Chef Leadership Skills & Training

Chef Leadership SkillsAll Chefs are in leadership roles, but not all Chefs have learned how to be effective leaders. There is a big difference between being “the boss” and being a leader. Being a successful, respected professional Chef requires a lot more than just making fantastic food. Yes, a Chef needs to be a skilled culinarian to be sure, understanding the nuances of taste, texture, mouth feel, flavor combinations and more. But a Chef is also the leader, the person who sets the vision, the standards, the “tone” in the kitchen. This article explores some of the characteristics of great leaders and how to develop chef leadership skills.

“If you always remain who you are, then you will never become who you are meant to be.” 

There are a variety of theories on leadership styles but ultimately each person develops their own style over time. Studies of some of the country’s most successful business leaders revealed that many of the best leaders exhibited the traits of the Transformational Leadership style and it has therefore been recognized as being the most effective leadership style. You will probably recognize some of these traits in yourself and in other Chefs who have earned your respect.

(The conversation continues below the videos.)

The following videos don’t specifically deal with chefs, but the wisdom which they share are certainly applicable to chef leadership skills and life in the kitchen.

Leadership Training Videos

9 Tips to be a Better Leader

The Authenticity Paradox

Leadership: The Authenticity Paradox
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What Makes a Leader?

What Makes a Leader video
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Good vs Great Leadership

Good -vs- Great Leadership
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7 Habits of Highly Effective People



“Good business leaders create a vision, articulate the vision, passionately own the vision, and relentlessly drive it to completion.” – Jack Welch

“The content of your character is your choice. Day by day, what you choose, what you think and what you do is who you become. Your integrity is your destiny….it is the light that guides your way.” – Heraclitus

“Failure is simply the opportunity to begin again. This time more intelligently.” – Henry Ford

“Communication is the real work of leadership. It’s a fundamental element of how leaders accomplish their goals each and every day. You simply can’t become a great leader until you are a great communicator.” – Travis Bradbury


The Best Leaders Develop these Traits or Habits:

  1. Personal Integrity
  2. Set clear goals with high standards
  3. Develops self-disciple in themselves and others
  4. Are a master communicator
  5. Sets a good example
  6. Mentors others with training & support
  7. Understand the purpose of disciplinary action is to build up, not tear down
  8. Is aware of the impact their words/actions/emotions have on others and uses that knowledge in an edifying manner
  9. Freely shares recognition when earned
  10. Persuades people to look beyond their own self interest
  11. Inspires people to reach beyond what is easy, beyond what is simple

As a Chef, how do these qualities translate into practical actions? Here’s a todo list:

Personal Integrity

Be a person who is known for your personal integrity & honesty. Do the right thing for others, not just the best thing for yourself or the company. Do not lie. Do not cheat. Do not be deceitful. Be willing to admit when you are wrong, or when you have made a mistake.

Be persuasive but not manipulative. Never promise something which you cannot, or will not, be able to give. Always be truthful. If a situation will not allow you to be 100% truthful (such as a pending HR issue), then do not be deceitful. Be a person of moral integrity in your interactions with others. And require the same from them.

Sometimes as a business leader you will have to put the needs of the business in front of the needs of the team member. But there are also times when it is best to put the needs of the team member in front of the business, such as a legitimate family emergency, a funeral, a team member’s wedding, or other major life changing events. Don’t hold your crew hostage to the business. Remember that the reason they work is to have a life, and work should not be the summation of anyone’s life.

Clear Goals with High Standards

A very important part of chef leadership skills is to set clear goals with high standards. Clear goals may include specific portion sizes, precise plate presentations, finesse in flavor profiles, food cost percentage goals, fast ticket times with quality food preparations, clear communication protocols between the wheelman & the cooks and/or severs, and a plethora of other kitchen practices.

“If your team doesn’t know where you are going they will never get there.”

High standards must be clearly defined, clearly communicated, clearly demonstrated, clearly trained, and must be easy to document the success or failure of. Simply telling someone to “do it right!” is not a clearly defined goal/standard. For instance, if a sauce is wrong, why is it wrong? Is it the consistency, the flavor, the balance? Does it need more/less salt or acid? Is the sheen incorrect? Define specifically what is wrong and how to fix it.

Develop Self-Disciple in Themselves and Others

A Chef without self-discipline is like a young child holding a machine gun…the outcome/impact upon others is volatile and unpredictable. The kitchen can be a very stressful, frustrating place. If you want to develop the chef leadership skills of an excellent leader, then you must learn to manage your stress, manage your anger, and manage your frustration. All of these challenging experiences (stress, anger, etc) impact your focus and your ability to make the best decisions. And your way of handling them directly impacts everyone around you in a way which lifts them up or pushes them down/out.

