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Skills Testing as Part of Job Interviews


Chris Amirault
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An acquaintance who is a line cook in town applied for a job at one of the high end restaurants in Providence, and as part of the interview he was asked to spend three hours at a station doing various kinds of prep work and, I believe, cooking a dish or two. I hadn't heard of this approach before, though it makes great sense to me.

How common is this? What's the routine? Is it worthwhile, for either applicants or employers?

Chris Amirault

eG Ethics Signatory

Sir Luscious got gator belts and patty melts

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An acquaintance who is a line cook in town applied for a job at one of the high end restaurants in Providence, and as part of the interview he was asked to spend three hours at a station doing various kinds of prep work and, I believe, cooking a dish or two. I hadn't heard of this approach before, though it makes great sense to me.

How common is this? What's the routine? Is it worthwhile, for either applicants or employers?

Hi Chris,

I hired a chef this way. I'd interviewed him, the owner interviewed him and then I asked him to come in again. I just asked him to make a dish from what ever he could find in the walkin. He'd never worked in our kitchen before.

He came out 45 minutes later with an awesome dish and a great presentation.

I don't know how common it is, but it's worth it to get a good read on someone.

Cheers

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This is very common here in Chicago. It's known as "staging".

It's worthwhile for the employer because of the costs associated with a new hire. Don't hold me to this but I think if ADP does your payroll the cost to enter a new hire is something like $35.

Not sure but there may also be a liability insurance surcharge.

Many employers do extensive backround checks as well. You really don't want to hire someone involved in sexual harassment complaints, sexual assault, arson... You could easily spend $300 for one of these.

So before you spend dime one it's nice to see what kind of Bearnaise sauce they make.

"And in the meantime, listen to your appetite and play with your food."

Alton Brown, Good Eats

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we usually call it a "try out" and it can be anywhere from a couple of hours to a full shift. for the most part, we don't have the person work the actual line during service but rather do prep work in order to check out their work habits and skills. then, they usually watch part of service.

this is good for both parties. for the restaurant for reasons already stated and for the prospective employee to see if they would want to work with the particular crew and/or cuisine offered at the restaurant.

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It's pretty common around here to do a full shift as part of the interview process. In fact, when I look for a job, I don't accept the job until I'm able to work a shift or two, to feel out the restaurant. I definitely feel it's worthwhile, for both parties.

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When I was looking for internships for this summer I specifically asked to do unpaid stages at restaurants I was interested in. The way I look at it, it's like making a documentary film. No-one is themselves for the first hour or two that the new guy is around. Then slowly, as they get more comfortable, they revert to being themselves. And that's who you're going to have to work with.

Bryan C. Andregg

"Give us an old, black man singing the blues and some beer. I'll provide the BBQ."

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Just to be clear: I'm not talking about a stage in the sense of a volunteer apprenticeship to gain experience. I'm talking about an on-demand performance as part of a job application. Do folks call "show up with your knives prepared for three hours of demonstration brunoise, sauces, and whatever else we throw at you" a stage?

Chris Amirault

eG Ethics Signatory

Sir Luscious got gator belts and patty melts

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Mike's comments make sense to me:

It's pretty common around here to do a full shift as part of the interview process.  In fact, when I look for a job, I don't accept the job until I'm able to work a shift or two, to feel out the restaurant.  I definitely feel it's worthwhile, for both parties.

Do you get paid for that shift or two?

Chris Amirault

eG Ethics Signatory

Sir Luscious got gator belts and patty melts

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I require all new cooks to do a 3 day tryout, not only to test their cooking skills, but observe their sanitation, and more importantly their attitude. That they can fit in with the other cooks is important in my kitchen. I pay them a base rate(10 bucks) per hour and at the end of the tryout if I like them and they want to be a part of the team, I then make them an offer.

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I have been asked on several occations to cook something during the first interview. Allways an omlette. This makes sense to me as it shows your knife skills, how you put togather flavors, how you season a dish and how well you can cook a delicate protien.

I have also been asked to make three drinks, (usually a Marg. LIT, and then a cosmo, yes this was for the clubs) as part of the interview.

A DUSTY SHAKER LEADS TO A THIRSTY LIFE

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I think the correct term is "bench testing." I've had to do this one or twice before. I find it to be quite fun, especially in terms of the regular boring interview process. And I do quite well when it comes to stuff like that.

It usually ranges from product identification to prep work to trailing to actual station work.

-Chef Johnny

John Maher
Executive Chef/Owner
The Rogue Gentlemen

Richmond, VA

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Just to be clear: I'm not talking about a stage in the sense of a volunteer apprenticeship to gain experience. I'm talking about an on-demand performance as part of a job application. Do folks call "show up with your knives prepared for three hours of demonstration brunoise, sauces, and whatever else we throw at you" a stage?

