A kitchen can be like a swirling black hole that unfortunately happens to be located on the other side of a swinging double door in the back of your establishment. People, food and orders get sucked in and disappear in the form of bloated payroll, food cost and subpar meals. Finding individuals with the skills, experience and demeanor to turn this void into a center of efficiency and driver of guest satisfaction is critical to your financial success and can provide a significant competitive advantage over your competition. Unfortunately, the specific and varied characteristics required of an effective kitchen manager can seem impossible to find in a single individual. To make matters worse, you might not really know what they are.
Great kitchen managers exist. You just need to know what you’re looking for to find one.
What it Takes
It takes an individual with a variety of skills that don’t often coexist. To be good at it, your kitchen manager should:
1. Be an effective and willing administrator
This characteristic is the most important and most difficult to find. Cooks are called cooks because they cook. Most cooks got into the business to cook. Great kitchen managers understand that their duties include purchasing, inventory, scheduling, hiring and firing – for better or worse the mundane tasks associated with being in charge.
2. Be creative
This is a characteristic that can be difficult to find in a person who possesses the one above. But a creative personality can drive the kind of out of the box thinking that leads to food offerings that wow your customers and drives return visits.
3. Keep calm under pressure
Ummm…so if you have ever been around a ranting chef in the middle of a rush, you may be wondering about how important this characteristic really is, or how likely it is that any of them have it. Screaming is different than losing it. Better not to scream, but losing it is not an option.
4. Be a detail oriented perfectionist
Mistakes happen and no one can be perfect. Good kitchen managers try anyway. Great ones are personally in everything that comes out of their kitchen.
5. Be experienced in your style of cuisine
I am repeatedly surprised that even industry professionals fail to differentiate between different types of kitchen operations and the specific skills required of the staff working in them. Cooking banquet, high volume or fine dining require unique skill sets among practitioners. Those skill sets don’t always readily translate to the other styles. I have been to small banquets at some really fine restaurants that have been a disaster. As a bar owner, you are likely looking for someone with experience in high volume. Be careful not to become infatuated with candidates from establishments with a lot of stars.
6. Be a good teacher
Cooks take care of their station on the line. They prep their own ingredients and cook what they are responsible for. For kitchen managers, their station IS the line and they are ultimately responsible for everything that their kitchen produces. In order to produce what they are responsible for (everything), they need to rely on their team. That team needs to be able to make what they are responsible for as well and as consistently as your kitchen manager would. They need someone to show them how.
7. Be a hard worker
This one should go without saying, and I think to some extent it does. At the point of being hired as a kitchen manager, a culinary professional should understand the kind of hours required to do the job. Be careful of managers, especially new managers, who get their first crack at putting a schedule together and load up on staff to get themselves some extra time off. Remind them if you must that the responsibilities of management far outweigh the perks.
Beware your own biases
Almost all of my pre-management industry experience was in front of the house positions. If you currently own or operate a bar, so is yours…because that’s just the way it is. The kitchen is a very different environment than the one you cut your teeth in. You should never assume that what or who works for you, works in there.
Great cooks don't always make good kitchen managers
i.e. Michael Jordan and the Charlotte Bobcats
Fill in the Holes with Complimentary Skills
I once had an executive chef working for me who was a great administrator but not such a great cook. His sous chef was and together they ran one of the most successful kitchens I have ever managed. If your operation is large enough, consider finding two individuals who, together, possess the critical skills listed above.
Hire a Kid
Especially if your kitchen operation is small, you may need one person to handle the management and execution in your kitchen. Students or recent graduates of culinary arts programs are schooled in the kinds of administrative duties necessary to run your kitchen and often have more industry experience than you think. They are green and will likely require some direction, but they come cheap and will be thankful to have control over even the smallest operations.