By Richie Nakano | iStock/ChefsFeed

Believe it or not, there was a time when getting a job as a cook was hard.

Openings at top restaurants came word of mouth, or by stopping by and asking for a trail. Other times, it was by doing something as quaint as sending a handwritten Hail Mary to ten of the restaurants you wanted to work at most. Professional cooking was a tough nut to crack; kitchen brigades stayed together, and only the best candidates made their way onto the strongest teams. 

Things have changed.

Any chef will tell you that these days, in order to even get a body through the door, you have to post to Craigslist, Poached, both your personal and your restaurant’s Instagram and Twitter, text all your friends and past cooks, and in certain kitchen code-breaking moments—try to steal a cook you see while eating out. Once you get a few cooks to come in for an interview and a quick trail, the odds that they will show up for the first day of work is always unclear. Fraught might not be exactly the right word for the current state of kitchen hiring, but it’s close.

The cook shortage isn’t anything new; many words have been written (and double shots of bourbon taken) lamenting the daily challenges of staffing the pantry station. #MeToo rightfully added its own wrinkles to the discussion: once you find those bodies you so desperately need, how do you keep them safe? How do you save yourself and not make it entirely about you? 

A couple of weeks ago, a conversation bubbled up online around paid internships and trails. I argued that a chef knows within the first 30 minutes or so if a candidate is going to work out, that stages and trails—where some nervous kid spends a few hours or days getting everyone's hopes up but also getting in everyone's way before never being heard from again— were outdated, and that cooks should be paid for their time. Chef Dana Salls of Pretty Cool Ice Cream (formerly Cree, of Chicago's Blackbird and The Publican) offered a counterpoint, illustrated by her personal hiring process. 

Essentially, Salls’ approach is the antithesis of what we have adopted as a crude standard operating procedure: it favors slowing things down, investing the time upfront to save you the headache of turnover later. Here’s her take, in her own words. 

 

I’ve come to the realization that I am not choosing someone I like, or rewarding the best cooks with a job, or searching for that rare talent like a needle in a haystack. Assessing whether the candidate, in their current state of development, is a fit for the position I have open at that time, is my main objective. 

I’ve learned over the years that while I may get a feeling about someone in the early moments of our meeting, gut reactions often carry the most unconscious bias. I use the trail period to add facts about the candidate to the feelings I get that either confirm or defy my own gut feelings.

Our industry has lifted white men to the top of the ranks, and most of my gut reactions about someone tie into the industry I was raised in and am actively trying to grow past. I have had to come to terms with the reality that what I valued in a cook might not be correct. What I valued in others was shaped by what I valued in myself as a cook, where I learned to survive in kitchens that were full of abusive language, gestures, [and] actions. It’s crucial that I give candidates time to show me who they are. 

Even if I think I have the right candidate on staff, I still open the position up for outside candidates by posting it. People promote people they know, who resemble themselves, who they get along with. It becomes a game of who you know, not if you are qualified for a position, and this is the system that has squeezed women, LGBTQ, and people of color out from management roles for too long.  

My hiring process involves first, and always, picking up the phone. I hate picking up the phone in this day and age of texts and emails, but I force myself to do it so they can hear my voice too and get a feel for who I am. I always ask what interests them in the position, provided they are genuinely interested in the job I have open at that time—and I invite them in for a trail. 

During the trail, we create a list with three or four tasks on it, nothing that was needed for service. We could see them organize a list, read recipes, set up a large project like cookie dough [or] a multi-step process like ice cream, then choose two more interesting techniques that might be unfamiliar to them. A candidate [who] makes mistakes at everything shows me how they solve problems, how they ask questions, and how they handle verbal instruction. I let my team conduct the trail, while I silently observe; they’re coming to be a part of a team, not to work for me. At the Publican, it was customary to invite every person who trailed to sit for a meal immediately following, to let them see what it was that we do.

My philosophy is that I can take any skill set and grow it into what I need, and I am more than willing to do that. I have heard that this new generation of cooks is lazy/uncommitted/soft/entitled/doesn’t want to pay their dues… since the late 90s. If cooks lack in any way [it’s seen as] a fundamental flaw in the cook, instead of a lack of training and discipline. The thing I’ve realized is that no one wants to make cooks in their own kitchens anymore—they want them to be trained somewhere else so it’s easier on management. 

It is extremely important for me to give every candidate the opportunity to see all of us, gauge us, and make an informed decision about whether they want to commit to us. If I have done my job as a chef in keeping our kitchen safe, they can accept a position without ever having to think about their safety and just come, focus on cooking, and grow with us. If the candidate isn’t a fit, it’s likely they will leave quickly, and unhappy, whether it’s their choice or mine. It’s easier to work a man down than it is to work with the wrong person. 

 

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