Beating the cook shortage

chefs restaurant


I need cooks. There’s been a lot of talk about that. How do I attract and keep them?

– Chef, Philadelphia, PA


Social media has been busy with a number of articles talking about the need for skilled cooks. It seems that despite the proliferation of culinary schools and wanna-be chefs, there is a problem recruiting and retaining kitchen talent, especially in cities with a vibrant restaurant scene.

Authors attribute this challenge to a variety of factors including changes in immigration patterns, generational differences where young cooks are less willing to pay their dues, low wages, and an economy that presents less physical and more lucrative opportunities. Of course analyzing the problem does little to actually help you combat it.

Here are some promising practices I’ve seen lately that may help individually or in combination.

  • Get in early. Partner with a local culinary and hospitality school. Get in front of the students through guest speaking, part-time instruction, advisory board service or special events. Be aggressive in inviting students into your restaurant for an internship or part-time work.
  • Provide a clear path to advancement. Many cooks leave because they are not committed to a career with you and see an opportunity to earn a higher wage or learn something new elsewhere. Provide benchmarks on a clear path to advancement. For example, after every six months, cooks earn an incremental raise. After two years, cooks are eligible for promotion with a preference for internal candidates. And so on.
  • Provide perks. Great staff meals; opportunities to visit tradeshows, conferences, or vendor fairs; outings to dine at competitors’ restaurants or observe food trends, and so on, while pricey, cost much less than the cost of losing a cook and training a new one.
  • Sell the team. Try to build a culture that focuses on a shared mission rather than an individual transactional environment. Give incentives for milestones like meeting food cost targets, having a cook-developed special sell well, being short staffed and picking up additional menu items on a station, and so on. In short, make cooks love being on the team.
  • Look at who you have.  In many cases, you may have a loyal employee who can be developed. A porter, busser, or counter person may be a cook-in-waiting. In that case you already have a proven and committed employee. You can teach the practical skills.

You’ll notice in all of the above examples, I didn’t mention wages. While money is important, a number of studies, especially of young people, indicate that money is not a primary motivator for retention. If employees love their jobs, money is a detail. If they hate it, it’s a focus.

More on recruiting and training cooks here

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