood cafe and live happily ever after.)

People do transcend barriers between job types from time to time, so there’s no reason not to put a little effort into it.  I’ve even done it successfully a couple of times (but more times extremely unsuccessfully).  Those with a gift, a great temperament can and do manage to change their trajectory, but the effort will be yours. Go Craigslist, Monster, back door hopping. You can’t expect a recruiter to work for you (Remember – we work for the client) Nobody else can retool your career. It’s not their job. You are the beneficiary, so you need to do the work.

Given that, the obvious best strategy is starting out in the industry neighborhood where you want to end up.

Good Luck to you.

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.

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.

Mar 192012
 

 

Think before you move. Start out in the right spots.

It’s no secret that Location and demographics are two of the main factors in determining the success of a restaurant. The same adage holds true for careers.

At some point in your career you will decide what you want from life, or your history will decide it for you. My advice would be to choose the former, although a lot of happy chefs have done very well with the life-as-grab-bag philosophy.

That means you figure what your priorities are: Family, Life beyond the stove, fame, artistic fulfillment, money – some of which are mutually exclusive. And you decide what concessions you are willing to make. If you shoot for the prestigious and demanding spots, your social life may be dysfunctional for a few years.

It also means that you need to take responsibility for choosing the actual demographics of the place you work. The best regarded restaurants tend to be clustered in a few places: New York, San Francisco, Chicago and Los Angeles with various outliers. If your aim is to build a career based on the most current and rigorous techniques, you need to start in those areas or continue there at a fairly early point – no later than sous chef.

These locations support the most demanding dining culture because of the composition of their diners. They all serve both a large population of well-educated and demanding affluent local diners, international business travelers and destination tourists. Each of these three towns boasts exceptional food centered media. They also have in common substantial populations of young, aggressive professionals on the rise who work hard, play hard, and live in apartments with small to limited cooking facilities.

The cost of working in the hot spots is high: higher rents, igher prices, lower wages, stronger competition, greater stress and longer hours, but the return on that investment, assuming  you make the cut, is great: With a stint of three or four years a respected kitchen in a top location you write your own ticket or attract more investors.

If the citadel is where you want to be, citadel is where you have to start. You cannot easily move into the New York or Chicago big leagues from  New Jersey or Atlanta, no matter how great a chef you are. It’s been done, but it’s rare. You can’t get there from most locations in Florida – although you can take a good history and a strong attitude as a cook or at times a sous chef up to the next level in the most desired areas. If you don’t get sidetracked, it’s definitely worth the investment, but it’s not for everyone.

Less celebrated locations offer good demographics offer great careers and often better lives than the hot spots. You can expect better hours and less stress, although it is exactly that stress which creates the winners in the race to the top. There is no law that requires you to indenture to the exacting standards of the “top” locations. Hotels in particular offer highly satisfying careers in places where the food culture and the demographics are do not support a lot of international destination restaurants.

The word here, however, is “good demographics” – determining them is a bit of a challenge. Take for example Florida, an attractive state which sucked up chefs in the nineties and early 00’s – A population boom of refugees from New York and Chicago winters, who didn’t want to cook demanded more restaurants, and investors gladly built them. Disney  provided jobs and training for the hordes of aspiring culinary professionals.

Today my inbox is full of requests from chefs from Florida desperate for local jobs and, if they have been out of work for more than a year, willing but not necessarily financially able to relocate. What was the problem?

Apart from the financial disaster of the past years, or rather combined with it, demographics. The expanding population of Florida was composed to a great extent of 1) Retirees, 2) Military, 3) People looking for more bang for their housing bucks and 4) people living in other people’s investments. To that comes a low spending tourism, much of which stays in Disney, some ethnic corridors, whose inhabitants are most likely to stay within the dining culture they love, and snow birds.

Some of the characteristics of this demographic picture are: Fixed income, demand for large portions, a lower expectation of adventurous and cutting edge cuisine. The high end tourist population is likely to eat mostly in hotels, but note that many cutting edge chefs who have opened there have since retreated. Demographics rule.

That’s fine in good times, and there’s nothing wrong with the professional preparation of large portions of meat and potatoes – it’s the stuff of family chains and country clubs, a respectable part of the industry, but it doesn’t create the kind of career profile that will induce another restaurant to bring in a chef from out of state.  Private clubs usually flourish in this kind of climate, but in recessionary times, they let their well paid staff go in favor of merely adequate cooks. (Family chains thrive).

Of course you can’t predict economic trends, but the past thirty years have shown us that they happen too frequently, so they need to be factored in your considerations. The fact that Florida now has a lot of cheap housing is a sign that Florida does not offer a lot of good jobs. People who moved to Florida in its good years would hardly have asked is this economy sound, but they might well have asked themselves, “where do I go from here if there are problems.” Many wish they had.

