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My Mistake or Hers?

post #1 of 11
Thread Starter 
Culinary Friends,

I'd like some opinions in the aftermath of my recent position. I was brought in as a Sous Chef with very little experience (1 year in private functions in New York and 3 months or less in mid-level restaurants) based on my attitude and desire to learn. I had another more experienced Sous overlapping with me for a few hours but was primarily left on my own with a staff of around 5-8 (160 seats). This was a start-up; I came in during the paperwork stages and used my previous clerical and managerial knowledge to cost the menu (as our Chef was not proficient with computers), cost the bar by hand, organize various facets, and generally prepare us for opening.

Nearly a month after the deadline the Chef had expressed to our staff, we brought them in for 2 days prior to the soft opening. Our staff ranged from an Executive Chef filling time until his resort started up to complete novices with no experience.

Our Chef had a menu printout for everyone but refused to complete breakdowns or prep lists. As I was primarily the Day Sous, I was left to attempt to figure out what went into everything so that it could be prepped. With over 50 items (excluding butchery and veg/fruit prep) that needed to be completed, I was swamped. Upon attempting to label the shelves in the walk-ins, I was reprimanded and told it was useless. However, at least 2 hours of my day was spent periodically re-arranging it. The Chef taught 2 of the lead line how to prepare some of the dishes by a run-through, yet nobody else (including the night-Sous or myself) was privy to this information.

Each staff member, down to the Garde Manger and Prep Cook, was responsible for figuring out how to execute their jobs. Being the only person of alleged "authority" there, I was the one left with all the questions. When I would ask our Chef a question, she would yell at me and frequently told me to "make my own decision." However, when I would use discretion even in plating a dish, she would reprimand me again.

Two weeks into our service, she pulled me aside and told me that I was at "sink or swim" point and that if I did not get it together, I would be fired. I pleaded with her to make me break-downs and a prep list, which she stalled on by saying she already had too much to do, and that she was working on it. I asked her to switch me to nights so that I could use my ability to cook on the line (which was the primary duty at night) and that the stronger Night Sous could come organize during the day. He preferred this option as well since he didn't like commuting at 3 AM and I lived 2 blocks away. She refused again.

The next day, she told me that I was being demoted to a Turno and that our current Turno was taking my place. I told her that I had to decline the offer and offered to stay on until the transition was complete. She called me later that day and let me go.

So my question is: was I imcompetant or was she? I realize that I had nowhere near the experience necessary to run that kitchen. However, I am extremely organized and passionate about cooking. I believe that if the atmosphere was one of teaching, as she said in my interview, I would have been successful. I'm wondering if I'm just delusional.


post #2 of 11
Young Gun

Based on your post, I would say you were set up to fail from day one.
Could have been a personality clash, could have been you were perceived as a threat to untalented people above you, or any number of things.

I have seen situations like yours before, where owners and senior management were incompetent and lacked the capacity to orgainze from the get go, but were more interested in showing off their new restaurant and didn't understand that training and organization are key to making a new restaurant successful.

Sounds like you have a good level of passion and sense. Find an employer who will take you under their wing and appreciate your eagerness to contribute and learn.

Cat Man
post #3 of 11
Neither of you is necessarily incompetent, but you both did some things wrong. I can't advise the chef -- much as I'd love to teach her how to be the leader she needs to be. (Actually, there's a lot more I'd like to do to her; it's lucky for her I can't. :mad:)

But as for you: when you look back dispassionately on this experience (you will, eventually, as much as it hurts right now), you'll probably see what you did wrong. Like not asking specific enough questions when you interviewed however many times before you were hired. Like not asking as soon as you were hired for a job description listing the specific (but negotiable) tasks you would be responsible for. Like maybe continuing to believe that you could make things right even as your gut was telling you you should run. Openings are always tough, and you just don't have the experience yet to know what to look out for (this is not a fault on your part).

