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.

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.



Feb 182011

(even if you aren’t – you  may get the hang of it.)

During a recent Advisory Board meeting for a local food and beverage program a number of  Human Resource executives all expressed the need for the school to teach the students the importance of maintaining a professional appearance and reputation even before they began their careers.

They were speaking, of course, about Facebook and Myspace pages and comments, but as the conversation continued it became obvious that younger job seekers are remarkably naïve regarding the necessity of a professional image.  They don’t yet understand the consequences of an unprofessional image on their chances of working with the best companies, which in turn influence their entire careers.

The initial focus of the conversation were sites like Facebook, Twitter,  YELP!, FourSquare, etc, where posters still believe that comments, pages liked, videos and pictures are private.

Unfortunately, opportunities to shoot your career in the foot do not stop at social networking. They abound.  Every way in which you present yourself tells potential employers what you are about. One agent related the story of a candidate who drove up with a bumper sticker saying, “One mean b**ch”.  The interview lasted five minutes, thank you very much for coming. “She may have been a perfectly nice person,” she stated, “but we couldn’t take the risk.”

A candidate who reports in from a series of bars or a different bar every night opens questions of substance abuse.  Employees who gripe on line about their employers or staff dare new employers to wonder about their team abilities.

Stumbling on a video of a chef berating a female cook took him off my list of candidates.

Another HR Director noted that she is shocked, as I also wrote a while back, at how many applications she receives with suggestive or just plain offensive e-mail addresses.

I have dinged people for their comments on public forums – “Why do I know that it’s the best place in town? Because I’m the Chef!” thanking my stars that this ego maniac was kind enough to provide me with insights into her personality before I wasted time picking up the phone for an interview.

If someone is already on the phone and gets a voicemail message with a drunken scream or something equally disturbing, there is a good chance they will hang up.

By the time you reach sous chef status, your high school indiscretions are generally forgotten, but after that your record is your record and it is visible. Anyone hiring these days does a few quick key strokes to get an idea of you and the places you’ve worked  and in the process they will come across your comments and public presence. This is, by the way, not a privacy issue. The Internet is the most public of places.  Even those spaces with privacy filters may be seen and reported in casual conversation.

Despite the common belief to the contrary, the Food and Beverage Industry – restaurants, hotels, clubs et all- is an adult business which seeks professionals.  Where professional skills do not yet exist, employers look for professional attitudes.  For the best career, you need the best jobs early, and mindless public behavior or appearance rarely leads to them.

So what to do?  Erase the compromising pictures and the sophomoric posts. Google yourself and erase any damaging traces you can.  Change the voicemail message to a simple request, leave your T-Shirt stating that  cooks do it with whatever in the drawer in favor of a pressed shirt when you go on an interview, scratch the offensive bumper stickers off the back of your car and control your visible environment for  any and all inappropriate messages. The world does not need to know everything you do and everything you think. Keep anything you would not say in your boss’s office to yourself or share it face to face.  In other words, grow up or at least act in public (which is also the internet) as if you were.. In other words, be professional.

Jan 132011

Keeping your restaurant job search approach professional

An impressive HR director from a terrific company just sent me the following comment on a resume she had received: “Orgasm is a word that does not belong in a cover letter.”  She has a point.

The person who sent the resume suggesting those tasting her food experienced When Harry met Sally “Ill have what she’s having” reactions  was obviously trying to impress the employer with her bubbling personality, and impress them she did. She finished by stating coquettishly that she was not the right fit for just any organization, implying that the firm should be honored by her application.  The company agreed, deciding immediately that they were one of those organizations she would not fit, as most well run businesses would.

I would never hire this woman,  and I would never refer her. Her inappropriate and presumptuous attempts at jocular bonding raise flags.  How would she interact with her staff? What complaints and issues would arise for the employers if she waged a clever quip to a sensitive employee? Her tone, furthermore, shows disrespect for the people she intends to woo.

I recently ill-advisedly responded to one of the many “Dir Sir” applications I receive with a note that I was a dear madam rather than a sir.  The upper management applicant responded that he could hardly have known that, as there was no name on the web site.  “By the way,” he continued, “You have  a beautiful name.”    While the assumption that the manager of this firm would naturally be male should be a small red flag (how many of the important management positions in his last company went to women?  Would my clients be facing discrimination issues if he were hired?),  an attempt to gloss over the glitch  with superficial charm not only shows a surprising level of cluelessness, but insults the employer’s intelligence.  The application went straight to the electronic round file.

These two applicants attempted to bond through familiarity and what they believe to be their irresistible personalities,   a profoundly dumb strategy. It hardly ever works. For one thing, the person who reads your resume is not in familiar  mode when  reviewing candidates. It is a purely serious process, whose success impacts the future of the company and the lives of everyone who works there. Employers want information, not entertainment. For another, what sounds funny or clever or charming to you in your own mind has little chance of being received that way.   As you see from the two examples above, in fact, the achieved effect is generally one that will exclude you from the pool of candidates under consideration rather than put your papers on top.

When it comes to resumes, your favorite flavor should be vanilla. Show what you have done in the best light and make your strengths and experience clear. You don’t know what the person on the receiving end wants or appreciates, and this is no time to start guessing. “Don’t shoot until you see the whites of their eyes,” is a good policy to follow in job applications. If you feel that your personality will help you, you can gingerly test the waters in an interview, where you  can read the interviewers expression and decide how far you want to go. Even then, however,  smarmy charmy and smart-alec  are risky modes .

Until you know who you are dealing with, a respectful distance is always the best policy. Don’t try to bond over an electronically generated document. It just doesn’t work.

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.