How Not to Hire a Kitchen Crew

[Disclaimer: I should preface this piece by saying upfront that I have no formal training as a Human Resources Professional nor do I hold any degrees in psychology other than 30 years in the hospitality business interviewing, vetting, and hiring culinarians of all skill levels and temperaments.]

I talk to a lot of chefs and during those conversations, the topic inevitably turns to staffing issues. It doesn’t matter how long any of us have been in the industry or our positions — we are all confronted by one simple fact: almost, if not all of the issues that dog us daily in our kitchens can be drilled down to one sobering conclusion: it’s hard to hire, nurture, and empower the right staff.

Sometimes we have the right person in the wrong job or the wrong person in the right one.

Some of us are fortunate enough to have a formalized HR department to assist us in filling open positions but it’s safe to say that they have their hands full with the increasingly complex duties of the administration of the staff as well.

But most of us don’t have the luxury of a pedigreed professional in Human Resources on staff and have to rely on our ability to read people to make qualified choices of who to hire and who to take a pass on, a vetting process based more on intuition than science or due diligence.

Having personally worked with and without a dedicated HR department, I’ve had some successes and many failures hiring qualified candidates in the kitchens I have managed, such as the gal I hired, whom after working 2 weeks in the pantry, walked up to me with the listing of open positions in the resort and asked for a transfer.

”To what department?,” I asked her.

“Anywhere but here, Chef,” she whispered, head down. I don’t know who felt worse — her for having made the wrong choice of where to work, or me for not having had the foresight to see that she would end up unhappy and unproductive in her position.

According to The Center for American Progress, “The typical cost of turnover for positions earning less than $30,000 annually is 16 percent of an employee’s annual salary.” That’s $4,000 for each and every employee in your organization. The article, compiled from 11 leading studies, also states, “The cost of turnover is an important economic issue because about one-fifth of workers voluntarily leave their job each year and an additional one-sixth are fired or otherwise let go involuntarily.”

4 Things Not to Do

As costs for hiring, training, and retaining hospitality professionals mounts, let’s look at how not to hire a kitchen crew:

1. Put an ad up, sit back, and watch the applications roll in.

All of us at one time or another are guilty of this sin. Either we give away our power to an overworked HR department or we convince ourselves that we’re too busy to do anything about it. Some of us operate under the influence of our reputation, relying on our notoriety to rope in unsuspecting prospects. Unless you are Roy Choi, David Chang, Norman Van Aken, or Heston Blumenthal, then you’ve got your work cut out for you in attracting some bright shining lights into your kitchen.

Instead of being passive in your pursuit of qualified talent, let me suggest some proactive measures you can take right now to get some interest in your open positions. Yes, some of them will take time, others will cost you money, but in all cases you will be out in front of the challenge on the leading edge of recruitment.

  • Social media: Today, there’s two degrees of separation between you and your next great hire. LinkedIn, Facebook, and Twitter, among other sites, provide the opportunity to speak directly to those that might be looking for you. 
  • Professional networking sites: Chef's RollThe Staff Canteen, and The Chef’s Connection, as well as some LinkedIn chef groups, offer unique chances to network with other professionals, especially when there are few chances to get out of the friendly confines of your kitchen.
  • Chef-centric job boards: Star Chefs and Culintro speak directly to the specific challenges of our industry.
  • Recruiters: A great one can make the hiring process smooth and groovy; a bad one can end up an albatross around your neck. Ask for recommendations from other chefs you respect or admire.
  • Visa programs: J1 visa programs have long been a staple in large resorts and cruise lines in filling positions with qualified, motivated foreign students looking to broaden their work experience. Would it be a fit for your organization? The answer is always “no” until you ask.

2. Hire the same demographic as you.

All too often a position is left open because the right candidate hasn’t yet applied for the job. I say “right candidate” because we’re emotionally hardwired to want to work with people we like, culinarians that share our same food philosophy, lifestyle, tattoos, or taste in music.

It’s easier but not very productive. 

Sometimes folks are overlooked because they don’t fit the picture in our head of who we’d like to be elbow to elbow with in the trenches. It’s often harder to relate to, and hence lead someone, that hasn’t had similar life experiences, the same ethnic background, or first language as us. 

Harder to do, but much more productive.

Diversity—whether it’s gender, age, color, or background—leads to a richer broth, a more complex but ultimately satisfying flavor to your kitchen.

3. Hire for competency only.

Skill sets are easily quantified by a potential candidate and we will sometimes hold out, again, looking for someone with a specific skill set or experience that matches the open position. Will a pantry cook make a good sauté cook? Who had they worked with before? What kind of conditions are they used to putting up with? Is competency more important than enthusiasm?

Is the ability to hold down the station during service more or less important than the art of being a good team member, the proficiency of being a good communicator, or the talent of being able to motivate others?

Which is more important: hard skills or soft? I guess it would depend on what kind of crew you’re building — one that will survive season or one with which you can stake your claim long into the future.

4. Believe their resume.

Okay, I get that you’re busy. I understand that you’ve got a kitchen to manage and if you don’t make a move quickly, you’re going to have to hold down the grill during service and give up the pass to the assistant restaurant manager — again.

You might think that given all these pressures, you’ve got nothing to lose by putting them on the line for a shift. You can always let them go if they let you and the team down. And you might be right. I mean, who’s got time to make phone calls in order to verify someone’s resume, right? Better to hold someone’s feet to the fire to see how high they jump, right?

Wrong.

The single most important thing that should be protected is your team’s fluidity — the cohesiveness with which they interact, coming together as one in pursuit of one goal, a perfect service. Nothing will screw with that Chi quicker than throwing someone in the mix who isn’t grounded within the team. Floundering is no fun for the applicant nor for the poor cook with whom he’s supposed to shadow.

With everything to gain and everything to lose, this should be a decision made with emotional intelligence and due diligence.

Don’t have time to go over their resume and make some calls? Okay then, set up a test, have them identify some herbs, do a few basic cuts with a properly sharpened knife. Have them cook a staff meal in between service. Get them used to the environment, get your crew used to having the candidate around. Look for the most fluid path and position to their — and your — success. Even if that means working the grill one more shift.