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Advice for a sous who can't get along with his chef?

post #1 of 10
Thread Starter 
I'm newly a sous for a small fine dining place and I've found myself in the oddest of predicaments.

I hired on a few months back when I walked in for a part time cook job interview and the owners, being impressed with my resume or something of the sort, offered me a salaried chef position to work alongside their current chef and help them improve the place.
It's proving to be far more difficult than I thought.

First of all, the owners are pretty clueless when it comes to running a kitchen. They are attempting fine dining but these guys don't even know the basics of cooking.
Therefore, until I showed up, they were completely unaware that their chef doesn't know what he's doing either.

I compiled a lengthy list and pointed it out to the owners within my first week that their chef doesn't know what he's doing but they want me to "work with him" and show him the right way to do things but, he's extremely stubborn and not interested in changing anything.
Everyone but me seems to think that everything is fine as long as food is coming out of the kitchen and looks pretty.

In an attempt to say this without too much racial offense, he's a 50 something year old Mexican who speaks mediocre English and doesn't have much experience in fine dining besides washing dishes for a steak house and the 15 years or so he's put in at this place where he's now become the chef by general process of promotion. He makes for terrible leadership, isn't very good at training, often fails to stock us properly so we end up running out of things constantly, rarely cleans anything if at all, not to mention, he's just plain lazy.
I understand my role as a sous but it feels like he puts literally all the heavy work on me that he possibly can. I do the prep list daily, stock and prep all the stations on the line, do pretty much all the cleaning, setting up, tearing down and closing at night. The heaviest work he does is making fresh bread in the morning and then putting together a soup du jour. I handle almost everything else.

I'm in serious debate if the guy even has a food handlers permit. I'm constantly reorganizing the walk in and drop tops to correct the blatant disregard he has for food safety. You'd think a chef would know not leave egg wash out for a whole shift, that the food should be cooled by refrigeration, not just leaving it out on the counter and not to put raw chicken above the fresh cut lettuce that we use for salads but he doesn't seem to even notice. If he's aware of it then he just doesn't care and that's not really acceptable either. He's at least aware that all our sauté on the line is executed wrong but according to him, it's faster so we have to do it that way, no staging, no deglazing, just throw everything in the pan and heat it ASAP.

Anyway, things have finally escalated to a very tense situation. I'm trying to uphold a standard for the level of food we're supposed to be making and he wants to keep doing everything the way he's always been doing it. We're at a point where now, he refuses to speak to me other than what is absolutely necessary to keep the kitchen in motion, we spend all of our time that we have to work together in the farthest corners of the kitchen from each other as possible. He also loves to be extremely critical of me and all my dishes at all times. I'm doing everything wrong, even when it's right.

Oh, and forget about food quality or timeliness. He'd rather run the whole line himself during lunch and send me downstairs to build crab cakes and do all other manner of menial, time consuming tasks. Other days it's reversed and I'll run the whole line solo and he avoids me in the downstairs prep area until he leaves in the afternoon at the end of his shift.
There's another thing, he works day shift. I work all day. 12-14 hour shifts usually. Even though we're both suppose to be on salary, I find that I spend a lot more time there than he does.

I realize I'm ranting here but he's driving me up the wall. It's so hard to be a subordinate to and respect a chef that obviously knows far less about running a proper kitchen.
Chances are that he's not going anywhere any time soon and the owners aren't going to fire him (even though they should) because "he's like family"

Sure, I guess I could try to go somewhere else and let them have their shit circus without me but this isn't the first time I've been in this same situation. I've seen firsthand that my hometown has a chronic problem of kitchens run by Mexicans with no food safety standards and rather than run from restaurant to restaurant, I feel it's finally time to take a stand and make a change for the sake of culinary in my hometown. If I can change one restaurant then maybe there's a glimmer of hope

Rant over, sorry for writing a novel.

Any suggestions for how to cope with this stubborn old chef?
post #2 of 10


Start looking and when you have something fairly definite tell owners that this guy does not want to improve and is holding them back. See what they say then

Chef EdB
Over 50 years in food service business 35 as Ex Chef. Specializing in Volume upscale Catering both on and off premise .(former Exec. Chef in the largest on premise caterer in US  with 17 Million Dollars per year annual volume). 
      Well versed in all facets of Continental Cuisine...

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Chef EdB
Over 50 years in food service business 35 as Ex Chef. Specializing in Volume upscale Catering both on and off premise .(former Exec. Chef in the largest on premise caterer in US  with 17 Million Dollars per year annual volume). 
      Well versed in all facets of Continental Cuisine...

