Oct 092012

(So does everyone else.)

Google a little and find a list of “What Headhunters want in their candidates” .  or: “How to get your resume to the top of the pile”, or: “Resumes that will get you in with headhunters.” Aside from the fact that I would not want to be considered a “headhunter” (too cannibalistic for a business that needs to be aware of the welfare of both sides of an employment equation, don’t you think) as a recruiter I can tell you that all of this is a heap of gerbil dung.

It’s  nonsense, unless you prefer working for fools. Wise people hire based on your track record. If your track record does not hold up to any company’s laundry list of requirements, you will not be considered. It’s that simple.  (Fools go for the glitzy bits in resumes, but more about that in some other entry).

I am in a slightly different position than the usual restaurant owner, as any resume I receive may not be sufficient for the position I seek, but might be just the background some later client desires. I keep good records. For this the suitability of the applicant’s background to just one job is not the only thing I consider. There are a few elements on a resume and in a candidate’s nature which are enchanting. I have a system of checks in my data base. When I discover these characteristics, the boxes get checks,  so I can find that person faster.  Here they are:

1)       Care to career. A chef who  has carefully chosen his positions and guided his actions to keep them. This is not a matter of talent but of character and focus. A logical career trajectory is a delight. Someone who began as a cook in a local restaurant, continued to work for a few years in a better location,  then took a couple more positions in good quality kitchens to secure  his place and profile.  The quality of  his kitchens either stayed the same or rose.

2)      Stability. I do not care how many great restaurants you work at, if you only work at each one for a few months or less than a year, you do not promise the quality of any of them.  I know it is not easy to work for great chefs, and it frequently pays poorly, and it is just that application that tells me this candidate has more than talent. He has character and drive.

3)      Commitment.  Some people call this “passion”. Committed cooks and chefs are not likely to take any sharp turns in their careers to accommodate convenience. They bring with them several levels of integrity, culinary only being one of them. They are not ideologues but people whose history is testimony to their love of their chosen profession.

4)      A sense of community. We are a community and every restaurant is a community. The chef who understands himself as part of the whole will always achieve better results than the lone genius. Consider it a basketball game. It’s hard to find community sense on resumes, but it’s easy to see where it is lacking. Interviews usually reveal it quickly, as the community spirited chef will always talk about  his people and what they were able to do, rather than counting down what he presents as his sole achievements.

5)      Common sense. Every so often I will offer a young chef a job I think he can do, and he will say “No thank  you. I need to learn more first.” A chef who realizes that he is being flattered (not by me) to accept a questionable situation. They will succeed.

6)      Niceness, gratitude. Again it’s hard to see niceness, but the opposite is often very visible. Anytime someone says something like “I was so lucky to be working with her. She was fabulous” you know you have a nice person. Make that gratitude, if you will.  A while back when people were saying the French are mean (they are not), I responded that   Hubert Keller was a terribly nice guy. “Oh, said someone, “that’s just their schtick.” I like that schtick. Look where it got him. Nice guys frequently finish first.

7)      Honesty: Really. Don’t mess with me. I very much dislike it. Everyone does.

8)      Self-assessment and acceptance of one’s own humanity. Nobody’s perfect so anyone trying to appear so just looks silly. Someone who can say that their strength lies in X and they are still working on Y, anyone who realizes that their own behavior contributed to whatever caused their last job issue, is a candidate worth keeping close. Applicants who  know what needs improvement are in a position to effect it and usually do.

9)      The opposite of arrogance. I am  not sure what this is, but it is neither  humility (humility is creepy) nor modesty. It is the understanding that your own great efforts to move ahead would not have been enough without fortune and some help along the way.

10)   Straight shooting. (but with tact)  As in no name dropping. No posturing. Just what you did. Just be you.

Of course that this is what floats my boat need be of no consequence to  you cookies and cheffies out there, except that it is what floats everyone’s yacht.

Jun 072011

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Oct 122010

“I am a professional chef and Food is My Passion.” “I am a chef which is passionate about food.” “I’ve been passionate about food all my life.” Ah, the “R” rated resumes I get.

