4 Things You Absolutely Must Do Before Hiring a Restaurant Chef

By: Donald Burns

8 Minute Read

Mar 09, 2018

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Chef Finishing Her Salad In Culinary Class In Kitchen 339253 Edited

You found the perfect location. You've got an idea for a concept. Everything seems to be coming together for your restaurant just how you envisioned.

All you need now is some culinary talent to bring your dream to life!

However, finding the right restaurant chef for a new concept or replacing an a chef for your established concept can be big challenge.

The problem is that in today’s market, not all chefs are created equal. It’ll take some research and some investigative skills to get the real scoop if a potential chef is a culinary wizard or a culinary wannabe.

Here are a few ways to make sure you get the very best chef for your restaurant and your business.

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1. Check Them Out on Social Media

Today the world is so connected by social media that you have a wealth of information available with the few clicks. When you have a prospect or an applicant for the chef position, start by Googling their name. If they have been a chef for anytime, they will have something show up.

Note: Search both their name and also add the title “chef” to the search, especially if they have a pretty common name like Jane Smith.

If they have any press out there at all, they will appear in a Google search along with photos of themselves.

RELATED POST: 4 Tips for Taking Your Restaurant Social Media Game Higher

Take a look at their other profiles as well on sites such as Facebook, Twitter, and Instagram. Here is where things can really shed some light on the person they really are.

That young chef with a profile picture on him squatting down in front of his car throwing some hand gestures that might offend a few people tells you something about their character.

Those angry tweets about the government and offensive remarks might get them a following on social media, but having that kind of anger in your restaurant is not a smart move. Anger is anger and eventually it comes out either physically or verbally.

Neither is what you want.

Instagram can also give clues into what they find interesting. Check out what they have liked and what they post. Everyone has a “social media persona,” so you need to check to see if it is compatible with your brand. Social media is so tightly connected today with a business' brand that you want to be sure your future chef has a personal brand out there that works with your restaurant's - not against it.

2. Call Real References

Any legitimate candidate submitting a restaurant resume will give references. Here is the thing you always need to remember: candidates will only write down references who they know will give them a positive reference.

That stacks the deck in their favor. What you need to do is dig deeper.

So first, skip right over the personal references. You want real work references for the places they have worked.

Oh, and please do not ask the standard boring reference questions like, “Was Chef Smith dependable?” Let’s try questions like:

  • “What was the best dish they made? What was the worst?” 
  • “Did they ever mention any chefs they admire?”
  • “What did they do to learn?”
  • “How are their skills at training?’
  • “Can you recall anything they did on a consistent basis for self-care?”
  • “How do they handle bad guest complaints?”
  • “If you had one last meal to eat, would you want them to be the chef?”

See, these questions are a little outside the norm, so they will tend to get you some more accurate information.

In these conversations, you are looking for the patterns of behavior. Learning, pride, role models, confidence, and emotional intelligence are traits you want to hear about. There are a lot of restaurant chefs that can cook amazing food, yet are unable to keep it together emotionally. Self-control and self-discipline are the foundations of leadership, and your chef is the leader of the culinary team.

As mentioned, there are plenty of chefs out there that can cook their asses off.

Very few of them can lead a team and make money at their craft.

Culinary talent without business sense is real issue that you want to be aware of. That is an Achilles' heel that can cost you a lot of money. Remember, “profit” is not a dirty word.

Now, your chef doesn't need to be an expert in this realm, but they must - at the very least - be competent.

Ask the candidate to write a short menu for your concept. Make sure to give them plenty of details about your brand and then see what they develop. Is their sample menu in congruence with your brand? You want a chef that understands your brand and can create a menu that accents and does not take away from your identity.

Next, give them a test of their business acumen on financial controls. Give them a sample recipe and a sample spreadsheet of what the items cost and have them calculate the food cost for that recipe. Have them do this at the interview and watch body language. You would be shocked at the look on someplace when asked to calculate food costs on the spot even when given the information needed.

While this may not seem like a deal breaker - it truly can be. Chefs who don't stick to a regiment on their food portion control have a huge impact on your inventory metrics and lead to inaccurate menu engineering.

Overall, if a chef cannot make money for your restaurant, then it doesn't matter how great their food is.

4. Checking Flavor Dynamics

Last (but not least), you need to taste their food to see if they can truly back up their resume and references. This also is a great time to check out “how” they work. I like to suggest two trials - the "Johnny Cash Test" and the "Mystery Basket Test"

The Johnny Cash Test

If you are an existing operation, pick a time when they can come in alone to make what I call is the “Johnny Cash Test”.

In the movie Walk the Line, Joaquin Phoenix plays the famous singer Johnny Cash. In one scene, he auditioned for famed record producer Sam Phillips.

Cash started off with the standard gospel song and is quickly shot down. Phillips proposed a question to Johnny:

“If you was hit by a truck and you was lying out there in that gutter dying, and you had time to sing *one* song. Huh? One song that people would remember before you're dirt. One song that would let God know how you felt about your time here on Earth. One song that would sum you up.” 

Have them take that mindset, which should encourage them to make their very best dish - a dish that would make people remember them. Listen to how they describe it and the tone they use. Are they passionate about it?

The Mystery Basket Test

Next, you want to hang in the kitchen and have them make you a dish with what is commonly known as the “Mystery Basket Test” like you see on the TV show Chopped, because you want to see how they work.

There are a lot of clues to how the chef will perform by just watching how they organize a recipe. Are they pulling together their mise en place in an orderly fashion, or are they just “winging” it? Are they using solid techniques? Do they work clean? Remember that sloppy work produces sloppy results. How they keep their workstation organized tells you a lot about their mindset.

Observation and Tasting Time

When you're conducting these two tests, pay close attention.

Do they seem comfortable with you standing there taking notes (which you always should)? Ask questions while they are prepping and see how they react. Are they cool and calm or do they seem irritated and nervous? Do they move with “economy of motion” (no wasted steps, very smooth, and deliberate)? Remember that the chef sets the tone for the team.

If they are running around like a chicken with their head cut off, how do you think the rest of the team is going to act?

Body language accounts for 55% of how we communicate and will allow you to see how this potential chef will perform under the pressure of service. Think of the try out as a little “stress test” of your own. Also use time as another way to apply more pressure.

Just like on the TV show, you have 60 minutes…go. Afterwards, go look at the plate and taste it. Does the food taste as good (if not better) than it looks? That first bite should bring it all together.

Final Thoughts on Restaurant Chef Hiring

Finding the right chef for your restaurant's concept can be a challenge. The key is to make sure to go through the entire process to vet them properly. Panic hiring is never the answer. The chef position is a critical element to most restaurant brands and the process needs to be respected.

The lesson here is how they handle the little things and how they will handle the big things.

A lot of chefs interview well. They know the right words to say. Then, they get in the kitchen and you soon discover that they cannot control costs or seem to be able to lead a team. As they say, “all show and no go.”

Attention to detail is sadly lacking by a lot of wannabe chefs who just want to do the creative stuff and not the business stuff. You need both elements if you are going to find the right culinary professional for your concept. Like a well-balanced recipe you need all the ingredients to come together to work in harmony. Great chefs are multidimensional and your brand cannot afford to settle for anything less.

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