Kitchen Staff Management Tips
Today’s chef has many hats to wear including managing the budget, creating new dishes, writing recipes, costing recipes, managing cooks, dealing with HR, and so much more. But one of the most crucial roles of a chef is effective kitchen staff management and training. You might be the greatest chef in the world, but during service a chef is no better than the cooks surrounding him/her. If the kitchen staff isn’t properly trained then you will fail during service.
I have had the great fortune to be able to build some fantastic kitchen crews to work with, and the pleasure of mentoring some truly exceptional people. Following are 8 key actions which will improve your kitchen staff management effectiveness & improve the quality of your cooks (not in any specific order of importance):
8 Tips on How to Manage Kitchen Staff
- Always Give Clear, Specific Instructions Regarding Expectations & Standards
- Explain your Reasons and Why you Think the Way you Do
- Know When to Put Your Foot Down
- Always have a pre-service
- If the Shift is Going to be Ugly, Warn the Staff Early!
- Always be Mindful of the Way You Criticize/Instruct Your Staff
- Teach Self-Discipline & the Importance of Choices
- Do Your Best to Accommodate Their Life
Always Give Clear, Specific Instructions Regarding Your Expectations & Standards
Telling them that they are doing it wrong, or they need to do it better, or they need to make it look nicer is not clear instruction. You need to show them specifically what you expect and tell them exactly what you want and how to do it. Show them the nuances which take something from simply being good to being something exceptional.
Explain Your Reasons and Why You Think the Way You Do
One of the best ways to manage kitchen staff is to teach them to think like you do. If you want a solid crew then teach them at a deep level which will give them a solid culinary foundation. Simply telling them, “Do it because I told you to” is not good enough. If you want the crew to make the best decisions then teach them how to think like you do. Tell them, “this is how I want this done and these other reasons why.” By doing so you become a mentor, an instructor, a giver of knowledge, teaching the “how’s and whys” of culinary excellence.
Know When to Put Your Foot Down
Opposite of the above tip, there are definitely times when as the Chef you must tell a crew member “Do it because I told you to.” Someone asking questions because they want to learn is a good thing. But someone asking questions because they are challenging you is another thing. That person needs to recognize the chain of command and that they work for you. “This is what I expect, this is why I expect you to do it this way, and this is exactly the way you will do it. Do you understand?”
Put them in their place. If you have an HR process then go through the paperwork for insubordination. You are the instructor, the mentor, the teacher, but you are also the king. Always enforce your rules/standards/expectations.
Always have a pre-service
Always have a short pre-service meeting to cover the business of the day. Go over how many covers you expect, big tables, VIP tables, menu changes, potential challenges for the shift, solutions for those challenges, and so on. The pre-service is your battle plan for the shift.
The pre-service meeting is your chance to get the crew on the same page regarding today’s service and possible challenges. Do it early in the shift so the crew can plan and prep appropriately.
If the Shift is Going to be Ugly, Warn the Staff Early!
Giving them a heads up that the tonight is going to be painful gives them the opportunity to mentally prepare for it. And being mentally prepared is more than half the battle. Telling them that they are going to be bent over and beat with a stick may not be politically correct, but if you have a well-disciplined crew they will do everything in their power to prove you wrong and the night will then usually go smoother than expected. Being mentally prepared wins the toughest battle.
Always be Mindful of the Way You Criticize/Instruct Your Staff
Although publicly criticizing one or several of your staff over small things may be OK as a reminder to all that you are watching, it is imminently important to never publically humiliate one of your crew in front of others.
There is a significant difference between constructive criticism and punitive humiliation
Public constructive criticism can be stern or funny, sometimes it can be in the form of peer pressure, but the end result must always be that it is taken as positive instruction by the team member.
More personal/direct/disciplinary/painful conversations should always be done in private (with one supervisor witness). Never publicly humiliate a crew member by ripping them apart in front of others. Your goal/intent should never be to humiliate/degrade/dominate/embarrass them. Rather, your goal should always be to mentor/edify/educate/instruct them on how to become better in your kitchen.
That’s not to say that these conversations are never harsh or painful, they just should not be cruel. There is nothing wrong (in fact, perfectly legit) in telling them, “You keep doing it this way when I’ve told you to do it that way. If you continue to do it the wrong way then I will be showing you the door. Do you understand what I expect from you?”
But that is completely different from telling them, “You are an incompetent, shit cook. Get it right or get the fuck out of my kitchen!” This type of interaction only expresses your anger and teaches them nothing other than the fact that you are an asshole. They will stay with you long enough to learn as much as they can from you, and then get as far away as possible.
Teach Self-Discipline & the Importance of Choices
When you verbally discipline someone remind them that they have choices to make and that becoming a better professional cook is about self-discipline. “Dude, we’ve had this conversation before, I’ve shown you what the expectation is but you are not doing it. That indicates to me that you are either unable or unwilling to do it correctly. Since I’ve seen that you have the ability to do it properly, it means that you are simply choosing not to do it the correct way.”
“If you want to continue working in my kitchen then you will need to choose to do it my way. If not, then you are choosing to leave.”
Statements like this are clear, to the point, reinforce your standards and the need for discipline, showing that you believe they have the ability but ultimately it is their choice. They can choose to do it correctly or not. They can choose to continue to work in your kitchen, or they can choose to be fired. You are telling them what they need to do, and then giving them the ball and letting them decide what to do with it (assuming that they actually do have the ability…don’t bullshit them if they don’t).
This method enforces your standards but also reminds them that failing to meet your standards is a choice which they are making. This is one way that I teach my staff self-discipline. I don’t want mindless bodies who simply bend under my thumb and do my bidding simply because I tell them to. I want them to choose to do it because they understand that it results in a better product, a better dish, a better experience for the guest. This teaches them the process of learning to think like a chef and creates fantastic cooks and future chefs.
And of course, if they choose not to step up then they are the “dead wood” which you terminate.
Do Your Best to Accommodate Their Life
Trying to accommodate employee requests for days off in the restaurant business is always a massive challenge but one which is worth the effort. The staff know that they are going to have to work most weekends and probably most holidays. And of course the events they want to attend (concerts, parties, etc) are almost always on the weekends which are of course the hardest days for us to give someone off. You need to balance the needs of the business with the needs of your crew to have a life.
If giving one person an occasional Saturday off will make life harder on the crew but will not impact your guests then it’s worth discussing with your crew. If it means that they all get an occasional weekend night off then they are likely to be willing to work harder and share the pain knowing that they will also get a chance for an occasional weekend night off.
And for major events such as the graduation of a child, a family medical emergency, the funeral of a loved one, etc, do not make them choose between their loyalty to their family and their loyalty to their job. That’s not a fair position to put them in. In fact, it’s morally reprehensible for an employer to consider themselves more important in these extreme situations.
What tips would you add which help to manage kitchen staff? Tell me your thoughts!