November 11, 2011
Behind-the-scenes look at hiring the new chef at Grange

imgres.jpgNow that Oliver Ridgeway has taken charge of the kitchen at the Citizen Hotel's Grange Restaurant downtown, I was curious about the so-called "national search" to fill the executive chef position after Michael Tuohy's departure.

Turns out, the Joie de Vivre Hotels, which owns the Citizen, spent plenty of time and money to find the right chef for the job. I had a lengthy chat recently with Morgan Plant, vice president of food and beverage for JdV, to get some of the details.

After Tuohy announced several months ago that he was leaving to pursue other opportunities (he landed, somewhat surprisingly, at Dean & Deluca in St. Helena, where I spotted him working behind the counter last weekend), Joie de Vivre decided to place detailed and extensive Craigslist ads in every major city in the country. They also used the website, which specializes in the hospitality industry, as well as (Tuohy was once named a StarChef "rising star").

"We did a fair amount of incentivizing people we knew in the industry," Plant said. I think that means they asked around.

What do executive chefs make? That, of course, depends on the restaurant.

This boutique chain pays its head person in the kitchen anywhere from $65,000 to $125,000. That sounds good, but working your way up to that level often means trying to make ends meet on wages that might put you below the poverty line. A hard-working line cook, for instance, is doing well to make $13 an hour.

The job attracted more than 1,000 applications from all over the country, including the very able sous chef at Grange, Bradley Cechi., who would make it all the way to the final cut.

After Plant and others sifted and sorted their way through the mound of applications, they narrowed the group down to 200. After more scrutiny, they wound up calling about 40 and doing interviews by phone, getting a feel for the applicants' personalities, their level of interest in the position, and their thoughts about the farm-to-table cooking Grange had come to personify under Tuohy. Then they looked for passion and the ability to communicate.

At Grange, the chef has to do more than cook. He or she is the face of the restaurant and must be good on TV, adept at meeting and greeting groups of visitors and, as Tuohy did with such aplomb, lead entertaining tours to the local farmers market, which always ended in a sit-down meal.

Says Plant: "Plus, if they want to work at Joie de Vivre, they have to have a good sense of humor.

"What's really interesting about the modern chef is that a lot of them are incredibly well read, they're very articulate and they're very passionate. I want to work with people who are really passionate and entrepreneurial, rather than someone who just cooked in France for 10 years and thinks they're all that and a bag of chips."

With the field narrowed, JdV invited six applicants to participate in a high-stakes cooking tryout. Each candidate was flown to Sacramento (except Cechi) for two-and-a-half days, including a day to prep. The tryout required six dishes: breakfast/brunch, a starter fit for the bar, lunch, a fish entrée, a meat entre and dessert.

Plant and the other judges were looking for creativity, use of ingredients and consistency (that's why they asked the applicants to do each dish twice, and not everyone nailed that part of the test). One applicant served a duck entrée that was so rare it was cold in the middle. Another presented a Hollandaise sauce that was obviously broken - a rookie mistake. Raw fish? There was that, too. Even for these chefs, all of whom had excellent resumes, the pressure was immense - and errors were inevitable.

After each tasting, the chef/applicant sat and took questions from the panel of seven hotel employees, including Plant. Afterward, Plant would meet privately with each chef and offer feedback.

Ridgeway must have done quite well - but it wasn't his yet. Surprisingly, Joie de Vivre flew him back to perform another tasting, but not before Plant turned into something of an undercover operative and dispatched herself to Santa Fe, where Ridgeway was executive chef at the luxurious Inn of the Anasazi. Plant couldn't tell anyone at the hotel who she was or where she worked, which meant passing on the standard industry discount. She spent two nights at the hotel at $490 a night. She rented a car. She ate breakfast, lunch and dinner in the restaurant, had a bar snack and got room service. Plant says the trip cost $3,500 - and it solidified in her mind that Ridgeway was the right chef for the job.

"It came down to a very tough decision between Oliver and Bradley, who did incredibly well," Plant said.

When Joie de Vivre offered Ridgeway the job, Plant said, "He was thrilled. He was excited. Brad was disappointed, but he really likes Oliver. They work very well together."

Ridgeway has been in town a few weeks now and, after living at the hotel to start, recently found a home. His wife and two young children are expected to move to Sacramento in December.

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