By Lori Acken
The next time you sit down for a meal at your favorite restaurant, don’t assume that the chef who created your food just wandered into the place one day and bowled over the owners with his or her culinary wizardry.
Sometimes, the cooks, the kitchen and the people who own the joint need a little help finding their way to one another. And that’s been New York native and professional chef recruiter Carrie McCully’s passion since she was an intensely observant post-grad with a natural love of the restaurant world.
“I’m just passionate about all things culinary,” McCully says. “As a New Yorker, I had the privilege of having some of the best restaurants and chefs and concepts around me, and it was my natural inclination to want to know what was going on in those places. Originally I started out in marketing, in PR, and at a certain point, I knew who was leaving and who wanted a job and the employment shifting that was going on in New York.
“I was making these connections and at some point, I said, ’Why the hell am I not making money at this?’” McCully laughs. “And having lots of friends in the business, it came naturally … my career has flowed very naturally.
Now the fruits of McCully’s labors — and the chefs in whom she so firmly believes — are on display in the new Food Network series Chef Hunter, which premieres tonight at 10pm ET.
The brainchild of Food Network general manager Bob Tuschman, the fascinating, high-drama show is the most unique food competition series in a veritable sea of TV cook-offs, simply because it is completed anchored in reality. The chefs are real out-of-work talent, the restaurants are truly in need of a new executive to run their kitchen, and — most critically — the job offer at each episode’s end is a firm one intended to last far beyond the season finale.
Which, says McCully, is the ultimate prize package in an economy that has not been kind to the culinary industry for years.
The chef hunter took time out from her perpetually busy schedule to tell us about the show, the previously unseen world of chef recruiting and the feet-and-food-to-the-fire interview process that awaits her clientele.
CGM: You are the first culinary recruiter I’ve ever spoken with and — like myself — I suspect viewers might be as fascinated with you as they are in the competitors you are looking to place in the restaurants…
CM: No one actually paid any attention to recruiters until, like, today [laughs] — we were always behind the scene! It was our job to promote the chef and promote the restaurants.
I’ve worked with some of the best — I’ve worked with mostly Beard winners and Michelin-starred restaurants. So I’ve been really fortunate. But I have to say that everything that has happened has been because I’ve been passionate about what I do.
CGM: Given that the business is round-the-clock, round-the-calendar with little time to spare, do most high-end restaurants use outside help to fill their positions?
CM: Restaurant recruiting has been greatly affected by the downturn in the economy in the past few years — and I’m speaking about the restaurants at the higher end. Because many of these restaurants have found it impossible to stay in business. These great, iconic institutions have had to close their doors. So it depends on what a restaurant is looking for. Executive chefs are often brought up within the organization. Or a lot of the restaurant groups have other venues and they bring chefs in from there.
It’s about understanding everyone’s needs and being in the right place at the right time. Connections are made in so many different ways. My business works over dinner. My business works over the phone. My business works in person. Just making those connections.
I’m a connector. And I care about people. I understand my candidates and I understand the needs of my restaurants — it’s almost intuitive. I can almost feel when it’s going to work and then I’m sure of it. And then I set my teeth into it and make it happen.
CGM: So much rides on your shoulders — assessing the restaurant owners’ and managements’ needs, assessing where their restaurant is now and where it is headed, assessing the potential chef’s culinary talents and their decision-making in and out of the kitchen. Where do you even begin?
CM: You never know where you’re going to begin when an opportunity presents itself! You can get six chefs who went to CIA — which is one of the very best culinary institutions in America — and you can look at these resumes and they’ve all done outstanding things and they all say “specialize in French technique” and they’ve excelled at this or that.
The ability that I have is to see their personalities and to see their strengths and weaknesses just by reading their resumes. Then when I meet them — it’s not a perfect science or anything — but I pretty much know what they’re looking for, where they’ll work well, what’s going to make them happy. Because they’ve got to be happy.
There’s a lot of turnover in this industry; there’s a lot of discomfort. It’s a tough job. I give kudos to any of my chefs — or any executive chef out there working the line — because it is possibly the hardest job you’ll ever do with the least amount of pay, unless you become a partner in the restaurant or something like that.
