There was a recent comment made by David Chang (via twitter) a week or more ago concerning the quality of cooks becoming successively worse from generation to generation. To those words, I disagreed with him on many aspects – one of which is in reference to the advent of food exposure/information, general knowledge and increased availability of science and technique out there today. The question or topic happened to end up on Eater National (found here). In the Eater article, they had multiple chefs weigh in on the discussion and describe the current state of affairs with cooks in their kitchen.
I found this topic interesting because recently there has been a good deal of shuffling with cooks in my own little makeshift kitchen for the café. I have never regarded my café kitchen as a particularly classic or serious one, but rather I have always told my cooks that what we may lack in terms of equipment or manpower, we will make up for in terms of approach and autonomy. I think when I first hired my cooks, there was a different sense of enthusiasm and I cemented a few very basic rules in the kitchen: 1. there is no shit talking in the kitchen, 2. leave your personal issues at home and 3. do your job.
So in the last 10 days, I have had one cook move on to better things (which I knew was coming and am very proud and happy about), another injure himself outside of the kitchen (now unable to work for an undefined term) and another canned because he was a no show (essentially quitting in an irresponsible manner). This is the tale of two cooks really – one motivated by a desire to learn, improve and continue to cook; the other unmotivated in his career by slowly decaying over personal issues, work ethic and maturity.
At this point, after interviewing 10-15 candidates (35-40 resumes), I had to make a decision as to how I would approach my new hiring process. I had seen a few cooks who had a good amount of experience and were interested in simply coming in to do their job and do it competently. I had also seen a fair amount of cooks who were a good deal less experienced, but looking for a chance to grow. So the question that ultimately came up and isn’t normally asked was: what is the preference for how you find or hire a cook?
To this, it seems that hiring a cook is actually more of an introspective experience than a logical one. There does not seem to be a shortage of resumes or people with experience that range from none to 20 years. I think I chose to hire based on what I thought my kitchen was capable of providing for the cooks that I bring to the staff. While we can point fingers at the cooks that come in and out of our kitchens/lives, I think sometimes chefs can overlook motivation over the more ever present necessities of experience and talent. With that I sometimes wonder, how can you expect someone to be successful at doing things your way or a certain way immediately when you hire someone who has been doing things someone else’s way for years?
I’m not particularly certain how we can avoid hiring poor cooks or how cooks turn from good to bad, but in my own mind, I feel that the failure of an unsuccessful cook is in part a failure to put him in a position of success. And oddly in the case of the fired cook, I should have fired him earlier when I had begun to see him unravel. What I will not say is that his failure is my lack of motivation because at the end of the day, nobody should be trying to push initiative on you. Initiative is something people get for themselves. If opportunities are not present, then I think it is the job of the cook to decide to either move on or make the most of a situation responsibly. And if they hang around too long without any motivation whatsoever, it would be smarter for everyone if chefs either encouraged to push them out or fire them.
In many instances, I think there are chefs that need to look in the mirror in terms of who they are and how they choose to run their kitchens. Maybe sometimes an abusive environment isn’t the best way to get the most out of cooks – and, in my case, maybe a tolerant one isn’t either. There is a good deal of misguided thinking in the ranks of cooking – maybe its wrong to continue the general thought that someone who moves through the ranks of becoming a chef are going to be good at managing, motivating and most importantly of all, teaching. There are so many trains of thoughts about good cooks and chefs versus bad ones that it would be an endless chicken and egg conversation, but I would say that relegating the issue to the question of “why cooks suck more today than the days of yester year” is a somewhat ridiculous premise. And if you answer it in a certain way, wouldn’t you end up pointing the finger in your own direction as the culprit? Every generation always feels the degeneration of the previous.
I’ve always been in the belief that the things that makes a good cook, sacrifice and hard work are things that people do when they want to succeed for themselves and are not a generation conundrum. Good cooks are the ones who are always accountable for their own success.