Chris Hill Blog: The State of the Culinary Industry: Are the Millennials to Blame?

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Who is to blame when it comes to the state of the hospitality industry? Chris Hill asks if this is solely down to the new generation of Millenial chefs?

Most kitchens aren’t like they were in the olden days – a whole hell of a lot has changed in the last couple of decades and I don’t think any of us expected to be here, with the current state of the industry.  A lot of young cooks don’t even know what it might have been like a decade or two ago – the landscape has changed in ways managers and owners are having trouble keeping up with.

There’s a huge disconnect and growing tension between the ageing chef generation and the up and coming millennial generation. Every single day I get an email from a restaurant owner complaining about how their 20-something chefs won’t do things the way they are supposed to. I get similar messages from cooks of that age, bitching right back about the owners and how misunderstood they feel. By the end of this article, I’m convinced you’ll have a better understanding of handle almost all of your restaurant problems that relate to personnel.

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Turning up the heat in the kitchen

Changing dynamic

Let me set the scene. Just a few decades ago, a chef was just a cook and a manager - it was a title he could take pride in. I use the word he deliberately here because, for the longest time, this has been a male-dominated occupation.

Finally, the dynamic is starting to shift, though I wouldn’t be surprised if many of the old-guard find themselves reluctant to embrace such change. We’re in complicated times now, though. Many kitchen printers are being replaced with order screens.

There are smart burners that keep exact temperature and notify us when a piece of fish or steak is done, and there are already robots that can follow recipes, that will start to cast a dark cloud upon the standard line cook position over the next ten years. Inventory can kind of track itself, our computers are able to optimize our labour for, and the more connected we become to the internet, technology, artificial intelligence and all the pieces to the puzzle that seem to advance us a society – seem to disconnect us in personally.

Bridging the age gap

The age difference working at any given food service establishment in the United States could realistically span up to 55 years. That means, for the eldest, let’s say 70 years old, he or she was 15 years old before colour TVs came into existence. 15-year-olds now? They’ve been walking around with a colour TV in their pockets for years and can literally watch whatever they want – it’s called a smartphone. That only scratches the surface of how wide the gap is between their experiences and their understandings of the way the world works.

So, the question becomes – what do we do about it? How do we close the gap and work better together?

There is all this talk about the millennials, their entitlement and a whole host of other not-so-nice adjectives, while the millennials snap back, accusing the older generations of the absurd (at times) world we live in.

I’ve got something to say to both sides, some words of wisdom at the bottom and an argument for all of us to read and embrace at the end.

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To the young chefs

There are all sorts of complications as it relates to the kitchen dynamic, and a large majority of them are due to the ever-quickening pace of technology – not just in the kitchen, but how we operate out of kitchens. Sure, in the kitchen we have laser-focused POS systems, near-failproof reservation systems, and inventory control, but there are also new kitchen gadgets and forms of cookery that were originally ushered in a few decades back when Molecular Gastronomy (check out Herve This’ book by the same name – awesome) hit its stride.

Up until the late 80s (when you might or might not have been born), there was no modernist cuisine. There was no reverse spherification or sodium alginate. There were no water baths for sous viding, and Polyscience hadn’t come around to invent the Smoking Gun or any of their other fun gadgets. There were no farmer’s markets in every town.

Organic? It existed, but few chefs had access to it and no one was talking about it. Finally, the actual dining scene – it didn’t really exist – there were restaurants, but fun and interesting concepts didn’t exist. Food was, in a sense – generic.

Chefs weren’t hired to create ‘out of the box’, ‘holy shit’, what is on this menu? types of dishes – the diners weren’t ready for it yet.

Without a doubt, the greatest technological impact on the kitchen over the last decade has been social media and the internet. It allows us to interact with the food differently. It allows us to learn about the food differently (through tutorials on YouTube), to find recipes in an instant, as well as information about ingredients, seasonality, freshness, storage, and the list goes on.

Unfortunately, this provides diners with the very same information – the world we live in now has us all more curious and inquisitive – we can have the answers to anything we want just by asking Siri.

