On The Line: Notes On Staffing After A Changing Of The Guard…

On The Line Pt 2

“You Can’t Fire Me, I Quit”

The second in a series by A. Chef

My predecessor had left, somewhat abruptly, throwing me full on into the new position that I had just assumed.  Sure, it’s going to be busy, but just think of all the new things I’ll get to do!  So much responsibility, such excitement!  Such a total fucking gong show for months to come!

But how was I to know.  I should have seen the future, as I had lived through something like it in the past at least a few times.  Things tend to happen when there’s change at the top – it can rattle the middle a little bit, causing them to take stock of what they are doing, where they are going and how they want to get there.  I run a kitchen of about 25 people, and at this current point of relative stability, more than half of them were hired by me less than one year ago, so that’s some pretty serious team building as far as I am concerned.

I had bitten off more than I could chew, and had to just keep pushing through to the end.  Almost immediately after I had taken over, some good people left and I was forced to take on some very long days and weeks, and after some false starts managed to hire some good people and start the building process again.

There were two key positions that needed to filled immediately; an evening saucier and a sous chef, basically a replacement of myself as I stepped into a different pair of clogs.

The PM Saucier position is key to the success of the kitchen, and is at times a high-pressure position.  This individual, as the person who is running the line on often very busy nights, has to deal with not only cooking, plating and calling the line, but can have issues come at them from all fronts – servers with questions, allergy concerns, special requests, handling problems as they arise, being the liaison between front and back of house and a myriad of other issues that pop up on the fly, all while keeping a cool head, good hand and foot speed, sense of humour and one eye on the clock. There are many cooks who can do the job, but in a city like this one there are only a handful who can do it well, and most of them already have jobs they want to keep.  Humble leaders are hard to find.

So, I ended up hiring an import.  In an interesting twist, he had just come from a hotel job in Calgary where the chef was the man who owned the little café that was my first restaurant job – in 1995.

My sous chef came to work for me the way many people who work for our company, including myself, do; the old fashioned way – by quitting for something better only to find that it was not.  Remember when I said that it was best not to hire someone better than you or who wants your job? This might be an exception to that, because someone who can show you new things, has a different perspective and is potentially nipping at your heels helps to push you forward. Talk about the pursuit of excellence all you want – job preservation and being able to pay your mortgage is a pretty good motivator, too.

One thing about bringing in a nearly entirely new kitchen team is the training. Of course, normally when you hire someone new, they are trained on a station by the person already working it, or maybe the sous chef, but in this case I was forced to train them with my own two hands, which helped to refine my training methods and helped to reinforce the standards I was trying to implement. I did the tour, the ‘grand tour’, and the hiring paperwork so many times in a month that I started to develop a spiel, like a horse drawn carriage driver guiding tourists through the city… ‘and over here is the grill station, and this is their printer, dirty pans go here…behind!’ Explaining the need for a criminal record check and what a ‘relevant criminal record’ means, ordering uniforms and introducing them to the systems and people that were already in place.

Another is the settling that people do.  The interview process is one thing, and training can show you what their skill level is like, but it’s only after a few months or more that you get to know someone’s real personality and as chef, I am equally as interested in building a positive relationship with the cooks as I am making sure they put out good food.  I had someone interested in a sous chef position that came from a well reputed back ground that seemed really hopeful at first, but on further questioning it was revealed that this person was a bit of a hothead and could be hard to deal with.  I already had one crazy master craftsman on staff, and wasn’t keen for another. I can teach someone to cook, but I can’t teach them not to be a jerk. Pass. So this settling of the staff, finding their routine and comfort zone and then pushing them a little bit out of it is gratifying to watch, as is what happens as the group comes together.

Next time, the pleasures of writing a menu for the first time and what ‘sales mix’ actually means.


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