More Hands On Deck- What I Look For In A Baker

When you decide (and are given the opportunity) to be a team leader, you will eventually have to decide how to build your team. As tempting as it is to want to feed everything to a formula or algorithm, scan resume after resume and call in anyone that fits the metrics you need, we all know that doesn’t always pan out.

Life is messy and squishy. The people you hire may have the technical skills you need, but lack the interpersonal and intrapersonal skills that would make them effective. It’s hard to set hard numbers on “soft skills”– and even harder to gauge how a person will interact with and impact the performance of others.

Hiring for a kitchen is a masterclass in these factors. It’s hard to imagine a more brutal crucible than a busy restaurant or bakery. The work is rough, the atmosphere can be tense, and the nature of the business is working closely with others. Tempers and passions flare, motivations clash, and successful teams are the ones where everyone can pull together.

What do I look for in a would-be piemonger? A lot of what you’d expect, but maybe not how you expect it.

“And now that I have got my terms I will tell you my reasons for making up my mind to go. First of all, gentlemen, I have been observing you both for the last few days, and if you will not think me impertinent I may say that I like you, and believe that we shall come up well to the yoke together. That is something, let me tell you, when one has a long journey like this before one.”
Allan Quatermain, King Solomon’s Mines by H. Rider Haggard

1. Competence

Note that that header doesn’t say “work history” or “education.” Both of those things can offer testament to competence, but they are not a replacement for it. Before I get someone into the kitchen for a working interview or stage, competence is revealed through questions asked, mannerisms, bearing, and demonstrated knowledge. For example:

  • Asking me specific questions about the nature of our production, its tempo, and the range of the menu indicate that they’ve got experience with handling large production operations and varied recipes.
  • The ease in which they carry themselves meeting with me and “talking shop” shows how comfortable they are in addressing concerns regarding something they know well.
  • Lastly, their use (but not overuse or incorrect use) of jargon gives me an idea of at least what they’ve been exposed to. The manner in how they use it will tell me if they are trying to impress/bullshit me- which can color the rest of my perception of them regardless of how many big names they’ve got on their CV.

2. Passion

Baking and cooking can be grueling and largely thankless work. There are times when you would rather chew a fistful of gravel than show up to work and make one more friggin’ pie for these entitled asshats. Passion and Dedication are what will get you out of bed the mornings you’d rather stay in, and keep you on the straight and narrow rather than cutting corners. Before I bring someone into the shop, passion can reveal itself in:

  • The vibe they give off. No, I’m not kidding. If someone interviews with me for a job and their energy says “This is just another paycheck,” their experience won’t count as much as someone who’s read my menu, is curious about how we work, and is eager to get busy.
  • How they talk about their interests. I always ask people what they do outside of work. Not just because I want people who will be well-rounded, happy, and healthy, but because people reveal more of their true selves when you get them excited. I want to see if I can get them to gush and infodump. I want to hear them wax poetic about their favorite meals. If the quality of work I get out of you will depend on how much caffeine I can keep in your system, I’d rather just hire someone that wants to be here.
  • Opinions. Passion is a positive AND a negative. I wouldn’t try to make anyone mad per se, but I want to se what gets them charged up. What will kick them into overdrive (or drive them to distraction?) There’s nothing wrong with stoicism or keeping your thoughts to yourself, but baking can be beautiful and exciting work and a cold fish can chill a team.
Close-up of “passion” defined in the dictionary

3. Quality

To me, “quality” is the synthesis of Character, Bearing, Connectivity, and Grace. In essence, a persons quality is the part that makes me feel like I can trust them, I can talk openly with them, and I can rely on them to do or act the way I need them do.

  • Manners and Behavior. Are they on time? Did they communicate if they wouldn’t be? Does their appearance and demeanor demonstrate that they respect my time and the hiring process I’m using? If not, I don’t care what their CV says. Respect is not “earned” by anyone. Respect is a given. Disrespect is always earned, and I have no need for slobs or big egos who think their skills will speak for themselves.
  • Dedication. There are lots of good reasons to job hop. Even reasons to do it often- but one can’t expect to have 5 jobs in the space of a year go unaddressed. I don’t need to hire someone who seems (or in one notable case, even said) that they might leave when they get tired or bored. I’d rather hire someone who has the patience and time to learn.
  • Personability. The world is hard sometimes and I don’t expect everyone who works in my kitchen to be happy all the time or perfectly compartmentalize the stressors of their outside lives. We are squishy, messy, emotional creatures, and emotional intelligence involves honoring and managing all of those emotions- not just pretending they don’t exist. Regardless, if someone comes off as a whiner, a downer, overly cocky, or likely to gossip, I won’t give a lot of thought to their supposed skills. Culture eats strategy for breakfast, and maintaining harmony on the team counts for a lot more than lengthy experience.

In kitchens, we have the ability (and need) to do working interviews. This is where the rubber meets the road- where I get to see for myself a persons demeanor at work, their elan in a kitchen, and whether I can see myself working beside them for 40+ hours a week. Before that, though, I’ve learned to listen to my gut and the alarm bells in my mind when talking to new recruits. This is how I decide who’s worth the time and investment in teaching, and who might do better elsewhere.

After all, if you think hiring a good cook is expensive, try hiring a bad one.

Stay Classy,

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