Wonderful places to work, but not all of them and not for everyone.
What you need to be a freestanding restaurant chef:
- Solid knowledge of food, technique and presentation
- A practical grounding in the administrative and accounting functions of a running kitchen.
- Experience in the most expedient use of kitchen space, energy, staff, product, time and funding.
- A level of culinary complexity and precision matching the needs of the restaurant. This works for the extremely casual and well as highly complex and refined menus.
- An understanding of the orchestration of the specific volume of the property, whether it is two cooks for 60 covers or 20 for 200.
- A focused development process in your career which has permitted you to pass through and learn all of the functions in a working restaurant. That means a minimum of 6 years for most properties, at least 3 of which should be in a responsible management position. No management job under at least 12 months counts towards this.
- A well developed palate, a good eye and depending on the location a high degree of creativity.
- The ability to balance multiple tasks at once.
- “People skills”: The ability to communicate and understand what is told you by management and to get your subordinates to understand and carry out your instructions.
- Leader mentality: The ability to motivate and lead without shouting, self confidence in your leadership role.
- Speed and rhythm. Ability to work effectively under stress.
- An entrepreneurial sense of responsibility for every item leaving the kitchen, a pocket full of spoons.
- A personal situation permitting you to flex with the time requirements of the restaurant.
What restaurants have to offer:
Whether the one off restaurant is a corner diner or an elegant, free standing, $200/cover food temple, they form the gold standard for aspiring chefs, above all aspiring restaurant owners. If you want to own a restaurant, you need to learn how they work from the inside.
Ranging in size from as few as 20 or 30 seats to several hundred, and in level of product from an easy steak or burger local to the $250+ prix fixe menu, free standing restaurants are the property of one or a small group of owners, usually chefs or owner managers, and form small communities unto themselves.
There are so many advantages to working in independent environments that it’s hard to find a place to begin.
Proprietors with their names connected to the property are naturally concerned for the quality and the environment. Their care of their reputation adds to the value of your career experience.
There is an intimacy in independents rarely found in the other restaurant genres. Even in the larger properties, the likelihood of a mentorship developing between owner or chef owner and up and coming staff is greater than in most other genres. Some of my top candidates began their careers in a rural or suburban single or family owned restaurant, where the training provided by the chef owner formed a solid basis for their entire careers. In a few cases that owner was a grandmother or father, but even if owners are unrelated, family style relationships frequently develop.
Independent owners can be enormously generous to their chefs and managers. I have had clients eventually lend chefs money for home down payments, help them with hospital bills, or finance their continuing education. Don’t count on it, but it happens.
Few but the largest independent restaurants tend to be hog-tied by the sort of policy and set practices which control decisions and procedures in the corporate or hotel environment, although locations like San Francisco, New York and Chicago with their labyrinths of labor ordinances make employment manuals and set rules a survival necessity even for the smallest location.
The top chef owners always begin with one location, and chancing onto a position in one of the new chef driven locations can be the entrance into an exciting path. Working in a subordinate or chef de cuisine position in a single location can lead to the excitement of opening and possibly running a second one.
I get the impression from the candidates I speak with that these are the most exciting and enjoyable kitchens to work in.
The smallest of independent restaurants, those with fewer than sixty seats, offer special advantages: Shoulder to shoulder with the chef, cooks or sous chefs in their professional growth phase are not only exposed to but immerged in every possible facet of the food sourcing, production and delivery process. They are chef incubators.
So why isn’t everyone working in them?
First of all, there aren’t enough to go around. Second, it’s not all lyrics and rose petals.
The smaller locations generally offer lower compensation compared to larger restaurants, and benefits may be lower. Lunch and dinner locations often need staff to work split shifts.
The quality of the work environment depends on ownership and management. As a rule more involved managers are more approachable, effective and supportive of their staff.
The lack of set policies can, aside from creating room for creativity and innovative practices, also result in arbitrary decision making by owners or their representatives. Owners of restaurants like anyone else may have overly invasive management styles, and as they are the owners, no one will be able to contradict.
Some (not all!) independent restaurant can be chaotic. Professionals with a profound need of planning and organization may find some of them upsetting.
While smaller properties provide in depth, hands on exposure to the entire process for front and back employees, they do not provide the kind of strategic system exposure and administrative/supervisory training you would find in a corporation, larger single restaurant or restaurant group. For this reason some small restaurant employees seek out corporate or group environments to round off their skill sets.
Most tend to be higher pressure than more corporate environments because they rely on fewer people for the process. Anyone lacking speed and focus is not going to last long in one.
If a chef complains of working ten hours a day in seven days a week, he is working for an independent.
Owners of independent restaurants, chefs especially, carry the full responsibility of their restaurant and their reputation, and they are, despite possibly relaxed policies, in the end to a greater or lesser degree despotic. Their restaurant, their call. The owner of a restaurant repeated voted the best of San Francisco once replied to a reference to what some perceived to be his inflexible approach to the kitchen, “I do what I have to do to get the results I have to get to be the restaurant I want.”
The chef owner of a very famous South Western restaurant once had a minor dust up with one of the best pastry chefs I have met. The pastry chef wanted to improve the product drastically. The chef rightly forbade it. “This is my restaurant and this is my pastry.” He might have added, “My clientele likes it like this, and they are satisfied. If you change it to a product someone else can’t duplicate and leave, they will complain and not come back.” His restaurant. His pastry. His call.
While one off restaurants provide some of the best working environments for those who like adrenalin rushes, the category is not without a few stinkers. There are plenty of credible reports of them on the street. In a culinary community the undesirables are generally known, so we do not need to go into details here. They are fortunately the minority. Most professionals who put their name on the restaurant are serious about their image and do whatever they can to maintain the level of professionalism and quality in their locations.
In the restaurant industry there are no rules but fairly dependable generalizations. One of them is that working for owners with strong previous restaurant backgrounds is preferable to working for visionaries. It is only generally true. Over the past few years I have worked for a number of highly intelligent restaurateurs whose understanding of the business and frequently whose fresh approach was nothing short of inspiring. I would love to mention one of the smartest SF restaurateurs here, but
Some larger independents have the same advantages and disadvantages as corporate locations. Some restaurant group properties offer the same liberties as independents. There is no perfect restaurant choice. Ideally you will be able to choose between several good ones with varying pluses and minus points. Your career. Your call.
Where do you go from here?:
Your working career is likely to be at least 40 to 50 years. While you can work in independent restaurants most of that time, most choose not to. Lucky chefs in single restaurants gain responsibility as the companies grow, eventually becoming regional or corporate chefs. Some restaurant chefs move into hotel units and take that route to become hotel Executive chef and eventually Director of Food and Beverage. By far the greatest number of restaurant owners began their careers, either front or back, in free standing restaurants.