Being a Chef Recruitment Agency we’re never in the room, whether virtual or real, when client and chef get together for a chef job interview. Clients seldom offer clues in advance as to how they’re planning on structuring their interviews, that’s assuming they’re using a structured interview format. What’s more they almost never seek our advice on how to conduct them. Chefs on the other hand are very amenable to accepting advice ahead of a job interview. So this article’s target audience is employers rather than chefs although we expect plenty of chefs, inquisitive as they are, to make at least a partial journey down the page.
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Uniquely, as a Chef Recruitment Agency, we do enjoy the benefit of getting a debrief from both parties which has, over the years, provided us with many eye opening insights. Insights from which certain patterns emerge. The first pattern is, paradoxical as it might seem, that there is no pattern. Client’s approach to interviewing chefs shows a strong tendency towards either idiosyncratic in-house, or brand based, approaches which run a wide gamut from being casual, to the point of slackness, to being rigid, multistep, and hyper structured, sometimes to the point of complete inflexibility. The decision making styles also vary from the impulsive to a gridlocked “analysis paralysis.” The former decision making style brings a heightened risk of appointing, or rejecting, the wrong chef in the rush to make a decision. In the case of the latter the risk is that the better candidates flee the process before a decision is made, leaving hospitality employers the unappealing option of appointing a chef from the best of the lesser chefs available.
Interviewing Chefs For Jobs – A Scarcity Approach
One glaring commonality we have noticed is that irrespective of whether the job interview style is relaxed and casual, or formal and rigid, the overwhelming majority of hospitality employers continue to approach the chef job interview with an “abundance mentality.” For a fuller explanation of that expression, and its implications, now might be a good time to pause and visit this page.
No Bad Interviewers Only Bad Interviewees???
Aside from chef’s greater openness to seeking and accepting interview advice, in the run up to their job interview, they’re also, post interview, inclined to self assess their interview performance with surprising objectivity. This is in stark contrast to client hiring managers who, almost without exception, are not given to openly sharing any self doubt as to how well they conduct interviews. This encourages us in concluding that while chefs performance in interviews are closely examined, and judgements made, hiring managers seem to believe their interviewing techniques are, at all times, entirely satisfactory. In some cases this may indeed be true, but with chef turnover rates being what they are, high, this suggests that most hiring managers could benefit by adopting a similarly self critical approach to that which chefs apply to their own job interview performances.
Where’s all the interview advice…for employers?
This assumption, that the onus for job interview performance lies solely with the chef, isn’t only accepted as a given by hiring managers, no, it appears that even people who should know otherwise embrace this idea too. Visit a dozen, or two, Chef, or Catering, Recruitment Agency websites and you’ll likely find that at least several sites feature prominently job interview tips and guidance for chefs and candidates. However almost none will offer similar resources for hiring managers. Why do you suppose this is the case? A reluctance to alienate potential clients with an implied criticism is a perfectly understandable motivation for playing it safe, i.e. Refusing to challenge the idea that there are no bad interviewers, only bad interviewees. The only problem with this is that it isn’t true.
A case for measuring hiring manager performance
If there’s to be any change for the better hiring managers need to hold themselves, or be held by their direct superiors, accountable for the quality of their chef hires. Absent some degree of accountability it becomes far too easy to blame externalities for poor, post hire, job performance, poor candidate fit, and high chef churn rate. Which is preferable; having a fantastic repertoire of excuses, or having a well staffed kitchen with the culinary talent sufficient to meet, or exceed, company goals? When the record of hiring managers isn’t tracked, and measured, then attracting the best culinary talent possible really isn’t a priority for your business.
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We know hiring managers are reading this and the last thing we aim to do is alienate hiring managers who are, after all, potential clients but we’d ask you to think about it this way: the performance of the chefs you hire is measured and assessed. No? Of course it is, the notion that it shouldn’t be measured is one you’d laugh out the door yourself. Indeed you’ll almost always have a set of formal models for measuring this (the higher the chef rank the more this tends to be the case) i.e. Food Cost Percentage, Mystery Guest Reports, Food Sales, TripAdvisor or Yelp Scores, Food Critic Reviews, Hygiene Audit scores etc.
