Thoughts on building a kitchen staff in today's professional culinary atmosphere.

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https://munchies.vice.com/articles/its-impossible-to-find-good-cooks-nowadays

I thought this article, though brief, really hit a lot of nails on the head regarding the struggle of building an effective team in today's restaurant kitchens. In my youth as a novice cook, I definitely suffered from an undeserved sense of culinary capability that I simply did not possess, but it was well beaten out of me by a string of kitchen jobs requiring varying levels of skill and responsibility. 

Since then, and most notably very recently, I've worked with cooks who are around the age I was when I started getting serious about my field, and they're astoundingly unresponsive to criticism and indignant in terms of absorbing the demands of the kitchen that are vital to keeping a restaurant churning the way it must-- long hours, missing holidays & family events, timeliness, a sense of urgency, and the like.

What do you other professional chefs and cooks think? Does this article strike at the heart at some of your struggles in building the ideal kitchen team? There are certainly exceptions to the rule, and some very promising young cooks whose hearts are truly in this cruel and unforgiving industry will always be present, but it feels like a growing problem with daunting implications for the future of dining out.

What do you think?
 
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I think restaurants have to take a decent portion of the blame. They don't want to have to teach anyone anymore. Pantry station or prep should (in my experience) be an entry level position at most decent places. But now a days help wanted ads even say they want dishwashers with experience. The big issue with this is that you lose a lot of people are intelligent, hard workers. Why? Are you really so busy that you can't teach someone to put together a salad, or teach someone to prep out the hot line? And pay is a whole different issue that exists that we'll get into a different time.
 
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This is a big question. Or a big problem with many causes.

      There are many factors involved; media misrepresentation of the profession, proliferation of culinary schools, tremendous availability of preprocessed and prepared foods as well as those mentioned in the article and by the other posters. The low pay is a serious one as is the long hours and lack of work/life balance. I wish I had answers for some of these but if there are daunting implications for the future of dining out, I think it's time we faced those implications. 
 
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Build a good environment where people treat each other with respect. Pay what you can. Don't be too stingy with food. Have fun. Don't break the law. Don't work people clopens or split shifts unless they want it. Pay overtime. Make people responsibilities clear. Tell them that they need to do things the way you want them whatever their opinion. Don't overwork them; some people only want to work part time. Teachable moments means explaining why you want a certain thing, even if there is another viewpoint. Mentoring people means teaching them to feel some of the love you have for the job. To some people its just a shit job. Keep looking for people & try to give the good ones a reason to stay.
 
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The article,... oh yeah..., a lot of nails hit on the head. Today's electronic world has lent itself to creating a lot of instant experts, but  without the real knowledge and experience to back it up. You only get real knowledge and experience one way, putting in the time, which includes a healthy dose of learning the business and leadership, such as teaching and instructing staff, along the way,

Everybody today wants to hire people with experience, but the people with experience have, in large, been taught by other people without lots of experience themselves, so it is self propagating.

Low pay and long hours are nothing new to the industry. In the past they didn't really deter people from being in the industry. Mentorship is disappearing and being lost in a sea of instant experts.
 
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I read an article recently about a 16-17 year old child "chef" that has people lined up out the door.  Seems he staged or worked for a while at a high end restaurant and is now bringing the techniques back home.  All I could do is shake my head at it. Sure, he's probably doing some cool stuff but aside from MG parlor tricks how much could he really know about the fundamentals of cooking at that age?  To be charitable he may be a savant but there's simply no way he could have a deep and broad culinary knowledge with his youth and inexperience.

The internet and cooking shows have created a large field of folks that know how to spherify caviar and stuff but you can't fake experience.  I can look up something online and integrate it into what I'm trying to do based on 25+ years of restaurant experience.  I knew a lot a few years in but I'm still learning to this day.  I don't really know any shortcuts to putting in your time.

I think one major crisis hitting restaurants is that the elevating cooks and chefs to artist status has been a double edged sword.  Now that we celebrate chefs as celebrities people getting into the field expect to be paid like celebrities, and they want it to happen overnight.  And given the trend towards buying packaged stuff lots of the wannabees can fake their way through the job for quite a while if they have a few tricks to impress the yokels.
 
