As RCS travels the land in our endeavor to spread the good news of hospitality training, we frequently hear a common lament from our partners in culinary departments: we can’t find or retain good talent; we can’t find cooks with basic skills. Tight labor markets, the challenges of staffing for seasonal operations, changes in immigrant worker requirements, popular reality foodie entertainment that is in no way representative of actual kitchen dynamics, the physical demands of kitchen work, unrealistic promises of culinary school matriculation, low compensation and work life balance are all ingredients creating this dilemma of turnover and under-staffed kitchens.
Most pressing, what about the level of ability and aptitude of those working various stations in the back of the house? Many in leadership roles of culinary departments are not finding cooks with the skill levels necessary for consistent, quality production of their menus. Should kitchens simplify their menus to the level of staff capability? Should kitchen leadership rely on the vast prevalence and availability of pre-made, pre-fab industrial food? These propositions are unrealistic and even a little sad to ponder. For clubs at least, member expectation is for variety when it comes to menus and offerings that change if not just seasonally, then weekly. This reality requires a team that has abilities and competencies to nimbly execute frequent changes to menus. These days, just about any food can be procured that is pre-cooked, pre-seasoned and ready for plating and many of those products offer a great labor-saving benefit and convenience for production. When so much food is “brought-in” the need for teaching classics and fundamentals is not as urgent. From béarnaise in-a-bag to pre-cooked and peeled hard boiled eggs and heat and serve duck confit, why even bother to assemble a kitchen brigade at all? In many instances the dining experience is delivered by a broad-line supplier. Before we commit ourselves to a culinary future of serving food from a box we might want to recognize that the alternative is to actively engage and mentor culinary staff, which requires an investment in time.
Finding and training staff takes time and there is no detour in that journey. The speed and frequency of turnover for cooks and chefs has created a reality of near desperation in hiring. Many establishments have all but given up on pre-hire protocols of exploring references and cooking interviews out of need to quickly fill a position. If a potential hire can fog a mirror, that candidate is in, regardless of ability or background. Not surprisingly, this practice usually perpetuates and accelerates the revolving door dynamic when either employer or employee finds the other incompatible and the hiring process begins again with frantic managers and disengaged candidates. In most cases hires are made in the interest of time, to onboard staff quickly and keep the enterprise moving forward. No irony is found when time is wasted from little time and attention paid to assessing skill and ability.