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.

Jun 182014

Less than a year after writing the report on the state of the restaurant job / labor pool balance I find that the trend in restaurant growth and labor pool decline continues. Fewer cooks and culinary professionals are being courted by more jobs. We have what in supply and demand terms would be termed a “sellers’ marker.”


1)      More restaurants  have opened in this year alone than opened during the recession,  and the trend continues. Not only are edgier restaurants opening in San Francisco but in the Midwest, the South and even in Florida. Washington DC has been celebrating it’s own culinary revolution.

2)      Hotels, which spent the recession and in some cases the previous years reducing their food service to a simple restaurant and catering are now adding fine dining restaurants in order to attract more guests, again diluting the labor pool while creating more culinary employment.

3)      Increases in chef owned restaurants continue. The recession motivated many young chefs on the way  up to stay in one place rather than move around, as was the trend prior to 2011. Job commitment always provides a more solid learning experience than frequent job change.  As they stayed in second positions fewer cooks moved up to the sous and chef de cuisine positions. The result: No additional chef jobs, dilution of the labor pool removal of some very talented support staff from existing restaurants.

5)       The cost of culinary school plus the spiraling cost of living in most of the culinary centers, especially San Francisco: Culinary school graduates from the last four years – those from 2011 would now be moving into junior sous chef positions – cannot afford to live on restaurant wages and seek employment elsewhere.

6)      More non production choices and media aspirations on the part of culinary schools. During a SF Chefs panel discussion last year four young women stated during the question session that they were about to graduate. Every chef on the panel requested to speak to them afterwards. When they spoke with the chefs, they all stated they were not interested in working in a kitchen. They wanted to be in the media, either as  food writers or on television.   The Art Institute is affiliated with the Food Channel, which attracts many of their students when they graduate. Other schools now teach media with their regular classes.

7)      Housing (primarily San Francisco). The once  steady stream of cooks and chefs from Chicago and New York is hardly a dribble, as the cost of  housing in the San Francisco area has skyrocketed.

8)      Silicon Valley: As more and more companies develop subsidized in house facilities for their employees, the number of qualified cooks and managers working in them increases. These positions, although they are generally not  high end learning experiences, can offer higher wages or salaries, better benefits and bankers’ hours with  holidays off. That giant sucking sound you  hear is probably Google or Apple, which have resources unavailable to independent restaurants and small groups.

9) Stricter INS immigration enforcement has removed undocumented talent from kitchens, and many documented personnel have chosen to cash in and return home. Fewer qualified and documented replacements are entering the country.

10) Gen Y appears to have a more demanding and less committed crop of ready restaurant staff. Like the little girl, when they are good, they are very, very good, but when they are bad……


The results:

1)      Many restaurants continue to work understaffed.  Restaurants are raising the wages and salaries they pay, but flexibility limited by what they can reasonably charge for food as food prices rise,  wages for the back of the house usually lag behind earnings on the floor.

2)      There are more chef owned and managed restaurants, which do not offer chef jobs.  Some of these will expand in the next years, which will require more culinary management staff. Most of the very high end properties.

3)      Some restaurants are paying their cooks to convince their friends from other restaurants to come over and work.

4)      Salaries for chefs are on the one  hand raised by supply and demand, but the increases are sometimes limited by the increased wages of cooks. We have seen more generous six figure salaries in 2014.

What does this means to you:

1)      It is no longer perilous to change jobs.  New positions are risky, but if one does not work out, you will not  have to look months for another one. If you wish to relocate it is still wiser to inquire as to the local job market. Not all areas of the country have recovered to the same extent.

2)      You have the luxury of choice. If a job does not seem quite right, you can turn it down knowing that another will at some point come along. It is still, however, wise not to quit one position before obtaining another.

3)      The rules of engagement remain the same.  Calls in response to resumes sent should always be returned. Appointments must always be kept. Cards should always be played on the table Within the limits of discretion. If you have an offer from one restaurant and another asks you to try out, you should tell them.  The food and beverage industry remains small, and people talk.

4)      There is no more room for the testy chef. Cooking and qualified front staff are at a premium. If a chef alienates cooks,  s/he may find him/herself more expendable than the dishwashers.