Measurements apply to chefs
Chefs are held accountable to, and for, these standards and measurements; thus enabling intelligent decisions and evaluations to be made about their performance in the job. Why wouldn’t the effectiveness of hiring managers be subject to their own set of measurements, measurements appropriate to their job? We contend that were this the case the performance of hiring managers would greatly improve and so would your chef staffing situation.
For the purposes of clarity when we use the term “hiring manager” this refers to the person(s) responsible for the hiring decision. It’s assumed that this/these person(s) are either the sole interviewer, the lead interviewer or a collective i.e. an interview panel. If none of the above applies to your situation then you need to take a much closer look at your interview/hiring process, and soon.
What does a hiring manager need to know?
So what does a hiring manager (we’ll now stick with the singular for the sake of brevity) need to be, or to know, in order to improve the business “batting average” when it comes to successfully hiring chefs for long term business value? Before we dive into this please keep to the forefront of your mind that the hiring frame we use, assumes that your hiring process is now bracketed by a “scarcity mindset.” Chefs are scarce and the approach, we’re advocating you adopt, assumes that you’re prepared to embrace this scarcity mindset as your own. Until we’re on the same page about this the rest of this article will be of little practical value to you.
Back to the hiring manager
- He/She will favour “Year One” job “performance” criteria over tired experience driven job definitions
- He/She will need to know and be able to clearly define what needs to be done i.e. “the work”
- He/She is able to describe what constitutes success, for the chef being interviewed, in Year One
- He/She will take ownership of all job marketing efforts
- He/She will take responsibility for all job marketing content
- He/She will focus on what a chef has actually accomplished & relate that to what needs to be done i.e. “the work”
- He/She will take conscious measures to suppress “first impression bias”
- He/She will be fluent in the businesses “candidate value proposition” i.e. the career benefits of working in the business
- He/She will have the ability to assess chefs technical skills and possess the wisdom to weight the importance of these skills appropriately to the work that needs done.
Worry about excluding chefs
Let’s be clear, the approach to chef hiring we’re advocating is performance based, “Year One” (as opposed to “Day One”) hiring and so the form of interviewing we recommend is performance focused interviewing. We champion this approach over the old, experience focused model, because the old model is backwards facing, it’s a less reliable, despite any preconceptions you might have, predictor of “chef job fit” and it suffers from the flaw – fatal in a job market defined by chef scarcity – of producing too many false negatives i.e. it excludes too many possible great hires. Even in a job market where chefs are abundant that’s a luxury few can afford, in a market characterised by scarcity it’s completely self defeating and it’s hurting your business.
Performance Based Chef Interviews
Performance based interviewing is not new and it’s not untried. It is however still quite rare in the hospitality and catering sectors. In being an early adopter you stand to benefit from early mover advantage over your competition. Is there a downside? Yes! What’s the downside? Principally there are two.
- It’s an excursion into the unknown for many; that’s uncomfortable
- It’s an approach that forces you to really think through your requirements, that’s hard work
If the supply of good chefs exceeded the demand then you could afford to take or leave this approach because what you do wouldn’t matter that much; no matter what way you decided, to decide, you’d still, end up with decent outcomes; albeit perhaps not the best outcomes available to you.
Chef’s they’re scarce you know
Those days are gone and it doesn’t matter how much you budget for your job marketing/distribution campaigns, how many behavioural interview programs you train up on, or how sharp your focus on technical skills is. Again, most of those are tactics based on a “model of abundance” which no longer exists in the chef job market. They’re risk reducing tactics which are perfectly suitable to situations where “the problem” was in reducing the surplus number of weaker candidates in a situation of chef over supply.
Prioritise your problems
Oversupply of less relevant applicants is, of course, a potential problem but it’s a much lesser problem than is the, much more common one of failure to attract, seduce, hire, and retain, the best chefs possible. This abundance mentality to chefs can even sabotage the ability of a specialist Chef Recruitment Agency to help. We’ll only be able to line you up with chefs worthy of consideration. Once they enter a recruitment process with you, one that’s still entirely experience based and characterised by an abundance mentality, it won’t be long until things begin to go wrong. The scarcity mindset to chef recruitment can’t be siloed in the early phases of recruitment only to be jettisoned at first contact with the client/employer. To be successful it must be understood as an holistic approach to the talent shortage which challenges our industry.
