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.

May 212013

Or maybe social media and job search.

I have been on Linkedin for several years, and frankly, I haven’t found many people there, despite my largish stable of “friends”.  That seems more to do with the international nature of the venue, but it may be just me. Every time I reach out, no matter how specifically, I find a flood of messages in my inbox from India, Pakistan and other wildly exotic places with hoards of chefs and cooks wanting to get to the US, which messes up my work rhythm.

This is despite the clear statement: We are unable to consider candidates outside the United States and without working visas.

But this is about you, and not me, so let me get to the point: What I also see on Linkedin and on the other social media sites I frequent is  the following sentence: “Please see my profile”.  Nothing more. Just an order to look them up. ..just  take a moment out of your schedule to go get what I could have sent you myself, if I had bothered to read the entire job description and gone to your web site to send a resume and a note via your carefully constructed contact page.

They also place these on posts of people who ask questions like, “How do I find a job in Sweden”. “Please view my profile.”  There may even be an ap for this (considering the mindless uniformity of the response, there probably is). May I suggest that if so it does more harm than good?

What does this have to do with you? Well, if you do this no recruiter with a brain in his/her head is going to give you the time of day. Why? Because they are careless, inconsiderate and stupid.

You, on the other hand, are not. You have the intelligence and the presence of mind to read job offers or leads on social media to the end and follow the instructions to a “T”. If there are no instructions, you have the class and intelligence to message the person posting the job directly with a very short  note that says “I am interested in the job your posted on  How may I best contact you and where can I send a resume, if you desire one?” Now isn’t that charming? It’s also effective.  The employer or recruiter may  look at your profile anyway  (we do that), but you have at least offered to take the initiative.

That means you are the kind of person I want in my employment..not someone who either does not read instructions or ignores them.

Another Linkedin anomaly: I notice that whenever I post a job other recruiters post something like, “Go to Dan’s Sleazy recruitment site to see the best jobs in the world.” Of course this is superfluous, since you are all smart cookies, but I would say that any recruiting firm who tailgates someone else’s work like that is hardly trustworthy and should be avoided at all costs.  (Perhaps I should offer something on bad recruiters, as I notice them on the rise, but time is precious at the moment.) At any rate, be warned.

As long as we are at this, let’s talk alumni sites. I occasionally mention something about jobs on school sites. I  just mentioned a great opportunity for cooks who want to move into Michelin rated kitchens on one, but as a recruiter I left no name. A student or alumni immediately challenged this, and I explained with a link to this site’s explanation about recruiters why that was the case. The young woman responded, “That is an awful site. It doesn’t do anything to attract candidates.” Now, actually from our statistics, it appears it does, but that’s not the point.

The point is that this  young woman is posting in a place where not only I but numerous employers make job offers. Her manners are wanting, to say the least, and everyone who looks there  has a a chance to see that.  Obviously something else you are too smart and classy to do, but I thought  I’d mention it.

I have been busy filling jobs (The Chefs’ Professional Site is listed on the side bar if you want to know what they are) and regret not to have provided more posts.  This one, however, seems important.

So let me repeat the moral, because it’s an easy one: When dealing with internet job opportunities, read posting carefully, follow the instructions and be respectful and polite. Good luck to all of you. The world needs people like you.



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.

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 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.

Aug 122011

Chefs Career Tools: References

Available on Demand – The standard redundant ending of any resume. Why write it?  Every employer knows that he can have the references if he wants them. You won’t be hired without them.

A future employer will probably contact several references including a formal HR phone call to confirm your employment, people he may know personally and references you provide.

Who should you choose as references?

Your references should be people  you have worked with or for. Supervisors, employers and colleagues from the both sides of the house are your best choices. If you are a chef, your references might be the catering manager, the GM and perhaps the sous chef.  If you are a manager you might give the owner, the HR Director or accountant.

People who you know but have not worked with are not references. Even Al Capone  had friends, who would have sworn up and down he was as honest as the day is long and wouldn’t hurt a flea. Your priest, your banker or your old Boy Scout troop leader are not good choices.

