What to look for in an executive chef

Do you remember when the top restaurants in most cities happened to be located in the best downtown hotels? This was the era of the carving station serving chateaubriand for two, Caesar salad with dressing made by the waiter tableside and flambéed desserts. 

Today, however, this isn’t a guarantee. Excellent restaurants can be found nearly anywhere, and even though hotel restaurants in the luxury segments have matured significantly, they are nevertheless engaged in a perpetual war for culinary dominance with just about every other upscale purveyor in the area.

As all brands sharpen their accommodations, amenities and service levels, restaurants become key differentiators. There’s fundamental logic to this. Food consumption is core to our existence, forging permanent memories. And if you somehow forget the décor or the size of the suite you recently stayed at, chances are a great meal will still be top-of-mind.

From a social-media standpoint, nothing is as tweetable or likeable on Facebook as a photo of a just-served dinner entrée or dessert in its full regalia. The quantity of these photos is a significant multiple greater than the number snapped of guestrooms or even views from the hotel room. I’ll even wager that a property’s overall TripAdvisor rating can be reduced or enhanced based upon guests’ experiences at the in-house restaurant.

Four characteristics that make the executive chef

At the core of any restaurant operation is the executive chef. He or she is the spark plug that generates those “wow” dishes that create lasting images and memories for your guests. As the restaurant experience continues to evolve, so too does the role of executive chef. Your exec’s responsibilities in the front of the house are as important as those in the kitchen. So, what skills should you look for during the selection of this most critical position?

1. It’s all about the food.

The is the most obvious: Can your chef deliver a menu that sets your property apart, and can it be done within the context of your property’s strategic operating plan? It used to be that the GM could interview a prospective chef in the kitchen, as if the ability to wield a knife and manage heat was sufficient. This is a fundamental skill, but nowadays it’s insufficient as a hiring criterion.

2. It’s about balance and teamwork.

No matter how high profile the chef, he is but one person amongst a team working in this department. Your chef has to respect the contribution of others and partner effectively with your F&B director. Lone-wolf chefs rarely last long and tend to leave an incredible mess in their wake.

3. Personality is important.

Being executive chef is no longer just about being a chef. Larger than life, your chef’s capabilities transcend the kitchen, dining room and even the property. Your exec has to be as comfortable in the front of the house with guests as he or she is in the back of house with the staff. He has to be able to work with your PR team, share recipes, pose for photos and, ultimately, be accessible.

4. Your chef must generate social sparks.

Social sparks are those items that are worthy of sharing. Now more than ever, chefs have to be a part of the social fabric of your organization. In other words, your chef has to be an outgoing activist, embracing your social-media programs and sharing his or her behind-the-scenes approach to making the restaurant a true business differentiator. Your chef has to be as comfortable with his smartphone as he is with your back-of-house technology.