It's always good to take a job just a bit beyond what you feel you can comfortably do, but whoever hired you took advantage of your obvious abilities and willingness to learn and take on responsibilities. That's the kind of thing you need to watch out for in the future. And now that you've been through this, you will.

It sounds like you've got many, many skills that a lot of chefs don't have. In the right situation, you should be able to use them. Cat Man's advice about finding a mentor is dead on. Especially if it's an employer that may expand in the future.
"Notorious stickler" -- The New York Times, January 4, 2004
"Notorious stickler" -- The New York Times, January 4, 2004
post #4 of 11
I had a chef like that once. The opposite thing happened. The sous chef stayed.


She's in bed with someone.
post #5 of 11
Metaphorically, of course. :p

Hey, remember the Peter Principle.
"Notorious stickler" -- The New York Times, January 4, 2004
"Notorious stickler" -- The New York Times, January 4, 2004
post #6 of 11
It sounds to me that your chef was a notorious dumb ***. You had the right idea by trying to get everything organized. If they stocked your kitchen full of newbies then they were trying to save money by hiring green horns, or the chef had gained a reputation as a dumb *** and no quality people would come and work for her. Good chefs always have a following of good loyal workers.

In the business if you don't treat your workers fairly you will have a high turnover because the good workers will quit and spread the word across town that so-and-so place is not a good place to work if you value yourself as an individual. The kitchen will eventually be stocked by the D-team type employees and will be headed by a money hungry lazy "chef" that does just enough to get by and look seemingly good in the eyes of the owners. Oh yeah these owners dont know what they are doing either.

Don't Work For a lazy dumb chef that holds you back. If you think that your wasting your time, you are. Take a position for less pay at a good kitchen instead. You can prove yourself better to people who can recognize good work and dedication. If you prove yourself among the A-Team type workers then you gain respect and reputation, and you can work on your political skills to rise in rank and authority.

The kitchen should be clean, well maintained and and good working order.

By clean I mean most everything should be on wheels so you can clean behind stuff, the ovens and the ovens grates sould be cleaned on a regular basis, the walls, the ceilings, the floor, the hood vent, the refrigerators, all of it should be clean. This Isn't as hard as you think, just break everything down into a weekly cleaning schedule and ENFORCE IT. Have you ever walked into a kitchen and saw that a cleaning schedule was posted on a dirty greasy piece of laminated paper with duck tape marks on it from the years of falling down from the greasy plastic wall, and oh yeah the kitchen sucked also? Deep down inside doesn't that piss you off? Its the little things man. Make the dang cleaning schedule put it in a frame on the wall and make them clean that once a week as well.

By well maintained I mean everything should work. Stuff breaks down constantly and should be respected and fixed. If stuff breaks and is not fixed, morale in the kitchen suffers dearly. Also by respected I mean that the employees should all respect their tools. Dont let them slam the oven door with their foot and mess up the hinges. Don't let them put a large quantity of really hot things into the refrigerator to cool down and stress out the compressor. Dont let them cut a piece of fish right on the metal table, and generally break stuff that leads to costly repair bills, food contamination risk, and impending food poisoning lawsuits. Its not the food man, its the equipment and tools that come first. If you dont have good tools and good morale you can't execute good food in the first place.

By in good working order we come back to what you were trying to do, which was get the kitchen organized. Ideally everything has it own little special space where it belongs. The reason you got chastised by the chef for trying to label the shelfs was that she knew that you were the only one that was going to pay attention to it because you had a bunch of newbies that worked there, hated it... but hung around awhile for the check. In an A-Team situation everyone knows it is far easier to know where everything is then to waste time digging around for stuff that you need that is lost kicking around in the refrigerator black hole. Time is money and trying to find lost things causes frustration and has thrown many a chef off their groove.

Its hard to get people to do all this stuff. Its hard work to do all this stuff. Be good to your employees. Treat them well. FEED them well. Make sure they are fairly compensated for there efforts. learn kitchen spainish. Do them favors every now and then to let them know that they are appreciated and respected.