But, for you youngsters, just imagine this: twenty years ago, if cooks and chefs wanted to find out something new (a recipe, ingredient, some knowledge), they had to look through The Food Lover’s Companion (an encyclopaedia of all things kitchen) stop by the local library to check out a book, or they could plead with their chef, begging him to share the trade secrets that he always keeps close to the vest.

Chefs back in the day, figured it out as they went – they didn’t have the internet to answer every single question they might have about an ingredient or a dish within a few seconds. The way you see cooking now – it might make sense, but it might not make sense to someone who learned how to make a hollandaise by reading a recipe and trying it a hundred times before getting it to work. You?

All you have to do is pull up your favourite chef on YouTube. These chefs that you’re working for had to labour hours and sometimes years to learn the same information – this is the exact reason why there is a hierarchy some veteran chefs adamantly uphold, because over time and with experience, one grows in the craft and only after a certain level of exposure and experience can one truly become a chef.

The problem with that argument for them, is that cooks are being exposed to the answers at a younger age than ever – thus, the only thing most cooks lack (aside from some business acumen) is the experience to execute – with due time, that will come and soon, the cheaper millennials will be competing for these jobs that they would never have been able to two decades ago.

Finally, what you must understand about the veteran cooks walking the thousands of kitchens around the world, is that they are loyal to the core. They have missed children being born, birthday parties, weddings, holidays – work came first. This doesn’t mean that you have to approach these situations in the exact same way, but it helps if you understand where the person on the other side is coming from – the chef needs to see your commitment – sometimes that’s in staying late, other times it’s picking up a shift for a co-worker, and other times it’s just executing at your craft to the highest level – if you take care of the work, the rest will take care of itself.

SOME ADVICE: The older generation, they might be behind the curve when it comes to tech, but that will be you one day too. With that said, if you’re going to be late, call – don’t text – it’s common courtesy. If you’re having a conversation with someone, look them in the eye and put your phone away – it’s common courtesy. These older crotchety chefs and owners – they just want the same courtesy you’d expect to receive from them – even if the way you would demonstrate that is different.

To the veteran chefs

If you’re reading this, you’ve most likely made the journey from young, ignorant line cook or dishwasher, to where you are today, somewhere on the back half of your career. Your longevity in this industry is in question and your knees reinforce those sentiments every time you reach down to pull something out of the low-boy.

The fact is, things were done differently back in the day. Hell, they were starting to do things differently ten years ago in a lot of kitchens, though there are still some running like in decades past – the Brigade system. But, there is no denying the kitchen hierarchy is a dying breed. It, in theory, still makes sense – the problem is with the immediacy in which we all want results this day and age – especially the youngest generations that are joining the workforce. Plus, they’ve been conditioned with Food Network, Top Chef, and Hell’s Kitchen – they see a rare classmate or distant sous chef get some fame and exposure on TV and it spreads like wildfire across social media.

Even the idea of obtaining a Michelin Star – many young cooks and, dare I say, chefs, tell me they want their first Star before they turn 30. Before 30? Most properly trained Japanese chefs are still mastering rice and vegetables into their mid to late twenties.

The problem is we see these things happening – it’s all around us – literally right in front of our eyes and in our pockets at almost every moment of the day – the dopamine rush of getting that like on Instagram or Facebook and that comment on how beautiful our plate is which was left by a chef we really admire – this shit happens and it can have a profound impact on one’s self-worth and the way they interact socially. This is where we are as a society and as a result, an industry, we’d be remiss to stop anywhere short of acknowledging that.

Given this dynamic, it’s completely reasonable for a youngster coming out of school to try their damndest to work their way up to the top – however they can – build a brand through social media platforms, hoping for that one and a million chance to make it big on reality TV, or just through hard work, networking and lastly – looking out for themselves and their own best interest, when in the past it’s always been about the team, paying one’s dues and working one’s way up the ladder the right way. It’s a different ladder or set of ladders the younger generation is having to learn to climb up and there are doing so in the best way they know how.

SOME ADVICE: Embrace the technology. Yes, the tools that keep your business engaged with the community (social media) and operating efficiently (POS systems, etc), but also embrace the technology as it relates to your younger employees. Instead of being the old curmudgeon who seems so disconnected by the way in which young people communicate today, seek to understand the technology and the way they interact more. Show them a certain level of curiosity and you will instantly have a deeper connection with them. This will also keep you up to date with current trends, but more importantly, this level of trust will come to the surface. Then, when you need to enforce the rules, they’ll listen and pay attention to you, because they respect you. It’s all about earning respect, one conversation at a time.

