With increasing frequency operators are requiring chef candidates to perform “practical application” interviews, more commonly known as “tastings.” Companies large and small conduct them for three main reasons:
- They reveal a candidate’s actual culinary skills
- They provide insight into a candidate’s character under pressure
- They help evaluate culture fit and bring the candidate’s would-be peers and reports into the decision-making process
There are three main variations of tastings:
Derived from the French word stagiaire, in this most informal practical the candidate is asked to join the culinary staff for one or more service periods. During service the candidate is rarely asked to take a lead role, but is expected to take on prep tasks and line cooking responsibilities. The chef will be judged on everything they do, especially knife skills, cold and hot cooking techniques, fabrication, communication and demeanor.
The “Chef Tasting”
In this practical, chefs are asked to create their own menu and execute it in the employer’s kitchen and on the employer’s time frame. For this type of tasting it is very important to know whether the employer expects the chef to create items that are exemplary of their “best work” or items that are within the menu concept.
The “Mystery Basket Tasting”
This is the most challenging variation, because chefs are challenged to prepare a menu using ingredients unknown until they begin. This practical tests the chef’s general repertoire as well as creativity and skills under pressure. Although an extreme example, the Food Network’s “Chopped” is a show completely based on a mystery basket tasting.
Whichever variation you are asked to do, the list below has been compiled over a decade of negotiating hundreds of tastings for chef candidates. Adhering to these principles will greatly increase your success.
- Stick with what you know and do it well. This is an application of your current skills.
- Ask for assistance when using an unfamiliar piece of equipment.
- Be on your best behavior and have excellent manners.
- If asked, keep your critiques of the host’s facility, staff and menu positive. Phrase responses such as “If given the opportunity I might change …”
- Keep the interview professional, and all conversations industry-related.
- Be well-groomed and dress professionally including polished non-skid clogs or appropriate shoes and a crisp plain white coat.
- Bring your knives, and ensure ahead of time that your host has all the equipment and wares you need to execute your menu.
- Be prepared to be interrupted, adding to the pressure. You may be asked to step out of the kitchen for an impromptu meeting. If not at a critical time, you should oblige.
- Make a quick prep list at the onset. Start longer prep time items first, such as baked desserts, braises, roasts, and marinated meats.
- Don’t attempt techniques you have not mastered.
- Use dangerous equipment without proper safety training
- Use gruff behavior or cuss – even if your host or their employees do. They’re not on stage … you are.
- Use derogatory language if asked to evaluate the host’s business. You don’t want to be perceived as arrogant or egotistical.
- Discuss your personal life or gossip about other properties or people.
- Neglect your appearance. You may be asked to spend time in the dining room or meet with an owner or executive.
- Assume your host has everything you need. Changing your menu in the middle of the tasting will put you in the deep weeds.
- Expect an undisturbed kitchen utopia. (It will take 30 minutes to get a bar mop under your cutting board and start your mise en place. Be ready to clean the robot coupe yourself, with a smile.)