Poor Florida is a good example, but it doesn’t stand alone.  I thought for years that Sacramento would be great restaurant territory, until I realized that the well-educated and moneyed carriage trade were all drawn from the Inland Empire, and Sacramento is the center of an agricultural rather than a trade and professional region. Farmers and Stock Brokers have different tastes. Sacramento is finally coming into its own (several IT firms have large locations in the area) Until a few years ago, though, all Sacramento diners wanted (like Florida diners) was large portions at a reasonable price.

Where are you going to grow your career? What do you look for? Areas with locations like Research Triangle Park will support more and more sophisticated dining than locations like Phoenix, which caters to a demographic similar to Florida. You need to choose what works for you, and Phoenix can be a terrific place, but it is not a way station to Manhattan. Denver, for instance, has many good restaurants and a fairly stable (non speculative) dining public – a great middle choice. Seattle, Oregon are highly respected and solid locations both for permanent careers and for interim positions, as graduates of their many good restaurant are welcome elsewhere. The industrial belt is coming back and is not likely to fail again, and the area will be needing professionals. The positions available will in all probability offer stability and better quality of family life – housing, time and economic benefits – than the Meccas. Unless you make it to the “top”, in which case the world is your Belon.

The problem (actually only one of them) with life is you can’t be everything.  The good thing (actually one of them) is that you have the power to choose.

 

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.

 

 

Apr 292011
 

Moving around – I want a chef’s job in _______________________ .

Judging from the number of cover letters we receive stating, “I will be moving to XXXX in June and will be seeking a chef’s job,” South Carolina is the new culinary hot spot. Judging from the number of resumes we receive from South Carolina chefs trying to find a job elsewhere, it isn’t.

Somehow I missed the memo or the Food Channel Show or the culinary article pronouncing that particular location the new Mecca. For those of  you who were on the distribution list,  however, I have news: Their predictions tend to be inaccurate.

Food writers, always thirsty for material, like to play follow the leader. At the moment one chef manages to establish himself with a positive national review or television piece in his homeland,   food writers eagerly begin a game of telegram (remember that from junior high school?) each going a bit further out on a limb to proclaim Arizona, Seattle, or Denver the new destination where food will be reborn.

Sorry. It ain’t gonna happen. Let’s do some history, a bit of it Ancient: Mark Miller’s Coyote Café put Santa Fe New Mexico on the Culinary map, inspiring droves of young chefs to travel to the Southwest, where there were neither jobs nor a sufficient appreciative public to support really interesting restaurants. Swift on the heels of the Southwest hysteria came Seattle and Portland, from whence we received many calls from desperate, rain drenched young chefs who couldn’t find the jobs lying on the streets indicated by the ever optimistic food trend predictors.  Seattle and Portland do have some fabulous restaurants, but not nearly the employment potential indicated by the media.

Texas, Arizona and Florida – West Florida in particular – were among the new culinary hot spots which cooled off after the next group came up. San Diego promised and offered a fair number of fairly good restaurants but many more family style chain spots.

Why? People. Demographics. Who eats in restaurants determines what restaurants succeed. If a location doesn’t have a great restaurant usually does not mean it is a void waiting to be filled, but that the population will not support a good restaurant.

California is a culinary miracle thanks to a combination of fabulous produce and a highly sophisticated young urban population with discretionary income. New York  is the incubation spot for the nation’s most adventurous young mating aged  economic and  intellectual elite with tiny kitchens and social appetites  that drive them to restaurants. California and New York are each the touch down spot for people from other continents. We have Hollywood. New York has Wall Street.  The New York Times and the publishing industry drive food and eating ahead of just about any other pleasure.  San Francisco did in fact have a resurgence in the eighties, but it was already a restaurant town with more or less staid cuisine until Jeremiah Tower and  Joyce Goldstein followed by their graduates from the Chez Panisse days kicked off a culinary revolution which brought people into fine dining with approachable and exciting foods.Chicago, the third obvious front line culinary destination lacks some of the international influences of the two coastal Mecca’s but has youth and money on it’s side and is the nation’s food trade hub.

What makes all of these towns work is a combination of money, singles including a considerable gay dining contingent, plenty of high end transient and business travelers,  intelligent  young adults  and sophistication. The country’s three main dining spots, furthermore, are the three most multi ethnic and multi cultural cities of the country. New Orleans, too,  falls into the big restaurant town category, while Las Vegas does a fair job of imitating restaurant towns, but without the same cutting edge daring.

For an area to burst out in restaurants all of the above are necessary. San Diego and  Florida have retirement communities and nice weather. Sedona and Santa Fe enjoy some tourists, albeit it not culinary, and people who believe in the powers of crystals. For tourists to drive a restaurant economy, they have to be the kind of tourists who go places for the food.

