I hear it all the time from cooks, bakers, and young chefs: “The business demands an unrealistic work commitment for meager pay.” It is true, that the restaurant industry needs to re-assess how it treats and compensates entry-level and early career foodservice workers. But at the same time, too many cooks lose sight of the long-term opportunities if they approach their early start in the right manner. Ask first: “What value am I bringing to the table?” Value is the key that should unlock opportunities and pay — when it does not, then the cook is within his or her right to seek other options.
So how does a cook create personal value and build his or her personal brand in the process? Is there a road map to eventual success on both a personal and professional level? I certainly don’t have all the answers, but here are some thoughts based on experience.
ESTABLISH CAREER GOALS
Don’t simply focus on your current situation without having a plan for the future. Know where you want to be personally and professionally in five to 10 years. You may very well change your direction along the way, but without a goal marker you will spend too much time living solely in the moment and failing to increase your value.
BUILD A REALISTIC TIMELINE
Once you have a career goal then set out to build a timeline with measurable steps along the way. Avoid setting unrealistic expectations on the time it will take, but at the same time make sure that you build in some pressure that will nudge you to step up to the plate. Driving towards a career goal should be hard work — dedicated work that comes to fruition in small, achievable chunks of time.
PROTECT YOUR PUBLIC IMAGE
This is so important. Any employer can and will check your background to ensure that you are a person of integrity, a trustworthy individual who personifies the level of professionalism that helps to protect the business brand and all who work within that business. Watch what you post on social media, and make sure that your markers (email, Instagram, Twitter account names) are representative of a professional.
Drink responsibly, don’t drink and drive, dress professionally, be careful how you put your traceable persona out there. Make wise decisions so that your brand is free of bruises that can haunt you in the future. If you leave a job, do so in a professional manner with adequate notice and never slander a property or those who work there — even if you feel they deserve it. Everything that you do is out there and positioned to limit your personal and professional growth.
INVEST IN SKILLS
No matter how much you know, no matter how accomplished you are as a cook, always take the opportunity to grow and learn. Signup for workshops, spend time with a master of certain cuisines or techniques, read and study everything you can about food and process, spend time with a farmer, a fisherman, or a cattle rancher — the more you know how to “do,” the greater your opportunities.
LOOK BEYOND YOUR COMFORT ZONE
Make a list of the processes or tasks that you are currently unable to execute or are considered weak at and set a course of action to gradually and methodically improve. If it makes you uncomfortable then it will, at some point, get in the way of your career progress.
CONNECT WITH THE RIGHT PEOPLE
Associate with people who share your values, who are also committed to constant improvement, who respect what you are trying to accomplish, but at the same time are more than willing to tell you when you are straying from an established plan. These people need not be individuals who simply agree with you, on the contrary — as long as their commitment to excellence is in place, it is better to connect with those who will point to your misdirection and help you get back on track.
AVOID MEDIOCRITY AT ALL COSTS
Wipe this word from your vocabulary. If you are building your brand and are doing so on the backbone of excellence then any drift towards acceptance of the mediocre is a step towards failure. Be excellent at everything that you do. Make excellence your habit — the definition of who you are.
Show up ready to work at the highest level from the first day you walk into a kitchen. Be that person who always follows through and completes every task as it is meant to be done. Be consistent in behavior and never allow your emotions pull you away from that level of consistency.
WORK TO LEARN – FIRST
Put aside, for a moment, the need for restaurants and chefs to reward value, pay a fair wage, and respect the need for some level of life balance. The positions you pick, the chefs you choose to work for or with, and the restaurants that are on your radar should be ones that will help you to build that brand, your resume and your level of competence. Yes, the money is important, but your résumé will far outlive the need for better compensation. It is your résumé and what it represents that will bring you closer to those career goals and the compensation and opportunities that you deserve.
ENGAGE AND INVOLVE
Be active, join and become involved, seek out those who can help you build that brand, and give your all knowing that everything that you do in this regard will contribute to a marketable brand.
BE PROFESSIONAL – ALWAYS
Look the part, act the part. Do so at work, outside of work, with your team members, with your boss, with vendors, with your family and with guests. Work towards being perceived the way that you want others to perceive you.
HELP OTHERS AND SHARE WHAT YOU KNOW
The most successful people relish the opportunity to share their knowledge, to help and encourage others, and to enjoy the success that comes to those who are on the receiving end of your generosity.
KNOW WHEN TO SAY YES, AND WHEN TO SAY NO
It’s a skill that’s important to learn, especially when “yes” may threaten your brand or your ability to exhibit the excellence that you are trying to portray. Yes isn’t always the right answer when it may have long-term negative implications for you or the operation that you work for.
KNOWLEDGE IS POWER
Beyond skills is the ability to know the answer or know where to find it. The best cooks know about the food they use, where it came from, why it was prepared a certain way, and the history associated with the people within its culture of origin.
Knowing what to look for when an operational cost is out of line and how to correct it is very powerful.
Understanding what an employee is going through personally, and how it impacts his or her performance, is what separates good managers from real leaders.
Those chefs with a highly marketable personal brand are always grateful to those who helped them along the way and express this gratitude freely.
So, when you look at the distractions and challenges of starting your career with less than adequate recognition and compensation, ask yourself a few basic questions: “What value am I currently offering to the operation,” “Where am I going,” and “How can I utilize this experience to help with the building of my personal brand?”