I’ve had a few interesting discussions with clients about the process of development of cooks up through the ranks to head chef level lately. It’s proven to be much more complicated than it was 10 to 15 years ago due to the profound economic changes we have undergone as our industry has become more crowded and profit margins have deteriorated.
It is worth recognising that in hospitality businesses and restaurants particularly, the head chef controls more expenditure than any other person in the business, when we add wage and food costs together with energy, chemicals, equipment maintenance and a raft of other minor costs. If the head chef does not accept the management responsibilities that come with the job, and simply concentrates on the culinary responsibilities, you are likely to have great food and minimum or no profit.
The apprenticeship system is failing badly
I believe the modern apprenticeship system hardly equips people with reasonable cooking skills, let alone the leadership and management skills required at a higher level, and it is up to individual employers to provide the skills needed at a more senior level. This requires knowledge, time and money — all of which are in short supply, which is why there is a prevailing attitude that ‘someone else can train them, and we’ll find what we want on the job market’.
There are two significant problems with this attitude. First, there are not many properly trained head chefs on the job market, because most businesses are relying on their neighbours to carry the burden of training. This means those who are available, are likely to hold out their hands for more money than you can afford to pay them, because the job market is an auction that follows the laws of supply and demand.
The second problem is that bringing-in a head chef from outside is interpreted as saying to your existing kitchen staff ‘you are not worthy of a promotion’. This often causes a spate of very expensive staff turnover as subordinate staff move to another employer who may give them that opportunity, and there are plenty of other employers looking.
So how do I develop competent head chefs?
It starts at the apprentice and commis levels, where they are expected to learn to prep and cook, receive and store incoming stock and maintain a clean and hygienic kitchen — bearing in mind that if the college or school they attended for their apprenticeship training was substandard, the basic cookery skills have to be taught on the job.
The next step is up to chef de partie level, where they are introduced to leadership and team building skills while learning to effectively run the various sections of the kitchen. We also introduce them to staff recruitment, training and communication responsibilities at this level, supported by external short course training. In addition, after they have demonstrated proficiency in the leadership and HR skills we would introduce them to the management of their environment by giving them cleaning and maintenance duties over sections of their kitchen. In other words, we give them experience at kitchen management in miniature, and scale it up as they progress upward.
Once they have demonstrated that they have assimilated the basic management and leadership skills, they become eligible for elevation to sous chef, where we give them further training in leadership (time management, delegation, cost and profit control, etc). We treat sous chefs as ‘head chefs with learner plates on’. Ultimately, when they rise to senior sous chef level they should be able to run the kitchen for periods of time, in the absence of the head chef, and they should be largely running the kitchen on a day-to-day basis, so the head chef can concentrate on menu development, purchasing and staff training. It is important to ascertain if the prospective head chef is capable and confident to make the right decisions before they get the top job.
A sous chef is an apprentice head chef
Where sous chefs have been ‘micro-managed’ by their head chef and not trained in a logical manner the risk is that promotion will lead to the loss of a good sous and the promotion of a dud head chef. This is because they have had all these unfamiliar duties (recruitment, training, rostering, etc.) thrust upon them in one hit and they find they can’t cope. This is the cause of many failures by people who could have handled the job if they had been carefully trained into it over a period of years.
The worst problems occur when a purely culinary or artistic had chef promotes a like-minded subordinate to senior positions — that’s where we get everybody trying for a Good Food Guide hat and nobody looking after the business. Head Chefs have a very difficult role these days, and we demand both art and management from them — and these two are quite opposite kinds of thinking.
Of course you could just sit back and let them learn by trial and error — which many businesses do — but how long would this take and how much would it cost?