Michael Matarazzo, CEC, Executive Chef of Farmington CC, is beginning to define his approach to welcoming back furloughed employees and supporting his team’s mental health.
At the very beginning of the COVID-19 outbreak, I was fortunate enough to speak at the 2020 Chef to Chef Conference in Charlotte, NC. In my presentation, I addressed many of the recruiting and retention challenges we are facing in our industry. The difference between my presentation and the talking points of similar past presentations was simple. I focused a bit more on the mental health of chefs as well as the mental health of our line level staff.
I suggested that many executive chefs display better understanding of and care for our fancy kitchen equipment and ingredients than we do the minds of our team members.
I also spoke about the “industry marketing” that floods social media. In one example, I shared a picture of a cook crouched down on a baine marie, inhaling his only meal of the shift, behind the line. I will not presume to tell anyone that these moments are right or wrong. Nor do I think is necessarily they are the problem. But the narrative in the comments below the picture alarm me.
Chefs from all walks of culinary life left comments including: “Some of the best meals I ever had were eaten over a trash can,” and “It took me a while to get used to eating at a table like a normal person when I left the industry,” as well as the ever popular “#cheflife.”
My point is maybe a young person who grew up cooking with Grandma and has developed a love for food and for feeding others and is now thinking about pursuing a career in our profession might see these comments from chefs he or she looks up to and decide the industry is simply not for them. These comments might actually deter a prospective young cook from contemplating a career in a professional kitchen.
It’s perfectly fine for us veteran chefs to trade war stories and reminisce about “the way it was” coming up as a young cook. But we do need to be conscious of the context in which we share our histories and know that there may be unintended consequences to our nostalgia.
During my presentation, I also discussed mental health and self-awareness. Ours is one of the only industries in which we create a product by hand, from scratch, and to-order, day after day. As a result, it is also a stressful industry known to plague its employees with anxiety, depression, substance abuse, and a myriad of other stress-related health issues.
Any one of us can tell you intimately how to properly care for our new combi-oven, sighting the manual on proper descaling practices and how to ensure the mother board or ‘brains” of the unit should be cared for to ensure longevity. But how much do we know about and care for our own brains, or the brains of the ten cooks that are doing the other 98% of the work for us?
A combi oven is expensive but can be found and purchased easily if needed. A promising young cook is priceless and, I think we all agree, not as easy to find these days.
This blog would have ended much differently pre-pandemic. It probably would have been a complete and more detailed recap of my presentation in Charlotte, as this is a topic I have become very passionate about.
But things have drastically changed since then—and I have a different message to convey now.
As we seem to be very slowly turning a gradual corner in our current situation and approaching a phased reopening of our operations, we are all carefully formulating plans to welcome back our members and guests and hopefully restore normal revenue streams to begin healing the bottom line.
While that is all good and hugely important, are we putting enough thought into how we are going to welcome the team members who have been furloughed back into our operations? Can we use this time to reflect on the aforementioned thoughts and perhaps introduce our employees to a fresh new environment?
I believe the first logical step in this process would be to reach out to furloughed team members and say hello. Check to see how they are doing. Don’t forget that even though they are not working and they have had the opportunity for some down time, they are dealing with a whole new set of stressors.
Aside from the obvious financial strain, others may have a lost a loved one who was infected with the virus. Maybe they have a family member who high-risk and cannot accept visitors. Maybe they lost a close friend and can’t travel to say goodbye. Many people from all industries are struggling with the rapid changes of our environment due to this pandemic, whether home schooling or social distancing.
You might be asking, “Why should we care if it’s not work related” or “I have my own issues to deal with.” But hear me out: We use the word ‘family’ a lot in this industry. Usually only at break time when everyone sits for “family meal.”
Think about how you treat family and ask yourself those questions again. Simply getting to know your team and being empathetic to their individual situations can serve as a powerful tool to positively impact their lives and outlook on the workplace.
So what can we do to yield the most positive return for our teams?
Perhaps, in addition to presenting a fish butchery demo to our teams, we can arrange for an expert to come in to discuss stress management. Why not organize a group meditation or yoga workshop to teach your people how to deal with their anxiety? If you have an in house fitness team, maybe they can help facilitate this at little cost to the operation. If you do not, and cost is the issue, there are likely several hospitality operations in your area that would be willing to chip in and share the costs for their own team.
We can also look at our employee meal offerings and consider a more healthful approach, providing our “little machines” with fuel that will promote a higher level of performance.
I can throw out ideas all day, but based on the creativity that I have seen from chefs and club managers around the country who are putting together care packages of toilet paper and facemasks for members, I am certain that we are capable of developing effective and economical programs to benefit our teams as well as our members.
Many of us will be putting together presentations for our memberships that tell the story of “while you were away,” or “this is what’s new and exciting just for you.” But what does the presentation look like for the ones we rely on in order to deliver this excitement? Does the term “new normal” (which I hate by the way) always need to have a negative connotation and reflect how the virus has forced more challenges into our world?
Right now, we as an industry have a unique moment to reflect on our past practices and leadership styles. We can create a better and more appealing “marketing” plan to help not only attract new people into our industry, but to better retain the talent we already have.
Perhaps, if we can do this collectively, we may not have to attend future lectures on the challenges of recruiting in our industry. And instead, we can talk about how to navigate the large pools of talented cooks begging to work in our kitchens with us.