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Chefs Behaving Badly: does talent ever trump ego?

Imagine yourself wearing a suit and tie, sitting in a corner office with a magnificent view of the city. You sit at your mahogany desk and check your email as you sip a double espresso. Just as your secretary crosses the threshold to bring you a doughnut, one of your partners, Dave, shoves her aside, shouting a string of four-letter words.  He launches your doughnut against the window and grabs you by the necktie, lifting you from your chair, shouting yet more expletives. He slams you against the wall and threatens to kill you if you don’t get that brief to him within the hour. Any company in America would have Dave fired on the spot. Such erratic, violent behavior is unacceptable in corporate America. . . so why do we put up with it in the kitchen?

Tensions tend to run high behind restaurant lines no matter how busy you are.  Maybe tickets are streaming in, servers are making special requests, there’s a critic at table 6, your food cost has gone through the roof, you’ve run out of salt, and what remains of your personal life is in shambles.  The Executive Chef has an awful lot on his plate, and pressure comes at him from every possible angle.  And yet there is still plenty of room for common decency.

I can’t actually remember the last time I had a genuinely positive interaction with an executive chef. I realize that this business isn’t exactly rainbows and unicorns, but I do believe that amidst the chaos, we can still be kind.  We hire chefs because they are talented, passionate about food and have the potential to elevate our establishments from good to great. People don’t generally get into cooking to make loads of money. If it were about the money, they would have gone to Wall Street (well, maybe not these days, but my point still stands). Cooking is both a passion and a gift that can become a career: but it doesn’t have to. Most chefs have other options; and yet they choose to cook.

If cooks become professional chefs because they are truly passionate, then why are there so many miserable chefs out there? Bad attitudes are poisonous and spread like disease, spilling out of the kitchen, into the dining room and onto the plates of your guests. As a restaurant owner/ manager/ operator, it is up to you to see that this does not happen. You want to hire talented people, but you also need to keep in mind that there is no room in this stressful business for chefs who do not treat the rest of your staff with dignity and respect. Here are some things to keep in mind when hiring (and firing) kitchen staff:

  1. Lead by example: Know everyone’s name and treat each employee with kindness and respect.
  2. No amount of talent makes up for bad behavior.
  3. Chefs should be reprimanded and penalized for mistreating others.
  4. If after being reprimanded and penalized, a chef does not change his demeanor, he must be fired.
  5. If a chef is unhappy in a kitchen, encourage him to leave.
  6. Consider requiring regular drug testing.

The restaurant industry attracts such a wide variety of personalities. Chefs, however, tend to be driven, artistic perfectionists with all-or-nothing attitudes. We get incredibly anxious when we feel out of control, and restaurants can be exceptionally challenging environments for us. That said, chefs know what they are getting into when they take the job. They must choose either to learn to let go and thrive or to let the lack of control eat away at their nerves, leaving them unhinged at the end of the night.  Restaurants aren’t for everyone. Hire a chef who can handle the pressure with kindness and common decency.