By Paul Sorgule, MS, AAC
My favorite football coach Marv Levy began his games by asking the team “Where would you rather be than right here, right now?” To me, this expressed the passion for the game, the excitement of team and the opportunities that lie before them. The game was in their hands at that point; they could rise to the occasion and make things happen or be complacent and lose the opportunity.
To all young cooks, culinary school graduates and new faces in the role of chef, I would pose the same question: “Where would you rather be than right here, right now?” The opportunity is before you to make a difference and define what the food industry will become.
It is very easy to point to the problems that our industry faces; we all recognize them. Complaining about what is wrong is very shallow unless you own the problems and work to find solutions. The formal and informal news channels are filled with recognition of these problems or challenges: excessive hours, unpredictable schedules, low pay, minimal benefits, physical working conditions, unwanted banter that we all recognize now as a form of harassment, low restaurant profitability, challenges to the integrity of the food supply, minimal training and the list goes on. So what are you going to do about it?
Now that you have made a decision, for whatever reason, to be part of the food business, how will you use your talent and problem-solving skills to help right the ship for the next few decades? This is your opportunity to be part of the solution rather than remaining the victim of an industry that needs some new thinking.
To all the seasoned chefs out there, here is a dose of reality: the new generation of cooks is not like you. Cooks, whether from the school of hard knocks or college programs, are different in many ways: they are less likely to see their work as their ONLY priority. I know, this goes contrary to how you and I were brought up through the ranks, but it is the reality.
The extreme sacrifices that many of us made may have worked for us, but younger people are challenging that norm. This doesn’t mean that they are any less passionate about food and cooking, void of talent or creativity, or less focused than us, it simply means that they view their career as an important part of who they are, but not the entirety of who they are.
Both sides of the issues need to come together under the realization that there has never been a better time to work collaboratively on positive change than right now. We should be compelled to seize the moment and set the stage for our industry and profession to continue to thrive and be all that it can be. Here are some thoughts for young cooks and seasoned chefs.
1. COMMUNICATE AND LISTEN
Any minute spent communicating ideas, challenges, inappropriate behavior, obstacles, failures and successes is a minute well spent. Chefs must make the time for this to occur. Cooks need to use this time as a vehicle for positive problem solving.
2. BUILD YOUR CONFIDENCE
Knowing and appreciating the difference between critique and criticism goes a long way toward building confidence and competence. Telling a cook that something is done incorrectly has little impact unless it is accompanied by a positive demonstration on how to improve. When cooks learn, their confidence grows and they become better employees. They might even look forward to a chef’s critique.
3. TAKE THE TIME TO TRAIN
A planned investment in training is just as important as effective communication. Part of a chef’s schedule should always include time dedicated to individual and group training. Broaden your staff’s knowledge about not just the process, but also the ingredients and the history behind a dish. Set the stage for each one of your cooks to grow into a chef’s role at some point in their future.
4. TAKE THE TIME TO LEARN
Cooks must be willing to enthusiastically engage in the learning process and continue that commitment outside work. Reading, communicating with other cooks, visiting a farm or ranch, and tasting new foods is not just an investment in a cook’s skill set, it is an investment in his or her self-worth.
5. BE INVOLVED WHERE IT COUNTS
You can’t win the lottery unless you buy a ticket and you can’t engage in positive change for the food industry unless you step up to the plate and take on an active role in facilitating that change. Become actively involved in professional organizations like the American Culinary Federation, Slow Food USA, Chefs Collaborative, Women Chef’s & Restaurateurs and others. But don’t just join, become involved.
Acceptance makes all of us complicit when it comes to some of the norms that were perpetuated in kitchens for years. The banter, innuendo, bullying and raucous language were considered by many to be “the way it is” in kitchens. At some level, many of us were probably guilty even if it was just shrugging our shoulders and turning away. This is not how we want our industry to be perceived, it is not the way that people want to be treated and it is not the way to attract and retain good employees. Chefs, owners, managers, cooks and service staff must all work to change this norm.
7. PUT ON YOUR BUSINESS HAT
Some of the problems or challenges that grate at those who are trying to make a career in the kitchen stem from the restaurant segments’ small profit margins. Operators cannot pay more or offer benefits if the money isn’t there. Those who want to be part of the solution must work with the operation to find ways of minimizing expenses and maximizing sales. This proactive approach is one of the only ways that wage fairness can be achieved.
8. TRY A LITTLE EMPATHY
Assuming that the life challenges that kitchen employees encounter are somehow separate from the demands of the job is simply lacking in consideration. Family commitments, financial challenges, illness and other issues aside from work concerns will impact performance and commitment to the business. Chefs, managers and owners need to be understanding and firm, but willing to make changes to accommodate those factors that weigh heavy on cooks and other staff members. Compassion is a critical trait of those who seek to find and keep the very best employees.
These thoughts are not meant to take anything away from being serious about the craft, the importance of quality and striving for excellence. In fact, just the opposite. Positive change will keep everyone focused on these issues and much less on the negative impact that a demanding work environment has on a person’s life. This might be the best way to encourage people to join the kitchen and make it a lifelong career.
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.
PLAN BETTER – TRAIN HARDER
Harvest America Ventures, LLC