How to Find the Right Type of Chef for Your Restaurant

How to Find the Right Type of Chef for Your Restaurant
Amanda McCorquodale

By Amanda McCorquodale

Kudos on deciding to open a restaurant!

You’ve no doubt deliberated between which type of concept to open (fast casual, fine dining, or even a virtual restaurant) and you’ve selected the perfect location. After you’ve met with investors, written a business plan, and drafted a floor plan, your attention will likely move on to a very important piece of the entrepreneurial puzzle – your staff.

Finding The Right Type of Chef for The Job

At the center of it all will be your chef, in some cases, the “rock star” of the operation. He or she will of course be the talent behind the quality and innovation of your food, but tread carefully in filling this position because a chef is actually so much more.

In some cases, your chef will be the face or personality of your restaurant brand. In all cases, he or she will lead food preparation in your operation. That includes everything from menu development to food prepping, cooking and portioning, maintaining a sanitary food line and food presentation, that is, plating food promptly and to set standards.

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More than that, he or she will also likely serve as team leader in the kitchen, managing other staff to at least some extent. To that end, the chef will need to be an effective communicator, oversee staff’s success in implementing the menu, and may even keep an eye on balancing staffing needs with labor costs.

On the operational and financial front, your chef may need to have a handle on how much food needs to be purchased from week-to-week, how to efficiently order to cater special events, receive and maintain inventory, meet health department standards, and oversee any equipment maintenance issues. A chef’s responsibilities are many and can vary greatly. That’s why it can be so difficult to find the right person to wear that white toque.

What's The Difference Between A Chef And A Cook?

Chefs typically have some culinary training and are expected to take on more managerial and operational responsibilities as well as contribute to menu development. A cook is a more entry-level position that is tasked with prepping food for a specific station.

You’ll often see restaurants or kitchens post want-ads for a specific types of cook including: Fish, Fry, Grill, Line, Pantry, Prep, Relief, Short-Order, and Vegetable to highlight the need for a specific skill set.

Obviously, there is a wide spectrum of responsibilities that a chef could possibly have a role in. So to know what your operation needs, you'll need to assess your business plan, intended concept, and total staffing resources to decide what kind of chef you need to hire. If you're starting from scratch, industry experts advise starting with a chef as opposed to a cook. Let's look into the different types of chef you may encounter and need to consider

What Are the Different Types of Chef?

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Just as there are several different kinds of cooks you could hire, there are various types of chefs out there as well. Make sure you’re advertising for the right position and evaluating candidates with a very specific job description in mind.

Chef-Owner

In some restaurants, the owner is also the chef, meaning they run the back-of-house as well as the whole restaurant.

Executive Chef

Large restaurants or restaurant chains may require an Executive Chef, sometimes referred to as the Chef de Cuisine, Chef Manager, Head Chef, or Master Chef. This type of chef typically focuses on the quality of the menu and food, and not so much on the day-to-day operations in the kitchen. As such, this position can have significant impact on your business as your online menu is one of your most powerful marketing tools.

Sous Chef

As the second in command, a restaurant’s Sous Chef is senior to all other kitchen staff except for the executive chef. This position is very hands on in the day-to-day tasks of the kitchen from food prep and plating to scheduling, inventory duties, hiring new staff and equipment maintenance. It’s one of the most essential and grueling positions in the kitchen and those that fill it often have their eyes set on eventually becoming an Executive Chef.

Roast Chef

Charged with meats and, by association, dry rubs and gravy, the Roast Chef or rotisseur has expertise in beef, veal, and lamb and cooking methods such as roasting and braising. They could establish relationships with local farms and vendors and manage the execution of meat recipes that often require slow cook times over long periods.

Pastry Chef

This chef will lead the station responsible for creating or preparing baked goods, such as breads, desserts and pastries. As restaurants will often try to stand out with the quality and creativity of their dessert menu and this type of cooking requires extensive culinary training, this type of chef is often the hardest one to find.

Sauce Chef

This chef will create all kinds of sauces for the menu and that includes everything from salad dressings, to gravy, to pasta sauces, to soups and stews. They also referred to as a Saucier.

