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The Reality of Being a Chef


The following was written by Jo Lynne Lockley of Chef’s Professional Agency ( Jo Lynne has kindly given me permission to publish it here on the Food Reference website. I recommend it as required food for thought for all chefs & potential chefs. It is a work in progress.

For Real
People looking for jobs are frequently unreasonable. People looking for people can be equally demanding of things that don’t exist. The hard, cold math of the food and beverage industry include the algorithm that income has to equal or exceed outlay, that space and time are finite quantities, that family restaurants far outnumber five star winners, that people behave in human ways and that all food and beverage business is dependent on the whims and desires of customers. 

Everyone thinks they are special, that the rules of physics and economics do not apply to them, and some people are right in believing this. On the whole, however, the rules of probability apply to most of us. For over twenty years I have been repeating the same obvious truths to people who want a day job in a high end restaurant (high end diners eat sandwiches for lunch), who want to replace the top chefs of the country on graduating from culinary school, who want to reinvent a wheel which has broken great people and spaced out dreamers in it’s unstoppable roll thought the annals of restaurant history.

Everyone is, of course, special, but perhaps not in the place or manner in which they believe to be. The following are the pieces of disabuse which have issued from this desk forever. May they be of use to you or at least amusing

Restaurant Realities

Talent isn't enough: In addition to talent, every chef, who is essentially a manager, has to have a profound grasp of the relationships of space, energy, money and product. S/he has to be able find the ideal relation between restaurant volume, number and quality of people available to produce product, optimal pricing potential for the restaurants demographics and the level of complexity of product to be served. This knowledge is not learned in two years or in short stays, nor is it learned where cooks are given the culinary liberties everyone desires. They are learned in disciplined and orderly environments under the eye of professional chefs. Having great talent makes you a great cook. Not a great chef.


Professionals take time to ripen: It takes at least five years to become a good chef. More like ten to become a great one. Smart culinary professionals build a provenance in their career line, working for extremely demanding and exacting supervisors. Learning the details and trivia of a professional kitchen is not a kind process. It takes correction which is essentially criticism. Those who do not have the patience or the character to undergo the forging process will never be great in their fields.

It's not about your bliss: Creativity and passion are highly overrated. Without extensive knowledge of the tools and resources of your trade, your creativity is wild gesticulation. Passion is egocentric desire to please your own emotions. Cold, hard understanding of every aspect of your trade, practice and education trump both of these. Even the most innovative of chefs have a strong analytical hold on the realities of their product and process, in which passion is only one component and at times not even that. It is, however, about your satisfaction.  Passion or not, what you do every day should provide you with pleasure.

There’s a Fly in Every Ointment: Your job is not designed around you, so it’s your task to design yourself around your job. There is no perfect job, but there are jobs which suit you better than others, and you will be happier if you can objectively assess your weaknesses and strengths. Every job on the face of the earth has a problem attached, whether it be too little direction, dysfunctional co workers, too much structure or too little exposure. The list is endless. Your best bet is to be realistic in seeking the jobs, find the fly you can live with and teach it to stand up and beg.
You earn what you are worth when you are worth it. Compensation of chefs early in their careers is usually better at locations which do not promise the best career advancement. The high quality kitchens which offer the best training and build the best habits are less attractive financially and less emotionally gratifying than the less stringent kitchens which  offer higher positions and better wages to less seasoned staff. Intelligent cooks looking to build careers will consider the long term options offered by the restaurants they choose rather than immediate positives. Choosing the right career path in not the most lucrative positions can bring you double income later in life.

