Hiring Staff for a Sustainable Kitchen

With Nardin Academy's sustainable foodservice strategy in place, next up was recruiting and training the staff to execute the plan. Here consultant Greg Christian discusses the hiring and training processes that Nardin Academy followed.

Nardin Academy spent the summer of 2013 readying the kitchen for its new food program and staff. It was important to not only find a talented team that could work with fresh food but they had to care, or be willing to learn, about the sustainability initiatives outlined in Nardin Academy's strategy.

Over the years I've worked with teams across the nation. One thing is clear: traditional cafeteria food does not call for culinary skill. Heat and serve menus limit the possibilities for those who work in institutional kitchens. Not everyone finds transitioning to a made-from-scratch menu easy.

To get started Nardin Academy placed job listings for a chef and a sous chef. The leadership team and I looked for candidates willing to learn but also had leadership traits. An inspirational manager who sets a standard is important for running a sustainable, efficient kitchen. But, most importantly, we wanted to know if their food tasted good so we invited the top four candidates to visit the school and cook.

Candidates had 40 minutes to make a dish and clean the kitchen. Everyone was scheduled to cook at a different time. They had access to 4 proteins, 6 starches, 12 vegetables, various herbs, and oils and were told to make anything they thought we would want to eat. I checked in every ten minutes to look at cleanliness, calmness, and organization. Afterwards they were asked to explain what they made and how.

For me, I really wanted to hear about their interest in sustainability issues and noticed if they saved their waste. It's hard to find people that can walk the walk in a sustainable kitchen. We found that most candidates had one or the other: excellent food or a passion for sustainability. However, it was more critical to find a chef that would wow students with the new menu and be willing to learn the rest.

With a little turnover in the month of August, we solidified the team by September. Anyone that hires in this space knows that it can be a challenge to find a chef who is not only a great cook but also a strong and reliable manager. Our food system has been so commoditized that this mentality has spilled over onto staff. This underscores the importance of adopting ongoing staff training and development as part of a foodservice operation's sustainability strategy.

The first priority for the new team was to make good food safely and in budget. I spent a week on-site cooking each menu item with the team. It is critical to have the team gel. Rather than the European model where one person is in charge of each station, we chose to train staff together on everything. The team prepared dishes together, start to finish, and tasted each.

During the cooking practice sessions, we would invite 25 staff members to visit the cafeteria, walking through the service line and POS system. Cleaning schedules were developed and staff rotated through daily and non-daily cleaning regimens, and trained on which logs needed to be filled out and when. Some had an idea of what these processes were, but those who were new to the business had translatable skills (e.g. computer skills for the cashiers). Regardless, our summer of training and setting up systems was thorough. We set the team up to be successful in making great food on time and in budget but also in working together.

Aside from training, the menu itself was designed to drive quality. The Nardin Academy menu offers one entrée and side each day with a soup, sandwich, and salad bar offering. Extensive menus do a number on quality, but if you are going to do one entrée per day it better be good.

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