Your previous working relationship with your references should be ongoing and daily. If you worked for someone or with someone at an event, they are not suitable.

Is this legal to require references?

Absolutely. People lie a lot on resumes, and it is not only a future employer’s right but his duty to his staff to confirm your claims and screen your suitability for his particular operation.

When will they call references:

Employers  usually call for references when they have a feeling that they are interested in you.  This will generally happen after your first phone contact or after one or two interviews.  Some may take these steps before calling you to see if the time for an interview is worth their while.

What about confidentiality?

If you have concerns about discretion – if your current employer could find out about your job search from someone else on the list, you should state that clearly in  your cover letter and on your resume. (To maintain confidentiality please do not contact references before speaking with me.) Employers rarely step over the line in questions of confidentiality, but a polite reminder is wise.

What kind of  information do employers look for?

While nobody expects any candidate to be perfect in all categories, employers generally realize that your performance in previous positions probably determines how you will work in the next.

As a matter of fact, hearing from a reference that an employee is not as strong in one area as in others makes a reference more credible.

1)      Confirmation of your statements: What you have told them about your employment is accurate and not invented. Dates, titles, duties.

2)     Your Rehire Status. This is occasionally useless, but it is a way to get a read from  an otherwise tight lipped corporate environment.  Actions such as not giving notice, repeated incidents of inappropriate behavior or unreliability will result in a negative rehire status, which can but doesn’t have to limit your future employment options.

2)      Are you competent or skilled or talented  – usually for a specific set of tasks or environment? (Volume, cake decorating, five star cuisine, costing, you name it.)

3)      You  play well with others. They seek information on  your relationships with your supervisors and subordinates. They hear this in the voice of the person who answers the phone and in random comments“We were really sorry to lose her.” “I wish we had a place for him.”

4)      Is  your attitude  toward your work and the people around you positive?

5)      You are clean, organized, punctual and reliable (work habits)

6)      You fit the profile of their property.

7)      You are honest and do not bring any issues with you which damage them, their staff or their business. (No drugs in the walk in, didn’t steal bunches of parsley or silverware, doesn’t grope passing servers).

References are not a report card. They provide some basic assurances about your professional persona.

Where and how should you state your references:

I think the most elegant way of handling references is a lost at the end of the resume or on a separate sheet, if you want to speak to the hiring agent before exposing the people you worked with to their questions. An extra sheet can be taken to an interview.

The entry should give the person’s name, telephone number, possibly an additional private number, the references current position plus his or her relationship with you when and where your worked together.

As an alternative you can name one or two references following each job descriptions on  your resume.


Large businesses and corporations discourage (and forbid) sharing information about past employees because they fear their deep pockets are tempting for potential litigants and they will face a case which will have to be settled or make them pay for attorneys for years. Reckless defamation suits rarely end up in front of a judge and are rarely won.

Some business will not give references. A few, the Cheesecake Factory for instance, require a future employer to pay a confirmation service for date and title confirmation with no statement of hiring status.  That seems to me plenty of reason not to work for those firms – you worked for them and the least they could do is acknowledge you – but if you are in that position, you need to arrange with colleagues to speak on your behalf. Managers and coworkers who have moved on to other positions are your best bet. This is, by the way, a very good reason to keep in contact with the people you have worked with.

Some jobs end on a sour note. That happens. If this is the case, you can communicate the issues civilly to the person who interviews you – don’t wait for them to ask – and explain that there are other references available.  You would also be surprised at how professional employers generally are when discussing past employees.

Line up your references:

As a courtesy to your references, give them a heads up and ask their permission. If they say no, then find someone else. If you can’t locate them, try Facebook or Linkedin. (It is always amusing to hear someone say, “He chose me as a reference??!!|)

The Un-Reference

Also known as the back door reference.  Supplying  your references to a potential employer  shows you to be confident in your past performance and willing to be looked at closely, but it doesn’t guarantee that the employer won’t talk to other people. Don’t count on stacking the reference deck.