Reply
post #3 of 10
The list in week 1 made your relationship rocky at best. Im sure he would tell a similar story.

You are there to help him and work hard, make good food. Try to tweak his recipes in tour style, slowly, make him think its his idea, and give hin credit when he decides to change.

Dont put everything on your own shoulders. Work less hours. Learn from the Chef, share his vision, plant one in him if he diesnt have one, it takes time.

Week 1 is not when you fix things.

Just leave when your shift is over. Or ask to be put on hourly. The work in a kitchen is never done. Thats both the beauty and the bitch of it. Ask for help where needed. Be professional.

Good luck and and try not to be a stereotypical racist know it all, that would be a good start.
post #4 of 10

Glad I'm not the only one to face problems like this in the workplace. So for what it's worth, this stuff happens to other people too.

     1. I'd make a personal visit to the health department.  They are there to insure compliance with the regulations. Get a meeting with the director, not an individual inspector. Explain the situation. Ask for help in making the owners aware of that compliance is lacking. You aren't interested in shutting the place down or placing blame, you just need help in providing those involved with some education. Do not announce to the chef or owners you will do this, just do it quietly. Arrange for the health dept. to come in and explain what and how improvements will be made. 

     2. You essentially have two choices; get another job or work with this guy. You said you don't want to go anywhere. So that leaves working with him.    To that end….

      Your chef is scared and intimidated by you. The solution could be a open frank discussion to let him know A. you don't want his job. B.you are willing to work with him. This is a challenging and delicate exercise in human relations. There are many possible positive ways of changing things but which you choose is up to you. 

     The chef knows his shortcomings. As you stated, he has been there for years and is naturally afraid of losing his job. He has grown comfortable in his daily patterns and has not been contradicted by the owners or anyone he would naturally listen to for years. Getting away with doing it wrong for so many years has convinced him he is right. And why wouldn't he think that? 

     As the saying goes, "When you want to change the world, begin by changing yourself". In this case, that means changing how you approach him and the situation. As I stated, an open frank discussion would be my first choice but that may not be yours. You don't mention any other employees so is it just the two of you?   If he works a shorter day, rearrange the prep so that you and any other staff can handle things, leaving little for him to do. If he questions that, simply state that you are trying to make his job easier. If the owners are willing, ask to hire a prep cook who you can then use to assist you in changing things. 

     The challenge is to find a way to allow him to save face. He can't or won't admit he doesn't know what he's doing so don't make him. Work around that. Make a recipe book "for any new people we may hire".  Put signs up regarding via the health department about proper storage, time and temperature, etc. Bring food magazines to work like old copies of Food Arts, or Gourmet or whatever you can find with articles highlighted or clipped. Be sure he knows in a non-threatening way that you are reading them for your benefit and self education but he is welcome to read them too. Through the "insistence" of the health department, establish cleaning and sanitation guidelines and best practices. Do your job in a clean, organized professional way, not to show him how it's done but just because that's how you do it. When he no longer feels quite so threatened, you may find him observing you and then notice him changing his work habits accordingly. Don't bring attention to it. 

     These are just suggestions. Find whatever works for you. There is a saying that you can bend a tree to the ground with nothing more than your finger. All you need is to press it against the tree long enough. Another saying, "Kill them with kindness". 

   If you make a genuine effort in as many ways as possible and he never budges an inch, give it up and move on.  Many people are afraid of admitting they don't know. Others are more learning friendly. your chef may be one or the other. Do your best to find out which. 

post #5 of 10
Ok I'll admit I don't read your whole post, I stopped when you said
Quote:
Originally Posted by thecaptain435 View Post


I compiled a lengthy list and pointed it out to the owners within my first week that their chef doesn't know what he's doing but they want me to "work with him" and show him the right way to do things but, he's extremely stubborn and not interested in changing anything.
Everyone but me seems to think that everything is fine as long as food is coming out of the kitchen and looks pretty.

Just move on, get out as fast as you can. 1) it's the professional thing to do at this point. 2) nothing good can come from this place, from the way you make it sound you will be working FOR someone who you think yourself above or at the very least don't res, be it the current chef or owner.

And just my 2¢ it's not the best idea to make any kind of "lengthy list" and give them to your boss or worse yet your bosses boss. Especially not with you being so new and it being unsolicited. Such a list will never be well received. trust me I know were you are coming from, not to long ago I found myself in just about the same situation. But haveing learned over the years I didn't make a list I went to the owner and gave my two weeks, although funny giving two weeks after only working 3. It's not very nice or professional to walk into a new place and bash the chef, even if he does suck.
post #6 of 10
Thread Starter 
It's possible I didn't mention that I was hired by the owners and specifically tasked to help them improve upon the establishment and all it's current methods and practices.
I compiled the list so they would know what the kitchen's problems are currently in the hopes that we can find a way to resolve them.

