Game Plan For A New Executive Chef
QUESTION From: Elias in D.C.
“I’m taking my first executive chef job in a large operation (20 kitchen employees) and the old exec and sous were let go.
Any tips on rallying an existing crew and jumping into ordering and operations without the old leadership to guide the process? Looking forward to your insights.”
Establish open communication with ownership and the GM. If the owner doesn’t come to you with last year’s (PY) and current financials ask for them as these should help you determine pars. If they don’t offer a clear punch list or suggest priorities, let them know you will present them with a plan / list after a week or two.
If ownership DOES present you with their expectations and timelines, be sure they’re reasonable ... and if they’re not - speak up. Let them know that succeeding (especially with exec level turnover) requires thoughtful prioritization and the freedom to pace yourself. Take Chef Aaron Martino’s advice: “Get a feel of the flow first and slowly make the changes you want to make. You want to keep things running and too many changes at once can damper the flow. I took over my current kitchen in the middle of the busiest time of year. I didn't get it fine tuned in until the slow season. Obviously prioritizing what changes need to be made will help...don't wait on serious changes like sanitation or the quality of the product.”
Most ownership will rarely take a task away from you if you've taken on too much yourself and you won’t be able to read their mind... so leave time (or make time) for just hanging out together with them and the GM(your partner) and talking. If they don’t initiate, be sure to ask for that time.
Maintaining open communication starts with just getting used to talking. Share as much as you can - stories, philosophies, other business ideas, strengths, weaknesses, etc... Brainstorm together. Critique the restaurant together. Critique other restaurants together. And if you don't already, just gradually get to know each other. Knowing their interests, biggest concerns, fears, pet-peeves, perceptions, values, etc... will make it easier to know what they might want you to do when no rule exists or when SOPs conflict.
Look to GM, sous and lead line cook(s) for as much of an orientation as possible then start your 1st day with a full staff kitchen break down and clean- get to know every every inch of every station with every cook and show them both your expectation of how clean it should be and how it should be cleaned. This instills a sense of ownership, pride and responsibility among your staff while showing them that no job is beneath you - and therefore not beneath them.
It’s also the foundation for cross-training.
Talk to your new crew to clearly disseminate expectations and, as Chef Shane Graybeal says “find talent you can trust”. Not only 1 on 1s but in a group as well and start a mental and/or physical file on each of them (I recommend both). Ask them what they like, don’t like and which stations they’d like to work and whether or not they want to grow. Start a path / crew ladder for those interested in climbing. Don’t ask what they would do differently or what areas of opportunity they see to improve...that’s your job. If they offer such information, take it under advisement as you see & learn more.
Shadow, Stick-n-Move and Cook the entire line (including dish). Working each station (from prep and mise to break down) to not only help them but to show them you can. Don't be the chef who sits in the office during service until you have put in some serious time and have a sous or two.
Hold regular staff meetings (not too regularly though) and a Pre-Shift before EVERY service that wraps with you and one sous or lead line interfacing with FOH during their pre-shift to sell one menu item + the special and ensure your salespeople can not only describe the dishes but also speak intelligently as to each ingredient and how the dishes are prepared.
Tie your entire staff to financial goals so that they can help you meet your targets with regard to ordering / pars / waste / etc... :
Start a sheet on every regular and post it (photo & f&b preferences) somewhere in the back.
Walk the dumpster at random times. 10% of labor dollars are lost there and up to 20% of “waste” is found there.
Inspecting what you expect your team to respect is not micro managing. That means following up (with your sous/lead line so that they can take over) on double checking: safety & sanitation standards, holding temps, station set-ups, break downs, waste logs, ordering & receiving, walk-in inventory & tape, prep and full line tastings...and use what you see to hold people accountable re: performance and regularly address their progress via evals.
Get to know your neighbors. Join the local CBD’s chamber of commerce and support your local businesses by going out for a coffee, enjoying a beer, buying flowers, hitting the gym, taking a class or picking-up some specialty products and introducing yourself. Establishing good relationships with your neighbors is always a good idea. It not only establishes a mutual lifeline but can also serve as a source of: increased security, good ideas, cross promotions, shared resources and collaboration for local events, philanthropic work and/or lobbying the local gov’t...not to mention the benefit of making some new friends.
Now get some rest...you’re going to need it,