Unless you are restaurant cannon fodder –   staff with little responsibility and easily replaceable – the employer will probably try to find out more.  The Food and Beverage industry is tight and incestuous. The probability that the server you once fired or the dishwasher you were kind to works for the new opportunity is fairly high. If they do, they will probably be asked about you.(Another reason to be nice to people).

Everyone knowing everyone in the chef and restaurant world, furthermore, the new employer probably has connections to any number of people who worked with you here or there, and they will call them and just drop your name, then listen for the joyous, “Oh, JOHN!! How is he?  He’s a great guy!” or “Ooof. John, eh. Did he lose another job?”   Again, be nice to people.

“But slander is illegal!??”

If it is true, it is not slander, and slander is not illegal. It is actionable (a civil matter rather than a criminal issue).  The First Amendment still counts, and you can’t sue someone for revealing documented facts about a past employee.  People don’t go to prison for revealing what is written in your file, as long as it is not private information, but they can if they state unfounded opinions or if they practice reckless defamation.  It just isn’t easy. A valid claim of reckless defamation requires three things.

1)      The person telling the lie did so knowingly.

2)      That person receives some form of benefit from telling it. This may be a promotion, it may be money. It could possibly be the satisfaction of revenge. (It’s called “reckless” for a reason.)  Ex employers are more liable for damages, if they tell a potential employer that you are a terrific hire in order to get you off their unemployment rolls.  Many years ago a company which spoke highly of an employee who later injured (or killed?) a winery worker had to pay the damaged parties half a million dollars.

3)      It causes you substantial damage – you lose your job, you cannot get a job. You are offered less salary. Your reputation is ruined.

What employers cannot say is “I think he did drugs” or “I wouldn’t trust him,” opinions in other words. Anything that is documented, however, for instance an assault on another employee or a failure to appear to work is fact and can be shared. “We had to replace him while he was in prison for murder,” is perfectly legal. It’s a matter of public record. An employer can also say we were not satisfied with his speed or the level of  his food knowledge.

Your personnel file may also contain medical or personal information, which a previous employer is not free to share with anyone. He cannot discuss anything about health issues or your family issues impeding your performance.  If you don’t know what is in your personnel file, you have a right to see it, and you should have a look.

Usually, however, employers bend over to say nicer things about employees than they deserve. Truly negative statements are generally expressed in silence. A recent candidate we reviewed, for instance, had an impressive resume, but the most we could gather from employers was “Well, he worked here.”

Nobody is perfect.

Do not expect all  of the references your employer receives to be glowing. The employer doesn’t. Continual 5 star references are suspicious. What we all know if that people grow up, they make mistakes, chemistry happens and unhappens and someone who will be a great fit for one position may not have been for another.  Jesus Christ, when he returns to this earth, is not, trust me, going to look for a job in a kitchen.

What are some reference red lights: (Avoid them)

Sometimes I will discard a candidate after looking at the references and finding some of the following.

1)      No references for recent positions.

2)      No  phone numbers. Only email addresses such as I would expect

3)      References all outside of the current and last positons: Purveyors, friends, etc.

4)      References who contact me. (this is just plain spooky.)

5)      Family. (I have on a couple of occasions found that the person giving the reference was a sibling or an in-law. We drop the candidate.)

6)      Prestigious names at restaurants where the candidate has not worked.

7)      Suggestions that a candidate was “Mentored” by a reference for  whom he did not work.

8)      A large number of written references but no contacts. Nobody does this any more in the United States. It is still, however, common in Europe. Paper can be easily forged. (We have seen some phony telephone references, too).  Written references can also include deceptively negative statements: “He did everything to the best of his ability,” etc.

A job search is not a popularity contest or a reality show. It is a process to find a place whose interests and opportunities coincide as well as possible with your own abilities and desires. The referencing process is part of this process. In the ideal situation you want the people who provide information about your to be frank and as objective as possible. It is disconcerting to know that someone is talking about you, but really, the truth is that most of them say things nicer than you would ever expect. (“SHE said that about me???? )

Your comments and experiences are appreciated. Please feel free to contribute.