From the employers side of the desk the focus needs to stay fixed on making a precise, unbiased assessment of each individual chef and selecting the best possible candidate for the job. This is only possible once you’ve completely nailed what the job definition is i.e. the work to be done.
Here’s what such a set of definitions doesn’t look like
- The Candidate must have worked four years in a similar position in a comparable establishment
- The Candidate will be required to work on banquets and assist in the restaurant as needed
- The Candidate will have completed a degree in culinary arts
- The Candidate must be a certified “Train The Trainer” graduate
- The Candidate must thrive on pressure
- The Candidate will be required to ensure the kitchen is fully staffed and to plan for periods of absence or for leavers
- The Candidate must be able to work on his/her own initiative
- The Candidate must be “Micros” proficient
- The Candidate must have a passion for food
- The Candidate must be able to supervise workloads during shifts
- The Candidate must communicate all requirements to the appropriate people
When’s a requirement not really required?
These definitions/requirements aren’t notional they’re all scalped from various chef job definitions we’ve been given to work on, or have seen elsewhere embedded in advertising for chef job vacancies. Sometimes these lists are even longer, sometimes more or less as above, and sometimes occasionally shorter. The issue with such job requirements, in an age of chef scarcity, is that they serve to filter out chefs more than capable of doing the work. For example why would “Micros Proficiency” ever be a requirement? Is Micros Proficiency a talent? Or is it something that can be learned? We believe it’s the latter, and that defining it as a requirement has the practical effect of building a giant filter which, if used in chef job advertising, will discourage potentially highly talented, motivated and able chefs from applying for your job. If withheld from chef job advertising, but later used in application vetting, it will lead to perfectly strong applicants being rejected prior to interview.
We’re not arguing that experience based requirements be completely scrapped but rather that employers take a scalpel to their chef job descriptions and be ruthless about removing every requirement that isn’t mission critical. So if having a chef whose “Day One” skills include being Micros proficient is really mission critical then, certainly, you should keep it in. Just be aware that in keeping it you’re drastically thinning out the pool of potential chef applicants. Don’t get us wrong, as chef recruitment specialists we love a long, highly specific, list of chef job requirements, in fact the more detailed, exacting, and specific, the better we like it. There’s only one condition, you’ll need to have a very compelling rewards package available to the successful applicant. We can find them these high value highly experienced candidates for you but you’ll need to have resources and a rewards package commensurate with their ambitions.
For more on this read on.
The more “must haves” on your chef job docket the harder the going gets because, as the list grows, the more your Chef Value Proposition (CVP) erodes. Why? Because once a certain threshold is reached all you’re offering potential matching applicants is a lateral career transfer and lateral career transfers almost always require the employer to sweeten the prospect, i.e. the chef, with a sensational compensation package (Salary, Plus Resources, Plus Benefits). Why is this? Because you’re not really offering chefs a job for them to stretch and grow into beyond “Day One.” What you’re offering them is the “opportunity” to do again that which they’ve already done successfully. That usually costs…a lot.
Yes despite all our talk about “stretch” and “growth” there will still be times when what’s needed is someone who’s completely mastered the type of kitchens and situations you need taken care of and in these situations yes, sensationally eye catching compensation packages are still effective; they also still provide the benefit of allowing employers to retain the old abundance mentality to hiring chefs because they will generate that excess of credible applicants which enables employers to follow the old school Darwinian process of eliminating the weakest candidates first. Yes this approach still works, in fact it still works very well, but it costs…a lot.
Now back to the land of chef scarcity and tight budgets. Creating and using a Chef Performance Profile in place of a standard “Chef Job Spec” is fundamental to adopting and embracing the Chef Scarcity Mindset.
The Chef Performance Profile
The Chef Performance Profile should be created in advance of everything else in the hiring process and serve to determine the content of your Chef Job Definition, Chef Job Ad Copy, how you evaluate applications, how you conduct chef job interviews. In essence a Chef Performance Profile leans away for the “having” and leans towards the “doing.” A Chef Performance Profile accurately describes the main job objectives a chef taking the job needs “to do” in order to be successful in the job.