There must be a lot of heavy breathing going on in America’s kitchens. Everybody’s passionate about food/their art/their trade/chocolate. Cupcake makers profess passion for  their cupcakes. Grill cooks are passionate about their steak. Wine stewards are passionate about wine.  I get at least ten resumes a week claiming passion for food, wine, pastry or “my art,” which  means  that I have ten possibly hysterical people wanting me to represent them, which is at times unsettling.

Enough already.

Passion exists. It is a rare and precious state, the  polar opposite of reason,  the latter being a highly desirable trait in this industry.  It’s the grist of  “crimes of passion” and  “the throes of passion.”  True passion is your prime and possibly sole focus, which you pursue and defend from attack at all costs, including your own comfort, outside life and social niceties and sometimes family – possibly legalities.  Passion is more than joy or commitment, and it  carries those blessed or cursed with it forward with fearful, purpose driven momentum.

What declarers of passion probably intend to say is, “I am really interested in what I do,  I take joy in my work, I care about my business and am committed to it.” But since reality TV and the ever less articulate food press sling it around so much, it sounds cool, like the must have accessory for the culinary aspirant. It’s not.

I know people who seriously passionate. Wine importers Lorenzo Scarpone and Raphael Knapp.  Food experts like Joyce Goldstein. Chefs like Chris Cosentino, whose every sentence is somehow offal related. Their lives are their business, or better their calling, and their businesses are their lives with a space for family.  A few burn out early like a phosphorous fire, but the intelligent ones ascend to the top of their craft.  They are  kids who spend their vacations cooking for nothing, who put up 70 hour weeks if they are allowed to bask  in the shadow of some great chef for no pay, whose social lives are all about food or wine or what they do.  They submit to abusive positions to learn everything, even though their heads are about to burst with ideas about restaurants and pairings and odd ingredients. If their own restaurant fails they open another and another, running against the odds until they get it right, and when they do, the restaurant embodies an element of worship. It’s Pat the pastry chef who was fired from Moose’s because he wouldn’t go home until it was perfect. Most are extremely bright and articulate. Find yourself in a group of them and they talk food and nothing else. They live food, sleep food, play food, or wine or the object of their obsession. They have a thousand cookbooks.  They never say, “I’m passionate” or “Food is my Passion.” Many of them are slightly and delightfully off kilter.

There’s nothing wrong with not being passionate. For many practical purposes in the industry of bringing food to people being professional is actually better. Commitment, well-honed skills and knowledge are vastly preferable to passion for the majority of restaurants. There are plenty of celebrated chefs and restaurant world class professionals without passion, although they generally share a lot of hard work, dedication and practice. They take joy in what they do – who wouldn’t – they are dedicated and committed and grateful to have found a wonderful niche, and they are very good at it.  They have well trained palates, high standards and focused skills, and they are usually pretty rational.

I recently had the electrifying pleasure of watching two passionate chefs in conversation. A friend invited me to see Coi Owner Daniel Patterson and Rene Redzepi of Copenhagen’s Noma in a two man panel. They were so engrossed in their discussion of food, without a moderator to hinder them, that the evening went over by about an hour before they had realized, infecting every person  in the room with their single minded absorption to their trade. Redzepi in animated exuberance spoke at machine gun speed of eating on the floor in a village with no store, his roots, his ideas , his dreams, his staff, his kitchen, his love of French food, this and that, with Patterson absorbed, interjecting, expanding, explaining, complimenting, a match of back and forth with two men of a single mind.

Redzepi calls himself a “seal f*cker” which probably has little to do with sexual congress with pinnipeds – but it works, because passion is carnal, driven and sexual.   It is not articulate. It is not vocal. It doesn’t profess itself.   Neither Patterson nor Redzepi even mentioned being passionate.  They didn’t have to. It was obvious. Real passion doesn’t have or need a spokesperson.  It shows through in what you do and how your speak of the things you hold dear. Even if it’s offal.

If you really are passionate about food, let the passion itself do the talking. It will. Talking it to death just deflates its meaning.  If you want to escape from the cliche try something else: Love my  job, dedicated to developing my skills, take joy in my work, committed, pleasure, fortunate, because you don’t claim passion. It claims you.