How to be a manager as Head Chef (not just one of the team)

In kitchens, the same process happens no matter whether it is a large multi-outlet hotel or an individual restaurant. Chefs will work their way up through the ranks to take their first Head Chef position. What many chefs do not realise is that once you step into that Number One position, you have to have all of the answers and your team will be looking up to you for guidance, training and support. Here’s John Wood’s insights on stepping up…

Stepping up to the mark as Head Chef

When you become Head Chef, it is critical that you are ready and not only know all of the culinary aspects of running a kitchen, but also all the financial, commercial, and directional support you have to show your teams. Too many chefs take a Head Chef role too early in their career and the learning either stops or slows down dramatically. Also your ‘salary ceiling’ will be a lot lower later on in your career. For sure there will always be exceptions to this rule but I have met and dealt with thousands of chefs in the last 30 years and see this all the time. That transition from being ‘one of the team’ to leading and developing a team is huge. Running the kitchen as sous chef for two weeks when the Head Chef is away is NOT the same as running it all the time. People need to know who is in charge and they need a boss not a ‘mate’ to lead and direct them. A very successful New York restaurateur once described it in the following way:
  1. Passion: to have the passion for what you believe in. When a manager is passionate this will rub off on the team. Being excited and passionate about every aspect of the business is a superb way to manage people and when the teams see that passion they cannot help but be infected.
  2. Team work: in rallying the team together to inspire them and give them guidance where things have gone wrong and exciting them going forward. Successful football managers do this very well and they make the team believe they can win.
  3. Direction: so you can show the team where you are going and what you want to achieve. With clear vision and objectives for the team they know what you want as a manager and understand what they have to deliver. Saying you want to be the best is very good but it does not mean the same thing to every person. Giving them very clear instructions with clear objectives about what success looks like is far more impactful to a team.
  4. Support: is about being supportive to all of your team, knowing that you will be there for them if they need anything. You need to be able to give professional and personal advice to people and support them as much as possible. They still need to know you are the boss but they also know you will give them solid advice.
  5. Discipline: The best managers are not usually the nicest, but they are fair. They know when to discipline the team when needed. People like to know they have a strong boss and want to be told when they do something wrong as well as being told how they should do it. Discipline in the workplace is important and people like to know what the rules are. I have seen many kitchens with no discipline in them and the teams want some direction and a manager with some authority. Screaming and shouting all day is not the answer as the team will just turn off to this, but applying discipline in controlled and measured levels is far more impactful.
Think about what you say… As a manager, I was always amazed how much my teams remembered – nearly every word I said. I am still in contact with most of the hundreds of chefs that have worked for me over the years and I am always surprised when they remind me of some of the things I used to tell them and teach them. Your team is looking up to you as a leader and they are looking for words of inspiration so choose what you say very carefully as this will mould them for their future. You are responsible for developing these young chefs and you must not take this responsibility (the start of someone’s career) lightly.

Top 10 tips to being a better manager

  1. Be infectious: Be a positive person with great vision, inspire your teams every day. It does not matter if you are in a bad mood – that should not affect the way you treat your teams. Weak managers bring their problems to work and show their emotions.
  2. Train and develop: As a manager you need to put time in every day to train and develop the team. Around 80% of chefs leave their positions as they are bored and have stopped learning. Motivate them by ensuring they learn something every day – the subject can be anything related to the industry. Think about how you are training tomorrow’s managers. Use outside resources like suppliers as well.
  3. Reward and recognition: Praise for a job well done is extremely good and letting your team know you appreciate them is invaluable, whether that be verbally telling them, or buying them a beer at the end of service – how you show it is up to you (although the latter can get expensive).
  4. Communication: Talk to your team and let them know what is happening in the business and also what is happening in the industry. Tell them your plans and thoughts.
  5. Promote from within: It is your job as a manager to develop each individual in your team so they are working towards their next position. Having your Commis chefs being trained for the Demi chef role and training the your Demi chefs to be Chef de Parties should be your approach. They are then ready when the promotion comes up.
  6. Be the Boss: Ask anyone that has worked for a good manager and leader and they will tell you that this person was strong but fair. Being one of the team and trying to be everyone’s mate does not work. Your are their boss and you need to act like it.
  7. Systems and procedures: Running a structured and well-organised kitchen is where most chefs want to be. They want to work somewhere tidy and clean with great systems and procedures in place so they always feel under control and not stressed.
  8. Work smart not hard: Many chefs will work excessive hours as they are passionate about what they do and I was no exception. BUT you must not always presume that all of your team wants to work 100 hours a week. Try to be better organised and keep your team’s hours down and ensure they can have a life outside of work.
  9. You will get things wrong: It is normal to make mistakes and do things at work that you might regret, just be mature enough to admit your mistakes and learn from them.
  10. Strive for perfection: Some people say that it is dangerous to strive for perfection and you can then be disappointed most of your life. I say aim for 120% and if you fall below that it is still pretty good! Push yourself and your team and always look at how you can improve.


The customer is king, but without good, loyal, well-trained staff you will not be able to treat your customers as royalty!

Get the team right and lead them like a manager.

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