It’s practically inevitable that at some point, a chef will leave a restaurant and move on. It might be due to a desire to relocate, to try something different, or simply for a better offer. If it’s an executive chef leaving, that change can be a major upheaval, but the right strategies can make the transition as smooth as possible. We spoke with leaders from large and small restaurant groups as well as to PR professionals to learn how to best manage chef shuffles.
In With the New
Finding the right staff is one of the biggest challenges for any restaurant. Cameron Mitchell Restaurants has 55 restaurants in 13 states and Brian Hinshaw, Senior Vice President of Food and Beverage, Executive Corporate Chef & Operating Partner says that 80% of the time promotions are from within. “Most people aren’t really ever ready for the next role,” he admits, “But we take chances on people that are in the system.”
With close to 5,000 associates working for the restaurant group, it’s a big pool to choose from. But a strong culture and process also help to ensure success and a high rate of retention. Upon promotion the chef gets a week long training, Hinshaw explains, which includes dining Cameron Mitchell restaurants for both lunch and dinner, classroom session work, line checks, meetings with HR to better learn the culture as well as conversations with many people including the president, to learn how the company operates. That, in addition to the 8 weeks of training that employees get when first hired is key to their success. It’s all to make sure they “fit well within the family,” says Hinshaw. The hourly mentality has to change, he says, “when you become a manager, it’s no longer about you but everybody else”. And if things don’t go smoothly? “We have the infrastructure so they can succeed,” says Hinshaw, “We’ll send a regional manager in. We don’t micromanage but will send someone in to support them.”
Ryan Cole, one of partners at the Hi Neighbor Hospitality Group who manage four popular restaurants in San Francisco also sees fit as crucial, or as he puts, it: “The number one issue is — is the culture, right?” Cole says his preference is to promote from within as well, but with a smaller number of employees, there’s a point at which you run out of talent. When it comes to bringing in someone new, “You can only learn so much from a tasting and a stage,” he says but notes that after six to eight weeks the chef has had time to adjust, “The new culture starts to kick in and people buy in to it.” That’s not to say feathers aren’t going to be ruffled. “We try to have an established culture, he says, “but a new person is going to come in with their ideas and methodologies and it’s inevitable there will be some turnover because not everyone wants the change. Sometimes it’s okay to shake things up.”
Changing the Menu
With a new chef, comes new ways of doing things and changes to the menu, although the amount of changes varies depending upon the concept of the restaurant. How much does a new chef get to put their imprint on the menu? At Cameron Mitchell Restaurants, Hinshaw says the executive chef role is “Not a position where you have carte blanche to make any changes you want. Creativity comes in the feature program, and there’s a test period there too”. Most menus change seasonally but the chef works collaboratively with a team that includes regional and corporate management.
While large restaurant groups have more of an infrastructure in place, smaller groups can be more nimble and that means more flexibility for the chef to make changes. Cole sees the value of a strong concept and protocols for bringing on a new chef, things he experienced at the much larger Mina Group, noting, “Consistency is a blessing, but then you don’t get a local creative chef. We don’t need six layers of approval.” What stays on the menu and what goes? According to Cole, it’s a natural decision—what stays are the most popular and signature things. But ultimately the amount that the menu changes depends on the chef and why you’re hiring them, he says. “We’re hiring someone to let them have their creative vision. In the past we’ve promoted from within when we’re not looking to change things.” The style of the restaurant makes a difference too, Cole says. With a fine dining concept, there’s more freedom for the chef to change things, including the menu.
Larry Carrino, President, Brustman Carrino Public Relations whose firm has represented clients including BLT Prime, Emeril’s Restaurants and Compère Lapin agrees with Cole, saying that for concept driven restaurants the name of the chef who is cooking is irrelevant, saying that for concept driven restaurants the name of the chef who is cooking is irrelevant. “In those cases there is usually little menu change because the chef is simply an executor, not a creator,” he says, “With fine dining concepts the chef should have the ability to change the menu; not just tweak signatures but also add. There’s no better way to lose a chef then to tie his or her hands creatively. Also, without a menu change, even one on the horizon, you lose a little of the positive spin that comes with announcing the new chef.”
The Big Reveal
A new chef and the introduction of a new menu can be an opportunity for PR. But timing is crucial. Independent restaurant consultant Ashley Hamik of Ashley Hamik Communications works with clients including Nightbird and August (1) Five and recently helped Balboa Café announce a chef change. Says Hamik, “At Balboa Cafe, the chef came on board in December and it didn’t get announced until August. The chef took the time to see how things operated and what guests liked, learn the crowd pleasers. He could speak to the guests, be on the floor and really listen to the feedback from the guests,” she said, adding, “It’s also important that the new chef gets to know the classic dishes.”
Hi Neighbor Hospitality recently announced changes to the chefs at Trestle and Stones Throw restaurants, but the timing was different because one chef was new, and the other was an internal promotion. According to Cole, the timing of an announcement depends on who your new chef is, what your comfort level is and how much change there is. He cites the importance of letting the new chef get their feet on the ground but says waiting four weeks is probably a good rule of thumb.
Carrino says the most common error is announcing a chef change too quickly. “We always tell clients to sit on chef appointments for 60-90 days or at least until they are sure the chef will work out. You don’t want to announce a new chef and then the next day he’s fired or walks,” adding, “The last thing you need is to put pressure on the operation by layering media on top of it all.”
For Hinshaw, a chef announcement is less about signaling a change and more a part of the overall PR strategy, “We want media impressions at least once a week, on instagram more like three times a week,” he says and there’s also an effort to get a new chef on local television.
Having an “onboarding” process is important to ensuring a smooth transition to new leadership. Hamik notes that all the pieces need to be in place before an announcement, including communicating the changes to the staff, rolling out new dishes, and ensuring the staff is knowledgeable about the dishes.
Hamik notes that a restaurant should consider media training for the new chef, as well as getting a high-resolution headshot, working on talking points and being able to answer the question “what is different?” Being prepared for last-minute scheduling, interviews, and knowing what will make the greatest impact on the announcement is critical. With local media, in a small mention in an influential blog may be most effective. Always look at the target audience and consider the goal—is it a local or national audience?
Here’s your cheat sheet to chef shuffling:
- Have a process in place for bringing someone on board
- Make sure there is a good culture fit between the chef and the restaurant
- Expect some bumps in the road
- Allow for menu changes that fit with the concept
- Don’t rush the announcement; give the new chef time to settle in
- Have a media plan with a clear goal