Trends for the future:

We have had several consulting positions for very upscale and edgy quick serve recently, while restaurant trends report that the number of millennials eating out is declining. With the enormous number of new restaurants in the City, some booked for weeks but others struggling, there may be something like a restaurant correction  in the works accompanied by an increase in take out/ order in business models. (Which is an excellent reason to be courteous and responsive in interviews).
Proposed minimum wage hikes in many cities in California, where there is no tip credit, along with steeply rising food costs are going to force restaurateurs to tighten their belts and raise their prices. As there is a tipping point where higher prices cause guest loss, it seems highly probable that a number of both newer and older restaurants may not endure.

While this probably will not constitute a restaurant bubble, it could suggest a herd thinning.
The number of highest level and very expensive restaurants in San Francisco and elsewhere may have reached a limit. As the newly wealthy diners buy homes and have babies, the demographics for $200 plus tasting menus will decline.  As one chef said on taking a position in a new luxury Quick Serve Café roll out, “I have decided that dining is just another expensive habit.”
Labor – the ten cooks needed to prepare one dish in a tasting menu – is the new restaurant luxury. The expected rises in labor costs will test the sustainability of fine dining.

Fine dining vs casual: While I do not expect restaurants to return to the overplayed mac n’ cheese menus of the early millennium, I think it is a foregone conclusion that the majority of new restaurants will be looking at more approachable menus and pricing.

More and more restaurants are finding profit points in volume and will expect volume skills from any culinary management they hire.

With a lot of free cash flowing from  Silicon Valley there should be more chef owned restaurants opening (meaning again a tighter labor pool as those chefs are no longer available for employment and will further dilute the hourly staff available).

High end restaurants will continue to expand with more approachable concepts (again diluting the labor pool).

Disclaimer: I am not an economist. Your choices need to be  yours. The above insights derived from continuous observation and our own challenges is based mostly on San Francisco conditions, but supported by our interaction with chefs and owners around the country. It  is intended merely to provide some insights into factors that you can consider in your decision making.



Aug 012013

Stop me if you have read this before:  The first thing employers and recruiters look for in an applicant is quality. The second is stability. This is done with a quick scan of dates and locations. If the ratio of years  to jobs  is less than about 1.5 (That is, a new job every year or less) most of us will pass and go onto the next, even though that chef’s background is not nearly as exciting.

I just took a second look at a resume I passed over two months ago, knowing that  I could not present  his  background of short stints in great locations to any of my clients. Being a bit disappointed about it, I read further into the resume hoping for something that would make  him a viable candidate. This is what I read.

3/2010-3/2011   Sous Chef                         The Priory:
Award winning restaurant at the Winnepeg Resort and Spa. (and so on)
4/2011 – 3/2012 Chef de Cuisine            The Rectory:
Three meal restaurant at the Winnepeg Resort and Spa. (duties,etc)
4-/2012 – present Chef de Cuisine         Jacob’s Ladder
Michelin star dining room at the Winnepeg Resort and Spa. (and so on)

He has been in the same location for 3 ½ years – which I missed, as all I saw were about 11 jobs in the past decade.

I feel less bad about missing the details knowing that my clients would have missed it, too. I  have had to explain similar resumes to my clients too many times to believe they will be faster than I am on the pickup. In fact, I frequently make notes in their emails that kitchen a, b and c were either all on the coat tails of a mentor or all belonged to the same company, and I still have to explain it. That’ s my job, but my candidates would do themselves a great favor it they would stop expecting everyone to connect their resume dots;

The Point: If your background includes multiple properties under the same company, chef or group or within the same hotel or resort, make it very clear on your paper.

Here’s how:

3/2010 – Present Winnepeg Resort and Spa (Five Diamond Property)
Sous Chef : The Priory – Award winning restaurant.
Chef de Cuisine: The Rectory – Three Meal Restaurant
Chef de Cuisine: Jacob’s Ladder – Michelin star dining room

See? Same information, but presented so that the reader cannot possibly miss your remarkable tenure. With this three year stint, by the way, and your collection of ten top restaurants you become immediately irresistible to the job of your dreams. Really. You move from potentially explosive material (“gee..what’s wrong with this guy..he can’t stay anywhere more than a year”) to absolute catnip. Trust me. I know this stuff.

