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Cooking tests for executive chefs

chef test

Question:

I am interviewing executive chefs and want to include a cooking test component. Are there any formats you recommend?

– Resort Owner, Poconos, Pennsylvania

Answer:

Many chefs rise through the ranks of their organizations. If you don’t have anyone in house who can take the helm, looking outside can be a challenge. First, of course, you may find someone at a competing property and can taste the food, chat with employees about the chef’s leadership, and get a sense of her or his reputation among guests.

If you are testing an unknown person it is a particular challenge as a resume can tell you a lot about the kinds of places a chef has worked and the volume and supervisory levels, but not much about the food itself. We are going through a similar interviewing process now and I always like to include two tastings:

  • One pre-planned written menu appropriate to the restaurant with the question, “If we hired you to be chef, please provide a sample tasting menu that would be a good fit for our concept.”
  • One walk-in clean out mystery basket where the chef can pull together various ingredients on hand to do an improvised last-minute menu with the help of current cooks. For this, I might say you have a last-minute late night party that would like a tasting menu or a VIP guest with a number of allergies and a limited time frame like 60 or 90 minutes.

I like to insist on both those tastings because I think it highlights two things: First, how well the chef understands and fits with your concept and what they could bring to the table if given free reign. You can also learn a lot as an owner from their tasting menu—are they paying attention to the sourcing of the products? Are they running low food-cost items that they dress up for big culinary impact or are they focused on premium center-of-plate items? Are they using many components, techniques and a lot of equipment or keeping things simple? The second, improvisational, exercise is a good test of how the chef performs when things are not going as planned—how do they quickly adapt for situations like allergies, missed deliveries, or unexpected volume under pressure.

Brian Lofink, Executive Chef of Kraftwork, Sidecar Bar and Kermit’s in Philadelphia uses a similar strategy but takes it one step further when hiring chefs de cuisine and sous chefs. “I have them write a specials sheet for each category—soup, flatbread, entrée, burger—then teach it to both the back and front of house and run it for a night to see how it goes. I look for how the food is but also how he relates to everyone.”

Clear from both approaches is that a great resume is no substitute for tasting the food, seeing how the chef interacts with future employees and colleagues, and getting a sense of how she or he fits the concept.

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