Yeah I think it just became common usage. I've always thought it was misused.

I've also heard the term "staging" refer to the coordinating the "Head Waiter" does letting the kitchen know what table is ready for the next course. I always thought this was done by an expediter but what do I know. (no really I'm clueless, trying to jump back in after a 25 year leave of absence)

"And in the meantime, listen to your appetite and play with your food."

Alton Brown, Good Eats

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Mike's comments make sense to me:
It's pretty common around here to do a full shift as part of the interview process.  In fact, when I look for a job, I don't accept the job until I'm able to work a shift or two, to feel out the restaurant.  I definitely feel it's worthwhile, for both parties.

Do you get paid for that shift or two?

Usually I wouldn't get paid cash for the trial shift. Instead, I'd ask the chef to make me his 'signature' dish for my meal, just to see what his cuisine is really about (although you can usually get a good idea from working in the kitchen, it's also nice to see from a diner's perspective...). Also, during a trial shift (or 'stage' as we'd call it), there's not usually too much heavy work involved - prepare a few items, observe the kitchen work, then work alongside the chef during service, and they wouldn't make me clean either (since it's unpaid) - although they do observe how clean you actually work.

At one restaurant, during this trial shift, I observed from the server side of the pass for a lunch service, and during the dinner service I worked the pass with the Chef, plating items, making sauces, etc... Another trial shift at another restaurant involved working the GM station with the Chef/Owner, although it mostly involved drinking lots of good wine, eating lots of good cheese (and anything else we could find on the GM station) and just shooting the shit...

As far as I'm concerned it's a good deal working that 1 unpaid shift - it's plenty of fun, easy work, both parties get to see what the other is about.

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Mystery basket cooking is what I was always hit with. While I think that 3 days is a bit much - a shift should be a good look at someone. Every single one I did was non paid - 3 days worth of free work??? - unless you are a huge name or 5 star give me a break. I can say this, it also gave me a look at the places close up too. EXAMPLE I was asked to meet the exec chef at his club on a closed day. He was an hour late which pissed me off to start. The interview was fine, but then he showed me his kitchen. The entrance from his office was off the dish tank. It was stacked up with dirty dishes and the sinks full of nasty filth from the night before. The stations were clean, but not to my standard. He showed me the walk ins and it was something out a freak show. Stuff uncovered and undated, speed racks full of unwrapped meats and pans with no description of the contents. Fish sitting in water, evidently being iced down a couple days before and forgotten. The Veg cooler was in just as bad a shape but not nearly as gross. The dairy walk in I could not even get to because of the dirty floor mats stacked in front. I made everything from scratch in 3 hours. From my own quick stock for the soup (which I felt that if I made the chef sick by using his stock, no chance at a job) Half way through I got bored and pissed. I could not find anything where it should have been. I used my own hand blender, tongs, etc because it was filthy. I had to clean cutting boards and pans to use! I was no more interested in them that the man in the moon. I gave him and the pastry chef 4 courses and ended up handing them the food and cleaning where I worked and my stuff and packed my bags. At the end he started in with what sounded like a reality show. Play acting Iron Chef I guess - pathetic. I said thanks but no thanks - enjoy and good luck. So it can help you too. A shift is common. I was asked to trail for a full day at a very upscale - but did not feel the love in the place. Many other countless lunch rush or dinner service. I have been asked to prep things from veg to fab meats. Fabricating a couple things I had no idea even how to do - Osterich blades! I am now Exec Sous and ended up cooking a Valentines dinner for the members with the Exec and Exec Sous at the time. I took very good care of the menu that they had, plating with precision, keeping clean, being very friendly (as is typical for me) and made sure that everything I did was "ok'd" before I did THEIR food even doing a few things on my own to make it look better than they expected...

Work a shift - if they ask you to work more be careful - don't get hurt before you get on payroll.

Edited by Jakea222 (log)
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Work a shift - if they ask you to work more be careful - don't get hurt before you get on payroll.

You bring up an excellent point I wonder how the restaurant covers the liability in this situation.

I've heard second hand of course Gal Grand while at TRU in Chcigo ask working chefs to intern for 90 to 180 days to be considered. I know she has trained many culinary students but that's a different story. I wonder of the former was some kind of interviewing tactic.

"And in the meantime, listen to your appetite and play with your food."

Alton Brown, Good Eats

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Anybody can be a rockstar for a day, and be the most pleasant, but what about the other days? I've hired many who were great on the first day, but flaked or revealed their baggage soon after. Three days show that they can be on time(consistently). Besides, it takes one shift just to recognize the kitchen, spending all your time trying to find things. That leaves one day each for the other stations. As I mentioned, we pay a base rate and at the end, if it didn't work out, they still got paid. Hiring an employee is (IMO) a big investment that we make, and the learning curve is steep, so I want to try and get the best fit for the team.

