4 Things Every Chef Should Do When Inheriting a Crew

This year may very well be a pivotal year for your culinary career. 

The U.S. Department of Labor still paints a rosy picture for chefs and foodservice workers with an expected increase of more than 11 percent in jobs over the next decade, far higher than most professions. Most of these opportunities will come from filling positions vacated by those transitioning to other careers.

This is tempered by the reality that this an election year and shows a lot of uncertainty for the years following. Media sources have reported that the next several years could very well be marked by flat or very modest increases in traffic and sales.

New restaurant openings in the past 18 months have increased, but their profitability and viability have decreased, making opening a new restaurant — or being employed by one — an increasingly expensive gamble.

Given this information and considering the odds, if you land a new position in 2016, there is a high probability that it will be in an existing operation with a mandate from ownership to shore up profit, limit exposure on costs, or increase marketshare by redesigning the menu or updating the concept.

While each of those objectives are indeed important and worthy of your efforts, coming into an existing operation with an established crew, no matter the level of skill or commitment, with a mission to make your mark may be setting yourself and the operation up for failure from jump street. You’re not going to be able to complete those shared aspirations without help from those that you surround yourself with.

Below are four things every smart chef should do when inheriting a crew in an existing operation.

1. Watch

All eyes are on you now. Ownership is watching to see if their investment and trust are placed rightly in you. The crew is looking to see what kind of leader you’ll be — a starched white jacket or someone that they can trust. Either way, right now is not the time to act; it’s the time to watch and evaluate. Everyone will be on their best behavior so it might not be readily apparent what best or poor practices have preceded you. For good or ill, inheriting a crew implies that you also inherit the results of the previous management style and method of operating. It’s probably wise to remember that changing a culture in an organization can take anywhere from one to three years. No matter what pressure the owner puts on you to make change quickly, this will take time.

Start by tracking the flow of product through your operation. Watch the back dock, observe who’s hanging out, how food is delivered and handled. Come back after leaving and hang out across the street or an adjacent parking lot to see how the garbage is handled and the kitchen is cleaned. I make it a point of coming back through an operation after everyone thinks I have gone home. Having done this once or twice creates the understanding that it’s always possible that I could show up, stopping in to hang for a moment with those that have the thankless job of cleaning up at the end of the shift and thanking them anyway.

This is not to dress someone down for doing something wrong; it’s about catching people doing the right thing and appreciating them.

Start making notes of deficiencies, whether it’s staffing shortages or missing equipment that could boost productivity or make someone’s job easier and more efficient.

Get elbow to elbow with the prep crew, hang out in the coolers. Are there enough lexans, covers, or a proper labeling system? This is the time to clock it all and use a cautious eye to ascertain what’s working and what’s not.

2. Listen

You’re still in the discovery phase of your new position. This is when you should be gathering intelligence and this is the portion of the program where you get to wield some emotional intelligence.  

Be in the “I don’t know” mentality. Now is not the time to hear yourself talk, convinced that you know the best way forward. The truth is that you don’t know this crew, how the last chef managed or led them, how they, together, have built the business or their loyal clientele, and the challenges that all have had to face.

You might think you know, but there’s no way to really know unless you ask questions, and then listen to them with an open heart and a mind clear of judgement. It’s a skill that’s not taught in school and most of us are unpracticed at “active listening,” but the application can prove hugely beneficial.

Instead of conducting interviews, this is always best applied when working next to a person. The distraction of doing something — chopping vegetables, sweeping a floor or rinsing plates — will have someone opening up to you about their family, heritage, cultural or operational challenges.

Talk to guests, and instead of blowing yourself up and reading your press clipping to them, ask them what they love about the joint and what they’d like to see changed. Everyone is going to have an opinion, and while a kitchen cannot be run by committee, it is with a wealth of intelligence and conversations through which you can develop a plan of action that will benefit everyone.

3. Advocate

To be an effective advocate means that you get to stand for your crew and what’s best for them so that they can do their best for you and the guest. Understand that some of them will be willing to join you in the adventure of improving the operation while some will not be.

Now is the time to take everything that you have learned so far and report back to your boss. Have a plan in hand before you meet, take into account financial restrictions and shortfalls of capital investment. There’s no use in recommending the purchase of a Combi Oven when meeting payroll is a challenge, no matter how it would improve efficiency. Stage your recommendations incrementally. Some things can be done with little to no cost, whether it be rearranging the prep tables so that there’s more flow in the prep process, swapping the grill for the sauté station because it’ll be closer to the coolers, or instituting a prep plan based on past sales and future projections. Consider what impact those changes would have on the staff and be aware that layering them in over time will be more effective than dropping a bomb of multiple changes all at once.

Advocate for a consensus. No one will ever get everything they ask for, but if the question is never asked, the answer is always no.

4. Reset the Deck

Coming out of that meeting, you may want to take time to come up with an amended action plan that allows for some course-correction in the process. Very often we discover that results are derived from something tangential to what we originally planned for. Moving energy on one thing moves energy on all things so don’t be surprised if you get a breakthrough on something that you hadn’t planned for. Along with each action step, make sure there is some way to objectively judge whether something is working or not. Have some grace for yourself if your first idea didn’t bear fruit as planned; keep moving. Metrics will be important in order to evaluate your team’s progress. 

Schedule a meeting with the crew so that you and your team can outline the plan. Invite comments or suggestions. Finally, consider that the best idea might not be yours. Don’t be so attached to what you think is a good idea that you dismiss someone else’s idea that might be better or makes better business sense. That’s good evidence that you’ve already accomplished something quite important — you’ve created an inclusive, empowering environment where your crew feels comfortable bringing ideas to you because they’ve come to the conclusion that they have a vested interest in the operation’s success.

Invite them into the process. Their willing participation will be essential to your continued success.

Ultimately, the only worthwhile question a culinary professional gets to ask themselves is, “In Service to What?” Will you be in service to your ambition and ego or will you be in service to your crew, patrons, and owners?

One answer is a short-term, hollow victory while the other is a step along the path of a successful, happy career. Which one will you choose?