Your ideal head chef, anyone’s ideal head chef, will have the culinary talent of Heston Blumenthal, the strategic abilities of Carl Von Clausewitz, the patience of Gautama Buddha, the financial acumen of Warren Buffett, the physical insurance of Roald Amundsen and the image management chops of Donald Draper. It would be nice to have a Chef like this, but you probably won’t.
You Want A Great Chef – What’s So Great About Your Job?
Straight out the gates we need to accept that such a chef doesn’t exist in the real world. Such a chef is completely idealised, an ideal. Yet from talking to hospitality and catering employers over the years some shortcoming, or the absence of, one of the above virtues, or characteristics, can be enough to prompt an employer to ask us us to help them find a head chef who somehow embodies all of the above traits. They could have a Chef who’s “great at the stove” but “lousy at figures,” or vice versa, or a Chef who has both these mastered but is gruff and “unmanageable.”
Because we’re a Chef Recruitment Agency it’s in our interest, or you might think, to encourage the idea that perfection is only a phone call away, our phone preferably, but the reality is that even coming close to finding such a renaissance chef, such a rare breed of head chef, is a monumental challenge. And, this is non trivial, in the event we do find somebody getting close to this ideal of perfection there is still, and this is no small matter, the issue of selling this head chef on the idea of working for our client, you.
Beating Happy Inertia
It’s highly probable that a head chef this special is already in a very good job. And by a very good job we don’t just mean that they are paid extremely well, although it is common that they would be. We mean they are working in a kitchen which is very well resourced in terms of staffing and equipment, is in a location that fits their lifestyle, provides them with a platform to express themselves through their cooking for a clientele that appreciates what they are about. It is also highly likely that they enjoy a strong and close working relationship, based on mutual respect, with their employer.
All the above then, taken together, constitute ties which binds very tightly. These ties are not easily severed. If you are serious about loosening such ties sufficiently to get such a demigod of the kitchen to even interview for your position you really need to do a lot of homework. Such head chefs have a lot to lose by making a bad job move or hasty career decision. If you want Head chefs of this calibre, to come and work for you, you’ll need a lot of credibility, you’ll need to be able to pay them, you’ll need to be able to reassure them that you will be there to support them, but not to get in their way.
Start Where You Are
As a hospitality employer for you the business of developing such credibility is something that starts now, it starts with the chefs, in all their imperfection, who already work for you, it starts with your kitchen porters, it starts with your waiting staff. Do you fully respect these people? Do you communicate this respect? Do you make their concerns your concerns? Have you even bothered to find out what their concerns are? What their hopes for the future might be? Is their imperfection a function of how you treat them? Top employers think about these things, that’s why they end up getting the best chefs, do you?
Most hospitality employers recognise that we are now in an age of chef scarcity, what fewer realise is that this scarcity is going to become worse. So, as a hospitality employer, you are engaged, whether you are aware of it or not, in two existential wars.
A Little Local Difficulty
The first one is being waged on you by every other caterer and hospitality employer around you, it’s a war for chefs. While your own disposition might be perfectly peaceable and while you might be governed by the idea of win-win, the history of resource scarcity (chefs are a resource and they are scarce) is a history of survival of the fittest. To quote Tolstoy “you may not be interested in war, but war is interested in you.” This is a war for a slice of pie and it is trivial in comparison to the second war, that war you may, or may not, realise you’re already in. Whether you choose it fight it is up to you.
The second war is much more meta. This is a war about the size of the pie itself. The previous scenario pits one hospitality employer against another for a slice of their chef talent pie. This second war is a more serious one and a more dangerous one. Your enemy here isn’t other hospitality employers, other restauranteurs, other hoteliers, no! Your enemy here is all the other appealing choices society has made available to young school leavers in the 21st century.
Generational Warfare For Chefs
Once upon a time the best and the brightest went to university to study for one of the professions. These were hard and demanding subjects but with very high value rewards at the end of them. Everybody else, those who didn’t make this cut, was destined, at the upper end of the scale, for the trades and crafts; at the lower end of the scale for unskilled labour.
Nowadays this no longer applies. Now University, or third level education in its various guises, is open not only to the best and the brightest but to a very substantial proportion of the school leaving demographic who were previously nailed on certainties to join the trades and crafts, one notable trade and craft being, of course, a career as a chef. Governments throughout, what’s become known as, the “First World” are fighting to get to the upper tier of OECD league tables measuring the percentage of school leavers going on to third level education i.e. They’re pushing them to NOT enter the Catering and Hospitality industry. And given Generation Y’s insatiable appetite for career fulfillment, and rewarding jobs, they’re having a great deal of success too.
All of which leaves us with those would would previously drifted into unskilled labour, so it’s not all bad, is it? Oh wait, but even here hospitality and catering employers aren’t getting it their own way either; not when discount supermarkets are offering starting salaries equal to, or greater than, what substantial numbers of Chef De Partie vacancies are being advertised at, when adjusted for hours. So what does that leave us to look forward to?
Going back to our pie analogy this coalition of societal and cultural forces has resulted in shrinkage, the pie has been getting smaller. That leaves you, whether you care to acknowledge it or not, in a bare knuckle fight for chefs. Whether you are an International Hotel brand or an owner operated restaurant it is your responsibility to position your business as the place where talented chefs want to work. That’s a strategy for survival in the present, that a strategy for getting your share of the pie.
As to the future, catering and hospitality employers must accept that every broken promise, every badly ventilated kitchen, every bounced cheque, every withheld weeks back pay, every understaffed and overworked kitchen shift etc. does more than damage your employer brand in the present, worse, it serves as one more piece of evidence that will be used to steer tomorrow’s school leavers away from our industry towards a different, and to them, more agreeable life.
Society doesn’t owe the catering and hospitality industry the human capital it needs to survive; it is up to us to earn it and that begins with the chefs you already have. So set aside, at least for the time being, your dreams of the ideal chef. Work with the chefs that you have, work to do the best for them that you can and you will be rewarded tenfold. They will not work for you forever but when they do eventually move on, they’ll move on as ambassadors for your business. If they’ve done well for you don’t make them ask for a reference either, give them one of their way out, it increases the chances they’ll reciprocate. What you want, and what you need, in this age of chef scarcity is to firstly lower your turnover of chefs and when the moment arrives, for them to leave, you can be confident in the knowledge that these chefs will step out into the wider industry and seed other chefs with idea that your business is a great place to work.
If you think this doesn’t matter take my word for it, its does matter, it matters a lot. I’ve had numerous experiences, as a chef recruiter, of trying to find chefs for a client only to discover that all the chefs in that locality will not touch the job. Why not? Quite simply because that employer has earned a terrible reputation. That is a problem that even the greatest chef recruitment agency in the world can’t solve because it is not a recruitment problem it is a management problem and, sadly, it’s all too common a problem. So no “ideal chef” will touch that chef job, the recruitment assignment, if it’s worth persisting with at all, becomes one about finding a minimum viable chef. A chef who’s reasonably battle hardened. If you’re lucky enough to get to that point, all that’s left to do is to cherish the hope that the employer will reverse the race to the bottom, and find some hospitality to direct towards their chefs.
Photo by garryknight
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