Chefs’ Perspective: More Thoughts on a Changing Industry

(This is the second part of an article on changes in leadership in the restaurant industry. To read the first part, click here.   It features information from a series of interviews conducted by Chef Maria Campbell, CEC, of Imagine Impact LLC, a Philadelphia-based Chef Consulting firm. Chef Campbell spoke with Chef Keith Taylor of Drexel University, Chef John Patterson of Fork restaurant, and Chef Eva Barrios of the Austin (Texas) Country Club.)

A common theme that was recurrent in all the conversations with chefs was the need for more business and management training in the food industry.

One of the most positive facts that has emerged from the on-going discussion about changes in kitchen culture is that many chefs enjoy teaching and developing their support staff.  Both Chef Taylor and Chef Patterson spoke to this as being one of the greatest rewards of being a chef. In a preliminary management training session that Imagine Impact held in August, all of the participant chefs stated that one of the aspects of their job that most engaged them was watching members of their teams learn new skills and grow professionally, while also learning from the knowledge that these teams bring to the table.  However, they all acknowledged the demands of the business leave them with very little time to be as involved in this development as they would like to be.  It seems to be a common theme that staff development is one of the first things to go when a chef is pressed for time.    

So, if the industry is changing, the workforce is demanding change from their leadership, and many chef leaders are expressing an interest in making the leap, the question one must ask is: How do we get there from here?

A Need For Training

A common theme that was recurrent in all the conversations with chefs was the need for more business and management training in the food industry.  In Chef Taylor’s estimation, nine out of ten restaurants suffer due to bad business management.  Chefs need to be able to do more than  produce amazing food.  They must be able to manage the people in their kitchen in such a way that produces consistent results daily, encourages professional development and creates new leaders ready to step into management roles. 

Chefs who are hired and trained by larger corporate restaurants are often able to obtain management training on the job. Chef Taylor credits his training as a chef with the Disney Corporation for a thorough focus on management as well as on food.  Under this system, one is required to learn on the job for six months before managing any staff members.  But this type of training is unusual in most workplaces, especially in smaller, independent operations.

Even chefs who have graduated from culinary school are often sorely unprepared to take on management responsibilities right away.  Chef Patterson expressed frustration that culinary schools do not do a better job of instilling realistic expectations.  A recent graduate is not going to be hired for a sous chef position, or earn a sous chef salary right away, no matter how well they did in school, because they are not adequately prepared to handle all the responsibilities. He mentioned that many people he interviews seem surprised to learn that there is more to the job than just turning out amazing plates.  When he hires people as line cooks he feels it is his responsibility to give them the real picture of what their job development will look like: it will take a minimum of four months of training and learning before they can step into a sous chef role.

Standards and Solutions

Chef Taylor says it boils down to two words: standards and solutions.  He offered the example that if you walk past a problem without doing anything, you have just created a new lower standard.  Chefs need to set high standards for their teams and create an infrastructure that is clearly communicated, while also creating the right kind of environment in which members of their teams can thrive. 

If you walk past a problem without doing anything, you have just created a new lower standard.

“We are masters of gracious hospitality,” said Taylor, and that hospitality should be on display in the workplace, directed inward as well as outward towards the guests. 

One goal is a happy staff, because a more engaged staff is more productive and is more invested in their jobs.  Chef Taylor suggests engaging staff by paying them well and teaching them continuously.  A chef should continue to ask themselves these questions: Do I make it easier for my staff to learn? And are people in my kitchen set up for success?  Staff members feed off  this type of environment, and respond with their dedication, which is beneficial to the whole organization.

Chef Patterson echoes the need to compensate staff fairly.  He states that chefs should not bury their heads in the sand and wait for labor laws to force them to make changes, but be proactive by considering how to make paid time off and sick leave possible.  He also cautions that chefs should examine their expectations of their staff.  Making time for family and a healthy life-work balance should be encouraged, since these are qualities that are known to increase staff satisfaction.

Chef Barrios reiterated the need to be conscious that staff have a life outside of work.  Recognizing that all staff members make time sacrifices to help a business achieve success is crucial. 

“Since they take care of us, we take care of them,” she said.  It is important to express gratitude, and be flexible with regards to family obligations, without losing focus on the needs of the business.

An On-Going Conversation

This conversation is far from over.  The chefs at Imagine Impact continue to strive to understand the challenges facing today’s chefs, and they will continue to share their findings in order to help chefs build their best teams. 

Julie Kauffman Strong is a writer, editor, and baker from Philadelphia. Stephen Wilson is a pastry chef, business owner, and writer from Audubon, NJ. Maria Campbell, CEC is a chef and culinary educator from Media, PA. Together, they make up part of the teams at Imagine Impact and Cooks Who Care, two organizations founded by Campbell. Imagine Impact is a chef consulting firm, featuring a team of chef experts offering solutions and business strategies for restaurant leadership. Cooks Who Care is an organization for individuals in the culinary industry that facilitates both their personal and professional development. They organize activities for chefs to socialize, network, and develop management skills. Cooks Who Care also works to support local non-profits who provide art education opportunities for underserved and at-risk Philadelphia youth by linking member chefs who want to donate their time, energy, and love of food to organizations that are champions of the arts. For additional information on Imagine Impact, click here or visit their Facebook page. To learn more about Cooks Who Care, visit the website or the Facebook page.