If I had to allocate a degree of difficulty to working with the various sections of a hospitality business, kitchens would have to get the supreme gong. We always seem to strike our thorniest problems there. I spend a fair amount of my time tearing my hair out trying to work out how to get Chefs and cooks to behave commercially and heave themselves into the twentieth century.
Don’t get me wrong — I love working with them. I even have a disproportionate number of Chefs among my personal friends. I find people who are a mixture of craftsperson, artist and manager are quite interesting; although I must admit that many of the Chefs I’ve dealt with don’t exhibit all these talents — but the top ones seem to.
What is the career path for a cook?
I believe the effective working life of a cook is only about fifteen years. After that they seem to get burnt out if they haven’t worked out a way to get off the tools and into management or into their own business. There is nothing sadder than an old cook who has come to hate cooking but can’t escape. Unfortunately, we strike quite a few of these in our business.
As part of our consultancy work, we have tested a large number of chefs and cooks with the aptitude tests that I have discussed in other articles. One of the results we observed was interesting. There are an unusually large percentage of cooks with either literacy problems or reading disorders. Unfortunately, you need good literacy and numeracy skills to prosper in a larger, more professional environment where everything is documented and performance is measured by statistics such as a profit and loss statement.
I first noticed this problem when I started to run the ‘Supervision for Chefs’ training course about twenty years ago. A disturbing number of our course participants could not fill out an evaluation form at the end. I have a depressing collection of these forms that have the e’s and s’s around the wrong way — they look like they’ve been filled-out by a small child.
The literacy problem I suspected from seeing the evaluation forms was partly explained by our test results. We were very perturbed to see a disproportionate percentage of cooks apparently score in the bottom twenty percent of humanity in the intelligence section. I felt that this couldn’t be right, so I investigated further. I’m glad I did, because I could have missed a useful discovery, and jumped to the wrong conclusion about peoples’ career prospects. The test we use is in written form and is strictly timed. The people who scored low were not stupid; they just couldn’t read too well and either ran out of time or couldn’t understand the questions to begin with.
Is cooking a manual occupation?
It seems that in the past cooking was seen by some teachers to be a manual occupation without the complication of maths or written material. Some school leavers who were not too strong in written skills chose or were pushed to become cooks in the belief that cooks and Chefs were not required to possess these skills.
I mentioned this in a conversation with the Head of Hospitality at one of our larger hospitality colleges. He agreed that this had occurred in the past but claimed it was now changing. I was relieved to learn that most of the apprentices his college was teaching now had completed year 12. It’s not before time. I hope the other colleges are being equally as strict as his, otherwise we’ll be creating a big bunch of people with nowhere to go in fifteen years, and I’ll be beating my head against a brick wall for the rest of my career whenever I have to sort out the management of a kitchen.
As a general comment, I think we undervalue reading and writing skills in our school system at present. It strikes me that if you don’t read you are missing your major means of self education. The hospitality industry is subject to fashion and fast changing technology — you have to keep up, and reading is one way to do this.
How to avoid tantrums in your kitchen
The other problem we strike all too often is the infamous ‘Chef’s tantrum’. It’s so common it’s become cliché?. How often have I heard comments like: ‘Don’t worry. They’re all like that.’ I used to think so too, until I worked for Hilton Hotels, and saw the same behaviour coming out of the repairs and maintenance section. Then the penny dropped. Same situation as in the kitchen. Technically trained people who finish their apprenticeship and are placed in charge of others with little or no preparation.
Cooks are taught to cook. It sounds quite reasonable but it’s just not enough in this day and age. If people could cook for forty years and be content it would be different, but I think this is wishful thinking. Commercial cooking is very hard work and not terribly well rewarded unless you work long hours. Most cooks either get tired of it half way through their working life. If they can’t escape they run the risk of slowly becoming useless for all but the most mundane or institutional food production.
If you had to train somebody to supervise a volatile mixture of permanent, casual, qualified and unqualified staff; control anything up to two thousand items of stock, all decomposing at different rates; create contemporary, fashionable food and deal with the public in an environment where peoples’ perceptions are distorted by alcohol, how would you do it?
Its time to review how we train cooks and chefs. Perhaps split the training into two sections separated by about five years working experience. The first section should consist of food production training; the second should be supervision and management. I don’t think the present system is working.
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