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 212012
 

Following myu own advice, that the human attention span is short, I divided the collection of observations  acquired during over a quarter century of watching people shoot themselves in the foot into shorter lists . Here the second installment. They are in no  particular order.

1)   Keep your ego on a short leash, at least in an interview.  Be wary of compliments and suggestions that you are the only one who can fix a properties issues or bring back flagging numbers. That’s probably exactly what they told the last guy.

2)   New Job: Hold your own while showing respect for the existing culture. (Walk softly and carry a big stick). Get to know the culture before turning it on its head.

3)  Trust your instincts.  If you think someone is out to get you, they probably are. If you experience subversion causing staff unrest, consider the soothing effects of a public hanging.

4)   Follow policy. Really. If you can’t deal with the policy, don’t take the job. Management has a reason for policy, and they won’t let you be you, very possibly because that puts their own jobs in jeopardy.  Read the employee handbook and apply it. As you get to know the place better you may be able alter policies and write your own.  People who ignore policy get fired.

5)   Focus your career, and hold a logical career path. Find good places and stay there. Diversity and assortment are good on a buffet table. Less on a resume. Keep your career focused and follow something like a logical path.  Employers (should) always look for a history of  logical progression rather than two bursts of glory in jumble of jobs.

6) Don’t let staff issues slide. If someone is not performing now, they will not perform in five months. Document it and deal with it.

7) Document everything pertaining to running the kitchen and keep a copy for yourself. The chance that you may need it someday is too great for you not to.

8)   If you want a great career, choose opportunity and quality over geography, unless the geography leads to opportunities in quality restaurants.

9)   Marry someone who not only excites you but understands the demands of your career. Chefs are glamorous,  until partners find out that they can’t go out and celebrate with the crowd or babysit in the evening. People with nine to five jobs somehow think their partners can be celebrated chefs and be home for dinner at the same time. Even if they say they get it, they probably don’t.

10)   You can’t have it all. If you want to work five star,  you can’t have nights off.   Decide what’s important and realize that you will probably not be able to change your career trajectory once it is set. The best training spots often pay less for starting positions.

Unfortunately there are many more.  In the meantime, there isn’t a man/woman/person Jack among you, who doesn’t have his/her/their own observations. Please do share. The comment link is below.

 

Nov 012011
 

When I took over the flagging family recruiting firm I have since  been running for some 25 years, I learned early that what seemed obvious to me as often or not had nothing to do with the truth. A candidate who avowed his passion really wanted to sell fish, or a chef who  had come to San Francisco to enter the big waters of the culinary world really wanted something out in Stockton or down in Cupertino.

More importantly, I learned that things which seemed obvious to me were only obvious to me and not to anyone else. Things I assumed to be general knowledge were completely foreign to my candidates and clients,  whether it was a restaurant or a technique or just some technical policy or the quality of a location “everyone” knows.

After one terrific shock and epiphany as to how much people in general  – even full professionals – don’t know, I taped a sign on the inside edge of my desk, where nobody but me could see it:

I am still learning to be sure my candidate or client is on the same page as I am, that they know what I mean when I reference a chef or resume, and I still catch situations where people I’d swear would know simply don’t. .

This  rule, “Make No Assumptions”,  is as important to you as a candidate as it is to me as a recruiter, or, for that matter, anyone who hires you. That level of assumption – giving your audience more credit for general knowledge and industry insight than  s/he deserves – is a career stumbling block.  You, too,  need to be able to communicate all important and pertinent information about your background clearly and completely to potential employers, whoever they are and however all knowing or not knowing they may be.

When you write a resume,  you are writing it to someone. Half the time you won’t know who that someone is – A savvy restaurant owner? A  secretary? An intern or temp? An administrative executive with good business sense but limited  culinary resources?  – so your best bet is to aim at the lowest common denominator and clearly state everything that is pertinent to your background.  Begin with the premise that your audience doesn’t know the obvious about the places you worked, what you did there, or now and then,  much about the industry and its values at all. The rule I tell candidates is that you have to account for the small but important possibility that your resume’s audience is:

  • Just  not all that bright
  • An intern or a temp with a laundry list of simplistic candidate requirements
  • An administrative assistant who knows little about the business
  • Any one of the restaurant staff: Tired, over worked and unfocused or just  ADD.
  • So stressed and hurried that they only read the captions.

