Denis Courtiade, restaurant manager of the Alain Ducasse restaurant at Plaza Athénée, believes that the key is to take a first step towards young people, to understand them in order to see them flourish in this industry.
At the helm of a three-star Michelin restaurant, recruiting and training staff is a daily challenge in his position. Denis Courtiade explains how to alternate a watchful eye and discipline to improve the well-being of his employees and help them give their best every day
He also advises students on how to succeed and thrive in the hotel industry, which is full of “fantastic professions”. Interview with Denis Courtiade, a wise man with a modern vision.
Mr Courtiade, the hotel and restaurant industry had problems this summer finding employees; there is a shortage of 125,000 employees in the hospitality, service and accommodation sectors, according to Didier Chenet (president of the National Group of Independent Hotel and Restaurant Operators).
Why are we running into these difficulties?
I don’t know if you followed the news and heard about the French President’s remark that you have to cross the street to find a job. My thought is that it may be up to the hotel and restaurant industry to cross the street and seek out people who are looking for work.
The schools are there; they are waiting for us to come and meet them, but are these institutions in a strong position? Currently, everyone is looking for employees. About this gateway that has been called “Cross the street and you will find work”… I would like to say the opposite, that it may be up to companies to meet people who are looking for a job.
Do you think that the hotel and restaurant industry may not be doing enough to promote itself to young people?
On the one hand, we are short of staff, we can no longer fill our restaurants and hotels, especially in the provinces. On the other hand, there are young people in schools and job seekers. There is something not being done.
Either we stay fixated on these beliefs, or we change things, we change the deal. Is it the future employee who has more weight than the company, I don’t know, but since we need employees, we have to go find them where they are. We no longer have a choice: we have to make this journey, which is certainly a little more intellectual, but if we don’t do it, the two parties will never meet.
Do you find it more difficult to recruit staff than before?
I think people’s relationship to work has changed. It was obvious to people of my generation, I was born in 1966, that we needed to work and the sooner the better. We were encouraged by our parents... In fact, we were not encouraged, but pushed by them from age 16 to start learning, to start living our lives in one way or another.
This is no longer the case at all. I have three teenagers and I would say they don’t have any particular needs. They have everything they need, so we want to launch them into the world of work once they are ready. So it is no longer at 16 years old that this happens, but at 21 - 22 years old. It’s not the same rapport at all. […]
What you’re saying is that: on the one hand, the behaviour of young people has changed and on the other hand, the hotel and restaurant industry has not changed over the past 50 years...
There is an awareness that is emerging. People often say that it is becoming more and more difficult to find staff. I ask them: “What are you doing every day to make your profession sexier? To make human relationships warmer? So that there’s more complicity in your kitchen, in your restaurant? What more do you offer than the competitors?”
I met a chef who had just recruited someone. The new employee texted him that on Wednesday nights he couldn’t work because he had badminton. The chef wondered if he should recruit him, knowing that on Wednesday evening he would not be there, or if he should not hire him at all. I would say that young employees no longer worry about saying what their priorities are, and their priority is their own life before the company’s.
So there is work to be done in terms of educating young people and another among hotel and restaurant operators... How can we ensure that the latter attract and keep young people when they leave hotel schools? In concrete terms, what is the key to successfully limiting turnover? The wellbeing of employees, salaries...?
I’m not sure that salary is the key. I think that the human relationship, the «one to one» relationship, when the manager talks to one of his employees, when he makes a pact with him, when he listens to his employee and asks himself: “What can I bring you so that you are in the best conditions to work and you stay with me for a long time?” I think that’s how it works. And if one of the employees tells him, for example, that he lives far away and that he can’t be there before 10:30 am, then the manager can answer him: “We make a pact. You start at 10:30 every day and you’re never late again.” I think that’s the way to do it. The military system where we say, “There is a process in place, everyone must respect it,” and where we treat each employee equally… I don’t think it works.
You really must take interest in who you recruit, who you have in front of you and take care of your daily well-being. Of course, it is necessary to set a framework, if the employee goes outside the framework he must be put back in his place. But you really have to listen to your employees and provide them with as many elements as possible so they will stay with you for a long time and do their job well. […]
You must succeed in animating the lives of your employees, challenging them, making their work more and more interesting. It is important to take an interest in their professional development. And, at some point, know how to part with them because after a certain amount of time you have nothing left to offer them, so it is important to accompany them to a promotion even if it is in another restaurant. There needs to be a dynamic and having people around for 20 years breaks the dynamic. Young people arrive, they have fossils in their way, they understand nothing has changed in 20 years, so it’s certain they won’t stay.
Is this one of the methods you apply in your restaurant, this way of always getting involved in the evolution of the staff?
Exactly. And it allows me to question myself. During a seminar, I was told, “A good manager knows how to separate himself from his bad collaborators. An excellent manager knows how to part with his best employees.” Ultimately, you must be willing to part with your best people when they are mature. This forces the manager to regress in terms of team building and to retrain employees, thus renewing energy. It shows that the team is dynamic, that there are upcoming promotions, that everyone can invest 200%.
On the other hand, if you go into a restaurant and everyone has been there for 25 - 30 years, as I have been able to explain to you, youknow that nothing will happen. So new employees won’t stay long because you’ll get bored very quickly. It is important to know how to create a dynamic.
You are a three-star Michelin restaurant. How do you attract the best talent to your establishment? Do they come on their own or do you go find them?
I find them where they are. Everywhere. […]. As soon as I have the opportunity to go meet hotel schools or people who are looking for a job, I go there. I have no choice but to be proactive about it.
On the other hand, a few years ago, we received resumes, we answered them when we wanted to answer them, resumes piled up behind the desk... that’s changed... We no longer receive resumes. We therefore have to go to schools, promote our profession, tell people who we are and what we do. We must point out that we have a wonderful job that allows us to travel. We must make young people want to come and work with us.
We must also desecrate this image of the penguin, obsequious... We must show that we can have a style and a personality in this profession.
What should a young person do to distinguish himself, to arouse the interest of the Alain Ducasse’s restaurant manager at the Plaza Athénée?
He must have a certain amount of sympathy! You must have personality. As I say to my son, just being well educated, opening the door to someone, saying thank you, being grateful, getting up in the subway to leave your place... Just that, those simple things, will make you stand out to future recruiters.
To be confident, to have standing, a straight head, very stiff shoulders and stand tall when walking... You must be have a positive approach.
You talk a lot about attitude, behaviour during the recruitment phase, less about skills...
Skills are learned as we go along. Today, I am at this restaurant, I have learned all the necessary skills to manage what is happening around me. Tomorrow, I will change restaurants or companies, I will have to learn how that company works and its processes. So, skills are not what is most important to me.
The most important thing is personality, the desire to be ambitious too, to be curious... quite simple values.
Do you have any advice for students who are currently enrolled in a hotel school?
I would say that they need to be convinced about what they are doing. That if they decide to go into service professions, they need to be convinced that it is a real profession, even a vocation. As soon as you are convinced, then you become convincing and you attract people in that sense. The hotel business is full of fantastic professions and they need to be convinced of this.
Not long ago, I was in Blois in front of a class of 30 students. One said to me, “When I say I’m a waiter, everyone laughs.” I told him that the problem was not the word waiter, but the way he said it. The way he lived the word waiter: “I’m also a waiter, I work in a great restaurant because I grew up, I climbed the ladder. Inhabit the word waiter, be proud of this word and accompany it with other words behind it. Don’t limit yourself to that.
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