Chefs-in-Kitchen

How to train a chef

A look at how we train our chefs and some suggestions about how we might improve the process in the future.

Our current shortage of skilled cooking staff is creating the situation where young and inexperienced cooks are being pushed into supervisory positions before they have the skills or the experience to handle these roles. Rapid expansion of the industry has caused supply and demand problems, and it has reached the point where it is now common for third and fourth year apprentices to be in charge of kitchen staff. This problem is made worse by business owners who deliberately try to save money by hiring apprentices to run their kitchens instead of fully qualified cooks.

On the surface, an opportunity for young people to progress at an early age may not seem such a bad thing, but in reality the reverse can be true. The stress of becoming the meat in a triple sandwich between the owner, staff and customer has caused a disturbing number of young cooks to rethink their careers and leave the trade.

I first pondered the problems of chefs in supervisory positions when I was a Trainee Hotel Manager in the late 60’s. Then, as now, chefs had a reputation for bizarre human relations behaviour, and this was personally confirmed by being on the receiving end of some serious tantrums from the kitchen. The Manager at the time dismissed my queries regarding these incidents with such broad statements as: ‘All chefs are like that’ — a sentiment I have heard repeated many times over the years.

What a chef needs to learn

When you examine the training given to cooks during their apprenticeship there is a natural concentration on the technical skills of food preparation — after all, cooking is a craft trade. The problem is, when you take a person who has been educated to work in a creative way with inanimate objects and place them in charge of people who do not always behave predictably, open conflict and other forms of potentially destructive behaviour often result.

It was with interest that during several years spent as Training Manager of the Hilton Hotel Melbourne, I noticed similar problems occurring with some of the Hotel’s maintenance tradesmen. When they were placed in a supervisory position after receiving only technical training, the results were seldom satisfactory and the behaviour was similar as that I observed within the kitchen brigade.

How to avoid temper tantrums

The progression from trade through supervision to management is really a second apprenticeship. A few lucky people are natural leaders — of the rest, a fair percentage have the capacity to learn to be a good leader and the remainder should never be put in charge of other people. If you put a cook who has had no supervisory training in charge of others, there is a fair chance there they will have difficulties with staff handling. This can be frustrating in the extreme for them, and can lead to the point where their stress is relieved in a destructive manner — the infamous tantrum being a notable example.

Effective leadership requires a number of skills in addition to those present at the end of a technical apprenticeship. Demonstration of performance in the basic cooking role does not automatically make the person ready for promotion. In fact, promotion often leads to the loss of a good cook and the gain of an ineffective Chef.

To learn appropriate leadership skills is not a terribly expensive or time consuming process; the education is available through outside training courses provided by independent training organisations like ours, or some hospitality colleges. To become good at them is another matter — like any skills, practice makes perfect, and proficiency can take time.

The growth of our industry is opening up opportunities for a new breed of ‘managing chefs’ to continue on a career path which was not previously available. Unfortunately, many cooks will never be able to take advantage of these new positions because they do not have the skills.

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