They probably won’t be, but it happens often enough to justify the practice of not omitting information that they might be looking for. It’s not that nobody knows anything, but that a some  people don’t know everything and won’t take the time to educate themselves, so that becomes your job.

So: If you worked at Mo’s Tavern, Missouri, and Mo’s Tavern is a high end French restaurant serving 400 covers a night, and it just got nominated for the James Beard Award, that’s pertinent. Communicate that information. Potential employers and their minions are not going to go find it for themselves. If you were in charge of five outlets, communicate that. If you worked for the same group at five different restaurants, show it. Don’t expect a manager or an HR clerk to know that your restaurant part of a celebrity chef’s empire. Tell them.

If you as chef of La Rondelle did all the butchering or the pastry or oversaw a bakery, let them know. If they don’t, few will go out and do some research.  I do, and every now and then, but I am the exception. It is your duty to shine a clear light on your background, not mine or some restaurant owner’s to figure it out for ourselves.

It’s that simple. Tell people what they need to know in order to make a logical decision whether they should pursue you as their next great hire or not. It helps a lot. If they do know, then your explanation will not harm your chances, and if they don’t, it’s at the very least considerate of you to make the process easier for them.

Small side story: About fifteen years ago one of SF’s grande dame hotels called me to ask about one of the best sauciers in town. The young man had gone back and forth to France, mostly because he liked the girls, and had in the process worked  in some of the top Michelin starred restaurants. One of the great old French chefs sent him to me when he returned to the states, and, as he needed money and a friend with a chicken-in-a-basket kind of place needed help on the spot,  I sent him for an interim position, which he did beautifully while he looked for something more suitable.

His resume eventually landed in the in-basket of the hotel’s HR department, from which a young woman called me to verify and describe the fried chicken job. I did,  adding that he had worked at several restaurants with two and one with three Michelin stars.

The hotel staffer did not respond.  She continued to ask about the neighborhood joint, and I, perplexed, kept forcing the point that he had far more interesting background. Finally I asked, “Why do you want to  know about the pub, when he worked at MICHELIN starred restaurants??”, to which the HR employee responded – “What’s that? Is it important?”

That young woman is more likely than not going to be the one reading your  resume first and deciding if it goes to someone able to make the decision to interview you. Act accordingly. Make no assumptions.

 

 

 

 

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 052010
 

Ever since the word “Truthiness” vaulted into the American vocabulary from an entirely improbable linguistic source, it’s been popping up in my business.

My friend and sometimes gun for hire Chef Claude is involved  in a consultancy right now.   I’ve known Claude since I imported him from a famous Southwest restaurant going nowhere, possibly because Claude had been sold a glamorous and not entirely realistic or truthy  bill of sale by a celebrity chef with too much vision and too few math skills.  Vision is at times a four letter word. Math  skills are essential.  Lack of truthiness is one of the hazards of the industry.

Claude has my absolute respect and trust: He’s the WISYWYG Chef (What you see is what you get),  who plays no games. He knows his profession, is a terrific judge of people,  having in the past twenty years or so fired, hired, trained, and appreciated so many good ones and suffered as many fools and the occasional fiend. He can recombine facts to come to the underlying facts and problems of a business, knows the economy of scale from fine dining to fast food (different processes, different systems, different staff, all of which the restaurant needs to take into account).  Claude is also well known for down to earth and occasionally downright earthy pearls of kitchen wisdom in purest Kitchen Latin. None repeatable here.  He has no ego, but he knows he’s good.  What’s not to like?

I had a client whose chef is “doing a great job, but…”, who is now Claude’s client due  consultant referral service of  ours which could easily qualify as non profit.  Claude, being a pro, has reported back to me with a story that’s not really new.  My/his client’s problems, or better problem,  is a single issue with multiple symptoms.

