Back-of-house staff are the invisible heroes of any great restaurant. They work in close quarters and under high temperatures, slingin’ knives, preppin’ onions, battling constant risk of injury and pressure from the chit printer. Members of a tight back-of-house staff work like ninjas through the ups and downs of a long shift.
Kitchen staff are notorious for being the toughest roles to hire and retain. If you have vacancies on your back-of-house team, don’t hire just anyone who walks into the restaurant, even if you’re feeling understaffed and over-stretched. Why? Turnover is expensive — it can cost almost $6,000 to replace a restaurant employee, says a study from Cornell’s School of Hotel Administration, and if a hire doesn’t feel like a great fit from the beginning, there’s a good chance they’ll be out the back door before you know it. Then you’re back at square one.
If you hire the right person from the start, onboard them with care, and train them consistently, you’ll build a back-of-house team that sticks around.
Knowing Which Back-of-House Jobs to Hire
Often, your food is what convinces customers to venture through your doors in the first place, so if your back-of-house staff knock it out of the park, you’re likely to earn yourself a returning customer.
Customers in the retail and restaurant industries tend to eat around (only 3-4% of guests are deeply devoted to a particular brand), so you need to do everything in your power to make your restaurant their first — and favorite — choice. Hire the best people you can find to help you get there.
Two must-have skills for all back-of-house staff are time management and stress management. There isn’t a single job in the BOH that doesn’t hinge on these abilities.
Here are the most common back-of-house jobs you’ll need for your dream team. Who you hire and for which responsibilities will depend on the size of your kitchen, budget, menu, and dining room. No matter the job title, to thrive and survive as any kind of cook they’ll need to manage an influx of orders, effectively communicate with fellow kitchen staff, and prepare food to perfection, even during the rush.
The executive chef (or just “chef”) is in charge of everything that goes on in the back of the house. Sometimes they expedite orders, and some spend more time cooking than others. The chef gets to be creative, thinking up specials and putting together the menu and the recipe bible, but they also need strong business skills: calculating food costs and managing vendor relationships are big parts of running the kitchen.
Chefs need to be strong leaders. During the chaos of service, they’re the ones steering the ship. If a piece of equipment breaks or something goes wrong on the team, it’s the executive chef and the sous that often need to step in and problem-solve at lightning speed.
The sous chef is the second-in-command. They’re in charge when the chef isn’t there, and they’re usually found taking inventory, cooking the bulk of the dishes — fileting, sauteing, and owning the majority of the burners — and putting out fires (both figuratively and literally) all over the kitchen. Sous chefs often put in the longest hours of anyone in the kitchen.
Line cooks are the ones who turn prepped ingredients into components of delicious dishes. They’re in charge of certain aspects of cooking as well as making sure meal orders are properly timed out so all courses are brought to the customer in the right order. They should be master multitaskers. Depending on the size of your kitchen, you may have line cooks dedicated to a specific part of the line, like the grill, pasta station, fryer, or the cold station. Usually, line cooks have to do some prep before their shift and must keep their station clean throughout service.
Prep cooks are usually the first ones to arrive in the morning. They’re responsible for ensuring the individual ingredients — like vegetables and fruits, doughs, meats, sauces, and more — are prepped and the kitchen is stocked for a busy day ahead. They’re often dicing 10 pounds of onions at a time, and without them the kitchen would have nothing to cook.
Like the name suggests, specialty chefs have experience and training either in a particular culinary style or item, like pastry or charcuterie. These chefs will typically own their own stations and, depending on the size of service, might lend a hand in other areas or show up purely to knock out 285 creme brûlées.
Loading, unloading, and cleaning dishes isn’t glamorous work, but it’s the most important role on your kitchen staff. An eye for detail is key to success in this role: spotting a rogue piece of food on a piece of cutlery before it makes its way to the customer will maintain your restaurant’s reputation. Equally important is how they work under pressure. If they’re able to remain calm and composed in the face of a growing pile of dishes and sometimes flaring tempers, you’ve made the right choice. They must also be reliable. Shifts where a dishwasher no-shows are the worst kind of shifts — without clean plates, everything comes grinding to a halt.