CGM: Are you ever called in to work with a restaurant and discover that your vision of what will work for them is not necessarily in sync with that of the owners?
CM: That happens all the time. They’re going to do what they want to do, because it is their business and — hopefully where their heart and their passion is, too — so I can maybe, as an outsider, give them a little bit of a fresh perspective of where they might want to think about going. It’s just about assessing the situation and gently showing them a new perspective and offering a solution to that new perspective. It’s all about offering solutions that best match the needs of the owners.
CGM: So you get that figured out and then when it comes to providing the human resource, you …
CM: There are two factors about an executive chef, assuming they can cook and manage a kitchen and do all of the things back-of-house. You’re looking at how do they fit into the marketing plan? I mean, if the chef doesn’t want to leave the kitchen to work the floor, and it’s a very chef driven restaurant [a situation seen in tonight’s premiere episode], that’s not going to work, no matter who the chef is. Because if it’s a chef-driven restaurant, the chef has to be out be out there working the floor and selling himself as a brand.
That’s what so great about Chef Hunter — it’s able to show that I’ve placed candidates into a situation that they really do fit into what that restaurant is. Restaurants are living organisms. And these chefs have to be happy, and the owners have to be happy. The chefs have to fit in and they have to thrive.
It’s kind of like finding a new family and that’s really important to the success of the restaurant. And that’s not easy.
CGM: The television landscape is filled with celebrity chefs now — and restaurants are filled with consumers who’ve made those chefs into celebrities. How much has that changed your job?
CM: Don’t even get me started on that! I have a real problem with a lot of these young turks coming out of culinary school who all of a sudden think they should be on Food Network or whatever. They have NOT paid their dues. They do NOT have the practical experience to be a real executive chef. They’ve never worked the line. They’ve never stodged [that’s “apprentice,” to us lay people] in Europe. They’ve never sacrificed and worked 20 hours in a row and burned themselves.
And yet they come out [of school] and you know what they do? They send me a resume and they send me a reel! And I’m like, “Wait a second, dude, you’re 24 years old and you’re trying to tell me you’re a star chef?!” Nuh-nuh-no! No!
The proof isn’t in one dish you can create or one basic menu. The proof is in how well you can show continuity and consistency. The proof is in how you can manage your staff. The proof is how you can purchase and keep your costs at the right level, how you can manage your labor costs. The proof is how well you can get along with your owners … or if you want to be a partial owner. There’s so much more to being an executive chef than, you know, spending 15 minutes plating offal [that's organ meats to us lay people].
Being a real executive chef is not a competition. Its not about that. It’s about being organized and getting up and working 24/7. It’s “all hands on deck” in the kitchen. If you’re about to go into the weeds, the executive chef on down to the line cooks are working in unison. And that rhythm is created by the executive chef.
I get really annoyed in what’s been generated that chefs think they can come right out and be celebrities. There’s been a few that can do that, but few with any longevity.
CGM: But it sounds like you still have a vast pool of candidates who are in the business for better or worse and for all the right reasons.
CM: That’s another reason I’m so proud of Chef Hunter is that we’re actually giving someone a real job at the end of the day. Because there just aren’t enough jobs.
Everyone remembers where they were for their graduation dinner, or when a relationship fell apart or one that sealed the deal. People come to a restaurant looking for the ultimate experience — and my clients are looking to provide the ultimate experience.
Chef Hunter came about because Bob Tuschman at Food Network is a genius. And Bob had developed this concept and it got to me somehow. I discussed with the network and production what I do and how I work and we just had a real synergistic fit.
Bob had this idea and this vision to bring something to Food Network that would really shake things up. You haven’t seen anything like this on any of the networks.
And I have to tell you, there are things that are just amazing. I hope it’s an amazing experience for the audience, but it’s even changed who I am. This is hard. I have chefs coming to me even after the shows wrap and saying to me, “Carrie, thank you so much, because — show or no show — you changed my perspective on my career and I am so grateful for that!”
Chef Hunter premieres tonight at 10pm ET on Food Network. If you are professional chef who is interested in being scouted, send an email to firstname.lastname@example.org