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I have to agree that building a staff has become more challenging in recent years. While, to me at least, it has been about building a network of people, not just working currently with you, but keeping past mates in the circle also. Finding these gems have become more difficult and Im finding there are fewer young chefs in that network.

For example, 2 weeks ago I helped a friend do an event for 1200. I have helped him before as it is an every other year event. There were 5 of us doing the prep, cooking, plating ect,ect. Not one person in the kitchen under 32, with me at the top end at 50. Where are the youngins?

10 years from now I can assure you I wont have too many 16 hour days in me and honestly, even though I network a lot, I not sure I have enough young cooks in my pipeline to pick up the excess.

Guess Ill never get to retire.
 
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As others have mentioned, I too have lamented the lack of in-house development and mentoring I see today.  I'm sure that in the truly great restaurants it's still going on but cheflayne says a lot of the experience young guys are getting is watching and working with guys that never learned the fundamentals themselves.  While I was lucky to work under one really good chef for the most part I have been responsible for developing myself!  You really do need to push yourself and keep growing.  I really like cheflayne's sig line: Wisdom comes with age, but sometimes age comes alone.  So many guys with "20 years of experience" really just learned what they know in the first couple years and then stopped.  It's part of a broader work ethic and sense of curiosity to keep pushing your horizons and learning new things.  You kind of have to because often no one is interested in teaching you stuff, especially stuff that isn't immediately necessary for you to do your job.
 
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I feel that working towards a career is gone. People just starting out consider what they are doing is their career, when it's basically working in a profession. 
 
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Sadly, at 46 I still haven't found anything I'd rather do!  Some days I hate cooking but the truth is that I love it./img/vbsmilies/smilies/redface.gif
 
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The comments so far have made me think back to my days in the heat of the kitchens I worked.

I do not remember EVER having the Chef come up to me to teach me how to do something.

I DO remember following the other cooks who taught me what they said the Chef wanted.

This, to me was always wrong.

In order to get everyone on the same page it is the Chef who must teach and or show each kitchen department what they want.

Allowing a cook or other to teach a incoming employee, sometimes, also teaches bad habits or "tricks" that usually end up making the Chef angry.

And...sadly this also happens in the FOH where servers simply follow along with another server for 2 weeks and then are allowed to go it alone.
 
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@Chefross  , That's a fact. Especially when you're hiring. If you find someone that has not been trained by a qualified chef, You spend more time trying to rid them of

all their wrong shortcuts. Even worse is when you're gone they usually flip back to the wrong way.
 
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Thought I'd resurrect this thread as I'm in the middle of a hiring fair for a new facility.

I've noticed the team I'm putting together is more guys in their 30s and 40s. I'm concerned about the habits they'll bring, but frankly I'm happy to have cooks who understand what the day to day grind is really like.

The younger dudes I've interviewed balk at having a closing shift that keeps then there past midnight, or demand Saturdays or Sundays off, or even turn their nose up at the menu for not being "interesting" enough. I haven't found a DW yet because even kids looking for their first job get indignant and put out when that's all I'm offering them.

I feel like the mindset of "do the best you can at the job you've been given" is a dwindling commodity. I have 2 guys in their mid-20s now who have this mindset, and I've taken them with me to every kitchen I've worked in the last 6 years... Because they're the only ones I've met :p
 
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Read the article.

Couldn't disagree more.

In the fairy tale world of "yes Chef" where all the employees have happy smiles and do their work diligently and in a fast manner, and never complain, yadda yadda......

The fact is those people are very few and very far between. 

Respect the opinions of my cooks?

In what world?

Firstly the cooks have to know what they are talking about before I can respect an opinion

Cooks like to know what's going on.

It's none of their business. Their business is to come to work on time, and do their job to the best of their abilities. What goes on with the business end is managements concern.

Empower the cooks? Seriously?

The article was and is not a real world perception of the business. I'm inclined to believe all these items, but experience has shown me all of the examples will not work unless the individuals are professionals. Young adults, older retirees, and their ilk will not embrace these ideas, and beliefs, simply because they are there for the money and a job.

The real issue is professionalism in a profession that doesn't have standards to hold people.

