Interview tips for chefs and cooks

I recently co-interviewed a possible Executive Sous Chef for a client. The interviewee showed up in a T-shirt, jeans with holes in the knees, long long hair (while in a ponytail, it was all over the place) a ball cap and sunglasses. Glasses stayed on until we insisted he remove them unless he had a good reason. At least the T-shirt was clean.

The guy had a really fantastic resume but interviewed poorly, had a real ego attitude and the point deduction for showing up unprofessionally made a huge difference in his not being hired. This particular restaurant was upscale white tablecloth fine dining, where both the Exec and Exec Sous were expected to make appearances in the dining room frequently.

It reminded me of many of the things over the years that I have run into, that people I have interviewed over the years have done, that has taken points off their overall potential for being hired score.

The majority of the following should be common sense (but apparently is not as I still run into some of these while co-interviewing.)

Interview tips:

  • Showing up in your whites is not recommended. If you insist because you think you look cool in them, or in actuality have little time in between jobs, at least make sure they are clean and pressed. Extra points deducted for showing up in very dirty whites, the excuse being you just coasted from work doesn’t cut it, at least keep a clean coat available and take 3 seconds and change beforehand.
  • Dirty nails and/or painted nails. I discourage wait people from nail polish, but women cooks with nail polish are a big no no. While you may not wear the polish in the kitchen, if you have nails long enough to wear polish it means your undernails are going to be a breeding ground for bacteria. (this may be a personal pet peeve of mine as 8 years being off the line I still can’t stop clipping my nails short, but think about it, YUCK!)
  • Wearing a hat (Any kind of a hat including a toque) during the interview, bandannas included, is not kosher. Bring a brush if your hair is a mess under your hat or baseball cap. Neatness counts.
  • Don’t wear your sunglasses during the interview. Exceptions being if it’s held outdoors (although I would recommend squinting) or having light sensitivity (which you should mention or we just think your being rude.)
  • Don’t drink before coming to the interview, we can smell it and usually tell.
  • Excessive touching of your hair or face. While this may be a nervous habit, work on getting rid of it. No hair flipping (men and women) No running fingers through hair or nervously chewing on fingernails. Get help people.
  • Showing up in tattered shorts and a ripped t-shirt. If you don’t have dress clothes and can’t afford to buy new, borrow some or visit the nearest thrift shop. Goodwill, for example, generally has a good selection of gently used business clothes for very short money. This is not Star Search, where being laid back is cool, it’s a job interview, look professional. There IS no excuse for not doing it.
  • Excessive amounts of makeup and jewelry, men and women. See above. Bling has no part in a real kitchen. While tasteful jewelry is fine, keep it to the minimum.
  • Long, unwashed, unbound or unrestrained hair. (This was/still seems to be, actually a lot more common on men then women strangely enough.)
  • Tone down, or recommend doing away with totally, perfume and body spray/cologne. Not only is it potentially irritating to the person interviewing you, to me as the interviewer it tells me your taste palate is either nonexistent or shot, especially if it’s overpowering.
  • Don’t slouch, sprawl, sit on the floor, or the top of a desk (or on countertops while interviewing). The lean with the one knee cocked, is also a nada while interviewing. If you sit on my stainless steel prep table (regardless of whether I do it at the end of the night myself) it’s an automatic point deduction.
  • Don’t hit on, or flirt with, the interviewer, and this goes for men and women flirting with the opposite or same sex. While shipboard romances do occur often in professional kitchens, they have no place in a job interview.
  • Don’t brag. While it might be of interest that you can put out 200 covers by yourself with only a dishwasher, tone it down a bit man. Also bragging about working with a famous celebrity or 4 star chef belongs on your resume. The fact that you played gopher for a celeb and brag about it is definitely a sign to us that A. you have a big ego and B. thinking that this will impress us is sadly mistaken. Don’t bring it up unless we ask. Telling me you worked for, and am proud of working for, a Food Network chef is more likely to detract in points then gain (at least in my book).
  • If you smoke, make sure your clothes don’t smell and ask someone for the sniff test. Some chefs smoke themselves and have no problem hiring smokers. Others refuse, I am and would always be one of them that prefers not to hire smokers. Smokers lose palate and smell sense and from past experience have a tendency to oversalt.
  • Chefs and cooks by nature can be a bit arrogant and of course the media isn’t helping with rock star “chefs” like Guy Fieri and Anne Burrell running around in non-appropriate clothes and shoes and excessive jewelry and Gordon Ramsey throwing temper tantrums. Coat check the ego.
  • Don’t chew gum, suck on lollipops, masticate chew or gnaw your nails during the interview (this last one should be totally self explanatory as to why.) I mention this twice for a reason, I’ve seen it a lot.
  • When asked if you would like something to drink, don’t ask, “What’s on Tap” even if your joking, it’s not amusing (or even if your serious). We mean coffee, tea, soda or water. Exceptions being a VERY casual interview with someone you know pretty well, and that is only if the interviewer is having a drink. Recommend keeping it at one.

A Note of caution, I’ve had several friends, and I ran into this myself once as well, when going to an interview with someone you know pretty well; the interviewer had several drinks after the interview and certain “details” of the agreements got lost in the fog (or it was used as a deliberate excuse) things like pay rate and health insurance. If you know the interviewer well enough to have a drink with, gauge them in advance. If you suspect that having your chat with them at another time might be better suited to your own long term goals, reschedule to a morning meeting.

  • If asked as part of the interview to cook or “stage”, don’t panic, we understand your nervous when you do it and adjust accordingly. Things we look for beside actual cooking skills and final finished product look and taste, are organization, timing and cleanliness. The most beautiful and palate pleasing finished product, gets points deducted, if you’ve used half the kitchen equipment and left it dirty, and the place is ready to be declared a state of national disaster area.

If you have some interesting interviewees you’ve run into over the years, please let me know and I will post them with credit (but only if you want credit) 🙂


About Chef Forfeng

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5 Responses to Interview tips for chefs and cooks

  1. Nikolai says:

    Thanks very much for this. I’ve been a home cook for years and I have an interview tomorrow for a prep cook position. While most of this was common sense or should be, it was really reassuring to be reminded that I shouldn’t freak out over being asked to cook during the interview. It was also pretty comforting to know I already have some good habits- though nail biting is something I should probably get a hold on.

  2. Nick says:

    I always was under the impression to dress for the position you wanted not what you were applying for. That being said wearing whites seems perfectly logical could you go more in-depth as to why one shouldn’t do that?

    • Chef Forfeng says:

      Hi Nick, unless it’s the same restaurant you are already working at (and you are at work and in that case you need to still wear clean whites) wearing whites outside of work is not looked well on, for sanitation reasons amongst other things. It’s not much different than applying for a job in firefighting or in nursing, you wouldn’t show up for an interview wearing your gear or scrubs, you would show up in a suit or tie, or regular professional attire. The only exception is being on a break and it being the “only” time you can escape for an interview (still need clean whites) and if you are going to change, you may as well go the whole way. You can show up in whites for a second interview if you asked to Stage though but we still recommend changing there. I never looked well on people wearing their jacket (or work shoes) into a Stage Interview straight from the outdoors. Pants are one thing, but shoes track in things from outdoors and Jackets should be “clean”. Most professional chefs snicker at people running around in public in their “whites” It says look at me, I’m a cook, LOL

  3. This is a really good read. Most of the tips are common sense, hitting on the interviewer, but there are some other good points that a lot of people don’t think of. Humility goes a long way getting hired in the food service industry and most employers don’t react well to bragging. I look forward to future posts.

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