Going Pro

2013 March: Going ProIs a professional chef needed in a pizzeria’s kitchen?

The performance kitchen at Cane Rosso takes center stage. Built around a wood-fired oven, the workspace is home to leading man Dino Santonicola, the Naples-born master pizzaiolo hired by owner Jay Jerrier to put his restaurant on the map. And he’s not alone –– more attention than ever has been placed on hiring as a marketing ploy. Bring in a big name (even for a limited-time engagement), garner attention and bam! Instant fame. But is a chef –– one with street cred, a degree and/or acclamations –– really needed over a cook who worked his or her way up in an organization?

“A chef brings a lot of the ‘business’ side of the restaurant to the table,” Jerrier says. “He handles all of our unit costing, ordering, scheduling/staffing, quality control, vendor management, documentation, cleaning routines, etc. A cook is there just to execute the menu. I don’t want to rely on an hourly employee to have to deal with the big picture items.”

According to the Bureau of Labor Statistics, more than 100,000 people were employed as a chef (or head cook) in 2010 (the last year surveyed) with a median pay of $40,630 per year. Most had one to five years of work-related experience, but many chefs received more formal training at a college or technical school.

“Most people who have culinary degrees will call themselves cooks,” says Chad Pritchard, a chef instructor at the Le Cordon Bleu College of Culinary Arts in Dallas, Texas. “Just GOING PRO MOONEY FARMS because they’ve graduated from culinary school doesn’t necessarily mean they’re a chef.”

Although the two titles are often used interchangeably, G. Allen Akmon, a chef and the culinary arts department chair at Sullivan University in Louisville, Kentucky, says professionally trained chefs and cooks offer their employers experience, a greater focus on the bottom line and an emphasis on quality.

“In the industry, we always focus on how rather than why,” Akmon says. “Experience coupled with education brings mastery and the ability to apply different techniques to different products so with only one of the two components in place an individual is limited in the area of growth potential.

“Proper training is more than just the action and reaction of food products. Many times, the experiences that are learned in the industry are the fundamentals of cooking and when an individual rises from that position, it becomes very difficult to learn about recipe costing, labor and resource maximization, interviewing and management skills without at least a basic understanding. These foundations present another benefit of education that are not always realized immediately after graduation but rather further down the road as positions dictate.”

Pritchard, who has owned three pizzerias and two Italian restaurants in the past, finds that “there are a lot of culinary graduates who are very loyal to those who brought them on,” he says. “People are very afraid of hiring culinary graduates. When I owned my pizzerias, I always hired culinary graduates because there are a lot of graduates out there who don’t have the experience to go to a fine dining restaurant or a higher-end restaurant. Pizzerias and Italian restaurants are great places for these cooks to learn. As they do that, they become very brand loyal and they in turn send their friends and family to you. A lot of times, you’re their first job out of culinary school and they’re very proud of what they do. I think it elevates the craft more to hire those who are classically trained. It elevates us to more than just spaghetti and meatballs.”

This creativity plays a crucial role for some independent restaurants that rely on quickly changing their menus and rotating seasonal ingredients. “I think what you’ll end up finding is that you have more creativity in your kitchen,” Pritchard says. “You’ll end up saying ‘Hey, we need to do a daily special’ and they can get one on the menu.

At Cane Rosso, hiring a more experienced chef, while initially more expensive in terms of benefits and salary, increased quality overall with a more authentic product and employee training. “We also wanted to set a new standard for ‘authenticity’ in Neapolitan pizza,” he says. “There are very few places in the U.S. where you can get a Neapolitan pizza made with dough made in a Neapolitan mixer, cooked in a Neapolitan oven, by an actual Neapolitan from Naples city center…not a suburb!”

But for some companies, consistency is more important than creativity as they grow to multiple units and create more uniform products across their brand.

“We actually prefer to hire (line) cooks,” says Chris Lombardi, a partner at Tommy’s Coal Fired Pizza in New Jersey. “We try to keep our menu simple. We have four locations now and we feel by using simple menus, with less ingredients in the store and constantly turning over product, our employees can do it simple but do it right.”

Like other chains both large and small, they have created a recipe book that is standard as the company adds stores to its brand, and following that to the letter is imperative so that customers get the same product no matter which location they visit. “Chefs try to get creative, and that’s hard when you have more than one location,” Lombardi says. “When you own single restaurants, you can change it up on the fly. But for us we’re trying to keep it the same across all the restaurants. We use proven recipes that we know our customers like time and time again.”

One happy medium? Hiring local culinary students for internships. Most pizzerias are relatively casual, and that provides a good learning experience for many students as opposed to a formal dining establishment with more rigid kitchens. Pi-zzeria, located in Virginia Beach, often hires students from the local Culinary Institute of Virginia, which gives them real-world experience as well as college credits and a paycheck. Although the pizzeria’s parent company owns and operates a number of restaurants, initially, “we probably came out with ‘hey, let’s pay everybody minimum wage –– it’s a pizza place,’” says Darin Zediker, food and beverage manager at Pizzeria. “But we found out that … you have to be as skilled in one of these operations as you do one of our full-service seafood restaurants.”

Interns “are people who are working towards finishing up a culinary degree –– whether it’s getting them in to gain that experience or we actually have two or three (employees) who graduated from the institute,” Zediker adds.

In the end, finding the right combination of experience, ability and loyalty is what works for most operators. Training is critical for the days when a chef isn’t on the schedule –– afterall, there are only so many hours in the day and while an employee can work a lot of hours, they can’t work ’round the clock.

“One of Dino’s main tasks is to make sure he trains the pizza makers personally,” Jerrier says. “He is on the hook to make sure the pizza is just as good if he is not personally making it … We are finally to the point where we have a good, reliable team covering all of our shifts. Dino does still cover some of our busier weekend shifts –– but as we look to grow and add additional restaurants he won’t be able to personally work those shifts. His team is ready to rock.”

Mandy Wolf Detwiler is managing editor at Pizza Today.