How easy was that?  This holds true whether you worked for five hotels in a management group,  half a dozen restaurants in a corporation or have moved around from unit to unit in a resort. A slight variation shows that you followed your mentor for five  years. (2009 – 2012  Worked under Chef Adam Fritzenphal at the following properties).  Add whatever details the next employer will want to know – who you worked under,  the nature of the product you served, your duties.

I have said before that it is in your best interest to consider everyone receiving  your resume either tired, stressed or even stupid and to kindly make your positive points crystal clear to them/us. Putting things clearly is your job. We don’t miss every beat, but you don’t want the beat we miss to be you.

Jul 122013

I recently placed a short job alert on LinkedIn, ending in the following instructions:

“IMPORTANT; Only legal US residents can be considered. Applications must be made via the web site. (Consider it a test on intelligence and ability to follow instructions)”

The response consisted almost entirely of invitations to “please contact me”, “please send information about your firm” (This, of course, would be on the web site), and “please view my profile”. Only one person sent me a resume.

This is almost standard practice. Paid ads on Craigslist explicitly requiring resumes and elsewhere explicitly requesting resume submissions through our contact page receive responses such as “I am a widely respected Chef. Please view my web page” or get my resume on line, or call me ASAP.”

I am a recruiter. I recruit chefs for my supper, a process not much different from recruiting lace tatters or attorneys, I imagine – a client calls me with a profile, which I try to fill from my current stock of professional acquaintances, while I also do a bit of outreach. My job is then to amass a group of likely candidates matching the employer’s laundry lists of preferences and needs, screen them for any number of qualities from career path to star power to palate to  to common sense and then provide those who seem most likely to the employer to be discussed further. Among the qualities I seek are attitude, intelligence and ability and willingness to follow instructions.

If I provide instructions on applying for the job and you don’t follow them, you will not be my candidate, because 1) You did not take the time to read the entire alert, so you are not detail oriented, 2) You are arrogant enough to feel that you are not under the same constraints as others seeking the position, 3) You are simply not very sharp and did not understand the instructions, 4) You think I am stupid and won’t notice that you are playing me or 5) You,  yourself, are stupid. None of these are mutually exclusive, by the way. It is quite possible to encompass all of these qualities at once. So why ever would I want to send someone like this to my clients?

While I have been taking advantage of applicants’ failure to comply with my requests, I now learn that many HR departments are using instruction compliance in a far more sophisticated manner.

They actively create  instructions to weed out candidates. Candidates are provide with several directives: Please use the job description and number as your subject line. Please include a short paragraph on  the reason for your interest in this job and why you feel it is appropriate for you / you are appropriate for it. Keep your sentence under five lines.

Anyone not focused or intelligent enough to follow instructions is automatically excluded from the consideration. The wheat is immediately separated from the chaff.

Instruction based weeding can be more complicated: Once an application is accepted for consideration a questionnaire may be sent. Again, if the applicant does not fill out the questionnaire or send it back in time, they are excluded.

The first goal is to see if the candidate takes the time to think about the position offered. Neither a recruiter nor an HR department likes to waste time on candidates who expect positions to fall from trees – asking for candidate input in return for a responsible position makes great sense. An invested candidate is always a better candidate. What the reduced pool of candidates write is then a valuable tool for further consideration.

In some cases the instructions are negative: Please do not send pictures. Please send your application only as a Word document or a PDF.  That too, is a test, whether intended or not.

What this means to you: If  instructions are presented with a job description, you must follow them. Read them carefully, so that you know what is required, then do it exactly as requested.. If not you will probably not make it to the main selection process.

 Good luck with  your career.






Jan 102012

There are no fool proof systems, because fools are so ingenious (Will Rogers), so there is no way to write complete directions on  not writing a bad cover letter, because the foolish writers always find new ways to do it wrong.

There is, however, one good rule that can eliminate a lot of mistakes: Write it to someone – know who you are writing to.

