WHAT TO LOOK FOR IN A CHEF
Perhaps, you already know how to hire chef. You can scour the resume piles, interview the cream of the crop and bring your top candidate in for a trial run. He or she knows how to sous-vide a duck breast and flambé a good Bananas Foster. The second interview goes well and you find similarities in philosophy and work habits, perhaps a shared interest or two outside of work. And there you have it, your new Executive Chef.
However, you can’t really know you have the right person for your restaurant until he or she is in your window on that first crazy night. Unfortunately, no one has invented the right interview question to get the answer for that. Everyone in this business learns that hiring is a crapshoot. Some of the most talented restaurant operators have made horribly regrettable hiring decisions for their kitchens, after pouring hundreds of thousands of dollars into equipment, supplies and training. Even the prettiest flowers can wilt under the heat of the kitchen.
So, what are a few underappreciated traits to look for in an Executive Chef when hiring to avoid a first night disaster?
Temperament: How will your chef react when the compote’s hitting the fan? We all know it will happen. There will be a night when four consecutive ribeyes come back to the kitchen overdone, or the mashed potatoes just won’t get hot, or ticket times run a half hour longer than too long. How your kitchen responds hinges on how their leader responds. The entire staff, subconsciously or not, will look to their chef to see what reactions are acceptable and which ones are not. They will be much more likely to carp about the micro-managing operator, the hyper-finicky guests or the clueless wait staff if their leader does. Likewise, they will fall line and get to work if they see their boss doing the same thing. The best chef I have been fortunate to spend time with was a captain in the army prior to graduating from culinary school. Before stepping into a kitchen, he developed the demeanor and confidence to bark directions at his sergeants and corporals. But he could also take a tongue-lashing from his superiors in front of his staff and turn it into something positive. The best chefs aren’t generals and they aren’t privates. They’re the captains in your kitchen, poised to see the entire picture while excelling at the tiniest detail.
Endurance: In many restaurants, the chef will be asked to stand in front of a broiler or sauté range for eight to twelve hour stretches. The staff that sees their chef setting the bar in terms of effort and energy will be more inclined to be exhibit the same. I will stop short of the close-minded claim that a young or fit chef is preferable, as some people believe. However, an operator should be certain that their candidate can demonstrate the energy for the cause necessary to win over his or her staff.
Training/People Skills: An Executive Chef has to be able to cultivate surrounding talent. We all have known people willing to take on the world. Sadly, Emperor “I’ll do it myself” rarely finds success in the restaurant business. To put it mildly, kitchens don’t work that way. Successful kitchens only run with successful delegation, and talented people are not always talented at working with people. Sure, your chef can chop a mirepoix in three minutes. But can he or she train someone else to do it, so that valuable attention can be paid to that night’s specials instead?
Details/details/details: It sounds over-simple, and maybe it is. But can your chef count? Can he or she write out a specials page and read an inventory list correctly? My experience in the restaurant business tells me that many talented and successful people have trouble handling the necessary details that go with their position. I have hired many people that I wish, in retrospect, I had given a basic reading/writing test to. Of course, as an operator, you wouldn’t hire someone who isn’t smart, or who hasn’t demonstrated the ability to handle details elsewhere. However, it is a fact of life that talented, creative people do not always excel at details. Finding the person who is well-rounded enough to order the right amount of rosemary, while still seeing the culinary forest from the trees, is a huge challenge.
Of course, in some stores, a competent Sous Chef will handle many of the responsibilities mentioned above, and will work hand-in-hand with an Executive Chef to form an effective team. However, it remains helpful, and in many cases essential, to find a leader capable of tackling every challenge a diverse kitchen throws his or her way.