Five star kitchens are not the only places which offer satisfying careers. The number of truly five star kitchens in this country is perhaps 50. More than half of those are owner operated, and half of the rest are in hotels. The number of potential chefs graduating from culinary school every year is in the tens of thousands. Consider the odds. Your chances of being the person who gets $200,000 for serving no more than 120 covers a night, dinner only, are not very great. Of course someone does get those remaining jobs, but far more people find themselves happy producing wonderful food for larger groups of people under more feasible conditions. Having a background in the rarified kitchens which produce small numbers is always helpful, but gaining knowledge in the art of translating complexity and quality to some level of volume and profit at less than $150 a plate will make you a more viable professional. If, however, you do enter the five star arena and are intent on staying in it, dont leave it. Returning is always difficult.
Location, location, locations: Culinary missionary work is next to impossible. Cook it and they will come works only in the fewest cases, and then when you have exceptional backing and people with you who understand the needs of the local dining public and the business ins and outs of food service. Almost all restaurants need to play to their existing audience. Culinary demographics vary from region to region and from town to town. New York has far more highly disciplined and soigne kitchens than San Francisco or Chicago. San Francisco has better product than just about any place in the United States can claim. If you want something along the Chez Panisse line, you are not going to find it in Delaware. If you want Le Bernadin, you will have to go to New York. You cannot live by your mother in Law in Jacksonville Florida while you gain the experience which will permit you to be the chef de cuisine of the French Laundry.  If you choose your career by geography, you cede to whatever dining culture is available in the area you choose. Even the Coyote Caf, the great hope for odd places to bow to great food, has changed hands.

Its all in the Bible. The straight and narrow may or may not work in keeping you out of the flames of hell, but it is the only way to get ahead in the restaurant industry. Those who dropped out for private chef jobs paying top dollar for least work in the late nineties are not, as a whole, finding their way back into the industry. They are certainly not getting the jobs that would have been theirs if they had staid their course. Easy money in this industry usually has high after cost.
Restaurants and hotels are an industry. They are intended to make money. Clubs dont have to make money, but they are expected to break even. Your job as a chef is to see to this task. The food and beverage management of our business is charged with the duty to see that you see to that task. If you dont, they will tell you and the people to whom they answer. If you dont listen to them, you will be replaced.

Managing a restaurant is different from managing anything else: This even holds true for bars. The quagmire of stipulations, taxes, human complications, safety issues, state and municipal regulations, cultural prerequisites, and on and on and on in the restaurant world mount up to an eternity of trivia and information  you can only gain in a restaurant situation. Having a good recipe and good people skills and great management experience as a CEO, CFO or something else sweet does not in the least guarantee or even give hope for running a successful restaurant.
Pastry rarely if ever makes money for the restaurant.  This is why pastry chefs dont get paid a whole lot. (Thought) The extra 15 minutes someone is eating your $7.50 tart tatin could be going towards another seating of a couple whose pre dessert cost will be $110.) Pastry is not the best department for anyone who is considering having five children and a stay at home wife. At the height of their careers most pastry chefs earn about half of what they would make as Executive Chef.

No shortcuts: You cannot enter culinary Meccas as executive chef of nationally recognized restaurants from a chef ownership in a suburb. It doesnt matter that your restaurant is the best place for 100 miles. It doesnt even matter that your restaurant is better than most of the restaurants in the Meccas. It doesnt count. If you wish to enter one of the fabled food cities San  Francisco, New York, Chicago and Maybe Las Vegas to work in the high end world, you need to do it as a cook or sous chef. Otherwise count on your small pond to keep your esteem as a big frog.

Traveling is best done young. Leave your town and work in France or on the opposite coast to broaden your experience before you are 32.  Aside from the professional insight this will offer you, the state of belonging to another culture for a year or so makes you a larger and deeper person for life. Everyone should do this.
You have to deal with people. They are more important than the food. Without them nothing gets done. You are not the center of the universe without the staff supporting you, and they wont support you if you don’t know how to influence them. Human relations is one of the most important part of a chefs job. If you are ill at ease telling people what to do, you are either not ready for the position of chef, or you need help. Help is available in books, in some junior college courses on staff management as well as from your supervisors.  Finding the appropriate distance to staff making the transition from buddy to boss - is one of the hardest things a young chef learns.  Sometimes it takes a failure or two do get the knack, but most people eventually pick it up.

