As a restaurateur, your single biggest priority may well be hiring the right chef. After all, the chef is the person who will set the tone for your entire kitchen and prepare your most important product: your food.

While you can always hire another chef, turnover in any industry is a huge drain on your wallet, energy and productivity. Hiring the wrong chef can also affect the productivity of your staff and the quality of your food, so it’s important to avoid making the wrong choice.

Recruiting

Here are a few tips for recruiting the best candidates for the position: 

Hire from within 

Perhaps you have a line cook or sous chef that shows real potential to become a head chef. These employees tend to be eager to break into a larger role, and because they are already familiar with your menu, style of cooking and atmosphere, they will need less of a learning curve than other candidates. In addition, letting all of your employees know that you offer advancement opportunities is a great way to increase the productivity, performance and morale of your entire team.

Use word-of-mouth

Ask other restaurant owners, your vendors and your employees for recommendations. Most people have many connections within the industry and can refer great talent.

Advertise

Sites such as StarChefs, iHireChefs, ChefJobs and even some of the larger job postings sites, like Craigslist, CareerBuilder and Monster, are great places to start. Also consider posting the ad in local papers, at nearby culinary schools, on social media sites and on association websites geared toward culinary professionals (e.g. the American Culinary Federation or the International Association of Culinary Professionals). Just be sure to fully outline exactly what you are looking for in the job ad, including specifics on experience, background and other requirements for the job.

Consult a recruiting agency

If all else fails, or you just don't have the time to do your own recruiting, turn to a headhunter to find solid candidates with your ideal skill set. While it will cost you if you hire a candidate through an agency, most agencies won’t bill you if they are unable to suit your needs.

Evaluating

Once applications start rolling in, there are many different ways that you can evaluate their fit for the job:

Match the chef to your concept

The person you hire must buy into your overall philosophy for the restaurant and help you bring your vision to life. You'll want to look for someone who specializes—or is at least experienced—in the style of food you plan to offer. While you may make an exception for a candidate who is extremely passionate about your approach, you likely won’t want to push your new chef too far out of his or her comfort zone, at least initially.

In addition, consider those candidates who want to be a part of the atmosphere you’re cultivating. If you want to offer fun, trendy foods that utilize the latest avant-garde techniques and flavor profiles, a chef committed to a more traditional cooking style might not be the best fit for your restaurant. A chef who wants to serve an upscale five-course meal may not get excited about serving pub food, even at an award-winning establishment.

Consider experience

Every restaurant, whether it is a small deli or a five-star bistro, requires a different level of skill and experience from the chef. Before you even begin looking for a chef, you must decide what level of experience you require for the position. A hungry (pun intended) candidate that’s fresh out of culinary school could easily offer you the skills and energy needed for the job. But will that person have the leadership skills to run the kitchen? On the other hand, can you afford a highly skilled chef with years of culinary experience, and will he or she easily adapt to your culture and methods?

Draft a list of expectations for the chef, and then request interviews with the people who most closely match that list. Ideally, you’ll want someone who has experience with the core tasks of the job, such as creating daily menus, building new menu items from scratch, sourcing ingredients from local food suppliers, managing inventory and/or budget, building and leading a team, operating specialty equipment, communicating with staff and customers, etc.

Complete a background check

You will want to complete an actual criminal background check, but in addition to that, speak to the chef’s previous employers, fellow co-workers or culinary instructors to gain insight on how well the chef can perform under pressure and with a team. Ask their references questions such as:

  • What kind of foods did the person regularly prepare?
  • What is the highest volume of orders you have seen this chef handle? How did he/she handle it?
  • What duties and responsibilities did you assign to the chef?
  • Was the food consistently prepared correctly?
  • How well did the chef handle hectic situations?
  • Does the chef do a good job of leading his/her team? Communicating with his/her team? Training his/her team?
  • Did the chef get along well with his/her peers?
  • Did he/she maintain a clean kitchen with healthy preparation standards?

Evaluate leadership skills 

First, decide how much control you want to hand over. Some restaurant owners want to play a huge role in the management of the kitchen. Others want their chefs to take the reins. Either way, you want to ensure that your chef has the ability to lead a team without your restaurant turning into an episode of “Hell's Kitchen.” 

Look for evidence of experience in the following areas.

  • Hiring a crew. You may control the hiring process; however, it is a great idea to at least involve your chef in the recruiting, interviewing and hiring of kitchen staff. He or she, after all, will be the one working closest with those staff members.
  • Scheduling kitchen staff to ensure enough people (and the right people) are onboard at any given time.
  • Training employees. Good chefs recognize and play to each team member’s strengths. In addition, they have the ability to train employees to eliminate weaknesses. If the chef doesn't have the patience to bring other employees up to speed in a respectful manner, you will likely deal with drama and high turnover.
  • Budgeting and cost optimization. Test your candidates on their ability to create a meal within a certain budget. Most chefs would love to buy the most expensive ingredients, but you need someone who can create delicious meals without killing your profit margin.
  • Monitoring inventory. Chefs will need to be responsible for ordering, storing and tracking inventory so that you don't run out of ingredients or—worse—have to throw out items that have gone bad.
  • Maintaining sanitary conditions. It’s the responsibility of your head chef to ensure that your kitchen is clean and that practices are implemented and maintained to prevent cross-contamination and other health hazards. Check if the candidate’s former restaurants had health-code violations while he or she was employed, and ask about the chef’s cleaning schedule and prep practices.

Have candidates cook for you

Once you have narrowed your list down to a few candidates, test them in the kitchen. Ask them to prepare some of your best-selling meals to see if they meet your quality expectations.

In addition, look beyond their food and evaluate other important qualities of a chef, such as their speed, whether they are clean and orderly, their ability to multitask, their knife work and other technical skills, their demeanor, communication skills, etc.

Look for passion 

Don't underestimate this criterion. Your chef should not only be passionate about food, but he or she should also take pride in serving people delicious meals and providing them with a memorable experience. They should show signs of excitement when talking about the work, and they should reveal a serious interest in creating new dishes, learning new techniques and helping their fellow co-workers grow.