The chef is not putting in the required hours and is giving a slew of transparent excuses, which Claude interprets as either “Tee Time” or “Wife needs someone to look after the Kid”. Things are not getting done – product not ordered (“I called them three weeks in a row and they were out”, “He didn’t return my call”). Policies are not being followed (“I don’t give them my schedule, so I can keep them off balance”), subordinates are not given tools and instruction necessary for success in his  frequent absences, so the chef says, “They’re not ready yet,” which you can interpret as “You absolutely need me.”  In other words: He lies.

You could make a list of other problems, but Liar sums it up tidily.  Excuses are presented, apparently credibly,  as reasons,  subordinates’ success is hindered, cost is ignored, produce prices not compared.  The well qualified sous is pretty much hog tied by the chefs’ obstructionist behavior in support of  his own indispensability, the food in the chefs’ frequent absences isn’t as good as when he is there, the subordinates are looking for other jobs, the owners are losing money, the produce companies are dissatisfied, because who knows what they have seen of this. This, like any situation where lack of honesty impacts the kitchen, is an onion. Without being there, I guarantee that more will surface as the layers fall away.  Having seen this in other situations, however, I’d say that Claude has a fifty percent or less chance of convincing the owners of what needs to be done.

The owners, says Claude, are terrific and kind people who are reluctant to fire anyone, because the “are our friends”. “No, they’re not”, says Claude. “Your friends don’t lie to you.” I’d add to that that they are caring for the wrong one, doing injustice to the rest.

Here’s what I know. Don’t listen to me, though. Anyone who lies at any time knows how it is done and will do it again. It gets pretty easy after a while.  Liars are bad for your business.   Anyone hiring someone who  lies during the recruiting process will experience problems with them in a position of authority.  There are no exceptions. As I said, don’t listen to me. Find out for yourself.  Why not?

Not only do liars lie and thieves steal, there’s serious crossover in the process. Frequently drugs are involved, quelle surprise.  Everyone has priorities, and it’s rare that the employer’s welfare is on the top of anyone’s list, him/herself having sole rights to that position.  Most people, at least I hope they  make up the majority, follow a set of rules to make sure they do right by their employers, making the employers’ welfare their own. Not so with liars.

Liars on the other hand use their skill to promote their own interests with no regard to their responsibilities towards their employers, always assuming they are smarter and can get away with it. Frequently there’s some form of compassion play involved – his wife is ill, she has had a hard life  – although it’s not a requirement.  (Real professionals manage the same thing by knowing their business and working effectively.) Liars  furthermore are usually not nearly as good as they would have you believe and can often for some time continue to appear, because lying works pretty well, and people with practice get really good at it.

As an employer I’d be insulted, if nothing else.  The employee who is lying to you, providing you with false excuses thinks you are stupid.  It certainly insults me as a recruiter.  I can’t understand why people who find their staff have honesty issues, including those having to do with financial loss, continue to insist that their staff are their friends/family and thus beyond termination. I wonder if they realize that they are not only harming themselves, but the rest of the staff, who have two choices – either join in the game or suffer the consequences of  an uneven playing field, because the one who lies always has the advantage. They’re scared?  They are easily manipulated?

In a world, of course, where obviously a lot  people continue to fall for Nigerian Princes and click on warnings that their bank account is about to be suspended, I suppose it’s possible that some of them run restaurants. At any rate, Claude’s story is too common.

My friend D., whose business it is to pull people’s chestnuts out of the fire after they’ve let a situation like this run on for a while and experience legal consequences at some point, and I sit around our lattes exchanging horror stories likes kid’s around a campfire trembling as the roast  marshmallows to tales of the hand.  They’re titillatingly scary and highly entertaining, and she’s got lots of them.

This story isn’t nearly as exciting as any of hers, but hopefully entertaining. Do with it as you wish. There’s probably  a moral in there somewhere. I am sure there is.