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What is the right way?

So, what is the right way of doing things? There’s not one right way – there’s all sorts of ways. We, as individuals and as companies have to be open to adjusting, adapting and playing into the strengths, weaknesses and personalities of the people with whom we surround ourselves. The old way of running a kitchen – like Escoffier taught us – that made sense – it’s all we ever knew. But we have a new paradigm and a new reality right in front of us. A chef’s career doesn’t have to look the way it did 20 or 30 years ago – it shouldn’t, because the world doesn’t operate the way it did 20 or 30 years ago. For a chef starting out in 2018, for them to create success (in the general sense of the word), they need to do a whole host of things entirely different from the cream that rose to the top 30 years ago.

Who is to say one way of operating is better than another? Maybe the better question is – does that even matter? The way I see things, we are where we are, at this moment in time – we aren’t in the past and we aren’t in the future – let’s figure out the best way to work through the present – together.

Mutual understanding

The only way to do that is to start understanding each other – where we’re coming from and how at the end of the day, we’re all on the same team. We all want to be happy at work and a big part of that is making our customers and the people around us happy. We all want to create lasting and meaningful relationships – both at work and in our personal lives. We all want to make delicious food for a living while making enough money to support ourselves in the process. We all want to be successful, even if we have different definitions of success. At the end of the day, we all get one shot at this amazing opportunity called life and it’s up to each of us to create something meaningful with it.

Let’s take all of the beautiful features of our culinary past – that’s what has gotten us here and use that rich history as faith to embrace the coming culinary future. Each brick laid by those who have come before us, paved the way to the amazing opportunity we have in front of us, today. The opportunity to connect with each other, our customers and our ingredients unlike ever before. This industry has and will continue to have its ups and downs – if we do the right thing by working together, we can forge a better path ahead, but we have to do so together – with open eyes and more importantly, open ears.

The importance of listening

All it takes is one word – Listen. Listen to the people around you. Listen to the people that don’t look like you. Listen to the people with different sexual orientation than you. Listen to people who were born in a different country from you and who have different life experiences than you. Listen to the people that make more money than you, but also listen to the people who make less than you.

And I don’t mean listen, but I mean to truly listen – listen to understand another’s perspective, the way they approach the work and the way they approach the world. They might see things differently from you, but if you listen, there is a chance to understand. Ironically, listening more times than not doesn’t even involve spoken words.

Recently we had Bob Burg on the podcast where he joined us to talk about his new book (he’s the bestselling author of The Go-Giver). He said something truly profound that I’d venture to guess when put into action, can bridge any and all gaps of communication (verbal or otherwise):

“To be empathetic does not mean that you necessarily have to understand exactly how the other person feels. You simply have to be able to understand AND be able to communicate that you understand they are feeling something – and that this something is distressing to them and that you’re there to help them through that.”

So, my challenge to you is this – next time you have a disagreement with someone in your life – regardless of age – listen with empathy. Don’t speak to be understood, but rather listen to better understand.

About Chris Hill

Chris Hill
Chris Hill

Chef Chris Hill left a job in the business world to follow his heart and passion into the world of cooking and the kitchen. Chris opened his first restaurant at 28 and grew into the role of executive chef.

Having taken his experiences in the corporate world, as well as those in the kitchen, Chris has built a large social media following centred around TV appearances all over the Southeast U.S., his writing, TEDx talks, and his mission of helping industry workers to lead fulfilling successful careers.

Chris' first book came out in 2016 and is a dive into what makes for a successful career in the restaurant world, and includes exclusive interviews with some of the world's leading and most respected chefs.

You can follow Chris on Facebook, Twitter and Instagram, and read more of his work here.

Don't miss Chris' latest book 'Crush your career: A professional path to a sustainable life in the kitchen'. Available on Amazon

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The  Staff Canteen

The Staff Canteen

Editor 30th August 2018

Chris Hill Blog: The State of the Culinary Industry: Are the Millennials to Blame?