Finding a good line cook to work at your restaurant is an extremely tough task, and keeping them there is an even tougher one. You might have already heard that it's nearly impossible to find good line cooks nowadays, and the situation has only gotten even more dire. This is a working-class industry where even 50 cents more an hour is enough for another restaurant to poach your best line cook from his or her position.
I have a medium-sized restaurant in downtown Los Angeles, with about 30 employees in total—ten of those are line cooks. While there is no surefire way to insure loyalty in any job nowadays, there is something that I have learned as an executive chef—that has climbed his way to owning his own restaurant after working through every back-of-the-house available over the last eight years—that makes a big difference in whether your line cooks stay with you for a while or not. It's a rather old-school thing that you can do.
It all boils down to one simple thing: respect.
If you look at the history of chefs, the military has always gone hand in hand with us, from cooking schools originally descending from cooking programs run by military forces to the back of the house's brigade system being very similar to the military ranking system. The same values—respect, loyalty, and discipline—that are expected when serving are applicable in a kitchen environment, too.
If your cooks are unhappy, then you will taste their unhappiness through their food.
The very first thing that I do as soon as I step foot into my restaurant's kitchen is acknowledge everybody by name and shake their hand. I also tell each and every one of my cooks, "Thank you, I appreciate you" before they leave. Everyone wants to be respected and acknowledged. I believe that the reason why there is so much turnaround in this industry is because of a lack of respect in the workplace. Would you want to show up to a place where you start to feel uncomfortable or worse, like you don't belong there? There is nothing worse than busting your ass for something that doesn't mean anything to you. This urge to belong is the same psychology that pushes someone in the inner-city to want to belong in a gang. If you respect them, then they respect you, and they will most likely to respect everyone else, the space, and the equipment, and so on and on.
These are all [business] relationships with people at the end of the day, so it takes the same things to have a good, long relationship: trust, communication, and love.
If your cooks are unhappy, then you will taste their unhappiness through their food. I have an open-door policy at my restaurant, and I feel this is a huge reason why my cooks have stayed with me. If one of my employees has an issue, they know that they can come out back to my office and talk to me. I strive to make myself approachable to my staff so that they don't have to hide anything and be upfront with whatever they are feeling. When you're the owner of the restaurant, your staff's concerns are your concerns, whether you like it or not.
My process is to play a counselor or a grandfather to my workers. I communicate, build a bridge, come up with possible solutions, fix it, and then get over it because we're all in this together.
At the same time, you can't be too nice about things. Sometimes this means that you just have to tell them to snap out of it because we're all artists and it's time to perform. This method has really helped me in the kitchen because you never know what one of your employees is dealing with at home, and it's far easier to assume the worst when they're under so much pressure than giving someone the benefit of the doubt. These are all [business] relationships with people at the end of the day, so it takes the same things to have a good, long relationship: trust, communication, and love.
You can teach anyone technique, but attitude and work ethic are two things you just can't teach no matter how hard you try.
As far as the best method through which to filter your future loyal line cooks, sure, you may find some the occasional good cook through Craigslist, Workpop, or referrals from friends or colleagues. But in my opinion, the cooks with the highest potential are always the ones that come into the restaurant and physically hand you their resume. Even if they don't have much experience, it's these fine individuals who are the hungriest to learn from you. These are the people you can move up your restaurant and maybe eventually run the restaurant for you on your day off, like my dishwasher from two years ago does now.
You will always have the primadonna applicant with a killer fuckin' resume who has bounced around from place to place and city to city who doesn't have the right attitude. When you run into these guys or girls, remember: You can teach anyone technique, but attitude and work ethic are two things you just can't teach no matter how hard you try. I'm sorry to say that a lot of culinary school graduates tend to have the most entitled attitudes. I don't hire friends or family, either. It's hard for some people to separate friendship from business, and when you want to correct a problem, they sometimes can take it personally.
Alas, the most important thing to remember is that without your staff, you are nothing.
As told to Javier Cabral
This interview has been edited for length and clarity.
Mario Christerna is the chef and owner of The Briks in downtown LA. For more information about his restaurant, check out their website. This article previously appeared on MUNCHIES in September, 2016.