Finding the right chef for your restaurant — whether you’re opening a new concept or filling a vacant seat — is easier said than done.
Writing a Back-of-House Job Description
Now that you have an idea of the kinds of people you’ll need for your restaurant's back-of-house staff, you can write job descriptions that outline the expectations for each role.
Treat the act of hiring as exciting and convey that in your job postings. Grab candidates’ attention with a description of life at your restaurant, including your story, your restaurant’s mission, vision, and purpose, what your culture’s like, then capping it off with the role’s day-to-day tasks. Here’s what a 2018 study from the team at Glassdoor found about what job seekers are looking for in job postings:
- 67% wanted information about salary or compensation
- 63% wanted information about benefits
- 43% percent wanted information about average commute time
- 32% wanted to see employee reviews.
With this in mind, mention your pay structure, employee benefits package, your team culture, quotes from existing employees about their experiences, and the average commute time at the start of your lunch and dinner shifts for people commuting from within a 5-10 mile radius.
Include an honest and thorough explanation of the daily tasks of the job as well as material that will attract the candidate to your restaurant and team. Avoid including too many requirements, like years of experience of formal culinary school experience. This will limit the quantity and diversity of candidates who will apply.
Back-of-house staff jump between roles whenever the kitchen needs them to — line cooks to the fryer, sous chefs to expo — so don’t limit the list of skills to only the basics of that role.
Go into detail about what makes your restaurant different. If you’re collecting a “kitchen appreciation fee” from guests or offering flexible hours, advertise that stuff. No need to be formal — match the tone of your environment. Make jokes when appropriate and comfortable, or use casual phrases that make the job posting feel more personal.
Attracting Back-of-House Candidates
In this extremely competitive job market, you can make your job description stand out by doing any or all of the following:
Say how much you pay, and highlight any benefits you provide.
Ideally, you can pay a bit (or a lot) above average, but even if you pay what’s normal in the industry, transparency saves you time and shows prospective employees that you’re an open book. If you do profit-sharing with your back-of-house employees, shout it loud and put it at the top of the job description, because that’ll make you an differentiated employer. Even if healthcare benefits are out of reach for your business, consider providing commuter benefits or gym memberships, and highlight those in your job posting.
Incorporate your company values.
Show that your company cares about its employees, and give concrete examples of how you live your values day-to-day. If you can be specific about how you incorporate your values into your back-of-house operations, even better.
Talk about career opportunities.
Kitchen work can be laborious. The best BOH staff are driven by a love of creating beautiful food, but heck, at 1:00 am when you’re spraying down greasy floors, beauty fades. For more junior roles, the opportunity to receive training and move up in the ranks is important. Make it known that you’re committed to helping people grow in their careers. Mention any awards you’ve won or programs your kitchen participates in.
If you have a smartphone, make a basic video showing off your restaurant, workplace culture, and employees.
Use employee testimonials.
If you have back-of-house employees who have stuck around for a long time, get them to write a few sentences about their experience at your restaurant and why they’ve loved it.
Give a “day in the life” description.
Every restaurant is a little different, so be specific. Include the typical hours, type of guests, types of food you serve, and what kinds of skills are required to prepare them.
If you have an online job application form, get creative with a question or two, like Darwin’s Ltd does. One of their application questions is “Have you ever hugged a koala? What was it like?” This question gives potential employees the opportunity to show off their personality and sense of humor, and if they give a great answer, it becomes a natural icebreaker for the in-person interview.
Another great way to draw in great candidates is to ask your star staff members to recommend people they know and have loved working with in the past. The kitchen community is a tight one with a lot of connections. To incentivize this, set up an employee referral program where employees gets rewards if their referred candidate is hired (and stays on for a predetermined period of time).
Finally, a social media presence that heavily features your staff members is another great way to highlight the family feeling on your team.
If you want to hire great employees quickly, cheaply, and reliably, you need an employee referral program.
Interviewing Back-of-House Candidates
Once the job postings are live and resumes start rolling in, you’re ready to interview.
Building and retaining an energized, engaged workforce isn’t an isolated action — it’s an ongoing effort, one that starts before an offer is inked. Interviews aren’t just for screening candidates: they’re also an opportunity to promote your restaurant to a captive audience.
