What Cooks Want
A few thoughts.
July 2, 2015 ● 4 min read
We are not cooks. We do, however, know a few of them, and from time to time, in between the razzing and bitching and Red Bulls and dinner rushes, manage to pick their brains about why they do what they do, and what makes them stay—or leave.
The whole where-are-all-the-good-cooks thing is a complicated issue, one as fascinating as it is frustrating. Most commiserating centers around the lack of preparedness stemming from culinary schools, or a different kind of work ethic that doesn’t jive with the Old School kitchen hierarchy. Or maybe it’s the overflow of good choices all around the globe, combined with the fear of a stagnating career...we’ve even sounded off about it here. But in a lot of ways, what the modern cook wants is what we all want, really: to have our contributions recognized, to have something to strive towards, to work for something we believe in. The lure of money isn’t really an object, since anyone in it for the cash knows they’re in the wrong business.
The tables have turned, though: cooks, previously just grateful to get anywhere near a kitchen, now grasp their full worth. They know they are needed, and the power structure has shifted. Retaining talent is an issue across the board, and restaurants, while pretty much different in every way from a 9-5 paper-pushing gig, absolutely feel that strain. At a time when even pedestrian eyes are trained on the restaurant industry, even the big names can’t seem to hold on their ranks. But of course, it’s not just the industry’s popularity that’s made everything a little screwy: there is a very real distinction between the hard-wiring of different generations with respect to what cooking professionally means. We’re trying not to use the word millennial, because that jacked-up term cannot be used as a catch-all for bullshit for much longer, but you get what we’re saying.
So indulge us in a little armchair psychology here. We don’t presume to tell you what needs to happen to keep cooks on your line, just to put what we’ve got out there. This is all stuff you’ve noticed, worried over, wrestled with. You have talent in front of you that is driving your business, so take the time to figure them out. This is what they’re saying.
This one’s a given: for those cooks not stomping around demanding a sous-chef position straight out of the gate, kitchen stints are about learning. Which is stupid awesome. The main motivation for the majority of the kitchen force is education? Yes, that’s a shiny happy light to shine on it, but great kitchens are, at their core, a combination of a laboratory for flavor and a sports team. True coaching and mentorship are the only things that get the most out of both settings, and it’s what they’re there for in the long run. Which is nice in a theoretical sense, but who has time in-between prep and dinner service and scrubbing down the range? Literally no one. But somehow, it happens. Skill sets and techniques are a huge draw to cooks with even a modicum of true interest in food, and dopamine, the result of putting up those tickets and slapping them down, ain’t a bad motivator.
Yes, this has to do with the whole special-snowflake theory laid down by flummoxed Olds trying to figure out why everyone under 30 was suddenly an entitled praise-junkie who went around believing in themselves all the time. Dismantling the corporate ladder structure with glee, you know the tune. Unfortunately—or, maybe fortunately—self-esteem is now a crucial part of maintaining talent. This does not mean all cooks need warm fuzzies for at least two hours a day, even when they made that fucking stock wrong, again. It means that the classic, French, top-down structure simply does not work without the feel of a collaborative one. Nobody wants to be a silent cog, because even if you’re fed the whole “if one cog goes down, the whole machine breaks!” weakest link thing, you’re still just a shitty cog no one sees. There should (and must) be a top dog, but now, they have to be able to direct discussion as much as delegate. It may go without saying, but responsibility has a lot to do with this one. We all seek a place where we can be trusted to be in charge of something, and whether it’s big-time R&D or not, this is crucial to a cook’s loyalty.
Assuming we’re attacking this with Maslow’s Hierarchy of Needs theory in mind, this is the Holy Grail, the top of the shit pile. Self-actualization throughout a crew of cooks—chefs included—means that creativity flourishes because it’s encouraged. The focus swings exactly where it should: furthering the purpose of the operation and cranking out delicious food. For most cooks seeking out a spot to land, this is the biggie, right? What’s the restaurant doing that others aren’t, what kind of ingredients do they have access to, who’s running the kitchen, what are the accolades—the flash. But once they’re in the door, purpose becomes more about how they are a part of the bigger picture. Are they working for something beyond themselves? Is the work, collectively, making a statement? A smart, sponge-brained cook will have their pick of kitchens. They are going to gravitate towards the renegades, the explorers, the ones changing the game. That’s what any of us would do: look for those who are saying something, not comfort. This is the loftiest of the three principles, but it's the one that outlasts. If this exists, slogging through the long shifts and struggling with a certain dish is manageable.
And that’s it. Hundreds of soundbites, motivations, rants, and praise, condensed into three principles.
We are at the beginning of yet another reincarnation of The Cook. And you? What do you want?
By Cassandra Landry | Originally published by MISE magazine