Cook wanted

With the economy barely keeping its feet amid record unemployment levels, I thought I’d give you a peek behind the kitchen office door — and perhaps educate a few job seekers — with a look at the restaurant hiring process.

This industry encompasses a wide range of workplaces, from the smallest mom-and-pop-do-almost-everything establishment to giant corporate operations with more bureaucratic layers than the proverbial onion. Likewise, the pool of potential applicants spans the gamut, from aspiring teenage cooks with little to no experience, to seasoned veterans with a résumé as long as a bistro apron. Job seekers in our field would do well to ask themselves a few questions before replying to every want ad:

1. What do I want out of this position, if I’m lucky enough to get it?

Knowing the answer to this question can help you shine during an interview. If the only answer you can think of is “I need the money,” try to come up with a better one. Think about what you do well, and try to couch your answer in those terms. For instance: While it’s probably true that nearly anyone can wash dishes, it’s far from true that anyone can be a good dishwasher. I have had the pleasure of working with some rock-star dishwashers over the last decade — people who were quietly paid more than line cooks and pantry workers. Dishwashers have to be a kitchen’s backbone. They have to plow out very clean dishes. They need to know basic sanitation regulations. If they can also jump to a prep table and peel potatoes on the fly during the rush, even better. Know your strengths, and be able to list them.

2. What can I contribute to this operation?

Being able to articulate your potential contribution is a dealmaker. Talk about your experience; list your skills and be honest about them. Never, ever lie. If your experience is limited, say so, and talk about your eagerness to learn. Just state your career goals and then say you’re willing to be trained in whatever capacity you can contribute the most so you can be a valuable part of the operation. If your experience is rich and lengthy, learn to talk about it calmly and without braggadocio. Either of these approaches is like honey to a manager bee.

3. Do I know how to conduct myself professionally in a job interview?

This is a big one. Come to the interview (or even just to ask for an application) dressed for the job you want. Do not wear flip-flops and booty shorts to ask for a job in my kitchen. Put your cell phone on silent before you walk in the door, and do not text or answer the phone while you’re there. If you have a résumé (and you should, however brief), bring it with you and make sure everything’s spelled right. If you’re applying to be a cook, be prepared to cook something. Anything. (I have been known to cry at the sight of a perfectly boiled egg.) If you’re a tattooed pirate cook, that might be OK, or it might not, so wear long sleeves. If you have a lot of face-jewelry, take it out before the interview — not that we don’t think it’s cool, but that would show a willingness to adhere to health regulations. Don’t ask about smoke breaks, when your days off will be, or the pay rate during the first two-thirds of the interview. If you’re surprised to learn a drug test will be part of the application process, don’t waste the interviewer’s (or your own) time by going forward with a bunch of paperwork if you know you’re not likely to pass. Finally, just be personable. Smile a lot. Be articulate without being a chatterbox.

And don’t rely solely on want ads in your job search. Early on, I made myself this rule: Don’t go looking for a job only at places that advertise open positions; apply at the places you love to eat, or where you admire the chef’s work. That rule has served me unbelievably well — as a result, I have had the privilege of working at some of my favorite restaurants in the Metro area. Turnover in our industry is unbelievably high, unlike the wages (until you reach the upper strata of an organization). So we are nearly always looking for a few good men and women.

Marsha Lynch has worked at many Louisville independent restaurants including Limestone, Jack Fry’s, Jarfi’s, L&N Wine Bar and Bistro and Café Lou Lou. She now works for her alma mater, Sullivan University, as sous chef at the residence hall Gardiner Point.