5 Steps To Properly Interview Chefs

By: Barak Hirschowitz

For more than 12 years I have had the pleasure of recruiting chefs for top kitchens across the globe.  Sourcing kitchen talent for the world’s best hospitality hotels, restaurants and cruise lines keeps me close to the kitchen trade, where I started my hospitality career in the early 90’s.   By now I must have interviewed over a 1000 chefs.   They have a variety of different specialties and skills, Michelin star chefs, banquet chefs, pastry chefs, chefs that specialize in exotic cuisines like Thai, Arabic, American South, hotel chefs, restaurants chefs . . and well you get the idea.

All this interviewing has taught me a few things on how best to interview a chef to identify where their talent lies.  Chefs have a special blend of skill, personality, experience, motivation, passion, leadership and technique that rarely identifies itself clearly on a resume.

Here are five steps that will help you find the right chef for your team

1. Beware the Titles (a king is a king is a king)
Some chefs love titles, others not so much.  There really is not much consistency in how a chef earns and keeps their job title, excluding Michelin of course.  I have seen “Executive Chef” on a resume for a recent graduate running a small diner kitchen with a team of 3 and a Michelin star chef going by “Cook”   Take chefs’ titles with a grain of salt.  More important is the quality of the place they are working at, how long they worked there, what their role is and how big their team is.

Traditionally kitchen titles go like this:

Culinary Director – Executive Chef with F&B responsibilities
Executive Chef – responsible for a large operation with multiple restaurants and/or banqueting
Executive Sous Chef – 2nd to the Executive Chef
Chef de cuisine (or Restaurant Executive Chef or Head Chef) – in charge of one restaurants kitchen.  In some very large restaurants or Michelin star restaurants there will be a CDC under the Exec Chef or Chef owner but this is not common outside of major cities.
Sous Chef – responsible for a shift
Chef de partie – in charge of a section
Demi chef de partie – works in a section
Commis Chef – entry level

Note – some companies like Ritz-Carlton use their own titles, like Cook 1 etc.  Again, beware the titles!

2. A Picture is Worth a 1000 Words
Today’s chefs all have phones capable of taking great photos.  If they are on trend, they should be taking shots of their dishes that are being posted to Instagram, Facebook etc, or at least they should have someone in their kitchen doing it for them.  Ask them for at least 10 photos of their favorite dishes from the last few years.  If they don’t have or give you a story about their laptop blowing up, be wary.  These photos will give you an idea of their presentation skills and creativity.  Chefs I work with usually send me links to Instagram or dropbox with hundreds, but at minimum they should come up with at least 10.  If you think a chef has sent you photos that are not theirs you can use googles image search feature to upload and check to see if it appears elsewhere on the web.  If it does, make sure that it came from a website that belongs to a place the chef has worked at.

3. Push, Pull or Compose?
When I first graduated from Johnson & Wales in the early 90’s cooking was only just becoming professional in the US.  Chefs were still a wild bunch with very few having a degree in culinary arts,  unless you came up through the traditional European kitchen trade.  Times have changed and most good chefs today are trained and understand kitchen management.  But how they motivate their teams still varies wildly and I find they typically fall into three styles.

Pushers–  Drive a hard kitchen and often use the phrase its my way or the highway if you ask them their management style.  They will tend to come across as pushy, demanding and opinionated in the interview.    Avoid these.

Pullers –  They quietly do their work, often very talented but have difficulty getting everyone on the team to play.  Often quiet or give short answers in the interview.  I find they try to run their kitchen by example only.  Their references will often state they are great cooks but not that strong on administration or people skills.  Good for a number 2 but not so much for a number 1.

Composers – these are the ones you want! Composers will talk about how they identify and develop talent on their team.  They measure their success by those that follow them from kitchen to kitchen.  Composers will be able to give examples of people they helped in their career.

4. Use Caution with Trials
So now you have interviewed the chef and want to bring them in for a food tasting.    Anyone that has spent time running a top kitchen knows that dishes and menus take months of research and study to develop.  A great chef takes into account the local ingredients, strengths of the team, the market etc before coming up with dishes on a menu.  Putting a chef in a strange kitchen, without knowledge of the team or suppliers can produce dishes that don’t always reflect the full ability of the chef.  I recommend visiting the chefs restaurant (confidentially of course)  or try their food or if for a more junior role, invite them to work a shift.  If you want to go ahead with a food trial make sure you give them enough time to prepare, help in the kitchen and ask them to send a list of ingredients ahead of time they are they are ready.

5. Are your Goals Aligned?
The last thing you want to happen is your newly hired chef is disappointed after a few months and leaves.  Tell the chef the 3 most important things you expect from them during the interview.  Then ask them what are the 3 most important things for them.  It doesn’t have to be related to work, they may need time off each week on a Sunday to spend with family.  If you can both agree on the three most important things each party needs before you hire them.

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