Chef / Culinary Career Options: Hotels.


The first of Chefs’ Career Tools job profiles. What is it like to work in a hotel – the pros, the cons and how to build a career.

Hotels are so wildly diverse in what they demand and what they offer, that they cannot be dealt with in just one piece. The difference between a Fairmont, a Ritz Carlton and an Embassy Suites is vast. Size, quality, outlet number determine the challenges and demands on a property’s food and beverage staff.  To add to the confusion casinos, boutique hotels, spas and luxury resorts often have specific requirements and offer different benefits.

For a start let us omit the latter group and handle only the main category:  The transient hotel. These are distinguished by the fact that their main purpose is lodging rather than food and beverage, although some have notable restaurants. Food Service is offered frequently less as a profit source than as a necessary convenience for guests.  The majority of hotel properties in the US are owned or operated by a handful  of operating companies such as Marriott and Ritz Carlton, Hyatt, Starwood, Westin, Luxury Hotels of the World and the Four Seasons. Most of these companies franchise out their management to non corporate owned properties, and smaller hotel corporations in the country may have individual properties managed by different hotel corporations.

While some properties like many Embassy Suites or Marriott Courtyard hotels may have only one three meal outlet, the major properties often combine several outlets such as fine dining, a pub style restaurant, a three meal restaurant/café and extensive banquet and party space. Airport hotels and conference centers generally specialize in meeting and banquet space.

What hotels offer: Especially the large hotel groups and corporate owned properties provide a much wider variety of jobs and training than independent restaurants, or, for that matter, restaurant corporations or clubs. In addition to the classic cook, sous chef, executive sous and executive chef positions,  hotels employ directors of purchasing, banquet chefs, poissoniers, sauciers, butchers, bakers and pastry chefs with entire bakeries and pastry labs, chefs de cuisine – close to the entire range of culinary positions.  Corporations like Hyatt and Disney are renowned for their training programs, which frequently include management training, as they find it to their advantage to maintain their staff and promote them rather than to continue to hire new employees.  The better hotels generally offer not only attractive compensation, but better benefits and sane working hours. In general you will find the full hotel kitchen very well equipped.

All this means that a hotel environment offers a considerable amount of career flexibility and advancement, as you can apply for other positions within the organization. The standard hotel is better organized and less chaotic than the average independent restaurant or club. Hotel groups, too, frequently offer their ascending employees opportunities to work in other areas and to travel. Some even have properties in other countries.

Depending on the property, hotels offer the advantage of providing departmentalized services, so that the culinary managers do not have to do everything.

The tendency of hotel chefs and food and beverage employees tend to stay with their companies for decades indicates that hotel kitchens offer positive working environments.

A well run hotel has a fairly guaranteed clientele for any day.

Due to the compensation and the structure of hotel staffs, an employee may rise to Executive Chef overseeing as many as nine outlets and events for a thousand plus room service or may decide to maintain a position as unit chef or banquet chef for a long period. Hotels are good places for family oriented professionals.

Hotel compensation frequently includes point consideration: Chefs responsible for event production receive a percentage of the event income. Most hotels offer other bonus structure.

Partially due to the rising costs of unionized staffing and partly due to changes in dining trends many hotels have eliminated their fine dining facilities entirely and provide a three meal restaurant and extensive event facilities. Some have partnered with celebrity chefs or recognized restaurant corporations to run their restaurants. These may be under the hotel management or run independently of the property. They are, however, usually subject to hotel labor rules and policies and union arrangements.

The Challenges: Some of the positive aspects of hotel employment are also the challenges. The division of labor can result in territorial disputes. If, for instance, a banquet chef over steps the catering manager. Hotels are known for being occasionally politically intense, due  to competition for recognition or bonus points as well as labor problems. Human resource departments determine to a great deal  how internecine spats play out, but where they do their jobs poorly, the environment can be quite unpleasant. Since people tend to stay at hotels longer than at restaurants, the unpleasantness can drag on.

The opportunity to travel with the corporation may be the necessity to travel. Of most of the people I have dealt with leaving established locations, at least half  have chosen to do so because they would have been posted to an undesired location.

Hotels, especially the top of the line properties, tend to be highly policy driven. Policy is a two edged sword which goes far to ensure the frictionless running of a property, while it stifles independent creativity and entrepreneurial spirit.

The main raison d’etre of a hotel  is beds. Food is secondary, and the food offered has to appeal to a wide audience. That means a fair number of approachable items – steak, Caesar salad – as opposed to the more daring menus offered by independent restaurants.

Hotel chefs are rarely in the limelight. They enjoy little guest interaction. While they are required to develop and cost menus, especially for the banquet departments, they have less opportunity to show creativity than chefs in  other venues. Most would probably describe their environment as satisfying rather than exciting.

At least in the larger cities hotels tend to be unionized. While unions offer exceptional benefits to their member staff, they present particular challenges to management.

How hotel careers are built:  Hotel Executives rarely cook. They manage the process and large staffs of people who carry out a wide variety of duties, knowledge which takes a long time to gain.

You cannot expect to become a managing hotel chef after a restaurant career. The road forks early. Remember you are dealing with multiple tasks, all of which need to be learned, a high level of management, specific policies, possibly labor unions, multiple departments and overseeing positions which do not exist in most restaurants. A sous chef in most restaurants might be a chef de partie in a hotel.  It is often possible to transfer from a restaurant chef or sous position to Chef de Cuisine (also called “unit chef” or “sous chef”), who runs the kitchen for a single restaurant.  From this point you would be promoted to Executive Sous chef and trained by the corporation  for the Executive Chef  position. This is a little less the case in independent owned hotels, from which you may need to change jobs to progress.

Managers have a somewhat easier path to entry, as dining room policies in hotels differ far less from those in restaurants than kitchen practices do.  Hotel managers are often inducted directly into hotels from college food and beverage programs such as that at San Francisco State University or USF and make their way to the various departments as they mature professionally.

Hotels like restaurants come in all levels of quality. Most of them offer very good employment and career opportunities, but if you aspire to the best hotels, you need to start early. Finding the way to the top quality properties requires building a career in them.  Those properties maintain their ratings due to the knowledge, precision and discipline required of their staff, and they rarely if ever hire anyone to a supervisory position whose background does not show experience in their level of quality.

Hotel pastry and bakery is a thoroughly different beast from restaurant pastry chef, as the former deals with production while the latter with small plate numbers. Hotel pastry jobs tend to pay inordinately better than restaurants, but a restaurant pastry chef will rarely be given that title in a hotel without first learning the process as a pastry cook or assistant – a position which may pay better than a full restaurant pastry position.

For some reason hotels tend to hire a quite a few community college graduates and bring them up through the ranks. It is rare for the executive chef of a major property not to have a formal education. Apprenticeships are still a highly effective way to enter the field, if you can find one. (Disney still offers them).  For quite some time the majority of better hotel executive chefs in this country came from Europe. This is easily explained by the length of training and journeyman period of many foreign trained chefs and the vast amount of knowledge and experience required to run a major hotel. The CIA and Johnson and Wales changed this.

Where you can take your experience: The decision to be a Hotel professional is pretty much a one way trip, except for the unit Chef de Cuisine, who can generally return to restaurants. Hotel professionals as a rule do very poorly when they attempt to return or single unit properties (ie, restaurants), but occasionally do well in clubs.  Many move on to be Food and Beverage Directors, and a few become General Managers. For the most part, those who opt for hotels seem to stay with them by choice rather than necessity.

Next: Casinos, Resorts and Convention Centers.