“You control your frustrations; you do not let your frustrations control you.”

The best leaders do not allow their emotions to control their actions or words. They demand that their emotions be subject to a disciplined mind which focuses on the best possible outcome under the circumstances they are in. Stress, anger, and frustration are nothing more than challenges to be met and conquered.

If you find that you mishandled a situation, be sure to personally fix it with the people involved. And then use your imagination to put yourself back into that situation and work through it until you handle it in the way which you would like to handle it the next time you’re in that situation. This practice of “re-living the experience” is a great training tool to help you transition from one habit of dealing with stress/anger to a more productive/enlightened way of dealing with it.

“Anxiety is caused by the discrepancy between our perceptions/expectations of what we think reality should be,
and what reality actually is.”

Skilled Leaders are Master Communicators

Great plans fail because they are poorly communicated, or poorly executed. Great Chefs communicate well with their staff. The staff knows how the Chef thinks, what s/he expects, where the boundaries are at, and what the plan is. If it is going to be a hard shift for any specific reason, do you communicate that to your crew along with a Plan A and a Plan B? “We are down a cook tonight. Tim, you are going to be on Rounds and will bounce between Grill station and Sauté station depending upon who is sinking hardest. And remember, we serve only quality food…do not sling shit out the window just to clear the board. Quality only!”

If the crew knows early on that it is going to be a rough shift, and if they know that you are aware of it and have made “best laid plans” for it, then the chances of a successful shift will be significantly increased. When people are prepared for extra stress they excel when it arrives, turning difficult shifts into “just another walk in the park.”

The vast majority of personal conflicts boil down to either poor communication, or the inability/inflexibility to “agree to disagree.” People usually lace their core message with defensive or ego driven garbage which clutters the real intent of their words. Instead of saying, “Can you help me, I’m in the weeds” someone may say, “Why don’t you ever help other people?! I’m buried over here and you stand there like a lazy lump!”

Good communicators weed out their personal ego and condense communication down to something which is precise. They don’t use inflammatory words or phrases which attack. They make an effort to present their words in a way which will be most likely to be well received. They are persuasive. This does not mean that they “water down” hard words which may need to be spoken. They just choose not to combine the hard words with inflammatory or hurtful words. Speak the truth but don’t embellish the truth.

“Great communicators focus on the goal, the purpose, the intent of the communication,
and then distill their words down to meet that purpose”

Good communicators also learn to try to listen to the intent of some else’s words, to hear the core of their message, and weed out the inflammatory or ego-protecting words which an unskilled communicator will inevitably throw into their conversation.

Live What You Preach

A great leader/chef does not ask their crew to do what they themselves are unwilling to do. Lead by example. The most certain way to lose the respect of your crew is to discipline/criticize others for standards which you yourself do not follow. A person who is lacking in chef leadership skills will have the mentality of “do as I say, not as I do.” It is better to keep your mouth shut than to be a hypocrite…hypocrisy is the role of a politician not of a chef. If you are unwilling to exemplify what you ask of others, then you should never ask it of them. Lead by example…do not lead from a lawn chair with a martini in your hand.

The Best Chef Leaders are Mentors

One of the most important chef leadership skills is learning how to be a mentor. Great Chefs see themselves as mentors, or unknowingly practice mentorship. An average person will say, “do it this way because it’s the best way”, or “do it this way because I told you to do it this way.” Mentors on the other hand will teach what to do, how to do it, why to do it this way rather than another way, and then follow-up with tweaks/finesse in technique which raises the end result to the next level. Mentors teach how to emulate the skills/wisdom/experience which they have accumulated over years of study/practice/experience.

A Chef-mentor teaches the whole philosophy of mise en place as the ethos of the professional kitchen. They teach cooks how to become sous chefs, and sous chefs to become executive chefs.

Understand the Purpose of Disciplinary Action

Discipline in the kitchen has two purposes:

  • To mentor your crew
  • To remove the deadwood

The first or primary purpose of disciplinary action is to mentor/teach/train/educate/demonstrate to others how to do the job correctly, how to improve. It is about teaching others the vision that you have for your kitchen/restaurant. “This is what you are doing, this is what I need you to do, this is why it’s important that you do it this way, do you understand, will you take action to follow the standard.”

SOPs are the roadmap for teaching people. And they are the documentation or axe for those who will not or cannot meet the standard. SOP’s are simultaneously an explicit expectation guide and training manual for your entire crew, while at the same time being a clear source of documentation for those who do not meet the mark.

The purpose of disciplinary action (whether it be a hard talk or an official HR action) is not to beat someone down or beat them into shape. It is to educate them on the importance of following the standard. It is to clearly communicate what is expected of them, to show them your vision of how things should be done and hope that they will chose to follow the standard.

