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How to hire – and train – the right lead chef for your edibles company

by Bart Schaneman

An edibles company looking to hire a lead chef needs to find someone who can wear more hats than just the white toque traditionally worn by the boss of the kitchen.

A lead chef needs to be organized, detail-oriented and able to manage a kitchen, all while creating delicious products and sticking to the precise recipes of cannabis-infused foods and beverages. In other words, companies need someone who’s very methodical and organized.

“Infusing food with cannabis is a very arduous process,” said Julianna Carella, founder of Oakland, California-based edibles manufacturer Auntie Dolores. “It’s time-consuming. It’s expensive. It’s not the same as just throwing together brownies in your kitchen.”

Below are what three infused products companies look for when hiring for the position, as well as tips on where to find a great candidate and, once on board, how to train that person.

Ideal Ingredients for a Lead Chef

A lead chef’s primary duty is producing high-quality cannabis-infused foods. But lead chefs take on other roles too, including executing precise recipes, managing support staff and overseeing inventory needs.

Carella wants a candidate who can produce her recipes exactly as she wants them executed.

Auntie Dolores has about a dozen medical cannabis products on the shelves at any one time – most of them savory, including pretzels coated with a cannabis-oil-infused sauce, chili-lime peanuts and caramel corn. Finding someone who understands that her products follow a formula – one that shouldn’t be altered or adjusted – is itself “a huge accomplishment,” Carella added.

In other words, she doesn’t want someone who improvises with ingredients or measurements on the fly – a move that could land an edibles business in hot water with regulators or even customers if something like the dosing is incorrect.

While Carella believes her savory products are a natural fit for the bitter flavor profile of cannabis, she still wants someone who knows how the flavors work together in line with her brand goals.

Why? Wholesale cannabis oil used for infusion can arrive in the kitchen at varying levels of consistency. It can come in very potent one day and much weaker the next. To achieve the correct flavor balance while maintaining the proper dosage requires the lead chef to precisely adjust each batch.

“They have to be able to understand how to successfully mask the flavor of cannabis,” she said.

For Kyle Marshall – owner of Morsel Bakery, an edibles company with retail clients in the Bay Area and Los Angeles – attention to detail is key.

Morsel Bakery sells medical marijuana-infused cookies, gummies and hard candies, as well as a cannabis-infused drink.

“We have to make sure that potency is on point, the lab reports are matching up with the batches, in addition to making sure that the weights of each batch are perfectly accurate,” he said.

It’s common to hire from the food service industry for this position, but a new hire must quickly realize the cannabis industry takes its standards to the next level.

Marshall was forced to fire a lead chef who came from a catering background when that person couldn’t grasp that the cannabis industry’s cleanliness and sanitary requirements are far more exact.

For instance, Marshall said, food in itself requires the utmost cleanliness. But cleanliness is even more of an issue with edibles: His company tests for microbials and uses standards adopted in “progressive” cities like Berkeley, Santa Cruz and San Jose as its own yardstick. He anticipates such testing will become the norm for the state. Gloves, consequently, are one of Morsel Bakery’s bigger production expenses. Marshall’s kitchen staff is constantly rotating glove sets in addition to wearing hairnets and sometimes face masks. This goes beyond the California health department’s requirements for food workers, he noted.

“The regulation of food is strict,” he added. “But it’s even stricter with cannabis.”

Char Mayes of Tincture Belle – a Colorado Springs, Colorado-based wholesale edibles manufacturer – believes honesty, loyalty and a hardworking mentality are crucial character traits.

Tincture Belle started with tinctures in 2010 but has expanded to topicals and an edibles line that includes chocolate bars, granola and peanut butter spreads. The company sells medical and recreational products to retailers across Colorado.

“Just like any other business or industry, you have to make sure (your lead chef) is going to get along with your crew,” Mayes said. “That’s super important for us because we’re such a tight-knit family.”

Where to Look

The food service industry is a natural place to recruit for a lead chef. But it’s also important to mine professional networks and use word of mouth.

Carella turns to the food industry for her lead chef, and she prefers bakers over restaurant chefs.

Bakers are more familiar with using scales to precisely measure their ingredients, and it’s less of a “free-form sort of project,” Carella said. A baked good needs to be very precise, and, to her mind, bakers are more fine-tuned to that level of consistency.

An infused product “has to be the same every time,” she added. “That’s where the baker’s skills come in.”

Before posting an ad on online job sites like Indeed.com or Craigslist, Carella scours her network of professional contacts for possible hires.

Tapping the tight-knit cannabis community in Oakland, she reaches out to her fellow business executives to find out-of-work edibles makers or others with the right skillsets – primarily from the food service industry – who are looking for a job.

Marshall of Morsel Bakery has been in the industry since 2008, so he typically hires from the network he’s built over the years.

He looks for a mutual understanding of trust and integrity. For Marshall, a large part of hiring in the cannabis industry is making sure you find people who represent your business well and protect your reputation. He finds the most success by hitting up friends and family when looking for a lead chef.

For Mayes of Tincture Belle, industry word of mouth works wonders. She used a tip from a cousin in the industry to make one recent hire.

How to Train Your Lead Chef

After hiring a lead chef, make sure that person has spent time becoming familiar with your company’s standard operating procedures. Give that person as much as two or three days to understand these procedures before sending him or her into the kitchen.

Carella allows her lead chefs to get their feet wet by practicing on three or four products at a time before moving on, as her recipes require a keen attention to detail.

“They don’t look like regular recipes,” she said. “They’re much more detailed information – down to what size pan and how much material to use and what’s the specific whisk you’re going to use to mix it.”

Marshall’s approach is similar: He lets his new hire practice with a non-cannabis batch before trying one infused with marijuana.

He views this as a crucial step after bringing on a new lead chef, as losing an infused batch could cost him $1,000-$2,000.

Mayes goes over all her policies and procedures when she hires a new lead chef to ensure that person understands how the company operates. That can take two to three weeks.

Each new hire is put on a 30-day trial period “to make sure everybody meshes and that they get it,” she said.

After that period, Mayes takes a more hands-on approach. She likes to be in the kitchen watching what’s going on.

“Some people like to try to do things their own way,” she said. “I’m very particular in them being done the way we do them here. So you can maintain the quality and consistency in all of the products.”

For example, a new batch of hash oil could come in with a different potency than the company previously used.

In that case, the lead chef would have to reformulate the recipes.

“It’s very important that things are done in a step-by-step process and none of those steps are missed,” Mayes said. “Or you won’t maintain that quality and consistency.”