Things to be careful of when a chef leaves you . .

Be careful when your chef leaves

Be careful when your chef leaves

A cautionary tale. Recent events have highlighted some of the hidden traps you can fall into in this industry . . .

It all started some years ago. I was called by one of my clients to help with a problem with her Chef. My client has worked very hard over a number of years to establish her restaurant as one of the cutting edge places to eat in town. I have always found her to be a very nice person, and the feedback I get from her staff is that she is really good to work for. Her Chef had the reputation for being very creative but not very bright. Unbeknown to us he had decided that he deserved a better deal than he was getting and started to sniff around elsewhere.

‘I’m gonna leave and take all the staff with me’

What we hadn’t counted on was his way of approaching the whole issue. Out of the blue my client received a phone call from another leading restaurateur that ruined her whole day. ‘Your Chef has just phoned me and offered to come over to work for me and bring the whole kitchen staff with him,’ she related. ‘I just thought you ought to know what was happening in case someone else decides to accept his offer and you’re left in the lurch.’

It’s nice how the professionals in the industry stick together. I gave our kind hearted tipster a big brownie point when the conversation was related to me. My client then asked me if I would talk to her Chef because she was not sure how to handle the situation. Normally I draw the line at counselling staff for my clients, but in this instance I was so incensed that someone would behave this way I thought a game of hardball might make an entertaining diversion.

We arranged a time and had a ‘chat’ with our friend the Chef. We gently pointed out the error of his ways in our own caring manner and explained the damage he had done to his reputation and the destruction he would do to his career if he persisted. After some full and frank discussions he agreed to stay and work hard to redeem himself.

Things seemed to calm down after that but I still had some nagging doubts about the lad. What kind of twisted morality would allow a person to do this? His intended action could destroy the business and cost my client everything she’d worked hard for. I kept an eye on the situation for a while to see what would happen. The Chef seemed to settle down but never quite earned an elephant stamp from me after that. He did, however, have the foresight to request that I not be present for his next pay review, so he isn’t that stupid.

‘I’m taking all my recipes with me’

His food was very good and costs were OK so we left him alone despite strained relations with front of house, a lack of menu development and a general reluctance to develop kitchen staff. We even exchanged the odd pleasant word at social functions, in the way you do with old adversaries.
Everything cruised along fine until a couple of months ago when our Chef suddenly asked to see the owner and gave two weeks notice. She rang me and we discussed the situation, coming to the conclusion that it was time for him to move along, and that we should accept his resignation and find a new Chef. He told her that he was going to a new, secret project; so we figured that he had accepted another job offer.

The time for him to go came along but he made no real move to leave, saying that he would stick around and ‘help out’. His version of helping out consisted of coming and going when he pleased and generally being destructive and vitriolic towards the owner in conversations with the other staff. It began to dawn on us that he didn’t have anywhere to go and that his resignation was probably a strategy aimed at another pay rise (this was an inspired negotiation tactic if ever I saw it). The owner was adamant — she had suffered enough of him and was well down the path of replacing him, and had no intention of turning back.

It got to the point where she had to retrieve her keys and tell him not to come in any more. The front of house staff breathed a collective sigh of relief and we all figured that was the end of it — until the kitchen staff refused to divulge the recipes for the food on the menu, and a couple of the kitchen staff resigned to follow the Chef into his next position.

The Chef had made all the kitchen staff pledge not to reveal the recipes to the Owner claiming that they were his property, not hers. Legally, he was about as wrong as can be. Being a permanent employee anything he created at work or in his own time that was related to his occupation belongs to his employer, not him.

That’s all well and good in theory, but what do you do in a real situation if the recipes have not been documented and the staff refuse to divulge them in a fit of misguided loyalty? Beat it out of them perhaps? It could have got really ugly. It was only the hiring of a talented new Chef who created a new menu that saved the situation and kept the show on the road.

Standard recipe

This brings me to the $64 question. Are all your recipes properly documented so that if your Chef gets hit by a bus your business doesn’t suffer?