We are in the process of rehiring for two positions between Blackbird and Avec. Part of the interview process for a cooks position is a trail, which is kind of a trial of sorts, often called a stage. This is a physical interview, in which the team hiring has a chance to see if the candidate is a fit, and the candidate has a chance to see if the kitchen is the kind of place they would like to dedicate themselves.
We often have cooks passing through our pastry department, staging for educational purposes rather than trying out for a position. It can become a little confusing for my team, a warm and inviting group of pastry cooks that are invested in perpetuating the educational structure they too are learning in. Why is it confusing? My cooks instinct is to pause and teach when a question is asked. It’s our way. However, when a cook is trailing for a position, we need to see them for what they already have, and I coach my cooks to take a hands off approach with potential candidates. There is no right or wrong level of experience, I always say we can take anyone and move them forward. But depending on the needs of the position, I need to see exactly what we are starting with.
It’s more important to watch a candidate make a mistake than to see them constantly succeed. I need to know how they respond to a kitchen failure, what their problem solving skills are like, and how their attitude shifts when they don’t succeed. Also important, is how they respond to instruction and criticism.
I tell my cooks to guide a candidate verbally when they ask a question- don’t walk them over to the pantry to find something, or take a project out of their hands to show them. We need to understand how they respond to verbal guidance, and asses their level of self-reliance. Do they attempt to find an ingredient before they ask where it is? Can they translate words into actions?
We always write them their own prep list and see how they organize it. Do they ask for information on how to organize a list as a whole, do they understand how a production schedule is prioritized? We will put a few technique-testers on the list even if we don’t need them. An ice cream, a cookie, tempering chocolate, scaling and mixing a dough, cutting and portioning a mingardise, for example. We want to see where their skill level is at with basic techniques. A lack of technique isn’t necessarily a deal breaker. Technique is taught, ability is innate. We can add technique to an able cook, but again, we need to know what they come into our kitchen with. Depending on the position, we might need to build on a certain level of technique rather than implant it, and an able cook will always be kept in mind as various future opportunities arise.
We don’t put anything on the candidates list that is crucial for the days success. You don’t want their potential failures to throw your own success away. However, we do add smaller, easy-to-redo tasks necessary for the line to their list, to see if they understand the urgency of setting up for service. Also, we pay attention to whether they ask the team if their work is correct, or just store the project away. This shows us if they consider a task complete when the work is done, or when it is confirmed as correct.
I tell my cooks not to socialize, but do use conversation to feel them out. Have they worked with ice cream before? Where? What was that like? I often ask a candidate to describe their previous position, to walk me through a typical day there. Do they speak positively or negatively? (you’d be surprised at what comes out!) What is their favorite part of their job? What was their favorite dessert on the menu? You can get a strong feeling for a persons commitment and passion with simple questions. I always ask what the last dessert they ate was. Watching their eyes light up tells me if they really love desserts, or, if they can’t remember, then they may not be particularly passionate about desserts. All these questions help me paint a picture of a cooks motivation for walking this restaurant pastry path.
Now, we also watch to see how they are interviewing us. What kinds of questions do they ask about the kitchen? Are they asking questions that would help guide them towards an informed interest in what we are doing at Blackbird or Avec in particular? Do they ask the cooks what the schedules are typically like, what a busy service feels like, how many covers we do? Are they curious about our plating, how the kitchen is structured, how cooks move up? Are they probing to see where they would fit, and how the kitchen could help them grow? Are they asking questions at all?
I let my team interact with candidates through out the trail, taking a back seat where I can observe. In the end, the candidate is trying out for a position as part of a team, not as my cook. Do they respect the team dynamic we have worked so hard to build? Or do they avoid the team asking the sous chef or chef questions instead of the cook who’s assigning them the tasks? Do they shrink from the team preferring to work in quiet isolation?
All of this is simply a framework for productive interaction. It will help us assess the candidates in a way that allows us to open up a mutually beneficial opportunity. We promise an educational experience that will equal the amount of dedication and labor a cook gives to our pastry department, and that education is tailored to each individual that comes through our door. I always say we would rather hold the position open and work harder for a short period of time, ensuring that the position is used as it was designed to. As we all labor for our own educations, we want to help propel a new cook towards their goals, and to provide a safe place for them to pour their attention and passion into.