This is for the few of you who have the good fortune to work in the best kitchens and are disheartened.
I’ve had a run of very desirable jobs recently including openings in Orange County, New York and the Bay Area. All of these require background in high discipline kitchens, which means by definition high visibility, quality and usually celebrity locations.
The result of my outreach for candidates has been the usual dreaded flood of “could have beens”, that is chefs who started out in in the most respected kitchens and then left them early in their careers. The classic resume shows half a year at some place like Daniel, perhaps a couple of years at one of Joe Bastianich’s kitchens or Cyrus, then a move to a less known hotel kitchen, possibly a restaurant popular outside of the white hot fires of New York, Chicago or San Francisco, then a choice for something perhaps off shore, but not on the general radar, or possibly industrial food service, a retirement home, a school kitchen, an Embassy Suites restaurant. These chefs because they have once been in the best kitchens now feel they have the background to give them entry to a Michelin or some five diamond property. They couldn’t be more wrong.
They started with a full bag of chips, and they cashed them in too early. The thing about top level dining is that it demands top level focus and top level discipline. The word for that is “rigor”. Careers are like knives – they have to stay sharp. If you leave them dull to long, they lose that original edge. You can re-sharpen knives. Careers are much more difficult.
I understand why these chefs did this – the next step offered more money, a better title, promises of more freedom. That’s easy enough – the price for sticking in the top level of the industry is a longer path to fulfillment. You will not be a sous chef in five years. Your opinion will not be asked or even tolerated before you have been involved for at least seven or eight. By bailing on the demands and lack of early rewards chefs prove that they are better than the kitchens suppose them to be. Or maybe not.
Some rethink their priorities. Perhaps fiancés or partners insist on more attention. Some young chefs do not have the patience for the nit picking and hard standards of the top kitchens, and if that is the case, they should not be there. The top kitchens cull their staff by not promoting those who do not stand up to what some consider abuse. For them to leave is not only appropriate, it is intelligent. There are a lot of satisfying places to work in the A- down leagues.
For the rest, however, leaving them wastes an investment of time and energy, because you can only trade on the credibility those restaurants lend you for limited time. Once you are out of the loop, it expires. There are back doors to be sure – old colleagues who stayed the course and are willing to pull you back in to their openings in a subordinate level or just the occasional accident, but they are iffy.
There is nothing wrong with bailing from the top. Working in less demanding and more approachable locations is a pragmatic and appropriate choice. For one thing there are more people willing to spend their money there, and the rewards can be great. But starting at the top and then turning away generally means losing some of the value your energies created.
Anyone who has left the upper echelon did so for a reason. Not everyone can succeed in them. Those who left need to remember that reason and determine where their best options within the available jobs lie. Being the best food service director is better than struggling to stay above water as a hopeful subordinate in the Michelin leagues. Those still in the arena, however, will do well to think hard on the long range opportunities they may sacrifice by taking the more comfortable or flattering route.
What if fine dining is not what you really feel you want to do? Consider this: I have the privilege of knowing some of the chefs in top chain and food corporation positions, all earning well into the six figures. None of the kitchens or products they oversee require exceptional culinary rigor, but the chefs all have long careers in demanding, will recognized restaurants and occasionally celebrity status, because the corporations who have hired them require that their leaders are infinitely better qualified than their products require. Nobody who ever accepted a better salary or a better title at a less demanding location gets these plum positions. Think about it.
Good luck to you all.