So instead of saying “you must have 2-3 years experience as Head Chef in a Michelin Star Restaurant” you could say “will be motivated towards successfully achieving a Michelin Star within…” The latter formulation certainly does not rule out Chefs who would normally apply to a job using the first formulation, but it enjoys the advantage of including those additional Chefs capable of meeting the performance objective in the future. This is how, relative, value in the chef job market is found.
A good Chef Performance Profile will contain roughly 5 – 6 performance objectives “things to be done or achieved.” At first this can be challenging. Many employers, or their HR specialists, have been doing things the old way for years, if not decades. So you’ll need to sit down and work towards paring the essence of this chef job down to roughly a half dozen “things to do” or “things to achieve” over Year One and beyond. Although it may seem counterintuitive, this type of exercise seems to come more easily to people new to the Hospitality and Catering Industry. Having a “beginners mind” can sometimes be a distinct advantage when the more seasoned competition complacently believe they know everything that needs to be known.
The Chef Interview
So, at last, to the interview. Having headlined this article The Chef Job Interview (at least while in first draft anyway) we’d understand if, assuming you made it this far, you’re feeling shortchanged. After all we’ve hardly discussed the job interview itself yet. This is because most hiring processes exist as separate and independent silos, within the chef recruitment process, when they need to work together holistically with all the other parts.
We’re also conscious that what we’re proposing is an atypical approach to hiring chefs and so we’ve front loaded our copy with “convincers” designed to help us make the case for adopting the scarcity mindset to hiring chefs while providing context and the underlying rationale. If we’ve succeeded in this, and we accept that this is a big if, then the shift in interview focus we’re recommending will make more immediate sense.
The Chef Job Interview Checklist
- Take measures to eliminate, or counteract, “First Impression Bias”
- Ensure you have a full chef performance profile for the chef position
- Conduct a Work History Review with the Chef Interviewee
- Know the two key questions to ask against each headline performance objective in your performance profile
- Inoculate against the ever powerful “No” vote
First Impression Bias is a widely known phenomena in chef job interviews, indeed any job interviews, and it takes two forms: positive bias and negative bias. In the first instance it’s where the interviewer and interviewee hit it off immediately, i.e. at an early stage in the interview, and in the latter instance where they don’t hit it off at all. If we were in an skills oversupply situation this phenomena need not be fatal; but we’re not, and so it often is fatal.
First Impression Bias
Here’s how first impression bias works. Both Chef and Interviewer hit it off straight away; for the rest of the interview the interviewer tends to favour questions which help confirm his/her initial positive impressions of the candidate. The opposite end of the spectrum is when the interviewee makes a poor first impression. Unless guarded against, the interviewer can usually be relied upon to hit that candidate with harder questions throughout the remainder of interview until his/her initial poor impression of the candidate is vindicated. In these situations confidence usually leaks rapidly from candidates, further confirming the interviewer in their negative assessment.
First Impression Bias is a killer and it’s very real. As specialist chef recruiters we encounter it regularly, often it takes the positive form and a client falls for a candidate so hard that they’ll even, in extreme cases, call off, or look for us to cancel, any other interviews that we’ve lined up. While we’re always glad to “close out” a chef vacancy, if there’s a diamond that the client is refusing to examine our delight is always tempered by anxiety and sometimes disappointment. We certainly do appreciate decisiveness but prefer when it is exercised after examining all options.
Countering First Impression Bias at Interview
So, as a hiring manager, understand that meeting strangers in the context of a chef job interview can, and often does, provoke an emotional response in chefs. Take steps to minimise this. Offer some hospitality. Take the candidate on a tour of the business. Try anything to defuse the chefs initial “fight or flight” instinct. To make an objective judgement you’ll want all the chefs you’re interviewing to be at their best.
