Three and a Half Chefs

January 10, 2011 § 2 Comments

My little restaurant had its first anniversary just recently. So many regulars and friends came in. It was a beautiful thing. For six hours, we were packed to the rafters. The kitchen ran smoothly, the staff were enjoying themselves, the guests were delighted. A fine time was had by all. It was fantastic. One of those perfect moments of restauranting that reminds me of why the hell I got into this ridiculous project to begin with.

And then the next night was one of the worst nights at work I’d had in the entire first year. Easily in the top ten, probably in the top five.

New Year’s Eve. We knew it was going to get super busy as soon as the bars closed. There aren’t a whole lot of places in the city open that late, and most of the others are crap. So the kitchen was supposed to be well-stocked and prepped by the kitchen manager early on. She had dinner shift, along with one prep cook. Now, this prep cook is notoriously lazy, and will do scant and/or shoddy work if a close eye isn’t kept on him. We’ve only kept him this long because he shows up reliably, and there’s usually someone around who’s a bigger problem. The kitchen manager was the bigger problem just then. I’d promoted her to the position after the fiasco following the previous incumbent, because she asked for it, because she insisted she could do it, because she wanted it badly, because I was in a bad position, because I liked her. At first, she did pretty well. I was proud of her for stepping up, for getting a handle on her temper, for taking responsibility. We started her on just the basics of kitchen management, but as we slowly started adding her other responsibilities, she went to pieces. She didn’t sleep for days at a time, she’d start screaming at her staff, or at the general manager, she’d break down crying, she wouldn’t come in when she was supposed to, her ordering was a mess, she wouldn’t cover for her cooks. It was rapidly falling apart. So I sat her down and talked to her, and gave her one more chance, and she started to improve. Really. She was doing a lot better.

And then there was NYE.

The prep list was written on the chalk board, and all crossed off. Everyone knew she’d been on that evening, so apparently the incoming people hadn’t bothered to actually eyeball the prep and make sure it was solid. She went home around 12:30, telling her cooks that she was just five minutes away, and if they needed her, they should call.

An hour later, the cooks came to tell me and the GM that there wasn’t enough prep done. I wound up in the kitchen in a semi-formal gown (I hardly ever get all dressed up, but when I do, I do it right) cutting sweet potato fries and cursing. As I headed into the kitchen, I heard one of the cooks calling the kitchen manager and asking her to come in. He reported that she’d be there in 5. Twenty minutes later, she called to tell me that she couldn’t come in. I think she started to give me some explanation, but I cut her off, I was too busy and it was too noisy and I had to go.

We got slammed only minutes after I stepped up to the cutting board, and the kitchen crashed completely. Forty-five minute ticket times, running out of things left and right, drunk asshole customers (who, yes, my staff do not have to put up with, and they tossed out at least two that night), perfectly nice customers giving up on their orders and leaving, fucking everything. I had to tell the servers to stop taking orders to give the cooks time to clear the rail and get prepped up for breakfast. It was an absolute nightmare for me, and once there was no more I could physically do at the moment, I went back to my office and cried.

I had to fire the kitchen manager the next day. There just wasn’t any way around it. I hated to, because I like her, but she took it pretty well. She knew she’d fucked up.

I promoted another cook to the position promptly. This one is older than the last, although still young (cooking is a young person’s game), but she has management experience, she’s on good terms with but not too close to the rest of the staff, and she’s got good solid ideas and a good grasp of what the job is. I have high hopes for her.

But goddamnit, I had three and a half chefs/kitchen managers in my first year, and my fourth-and-a-halfth two days into my second. I know restaurant turnover is high, but this is ridiculous.

The first I’ve mentioned before. She thought that the correct way to run a kitchen was to terrorize her entire staff. She was a friend from culinary school, young for the job, but she’d been a sous before, and wow, could she cook. What she could not do was deal with people. She desperately wanted my little bitty all-night comfort food place to be a high-end, expensive, rarefied sort of place. She didn’t want to allow alterations or special orders, didn’t want to put condiments on her burgers, didn’t want to present her very tasty matzo ball soup in a way that kept it warm for more than two minutes, didn’t want to follow a budget, didn’t want to get her food costs below 30%. She thought it should all be her way. She didn’t understand that I was her boss. We had, I swear I timed this, and hour and a half argument about a fucking salad. The staff was always coming to me with complaints, the GM (to whom the chef had introduced me, and who was a close friend of hers) was always coming to me with complaints, the customers came to me with complaints. I think I finally fired her over the $150 worth of very very nice locally-grown organic potatoes she allowed to rot, and tried to tell me I shouldn’t be mad at her about.

We went without a kitchen manager for a bit after that. I did a bunch of it myself, and various cooks stepped up and did other bits. After a month and a half, it got to be too much, and I placed an ad. The candidates were pretty abysmal, but I hired the best of the lot and went with it.

The new guy never did fit in. His food was a mess, his menus looked awful, his “jokes” made people wildly uncomfortable, he wouldn’t put in overtime (which is why you get a salary in a restaurant, to avoid having to pay overtime), he wouldn’t help his staff. He resigned about forty-eight hours before I was planning to fire him.

Just before he gave notice, I got a text from a friend I hadn’t heard from in months. He was the only friend I’d made at my last job, he’d been a chef, he was a really great guy, and he wanted to know if I had a job open. Oh boy, did I.

Right around then, the kitchen manager I started out this post talking about told me she wanted the job. I told her I needed to at least try to get someone in with management experience, and I had a candidate, but if that didn’t work, she could give it a shot.

(Yeesh, this gets complicated without names. Next time, pseudonyms.)

My friend came in and we talked terms, came to an agreement, and he gave notice at the place he’d been working and gave me a start date. He met the staff (who liked him) and gave me a sample menu. And then, a week from his start date, he vanished. (This is why he’s the half: I hired him, but he never started.) Didn’t respond to phone or email, never got back in touch. As far as we can tell, he decided to stay at his old job and couldn’t face telling me. Six months later, I still have not heard from him.

So I gave that last young lady her chance, bringing me back to the beginning of my tale.

Of the five people I’ve hired to run my goddamn kitchen, there have been three women and two men. Two women and one man did terrible jobs, one man failed to show up, and one woman has yet to prove herself. Restaurants have high turnover, sure, but this is ridiculous.

I keep wondering how much of it is my fault.

§ 2 Responses to Three and a Half Chefs

  • Schwa says:

    If there’s one thing I dread about finishing school, it’s people wrangling. I can deal with clients/customers/patients, I think, but I already have nightmares about trying to keep my professional obligations in order. Are there any tricks or habits of mind that help you with that part of your job?

  • I have some unhappy work memories where I wonder how much of my employees’ getting fired was me vs them….

    What helped me the best as a manager was the book Managing for Dummies, because it cut through a lot of management fashion and spelled out the basics. But part of it is realizing that if you’ve done the best you can too communicate expectations and they’re not getting it (or choosing not to get it) then it’s not about whose fault it is, it’s about how it’s not working out…and replacing YOU is a lot harder than replacing them.

    *hugs* offered if you want them.

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