For instance, let’s say that you have a recipe that says to sweat the shallots and then deglaze with wine. If a cook simply adds the shallots & wine at the same time then they have not followed the standard. Here are 2 ways to deal with that situation:

“The recipe says to sweat the shallots then deglaze with wine. You will do it that way or suffer the consequences.”
This method swings a stick and doesn’t teach anything other than blind obedience.

“The recipe says to sweat the shallots then deglaze with wine. The purpose of this culinary process is to release the flavors of the shallot, to remove some of the “bite” of its onion flavor, to render it softer in texture and to make the flavor of the dish more complex. Proper culinary technique produces higher quality food and ensures that the dish tastes consistently the same regardless of who makes it. The end result is a dish which we can all be proud of.”
Now that’s a lot of words but you get the meaning. This second method explains & conveys a vision of excellence, it educates.

A key principle of mentoring and the proper use of discipline is to always praise in public but correct in private. Small corrective comments or playful peer pressure in public are fine, but never humiliate/verbally discipline a team member in front of others.

The second phase of disciplinary action is to “remove the deadwood.” Some people will be unwilling or unable to meet the standards. Some will repeatedly choose not to follow the standard. Others simply will not have the aptitude to attain the standard. Although the goal is still to mentor these people to improve, you should also have past documentation of all your mentoring sessions on specific SOPs. Repeated failure to meet the SOPs means it’s time to use your companies’ procedures for moving someone through the process towards termination. Remove the deadwood before it significantly damages the rest of the crew.

Let’s draw a philosophical distinction about “deadwood.” We are not necessarily talking about removing a specific person (although that is the end result). We are talking about removing the sub-stand work ethic or sub-standard ability which this person will not or cannot move past. It is on you to teach the standard, but it is on them to meet the standard.

Personal Awareness of One’s Impact Upon Others

Great leaders have a highly developed sense of emotional intelligence. They are aware of their personal strengths and weakness. They are comfortable in their own skins and make it a point to admit it when they make mistakes. They are confident but not arrogant or conceited.

They are also aware of the impact their words/actions/emotions have upon others. They project a presence or aura which is synergized with their vision and commitment towards excellence and towards mentoring others.

Great leaders also have command over their negative reactions/expressions. They are in control of their anger, frustration, fear, stress, etc and do not allow those emotions to cloud their vision or manifest in a way which damages the goal of mentoring others.

Good Leaders Share Credit

It is important to give credit where credit is due. Praising people in front of others for accomplishments they have earned shows them that you respect their work and effort. It is a necessary part of team building, and the reward is that people become more loyal to leaders who recognize and show appreciation for a job well done.

If you are unwilling to share the credit then it’s time to examine your own self-image because your ego may be damaging your ability to become a better leader.

Persuasion which leads to selflessness

One of the most necessary chef leadership skills is to be able to teach people to focus on the team and not just on oneself. A kitchen succeeds or fails as a group. If one station goes down then everyone goes down.

Chefs must be able to persuade the crew that we sink or swim together. That if you’re work is done then help someone who is behind. Today’s easy day for you is someone else’s’ hard day, so share the pain, share the load, and they will do so in kind when your hard day comes around.

The best chefs also work hard to minimize divisiveness between the FOH & the BOH. Even though the FOH & BOH have different perspectives, we are one team with the ultimate goal of creating a fantastic dining experience for our guests. Focusing on the goal or the vision helps pull people beyond their innate selfishness to become better team players and better people in general.

Inspires People to Reach Beyond what is Easy

Anyone can do what’s easy. But being able to inspire people to go beyond easy, to endure the sweat, cuts, burns, frustration and hard work which goes into consistently executing quality cuisine and service, that is the mark of someone who inspires others towards excellence.

“We don’t do easy, we make easy happen through hard work & learning”

Having high standards is not enough in order to achieve the type of excellence which requires a team. You need to be able to inspire people to meet those standards. You need to create a sense of personal pride & accomplishment in their work.

If your strategy for success is to set high standards and then simply beat people into shape, you will have a very hard time reaching (and keeping) the heights of great achievement. Great leaders create great teams by inspiring people to excellence.

Here are some additional links to help develop chef leadership skills

The Most Successful Leaders Do 15 Things Automatically
Be a Transformational Leader! Infographic
Emotional Intelligence
Emotional Intelligence Test
14 Powerful Leadership Traits
Level 5 Leadership – Achieving “Greatness” as a Leader
3 Keys To Successful/Effective Leadership
Leadership Styles
Vertical Leadership Development & Emotional Health


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