By: Shawn Burnette, Chef/Partner at Butterfield Restaurant at Hasbrouck House
It is no secret that, when it comes to staffing, we are living in a different day. The difficulties of finding qualified people has become daunting. The days of stacked up resumes in response to your 4 AM Craigslist ad are gone. If you are fortunate, you have a genius Exec Sous who is a recruiting machine. Even if that is the case, you might just have to get a little creative and look outside traditional kitchen employees.
I’ve found three star staff members by doing this in my kitchens over the years. Jackson is a guitar player that moved from Boston to NYC to follow his dream, Pam is a mom raising kids, and Austin is a fireman. They are also a trusted cook, a budding pastry chef, and a developing butcher.
Jackson: Harmony in the Kitchen
Jackson came in to interview in response to a prep cook ad. He had no culinary experience, nor did he have a burning desire for a Michelin star to hang over his bed. He was, quite obviously from even a brief discussion, very smart. Having just graduated from a prestigious music school, he moved to Brooklyn to follow his dream. His dream included not sleeping on the street.
The position he applied for was a part-time prep cook for events and catering. These were large events that required a great deal of receiving, vegetable cleaning, and simple prep. He trailed, did a surprisingly good job, and became part of the staff. Each week he would show up, look at the event prep list, do everything he had been trained on faster and better than the week before, and then find a cook to teach him something new. Here was a man that spent his life practicing for hours and fine-tuning his art and it translated to the kitchen. It didn’t take long to realize that he was applying the same work ethic and principals to his temporary but necessary vocation.
Once his value became obvious, the agreement became guitarist first, then cook, which is why Jackson had come to New York. Some people dream of tasting menus and stars, others of stages and Grammys. Whatever Jackson’s dream was, within a very brief time he had become semi-autonomous in my kitchen. If he needed Friday night off for a gig, then he stayed late on Thursday or came in very early on Saturday. I let Jackson know I appreciated him by adjusting ordering a bit, providing him with a space to work, and allowing him a little flexibility. I knew I couldn’t ask him to pour his heart into a chef’s vision if he thought his aspirations made no difference.
In time, Jackson became an integral part of the kitchen, moving from events into the kitchen itself, training on several stations as a Tornant, and mastering every complex prep task thrown at him. He became a fixture in the next three kitchens we built. It was a very sad day when he said his dream was realized and he got the gig that supported him, but he had stayed in the kitchen for almost two years, which is still quite a bit longer than the average in this industry. His work was exceptional, he made everyone around better, and he learned skills that will be with him forever.
Pam: the Smile Says It All
When Pam sat down across the table for her interview to become the new breakfast cook, she had a contagious smile and a great attitude. Her resume showed her experience was 100 percent in institutional cooking, specifically nursing homes, but this was a breakfast cook position. Cooks don’t like mornings and they weren’t lined up at the door. She started two weeks later.
On her first day, she quietly bounced around the kitchen with that damned grin telling stories of old people and huge batches of food to a less than warm, hung-over chef. She also picked up every task immediately and produced a superior product. Timidly at first, she told horror tales of how she managed her way through hundreds of people a day. Fine dining isn’t easy, but being a short order cook on the fly for hundreds of meals every day is just bad ass. It quickly became apparent that she was a bad ass.
As happens, a Garde Manger didn’t show up for work on a Saturday afternoon. After working a breakfast and lunch service, Pam, with a big grin and without hesitation, said she could stay and work. She just need to make a quick call to get her kids a sitter.
A Sous demonstrated each of five dishes from the station once. That is all it took. For the rest of the night some of the finest work to ever come off that station came across the pass. When Pam was told to make small adjustments, every subsequent dish was corrected and better. Fifteen hours in and with that same annoyingly happy grin she wiped down her station, stopped to say goodbye, and went home to take care of her kids. It has been her station ever since.
Garde Manger also happens to encompass plating a good deal of pastry. After a week or so a stand mixer with a quilted cover appeared on the station. When asked, Pam explained that she just liked cooking with this one at home. After that, that kitchen mixer was frequently found in use by the Bread Maker or any of ten other people in the kitchen.
Then came the desserts. Every day she made something new—not all genius, but new—and every single day. It turns out that the institutional cook who might just get by on breakfast had been cooking all her life and had a gift for pastry. Very quickly her fingerprint was all over the menu and she was training the rest of the staff on baking.
Austin: Passion Leads to Purpose
Austin is huge hulking man. His handshake will give you circulatory issues and you may lose sight if your entire appendage, but that is deceptive. In reality, he is extremely kind, gentle and just hilarious. His partner is one of the best meat cooks to ever hold a spatula as well as the mother of his amazing little son. They have one car so he had been seen around the kitchen quite a bit before officially he jumped in.
After losing his job he began washing dishes and doing prep while he was searching for something permanent. It is no easy task to find a job that will accommodate parents’ needs and his situation is complicated by the fact that he is a volunteer fireman and can be called away at any time. It was also always a concern that he would extinguish the smokehouse just out of habit.
Luckily, it became evident that meat fascinated him. In fact, he would hurry through cleaning and prep tasks anytime butchering was taking place on so he could watch and learn. Curiosity soon became questions, followed by staying after work or coming in early to learn. And he did learn; quickly and skillfully. Within a month he was producing 50 percent of the work in a whole animal butchery kitchen and was well on his way to being a skilled butcher and charcutier.
As with Jackson, his work was integral to the kitchen, but not as immediately time sensitive as a line cook during service. With some planning and flexibility, he is well on his way to running an entire program with a chef in supervision.
These are all exceptional success stories just that took some thinking and flexibility. Not all positions in the kitchen can be filled this way and there will always be a demand for skilled, trained and seasoned people, but times have changed. Things are a bit more difficult with HR and cooking now, but plenty of people need jobs. Sometimes you can help yourself by fitting a job to a person rather than the other way around. All people like being appreciated and most love being a part of something as cooperative as a kitchen. Looking in strange places and at potential employees as individual, unique assets rather than as comparisons to an ideal you may not ever find can yield astonishing results that make a kitchen genuine, unique and productive.