They say if you can’t take the heat, get out of the kitchen. Unfortunately, that seems to be exactly what people are doing.
Restaurants everywhere are struggling to fill vacant positions, while the hospitality industry as a whole is struggling to catch up with changing attitudes to previously taboo subjects like mental health and staff wellbeing.
At the same time, perceptions of what it’s like to work in professional kitchens are arguably being informed by reality cooking shows on TV and the ongoing celebration of unhelpful stereotypes about what it actually means to be a chef.
And it’s against this background that Back of House leaders are faced with the puzzle of how to build high-performing teams. But rather than ask a celebrity chef about how they deal with this issue, we’re turning to science – or more specifically, the science of psychology.
Meet Dr David Livert PhD, Associate Professor of Psychology at Penn State University in the US and a recipient of the Distinguished Service Award from the Society for the Psychological Study of Social Issues (SPSSI).
He has dedicated 15 years of his career to studying team conflict issues in the commercial kitchen to help discern the ingredients of great professional culinary teams.
But rather than look at surface details like age and gender, Dr Livert’s work takes a deep dive into people’s personality traits, and how different types of people approach issues like time management in commercial kitchen environments. And he’s uncovered some real, data-backed insights on subjects like hiring and supporting kitchen staff. So we thought we’d pick his brains.
SKOPE: First of all, thanks for taking the time to talk to us Dr Livert. Let’s start at the beginning. Broadly speaking, you study people’s behavior and how it impacts the world around them. What initially drew you to doing that in commercial kitchens?
There were two moments. I was looking for a setting for my dissertation at the City University of New York’s Graduate Center and I was put in touch with a personal chef who had been trained at the Culinary Institute of America (CIA).
I found out that every three weeks a cohort of roughly 100 students started cooking or baking classes. They were randomly assigned to kitchen groups and would stay with their group for six months, so it a “natural experiment” was already taking place in which I could study group distinctions like gender, age and specialty in professional chef training.
The second moment was in Vietnam. I had the opportunity to travel for three weeks with a group of CIA students who cooked alongside Vietnamese cooks. The trip was a wonderful mix of fun, visiting markets and finding exotic sources of ingredients, putting together menus, learning new kitchens and meeting new staff throughout the country.
What struck me was how skilled these students in their early 20s really were. I watched as a student put together plans for the evening’s cooking at a high-end hotel in Hanoi on the bus. The students worked on the menu, division of labor, timeline, etc. so that when they reached the kitchen - which they had not seen before - they would be able to deal with the unexpected as well as a significant language barrier.
What really stayed with me was just how motivated and capable these students were.
So what did you initially observe in this first study?
Most cooking students were male, most bakers were female. A minority of students were career changers, those 25 or older. These weren’t equal distinctions and echoed the restaurant industry culture - male, young, and the perception that bakers weren’t really cooks.
Over six months I observed food preparation in action, chef instructors running the class and socializing the students, as well as life outside of the classroom.
The commercial kitchen is a “strong social setting”. That means a strong culture and norms, real pressures and expectations. I encountered chef instructors who were a mix of a drill sergeant, pirate captain, Zen master, and a fun uncle or aunt, and chefs who are amateur social scientists in their own right. They constantly observe interactions in the kitchen and have extensive theories about who and what makes a successful chef.
"There’s a subtle way in which the work can be a source of positive engagement that’s not immediately apparent to newcomers and certainly isn’t the ego satisfaction that some of them might expect."
Your work since has looked at everything from time management to the emotional intelligence of successful chefs. What has been your most surprising finding so far?
I’m not sure “surprising” is the right word, but what has really struck me over 15 years of studying commercial kitchens is just how unique a work setting it is. Some of its most intriguing features have no equivalents in most other work settings, like the “window”, the daily cycle of service with its attendant crest and chaos, the resolution period, the seamless switch between yelling at colleagues and having a beer with them hours later, and the two families in residence - the front and the back of the house.
As a social scientist, I’m also struck by the complexity of the social arrangements. Everything from how new cooks are initiated and how authority is exercised, to how gender and intergroup relations are transformed within kitchens is extremely complex compared to most work environments. Not to mention the intense stress associated with the job.