The Ingredients In A Great Candidate

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No matter what kind of chef you are looking for, there are a number of ways to start sourcing candidates to consider. For one, local and national culinary schools typically have resumes posted on their websites. (You can start by connecting with the Culinary Institute of America alumni network.)

There are also recruiting agencies that specialize in culinary positions and there are even services like Merlin that focus on filling chef positions with very short notice. Of course, there’s nothing like word of mouth. Check with your current staff and industry peers to put the feelers out for qualified candidates looking for work.

Before you start interviewing candidates, first ask yourself some questions to narrow down on your expectations for the chef role. Here are some important questions to consider when looking for the right type of chef:

  • Will they “own” their own recipes or will the restaurant?
  • How much control and responsiblity will they have over the menu or other food and inventory decisions?
  • Will they be the key decision maker in the kitchen or will the owner or manager share oversight?
  • Will they be able and willing to hire and fire kitchen staff?
  • Should they be able to select which vendors are used?

This separation of powers between chef and managment can be a tricky part of the restaurant business if not thought through up front. The sooner you map out your preferences for division of responsibilities, the better.

Hiring Best Practices

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Once you have a few candidates under consideration, industry experts suggest a few tips to improve the hiring process. Don’t where to start for interview questions? Here’s a helpful list for general chef hires but if you’re looking for a specific type of chef, make sure your questions reflect that.

One best practice is to call former employers that are listed on the candidate’s resume but not included in his or her provided list of references. That’s because the references provided are sure to give glowing reviews of the chefs while one of the other ones may have a more measured observation of the candidate and their skills and work habits.

Another tip is to not get too mired down in the candidate’s culinary skills if in fact you are expecting him or her to do so much more as your chef. For example, as chefs are tasked with controlling food cost and waste, they should be able to understand a profit & loss statement and other useful resources such as a labor cost calculator. And in this digital age, they will likely be required to develop recipes or maintain inventory using software, so go give them a chance to develop recipes using your operation’s actual software program.

Finally, you should find out whether the candidate has good leadership skills as well as a cool and calm demeanor. After all, there’s no use selecting the chef who can make a tasty steak au poivre if it turns out that he or she is difficult to work with.

Don’t be shy about putting them to the test. This person will be at the core of your success as a restaurant so this is the time to find out if they have what it takes – not after you’ve already started serving guests (and getting Yelp reviews!). Ask candidates to not only develop a sample menu, but also a food cost spreadsheet.

Next pick a recipe and actually watch them cook. Although this may seem awkward, it’s actually helpful to add a layer of stress so that you can gauge the candidate’s ability to keep cool when things heat up. While they cook, pay attention to their organizational and food safety skills as well as their dexterity with tools and techniques. Did they waste much food? Did they show confidence? The right candidate will have the physical stamina to work in a hot, busy kitchen as well as the ability to think on their feet. Finally, pick up a fork and let your taste buds have a vote.

Ultimately, no candidate will check all the boxes so keep in mind whether you think they have the aptitude to improve in any areas if trained, encouraged, and engaged.

Seperate the Wheat from the Chef

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With all things being equal – your candidates have strong skills in the kitchen, a track record of working well with others and business acumen – there are a few ways that chefs can stand out from the crowd.

Chefs may brand themselves by having a particular focus on something like sustainability – using resources and kitchen practices thought to have the best possible impact on the environment.

Other chefs may be able to tout special relationships with local farms or vendors. And as diners’ special dietary concerns have entered the mainstream, a certain chef could specialize in gluten-free dishes, raw food innovation, or vegan fare. Or else they could be an expert in regional or ethnic fare or a particular cooking method such as sous vide or molecular gastronomy that requires specialized culinary training.

If any of these are a priority for your concept, include it in your job posting and investigate the candidate’s expertise level with it as you vet them.

The Bottom Line

There’s plenty to consider before hiring a chef. The key takeaway is to set your intentions for the role before you post your want ad, follow a robust hiring process with plenty of tests built in, and consider the skills your chef will need beyond being able to artfully julienne an onion. In today’s market, particularly with the rising cost of labor, you’ll want to find a chef that’s on board with the business goals and concerns.

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Amanda McCorquodale
Amanda McCorquodale

Amanda McCorquodale is freelance writer based in White Plains, NY.