Greg Baker, chef-owner of The Refinery in Tampa, Florida, is a 20-year kitchen veteran, having worked in Portland, Oregon and New York City before opening his James Beard Award–nominated restaurant in 2010. As any kitchen professional at Baker’s level will tell you, staffing is a crucial part of running a restaurant. And no hire can be as important as a sous chef — meaning “under-chef” — and the position directly under the chef de cuisine (the kitchen boss). In an essay inspired by years of good (and some bad) sous chef hires, Baker tells us the real deal behind recruiting for the position. And for those looking to get hired, brush up on your "Bukkake Tears."
We all know that day is going to come. The day when the sous chef you’ve been grooming for years approaches you and says, “I’ve been presented with a great opportunity to open a new place. I wasn’t looking for this, but it’s too good to pass up.” You smile through gritted teeth and wish them the best. All the while, you’re thinking about all the time and effort you’ve invested in them. You’ve molded them to think like you, analyze a dish like you, think about textures and flavors like you. And they’re just going to abandon ship?
Of course they are. They’ve done the shit work while you get the glory. They also get blamed for anything that went wrong. Now, it’s their time. You’ve done your job well and like a worried parent, you hope you’ve taught them everything they need to succeed. So, you leave the false sincerity behind and go get drunk with them to impart any final nuggets of wisdom. Then, you have to start the process of finding a new “them”.
You look around at your current staff. Sure, you’ve got some baller cooks, but they’re too young, too green and too emotionally immature to be a leader. You call your buddies to see if they have anyone who’s ready to move up. Strike two. You then resort to running an ad. Yes, an ad. This inspires fear and loathing in the stoutest of hearts, but it’s your last chance.
There’s a way to navigate these waters with a bit less stress. It works, I swear.
Step 1: Weed out the lazy assholes.
Craft a very detailed listing about who you are looking for — and place at least three requirements to apply. I insist on a resume, a cover letter including references and a list of three chefs they feel are changing the face of the food world at this time. If they omit any of these steps, trash their email immediately. It shows they can’t follow instructions, or were too lazy to read the entire posting. Either way, you don’t need them.
Now, let’s talk about the list of chefs: do you really want someone who lists Paula Deen as a game changer working for you? In my particular little space in the world, I keep trying to find ways to get closer to cooking with wood and fire. Do I really want someone who wants to play with sodium alginate and has extensive experience with CVAPs? On the other hand, you could be looking for that, so it’s good to know what rocks their world in cooking before moving forward.
Step 2: Enlist a gatekeeper to screen for crazies.
Congratulations, you found a few people that you think you could possibly work with – on paper. Time for interviews! But not with you. Put a gatekeeper between you and the candidate (preferably not a back-of-house member). This person has to know you well, know your staff well and be a shrewd judge of personality. They’re going to be the one who calls references and will suss out whether they’re an agro screamer or too loose to be effective. After the interview, make sure they watch the candidate walk back to their car. This crucial test once slipped through the cracks, only for me to find that the guy drove a purple convertible dude canoe. Great for them, but that’s definitely not going to fly with the personalities in my kitchen.
Step 3: Navigating the face-to-face interviews and subsequent stages.
We all know how to get through these. We talk technicalities, technique, management style, etc. We put them on the line to see if they’re a badass. We make them clean ridiculous amounts of protein, judge their sauce work and watch to see if they baste like a truck driver. If they can’t seem to schedule a stage on a Friday or Saturday, then they really aren’t that into you. So drop them like a bad habit. If you somehow, miraculously, find a person that you’d consider hiring to be joined at your hip from a pile of anonymous resumes, count yourself lucky and get ready for the next step.
Step 4: Get them drunk.
Take them drinking. Not just for a casual beer — we’re talking multiple beers. Or cocktails. Or bourbons. Whatever your poison is, make them have several. Let’s face it; you’re going to be spending more time with this potential hire than you will with your significant other, child or pet. How’s that gonna work if you can’t stand them after they get a bit buzzed? Liquid honesty provides proof in the pudding. There are some potentially bad things that can surface during this state – many candidates show that lack of emotional maturity. Saying things that should be saved for at least the third date that, ultimately, lead to a hasty exit with a promise to call tomorrow.
But if you both start quoting Anchorman, singing “Bukkake Tears” or both swear that your spouses are going to kill you for this, there might be hope after all. I swear to you this last step is productive and effective. I did this with my last sous hire and when they were promoted to Chef de Cuisine, they used the same method to find their sous. Doubt me no more. And be sure to call a cab.
Read more chef essays on Food Republic: