Rene Redzepi warmed hearts around the world when he announced that his 62 year old kitchen hand had been promoted to co-owner of the highly acclaimed Noma restaurant. Sure, stories like this are few and far between, but there are steps you can take to get added value from this vital back of house role. By Danielle Bowling.

The kitchen hand is an unsung hero of the hospitality industry. They can make or break a service, they know the kitchen like the back of their hand and they have eyes and ears everywhere. Sure, turnover is usually quite high and finding motivated and reliable workers can sometimes be tough, but when a restaurant strikes gold, the impact can be enormous.

Rene Redzepi, part-owner of Noma in Copenhagen rewarded his kitchen-hand of some 14 years recently by giving him a share of the business. Ali Sonko, a 62 year old former farmer from Gambia, says that despite his promotion he’ll still be manning the dishwasher – at least some of the time – when the acclaimed restaurant relaunches in a new location at the end of the year.

No doubt there are plenty of other stories like Sonko’s. They might not be as high profile, but they send the same message that when nurtured and valued, the kitchen hand can bring real value to a restaurant.

“For instance, we currently have a chef in the restaurant who has been with us for six years, initially as a cleaner, then as our part-time kitchen hand,” said Patty Streckfuss, head chef at Andre’s Cucina & Polenta Bar in Adelaide. “We sponsored his immigration and over the past three years his skills have developed. Now he plays a crucial role in our team as a chef de partie and capably cooks for 200 people every weekend. The same can be said about our junior sous chef; he has been with our team for almost three years and he too began his journey with us as a kitchen hand.”

Warren Flanagan, head chef at Gemelli Café and Grill in Point Cook, Melbourne, admits that it doesn’t happen often, but when restaurants are able to find a kitchen hand willing to upskill the long terms benefits can be huge.

“These people have a far deeper respect for the entirety of the kitchen. Every single rank, they’ve worked through,” he said. “It’s really good to hear these stories were people grow organically through the ranks and don’t just go to chefs’ school, do an apprenticeship and get a head chef job, which in this day and age you can do because chefs are in such high demand.”

The first and most important thing for a head chef to do when welcoming a new kitchen hand, Flanagan said, is to ask questions.

“Some of them are just there for a job while they’re busy studying – it’s always interesting to find out what they do. I’ve worked with a kitchen-hand who was studying to be a rocket scientist. You never know unless you really ask questions, because they’re generally quite quiet and they just get on with their work, come in when they’re supposed to and leave when they’re supposed to … [but] you can really build someone up who wants to be built up.”

Sink or swim

Once you’ve established how willing your kitchen hand is to listen and learn, you can then diversify the role as much or as little as you like.

“Depending on the set-up, layout and dynamic of your kitchen, the kitchen hand can evolve to be much more than someone who stands in the corner doing dishes,” said Streckfuss. “He becomes someone you rely on, grabbing back-up prep in the middle of service, or assisting with prep – peeling potatoes, onions, garlic, carrots; grating cheese; cleaning mussels – all the staples of the kitchen that we require on a daily basis. Breaking down boxes, taking the bins out – all things that can easily be taken for granted.”

Flanagan adds that kitchen hands can weigh out recipes, pick and prep herbs and make spice mixes. “The role is as diverse as the chef wants to make it,” he told Hospitality. “The position is a jack of all trades. As long as the chef can trust him, the chef can give him jobs to do.”

Like most back of house roles, Flanagan said organisation and cleanliness are indications of a kitchen hand who has the potential to upskill.

“If they’re quick, organised and on time then you can automatically assume that they would make good hands in the kitchen. If they can organise a dish pit then they can organise a section.

“If you give them pasta or something to weigh out and there’s just containers everywhere and it’s a mess, you know that guy is not going to be good in the kitchen. But then if you get a guy that’s just meticulous; they start on one side and they finish on the other side and everything’s nice and neat, then that’s someone you can really utilise.”

The double-edged sword

The kitchen hand role is probably the easiest one in the kitchen to fill, Flanagan said.

“What I’ve found in the past is that you can pretty much get kitchen hands to organise their friends if they can’t make it. I remember when I was at Fifteen Melbourne, our kitchen hands were Korean guys and we used to have lots of new faces, because they’d come in, they’d work for three months and then they’d just replace themselves. It was like a never-ending pod of kitchen hands – when one finished another one started.

“Gumtree is also a fantastic way to get kitchen-hands. If I put up an advertisement today saying that I need a kitchen hand, and I put in the hours and the rate of pay, by the end of the day I could have one. It’s very, very easy.”

It may be an easy role to fill and it plays a crucial role in a kitchen’s efficiency, but it’s also the first one to get the chop when the purse strings need to be tightened.

“It’s the easiest to make dispensable,” Flanagan said. “You can cut the hours of a kitchen porter because they all work with hourly rates – it’s very rare that you get a kitchen porter on a salary … If you want to cut your labour costs then you send the dishies home early, or get them to come in an hour later, so you save 10 or 20 hours a week. Chefs are a bit more difficult to make dispensable – once you finish cooking then you’ve got the whole kitchen to clean.”

Regardless of the hours they’re allocating to their kitchen hands, every head chef wants to minimise turnover in his or her kitchen. It’s not a simple task, but one thing guaranteed to have an impact is ensuring each team member feels that they’re making a genuine contribution to the business, Streckfuss said.

“Staff turnover exists – for some establishments more than others. But I think part of the [solution] is acknowledging the kitchen-hand and their contribution as a cog in the machine,” she said. “The kitchen hand observes. He sees the high turnover of food. He knows when the potatoes are good to go. He knows which bowl they go in. He knows when they need to go in the bin – when you need to start again. I mean, he couldn’t hold a section solo, run the pass or lead the team but he plays a role. He’s part of the team and he deserves respect. With that, he can evolve, develop and progress.”

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