To be fully effective an onsite executive chef must combine the charisma of a culinary showman, the gift of a great trainer, the chops of an R&D chef and the business savvy of a mid-level manager.
Few chefs arrive on your doorstep with all these skill sets in place. As a foodservice director, it’s your job to recruit and develop individuals who can perform a true balancing act and grow into all of these roles.
“The department will make or break based on the quality of an executive chef—that’s how critical it is,” says Michael Atanasio, manager, food and nutrition, Overlook Medical Center, Summit, NJ.
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“An executive chef has to be all things to all people, and that’s not easy,” agrees Ken Toong, director of auxiliary enterprises, University of Massachusetts-Amherst. “The right executive chef has above-average culinary knowledge in terms of local, regional and world cuisine, as well as excellent interpersonal skills, a high level of energy and passion for their role, along with being a creative individual and a leader.”
Just as a good chef juggles the components of a complex meal—the ingredients, the technique, the timing and the presentation all coming together at once—a good executive chef must juggle the expectations of administration, the talents of the team, the cravings of customers and the needs of the organization...all while making it look easy.
Directors and managers can support this high-flying routine by finding the best candidate from the initial interview to establishing expectations to developing the executive chef’s talents and those of the culinary team, too. Done correctly, it can set the stage for that all-important—but intangible—‘it’ factor: passion for food and for service.
FM found that managers and directors who have faced the challenge of developing well-balanced executive chefs over many years have some universal truths to share.
Camp Howard, CEC, is an executive chef-turned-manager. He has moved up the culinary ladder after years of working the line, becoming an executive chef and eventually director of Vanderbilt University’s Campus Dining department. He started cooking in ski and beach resorts and then attended culinary school. He was working as an executive chef at a country club when he saw a newspaper ad for an executive chef job at the University of Tennessee.
“That would be interesting,” Howard thought. After an intense interview process, he got the job, reported for work, and soon was learning that it took a lot more to manage a culinary team in a campus setting than it did in his past jobs.
“It’s different in terms of being a member of the community, where the students are the focal point,” Howard says. In 1997, he moved to Vanderbilt, in a role of assistant director/executive chef, a position with more authority, and more involvement with all the stakeholders: the administration, staff and students.
Vanderbilt at the time was re-engineering its entire approach to residential and retail dining. Howard was an integral part of those initiatives, creating menus and working in the units to streamline processes and elevate food quality. A few years later, when revenue had doubled, Howard knew he’d played a significant role in the transition.
Now, as director, Howard is still very involved in the culinary side, he says.
“A culinary background for a director has its advantages,” Howard says. “I can walk into every facility and because I’ve done every job, I can understand its operational details and complexity.”
It also makes him a bigger presence on the food side.
“Our department is very food focused and I want it to be right,” he says. “I’m always encouraging our team to push the envelope and I’m never happy with the status quo.”
What does Howard look for in an executive chef?
“Creativity and great ideas are important,” he says. “And I hire attitude. Bad food comes from people who don’t care.” Being able to generate engagement and enthusiasm from a team is important, too.
“I don’t care if a chef is talented, charismatic and can cook with their eyes closed,” Howard says. “If they can’t influence the staff, to work side-by-side with them in a trainer’s role, to communicate a clear set of expectations—that’s a problem.”
In an onsite setting, the challenges of an executive chef are different than those of a commercial kitchen. Communicating that is key during the interview process, says Julie Jones, MS, RD, LD, director of nutrition services at The Ohio State University Wexner Medical Center, Columbus, OH.
For example, chefs coming from a commercial restaurant may take it for granted that food is at the core of every decision made. But in healthcare, “there is a strong clinical nutrition component and many dietary modifications in play,” Jones says. “Coming to healthcare, there can be a form of culture shock.”
“A successful executive chef is able to listen for intent. What is this organization trying to accomplish?” she adds. “Listening creates a two-way street of communication and learning. Healthcare chefs are well-versed in nutrition because they have to be.”
Establishing expectations is especially important in a K-12 setting as well. A K-12 executive chef can be a great resource for kid-friendly food trends and flavors, “but following our cost and nutrition parameters is important,” says Lora Gilbert, senior director, food and nutrition services, Orange County (FL) Public Schools.
“Over time, the model and responsibilities for an executive chef have changed,” adds Stu Orefice, executive director, Princeton University. “He or she has to be innovative and creative but also computer literate (from inputting nutritional data to taking a great iPhone shot of a plated entree).”
In all high-volume environments, chefs must take quality and consistency very seriously while keeping an eye on costs.
“Someone who’s used to doing 50 covers a night in a restaurant needs to understand that we still make any given dish as if it was for 50, it just happens to be for 500,” says Nadeem Siddiqui, resident district manager, Bon Appetit, Washington University in St. Louis, MO, where 20,000 transactions a day take place.
What’s more, the typical college customer expects great food that’s not only healthful, but also sustainable.
“If you don’t have great food, what do you have?” Siddiqui says. “The culture of campus dining has changed, so you have a higher obligation to deliver a program that’s better than expected.”
Developing Leadership Skills
Once a new executive chef has earned his or her culinary cred with staff and the administration, it’s time to ensure the chef works on developing leadership skills that will help the organization weather any challenges that could lie ahead.
A critical role of the executive chef is inspiring staff to do their best and fostering a good chemistry within the team, like a great coach.
“An executive chef must have the ability to work through people to get things done,” says Howard. “A good chef can come up with an idea, but a great chef can come up with an idea that can be executed by someone else.”
Leading and concisely instructing staff makes a huge difference in an operation. It shows in the quality of the food and how efficiently the operation is run.
At Rex Health Care in Raleigh, NC, the role of the executive chef has included a responsibility for a change in culture.