The owners admit themselves to not knowing a whole lot and that their chef is right along with them
the chef probably wouldn't admit it but the owners have done it for him.

I've tried to tell the owners that, while I might know more than the current chef, I'm still lacking in experience which I can only gain by working under a chef who can give me that experience.

Having me try to teach their current chef that he has been doing things wrong for 15 years is not only creating tension but makes me look like an idiot because neither him or I are truly qualified to run this kitchen.

When I told the owners that we need a good chef, they said they couldn't afford one and I'm the next best thing. Nice of them to say that but I told them that it's beyond my ability to accomplish the task at hand

Everyone is likely right in saying that I should probably get out asap but the problems I'm running into in this restaurant seem to be similar in nearly every restaurant in this town.
This isn't the first time I've been in a kitchen like this nor is it my first time as 2nd in command in a kitchen like this one either.

I don't want to be another chef who leaves town looking for higher standards. I'd like to be one to help create the change so desperately needed here.
post #7 of 10

On the bright side, you have a great opportunity. The owners are on your side in supporting your efforts. You have the opportunity to teach yourself.  You have the rare opportunity to make mistakes and learn from them without the criticism from another chef that might keep you from growing. 

You state you lack experience only gained by working under a chef. That is not true. It may be easier to learn from others but if you are open to learning, you can accomplish quite a lot by yourself. 

There are numerous books, cookbooks and others. There are threads on this forum that discuss those books. There are lots of other threads discussing many other topics useful to you. 

You have identified some problems. Begin correcting them. Then identify more problems. Correct those. 

You stated "the problems I'm running into in this restaurant seem to be similar in nearly every restaurant in this town." 

And in every other town you will ever live in. 

Here are a couple of suggestions. 

Take notes as you go through the day. Keep a small notebook in your pocket to write down observations, questions, recipe ideas and tweaks, maintenance concerns, etc. 

Label your dry storage area so it is easier to identify where things belong. 

Get rid of clutter. 

Visit other restaurant kitchens. They don't have to be a great restaurant. You will find ideas you can use everywhere-storage methods, prep methods, different equipment, different cleaning solutions, different FOH procedures. 

Go to food shows, the bigger the better. There is much you can learn just by walking around and seeing the various products and equipment. You also get to meet lots of great people. 

Keep learning. Make mistakes, acknowledge them, change appropriately and learn something new. If you discover a better way to do something you already think you do well, change. 

Working for others is not the only way to learn. Keep a positive attitude. Right now the grass seems greener somewhere else. Start taking care of the grass you have. 

post #8 of 10

Are you under contract?  i would have a nice meal with them (over wine) and discuss working for them on a consulting basis.  That way you are not beholding to them and it frees you up emotionally.  As Professional Chefs' we love our jobs, the food and the people, but also hate it at times.  The chef there is just lazy, by the owners are used to him, so they feel comfortable with him (even if he's stealing from them); and my stealing I mean their time and his efforts.

 

Your not going to win this over night.  What are you committed to?  You need to ask yourself that question first.  And then set up goals to get there.  Be consistent with everyone you meet and NEVER get emotional.  Save the emotion for the house, and do not go drinking with people who work there.  You seem pretty level headed and certainly passionate...don't stop!

 

Remember, "there are four sides to every story; your side, my side, everybody else s' side, and the truth!"  Find common ground with the chef, if he's worthless, eventually the owners will see so.

post #9 of 10

Unless you just really need the money what's the point of working for someone that knows less than you do?  Sous can be a career if you want it to be but most see it as a step towards an Exec job.  It doesn't sound like there's much to learn at that job except what not to do.  That should be a pretty short lesson, one easily absorbed in a couple weeks.

"Excellence is an art won by training and habituation. We do not act rightly because we have virtue or excellence, but we rather have those because we have acted rightly. We are what we repeatedly do. Excellence, then, is not an act but a habit." - Aristotle
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"Excellence is an art won by training and habituation. We do not act rightly because we have virtue or excellence, but we rather have those because we have acted rightly. We are what we repeatedly do. Excellence, then, is not an act but a habit." - Aristotle
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post #10 of 10
Ok I'll admit that I dident read your entire post, I stoped at the top when you wrote "
So you want to learn but there is no good place around to do that and you don't want to move/go work in a new town/city with better opertinitys? That's a hard one indeed. I don't know what city your in or your age, but I can tell you it's much much easier to learn and get experience the younger you are.
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