COVER STORY: The Fight to Retain Talent
There is a not-so-secret crisis in the restaurant industry today—and by extension, hotel kitchens—that the pool of talent is scarce and shrinking.
"There's a deficit. There's just not enough people to go around, and it's incredibly competitive to keep who you have," observes Susan Terry, former VP, culinary, the Americas, Hyatt Hotels. "For example, one of our competitors built a hotel in a city where we have properties, and they knew the only way they could fill all their employment slots was if they paid exorbitant amounts of money to lure staff away from other hotels, even the hourly positions.
"They out-paid everybody in the market, hands down. When companies are willing to do that, which has a deep financial impact on their operation for many years, you know there is a crisis within the labor force and food and beverage in particular."
Many in the industry cite a variety of factors contributing to the current staffing scramble: a hotel building boom that has outpaced the available workforce, recent culinary school graduates uninterested in the rigors of daily kitchen work, fewer mentors post-downturn to help young cooks stay in the profession, and a lack of recognition from employers, leading to higher turnover and lower morale.
Since employee recognition is often cited as a proven method for retaining top talent in many professions, Terry and a team of Hyatt executives decided one way to reduce turnover and increase brand loyalty was to acknowledge the hard work and hard-to-replace skills of existing kitchen staff across Hyatt's North American properties. That idea eventually became The Good Taste Series.
Good Taste is an internal culinary competition that recognizes and rewards "the ones that put it on a plate every day. Good Taste is not for our executive chefs or senior leadership; it's solely for the creative talent in our kitchens," explains Terry. "These folks work hard every day at their properties. A lot of what they do is repetitive, so they don't get much opportunity to explore their own creativity, since they're working within an infrastructure where their chefs above them are guiding what they do. Good Taste is an opportunity for them to spread their wings and have their ideas acknowledged."
The contest is open to anyone working in a full-service North American Hyatt kitchen, from sous chefs down to line cooks. They compete first within their own hotels, then property winners advance to regional contests, and ultimately, the 12 regional winners go to the finals, held in a resort location. The first Good Taste final was in Hawaii in 2014, and last year's was in Cabo San Lucas, Mexico.
The overall winner of Good Taste receives seven extra days of vacation, plus two airline tickets and a free stay at any Hyatt property in the Americas. It's a substantial reward for the champion, but Hyatt designed Good Taste with broader goals in mind, namely, to inspire and empower everyone that participates. Nearly 220 Hyatt culinarians competed in Good Taste the first two years.
One of those contestants—and a finalist in Cabo last year—is Brian Martinez, a Cook II at Hyatt Regency Jersey City in New Jersey. "I really wasn't thinking about first, second, or third place. I was more focused on making the people I work with at Hyatt Jersey City proud," he says. "We [cooks] are kind of the basement people. Nobody sees the prep and hard work we do, so for Hyatt to recognize our effort and true passion is pretty awesome. Good Taste invigorated me to go back and share what I learned with my fellow associates. It's definitely going to create better chefs down the line."
Many of those "better chefs" are deciding to stay with Hyatt. Since Good Taste launched in 2014, kitchen turnover has been reduced by approximately 10% across 130 full-service properties in the Americas, and six of the 12 finalists from 2014 were promoted.
"I hired one of them to be my executive sous chef," says Thomas McKeown, executive chef at Hyatt Regency Atlanta and one of Good Taste's organizers and mentors. "He was working at another property, and through the Good Taste Series he got promoted. He showed a high skill level during the competition, as do many other participants. It's exciting to see them growing their careers with us."
RULES OF ENGAGEMENT
The actual competition is a mix of mystery basket menu, current culinary trends, location-specific ingredients, and whatever F&B initiatives Hyatt is highlighting at the time. For example, last year's finalists were required to use sustainable seafood, which Hyatt promoted globally in 2015. Since the finals were in Mexico, one of their two dishes also had to be Mexican-themed. And, products from Good Taste's corporate sponsors (see sidebar) had to be incorporated into the final plates too.
"From a company standpoint, we try to stretch them and make them a little uncomfortable so they're pushed out of their comfort zone. We put boundaries in place that they have to meet, and they have to do some research if they want to progress. We're also reinforcing our own goals and standards in the process," Terry says.
A panel of six culinary judges from outside Hyatt (this writer was one of them in Cabo last year) decides first, second, and third places among the 12 finalists, evaluating dishes on a scale of one to 20 for flavor, presentation, and how contestants interact with judges. Last year, Jonathan Félix, executive sous chef at Hyatt Regency Mexico City, took the top prize.
"It's interesting to watch people who may have had fancier plates, techniques, or more complicated dishes, but they didn't win, because at the end of the day your food has to taste good. That's one of the basics we try to reinforce," Terry notes.
Another lesson Good Taste tries to impart is that teamwork and camaraderie are essential in daily kitchen work. Every contestant wants to win, but absent from Good Taste are the TV clichés of confrontations, tantrums, shouting, and sabotaging other participants' creations.
"I watched one of our contestants in a regional Good Taste drop their mise en place in a critical situation," Terry remembers. "It was near the time where they had to plate their food, and everybody stopped what they were doing to help this person replace their mise en place. I was so proud watching them, because that's the level of teamwork needed to be successful in this business."
Martinez adds that Good Taste "helps build those connections with other chefs. Even though we're together for a short period of time, we have great camaraderie and we care that everyone does well. I personally would love to work for or alongside any of them."
