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Blog at Chefify

Career and Recruitment Tips From a Head Chef

Nov 20 2018 - 12:45pm
Robert Key is currently the head chef at Stanwell House in Lymington, UK. The popular boutique hotel has two rosettes, but with Key recently taking over the restaurant’s kitchen, sights are set on a third. Although still in his early thirties, the young chef has trained and paid his dues in many of the UK’s top kitchens to earn his title. As someone who values the importance of thorough culinary education and mentorship, he shares some fantastic insights into how you can develop a career in the restaurant business, he also discusses his methodology when hiring solid team players for his kitchen.

Did you go to catering college and would you recommend it?

Yes, I went to Northampton College where I got all of my initial qualifications. I’ve also received Level 3 Food Hygiene training through work.

If you aspire to be a head chef or take on any kind of management role in the catering industry, then I believe that education is a must. It’s important to acknowledge, however, that no amount of education will prepare you for the hard work you have to be willing to put in. It took me three years to work my way up to becoming chef de partie when I first started out.

When did you start working in kitchens?

From the age of 19.

Did you ever do a work placement or apprenticeship?

My college allowed me to do a three-week stage in Versaille, France. I do encourage taking up some kind of experience training. In this industry, knowledge and recipes are worth a lot.

When did you start having a say in the kitchen’s recruitment process?

I was 26 years old and working as a sous chef under a remarkable head chef who taught me a tremendous amount.

Is mentorship a big part of becoming a good chef?

College is good – it will teach you how to cook, but learning how to manage people is harder. You will encounter many different personalities and challenges. For example, when working with people with disabilities you need to adjust your management approach. I was fortunate enough to have a mentor who really helped me to hone my people skills.

Are angry chefs a real thing?

The hours that we work as chefs are often very long and anti-social. You can’t be abusive or negative towards your staff under any circumstance, especially when people are tired and rushed.

We are currently exploring changing our shifts to give our kitchen staff a longer resting period, this should hopefully make a positive impact on physical and mental health.

I believe that a head chef should lead by example. I don’t expect my staff to work the same hours as me, my motives and my goals may be different to theirs. You have to treat people respectfully.

What makes kitchens a unique working environment?

Anyone that works 12 hours a day, under this amount of pressure, has to have a very unique personality.

I’d say the kitchen camaraderie is very similar to that of the army. You work in a tight unit and go through everything together: the good services, the bad services, the complaints, the compliments to the chef – you stand by each other all the way. When you have solidarity in a kitchen, you can do anything.

How do you establish a good work culture in your kitchen?

I set the standard. I let everyone know they are looked after, make sure they go for breaks, help and teach them so that we achieve consistency.

If you show them that you’re involved in everything – and not just sitting on your phone – it sends the right message.

How do you start the recruitment process when it’s time to hire new people?

It depends on the role I need to fill and the shift pattern I need to match. I’ll list what’s expected, the working hours, any benefits we offer and whether uniform is provided. Then I’ll get in touch with agencies or post jobs on websites. Social media plays a big part as well.  

For senior roles like management, we find that agencies get better results. For juniors, it’s websites and word of mouth.

How many applicants do you interview and how long does it take?

The location of the restaurant largely determines how many applicants I get and how long it takes to find the right person for the job. Outside of the big cities, it can be challenging to attract the best candidates.

We will usually shortlist around three CVs.

Do you conduct interviews by yourself or do you involve other team members?

Usually, my sous chef helps out. Also, the owner of Stanwell House, Robert Milton sits in on some of the interviews – he’s a very hands-on boss, always super helpful and supportive of what we do in the kitchen.

When assessing a CV, what are you looking out for?

I look for people that have played team sports and team activities. It shows you work well together with others. Football and rugby are more important than Playstation. If I’m going to have to spend a long part of my day with this person, I’m looking for an allrounder.

What’s the next step?

We invite the candidates in and ask them to bring their knives and whites. We’ll have a chat and a coffee, and then we’ll get in the kitchen.

I don’t really do phone interviews unless the applicant lives far away. I prefer to go straight into the practical based interview.

Keep in mind that you have to pay people for trials shifts in the UK.

What are you looking out for in a trial interview?

Cleanliness, speed, attention to detail. We’ll test knife skills and maybe ask them to prepare something from the menu. People will open up more in the kitchen than they would in an office interview, so I use this opportunity to chat about their background.

Has anyone ever done a work trial and changed their mind about the job?

Yes, sometimes people may decide that the place is too busy for them, the food is too much, or they don’t like the layout of the kitchen – multiple factors could affect that person’s decision. It’s better to be honest.

Have you ever had a bad experience with a new hire?

Yes, I think it’s inevitable in any industry. In this particular case, the person was really negative about the establishment, it was unfounded, and it was lowering the morale of the team. Suffice to say, things didn’t work out there.

Best experience hiring someone?

My current sous chef is great, we get along on every level, and it’s good fun working with him.

What roles are you finding it harder to recruit for?

For some reason, chef de partie and commis chef are hard roles to fill – in my experience. I’ve encountered an awful lot of kids that come out of college these days and believe they are ready to be sous chefs right away.

Unfortunately, they don’t have the cooking skills or the management experience to understand the business side of things. There aren’t any shortcuts in the restaurant business. You need to stay in a role for at least a year for it to mean something on your CV and you have to be willing to work your way up.

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Robert’s success is undoubtedly down to his ability to set goals and seek out the people and restaurants that have helped to develop his skills. He enjoys a great rapport with his current kitchen staff and is passionate about the food they plate up, making use of locally sourced ingredients and taking inspiration from the marina surroundings of Stanwell House Hotel. He believes in passing on what he’s learnt and providing people with the opportunities to grow – as long as they show the willingness to do so.

Look out for November’s content offer where we will help you to formulate your own recruitment process and show you how you, too, can create a positive corporate culture in your kitchen, helping to build your absolute A team.

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