What to look for in a chef
I’ve written on the subject of Chefs quite a number of times in the past and always seem to get an interesting response. I wonder what will happen this time. Recent happenings have got me thinking and I guess I’ve now come to some conclusions as to how to make kitchens more productive.
Last year we were involved in restructuring a number of different hospitality businesses. It was difficult to find experienced Chefs and Sous Chefs. We were forced to devote a lot of time to identifying young cooks who could be quickly trained into these positions. You may be experiencing the same difficulty, so my observations may be useful.
I’ve come to the conclusion that we can divide what you would probably classify as cooks into three distinct sub-groups, according to their potential. I call them: cooks, artists, and managers.
Do you want a cook or a chef?
The first group, cooks, are simply that. These are people who are capable of following directions and providing skilled kitchen labour, but are either not motivated to, or capable of taking extra responsibility. I’m talking about the responsibility for creativity and the responsibility for leadership. These people are the backbone of every kitchen. It’s not that they can’t create, or lead for brief periods; it’s just that they don’t want the stress of doing it all the time. They do need to be challenged though — if you leave them doing something boring or repetitious for too long, they’ll leave.
Do you need an artistic chef?
The second group are the artists. They are the true innovators, the ones who can create new flavours, textures, visual delights; assimilate new produce; and stimulate the senses. They are a small minority; I believe the ratio of truly talented artists to cooks is about 1:50. They are very valuable, but can be very difficult people — they don’t think in a straight line using normal logic; that’s where their creativity seems to come from. Many are tortured souls and some are temperamental tyrants; few are good leaders.
If you are operating a small restaurant at the top end of the market you often have no choice but to put an artist in charge as Chef. You probably need innovative food to justify your high pricing. I don’t have a problem with this as long as you don’t expect them to lead too many staff, and as long as you are prepared to manage them and ride shotgun over their wage and food costs. Don’t expect them to do it; the true artist is not the least bit interested in your practical business problems, or in accepting responsibility or discipline.
Do you need a kitchen manager?
To run a large kitchen brigade you need a manager. These are the leadership cooks, the practical souls who can handle people, words, numbers and commercial reality. They are not usually very creative — they’re better plagiarisers than innovators — but the better ones do run a tight ship and they do keep staff motivated and happy. They’re quite rare as well; the same 1:50 ratio applies when you’re searching for them.
Management Chefs often have delusions about their creative abilities and have to be taught to recognise their limitations. We’ve had great success structuring kitchens with a manager as Chef and a few artistic or semi-artistic cooks under them to supply the creativity. We seem to get good synergy once everyone recognises their strengths and weaknesses.
The best management Chefs I’ve worked with require each cook, and sometimes other staff such as kitchen hands, to submit dishes for possible inclusion on the menu. This seems to work well — the cooks get to have input without the weight of responsibility. They constantly learn through this process and find their jobs more interesting. We’ve found that cooks in this type of environment tend to stay longer than average.
If you put an artistic Chef in charge of a large brigade you can have a recipe for disaster. They will tend to hog all the creative tasks for themselves and may stifle self expression on the part of the other cooks. They will often exhibit bizarre and inconsistent people handling skills, and may tend to let costs get out of control. Some seem to pride themselves on only using the most expensive ingredients and processing everything by the most labour intensive methods. Others get hysterical if a dish is returned by a waiter or a customer puts salt on their food.
Occasionally you can get a chef who is both an artist and a manager
Occasionally we’ll get someone who is a combination of both artistic and management cook. I think these are very rare. So rare that I wouldn’t even try to guesstimate the ratio of them to normal cooks. I do know that when I’ve tried to find one deliberately, I’ve had to search really hard. If you’ve got one, hang on to them — they’re very hard to replace.
I think that it’s important to carefully plan the structure of your kitchen to match the requirements of your business. Most kitchens don’t need a true artist, all they need is a competent mimic. What most of them do need is a good manager. To put it another way, I believe that ninety percent of the industry needs competent food, produced cost-effectively.
If you’re going to run an art house, I think you should be up-front with yourself and make the decision to forego profit for status, and accept the trauma in your kitchen. If you want to run a reasonable sized, profitable business, embrace commercial reality and get someone competent to head your kitchen—a leader who can bring out the best in all the kitchen staff — not a sensitive artiste who’ll send you bankrupt.