Everybody is replaceable

I had to fire one of my cooks recently. It was tough, because he’s a really smart young kid who’s been with me for almost 3 years. I’m not gonna lie, the way I handled this situation was a textbook example of how NOT to deal with a problem employee.

“K” had no kitchen experience when he started with me but his instincts and tirelessness immediately made him stand out. I started spending more and more time training him and quickly gave him more responsibility. He went from peeling onions to running the grill station in just a couple months and was happily cranking out hundreds of covers without breaking a sweat.

He became my go-to guy. He didn’t mind putting in the 16-18 hour days, carrying hundreds of pounds of food up 5 flights of stairs to a client’s event space, or keeping the newer guys in line. He knew all my recipes and all my quirks- exactly what size I like the tomatoes diced in our pico de gallo, exactly how strong I want the horseradish aioli. I eventually started letting him run his own team when we had multiple catering jobs on the same day. That’s not something I do lightly.

Then the nonsense began.

He started showing up late, hungover, or even still drunk from the night before. He would call in sick and then be seen partying that same night (this is a small city and and everybody knows everybody in our business). He got lazy and started taking way too many smoke breaks. One time I even saw him chatting on his phone when service was starting in 10 minutes and his station wasn’t ready.

One day he pulled a no-call-no-show.

Now, I’ve immediately axed other cooks for doing even half the things that “K” did. But for some reason this kid had gotten under my skin. Maybe I saw in him a bit of myself at that age, or maybe I thought that after all the time and effort I put into him, it would be a personal failure to let him go.

Most likely, I thought that through all of his screw-ups, he still played a role that couldn’t be replaced. I hated the idea of finding a new cook, training him,  getting used to him, and rebuilding what I had with “K”.

So I sat him down for a chat. I let him know that this was the “come to Jesus” meeting and that if he didn’t shape up, he was done. He choked up a little bit and told me that he really wants this job and he promises to get his act together.

And he did. He went back to being my reliable, talented right hand. For about two weeks.

Then the lateness and laziness started all over again. I completely lost my cool this time and really let him have it. He apologized and promised to get better. And I gave him yet another “last chance”.

And again, and again, and again, until the word “last chance” stopped having any meaning at all. By this point he knew that my threats were empty and that he had free rein.

It actually took another 3 months of this before I finally let him go. And you know what happened? We got through it. The rest of my team stepped up and filled his shoes without skipping a beat and I brought on a new guy who’s doing great.

Most importantly, my crew is more motivated than ever without K’s disruptive influence. Instead of covering for somebody who’s not pulling his own weight, they can really shine.

I wish K all the best. I’m sure he’ll grow out of this phase and find success, but it won’t be with me. Mostly, I thank him for teaching me that a last chance needs to really be a last chance.