You should help your best chefs to leave you and get a new job. As advice for dramatically improving chef retention that statement, at least on its face, is pure insanity; especially coming from anyone working at a Catering Recruitment Agency. Isn’t it? However, this is not about what is best for us, we’ll survive just fine, this is about what is best for you as a hospitality employer and improved chef retention rates is something I’ve yet to hear anyone complain about. However I know you’re not in the least bit convinced so I encourage you to persist and read on, even if it’s for no other reason than to confirm that you’re right and that I’m off my head. Naturally I’m hoping to convince you I’m not, off my head that is, so please bear with me a while.
Why on earth, or how on earth, could it possibly ever be in your interests, as a hospitality employer, to help your chefs leave you, to help them to go to another job? In fact, if you parse what I’ve written a bit more carefully, my suggestion is even more extreme than that, I’m suggesting you should help your “best chefs” find another chef job, note: not just any of your chefs, your best chefs! Crazy isn’t it?
Let’s just, for a moment, leave aside the madness, or the apparent madness, of my suggestion to help your best chefs find new jobs. I will instead ask you to pose yourself a question: what happens to the overwhelming majority of your best chefs eventually?
“If you love somebody, let them go, for if they return, they were always yours. If they don’t, they never were.”
― Kahlil Gibran
Secret To Better Chef Retention
While the answer to that question might not be very comforting to contemplate, it is rather easy to arrive at: your best chefs will leave you anyway and at a time of their choosing, not yours. Very often the timing of their departure will turn out to be, at best, inconvenient or at worst, catastrophic. And there is not at thing you can do about it. It is going to happen and it is not going to happen on your timetable, that’s virtually guaranteed.
Perhaps you are wondering is there any way to get this inevitable departure onto your clock and within your control? Then again maybe it is filtering through to you already that what originally looked like madness, my suggestion that you help your best chefs find new jobs, is, counterintuitively, one of your only and best strategies for managing your kitchen workforce proactively. Have you joined up the dots yet?
Okay, lets get this out of the way now, this strategy isn’t some dry human resources piece of theorising. No, this has been rigourously and repeatedly road tested. I know this how? I know because I’m one person who has road tested it, numerous times and to excellent effect. Bear in mind I wasn’t always a chef recruiter, before getting my feet wet in chef recruitment I was a chef for over 22 years. As you might expect in the latter portion of my chef career, I worked as a head chef. That meant that if there were problems in terms of chef recruitment, or chef retention, I was the one who felt the pain. It really didn’t take me very long to figure out the very real benefits of helping my best chefs make their next career moves. It’s about control, infact it’s about more than control, but we’ll get to this a little later.
Eureka: Treat Chefs Like Family or at Least Someone you Like
My eureka moment came to me quite naturally because both good fortune, and good mentors, played a decisive role in my own career path as a chef. I have never forgotten those chefs who intervened in my career in a positive way. That’s why, at least occasionally, helping one of my own chefs towards another job came naturally to me. It came naturally because, and perhaps there is a degree of vanity here, I too wished to be one of those positive chef mentors that chefs might one day look back on with at least some degree of fondness. Or maybe navigating my chefs future career paths was a control thing. I don’t really know and attempting to unpack years old motivations is next to impossible at this point. What I do know, and what I can tell you now is that by helping chefs from my own kitchen crew make their way to a new job I gained too and not just in a spiritual sense; although I’ll admit it did make me feel good about myself and there’s no harm in that, is there?
More specifically the catering businesses, the one’s I was in charge of, as a whole gained, they gained because, where otherwise there would have been complete unpredictability about the intentions of these chefs, there was now certainty. I now knew that in four months, or six months, or perhaps even a year, a certain chef was going to leave my kitchen; I not only knew that he/she would be leaving but I knew where that chef was going to, I knew because I had made the arrangements on their behalf. Naturally my reliance on Chef Recruitment Agencies was certainly lower than average.
Getting to “Win Win” With Chefs Helps You Win Too
However I do realise that this might seem like an unnecessarily proactive, and potentially risky, way to manage chefs. After all when you’re talking about your best chefs, wouldn’t it be better to keep them longer? The answer is yes, it would be a lot better but in practice I’ve successfully used this method to extend the stay of talented and high-value chefs who, most probably, would otherwise have left earlier rather than later. They stayed with me longer because I had created a winning new situation for them at the end of the six months, four months, a year; or whatever the period was that remained before their move. In game theory this is known as a “Non Zero Sum Game.” In the vernacular it’s better known as “win win.”