Keep the the God-forsaken drugs out of the kitchen, nip it at the bud and fire anyone who is stung out and un-functional in the kitchen. If the rest of the cooks that were doping up want to keep there jobs they will sober up real quick like. If you tell the lead chef about a drug problem in the kitchen and it goes ignored, then express your concerns to the owners. The chef might not want to go through the trouble of hiring and re-training new cooks, but the owners will always come down hard on illegal activities in the place where their money comes from. You might be the black sheep of the kitchen for awhile but if everyone sobers up, you did them a favor. If you get fired for this eventually then you did yourself a favor. Oh yeah, pot isn't a drug lay off those guys, but don't let them get the munchies and raid the godiva chocolate stash.

Well do well brother, and don't let em get ya down.

Brian Womack
post #7 of 11
Thread Starter 
Thanks so much for the advice everyone.

Unfortunately, upon trying to contact the GM and the owners to discuss (diplomatically) some of the problems I faced (ie: an exit interview), I was shut down and told not to speak on it.

Fortunately I learned how not to run a kitchen, which is almost as valuable as learning the proper way! Also, it prompted me to take a serious look at if I was willing to put in the years and years of work under slightly better conditions that it would take to become a better chef, and if eventually becoming Exec would be what I wanted. I firmly believe in doing what you love; as well all know, it gets tough to get up and go to work every day, but the passion keeps you there.
post #8 of 11
This sort of thing goes on within you and without you. It happens in every industry and I've worked in everything from restaurants to computers to defense contracting to satellite TV sales to medical devices.

It seems to be the nature of people, or at the least, some people. But like my mother always said, "there's somebody in every neighborhood that messes it up for the rest of us!".

post #9 of 11

I'm scared of start-ups!

Young Gun,

As the others have said,it's a common scenario,especially in a start-up.It always starts with best intentions and then when the honeymoon period is over,the s**t hits the proverbial fan,the fan breaks and there is s**t flying all over the place.

It's unfair of them to have put you in a position that you may have not had enough experience to do and not at least give you the tools to be able to do your job. But obviously,the chef was a completely useless lump of flesh who'd be willing to have you fired to cover their own incompetance.There are so many people out there who hold a title that they don't deserve or are capable of doing effectively.

Managing and leading a team isn't easy,be it a kitchen or an office.

I have done two start-ups [gee,did I not learn from the first one?:o] and once the politics of the owners and partners came into play,it rolled right downhill to the kitchen.
"Sometimes people can be oh so dense"

The Pixies
"Sometimes people can be oh so dense"

The Pixies
post #10 of 11
Take a good hard look at yourself. It's not unheard of, but, rare that a
chef or sous chef of real quality is let go for no reason. Don't put your
tail between your legs and slink away, just take a little time for personal
reflection. Most people, myself included, don't float straight up to the top.
Maturity, self control, discipline, skill in you craft, the ability to multi task at
a sickening level, all of these things come with time and experience. I was
in a similar situation at one time. I rose up to sous and was pushed back to
the line to make room for an extra sous within the company. Pretty effing
embarassing. Everyone that had worked for me on the line was great though.
They all said hang in there, if anyone will make it, you will. Six months later,
I was back at the helm on the night shift. You take a lot of hits in this business. You eat a lot of crow. There are some that have such natural talents. At the onset they seem to have the ability to produce results. But
if you look close, the amount of talent and discipline they have, the amount of
communication skills and confidence they have, you can see why they seemed
to pass GO. Take it easy. Stay away from the three C's. Contempt, Criticism, and Complain. To this day I still have trouble with these three.
Good luck.
post #11 of 11
Who here has ever been sh!tcanned because a new manager came in and wanted to bring in their own crew?

Happened to me twice. Oh well, each time I moved on to better.
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