These ideals may be fine and good for corporations and or chains, but very difficult to entertain in individual places that hire the local color.
 
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chefross chefross I don't wholly disagree with you, but I don't wholly agree either. The title of the article is "How can restaurants hang onto exceptional cooks." By the time a cook can be called exceptional, the already do things your way. The baby steps of grooming someone to move up means giving them some kind of resposibility. The flip side of this is needing to be able to trust your cooks when you aren't around, which means pushing them to do things right on their own.


I'm a firm believer, too, in keeping cooks informed about what's going on. Communication keeps everyone on the same page. I will occasionally even solicit an opinion- when I feel like it. If you have experienced cooks, you should take advantage of their knowledge. It's a little different for you,
because you've been doing this longer than I have, but when I got my first sous job at 25 that experienced hand sometimes knew what I needed to know.

Having said all that, there is DEFINATELY a reason there's a chef.
 
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@chefross I don't wholly disagree with you, but I don't wholly agree either. The title of the article is "How can restaurants hang onto exceptional cooks." By the time a cook can be called exceptional, the already do things your way. The baby steps of grooming someone to move up means giving them some kind of resposibility. The flip side of this is needing to be able to trust your cooks when you aren't around, which means pushing them to do things right on their own.
Thank you for saying what I was going to say, but in a much nicer way. 

Many/most of the chefs on here are implicit in the pseudo military hierarchy of the kitchen. That is all well in good, if that seems to work for you. This isn't the 1970's. The days of "Kitchen Confidential" are done. Abuse, harassment, etc have gone the way of the dodo.
 
Respect the opinions of my cooks?

In what world?

Firstly the cooks have to know what they are talking about before I can respect an opinion
Yes, you should absolutely, 100% respect the opinion of your cooks. You should respect the opinion of your DISHWASHER. Respect is earned, and respect is given. It doesn't mean that you agree with them, or will do what they want/ask, but it means that if someone on your team has an opinion or something to say, you owe it to them to at least hear them out and facilitate a dialogue. Respect doesn't mean agreement.
 
Cooks like to know what's going on.

It's none of their business. Their business is to come to work on time, and do their job to the best of their abilities. What goes on with the business end is managements concern.
Wow. And how invested do you think these cooks will be. If they feel like nothing more than a factory worker or a cog in a machine, they will become disillusioned and probably not last long or give 100%. If you somehow think that involving cooks in problem solving is a bad thing, I'm glad I don't work for you. 
Empower the cooks? Seriously?
Absolutely. As long as they are making decisions based on what is best for the business and can be trusted, why not? Given a subordinate some measure of autonomy and control is a time honored way to show trust and build confidence and investment in the team. Those types of people, aside from the sous chefs and chefs, are the leaders in the trenches. I love it when I know I can trust one of my cooks to do the right thing and I don't have to micromanage all the time. 

How can that be a bad thing?
The article was and is not a real world perception of the business. I'm inclined to believe all these items, but experience has shown me all of the examples will not work unless the individuals are professionals. Young adults, older retirees, and their ilk will not embrace these ideas, and beliefs, simply because they are there for the money and a job.

The real issue is professionalism in a profession that doesn't have standards to hold people.

These ideals may be fine and good for corporations and or chains, but very difficult to entertain in individual places that hire the local color.
Again, the article is titled "How can restaurants hang on to exceptional cooks." What standards are you talking about? I'm assuming that most of us, as chefs, set our own standards in our own kitchens. If someone that works for me isn't meeting standards, they are let go. 

The article is a list of ideas to help chefs understand ways to build better teams and hang on to good cooks. It isn't saying that all these things will always be relevant, or even applicable all the time. It may show an ideal, but I ask...what is wrong with that? 

This shit-eating, macho bullshit kitchen culture is on its way out. Dawn of a new era. Times are a-changing. 

The same chefs that are lamenting not being able to find cooks (I mean, have you HEARD about the cook crisis in every city in America right now?) are the same ones who yell, scream, abuse, don't train or invest time in cooks, and pay shitty wages. 

Its a complicated issue, to be sure, but just saying "the problem is THIS" or "the problem is THAT" is insanely short sighted and does nothing to solve the problems. The onus for solving the problems turns to us, the chefs/managers/cooks in the industry. 
 