These unique facets of the professional kitchen are likely not found in most work settings but they play a key role in keeping kitchen professionals in the industry for a long time. There’s a subtle way in which the work can be a source of positive engagement that’s not immediately apparent to newcomers and certainly isn’t the ego satisfaction that some of them might expect.
"Those who are attracted to the industry because they think everyone is like Gordon Ramsey will be sadly disappointed."
Talking of ego-satisfaction, you must encounter your fair share of Gordon Ramsey wannabes in your line of work. How damaging do you think that type of chef stereotype is to creating productive and positive work environments?
The ego-driven chef is certainly not new to the industry and likely could be found in the first restaurants in France in the 17th and 18thcenturies.
But it’s important to distinguish between the chef as the authority in the kitchen and the ego-involved chef.
Strong leadership is required in virtually all commercial kitchens. I don’t mean abusive leadership, but leaders who can clearly communicate, set expectations, train and facilitate growth, and who appreciate the importance of understanding staff needs, motivations, and challenges.
Hopefully fewer and fewer chefs actually throw pots, but most successful chefs still strategically manage their emotions in the kitchen – they may yell or have an angry outburst, but it’s deployed for emphasis.
A certain amount of self-promotion is required to be a successful restauranteur and executive chef, no question. I think the damage occurs when the big ego chefs forget their training and the importance of the social climate in the kitchen.
Most experienced chefs can walk into someone else’s kitchen during production and, even if the chef leader is not there, get a pretty good sense of what they’re like in terms of priorities and leadership. Chef leaders are that influential.
Hopefully those that are successful and have big egos have good sous chefs to do the actual leadership. Aspiring chefs who may bring an overly large sense of self into the kitchen will likely change their style as a result of pushback. Those who are attracted to the industry because they think everyone is like Gordon Ramsey will be sadly disappointed.
Your study Flourishing in the Kitchen: Finding Well-Being amid Controlled Chaos came to some insightful conclusions about how kitchen staff achieve well-being. If you’re a chef or kitchen manager who wants to help their team improve well-being, what can you do?
Aside from good leadership skills – setting clear expectations, providing feedback, listening and so on - it is important to balance the time you spend improving performance tonight versus the time spent furthering staff skills and knowledge in the long-term.
The successful chef leader recognizes that well-being is tied to continually learning and attaining more important roles. Retention in the industry is always a challenge, no one wants to lose high performing cooks. However, the best climates in the kitchen are that of learning and a recognition that when your prep cook leaves your kitchen in two years to take a sous chef position elsewhere that you have been a successful leader.
But those leadership skills are really important. There are serious differences in how people deal with time-pressured demands and this can be a source of significant, continual conflict in the kitchen. Our own research has shown that setting expectations, listening, and other good leadership traits, can resolve these differences and remove major sources of stress and the related health issues.
Basically, a good chef leader should develop skills in recognizing emotions in the kitchen and managing their own, and they should also share their own experiences with the team. Most experienced chef leaders have found particular points during their day in which they experience a positive sense of concentration - of flow – and that’s what you need to role-model.
In your work you describe “individuals who flourish” as working in positive psychological conditions, and a lot of them appear to be older than 25. Therefore, if the industry focused more on creating those kinds of conditions for staff under 25, do you think we’d see employee attraction and retention rates improve?
Flourishing essentially means kitchen staff are positively engaged in their work life, which clearly overlaps with their personal life.
I’m a big advocate for explicitly incorporating things that help provide positive engagement. But these features aren’t universal. What’s required often varies depending on aspects of the kitchen, like its size, the restaurant’s menu, its equipment and spatial arrangements, and different aspects of the organization like pay and having a respectful climate. And a lot of what could work depends on the chef leader too.
Of course, not every employee in the kitchen may flourish. Sometimes what we call the person-organizational fit isn’t there. Moreover, many individuals may not be motivated to stay in the industry.
For early career kitchen employees, whether or not they are committed to a 15 or 25 year career in the commercial kitchen becomes apparent over time.
