Greg Baker, chef-owner of The Refinery in Tampa, Florida, is a 20-year kitchen veteran, having worked in Portland, Oregon, and Austin before opening his James Beard Award-nominated restaurant in 2010.
Staffing is the part of my job that I hate the most. Weeding through stacks of shitty résumés in order to find that one baller applicant — or that one person with little experience but huge potential — is both a nightmare and a crapshoot. In a relatively small market like Tampa, the pool of kitchen talent is shallow at best. Not even the starfuckers — those who idolize Adrià and Chang and want to be the next Brock — come out to apply for a job. Many list Paula Deen as a chef who is influencing the course of American cuisine.
When my wife and I opened our second restaurant at the end of last year, we had some pretty optimistic pictures in our heads. But due to a year fraught with construction delays, three other high-profile restaurants opened before we could start hiring. The talent pool diminished to a puddle. In November, we sent up a flag and waited for the résumés to come pouring in.
Without the ability to stage such a large new crew, we relied on a series of interviews (with many no-shows) and odd skills-assessment tests in order to sort our applicants by level of preference: labeled group #1, #2 and #3. We hired every #1 applicant we could and in the end had a pretty solid crew. Then we hit more delays. When we should have had staff on payroll preparing to open, my wife was fighting to get the water turned on.
Finally, orientation day was set, and we called in the recruits. It turned out that a large number of them had "broken phones" — or took the phone off the hook and hid under the bed when we called. They had accepted other positions and wouldn’t even return a phone call (even simply to bail on our offer). So we called the 2s, then the 3s. We filled the holes in the team with the best of the worst. These are the people that you don’t waste your time learning last names because you know they won’t be around long enough to make the effort worth it. You give them nicknames because it’s much easier to differentiate that way. The guy with a massive cookbook collection who took two hours to dice a gallon of potatoes? “Cookbook,” of course. You’ve already got two Mikes on staff and you hire a third? He’s “Mustache Mike,” all day long. The guy who accepted the job and the pay rate, took four hours to make two quarts of boiled dressing and then asked how much he was being paid? No need for a nickname — he’s too dim and lazy for me to even remember what he looked like.
My job is to be a chef, a leader, a motivator and a teacher — the one to drag his team through anything and come out on top. It’s a feeble craftsman who blames his tools, but with great respect to the four original team members who are still with me and witnessed the horror of the opening crew (comprised of people who were only moving thanks to the lowest brain-stem functions), the majority of that bunch was every bad hire you’ve ever made in your career turned loose in your kitchen simultaneously.
“Who’s Mustache Mike?”
“He’s the guy named Mike who works with you, who has a mustache.”
“There’s a guy with a mustache working here?”
“Yes, he is working right beside you.”
I quickly began to envision myself as Will Ferrell’s Alex Trebek on SNL’s Celebrity Jeopardy.
And the category is: "Where are you right now?"
There’s not enough bourbon in the world to ease the pain of this one.
Me: “So, hey, what are you doing right now?”
Nameless Cook: “I’m working on lima beans.”
Me: “You have an empty pot in your hand and are standing by the office door. So, what exactly are you doing?”
NC: “I’m not sure.”
Me: “Did you read the recipe?”
NC: “Uh, yes!”
Me: “What’s the first ingredient that you need?”
NC: “I don’t remember.”
Me: “Could it be lima beans?”
NC: “I don’t think so.”
Me: “So, what exactly are you doing with that pot?”
NC: “I’m working on lima beans.”
Me: “Just give me that pot before you hurt yourself.”
"I'll take 'Anal Bum Cover' for $7,000."
The day that we received our first truckload of produce from one of our farmers, the whole crew was indoctrinated in proper receiving and rotation procedures. They went to the loading dock with our purchaser while I went to the cooler to start organizing.
Another Nameless Cook: “I have these two boxes and was told to put light with light.”
Me: “Light with light?”
ANC: “Yes. Was he referring to the color?”
Me: “I’m not quite following you. ‘Light with light’?”
ANC: “Yes — was he talking about the color of the boxes or the vegetables inside?”
Me: “Are you sure that you weren’t told to put ‘like with like,’ such as the fact that you have one case of collard greens and one case of mustard greens, and that maybe we want to put collards with collards and mustards with mustards?”
ANC: “No. But after that, where do we put the dark ones?”
And the Final Jeopardy question is: "Are horsies pretty? It's a yes-or-no question."
Me: “This bears very little resemblance to what I taught you to make yesterday, so what did you change?”
And Yet Another Nameless Cook: “Nothing that I recall.”
Me: “If it looked like this yesterday when we made it by the recipe and today it looks completely different, obviously you changed something. So what was it?”
Me: “Okay, one more time. It’s obvious that you changed something. WHAT. DID. YOU. CHANGE?”
AYANC: “Several things.”
There’s a laundry list of greatest-hits questions such as, “What should I stir this with?” (an uncooked piece of pasta, of course) and “Is there anything special that I should use to cut this bag open?” (on a scale of one to even, I literally can’t) that are worth mentioning, but not worth beating to death.
In the end, better employees found us, and we’ve embraced them. I really don’t know if there is any great takeaway from all of this; I just wish all of you reading this a gentler experience than mine.
Read more from Greg Baker on Food Republic: