Mar 282011

Talking Turnstiles

Or making relatively intelligent and informed decisions.

Every week I get somewhere between five and twenty resumes from people who want the jobs we have in good restaurants. “We seek a chef experienced in high quality dining venues with four to five star ratings,” and to be sure a number of our applicants actually have this background for two or three years, but most will have continued on to the less stressful and demanding arenas of corporate chains, industrial food service or even retirement homes. A few have opened their own neighborhood restaurants, and one or two will have left the industry entirely for something with a nine to five schedule.

“I regret,” we respond, “that your background does not meet the criteria set by our client.”  I hate saying that. Over a quarter of a century, and I am still not hardened. Our client wants someone who has stuck with the four or five star environment, has built a strong career with substantial stays and is ready to move up or on to the next challenge.

“But,” says the applicant, “I worked for xxx and yyy, and I have the skills.”  And he did for a few months or years before he was seduced by the siren song of money, title or better hours. Since that he has not been held to our client’s standards ,  he has gathered and practiced different rhythms, different skills. He has left the a la carte world and the door slammed shut behind him.

Chef at some point made a choice – “I had to arrange my schedule for my girlfriend” (who is no longer around,  the pay was better, the hours more convenient, the stress lower, they were offered a title they could not achieve in a restaurant of the niveau they again aspire to. He had good reasons at the time, but now – “my kids are grown, so I can do what I really want to” – “I just divorced my wife, so I can get back into the field,” “I want to follow my passion before it is too late.”

Choices in this industry are frequently one way turnstiles – leaving a restaurant for a hotel, taking a position in a country club, working for a Silicon Valley or Manhattan executive dining facility are all terrific career choices, but once they are made, one path has been chosen and another rejected.  There will be precious few opportunities to double back and return to the earlier career. There are plenty of reasons for this thinking, some of them less just than others, but it sets one of the parameters for  career realization.

“What about,”  says the disappointed applicant, ”if I return as a sous chef and work my way back in?” Well, that’s actually worked in very few occasions, but those are generally situations in which the chef hiring already knows the candidate.  “We don’t want,” says one client, “people on the way down. We want to catch them as they rise.”  That’s what everyone wants for their subordinate positions.  Ageist? Hard to prove. Actually pretty logical. Who wants to risk his second in command constantly second guessing him.

Here’s the good news: You took that club job for a purpose, even if you are no longer a couple or they are grown up. The fact is that you have become pretty good at it over the years, having developed a skill set that the hot kid from Jean Georges doesn’t possess.  That makes you desirable. Why look back when you have opportunities to move forward to F&B Director, regional administrator or whatever the next step  in your career should be? You  know a lot. Find someone who will appreciate it and pay for it.

“You can’t go home”. Things have changed. You have changed.   Most people who have tried it know that they really didn’t want it anyway – they wanted their idealized version, and that doesn’t exist. The grass on the other side of the fence looks even greener when you are looking back over your shoulder.  We all forget the flies in the ointment we threw out a decade ago.

You need to think what you will miss before you undertake career changing actions, not after. I have a really promising candidate who wants me to get him into a day job. He’s 26. “My girlfriend wants me to spend more time with her.”  “Get another girlfriend,” I want to say. “This one doesn’t understand what relationships are and what you are.” I don’t, of course.  Instead: “You have a great restaurant career in front of you .  If you want to continue, you have to work nights. That’s when dinner is served. Do you really want to give that up?”

If I get a request for a day job, I’ll refer the man. My business is recruitment and placement, not auntie, I’ll do it, but over protests. He hasn’t had time to develop as the chef he clearly has the potential to be yet. “Explain to  your girlfriend, “ I say to him, “what your resentment may mean in fifteen years.” He doesn’t get the point. He’s twenty six. Love conquers all. Hopefully someone does.