We Are Chefs

5 Key Traits for Success in the Kitchen

By Paul Sorgule, MS, AAC

What does a chef look for in a new hire? Certainly the foundational skills learned in culinary school or a professional kitchen apprenticeship program are essential. It is expected that a new cook will understand how to maintain their knives; cut vegetables with precision; set-up their station with a focus on mise en place; understand and practice the key elements of food safety and sanitation; know the required steps of foundational cooking methods; and be able to multitask with reasonable speed and dexterity. This is, after all, what formal training programs focus on, and any cook worth their salt will walk through the kitchen doors with this necessary repertoire. But is this what is most important to the hiring chef?

Although any hiring chef expects these basic skills from an applicant, it can also be taught on the job. A person with a willingness to listen, practice and learn can build a level of proficiency with these tasks in a reasonable amount of time. What about those traits that cannot be easily taught? What about the attributes of a successful person that must be innate; the attributes that define a person whom any chef would want to hire?  These attributes are honesty, trust, and dependability. Make no mistake–above all else this is what every chef wants from the individuals they choose to hire. Without these core attributes, the best technical cook in the world will fail at becoming an integral part of a kitchen team.

Honesty

The chef entrusts his or her team with valuable products and equipment. It is initially assumed that every player will treat this responsibility as if the business is his or her own.  There is no room for the likes of any employee who acts otherwise.

Trust

The responsibilities of a chef are far reaching and often take the chef away from daily cooking responsibilities, which is why the chef must be able to trust each employee to work independently, manage their time and handle the preparation of food consistent with the level of excellence that the chef and operation expects. Competent cooks must work with reasonable speed and dexterity, and minimal supervision.

Additionally, both the restaurant and the dining public place their trust in every cook to handle food preparation under the highest standards of sanitation and safety. The well-being of guests and the reputation of the business are in the hands of all cooks. These are significant examples of implied trust and are the standards that are expected of professionals.

Dependability

Woody Allen said “80% of life is showing up.” Chefs know that one of the most important attributes of a young cook who aspires to build a career is to show up on time, mentally sharp, dressed appropriately and physically ready for a hard day of work. Dependability is a trait that oftentimes outweighs many other skills.

But furthermore…

Freedom from Temptation

Accessibility is the downfall of those who suffer from a lack of willpower. Setting aside those negative examples that do exist, it is expected that cooks will not use alcohol or illegal drugs before work or on the job. The policy of “shift drinks” is frowned upon in modern kitchens because of the liability and the precedent of encouragement that should not be part of a kitchen’s method of operation. Additionally, cooks are exposed to costly, high-end ingredients that are not up for grabs. Chefs want cooks who are honest beyond reproach.

Cost Consciousness and a Spirit of Ownership

Those who make a living in restaurant operations understand that profit margins are very slim, products are highly perishable and portion control is essential if a restaurant is to succeed. Chefs look for cooks who are cost conscious, have a keen eye on minimizing waste, portion ingredients accurately, rotate perishable items in storage, maximize the shelf-life of ingredients by managing temperatures and ensure that every other teammate stays as focused on these important contributors to success.

Nearly everything else in the kitchen can be taught through experience, but the aforementioned attributes must be part of a cook’s make-up as a person. This is what a chef seeks in individuals and what leads to a successful business and the foundation for successful careers.

As a cook, ask yourself: “Am I bringing these traits to the table every day when I walk through those kitchen doors?”

This is your brand.