Places without the demographic prerequisites to spawn multiple fine dining restaurants may have one or two great ones, but they will not have a restaurant culture. A pioneer chef who settles Omaha or Denver with a restaurant worthy of national praise will do well there. Those who follow probably won’t. Going to

One or two great restaurants in a new spot can be an indication of a sufficient dining public and population change to support one or two great restaurants, but dining  demographics don’t change quickly. People want what they want. If they are currently eating fried fish or bisquits and gravy and are accustomed  to large amounts of reasonably priced food on their plates, they will not frequent any location offering anything else.

Chefs can  have all kinds of reasons for moving – family, spousal transfers at the top of the list – and if you have to go to Hawaii, there will be positions there. If, however, you have read that the streets of Oshkosh are paved with chef jobs and full of great eateries, be prepared to stand at the trough with way too many pigs for the available challenging openings. Demographic changes promote food and beverage expansion, and places once home to only TGI Friday’s and Olive Gardens are getting some good restaurants, but it takes many years for restaurant cities providing many great career opportunities for culinary professionals. Of course, you only need one job, and if one of these locations calls, why not?

Chef: There’s a moral in here somewhere. I will leave it to you to find it for yourself.

Mar 282011
 

Talking Turnstiles

Or making relatively intelligent and informed decisions.

Every week I get somewhere between five and twenty resumes from people who want the jobs we have in good restaurants. “We seek a chef experienced in high quality dining venues with four to five star ratings,” and to be sure a number of our applicants actually have this background for two or three years, but most will have continued on to the less stressful and demanding arenas of corporate chains, industrial food service or even retirement homes. A few have opened their own neighborhood restaurants, and one or two will have left the industry entirely for something with a nine to five schedule.

“I regret,” we respond, “that your background does not meet the criteria set by our client.”  I hate saying that. Over a quarter of a century, and I am still not hardened. Our client wants someone who has stuck with the four or five star environment, has built a strong career with substantial stays and is ready to move up or on to the next challenge.

“But,” says the applicant, “I worked for xxx and yyy, and I have the skills.”  And he did for a few months or years before he was seduced by the siren song of money, title or better hours. Since that he has not been held to our client’s standards ,  he has gathered and practiced different rhythms, different skills. He has left the a la carte world and the door slammed shut behind him.

Chef at some point made a choice – “I had to arrange my schedule for my girlfriend” (who is no longer around,  the pay was better, the hours more convenient, the stress lower, they were offered a title they could not achieve in a restaurant of the niveau they again aspire to. He had good reasons at the time, but now – “my kids are grown, so I can do what I really want to” – “I just divorced my wife, so I can get back into the field,” “I want to follow my passion before it is too late.”

Choices in this industry are frequently one way turnstiles – leaving a restaurant for a hotel, taking a position in a country club, working for a Silicon Valley or Manhattan executive dining facility are all terrific career choices, but once they are made, one path has been chosen and another rejected.  There will be precious few opportunities to double back and return to the earlier career. There are plenty of reasons for this thinking, some of them less just than others, but it sets one of the parameters for  career realization.

“What about,”  says the disappointed applicant, ”if I return as a sous chef and work my way back in?” Well, that’s actually worked in very few occasions, but those are generally situations in which the chef hiring already knows the candidate.  “We don’t want,” says one client, “people on the way down. We want to catch them as they rise.”  That’s what everyone wants for their subordinate positions.  Ageist? Hard to prove. Actually pretty logical. Who wants to risk his second in command constantly second guessing him.

Here’s the good news: You took that club job for a purpose, even if you are no longer a couple or they are grown up. The fact is that you have become pretty good at it over the years, having developed a skill set that the hot kid from Jean Georges doesn’t possess.  That makes you desirable. Why look back when you have opportunities to move forward to F&B Director, regional administrator or whatever the next step  in your career should be? You  know a lot. Find someone who will appreciate it and pay for it.

“You can’t go home”. Things have changed. You have changed.   Most people who have tried it know that they really didn’t want it anyway – they wanted their idealized version, and that doesn’t exist. The grass on the other side of the fence looks even greener when you are looking back over your shoulder.  We all forget the flies in the ointment we threw out a decade ago.

You need to think what you will miss before you undertake career changing actions, not after. I have a really promising candidate who wants me to get him into a day job. He’s 26. “My girlfriend wants me to spend more time with her.”  “Get another girlfriend,” I want to say. “This one doesn’t understand what relationships are and what you are.” I don’t, of course.  Instead: “You have a great restaurant career in front of you .  If you want to continue, you have to work nights. That’s when dinner is served. Do you really want to give that up?”

If I get a request for a day job, I’ll refer the man. My business is recruitment and placement, not auntie, I’ll do it, but over protests. He hasn’t had time to develop as the chef he clearly has the potential to be yet. “Explain to  your girlfriend, “ I say to him, “what your resentment may mean in fifteen years.” He doesn’t get the point. He’s twenty six. Love conquers all. Hopefully someone does.