Why we love chefs and what recruiters can learn from them

As a London-based recruiter, I love my profession despite it having a reputation for unethical behaviour. Chefs, on the other hand, are very much appreciated. Gordon Ramsay, Anthony Bourdain and the Masterchef shows are examples of how the chef profession is one of the more admired ones in our society. Why do we love chefs, and what can us recruiters learn from them to improve our behaviours?

I’ve been watching too many cooking shows during lockdown. I can’t help but wonder, why are chefs so cool?

What motivates chefs?

I recently finished Anthony Bourdain’s best-selling autobiography Kitchen Confidential: adventures in the culinary underbelly. Anthony Bourdain was a chef, writer and documentary host. The book details his life leading up to his position as executive chef at the Brasserie Les Halles restaurant in New York. Much of his career involved cooking mishaps, job-hopping, unemployment, 12-hour shifts seven days a week and drug addiction.

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As he explains in his book, Bourdain loved his job despite his struggles:

Cooking is a craft, I like to think, and a good cook is a craftsman – not an artist. There’s nothing wrong with that: the great cathedrals of Europe were built by craftsmen – though not designed by them. Practising your craft in expert fashion is noble, honourable and satisfying.

Chefs are Shokunin

One of my favourite examples of how chefs are craftsmen is the 94-year-old Japanese sushi chef Jiro Ono. He is the protagonist of the 2011 documentary Jiro Dreams of Sushi. 

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Jiro has been working in restaurants since the age of seven. He opened his sushi restaurant, Sukiyabashi Jiro, at the age of 38. His venue is the first-ever sushi restaurant to receive three Michelin Stars.

The Japanese use the word shokunin for craftsmanshipThis word embodies both the crafting skill and the social consciousness of doing your best for the good of society. Jiro’s success is owed to his shokunin spirit, as discussed in his documentary:

You must dedicate your life to mastering your skill. That’s the secret of success and is the key to being regarded honourably.

This quote stuck with me. Bourdain and Jiro were not motivated by fame or money. They had intrinsic motivators in mind. Both chefs adored their profession and felt it was their duty to become masters and serve the best food possible.

How does that work? Does being passionate about our job lead to improved behaviours?

The science of intrinsic motivators vs commission

To find out, I read the book Drive: the surprising truth about what motivates us by Daniel Pink. Pink draws on many studies to show that human beings are best motivated by an internal drive to achieve mastery. People can then bring passion to their goals, which leads to better ethical behaviour, enjoyment, performance and even creativity.

The author discusses how the use of extrinsic motivators like sales targets can lead to taking the quickest route to success, which can mean behaving unethically. Pink mentions one example where the American department store Sears imposed sales quota on their auto repair staff. The workers then responded by overcharging customers and completing unnecessary repairs.

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You probably know where I’m going with this.

How do chefs and their intrinsic motivations compare to those of a recruiter?

What motivates recruiters?

We often see unethical behaviour taking place in recruitment. We mainly see these behaviours in agency, but these behaviours exist across the board. What causes this?

I feel part of the explanation lies in our introduction to recruitment and the commission system (an external motivator). This is how a rec2rec pitched a role in recruitment to me when I first started:

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Recruitment is a tough job where you work long hours and it can be boring. You will encounter rejections every day, so what the interviewers want to see is someone very money motivated. Talk about how you want to buy a house, or a nice car, or a cool looking Rolex. 

This causes us to block out aspects that don’t contribute to getting commission, such as candidate experience or behaving transparently with hiring managers.

How can we use Bourdain, Jiro and Pink’s insights to improve our motivations? 

The recipe for intrinsic motivation

Daniel Pink describes nine tips on how to build your intrinsic drive for mastery. Here are the top three you can start with below.

Ask yourself what Daniel Pink calls “the big question”:

What’s your purpose in one sentence? Jiro still has the goal of achieving perfection when preparing sushi, even at the age of 94. For Bourdain, the goal in his book was to provide an analysis of the dark recesses of the restaurant underbelly. I want to prove that recruitment is a craft, a respected profession that requires skill and carries a social obligation to do good. What is your answer to the big question?

Now, ask yourself “the small question”:

At the end of each day, ask yourself if you’re better today compared to yesterday. Bourdain describes in one chapter how a restaurant he worked in would continuously add productive design features. These included a conveniently placed hot-water hose for bartenders to melt down the ice at the end of the night, or plastic handles on electrical plugs on cooking stations in case a worker’s hands might be wet.

I try to improve every day by writing achievements down in a notebook, measuring recruiting metrics, or doing a Udemy course. How have you improved today compared to yesterday?

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Finally, measure your state of flow, roughly every hour at work:

Flow is a mental state where productivity is high, goals are clear, and challenges are just at the right difficulty. Flow causes that feeling of living deeply in the moment. What moments cause flow? What time of the day causes this? Use this information to create more of these moments.

Bourdain describes this in one chapter while working in a busy restaurant kitchen in New York:

No matter what comes in, or how much of it, my hands are landing in the right places, my moves are still sharp and my station still looks clean and organised. 

Jiro, on the other hand, can’t switch his flow off. His documentary starts with him explaining how he’s always in this state.. even in his sleep:

I would see ideas in my dreams (..). In dreams, I would have visions of sushi”.

I believe recruitment can also be a noble, honourable and satisfying craft just like cooking. Ask yourself, what’s your ultimate goal? How can you improve every day? How can you create a personal state of flow? If Bourdain and Jiro can have an inner drive to cook the best food, then we can also develop chef-like motivations to recruit ethically and be proud to call ourselves recruiters.

Published by José Marchena

Hi, I'm Jose Marchena I’m a London-based internal recruiter, host of the Coffee with a Recruiter podcast and occasional blogger. I use this website to explore insights on recruitment, productivity and self-development.

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