Surviving the Tasting

The longer I work at pairing the perfect chef with the right restaurant, the more I question the value of tastings. Still, they are currently universally used to determine whether a candidate is suited for a property.

Enough absolutely competent and talented people manage not to get a position with a cooking tryout to make it clear that these are not as sure as they seem. Having watched enough failures we can give at least a few rules for survival:

  1. Find out in advance what is expected of you.
    • Market basket? Do you have to create from an existing selection?
    • You create a menu, hand in shopping list or bring and bill your own material to present your best to them?
    • You simply work on the line alongside the chef or sous chef?
    • Just shadow? If you are just shadowing, make sure to keep out of the way. If you want to participate, ask if you can help.
  2. Bring your own knives. Ask if you should bring your own coat. Anything to increase the comfort zone.
  3. If you are really only shadowing, make sure to keep out of the way, but offer to help if it seems appropriate. This is a difficult judgment call, but we can say we heard more often “The guy just stood around like a bump on a frog’s butt” more often than that someone was too helpful.
  4. Know what is expected of you as far as food. Make sure you know what kind of food the employer wants you to prepare. Ask the employer what he wants. Ask what is wrong with the current menu or what they would like changed. Listen carefully to what he tells you. If the employer says he wants basic food, that’s what he wants. Give it to him. Don’t second guess the employer. More trials go downhill when the applicant arrogantly or eagerly or naively overshoots the employer’s desires (once he sees my torchon de foie de aigle, he’ll have to hire me – in your dreams) than for any other reason. Your inquiry should cover any special desires in the way of presentation. Then do as they tell you. This is where most trials fail, and they can fail as soon as the employer sees your shopping list.
  5. If you are unsure about anything during the tasting, ask questions before it becomes a problem.
  6. If you are to write and prepare a menu of your choosing, be sure that you have your ingredients well secured ahead of time. Don’t choose hard to get product; If your menu is based on one rare item and you can’t find it, you will fail.
  7. Be prepared and organized.It is as important that you get your shopping list to the employer or purchasing agent in time as it is that you prepare it well. The tasting is also a trial of your organizational skills. Confirm that everything is there the day before.
  8. Do it a dry run at home or in another kitchen. Running through your trial at least once at home is not wasted time or food.
  9. Time yourself: You will probably be asked to put out several items. Make sure that your timing is realistic. Timing in a strange kitchen is more difficult than in familiar surroundings.
  10. Don’t fire until you see the whites of their eyes. Really, really, really. At least half of all tastings start late. The more people tasting and the higher in the organization they are, the more likely they will be late. Avoid items that need a long time but must be served promptly. Risotto, for instance, cooks poorly if it sits before finishing. Don’t use it for a tasting. A client recently gave up on the best chef for the position I have seen in twenty years because he fired for a given time and they arrived an hour and a half later. It is better they wait with an explanation, than that they eat gray meat, clumpy pasty, - fill in the blank.
  11. If you can, speak with the runner handling your dishes. Make friends with this guy, because he is the face of your food for the next hour or two. Tell him what you are doing and what you will need. Say please and for the love of Pete, say Thank you.
  12. Keep well within your skill comfort zone. A kitchen tasting is no time to push your limits! What you have done a thousand times will taste better and come out more perfectly than the new challenge you take on under an unusually stressful situation. Don’t try to do more than your best. Do something you know you do well. They will be watching you and your expressions some of the time, and looking in full control of the situation is to your advantage.
  13. Don’t forget the financial aspect. You may not be asked, but know how you would cost your dishes. If this is a location with a 27% food cost and an average cover of $35, choose your items accordingly.
  14. Whatever you cook should TASTE good. Not as simple as it sounds: Flavor is the best sales point in a try out.
  15. Whatever you cook should LOOK good. Presentation is not quite half the battle, but it is a good 40% of perception.
  16. Be tidy. Be nice. Not only your food is on trial. During the time there your manners and your general behavior are under scrutiny. If you don’t shake hands with the dishwasher, the job won’t be yours. The rest of the staff may well be asked what they think of you. They are not going to cut you slack because you are nervous. If you act like a jerk, they will vote against you.
  17. Don’t take it too seriously. You are not on trial for your life. It’s just cooking. It can be fun.
  18. If you make a mistake, own up to it. Don’t make excuses or, even worse, blame someone on staff. Meet things you find your might have done better head on. Don’t hope they won’t notice it. Listen to their comments and participate in a discussion if they mention change.
  19. Don’t leave the kitchen, until you have spoken with the tasters or been dismissed. When you are finished ask the employer if he has any questions rather than how you did. “I hope you enjoyed the whatever,” is a little less self centered, however. Thank him for the opportunity and tell him you enjoyed it.
  20. Clean up your station before you leave.
  21. If you are asked if you would like a glass of wine afterwards, decline politely. Ask for a glass of water or a juice. You have been under stress, you are tired and possibly a little anxious. This is not a time to touch alcohol with a future employer.
  22. Get enough sleep the night before. This makes more difference than you can imagine.
  23. Don’t talk smack about your past employers, anyone or anything during the tasting. If you find the kitchen in disarray, don’t mention it. If you get the job, you can fix it later. The staff can give you some feedback, but if they start criticizing an earlier try out or the chef, keep away from it. They will discuss you in the same tone with the next guy, by the way.
  24. Understand that employers sometimes inappropriately call other kitchens to ask how a tasting went. People know each other and they talk. You may be trying out for the next tasting on the list.