9 ways to engage your line cooks

by Chef Paul Sorgule of Harvest America Ventures

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With the current labor challenges faced by restaurants across the country it may be time to think differently about how to attract, excite and retain quality culinary staff members.

If we begin with an assumption (yes, I know the danger in assuming too much) that most individuals who are interested in cooking have aspirations of one day assuming the role of sous chef, chef or chef/owner, then it is possible to build a uniquely attractive employment model for your kitchen. In the vein of the apprenticeship model we might assume that cooks have a real desire to learn, grow, build their skills and enhance their resumes. The question is, how much value is placed on the ability to move in this direction?

Most chefs, if asked, would be quite content to know that they had the ability to attract enthusiastic and committed cooks who were willing to invest three or four years in a restaurant. So, how might a property manage to attract and retain this level of cook?

Pay and benefits are important issues that must be addressed, but a package of solutions will have a more significant long-term impact. Here are a few examples:

  • UNDERSTAND WHAT IS NEEDED

It is very important for the chef to be part of the labor solution and avoid being part of the problem. The perception by a growing number of young cooks is that the kitchen takes a lot more than it gives. On the surface they may seem to focus on rates of pay, but a longer-term answer needs to address the deficit of investment in each cook’s future. Part of the chef’s job must be to develop young cooks into tomorrow’s kitchen leaders. This must become an integral part of the chef’s job description.

  • COMMIT THE TIME

Any investment that a chef makes in his or her staff will pay back tenfold. Cooks who feel appreciated — who know that the chef is committed to developing them, improving their skills, and building their brand — will be more inclined to give 100 percent and stay the course. The chef needs to look at his schedule and plan employee investment time as a regular commitment. In-service training, counseling, providing shadowing opportunities to learn about the processes surrounding the management of a kitchen, and even visits to vendors, farmers, cattle ranchers and artisan producers are effective ways of demonstrating a chef’s commitment to staff.

  • INVEST IN MENTORING

Being a mentor to young cooks is, by far, the most important and rewarding part of a chef’s job. As chefs, we all share a responsibility to prepare the next generation for kitchen operation. To paraphrase William Arthur Ward:

“The mediocre chef tells, the good chef explains, the superior chef demonstrates, and the great chef mentors and inspires.”

Help the cook define his or her short and long term goals, work on defining a path to get there and help keep the cook on track. There are few things more rewarding in life than helping someone else reach his or her professional goals.

  • BUILD A PROGRAM AND STICK WITH IT

Whether formal apprenticeship or simply mentoring cooks through skill development, professional brand building, character building experiences, or occasional attitude adjustments, chefs need to take the time to build a manageable program for staff development. Become your own human resource department!

  • REWARD PERFORMANCE

What gets measured gets done and what gets rewarded helps to inspire. A chef must find ways to recognize a cook’s effort and make it part of his or her routine. The days when chefs simply viewed performance as an expectation without the need for some level of recognition are over. The program might be as simple as thanking a cook for a good service, giving a thumbs up for a well prepared dish, pulling your team together at the end of an event and talking about what they accomplished, or even sharing positive comment cards about a restaurant’s food. As simple as these ideas are, they demonstrate that a chef recognizes good work.

  • BE THE DIFFERENCE

The feeling that cooks work for a restaurant is oftentimes misguided. A professional cook works for the chef or the owner — a chef or owner who inspires, who demonstrates a concern for the employees professional and personal well-being, and who is consistently firm but fair. The retention of cooks, then, is clearly in the hands of the person who wears the tallest hat. Understand this and take the responsibility seriously. Be the difference.

“More than half of people who leave their jobs do so because of their relationship with their boss. Smart companies make certain their managers know how to balance being professional with being human. These are the bosses who celebrate an employee’s success, empathize with those going through hard times, and challenge people, even when it hurts.”

-Travis Bradberry

  • HAVE HIGH EXPECTATIONS

Being fair and committed to the employee need not mean that a chef should let things slide or overlook inconsistencies. The best chefs, the ones that cooks admire the most, are the ones who never sacrifice quality and the need for excellence. The best chef mentors will always expect the highest level of excellence from employees — from the simplest task to the most complicated. Excellence is a habit and as such must be the standard by which all work is measured.

  • PROMOTE PROFESSIONALISM

Chefs who are focused on attracting and retaining good employees must always be the example for others to follow. Professionalism must be as important as product quality. Chefs must promote by encouraging proper uniform, treating other cooks with respect, the expression of good attitudes towards all other employees and guests, as well as quality of work regardless of task assigned. Be the example and then expect and demand the same from your cooks.

  • CELEBRATE SUCCESS

Finally, know that the success of the restaurant, the reputation of the chef, and the image that the operation enjoys is directly connected to how committed and focused your staff members are. When the restaurant wins then the chef must work hard to ensure that all members of the team know that it was due to their effort. Find ways to celebrate this. Reinforcing the importance of a cook’s involvement will help to make sure that the same effort becomes commonplace.

“Celebrate what you want to see more of. “

-Tom Peters

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