The Dating Agency
I love my family. They’re great. Genuinely supportive, loving and just about the best bunch of people you could hope to have dealt you by fate’s fickle hand and I would like to think they all feel the same way. When we all get together, there is a sincere and genuine sense that this is precious time and it’s moments like these that make me realise that this gathering of loved ones, is what life is all about.
That being said, if I found myself locked in a room with them for 50 hours a week there would surely be casualties. I know for a fact that after about twenty hours my sister would be eyeing up blunt objects with which to silence her brother of 35 years. And if I’m honest, my fratricidal urges would have probably kicked in ten hours prior to that. My mother, unable to stand the constant bickering, would gladly chew her way through an interior wall, just to escape the madness.
But this imagined familial carnage is normal for many and if this is the way we act with our loved ones, what hope is there for harmony in the professional kitchen? It surely is the Big Brother of the hospitality game, with every action, comment and bowel movement observed and noted by your peers. But in the face of this there are many brigades across the country that work happily together on a daily basis without the need for armed security and their chefs rock up, day in, day out with smiles on their faces. And there’s a simple reason why; it’s all about the culture of the kitchen.
At this juncture I was about to drop a Marco quote, but given the subject matter the irony would have been too much.
So, without quoting Marco, I shall explain. It all starts at the top. The big dog, the head chef. They set the precedent, ultimately it’s their attitude, approach, taste and demeanour that sets the tone for the entire brigade. A good one will create a genuinely supportive and inspirational environment where their underlings strive to learn, to improve and impress. A bad one will at best fail to attract and retain talent, and at worst deplete the motivation of those that already had it. In between there’s myriad personality types heading up kitchens across the land, each with their own idiosyncrasies.
If the head chef is an alpha type personality, shrinking violets need not apply, that’s a given. But the clashes can be more subtle and varied than that, with people being well respected in one team, only to find they “don’t fit in” with another. In such a confined and pressured space as a kitchen, intimate relationships are forced and as a result we should have realistic expectations about the outcome. If everyone does their best during the recruitment process then you can hope to diminish the chances of there being any serious butting of heads at a later date. But people still make mistakes. For example, if you run a fresh food pub that does the simple things well, then surround yourself with people that appreciate what you’re trying to do. Don’t bring in a Michelin experienced CDP just because they have a great CV. They won’t fit, they’ll want to change things and every other sentence will start with “where I used to work”. You don’t need that guy in your kitchen. We’ve all worked with him at some point. He’s a dick.
I realise that I’m labouring a rather obvious point here but in this industry it’s so important to understand that if you want longevity with your staff, you MUST take account of their personalities as well as their skill sets. With the exception of the very upper echelons of the gastronomic landscape, the majority of business we speak with about recruiting junior chefs have the same prerequisite: “we want someone with a good attitude that’s willing to learn”. That’s the first thing they say. Not “they need to have two year’s experience cooking modern European cuisine at a two rosette level”. To them, it’s secondary. Don’t get me wrong there is certainly an implied level of competence, and certain skill sets identified as prerequisites, but attitude is key. And what constitutes a good attitude is subjective. For the kitchens of the culinary avant-garde, a good attitude could mean the total absence of one. For most it means they want a hard worker that fits with the unique social construct that exists in the kitchen. And each kitchen culture is different, like sour dough starter, it’s the natural result of living organisms being exposed to certain environmental conditions.
In the recruitment game, this is the hard bit, the bit we refer to as the dating agency part of our job. Understanding the industry, solid interview technique and good researching can get you far in assessing someone’s culinary capability. However, when it comes to assessing whether a candidate is a good cultural fit, that’s a different matter entirely. And although it’s not strictly in our remit to assess these things we always try to. To a certain extent social media has helped us profile personalities and interests in an effort to align them with those of a client, but it’s not easy to get that aspect right. The only real answer would be to move in with each candidate for 6 months, hoping to truly understand what makes them tick. So we settle for doing our best, and it seems to work.
Ultimately no one can ever be 100% sure. There’s always risk. Get it right and you end up with a tight, happy crew. Get it wrong and you end up with, well Christmas at my house.