“The chef has to be the catalyst for change,” says Jim McGrody, director of food and nutrition.
McGrody and Executive Chef Ryan Conklin, CEC, have worked together to change the team’s attitude about everything from coming to work on time to dressing better to setting up their station right to properly searing a piece of meat to dealing with an irate customer to big-picture problem solving.
The well-known Black Hat Chefs program emphasizes training in problem solving and critical conversations with staff, as well as training in basic culinary skills. It’s a great source of pride for those who have participated, and builds that all-important sense of ownership for each job in the kitchen.
And to follow up with training, an executive chef must hold teams and individuals accountable. “If I taught you how to sear, the next time, you better still know how to sear,” McGrody says.
Finding the Next Superstar
Keeping an eye out for energetic, talented individuals within the organization and offering professional development opportunities can lead to finding the next superstar executive chef or chef-manager.
“We identify diamonds in the rough and get them involved with senior leadership,” says Russell DeCesare, Sodexo’s senior director of implementation and training. “The number-one trait I look for in line cooks or sous chefs to determine if they’re up-and-coming is attitude. That’s almost the whole battle. If they’re asking a lot of questions, if they’re like a sponge picking up skills, that’s what I look for.” (See sidebar on p. 27 for traits of a future leader.)
Years ago, DeCesare met a great baker at one account. She had the requisite great attitude, and she was well rounded in the kitchen: displaying the skills necessary for the hot line, for example, not just the bake shop.
DeCesare worked with the baker’s manager, asking, “How can we get Claire more involved?” When events and demonstrations came up, the manager made sure that Claire played a part. She has since moved up to executive chef roles in different locations.
“We want to grow our people and give them opportunities,” Siddiqui adds. “Of our 340 employees, every one of them, if they want to move up, they can.”
Sodexo has had great success with a chef-to-chef model for training and professional development, in part because “a chef will listen to another chef,” says DeCesare.
If an executive chef is a little weaker in the area of purchasing, for example, that chef will be paired with another chef for either a face-to-face or virtual conversation/training.
“It’s powerful to get that chef-to-chef training, because they’re speaking the same language,” DeCesare says. “They have the same everyday processes.” And it’s a win-win: “The chef who is assisting/teaching gains valuable leadership experience.”
Sodexo has a culinary forum that brings executive chefs together, especially when new programs are being rolled out. This gives chefs an opportunity to see what their peers are doing and doing well.
Another model that Sodexo uses is the Culinary Communications module, an educational series that’s about 3 hours of in-person training by an executive chef/manager team. Topics include how to communicate to staff, setting up recipes so they can be easily implemented, setting goals for staff, techniques and scheduling.
The program is in the process of being converted to easy-to-digest 10-minute segments on Sodexo’s intranet.
A resource like NACUFS can be a great building block for strong culinary teams. Its chef competitions—preparing for the event, then competing with different chefs from across the country—can elevate food in the mind of a sous chef or a production chef, Orefice of Princeton says.
“Competing on campus, whether or not it’s part of getting ready for NACUFS, is great for chefs to bring the focus back to food,” he says, adding that theme nights, working with students who have studied abroad for new recipes, and other monotony-breakers can also serve as professional development opportunities.
Many directors have found that making sure the culinary team has access to new cookbooks and subscriptions to food magazines helps keep them current on trends.
At UMass, chefs will be working closely with farmers through a grant that aims to create a model for supporting regional food systems.
The HR department at OSU Medical Center regularly offers classes for people in managerial roles, teaching executive chefs to have critical conversations with their team (a skill that oftentimes doesn’t come naturally.)
“Every position requires development; you need to be a constant learner,” Jones says. “People who do that will go further.”
Balancing Charisma with Teamwork
Having a chef that’s “out in front” or “the face of the organization” doesn’t mean that chef has to be (or should be) a star/ego maniac.
“There’s a difference between being flashy and being compelling,” Atanasio says. “If their passion is just for themselves to be on TV, people can see through that. Is it ego and showmanship or is it real ly just good front-of-the-house appeal?”
“After 24 years in the foodservice business, I can say that getting up and talking to people is not PR; it’s what we do,” Siddiqui says. “I don’t believe in the chef being a salesperson. If you’re honest and you have passion for serving others, that shines through.”
Zia Ahmed, senior director of dining at The Ohio State University, agrees.
“There is no room for ego,” he says. “Ego is the poison pill. People are craving that authentic human connection and that’s not something you can manufacture.”
What if a chef doesn’t want to be famous?
“We have 16 chefs—chef-managers, unit chefs and sous chefs—and not all of them are going to be ready to go on a Food Network show tomorrow,” Orefice says. So he turns to the chefs who are a little more ‘show biz’ when it’s time to do a live chef demo or shoot a video with
“But we also need technical, behind-the-scenes people, planning things like, ‘Where am I going to set up my plating station?’” Orefice says. “Just like a good recipe, you need a mix.”
Personality is critical for the success of an executive chef, but it’s important to not be dazzled by a great personality alone, says Larry Leibowitz, director of culinary operations, Guckenheimer.
“It can’t just be charisma,” Leibowitz says. “A good executive chef also needs to be a visionary with a strategic mind.”
Conversely, knowing when to roll up his sleeves and jump in the line is a great counterpoint to seeing the big picture.
“At times, during a busier lunch rush, when the chef works side by side with the team, that lets them know he’s there for them,” DeCesare says. “That’s part of building a relationship.”
True Passion for Foodservice
The main ‘ingredient’ or characteristic needed for executive chefs to make the balancing act look easy is passion. That word was mentioned by almost every director interviewed for this story.
“The recipe for a passionate culinary team is to hire chefs with varied backgrounds and experiences,” Howard says. “That will enrich the character of a strong culinary focused program.”