Of course it’s not possible, at least it wasn’t for me, to arrange things so neatly for every chef, but at least I was able to lock in to my kitchen some of the best talent for longer than would otherwise have been the case. As a side effect it may also have created some positive expectations among the kitchen team as a whole. In the meantime as the day approached for one of my more prized chefs to leave I was usually quite relaxed. Why? That’s a fair question. The answer is easy: I used all the extra bandwidth I had created to source a very high-quality replacement, in fact usually I had the luxury of being able to arrange for the outgoing chef to do a week long handover and complete induction with his replacement. That takes a lot of stress out of the situation and I only seldom ever had to rely on the service of a Chef Recruitment Agency and when I did it was only for higher value chef positions when seeking genuinely scarce talent. How often do you manage to create such orderly, low stress, staff transitions? If the answer is often then please do use the comments section below to share a bit of chef retention best practice with us and with your fellow hospitality professionals.
You Have To Keep It Real With Chefs
There is more than one key to executing this type of chef retention, chef succession, or chef recruitment strategy; what you call it is up to you.
The first key is that if you were not really interested in your chefs or their future careers to begin with then you will probably be bad at this, most likely you’ll fail. If that’s you then by all means stop reading now.
The second key is realism, nothing in this world is for keeps and nowhere in the world is this more true than in your kitchen; like it or not almost all your chefs will leave you.
The third key is mindful anticipation. The term mindful is deliberate, I am not using it as a decorative verbal amplifier. You must be mindful of your chefs, really you must know them as people and then get to know what are their great motivators in life. You can’t fake this, if you are not sincerely interested in them to begin with, it will show, so don’t bother if it’s not real. Anticipation because you must anticipate when a chef like them [but remember you need to “know” them first] really needs to move to realise their ambitions and meet their motivations.
Good Intentions to Action
Once you has all the above factors in alignment you need to act. In this case acting means talking to your chefs and trying out some suggestions of your own as to how they might progress their career, both within your kitchen and, here’s the important bit, after your kitchen. Then go and find the ideal position for them, in the future. Once you are sure that you can deliver for your chef, of course you will need to leverage your own catering industry connections on their behalf, go back to them with the good news that, if they would really like it, you can get them “Position X” in “Y Months” (X being Chef Job and Y being Job Date). Assuming you have read your chef well, know he/she well, the answer is almost always yes, and usually a very enthusiastic yes at that. Even if you haven’t hit the target with your suggestion it’s guaranteed that the sincerely well intended efforts you’ll have made on their behalf will be appreciated. They’ll certainly open up to you further, about what they’d really like to do, and then, and you can, to coin a phrase, rinse and repeat till you do hit the target.
Your goal here, as a hospitality employer, is to achieve lower rates of chef turnover and higher chef retention. I cannot stress enough to you that this is something you cannot fake. If you are sincerely interested in the welfare of your chefs then you probably already enjoy admirable levels of chef retention in your kitchen as things stand. However if that is the case, and you do have a sincere interest in your chef’s careers, then this strategy is something you should consider adding to your, already relatively successful, chef retention mix.
Or Settle For Rubbish Chef Retention Rates
On the other hand if this isn’t you, and you don’t really care about your chefs, are not interested in their futures, and you essentially view them as objects to be deployed only in pursuit of your own objectives, then you are going to have high chef turnover as a permanent feature of your business. And the ever present handmaiden of high chef turnover is? Yes, you got it in one, a persistent problem with getting any quality chefs into your kitchen. You’ll have problems, a lot of them, and so will your business. So do try to nurture within yourself a sincere interest in those who produce your food. If you take care of them, they’ll take care of you and your business.
To return to the theme, as already stated, the strategy of helping your chefs find new jobs is counterintuitive, I do understand that much. However I do really hope that it no longer seems like complete madness to you. Eventually chefs will outgrow your kitchen but when you help them take control of what happens next in their careers you gain control of a situation that would otherwise be completely outside your awareness, much less your control. Moreover you generate a lot of goodwill and not just with the chef who is departing but also those who are staying behind because they have seen you help one of their colleagues, while delivering on your promises too. Chefs really like that in a boss. And it is in little ways like this that your reputation as a fantastic employer will spread like wildfire and that’s not a bad name to have, especially the next time you need to go looking for new chefs.