An open door is only the first step

Stafford DeCambra

By Stafford DeCambra, CEC, CCE, CCA, AAC

Many chefs operate on the mantra that it doesn’t matter what someone looks like or where they come from, “as long as they can cook.”

But is that really true? It seems like a self-limiting thought process, that the only criteria for a new hire is that they already can cook. What about where this new hire came from? What experiences or influences do they have? Personally, I think it all matters.

To expand the abilities of our kitchens, we must diversify the way we think about hiring. Frankly, “as long as they can cook” is too low a standard. ACF chefs — I know we can do better.

It’s a fact that great cooks can come from any economic background and be of any race, religion or gender. In Minneapolis, we heard from Yia Vang, the founder of Union Kitchen in Minnesota. Chef Vang learned to cook from his mother and father, both of whom emphasized their Hmong cooking at home. Importantly, he also had Eddie Wu, a chef owner and operator at Cook St. Paul, who literally opened his door to two ambitious chefs. He allowed them to host their first pop-up in his restaurant, which, in turn, launched their thriving business. To this day, Wu continues to mentor Chef Vang, teaching him how to be a chef and run a successful business. (Read more about Yia Vang on We Are Chefs.)

What would happen in your kitchen if a young Yia Vang walked in your door? A chef with experience, but not experience that came from a culinary degree or staging in a Michelin-starred restaurant. Would you be mentally flexible enough to say, “Yes, this is a chef worth taking a chance on, worth my time. This chef — with a little help from me — can become the next Yia Vang.”

In fairness, there is a hard truth about risking your time on an unknown chef. Sometimes you invest in someone with potential. Sometimes you have incredible hopes for a young talent. And despite your best efforts, sometimes that chef will walk away. Vang mentored and now partners with a young chef — his cousin Chris Her. But he’s had chefs leave him, and he says, “You have to be prepared to have your heart broken.” We’ve all been there.

But I will say this: It is worth it. The day you see that chef who you mentored, who you reached for, begin to take this profession seriously, to craft a career and a life for him- or herself will be one of the proudest days of your life.

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