Feb 102012

I have been doing what I do, Food and Beverage Recruiting, for over 25 years. The business has been around for over 50 – I ceased counting at the half century mark – so from my perspective in the nosebleed seats of the great chef/manager game, I’ve picked up a few tips. Some people have gone as far as to call them wisdom, but in fact, they are just road dirt, like the mud that sticks to your fenders when you do a lot of cross country driving.

I get a lot of resumes. Most of them aren’t good. Too many of them are simply bad. The tips and the outtakes on this site are inspired by the bad ones. A number of them are heart rendering – the European trained chef who worked in some of the finest restaurants and somehow got himself recruited to Buckbutt Arkansas or the chef who worked his way through culinary school with two jobs, worked his way up with focus, then took a dream job at a restaurant which closed three weeks after they hired him.

Reading  the stories of the heroes, the solid professionals, the creeps and the unfortunates  has given me a lot of rules. I’ve written them before, but perhaps it’s time to move them here, little by little. Here a few in no particular order:

1)      Always consider the demographics of an area before accepting a job in a new location.

2)      Never try to talk yourself into or out of a job. Look at any reasonable position and weigh the advantages, possibilities, challenges and negatives objectively before making a decision.

3)      It’s not about you. It’s never about you, and don’t let the people you are working with tell you otherwise. It’s about the food, the state of the walk-in, the staff and the property.  Your talent, character and knowledge may be the deciding factor, but keep your perspective.

4)      Be excited about food, technique, people in the industry  and the people who follow it. Inspire yourself with travel, dining and reading. Without excitement chefs turn into kitchen managers.

5)      Until you own the kitchen – literally or figuratively – it is not your food (“my cuisine”). It’s my cuisine, as I am paying for it, and it’s the owner’s cuisine.  Your dishes are another matter.

6)      The great chefs have asked themselves along their paths, “what did I do right? What did I do wrong? What could I do better.?” Honest self-assessment is the basis of a great career.

7)      People who shout get fired. Gordon Ramsay gets away with it because a) it’s part of his act, b) he used to be a soccer star and c) he is married to a Spice Girl and has oodles of money independently of the restaurant industry. Until you have that together, shouting will only cause you to lose face and make the staff think less of you. Actually it doesn’t make Ramsay look good either.

8)      Never drink at your own bar. Regardless of the truth you are handing some Machiavellian creep a silver bullet. Once the word gets out that the chef/manager gets drunk at the bar, it’s nearly impossible to refute it. Drink next door or down the street.

9)      Distance is golden. You subordinates are not your friends, unless they were our friends before they were your subordinates. At least not at first. Give everyone you work with a great deal of respect and affection, if necessary, but keep some distance. The most common mistake made by first time chefs is not understanding that they were no longer playing with the other kids in the sandbox. Your primary loyalty shifts from your colleagues to your employer the moment you take a promotion.

10)   Changing things too fast in a new job is risky. Even when the management wants a drastic change, it’s a good idea to give it a couple of weeks while you assess the dining room traffic and the staff skills.

That’s just 10..stay tuned for more.   Please feel free to add your own road dirt to the collection. Our current security question is an arithmetic problem.



  4 Responses to “Road dirt: tips for a great culinary career.”

Comments (4)
  1. This is not an uncommon situation. Ours is a profession unlike most others. Unfortunately, prospective employers (HR departments) follow a set of guidelines, and in many cases a computer program scans a resume searching for key words and phrases HR has programmed into the system. A myriad of qualified candidates are over looked because they do not fill the predefined criteria. A “wise” HR person will realize that a chef with a 9 year tenure at a hospital is first of all settled. They will look past the chef and see a professional who is able to “manage” a department, personnel and budget. They will recognize the skill set developed over a 9 year period and that it can be applied to other managerial areas in the food service industry. In my most humble opinion, focus on these skills and demonstrate to a prospective employer that these skills can quickly be adapted to other departments. A quality chef understands the big picture in an organization and is aware of the requirements of a management position. Back and front of the house are inextricably connected. Demonstrate to them that it is a logical transition.

  2. Like Ferris Bueler said every once and a while you have to stop and look around. I am at that point right now in between jobs. I have made it to Executive Chef at a large hospital. I was there for 9 years when we were outsourced almost a year ago. I have had two short term jobs and I am looking for my third to buy me some time while I figure out where I fit and where I want to go.

    Here is my thoughts at the moment:
    1: I have been diagnosed with a gluten, soy, dairy allergy. That is one big reason I am looking to get out of the kitchen. As I interview for Chef’s jobs I do not make that known, as a matter of fact I have not told anyone in the industry.
    2: I no longer feel as inspired as I think I should be, I feel that I can still be creative and think outside of the box but I am feeling like #4 is a mark for me.
    3: I am a very skilled manager, purchaser, budget guy and so on, I feel that I am very good at business.
    4: I have held a role of very large responsability for a long time, I want to move on and move up. I would like to work into food service director, assistant director, food and beverage manager, restaurant manager, or go into the equipment chef sales rep thing.
    5: As I post for jobs and interview for jobs I feel like I am finding the kind of Jobs I want (stepping up in the management side) and the employers are passing me by or point blank saying I do not have the experience. How do I break through that shell.
    6: I have a diverse background but it seems like employers are only looking at my last job as a hospital cafe and I am not getting consideration for anything but that kind of job.
    7: I am looking at my career background and asking myself have I tied my hands? I feel like my next real long term job needs to help define my future.
    7A: I am talking short term long term because I have a possible position right now that would fit the bill of making my personal budget work. Unemployment is a slow drain on me, it is not enough to pay my bills but by being VERY careful I can stay above water. Therefore if I can land something that will pay my bills (even if there isn’t enough to save some) I will take that while I continue to look for my right job.
    8: I have been looking seriously for only about 8 weeks, before that I was working a seven day a week job, 12 hours a day. I have been landing the interviews, it feels like many of the interviews I have landed were a step below where I am now. I am willing to take a step back if there is room with the company in the future, but the step back needs to fit my monetary budget.

    • I was going to write a longer reply but let’s see if others have good ideas first. Three points, however:
      1) If employers feel you are not experienced enough for a certain job, they are probably right. What you then need to do is start at a point which will provide the lacking experience. That means as a unit chef in a food service operation, which will eventually promote you to full management.
      2) There has been a lot of misdiagnosis in allergy and food sensitivity reporting. Anything life changing may deserve a second opinion, unless it’s celiac. (not an allergy)
      3) If you went through a culinary academy of any kind they should have a career department, which can provide suggestions for alternative employment tracks.