Updated: Jul 18, 2020
At the very beginning of the COVID-19 outbreak, I was fortunate enough to speak at the 2020 Chef to Chef Conference in Charlotte, NC. The topic I spoke about was addressing some of the recruiting and retention challenges that we have been facing in our industry for quite some time. The difference between my talking points and the talking points of past presentations of this topic were that they focused a bit more on the mental health of ourselves as Chefs, as well as the mental health of our line level staff. I suggested that maybe we display a better understanding of and show more care for our fancy kitchen equipment or our ingredients than we do the minds of our team. I also spoke about the “industry marketing” that floods social media and potentially deters prospective young cooks who are contemplating a career in professional kitchens to take another path. The “industry marketing” I am referring to comes in many forms. Sometimes it is a picture of a cook crouched down on a baine marie or milk crate inhaling their only meal of the shift behind the line. I will not presume to tell anyone that these moments that have been captured are right or wrong nor do I think that is necessarily the problem. It is the narrative in the comments below the picture that is alarming to me. Chefs from all walks of culinary life leaving comments like “some of the best meals I ever had were eaten over a trash can,” or “it took me a while to get used to eating at a table like a normal person when I left the industry,” or the ever popular “#cheflife.” My point was, maybe young people who grew up cooking with Grandma and have developed a love for food and for feeding others and are now thinking about pursuing a career in our profession see these comments from Chefs that they look up to and decide that the industry is simply not for them. You see, it is perfectly fine for us veteran Chefs to trade stories of the past and reminisce about the way it was coming up as a young cook. Maybe we just need to be conscious of the context in which we share and know that there may be unintended consequences to our nostalgia.
During my presentation, I also discussed mental health and self-awareness in our industry. Our industry is one of the only industries in which we create a product by hand, from scratch, and to order day after day. As a result, it is also a stressful industry that has been known to plague its employees with anxiety, depression, substance abuse, and a myriad of other stress related health issues. Any one of us can tell you intimately how to properly care for our new Combi Oven, sighting the manual on proper descaling practices and how to ensure the Mother Board or ‘brains” of the unit should be cared for to ensure longevity. How much do we know about and care for our own brains, or the brains of the 10 cooks that are doing the other 98% of the work for us? A combi oven is expensive but can be found and purchased easily if needed. A promising young cook is priceless and I think we all agree, not as easy to find these days.
This article would have been much different prior to the pandemic and probably would have been a complete and more detailed recap of my talk in Charlotte, as it is a topic that I have become very passionate about. However, since things have drastically changed since then, I have a slightly different message to convey. As we seem to be very slowly turning a gradual corner in our current situation and begin to approach a phased reopening of our operations, we are all carefully formulating plans to welcome back our members and guests and hopefully restore normal revenue streams to begin healing the bottom line. While that is all good stuff and hugely important, are we putting enough thought into how to welcome the team members who have been furloughed back to our operations? Can we use this time to reflect on the aforementioned thoughts and perhaps introduce our employees to a fresh new environment?
I believe the first logical step would be to reach out to your furloughed team, just to say hello and see how they are doing. Don’t forget that even though they are not working and they have the opportunity for some down time, they are dealing with a new set of stress. Aside from the obvious financial strain that some are feeling, others may have a loved one who has been infected with the virus or has some other health issue but cannot accept visitors. Some may have had someone close who has passed away but cannot travel to say goodbye. Many people are just struggling with the rapid changes of their environment due to this pandemic whether home schooling or social distancing. You might be asking, “why should we care if it’s not work related” or “I have my own issues to deal with.” We use the word ‘family’ a lot in this industry. Usually only at break time when everyone sits for Family Meal. Think about how you treat family, and ask yourself those questions again. Simply getting to know your team and being empathetic to their individual situations can serve as a powerful tool to positively impact their lives and outlook on the workplace.
So what can we do to create the most positive return for our teams? Perhaps, in addition to presenting a fish butchery demo to our teams, we can arrange for an expert come in to discuss stress management. Why not organize a group meditation or yoga workshop to teach people how to deal with their anxiety? If you have an in house fitness team, maybe they can help facilitate this at little cost to the operation. If you do not, and cost is the issue, there are likely several hospitality operations in your area that would be willing to chip in and share the costs for their own team. We can also look at our employee meal offerings and consider a more healthful approach, providing our “little machines” with fuel that will promote a higher level of performance. I can throw out ideas all day, but based on the creativity that I have seen from Chefs and Club managers around the country who are putting together care packages of toilet paper and facemasks for members, I am certain that we are capable of developing effective and economical programs to benefit our teams as well.
Many of us, no doubt will be putting together presentations for our memberships that tell the story of “while you were away,” or “this is what’s new and exciting just for you.” What does the presentation look like for the ones we will need to rely on in order to deliver this excitement? Does the term “new normal” (which I hate by the way) always need to have a negative connotation and reflect how the virus has forced more challenges into our world? We, as an industry have a unique opportunity to reflect on our past practices and leadership styles and create a better and more appealing “marketing” plan to help, not only attract new people into the industry, but to better retain the ones we already have. Perhaps, if we can do this collectively, we may not have to attend future lectures on the challenges of recruiting in our industry.