Despite their indispensable contributions, club chefs find themselves navigating a labyrinth when it comes to salary and perk negotiation. This article will delve into the importance of understanding, advocating for and negotiating salaries and perks for executive club chefs.
I hope to distill what took years and several pivotal moments to learn: You don’t get what you deserve. You get what you negotiate.
Awakened to Possibilities
In 2001, I was on fire for our craft and working as a restaurant chef at Baltimore (Md.) Country Club. I was blissfully unaware that my pay rate of $8.50/hour was below the poverty line for the DC/Baltimore metro area—until rent came due.
My first of several visits to the Greenbrier resort with my mentor to see his friend, Chef Peter Timmons, CMC, would change all of that. The opulence of the Greenbrier was foreign and breathtaking. Chef Timmons’ success and the Versace blazer his wife lent me for dinner showed me a lifestyle I didn’t realize could be attained as a professional culinarian.
Subsequent conversations with Chef Timmons about the work he put into his craft and his career trajectory would sharpen my own focus and alter my path.
It’s not uncommon for chefs to be passionate about their craft to the point of neglecting financial considerations. Many chefs are drawn to the profession because of our love for cooking, and we prioritize culinary creativity over financial rewards.
However, knowing your worth and having the will to advocate is essential. The results of this effort don’t simply impact a single executive chef’s position because, on the ocean of the private club industry, all ships rise together. The negotiation of your neighboring chef can benefit you tomorrow.
Understanding the Market: Club chefs should examine salary trends and compensation packages for similar positions in their region and industry. This knowledge will serve as a benchmark for what they can reasonably expect when they begin negotiating. GuideStar (a nonprofit financial reporting service) is an indispensable tool for researching the compensation for comparable positions, as well as understanding the financial health of a club prior to applying for employment.
The salary and benefits survey recently conducted by Club + Resort Chef broke new ground in offering transparency and is crucial reading for assessing the value of an executive chef position.
Assessing Skills and Experience: Every executive chef brings a unique set of skills and experiences to the table. It’s crucial to evaluate your qualifications honestly and determine how they align with the club’s needs. Highly skilled chefs with a proven track record in comparable operations will naturally command higher salaries and perks.
Quantifying Achievements: A chef’s accomplishments can be quantified in various ways, such as improved profitability, menu innovations or successful event execution. By showcasing these achievements, chefs can justify their request for better compensation. Competitions, certifications and continuing education are also great methods of quantifying achievements and gaining an advantage in negotiations.
Negotiating Perks: Many executive club chefs, especially younger ones and chefs who moved their way up through the brigade, aren’t aware of the full menu of benefits that are available.
Compensation is not limited to salary. Perks such as health benefits, retirement plans, professional development and work-life balance are equally important. Additionally, lesser-known perks have been made to peers such as subsidized housing, supplemental retirement policies, clothing allowance, automobile allowance, tuition assistance for dependents and more. Take the time to negotiate professionally and patiently prior to new employment.
Don’t **** with Me, and other Pre-Employment Negotiables
In 2018, I found myself sitting across from Mark Bado, one of only a handful of Master Club Managers in the United States, as we contemplated my return to Myers Park Country Club (MPCC) in Charlotte, N.C. This was our first meeting, and I was eager to convey my inclination toward thriving in an environment that offered autonomy over micromanagement. With a casual chuckle, [Bado] said, “So, what you’re telling me is, don’t [expletive deleted] with you.”
His relaxed demeanor and acceptance of my management preferences put me at ease. This candid and open conversation marked the beginning of a series of discussions that laid the foundation for an immensely gratifying employment, treasured mentorship and a friendship that would prove vital as we navigated the uncharted landscape of the pandemic.
The Often-Overlooked Benefit of Work/Life Balance
With the pandemic in full swing, we made the necessary adjustments at MPCC to maintain a takeout operation and grocery pickup program. We all worked on “shortened” schedules, eight hours per day with no overlap to prevent outbreak. The new schedule allowed for new life experiences that weren’t previously possible.
One of those experiences was being able to join my family for dinner on a regular basis. One evening, as I sat outside on the front porch with my wife, I commented on how many people were outside walking around our neighborhood. She said, “They’ve always done that. You’re usually just working.”
As chefs, we give nearly everything to this craft. By sacrificing our nights, weekends and holidays, we implicitly sacrifice relationships, life experiences and so much more. Many of us might have been attracted to this industry at a young age by a romanticized notion of what it means to be a chef. However, COVID has starkly highlighted for me, and for many of my peers, the true costs of a successful career.
Based on C+RC’s 2023 Salary Survey, out of more than 400 respondents, over 76% of club chefs feel their work-life balance is negatively affected by excessive work hours, at least sometimes.
Understanding what a healthy work-life balance means to an individual and to their family is key; the conversation needs to take place with a potential employer to ensure the resources are in place to turn that plan into a reality.
The Single Most Important Part: The Written Labor Agreement
In 2022, I quickly came to realize the importance of a written labor agreement when my own was disregarded by incoming club management. Given the option of taking legal action to protect my negotiated terms, ignoring the infraction, or simply moving on, I chose to seek new employment. However, having a signed labor agreement provided me with the legal protections and peace of mind that I would not have otherwise had.
HR executives emphasize the importance of documenting employment terms in writing to clarify rights and obligations for both parties. While formal contracts can be used, even a simple document detailing pay, work hours, benefits and other terms suffices. Some states mandate written documentation, but many are unaware of this. Regardless of the state’s requirement, having a written agreement is crucial to address any potential disputes.
While the line between white-collar and blue-collar work can sometimes blur, club chefs are generally considered white-collar professionals due to their high level of expertise, financial responsibilities and managerial duties. The C+RC Salary Survey results convey the narrative of a group that, for the most part, does not perceive that they are being treated as such.
Although concerns about salary, work-life balance and the absence of negotiated terms may currently pertain to this group, it is only a matter of time before these concerns become prevalent across our industry. In fact, according to the survey results, this shift may occur within the next ten years—or sooner.
It is the responsibility of private clubs, managers and recruiters to avert an exodus from our industry by taking proactive measures to ensure the role of Executive Club Chef is both esteemed and attractive.