Outside the kitchen, contestants also bond during group excursions to local farms and culinary points of interest, learning about indigenous ingredients and generating ideas to use in their own dishes. In Cabo, for example, the 12 finalists visited Huerta Los Tamarindos and Flora Farms, two organic operations that grow their own crops and supply area restaurants as well as their own onsite dining venues.
"Many of our cooks have never traveled outside their own cities before, so it's a new experience to interact with an unfamiliar culture and learn something they can bring back to their hotels," says McKeown.
Terry and the team of McKeown; Byron Gable, executive chef at Grand Hyatt Tampa; and Jim Milkovich, Hyatt's corporate director of purchasing, Americas, started outlining the logistics of Good Taste just over a year before the first contest, says Terry. "You can't just pop up a competition like that, so we grouped the hotels into what made the most sense from a regional standpoint, figured out how much it was a going to cost from round one to the finals, and secured sponsors to help pay for it.
Terry says it took a while to make sure they constructed meaningful experiences for the contestants. "We also created toolkits and rules to guide our hotels through the first round and worked out the details for the finals in Hawaii," she says. "Throughout the process we received a ton of feedback, so our second year was more streamlined and took less time to execute."
The third Good Taste is already scheduled for 2016, and those who participated previously, along with first-timers, are eager to engage—not just for the prizes, but for the education, professional growth, and creative expression that Good Taste offers.
"We appreciate what Hyatt is doing and their motives to have us take away something bigger for our careers than just a medal and extra vacation," says Mi Jin Kang, sous chef at Andaz Maui at Wailea Resort and last year's third-place winner. "There's so much to it, from the travel, the culture, the ingredients, and the cooks that we meet from all over the nation. In a way, it's kind of nice that there's a lack of recognition for what we do, because without it, we wouldn't get to experience something like Good Taste."
Michael Costa is Editorial Director for Hotel F&B. Photos by Russ Coover.
The brains behind Hyatt's Good Taste Series (see main story) know that without corporate dollars underwriting costs, Good Taste would exist only as a good idea.
"They're the ones that make it all possible, and they're taking care of nearly 90% of the overall expenses for Good Taste, including travel for contestants and family members, ingredients, and supplies at every stage of the program," says Susan Terry, former VP, culinary, the Americas, Hyatt Hotels.
Hyatt set up a tier-based system for sponsorship with a finite series of slots so Good Taste "didn't turn into a vendor show," explains Jim Milkovich, corporate director of purchasing for Hyatt, Americas. "We asked for a significant contribution from a limited number of supporters, but we wanted to keep the focus of Good Taste on the chefs and not the suppliers."
The tiers start with Title Sponsors at the top (Hormel and Pepsi), then Platinum Sponsors (ATK Foods, Ecolab, Oneida), Gold Sponsors (General Mills and Dannon), and Silver Sponsors (Maui Foods International, Jennie-O Foods, DMA, ServRite Meat Company, Chef Works, Villeroy & Boch).
"The supporters we choose are aligned with Hyatt's principles," Terry says. "They understand the key topics we're passionate about from a culinary standpoint."
One example is when Hormel "helped us a few years ago with our 'Food Thoughtfully Sourced, Carefully Served' program," says Milkovich. "We worked with them on a lower-fat, lower-sodium breakfast sausage that's been very successful at our hotels, so they're good business partners."
One perk of being a Title Sponsor last year was that each of the 12 finalists had to incorporate a Hormel product and a Pepsi product into their finished dishes. Overall, Terry says supporters aren't just writing checks, they're involved in Good Taste at every level.
"We want to ensure this is meaningful to them," she says, "so they have one-on-one time with contestants, they travel with us, see the latest trends, and become part of the program."
All of last year's supporters have renewed for this year's Good Taste Series, including Hormel and Pepsi as Title Sponsors. —MC
Recipe: Tiradito de Hiramasa, Salsa de Ají Amarillo, and Ensalada Fresca From the Kitchen of: Jonathan Félix, executive sous chef, Hyatt Regency Mexico City
Jonathan Félix, executive sous chef at the Hyatt Regency Mexico City, took the top prize in The Good Taste Series final in Cabo San Lucas. One of two dishes prepared by competitors had to feature sustainable seafood. Here's chef Félix's victorious creation.
Serves 30. Preparation Time: 25 minutes
4 lb. hiramasa sashimi, medium sliced
AJÍ AMARILLO SAUCE
7 oz. lime juice
7 oz. lemon juice
3.5 oz. yuzu juice
1.4 oz. onion
1 clove garlic
0.7 oz. ginger
1.4 oz. celery
10.5 oz. aji amarillo purée
salt and pepper
Blend all ingredients and pass in a chinois, taste, and keep it cold.
SWEET POTATO PURÉE
1 lb. purple sweet potato
5 oz. milk
1.7 oz. sugar
Cook sweet potato with milk until soft, blend until very smooth, pass in a chinois, and keep it cold.
10.5 oz. fresh fennel, thin sliced
5 oz. cucumber, thin sliced
0.7 oz. micro celery
0.7 oz. fennel leaves
5 oz. pomegranate seeds
5 oz. purple sweet potato, diced
0.7 oz. chía bloom
1.7 oz. pumpkin seeds, toasted
Mix all ingredients for the fresh salad and arrange on top of the fish. Finish with sea salt and extra virgin olive oil.