Chef's Selection: The best kitchens in town hunt for help

Someday, you might be dining at a nice restaurant in St. Louis and notice Jonathan Murphy’s name on the menu. At 22, he’s vigorously working his way up in the kitchen at Racquet Club Ladue. As garde manger, or preparer of cold foods, he scribbles down the commands of executive chef Christopher Desens in a notebook, internalizes the vocabulary of the daily routine (mise en place – everything in place before each work shift) and bounces back the best he can from mistakes.

Murphy is one of many entry-level cooks in the St. Louis area striving to become a member of the apron-clad elite. Though the hiring process for chefs varies slightly depending on the establishment, Murphy, like his peers, will have to undergo years of résumé building, skill refining and reputation establishing to make it to the top. No part of the process is a walk in the park. Even the first step – getting a foot in the door – takes work.

Oftentimes, restaurant owners rely on word of mouth rather than advertising to recruit candidates. If Maziar “Maz” Nooran, operator and partner of Momos, a Greek restaurant in University City, is looking for a chef, he’ll call industry friends and former colleagues for recommendations. “I usually say, ‘I’m looking for a person to do this or that, do you know anybody?’” Nooran said.

The recruitment process is a common one, Desens said. “If someone is looking for a chef, I might even get phone calls from some of my friends that are chefs telling me so-and-so is looking for a chef, ‘Do you know anybody?’ That happens a lot in this town,” he said.

Another major source for finding top talent is the American Culinary Federation Chefs de Cuisine Association of St. Louis. Desens, the president, said the group’s monthly meetings are geared toward culinary education, but they also offer the opportunity for the roughly 240 members to network.

Sometimes, the social web even stretches outside the state. The general manager of Old Warson Country Club in Ladue nabbed now-executive chef Aidan Murphy from The Polo Club in Boca Raton, Fla. The Old Warson GM had worked in Florida, too, and remembered hearing of Aidan Murphy’s skills.

Keeping tabs on rising culinary stars is not unusual for restaurant owners. Larry Forgione, one of America’s top chefs and the man known as the godfather of American cuisine, tracked the progress of his current chef de cuisine before hiring the person to work at An American Place, the upscale restaurant he opened in St. Louis in 2004. Forgione plans to open another Downtown restaurant in June, and he’s already considering two local talents for his kitchen staff.

Although many restaurant owners take chef hunting into their own hands, it’s not unheard of to open up options through advertising. In looking for a new chef to add to the team at Five, a European-style bistro restaurant in the city’s Grove neighborhood, head chef and owner Anthony Devoti advertised the position in the Riverfront Times and on the online networking site craigslist late last year. Fifty people applied for the job, and the management team narrowed down the stack of résumés to the three most qualified.

At Five, chefs under consideration undergo a three- to four-day audition. On the first day, the candidates come in to discuss their qualifications. Because the interview process involves more than just looking good on paper, candidates must come in a second day and trail a chef for a few hours. Sometimes, this happens on a weekend night, so they can get a feel for how the operation runs at the busiest times. They might also return on a slower day for a couple of hours to observe the kitchen staff make pasta, salt meats and handle other food preparations for the week. On the third day, the applicant cooks a meal for Five’s chefs and front-of-house staff.

At that point, it’s not just the dishes under evaluation but the character of the cook as well. The personality of a prospective chef seems to be just as important as the person’s culinary skills.

“There’s a well-known saying that goes, ‘Just because you’re a good cook doesn’t mean you’ll make a great chef,’” Forgione said. One of Forgione’s requirements: integrity. He looks for someone who can take charge and gain the respect of co-workers in the process.

Someone who can keep cool in stressful situations tops Nooran’s priority list: “You need to have a backbone and not freak out when line chefs are screaming at you and plates are coming at you. Things get hairy back there, and you have to be able to handle the pressure.”

The list of preferable traits goes on. Chefs must have stellar management skills and a good attitude. They have to be confident, but not too confident. They must be personable, flexible and versatile. Above all, though, chefs have to demonstrate passion. “Our kitchen right now is filled with foodies,” Devoti said. “We sit around after work and drink beer and talk about food. We spend more time talking about food than our families. We have a passion for it.”

When Devoti interviews a potential chef, he wants that person to ask as many questions of him as he’s asking of him or her. This not only demonstrates an interest in the restaurant but an excitement for the preparation of food in general.

For Aidan Murphy, what chefs do outside of work is important. If they mentor younger chefs, participate in culinary organizations or show any sort of interest in the culinary world in their free time, they are all the more impressive.

In determining the level of food fervor prospective chefs possess, Forgione takes them out to eat at a nice establishment and considers the content of the dinner conversation. He finds out what types of cooking they are interested in and what methods they agree on.

In the end, the most important consideration is whether they’ll be a good fit for the restaurant. “What it boils down to is adaptability to the situation,” Desens said. “To some degree, I think we all could walk in each other’s shoes, but I also think some chefs are cut out for different styles.”

Different skills are needed for different types of restaurant locales, such as hotels, country clubs and nightclubs. Cooking for a country club, for instance, requires continuously catering to the tastes of the same clientele, as well as the ability to prepare what Aidan Murphy refers to as low cuisine and high cuisine. “One night, you might do a seven-course gourmet wine dinner, and another, you might be serving fried chicken,” he said.

At Five, the tables might only turn one and a half times on a Friday or Saturday night in the 60-seat restaurant, but the kitchen staff has to prepare several-course meals.

During a busy season, chefs at Catering St. Louis might juggle four to five events at a time. “It’s a different atmosphere in the kitchen and a different kind of stress,” said Ryan Modde, chef of the catering division. “At a restaurant, you have the same grind every night. In the catering world, you know exactly how many you’re going to serve and exactly what everyone is eating. You’re not hoping that people order the fish tonight.”

The type of cuisine a restaurant serves also can have some bearing on the type of chef a place will hire, but it’s not always that significant. As long as the cooking style isn’t too specialized, most chefs can adapt to using different ingredients, some restaurant owners said. A newly hired chef at Momos had no experience in cooking Greek cuisine, but the person had significant experience in the culinary industry and knowledge of preparing Mediterranean and Near Eastern foods.

Another consideration in the hiring process of a chef is schooling, but some employers place more emphasis on experience. Modde, a graduate of the Culinary Institute of America in New York, believes a mix of both is important. His professional training, he said, served as a strong support for moving up in a real world environment.

Ultimately, all of the scrutiny of a prospective chef boils down to how serious the position has become these days, some restaurant owners said. “There’s more attention today on culinary expertise,” Nooran said. “It’s not something people look down at. It’s serious business. Chefs get as much respect as a doctor or a lawyer if they’re good at what they do.”

Chefs plays a major role in establishing the reputation of a restaurant, and their every decision can affect the bottom line. “We have a lot of money invested in the restaurant, the food and the décor,” Devoti said.

With so much riding on their shoulders, chefs must continuously stay on top of their games. “I’ve been here 10 years, and I get better every day,” Desens said. “That’s my goal.”

And it’s his mission to help hopeful chefs like Jonathan Murphy continue on the same path to success.