By Paul Sorgule, MS, AAC
Work ethic is somewhat difficult to define, but when a person has it, everyone knows how it looks. Some may feel that people are born with a strong work ethic, but in most cases it is an acquired trait that comes from the environment where a person matures (in the home or on the job). Those with a strong work ethic will typically hail from a family or business where that is the norm.
“People don’t understand that when I grew up, I was never the most talented. I was never the biggest. I was never the fastest. I certainly was never the strongest. The only thing I had was my work ethic, and that’s been what has gotten me this far.”
– Tiger Woods
Work ethic is likely the most important individual trait that a chef or restaurateur looks for in a kitchen employee. Certainly, a cook’s skill level, palate and work history are important factors, all of which will continue to develop on the job. Work ethic is something that an individual brings with them or it simply does not exist. It is this work ethic that molds a person into the cook or chef who will make a difference, build a restaurant’s reputation and help to create an environment where others want to work.
A person who brings a solid work ethic to the table is likely someone who exemplifies this trait in everything they do. When a chef observes this in an individual, then it is safe to assume that the person applies this in other aspects of his or her life—it can’t be turned on and off.
“Developing a good work ethic is key. Apply yourself at whatever you do, whether you’re a janitor or taking your first summer job, because that work ethic will be reflected in everything you do in life.”
– Tyler Perry
So, how do you recognize a person who personifies great work ethic in the kitchen? Here are a few surefire ways to discover if a person has the right stuff:
I remember a wise career cook who told me in my early kitchen days that there is always something to do in a kitchen and that I should never appear idle. “Stay busy, be the example of hustle and make sure that others feel the sense of urgency that you always display. The chef will respond well to this example.” I never lost sight of this advice and tried to be this example in every aspect of my life.
- EFFORT — WORK AT IT
Jump in, roll up your sleeves and improve your proficiency and speed every day. It is this “above the call of duty” effort that builds character and skills and creates confidence.
- INVEST THE TIME — DON’T BE A CLOCK WATCHER
Of course you’ve heard it before: cooks work hard and they work more hours than most creating a physically demanding environment. While this is true, one should never lose sight of the time that must be invested to seek excellence and shine as the type of employee that others will seek out. The question should be “Where would you rather be than right here, right now?”
- BE THERE — PHYSICALLY AND MENTALLY
Aside from the very challenging physical work of the kitchen, it is essential that a cook or chef understand that “being there” is much more than physical presence. It is remaining focused on the job and giving it your all.
When chefs are asked what trait they look for most in an employee, many will list dependability. Knowing that given a task, the employee will invest his or her all through the process of addressing and completing that task and that they can always be trusted to show up, suit up, and dedicate the effort necessary.
“I think that you find out what your boss wants you to do, and you do more. To me, that’s work ethic. Because, if you demonstrate that your capabilities extend past your current job, they’ll probably give you a better job.”
– Thom Tillis
- KEEP YOUR EYE ON THE TASK — FOCUS
There are so many things that need to be done in the kitchen; too many that may distract a cook from staying on task. Those with a great work ethic understand how important it is to “see it through” and stay true to getting the job done right. As has been said before: “If you don’t have the time or focus to get it done right the first time, when will you find the time to do it over?”
- BE RELENTLESS AND NEVER GIVE UP
Mistakes will happen, the right skills may not initially be there and quality work doesn’t happen without persistence and repetition. Those who want to be great at what they do are relentless players.
“I know what I need to work on; I know my weaknesses, but I have that work ethic to improve every day. I have that want to be the best player at my position, and I have the belief in myself that one day that will come true.”
– Justin Tuck
- FIGURE IT OUT — FIND OUT “HOW TO”
If I were asked to describe a cook or chef who has finally reached a pinnacle of skill in the kitchen, I would likely refer to him or her as a consummate problem solver. When a person is faced with a challenge and through experience and persistence is able to “figure it out,” then I know that they are complete.
- RAISE THE BAR — CONSTANT IMPROVEMENT
Work ethic knows no boundaries. When a cook understands what it takes to be successful, they accept that their work can always get better. The Japanese refer to it as “kaisen” or constant improvement.
- DON’T BE AFRAID OF FAILURE, BUT NEVER ACCEPT IT
As a cook develops they will face failure, and this is a fact of life. No one enjoys failing, but unless we fall down we may never learn to get back up. Thomas Edison failed thousands of times before he created life-changing inventions.
- HAVE YOUR TEAMMATES BACK & EARN THEIR TRUST
In the end, everyone who works in a successful kitchen understands that individual work ethic will never take the place of collaborative commitment on the part of every team member. Successful cooks help others to understand this, pick them up when they fall down, share what they have learned and in the process earn the trust and respect of everyone in the kitchen. When this happens, the kitchen is a thing of beauty to watch. This is when the operation fires on all cylinders: the difficult gets done right away and the impossible simply takes a little bit longer.
PLAN BETTER – TRAIN HARDER
Paul Sorgule has been a chef and educator for more than four decades holding positions as hotel executive chef, food and beverage director, faculty member, dean of culinary arts and provost at a prominent culinary college. Sorgule is president of Harvest America Ventures, a restaurant and culinary school consulting and training company he formed in 2012. He blogs about culinary issues and finding that work/life balance at www.harvestamericaventures.com.