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  • 2 weeks later...

Well - in the non food world hiring someone and have them not work is just part of it - the food biz is harder in the fact that so many places for different personalities. I would never work for someone longer than a shift - as an exec sous and knowing the business world I can tell you - it opens up a huge liability to the business as well, having a non paid, non employee hurt in the kitchen while working for you - don't tell the injury lawyers or you are screwed - might as well hand the the keys to your house!

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Well - in the non food world hiring someone and have them not work is just part of it - the food biz is harder in the fact that so many places for different personalities.  I would never work for someone longer than a shift - as an exec sous and knowing the business world I can tell you - it opens up a huge liability to the business as well, having a non paid, non employee hurt in the kitchen while working for you - don't tell the injury lawyers or you are screwed - might as well hand the the keys to your house!

Yeah most liability policies demand a drug test for anyone BOH. No drug test no coverage.

"And in the meantime, listen to your appetite and play with your food."

Alton Brown, Good Eats

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That drug test is huge. Especially in court - in many industries especially the trucking industry right now many drivers are being shown as being on drugs to stay awake etc and being involved in wrecks and are losing because of it - I am not familiar enough with any cases of "trail" employees in a kticehn getting hurt - but think it would be expensive.

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A pastry chef I knew who was interviewing for a new job at the restaurant in Nieman Marcus in San Francisco had to prepare and plate three desserts in four or five hours as part of the interview process. She knew about it in advance and thus could prepare to a certain extent, but she had to use the kitchen's ingredients, so if they didn't have something she was planning to use, she had to improvise.

I asked her if that was unusual in her experience; she said it was the first time she'd had to do anything that elaborate or extensive but that she'd usually had to make something.

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I have been asked on several occations to cook something during the first interview.  Allways an omlette.  This makes sense to me as it shows your knife skills, how you put together flavors, how you season a dish and how well you can cook a delicate protein.

I have also been asked to make three drinks, (usually a Marg. LIT, and then a cosmo, yes this was for the clubs) as part of the interview.

I think that making an omelette was something that one or two famous French chefs had anyone coming to work in their kitchens do...thought I read it somewhere, or maybe heard it anecdotally.

Don't remember which chefs it was - Bocuse, perhaps was one of them...maybe Ducasse?

Mitch Weinstein aka "weinoo"

Tasty Travails - My Blog

My eGullet FoodBog - A Tale of Two Boroughs

Was it you baby...or just a Brilliant Disguise?

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Jeff Henderson's book, "Cooked," which was excerpted in the Daily Gullet, opens with an account of the test meal he had to cook before being hired at a restaurant.

I think -- not to add anything here but just to summarize -- there are three main variants of practical test given to potential new hires, when any test at all is given. First, there's the basic skills kind of test, where you make an omelette or roast a chicken or whatever. Second, there's the meal test, where you're asked to prepare a meal, often but not always from mystery box ingredients. Third, there's staging, either for a shift or for a more extended period.

I've heard cooks tell of all three. It can also depend a lot on the level at which a cook is coming in to a restaurant. For example, I have acquaintances who've interviewed for chef-de-cuisine positions at serious restaurants, and they've been run through extreme testing procedures, making meal after meal for the chef, the investors, etc. At the same time, if you're hiring a kid out of the CIA to be a line cook in training, you don't expect that person to be able to pass any serious cooking tests. You expect to have to teach that person, so you just want to make sure you're dealing with someone who can learn.

Steven A. Shaw aka "Fat Guy"
Co-founder, Society for Culinary Arts & Letters, sshaw@egstaff.org
Proud signatory to the eG Ethics code
Director, New Media Studies, International Culinary Center (take my food-blogging course)

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I would also expect any culinary program graduate to do the basics. Every single chef I have worked for have all done or added a spin to the basics. Repetition is the key. IF you hire someone that has been on the line since they were 12 nad then maybe stack them against someone who is a fresh grad, you probably will be able to see that the kids working since he was 12 will have an edge - it is what they do down the road that counts. Most gradautes have seen, or done or have a little more fire in the belly for exciting things or they would not have forked over the cash to get that piece of paper. I will say right now I am a humbel chef - I have a guy right now that can cook circles around me AFTER he sees me do it - or I order the stuff for him to cook or schedule him to work or sign the pay checks - so down the road is what you have to TRY to foresee - not just in the food business, but the business world where I came from. Who is serious, who has the desire, who is going to show up when I need them???

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  • 2 years later...

I find myself having to seek new employment. In a few of my interview's, the exec. chefs indicated that they want a cooking skills demonstration at the next pre-hire interview. I have no problem with this, but I am curious to know if there are certain dishes that have become more or less standards that chefs ask prospective new hires to demonstrate.

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