The top 5 traits to look for when hiring cooks and chefs

It’s a challenge for full-service restaurants: the ability to find and keep great kitchen staff. Even if management is fortunate enough to source and hire a top-talent chef, the issue becomes keeping a star employee and being confident they will stay loyal to the establishment. The good news is you can hire or screen for traits that will help ensure you find great chefs, and that they stick around.

Back-of-house work is stressful. It’s no surprise that turnover is a problem. It can be an inferno of flaring tempers, literal fires, and chaos. If chefs aren’t equipped to handle the heat — or put out the fire — in high-stress circumstances, they won’t last. This is compounded by the fact that many fall prey to the lure of even slightly higher wages offered by the competition.

The first step in finding a truly great chef who is qualified in culinary arts and in coping with kitchen chaos is knowing what to look for in terms of personality traits or strengths. Our research into this area with industrial organization expert Dr. Jerry Kehoe, Ph.D., as well as years of confirming the theory with actual “star” chefs from our full-service restaurant clients, shows that looking for the following specific traits can help when screening for chefs or cooks:

Stress Tolerance: Kitchens run out of ingredients; orders get messed up; plates get delivered to wrong tables; allergy restrictions are forgotten; food is served at the wrong temperature; extra cheese doesn’t satisfy a customer’s request. And this is a good day! When these situations arise, it’s crucial that cooks don’t get stressed, offended, or frustrated. As loud and noisy as back-of-house may get during a shift, it’s imperative that these individuals can focus on fixing problems right away and moving forward. Some people are wired to do this well, while others are unable to “drop” an issue to be handled later, after customers are fed. Stress tolerance is one measure that can reveal this in a potential hire.

Reliability/Consistency: The kitchen manager is not always around to supervise. Cooks need to be consistently efficient and reliable. They must know when lunch rush happens and make sure things are ready. During down time, they must be able to fulfill duties independently and prep the things needed for the next shift. If you’ve got a “diva-style” creative type who is great on garnishes but forgets to restock necessities before a shift, you’re in trouble. Thankfully, you can ask questions during hiring to determine if someone has these traits.

Drive: Sometimes the pantry is overwhelmed with salad orders, and other times the deep fryer is overflowing with fish and fries. There's only so much space on the grill. This requires all cooks to cooperate accordingly, to motivate each other, and to know when to jump in and help out. When the rush comes, it’s important to have everyone in the appropriate places and good cooks know how to “pivot” and offer extra hands where needed. The ability to persevere and push through setbacks is extremely valued.

Innovativeness: No matter how many pre-proportioned guacamoles or pre-made apple pies are done in the morning — at times, product will inevitably run out. A cook must think quickly and be proactive when these situations arise. A server explaining that they “ran out” is a poor excuse to any guest who has just ordered their meal. Knowing when to stock what is low, where to buy supplies, and who to borrow stock from are all issues that kitchen staff should be able to solve intuitively. Cooks should have the ability to think outside the box and handle problems creatively.

Learning/Problem Solving: Each and every dish must be presented perfectly, with the proper amount of attention and detail. Plates must be manicured, toppings must be garnished accurately, and each dish must be delivered at the perfect temperature. In a dynamic environment where so many things can change on the fly, the ability to adapt quickly and adjust is valuable. And cooks who can make the next version of the same dish even better — they're gold.

These traits may seem obvious, but screening for them takes focus. Hiring managers can start by asking scenario and behavioral questions in interviews. For example, ask candidates for “real life” examples that show how they recovered from a setback outside of the kitchen. Ask references to rate the candidate on these traits from high to low, or to share a story where they witnessed the candidate demonstrating them.

If this seems daunting, there are also easy-to-use online tools and surveys that can help you save time and also accurately measure a candidate for these traits and compare them to those of a top chef.

There are several other important personality traits that contribute to the makeup of a top chef: a genuine consideration for others, strong organizational skills, and the ability to recover from setbacks, to name a few. We’ve found, however, that these five traits compose the quintessential “perfect helix” structure in the DNA of an all-star cook.

Expert Takes, Feature