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Charles Carroll

Who: Charles Carroll, C.E.C., A.A.C., executive chef – www.chefcharlescarroll.com

What: River Oaks Country Club, Houston, Texas

By the numbers: Runs a back-of-house staff of more than 60; serves 40-50 covers at breakfast, 150-200 covers at lunch and 200-300 covers at dinner

Concept: Country-club dining with two venues, plus on-site catering and banquets

Volume: $9.5 million annual sales for food & beverage

Menu description: Serves club favorites, like chicken-fried steak, but also features signature items, like wild-mushroom ravioli with butternut-squash purée

Famous for: An incredible staff-retention rate that hovers around 95%; team-leadership building program

Credentials: Has received more than 70 national and international awards, including the American Culinary Federation's Chef of the Year; previous apprenticeship coordinator at the Balsams Grand Resort, Dixville Notch, N.H., one of the country's leading apprenticeship programs

Case Study:
How to Build (and Keep)
the Best Kitchen Crew

An operator shares his story.

Chef Charles Carroll's proven techniques on how to retain staff and build an all-star team.

Finding and maintaining good kitchen staff are two major pain points for operators today. Although there's no silver bullet, Charles Carroll, CEC, AAC, believes he has the right formula. He's on a mission to share that formula, to share his remarkable success in his own professional kitchen. Indeed, he boasts a retention rate that stays close to 95%. "If we lose someone, it's because they're moving on. They're taking the next big job. I can't remember the last time someone just quit," says Chef Carroll. When not running the brigade at the esteemed River Oaks Country Club in Houston, he tours the country and the world, delivering motivational speeches to restaurant organizations, culinary schools and dining operations, calling on industry folks to walk up to a brand-new day in employee management. He preaches about team building—about how the secret to staffing success lies in caring for the employee's individual success. Chef Carroll has written two well-received books. His latest is Tasting Success: Your Guide to Becoming a Professional Chef (Wiley 2009). His first book, Leadership Lessons from a Chef—Finding Time to be Great (Wiley, 2007), outlines his winning formula for managing kitchen staff.

"You can continue to hire and watch them quit, or you can help your employees grow, meeting their individual goals," says Chef Carroll. "It's all about caring about your people—genuinely caring about them." At River Oaks, considered by many as one of the top five country clubs in the U.S., he created two programs around team building and individual success: the Journeymen program and the Green Beret Sous Chef program. Both require commitment from him and his staff to manage, but he says the efforts pay off tenfold. "About eight years ago, before I had the programs in place, I was losing the younger generation," he says. His younger staff was quitting after about three or four months. "They'd become experts at a station, then leave," he says. "When I was young, coming up through the ranks, we'd work a station for a whole year—but it's a different generation. They need to see the whole picture. We have to show them that whole picture. If you do that, a light goes on and they get it. They see their career path clearly and stay to achieve long-term goals."

How It Works

"When hiring staff, I look for potential hires who want to chew off the end of the table; I want the ones who are really driven," says Chef Carroll. For his Journeymen program, which takes two and a half years to complete, entry-level employees spend six months rotating through stations—from grill and sauté to dessert and pantry, mastering each one before moving onto the next. "Before we move them, they take a written and a practical," he says. "They have to certify that they know the position. We recognize the achievement with certificates, but more importantly, with a recognition and appreciation of individual accomplishment and growth." That's crucial in keeping staff motivated, says Chef Carroll. "We show that we're invested in their personal success and the reward for us is that they give us their best."

He admits that the program does put a strain on him and other staff...and occasionally on service. "For smoothness of service, we don't rotate the journeymen all at once, or you end up with bumps during the initial learning period," he says. "But the extra work and training is worth it. We have a staff that cares and that wants to be here. We have a group of focused culinarians." Depending on education or experience, journeymen earn a standard hourly of $11 to $13. "They see the value in working here, knowing they leave with proof in their portfolio that they can handle a lot of different kitchen positions, including station chef and sous chef," says Chef Carroll.

His Green Beret Sous Chef program is less structured than, but just as gratifying as, the Journeymen's. Employees here train in each management position for a year—from sauté chef to p.m. banquet chef. They draft menus, budgets and schedules. "We teach more than cooking here," says Chef Carroll. "We teach them how to manage, how to walk into the dining room and interact with diners. Once they're in management positions, their eyes are wide open. They realize they don't have to be line cooks their whole lives."

How to Find the Right Staff

"You need to be proactive," says Chef Carroll. "Maintain a presence and show your brand." Here's how he scouts out culinary talent:

  • Engage with students at local culinary schools, through demos and job fairs.
  • Be active in your community, by participating in local food festivals and charity events.
  • At the employee interview, don't spend a lot of time on the résumé. Give them a short practical exam, but even more importantly, ask them questions that determine their level of ambition. Look into their hearts.

For more information, go to www.chefcharlescarroll.com

Build the Best Kitchen Crew