Oct 112010

Location, Location, Location

From the thousands of resumes I received requesting some form of relocation, I may have been able to do less than half a dozen. Florida Chef says,  “I am looking for a job in New York.”  Alabama Casino Chef wants to be in a “high end restaurant in San Francisco.” New York chef says, “I have just moved to Miami and I am seeking a position in a top club or hotel.” Houston says, “My wife has been relocated to Los Angeles, where I will be seeking a position in a fine dining restaurant.”

None of this is going to happen.  “Don’t come,” I tell the chef from Ohio. He comes. Two years later he still doesn’t have a job.  He’s wondering what’s wrong with me, or why San Francisco doesn’t recognize his talents, and he wonders why he followed a woman he met on vacation and gave up his truly wonderful position in Akron.

This I know about culinary careers: Where you’ve been is where you’re going. You enter a community and it takes you with it. That community can be geographic, or it can be cultural. There are no shortcuts.

Geographically there are three or four main markets in the country. San Francisco happens to be one of them, New York and Chicago take up slots two and three and the fourth is up for grabs. These are or consider themselves to be more expensive, more competitive and more demanding kitchens in the tightest job markets.  That’s because eager young cooks vie for positions in their kitchens and struggle to keep them. You cannot rise to the top in any of these markets without rising through their ranks.  That is, you can’t start off comfortable and hope to have a chance of attacking the citadel. It just don’t happen that way.

As for cultural communities, the top tier kitchens are a nation unto itself in which everyone knows everyone.  The discipline and rigor of most of them are well beyond just any good restaurant, and they are inbred for just that reason. They all carry invisible  passports and visas (worked at French laundry, Worked for Daniel Hum) which allow their holders  a fair degree of free range but make it harder to get in from less demanding locations than getting a green card holding a Kalashnikoff chanting “death to the infidel.”

If you want to be part of this, you have to start early. These communities expect more from their cooks and have compensation in a bizarre cowboy camaraderie, where the in crowd supports the in crowd, and outsiders need to prove themselves.  Anyone who moves to Atlanta or Cleveland because the boyfriend or family is there with the plans of becoming a chef then coming to New York is foolish. It works the other way around. You earn your wings in the rough spots then retire to wonderful restaurants in the peripheries of the country.

But: The industry respects curiosity and young ambition. Chefs can’t move without being recruited, but cooks and sous chefs can. If you are stuck in Riverside and have a dream of working in Beverly Hills someday, someday should probably be now. The earlier in your career you move, the better. If you are determined to get out of small towns or a place in the middle,  don’t wait until your children are grown. Don’t wait until you have children. Move while you are independent, return to the peripheries and the middle when you have proven yourself and need good schools.

Sous chefs and cooks from elsewhere are always interesting. From New York, From Washington, Boston, Philadelphia or the Middle West (which is recognized for a fine work ethic, whether that’s true or not). It takes some pluck, and you can’t expect anyone to pay your expenses, but it’s worth it.

There are, of course, other communities in which migration is common. National chains, hotel groups, organizations like Relais and Chateaux properties exchange and send employees at all levels among their various locations.

Otherwise, employers are rightfully reluctant to hire outside the community. They have far less insight into the person’s skills and character.  They have no way of knowing if the kitchen the person worked at was consistent or if the food was spotty, and there’s enough evidence that a lot of rolling stones just tumbled off a bar stool.  The local candidate always has the first shot at a job, and there are always more than one of them.

There’s a moral somewhere here, and it’s this:  Plan your career early and don’t waiver. Have your middle age crisis early.  Choose the kind and location of restaurant you want to work in and pursue it doggedly. Don’t decide you want to move from an Indian Casino to a big city fine dining facility. It won’t happen. Don’t follow your heart or a woman you recently met to a place where you won’t get a job. Don’t quit your job because you want to work in Hawaii. Make your career decisions as a young person, then suffer to fulfill them. Part of your portfolio is your own terroir – where you grew, the soil you grew in. You can transplant easily while you are still green, but later no. The good spots in the good places are rewards not easily  won.