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...By the time a cook can be called exceptional, the already do things your way. The baby steps of grooming someone to move up means giving them some kind of resposibility. The flip side of this is needing to be able to trust your cooks when you aren't around, which means pushing them to do things right on their own.


I'm a firm believer, too, in keeping cooks informed about what's going on. Communication keeps everyone on the same page. I will occasionally even solicit an opinion...
Ditto this big time +++!

I believe in keeping cooks informed about what is going on. The ones that are paying attention and are interested are the ones that I invest more time in. Soliciting opinions creates a team atmosphere and makes people feel appreciated. The input received from staff are another good gauge of who to invest time in.

A kitchen should not be a vacuum or black hole.
 
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Thank you for saying what I was going to say, but in a much nicer way. 

Many/most of the chefs on here are implicit in the pseudo military hierarchy of the kitchen. That is all well in good, if that seems to work for you. This isn't the 1970's. The days of "Kitchen Confidential" are done. Abuse, harassment, etc have gone the way of the dodo.

Yes, you should absolutely, 100% respect the opinion of your cooks. You should respect the opinion of your DISHWASHER. Respect is earned, and respect is given. It doesn't mean that you agree with them, or will do what they want/ask, but it means that if someone on your team has an opinion or something to say, you owe it to them to at least hear them out and facilitate a dialogue. Respect doesn't mean agreement.

Wow. And how invested do you think these cooks will be. If they feel like nothing more than a factory worker or a cog in a machine, they will become disillusioned and probably not last long or give 100%. If you somehow think that involving cooks in problem solving is a bad thing, I'm glad I don't work for you. 

Absolutely. As long as they are making decisions based on what is best for the business and can be trusted, why not? Given a subordinate some measure of autonomy and control is a time honored way to show trust and build confidence and investment in the team. Those types of people, aside from the sous chefs and chefs, are the leaders in the trenches. I love it when I know I can trust one of my cooks to do the right thing and I don't have to micromanage all the time. 

How can that be a bad thing?

Again, the article is titled "How can restaurants hang on to exceptional cooks." What standards are you talking about? I'm assuming that most of us, as chefs, set our own standards in our own kitchens. If someone that works for me isn't meeting standards, they are let go. 

The article is a list of ideas to help chefs understand ways to build better teams and hang on to good cooks. It isn't saying that all these things will always be relevant, or even applicable all the time. It may show an ideal, but I ask...what is wrong with that? 

This shit-eating, macho bullshit kitchen culture is on its way out. Dawn of a new era. Times are a-changing. 

The same chefs that are lamenting not being able to find cooks (I mean, have you HEARD about the cook crisis in every city in America right now?) are the same ones who yell, scream, abuse, don't train or invest time in cooks, and pay shitty wages. 

Its a complicated issue, to be sure, but just saying "the problem is THIS" or "the problem is THAT" is insanely short sighted and does nothing to solve the problems. The onus for solving the problems turns to us, the chefs/managers/cooks in the industry. 
Okay....I knew I'd get flack for this one.

Everything you've all pointed out has merit, but it is predicated on the idea that the employee WANTS to be there to learn and grow. Thank you.

My thoughts are with all of you, really they are, but experiences have shown me otherwise.

I am the first one in line to agree on the screaming, yelling, physically abusive Chef. I was on the receiving end of that more than I want to remember.

There is no room for this behavior today....PERIOD!

My conclusion was to be that the article was written on the thesis that all people working in the food business want to be there and do a good job, and this just isn't real world.

Sure, as a Chef or owner/operator you would want to hold on to the good employee and do away with the not-so-good after their trial period is over, but in the real world, where the labor pool leaves a lot to be desired, it just isn't so.

Many places end up having to carry that bad apple, simply because they can't (or won't) find a replacement.

Small towns suffer worse then larger cities, in that the labor pool is much larger vs. the small town.

Now, all things being equal, how would one go about initiating the articles goals in small town America?

I've been there and tried that, so speaking from personal experiences, my conclusion was, and still is, that the goals can be achieved, ONLY if you have a knowledgeable, mature, and experienced staff, otherwise you're setting yourself up for failure before you even begin to knock your head against the wall.
 
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