Yelling is stupid. You either get the other person mad and provoke a fight or set a process in motion which will end with one of you departing, or you make yourself look like the fool you are for yelling. The point of communication is to get people to buy what you are selling. You won’t be able to reach them through a wall of adrenaline. For urgent communications don’t raise but lower your voice, speak slowly and look them in the eye. For less urgent communications wait until nerves have cooled, then readdress the subject. If you have people you cannot manage because they won’t listen, get other people.
Not all people are nice. There are devious sociopaths just about everywhere, and most likely more in kitchens and dining rooms than elsewhere. If someone in a working environment lies, steals, or does other horrible things, it is most probable that this is a pattern or worse, a symptom of a simply rotten character, than that s/he is the victim of a single unfortunate set of coincidental misfortunes. It is not your responsibility as a supervisor to help a person who has shown bad behavior or to help them show this behavior for another employer. It is your responsibility to protect your employer and the other staff under your supervision from their influence and the effects of their action.

Cook it and they will come. NOT.  If you want people to come to your restaurant, you need to figure what they will eat and serve that. Each sector of the country, each state, each city and each neighborhood h as its own culinary culture. People will gravitate to food in the comfort zone of that culture. No matter how good your Luxembourg fusion cuisine is, Detroit isn’t going t flock to your doors, and you aren’t going to find an international public coming your way just to taste it. If you are counting on the pilgrims and the wandering gourmet hordes to bring your talent to the front, you must find a place to put it where there is more than your own cuisine to entice them. The French Laundry does well in Napa not only because the food is impeccable, but because there is a constant stream of food conscious travelers passing through the area. Unless your area has plenty of diners who will pay what it takes to eat what you make already, don’t expect to be the turnaround location for the district. To succeed in a specific location you have to cook what people there like.

Perception is half the battle: If you are opening a new restaurant, you need people to know about it. It doesn’t matter how you do it, but some kind of public relations campaign needs to happen. Sometimes you need to pay people to get the word out, but you can also launch a fairly good campaign by sending notes with a menu to all of the major press sources.

There is no such thing as a good “chef manager”. Sorry, but there isn’t. You can either be in the kitchen or the dining room. As either one you must also spend some time in the office. You can be a good chef or a good manager, but with only one set of eyes, you can’t do it all. If your employer is “promoting” you to the position of “chef manager”, the probability is that he is unwisely trying to save a over half of a manager’s salary, while you, dear one, are falling for his flattery and your hard wired belief that you can do anything and everything. You can’t. Any restaurant over 30 seats needs someone in charge of the floor and someone in charge of the preparation and presentation.  Food and beverage directors don’t work the line.

When the going gets tough, the wise stay put. A whole lot of jobs doesn’t indicate a burning desire to learn from a whole lot of people. It indicates a whole lot of problems, which is why employers don’t like to hire people who have stayed at their jobs for a  year or more when cooks and at least a year and a half or more from their first management jobs.

Liars lie, thieves steal. It’s really hard to lie or steal for the first time. If you catch someone in questionable behavior, you can bet the farm on the fact that this is only the first time they got caught, not the first time they did it. If you catch someone in an act of theft, dishonesty or other problematic behavior it is usually best to draw conculusions.

You are not a social service: As an employee in a restaurant it is your job to see to the good of your employer and the good of your colleagues as a whole. As an employer you have the same obligation. One bad apple will make the rest miserable. Better the business continues on well for the good of all than that it fails for the good of one person.

It’s not about you: The most important thing in your restaurant is the diner followed by the staff as a whole. You are part of a team which works together to make things work. It is the job of waiters and bartenders to make customers like the restaurant, not to raise their tips and make themselves popular. If you get short tips, graciousness may bring in a customer who tips better. Your obligation to your employer is to keep people happy so that you can occasionally get the 25% your know you always deserve.

He has "issues": Fewer people are doing cocaine than were several years ago. Crack is down and pot doesnt seem to be the hit it was. Alcoholism is about where it was. Some people can function fairly well with substance abuse problems for quite a while, but at some point the effects of their actions seem to accelerate their decline. If you are finding things harder than they were and you are using too much of anything, its time to get your life together. If you are considering hiring someone with issues because hes fine when he works be prepared to find that this persons problems will increase very rapidly.