The various web sites and broadcast software of the IT revolution make it possible for you, the job seeker, to send out inquires to dozens or hundreds or thousands of people at a time, so the fools among you (present company of course excepted) write or more likely copy a boilerplate and shoot it off  in bulk to every recruiter and job opening in the country. The even more foolish send out boiler plate covers to each one individually.

 Here an example:


“To Whom It May Concern:,

I am contacting you to explore employment opportunities with your organization.  The accompanying resume will provide you with details regarding my professional experience, education and culinary skills.

You will note that I have a wide range of experience in all areas of culinary arts and have built a reputation as a diligent employee and professional who is able to complete detailed and complicated tasks in a fast paced and accurate fashion.  In addition, I work effectively with a kitchen staff in efforts to produce maximum results and food that is exquisite.

I am convinced that an individual with my talents, combined with my commitment to quality performance and that “can do” attitude will make a valuable contribution to your team.

At your convenience, I would like the opportunity to meet with you to discuss the goals and objectives of your organization and how my experience and abilities will help in fulfilling those goals.

Thank you very much for your time and consideration.  I look forward to hearing from you soon.




Well, Zorg,


You are not going to  hear from me or any of my colleagues sooner or later because:

1)      We have all read this cover letter a thousand times.

2)      There are no opportunities in my organization, which means, that you are too lazy to look. My people are chefs. They can’t be lazy.

3)      Granted,  you did take a little time to tweak it – “food that is exquisite”. My guess is that your sense of exquisite and mine don’t quite match. The term “full of himself” keeps bubbling up. Of course I haven’t taken time to look at the resume, because the cover letter is not inviting.

4)      If I take you as a candidate, I do work, for which you pay nothing. I at least expect you to respect me enough to look up what company you are sending this to. In other words, nobody is a  whom it may concern.

5)      “You will note that I have a wide range of experience in all areas of culinary arts” Bogus. No I won’t. You don’t. Nobody does. You have some experience in some areas of the culinary arts. You really weren’t thinking very much when you wrote that.  Chefs have to think about a lot of things at the same time. Smart is a requirement.

6)  “I am convinced that an individual with my talents, combined with my commitment to quality performance and that “can do” attitude will make a valuable contribution to your team.” Self esteem is at times positive, but your belief in your own value is hardly going to change anyone’s interest level.

7)      You look forward to hearing from me soon. That’s a bit pushy and audacious, and it saddens me to think that you may be hanging by the phone waiting for a call, but it must be. That little nudge adds a bit of insult to injury (or rather minor annoyance to minor annoyance.) I have several hundred people at any time, and you want to take time out to  discuss your abilities, but you haven’t spared  a a thirty second Google search to find out who I am. What kind of work ethic is that? Am I going to do this to a client?

8)      My guess is that you didn’t think. You figured this is how it is done and just did a quickie cut paste and tweak job, but what does that say about your work ethic as a chef? Not a lot really. Nor does it say much about  your respect for the people you work with or want to work with, and good chefs and managers respect others.

So, let’s summarize. Your short cover letter presents you as  lazy, not too bright, uncreative, full of yourself, demanding,  lacking of grace and disrespectful of others. Why ever would I think of bringing you into my organization?’ You’ve managed to make a fairly rotten first impression, which reduces your chances of making a second impression.

If none of this applies to you, you  need to show it by putting a better foot/cover letter forward, or don’t send one. Shorter is better. I scan them for important content (where you seek work, your unique circumstances etc – and I delete them if there is nothing of value. Sorry, if you were proud of the letter, but try again. It serves you poorly.

The bottom line: Write your cover letter. Don’t use it as advertising, don’t make demands of the sender, and above all know who it is going to – or at least how you found them. All it takes is something like, “I discovered your opening on and would be interested in being considered as a candidate. I have 12 years of experience in all positions and three as Executive Chef, my final overseeing three locations. My ideal area of employment would be New Orleans, but I would be open to relocation. I would be happy to answer any questions you might have.”

Now that, would tell me something important.

It’s really perplexing that something so simple could be done so wrong in so many ways.

Oh, and Zorg: Don’t cut and paste that. Write your own.