If despite your best efforts, to set the scene for the chef, they still get off to a bad start there’s another tactic we suggest trying. Once you consciously register that this chef is not hitting it off with you, or you with them, take your pen and put a minus next to their name on your interview brief. Now, for the next few minutes at least, make the decision to pose them the type of questions you’d pose to someone with whom you’ve already hit it off. This can let the air out of the situation, defuse tension, and create a context for the chef you’re interviewing to recover their self confidence.
On the other hand if you find yourself getting on splendidly with a chef, early in the interview, do the opposite. Put a plus mark next to their name to remind you to risk breaking the convivial atmosphere that’s developed with some harder questions. This can be harder to do because we’re hardwired, as social animals, to perpetuate and extend pleasant social interactions.
In an age scarcity cherish the chef job interview
There’s a lot involved in getting a hiring manager and a chef together for an interview, especially so in a market for chefs that is characterised by scarcity. That’s why first impression bias is a luxury that is relatively harmless only in a market with an over supply of chefs. Such a market doesn’t, as you know, currently exist. Therefore you need to take conscious measures not to allow an interview to be wasted carelessly by falling into the first impression bias trap.
Conduct a Work History Review
In one form or another this part of the interview is a standard component of all interviews. However, in the approach we’re recommending to you, you’ll be keeping your ears open for the type of achievement patterns unique to top culinary performers. What we’re talking about is recognisable staging posts in the career of a chef, a chef whose career trajectory is going in the right direction.
Listen out, or fish for, signs of the following:
- Have they won any rapid promotions?
- Awards won and their role in winning them?
- Have they, as individuals or in a team, ranked in any culinary competitions?
- Have they been given any special responsibilities normally above “their pay grade?”
- Has their contribution received any other formal recognition i.e. employee of the month?
- Are they, or have they, been involved in any volunteer projects inside or outside the job?
- Have they benefited from being sent on challenging or worthwhile educational programs by former or current employers?
- Have they ever been rehired by a former boss?
- Have they been handed responsibility for any special projects, if so what were they?
Structuring Chef Job Performance Objectives
Once you’ve completed the Work History Review it’s time to work with your Chef Performance Profile. It’s here that you’ll have condensed the performance objectives relevant to the chef job that you’re working to fill. For each job objective, ask the chef being interviewed a variation of the following question:
Tell me about your most significant achievement?
You’ll want to slightly modify the way this is phrased in order to avoid being, or appearing, overly formulaic in your job interview style. You’ll certainly wish to modify it to work smoothly with each performance objective.
One job performance objective might be “design a new menu for each season, with an emphasis on local, seasonal ingredients, which will deliver a gross profit of 70%.” One way of phrasing this in the form of a question would be “we need to launch a new dining room menu quarterly, for each season, this menu heavily emphasises local, seasonal ingredients…can you describe any major achievements in your career to date which would be comparable to, or useful in, this situation?”
Quite often chefs are unprepared for this type of questioning and because this type of interview is designed to get to relevant information, as opposed to simply catching chefs off balance, you might need to go after the facts with “chunk down” questions. Remember to check you’ve still got good rapport with the chef and try to avoid the line of questioning becoming prosecutorial in style. The chef should never feel that they a defence witness, or worse the defendant.
Here are some example “chunk down” interview questions for inspiration:
- What did you actually do? What was your specific role?
- When did this occur and how long did it take?
- What support did you have?
- What resources were available to you?
- What problems did you encounter and how, specifically, did you deal with them?
- What lessons have you learned from the experience?
- What did you enjoy most about this, and what least?
The second question to put against each job performance objective is some formulation of: “How would you go about solving this problem?”
As was the case with the first question, it will almost certainly be necessary to apply several “chunk down” questions to each objective. Let’s first revisit that example objective, the one we mentioned above, again: “design a new menu for each season, with an emphasis on seasonal ingredients, which will deliver a gross profit of 70%.” This needs phrasing in the form of a question and this corresponding question needs to be adjusted to be future facing. Here’s what it might look like: “we need to launch a new dining room menu for each season which heavily emphasises local, seasonal ingredients…can you tell me how you would go about delivering this in our kitchen?”
You’ll need to modify your “chunk down” questions accordingly, here are some samples:
- What would you take on to do first?
- How would you decide what resources you’d need?
