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.

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.



Oct 092010

Despite the officially declared recovery I still see a lot more fired or laid off applicants than I did two years ago.  A five star hotel was sold to a company which has no need for a top chef,  a chef arrives in the morning to find the doors closed, a manager finally states her mind about changing policies and is terminated, the company simply no longer can afford the chef’s salary and replaces her with a lower paid subordinate, the new Club President decided it’s time for a change.

What if this happens to you? What do you do, after the initial shock has worn off?

Everyone’s situation is different, but there are some steps you should take.

First, be practical. Request severance pay. You may not get it, but there’s no harm in asking.

File for unemployment. It won’t be a lot, but you can use it to tide you over while you look. Employers don’t like to pay it, and if they can prove that you were terminated for good cause they will not have to.  It is called “unemployment insurance” rather than unemployment entitlement for a reason: You have been paying into the fund for all the  years you worked. If you are offered severance pay instead, do a little math to decide what you want.

Request any compensation still owed you immediately.  California has a law prohibiting  to “Suffer work to be done without compensation.” The law requires that you be paid at the time of termination or within a few days of your own resignation.  You should not wait, and you won’t have to unless the restaurant’s finances are not in order.

If your employer says he cannot pay you now and asks you to wait, you should not.  You are, unfortunately, in a race with other creditors including the government for a finite amount of money. Explain that your pay is due on termination, and you would regret having to go to the Labor Board (which will bring possible fines, so it may have an effect.)  You can try to negotiate a post dated check. Don’t deposit it until you call the bank to which it is issued to ask if there are sufficient funds in the account. Make a copy of the check as proof before you send it in.  If the check bounces, you may be able to place a claim with your local District Attorney’s office. While your pay is a civil matter, a bounced check is a criminal issue.

If you can’t get you back pay, go to the Labor Board. Don’t wait. Time is important.  Most states provide that employees get paid before purveyors and service providers, so if the restaurant is in distress they will be pushing hard to get what’s owed them. To the owner of a failing business needs them and not you, so you need someone on your side.  If vendors or service providers are able to get payment before you, you will see less. I am not a fan of the Labor Board, but this is where they serve a purpose.  You want to be compensated before bankruptcy is declared, before vendors are paid, and before the Federal and State governments claim back taxes.

Don’t give up if the business closes. Just because a business shuts down doesn’t mean that there are no funds to pay  you.  Do not, furthermore, be intimidated into not pursuing what is owed you on grounds that it would be the final straw for a business on the way down. If things are that far along,  your pay won’t make much difference.

Civil claims against employers  have increased tenfold in the past three years, which doesn’t make them a good idea. There are a plenty of attorneys willing to take on wrongful termination cases on a contingency basis, but if you do make a claim,  you had better win, and you will receive less money than the attorney.  Even if you do win, appeals can stretch the case out for months or years, and winning is improbable. Contrary to Labor Board claims, litigation leaves a public record. Few employers hire litigants willingly.

Unless the business is in danger of closing, do not prompt your staff to show solidarity by walking out when you are gone. For one thing, the restaurant is going to be in your history as long as you work, and there’s not much benefit in making them angry. For another, your staff needs the jobs.

If you are referred to an agency which quizzes you on the business’s labor practices or if the Labor Board asks you a list of questions think twice before you try to get even with the employer by complaining about missed breaks or shift pay.  The agency wants to hold the business accountable, but any fines they levy on the restaurants will come out of a finite pool of money, reducing what is available for you. You want the business to do well enough to pay you.

You may be asked to sign a document stating that you left of  your own accord, in return for which, the employer promises a good reference.  Think twice. If you were not terminated for seriously poor conduct, the employer would have to give a fair reference anyway.  If you were terminated for cause, you will not be eligible for unemployment, but you still won’t have any real assurance that the employer will provide a good reference.

Get your insurance in order.  If you have a pre existing condition, you have sixty days to apply for COBRA insurance.  It tends to be expensive. San Francisco residents have access to the City’s insurance, which is not great, but will keep you safe if your appendix acts up.  Some employers are willing to extend insurance even if they terminate the employee.

Line up references. Your company may have a no-reference policy, but people who are no longer with the company usually do not adhere to it.  Friends in the company may also be willing to give references. Line up references from previous employers and subordinates, as well.

Don’t beat  yourself up. People who really should get fired rarely do. Termination happens, and if you messed royally, don’t do it again.   You’re in pretty good company. Remember Nixon? Forced to resign in infamy and then rose to glory? You’ve learned something, and it won’t happen again.

Don’t panic – you will find something else. While it’s a good idea to start to look for a job  as soon as possible, cut yourself a little slack. You probably haven’t had free time for quite a while.  Enjoy it.

Strategize your job search.  Remember that you are looking for a suitable job, not “just any” job, because “just any” jobs have a tendency not to last. Dust off your resume and update it.  Decide what you really want to do and what your boundaries are.

Review your finances and prepare to budget.  You can’t count on finding your next position in a week or two, so decide how  you can stretch your available cash and income for as long as it takes to find a suitable position. The longer you can look, the more freedom you have to turn things down, and having a little cash flow extends your search options.  Offer to do relief work for friends, take short term positions, cater, whatever.  Filler jobs don’t have to be at your level.   Any work is good for driving away the demons that come if you just mope, and you will be in the loop, which  makes finding new positions easier.

Be realistic.  The market has probably changed since you took your last job. I’d say that compensation is down +10% across the board, sometimes more. Culinary focus has shifted from fancy to casual. Be selective in accepting a job, but don’t hold out for fantasy jobs and culinary styles.

Be honest with yourself about what didn’t work at the last position. That’s not easy. I never believe anyone who says, “I have no idea why I was fired.” Sure you do.  Figure out what you learned from it, even if that’s simply that you made a bad choice taking the job.

This is a poor time to drink a lot, no matter how tempting it is. Your career needs you to have a clear mind now.  If you were drinking a lot before you got fired, you might figure out that that’s probably part of the reason. Your call.

It’s better to be on good terms with your ex employers than to have them resent you. You’re going to be running into them and the people there now and then in your future. If someone is not paying you, that won’t be an option, but leaving friends behind always helps in a job search.  Apologize if possible. Thank them for giving you a chance, if you can.  Some employers try hard to help employees they can no longer afford find new jobs.

Have some fun. See friends, get exercise, keep healthy and get enough sleep.   This is not advice from your mother. It will make you interview better.

Keep an open mind and a wide window about opportunities that arise.

Things don’t necessarily happen for the best, but they generally work out.