If you’re hiring for a junior role like a dishwasher or a prep cook, consider hiring for personality, temperament, and fit on the team as opposed to focusing on a candidate’s experience. Ryan Egozi, of SuViche Hospitality Group, hires for culture above all.
“I think we went through a period of looking for skilled people and finding that they just didn't fit in with our values. [So] instead of trying to instill values in a human being, which is very difficult, it's much easier to train somebody who comes in with high moral fortitude and a high level of integrity on how to cut up sushi rolls.”
If there’s one rule to follow when interviewing candidates for a particular job, it’s this: use the same questions every time. This allows you to make accurate comparisons between candidates and pick up on response patterns (liked or disliked) that could lead you to rethink how you advertise the position in the future.
Here are a few of our favorite back-of-house interview questions to get you started:
- Have you dined at our restaurant before? If yes, what was your experience like?
- How do you adapt to sudden change? Competing priorities?
- What’s your favorite dish to cook and why?
- What skills do you bring to the table that you believe will help us run an efficient kitchen?
- How do you ensure the quality of your work?
- What made you apply with us and not another restaurant?
Give candidates plenty of opportunity to ask questions, too. If a potential employee doesn’t have anything to ask, it could be a red flag that he or she is underprepared or unenthusiastic about working with you.
Use this interview template to take notes while you interview so that you don’t forget anything about a prospective employee. Conversations can blur together when you’re interviewing tons of candidates, so taking notes is particularly important.
Finally, a second interview with a staff member who does the job a candidate is interviewing for can also be extremely helpful.
A front-of-house manager or seasoned chef will be able to screen for different qualities, but a line cook interviewing a prospective line cook will really know what to look for in their potential coworker. This also gives your current employee a sense of agency and the feeling that their input matters on who gets brought onboard.
One last thing: don’t forget to check their references.
Making the Offer
When you officially decide on who to hire, follow up with that candidate with a phone call. Congratulate them and formally offer them the position. In the initial phone call, cover the pay, expected hours, any employee benefits, their level of interest, any questions they still have, and how you want to move forward.
Hopefully it’s a good fit. But there’s always the possibility that they’ve accepted another offer or decided to go in a different direction. If this is the case, go back to the other candidates you interviewed and reassess what made you put them in the “no” pile. If the offer phone call goes well, deliver the offer letter either in person or by email, and give the candidate a few days to formally accept the role.
Need a restaurant job offer letter template? We already made one for you.
Preparing to Onboard a Back-of-House Employee
So you’ve made your picks and have signed contracts in hand. Congrats. Now you’re on to the final and most important step: onboarding your new BOH hire to the policies and procedures that make your restaurant run smoothly.
Having a formalized, well-documented restaurant employee onboarding process is a must. How you train someone in the kitchen looks different to how you’d train a customer-facing team member. In most cases, these staff are working directly with food, so policy compliance is of the utmost importance. This is where on-the-job training comes in: it provides opportunity to evaluate performance in real-time, allowing you to better gauge whether additional training is required.
Whether you offer hands-on systems training, an employee handbook, or a mentor, you should feel confident that as your employees migrate from training to the line, they know the ins and outs of working the kitchen and will represent your restaurant to your standard.
During the onboarding period, watch out for how your cooks respond to customer complaints. Typically, complaints are received second-hand, whether delivered by a server who returns to the kitchen with a guest’s meal or from a member of your management team. If they take negative feedback personally, chances are it’s going to disrupt the flow and potentially generate even more complaints.
When it comes down to it, there are three key things every BOH staff member needs to know: your restaurant’s recipes, your scheduling process, behavioral policies, and the rules of food safety. Train your whole back-of-house staff in these three areas when they’re onboarded, but don’t stop there — ongoing training helps develop your staff’s skill sets and shows you care about them and their career paths. It also helps to reduce turnover.
When you’re hiring for a back-of-house position, you want someone who can cook with the best of them. But you also need people who can take feedback well, work calmly under pressure, and get along with a wide range of staff even when working in a confined space. For more information about hiring, training, and retaining your staff, check out our guide to staffing a restaurant.
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