Five Keys to Retaining a Strong Kitchen Staff
I have been fortunate in my thirty plus years as a chef to have worked with some amazing people. The restaurant business attracts a wide variety of characters, from people with troubled childhoods and broken homes, to the privileged college kid who is struggling to live up to his parents’ expectations. I’ve hired perfectionists with intense personalities who just couldn’t see themselves sitting at a desk all day and people who had never before been able to find a place in the workforce where they felt like they fit in.
My own story is simple: I grew up in a Buddhist household that had a deep connection to the land and ate high quality clean food, lovingly prepared. So, I had a good attitude towards and respect for food built in from the beginning. But actually, I landed a food service job in high school just as a way to earn spending money. Although I found it very stressful at first, I discovered I was a bit of an adrenaline junky and actually loved the high I got from battling my way through a six-hour dinner rush. I also really liked to be able to eat whenever I felt hungry. Hanging out aimlessly with my school friends and scrounging for food was not very appealing to me, so I stuck around. I felt like I could be myself in the kitchen. We wore loose fitting clothing and there were no reprimands when I started dropping F bombs on the line.
I was promoted to my first management position shortly after I turned twenty years old. I had no idea what I was doing and when the kitchen staff, most of whom were several years older than me, began coming to me with questions and complaints I would basically echo their questions back to them and ask them what they thought the solution was. In my first five years of management I had quite a few ups and downs. At first I tried to be everyone’s friend. But this led to people walking all over me, knowing they could get away with anything. So, feeling frustrated and angry that my “friends” were not showing me any respect, I changed course and became a raging asshole. Of course, this strategy was also a disaster, as no one wants to work for an asshole. By the time I was in my mid-twenties, though, I had found a middle ground between being kind and strict, and my kitchen staff began to stick around. For the past twenty-five years I have enjoyed a very low turnover in all of the kitchens I have led. I’ve been far from perfect and have made monumental mistakes that have cost me some of the most talented cooks I’ve worked with, but with each mistake I’ve learned. And in the end, I’ve come to realize that there are really just five basic keys to retaining a strong kitchen staff.
Although my job is to make sure our customers have a positive experience and enjoy their meals; a bigger part of my job is to take care of my staff. Regardless of an individual’s skill level, they deserve to be treated with respect. If they feel disrespected or believe that I think the job is more important than they are, they won’t stick around. Listening is key. Listening not just to hear but to learn. If I listen carefully, I will learn what matters most to the people I work with. An issue that may seem trivial to me may be a really big deal to them. I must genuinely care about their lives and make it a priority to give them the time and flexibility for the people or things that are important to them. One of my employees works six days a week, but Sunday night is date night for him and his wife. In almost seven years of working together, I’ve rarely asked him to work a Sunday night. Another employee is younger and just wants to let loose and have fun dating and going out with his crew. He has a rotating schedule that gives him every other Friday and Saturday night off. Also, if something important suddenly comes up for one of my team, I won’t hesitate to accommodate their situation if possible.
2. BE DIRECT
I constantly ask myself if I am communicating with my staff effectively. I don’t avoid difficult conversations and am honest about the needs of the kitchen and the business. It’s not my job to make the employee happy with every decision I make. In fact, if I am always trying to make everyone happy it erodes the team’s trust in me. People would rather be told something they don’t like if it means it helps us to keep the business running smoothly and in fact ensures their success. By giving my staff the respect that says we’re in this together I’m also telling them that I have their backs and don’t want them to fail.
3. ASK QUESTIONS
Everything I’ve learned about being a chef I’ve learned from my team. Whether it came from a superior, the line cooks, or my dishwashers, everyone has something to teach me. I am constantly asking my team what they think, not to find fault but to honestly learn how they would make things better. This becomes an opportunity not only for me to learn but also to teach them how and why I do things in a particular way, if I end up feeling that’s best. Lose the ego. Consider all suggestions and if it can improve the food or efficiency, allow them to make adjustments. They will feel valued and want to stick around.
4. DISCARD THE ROTTEN PRODUCE BUT DON’T BURN BRIDGES
We’ve all come across that case of tomatoes with a rotten one right in the middle. If it’s not promptly removed, the rot will quickly spread to the rest of the case. When an employee has a bad attitude or consistently makes the same mistakes, it must be handled swiftly, or the rest of the team loses faith in the leader and things go rapidly downhill. But I’ve also made it a point to never burn a bridge. I can sense when an employee should move on for the business’ sake and their own. I want my staff to make the best decisions they can for their lives and families and if that means leaving, I am always one hundred percent supportive. Sometimes I’m the one that has to suggest and enforce it. But on more than one occasion I have had employees return after gaining valuable experience elsewhere.
5. HAVE FUN
Be mindful of the way your mood affects others and don’t forget to have fun and be a part of the team, not just the person at the top. No matter what I have going on I always keep myself on at least one line shift a week. One of the reasons I’ve stayed in this business for so long is because I’m having fun. No one wants to work for a boss who is always angry or stressed out.
About nine months into Covid we pivoted and changed the concept of our restaurant substantially. I lost three of my best kitchen staff, all at the same time. It was a tough blow. I’ve asked myself many times if I could have done better. Was my communication lacking? Was I grumpy and pissed off or just burnt out? Yes, in some ways. I was distracted by the crisis and for a time my team lost confidence in me. But the staff who left were also just ready to go. Having been with us for over five years, they were ready for a change and when an opportunity presented itself, they left and were happier for it.
The pandemic has been extremely challenging for chefs and the industry as a whole. I see posts on a daily basis from chefs struggling to find and keep staff. Wages have risen, which I think is a good thing, but it also can also feel like people just don’t want to work or are opting for jobs that are easier and less stressful. Every industry is hiring and if a cook has been wanting more nights and weekends free to spend with his family, there are many other opportunities. As leaders and chefs, we must strive to fundamentally change how we treat our employees. Offering better pay and benefits is one way to attract more candidates but ultimately, they will stick with us because the challenge has made them and us better people. They’ll stick around as well if we can help ensure restaurant work is a job they can enjoy and have fun at.
Now as always, I’m deeply grateful for our team and the value they bring not only to the job but to my life.