- What resources do you think you’d need?
- How would you prioritise your work?
- How would you determine food cost?
- What difficulties do you foresee on delivery?
- How would you determine when you’re done?
That is, at length, the format for the performance based chef job interview. You need to cycle through each performance objective and apply the questions as suggested, in the order suggested. You will also need to take notes because you’ll be making your judgement as to which chef, to move forward with, only after you’ve assessed every candidate (that’s assuming you’ve attracted a plurality of chefs to interview).
We also strongly advise conducting the chef performance based interview in the order we’ve laid out. Certainly you should go with the Work History Review before posing the performance objective questions because the work history review is a less charged segment of the interview; so going with it early allows chefs to get comfortable, talk about themselves, and gain some confidence, before before being asked to tackle the performance based section.
One more thing
Beware the ever powerful “No” vote
No two businesses are the same and no two hiring processes are identical. In some situations the decision to hire a chef, or not, is taken by one individual at other times by more than one and on occasion it falls to a panel of people to make the call. Once panels become involved, in the decision making process, be aware of the need to “weight” votes judiciously. Why? There are two reasons.
- Not all votes are equal
- “No” is easy and safe, too easy and too safe
If you’ve got the final say, but are taking into account the opinions of others, you’ll know that it’s highly unlikely that everyone you’ve brought into the process is equally competent to judge the potential of the chefs you’ve interviewed. Once you accept that not all votes are equal, and they almost never are, you are prepared to weight the votes according to the competence of the person casting the vote. Furthermore extra consideration should be given to the opinions, and the vote, of the person likely to suffer the most in the event of a bad choice being made. They have the most to lose, and the most to gain, so listen carefully to their misgivings and to their enthusiasms.
“No,” votes are too easy and too safe. A no vote is never going to be seen to have been wrong that’s why, when decisions on hiring chefs are “put to committee,” the “no sentiment” is almost always over represented. You need to factor this in and compensate for it. A yes vote takes more courage and is perceived as more risky, that’s why some people shy away from it. Once the no voter starts putting their case they often get others to fall into line because an added dimension of fear has made its way into the recipe. Fortunately if you’ve followed the format above you’ll be in a position to elicit, from the no voter, higher quality, more objective, rationale that would otherwise be the case.
We Rest the Case for The Chef Scarcity Mindset
We hope that in reading this we’ve made a forceful case for embracing the “scarcity mindset” to hiring chefs. We’d like it if you did, not because we’re happy to see culinary talent in such high demand and short supply, we’re not, but simply because the “scarcity mindset” is the foundation upon which the most successful hospitality employers will stay that way in an age of chef scarcity.
Persisting with a chef hiring strategy suited to a situation of talent oversupply, when the reality is one of sharp undersupply, doesn’t make the problem go away, it makes it worse. The best and most successful catering and hospitality businesses always review and change their talent strategies according to the prevailing conditions. Those that don’t suffer, a lot.
To Sum Up
So remember, in the attraction phase, to keep the funnel as wide as possible so as to include as many suitable candidates as is practical. There’s a price for this in terms of extra irrelevant applications, but this is a price you must be prepared to pay. Make chef hiring managers responsible for their chef hires and measure, as you already do for chefs, their success. Define your performance objectives for the chef job and use this to shape your chef attraction strategies, job marketing, chef recruiter briefings, and chef interview and evaluation phases. Doing this doesn’t guarantee perfect results every time but as you refine and iterate on this framework you will find that your chef hiring record improves and chef retention rates lengthen.
Unfortunately, as we mentioned at the outset, it’s beyond the scope of this article to address the chef scarcity itself or to propose ideas for how to solve it, or, if not solve it, at least to ameliorate it. It is a phenomena about which we have ideas to offer and will doubtless return to at some point in the future. In the meantime the best we can do, the best any chef recruitment specialists can do, is to bring the best chefs to our clients while offering new ways of navigating the current chef shortage.
Photo by Charles Haynes
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To learn more about TOPCHEFS and to obtain full and up-todate information how we can help you find the chefs you need call us on (01) 633 4053. In the business of managing your chef catering recruitment, it’s the only number you’ll ever need!