"For kitchen leaders, recognition that the kitchen staff are always in training and need focus when acquiring skills and new techniques - and later to master them - is important."
In one of your studies you interviewed chefs who self-identified the concept of “flow”, which sounds very Zen but may actually be the biggest positive factor for someone to flourish in a kitchen. How can a chef leader help their staff achieve more “flow”?
How do you engineer flow? This is a very individualistic experience. In our research, executive chefs experienced flow while chopping chives when the prep cook was out, while a sous chef experienced flow at the height of service.
Reducing distractions certainly helps, but the kitchen is one of the most distracting work environments imaginable. Common to many flow experiences is an activity with which the individual has developed a habit or automatic response pattern, like chopping chives.
For kitchen leaders, recognition that the kitchen staff are always in training and need focus when acquiring skills and new techniques - and later to master them - is important.
Conflict in the Kitchen: Temporal Diversity and Temporal Disagreements in Chef Teams looked at differences in time management between team members, and the impact high conscientiousness has on team work. Based on your findings, what’s more important when hiring kitchen staff – similar attitudes to time management or the intention to always do a job well?
Conscientiousness would be more important. This personality factor is consistently linked to success in the kitchen - we’ve found it, and many, many other psychology of work researchers have found it as well.
Conscientiousness is an orientation towards tasks, organization, planning, and directed activity which the cook brings into the kitchen. While we know conscientiousness can be strengthened, differences in time management are always influenced by circumstance - who is on the team that day, for example. In other words, the team can always develop routines and ways of addressing time management challenges, but it’s much harder for them to help members develop high conscientiousness.
"Willingness to work and learn are essential in the kitchen - if they are not evident then that is a red flag."
Are there any red flags or early signs that chefs and kitchen managers can look out for to avoid hiring people with low conscientiousness?
Low motivation or an unrealistic perception of chefs and kitchens are red flags. If you get the impression they just like the idea of yelling at people or think food service is jazz improvisation, maybe think twice. Willingness to work and learn are essential in the kitchen - if they are not evident then that is a red flag.
Emotional Management in the Kitchen: Assessing Culinary Students Non-Cognitive Skills looked at the importance of emotional intelligence (EQ) for leadership in the kitchen. Given the highly-charged nature of commercial kitchens, do you find it surprising that concepts like EQ are rarely discussed in the hospitality industry?
They are rarely discussed but they have considerable traction among kitchen leaders.
When we conducted a series of interviews from which we developed our EQ measures, we asked about specific emotional incidents in the kitchen that were experienced or witnessed by our chef leaders. Everyone had stories of difficult interactions with employees that included how they tried to manage their own emotions – sometimes successfully, sometimes not - and the emotions of their kitchen staff.
Many wished they had better skills in this area, while others instead take the lead through various daily activities to prepare the staff for the day.
A casual observer would remark that emotions in the kitchen are important because chefs are temperamental, pot-throwing egotistical blowhards. That isn’t the case and many executive chefs and other kitchen leaders consider emotional management essential to success in the industry.
"Don’t confuse the tattooed pirate chef with the abusive chef. I knew Anthony Bourdain and several of his very close colleagues and there is very definitely a difference between the two representatives."
Lastly, there is a push for the industry to start talking more openly about mental health issues and stress. Yet, for the public at large, the image of the staunch, tattooed, take-no-prisoner chef remains quite compelling. Do you think the public image of chefs needs to change to help the industry make commercial kitchens more positive work environments?
Don’t confuse the tattooed pirate chef with the abusive chef. I knew Anthony Bourdain and several of his very close colleagues and there is very definitely a difference between the two representatives. I’m fine with some of the chef culture that has emerged from the kitchens. Images of chefs on Food Network and other mass media channels are a bit silly, but working in a commercial kitchen is a unique experience that engenders a pirate mentality.
I’ve found that the take-no-prisoners, abuser chef is not held in high regard in the kitchen. Serious twenty-something cooks who aspire to have their own restaurant recognize this, as do the success stories.
What needs to change? Maybe the televised depiction of chefs and kitchens should diminish over time. At some points now, the reality cooking shows are about as real as Big Brother or The Bachelor!