Stirring the Pot: What Do Young Cooks Want?

Kitchens offer craft and camaraderie as well as cash.
Kitchens offer craft and camaraderie as well as cash. Courtesy Jamey Fader
How do we manage the growing disparity between the desire of the chef and the needs of a cook? We want our cooks to stay with us and hone their craft while gaining skills that are mutually beneficial for both parties. But cooks today seem eager to chase another dollar per hour over honing their craft, essentially being paid to receive an education. They seem less patient with the status quo and rigors of professional development while still expecting more money, regardless of their ability and level of commitment. Today the contemporary cook is a much more money-driven creature than when I was coming up through the ranks. What’s changed and, more important, how do we effectively respond to the current situation that's holding us all back from the growth we seek?

It used to be that a chef would post a position and conduct interviews; the top candidates would then return for a stage, or working interview, so that both chef and cook could consider the pending relationship in real time, firsthand. Now, cooks not only don’t show up for stages, they sometimes don’t even show up for the first day of work because someone offered them a little more money in the hours between hiring and showing up on day one. No call. No show. It’s an unsustainable practice, because if you can’t build a team, you cannot bring your vision to fruition. And we as chefs are complicit, because we perpetuate this behavior as well.

Consider this scenario: I hire Wendy the line cook because she has a bright future despite her lack of experience. I’m willing to invest in her over time and facilitate professional growth, but six months in, Wendy takes a gig for more money. Over the course of the next year, she continues this practice, gaining a dollar an hour until one day she shows up on my doorstep yet again, inquiring about an open position. Wendy, who is still green and learning, is now demanding top-tier pay because of her previous hourly rate, not her level of experience. That’s the issue.

click to enlarge A chef's life leads to lifelong bonds, but first you have to pay your dues. - COURTESY JAMEY FADER
A chef's life leads to lifelong bonds, but first you have to pay your dues.
Courtesy Jamey Fader

A craftsperson learns the trade through years of doing the same thing over and over under the watchful eye of a master of that craft. The repetitive and, at times, menial tasks foster an all-encompassing learning process that produces a well-rounded professional. While cooking can be artful in presentation, the work itself is a craft, akin to hammering nails and laying bricks. You gain skill over time and work on your technique via that repetition with diligence and vigilance, until you've mastered your craft and are well-prepared to strike out on your own.

Kitchens, like any team, are filled with a full spectrum of needs and desires. Some cooks hop from place to place in order to facilitate a lifestyle. Others have a natural talent for handling the pressure and churning out orders despite a path that eventually leads them out of the kitchen and into other professional endeavors. We’ve always had space for all, but now the core cooks who pledge their loyalty to a culinary cause seem to be going the way of free agents, and this has a ripple effect that's become a tidal wave eroding the structure of the industry.

As employers, we have to adapt and provide this generation with a path that works for them. For me, that starts with the question “What do you want?” Innovation is needed, and we are all trying new and different tactics to recruit and retain driven, experienced talents, but how we foster loyalty and growth while working within the well- defined economic paradigms of independent restaurants seems to be the culinary query of the decade.

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