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Selecting the Perfect Executive Chef

Here’s the formula successful operator use to make sure their chef is smart, ego free and has a good sense of economics.

Tuesday, June 03, 2014
Steve Pike
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If a person is judged by the company he or she keeps, then a restaurant certainly is judged by its executive chef. Often the executive chef is the most important position within a hotel’s food and beverage operation – responsible for everything (and everybody) in the kitchen.

It’s a taunting task to be sure, one that requires a combination of management and culinary skills learned through years of experience. It’s a combination that isn’t easy to find and it’s not always easy split down the middle. That is, a good executive chef at a hotel and resort needs to possess each skill, but the needs of a specific property - and the needs of food and beverage director or general manager - determines which skill is best suits that property.

For example, at The Ritz-Carlton, Bachelor Gulch in Beaver Creek, Colo., General Manager Abdullah Vural looks more for the “executive’’ in executive chef.

“I think requirements have changed over the past three to five years as to what we look for in an executive chef,’’ Vural said. “I don't feel today it is as important to be an exceptional culinarian. It's more important to have a leadership style that can balance all the different components in a hotel environment.

“When we were interviewing (for an executive chef), we were really looking for the most ‘balanced’ candidate. One of the most important aspects now is being financial, but the executive chef also needs to be a good listener, not have a huge ego – that’s hard to find in a chef - and also someone who can nurture and mentor the chefs working on his team.’’

Bob Keesler, general manager at Pelican Grand Beach Resort in Fort Lauderdale, takes a different approach to hiring an executive chef. Kessler and Pelican Grand Food and Beverage Director Bob Pallay require each candidate for the executive chef position to cook as part of the interview process.

“There are several things you learn by having a chef cook for you,’’ Keesler said. “Certainly the taste of the food, but how organized they are and how clean they are. And they have to have a thought process in cooking that allows to show the rest of the team what the vision is and how they can execute it.

“You can have a great chef, but if he can’t teach his team to execute his vision night after night, then it’s just a lost cause. By having the chef cook for you, those are kinds of nuances that you look for that really show you the personality of a person.’’

For Keesler, personality is as important as culinary skills.

“Being able to fit in with the rest of the management team is very important,’’ Keesler said. “You can have the most talented person available, but if he or she doesn’t fit in with the rest of the management team, it doesn’t make for a good work environment and it doesn’t go along with making the job fun.’’

A good fit also is a priority with Doug Gehret, general manager of the Orlando Hilton.

“Each position on our Executive Committee is critical as they are involved in strategic direction in addition to their respective operating units,’’ Gehret said. “That being said, having an outstanding food and beverage operation, particularly in a group hotel, is essential in a competitive market as so much revolves around the attendees experience - dining significantly impacts this.’’

Gehret looks for passion, great food knowledge and innovation skills when considering a new executive chef.

“Someone who understands what it takes to provide high quality culinary experiences done in high volume, and a leader who impacts all facets of our culinary and food and beverage operation,’’ Gehret said.

That’s where the meeting of “executive’’ and “chef’’ comes in, particularly at a large (1,417 rooms) conventions and meetings property such as the Orlando Hilton.

“A great executive chef needs to drive the details of the operation and manage logistics in a high volume operation,’’ Gehret said. “They really need to be an effective leader who is willing to roll up their sleeves in daily preparation, menu design, team development, and customer contact while managing the logistics and business metrics in numerous diverse kitchen outlets.’’

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Steve Pike
Hotel Interactive® Editorial Division

Bio: Steve Pike is an award-winning golf writer and author who helped define golf business reporting in the early 1990s as the first Golf Business Editor for Golfweek magazine and later at Golf World and Golf Shop Operations magazines for Golf Digest. Pike further pioneered this genre at the PGA of America and Time Warner as the golf business writer and editor for PGA.com. He started in newspapers more than ...
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