You don't have to be a chef: If you have worked in the industry and find the hours are not acceptable, get out of the industry. There is nothing wrong with taking your people skills to retail or the tech sector, or wherever. Knowing about food is worth exactly $3.78 on the open market. Knowing how to plate, the rhythm of bread, how to get five Spanish speaking utility people to get the work done for a 100000 ft 2 restaurant is what you get paid for. If you dont want to do this, train for something else while you still have time.  Exeption: Sales is a very rewarding field for many people.
Restaurant hours are long and do not coincide with the hours of your wifes/husbands friends/job. If you want nine to five you are most likely in the wrong industry. If you as a cook want a day job, expect to stay a cook.

There is no such thing as MY CUISINE, at least not in a successful restaurant. (Unless you are the chef owner, in which case there is anything you want, as long as people pay to eat it.) As long as you, chef, are working for someone else, the cuisine is essentially his/her cuisine in the second place and in the first place the customers cuisine, because if you dont play to whatever audience has settled or is scheduled for that restaurant, you wont have a kitchen to make it in.
There is no such thing as a temperamental chef. There are a lot of terrified cooks posing as chefs screaming and throwing to detract from their insecurities. If your staff brings you to white rage, the problem is yours, because you havent won them for your cause, trained them to your standards and you dont know how to handle the resulting problems.
Most screamers and tossers ruminate on the sins of their cooks and the front.  For just one moment its a good idea to study what steps you can take to get things to a state where you can work with it, or what you have failed to do so far that let things get to the point where you have to rage.

Sometimes its not your fault. Sometimes its the restaurant. There is such a thing as A League and B League in the restaurant world.  Every restaurant needs a competent manager, some good servers, a minimum number of cooks, clean linen and daily deliveries not COD. If this is failing, it is time to consider looking further.
Chose the location before the title: At times it is better to take a sous job than a chef. When dealing with a league sous and b league chef, usually the former is preferable.

People coming to San Francisco from out of town frequently fail when opening new restaurants: Don’t ask why. I don’t know. The natives are odd. The reviewers seem to prefer local talent. They don’t know the secret handshake. You pick it. I just know that I have seen most righteous chefs take on a new restaurant from out of town and fall flatter than last night’s foam. Unless you have been hired by an existing restaurant or with a group which understands the vagaries of  Baghdad by the Bay, think twice before throwing your body on the Urban fire of the town which insists it knows how.

Don't believe everything you hear: People who leave restaurants not fully of their own accord tend to bad mouth the restaurant and the management including the chef. If you have heard a restaurant bad mouthed by a subordinate, dont judge the participants, either in considering hiring them or in considering a job with them, until you have spoken with them yourself.  We frequently run into resistance by clients to candidates for whom their low level help has previously worked. It generally turns out that the help was terminated for reasons they don’t want the candidate to make known in their current position. Caution with this kind of in house referencing is due.
Beware of rolling stones: People who just turn up in your town after a successful career in other places, especially single people not following a transferred spouse or significant other, have frequently left a dirty nest behind. There are exceptions, but rational and professional adults do not follow their bliss on a Greyhound bus. This does not apply to young cooks who come from good restaurants. Kids travel. They should. See above. It is not possible for a 28 year old cook to find a job in San Francisco from New York. He will have to be here.

Pots call kettles black: Anyone alleging to have left a job because the chef/management does drugs-steals-is a sexual predator-is an alcoholic-name your problem- is more likely than not to be in that category himself. People with issues generally project them onto their employers.

Mistrust excuses. Look for causes: The people you want are people who give rational reasons for their behavior. Even better: people who take responsibility for their behavior. Any time you hear an excuse or a hard luck story, you can be 90% sure that you have a problem child before you.

There are no rules: The above are generalities. They hold true in the great majority of cases. Someone, however, will always break the mold and someone will always get the gold ring.

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